As we set off today to ride to Canberra, about 500 km, I decided to do the following in 2017: to ride the 5000 or so kilometres from Perth to Newcastle:

The Australian coal industry is scrambling today with the news that China’s National Development and Reform Commission has banned the import of sulphurous or dirty coal. Any coal with more than 16% ash and 3% sulphur is out from 1 January 2015. And who are the prime producers of such coal? Australia and Indonesia. 50 million tonnes of thermal coal comes from Australia, over one third of the total 140 million metric tonnes exported every year. Most of that is mined in the Hunter Valley and goes through the port of Newcastle.

The major reason: to cut air pollution. For instance, in 2012, 25% of Beijing’s energy was produced by coal. The immediate aim is to get rid of dirty coal, but the larger aim is to bring down the amount of coal used for power to 10% by 2017. By 2020 the sale and use of coal will be banned in Beijing’s six districts. To be added are the facts that the increase in coal imports has come to a halt and that while China is the still the largest user of coal in the world, it has also become a global leader in hydro, wind and solar power. The trend is reasonably clear.

What puzzles me is the way this has caught the Australian coal industry by surprise. I recall a few years ago the clearly stated aim of reducing China’s reliance on coal, due to its high price and the pollution effects. Further, demands by the populations in China’s major cities have been loud and clear – clean up the air. So this one has been coming for some time. A further factor is geopolitical: the shift to closer ties with Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This includes significant energy deals. Along with BRICS, it makes the efforts by the USA and NATO to ‘isolate’ China, Russia and the others rather futile.

One of the great contributions to literature is what may be called the socialist footnote, or, rather, the communist party footnote. These immensely pleasurable texts appear, for instance, in the footnotes for each volume of Stalin’s Collected Works. Here you find that glorious language of communist depiction of one’s opponents, whether the ‘fifth column’ within the party or external and even international opposition. A few choice morsels from a rich feast. To begin with, nothing much seems to have changed with regard to newspapers:

Novoye Vremya (New Times)—an organ of the reactionary aristocratic and government bureaucratic circles. The Times—a London daily, founded in 1788, influential organ of the British big bourgeoisie. (p. 437)

As for one’s opponents:

The conference condemned the opportunist, capitulatory position of Kamenev, Rykov, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Pyatakov, who opposed a socialist revolution in Russia and took a national-chauvinist stand on the national question. (Works, vol. 3, p. 420)

J. V. Stalin sharply criticized the speeches of the traitors and blacklegs Kamenev and Zinoviev on the question of armed insurrection. (p. 450)

Here’s to restoring such glorious language to footnotes: opportunist, capitulary, traitor, blackleg …

As promised, here they are: a few shots of the grand-grand-grand-grand … son (75th generation) of Confucius (Kong Zi). Kong Xianglin is his name, speaking at the World Confucius Forum:


Since he spoke in Chinese (of which I actually understood a little), a translator was at work as well (in the background):

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And then the two of us:

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Thanks especially to Flavia Watkins, who did a briiliant job organising the event.

I have just met one of the descendants of Confucius. Kong Zi’s great-great-great … grandson is Kong Xianglin, and he spoke today on the old man himself at the World Confucius Forum, held here in Adelaide. I held forth on Confucius and Mao Zedong, but I also managed to get a photo Kong Xiangling and myself. It is for the next post, but here is Kong himself.


Add a beard and long whiskers and he could be a spitting image:


The third Historical Materialism conference in Australasia has come and gone, consolidating itself as a regular highlight of the Australian Left. A chance to meet old and new comrades, along with many stove-pipe pants, lush beards, grungy outfits, piercings, bold new ideas. This year’s event focused on political economy, with Sydney University now having a full political economy program – and the whole program was there. So no surprises that Leo Panitch – the award winning author of a study of contemporary capitalism – was the keynote speaker.

The session in which I presented had two papers (one having pulled out). Knox Peden and I held forth on different aspects of Althusser. For me, it was a return to an older interest, exploring in detail an early essay by Althusser – ‘A Matter of Fact’ – on the spiritual revolution of the church. Knox dealt with the tension between the epistemological imperative to make structures of inequality visible and the political imperative to make them disappear, not as matters of representation, but as matters of
fact. Althusser becomes relevant in this respect, especially in relation to the persistence of alienation. Knox spoke in a way that was young, energetic and sharp. Indeed, the same could be said of the good crowd there, so much so that I felt like an old fogey (then again, I am a grandfather). We decided to keep our presentations to 20 minutes each, to allow plenty of time for discussion, which was the best part of the session. I was thoroughly intrigued by the way every given concept is up for grabs, how efforts are under way to rethink them for a new context. To be sure, some ideas may go nowhere, but this is part of the generation of new possibilities.

One old comrade raved afterwards about how these younger people do not have a clear idea of the basic categories and distinctions of Marxism. I tried to remind her that this is how new ideas arise. For us, new ideas are now few and far between. We are too locked into our set ways, or most of us are. She was not happy with the suggestion.

That said, I did notice a pattern that is indeed an old one. Much was said about the need to study historical actualities of Marxism. But which realities? South America was a reference point, with Venezuela a favoured location. So also was Syziga party in Greece. But I was left wondering about the glaring gap here. The two most sustained and historically rich efforts to construct socialism were left aside – the USSR and China. To be sure, they appeared occasionally, but only as ciphers to be dismissed. After all, Stalin betrayed Marxism, didn’t he? Or at least, he did so if you follow Trotsky’s arrogant and wayward line. And everyone knows that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ is an empty slogan, a veneer to conceal rampant capitalism. Obviously, I disagree. For me, this was a chronic blind spot that needs to be addressed.

But I always feel a conference has been a success if I get one new idea. And I found it – in a great point made by Liz Humphreys in the question time during the keynote address by Leo Panitch. She said that it is all very well to focus on surrogate examples (Syziga in Greece was the focus at that moment), but what about Australia? She pointed out that Australia has one of the most sophisticated and successful Labour organisations in the world, and a political Labor party that has been the most influential. Labour sets the agenda for politics, with even the conservative wings forced to address labour all the time. However, the trap with such a situation is that the unions and the party have become quite conservative in light of their success. The upshot is that the Left must question efforts to bolster the unions or to rejuvenate the Labor Party and thereby support their conservative bent. Is this really the best approach? To my mind, Liz nailed it, for that is the real issue for the Australian Left.

Bad accountants! At least according to Stalin:

No branch of economic activity can make headway without proper bookkeeping. But unfortunately our accountants do not always possess the elementary merits of the ordinary honest, bourgeois accountant. I have a high regard for some of our accountants; among them are honest and devoted workers. But the fact remains that we have also worthless accountants capable of concocting any sort of statement and who are more dangerous than counter-revolutionaries.

Works, volume 6, p. 226

Stalin writing 01