Anarchism and Aboriginal sovereignty

The relationship between anarchists and the state got off to a pretty rocky start in Australia. Initially established as a penal colony in 1788 — a prison island for the human excrement Great Britain’s rulers believed constituted a greater proportion of the criminal class than they wanted to pollute their cities — the Stolenwealth of Australia was officially declared open for business on January 1, 1901. When the first Australian Federal Parliament opened in Melbourne on May 9, 1901, the anarchist John ‘Chummy’ Fleming interrupted the proceedings (much to the displeasure of the detectives watching him) by loudly proclaiming that, for the poor, there was little to celebrate.

Since invasion, much the same has been true for Australia’s indigenous peoples. Prior to 1788, the territories that have come to constitute the contemporary nation-state of Australia were occupied by hundreds of different peoples, numbering perhaps 750,000. By 1911, 123 years after settlement, the Aboriginal population had been reduced to 31,000 (see Colin Tatz, ‘Genocide in Australia’, AIATSIS Research Discussion Papers, No.8, 1999), and most of its peoples exterminated.

So too, ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’.

John Tracey reckons that the left — in particular anarchists — “attempt… to euphemise the notion of sovereignty”; in other words, seek to somehow avoid acknowledging that ‘sovereignty’ means — in theory but, moreover, in practice — “the legitimate government and ownership of this land” (Australia). Unfortunately, I’m aware of relatively few anarchist writings on the subject of Aboriginal sovereignty. Two that I am aware of are a text, Whitewash: Australia’s Bicentenary: Another history, issued by the ASF in 1988 for the bicentenary of invasion, and a more recent essay by Owen Gager which appeared in a local zine produced by the Barricade collective several years ago (‘Aboriginal Sovereignty: An Anarchist Critique’, In Ya Face, No.5, 2003).

The ASF pamphlet doesn’t appear to be available online, but Gager’s essay is, and so I reproduce it below.

An important part of the anarchist project in Australia involves repairing the damage caused by white colonisation and the attempted genocide of indigenous peoples. As Owen Gager argues in the following article, part of this process involves critically examining the issues of sovereignty and how it relates to the struggle for a classless, non-hierarchical society.

Aboriginal Sovereignty: An Anarchist Critique

Some people within the anarchist community are now, after looking, understandably, at the expropriations of the Aboriginal people as the basis of white settler state and economy, trying to appeal to the concept of “sovereignty” as the basis for an anarchist conception of Aboriginal struggle, a struggle they see as crucial to ending Australian capitalism. In taking this course, however, they follow the dominant rhetoric of the campaigns promoted by the state-funded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission (ATSIC) [abolished in 2005]; the rhetoric, that is, of those who claim to be Aboriginal leaders.

In looking at Aboriginal society, we are looking at a form of society which long antedates our own. The concept of “sovereignty”, as it has developed in Western (white) political theory, takes its point of departure from an analysis of such early societies, “societies without government”, as the English writer Hobbes called them. Hobbes [1588–1679] characterised these societies as sites of “war of all against all”. Such societies, it is claimed, are unsustainable as social entities and provide for their members only radical insecurity which threatens life and property. In Hobbes’ theory, the earliest statement of what sovereignty means apart from Bodin‘s [1529/30–1596], this “war of all against all” can only be ended through a “contract” with a sovereign – a King, a parliament, or a “Lord protector” such as Oliver Cromwell. This is for Hobbes, sovereignty. This “contract”, very much like the Newstart Activity Agreement and other Centrelink creations, is a contract which gives one party, the sovereign, all power, and the other parties to the contract the ‘right’ to obey. As a theory of state totally irresponsible to its subjects because the alleged alternative is chaos, or “anarchy”, it prefigures fascism and colonialism.

Readers of Peter Marshall‘s Demanding the Impossible will notice both extreme similarities and extreme dissimilarities with Hobbes. Most pre-twentieth century anarchist writers envisaged anarchy as the continuance of natural laws carried over from the very earliest societies, where the “natural rights” of men and women were respected and guaranteed, as outcomes of consensus in a society where each person knew everyone else. The state, when it arose, shattered these existing non-contractual rights, destroyed existing natural law with unjust edicts by all-powerful rulers, for whom, in Randolph Bourne’s words, “war is the health of the state”. The tranquility of a natural society is overthrown by a “war of all against all” as states dragoon ordinary people into wars for extension of state power and territory. For both Hobbes and his anarchist opponents, “sovereignty” and “anarchy” are diametrically opposed ideas. The differences are over the content of these concepts.

40, 000 Years is a Long, Long Time…

The problem with both kinds of theory is that they are based on myth rather than history. There is no historical record of “social contract”, in the forms Hobbes envisaged, ever being agreed to on a specific time or a specific date. Conversely, the search for societies which gave equal rights to all genders, and had no record of eradication of non-human animal species, has not produced large numbers of early utopias. Nor has the geographical spread of the social principles of these few model societies always extended very far or for very long. One can say, nevertheless, that most of the earliest societies of which there is some record, including Australian Aboriginal societies, were not “chaotic” or unstable in Hobbes’ sense; as we have noted, until undermined by external invasion, Australian Aboriginal society lasted a very long time indeed. The absence of state and of employment and of money is characteristic of a great number of early societies.

“Sovereignty” in international law arrived, like all written law, with white colonialism. It was in more ways than one the law of the conqueror; as the international law of the conqueror it was an etiquette of conquest agreed on between rival conquerors. Imperialism immediately proclaimed the “sovereignty” of the racist power it imposed, describing the pre-existing society as Hobbesian chaos. Where, as in New Zealand / Aetearoa, a militantly undefeated indigenous majority confronted a white settler minority, this majority were told that they were “sovereign” – using a word for “sovereignty” unknown to most Maoris – and that “sovereignty” would be recognised in the “treaty” in which they agreed to sign sovereignty away to Britain. Once, as a consequence of this treaty, a white settler government was set up, which waged open and victorious war against the indigenous people, the “treaty” was declared a nullity since the Maoris suddenly were found not to have been “sovereign” when they signed it! The New Zealand treaty, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, is still not recognised.

It is this colonialist conception of “sovereignty” which “leaders” like Pearson and Langton want to enshrine in a “treaty” they now chatter about – a “sovereignty” which has never existed under white rule, which they will formally renounce by signing a treaty, in return for promises, which, like the Wik judgments, will never be kept.

Sovereignty & Globalisation

How relevant is any form of national sovereignty under conditions of transnational corporate globalisation? Clearly, today, the national sovereignty even of existing “independent” states can be overruled by decisions and actions of transnational corporations backed by international economic bodies like the WTO, most obviously in freedom to make economic policy. The erosion of sovereignty through the absence and withdrawal of capital, which can take the form of a refusal of capital to employ, has been experienced by a would-be “aboriginal nation” pre-emptively as a strike on pastoral and mining capital in tropical Australia, following on court rulings giving Aboriginal workers equal pay.

The transnational corporations made explicit claims to a new form of sovereignty in the late 1960’s (see Global Reach [Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Müller, Simon & Schuster, 1974]). This was the claim, in the terms borrowed from neo-Keynesian economists like Benham, of “consumer sovereignty”, on its face a claim to a form of popular, not state sovereignty. Here the illusory social contract of Hobbes found a new expression, the social contract as the contract between buyer and seller, a contract on the basis of which transnational corporations claimed power over and against the state as the only entity which allegedly could sell to the consumer what s/he “demanded”. This claim is obviously tautological, since “consumer demand” is in turn defined as demand for what corporations produce, and can sell at profit, while any kind of demand (demands for basic commodities by the world’s poor) is excluded by definition, as incapable of expression in a contract of sale, since the poor lack the income to buy.

Aboriginal “Sovereignty”

This definition of sovereignty has excluded Aboriginal people since the beginning of European settlement as too poor to buy what capitalism produces and committed to social forms of moneyless exchange. The new global definitions of sovereignty do not recognise states and nations. Even if they did, Aboriginal states are composed of a majority of poor citizens, excluded by definition from sovereignty. There have been less of those who view ATSIC as precursor to an Aboriginal state than as a kind of corporation, with a land base, provided by land rights legislation (Michael Mansell), a capital base, provided by the expropriation of Aboriginal social security payments, and a labour force (forced unpaid labour of those deprived of social security payments). The existing Community Development and Employment Program (CDEP), which pioneered work for the dole in the Australia, already uses dole payments to some extent as capital, but still provides renumeration to workers and is not entirely conscriptive. The bulk of existing ATSIC funding is earmarked by the white government for CDEP programmes. CDEP is not a model of “consumer sovereignty” in that only a few consumer goods are produced for sale, but it is intended as a beginning. The problem of this model of “sovereignty”, which attracts Pearson, Langton, and even Foley in a recent issue of The Paper, is that a corporation, especially when the WTO’s projected General Agreement on Trade and Services is introduced, can be taken over by another corporation. Unpaid unskilled forced labour is not unattractive to some multinationals. (This might even be a bit much for Noel Pearson, though one wonders.) It is no protection against TNC takeover to limit claims to sovereignty to political dimensions; nations, too, can be taken over, as many Australians have noticed. One must ask, indeed, if a white Australian sovereignty remains for Aborigines to supplant.

Sovereignty, in its traditional political sense, is the ability of an elite to make laws with the backing of a standing army. Sovereignty is not government itself, but the physical and legal conditions for government. Once in place, such political sovereignty, placing beyond legal challenge government as a property-protecting agent, can be transferred to corporations. As the incarnation of property successfully protected, TNCs grow bigger than governments, subordinating them to themselves and basing themselves more on economic than military power as an ultimate resort.

How can anarchists endorse such a concept? Aboriginal societies have never needed such “sovereignty”, relying as they did and still do for their social cohesion on forms of consensus decision-making that long anticipated anarchists finding a name for the process. How can the form of liberation of an oppressed grouping be defined in the oppressor’s language?

Each distinct Aboriginal people has its own description of the relationship to the land which link it to a particular geographic area, in its own language. Although this is often now described as “traditional ownership”, it is not ownership in the capitalist sense of a right to do what one pleases with the land. It involves duties to the land as well as rights; more duties, probably, in most cases, than rights. One might, in very Western terms, describe such relations to the land as expressed – if one knew, or were permitted to know, the languages in which they were expressed – as poetic popular ecologies. And why should not ecology be expressed as poetry? If there is to be any claim to decide who may or may not enter a geographical area, it should be ecological, not political. (By “ecology” I do not mean a theory of “population pressure”.)

The argument between Aboriginal and white capitalist ways of life is about ways of life, not sovereignty. Ecology before economics. Consensus decision making, not “leadership” by individual politicians, white or black. Moneyless economies based on mutual exchange, where no-one is left hungry as resources are shared, instead of the creation of poverty for corporate power. Work reduced to physical minimum not systematic overwork. Self-activity (collective not individual) not employment. Yes, we know Aboriginal society was neither a paradise, nor a utopia – that it had many problems, in many ecological and social areas. But, compared with the society we are now living in, its values, what it tried and may often have failed to do, were infinitely preferable to the society we now live in unhappily. Shouldn’t that be what we are arguing about, not “sovereignty” – the imposition of the state on an anarchic people? The Aboriginal community leaders who fail to argue this – to present the dominant values of pre-European Aboriginal society as values that everyone, Aboriginal or not, can share and develop further – are, as their own people will tell them, not speaking after traditional discussion and debate, and are using whitefella language. It is not for anarchists to follow in the footsteps of any leaders, especially this kind.

