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John Passant

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The myth of ANZAC day

Ruling classes around the world have their national myths. These attempt to tie working people to the capitalist class through the false idea of nationhood – a recent historical development.

The Australian version of this national myth is Anzac day. It is supposedly the day Australia became a nation. It celebrates the defeat of Australia’s invading troops at Gallipoli in 1915.

It is important to understand the historical context around the establishment of this day. The first Anzac day was held in 1916. The war to end all wars was bogged down in bloody slaughter. In Australia support for the imperialist adventure was split.

Many workers remembered the bitter class battles of the 1890s and the depression that drove many into poverty.

Workers had ignored Federation, despite the cheer squads of Australian capitalism attempting to use that event to glue workers to the system and the exploitation that arises from it. For many workers class was the most important determinant of loyalty.

The war further exacerbated class divisions.

Many rejected outright participation in the battle between two competing imperialisms. Others, influenced by the Labor Party, supported it but opposed conscription.

The class still had a memory of internationalism, and the impending outbreak of revolutions across Europe (including the German revolution, which ended Germany’s war) would only further reinforce this sense of class solidarity across borders and against the common enemy – capital.

Here in Australia the divisions were highlighted by the rapid growth of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary group committed to a democratic society without bosses. Indeed the “Wobblies” were such a threat that the police and security forces framed leading members for arson, and the state made being a member illegal, closed down their press and finally outlawed the organisation itself.

Conscription was the issue that saw class divisions come out most starkly in Australia. Working people and their parties opposed conscription, and defeated both referendums on the issue. The ALP split, with the forces around Billy Hughes going over to join the Conservatives and form a Government.

In 1917 there was a general strike in Australia. Overseas the Tsar’s regime in Russia collapsed after a five-day strike begun by women workers on International Working Women’s Day.

The first Anzac Day was an attempt to divert anger away from the capitalist class to those who were “disloyal”. It was also an important part of the pro-conscription propaganda.

An immediate concern the ruling class had was that disaffected soldiers – and there were many, having witnessed the reality of war – would link up with the radical sections of society. Anzac day deliberately offered them an alternative, an alternative that celebrated their role and remembered those who died rather than questioning why war occurred and why workers died for profits.

In fact, class polarisation (which reached its apogee in 1917 in Russia with the working class taking power on 7 November) continued in Australia and elsewhere for a number of years after 1916 and 1917. This saw Anzac day almost disappear in the early 1920s.

It revived after that as the revolutionary tide ebbed (exemplified by the rise of Stalin in Russia and Stalinism elsewhere). The forerunner of the RSL rebuilt itself by setting up clubs and pubs and helping returned servicemen and women (especially during the Depression).

World War II saw the idea of Australia, as a nation, “arrive” (and also boosted the popularity of Anzac day).

The sense of class and internationalism lost its way under Stalinism and in Australia the Communist Party wrapped itself in the flag of patriotism to fight the fascists. In fact World War II was a repeat of World War I – the clash of two blocs of imperialism.

Australia has always had an imperialist “protector”. This used to be Britain and is now the US. As part of our ruling class’s desire to be the major imperialist power in the region, we have attached ourselves to a powerful ally which will enable us to carry out that role.

To do that we must pay our dues. That is why we have a long history of following our ally into imperialist adventures around the world.

From Sudan in 1885 to Iraq in 2003 we have participated in a large number of foreign wars to help keep the UK and the US on side with our own expansionist project.

So even though Kevin Rudd pulled out of Iraq he is continuing our role in Afghanistan to show to the US his commitment to the alliance and to allow our own role in the region – East Timor, the Solomon islands, PNG for example – to continue.

Gallipoli itself is an example of our ongoing imperialist view of the world. We were part of a force that invaded a country that we had no quarrel with and which did not threaten us.

Anzac day also performs another function.

War is an integral part of capitalism and imperialism. Most people’s initial reaction is to recoil from war and all the horror it brings. Anzac day downplays that horror and makes war acceptable.

It is propaganda to allow the ruling class to call on the next generation of workers to join the war effort if needed.

And it may divert people’s attention away from immediate economic concerns – I may be losing my house or job but at least we diggers are good fighters and I am so proud my son is in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or East Timor. Or the Solomon Islands.

Right now there is war going on around the world. It’s the war of the bosses against workers. The dead are many.

According to the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union around the world ‘work is more deadly than war, causing up to 2.3 million fatalities a year through related injuries and disease.’

International Workers’ Memorial Day is this Wednesday 28 April.

This article first appeared in Online Opinion and was reprinted last year on this blog. Readers might also like to look at Kyla Cassells’ review of  the book ‘What’s wrong with Anzac? The militarisation of Australian history’ in an article called Anzac day is a celebration of war in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Seamus
Time April 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with your points John. What interests me is why it is so appealing, particularly amongst generation (y).

We live in an age where many traditional sources of identity have eroded or are gone. We are no longer a religious society. No bad thing, but gone with religion is the sense of purpose and morality that it once provided. Our working lives are transient. We no longer have career paths that allow us to project, This Is Who I Am. Furthermore, few of us have trades that are strongly connected to the fruits of our labour. We work in offices, in middle management, be it in government or the private sector, and nowhere can we point and say, “Look, here is what I created!”.

ANZAC day, with its sense of military tradition provides some sort of ‘meaning’, even if a false meaning, in a society where little else is to be found.

