The political pressure has been building in the wake of the right-wing terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019. Hence, after a series of recent events — including announcements from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) about their increasing right-wing extremist caseload, Australia’s first terrorism-related conviction of a right-wing extremist, the high-profile arrest of an alleged right-wing extremist, and, finally, the tabling of the report of New Zealand’s Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack by an Australian man — it would have been difficult for the government to argue against Labor’s call for a parliamentary inquiry into right-wing extremism.
But Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton insisted on broadening the mandate of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security to look also beyond right-wing extremism. The inquiry is now tasked with examining, among other things, “the nature and extent of, and threat posed by, extremist movements … including, but not limited to, Islamist and far-right-wing extremist groups, and how these have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It might not be entirely surprising to some that the Minister insisted on also including “Islamist extremism”, but why is it “not limited” to those two types of extremism? What else? One may be reminded of Dutton’s statements in the past alluding to potential threats from right-wing and left-wing “lunatics”, or Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’s recent (and rather incoherent) claims that “so-called right-wing extremists … were actually left-wing.” Left-wing extremism is not explicitly mentioned in the inquiry’s terms of reference, but the wording suggests that submissions on the radical left would be considered relevant.
What empirical evidence do we have on the potential threat of radical (or extreme) left groups in Australia? Despite some recent public commentary, the answer is simple: there has been very little robust research into Australia’s contemporary Marxist-Socialist, anarchist or Antifa movements, which are bound together by a firm commitment to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and radical form of egalitarianism. There is a handful of excellent historical examinations, for example, on the clashes (PDF) between anti-fascist groups and far-right groups in the 1990s in Melbourne, or on what ASIO once labelled “unstructured terrorism” within the extreme left between 1968 and 1972. But the empirical research landscape on the radical or extreme left in contemporary Australia remains sparse.
The public debate around the radical left appears to be shaped primarily by media reports and political debates from overseas — especially the United States — where anti-fascist activists have frequently and violently clashed with white supremacists and other far-right groups for years, with increased intensity during the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. This has resulted in many injuries and several deaths on both sides.
Australia has seen similar, though less intense and non-lethal, street confrontations, and a certain escalation of tensions between far-right protesters and (primarily) radical-left counter-protesters in Bendigo, Melton, and other metropolitan suburbs across Melbourne between 2015 and January 2019. The media has tended to portray the counterprotest tactics of far-left anti-fascist groups not only as confrontational and unruly, but often also as aggressive and violent. This seems to have contributed to the rather sceptical public perception of radical left groups in parts of Australian society — especially in the absence of empirical research which might offer more nuanced, evidence-based insights into these radical left groups and movements.
Mobilising the radical left
Researchers from Victoria University and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank, have just published the first empirical study (PDF) on the dynamic interplay between far-left and far-right movements. As part of this study — which was conducted within the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS) — we systematically collected and analysed Facebook posts from 50 far-right and 33 far-left accounts active in Australia (with a focus, where possible, on groups based in Victoria). This data set allowed us to analyse the online messaging not only of far-right groups and individuals, but also of radical left groups, including Socialist, anarchist, and Antifa groups and associated individuals.
We used a machine-learning (computational) techniques to identify the most salient themes in the approximately 6,400 posts on these 33 radical left Facebook accounts between January and July 2020. Not surprisingly, three major events shaped the online activities: the Australian bushfire crisis in January; the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in March and April (the data set did not cover the second lockdown in Victoria); and racial justice protests linked to the BLM movements and the Australian Death in Custody protests. But how did these radical left groups talk about these crises? The computational analysis technique identified the following key topics:
- COVID-19 pandemic
- migrants’ rights
- labour rights
- Aboriginal rights
- police violence, and
- capitalism and the class struggle.
The COVID-19 crisis was the most prominent theme, and the messages posted within the context of the pandemic were primarily expressions of solidarity with workers and those who lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown measures. This positive messaging was often combined with criticism aimed at employers’ decision to cut jobs or wages, and at the federal government for its alleged failure to support affected workers. There was general support for strict lockdown restrictions and concerns about some governmental decisions to relax these restrictions prematurely, because this was seen as putting “profit over lives”. Consequently, radical left groups also mobilised for tenants’ rights (for instance, no evictions and no rent increases) and against the maltreatment of refugees (such as detention) and other migrants (like international students) during the pandemic.
Aboriginal rights were another central theme — a theme that surfaced in a number of different contexts. During the bushfire crisis in January, for example, a series of posts highlighted the devastating effect of the fires on Aboriginal land and communities. Also in January, the Invasion Day rally in protest to the official Australia Day celebration featured prominently on several of these Facebook accounts. In June, we saw another rise in online activities revolving around Indigenous rights when the Australian BLM movement focussed heavily on the persistent issue of Black Death in Custody.
