COMMUNISTS’ WORK AMONG THE HOMELESS
Written By: Bob Briton
ACP General Secretary
Every week they’re there. Volunteers distributing between 300 - 400 free, nutritious meals to Sydney’s homeless. Clothes and information on services are available, too. Tea, coffee, fruit and bread to take away are piled onto several trestle tables. The stall at the Macquarie Street end of Martin Place is a happy place. Music plays and the homeless and the volunteers can’t help breaking out into the occasional, impromptu dance. Chats strike up between volunteers, regular customers and the increasing number of new faces.
Nothing exceptional in all this, you would think. Charities do this sort of thing all the time all over Australia as more and more people find themselves sleeping rough. But this group of volunteers is different. The Community Union Defence League (CUDL) is driven by a group of young progressives who, having learned from the Martin Place Street Kitchen, want to eventually launch similar programs in western Sydney. Their motto is “Serve the People”.
“Charities do this sort of thing all the time all over Australia as more and more people find themselves sleeping rough. But this group of volunteers is different. The Community Union Defence League (CUDL) is driven by a group of young progressives who, having learned from the Martin Place Street Kitchen, want to eventually launch similar programs in western Sydney. Their motto is “Serve the People”
The work, including the complex logistics, is unrelenting and hard. It should be wearing the group down, but they have plans to provide even more services to people spun off by an uncaring capitalist society. Rather than growing tired, they throw themselves into the task happily. They hold down demanding full-time jobs and study. Members and supporters of the Australian Communist Party see this labour of humanistic love as Party work in their community. They also do a prodigious amount of specifically Party work pasting up ACP recruitment posters and preparing for the various protests around Invasion day, Palm Sunday, housing issues, supporting and feeding pickets, for example.
“Charity” or “political work”?
You might wonder about the political value of this “charity work”. The young Marxist-Leninists involved regularly field these sorts of questions from more politically engaged onlookers.
It’s important to note Communist parties the world over have always had hands on programs to help neglected communities survive. The lower floor of the Australian Communist Party’s first headquarters in George Street, Sydney, was open in the 1920s to the homeless to take shelter. The Communist Party of Indonesia sourced cheap seed for starving farmers. In Italy, the once mighty PCI was a vital part of serving working class communities. The vacuum that has been left is being filled by fascist groups like Casa Pound. In Greece, the fascist Golden Dawn provides food and other services to the needy for free – to Greeks only!
Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto praised the work of the nascent Salvation Army. He said the capitalist ruling class would rue the day they allowed the formation of the army. He reasoned the work of restoring the dignity of desperately poor would allow them to re-join the organised working class and help it overthrow their oppression. The alternative was to abandon them to the ranks of the lumpen proletariat:
“Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto praised the work of the nascent Salvation Army. He said the capitalist ruling class would rue the day they allowed the formation of the army”
The Salvation Army did not live up to Engels’ expectations. It became a sectarian and reactionary group interested in keeping the “passively rotting mass” docile and fit for exploitation. Fascists and other right wingers are mobilising this “dangerous class” right now while the left mostly looks on.
Inspiration from a hard history
The volunteers are also inspired by the community programs of the Black Panther Party (BPP) active in the US during the 1960s and ‘70s. They organised breakfast, literacy and health care programs on a massive scale until they finally succumbed to a vicious campaign of disruption and violent repression at the hands of the FBI. Today, the scandalous techniques used against the BPP (and the CPUSA and the anti-Vietnam War movement) during the operation called COINTELPRO are in the public domain; safe now that the revolutionary potential of the times has been crushed or, taking a longer view, temporarily diverted.
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community, but they are not solutions to our problems,” Huey P Newton, co-founder and chief ideologue of the BPP said at the time. “That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft.
“It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So, the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organise the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors,” Newton concluded.
The volunteers of the CUDL realise they may not have the impact that the BPP had in many parts of the US, but they are doing what they can. Members are already volunteering to help struggling students at under-resourced schools. They cooperate with another community organisation in the distribution of cheap food hampers. They want to collect money for the defence of CFMEU officials being persecuted by the ABCC and the rest of the judicial system. They are challenged rather than daunted by the size of the problems facing underprivileged people.
The ACP has become home for the work of the volunteers. The group works intensively at the food prep while maintaining a high level of political chat. They start serving at 3pm and go right through until 9pm or until the food runs out. If you are in Sydney and feeling crushed under the weight of the capitalist agenda being imposed on working people, the unemployed and homeless IRL (“In Real Life”) rather than online, pay a visit one Sunday and talk to the young Communists serving the people at Martin Place. You’ll come away inspired to fight on!
If readers are interested in helping the work of the Community Union Defence League, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Bob Briton, the General Secretary of the Australian Communist Party.