Vale Rod Webb, 1943-2020

Submitted by martin on 27 July, 2021 - 5:56 Author: Janet Burstall
Rod Webb

Without Rod Webb, there may not have been a consistent group of supporters of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Australia, advocating the ideas and principles of third-camp Trotskyism. It was because of Rod that I became a Trotskyist, and because of people he put me in touch with, even after he became less active himself, that I discovered the literature of the forerunners of the AWL, made contact with Martin Thomas, and helped to establish Socialist Fight, as a group of co-thinkers of the now AWL. This is part obituary, and part story of how Rod’s ideas and connections contributed to the founding of Socialist Fight.

Rod Webb died in May 2020, during covid restrictions. Rod’s “revolutionary years” from 1968-1979 were one of the significant periods of his life celebrated at a memorial gathering one year after his death.

Rod had become a Trotskyist in the years prior to 1968, in the Vietnam Action Campaign, and in Resistance, where he organised the Film Society at least from 1967. The US-SWP aligned Resistance grew, changed its name to the Socialist Youth Alliance, then, as the Socialist Workers League (SWL), attempted unification with other Trotskyist tendencies including supporters of Pablo, and the Mandelite United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI). Rod was one of the leaders of the SWL from its founding in 1972, a member of the national and political committees, and Sydney Branch organiser. (The tendencies soon split.)

Rod took ideas seriously. As his friend and one-time comrade Ian Robertson recounted at the memorial, Rod joined both the SWL and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) because he believed in ideas and principles and wanted to change the world.

By the time I met Rod at Macquarie University in 1974, he seemed more supporter than member of the SWL and its paper, Direct Action. He was at Macquarie as the editor of the student newspaper Arena. In 1973 Rod was instrumental in enlisting the support of the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation for victimised homosexual Macquarie student Jeremy Fisher, union support which continues as an iconic reference point in radical labour movement and LGBTQI politics.

Rod took the time to discuss ideas with everyone who was interested, including me, despite the fact that I had joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which he constantly criticised as Stalinist. Rod was very energetic, intense, sometimes self-centred, and didn’t hold back on expressing his differences with others. Paradoxically, although this made him some enemies, his principles helped to create a culture on the Macquarie student left of honest (even if sometimes unavoidably rancorous or petty) democratic debate, and non-sectarian co-operation across the spectrum of Labor, Communist, Trotskyist, feminist and other non-aligned students. There was one significant exception to Rod’s spirit of co-operation and discussion, the Australian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), of which more later.

One of Rod’s first direct challenges to me was about taking a clear political position. As I sat in the cafeteria, drafting my policy statement to run for Students’ Council, he pulled to pieces my mealy-mouthed clichés promising to be responsible and honest. Anyone can say that, he told me. What do you stand for? On feminism? On students’ rights? etc. I got the picture, and ever since have found candidate statements in all manner of elections to be lacking.

In mid 1974 over 300 students occupied the office of the Vice-Chancellor when he refused to negotiate over student demands. The VC was blocking a Students’ Council voted increase in its annual student fee. And the administration wanted to impose a segregated staff bar in the student-staff Union building.

Rod’s leadership was behind the demand for “Student control of student affairs”, student strike committee gatherings in his editor’s office, and the front lawn mass meetings, that voted to occupy when the Vice-Chancellor refused to negotiate. The strike committee was particularly important, as a forum for all the activists behind the demands, to discuss through the issues, and come up with recommendations to put to a front lawn meeting. The context helped us to realise the contempt that the university administration showed for student organisation, in refusing to negotiate, in calling in of the police, and use of the Summary Offences Act to arrest us. It educated the participating students to understand the powerful as our enemies. It was an inspirational lesson in democratic self-organisation and clear leadership.

The Arena that Rod edited was informative, wide-ranging, and took ideas and debates seriously. Commentary on university administration and the business of Students’ Council was regular. Diana Auburn (who sadly died of leukaemia around 1982) was the women’s editor then followed Rod as editor, at a time when the women’s liberation movement was demanding to speak for itself and be heard. It was from reading Arena that I first participated in action for gay and lesbian rights. The teacher’s scholarship of a lesbian student, Penny Short, had been revoked because of her sexuality. The fictitious Noelene Pymble-Veneer’s column satirised bourgeois suburban life. Rod also covered university sporting teams, the activities of clubs and societies, took most of the photographs for Arena with his trusty Minolta camera and an artistic eye. Under Rod’s editorship, Arena made students think, made students aware of power, of the actions of authorities, and the demands of women, lesbians and gays, aboriginal people and Palestinians for liberation. He made me aware of the impact of a regular publication.

