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November 2012



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Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and sectarianism

Recently, Louise O’Shea wrote an article called Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right in Socialist Alternative attacking the Jill Meagher demonstration for its supposed reactionary, racist, middle class liberal approach.

I wrote a response as a member for the comments section of the article and submitted it twice but it has not yet, as far as I can tell, been published. So I have published it here. My response should be read after reading the article, if you can.



Louise writes: ‘Socialist Alternative’s central criticism of the Jill Meagher phenomenon and mobilisations around it was that they were a vehicle through which the rich and powerful could push an agenda, and which it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change, so inherent is the right wing logic of the issue.’

The same is true of some other campaigns we have been involved in. Indeed one could make the argument that the first stage of revolution in places like Egypt involved the very same characteristics of sections of the ruling class coming on board to push their agenda. Should the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt have abstained from the struggle against Mubarak for the same reason Louise offers in this article?

And just because the rich and powerful will try to use an issue for their own ends doesn’t justify sectarian abstention from a movement  that attracted 30000 people and which did not call for more CCTV cameras, or police or whatever.

The point should have been to find if there is an audience for left wing ideas in a subtle and sensible way, not present a schema of working class revolution as the only way and if you are against that you are racist, sexist or whatever other glib insults roll off our tongues.

This is the classic example of how not to relate to people who have identified a social problem under capitalism and are demonstrating against it. Some of them may have been receptive to the ideas Louise presents about violence in the home, cop murders of indigenous people and the like.

The usual glib labels get trotted out. I especially love the middle class accusation. So what is middle class, and if we are going to be serious, isn’t our organisation middle class?  But 30,000 middle class liberals? Gee, that’s a studied and erudite analysis from afar.

To counterpose the Jill Meagher demo to the murder of indigenous people in custody and draw the conclusion that the support for the Jill Meagher demo was racist is unsustainable.

The march presented the opportunity for us to be involved and to make the argument, in a way that doesn’t alienate people, that the situation of Aboriginal men in police custody also needs our support and action. I doubt we have the cadre capable of doing that.

Let me quote Lenin on Ireland in 1916.

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are   for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution. It consisted of a series of battles in which all the discontented classes, groups and elements of the population participated. Among these there were masses imbued with the crudest prejudices, with the vaguest and most fantastic aims of struggle; there were small groups which accepted Japanese money, there were speculators and adventurers, etc. But objectively, the mass movement was breaking the hack of tsarism and paving the way for democracy; for this reason the class-conscious workers led it.

The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which they all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.

It seems to me we Socialist Alternative members might like to think about that for a while instead of standing on the sidelines only shouting  ‘We are for revolution’.

It seems to me this ill-thought out article may have more to do with a National Executive keen to show its differences with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in the forthcoming merger and/or to provoke ‘debate’ to show what an open organisation we are.

Instead of picking state capitalism or socialism from below as the battle ground, because the NE has capitulated on these issues to the RSP, it has chosen ‘feminism’.

I do wonder what our RSP colleagues make of this badly argued blunderbuss of sectarianism. I can only hope they challenge this ludicrous, self-satisfied, smug, anti-working class, infantile nonsense for what it is.

I have made it clear in internal bulletins I have my doubts about the merger with the RSP. But one thing that might come of the fait accompli of merger is a real challenge to the gross inadequacies of our analysis of the women’s movement and our relationship to it, gross inadequacies exemplified so clearly by this article.



Comment from Stu
Time November 23, 2012 at 1:24 pm

When will Socialist Alt end the inappropriate policy of internal bulletins? Surely proof of internal democracy would be shown to prospective members by a group that was okay with discussing these issues in public. This is especially the case in today’s non-war context. After all it was war that often made such secretive communication necessary in the past. Hopefully your article is the start of a flood of democratic public discussion, John! Would certainly love to read your thoughts on the possibility of rsp merger and other left regroupment. Cheers.

