Multiculturalism – ten years on
by Peter Symon
August this year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication by the Socialist Party of Australia of a pamphlet on the question of multiculturalism. It was called Multiculturalism and written by S Mavrantonis, a former Central Committee member of the SPA of Greek origin. The author of this commemorative article recalls the main points of the pamphlet.
The pamphlet Multiculturalism has stood the test of time very well. Its main ideas can be restated because the issues raised and dealt with remain as problems for the working class and communist movement of Australia.
The Australia population was, in the first place, made up of an estimated 350,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who owned and occupied the Australian continent until the Anglo Saxon invasion of 1788.
From that time onwards, the Australian population has steadily grown by way of migration and natural increase. Today, as everyone knows, Australian society is made up of Australian born and a large proportion of migrants from many lands. There are over 200 ethnic groups making up over 25 per cent of the Australian community.
It was this situation which led the Socialist Party to support a policy of multiculturalism and multilingualism not only in recognition of the cultural contribution which could be made by migrants but also as the means by which racism could be avoided.
It was necessary to take steps to find the way to unite the working class made up of people who came from many different countries, having different languages, different cultural backgrounds and different political experiences.
The starting point for the SPA was the fact that there is only one working class in Australia and this is determined not by language and culture, of which there is a diversity, but by the common position of all workers in the economy. "The working class and any other social class is defined by its relation to the means of production", says the pamphlet.
If the predominant consideration is language and culture, then one would have to say that there are many working classes in Australia – one Italian, one Greek, one Lebanese, one Chinese, and so on. Such a proposition is ridiculous.
In any large industry these days, one is sure to find workers who originated in a number of different countries but they all share the same relation to the means of production – they do not own them – and they are all exploited by the same employer.
Migrant workers from other countries can contribute a great deal to the working class movement of their new homeland. They often bring with them many experiences of the struggles of their former homelands and by participating in the life of the Australian working class movement can give the movement great vitality, strength and the knowledge of their former experiences.
Because both Australian born and foreign born workers are part of the one class, whose level of existence depends largely on the effectiveness of their struggle against the common capitalist exploiter, the need for unity is not just a philosophical notion but a vital necessity.
The Socialist Party has always recognised that it takes time for migrants to adjust to their new circumstances, in some cases to learn a new language, to understand different ways of doing things, adjust to a different culture and become part of Australian organisations. This is quite natural. However, it is a process which needs to be encouraged and helped. It is also inevitable.
Ties with one's former homeland become weaker, children grow up as Australian citizens knowing little of their parents' original country and, most of all, all migrants participate in the economic life of their new country.
In the first instance, many migrants see themselves as a part of an ethnic group but, flowing from social integration, ethnic groups go through a slow process of national integration, gradually developing a consciousness of being part of the Australian nation.
The economic and social integration of migrants creates the basis for their integration into the Australian nation and the consequent expansion and enrichment of the national life of Australia as a whole.
This process can be assisted and consolidated by the purposeful activity of progressive migrants who recognise that the unity of the working class is a primary condition for the progress of the whole.
The central and most important idea of the SPA's attitude is that there is only one working class within each country.
From this flows the next idea. It is that this one working class has to be served by one revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist party dedicated to the struggle for socialism.
It is in this respect that the communist movement has experienced some difficulties which have been expressed by the formation of some communist organisations based on national considerations. They are not based on the idea of the common position of all workers and the need for unity, but on the preservation of ethnic separateness. Such groups have given priority to their national origin.
The formation of separate communist groups inevitably leads to the isolation of the communists concerned from the Australian party, which is the party of the whole class, and from the wider Australian labour movement. It introduces an organisational division along national lines where none should exist.
It is not difficult to see where such a course leads in a nation such as Australia whose population (and working class) is comprised of workers who have many different national origins. A number of parties, all claiming to be communist, would emerge, each giving first priority to the struggles in their former homeland and the specific problems of their own ethnic community.
The SPA is and will be opposed to such a course, believing that it does not even strengthen the particular group concerned, let alone the movement as a whole. In our view their common position as workers should predominate.
The experience over the last ten years, in which a number of branches of overseas communist parties have come into existence in Australia, shows that this does not lead to strength but to their eventual liquidation. As the ethnic group to which they belong gradually becomes more and more part of the Australian nation, the continued appeal of such groups to the politics of their former homeland finds a smaller and smaller audience.
