Melbourne Discussion Circle: Reforms, refugees and the revolutionary perspective

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Last October the Melbourne discussion circle held a meeting on 'Reforms, refugees and a revolutionary perspective'. This circle is part of the effort of a minority within the working class to understand the reality of the world situation today, characterised by economic crisis, attacks on the working class and wars endlessly breaking out around the globe. This is an international effort with the development of similar discussion circles in many parts of the world.

The discussion was also important for the intervention of the ICC in the meeting. The orientation towards a critical examination of the history of the workers' movement and the marxist method is essential for a positive outcome for the efforts of such circles, and the intervention of revolutionaries is always important for this. This particular intervention also had a specific importance is showing our commitment to the work in the Australia, and the work of the circle, despite the fact that the ICC no longer has a direct presence in the country. Our former comrade played an important role in building up the organisation's presence in Australia, but has now left and no longer has any involvement in proletarian politics, which we see as an expression of the discouragement that can overcome communist militants particularly in this period of the decomposition of capitalism.

Can we do anything for the immediate needs of refugees?

The more wars or economic devastation create increasing numbers of refugees, the fewer are allowed into countries like Australia, the stricter the border controls, the worse the conditions faced by refugees, often locked up or reduced to destitution. Can we do anything for their immediate needs? In particular, what about attacking detention centres, an area of state power, and freeing the refugees?

In taking up this question the discussion went back to the framework implied in the title of the discussion, 'Reforms, refugees and the revolutionary perspective' to see that in this period of the decadence of the capitalist system it is not possible for the working class to win reforms from the capitalist state, which carries out the policy necessary for the ruling class. Immigration has been allowed when there was a shortage of labour as in the 1920s, but restricted during periods of unemployment such as the depression in the 1930s. The development of the world crisis since 1968 has affected the situation in two ways. The whole working class has been attacked, with unemployment, with casualisation of jobs and increased insecurity. Imperialist tensions have been heightened, the number of wars has risen and the number of refugees increased, just when the ruling class has less need of immigrant labour. Nevertheless the bourgeoisie can use the refugees in its ideological campaigns. By introducing attacks on the refugees first, for instance reducing their right to benefits, it aims to get the working class as a whole used to the idea of further attacks on living conditions. Also it can stir up nationalism and divide the working class along national and racial lines.

Nor can we rely on liberal or left wing parties to defend refugees. They also argue from the point of view of the needs of the national capital and encourage divisions within the working class, aiming to give the illusion that it is possible to make capitalism fair for the refugees. So the ruling class does not only openly scapegoat refugees to undermine the unity and solidarity of the working class - anti-racism is an equally effective way of playing the race card. The bourgeoisie never wants to say that there is a shortage or jobs, housing or whatever, only that it should be equably distributed to all the different groups - in other words the racists and anti-racists agree that it is people from other racial groups who are stopping you from getting what you need and not the crisis of capitalism. What they disagree on is how a diminishing cake should be divided up.

Attacking a detention centre leaves the bourgeois state intact - the same state that makes the refugee illegal, whether in detention or on the run. The refugee question cannot be solved without the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Another aspect to the question was the responsibility of revolutionary organisations. What solidarity can we give to refugees, or any members of the working class, who face destitution right now? Revolutionary organisations have neither the capacity nor the responsibility to solve these problems. On an immediate practical level it is clear that it would be impossible. The real responsibility of communists is to explain clearly that these problems are not soluble within the capitalist system, and to point to the general perspective and line of march of the class struggle.

The best solidarity that workers can give is to develop their own struggle to resist the attacks of capital.

International divisions and the unity of the working class

The meeting also discussed the question of the different treatment refugees get in different countries. The person who raised this thought that, in general, developed countries in the West kept refugees out, whereas third world countries were more tolerant, giving the example of refugees from Tibet and Bangladesh tolerated in India. In part this is because the less powerful third world states do not have such totalitarian 'reach' into rural areas. More important is the use of welfarism to encourage workers to identify with the state and nationalism against immigrants taking 'our benefits' or 'using our hospitals' when they haven't contributed. The impossibility of raising this question in a trade union was given as evidence of the success of this campaign.

The way refugees are treated depends on the needs of national capital. In this sense we can see that third world countries can also send refugees back or keep them in camps. In fact refugees are often kept in camps to be used as cannon fodder in imperialist wars, as the Palestinians have been in the Middle East or Afghans in Pakistan.

The other participants in the circle also rejected the notion that the unions represent the working class, or that they resist attacks on Australian workers. What they do is make a show of opposition, negotiate the terms of the attacks and in this way contribute to their introduction.

But the most important point to answer was the idea that workers are somehow bought off by the 'welfare state' and that we should perhaps look to workers in the third world, or even other classes, instead. If we just look at a snapshot of the situation today we can see that the workers do not have a strong sense of their identity as part of an international class with the same interests to defend. This is largely a result of the propaganda campaign since the collapse of the Eastern bloc according to which marxism and working class revolutionary struggle lead inevitably to the brutal form of state capitalism that existed in Russia. Workers must therefore keep their struggles within safe trade union limits. However, if we look back to the development of struggles from 1968 to 1989 we can see that workers really did have a sense of being part of a class, and struggles in one country definitely influenced those in another. The struggles in France in 1868, in Poland in 1980 and the miners' strike in Britain in 1984 were all discussed by workers all over the world. The bourgeoisie were particularly careful to black out news of very important struggles in Belgium in 1983 and 1986 because they gave the example of going beyond the unions or of unity between public and private sector workers.

In order to support the development of a sense of class identity we need to emphasise what unites the working class, and the importance of the development of large scale struggles in this process. The best solidarity remains the development of the struggle of the working class in its own defence.

How to pose questions

In this meeting the circle took up the question of immigration and refugees, and was immediately confronted with the need to answer the propaganda of the ruling class. To do so it needed to step back and place these issues in the framework of the historical experience of the working class, and particularly in relation to the question of capitalist decadence and the impossibility of reforms in this period.

Subjects suggested for future discussion included 'Islam in the modern world', 'Multiculturalism and pluralistic democracy' and the 'welfare state'. All these are important issues, and all were posed in reaction to aspects of bourgeois propaganda. It is better to approach such questions by starting from the way they have been posed in the workers' movement in the past, and then examine the media campaigns from that point of view. With this in mind the ICC proposed that the circle look first at some of the important positions taken by the workers' movement, for instance the Theses on Parliamentary Democracy from the Third International, before going on to look at the ideological campaign on pluralistic democracy. Similarly, in looking at Islam in the modern world it makes sense to start with an overview of the marxist critique of religion.

Diana, 1/4/04.