[I started writing this post some time ago, put it aside, and have only now got around to finishing it. It’s part of a backlog of numerous such posts LOL.]
Last year, the Arena magazine blog published a post titled ‘Reflecting on Solidarity after the Coburg Protest’, by Andy Blunden and Lynn Beaton. By examining the origins and meaning of the term ‘solidarity’, and then applying it to the events in Coburg on May 28, the authors are able to conclude that a minority which violates solidarity with the majority is called a scab; further, at least by implication, that the minority guilty of violating this principle were those groups of anti-racists who were determined to directly confront the racist groups on the day. Implying that the anti-fascists who confronted members of the True Blue Crew (TBC) and United Patriots Front (UPF) in Coburg on May 28 are ‘scabs’ is an interesting position to take, so I thought I’d examine the authors’ argument a little more closely, and offer a few more reflections on ‘solidarity’.
Leaving aside the authors’ account of the origins of the term ‘solidarity’ — while noting that ‘self-emancipation’ and ‘solidarity’ are the irreducible and inseparable foundations of the workers’ movement — it’s worthwhile looking at the basic facts. They write:
On Saturday 28th May a peaceful rally, ‘Moreland Says No to Racism’, was successfully held outside the Coburg library. The rally was organised many weeks beforehand; sixty local organisations (including the Moreland Council) endorsed the rally, and publicity was widely distributed. Racist groups from outside Moreland made their intention to disrupt the rally known. In response groups of anti-racists determined to directly confront the racist groups. The resulting brawl captured media coverage of the day almost completely. There was minimal communication between the two groups, and no agreement as to plans for managing the events of the day.
To which I’d add the following:
• The ‘Moreland Says No to Racism’ rally was announced some months prior to its occurrence and was endorsed by a variety of groups, including (somewhat controversially) Moreland Council. It was organised by Sue Bolton, a Moreland councillor and member of the Socialist Alliance, and organising began in February. Another councillor, Samantha Ratnam, who was scheduled to speak at the event, withdrew a few days prior, citing concerns over the possibility of violent clashes.
• The ‘True Blue Crew’ (TBC) announced their intention to disrupt the rally in late April. They were soon joined by the ‘United Patriots Front’, ‘Patriots Defence League of Australia’ (PDLA) and others. Their counter-rally was titled ‘Stop The Far Left’.
• I published an event page on Facebook, titled ‘Fascists Out Of Coburg’, less than a week prior to May 28. The blurb read as follows:
On Saturday May 28 a rally has been organised by local councillor Sue Bolton of the ‘Socialist Alliance’. The rally is to take place outside the Coburg Library in the Victoria Street Mall at 11am and to be followed by a short march to Bridges Reserve. Titled ‘Moreland says NO to racism’, the rally will call upon the federal government to:
• Stop the forced closure of Aboriginal communities – Treaty now
• Let the refugees in – Close Manus and Nauru
and to say
• No to Islamophobia.
Unfortunately, local fascists have decided to organise a counter-rally: in order to express support for mandatory detention and offshore processing, to denounce local Muslims as terrorists, and to attack the ‘far left’. This counter-rally is scheduled to take place at 10.30am at Bridges Reserve, the endpoint of the proposed march. It’s been organised by the ‘True Blue Crew’ (TBC), a small group of right-wing racists from Melton and Bendigo. They’ve been joined by their neo-Nazi friends in the ‘United Patriots Front’ (UPF) and a range of other far right elements can also be expected to attend.
The suburb of Coburg and Moreland generally is home to a diverse range of communities: ethnic, cultural, linguistic, national and religious. Many of these communities are ones that the UPF and Co. would like to see eliminated. The presence of an organised group of neo-Nazis, fascists and racists poses an immediate danger not only to locals but, if left unopposed, will further embolden these groups and individuals to continue to prosecute their divisive, racialised and reactionary politics.