Comment from Cal
Time April 24, 2011 at 5:09 pm

John you may want to note that the Telstra sponsorship that was at the top of this page is about sending a message for Anzac Day. Isn’t this a conflict of interest?

Comment from Ross
Time April 24, 2011 at 6:23 pm

War is a racket.It is created by a few corporate elites for profit and power.Old greedy men create wars for profit and young men die for no good reason.

It was the central banking cartels that financed boths sides during both the Great World Wars.They loan money to our Govts to buy arms from manufacturers in which they own shares.So they make interest on money from which they just create from nothing and make even more on the tools of death and human misery.

War is the greatest con of all time.Right now we are headed for the next great war.First the Muslims were demonised so the Banking/Oil cartels could steal their oil.Iraq was invaded under false pretenses of weapons of mass destruction and now Libya is being invaded for its oil.They cannot presently find a good enough excuse to invade Iran but are working on it.Iran has a defence pact with China and Russia.Iran supplies China with 10% of its’ oil.Attacking Iran will see a major conflict.

Moving ito Africa is all about containing China by limiting their acess to energy not controlled by their cartels.China also supplies 80% of its money via Govt Banks, free from the debt of the private banking cartels.

So become aware since the lunatic corporate neo-cons are puting us and themselves at peril for their final play at world dominance.

Comment from John
Time April 25, 2011 at 6:24 am

War is not about profit in the short term – in fact it is a drain on profit.I think war is about the profit system, and the defence of particular versions of capitalist exploitation against other versions. In other words it is imperialist, the battle often between two rival countries or blocs.

Comment from Ross
Time April 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm

The Iraq war John,cost the US tax payer $1 trillion or about $7,000 for every working person plus interest.The US Fed a private Cartel of Banks justs creates this money in their computers and the US Govt prints a bond (which is a promise to repay the loan plus interest) This creation of money devalues the US currency in the longer term.Taxes either go up or services are cut to pay for the war debt.

Now many in this elite group also have shares in the arms industry.So for a few, it is very profitable.For ordinary citizens war means poverty, since their taxes nearly all go into the war effort.In the longer term butter wins over guns.They will have to go back to production of consumption products for the survival of people.

The next stage is to take the spoils of war and sell them for profit. Edward Griffin the Author of ‘The Creature from Jekyll Island’ says that these elites have more wealth than they can possibly spend.Their objective now is just acquiring more power over Govts and large Corporations.Every major war from Napoleonic Wars has been purposefully created by these powerful Banking interests.Each section of the Cartel will back opposing forces.They cannot lose,even if their side suffers defeat.

The US Fed Cartel is hedging its bets.Recently the Rothschilds made an offer to China with mutual fund of $ 750 million to help make the Yuan the new Global currency.80% of the Yuan is created by Govt Banks.This is the Fed trying to weasel its way into the Chinese Banking system. It is a carrot and stick approach in these wars.The US Fed is depreciating the $ by “quantative easing” ie print money, thus reducing the debt they owe to China.They are also stealing from the US people.The big stick is the USA military might is restricting China’s access to energy and resources.

I think that Fukushima will play a big role since many have yet to realise what a disaster it is.It will be many times worse than Chernobyl.This hopefully will make nuclear war less likely.The USA has seen their mini-nukes as giving them the edge over China/Russia.They have been polluting Iraq etc, with Depleted Uranium.Even their own soldiers suffer serious long trem illnesses.I don’t think their own Military will tolerate this madness for much longer, however the few sociopaths in charge, may well do the unthinkable.

Comment from MarianK
Time April 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm


I don’t know if you’ve read the book ‘What’s wrong with Anzac?’, which John mentions at the bottom of the article. It gives a huge insight into the sheer breadth and depth of official Anzac propaganda that the average Gen Y Australian has received over the course of their schooling. (Certainly far in excess of mine and other previous generations.)

Very few members of the general public are even remotely aware of the massive increases in educational funding and expertise made available under the Howard Government (and continued under Rudd and Gillard) to the AWM, Veterans Affairs, DoD, RSL and other miltary-related bodies to design and disseminate Australian war history curriculum materials and to promote school participation in war remembrance. For example, even the erection of flagpoles was made conditional to continued school funding.

As a parent of two Gen Ys, I was moved to despair many times at the sheer volume of Anzac history content in their SOSE, History and even English curriculums. And, almost on a weekly basis, there seemed to be some war commemoration that the school was participating in or doing community projects on – from D-Day to Long Tan to Kokoda to the Blitz.

I know that some of the appeal of the Anzac spirit to Gen Y is about identity, morality and a sense of purpose – as you suggest. However, I believe most of it is due to plain old-fashioned propaganda, which is the handmaiden of every war that’s ever been fought.

Comment from Calligula
Time April 28, 2011 at 12:29 am

So why shouldn’t we celebrate defeat on Anzac Day?
Don’t we share our defeat with the Kiwis, the Poms, Canadians, Indians, South Africans and the rest of lost Empire?
Why should we miss out on that misery?
For that matter have any of you ever seen the ‘masters’ offer anything much better for a celebration.
Anzac Day is good – so close to Easter.
We can all celebrate this death and that death and go away happy afterward.
Hell’s teeth – some of us are so old and crocked that we crawl out of bed, stagger along to the dawn service, drink the rum and milk – then drop off the perch during the service.
That must amuse the youngsters – that anyone could be that frail and so bloody stupid.
A day of remembrance that costs – and for some the reaper awaits his final tally.
A good day for all.