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The following document by SL/A Central Committee member O. Dziga was adopted at the 2024 SL/A and B-L Fusion Conference. It has been slightly edited for publication.

The cornerstone of the modern liberal order in Australia is the program and ideological language of liberal multiculturalism. Liberal hegemony and the multicultural project cannot, in this country, be separated. Their developments have always been entwined, the stability of one guaranteeing the stability of the other. As the Australian ruling class abandoned the program of insular White-Australia exclusionism, which had broken down as a profitable or feasible project, it was a liberal inclusionary framework which necessarily picked up the ideological slack. Wedded to the triumphalist project of reconfiguring Australia’s place in the post-Soviet world, centrally under the Hawke-Keating governments, multiculturalism was entrenched as a hegemonic core tenet of modern Australian nationalism.

This document will lay out this process, its contradictions and function to Australian capital. It will examine the response of the left as well as white-racist reaction, and how the reinforcing relationship of the two stabilised and strengthened liberalism. It will also make an argument about the future of the multicultural project in Australia and why a communist struggle against liberalism, the principal barrier to the working class in this epoch, necessitates the struggle against multiculturalism as its central ideological project.

The key fact to get straight is that multiculturalism is hegemonic to the framework of Australian mainstream as well as left politics, and that this is both the result of a stable social order and a key contributor to that stability. Multicultural Australia is a visible reality on the streets of all Australian cities. First and second-generation migrants make up a majority of the population, among the highest percentage of OECD nations. This is a demographic shift which has taken place with a relatively low level of tension or social conflict and a relatively high level of “integration” into the bipartisan Australian “national project.”

The Labor Party, once the most vicious champions of white-racist protectionism, have since the 1970s been multiculturalism’s vanguard. But the Liberal/National Coalition too defends the essentials of multiculturalism and have played as much of a historical role in entrenching the program of “inclusive” nationalism. The Coalition’s specific reactionary twist on multiculturalism is to decry minimal gains for groups like Aboriginal people as “divisive” attacks on a “unified” society in which racial oppression and social inequality are solved issues. At the same time, they wage ideological attacks on specific minority groups, such as Muslims, for not sufficiently conforming to multicultural ideals.

How did it come to be that, in a country once defined by its program of brutal white-racist exclusion, the vast majority, when polled, declare cultural diversity a “fundamental feature of Australian society”? The answer to such a question comes down, in the first place, to Australia’s position in a globally shifting imperialist system and how this system was navigated by the Australian bourgeoisie. The demands on imperialism’s little Anglo-Saxon outpost in the corner of Asia changed fundamentally over the 20th century. When it was wedded to the British Empire, Australia’s key task was to foster a limited level of migration which was homogeneously behind Britain’s world supremacy—capable of displacing and annihilating the pre-colonial peoples of the continent and cementing a British bulwark on the cusp of Asia. Narrow White Australia-ism served this task well, both before and after Federation.

The close of the Second World War saw the structural shift of the Australian bourgeoisie from alliance with Britain to a pact with the triumphant United States. The new world situation shifted the basic calculus for the ruling class. The centrality of Anglo-Saxon ethnic politics was quickly becoming less important. Ideologically central was the more broadly inclusive solidification of national unity around entering the U.S.-led “free world” confrontation with communism. Even more crucially, an increasingly industrialised and labour-intensive economy now demanded greater and greater population growth than ever before.

It was this conjuncture which precipitated the first wave of post-war migration. Controversially this wave was opened for the first time to Southern Europeans on a significant scale. While such a layer of migrants could be integrated into the legal and ideological framework of White Australia, in spite of experiencing serious social discrimination, they were also the first crack in that framework.

By the 1970s “multiculturalism” as a term was entering mainstream political discourse. Whitlam’s Labor government landed the killer blows to formal White Australia, but this was a mercy kill more than any radical act. White Australia was simply no longer a feasible policy for Australian capitalism, a fact understood by Labor and the Coalition alike. By the 1960s this old foundation of Australian nationalism was cracking at the seams under the contradictions emerging out of post-war non-Anglo-Saxon migration. Increasingly clear, too, was that opening the door to Asia would soon be necessary for the same reason.

