Sydney Ideas: Margaret Levi

I’ve been slack in my self-imposed duty to be a blog of record – that is, to keep you informed about what I get up to by way of going out to stuff in the evenings, often stuff you won’t hear about from the newspapers. Could it be that newspapers are dying because they don’t report on events like Tuesday night’s lecture in the Sydney Ideas series, A Challenge to the Hip Pocket: Evoking Commitments to Social Justice by Margaret Levi. After all, there were nearly 50 people at the Seymour Centre to hear her (the myriad other people seemed to be there for a children’s show in one of the other theatres).

All limp attempts at irony aside, it was a really interesting hour.

Professor Levi is joining the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and there was a sense that a fair whack of the audience was made up friends and colleagues from there. In acknowledging this, she looked around cheerfully and expressed the hope that there were new friends in the audience as well. Unusually for a visitor from the US she was remarkably well informed about things Australian, casually dropping John Howard’s name and referring affectionately to the Wharfies , the BLF and Australians’ love of acronyms, at least when talking about trade unions.

Her talk, which is promised to appear on the web soon – here – addressed the question: what is it about the culture and organisation of some trade unions that has their members willingly take on broader goals than the preservation of wages, conditions and so on? What was it about the BLF that made the Green Bans possible? How come the Wharfies (and the Longshoremen on the West Coast USA) went on strike to prevent pig iron being sent to Japan inthe 1930s after the invasion of China? In other words, she said, it’s the Lenin question, from his What Is to be Done? How does one induce workers to look beyond economist self-interest to broader, in Lenin’s case explicitly revolutionary, goals?

I didn’t take notes, but her answer boils down to a couple of things: genuine commitment to democracy in the union (or other organisation), not necessarily in the sense of rotating the main leadership, but in having plenty of openings for membership to have their say, and having had their say to determine policy; membership given accurate information about the world; opportunities for discussion. She’d given a talk at (I think) the MUA recently, and afterwards an old man approached her to say that back in his days on the wharves he didn’t have much time for Communism, but when the Communist leadership told them what the Dutch were doing in Indonesia, and that Dutch ships were passing through Sydney, he and the membership were outraged and willing to take action: they didn’t have an ideological position, but they stopped the Black Armada.

This stuff isn’t taught in history classes. It’s clearly not a huge crowd-drawer. But you know, there was something very sweet about being addressed by a US academic who didn’t shudder when she used the word ‘Communist’, and who responded with respect to questions from the floor from men who I’d guess were old truckdrivers. In fact, one of those men spoke at some length about the importance of workers getting together to talk about their situation, to learn from each other, about how email was no substitute. When he’d wrestled what he wanted to say into some kind of rough question as per the chair person’s instructions, Margaret Levi said, ‘That wasn’t a question. It was a statement, with which I agree.’ She got a laugh, but it was at no one’s expense.

One response to “Sydney Ideas: Margaret Levi

  1. I heard Jack Mundy address the same question in a brief speech to a kind of labour history pub crawl, where key people from labour struggles that had happened in the vicinity of Sydney pubs came along to meet a group there and tell some of the story. (A brilliant event.) Rather than giving this kind of analysis of causes he talked of these goals beyond pay & conditions simply as a key feature of left unions over time and a major reason why left unionism is so important.


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