Twenty years ago, on Monday February 18, 1991, the first issue of Green Left Weekly was produced. Its full-colour poster-style cover expressed opposition to the Gulf War, the first US-led invasion of Iraq.
Many of us involved in this new publication project had been busy in the streets organising and taking part in anti-war protests.
We waited desperately for the first issue of GLW because the movement needed a publication that would report on its progress, expose the truth about the war-mongers and help activists network with one another.
When it came out, activists around the country snapped up copies at a rate not enjoyed by any Australian progressive publication for a long time.
This is the role GLW has played consistently ever since. It has been a voice against war and oppression, and a voice for building an ecological, sustainable world.
It has stayed fiercely committed to exposing the truth. And it has been a powerful instrument to help empower and organise people fighting for change.
Let’s examine what has changed since those days.
End of history?
Much of the first decade of GLW’s life coincided with a wave of capitalist back-slapping.
The Soviet Union and the Eastern European “communist” states collapsed and Professor Francis Fukuyama famously declared neoliberal capitalism the “end of history”.
Since then, the course of history has forced Fukuyama to retreat from his arrogant boast.
Neoliberalism (also called “economic rationalism”, “capitalist globalisation” or “free market capitalism”) has become a dirty word.
In November-December 1999, the rejection of the idea that the world’s richest corporations should be free to ruthlessly exploit every corner of the earth exploded in the legendary anti-globalisation protest in the US city of Seattle, which was host to a summit of the World Trade Organisation.
Seattle wasn’t the first big protest against the global capitalist neoliberal offensive.
But Seattle was the first major mass mobilisation against corporate globalisation that could claim a global victory. The new round of trade negotiations demanded by the imperialist states was postponed.
Many people around the world eagerly read reports in GLW about this new movement. It captured the imagination of a generation of young activists and re-energised older activists.
This new movement swept Australia a year later on September 11, 2000, when about 20,000 people took part in a three-day blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.
As one of the activists that helped organise this “S11” blockade, I reflected on the meaning of this new movement.
It seemed to me that while the new movement took its name from Seattle, its ideological heart was solidarity with the oppressed and exploited masses in the global South — where 80% of the world’s population do not share in the benefits of neoliberal globalisation.
This global movement arose out of the growing moral crisis of capitalism, which was captured succinctly by the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in his message to the September 1999 G77 ministerial meeting:
“Globalisation is an irreversible reality characterised by the growing interaction of all countries in the world, their economies and peoples. The major scientific and technical advances have shortened distances and allowed for direct communication and transmission of information among countries located anywhere on the planet.
“With its impressive technological achievements, globalisation holds tremendous potential for development, the eradication of poverty and fostering well-being in conditions of social equality for all humanity. Never before has the world commanded today’s technological resources.
“However, the world is still very far from materialising the potential of globalisation. It develops today under the aegis of neoliberal policies that impose unregulated markets and unbridled privatisation.
“Far from promoting the expansion of development throughout an increasingly interdependent world badly in need of sharing the progresses achieved, neoliberal globalisation has aggravated existing inequalities and raised to inordinate heights social inequities and the most disturbing contrasts between extreme wealth and extreme poverty.”
In GLW’s second decade, the Western anti-globalisation movement ebbed, but an even mightier revolutionary movement against neoliberal capitalism began to sweep Latin America.
Venezuela and Bolivia have ridden the crest of the wave.
GLW has been at the forefront of systematic and detailed English-language reporting on the Venezuelan Revolution and its political global reverberations.
A GLW bureau has operated in Caracas for most of the decade and our team of correspondents have won worldwide respect for their work.
However, once again GLW’s role was not restricted to just informing its readership.
Our coverage inspired and empowered many people to jump back into the struggle for change, or step up their efforts.
And of course, GLW has helped build movements in solidarity with the new revolutions in Latin America by reporting on and promoting the political study brigades to Venezuela organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network, among other things.
Activists, trade unionists and scholars from many other countries have joined the Australians on this brigade.
Each brigade has left a powerful impression on the participants. I was fortunate to join a brigade in November 2008 and my experiences added fire and confidence to my activism today.
The giant rebellion in the South against the global dictatorship of the corporate rich is expanding beyond the continent of Latin America.
