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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Movements Moving Together 8

August 1, 2014
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People, individually, embody our movements. If not, there are no movements. This is one fundamental fact of activist life that we often forget. Frans Timmerman’s life reminded me of this strongly. Who is Frans? I don’t really know. He died a few months ago. I met him, very briefly, only once. His partner at the time, Anitra Nelson, was staying at my community, Ganas, for several months in 2012-13. I got to know her through some wonderful conversations and a small role in a project she did for Ganas. A few days ago she sent a summary of a memorial for Frans. From the snippets of what six friends and colleagues said of him I cam away with a picture of a man who embodied many movements and causes. They moved together through him. He could operate in many different kinds of venues, something I envy. Beauty was also a passion of his. Above all he seemed to combine toughness and empathy, fierce dedication and gentleness. Being so touched by this brief discovery, I thought it only made sense to share it. michael


An activist and socialist leader in the Australian Labor Party, best known for his support of the Palestinian cause, Frans Timmerman died from motor neurone disease (bulbar palsy) on 28 March 2014. Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS) sponsored the 2012 Left Forum panel chaired by Joel Kovel on Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011, Pluto Press) co-edited by Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, both peer and book reviewers for CNS. By the last decade of his life, Frans had decided that the environment was the most significant challenge facing humanity. Some extracts from the six speeches delivered at the celebration of his life held on 26 April at the Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne follow.

Julius Timmerman, one of Frans' three brothers:

Frans' story begins just after the Second World War, when our parents migrated from the Netherlands to Indonesia. Dad was a third-generation Dutch Indonesian who met mum when he was doing tertiary studies in the Netherlands. Dad soon became annoyed with Indonesian politics and decided to migrate. Life in Australia began in the Narrabeen Migrants camp, then a tent in Towradgi, a garage in Bellambi owned by the de Jongs, another Dutch-Indonesian migrant family, and finally a family home of over 50 years in Albion Park Rail, south of Wollongong by the shores of Lake Illawarra, which became our main playground.

Frans had a non-assuming but infectious personality. He led the way for his brothers not only because he was the eldest but also because he had such a clear sense of purpose and of right and wrong. He was guided—sometimes fiercely, sometimes quietly—by the truest moral compass. His achievements were considerable because he pursued his beliefs and principles with conviction and dedication, fairness, justice and equality. At the same time, he was caring, giving and considerate. He used to love wheeling his brothers around in their prams!

Ali Kazak, for a couple of decades starting in 1981, the Palestine Liberation Organisation representative to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific region:

When I came to Australia, Frans was one of the first dedicated Australian supporters of the Palestinian people's rights who I met—in late 1974. I was impressed with his comprehension of the Palestine question and of Zionism, and happy to find someone with whom I could share my thoughts.

Frans had an easy, friendly, open and generous personality. He was progressive in every sense, and from him I learned a lot. Frans was not only a friend and a comrade, but also a true brother. Frans’ solidarity with the Palestinian people was genuine. He was truthful, committed and consistent in his support and struggle against Zionism, and was convinced of its colonialist racist ideology and its danger, not only to Palestinians and Arabs but also to Jews and to Australia's interests.

Frans’ work on the Palestinian question over many years had a tremendous impact on the Australian public, gained many supporters to the Palestinian cause and helped to develop the Middle East policy of the Australian Labor Party and Australia's recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993.

Frans was humble, original and did not seek position or fame. He was an ally not only of the Palestinian people, but also an ally and defender of the rights of all oppressed people struggling to achieve their legitimate rights.

Glenyys Romanes, a state parliamentary politician, including Government Whip, one of the six politicians Frans worked for:

I had encountered Frans’ name on many ballot papers in the 1980s long before I ever met him. I had heard of him from others—a symbol of a passionate and unerring commitment to left-wing politics in the Australian Labor Party. For those, however, who did battle with him in close quarters through some stormy years in the Socialist Left faction in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was known as the “Fitzroy Trot.”

During that period, Frans, along with others, was embroiled in a rank-and-file struggle for control over the Victorian State Parliamentary Labor Party. The radical left and some rebel trade unions had attempted to get the Labor parliamentarians to sign a “pledge” to oppose privatisation of the State Electricity Commission. This triggered a formal split in the Socialist Left and led to the formation of the Pledge Faction of which Frans eventually became the convenor and chief negotiator. Division and antipathy in the Left would follow for many years.

Frans’ interests spanned the environment, peace issues, human rights, multiracial tolerance, education, democracy, public transport and gender equity. The remarkable thing about Frans was his commitment to value and cause rather than self. Doing the numbers and cutting the deals were not about personal power but seeking an opportunity to change things for the better, to achieve important political objectives and to pursue loyalty and causes he believed in.

Lesley Podesta, ex-lover and political ally of Frans:

Frans was a modest but very effective leader and a patient teacher to his friends and peers. With his training in engineering, he was also methodical about everything he approached. He taught many of us about politics, holding a line, negotiating and building influence. He was a former Trot, an internationalist and an activist and, of course, also believed in the importance of history and thought. For many years, a number of us went to the infamous Melbourne Discussion Group meetings on Sunday nights to study and discuss political theory. It was a great training, and to this day, I can argue the merits or otherwise of Lenin's democratic centralism and dialectical materialism—thanks to him. Those were the days—the days when we learned how to intellectually resolve a political paradox.

Frans was inherently a feminist, a man who fought for the liberation of women, and he always got involved with strong, independent, feisty women. He was a thoughtful, decent, loving, kind and respectful man. It is a mark of the man that all of his girlfriends over the years remained friends and stayed close to him after the relationships ended. It also says a lot that all of us also like and admire each other. That is the kind of legacy that honours the sort of values Frans brought to his relationships.