That the viability of Australian capitalism demanded policy change explains the bipartisan consensus which laid the groundwork for multiculturalism. It was the Holt Coalition government which set into motion the dismantling of White-Australia laws. And it was Malcolm Fraser who oversaw the founding of much of multiculturalism’s basic machinery, from the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs to the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). Fraser was also the first to open the door to Asia, letting in large numbers of Vietnamese “boat people,” whose counterrevolutionary anti-communist bona fides could smooth their entry.

While previous decades had seen the first steps taken in the structural shift from decayed white-racist protectionism, it was the Labor governments of Bob Hawke, and especially Paul Keating, who saw multiculturalism entrenched as a central foundation of Australian nationalism. By the time Hawke took office the Cold War in Asia had thawed, fast approaching was the global epoch of liberal triumphalism and accelerated U.S.-led economic globalisation. The new demands on the Australian bourgeoisie were to act as a tool of this liberal globalisation. Its relationship to Asia was not confrontation but to act as an imperialist instrument of engagement, integration, and cooption. As part of this, the Australian bourgeoisie was entering an Asian trade boom, increasingly with the rapidly opening Chinese economy.

For the first time though, utilising now established multicultural frameworks, this program of Asian engagement was extending deep inward roots into the country itself and its demographic makeup. All this was deeply connected to the economic reordering of domestic political economy—gutting industry and unionised labour. The slow funnelling of the working class into an unstable, casualised job market was greatly facilitated by an expanding labour force of workers happy to fill such positions. The rest of the class, with little direct coercion, could be forced to adapt or perish.

It was this global and national context which made multiculturalism the new ideological cornerstone of Australian bourgeois rule. In an era of liberal triumphalism and globalisation it was a celebration of its enlightened march towards liberal progress. Modern liberal Australia could drape its attacks on the working class in its entry to a lauded age of cooperative, multi-class, multi-racial society. But while these decades had seen a fundamental shift in foundational aspects of Australian nationalism, and in the demographics of the Australian populace, this process was ultimately one of continuity rather than significant rupture. The emergence of multicultural hegemony was at all times guided by the strategy and immediate interests of the Australian ruling class as it navigated new developments in the imperialist world order of which it is a link in the chain. It was a process controlled to preserve the stability and viability—both economically and ideologically—of this small-fry imperialist ruling class. It did so profitably and stably because its method was a shifting, however significant that shift, of its extant nation-building mechanisms.

Though it had abandoned insular white nationalism, the strategy of Australian capital was not the construction of a “big” industrial Australia built by truly mass immigration. Instead, it constructed a tightly managed “multicultural” one; larger and much more ethnically diverse but still (relatively) numerically underpopulated and contained by its tight visa system. The Australian state heavily prioritises the entry of petty-bourgeois professionals able to meet strict monetary hurdles to qualify for citizenship, bringing capital with them. Alongside this population sit those at the opposite end of the spectrum, vulnerable migrants on non-permanent visas filling the gaps in a casualised job market, at risk of deportation if they dare complain or organise. Rural manual labour like fruit picking, for instance, remains especially dependent on this stratum of visa workers. In an intermediate position sits a large international student population. This layer serves a dual role of financing the profitable higher-education sector while filling in the gaps in urban service jobs (often at high levels of exploitation) before a segment remain in the country to join the ranks of the professional petty bourgeoisie. All the while they receive an indoctrination in the values of Western imperialism.

This economic model, wedded to the ideological model of multiculturalism, has been highly profitable for the Australian bourgeoisie. Key to its efficiency is the kind of ideological blackmail it imposes on the immigrant population. As an ideological project it undercuts much potential militancy, telling those allowed to work in Australia, let alone gain citizenship, that they are to thank their lucky stars for such an opportunity. Keep your head down and conform to bourgeois national unity around “Australian values” and you too can have a slice of paradise in the “Lucky Country.” Meanwhile those who do not—be they striking workers, Aboriginal people or refugees—can be held up as threats to be excluded from this little harmonious multicultural society.

