An interview with Melanie Barnes
Austin interviewed young climate change and socialist activist Melanie Barnes.
Mel, tell us
about your journey to becoming a revolutionary socialist.
Well I grew
up in a small country town in New South Wales and I was always interested in politics but
there werent any political groups that you could get involved in there, apart from
ones like the National Party and the Labor Party. So I decided to study politics at uni,
and moved to Brisbane to study politics at UQ. While I was there I got involved in the
huge anti-war movement that erupted in 2003 around the start of the Iraq war, and around Afghanistan
as well. There were a lot of people in my classes who were going along to those rallies
and helping to organize them, and I met them and got involved with them, and through that
I ended up joining Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. Originally, when I went to uni,
I wasnt convinced about socialism. It took me quite a while to come around to the
idea that we could change the world and that we needed to change the world if we wanted to
stop things like war. But eventually through my own experience I realized that the only
way that we were going to be able to make any change was to make a huge change, a
revolutionary change and yeah, I havent looked back since then.
How would you
describe the kind of change or the kind of socialism that you are striving for?
definitely a democratic kind of socialism. Because so much of what we are aiming for is
for ordinary people to be able to make decisions for themselves in society. So thats
at the heart of everything we do. We want to put peoples needs before corporate
needs. Obviously its not the type of socialism of the 20th century, like
Stalinism or the socialism that you saw in China or other places, but were
definitely still inspired by the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and we learn from all
the other socialist revolutions that have taken place around the world.
How would you
organize the production and distribution of goods? For example what would you say to
people that worry about socialists taking away their TV or making everyone earn exactly
the same wages etc.
not going to happen. The idea isnt to try and limit anyone. There would still be
small business, personal possessions, variability in wages and all of that, but the gap
between the lowest and highest wages would get smaller, essential industries would be put
back in public hands and societys resources would be managed in a much more rational
The idea is
to make everyone much more free than they already are and to meet peoples needs.
Because at the moment the majority of people in the world dont have enough food,
clean water, basic education or health-care. So thats what we need to address.
Capitalism just isn't working at the moment. But the way that we would organise things
would be on a country-by-country, community-by-community basis. It would have to be
profoundly democratic or else it wouldnt work. Everybody would have to be in control
of it and engaged in it.
How do you
think that level of engagement would come about? At the moment, youre more of an
exception rather than the norm when it comes to young people engaging in political
activism. Most people seem more interested in their own careers, in home renovations,
cooking, fashion, music and things like that. How do you envisage that people will wake up
and take an interest and want to exercise their democratic rights?
want to exercise their democratic rights. To an extent, the majority of people do take an
interest in politics
not in every single issue, but there are particular issues
where it really strikes a chord with people and they get really angry. I think its
just that people don't know how to direct their anger when they do get angry. I mean they
sort of seethe in their own lives, but they dont organize together and get out and
change things. Thats because I think that people dont believe they have the
power to change society and theyve sort of lost that knowledge of working together
with other people, like in a union or some other organization. Were a lot more
individualized now I think, than we used to be. But I think people do care about politics,
I mean look at the huge level of support for WikiLeaks. The majority of people support
WikiLeaks, its just a question of how do we organise that support effectively and actually
use it to change the way the government runs?
your question about people being more interested in their own careers and in buying houses
and that kind of thing
I dont blame people for doing that. In society were
taught that we are going to be happy if we are successful and success means that we have a
house and a family and a good job and we can spend money on nice things. People want to be
happy and thats how they think they can achieve happiness. Eventually they figure out that you dont
achieve it that way.
Do you think
that its hard to give people examples and educate people about unionism, collective
action and that kind of thing? With corporate control over the mainstream media, they seem
to prioritise a different version of history than a class-struggle version.
course they do. But people learn from their own experiences and they learn very quickly.