Comment from Mike Grewcock
Time November 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm

I am please you have opened up this discussion John. I am sure others will take up the issues you raise with the article but I have few observations about regroupment. I am obviously not privy to the discussions between SAlt and the RSP but it appears that the merger is largely driven by a shared vision of a larger Marxist propaganda group rather than any wider vision of how to build the left. If the merger means a more hegemonic version of the sort of sectarianism reflected in this article, I can’t see that this represents a great step forward. It will be interesting to see how the merged group deals with fundamental differences over Stalinism, Guevarism etc but I suppose time will tell. If the organisation manages to hold together and grow, there could be positive lessons to draw. However, I simply can’t see that propagandism offers a basis for long-term, constructive regroupment or a stronger Left. For that to happen, at a minimum I think there needs to be 3 conditions: a commitment to the politics of socialism from below; a shared strategic commitment to united front activities and relating to other activists in a constructive way – and in particular, an orientation to the Greens; and publications/organisational structures that provide a forum for discussion and debate. All easy to say of course and I acknowledge that some of this is already happening – but I really think we ought to move beyond the conception of small groups that distinguish themselves by waving red flags at demos, without anything more obvious to say.

Comment from John
Time November 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I think Internal Bulletins are certainly appropriate. They enable an organisation – its members – to discuss issues before debating them at Conference and deciding democratically on the way forward.

Comment from John
Time November 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Thanks Mike. I agree about a commitment to socialism from below. I have doubts about the united front tactic because I just can’t see a small group being able to do that. We will work with Labor and the Greens. But an organisation of 300 people in a united front with them? I don’t see it personally. Of course on some campaigns it works for the left in general but becuase the ALP and Greens don’t really participate. They show by their failure to participate their true colours.

As for an orientation to the Greens I find that a little more problematic. I think the task remains, as it has for most of my political life, to build an organisation into a party, and given we are still at the small organisation level that means building on the basis of our ideas and intervening where we can. Old formulae perhaps, but it does (or did) seem to be working for Socialist Alternative over the last few years.

Comment from Josh Lees
Time November 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm

John I must say that I think this is one of the more ridiculous things you’ve written.
To compare RTN or the Jill Meagher demo to the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution is preposterous. Did the occupation of Tahrir Square have an “inherent right wing logic”? Of course not. Louise’s argument, which I agree with, is that RTN etc does. Which I think has been shown historically and right now given the effect of the Jill Meagher concern in allowing Baillieu etc to grandstand about it, install more CCTV cameras etc, despite what I’m sure were the best intentions of the Lefties who were part of the organising committee.

Lenin’s quote is about understanding how a variety of movements of the oppressed will be part of any social revolution. Needless to say, we are not living through social revolution, so we must understand the situation as it actually is. The concern and march for Jill Meagher does not “objectively attack capital” in any sense. It does the opposite, and the Left needs to recognise this before making any tactical decision about how to “relate” to it.

Your theory about the NE’s motivations make no sense at all. Why would the NE want to “show its differences” with the RSP leadership about anything just for the sake of it?? They are actually trying to organise a successful merger.

And there has been no “capitulation” about state capitalism etc whatsoever, just a recognition that this is not a shibboleth we should cling to to define ourselves or that it should be a barrier to unity with people from other traditions. That is actual sectarianism.

Finally, there is no fait accompli. We’ve had many discussion throughout the organisation for months now. Last I heard you were a conference delegate, can argue your case, and we will vote on it at conference. Will your argument convince a majority of our members? Probably not, since as far as I’m aware you are the only one against the merger. But its stupid and uncomradely to conflate this with being a “fait accompli”.

Comment from John
Time November 23, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Thanks Josh.

The point about Egypt is that the Revolutionary Socialists did not abstain from the struggle, and worked with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now the MB may not be ‘racist middle class liberals’ like those who marched in memory of Jill Meagher but I suspect some of them might be even more politically unsavoury than those who marched in the Jill Meagher demo. I just find this whole ‘racist middle class liberals’ analysis bizarre, and perhaps an after the event rationalisation for not participating which, as the comrades in the RSP point out, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the march and RtN.

Your assessment of the numbers and Ben Hillier’s comment in his status update about the forthcoming very likely merger (I forget the exact words he used) indicate it is a given. As to fait accompli – the NE manoeuvring around this has annoyed me for some time. I would however do the same to guide something I believed in through the organisation if I were in that position. They just shouldn’t be surprised when they get blow back. And at Conference I may well be a minority of one person compared to everyone else, or perhaps 2. I do think there are a number of doubters who will suck it and see.

I may be proved spectacularly wrong in my opposition over time. So be it. In fact I hope that is the case.