Coburg has a proud history of resisting fascist intrusions into public spaces. It’s important to carry on that tradition and to let local fascists know that they are not welcome. Please attend the rally on Saturday, let others know about the rally, and be advised that a small group of fascists will be in the area, looking for opportunities to attack it and other targets.
Our solidarity is our weapon.
In which context, a few additional points.
First, I’d considered promoting attendance by anti-fascists earlier than this but was eventually convinced by anti-fascist comrades that it would be better to simply encourage others to attend the ‘Moreland Says No to Racism’ rally (ie, there was no need to create another Event page). A week out from the rally, however, I learned that rally organisers had cancelled their plans to march to Bridges Reserve and would do their best to avoid any possibility of confronting the TBC & Co. by marching in the opposite direction. I understood this to mean that a group of fascists would be free to assemble and to march in Coburg. For the reasons outlined in the blurb, I thought this was a Bad thing.
Secondly, my intention in promoting the possibility of driving ‘Fascists Out of Coburg!’ was, first, to try and ensure that a large number of people would attend the rally. The more people who attended, I believed, the less likely the rally would be disrupted or its participants attacked and, further, the more likely it would be possible to confine the fascists to Bridges Reserve and to prevent them from marching anywhere (or doing much of anything). On the day, when it became obvious that the rally was secure (ie, it was not going to be disrupted or attacked by fascists), I along with others elected to leave Coburg Mall — the site of the ‘Moreland Says No to Racism’ rally — to go to Bridges Reserve to attempt to stop the fascists from marching. Initially, a small group managed to do so before police blocked the Mall.
Thirdly, since the emergence of Reclaim Australia in early 2015, two major campaigning platforms have emerged in Melbourne: No Room For Racism (NRFR) and Campaign Against Racism & Fascism (CARF). Both promoted the rally and framed it in terms of ‘community self-defence’ from an unwanted fascist intrusion. The exact nature of their planning for the day is obviously best communicated by the group’s themselves, but I’m not sure it’s correct to claim that there was minimal communication between the two groups, and no agreement as to plans for managing the events of the day. Apart from anything else, the Socialist Alliance is a formal participant in CARF, and would therefore seem able to contribute to discussions and planning. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that, whatever plans were made in preparation for May 28, it was far from certain what would actually happen. For example, in light of a police and media campaign imploring others not to attend the rally, it was uncertain how many people would attend either event, whether or not the fascists would actually assemble at Bridges Reserve and, if so, if they would attempt to march — and would police facilitate this? That a decision not to march to Bridges Reserve was made by rally organisers only became apparent on the day, just as the fact that fascists did indeed assemble at the Reserve, were not present at the Mall, and did indeed intend to march.
Fourthly, it’s important to situate both the attempt to ‘Say No to Racism’ and to ‘Stop the Far Left’ in their context. Thus, the TBC emerged in late 2015/early 2016 in the wake of Reclaim Australia and UPF rallies in Bendigo and Melton. The targeting of Sue Bolton in May 2016 echoed the UPF’s first public demonstration in May 2015, which targeted another socialist councillor, Stephen Jolly. This underscores the fact that — as they’ve reiterated over and over and over again — it is ‘The Left’ which self-described ‘patriots’ and ‘nationalists’ understand to be the chief impediment to their desire to rid Australia of Muslims.
Finally, media coverage did focus upon the clashes which took place between TBC rally-goers and anti-fascists, and this obscured the fact that an ‘anti-racist’ rally was able to be held in Coburg. (See : The anti-racist rally in Coburg the media ignored, Sue Bolton, Green Left Weekly, June 3, 2016.) If the capacity to generate ‘positive’ news stories was compromised by these clashes, and if production of same was the chief aim of the (anti-racist) rally, then on this count it could be considered to be a failure. If, on the other hand, the aim of those participating in the (anti-racist) rally was to both manifest peacefully and to effectively prevent fascists from marching through Coburg, then the day may be considered as being successful. In either case, while an examination of the political economy of the mass media would suggest that, as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky have written, it does not function in order to produce favourable accounts of political dissent, producing a systematic analysis of media reportage of protest and social struggle in particular is not my aim here. Rather, I’ll attempt to address the question of solidarity, how it’s applied by the authors in the case of May 28 in Coburg, and why I think this approach is problematic.