Just look at the new generation of student activists fighting against increased university
fees in the UK, or to the wave of youth-led people's power revolutions sweeping the Middle
East at the moment, including the massive uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled
their dictators. Its through those struggles that people shake off all those
illusions and realize quite quickly, even in the space of a couple of weeks, that they do
have power and they can change things. For example, a
35-year-old Egyptian teacher told the February 5 Guardian:
People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared. We are not afraid
of his system any longer and when we stopped being afraid we knew we would win. But
of course the media and the government are always trying to convince people that theres
no use in struggling.
when they hear the word 'socialism', think of Stalinist Russia or China and
bureaucratic dictatorships, the squashing of freedoms and the promotion of
industrialisation at the expense of the environment. How is your model different and
how can you convince people that its relevant to today?
do think that when you say socialist. There is still a massive stigma about socialism.
When you say youre a socialist people think that youre a Stalinist or a weird
throw-back to the cold-war era. People think that socialism has been tried and has failed
and that there needs to be a new kind of form. But at the same time, people realise that
capitalism isnt working. I dont think that people are more convinced of
capitalism these days then they used to be. Because often when you talk to people,
particularly in the environment movement, they say things like: the problem is
consumerism and people have to stop buying so much and people have to stop living in such
big houses; we need to change the way that society runs, we need to stop aiming for
endless growth; we need to curtail the power of corporations and that kind of thing,
which are the basic ideas of what were saying, its just that they dont
call it revolution, they dont call it socialism.
We are very
inspired by what is happening in South America which has proven itself to be very
different to what happened in China and Russia and other places. In countries like Venezuela
and Bolivia, theyre lifting people out of poverty and it's hugely democratic and
inspiring. Theyre not embarking on plans of mass industrialization or anything like
that, although they are in a different situation to what China and Russia were at the
beginning of the 20th century.
What we are
aiming to do is to popularise socialist ideas again and to convince people they are still
relevant today because capitalism is still around, it hasnt gone anywhere, so why
should socialist ideas? We dont need to re-invent the wheel, to try and formulate a
whole new type of socialism or a whole new ism. The basic ideas of socialism are
still very popular, even though in Australia, with the onslaught of neo-liberal ideology
over the last few decades, they seem more and more difficult to win.
pretty much worked full-time at a voluntary level for the Socialist Alliance in Hobart and
have done a lot of activism for the climate movement. Where do you get your inspiration
from and how do you sustain your energy when you are campaigning very much against the
books by socialist writers. Because many of the problems and troubles that we are facing
now are the same as those faced by writers like Trotsky and Lenin before us and they can
give you inspiration and ideas.
just being involved in campaigns, particularly international campaigns, makes you feel
like you are in solidarity with people all around the world and that sustains me. For
example climate change activists held a huge demonstration at the Copenhagen conference in
December 2009 and we organized a big protest in Sydney when George Bush came to visit for
APEC in 2007, not to mention the big international days of action on climate change like
for 350.org. If there are people all around the world like us who have a common goal, it
helps you to keep going.
international solidarity puts into perspective the problems that were facing here.
One of the biggest problems we face in trying to popularise our ideas is that people can
seem apathetic and we can get ignored, but in countries around the world where the mass of
people are struggling for democracy and for freedom, like in Honduras or Egypt, activists
can get arrested or disappeared or imprisoned or shot.
Do you think
that the modern internet age makes it easier to share those stories of what people are
doing in other countries and to get more coordinated with international days of actions
and things like that?
absolutely. Its easier to share information, it just makes it harder for people to
take notice of the information that youre trying to get them to take notice of,
because there is so much more information out there. And it doesnt necessarily make
people more active - it can make people more aware, but it doesnt necessarily
translate into action. But its still a good thing. You can send photos and videos
around the world of events as they happen and let people know exactly whats going
In 2007 you
helped to found Students Against the Pulp Mill and lead demonstrations in Hobart and
Launceston where students walked out of school to protest against the pulp mill. Whats
it like to lead 700 or more high school students out of class and through the streets?
