Workers' Liberty #2/2


The politics of the Grand Vizier

One of the things which I find attractive about WL is its insistence on the importance of what it calls independent working class politics and I call a class line. All too often, however, this perspective disappears when it is applied to practical questions of war and peace. Instead of independent working class politics, we get Grand Vizier politics. I will discuss the Forum article on East Timor by Roger Clarke from WL 2/1, written as a criticism of the WL position on East Timor, because it is a textbook example of the problem. I believe, however, that the WL position itself shares a similar flaw.

By "A bloke I met"

'Grand Vizier politics' is a term I've chosen for the phenomenon of an organisation in the workers' movement using its visibility (such as it is) to advise a government, usually the one of the country in which it is located, what it should do to solve a problem which the organisation sees. Whatever mobilisation of the working class may be involved in this approach is, at bottom, merely to allow the Grand Vizier to advise the correct policy to the ruler more compellingly. It is very far removed from independent working class politics. Instead, it sees the State as a relatively uncomplicated instrument which can be used by the working class for its ends provided sufficient pressure is applied.

This is not to say that we should not make any demands on the ruling class at all. This would be a retreat into the sterile politics of 'revolution and nothing but'. Rather, we need to make a distinction between demands which serve independent working class politics and those which do not. The distinction is basically between demands for the State or the ruling class to perform (or not perform) certain clearly defined acts which leave the working class with greater freedom of action and demands for the State to adopt a different policy. Further, demands for specific acts should be avoided if it can be clearly seen that these actions, if conceded by the State, would be performed as part of a reactionary policy of its own. Examples of appropriate demands are 'Troops out of the West Bank' or '6% rise with no trade offs'. An example of Grand Vizier demands would be 'Double the foreign aid budget'.

In his article, Roger makes a number of problematical points, but probably the most important was when he agreed with the statement:

'This is not advice. Socialists should simply say what we want done.'

Certainly we should say what we want done. The crucial question, however, is 'By whom?' Are we revolutionaries speaking to the working class and arguing for a working class solution to the problems we see, or are we the Grand Vizier, telling the ruler what he should do? Independent working class politics require that it be the former, but Roger's article is all about the latter - and could not be otherwise, given his advocacy of sending Australian military forces to East Timor.

A working class response to the East Timor crisis would have recognised the concrete situation and what the various capitalist states and parties were doing and/or would do and then sought to mobilise the working class for its own solution. Given that the forces we would mobilise for this were very small and our influence was thus very limited, we had an added responsibility to advance our solution in a way which did not affect the machinations of the capitalist states and parties so as to increase the probability of a worse outcome than if we had not acted at all.

There were four broad outcomes to the East Timor crisis of 1999 which were possible at the time:

1. The workers of Australia and Indonesia unite around a program of recognising the result of East Timorese self determination and, by strikes, demonstrations and boycotts, compel their respective governments to do likewise. The labour movements of both Australia and Indonesia rise to a new plane.

2. The Indonesian government, bowing to international pressure and unstable in its own right, accepts a UN-authorised military force (in the circumstances, inevitably dominated by Australia) to supervise Indonesian withdrawal and clean up the remnants of its militia. East Timor effectively comes under Australian domination. Any demand that the 'peacekeepers' act as allies of the East Timorese rather than overlords is a particularly deluded fantasy born of Grand Vizier politics at its worst.

3. The Indonesian army and its puppet militia continue their rampage in East Timor until the entire country is terrorised into silence and submission. In the course of achieving this, Dili and many other places would be sacked and burnt.

4. The Australian government invades East Timor without approval either from the UN or Indonesia. The worst fears of insecure Indonesian nationalists are apparently confirmed and a wave of nationalist fervour sweeps the country. The Indonesian military seizes its chance and takes control, proceeding to round up and shoot the Left. A bloody war in East Timor ensues, with Australian military training and hardware confronted by much more numerous Indonesian soldiers and shorter Indonesian supply lines. The death toll (both in Timor and within Indonesia) hits five figures, maybe six.

As can be seen, the scenarios are set out in descending order of desirability. Working class revolutionaries should have been advocating #1, since it is the only scenario consistent with independent working class politics. In the course of our agitation, we would, like the rest of the Left, have taken opposition to #3 as our starting point, but should also have fought vigorously against #4 and put our opposition to #2 on the record. On the other hand, Roger's article indicates that revolutionaries should have advocated #2. Since he was willing to accept an Australian invasion in the event of #2 not eventuating, #4 would have followed in those circumstances. #1 doesn't even enter into his calculations.

It can also be seen that arming the Timorese (a call a version of which was adopted by WL) was not mentioned. This is because even with all the guns they could handle, Falantil was never going to be a match for the Indonesian military. The disproportion of forces was just too great. Further, this demand begs the question, not only of who was going to arm them, but of how. Timor is, after all, an island, and half of it is undisputed Indonesian territory. Nobody except the Australian military was in a position to arm the Timorese and transferring any more than a minimal amount of weaponry would have been impossible to keep secret. Military confrontation with Indonesia was therefore probable and we would have been on the road to scenario #4, albeit in a way from which it would be easier to pull back.

