Peter Boyle and the "labour aristocracy" (Part II)

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at
Sat Nov 23 06:06:29 MST 2002

[ part II ]

Kim Bullimore will say, of course, that's not what she is doing, but to
throw that kind of issue in a cursory way into a discussion about some
so-called "labour aristocracy" as the dominant force in the Australian
labour movement, currently, is to confuse the issue considerably. It strikes
me as distinctly odd for Bullimore to talk as if nothing has changed much in
the workers' movement on those questions. The Census statistics actually
show increased feminisation of all sections of the industrial workforce, and
they also show that an extraordinarily high proportion of blue-collar
industrial workers are recent migrants from non-English-speaking
backgrounds. To some extent the rapidly changing situation in the unions
reflects this demographic change.

While women's wages still trail, the quintessential women's unions, the
Nurses and Teachers, both predominantly female organisations, which could by
reason of their professional status be accused of being "aristocracies" (by
Boyle on a bad day) fight hard and reasonably successfully for wages and
conditions for their members.

Just in the last couple of months, the Public Service Association has had a
victory in the NSW industrial commission in a long case claiming substantial
increases for librarians, a mainly female occupation, to bring up that
profession to wage parity with a number of mainly male professions. This
wage case was conducted officially by the union over several years with the
energetic participation of rank and file activists, some of them male, and
some of them members of socialist organisations. It seems to me to be way
off beam to be striking an attitude of pessimism in relation to the battle
to end economic discrimination against women in the workforce.

In the blue-collar unions the number of migrant organisers and officials is
increasing - in some unions, rapidly. Racism and sexism are no longer
dominant in the trade union movement. We should fight hard against both
problems, but it's ferocious instrumentalism to throw that construction into
the pot to buttress some Talmudic argument about the "aristocracy of labour"
, and it lends itself to being used in the way it was classically used in
the 1980s by the Stalinists to square off for the Accord.


In the latest issue of the DSP magazine, Links (No. 22 Sept-Dec 2002), there
is an important "line" article by Barry Sheppard, Caroline Lund and Malik
Miah, the close US allies of the DSP. In the section on the US labour
movement, starting on page 21, among other things, they say:

"An important aspect of the failure to wage a generalised counter-attack to
the capitalist offensive is the nature of the leadership of the working

"There were two important legacies of the anti-communist witch-hunt the Cold
War. One was the decimation of the socialist left. This was beginning to be
overcome during the radicalisation of the 1960s, but with the end of that
radicalisation, stagnation and decline set in. The ignominious collapse of
the USSR and the victory of the US in the Cold War had the immediate effect
of making any alternative to capitalism seem utopian.

"The second legacy was the witch-hunt in the unions. The right wing
cooperated fully with the government in driving socialists and other
militants out of the unions. This clinched the stranglehold of the
bureaucratic machines that still control the unions today. They became more
and more integrated into the capitalist state and supported imperialism's
wars (there were some breaks during the last stages of the Vietnam War, but
only after it was opposed by the big majority of the US population and some
capitalist politicians). They worked hand in glove with the CIA in
destabilising left-leaning unions throughout the world.

"These entrenched bureaucracies openly reject the class struggle and see
themselves as partners with the bosses. This policy has been a disaster,
with organised workers dropping from 35 per cent of the work force in the
1950s to 13 per cent today. Only 9 per cent of workers in the private sector
are in unions. ..

"At present the relationship of class forces is against us and will be for
the next period.

"When Washington does become embroiled in a long-term conflict with a
determined enemy, and US casualties begin to mount, there will be cracks in
the working class's support for the War on Terrorism. The experience of the
Vietnam War is a cause for optimism in this regard. To get to that point
will take a patient, long-term perspective of mobilising whatever forces we
can against each concrete war Washington launches as part of its war on

The above are just extracts from a longer document that does not appear to
be up on the Links website yet and it would be useful if Links put it up so
that comrades, particularly US comrades, can consider the arguments advanced
by Barry Sheppard et al. On the face of it, it's a deeply pessimistic view
of possibilities for the US labour movement and working class.

They write off immediate prospects for the development of any left wing in
the US labour movement and working class in an extremely sweeping way. From
this distance I'm not in a position to pass an informed judgement on how
right they are on this, and I'd be extremely interested in observations by
US comrades on this question.

>From a distance it doesn't seem to me quite as bleak as Sheppard et al think
it is. For instance, I've seen on Marxmail references to some US labour
opposition to Bush's war drive, and the Australian media has had many
reports of the militancy of US west coast waterfront workers in their
current dispute.

I don't want to hold Boyle responsible for the views of the US co-thinkers
about the USA, but it's hard to escape the impression that there's a
considerable flavour of this sort of approach to Australia in Boyle's
rhetoric about the ongoing power of his "aristocracy of labour" construction
in relation to Australia.

Australia is a former colonial settler state with some imperialist aspects
still significant, despite its transformation into a relatively modern
capitalist country. In internal economic relations in Australia what
operates is the class struggle between the workers and the bourgeoisie.
While you can say that relative to the rest of the world the Australian
working class is privileged, that statement doesn't tell you much about the
dynamics of the class struggle in Australia, and it's voodoo, or church
Lenin (analogous to church Latin) to constantly invoke the imperialist angle
in relation to the class struggle inside Australia. An actual examination of
the evolution of the Australian labour movement in relation to immigration,
race, class and imperialism shows some bad things, but it also shows a
number of very good things.

