[Marxism] Re: Iraq should cost Aussie PM his job
ozleft at optushome.com.au
Sat Apr 10 07:49:58 MDT 2004
A response to Tom O'Lincoln, Denis Berrell, Gary MacLennan and Phillip
Ferguson on Labor, Iraq and the wars of the 20th century
By Bob Gould
Tom O'Lincoln is being very summary and very demagogic in his response
to my proposition that the Liberals stuck to the Vietnam War in the
Australian parliament to the bitter end. It's true that there were some
defections from the Liberal ranks towards the end of the war, but the
Liberal-Country Party coalition continued, as I said, to continue
defending the war in the parliament until their election defeat in 1972.
They did withdraw some troops in 1971. Tom doesn't even refer to the
framework of those early withdrawals. The framework was, of course, the
beginning of the US winding down of the war -- the so-called process of
The Australian Liberals, while insisting they still supported the war,
withdrew some troops in lockstep with their US senior partners.
The military historian, Frank Frost, in the chapter "Conflict and
Withdrawal" in Vietnam Remembered (Kevin Weldon and Associates, 1990),
puts it this way: "The army felt that a complete Australian withdrawal
was desirable with the departure of the task force, but the Government
felt that there were political and military advantages in retaining a
presence. On the December 9, 1971, the Government that an Australian
Army Assistance Groups in Vietnam (AAAGV) would remain, composed mainly
of AAAGV members, conducting training in Phuoc Tuy. A small group
remained until after the elections in 1972, after which the incoming
Whitlam Government withdrew the remaining 40 men."
In addition to this, the government maintained the whole conscription
arrangements right to the bitter end, and they were still chasing
conscientious objector conscripts such as Mike Matteson in Sydney up to
It was left to the incoming Labor Government to amnesty all the
conscripts on the run, and promptly end conscription.
It's quite clear from Frank Frost's comments that the Liberal Government
maintained some military presence even despite Vietnamisation, hoping to
gain some chauvinistic advantage from a perceived residual sentiment in
support of the war in some sections of society, which might be mobilised
by rhetoric about supporting Australian troops. The similarity with the
current demeanour and rhetoric of the Howard Government is striking.
The Howard Government is trying very hard to get some political
advantage out of the relatively small Australian troop commitment in
Iraq, using nationalist sentiment about not "cutting and running" and
about supporting Australian troops.
Tom and others may think that at some time in the future elements of the
Australian ruling class may feel compelled to adopt a different stance,
but there's nothing in the political tradition of the Liberals and
Nationals, and nothing in their current political demeanour to suggest
that is likely in even the medium term.
The Liberal-Nationals and the Australian media, more or less as a whole,
are settling in to slug it out with Labor leader Latham and the ALP on
the question of “political responsibility” about Iraq. It's true, as
Denis Berrell points out on the Green Left list, that working
journalists Alan Ramsey and Margo Kingston are against the Iraq
involvement, but they are minority voices even in the more liberal
Fairfax press. In fact, they are among the few surviving publicly vocal
liberal-left journalists in a media that has mostly swung over to the
Alan Ramsey's useful article yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald
sticking up for Latham is offset by a very hard editorial line in the
SMH supporting the Iraq war and Howard's stand on keeping the troops there.
It's worth pointing out the different standpoints of the conservative
and Labor sides of politics on the wars of the 20th century.
The conservatives supported every war and every use of military
conscription in an ultra-patriotic way, always to the bitter end.
Labor, on the other hand, played a contradictory, and sometimes very
progressive, role on a number of wars.
The Laborites were split on the Boer War, with a number of Labor
politicians and leaders opposing that war.
Labor, by and large, supported World War I, although a few radicals such
as Frank Anstey, MHR, and Hugh Mahon, MHR, were critical of that war.
However, the whole labour movement opposed conscription in 1916, and
Labor expelled the reactionary Prime Minister Billy Hughes and several
state premiers who tried to support conscription. The Labor Party split,
the reactionary prime minister and premiers and their supporter were
expelled, and the labour movement played a big role in defeating
conscription in the two referendums, in 1916 and 1917.
The defeat of conscription in the two referendums was a unique event in
the capitalist world.
Labor by and large supported World War II, but when Curtin tried to
introduce conscription for overseas service he was bitterly opposed by a
minority in the Labor Cabinet, led by E. J. Ward and Arthur Calwell.
Several Labor figures such as Maurice Blackburn, MHR, and former NSW
Labor premier J.T. Lang were expelled from the Labor Party for opposing
(I know a bit about this issue because my father, a one-armed survivor
of Gallipoli, who had been a supporter of Lang on the NSW state
executive of the Labor Party for a number of years, was expelled along
with Lang for opposing conscription.)
Labor vigorously supported Indonesian independence against the Dutch
colonialists. It supported the Korean War, but it vigorously opposed the
Vietnam War, initially under the courageous leadership of Arthur
Calwell, even in the early stages when the Vietnam War was popular.
Labor supported the first Gulf war, but it opposed the second.
Phillip Ferguson chimes in, claiming the New Zealand Labourites are more
gung-ho militarists than the Tories in that country, based on a new book.
I'm not as familiar with New Zealand as Ferguson is, but his thesis even
about New Zealand seems to be contradicted by the agreement between
Latham and Helen Clark last week that both Australia and New Zealand
will withdraw from Iraq by December if Labor is elected.
Applied to Australia, Ferguson's thesis is nonsensical, as demonstrated
by my little potted history of Labor's stance on 20th century wars.
Of course, the political structures of different countries are not
identical. Anyone trying to understand the persistent hegemony of the
Labor-trade union continuum on the left of Australian society has two
1. To deny that it exists (as Ferguson tends to do).
2. Or treat is as an imponderable, reactionary mystery that can be
solved by a process of pure exposure and propaganda, as the Australian
DSP tends to do.
The problem with that approach is that it doesn't take account of either
the current grip of Laborism or its historical origins, part of which is
in things like the defeat of conscription in World War I, the opposition
to the Vietnam War, and the current opposition to the Iraq war.
When Mark Latham takes his risky punt, electorally and politically, on
continuing to insist that he'll withdraw the troops from Iraq if
elected, he's calculating that the Iraq war will become electorally
unsupportable, but he's also clearly recognising the relatively antiwar
tradition of the left side of society, on which Laborism is based, and
he's carefully covering his left flank against the Greens.
As well, he's probably sincere, personally, in his opposition to the
Iraq involvement, in the way that he outlines, just as Arthur Calwell
was personally sincere in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Latham is
clearly a conservative, reformist Laborite, but why is it necessary for
Marxists to exclude the possibility that he's personally sincere in
opposing the Iraq war?
Why is any of this worth arguing about? It's worth arguing about for
1. The defeat of the imperialist invasion of Iraq is highly desirable
from a socialist point of view.
2. It's also desirable for the small Marxist forces in Australia, which
are weaker than they've been in the past 100 years, to try to get some
audience in the broad labour movement.
Both these factors come together in the proposition that the left should
campaign vigorously for the defeat of the Liberals, the election of a
Latham Labor government with the obvious corollary that the Greens will
have the balance of power in the Senate, etc, etc, as I've argued.
If Marxist proceed in this spirit, they may even help in getting a Labor
government elected, with the Greens having the balance of power, and
they may even broaden their audience.
Concentrating at this point, strategically, as the DSP tends to do, on
the exposure of Latham and the Laborites as a primary current tactical
objective is reactionary political lunacy from a Marxist point of view.
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