A member of the Lebanese Communist Party once told me that the reason he became a communist was that when he grew up the communists were the best people, the most decent, honest and generous. This is something I’ve thought a lot about since, because most Australian socialists don’t seem to think in those terms.
Of course, most socialists are very decent people who are committed to making the world a better place. However, within the organisations there is often an attitude that because we are trying to make a revolution by any means necessary, little things like personal integrity just aren’t as important as politics. So if achieving your aims requires telling a little white lie every now and then, that’s acceptable, perhaps even your duty as a revolutionary socialist.
One example that I’ve seen persistently over the years involves petitions. Socialist stalls usually have a number of petitions on them about whatever issue is big at the moment, and members will often put a lot of effort into getting people to sign them, but not one of these petitions ever gets sent anywhere. Every single one ends up in the rubbish.
Most socialists don’t really believe that petitions will change anything. They only use them to attract people to the stall so that they can talk to them and try to sell them newspapers. I was involved in the Socialist Alliance for years and in that time we had hundreds of petitions, of which probably 99.9% were not real.
Usually socialists will pretend that the petition is to be sent to the Federal Government or somewhere equally vague, but not always. A friend was amazed when she asked a Socialist Alternative member where the petition she was signing would be sent, and they told her “We don’t send them anywhere – we just use them to talk to people.”
Aside from the total disrespect to the person signing the petition, what makes this particularly frustrating is that there are plenty of people out there trying to collect signatures for real petitions. But it is near impossible to get many socialists to collect signatures for them.
One example I found particularly infuriating occurred at the time of Israel’s 2008 “Operation Hot Winter” attacks on Gaza. Shortly after Israel’s massacre of over 100 people including many children, Kevin Rudd passed a bi-partisan motion supporting Israel on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. A Palestinian friend launched a petition against the motion; a number of high-profile politicians and journalists supported it and thousands of signatures were collected by mosques.
I tried to get Socialist Alternative to support the petition, but Mick Armstrong refused because he felt that it could be interpreted as promoting a 2 state solution. So instead of getting people to sign a real petition for Palestine, Socialist Alternative spent several weeks collecting signatures for their usual fake, but politically pure petitions for Palestine.
Socialist Alliance on the other hand did formally agree to support the petition when I raised it at a meeting. I brought piles of copies of the petition to their office, put them in every stall box I could find and constantly promoted it to other members. Yet most people just didn’t collect signatures for it, and time and time again fake petitions about Palestine would appear in its place.
There were a few people in Socialist Alliance who staunchly refused to use the fake petitions, but most of the membership never even questioned the practice. They believed it was a harmless and that getting the chance to talk to people who signed the petitions was just more important. The problem is that even if it seems harmless, it still involves going out on the streets day after day and lying to people. What kind of political culture is this building? What attitude does it reflect towards the people we are trying to win over?
I do believe that we need to make a revolution by any means necessary – the possibility of climate disaster makes this more important than ever – but I also believe that those necessary means include conducting ourselves with honesty and integrity.
I don’t know if all the socialist groups use fake petitions, but I strongly suspect they do. So if you are asked by a socialist to sign a petition, before you do make sure you ask them where they are going to send it, and don’t accept “to the Federal Government” as a response.