Peace protesters in Che shirts

The SMH | April 2, 2003

“Books not bombs” has been the rallying cry for tens of thousands of students around the nation in recent weeks. Initially it encapsulated the exuberant but largely peaceful approach of protests against war on Iraq.

Last week, however, the mission statement was sidetracked by violent clashes with police, causing second thoughts among those sympathetic to the students’ cause about the worth of continuing protests and whether those behind them are necessarily the right activists to entrust with managing the political passions of youth.

The Books not Bombs (BNB) coalition, says Kylie Moon, who has been quoted in the media as its national co-ordinator, was formed out of the March 5 student protests. Hmm. I was at the Sydney protest that day and it was clear the movement had already harnessed considerable organisational energy.

It wasn’t too hard to work out where it was coming from. There was a young man lugging a megaphone with the word “Resistance” scrawled on it, identifying it as the property of the youth wing of the Democratic Socialist Party. There were several Resistance stalls, all of which appeared to be staffed by activists over 18 (and, in the case of a few, over 28 or 38). There was the slickness of delivery of the most incendiary speakers, which made me think they might have had practice. And too many of those who appeared to be in the leadership group clustered around the ute on which the PA system was mounted were wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.

Though Che has been dead since 1967, executed at the ripe old age of 39 following his capture by the Bolivian army, his cool revolutionary visage, replete with beret and wispy goatee, lives on. Che (given name Ernesto) was born into a middle-class family in Argentina and qualified as a doctor before laying down the stethoscope to take up the AK-47. Joining the exiled Fidel Castro in Mexico City, he played a pivotal role in the Cuban Revolution.

Che is the poster boy of Resistance. Which is ironic given that this organisation is now looking to pull in young recruits on the basis of its anti-war credentials. The Encyclopaedia of Marxism notes that Che’s main contribution to revolutionary thought is his theory of the primacy of military struggle. So Che was no pacifist. But then neither is Resistance.

The young, idealistic and impressionable recruits being signed up at this protest deserve to have a few things explained to them. Like how the DSP, when it was calling itself the Socialist Workers Party, wasn’t too peacenik to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and how the party is largely deaf to human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of socialism. Let’s also hear how the party’s devotion to the “popular front” and the practice of “entryism” worked itself out with the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Greens.

On March 5, after I finished chatting with assorted DSP comrades keen to sign me up, I went home and checked out BNB and Resistance websites. The phone numbers for BNB organisers in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Wollongong were the same as those listed for Resistance. And it turns out Moon is also the national co-ordinator of Resistance.

Writing in the latest issue of Green Left Weekly, Moon reports that BNB is now “a large and powerful network of anti-war activists across the country”. In Sydney, BNB’s email discussion list includes 900 students from 197 schools, TAFE colleges and universities. “New activists are using the discussion list to share ideas on how to do anti-war campaigning in their school, deal with school repression and take the next steps for the anti-war campaign,” Sydney Resistance organiser Simon Butler is quoted as saying.

So this is what I have to say to all you students who have marched for peace, and especially to those more deeply involved. It is for you that I have written this. I want to applaud you. But I do not care to salute you. The former, you will note, is a civil act, the latter a militant one. If you want militant look no further than the radical groups keen to sign you up at the next “student-organised” march. I ask only that you treasure the luxury of being able to think for yourself, and hope you have the innate sense to realise an independent mind does not flourish by subjugating itself to a party line.

If you’re going to get mixed up in radical politics, at least know what you are getting into. Make what we like to call an adult decision – though you will note that many adults fail the test. Understand that fundamentalist politics is a lot like fundamentalist religion: it seems to have vibrancy and energy at first but is ultimately superficial and contradictory and dogmatic. You’ll notice a high churn rate.

Be under no illusions, either, that leftist fringe politics is any less susceptible to the vices than come with any other sort of politics. In fact, you’ll probably spend more time squabbling with other socialists than you do opposing the capitalist order.

I’m hoping, of course, you don’t take that route. It would be such a waste of your spirit. For there was a fine democratic spirit on March 5. Even accounting for the young man who took the mike late in proceedings to denounce John Howard with some choice phrases, it was a relatively civil affair. This crowd was boisterous and feeling just a bit rebellious; but for a bunch of kids out of school with a big cause as justification and the egging on of a few radicals it was one well-behaved excursion group.

I liked the fact that home-made banners were far more prevalent than the mass-produced cliches of fringe political organisations. I want to see more of this do-it-yourself spirit if you hit the streets again today. Do it yourself, organise yourself, think for yourself and don’t wear a Che T-shirt.

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