As to this RtN being an issue to differentiate on, I stand by my comments. The principles make no reference to state capitalism or socialism from below. This is, as Diane has remarked, a concession to the RSP. Removing these from our foundation documents involves not just a sleight of hand or word play but a fundamental change in the organisation or sets in train processes which can do that. So the NE fights around this issue to show to the doubters it is not just an RSP takeover and to reinforce the dominant view about RtN and other women’s movement activity.

My guess is that is something the RSP can live with, but they can’t apparently live with state capitalism and socialism from below so we jettison them.

Comment from Grant
Time November 23, 2012 at 8:24 pm

Thanks, John. Good to see a voice of socialist sanity in Socialist Alternative. (I am aware there are others, too).
The errors in Louise O’Shea’s piece (including factual errors) are not that surprising, given she wasn’t at Reclaim the Night and refers to mainstream media reports about it.
Here, for the record, are some facts about the attempted right-wing co-option of the issue as reported by one of the organisers of the march:

“The rumours, spread by some on the left, were completely false. Of course the corporate media and our right-wing politicians were trying to shape the public discourse on this issue away from prevention to a ‘surveillance’ and ‘law and order’ agenda. The collective was completely united on this issue and strongly opposed more CCTV cameras and increased policing of streets. The politics of the march were very radical -condemning the lack of police response to women’s complaints and the gender bias inherent in our judicial system. Speakers addressed the fact that most women experience gender based violence at the hands of somebody they know, often intimately. Speakers also discussed the role of the family -a key unit of class society where little boys and girls learn that women are the second sex. The march demanded an increase of funding for DV shelters and Sexual Assault services and anti-violence programs for schools.”

“Every movement is imbued with liberal ideology, the dominant ideology in capitalist societies, and the women’s movement is no exception. That’s why it is important for socialists to be involved. Our task is to inject a radical class analysis that develops consciousness beyond the limitations of our current system and fight’s for a society that is liberating for all humanity.”

(Taken from –

Comment from Andrew Martin
Time November 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Hi John,
There are very few people in this country committed to making a socialist revolution. We are in the hundreds, not thousands. There is an objective need for unity, but not simply in terms of numbers. As revolutionaries if we are to build a movement then it is a necessity to accept differing viewpoints and analysis. We need to stop digging trenches and firing shots at each other and recognise our common cause. We can have unity if we respect our differences and give space for dissenting views (as yours appears to be!).

Comment from Sarah
Time November 24, 2012 at 7:53 pm

From someone who was actually AT the RTN rally, those who organised the rally and most of the crowd (judging by their response to the speakers and the placards they were carrying) were against CCTV and other right wing arguments. The point of that march, which was stated by one of the speakers, is that violence towards women and children doesn’t start from the creepy stranger on the street, in starts in the home, and more CCTV cannot prevent that. To label the 30,000 people involved as middle class right wingers is ludicrous. Also good on you John for having an opinion of your own.

Comment from Shane H
Time November 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm

This piece by Louise is extraordinary – taken as a piece of individual analysis its a mistake (to which we are all prone), taken as a published piece in an SA journal its extraordinary. I am intrigued by John’s suggestions about what it might mean for the internal politics of the merger but even then its seems odd.

Here we had the murder by a stranger that plays into all the stereotypes but which provoked a huge public response by women. Now the question is how to respond when such popular anger emerges. We are not in control of such things but we seek to find an audience for our ideas (just as the Right do by suggesting CCTV and ‘law and order’ responses). I don’t know what debates were had on RTN committee but one could only expect a range of views in line with the reality of people’s consciousness. As socialists we would point out that we need to empower women not ‘protect’ them, women have rights they need to defend as opposed to being victims.

The worst oversight in this, its seems to me, is not connections (in the first instance) with Black deaths in custody but the fact that women are at greatest risk from their partners and ex-partners – women die at their (ex)partners hands as DV related homicides at the rate of something like 1 a fortnight in QLD alone. There are ceremonies to commemorate them but hardly the public outcry. Ditto for Aboriginal deaths in custody and workplace deaths. All important issues and worth making connections – why this requires an attack on those working on RTN is beyond me. Imagine a union condemning RTN because it didn’t mention workplaces. Weird.