In my piece "The ALP, the Labor Movement and Racism: From the 'Bulletin' and
White Australia to Terry Muscat, Jennie George, Mick Costa, Henry Tsang,
Nick Bolkus, Steve Bracks and Kim Beazley, I point out that the
attitude and political practice of the labour movement in relation to race
and migration was completely transformed in the course of the 20th century.
In particular, relatively recent migrants, a very large proportion of them,
people of colour, are now the big battalions of the blue-collar section of
the labour movement. Where's the "labour aristocracy" there?

In addition to this, the history of the Australian labour movement, both
political and industrial, in the 20th century in relation to imperialism has
a surprising number of good features. In 1900, a number of Labor
politicians, the most remarked-on being William Holman, opposed the Boer War
of British imperialism, and a radical minority in the labour movement
opposed the First World War. The overwhelming majority of the movement
opposed conscription for that war, and the Labor Party split over it.

A federal Labor parliamentarian, Hugh Mahon from Western Australia, became
the only federal MP ever expelled from the Australian parliament because of
his stand in support of the national revolution in Ireland. In the 1920s,
the Sydney Labor Council, and the ACTU, eventually, affiliated to the
Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, based in Vladivostok, and copped flak
from the right wing in the labour movement because of the implicit
opposition to White Australia involved in that affiliation.

In the late 1930s the wharfies in Port Kembla conducted an effective strike
against Japanese ships carrying pig iron to Japan, the pig iron being of use
to the Japanese war in China. During the Second World War, left wing
Australian unions, with the support of the ACTU took action to force the
Dutch government to release nationalist and communist prisoners that they
had tried to intern in Australia.

After the Second World War, the left in the trade union movement,
particularly the wharfies and seamen, imposed a black ban on Dutch shipping
in support of the Indonesian war of independence. That ban was supported by
the ACTU eventually, and was a critical factor in the defeat of the Dutch in

In the 1960s, the federal ALP leader dragged a slightly reluctant Labor
Party federal caucus into support for the demand for withdrawing Australian
troops from Vietnam and complete opposition to conscription for that war.
The ACTU, the national trade union body, opposed the war from very early on,
and many Australian trade unions in every state officially supported the
campaign against the war from the beginnings of Australian involvement in
1965 until the end of the war.

Three years ago, the whole labour movement united behind the proposition
that the Indonesian government should be forced to withdraw from East Timor
and also behind the necessary commitment of Australian troops to that end.
The result of that internationalist stand of the Australian labour movement,
belated though it was from the political wing of the labour movement, has
produced a small independent state of East Timor, with relative freedom of
speech, legal trade unions and freedom of agitation for socialist parties.

In the last few weeks, the peak labour bodies in both Sydney and Melbourne
have come out in a general way in opposition to Bush's war in the Middle
East. They aren't too specific about what will happen if Bush's war is
endorsed by the United Nations, but they have given official support to the
mobilisations in a few weeks, the Walks Against the War, and they have
authorised the president of the ACTU, Sharon Burrow and other important
union officials to speak at the rallies against the war.

Some ALP federal MPs such as Harry Quick have come out against the war in
any circumstances, and the ALP parliamentary caucus has come out against any
support for a unilateral Bush war but left open what they will do if a war
is endorsed by the UN.

Taken as a whole, the labour movement, both industrial and political, in
Australia doesn't have a bad record for a labour movement in a former
colonial-settler state, and the record that I've just described, underlines
the point that the pessimism that Sheppard et at feel about the workers'
movement in the US is certainly not necessary in Australia.

There is a long anti-colonial tradition in the Australian labour movement
and a long tradition of opposing war and imperialist interventions, on which
socialists can base themselves, and this tradition still has resonance in
the workers' movement, giving scope for socialists to campaign in the labour
movement against imperialism and war.

The historical facts that I've outlined here further underline the defects
in Boyle's model, which associates a determinedly unspecific general concept
about an "aristocracy of labour" in Australia with a picture of a labour
movement totally dominated by imperialist sentiments. That view is not true
historically, and not accurate today.

In my view, Boyle's use of "aristocracy of labour" Lenin rhetoric about the
Australian labour movement is an incoherent mantra, the aim of which is to
reinforce a sectarian attitude towards the workers' movement that suits the
"team leadership" of the DSP in furthering a project of developing an
organisation essentially located essentially outside the traditional labour

 For the "aristocracy of labour" mantra to be anything more than a
metaphysic, Boyle and the DSP leaders would have to address all the concrete
political and sociological issues raised in this discussion. They refuse to
do so, mainly because they can't do so. Facts are stubborn things, and they
speak against the Boyle "labour aristocracy" construction in modern

Allen Ginsberg got a lot of publicity years ago for the story that he had
programmed his computer to repeat the mantra "om, om, om" in downtime. Maybe
the computers at the DSP headquarters could be programmed in a similar way
to repeat mantras in downtime, like "om, om, om", "nothing, nothing,
 nothing", or even "Lenin, Lenin, Lenin".

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