The defence of Aboriginal society by raising issues such as sovereignty – which it claimed, so far wrongly, can be contested in Australian or international courts – assumes that the issues of what society we choose to live in raised by the Aboriginal past and the issues of proletarianisation raised by the Aboriginal present can be somehow resolved by litigation. This is ridiculous. These kinds of issues are not resolvable in law but raise questions about the relevance of law to radical social change. The dispossession of the Aboriginal people is not an historic act which occurred illegally in 1789. The wave of expropriations, of land, of children, the now threatened expropriations of personal incomes, have been continuous and still continue. Talk of “sovereignty” addresses, at best, only one of those atrocities, historically the most distant. Such talk tells people, like the politicians in the old Wobbly song, that the quickest way to revolution is “talking constitution!”. That is and has always been a lie.

Most Aborigines – with the exception of a few non-traditional leaders aspiring to be corporate CEOs – are now members of an unemployed underclass, who, unlike other unemployed, can look back to a past in which almost all capitalist relations were reversed. That early society arose, as it were, spontaneously, without conscious design – “natural”, in the sense that it could not and did not make plans to prevent its overthrow, which it did not foresee. A future society, borrowing enormously from Aboriginal and similar societies, will be a product of planning and agreement between all members of the oppressed classes – especially because it will comprise not capo individuals but real, social individuals who will try to form a society in which the forms of the present total and overwhelming sovereignty of capital we now experience can never be repeated.

Anarchists respect Aboriginal societies, and other indigenous societies adhering to the same family of non-capitalist values, not because they are compelled somehow to do so by pre-existing forms of “sovereignty” but because they choose the values of indigenous over against non-indigenous societies. The social values of Aboriginal society were worked out by people for whom globalisation in its present form did not exist and was inconceivable. The new international underclass, the millions thrown out of “their” countries by political persecution and poverty – and facing concentration camps in the countries in which they seek refuge – is the living critique of and the new destructive force threatening capitalist globalisation. The insights of the new underclass, one meshed with the old, combine the future and past in ways that global capitalism cannot counter.

Note that at the time of publication, the US anarchist Arthur J Miller offered the following comment in reply:

“[This] article is a good example of Eurocentic white supremacy within the anarchist movement. It is not up to white people, even white anarchists, to tell Indigenous people what is best for them, for that is just a continuation of white supremacy. Also the anarchist writer lacks an understanding of indigenous sovereignty. Indigenous sovereignty is not a statement of what form of self-rule they have but rather the need for self-determination in order to try to defend their right to their culture and ways against genocide. True sovereignty was not an indigenous concept before the invasion, but since the invasion it has become important for survival against the invaders. [This article] places anarchists in line with the invaders and Columbus.”

A veteran anarchist, Miller is also the author of another pamphlet, In the Spirit of Total Resistance: A Spark of Anarchist Resistance [PDF].

See also (links courtesy of Ana):

Settlers in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty (SISIS)
Indigenous Solidarity | An (Un)Settler’s Place
Confronting the ‘settler problem’: Thoughts on Indigenous solidarity organizing in “Victoria” [Canada], Joanne Cuffe, New Socialist, No.59, Winter 2006/2007
Indigenous Resistance (Insurrectionary Anarchists of the Coast Salish Territories / Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: “Against Capitalism and Colonization”)

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2021 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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62 Responses to Anarchism and Aboriginal sovereignty

  1. Cal says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been trying to search out some material on Anarchism and the issue of Aboriginal Sovereignty in the context of Australia for quite a while, including this pamphlet.

    There have been some pretty heated debates on the libcom forums about the issue, particularly in relation to either real or imaginary clashes between anarchist notions that “property is theft”, and the notion of “traditional ownership” of land by Indigenous peoples. I think I might re-post this on those forums, if it’s okay by you.

    Thanks again,


  2. @ndy says:

    Hey C,

    I’m familiar with the thread on libcom. Like the great majority of forum discussions (including, unfortunately, those on libcom), it’s not terribly enlightening…

    I haven’t really explored the issue in any depth in the post above, but will try and do so soon. To begin with, I think Proudhon’s writings on property are interesting and important, but of somewhat limited relevance to the subject of ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’. In which context, the crux of the issue, I think, is what ‘rights’, if any, do peoples have to land? Or to put it another way: why is it wrong, if it is, to rob others of their livelihoods and cultures? (Or, on what basis may one legitimately expropriate another?)

    Other issues, I think, revolve around questions of identity (the nature of non-/indigeneity), and justice. For example: if genocide is a crime, and if genocide was committed and/or attempted upon the indigenous peoples of Australia, what is the most appropriate means of righting this injustice? Such questions are informed, in the Australian context, by approximately 200 years of official denial, and the absence of any recognition or treaty arrangement between invaders (non-indigenous) and the invaded (indigenous) — unlike, say, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and the United States. What legal rights have been accorded indigenous peoples in the last few years, on the other hand, have taken the form of ‘native title’, which is a very minimal form of legal ‘sovereignty’.

    (As an important aside, Robbie Thorpe has observed of native title legislation that it forces indigenous peoples to prove the land is theirs; on the other hand, and more profoundly, one might reverse this question and ask non-indigenous Australians to explain how the land came to be theirs.)

    Secondly, I think the question is: is there — or should there be — a specific, anarchist response to these issues? If so, in what ways does this understanding or approach distinguish itself from that of other, ‘non-anarchist’ responses? On the surface, I think the most obvious, distinguishing feature of an ‘anarchist’ critique would be the rejection of the state. But again, I think this rejection exists independently of the facts of colonisation. Or: even in the absence of a state, the question remains as to what can or should be the most appropriate — just? — form of social relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. To my mind, the demands of The Black GST campaign seem fairly reasonable. That is:

    G enocide stopped
    S overeignty recognised
    T reaty negotiated

    More later.

  3. John Tracey says:


    saw my name mentioned. The Leftwrites article referred to is here.

    The ASF analysis is perhaps a good example of what I refer to as euphemism, recognising some of the sociological and cultural elements of Aboriginal law but not recognising the existence of possessory and exclusive title to land – inherited through family.

    Also, the analysis, while correctly identifying aspects of colonial law, such as the notion of sovereignty, as being a white construct, [is flawed in the sense that] this understanding of sovereignty is not the same as Aboriginal sovereignty which exists without a state and lives in bloodlines and the soil itself, not pieces of paper. Aboriginal understandings of land and land law do not fit into European statist terminology and I believe defy such analysis as the ASF’s.

    Those who have gone to court such as Koiki Mabo and Bejam Denis Walker have done so, not to appeal to European notions of land law for justice but rather to present indigenous land law as legitimate on its own terms. The strategy was to throw a spanner in the works, to exploit the inherent contradictions. Notions such as native title (also ATSIC) are constructions of white courts and parliaments to somehow incorporate legitimate indigenous rights into their illegitimate legal system, but this has nothing to do with Aboriginal law.

    The ASF analysis wrongly assumes that there was not a standing army to defend the territory, law and citizens. There was a 150 year guerilla war where bands of warriors around the nation defended their country. Again, just because there was no state does not mean there was not an organised sovereign military force.

    Also, while anarchists can embrace Aboriginal culture as a sociology without a state, they fail to properly acknowledge the inherent hierarchy in the role of elders and eldership. Similarly the sexual division of land, economy and political power is too easily glossed over by some anarchists. The vegetarians stay quiet about traditional hunting. Ceremonial violence and some customary law violent responses to law breaking doesn’t fit well with the pacifists.

    The truth is there is no harmony between Aboriginal law and European anarchism. This is indeed a problem for non-Aboriginal anarchists. But this schism is not a matter of opinion or ideology but of consciousness and psychology and spirituality. There are two separate cultural matrices each having their own inherent logic. Anarchism is in the migrant matrix, separate from Aboriginal law.

    Some might find this interesting: ‘Neo-colonialism in Australia’ (John Tracey).

  4. @ndy says:

    Thanks John,

    I’ll respond more fully later. A brief, clarifying note: the text by Owen Gager represents his opinion, not that of the ASF.

  5. John Tracey says:

    Sorry to ASF, I misread the intro.

    I should add, that the single confluence of anarchism and Aboriginal law, a society without a state is, in my opinion, the central issue, not a generalised critique of hierarchy.

    The notion of obedient citizen is a construction of the state structure. The various hierarchies that exist in citizenship, including family hierarchies and patriarchy, are corrupted not because of the hierarchy but because of the context of the hierarchy – the umbrella political and psychological circumstance.

    However, a sociology that evolves without a state, is where real power including the management of violence is not a matter of calling the appropriate state agency to act but of accepting personal and collective responsibility because there is no-one else to do it. This is a deep psychological and consciousness shift. Even radical anarchist ideologues in Australia exist in the context of citizen powerlessness and total state authority which they depend on when they are assaulted or in danger of assault, as well as participating in all the other fruits of the public service. The radical ideology exists within the mainstream sociology, it rebels against the mainstream but through this rebellion the mainstream is still a central element of what defines the anarchists. Anti-mainstream is still defining yourself by the mainstream rather than any inherent power and substance that exists in free people individually or collectively.

    The anarchist analysis of hierarchy is flawed in that it denies natural hierarchies, the most profound one being the power difference between children and adults based on such things as size, strength and prior experience. Many anarchist parents struggle with these issues but in the end their children do not create themselves but are created by the social environment created by their families and significant others. Their whole world is constructed by adults and any notions of free choice are pre-packaged options devised by adults for the children to choose (a bit like electoral democracy).

    I do not use the example of children to expand into an analysis of the role of elders in Aboriginal law, I could, but that is another long story to explain properly. I raise the issue of power and children to suggest a natural inherent contradiction in anarchism as an absolute rejection of hierarchy, one of many I claim.

    To properly understand Aboriginal law we have to be able to, even for just a moment, put our own sacred cows aside and consider the possibility that they may be flawed and that other ideologically unsound realities may indeed contain considerable truth, especially regarding how to live in a society without a state.

  6. John Tracey says:

    p.s. also how to live in a subculture without a state in the context of a state dominated mainstream culture.

  7. Just Curious says:

    Indigenous sovereignty is not a statement of what form of self-rule they have but rather the need for self-determination in order to try to defend their right to their culture and ways against genocide.

    Gee, that sounds like National Anarchism to me!

  8. @ndy says:


    A few points.

