Like a series of dialectical antipodean babushka dolls, the reactions to Gough Whitlam’s death have played out with a certain comforting predictability. Our first babushka doll is painted by the centre-left, in a luminous ‘70s palette: Gough the harbinger of modern Australia, Gough the land rights warrior, Gough the physical embodiment and apotheosis of the welfare state (with a little splatter of guilty red on the hand to acknowledge East Timor). After a respectable wait of about twelve hours or so, the second doll pops up from inside, this time painted in dark, apocalyptic tones by right wing commentators such as Greg Sheridan: Gough the economic wrecking ball, Gough the political amateur, Gough the, um, refugee hater (with a little splatter of gold sprinkles on the hand to acknowledge the oil money Indonesia paid us for East Timor). The award for best work of fiction goes to professional Catholic fabulist Miranda Devine, who not only downplayed Whitlam’s final dismantlement of the White Australia Policy, but somehow tried to claim that Labor was solely responsible for the policy in the first place. This is a blatant distortion, and demonstrates how embarrassing the historical facts now are for pundits of all stripes: the basis for the White Australia Policy was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, one of the first laws tabled after federation, and one supported by all parties. The only significant opposition to the policy came from Queensland plantation owners who wanted to keep their kidnapped Pacific labourers, and from the labourers themselves. But the southern racists beat the northern slave owner wannabes, and some 10,000 Polynesians were deported. It is this truly miserable history of institutionalised racism which the centre-left credits Whitlam with overcoming.
Finally comes the smallest and most pitiful doll, letting out the occasional mewl on facebook and twitter, painted by what we might unkindly call the dregs of the revolutionary left (I include myself amongst this human flotsam). This doll is misshapen and bitterly disillusioned with everyone, its paint peeling off in mouldy chunks. If you look closely at the surface, you will see it is actually made up of a multitude of tiny nano-dolls, and therein lies its main argument: that Whitlam only made his reforms due to pressure from the powerful social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. As bizarre as it seems now, Whitlam was on the right of the Labor Party, and his government’s introduction of free healthcare, free university education and Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory were only slightly left of centre in the global context of the time. World politics in the early ‘70s was still feeling the aftershocks of what political theorist Immanuel Wallerstein calls the ‘1968 world revolutionary moment’. Within the anglosphere Whitlam’s progressive policies were paralleled by those of Harold Wilson in the United Kingdom and Pierre Trudeau in Canada, who was an even more dominant figure in his country’s politics, ruling with one brief interruption from 1968 to 1984.
Further to the left, Salvador Allende in Chile experimented with cybersyn, a computerised worker led system of economic management which prefigured the internet; Portugal’s dictatorship was overthrown by a popular revolution which also led to East Timor’s brief moment of independence; and the Italian Autonomist Marxists carried out an 11 year long struggle against all parliamentary groups, including the Communist Party, who they regarded as conservative sell outs. Being Italians, not only did they rebel in style, they produced some Nobel Prize winning theatre while they were at it. We are still experiencing the social revolutions unleashed in this heady moment: second through to third-and-a-half wave feminism, environmentalism and the gay, civil and indigenous rights movements. What’s important to remember is that a majority of young people back then genuinely thought that capitalism was on the edge of worldwide collapse: such a result seemed inevitable as communist regimes swept into power across the postcolonial world, from Cuba to Angola to Vietnam. In the midst of such cultural upheaval, Whitlam’s reforms can be seen less as the Promethean acts of a visionary genius, and more as a belated response by the political class to revolutionary pressures: after all, this had all been going on since the mid ‘60s, and Whitlam was not elected until ’72.
While I agree most with the revolutionary perspective, in the interests of being civil following a colossal national figure’s death, I suggest finding a middle ground between the various interpretations I have just described, so we can learn from this sepia toned historical moment and chart a course forward in these less optimistic times. Of course, when I talk about finding a compromise position, I’m only talking about one between the social democratic and revolutionary traditions in Australia. I’m leaving out of the equation right wingers such as Greg ‘moral vacuum’ Sheridan, who only supports brown people if they have a proven track record of murdering other even browner people (Suharto against the Timorese, Modi against the Muslims of Gujarati, and that lovable old Tamil-slaughtering scamp Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka). With that caveat in mind, let’s get down to business.