We have written the post below to highlight the importance of solidarity between activist groups who identify as being on the left, and as fighting right-wing agendas and, in particular, racism.
After elaborating upon the principles of communism (‘self-emancipation of the working class and solidarity’), the authors distinguish between class-conscious working-class activity and what amounts to charity; the philanthropic ‘rescue’ of the working class by elements outside of it. In the context of the Coburg events, the Socialist Alliance (SAll) is cast in the role of the (class-conscious) working class and the ‘groups of anti-racists who were determined to directly confront the racist groups’ are rendered as outside agents, coming to the aid of SAll but, crucially, unwilling to subordinate themselves to its direction. This failure means that the groups which confronted the fascists in Coburg and prevented them from marching may rightly be considered ‘scabs’. Or at least — minus the verbiage about communism, first principles, The First International, cavalry and strikes — that’s the basic lesson meant to be drawn from reading the article.
As I see it, there’s a few problems with this argument.
To begin with, there was more than one ‘stakeholder’ in Coburg on May 28. To put it another way, the presence of a small group of fascists in the suburb posed problems not only for those who gathered together under the umbrella of ‘Moreland Says No To Racism’, but to all locals — especially those who fail to qualify, for whatever reason, to be able to join the ranks of the Übermensch of the TBC, UPF & Co..
Secondly, the authors make reference to different sections of the (working) class exercising autonomy; an autonomy which ceases once they ‘voluntarily submit themselves to a shared discipline’. While it’s not entirely clear how the various ‘sections’ are meant to negotiate this process, it seems fairly certain that, however the term is applied, it was not the case that all those involved in the day’s events undertook this voluntary submission to the authority of the SAll or the (other) organisers of the rally (let alone those who participated in the TBC/UPF rally). Of course, it could be argued that, if the intention of those attending was to express solidarity with SAll, then they were obliged ipso facto to do so in ways that met with the group’s approval and according to whatever criteria they set. In this case, that meant joining the SAll rally, marching to which ever point they were instructed to, and otherwise acting in accordance with the wishes of the rally organisers and its marshals. In other words, as the authors write, they should have obeyed a simple rule: ‘when coming to the aid of another party, do so under their direction’.
But what if, as suggested above, the constituency ‘under attack’ is not singular but plural? That is, what if the threat posed by the fascist contingent was not just to the SAll but to Coburg locals, and to particular groups drawn from this community? In other words, what if, in reference to ‘the concrete conditions in which a group is struggling’, the ‘rescuer’ is not ignorant of the terrain, but inhabits it?
To conclude their analysis, the authors write:
To demonstrate how fundamental solidarity is to the workers’ movement, it should be observed that, alongside equality, solidarity is the guiding principle of majority voting which is the fundamental decision-making process of the workers’ movement. In any working class organisation actions are decided upon by majority vote (the principle of equality) and thereafter every member of the organisation is obliged to offer solidarity to the majority by adhering to the majority decision whether they like it or not. A minority which violates solidarity with the majority is called a scab.
Leaving aside the various forms of decision-making which have been employed by working class organisations, the relationships between such organisations, and their relationship to the workers’ movement (or movements), it’s obviously not the case that those who participated in the events of May 28 belong(ed) to one working class organisation, or took part in a meeting at which a decision was made, via a majority vote, regarding what tactics were to be employed on the day by its membership. Further, the use of the term ‘scab’ in this context seems needlessly inflammatory: given the complaints regarding the actions of those who more directly confronted the fascist rally in Coburg, the pejorative would appear to be directed at these elements, but in reality it was only via their action that a fascist march was prevented from taking place.
See also : Anti-racism: combine the tactics, Riki Lane, Workers’ Liberty, June 8, 2016.