    On sovereignty. Owen writes: “Sovereignty, in its traditional political sense, is the ability of an elite to make laws with the backing of a standing army. Sovereignty is not government itself, but the physical and legal conditions for government.” I’d add to that the notion of sovereignty as applying to a particular, and thereby limited, piece of territory. You write: “[Owen’s] analysis wrongly assumes that there was not a standing army to defend the territory, law and citizens. There was a 150 year guerilla war where bands of warriors around the nation defended their country. Again, just because there was no state does not mean there was not an organised sovereign military force.”

    As I understand it, a standing army is a different creature to bands of tribal warriors, even where these assembled in large numbers to engage in battle or, alternatively, formed smaller groups to engage in guerilla warfare. A standing army is composed of full-time, professional soldiers who remain standing in times of both war and peace. The indigenous warriors who fought invasion and occupation, on the other hand, don’t appear to have fulfilled this function in traditional society.

    Regarding the recognition of “some of the sociological and cultural elements of Aboriginal law but not… the existence of possessory and exclusive title to land – inherited through family”, I think you’re correct: Owen’s analysis does not pay sufficient attention to this question.

    More later…

  9. John Tracey says:

    Traditional Aboriginal society was permanently militarised. The skills of war and violence were part of the standard education and initiation process and responsible adults were/are expected to play their part in the war effort when required. They were permanently trained including ceremonial wars (war games). Families or “tribes” had/have identifiable dreaming places – territory – which was defended by a form of national service (tribal nation) with the capacity to connect to other family/national militias to defend larger/regional territories. There was a quantum leap in the nature of war when the English invaded but the same system of territorial defence was played out.

    There is an obvious difference between a state’s standing army and a community militia but in terms of claim to territory or sovereignty the principle is the same.


    Many of the European anarchist struggles such as Russia and Spain were nationalist also, they assumed sovereignty over their own country in rejecting the state’s authority. Land rights were a central pillar in both cases, especially the land rights of peasants.

    The European anarchist struggles of life and death and land have much more in common with the Australian Aboriginal struggle than with the ideological debates of Australian anarchists, which are not born of such life and death struggle but (mainly) because of the alienation inherent in comfortable affluent society.

  10. John Tracey says:

    The split of the Jabiluka Action Group in 1998 is an example of the tension between anarchist principles and Aboriginal sovereignty:
    Takver’s history of the controversy;
    an eco-feminist perspective [‘Nature’s Women: Ecofeminist Reflections on Jabiluka’, Monica Nugent, 2002 (PDF)].

  11. vents says:

    capitalism? just throwing it out there

  12. @ndy says:

    here. have it back

  13. Bob Saggy Sagat says:

    You don’t like Capitalism @ndy?

    What about Bob?

  14. @ndy says:

    Whose country is it anyway?

  15. @ndy says:

    Back to the future:

    If it’s true that, as Owen writes:

    Anarchists respect Aboriginal societies, and other indigenous societies adhering to the same family of non-capitalist values, not because they are compelled somehow to do so by pre-existing forms of “sovereignty” but because they choose the values of indigenous over against non-indigenous societies.

    then it would appear to be the case that there is nothing inherent in ‘anarchism’ — no moral or political obligation — which compels us to recognise ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’, whether this is defined in ‘black’ or ‘white’ terms. Instead, anarchist support for Aboriginal cultures is based on its resemblance to anarchist cultures; or as Owen puts it, to the extent that these belong to “the same family of non-capitalist values”.

    The obvious problem with Owen’s analysis is that it fails to appreciate the specificity of the (Australian) Aboriginal concept of sovereignty. John: “Aboriginal sovereignty… exists without a state and lives in bloodlines and the soil itself, not pieces of paper.”

    The question of the anarchist approach to Aboriginal sovereignty was raised a few years ago during the course of a discussion regarding the formulation of a collective statement of the political perspective of the Barricade collective:

    [Barricade] We recognise that the land on which we stand belongs to the Wurundjeri people and we participate alongside the Koori community in the struggle for land rights and self-determination.

    [B] Proudhon: “Property is theft.” In what sense does this land “belong” to the Wurundjeri? If it’s not in the propertarian sense, fine, but clarify it. Those who currently need and use this land are the ones who can most rightly claim it. Denying even the property rights of indigenous Australians does not preclude a statement recognising that the current use of former Wurundjeri land by non-indigenous Australians (and probably non-Wurundjeri indigenous Australians) is the indirect result of regrettable acts of violent displacement and slaughter by British colonists.

    [@ndy] I agree with B that the meaning of this passage is unclear. (I think Bonnie, among others, has also pointed this out at some point.) To begin with, the notion that the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri would seem to be in contradiction to the (anarchist) claim that “Property is theft” (that is, under capitalism). Perhaps it would be more correct to say that, on the basis that “[t]hose who currently need and use this land are the ones who can most rightly claim it”, the land once belonged to the Wurundjeri, but now belongs to others as well.

    However, I believe that there are a number of problems with this approach. For it seems to me that there are other obligations on the part of non-indigenous peoples—us mob—in regard to this, ‘a little matter of genocide’. For example: what, if any, are the practical consequences of acknowledging that our occupation of this land “is the indirect [?] result of regrettable acts of violent displacement and slaughter by British colonists”? I think that one possible problem with identifying colonialism as being ‘an historical event now superseded by events’—which is what I think this passage does, not that I think that this was necessarily B’s intention—is that it essentially absolves those who have benefited from this process of any responsibility for confronting the awful consequences this has had for Australia’s indigenous populations; in particular, the Wurundjeri. In this context, the notion that “we participate alongside the Koori community in the struggle for land rights and self-determination” is intended to supplement our belief that the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri.

    “Never ever can you take the land away from us and the land will always belong to Aboriginal people, as we are a part of the land and the land a part of us. You can’t own your mother, she owns you.”

    Secondly, as far as I’m aware, and as the above passage indicates, the Wurundjeri have never ceded sovereignty over their land. In other words, it would be wrong of us to believe that, because people other than the Wurundjeri now ‘make use’ of the(ir) land, it now ‘belongs’ to these others. Even if we were to embrace the notion of usufruct—the right to enjoy the use of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance—given the massive damage to the natural environment that has occurred and that has been an integral part of the colonialist project, we could hardly claim our occupancy as being ethical on these grounds.

    In any case, the notion of ‘ownership’ need not have exclusively ‘propertarian’ overtones. For example, my understanding is that, in Australia, Aboriginal societies developed a precise, although complex, concept of landholding, in which individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conceptions and birth sites. These relationships entail obligations and responsibilities to protect the land, its species and people from damage and unauthorised use; and to husband the land, use it, harvest it and do the things it needs to maintain its productivity. Thus the Aboriginal concept of landholding is very different from the (hegemonic) European concept of land as individually owned private property, a commodity to be bought, sold and used to generate profit. So yes, the land “belongs” to the Wurundjeri people; more importantly, the Wurundjeri belong to the land.

    So where does this leave us? Over to you, comrades!

    For what it’s worth, here is an article from The Anvil, No.1, January-February 2007, the publication of the Melbourne Anarchist-Communist Group. I believe it also subsumes the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty to a notion of class struggle:


    Australia is a country built on stolen land. The indigenous people were in sole possession of the land on 26 January 1788 and have never sold or given away an inch since then. Any land which they do not occupy has been taken from them by force. To this day, the theft continues.

    The facts of the dispossession and its consequences are public knowledge and available to anyone who inquires. Through massacre, disease, internment and forced dispersal, land was “transferred” to the Crown, which generously granted its newly acquired wealth to farmers, pastoralists and other settlers as capitalist real estate. Almost all productive land is now in the hands of non-indigenous people.

    After the stolen land came the stolen children and the stolen wages. The story of the stolen children is one of attempted genocide. From the late 19th Century to the middle of the 20th, indigenous people of Australia were called a “dying race”. This was not so much an observation as it was official policy. The ruling class was troubled by a proliferation of “half-castes”, children almost always of indigenous mothers and white fathers. It was (usually unwritten) government policy to remove them and absorb them into white society. Meanwhile, the “full-bloods” were expected to continue to die out, thus eliminating potential future claimants of the stolen property.

    The stolen wages are another appalling story, of State policy to defraud indigenous people of their hard-earned wages. It has been most extensively documented in Queensland, but it went on over all of mainland Australia. Indigenous people, under the control of State or Territory governments, were contracted to work on farms or as domestics and their wages were mostly paid into trust accounts under the control of local police, with a small fraction doled out as an allowance. The trust accounts were plundered by the coppers and the pastoralists and the State governments helped themselves to most of what was left. And, to cap it off, child endowment and pensions were siphoned off into State government hands, with the collaboration of the Commonwealth.

    Indigenous people in Australia have survived an attempted genocide, but have suffered greatly in the process. As with all injustices, the question is “What is to be done”? The answer is that the working class must champion their cause. This would not be an act of charity. Instead, by taking up the cause of indigenous people, we would be acting in our own interests as well.

    We cannot defeat the capitalists unless we are united and anything that divides us, like racism, is poison. Indigenous people are part of the working class as well, so it is necessary to take up their issues on the basis of “an injury to one is an injury to all”. We must demand the return of the stolen wages, compensation for the stolen children, a settlement for the stolen land and an end to police murders.

    Further, indigenous people are in no position to defeat injustice solely through their own efforts. While it is up to them to decide their own issues and priorities, they need allies in order to win. The working class is the only force in society which has both the strength and the motive to win this struggle.

  16. @ndy says:

    A few more thoughts, from last to first:

    Many of the European anarchist struggles such as Russia and Spain were nationalist also, they assumed sovereignty over their own country in rejecting the state’s authority. Land rights were a central pillar in both cases, especially the land rights of peasants.

    The European anarchist struggles of life and death and land have much more in common with the Australian Aboriginal struggle than with the ideological debates of Australian anarchists, which are not born of such life and death struggle but (mainly) because of the alienation inherent in comfortable affluent society.

    Regarding the struggles of anarchists in Russia and Spain, I don’t believe that these were ‘nationalist’. To begin with, the anarchists explicitly rejected the term, and viewed themselves as internationalists, engaged in an international struggle against capitalism and the state: not just ‘their’ capitalism or state, but all states, and all forms of capitalist rule. Secondly, ‘sovereignty’ was framed in terms of class, not nation; if a peasant had ‘rights’ to land, it was as a result of their labour, not their nationality. Thirdly, the anarchist struggles of this period (and I refer to those of the late nineteenth century through until the early 1920s in the case of Russia and the late 1930s in the case of Spain) were as much concerned with, and in fact constituted by, the struggles of workers over factories as they were peasant struggles over land. The key aspect of both struggles was control over one’s labour and one’s life.

    As for notions of ‘life and death’, there’s obviously a great deal of truth to this (that is, the distinction between the mortal struggles of earlier generations of anarchists in Russia and Spain and those in contemporary Australia), but I believe this has as much to do with the more general conditions facing workers as it does ‘anarchism’. Secondly, while the emergence of an ‘affluent’ society and a kind of ‘post-scarcity anarchism’ has been the subject of some discussion, ‘alienation’ — understood as being the enforced separation of human beings from their labour, their lives, their selves — is operant under capitalism irrespective of the relative degree of poverty or wealth experienced by the general population.