Importantly, much of this ideological conditioning is internally imposed. The chain of ideological multiculturalism is most efficiently transmitted by self-policing within ethnically diverse communities, as more settled migrants pull newer ones “into line.” This effectively compels the community-level assimilation of these “lucky” migrants behind multicultural “lucky country” Australian nationalism. It is in this way that the layer of Australian society which is, in many cases, the most exploited and overworked also remains among the most stable and reliable for Australian capitalism.

The relationship of the second generation of Australian migrants to multicultural unity is generally less explicit but nevertheless tends to be extremely deep. The stereotypical generational divide sees older generations accuse their children of “taking their luck for granted.” It is true that emerging, more culturally assimilated, generations generally develop a much greater willingness to openly critique the society around them. But the great majority find themselves even more solidly ideologically committed to liberal multiculturalism and their place within it. This cross-generational reinforcement extends the retreat into liberal national unity, and ultimately deepens passivity.

The reactionary challenge

But how harmonious is this “united” society really? At the tail of multicultural hegemony there has always been a backlash under the flag of white racism and xenophobia. Pauline Hanson and other demagogues mobilise segments of disenfranchised workers, white lumpenproletarians and perennially distressed petty bourgeoisie behind outfits like One Nation and its xenophobic program of a return to white exclusionism. These same segments have continued to show their faces—at the Cronulla race riots, “Reclaim Australia” rallies, and other wretched mobilisations. Such outbursts, festering out of disenfranchisement with the neoliberal project, have caused significant embarrassment to the “enlightened” multicultural Australian ruling class.

Nevertheless, this style of organised xenophobic politics has thus far remained on the periphery of political life. If anything, among its most significant practical impact has perversely been the liberal backlash engendered in those rallying further around the multicultural “enlightenment” under attack—especially from the organised left which tends to meet the attackers in the streets. The marginality of reactionary opposition to multiculturalism in these decades of liberal stability and consensus is hardly a surprise. The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas, and no segment of the Australian big bourgeoisie has anything to gain from a return to insular little White Australia in present world conditions.

It is also no surprise, though, that the rise of Hanson coincided with the end of the Hawke-Keating governments, and with them Labor’s 1990s program for multiculturalism. John Howard’s subsequent tenure in power epitomised the political stylings of contained xenophobia which have remained the ideological safety valves of reactionary pressure on liberalism in this country ever since. Howard presented a program which could speak to the xenophobic dissent of disenfranchised white social layers while also not challenging the basic foundations of multiculturalism let alone actual immigration rates.

The use of the brutal “sovereign borders” anti-refugee detention regime, which Howard pioneered as a political focal point in the 2000s, demonstrates this fact perfectly. Relative to actual net migration, refugee policy always impacted a minuscule number of people totally disproportionate to the political centrality it would acquire. The special brutality of the Australian refugee system served, and still does, an ideological function much more than any practical need by the state to police Australian borders. While ultimately affirming the multicultural society behind those “sovereign borders,” the ALP and Coalition spent decades jostling to prove they were the more cruel, more serious defenders of Australia’s borders—the ones who could “stop the boats.” The nationalism they were defending was multicultural, but its pluralism was reserved for those who did it the “right way,” and who could dance to the tune of cultural-political conformity.

A prostrating left

The politics of protecting Australia’s borders and the Howard model of multicultural xenophobia demonstrate a key vitality of multiculturalism up to this day: its flexibility to contain ideological contestation within the bounds of liberalism. But this form of contestation did not emerge just out of the right but was mirrored by liberalism’s left tail, arguably with even greater obedience. The “left” critique of liberal multiculturalism has been remarkably uniform in its confused hollowness and lack of a counterposed program. This is true from open left liberals to the “Marxist” fringe. While the far right could look to a real loss of white-racist dominance, the far left, correctly disgusted by this past and in the midst of an internal crisis at the post-Soviet “end of history,” approached emergent multicultural hegemony disarmed. It saw the past and knew it had to fight against its return, but since it did not build its own tools and program to wage that fight it could only remain the left defence of liberalism.

