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Sovereignty, a message to whitefellas

Written by: Lindy Nolan on 19 January 2024


(Photo by Lindy Nolan)


Black Sovereignty sends a powerful message to whitefellas about what unceded land means to First Peoples. It tells us wherever we stand, we are on stolen land. It reminds us every part of these lands were defended in armed struggle and in so-called peace. It speaks of reckonings, of just treaties, of reparations to be won in ongoing battles.

For a decade or more the word ‘sovereignty’ has confronted Australia’s parliament in giant letters from the Tent Embassy. 

Yet, there is no word in any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language for it. The term only arose with capitalism. First Peoples’ society did not have classes. They did not need a capitalist state apparatus underpinned by a theory of national sovereignty to empower a ruling class to suppress, enslave or exploit others. First Peoples had no courts, jails, rulers, parliaments, army or police, no written laws.  

They had much more – tens of thousands of years of lore and ceremony, arising from the need to survive and flourish in ever-changing lands. Before he was elected to the NT Parliament, Yingiya Mark Guyula compared the Madayin system of Yolngu Lore that made him Djirrikaymirr (a senior leader), to Australia’s 122-year constitution. He called the constitution ‘just a piece of paper’.

An evolving meaning

Encyclopaedia Britanica charts sovereignty’s development. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t mention either class or capitalism, only nationalism: ‘Sovereignty, in political theory, the ultimate overseer or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order” but “has often departed from this traditional meaning.’ 

The encyclopaedia writes of this new concept used by political philosopher, jurist, parliamentarian and law professor Jean Bodin in 16th century France to strengthen “the power of the French king over rebellious feudal lords”. 

The overthrow of feudalism by capitalism took different forms in different places, so the concept of sovereignty developed different emphases. Feudalism evolved in violent struggle with previous slave owning societies, but sometimes – like capitalism and colonialism – incorporated slavery. In England it played out in wars and the rise of parliament. 

In North America, both British colonialism and later revolutionary independent US capitalists freely used slavery to secure their rule and profits in stolen lands. After the US civil war, winners and losers disagreed about what was ‘sovereign’. Sovereignty was claimed and argued over by states and their people, by the federal government, in the Supreme Court and in the constitution. 

Whatever the subtle differences, claims of sovereignty and sovereign interest (like claims of democracy) often underpin ruling class state apparatuses that deceive, divide and suppress the masses. 

It is regularly a weapon of current ruling classes to justify unjust rule and unjust wars against other nations also claiming sovereignty.

So called sovereign citizens use it, on behalf of far-right capitalists, to manipulate some First Peoples. 

“I come in spirit from the land”

This sovereignty is a totally different idea to what First Peoples mean when they use it. They don’t rule the land, they’re part of it. They have responsibility to it. 

As an elder on a 1970’s poster said, "The land is mine because I come in spirit from the land.”

But sovereignty also has a progressive content. It focusses strength for the people in struggles to overthrow foreign empires or imperialism. Revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Zedong led the defeat of Japanese invaders in World War Two and the US-backed Guomindang reactionaries after it. 

Under Chairman Mao’s revolutionary leadership, the Chinese Communist Party was still a Marxist-Leninist Party. It lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in history. 

At a time when national liberation struggles were exploding worldwide, it put forward the slogan ‘Countries want independence, nations want liberation, people want revolution.’ 

Controlling the commanding heights

Since World War Two, US imperialism has systematically seized sovereignty in Australia. 

It controls what Lenin described as ‘the commanding heights of our economy’. Australia’s military is part of the US war machine. It’s Kardashian culture bombards Australian minds. Our politicians dance to every US tune. 

The two biggest Australian capitalists may flirt with the other imperialist superpower, China, as market for their minerals. But even Gina and Twiggy are dwarfed by US imperialism’s power. They have to come to terms with US control of Australia. They help buy off mineworkers and others with high wages, making them prey to sovereign citizens movements with themselves as philanthropic heroes.

First Peoples cannot win their liberation against such power alone. The working class as a whole is the greatest potential ally of First Peoples and all oppressed. We have the same enemies – US imperialism and those who do its dirty work. 

Here sovereignty becomes a progressive term for both First Peoples and their allies. Sovereignty in the hands of the people demands independence and socialism from US capitalist domination.  

Class struggle is full of examples where ruling class weapons were turned against them. When First Peoples claim unceded sovereignty to demand justice, this is what they are doing. But their own lives – as part of the land and water and air they move in and on –  creates a far richer, more powerful and more generous concept than the word sovereignty can ever convey. 

Elders like Yaluritja 

When Nyungah were occupying sacred Goonininup, in Perth’s old Swan Brewery site in 1989, union organiser, activist and Elder, Yaluritja Clarrie Isaacs, travelled as their representative. 

Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney Harbour was occupied by workers. Of course, Yaluritja stayed with them! 

Land Rights flag he gave them flew alongside the Eureka flag from the Titan crane till the occupation ended three months after it began. 

Those two battlegrounds, four thousand kilometres apart, symbolise the power of working class and First Peoples’ unity. 

There can be no justice without justice for First Peoples. There can be no justice with these lands and our peoples dominated by US monopoly capitalism, or by their Australian collaborators. They are the murderous white heart of capitalism here.

Independence regained by First Peoples is independence won also by the working class and its allies. It’s the core of socialism. There will be a new ruling class – the working class and its allies who are the vast majority – whose key job in serving their peoples will be to end class rule forever.

On January 26 and every other day, it is a collective dream to work for, to organise for, to fight for. Elders like Yaluritja embody it. 

First Peoples have chosen to speak of sovereignty. They are loud, united and strong!


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