In Review: Tom O’Lincoln on two centuries of Australian imperialism

Tom O’Lincoln, The Neighbour from Hell: two centuries of Australian imperialism, Melbourne, Interventions, 2014.  Reviewed by Philip Ferguson

unnamedTom O’Lincoln is a veteran activist in the ‘international socialist’ tendency in Australia and currently a leading figure in Socialist Alternative, the largest revolutionary-left organisation across the ditch.  We also happen to be friends.  One of his key contributions to revolutionary politics has been the exposure of nationalist myths in Australia, and this book is a further offering in that direction.

Whereas much of the wider left in Australia promotes the idea that the country is a lap-dog of the United States, this book argues convincingly that the country is imperialist and its ruling class ruthlessly pursue their own class interests abroad, rather than simply following diktats from Washington.  Tom describes the way in which Canberra manoeuvres to maximise its leveraging power in a sea of bigger and more powerful imperialist sharks as “a sort of boutique imperialism”.  This is a great term, one which, if anything, is even more relevant to New Zealand imperialism.

It is crucial for leftists to be clear on the imperialist nature of both countries.  As Tom notes, “otherwise we misunderstand our enemies.  Important though it is to fight the evils of US imperialism. . . the main enemy is in our own country.”

He briefly elaborates the British take-over of Australia and the rapid development of self-governing colonies on the continent.  They soon began casting eyes on islands to the north and east, especially New Guinea, the new Hebrides and Fiji although, Tom notes, different settlements (eg Victoria, New South Wales) had different interests, depending on the fractions of capital which were dominant.  But, overall, ever since 1788, he notes, “Our rulers have always taken their place among the robbers and spoilers”.

One of the interesting things that Tom highlights is how the Australian ruling class wanted to advance their interests on the cheap, by getting Britain and later the United States to do a chunk of the heavy lifting for them.  This reminded me of the New Zealand elite’s attempts to build its own empire in the South Pacific in the late 1800s, using Britain to do a chunk of the securing of territory for them, as they were in no state to compete by themselves with the French and Germans in the region.  For instance, Tom quotes the journalist Paul Kelly, writing in The Australian in August 2002: “For half a century the Australian way of war has been obvious: it is a clever, cynical, calculated, modest series of contributions as part of US-led coalitions in which Americans bore the main burden.  This technique reveals a junior partner skilled in utilising the great and powerful in its own interest while imposing firm limits upon its own sacrifices.”

A central ideological prop used by the Australian elite for decades was “forward defence”.  This involved, Tom explains, defending Australian capital’s “ability to exploit the world market”, while pretending there was some kind of threat to the population of Australia.

Sometimes the “forward defence” could be very forward indeed, as in the case of Korea.  But the real aim was getting the United States enmeshed in Asia, as a means of advancing the interests of Australian imperialism in the region.  Australian personnel in Korea after World War 2 were perfectly well aware of the intense political repression in the South, including the torture of political prisoners, but soon lined up with the United States behind dictator Syngman Ree.  Essentially, the Australian government saw its involvement in Korea as an investment.

It wasn’t concerned with the dirty nature of the war and the fact that most of the atrocities were committed by the southern dictatorship and its western backers.  It followed up involvement in Korea with involvement in Malaya, where brutal repression was used in the late 1950s and early 1960s against unions, the left and Chinese villagers.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the Australian elite, however.  For instance, one place where Australian imperialist interests clashed, at least initially, with American ones was Indonesia.  The Australian ruling class wanted West Papua, which was being laid claim to by Indonesia; Canberra also worried about Indonesian hegemony in the area.  However, the US wanted to draw Indonesian leader Sukarno into their sphere of interest to counteract the growth of communist parties in the region (Indonesia also had the largest CP outside the Soviet Union and China.  As part of this, Washington was happy enough to support Jakarta’s claims over West Papua.  Australia lost out.

A result of this was that the Australian establishment decided to get closer to the United States and more involved in trying to shape US policy.  The Australians also got involved in the dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia in the early 1960s, backing a fellow Commonwealth state against a rival potential local hegemon.

Tom then moves on to look at Australian involvement in Vietnam.  He challenges the dominant left view across the ditch that Australia was dragged into Vietnam by the United States.  Instead, he argues, Australia’s ruling elite went into Vietnam to advance their own interests.  One of their “core objectives” was, as in the case of Korea, to lock the Americans into commitments in Asia which the Australian ruling class could use to their advantage.  Again, very similar to how the New Zealand ruling class operated in the case of Britain and the Pacific in the late 1800s and how, more recently, they have operated in the case of the Americans in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tom cites General John Wilton, chair of the (Australian) Chiefs of Staff Committee: “It wasn’t a question of us being dragged in by the USA, it was us wanting to have the USA dragged in.”

No threat confronted the security of the people of Australia as a result of the defeat in Vietnam, showing how the ruling class had lied for years in order to try to win public backing for the horrendous imperialist intervention in Vietnam.

If left nationalism has long been a problem in terms of misdirecting opposition away from the Australian ruling class in the case of a series of dirty wars, a further problem has emerged more recently.  Namely, sections of the left, in the broadest sense of the term, have themselves become advocates of ‘humanitarian’ imperialism.  One of the interventions where this was particularly pronounced was in relation to East Timor.  Sections of the left actually demanded Australian and other imperialist intervention into East Timor at the end of the 1990s, supposedly to save the population from Indonesian ‘genocide’.

In several other places, Tom has already picked apart this argument.  He also takes it up in the book, showing that Australian intervention in East Timor in 1999 was, effectively, an “invasion”.  It came after the Indonesians were already clearly on the way out and the worst atrocities were over.  Tom also notes how the fact that the Australian ruling class, with the collusion of sections of the liberal, and even radical, left, were able to get away with this intervention made it easier for them to intervene elsewhere afterwards.

He then moves on to look at interventions in the Solomons and Tonga, and how Australia dominates Papua-New Guinea, the world’s fourth largest gold producer.  He then shows how, far from being coerced to join US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia’s ruling elite were especially keen to go in in order to pursue their own specific class interests.

As the New Zealand government moves towards some form of involvement in the war with ISIS, an outfit that is a direct product of imperialist intervention in the first place, Tom’s book is especially timely.  While it’s about the neighbour across the ditch, much of the analysis, and all of the lessons it draws, apply to our own dear New Zealand Imperialism Inc.

Postscript: this review doesn’t deal with Australian involvement in the two world wars as Tom’s treatment of these forms only a very short chapter of six pages.  He deals with these wars elsewhere, for instance in Australia’s Pacific War.  There is an interview with Tom on this earlier book, here on Redline.