There’s not much socialists can do faced with popular anger (I’d be happy to lead a march on any of these issues if I though more than a handfull of people I knew would turn up) but when it does we join in and explain our ideas. The fact we have to fight for that – and the right will do the same – is what politics is about. Condemning those who participate because the ground is not clear is just awful.

Comment from John
Time November 25, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I agree.

Comment from John
Time November 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Thanks Sarah. I agree.

Comment from Dr_Tad
Time November 25, 2012 at 2:53 pm

John, I think Mike is on the right track, but I wouldn’t pose it the way he does. The question has to be: What is the nature of the political conjuncture and how does a small group of revolutionaries look for ways to shift politics, even if its impact is initially necessarily marginal?

Gramsci refers to this as an “expansive” politics, one that starts with a very detailed, historically specific analysis of what is and derives from that potential tasks (based on clear revolutionary principles) that can start to link fragments of resistance in a *political* way. If people want to call that a “united front” then fine, but the term has unfortunately been tainted by all kinds of silly ideas (perhaps the most egregious was the “united front of a special kind”).

So the question of the Greens (and the Greens’ relationship to the ALP) is one that in my view is central because it reflects a historic split in the base of the official Left. Relating to this is a political matter, not one that requires us to drop independent organisation or ideology. Now, SocAlt have a different view of the Greens to mine (or Mike’s) but what is unusual is that the central feature of the Greens’ success — the party’s ability to break a progressive section of the ALP’s voter base — is downplayed by people like Ben Hillier in his MLR article, or in Rick & Tom’s section on the Greens in their book on the ALP. There is no sense of the *political* import of this (not even a clear analysis to explain why it *isn’t* important).

Similarly, Louise’s article seems to marshall concrete evidence to fit into a general preconceived ideological view she has, rather than thinking through what is actually happening and making a tactical judgement about how to approach a mass campaign against sexist violence. I can imagine circumstances where boycotting certain marches is an important political intervention to make, but Louise cannot do that because she is trying to overgeneralise negative aspects of the campaign to paint it as the wrong kind of campaign. If only life were so simple.

Comment from Durruti Pollen
Time November 25, 2012 at 4:27 pm

the O’Shea article was embarrassingly bad, in all kinds of ways.
the attack on the RTN demonstrators for not mobilizing instead over the death of an Aboriginal man in Alice Springs is a ‘leftist’ version of a old rightwing argument. when students at Sydney university rally against fees, there’s always a someone somewhere to say, ‘wait, if you really care about disadvantage, you’d be marching about poverty in the Third World, rather than your own selfish interests.’ or: ‘it’s disgraceful you’re marching for same sex marriage when people are dying in gaza.’ etc etc.
in reality, there’s nothing surprising about people mobilising about issues that are close to their own lives. it’s fucking weird to see a supposedly leftwing group coming up with this sort of ‘whataboutery’, with nearly the first third of the article devoted to attacking RTN marchers simply because they weren’t marching about other issues.
the repeated implication that the rally was only of interest to white, educated, inner city, middle class types is equally odd. i’m not from Melbourne but i was there for that rally, and the composition of the march was more or less exactly the same as most other recent protests (like say the Equal Love things). in fact, if you wanted to make a sociological judgement, you could say it consisted almost exactly of the kinds of people who join SAlt, an organisation that seems largely based on, um, white educated inner city types, largely from Melbourne University. there’s nothing wrong with that (the left, the greens and the environmental movement are pretty similarly sociologically) but it does make the class assessments in that piece extraordinarily arrogant (‘it’s OK for us to be Eastern suburbs kids from private schools spending five years hanging around Sydney Uni — but you feminists are middle class snobs’).
as for the rest of it, so much of the empirical detail in the piece is simply wrong. you get the impression of a judgement made in advance, and then bolstered by whatever information turned up form a few google searches.
yes, it’s possible that a rally about sexual violence might be reactionary but whether it is or not is a verifiable hypothesis. how would you test the notion? you might ask things like, what slogans did the rally adopt? what speeches were made? what chants did the crowd raise? what kind of reactions did leftwing interventions receive?
thus if RTN was a rightwing as SAlt seems to think, you’d expect that the main speakers put forward reactionary demands, that the attendees carried law and order banners, that chants went out praising the police. did that happen? no, it did not. actually, the speeches explicitly put sexual violence in a political context – and the biggest cheers were received by the most leftwing speeches (particular that by the woman from Socialist Alliance). the chants were all traditional feminist chants. noone called for more police powers and almost everyone who spoke attacked the calls for more video surveillance. the close links O’Shea suggests between the rally and the police just seems like a flat out fabrication (the police were keener on the memorial event than they ever were about RTN).
in any case, given that the murder occurred and spurred a huge public response, in what alternative reality would it have been better had there not been a rally in which leftwing speakers argued against police powers and put the case for a collective response to sexism? O’Shea says that the case spurred calls for law and order. well, if leftwingers hadn’t intervened, the calls for law and order (which, in any case, have been going on for some time all across Australia) would have been the only public response. the fact that Doyle wasn’t able to make much headway around the case (it’s not like any new ‘Jill Meagher’ laws have been passed or anything) is probably testament to the extent to which feminists were able to undercut the rightwing response.
if you were feeling charitable you could suggest that SAlt seems to be conflating this RTN with the marches of the past, which sometimes did have a strong anti-left agenda. but the Brunswick rally was not organized by ideological anti-leftist radical feminists but rather by young women without very much political experience who adopted the RTN badge for their own purposes. it’s part of a new interest in feminism that’s manifesting in all sorts of areas, with slutwalk being the most obvious example and the polarization around Gillard’s speech being another. now there’s all sorts of issues and confusions around these but to simply abuse people who are starting to fight sexism as middle-class wankers who hate Indians and Indigenous people is just weird.
oh, one other point. the Jill Meagher case happened months ago. as far as I can see, SAlt said nothing about it at the time. so why publish a frothing polemic about it now, just as you begin unity talks with two other groups, both of whom supported and helped organise RTN?