fantastic. I think high school students are the most energetic of all activists, they have
so much enthusiasm, and when they get fired up about something, they really get fired up about it. Those rallies were
successful because of the students themselves, their energy
they helped to organize
it and spread the word amongst their friends. The pulp mill was an issue they felt they
had a really big stake in because they didn't want to see their state and the places where
they lived become destroyed from the pollution from the pulp mill. They were also really
annoyed about the corruption around the approval process. It was also amazing because you
had all these adults telling them that they were too young to protest, that they didnt
know what they were talking about and the police on the day even told the students to go
back to school, that they were being silly. You don't tell that to someone who feels so
passionate about an issue! They knew exactly what they were doing there and they got
really angry when people tried to tell them that they had no clue.
So it was
good to help organize an event where young people had a voice for once and were able to
show that they did have a clue. People complain about young people being apathetic and not
caring about politics but then when they did care about politics, the police and some
teachers and parents told them to stay away and shut up! Some of them had to battle their
teachers and their parents to be there. Thats really courageous and inspiring and
great to see.
I guess aside from the pulp mill campaign, you are
known locally for your efforts as a climate change activist in groups like the Walk
Against Warming collective and Climate Action Hobart. How do you manage the frustration at
seeing such a contradiction between the support among the population for action on climate
change versus the governments seeming inability to do anything effective at all on
Yeah well weve seen that at these latest Cancun talks, its been an absolute
disgrace. Ever since Copenhagen, governments around the world and the media have been
talking down any possibility for a global agreement to be reached to reduce the worlds
emissions, which was the big goal at Copenhagen and it wasnt achieved. Governments
all around the world at Cancun were calling for compromise and for reason and for
incremental steps and its a time when we dont need incremental steps, we need
very fast action. The only government thats been calling for that at Cancun, on the
world stage, has been the Bolivian government. Also smaller countries like Micronesia and
places like that around the Pacific are taking it seriously because theyre being hit
hardest and soonest by it.
As for the Australian government response - yes it is frustrating, it is incredibly
frustrating - and its demoralizing a whole layer of activists. People have been
dedicating the last 5 years or more of their life to climate change activism and it feels
like we haven't come very far, even though the majority of people now support action on
climate change. The government has just kept on dragging its feet and it seems like thats
the tactic, they are trying to keep us waiting for as long as possible - waiting for a
report, then waiting for a conference, then waiting for another country to take action -
because they don't want to actually change the fact that Australia is digging up, using
and exporting huge amounts of coal.
The Qld, NSW
and WA governments are all massively expanding their coal production. They are doubling
the capacity of their coal ports to export coal, theyre building new railway lines
for coal trains to go on, because theres just so much money in it for a few
corporations and billionaires. The government wants us to be happy with a carbon tax,
which will probably be pretty low. But thats really not enough. We cant just
introduce a carbon tax and do nothing else. We need to save our forests from being logged,
we need to stop coal from being burnt and exported, we need to switch to renewable energy
and we need to do a whole lot of other things.
thousands of climate scientists around the world are telling us that we are moving to
irreversible climate change thats going to have severe impacts on the worlds
and governments around the world, who are wedded to corporate rule,
are just ignoring it and going along with business as usual! They are the extremists and
we need to stop them! But because theyve got all the power, its very
difficult. We need to convince people that we can stop them. When people get so frustrated
about the government not doing anything, they just give up. A
lot of people are getting exhausted and burnt out and want to retreat and just grow
veggies in their home garden rather than tackle the bigger picture, so its a bit of
How do you
connect climate change and socialism. Is it your belief that in order to solve climate
change we need to change the system or do you think we can modify capitalism?
change really exploded as an issue about 5 years ago, Socialist Alliance was one of the
groups that took it up really quickly. Obviously its an issue that we have been
campaigning around for 20 or 30 years - in the pages of Green Left Weekly and Direct
Action we had stories about global warming and climate change - but when it became a
mainstream issue we threw a lot of our energy into helping to organize climate change
groups all around the country and really trying to publicise the statements that
scientists were making about how serious the situation was.
something that connects with one of our fundamental beliefs that capitalism is
destroying the earth. The scientists were saying that the fact that we burn coal and oil,
that we are so dependent on fossil fuels, is whats killing the planet.
pursuit of profits above the environment that is really going to hurt us in the long run.