As each new front of resistance opens up, GLW has risen to the same challenge of championing, informing, organising and empowering solidarity.
We have been enthusiastic supporters of the movements for democracy and liberation in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor and many more countries.
Now, Egypt is rebelling and dictators all around the world are shaking in their boots.
It is definitely not the end of history.
However, if we look back over the past 20 years we can see that it hasn’t been all forward motion for those fighting for a better world.
The rich and powerful inflicted incredible pain and suffering on millions of people.
Up to 1.5 million civilians — mostly children — were killed by the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the West, which was a prelude to the 2003 invasion.
The US-based Just Foreign Policy estimates that 1.32 million Iraqis have been killed as a result of the US invasion of Iraq.
There is no official count of the total Afghan casualties since the US-led invasion a decade ago. But Dr Gideon Polya has calculated that the total the human cost of the Afghanistan War could be up to 4.9 million people (violent deaths plus non-violent, war-related deaths).
Polya also reports up to 3.1 million Afghans have been made refugees (2.7 million in Iran and Pakistan and 0.4 million internally-displaced persons in Afghanistan).
Another holocaust has played out in the war against the Tamil national liberation movement in Sri Lanka. This brutal war has created another army of refugees.
A tiny fraction of these people displaced by war come to Australia’s shores to seek asylum. Yet about 6000 refugees are imprisoned in Australian immigration detention centres. More than 1000 of them are children.
Politicians from the Labor and Coalition parties try to justify this crime by cynically fuelling racism.
Today, this racism is focused most strongly on people of Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds. It has built upon a long history of racism in Australia, which has its origins in the colonial theft of this land from its Indigenous peoples.
The ruling elites in post-colonial Australia have used racism to justify genocidal practices against the Aboriginal people and the theft of Aboriginal land.
But they have also turned to racism to justify waging imperialist wars. Vilifying the enemy as “wogs”, “gooks” or “Mussies” makes it easier to sell the idea that killing these people is acceptable.
More insidiously, the rulers, their politicians and the mass media have used racism to prevent many ordinary Australians from grasping the full horror of the system.
The twisted “news” reporting of the corporate media drums out the ugly message that the life of a single “Aussie” is worth more than that of thousands of people in the global South.
GLW has been a powerful antidote to this lie. It has a record as a consistent fighter against racism. The covers of past issues of GLW confirm this.
Whether it be championing the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, or joining the battle against the crude racism of Pauline Hanson and the more effective racism of mainstream politicians who have borrowed her hateful slogans, GLW has been out there fighting.
Unity is strength
This ongoing struggle against racism is a reminder that our biggest challenge is to unite in struggle all the layers of our society that are oppressed and exploited.
GLW was founded on an understanding that building unity is a central challenge.
Our publication’s name expresses one aspect of this challenge. It declares on every masthead the need to unite all those active in the left and the “green” movements.
The left and the green are not mutually exclusive or separate movements. Indeed, looking back over the past 20 years shows that the two movements are more closely entwined today than before.
The right wing radio shock jocks and commentators often depict this as a kind of sinister red-green conspiracy. But it is an entirely natural and necessary process.
These two strands in the movements of change confront a capitalist system facing serious ecological, economic and political crises. These three crises are interlinked.
The links between these crises of capitalism have come up again and again in GLW’s reporting.
For example, a global solution to climate change cannot be contemplated without including measures to end the division of the world into rich and poor countries, between exploiter and exploited nations.
But the process of convincing more campaigners to draw these links — and thus win agreement on the solutions our movements should campaign for — is not simply a matter of preaching the “correct” political program.
From its beginning GLW embraced the need to develop unity around what to do next and ultimately around how we can most effectively organise our resistance. This was done through a process of open dialogue between greens and leftists of all different traditions.
GLW has also sought to be a platform for productive political discussion and debate.
As we mark GLW’s 20th birthday, we pledge to continue this approach.
Although the GLW project was initiated by one left organisation — the Democratic Socialist Party, which has since merged into the Socialist Alliance — it was conceived as a publication for the broader progressive movements.
Uniting these movements remains one of our main goals.
As the Egyptian revolution approaches a point where victory is possible, the people who make up this movement are sharply aware of the great strength unity brings.
This fact comes through in many interviews and reports on the Egyptian struggle. Unity has become urgent and indeed the victory of this movement now depends on it.