    More generally: I think one of the key issues here is our understanding of the concepts of the nation and the state. Your perspective appears to assume the existence of something called ‘the nation’, for which ‘the state’ is the legitimate (or illegitimate, as the case may be) expression. According to the anarchist Rudolf Rocker, however, the “nation is not the cause but the result of the state. It is the state which creates the nation, not the nation the state”. This concept of ‘the nation’ — of which the prior struggles of anarchists in Russia and Spain were allegedly an expression — has been conceptualised, fairly convincingly, I think, as a product of the modern era, rather than as some ‘natural’ fact.

    More later…

  17. John Tracey says:

    I believe the European peasants had a similar notion of sovereignty or right to land as Aboriginal Australia. Lenin’s prescription for Russia was industrialisation and abandoning Earth-based culture as anthropologically backward. However many, such as the Narodniks, argued for peasant land rights and basing economic development in the rural areas, not just the cities of the new working class. I don’t know enough to know if the Narodniks were anarchists but I do know a lot of anarchist peasant communards were wiped out by the Red Army for not giving up their rights to autonomous control of their land. The Narodniks had interesting debates as to who actually owned (rural) land, and they rejected private property. But what they insisted on was the communal right to land and maintenance of their semi-tribal sociology and culture; security and longevity for families and communities to enjoy control of land into the future.

    As for a nation without a state, I do hold such a notion. Have you seen the Tindale maps? These are not accurate – a white academic’s interpretation – but they give a good idea of national boundaries in Australia.

    In each case of the hundreds of nations identified by Tindale, and the infinite fabric of sub-groups and micro-nations, they have an identifiable, defended territory, their own unique language, their own economy and currency and their own system of law and governance. Although they had no state, the parallels with the European notion of “nation” are obvious.

    All the different nations also manifest as regional and whole of continent political structures, by way of songlines and the moiety or “skin” system that governed international relations including universal (but locally specific) marriage laws.

    The whole question of nationalism and internationalism is one that I believe the left is confused about to the point of paralysis. The notion of internationalism has turned politics into ethereal notions of ideology and solidarity with no real basis on the ground anywhere. The real historical force of masses of people connected by way of common identity, history and geography, at a local, regional, or national level is too often ignored by internationalist perspectives. Groups such as anarchists (and certainly not just them) build their own collective and individual identities by their stories of struggles in other places and other times, joining the dots in some ideological/mathematical equations but not linking at all to the realities of the vast mass of people around us every day in our own lives.

    I do call myself an Australian nationalist, which I am sure doesn’t fit too well here, but that’s how I see it. We need to understand the truth of our Australian history, understanding the specifics of history rather than just an ideological generalisation about the nature of the state. Rudd’s apology, for all its tokenism and shallowness, was nonetheless a significant moment in the changing (or first development) of a national Australian identity with some integrity, a sentiment that I believe should be fostered.

    When Australia signs a treaty acknowledging Aboriginal sovereignty, then this will be a significant defining point of a national consciousness. But I doubt if the state will ever sign such a treaty, any analysis of the state will show this. However, whether anarchists should sign a treaty to legitimise their role on the Aboriginal land that they live and work on is another question altogether.

  18. @ndy says:

    OK. More and later:

    As I suggested earlier, the issue of (Aboriginal) sovereignty raises all sorts of other questions: I’ll try again to deal with some of them, in order. First, to return to the notion of the nation in Europe, and the anarchist understanding of same.

    I agree with you that it’s fair to say that European peasants had (and in fact, continue) to possess some sense of entitlement to their land; although to what extent it relied upon ancestral links, and an Earth-based spirituality — as is the case with Aboriginal conceptions of sovereignty — probably varied a great deal, according to time and place. In this context, the existence of basically feudal relations — in which individual serfs were in effect the property of particular land lords, and laboured on particular plots of land — and the emergence of an agricultural labouring class — which sold its labour, and rented land for use — is likely significant in terms of explaining the world-view of those so exploited. I expect that it was in the pre-feudal era that something most closely approximating Aboriginal cultures existed in Europe, but I really don’t know.

    As for Lenin, I think you’re correct: Lenin, like Marx, was committed to a progressivist notion of history, extolled the virtues of industrialisation, and advocated the abandonment of antiguated economic and social formations (for example, the Russian ‘mir’). Generally speaking, the Russian anarchists took a slightly different approach, seeing in such ‘primitive’ institutions the basis for a properly communal future. As I understand it, the Narodniks were essentially populists, who shared some beliefs in common with the anarchists, but probably can’t be properly understood outside of the context of nineteenth century Russia. In any case, I think that by 1917, the Narodniks had been largely displaced by other forces.

    Regarding the relationship of the Nardoniks to the peasantry, I think it was based on a somewhat romanticised conception of peasant life, and in that sense is similar to the relationships of some segments of the contemporary left to the working class. Finally, regarding the fate of the anarchist communards: yes, the Bolsheviks exterminated them, as they did all their opposition. The greatest resistance to this tyranny — that is, the construction of the Communist State — being in the Ukraine, one led by the peasant army of Nestor Makhno (still considered a folk hero in that part of the world).

    Lots more, later.

  19. grumpy cat says:

    @ndy wrote:

    As for Lenin, I think you’re correct: Lenin, like Marx, was committed to a progressivist notion of history, extolled the virtues of industrialisation, and advocated the abandonment of antiguated economic and social formations (for example, the Russian ‘mir’).

    No. In both the Ethnographic Notebooks and one of the intros to the Communist Manifesto, Marx (I think in the latter example Engel’s recounts Marx’s argument) argues that in the context of a European wide revolution the mir would provide the basis for the construction of communism.

    for communism

  20. grumpy cat says:

    Hi all.

    The quote is from the 1882 Russian Preface:

    The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

    The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.


  21. @ndy says:

    Hey Dave,

    How you doin’?

    Regarding Marx and the mir… maybe. I ain’t read or gotta copy of Herr Marx’s Notebooks (and they don’t appear to be available online, unfortunately — or at least, not in English). On the basis of the passage in the ‘Russian Preface’, Marx’s (and Engels’) ‘support’ for the Russian mir (obshchina) would appear to be conditional on successful proletarian revolution in Europe — in which case, it might serve as the starting point for ‘communist development’.

    The questions that occur to me at this juncture are: what does this development entail for the maintenance of the Russian peasant communes? Or: what does it mean for there to be two fundamentally different courses of development available to Russian peasants, one in which the mir is abolished, the other in which it is preserved? (Obviously, in the absence of a proletarian revolution in Europe, the question is academic.)

    A few more points.

    1) You’ve raised the existence of the Notebooks previously; the best online sources I could find then (and now) was a really neat essay by Franklin Rosemont.

    Franklin writes:

    Karl Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, notes for a major study he never lived to write, have something of [a] fugitive ambiguity. These extensively annotated excerpts from works of Lewis Henry Morgan and others are a jigsaw puzzle for which we have to reinvent the missing pieces out of our own research and reverie and above all, our own revolutionary activity. Typically although the existence of the notebooks has been known since Marx’s death in 1883, they were published integrally for the first time only eighty-nine years later, and then only in a highly priced edition aimed at specialists.

    In which case, their influence on Lenin and Marx’s other major epigones was nil.

    2) Mr T:

    The First Five Years of the Communist International
    Volume 2
    The New Economic Policy of Soviet Russia and the Perspectives of the World Revolution
    Delivered at the November 14, 1922 Session of the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern (Part I)

    ‘The Course of the Civil War’

    You might ask whether we had expected to make the transition from War Communism to socialism without making major economic turns, without experiencing convulsions, without executing retreats, i.e., effecting the transition more or less along a steadily rising curve. Yes, it is true that at this period we did actually think that the revolutionary development in Western Europe would proceed more swiftly. This is undeniable. And had the proletariat in Germany, in France, in Europe as a whole, conquered power in 1919, our entire economic development would have assumed a completely different form. In 1883 Marx, writing to Nicholas Danielson, one of the theoreticians of Russian populism (Narodnikism), that should the proletariat assume power in Europe before the Russian obschina (communal village agriculture) had been completely abolished by history then even this obschina could become one of starting points for Communist development in Russia. And Marx was absolutely right. We had even more reason to assume that if the European proletariat had conquered power in 1919, it could have taken our backward country in tow – backward in the economic and cultural sense – could have come to our aid technically and organizationally and thus have enabled us, by correcting and modifying our methods of War Communism, to move straight toward a genuine socialist economy. Yes, admittedly, such were our hopes. We have never based our policy on the minimizing of revolutionary possibilities and perspectives. On the contrary, as a living revolutionary force we have always striven to expand these possibilities and exhaust each one to the very end. It is only the Messrs. Scheidemanns and Eberts who on the eve of the revolution deny it, have no faith in it, and make ready to become His Imperial Majesty’s Ministers. The revolution catches them by surprise, engulfs them; they flounder helplessly and later at the first opportunity become converted into the tools of the counter-revolution. As regards the gentlemen of the Two-and-a-Half International, they made special efforts in those days to demarcate themselves from the Second International; they proclaimed the inception of a revolutionary epoch and they recognized the dictatorship of the proletariat. Naturally, it was only empty talk so far as they were concerned. At the very first sign of an ebb, all of this nondescript human rubbish returned under Scheidemann’s roof. But the very fact that the Two-and-a-Half International was formed is evidence that the revolutionary perspective of the Communist International and of our party in particular was not at all “utopian“ – not alone from the standpoint of the general tendency of historical development but also from the standpoint of its actual tempo.

    3) Mr B (according to Mr D):

    Statism and Anarchy
    Written: 1873
    Source: Bakunin on Anarchy, translated and edited by Sam Dolgoff, 1971

    Bakunin does not idolize the Russian peasant, nor does he, like so many of his contemporaries, uncritically accept the Mir (peasant community) as the ideal unit of the future society. In discussing the program of the moderate liberals and the Populists, Bakunin gives his views on the efficacy of cooperatives, and the establishment of colonies (communes) and other reformist measures to bring about fundamental social changes. He also outlines what intelligent and dedicated Russian youth from upper and middle classes could do to promote social revolution.

  22. juancastro says:

    I’m pretty sure that Lenin explicitly rejected the idea of peasant communes as the basis of socialism in Russia, not without basis as far as I can tell.

    The idea was to convince the poor peasants to join the rest of the revolution through peaceful means.

  23. grumpy cat says:

    Hi @ndy, I am not fantastic. Japan was awesome but being unemployed in Brisbane sux.
    I think you are totally correct about the Notebooks having no influence on Lenin. Their importance, beyond what they say themselves (and I have not read them, just references, snippets and quotes), is that they have been used to disrupt Marxist orthodoxy by showing how Marx himself does not fit seamlessly into ‘Marxism’.
    As for your questions. I don’t know. Possibly those people using the notion of the ‘commons’ such as The Midnight Notes Collective and The Commoner have a good take on the interrelationship between ‘pre-capitalist’ modes of social solidarity and proletarian revolt.
    rebel love

  24. John Tracey says:

    In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” Engels relies heavily on social-Darwinist notions such as the evolution from savagery, through barbarism, to civilisation. Morgan is mentioned by him often.

