Australasian Spartacist No. 230
On Royal Commissions
21 January 2016
The article “Down With Racist War on Aboriginal People!” from Australasian Spartacist (ASp) No. 226 (Winter 2015) is excellent. However, when you address the protests against police and prison guard killings of Aboriginal people in the late 1980s, I question one formulation:
“A centrepiece of the reformists’ campaigns were demands for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Raising an independent class-struggle perspective, the Spartacist League opposed this call on principle. As we said at the time, calling on the state to investigate itself for crimes against the oppressed can only lead to a whitewash.” [my emphasis]
We do oppose the reformist perspective of reliance on the state. I like the formulation later in the article: “In contrast to the Laborite left’s cheerleading for Royal Commissions we call for a class-struggle fight for Aboriginal rights.”
But “on principle” means we would oppose calling on the state to conduct investigations in all instances. I can’t square that with the fact that when comrade Martha Phillips was murdered in Moscow in February 1992, we had a series of international rallies to demand that the authorities carry out a serious and thorough investigation. (See WV No. 551, 15 May 1992 for example.) Russia at the time was a degenerated workers state with a capitalist-restorationist government, but I don’t think we would have acted differently after we recognized that the counterrevolution had been completed.
Relatedly, while the commission on Aboriginal deaths in Australia certainly did, do all state investigations always result in a whitewash? Are there no divisions among the bourgeoisie? For example, in Spartacist Ireland No. 7 (Spring/Summer 2005), we wrote:
“...the evidence of collusion between the British Army, RUC/PSNI and Loyalist death squads is so overwhelming that even British and Irish government-convened inquiries have been forced to admit it....
“The British government has refused to cooperate with the [Irish government-instigated] inquiry into the  Dublin and Monaghan bombings and in order to avoid future embarrassing revelations, Blair now proposes to greatly restrict public inquiries through the new Inquiries Bill. While at times exposing state atrocities, public inquiries are not ‘independent’ of the capitalist state and are more likely to whitewash state murder than to provide any justice.”
—“Northern Ireland: Sectarian Orange statelet!”, p. 7
I think that’s a more nuanced formulation.
I looked back at old issues of ASp during the time period cited in ASp No. 226. We correctly warned against illusions in the racist capitalist state, and we analyzed the reasons why the capitalists’ government was starting the Royal Commission, and said that specific commission would be “at best a whitewash.” In the specific case, that was totally correct. But we didn’t in fact say that we opposed the commission or the calls for the commission on principle.
So I think a correct formulation would have been: “Raising an independent class-struggle perspective, the Spartacist League opposed this treacherous and dangerous attempt to tie blacks and all the oppressed to the same state which was carrying out the terror. As we said at the time, a ‘Royal Commission would be at best a whitewash, and could be used to witchhunt the victims.’”
That said, it is important to note that when Royal Commissions are set up to investigate “corruption” in the unions, our opposition is a matter of principle. Intervention by the capitalist state into the workers movement violates proletarian independence from the class enemy. Complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state is a precondition to building a fighting labour movement that can take on the bosses and win (see “Hands Off the Unions!” ASp No. 222, Autumn 2014).
We agree with Arthur’s correction and thank him for his letter. In the late 1980s, when addressing the wave of police and prison guard killings of Indigenous people, we consistently argued against any reliance on the racist capitalist state. Indeed, the Commission’s infamous 1991 report exonerated police and prison guards in all 99 cases it reviewed. In the 25 years since that Royal Commission, cop and prison screw killings of Aboriginal people have continued unabated. According to official figures released earlier this year, since 1991 at least 340 Indigenous people have died in prison, most as a result of state violence and neglect.