We have our social democratic thesis (Whitlam the great reformer) and our revolutionary antithesis (It’s the social movements whodunit). To continue on the nostalgia trip, let’s put on our dialectical materialist hat and search for a synthesis. When assessing the actions of political leaders, I would argue that we can both acknowledge the role played by outside social pressures, and the free will and belief of these figures in their subsequent actions. The generation of progressive English speaking politicians before Whitlam – Roosevelt, Attlee and Chifley – instituted their welfare reforms partly out of conviction, and partly because they were shitting their pants that a local Stalin would emerge and knock them off in a bloody revolution. Whitlam wasn’t quite facing this level of risk, but on issues such as land rights, the manic revolutionary energy of the Maoists and other groups held an appeal for young Aboriginal activists which Labor had to then compete with. During this period most of the future luminaries of Aboriginal politics, such as Gary Foley and Marcia Langton, were members of revolutionary socialist organisations.
It took a massive global campaign of violence to crush this revolutionary tide and implement the neoliberal paradigm we live in today. In the case of Australia, Labor itself led the counter revolution, with Hawke and Keating betraying the land rights movement, implementing the accord between capital and trade unions, and initiating the privatisation of public assets such as the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. Howard combined the same economic policies with a more conservative social agenda, plus a destruction of even the rudimentary native title legislation Keating had conceded to the (now thoroughly post-socialist) indigenous movement. And thus we arrive in the present day, where Whitlam, the last living symbol of that bygone era, has passed away amidst a new round of needless austerity measures by Abbott and his ilk. As should be quite obvious, the grassroots left in Australia is now in no position to menace politicians into taking radical positions – the fact that we are called the grassroots rather than the revolutionary left should serve as a good indicator of why the political class no longer fear us. We don’t threaten regime change or social liberation anymore; we just sprout up in brief bursts of half hearted enthusiasm about the carbon tax or gay marriage, until it comes time to mow us back down to size.
We have retreated into universities, where we are accused of being elitists, and fret over our privileges rather than fight for our rights to free education, free health, and a life un-alienated by menial labour. The far right Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was on the money when he said in his manifesto that Marxists had moved from the economic domain, where they had been defeated, to the cultural domain, where they have had some victories changing social norms around gender, sexuality and race. These are unprecedented advances in many ways, but without a concurrent project to transform the basic economic structure of society, we won’t scare politicians into making reforms anymore. We’ll just occasionally trigger maladjusted white male bigots to go on violent rampages. The obsession with language, the way young white progressives make sure they don’t accidentally say something racist, or imperialist, or whatever else, also suggests a curious disengagement with the pursuit of material change. In Whitlam’s time, the fight of Aboriginal activists against racist language was certainly an issue, but the key struggle was to gain full economic sovereignty through land rights. With this goal now so far away, the debates over which words to say, and which words not to say, feels a bit like a side show distracting us from the fact that, at the basic level of overcoming economic injustice, we lost.
The global neoliberal project is in crisis, with once dedicated acolytes such as the philosopher John Gray giving up on it and turning to anti-humanist nihilism. Yet the left is so bereft of ideas that it can’t make a coherent case for an alternative. It’s clear in this environment that we can’t just time warp back to the Whitlam era welfare state. The crisis of global warming adds an element which fossil fuel dependent 20th century social democracy is not equipped to deal with. But neither should we necessarily forget figures such as Whitlam. We owe Abraham Lincoln’s image as ‘the great emancipator’ to the Civil rights movement, who gave him that title a century after his death. During his political career Lincoln was forced into an anti slavery position by the more radical activists of the time. Yet Martin Luther King and others adroitly used his image as a national, respected figure to further their own noble goals. As Miranda Devine opines rather sourly, the left has always been making better at making myths than conservatives. That’s because, despite all the disasters along the way, we have a more generous, inspiring vision, a vision of equality, liberty and solidarity for all humanity. Whitlam played a role in bringing that vision a little closer to reality in Australia, as did the millions of unrecognised activists who pushed him to do so. Now we are entering a new and uncertain stage of history, where the ways forward will emerge in fits and starts amongst the chaos and darkness. Maybe a path is opening up in wartorn Syria, where Kurds and Arabs are trying to construct new forms of bottom up democracy; or in Latin America, where a heated debate is under way about how to escape the colonial logic of resource extraction; or in a country where there is seemingly no hope of change, as Australia appeared to be in the 1950s, and appears to be again now. Wherever that spark comes, we need to realise that we’re in this for the long haul. And I mean the long haul.
When the dying sun engulfs the last remnants of life on earth in five billion years, and our unrecognisable cyborg descendants view the destruction from a neighbouring solar system, safe in the utopia we fought to create for them, they’re not going to be debating whether Gough Whitlam or the broader social movements were responsible for Medicare. To them such an argument would be as absurd as us taking sides with one amoeba against another. Okay maybe I jumped a little too far ahead there, but the point is in the long run, it doesn’t really matter who gets credit for change. It matters that it happened. And it matters that it keeps on happening. That’s what’s up to us. It’s time to get on with it.