    In this book Engels describes Australian Aborigines as savages at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder.

    Marxist-Leninist so called scientific historical law has much in common with the racist notion of Eugenics that was popular amongst the scientific world at the time.

    What Engels misses about Aboriginal Australia, as did Joseph Banks and his Terra Nullius theory, was that this so-called savagery was in reality a highly evolved form of Tribal communism – the theoretical end product of the Marxist prophecy.

    From the quote above, it seems Marx saw this potential in the Russian peasants, although he seems to also see it as historically inevitable that that the old culture will disappear (Eugenics) requiring a new consciousness and structure to usher in communism. I don’t know enough about Russian peasants to say he was wrong but in Australia Aboriginal culture and law has not only survived into the 21st century, it has done so in the face of genocide and mass incarceration and the criminalisation of the practice of that law. It seems a bit more resilient than many give it credit for. Indigenous cultures have never slipped away as a consequence of evolution, they have always been brutally crushed and repressed by military force, biological warfare (smallpox) or starvation through food theft. Same with the Russian peasants, their communist culture was smashed by the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Red Army.

  25. @ndy says:

    Lewis H. Morgan, Part II, Growth of the Idea of Government, Chapter I, Organization of Society upon the Basis of Sex, Ancient Society, 1877:

    The Australians rank below the Polynesians, and far below the American aborigines. They stand below the African negro and near the bottom of the scale. Their social institutions, therefore, must approach the primitive type as nearly as those of any existing people… [2]

    The Australian classes afford the first, and, so far as the writer is aware, the only case in which we are able to look clown into the incipient stages of the organization into gentes, and even through it upon an interior organization so archaic as that upon sex, It seems to afford a glimpse at society when it verged upon the primitive. Among other tribes the gens seems to have advanced in proportion to the curtailment of the conjugal system. Mankind rise in the scale and the family advances through its successive forms, as these rights sink down before the efforts of society to improve its internal organization,

    The Australians might not have effected the overthrow of the classes in thousands of years if they had remained undiscovered; while more favoured continental tribes had long before perfected the gens, then advanced it through its successive phases, and at last laid it aside after entering upon civilization. Facts illustrating the rise of successive social organizations, such as that upon sex, and that upon kin, are of the highest ethnological value. A knowledge of what they indicate is eminently desirable, if the early history of mankind is to be measurably recovered.

    Among the Polynesian tribes the gens was unknown; but traces of a system analogous to the Australian classes appear in the Hawaiian custom of punalua. Original ideas, absolutely independent of previous knowledge and experience, are necessarily few in number. Were it possible to reduce the sum of human ideas to un-derived originals, the small numerical result would be startling. Development is the method of human progress…

    2. For the detailed facts of the Australian system I am indebted to the Rev. Lorimer Fison, an English missionary in Australia, who received a portion of them from the Rev. W. Ridley, and another portion from T. E. Lance, Esq., both of whom had spent many years among the Australian aborigines, and enjoyed excellent opportunities for observation. The facts were sent by Mr. Fison with a critical analysis and discussion of the system, which, with observations of the writer were published in the ‘Proceedings of the Am. Acad. of Arts and Sciences for 1872. See vol. viii, p. 412. A brief notice of the Kamilaroi classes is given in McLennan’s “Primitive Marriage,” p. 118; and in Tylor’s “Early History of Mankind,” p. 288.


    (b.) MIDDLE STAGE [of ‘Savagery’, the first stage of Prehistoric Culture]. Begins with the utilization of fish for food (including crabs, mussels, and other aquatic animals), and with the use of fire. The two are complementary, since fish becomes edible only by the use of fire. With this new source of nourishment, men now became independent of climate and locality; even as savages, they could, by following the rivers and coasts, spread over most of the earth. Proof of these migrations is the distribution over every continent of the crudely worked, unsharpened flint tools of the earlier Stone Age, known as “palaeoliths,” all or most of which date from this period. New environments, ceaseless exercise of his inventive faculty, and the ability to produce fire by friction, led man to discover new kinds of food: farinaceous roots and tubers, for instance, were baked in hot ashes or in ground ovens. With the invention of the first weapons, club and spear, game could sometimes be added to the fare. But the tribes which figure in books as living entirely, that is, exclusively, by hunting never existed in reality; the yield of the hunt was far too precarious. At this stage, owing to the continual uncertainty of food supplies, cannibalism seems to have arisen, and was practiced from now onwards for a long time. The Australian aborigines and many of the Polynesians are still in this middle stage of savagery today.

  26. grumpy cat says:

    Hi All.
    I think it is fair to say that Marx and Engels largely subscribed to a progressive narrative of history that has a whole series of racist assumptions that underscore it and also has been totally discredited. It can be argued that Marx changed his mind about this and Engels went to great pains to associate the idea of communism with the scientific ideologies of his time…
    The challenge for communists is to argue that emancipation and freedom is still possible despite the fact that history is ‘broken’. I guess this explains why Benjamin’s work on history is being seen as so important…
    rebel love

  27. grumpy cat says:

    But coming back to the topic at hand.
    Personally I feel that actual existing struggles trump ideological positions. Thus anarchist ideology (or ‘communist’ for that matter) seems to me to be less important that the actual collective formations of real living people. That doesn’t mean that we (who ever that is) should fall into mindless cheer-leading of any ‘struggle’. Rather that different more complex criteria are needed… Such as what actions are increasing people’s freedom and autonomy, what strengthens divisions and oppression, where are the radical cracks/line of flight etc.
    It seems to me to be a no-brainer that the struggle for indig. sovereignty is something to be supported, challenges the web of ideological and state powers in Australia and opens real possibilities for radical change.

    rebel love

  28. @ndy says:

    John : “Have you seen the Tindale maps? These are not accurate – a white academic’s interpretation – but they give a good idea of national boundaries in Australia.”

    No, I don’t recall ever having seen Tindale’s maps — thanks for the link. I have seen other maps though, presumably (?) ones based on his work.

    Regarding the parallels between the Aboriginal nations and the nations of Europe…

    I’m not sure, and perhaps you could clarify this point, but it seems to be implicit in what you’re saying that nationhood carries with it some sense of political legitimacy. That is — to the extent that this is not a tautological proposition — for a ‘people’ to obtain national status, whether via the establishment of a state (‘Europe’) or in its absence (‘Australia’), is to also gain the ‘right’ to be considered a political collectivity.

    A small point of departure:

    John : “In each case of the hundreds of nations identified by Tindale, and the infinite fabric of sub-groups and micro-nations, they have an identifiable, defended territory, their own unique language, their own economy and currency and their own system of law and governance.”

    On nations:

    (Where I live, Melbourne, is Kulin nations territory.)

    Benedict Anderson:

    In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion… The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind… It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm… nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state. Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism. ~ Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991)

    If one compares this definition to that which you’ve provided regarding Aboriginal nations, there are obvious disparities. First, the imaginary: it’s quite possible, it seems, for at least some members of a number of Aboriginal nations, if not all, to actually have had knowledge of — to have met, and to have heard of — all other members of that nation. Secondly, to the extent that the Aboriginal and European concept of the nation are commensurate, the former does not imagine a transcendental divinity (the theistic God), but rather incorporates an Earth-based spirituality. On a related note, the Aboriginal nation exists completely independently of the Enlightenment and Revolution. Thirdly, the Aboriginal nation, qua community, may be ‘imagined’, but it is also real. That is, what for many members of European nations was an imagined (utopian?) conception of “deep, horizontal comradeship” was for members of many Aboriginal nations embodied, to a degree almost entirely absent from Europe, in practice.

    Finally, there’s the question of the ‘sovereign state’.

    To my mind, the notion of the state is very closely related to the question of violence, power, and authority. In this context, it’s possible to argue that, given that the legitimate use of violence was very widely-distributed among the members of Aboriginal nations, the state — understood as the social institution claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence over a particular territory — did not exist. On a related note, is, I think, the question of the extent to which social relations were mediated by the use of violence, and to what extent conflict was resolved by other, more peaceable means. And while it may be the case that external, inter-national relations are not always a reliable measure of a society’s internal regime, it does appear that the absence of large-scale, exterminatory forms of violence endemic to modern Europe was hardly coincidental to the relatively non-hierarchical structure of Aboriginal societies.

    More later.

    In the meantime, I think David Graeber’s ‘Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology’ is highly relevant (PDF).

  29. “Marxist-Leninist so called scientific historical law has much in common with the racist notion of Eugenics that was popular amongst the scientific world at the time.”

    …That lead directly to the gas chambers.

    In relation to Aborigines, Africans etc, Engels said in a letter (April 26, 1887) to Laura (2nd daughter of Marx), that her husband Paul Lafargue (who was apparently “one eighth or one twelfth Nigger blood”):

    “Paul, the candidate of the Jardin des Plantes – and the animals” and added: “Being in his quality as a nigger a degree nearer to the rest of the animal kingdom than the rest of us, he is undoubtedly the most appropriate representative of that district.”

    Marx’s second daughter, Laura, married Paul Lafargue who, Engels said, had “one eighth or one twelfth Nigger blood”. In 1887, Paul was a candidate for the Paris Municipal Council, in a district which contained the Jardin des Plantes and the Zoo. In a letter to Laura (April 26, 1887), Engels referred to:

    “Paul, the candidate of the Jardin des Plantes – and the animals” and added: “Being in his quality as a nigger a degree nearer to the rest of the animal kingdom than the rest of us, he is undoubtedly the most appropriate representative of that district.”

    This letter (in German translation) is in Marx & Engels Werke, Vol.36, 1967, p.645.

  30. John Tracey says:

    Andy, just to clarify… I was not suggesting that the nations of the Australian continent are similar to the nations of Europe, although such a comparison can be made based on lines on maps. I was referring to European cultural notions of nationhood that include language, law and economy, which are features shared by Aboriginal “nations” also.

    However, the closer we look at the nature of Aboriginal culture and law the more we realise it is very different indeed to the European cultural notions – I agree with your comments about Anderson.

    Aboriginal law and claim to land is, I say, legitimate for a whole range of reasons and nation states are illegitimate for a whole range of reasons. I do not say European notions of sovereignty or nation should be used to measure the legitimacy of Aboriginal law. I do, however, make the comparison in order to de-euphemise the notion of Aboriginal sovereignty and land rights – to compare its weight with some European notions.

  31. @ndy says:



    I’d like to address what are some of the political implications of Aboriginal sovereignty, but before I do, a few other comments.

    …while anarchists can embrace Aboriginal culture as a sociology without a state, they fail to properly acknowledge the inherent hierarchy in the role of elders and eldership. Similarly the sexual division of land, economy and political power is too easily glossed over by some anarchists. The vegetarians stay quiet about traditional hunting. Ceremonial violence and some customary law violent responses to law breaking doesn’t fit well with the pacifists.