There are a lot of people who think that we can just green up capitalism, that we can just
put restrictions on the things that capitalists can do, like we can just make them stop
burning coal, we can switch to renewable energy and then everything will be fine, but the
truth is we cant even get them to do that! We cant put restrictions on them
because they are way too powerful. Look how quickly the government modified its proposed
ideology is that they should be free to do what they want. Thats the ideology of the
free market. Climate change shows that the idea that the free market has its own inherent
balance and that if it gets out of balance it will right itself, is false. When you allow
profits to come second to environmental concerns, you get massive environmental
destruction. We cant run our economy and the environment on the free market as it
lets us down every time. We have 10 years to act and the free market isnt going to
balance out climate change in 10 years. Theres just no way.
socialism if we are going to have true environmental protection, true sustainability. A
socialist system would be a democracy and decisions would be under our control. Obviously
thats not a mainstream view. We work with people in climate action groups who have
different ideas about this, but we try and work with everybody in these groups because we
can agree on the short-term steps and thats whats important. As a first step,
we need large groups of people taking action on the issue together, to increase awareness
around climate change and pressure the government to do more.
You ran as a
candidate in the 2010 Tasmanian state elections in March and then the Federal elections in
August. What was it like to run as a candidate from a small left-wing party?
quite fun. Its interesting that elections are meant to be the cornerstone of our
democracy yet its so difficult for candidates to run from small parties or for
individual candidates to run as Independents. You really realize when you are running in
an election, how undemocratic elections actually are. We saw that quite explicitly in the
state elections, because quite often the media, including the ABC who are meant to be
independent, would ignore the fact that we were running. There were 4 registered political
parties in Tasmania yet they would only interview 3 of them and just completely leave us
out. They made the judgment that our views and ideas werent worth reporting. That
shows how biased the media is. If it was a true democracy, everyones views would be
represented and everyone would get an equal hearing and then people could vote for the
ideas they most agreed with.
quite often use the argument that all you need to do is run in elections and if people
really support you, youll get elected. But to be honest, I still run into a lot of
people who didnt know we were standing and it was only on polling day when they went
into the booth and they saw our name on the ballot that they realized we were running.
During the elections we didnt have enough money to run a lot of TV ads, fund big
billboards or get leaflets into everyones letterboxes. So it makes it very difficult
to get the word out that we are running. And of course when people turn up to vote they
generally know who they are going to vote for or they dont want to vote for a party
theyve never heard of and dont know much about. So theres huge
challenges to overcome when running for a small left-wing political party.
Do you think
running in elections is the best way to achieve change?
because even if you win that seat, its incredibly difficult to get things happening.
The whole structure of government and the whole system is geared towards doing things in a
particular way. You need the masses of people on your side if you want to achieve real
change. Its not even just about getting a parliamentary majority elected. Change
also needs to come from outside of parliament and is much more effective and long-lasting
if it comes from community groups and people on the ground. So we put effort into ongoing
campaigns, not just elections.
I heard a
quote from a fabulous Cuban revolutionary, Celia Hart, the other day which was: "Being a revolutionary
is the nicest and hardest thing. It is the greatest duty, but there is no cheaper way to
be happy." Would you agree with that?
that's a really beautiful quote and I really respect and admire Celia Hart. Being a
revolutionary is incredibly difficult because you give up so much of your time, and you
are running against the grain a lot of the time and people think that youre crazy or
they ignore you. But you get to meet the best people and to spend your time with the
nicest people with the biggest hearts. And you also get the knowledge that you're helping
to make the world a better place and that youre part of a very important global
movement. It makes you happy. Studies have shown that the happiest people in society are
those who do things for other people and who have a purpose in life, and in being a
revolutionary you have both these things. It can be tough, but its a good thing to