Serve the people
Young Communists’ work among the homeless
Bob Briton *
Every week they’re there. Volunteers distributing between 100 to 150 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 Western Sydney Community Alliance (WSCA) 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, carried on WSCA’s logo, 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. CPA members see this labour of humanistic love as Party work in their community. They also do a prodigious amount of specifically Party work pasting up CPA recruitment posters and preparing for the various protests around Invasion day, Palm Sunday, solidarity with Syria and 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. I spoke about this with several of the volunteers who all had serious Marxist politics. CPA member Jay, a mainstay of the operation, gave me his take on the politics of feeding the homeless.
“Communist Parties all over the world have always had a charitable element to their function. It’s community outreach that lets working class people know that the Communist Party cares about them, cares about their living conditions. The charity aspect isn’t all that we do, it’s part of what we do and it has the added advantage of drawing a lot of people who are enthusiastic to think about helping out the homeless, who care about social issues to form a good pool of potential allies who the party can talk with and find solutions together to the many political and social problems that face the Australian working class”, Jay said.
He’s right. Communist parties the world over have always had hands on programs to help neglected communities survive. The lower floor of the CPA’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:
“The ‘dangerous class,’ the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution, its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
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 WSCA 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.
Jay continued with his assessment of the contribution of the CPA Youth:
“It’s also about having a team-building activity that we can go to every week. We see people on an ongoing basis develop deep relationships, which we wouldn’t really be able to do if we were simply turning up to meetings every two weeks and being alienated from each other outside of a shared collective experience that allows us to bond with each other but talk politics at the same time.
“On the one hand we want the public to know that Communists do think like this, Communists do care about social issues, Communists do work in the interests of those who are disadvantaged, who have been made homeless because of the capitalist system but we’re not only here to say that we are the replacement, that we are the solution. We’re saying that the system must be replaced, ultimately. If we can promote that message at the same time as providing a useful service, then people will see the worth of having a Communist Party operating in this country as the basis of future activity and eventually a revolution in Australia,” Jay concluded.
The CPA has become home for the work of the volunteers. The cooking has been done at the Party building lately. 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. At the end of the night, they pack up and take their kit “back to the CPA!”.
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 Western Suburbs Community Alliance, contact Antonella at email@example.com or visit the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/westernsydneycommunityalliance
* Bob Briton is General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia.