Saturday, April 16, 2011

Beware of socialists bearing petitions

While I'm posting critical thoughts about far left political practice, here's a guest contribution written by Em B.C. that also accords with my own views. The title has been altered from "why you should never sign a socialist petition" as it was originally posted here.

A member of the Lebanese Communist Party once told me that the reason he became a communist was that when he grew up the communists were the best people, the most decent, honest and generous. This is something I’ve thought a lot about since, because most Australian socialists don't seem to think in those terms.

Of course, most socialists are very decent people who are committed to making the world a better place. However, within the organisations there is often an attitude that because we are trying to make a revolution by any means necessary, little things like personal integrity just aren’t as important as politics. So if achieving your aims requires telling a little white lie every now and then, that’s acceptable, perhaps even your duty as a revolutionary socialist.

One example that I’ve seen persistently over the years involves petitions. Socialist stalls usually have a number of petitions on them about whatever issue is big at the moment, and members will often put a lot of effort into getting people to sign them, but not one of these petitions ever gets sent anywhere. Every single one ends up in the rubbish.

Most socialists don’t really believe that petitions will change anything. They only use them to attract people to the stall so that they can talk to them and try to sell them newspapers. I was involved in the Socialist Alliance for years and in that time we had hundreds of petitions, of which probably 99.9% were not real.

Usually socialists will pretend that the petition is to be sent to the Federal Government or somewhere equally vague, but not always. A friend was amazed when she asked a Socialist Alternative member where the petition she was signing would be sent, and they told her “We don’t send them anywhere - we just use them to talk to people.”

Aside from the total disrespect to the person signing the petition, what makes this particularly frustrating is that there are plenty of people out there trying to collect signatures for real petitions. But it is near impossible to get many socialists to collect signatures for them.

One example I found particularly infuriating occurred at the time of Israel’s 2008 “Operation Hot Winter” attacks on Gaza. Shortly after Israel’s massacre of over 100 people including many children, Kevin Rudd passed a bi-partisan motion supporting Israel on the 60th anniversary of the Nakba. A Palestinian friend launched a petition against the motion; a number of high-profile politicians and journalists supported it and thousands of signatures were collected by mosques.

I tried to get Socialist Alternative to support the petition, but Mick Armstrong refused because he felt that it could be interpreted as promoting a 2 state solution. So instead of getting people to sign a real petition for Palestine, Socialist Alternative spent several weeks collecting signatures for their usual fake, but politically pure petitions for Palestine.

Socialist Alliance on the other hand did formally agree to support the petition when I raised it at a meeting. I brought piles of copies of the petition to their office, put them in every stall box I could find and constantly promoted it to other members. Yet most people just didn’t collect signatures for it, and time and time again fake petitions about Palestine would appear in its place.

There were a few people in Socialist Alliance who staunchly refused to use the fake petitions, but most of the membership never even questioned the practice. They believed it was a harmless and that getting the chance to talk to people who signed the petitions was just more important. The problem is that even if it seems harmless, it still involves going out on the streets day after day and lying to people. What kind of political culture is this building? What attitude does it reflect towards the people we are trying to win over?

I do believe that we need to make a revolution by any means necessary - the possibility of climate disaster makes this more important than ever - but I also believe that those necessary means include conducting ourselves with honesty and integrity.

I don’t know if all the socialist groups use fake petitions, but I strongly suspect they do. So if you are asked by a socialist to sign a petition, before you do make sure you ask them where they are going to send it, and don’t accept “to the Federal Government” as a response.


  1. Leftieleaks! This is great Ms BC, this is the kind of article I would like to read in The Green Left Weekly. Please tell us more, did they even recycle those fake petitions? ;) I was once partial to the Melbourne socialists but rarely their petitions and your article has relieved me of any remnants of guilt for not blindly, signing for equality and social justice (the tables were too low). Blog?