John Murphy, Federal Member of Parliament (1998–2013) and Frans' last employer:

The easiest staffing decision I ever made was to employ Frans. He possessed tremendous knowledge of all political matters. He was a brilliant investigator and researcher and wrote some of the best reports, letters and speeches for me that any member could ever wish for. Further, he was very caring and kind to all constituents and I often received sincere expressions of appreciation and gratitude for the very good work he did for them.

Frans and I shared a great love for classical music. Frans’ tastes in music were multifarious, diverse and eclectic. But, for me, it was his deep knowledge, appreciation, devotion and insight into the music of the great classical masters and the many artists who interpreted their masterpieces that brought me that much closer to Frans.

When working in parliament, I would make Frans an early-morning coffee as we faced another day in the battlefield. By the end of the day when we both had had enough of politics, typically, we would seek refuge by listening to a late-period Beethoven piano sonata or a Liszt transcendental study, often played by one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, the legendary Claudio Arrau. The beer and the vino only enhanced those musical assignations and I will never forget the insights Frans provided into some of those performances we listened to.

Like most tragic classical music lovers, Frans had multiple recordings of all the classics. His classical collection numbered in excess of 3000 classical albums and 3000 CDs. He possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of every recording of the great orchestras, conductors and soloists that brought this profound music into all of our lives.

When I visited Frans in late September 2013, we put on a recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 12 played by Claudio Arrau. I knew what was coming. As we arrived at the third movement, which incorporates a funeral march, Frans remarked—through the text-to-speech machine he then used to communicate—“I want this played at my funeral.” Frans knew that I knew that this was played at Beethoven's funeral. Frans believed that Beethoven was the greatest composer and Arrau one of the all-time giants of the keyboard. I would not disagree.

When I told Frans that I was going to a concert in Carnegie Hall in New York, he told me precisely where I could find a photograph there of Arrau. I found that photograph and I felt Frans was with me when I found it.

David Spratt, Frans' political collaborator and co-author of Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (2009):

Frans was committed to socialist politics from his days on campus through to his collaboration with Anitra in the book Life Without Money. During eight years at university, often lived more as an activist than as a scholar, he was heavily engaged in the Vietnam moratorium and the anti-war movement, in campus politics and the Labor Club, in Palestine work, in his membership of the Socialist Youth Alliance (later Socialist Workers League/Socialist Workers Party) and writing for Direct Action. On campus at the University of New South Wales, he encountered libertarian, anti-censorship politics and became a strong supporter of the women's movement and gay rights.

Of the many aspects of Frans’ political life, two stand out. The first was the importance of ideas—of educating and engaging people in radical understandings of the world. He was a relentless political educator of the people around him. As a writer, editor and copy editor for over 40 years, Frans’ mark can be seen in his editorships of the University of New South Wales student paper Tharunka and later National U for the Australian Union of Students, his work on Alternate News Service and its offshoots, Free Palestine for over 12 years, the community-labour movement Frontline and innumerable books and pamphlets. He worked professionally for 15 years as a copy editor and later as a speech-writer. In the world before the bit, the byte or community radio, the mass-produced flyer, radical newsletters and newspapers, and posters and conferences were central.

The second aspect is Frans’ support for the struggles of oppressed people everywhere, against colonialism and big powers, for national self-determination and social justice. In particular, he took up causes that were often unlikely to win friends even in the labour movement of the 1960s and 1970s—those such as Kurdistan, Eritrea, West Sahara and Palestine—as well as the then more well-known struggles in Indochina and southern Africa.

Frans took up the Palestine question while at university. When Frans moved to Melbourne and the Australian Union of Students, he led an action that ignited the issue in Australia by organising national campus debates on Palestine in the consecutive years of 1974 and 1975. The Australian Union of Students was the first significant organisation that set out to change the terms of the Palestine debate in Australia, to speak the unmentionable. Controversial at the time, these debates opened the public space, impacted the future elite, provided access to national media and helped transmit the issue through the labour and social movements and the churches. Frans provided much of the intellectual weight that made the debates possible.

His knowledge of 20th-century Palestinian history was fearsome, his writings precise and his debating skills formidable. Through these campaigns and work in Palestine solidarity committees, the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, the newspaper Free Palestine and inside the labour movement, Palestinian rights became widely accepted and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was recognised by the Australian government. In 1979, Frans helped build the legal case for 3CR (Melbourne's community radio) in defence of its Palestinian programmes, with a result that the Zionist lobby called a “humiliating defeat.”

I have no doubt that, outside the Australian–Palestinian community, nobody played a more strategic role in Palestinian rights advocacy and achieving a great change in public opinion and state policy in this country.

Frans was politically tough when necessary, and stoical with a good face for poker. During the campus debates, and after, he was accused of being a fascist, anti-Semite, an Egyptian government agent, and more. All it did was make him more determined. When your home phone is constantly bugged because you advocate for “terrorists,” you need a thick skin and a big smile. Yet despite a reputation amongst some as a political hard man, Frans was at heart a gentle soul, humble and non-judgmental, always happy to help others in their projects and causes. And there were many.

Now we have lost him.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, born in 1941 in Birweh, Upper Galilee, in one of the 417 villages wiped off the map in 1948 when Israel was created, wrote often of his loss, including in the poem “The Earth Is Closing on Us.” In thinking of Frans and our loss, I wish to finish with one couplet from that poem:

Where should we go after the last frontiers?

Where should the birds fly after the last sky?

Farewell my friend.

South Pacific

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