    I’m not sure about the validity of your first point, for a number of reasons. First, I don’t believe that most anarchists have a firm grasp on Aboriginal culture or the place of eldership within it. Or perhaps it would be safer to say that I, for one, do not. That said, the question of authority is, in my view, dealt with more subtly in at least some anarchist writings than is generally acknowledged to be the case, and this includes notions of eldership. And while I think that there are important differences between, say, traditional hunting practices and vegetarianism, or forms of violence associated with ceremony or customary law and pacifism, I don’t believe that these are necessarily in conflict with ‘anarchism’, or at least not as I understand it, nor as I understand it as an historical tradition or contemporary political philosophy.

    Of course, to fully address the above would require further exploration of the concept of sovereignty, so for now I’ll shut up.

    The truth is there is no harmony between Aboriginal law and European anarchism. This is indeed a problem for non-Aboriginal anarchists. But this schism is not a matter of opinion or ideology but of consciousness and psychology and spirituality. There are two separate cultural matrices each having their own inherent logic. Anarchism is in the migrant matrix, separate from Aboriginal law.

    I agree: there is no harmony between Aboriginal law and (European) anarchism. (Note that, in addition to Europe — Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western — anarchism, as both ideology and movement, is and/or has been present in Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa.) I’m not sure I agree with your contention that this is not a matter of opinion or ideology, however. This is because I think that the two separate cultural matrices of British (and other non-indigenous) culture(s), on the one hand, and Aboriginal culture(s), on the other, have a history of change and conflict which extends over 200 years, and this encounter has created new forms of experience, opinion, ideology, consciousness, psychology and spirituality. To take the last example first:

    A question on religious affiliation has been included in all Australian censuses, but answering this question has always been optional. In the 2006 Census, 13% of Indigenous people did not answer the question compared with 7% of the non-Indigenous population. Of those Indigenous people who responded to the question 24% reported they had no religious affiliation compared with 21% of the non-Indigenous population.

    Among Indigenous people 1% reported affiliation with an Australian Aboriginal traditional religion. Affiliation with a traditional Indigenous religion was highest in Very Remote areas (6%) than in all other areas (less than 1%).

    In 2006, 73% of the Indigenous population reported an affiliation with a Christian denomination. Of these, approximately one-third reported Anglican and one-third Catholic.

    Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders also played a central role in welcoming Pope Benedict XVI during his recent visit to Sydney.

    One poignant departure from the European tradition of the stations was the depiction of Simon of Cyrene as an Aboriginal man. In this vignette the actor was manacled to other Aborigines to reflect the way that colonial powers captured and chained indigenous people on the edges of the frontier in the 19th century.

    When, in the enactment of the stations, the Roman guard released this man from his shackles and directed him to take up Jesus’ cross, it was a metaphor of the backbreaking burden that Australia’s indigenous people have labored under since white settlement 220 years ago first began to separate them from their land.

    Reading the prayer at this station was Louise Campbell, an Aboriginal Catholic education officer who works in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese, north of Sydney. In collaboration with her brother, Richard Campbell, a World Youth Day indigenous artist, Louise Campbell has developed many Aboriginal interpretations of scriptural images. Her brother’s paintings of the Stations of the Cross, which hang on the walls of the Church of Reconciliation in suburban La Perouse, were widely used in World Youth Day promotions.

    As members of the so-called Stolen Generations, the brother and sister were separated as young children when welfare authorities broke up their family of 11 siblings. The children were sent to white foster homes and institutions, and it was not until 20 years later that the two were reunited. They are both proud of their Aboriginal and Catholic heritage.

    I also believe that these adaptations have serious implications for our understandings of notions of sovereignty, and, moreover, the different conceptions Aboriginal Australians have of this notion. Or to put it another way: insofar as Aboriginal cultures are dynamic, adaptive and diverse, some aspects of non-indigenous cultures have not only been imposed but adopted by indigenous peoples… but I think I’ll address this idea more fully later.


    The European anarchist struggles of life and death and land have much more in common with the Australian Aboriginal struggle than with the ideological debates of Australian anarchists, which are not born of such life and death struggle but (mainly) because of the alienation inherent in comfortable affluent society.

    I think you’re largely correct in this assessment, but I would also add:

    1) The last deliberate murder of an anarchist in Australia that I’m aware of took place in November 1942, when the Italian Francesco Fantin was beaten to death by Fascists in the Loveday Internment Camp 14A in Barmera, South Australia. (I’ve also heard of an anarchist construction worker being thrown off a building in the 1960s/’70s.) That said, a number of other, reasonably prominent figures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — the Andrade brothers, Chummy Fleming — died mad and/or in penury. The corporate/state media, and popular culture generally, has almost invariably regarded the figure of ‘the anarchist’ as scum; or, perhaps, a bad joke.

    2) In general, in Australia, the bark of anarchism has been a great deal more dangerous than its bite. The few exceptions have generally turned upon anarchist ideas gaining an audience among workers, whether employed or otherwise, and especially when the spectre of ‘foreign agitators’ can be invoked; most recently in the case of ‘anti-globalisation’ protest, but extending back to the anti-fascist struggles of Italian and Spanish anarchists in the 1920s and ’30s, and, of course, the 1880s and ’90s.

    3) Anarchists are being murdered elsewhere in the world: Mapuche anarchist Jhonny Cariqueo Yañez died of a heart attack on March 31st, 2008, after being beaten by police; on January 18 in Pribram, near Prague, Jan Kučera was stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi; on July 21, 2007, Ilya Borodaenko, a Russian anarchist, was beaten to death by neo-Nazis while taking part in an environmental camp outside a nuclear facility in Siberia; there are others, of course.

  32. @ndy says:

    On a vaguely-related note (specifically inre Marx and the ‘Third World’ / “Third-World Marxism”) by Loren Goldner, ‘Didn’t See The Same Movie’, on Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London/New York, Verso, 2002).

  33. Ablokeimet says:


    “For what it’s worth, here is an article from The Anvil, No.1, January-February 2007, the publication of the Melbourne Anarchist-Communist Group. I believe it also subsumes the concept of Aboriginal sovereignty to a notion of class struggle.”

    It wasn’t meant to read like that, but one can’t cover all the subtleties in an article of that length, so I won’t cast blame. I can say, however, a couple of things:

    (a) The article steers clear of the word “sovereignty” because I believe it is problematic. While Aboriginal people have adopted it because it is the closest English term to what they’re trying to say and it gives them some purchase in the ongoing political debate, it also carries some unwelcome connotations. Owen covers some of them in his article above (though he would have been well advised to realise he was criticising the European concept of sovereignty rather than what Aboriginal people mean when they say it – i.e. he should not have been so Eurocentric).

    (b) Aboriginal culture & society are incompatible with capitalism. Class struggle, culminating in workers’ revolution, is the only way to eliminate capitalism. Class struggle is therefore a necessary condition for ending the oppression of Aboriginal people in Australia. This is the argument being made by the article. Class struggle is not, however, a sufficient condition. An agreement would still need to be negotiated between the Aboriginal people and the non-indigenous settlers in this country. By abolishing the State and capitalism, however, including the treatment of land as “real estate”, the basis for an agreement will become possible. Without the abolition of capitalism, any “Treaty” negotiated with Aboriginal people would merely be a device to legitimise all the preceding theft and genocide.

    For the record (and this is my personal view, since the MACG hasn’t had the opportunity of discussing the issue in sufficient depth) I believe a settlement between Aboriginal people and the non-indigenous settlers in Australia would require the adoption of at least parts of Aboriginal law by the settlers. We have to live in the land sustainably and that imposes obligations upon us. Aboriginal people have around 70,000 years experience of living sustainably, which has been turned into Aboriginal law expressing those necessary obligations. I think the rest of us, therefore, have something to learn.

  34. John Tracey says:


    “(b) Aboriginal culture & society are incompatible with capitalism.”

    I disagree, but I guess it depends what you mean by capitalism.

    I believe that just as Aboriginal law has not been properly understood by many, and euphemised to fit into European ideological frameworks, the economy has been caricatured as a primitive subsistence existence without money. However there was/is an intricate system of trade including various currencies such as the narcotic pituri, stone tools, artwork, dances, etc. However, most trade was on the basis of credit (a cashless society?). Also there was a system of credit which is a bit complex to describe here but, for example, the authority of elders was not just their wisdom but also their capacity to create wealth not dissimilar to the ways banks create money to lend with the stroke of a pen, but that is a very coarse example.

    Aboriginal people are not workers but landlords with enterprises based on their land assets and trade with other land owners. They did not earn their land but inherited it.

    Without a state, the traditional economy was a free market.

    However their is an inherent paradox in all this, the biggest one being every single person has their own traditional land by way of family inheritance. There were no landless people. Through collective land ownership, everyone is an owner of land, the primary capital asset and as such the means of production are collectively owned within the free market. The economy is just one aspect of the broader social infrastructure of family and culture.

    What is incompatible with Aboriginal culture is imperialism, not capitalism.

    I believe this issue – of defining Aboriginal people as fellow workers rather than as land owners – is one of the great misunderstandings of the Australian left. The equal pay struggle headed by unions supposedly in the interests of Aboriginal pastoral workers succeeded in dispossessing Aboriginal people from their homelands as the white farmers could/would no longer afford them and they became refugees in places like the Alice Springs town camps.

    However the question today is is the strategy for Aboriginal liberation really to wait for the workers’ revolution to somehow develop within industrial or white community struggles? Or are programs of economic development including (but not limited to) engagement with the mainstream and global market place, based on land rights, a realistic solution? I think they are. The socialist pie-in-the-sky revolution is no more a solution to poverty, high infant mortality rates etc. than the saving grace of the lord Jesus is.

    And as for treaty, as taught to me by Bejam Denis Walker, who to my knowledge has the only treaty in Australia, treaty is not a piece of paper but a process, a direct engagement with Aboriginal customary law and acceptance of responsibility within it to further the objectives of customary law. His is a treaty with individuals who choose to be part of the process, not governments signing on behalf of a disinterested constituency.

    It is not a question of us adopting parts of customary law but rather becoming part of it, in its fullness. Swapping sides from Queen Lizzie’s sovereignty to Aboriginal sovereignty.

  35. Matt says:

    I’m not really informed enough about the rest of the debate to comment, but the Spanish and Ukrainian anarchist movements were explicitly anti-nationalist. The Makhnovists fought constantly against genuine nationalists, and the Iberian movement was not limited to Spain but included Portugal too to the maximum practical extent possible. To suggest either of these movements were nationalist is either dishonest or naive.

  36. John Tracey says:

    I am not trying to rewrite history, only to suggest that the ways in which Australian Aborigines and Russian and Spanish peasants understood their own land was in terms of their own sovereignty over it – possession that excludes both foreign invaders or domestic states from control over it. This is not nationalism, but in terms of the discussion here, it has parallels with nationalist notions of sovereignty.

    Not so sure about Spain, but the Russian peasants also held on strongly to their ethnic and cultural roots and saw them as the basis of their relationship with land. Lenin’s dismissal of their consciousness and rights was because they held to these ethnic cultural notions which, in terms of the eugenics agenda embraced by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, had to be extinguished. This extinguishment was resisted to the death, as nationalist struggles also tend to defend land to the death.