  2. I'm so not down with this practice. Deception to start a political conversation? Please. If we can't talk to people without our first move being an untruthful one, we need to rejig. It may seem only a slight deception and insignificant untruth, but like you mentioned, for one, it takes focus away from legitimate petitions. This style of interaction with the general public is also indicative of a problem that infects many socialist groups, the idea that anyone doing activism differently (or with an ideology that is not explicitly anti-capitalist), is doing it wrong, or is not making an impact. An example of this attitude of socialist superiority is evidenced clearly in our criticism of groups like Get Up and various NGO types. We need to remember that activism and lobbying both play important parts in creating positive change - legislative reform may not be the revolution socialists are angling form but the attitude we give to those not as "far left" as us is insane and counter-productive - the left is its own greatest enemy, we need to remember we are on the same team, we get wins by working on lots of different levels - and those petitions we think are fair game to make a mockery of in order to recruit, they're a perfect example of actual democracy at work - it may be small scale, or not worth considering to a revolutionary socialist, but it is actually an example of people's power, so it is just a signature on a page, or a click of a button online, but when a group mobilises hundreds of thousands of people to give signatures or clicks - people in power do listen, and change can happen.

  3. Hey! I'm in Socialist Alliance and I encouraged Community Action Against Homophobia to campaign with a number of 'real' petitions which were part of campaigns that won! Three petitions were refugee case specific - a bi-sexual Pakistani refugee locked up in Villawood Detention Centre. We got heaps signed, and faxed the petition off to the Refugee Review Tribunal and Immigration Ministers to show how much support his case had. The campaign lasted 1.5 years. We faxed lots. We rallied, media Conferenced, snap actioned as well. There were two other refugee cases where we did the same thing. Then there was the Veronnica Baxter case, transgender Aboriginal black death in custody where we did an online petition as well as a hardcopy petition and got them all tabled in NSW Parliament. That campaign won an inquiry, which was a sham, so we will have to re-design the petition and get people to sign onto the campaign for a re-Inquiry. The petition can be used, if campaigners watch them and fax/send them. Not rocket science. Maybe Ben could nab the petitions he wants to send off, it?

    And if people hadn't signed the petitions around the campaigns I've described, then they a) wouldn't have found out about it b) contributed c) been inspired to fight beyond signing.

    People SHOULD sign socialist petitions, and more importantly, get involved in the campaign!

  4. Ben didn't write that article, I did. I think it's good good if SA has done those things, and I think the person who wrote the post above is one of the really good activists in Socialist Alliance.

    But I was involved with the Resistance, the DSP and Socialist Alliance on and off since 1997 and that was not my experience. Maybe it was not the same everywhere, but it certainly was in every branch I was involved in, including Canberra, Hobart, Lismore, Melboure and Darwin.

    I don't really think it's fair to say that I should have collected those petitions and sent them off. Especially because there were probably 2 or 3 new ones every week and there were there were often several different badly worded petitions on the same topic, because people would write a new one every time they ran out of copies of the old ones. I repeatedly brought the issue up in Melbourne and was ignored.

    I do think people should sign socialist petitions if they are genuine, which is what I said in the article.

  5. Years ago I made a suggestion (that nothing ever came of...) that all the petitions being collected should be tallied and the results published in Green Left Weekly. Perhaps in key cases also sent to the relevant minister/department. Petitions are useful as a talking point but I agree with Em that if it's just a cheap sales pitch that will be seen through over time. And I'm sure there's many more forthright ways to get people talking than a bodgy petition.

  6. "And if people hadn't signed the petitions around the campaigns I've described, then they a) wouldn't have found out about it b) contributed c) been inspired to fight beyond signing."

    If the petition is real then it's a good thing. But if it's not I think maybe we should consider alternatives that don't involve tricking people.

    I recently talked to an environment campaigner who had some really awesome ideas for props that could be used on stall to draw people over. For example he had a cage full of toy budgies with the slogan "we're the coal wistle-blowers underneath (the budgies were what made me curious to go up to the stall in the first place). He also had a jobs see-saw with jobs lost from getting rid of coal (20,000) on one side and jobs lost from the destruction of the great barrier reef (60,000) on the other.

    My point is that if we are creative we can do a lot better than fake petitions.

  7. I am from Socialist alternative. We send our petitions away to various political groups/persons.

    This slander is not particularly appreciated.

  8. I only write from my own experience and it may have been different from yours. It's not slander however - I only write this because I want the left in Aus to move forward and there are some things I really feel need to be changed for that to happen. If things have changed, or if it doesn't happen in your branch then I'm really glad to hear it.


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