Comment from Dave
Time November 25, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Further discussion on this article here:

Comment from John
Time November 25, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Yes, I wondered about the timing too. Thanks for your comments Durruti Pollen. I agree with them.

Comment from Dave Riley
Time November 26, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Disagreeing with the arguments in the article is as it should be. There can be different views on the left and we should be debating out our different perspectives. But that, unfortunately, is not an option. The comments section to the article is closed. There has been no follow up argumentation from anyone ‘officially’ from Socialist Alternative. There has been some damage control of course in operation but nothing public. Suggestions to hold open forums around the issue of Feminism and Marxism have been rejected. In the meantime, Socialist Alternative has suffered a lot of damage to its stature among feminist activists. It’s not about point scoring. It is about one simple fact: Socialist Alternative has to change its line on womens’ liberation — or at least attempt to argue its case much better than it has done in this case. It happens to be wrong and should fall into step with the shift negotiated by the US ISO.

Comment from James Supple
Time November 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm

This is an interesting if slightly confused debate because there are a range of distinct issues. One issue is the sectarianism of Louise’s article. The article is so coloured with what I think is a too characteristic an effort to dismiss concern about Jill Meagher’s death as that of “white middle class liberals” that it is incapable of relating to the concern around her death. To me that raises the broader issue about the need for a break with the habits of sectarianism and propagandism—and how to build a Marxist cadre capable of sensible political interventions.

Having said that it is true that Reclaim the night rallies and campaigns to stop violence against women can be used by the right to push for stronger state powers. I think you can make this argument in a non-sectarian fashion, our effort to do this is here The Socialist Alliance approach of simply uncritically championing these rallies is problematic, and I’d suspect many in the RSP share that approach given their common political heritage.

Responding to the political debate around Jill Meagher’s death was a broader issue than just being at the rallies: most people around the left were talking about it at the time and it was an issue socialists had to sensibly say something about: if Louise’s article is any guide Socialist Alternative failed that test. Additionally there is the issue of how best to relate to this year’s Reclaim the Night and the Jill Meagher marches. Despite the problematic politics of them, most people at these events were simply generally angry about sexism. At very least, there is an audience for socialists can relate to (this might not have been so true of the 30,000 strong march though as it seemed quite apolitical and mainly a memorial event where raising any politics may have been hard, difficult to know from Sydney). But our role must also be to challenge the idea that “reclaiming the night” is the best way to fight sexism. It is sectarian to simply abstain from going to these rallies on the grounds that they are right-wing. What’s required is a political intervention about how to fight sexism, not simply supporting the rallies.

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