The mainstream left flank of capital, the Australian Greens, raises itself against Labor and the Coalition as the true defenders of the multicultural project in Australia. It champions the protection and celebration of multicultural “success” and argues for new acts of government and new institutions aimed at deepening a “socially cohesive Australia.” It criticises the ALP and Coalition for their cruelty against refugees, their dispossession of Aboriginal people, their “inaction” in the face of racialised social inequalities. And it argues that this seeming inconsistency with the enlightened project of multicultural unity proves their position as its true representatives.

The far left can seem quite different in this respect. “Critiques” of multiculturalism can be found in most Australian Marxoid publications at varying levels of tepidity or sharpness. But behind all these words, the actual programmatic orientation of the whole left has been functionally the same servility as that of the liberal Greens. The left’s program has been to fight liberalism with liberalism, to counterpose multiculturalism to multiculturalism. The programs of the Australian left have not been guided by a materialist analysis of multiculturalism’s role and reactionary character, but in the first place by those “excesses” or “inconsistencies” of liberalism which show it is insufficiently multicultural.

Many on the left continually search for the reactionary project or policy which “exposes” multiculturalism as nothing more than a magician’s trick masking unreformed White Australia just behind the curtain. At its core, the problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t recognise that multiculturalism is also an organising ideological program of the bourgeoisie in its own interests and because of that a reactionary ideological program on its own basis, not just as a guise for racism. Functionally, this paralyses the left, leaving it fighting phantoms of White Australia, making its politics virtually indistinct in practice from the radical liberal fighters for “consistent” multiculturalism. The SL/A cemented this mistaken line when, in 1998, it declared multiculturalism was introduced to “buy off an aspiring bourgeois layer within immigrant communities while undercutting the militancy of immigrant workers” with its “false rhetoric…meant to hide the grim racist reality of this society.” Until now, the SL/A has not published any more serious analysis of the function and development of multiculturalism, continuing to view Australia as a fundamentally white country.

Through its ideological tailism, the liberal anti-racist struggle and fight for consistent multiculturalism has become codified as the Australian left’s raison d’être. The left has, in effect, largely surrendered the communist task of raising an independent pole of proletarian politics against the politics of liberal national unity which chain the working class to the bourgeoisie; of organising the multiracial working class around those politics against the politics of liberalism, however consistent. Working-class immigrants have no shared interests with the liberal bourgeoisie of this country or any other. They have every interest in united proletarian struggle. Neither do the white working class (as so many radlibs love to declare) have any shared interest with the reactionary xenophobes who stir up layers of the most disenfranchised among them. Whipped up by demagogues around the perception of their “share” being diminished by an “influx of immigrants,” the divisions within the working class are deepened and solidified in a process dividing the class against itself and ensuring defeat after defeat.

Marxists know the working class has every interest in fighting the chauvinists and reactionaries. It must do so! But it will never win this fight under the bankrupt liberalism which is driving polarisation and defeat. Fostering an orientation to multiculturalism, consisting of vacuous liberal moralist arguments that never connect to the real and urgently pressing demands of the multiracial working class, reinforces the same hegemonic ideological system which creates the bourgeois social polarisation we need to be fighting. It is a strategy which paves the road for the next defeat.

For decades “revolutionary” organisations have posed no fundamental programmatic challenge to the liberal, often Church-connected, leadership of the major refugee protests which have been fixtures of left-wing Australian political life. At most, groups like the SL/A demarcated themselves on the basis that they supported full citizenship rights for all refugees whereas protest organisers advocated only amnesty. Other groups have raised abstract and disconnected slogans around utopian demands for the immediate abolition of borders. No group touched the core of the issue, the organising principles of Australian bourgeois society. For the left, the competition was over who could be the most radical, most moral, most consistent liberals.

In fact, Marxists need to approach the question with a clear understanding that to defend the refugees on Manus and Nauru we have to motivate a break from multiculturalism, the liberal moralist cornerstone of the refugee movement. The detention regime is not a reactionary aberration from this ideology but the result of its internal functioning. To fight the attacks on refugees what is needed is not more impotent liberal moral outrage but to undercut the political basis for the attacks. Only the working class has the capacity to do this. And it can only win such a fight if it is organised not on a program of abstract liberal solidarity but on a program of struggling for its own concrete interests—as an independent pole cutting against both unifying multicultural nationalism and xenophobic polarisation.

