The Guardian • Issue #1993

The Communist Party and social unrest

In seeking to justify the re-cancellation of Novak Djokovic’s visa in January 2022, the minister for immigration, Alex Hawke, said the following in documents filed with the federal court:

“I consider that Mr Djokovic’s ongoing presence in Australia may lead to an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment generated in the Australian community, potentially leading to an increase in civil unrest of the kind previously experienced in Australia with rallies and protests which may themselves be a source of community transmission.”

An increase in civil unrest – this is actually the main reason, even though the statement is couched in pandemic-related terms. While a number of angles – political theatre before an election, construction of the “anti-vaxer” narrative, the state undermining rule of law, and state-sponsored racism against someone who was often called “the Serb” – could be pursued in relation to whole saga, let us focus on this important category of civil or social unrest.

To begin with, it is significant that social unrest was actually identified as a problem. Of course, the idea that Djokovic – a reclusive sports-person of the highest calibre who has a strict regimen of food, exercise, and mental focus to ensure his body is in peak condition – could be a “talisman” for social unrest is an effort at diversion from the real causes. But what the weak regime in Canberra fears is an escalation of social unrest. And the last two years have certainly seen an escalation of such unrest in Western countries.

Most obvious are the “anti-lockdown” protests that are fuelled by all manner of conspiracy theories on social media. In fact, countries such as the UK and USA seem to have preferred to let the coronavirus rip rather than risk widespread and dangerous levels of unrest. Are the powers that be in Australia following the same approach? We can also see the increasing openness of neo-Nazis in Germany, Austria, and other countries, as well as the massive polarisation, economic hollowing out, and waves of protest and violence in the USA. More and more observers are noting that the USA may be close to an inflection point, and moves are underway to ensure that the military holds the line in the event of an outbreak of “hot” civil war.

These developments raise an absolutely crucial question: how should a Communist Party respond to and intervene in social unrest?

Historical experience of Communist Parties indicates that there are three steps: analyse the situation; assess who benefits; determine when and how to intervene.

1. Analyse the Situation

It is absolutely necessary to make a careful analysis of the the socio-economic causes for unrest. History can help us, whether the 1848 revolutions in Europe (Marx and Engels), the turmoil in Russia in the 1910s and 1920s (Lenin and Stalin), the revolutionary struggles in China 1920s-1940s (Mao and Deng), in Korea (Kim Il Sung), Vietnam (Ho Chih Minh), and so on.

What do we learn?

First, there is always a longer history leading to social unrest. For the last fifty years, the real economies in capitalist countries like Australia have been in a process of stagnation and decline (don’t listen to the Canberra spin doctors, listen to workers). The now defunct neoliberal project from the late 1970s was an effort to arrest this decline, but it has clearly failed. In its wake, however, are masses of casualised workers – the “gig economy” – without the hard-fought securities of full-time jobs. Examples are many, such as the underfunded and buckling health system, botched pandemic response, outsourced “quarantine hotels,” and collapsing logistics network.

Alongside the economic decline is political stagnation and fragmentation. As survey after survey indicates, trust in government and public institutions of capitalist countries has slipped to an all-time low (below fifty per cent). This leads not only to rampant conspiracy theories but also to a weak government giving the police and spooks more and more powers.

Second, social unrest has many vectors. As a Guardian earlier article (#1981 “A Melbourne perspective”) points out, the recent “anti-lockdown” protests have included those with “genuine concerns with the vaccine process, amplified by rights-based individualists and opportunistic far-right actors.” In short, there are far-right activists involved, liberal free-choicers, and workers suffering under the inept management of the pandemic. The article also points out that more “consultations with the unions” are needed, as well as community-wide involvement.

Third, in the context of extensive socio-economic and political breakdown, social unrest can escalate quickly. The difference between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces becomes crystal clear, and proletarian revolutions have been successful when Communist Parties have seized the initiative and led revolutionary forces.

2. Assess who benefits

We also need to ask who benefits from specific types and periods of social unrest. For example, it is very clear who stands to gain from the “colour revolutions” that date from the 1980s and have become increasingly violent – Ukraine, Hong Kong SAR, the Solomon Islands, and so on.

But what about the “Yellow Vests” in France or “Black Lives Matter” in the USA in 2020-2021? These too were often violent, with heavy-handed police repression.

The question today is who benefits from the “anti-lockdown” protests found in many Western countries. Are they aided and abetted by right-wing political parties keen to score points against opponents (as happened with Canberra in relation to Melbourne)? Are they avenues for various neo-fascist groups to promote their agendas? Are workers in precarious and risky jobs seeking to express their frustrations at the effects on their jobs, and on their physical and mental health?

3. Determine when and how to intervene

The short answer comes from Engels: intervene when ready and act decisively.

Intervening when ready has at least three facets: it has to be done in light of careful and constantly updated analysis of the context (see above); it needs to distinguish between a foolish activity that would lead to unwanted repression and an effective activity with maximum impact; and it needs a sober assessment of the CPA’s capabilities in the current situation. What is the most effective form of intervention in light of the number, time, and capabilities of members?

Examples may include – and these come from past and present activities – involvement in and indeed leadership of united-front organisations, a clear presence at the forefront of a genuine march or protest, handing out as much literature as possible explaining the CPA’s position, ensuring a CPA speaker has a few minutes on the podium, handing out food hampers to picketing workers who have eaten little more than sausages, providing “safe houses,” and so on. In short, such activities – involvement, presence, getting the message across, concrete acts that meet material needs – should be undertaken in a vanguard capacity. Other potential activities are better discussed “in camera.”

Finally, as Engels – in light of his revolutionary military experience – observed: “act with the greatest determination […] in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known: de l’audace, encore de l’audace!” (audacity, audacity and more audacity!) Lenin quoted exactly this text in 1917.

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