The issues of alleged police violence and, related to that, institutional racism were central to the posts on both the American BLM protests and the mobilisation surrounding Black Deaths in Custody in Australia. These themes resonate with the ideological agenda that most radical left groups have in common, notwithstanding the internal diversity of far-left movements: anti-imperialism, solidarity with oppressed and marginalised groups domestically and across the globe, and anti-capitalism, which is usually regarded as being at the heart of various forms of injustice. Working-class struggle and anti-capitalism thus remained consistent aspects of the radical left narrative over the period of data collection, and they are often woven into the more specific topics such as employment, housing, or the plight of refugees.
Mobilising against the (far-)right
Because our research was particularly interested in the dynamic interplay between far-right and radical left movements, we also examined the way left-wing Facebook accounts refer to the far-right — predominantly using terms such as “fascism”, “Nazi”, “alt-right”, “White supremacist”, and so on. Around 17 per cent of all posts were categorised as referring to the far-right. This indicates that the struggle against the far-right and fascism, along with their alleged sympathisers and enablers, was central to radical left online mobilisation.
In addition to this quantitative analysis, we randomly selected 114 posts that all referred in some ways to the far-right. What we wanted to discern is how the radical left “talk” about their political enemies on the far-right and to what extent political violence is promoted. Our qualitative analysis suggests that, based on Facebook activity, the radical left poses a limited threat. Some of our key findings are as follows:
- many posts referred directly to far-right, “fascist” groups and individuals, often describing them as ignorant, irrational, opportunistic, and, most commonly, as the morally inferior, violent aggressor
- state institutions (such as police, political parties, and governments) as well as representatives of the “capitalist system” (such as the “coal lobby”) were occasionally labelled as “fascist”, but more often as “cryptofascist”, “fascist sympathisers”, or complicit enablers of the far-right
- contemporary anti-fascism was framed as the “good fight” and as a continuation of a historical struggle that reaches back to opposition to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the military struggle against, and defeat of, Nazi Germany. This framing not only conveys a sense of urgency but also claims legitimacy for the (radical) left’s ongoing struggle against fascism and racism today
- some posts also allude to the aim of building a broader anti-fascist movement, seeking to mainstream anti-fascist commitment by presenting anti-fascism and anti-racism as everyone’s responsibility within and beyond radical left activism.
The qualitative analysis also found a significant number of posts on these radical left Facebook pages that called for action in the offline world. These were almost entirely related to non-confrontational actions, such as participating in a racial justice rally, organising local community help during the health crisis, or putting up anti-fascist stickers (and covering fascist stickers). Overall, the analysis of the randomly selected posts illustrated the broad repertoire of “anti-fascist” activities — which Stanislav Vysotsky has described as, for the most part, “relatively unexciting, non-confrontational and nonviolent.” Explicit calls for physical violence against representatives of the far-right were absent in the posts and very rare in the comments.
A threat to security?
This quantitative and qualitative analysis offers important empirical evidence on the key mobilisation themes and narratives of radical left groups on Facebook (which is the most commonly used social media platform for most of these groups). Our findings underscore the core ideological convictions of far-left groups identified previously by international research: their radical opposition to capitalism, imperialism, and fascism; and their uncompromising criticism of government, media, police, and any other institution they see as being complicit in the persistence of the capitalist system and the injustices it allegedly produces.
But beyond this stark opposition, nothing in the findings of this study suggests that radical (or extreme) left movements in Australia currently pose a significant security threat. This is not to say that their mobilisation based on radical and uncompromising ideological convictions cannot create or reinforce political polarisation in society. It is not geared towards deliberation or reform, but primarily towards revolution — a revolution aimed at tearing down the capitalist system while establishing a radically egalitarian, working-class led democratic system. This unfaltering political commitment, driven by a sense of moral righteousness, may hamper a nuanced critique of capitalism and a potentially constructive dialogue with larger segments of the community around issues that concern so many — from climate change and racism to the increasing precariousness of employment.
The risks of polarisation and its effect on deliberative democracy, however, are unlikely to feature prominently in the parliamentary inquiry into extremist movements, which is more concerns with the level of security threats they may pose. It remains to be seen whether and how the inquiry will position itself in this debate around radical left movements. That will have to wait until the joint committee reports back in April 2021.
This piece was originally published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website.
Mario Peucker is a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
Jacob Davey is a Senior Research Manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.