The future of multiculturalism

Socialist groups, while upholding a practical orientation and political subservience to it, on occasion pose political critiques of multiculturalism. In one Red Flag article Socialist Alternative correctly notes that multiculturalism is an “established part” of Australian national identity, owing to its economic importance to Australian capitalism. It concludes from this that “the racist rhetoric emanating from Hanson and her ilk is highly unlikely to result in any major shift away from the multicultural status quo.” This is entirely true in present conditions, but it draws the wrong conclusions from an analysis of how multiculturalism was built in this country. It assumes the uninterrupted vitality of liberalism precisely at the point that it is entering the era of its global breakdown.

The relative stability, thus far, of the social order in Australia will break down as the instability of the world order shatters its social pillars here. That multiculturalism is entwined with the Australian liberal order means that it is entwined with the stability of the whole imperialist social order. Its whole history has been determined by the navigation, by Australian capitalism, of that social order. The conditions of multicultural hegemony are the conditions only of liberal imperialist hegemony, and those conditions are imploding!

Marxists must understand this and be prepared for its breakdown. Already splinter points are clear. The genocide in Gaza has exposed one, awakening massive and justified anger especially among Australia’s large Muslim population. This has been directed against an ALP government doing its duty in backing U.S. imperialism. It has renewed, in many corners, the reactionary ideological attacks on Muslim “non-assimilation” with multicultural unity. This is one small crack in multiculturalism in the face of Western imperialist barbarism. The most decisive splinter point is, and will increasingly be, China. As Australia follows its U.S. big brother into escalating confrontation with the Chinese deformed workers state, the “Yellow Peril” hysteria which is already a growing force in this country will escalate until it explodes. What will the impact of this be on the millions of ethnically Chinese people living in Australia? However such a crisis plays out, non-Chinese Asian communities can hardly hope to be spared by an explosion of anti-Asian xenophobia. Already, discussion of the fifth-column internal threat posed by ethnic Chinese is well within the mainstream of political discourse. An argument to this effect is put forward in liberal language by Greens-aligned academic, Clive Hamilton, in the book Silent Invasion.

The left, without a program capable of raising a real proletarian pole, shows no signs of being able to respond to a breakdown in multicultural liberal hegemony with anything besides increasingly hysterical liberalism. But the retreat into that hegemony at the precise moment it loses its bourgeois social basis will only ensure cataclysm. Such a path will fuel stronger polarisation in Australian society and in the working class. As the liberal ideological safety valve breaks apart, the same processes which once reinforced liberal stability will deepen its crisis. Unless Marxists can put forward a program which cuts through this process now, the crisis in liberalism will be seized by reaction, provoking deeper divisions in the multiracial working class in Australia and leading only to new cycles of increasingly violent defeats.

For proletarian internationalist leadership

The historical development of multiculturalism, the bankruptcy thus far of the Marxist left, and the future crises in the making demonstrate in no uncertain terms the need for a new course. Multiculturalism is the central ideological program of liberalism in this country, the communist orientation to it cannot be one of criticism—it must be of opposition. Marxists need to fight for the organisation of the working class in its own interests not in the interest of abstract liberal solidarity. Only through this process of struggle can it be made clear that the only “lucky” ones in this country are those with the luck to be in the position to exploit a working class conditioned into pliancy; not the “privileged” white working class, and certainly not the first and second-generation migrants working right beside them in casualised positions.

This program, of rupture and defeat, not extension, of liberal multicultural social chauvinism, can be nothing but the program of proletarian internationalism. There is no substitute. The strength of this program, Marxists understand, is not derived from an abstract liberal “moral superiority” which so many capitulate to. Its vitality is that it is the result of the scientific analysis of the basis for the proletariat’s conquest of global power, the struggle for which is the only factor of true social progress for humanity.