By Max Lane
The March issue of Australian Left Review is the magazine's last. The magazine was published for many years by the Communist Party. When that party dissolved, some ex-members backed ALR financially. According to editor David Burchell, these backers were no longer willing to continue bankrolling the magazine. Burchell says they were never really sympathetic to its new direction, although they never tried to develop an alternative direction either.
It needs to be asked, however, why ALR couldn't build the kind of loyal readership that might have sustained it. My answer to this is quite simple: it was too boring. Boring not simply in its layout and style, but in its politics.
Amazingly, in his final editorial column, Burchell claims to have "put the cat among the pigeons". ALR, according to Burchell, stirred things up among the sclerotic left. This is the opposite of the truth. ALR's whole approach made it impossible to stir up anything. It was too divorced from the serious concerns of people as to how to change the way things are.
This divorce is clearly manifested in Burchell's final editorial contemplation of ALR's navel. He maintains that there is no real differentiation in politics. Not only were the specific left-right cleavages of the old parties of the left and of labour movement factionalism irrelevant, but so too was "the old Right/Left demarcation of politics generally". He quotes approvingly the idea, "good ideas and interesting people have no necessary political belonging".
And so, ALR "broadened" itself to include interviews with such "interesting" people as John Howard. "Left" was not to remain even in its name: in December, it announced a competition to invent a new name that the magazine's initials might refer to. The winning entry, a victory for understatement, was "A Little Revisionism".
But if "good ideas and interesting people" — what Burchell thinks ALR added up to — have no connection with political divisions, then they are irrelevant to any struggle for change. Right and left, the cleavage of society into different parts, is a function of that struggle. The pseudo-"alternative" end-of-ideology position advocated by ALR split it away from real life.
Anticipating some criticism from the left, Burchell attempts a defence based on the idea: "But deep down we all knew [ALR's critics] had no better idea of what was 'really' Left nowadays than anyone else". The boldness to propagate such an enormous lie comes from its single grain of truth: things change.
Yes, the language, axis and other specifics of struggle constantly take on new forms. But struggle against the myriad forms of oppression and economic exploitation springing from class society continues as
The oppression of women, of gays and lesbians, of sexuality itself, of blacks and other indigenous people; the subordination of the natural world, in ignorance and defiance of the laws of nature, to the search for greater and greater profit; the condemnation of the vast mass of people in Australia and the other rich countries to spend their lives with less and less to sustain their existence outside work and with no purpose to their work other than enriching those at the top of the social pyramid; the millions upon millions in the poor part of the world condemned to live in conditions of barbarism or near barbarism: how can you be aware of all this and still not know what "left" is? How can you know all of this and say that "good ideas and interesting people have no necessary political belonging"?
Very few people really think like this — as Burchell in fact acknowledges when he defines the ALR audience: "an intelligent lay audience ... people with a little time to think, a taste for political broadmindedness and a talent for spotting a good thing even in fairly shoddy packaging". It is clear who Burchell is describing here: armchair social "meditators". Fortunately perhaps for Australia, but unfortunately for ALR, "this was a pretty limited audience".
ALR's overall approach was boring because it was empty. In the midst of the struggles, sufferings, contradictions, defeats and victories of a world crying out for a commitment to change it, ALR pretended to be serious about ideas without being serious about reality.
As Burchell says in the final paragraph of his comments, "Projects come and go, ideas are often ephemeral, and the power of organisation isn't what it used to be." Oh well, I wonder what "project" might arrive next.
Unfortunately, the occasional serious article in ALR couldn't counterbalance the dilettante approach on which it was based. But in one matter we can take Burchell's evaluation for good coin: the demise of ALR is no loss to the left.