  37. John Tracey says:

    I’ve just been surfing through a bit of Kropotkin, the first time for perhaps 20 years. I am still very impressed by his mutual aid theory, however I notice that he too embraces the social Darwinist perspective. While he, somewhat affectionately, identifies mutual aid in “savages” as the motor of evolution, he still none the less fails to identify an evolved tribal communism. His own cultural bias of the nuclear family and monogomy as the highest social evolution betray his analysis, but I am still quite fond of the old racist.

    “The natives of Australia do not stand on a higher level of development than their South African brothers.”

    “Mutual Aid” Chapter 3: MUTUAL AID AMONG SAVAGES

    It seems to me that Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid, beyond his own understandings of tribal society, is very relevant to understanding Aboriginal law. Also, came across Bakunin again in my websurfing who puts a lot of weight in the notion of natural law, which also is very relevant to understanding Aboriginal law.

  38. Ablokeimet says:


    “I disagree, but I guess it depends what you mean by capitalism.”

    What I mean by capitalism is basically what Karl Marx did (i.e. wage labour, commodity production, accumulation for the sake of accumulation, etc). As a political activist he was an authoritarian ratbag, but as an economist, he knew what he was talking about when he described how capitalism worked.

    “The equal pay struggle headed by unions supposedly in the interests of Aboriginal pastoral workers succeeded in dispossessing Aboriginal people from their homelands as the white farmers could/would no longer afford them and they became refugees in places like the Alice Springs town camps.”

    This sort of thing really annoys me. The pastoralist bosses were outrageously exploiting their Aboriginal employees by paying massively under-Award wages. The Arbitration Court had permitted it for decades via special “slow worker” clauses, massively boosting the profitability of these businesses. When the unions eventually decided to reject this racism, they campaigned for equal wages. When the Arbitration Court (perhaps restructured as the Arbitration Commission by then because of a High Court decision) decided to rectify this injustice, the pastoralist bosses, in ANOTHER ACT OF RACISM, sacked their Aboriginal employees. There was no Racial Discrimination Act in those days, so this response was legal. And, of course, since workers on pastoral stations were covered by Australia’s Worst Union, the sacked Aboriginal workers didn’t get a lot of comfort from that department, either. The rest of the union movement, which had been pushing for equal wages long before the AWU came on board, had no coverage.

    “I believe this issue – of defining Aboriginal people as fellow workers rather than as land owners – is one of the great misunderstandings of the Australian left.”

    The bulk of the Left certainly does have an inadequate understanding of indigenous issues. We need to recognise, though, that a majority of Aboriginal people in Australia are both workers AND indigenous. This means that Aboriginal people have two overarching themes to their demands: equal rights within the society which has colonised them, and the right to remain indigenous, to resist colonisation, centrally expressed as land rights.

    There is, however, a problem of arithmetic. Aboriginal people are a very small fraction of the Australian population. They cannot win a struggle against which the ruling class has put its face solely with their own strength. And make no mistake about it – the capitalists in this country cannot possibly recognise land rights properly, since land rights allow for no concept of real estate. Aboriginal people therefore need allies. The working class is the only class which can defeat the capitalists and pave the way for a solution.

    Does this mean I say that Aboriginal people have to sit and wait for workers’ revolution? No. It does mean, though, that however much they struggle, and whatever partial gains they may make, they won’t win what they really need until capitalism is destroyed.

  39. John Tracey says:


    i don’t want to get too deep into anthropology, but I still say that capitalism in terms of money wages and accumulation has very close parallels in the traditional economy.

    I have heard stories of itinerant workers at Boulia picking pituri in fields. The traditional owners own the crop and bulk of profit but the workers get their share too. Boulia was a central junction of trade routes so itinerant workers travelling these routes can re-capitalise and diversify trade (buying and selling exotic goods) en-route.

    The question is, is profit in this context the same as the Marxist notion of exploitation of labour. On the one hand, yes, surplus profit retained by the owner of the means of production conforms to the theory. However, the real exploitation occurs in the balance of trade with other families/tribes. E.g., one area that has the right sort of rock for making axes can make them cheaply and sell them to other areas where there are no such rocks for enormous profit. Similarly a commodity can be value added simply by its involvement in ceremonial practice, increasing its economic value at no cost to the ceremonial leader.

    However, tribal communism and the law of sharing ensures that those within the social unit are looked after and collectively own all wealth, although it may be administered by an elite. On top of this is the related law of hospitality to those not part of the social unit, or more precisely the inclusion of the visitor into the social unit – including being looked after materially and accessing the common wealth. But there are also responsibilities for visitors, e.g. to work.

    The point of all this old fashioned stuff is to suggest that Aboriginal culture and law does not fit into the boxes that white Australia including the left has tried to put it in.

    The relevance today is to also recognise that, for example, the revolutionary socialist prescription is historically irrelevant to Aboriginal Australia.

    As I said on the leftwrites thread, Lenin’s prescription for capitalist development to build not only a better standard of living but also a more empowered and organised work force is very relevant to Aboriginal Australia. I know many Aboriginal communities including Palm Island are calling for capitalist investments in their communities. Noel Pearson and the Cape York Institute have worked hard on doing this. But for some reason Pearson is villified by the left for this very Leninist paradigm.

    For some reason the oppression of the working class is considered a more powerful force to tackle Aboriginal poverty than the dollars of capitalist investors. This is just ideological escapism.

    As for equal wages. The simple fact is that this campaign lead to the dispossession of people from their land which, in terms of Aboriginal perspective, is a far greater injustice than non-award and unpaid labour. The left had not yet learned at this point is that the Aboriginal struggle is all about land, not wages. This in no way justifies the white land owners who exploited and then disposed of Aboriginal workers. However this was the objective historical condition, we cannot choose the history to which we apply ourselves. The reaction of the white landowners was predictable and unavoidable without land rights.

  40. @ndy says:

    John, as I understand it, your argument is this:

    Aboriginal sovereignty exists, and is determined by way of bloodlines (ancestry) and the soil itself (place). Like other forms of sovereignty, Aboriginal sovereignty conveys exclusive rights to the use of land, and the legitimate capacity to decide, in HoWARd’s phraseology, “who comes to this country, and the circumstances under which they come”. Aboriginal sovereignty is also an umbrella term, which expresses the sovereign aspirations of not simply one Aboriginal nation, but a number of nations, whose status as both ‘Australian’ and ‘Aboriginal’ has its roots in British occupation. Given these facts, the occupation of (Aboriginal) Australia by non-indigenous (non-Aboriginal) peoples is illegitimate, and should be ended. Alternatively, a treaty should be signed between the two parties, recognising Aboriginal sovereignty, and granting the non-Aboriginal population the right to continue to reside on Aboriginal land and under Aboriginal law.

    Is this correct?

    On anarchism:

    I disagree with you as to its essential nature. I see it as being more than opposition to state rule, and as in fact constituting a general critique of social hierarchies, in all their forms. I also disagree with your statement that “The various hierarchies that exist in citizenship, including family hierarchies and patriarchy, are corrupted not because of the hierarchy but because of the context of the hierarchy – the umbrella political and psychological circumstance”: on the grounds that hierarchy is objectionable even when uncorrupted; citizenship does not ‘corrupt’ the family or patriarchy; the relationship between the macro- and the micro-political is complex.

    Further, in terms of the development of a ‘sociology without a state’, I agree with you that this implies the construction and maintenance of fundamentally egalitarian social relations, “where real power including the management of violence is not a matter of calling the appropriate state agency to act but of accepting personal and collective responsibility”. However, I would add that, in addition to this prospect embodying “a deep psychological and consciousness shift”, it also implies a deep — which is to say, radical — shift in economy, politics, culture and society. That ‘radical anarchist ideologues in Australia’ exist in the absence of such a shift is certainly true, but that’s the case for all citizens, more or less. (In any event, and further to your argument: anarchism and ‘radical ideology’ “exist within the mainstream sociology [and] rebels against [it,] but through this rebellion the mainstream is still a [defining] element… Anti-mainstream is still defining yourself by the mainstream rather than any inherent power and substance that exists in free people individually or collectively.” I’m not sure what your point is.)

    You write that “The anarchist analysis of hierarchy is flawed in that it denies natural hierarchies, the most profound one being the power difference between children and adults based on such things as size, strength and prior experience”. I don’t agree, and believe that this issue has been well-canvassed by anarchists previously. Further, anarchists (and others) have dedicated some time to developing ‘libertarian’ ways and means of child-rearing, and produced a considerable body of theory and practice in this area.

    More later…

    An aside on the history of the ASF and Aboriginal struggles. In January 1988, the ASF-Melbourne published ‘White Australia has a Black History’ as part of the ASF Anti-Bicentenary Campaign. In September, solidarity actions by IWA sections across the world took place in support of the struggles of Aboriginal people in Australia; a Spanish translation of ‘White Australia has a Black History’ was published in serial form by the CNT paper ‘Cenit’, and a Japanese translation was published by the RRU, the Japanese section of the IWA. (The ASG-M also later published a Spanish translation of Gary Foley’s essay ‘Whiteness and Blackness in the Koori Struggle for Self-Determination’ (1999).)

    Also, more blah blah blah here:

    On What Grounds? Sovereignties, Territorialities and Indigenous Rights
    b o r d e r l a n d s e-journal
    Volume 1, Number 2, 2002

    1. This collection of articles emerged from an online forum called ‘Sovereignties’ that was part of a larger conference, Globalization: Live and Online, organized by Dr Catherine Driscoll at the Research Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Adelaide University in the second half of 2001. The ‘Sovereignties’ discussion brought together theorists from all over the world to engage with issues arising from what has increasingly been referred to as a ‘crisis of sovereignty.’ Twelve months later, the result is an extremely rich collection of articles, addressing sovereignty at sites as diverse as cows and airports and exploring themes ranging from sodomy to reconciliation and intellectual property rights…

  41. John Tracey says:

    Hi Andy, yeah you have summarised my position pretty well. I shall not argue about the finer points or against anarchism, I realise we may have ideological disagreements, but these are probably quite irrelevant.

    I have no agenda dropping in here, I am not recruiting for any scheme. But I would like to make a rhetorical challenge to your readers. Whatever our opinion or ideology, do we acknowledge that we are on Aboriginal land or not? If we do, what does this mean for us as members of the invading society?

    My rant on leftwrites is critical of using Aboriginal people and struggle as the subject of propaganda espousing the white ideology of the writer. I say the same of the many anarchist tracts that have been written about Aboriginal Australia.

    As long as we ideologise and objectify Aboriginal Australia we will achieve nothing at all within the terms of reference of Aboriginal Australia. We may advance our own causes but only within the colonial paradigm and disconnected from Aboriginal reality.

    If we are at work and the boss picks on another worker – do we stand up for the worker in some organisational way after a sensitive discussion with that worker about what they want to do? Or do we, without talking to the worker, write a pamphlet about the situation to exemplify the contradictions and oppression inherent in capitalist and hierarchical modes?