Rod was one of the principal organisers of a national tour of representatives of the General Union of Palestinian Students, Eddie Zananiri and Samir Cheikh, in May 1975. This tour introduced the slogan “For a democratic secular Palestine” to student politics, and then Australian politics. It pitted the organised left against the Australian Union of Jewish Students. Despite AUJS advocating that Israel should concede independence to Palestinians, Rod and most supporters of Palestinians, myself included, demonised the AUJS as anti-Palestinian by definition (as being Zionist), and ostracised Jews who favoured Israel’s existence as pro-imperialist. The hostile debate that followed resulted in massive votes against the Australian Union of Students (AUS) leadership backed “democratic secular Palestine” formula, and contributed to the demise of AUS. It initiated in Australia a peculiar form of antisemitism on the left, similar to that in the British Labour Party. For several more years, I too supported the democratic secular Palestine answer to the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Then Socialist Organiser/I-CL (forerunner of Solidarity/AWL) rethought communal/national conflicts, particularly Catholic vs. Protestant in Northern Ireland, and in Israel/Palestine. The I-CL concluded that the road to peace between the conflicting national identities required mutual recognition of each other’s collective identity and rights, not conquest of one by the other. This translated as an independent Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel, two states for two peoples. Because of my moral opposition to the injustices perpetrated on Palestinians by Israel, it took me some time to think through, and come to support a two states solution. I had the chance to discuss with Rod, maybe around 2010, that basing solutions to social injustice primarily on an “anti-imperialist” standpoint, led socialists to advocate support for terrible reactionaries (such as Hamas), dictators, and the kinds of Stalinists that he had taught us to oppose. He had always rejected supporting political forces simply on the grounds that they were fighting imperialism, e.g. the Vietnamese NLF, or Fretilin in East Timor. By this time Rod was not politically active, but he was still interested and thoughtful, and said that he could see that we had a point.

Even though I was observing Rod while I was at Macquarie, learning from watching and discussing, I remained a member of the Communist Party until the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975.

I had thought that the CPA had put Stalinism behind it, when it denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and criticised regime in the Soviet Union. I was confused by Rod’s criticism of the CPA for being Stalinist, but I must have been mulling over his exposition of the “Popular Front”. The Popular Front was an approach originating with Stalin, in which Communist Parties seeking peace between their own government and the Soviet Union, formed alliances with bourgeois parties who might be willing to ally with, or at least not attack the Soviet Union. This was despite active hostility by those parties to the demands and the rights of workers. This became a policy for some CPs of identifying the most dangerous capitalists, and then supporting alternative, supposedly more progressive sections of capital. In Australia the CPA had become economic nationalists, agitating against Trans National Corporations (TNCs), and advocating for tariffs and government support for Australian manufacturing companies.

After Kerr sacked Whitlam, the CPA’s weekly paper, Tribune, was published an extra six times over three weeks. I was embarrassed to sell it. Despite its socialist rhetoric, it was supportive of Labor’s economic policies, did not place demands on Labor for the election, and despite extolling the massive anti-Fraser sentiment, it was not organising and agitating for unions (including those in which it had elected officials) to exercise power, and take strike action against Fraser’s caretaker government. I had learned enough of Marxism and class struggle politics to recognise that the CPA was not practising them.

My first year out of uni was 1977. No longer part of student politics, I searched for ways to be a revolutionary socialist. I joined the Municipal Employees Union, and attended monthly Women’s Liberation meetings. I was now free from the social pressure of my Communist Party circle at Macquarie Uni, and more open to considering Trotskyism. Rod gave me Trotsky’s The Transitional Program to read, and it was a revelation. I was critical of the ideas of all the left groups in Sydney, which Rod willingly discussed. I didn’t come across any individual members who would debate ideas (other than the Spartacists, but I had enough experience and sense to recognise their sterile sectarianism), rather than just try to recruit, taking for granted that they had the undisputable right line. I departed for Europe in late September 1977, where I did some political hunting. A friend in the SWL lined up meetings with people affiliated to the USFI in France, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Germany. Large demonstrations and their revolutionary optimism were exciting.