Back in relatively conservative and wealthy countries like Australia, the impetus for unity may not be felt as urgently today as it is in Egypt. The political movements in this country will have to go through more common experiences and common evaluations to become more united.
This is why GLW has sought contributions from a wide range of progressive activists and writers and it has hosted and sponsored numerous conferences that have brought activists from different backgrounds together to exchange experiences and discuss how we can move forward together.
One such gathering will be the second Climate Change Social Change conference that will be held in September this year at the University of Melbourne. GLW will cosponsor this conference together with the university’s Office for Environmental Programs.
The power of the truth
Tyrants and dictators cannot abide truth. It is not just inconvenient, but subversive to their regimes that are built on lies, intimidation, persecution, terror, torture and exploitation.
That’s why GLW is a strong defender of WikiLeaks. We are defending the truth and the power it gives all who are fighting tyranny.
One of the contradictions of capitalist globalisation is that is has also spread new information technologies that have opened up new fronts of struggle for democratic movements around the world. WikiLeaks is just one expression of this.
GLW embraced the internet from its first issue. We beat most of the commercial publications in making all our content available free and permanently on the internet.
The GLW internet archive is a resource used by activists and scholars around the world.
Knowledge is power and the brave people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other parts of Egypt well and truly appreciate this.
But our commitment is much more than to just spread the truth, or to expose exploitation, oppression and social and ecological crimes.
Movements of resistance and liberation can be greatly strengthened by developing an understanding their own history, and the history of other movements for social change.
So one of GLW's important roles is to keep alive and share this historical knowledge, and the skills and traditions of social activism.
Over the past 20 years we have also seen the great potential of the working people of Australia to become a force for change.
GLW’s widely commended coverage of the big workers’ militant struggle against the thuggery of the maritime bosses in 1998 was a milestone. As was its coverage of the struggle against the John Howard Liberal government’s WorkChoices anti-union laws — a struggle that eventually threw Howard out of office in 2007.
But we’ve also catalogued the series of betrayals by bureaucratic trade union leaderships happy to do the bidding of right wing Labor governments.
It is in the interest of these conservatives to stop the Australian workers’ movement from studying and understanding its own history. For this reason, GLW was happy to support and promote the inaugural Union and Community Summer School, held in the Victoria Trades Hall in Melbourne on December 10-11, 2010.
We hope this will become an ongoing project of the militant trade union movement.
The work of many
Twenty years ago, the first issue of GLW was introduced with these words: “This is the first issue of Green Left. Many individuals made this issue possible by writing articles, letters, poems, drawing cartoons, taking photographs, designing graphics and layout.
“But there is room for many more people to become part of the GLW team. And there is room for you too!
“The broader the range of people who contribute to GLW, the better it will be. This is a paper by and for the green and progressive movement. We would like it to reflect the movement in action and in discussion. We want to reflect the controversies and the concerns as well as the achievements and celebrations. Your input could help us do this better.”
Since then a very large number of people — from all around the world — have made valuable contributions to the GLW project. Their efforts have made GLW one of the most respected progressive English-language publications.
GLW articles are translated into many other languages and it now publishes regular Arabic- and Spanish-language supplements.
We cannot thank these people all by name. They are far too numerous. But we say a big thank you to you all.
GLW needs its army of volunteers to keep growing. It needs to constantly replenish the ranks of its activist-journalists, photographers, cartoonists, storytellers and poets.
We also need help to distribute GLW. You can help grow and widen our precious subscription base. So please consider if there is anyone you know to whom you can introduce to GLW with a gift subscription.
Also get in touch if you can take a small bundle of papers to distribute or know of a good outlet that would be happy to get GLW around.
Finally, our project also needs regular donations to keep going. One of my roles with GLW is to ask for your continuing financial support in our regular Fighting Fund column.
Year after year, our supporters have responded to our Fighting Fund and ensured GLW keeps coming off the presses. This year we have a target to raise $250,000. Our supporters have raised $22,620 so far.
If you would like to help us get closer with a 20th birthday present you can donate online today at www.greenleft.org.au/donate.php
Direct deposits can be made to Green Left Weekly, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992.
Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or phone in a donation on the toll-free line, 1800 634 206 (within Australia).