    This is the dilemma with Aboriginal Australia too – direct engagement and support or detached ideological commentary.

    I get a bit pissed off with the now politically correct mantra off “we pay our respects to the traditional owners of this land” that is recited at the beginning of so many meetings, just as “god save the queen” may have been regurgitated in previous times. Most non-Aboriginal speakers who pay their respects to the traditional owners wouldn’t have a clue who the traditional owners are. To pay proper respect to these people means at least having established some kind of relationship or connection, at least to give them a name in the mantra, such as we pay respects to Uncle This or Aunty That who are the custodians of this land. Give real people a name, or else they are invisible, only figments of the white imagination.

    As well as naming the custodians in our own meetings we should be supporting them, those specific people, in their own agendas – whatever they may be. That is respect for traditional owners of the land we live on, anything else is colonial illusion.

  42. liz says:

    Hi John

    I posted something on leftwrites in relation to the Gurindji Wavehill struggle that I was hoping you might comment on a while ago… anyway…

    In Frank Hardy’s book on this struggle, “Unlucky Australians”, he describes the process by which he became involved in what he thought was a struggle for equal wages, that he came to understand was a struggle for land rights and the right of the Gurindji to work their own land. I would recommend it to people who haven’t read it – there is plenty in there about the Gurindji warning about the impact that welfare would have on their communities. While it is described by some on the left as an industrial struggle that became a land rights struggle, from Frank Hardy’s account it was always a land rights struggle – it just took the left a while to realise it…

    and i would definitely recommend looking at Foley’s Koori web archive also…

  43. Ana says:

    Over 30 Indigenous artists have joined forces to release the first ever Aboriginal and Maori Hip Hop Compilation.

  44. John Tracey says:

    Hi Liz,

    I didn’t respond to your comment on leftwrites because I haven’t read Hardy’s book. Also the comment speaks for itself and, it seems to me, was backing up what I was saying about the different perceptions of Aboriginal people and activists supposedly acting in their interests.

    I guess the lesson to learn from the Gurinji struggle and Hardy’s reflection on it is that activist’s perceptions and understandings will change after direct engagement with the Aboriginal struggle. I believe it used to be called action/reflection in the old days.

    My concern is that the lessons that some leftists including Hardy may have learnt in the past have been lost and today’s leftists are repeating the same mistakes and misconceptions as the CPA etc. when they first engaged in the Gurinji struggle. Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

    Foley’s critique of FCATSI is relevant to the radical left such as ARC, but it seems to me the whole ANTAR phenomenon is a repeat of this white controlled organisation, putting notions of non-Aboriginal support back into the same place it was in the 1960s.

  45. liz says:

    Sorry! I only just stumbled across it this year. And yes – I was backing up what you were saying…

    Anyway I found a short history of the Gurindji struggle, much of it taken from Frank’s book here.

    It’s a good place to start for those who don’t know anything about the Gurindji Wave Hill stuff.

    But I really would recommend reading the book – the stuff in there about the Gurindji’s warnings about what welfare would do to their people is pretty interesting in the light of current events, and I think could give a bit more nuance to the current discussions particularly about projects like Cape York etc.

  46. John Tracey says:


    that’s a good link, I hadn’t seen that before.

    I think the Gurinji struggle, in particular the division between the white left’s economic justice approach and the Gurinji’s land rights perspective is very relevant to the NT intervention, not just Cape York.

    There has been a lot of focus on the economic injustice of NT welfare quarantining, in particular the logistical chaos of administering it, yet this issue is just a drop in the ocean of the bigger picture of dispossession which, I reckon, has been buried under the slogans about racial discrimination.

    I have not yet seen any left wing economic proposal for Aboriginal communities beyond extending the CDEP scheme – which is a welfare program, work for the dole. Even increasing CDEP wages (Socialist Alliance policy) is just entrenching the dependent welfare economy.

    I think capitalism and Lenin stink, but I have to partially agree with Lenin about developing capitalist enterprises and investment as the path to economic development of landless peasants. The communities are all asking for appropriate capitalist development, yet the left ignores this and promotes the ideologically sound welfare state non-solution.

    The anarchists have walked this tightrope with the bourgeois small business notions inherent in community and co-operative enterprises – industry run along communist principles but still necessarily engaged in the mainstream economy for survival and expansion. Communal enterprise holds similar contradictions for Aboriginal communities when it comes to economic rights, e.g. a happy anarchist will work for under award wages or even for commodities in a communal enterprise, totally contradicting the hard earned principle of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Also, anarchist enterprises, like Aboriginal communities and the Vietnamese corner shops in my suburb, often have children working in the enterprises, which I think is great because it is training for the children and solves the childcare problem for workers, and surplus can be generated through the exploitation of free or tokenistically cheap labour to build the family/collective business. However child slavery is sooo ideologically unsound within economic justice and union frameworks.

  47. @ndy says:

    G’day John,

    Bah humbug. First anarchism = vegetarianism = pacifism; now anarchism = bourgeois small business = the Vietnamese corner shop. I’m gonna haveta elucidate what I mean by anarchism, I think. Also what I think are the political implications of an acknowledgment that we are on Aboriginal land, and what this means for members of the invading society…

    Of note:

    High Court concedes influence of stolen generations apology
    (Crikey, July 31, 2008)

    Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane writes:

    Yesterday’s High Court decision in Northern Territory of Australia v Arnhem Land Aboriginal Land Trust is one of those left-field events that can disrupt the entire political narrative of the nation.

    It was the Wik decision in December 1996 that started the turmoil of the Howard Government’s first term, and things never recovered until after the near-death experience of the 1998 election. The decision punched redneck buttons across the country, primed by Pauline Hanson’s efforts to whip up racist sentiment. John Howard and Tim Fischer struggled to manage the resulting wave of animosity toward native title, shifting to the right in a desperate bid to prevent the defection of conservative voters to Hanson. It led to some very ugly politics, even from the otherwise avuncular Fischer.

    Don’t think such sentiments have vanished from the Australian electorate. They can lie dormant, until a single image like Gladys Tybingoompa dancing in the High Court forecourt or an incident like Cronulla brings them out, ready to be exploited by politicians or broadcasters adept at using the appropriate code words.

    This is not an assertion of the “latent racism” of Australians, but of the capacity of some to exploit the confusion and simplification that automatically accompanies concepts of native title — in this case complicated by concepts like “intertidal water.” It won’t take much to turn this into a “no one’s gonna take our barra” campaign up in the NT. The NT Government was yesterday pledging to oppose any permit system, despite Aboriginal community leaders committing to negotiation over access.

    Justice Kirby’s citation of the Apology to the Stolen Generations in his judgement may be grist to the mill. One of the stalwart arguments of the anti-apology forces was that it would open the floodgates to compensation — that, in short, it wasn’t mere symbolism, but would have real-world consequences. This is what Kirby said:

      Given the attention to, and nation-wide reflection upon, its making, terms and reconciliatory purposes, it is appropriate in my view for this Court to take judicial notice of that National Apology. The Court does not operate in an ivory tower. The National Apology acknowledges once again, as the preamble to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) already did, the wrongs done in earlier times to the indigenous peoples of Australia, including by the law of this country.

      Those wrongs included the non-consensual denial and deprivation of basic legal rights which Australian law would otherwise protect and uphold for other persons in the Commonwealth. In the case of traditional Aboriginals, these right included rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their traditional lands and to navigate and to fish as their ancestors had done for aeons before British sovereignty and settlement.

      Although the National Apology was afforded on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth, with support of the Opposition and other political parties, and reflects an unusual and virtually unprecedented parliamentary initiative, it does not, as such, have normative legal operation. It is not contained in an Act of the Federal Parliament nor in a law made by any other Australian legislature with legislative powers.

      Yet it is not legally irrelevant to the task presently in hand. It constitutes part of the factual matrix or background against which the legislation in issue in this appeal should now be considered and interpreted. It is an element of the social context in which such laws are to be understood and applied, where that is relevant. Honeyed words, empty of any practical consequences, reflect neither the language, the purpose nor the spirit of the National Apology.

      That said, the Apology also reflects that this is a different Australia to that of 1997. One Nation has long since collapsed in ignominy. Pauline Hanson is now primarily associated with dancing and harvesting of electoral funding these days. No one complains about backyards being under threat. Political attempts to exploit the extension of native title might, one hopes, fall on stonier ground than in years past.

    Moreover, Kirby’s view on the judicial importance of the Apology was not shared by the majority of Gleeson, Gummow, Hayne and Crennan. Nevertheless, there’ll be more than one politician — and not only in the Northern Territory — currently wondering how this decision can be used to anger conservative voters.

  48. John Tracey says:

    Hi Andy,

    Yes I admit I have painted anarchism in very broad brushstrokes based on bias and prejudice.

    I was an anarchist for 10 years, 78 – 88 (got excommunicated as a heretic), so I reckon my caricatures are not completely baseless.

    The Kirby comments are very interesting and I am sure we will hear more of them. They may become more relevant as new judges are appointed to the bench – will such sentiment remain a minority position.

    Are you familiar with Denis Walker’s High Court actions? Walker vs. NSW I think, I’ll track it down later and give a link if you don’t beat me to it.

    The High Court ruled (words to the effect) that because the authority of the court is based on Elizabeth’s sovereignty, they have no authority to judge her sovereignty, only to administer her sovereign law. They said that such things were a matter of international law beyond their jurisdiction. And of course, there is no mechanism in international law to pursue the matter.

    They also ruled (might be a separate ruling, he went to the High Court twice) that, with the exception of native title, all customary law was extinguished and provided no legal ground for any court action. This ruling was not by the full bench, only three as I remember, and is obviously not consistent with the courts ruling on native title – that aspects of customary law exist as common law rights under Elizabeth’s sovereignty.

    The Mabo decision was very restricted, limited, minimalised to the exact matters before it – land title on Murray Island – and made no determination about any other aspect of customary law in any other place. But the significant point was the Court’s dismissal of the fiction of Terra Nullius which, perhaps with a full bench appeal, opens up the door to recognising customary law in other areas despite the Walker ruling.

    The NT water rights that were just ruled on are not exceptional in terms of the High Court position on native title rights and interests. The Wik decision to confirm native title on leasehold was similarly controversial. It is the Parliament that has legislated away all rights implied in court decisions that has obstructed native title, not the High Court. The native title process has managed to keep cases out of the High Court and clogged in Federal court waiting lists where nothing happens.

    But in the end, the question is not what Elizabeth and her courts rule on matters of land rights, compensation and customary law, it is a question of what do we rule on this matter, as individuals and as autonomous political groups? Whatever the state does we know it will be corrupted, as even native title is – anarchists should need no convincing of this. The question is what do we do – or not do.

  49. John Tracey says:

    Walker in High Court 1989

    Walker in High Court 1994

    These cases weren’t really argued very well but what makes them different from Gove, Mabo, Wik is that they deal with issues of sovereignty and customary law in its fullest sense, not common law land title.

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