Was an internationalist working class campaign possible? Yes. Not only was it possible, but it happened. Australia Asia Worker Links, an organisation of individual members and affiliated unions, agitated in the labour movement in Australia, Indonesia and across the Asia Pacific region for workers' action to compel the Indonesian government to withdraw their troops. As well as encouraging the unions in Australia to take the strongest possible action and publicising the action they did take, AAWL worked with the independent union federations in Indonesia to build support for the campaign there.

Both significant independent union federations in Indonesia, SBSI and FNPBI, were calling for an Indonesian withdrawal and the entry of a UN force. Further, support for East Timorese self determination was a touchstone on the Indonesian Left and was a key issue separating the political elites (including their 'opposition' members) from the grassroots opposition, which included the workers' movement. By building support for this campaign in both countries, AAWL was contributing to making scenario #3 unsustainable, while also maximising the small chance that East Timor could be rescued without falling into the clutches of Australian imperialism. If other working class organisations had also seen the Indonesian workers' movement as our key ally in this campaign (i.e. they had been internationalist), the chance of success would have been somewhat greater than it was.

In this context, three arguments in Roger's article need disputing. They are that Australia was not acting as an imperialist country in its intervention in East Timor; that the wishes of the East Timorese leadership should have been respected; and that there was no realistic prospect of war between Australia and Indonesia.

In the first place, Australia does not become any less of an imperialist country when it changes its policy on East Timor. Rather, both the alliance with Indonesia at the expense of East Timor and the decision to intervene in East Timor were driven by imperialist dynamics. Australia and Indonesia, being significant countries and next door to each other, cannot bypass each other like ships in the night. They must be either friends or enemies, and there are advocates of both camps within the capitalist class in Australia.

For most of the time since Indonesian independence, the dominant opinion in the Australian bourgeoisie has been in favour of an alliance with Indonesia. This has entailed turning a blind eye to the murderous appetites of the Indonesian military in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh, as well as providing active assistance to the genocidal slaughter of the Left in 1965. The benefits have been considerable, with the Timor Gap Treaty of Gareth 'Blood for Oil' Evans being only the most visible. Probably more important has been the fact that, with Indonesia onside, Australia is virtually impregnable from a military perspective. Only the United States would have the capacity to threaten Australia militarily.

The contrary opinion, however, also has its adherents within the capitalist class. These people decry the thuggish behaviour of the Indonesian military and want to take the government to task over human rights. Amongst the working class, this attitude is entirely healthy, but a different logic is at work in the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois critics of Indonesia in Australia are the war party. Because their only way of gaining concrete results from their criticisms is by exerting the economic and military might of Australian capitalism, the logic of their policies leads to ever-deepening confrontation. As a sign of what lies at the end of this road, a prominent broadsheet newspaper article at the time of the East Timor crisis blithely proposed that Indonesia be dismembered to stop the Javanese-chauvinist Indonesian military oppressing the other ethnic groups across the archipelago. The author did not explore the method by which this dismemberment might be achieved and the suggestion went, to my knowledge, unremarked.

Secondly, Roger attaches great importance to the fact that the East Timorese leadership requested UN troops. Of course they would - you can't expect petit bourgeois nationalists to call for a working class response, at least these days. It should also be remembered that during the 80s the Left was purged from the leadership of the East Timorese resistance, most probably at the insistence of the Catholic Church. The working class, on the other hand, must not tail these forces. If we come to the aid of a struggle for self-determination, we must do so on our terms and using our own methods of struggle. And, as a final argument on this point, I can't imagine the East Timorese liberation movement disowning a struggle, in the event that it occurred, linking the Australian and Indonesian working classes in support of Indonesian military withdrawal. To the extent that AAWL's work had any impact, it was to hurry the Indonesian withdrawal and also reduce the reliance of the East Timorese movement on Australian imperialism.

The final disagreement I have with Roger's article is on an even more significant matter. He drastically downplays the prospect of war in the event that an Australian force invaded East Timor in the face of opposition from the Indonesian government. Indeed, he even says 'How to face down Indonesia and avoid a war was the government's problem'. This is not so much the politics of the Grand Vizier as of Pontius Pilate!

In fact, the Howard government is probably the least likely candidate for managing a crisis with Indonesia since that country became independent. And a war would definitely have been the most probable outcome, since it would have served the internal purposes of the Indonesian military to a tee. Twice already they have attempted the physical liquidation of the Left, in 1948 and 1965, and both times it has been done amidst cries of treason.

In 1999 the military were deeply discredited and retreating in disarray, but the nationalistic fervour which would have gripped Indonesia if Australia invaded East Timor (and remember that most Indonesians outside the Left knew little or nothing about how it was acquired, so would have had no basis for seeing through the official lies) would have catapulted the military back into command. Once in command, of course, they would have taken their bloody revenge. Whatever the intentions of the working class forces advocating an invasion, the result would have been a bloodbath. It was the worst possible outcome.

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