In London, unfamiliar with the Left, lacking contacts, I sometimes called in at the Islington bookshop of the International Marxist Group, scoured the weekly what’s on column in Time Out, attended large protests such as Rock Against Racism, and occasional Women’s Liberation meetings. But I found no one to talk to, and no real satisfaction.

When I returned to Sydney in the summer of 1978/79 Rod me in touch with other people who were interested in critical discussions of Trotskyism. One was Tony Brown, also from Macquarie Uni. The others were Rod’s comrades in Melbourne, Frans Timmerman and David Spratt. They were part of a Melbourne Marxist Discussion Group (MMDG), recently set-up by dissatisfied activists. Many were ex-members of the Socialist Workers Party (previously the SWL). I was able to get to Melbourne every few weeks. The MMDG met on Sundays, to discuss three or four readings on the week’s topic, for a theme that ran over several meetings. The themes included the Leninist party, women’s liberation, trade unions, the Labor Party.

Tony Brown and I assembled a small group of interested people in Sydney and we pretty much followed the same curriculum as the Melbourne Group.

Frans, David, and Simon Marginson were also part of, a “Leninist caucus” inside the MMDG, along with Paul White, Richard Lane and Duggie Silins. I met with them whenever I could get to Melbourne. Paul had acquired the weekly British newspaper Socialist Organiser, and other literature, from Workers Fight (WF) and the International-Communist League (IC-L), forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). Paul had come across this literature as a result of its distribution by Tony Bidgood, a former WF member in Britain who had moved to Australia and was briefly active before spinning off into Maoism.

The I-CL was developing its own account of how post WWII Trotskyist analyses had degenerated, and accommodated to Stalinism and the “anti-imperialism of idiots”. The “Leninist caucus”, minus Frans, David and Simon in Melbourne, and plus Tony Brown, Leon Parissi and me in Sydney, decided in 1981 at urging from Martin Thomas and the I-CL, to start publishing a monthly magazine, named Socialist Fight. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and the Stalinist influenced left responded in support of the invasion, against US interference. Martin persuaded me, through debate and close reading of Trotsky’s In defence of Marxism, that siding with the Soviet invasion was wrong.

This was the take-off point for my lifelong association with AWL.

From time to time I told Rod about Socialist Fight, and asked him for advice. But it was movies that kept us in touch during the 1980s. Rod was Director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1983. He opened my eyes to Iranian, Polish and other Eastern European cinema. He chose humanist and political films that stood for human liberation and condemned dictatorship.

Rod always stuck to his principles of refusing to do the bosses' dirty work, and resigned from his job programming movies at SBS TV, rather than obey orders to sack a large number of his staff. Rod probably abandoned organised socialist politics, and the SWP in particular, mainly because it didn’t fit with pursuing a career in the arts, in film and music, where his talents and interest lay. Rod’s independent thinking would also have been at odds with the increasingly stultifying version of party centralism with minimal democracy adopted by the SWP.

It is a paradox that Rod was one of the originators of left wing anti-Zionism in Australia, and yet also helped to educate and bring together the people who would reject the repressive, anti-working class methodology of anti-imperialism that anti-Zionism is consistent with. Rod's abandonment of organised Trotskyism came before the SWP resolved its ideological contradictions in the early 1980s, by rejecting Trotskyism and adopting anti-imperialism as its primary principle. On the one hand the SWP held onto the idea that the one-party state controlled economies were some form of "workers' states", or at least anti-imperialist (and its successor in the DSP/Socialist Alliance still holds to this view). On the other hand, Trotskyism stands for working class self-organisation and liberation, which is incompatible with support for those regimes. It is that enduring principle of Trotskyism that I first learned from Rod.

Rod Webb’s political legacy comes from a combination of intentional political organisation, discussion and activism, of deliberate fostering of contacts, and of serendipitous results of literature, people and ideas coming together.

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