The SPA has and will extend solidarity to the people of every country in their struggles against imperialism, for national liberation and social progress. As part of the SPA, it is easily possible for migrant worker communists, together with all other workers, to find the way to act in solidarity and exercise proper internationalism. In fact, this sort of solidarity is much stronger and more effective than if it comes only from those who migrated from a particular country.
Isolation also denies the possibility of fully taking part in the life of the Party, learning from its overall experiences and so on. The experience of the last 10 years shows that there is a marked deterioration in the ideological position and activity by those who confine their political life and perspective to a single ethnic group.
It is sometimes argued in support of separate groups that, while the SPA can give leadership on issues relating to Australia, those who adhere to overseas parties will give leadership to its organisations in Australia on issues relating to the former homeland of the migrant group.
However, this artificially separates two aspects of a struggle – the "class" and the "national". As the pamphlet on multiculturalism points out:
"There is no such separation in life and any attempt to do so inevitably damages both elements of the one struggle taking place in Australia and elsewhere. "
The SPA is responsible to the Australian working class as well as the world's working class for the development of political work in Australia. Other parties are responsible to the working class in their particular country and to the world's working class through internationalist solidarity. The work of the various parties is brought together through proletarian internationalism.
"To the question: Do migrant workers now resident in Australia need a separate ('independent') party? Our answer is a definite, NO! ", says the pamphlet.
The idea of multiculturalism has been adopted by all political parties in Australia and much has been achieved. However, there remain misconceptions which arise from confusion about the meaning of words like "ethnic", "nation", "integration", and a word now being widely used in relation to the Australian Aborigines – "reconciliation”.
The pamphlet, Multiculturalism quotes Lenin to define the concept of a "nation".
"The nation is a lasting historical community of people constituting a form of social development based on the community of economic life in combination with the community of language, territory, culture, consciousness and psychology" (Leninism and the National Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977 p 27)
Ethnic, on the other hand, relates to the language, culture and other features of a group which has formed in a country as a result of migration from another country. In Australia we have, as already stated, over 200 different ethnic groups formed by migration. The nations from which these ethnic groups came are Ireland, Spain, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, etc. There is not a Greek nation is Australia but there is a Greek ethnic group. In Greece people are part of the Greek nation; in Australia they are part of the Greek ethnic group.
As time goes on, the individuals who at present make up these ethnic groups will gradually become integrated into the wider Australian nation. They will become part of the Australian nation and will identify with it, even while retaining elements of the language and culture of the nation from which they or their parents came.
The Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are in a different category, however. They are not migrants but original inhabitants. They are Australia's indigenous people. Their land is here on this continent. They are, therefore, not an ethnic group but a national minority which exists within the Australian state.
This question is not the subject of this article except to say that the policy of “reconciliation”, while sounding nice and friendly, is also a means by which the Aboriginal people will continue to be denied proper recognition as the original inhabitants of this continent and a people in their own right.
It remains to say something about multiculturalism, what it is not and what it should be.
The pamphlet Multiculturalism says:
"Every nation has its own culture. Due to the historical development of the Australian nation, the Anglo-Saxon cultural forms prevailed and became the dominant culture of the new nation.
"Due to the large influx of migrants from non-English speaking countries in the post-war period, new strong ethnic elements were introduced into the Australian national and social fabric.
"There are those of the monopoly ruling class who oppose it because it introduces into the Australian society new elements which, in their view, endanger the dominance of the Anglo Saxon prototype.
"There are also petty bourgeois, reformist views which, while paying lip service to multiculturalism, tend to confuse or deliberately divert the issue by insisting on a vague pluralism of forms – a little bit of Greek or Italian, etc., here and there.
"[There is also] "a popular view among some [ethnic] groups that the exclusive purpose of the teaching and maintenance of community languages and cultures in Australia is to preserve in Australia a small Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain and so on.
"In the view of the Socialist Party, multiculturalism means "a process for the development of a new Australian culture which will be the outcome of cultural interaction between the various groups without prejudices and discrimination and will contain elements of all the individual ethnic cultures."
This is not the "mere sum total or adding together of a number of different little cultures, which stand separate and apart from each other ... it must be national in character, that is, unified and integrated, rather than the result of a process of assimilation". All the elements are dialectically connected and must not be regarded as in any way separate. They will make up a new cultural whole.
This is a process which is taking place and will inevitably continue but it will be all the quicker and smoother if the ultimate objective is understood and worked for by all communists and progressive people.