[Marxism] Racism and early Australian labour

Nick Fredman srcsra at scu.edu.au
Sat Apr 16 19:59:27 MDT 2005

In this post I make some comments on Bob Gould’s latest critique of 
John Percy’s new history of the DSP, 
http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Percymethod.html , in which 
Gould trumpets his self-perceived superiority in matters of labour 
history. I’ll attempt fairly briefly to make some general points on the 
historiography of the Australian working class, and how this relates to 
racism in the late colonial working class, and more generally to the 
theory of labour aristocracy (issues relevant to an academic literature 
review I’ve been doing).

Gould claims that Percy relies on a “tiny number of sources, mainly the 
early Humphrey McQueen”. This is grossly inaccurate. The reality is 
that the analysis of the Australian working class in the nineteenth and 
early twentieth centuries presented by Percy is in broad agreement with 
a whole generation of leftist historians (and sociologists) that 
appeared in the 1970s and 80s including MacQueen, Verity Bergman, Ray 
MarKay, Ann Curthoys, Boris Frankel, Bob Connell and Terence Irving 
(the first three cited by Percy). That is, an understanding of the 
context of a developing industrial and agricultural working class in a 
relatively well-off and underpopulated colonial settler society, of the 
differentiations within this class, and of the contradictory political 
role of this class: struggles, often heroic, for workers rights and 
democratic rights, but a class largely imbued with populist and 
nationalist ideas and which participated in racist campaigns.

Gould seems to prefer older left historians such as Russell Ward, Ian 
Turner and Rob Gollan. He claims Percy ignores these. This isn’t true, 
as Percy cites Turner as a source on the early socialist movement and 
Gollan as “the best source” on CPA history. Percy thus implicitly 
recognises these historians’ strengths in providing accounts of 
specific struggles and organizations of the labour movement. However 
these “old left” historians have been justly criticised by the “new 
left” historians for: their empiricism; a concentration on institutions 
rather than the whole class in its complexity; their nationalism and 
populism; a rose-coloured narrative of labour history as an ever-onward 
march towards democratic rights, egalitarianism and “national 
independence”; a blindness to labour movement racism; and a culturally 
determinist reification, and glorification, of cultural types and myths 
such as “mateship”. Percy briefly mentions these defects (p. 13). His 
account of labour historiography might have been clearer if he 
mentioned the left nationalist historians by name, though he does cite 
Boris Frankel’s account of the debates around nationalist myths and 
national identity in /From the Prophets Deserts Come/.

Gould claim’s that MacQueen’s later writings (after the 1st, 1970 
edition of /A New Britiannia/), support his views is highly 
disingenuous. Neither the Afterword to the 1986 edition (which Percy 
refers to, contrary to Gould’s claims), nor the Afterword to the 
recently released 2004 edition, modify MacQueen’s views on the extent 
of racism and nationalism in the early Australian proletariat. They do 
however modify MacQueen’s early, somewhat confused, view of the 
essentially petty bourgeois nature of this class and, unfortunately for 
Gould, move in the direction of the DSP’s views of the need to relate 
Australian Laborism to the changing nature of imperialism and to the 
theory of the labour aristocracy.

On the question of racism, Gould cites the following from Percy, then 
makes his own highly distorted interpretation:

 [Percy] “However, this strong trade union and democratic tradition was 
built on the dispossession of the original inhabitants and accompanied 
by extremely racist attitudes and ideas. ‘White Australia’ was not 
pushed only by the bourgeoisie, but was also championed by privileged 
white workers wanting to protect their patch. This racist poison 
thoroughly infected the Australian labour movement.” (Page 13)

[Gould] “What a condescending, one-sided approach to the development of 
a working class and its consciousness. Percy tends to reduce this 
development mainly to the question of racism, overstates that issue 
substantially, and ascribes the racism mainly to the working class when 
it clearly came from the dominant imperialist ideology of the British 

Of course nothing Percy writes indicates that racism is “mainly” 
attributable to the working class, or contradicts the Marxist view that 
that racism springs fundamentally from the needs of capital, 
particularly in its imperialist phase. By contrast Gould seems to be 
implying, in denial of overwhelming historical evidence, but in general 
agreement with the old left nationalist historians, that racism had 
little or no importance to working class politics.

Percy cites Markey’s /The Making of the Labor Party in New South 
Wales/, which covers early labour movement racism, but Markey has more 
systematically done this in the article ‘Race and organized labor in 
Australia 1850-1901’, (/The Historian/, Winter 1996). Unions initiated 
or participated in mass meetings against Chinese immigration and 
Melanesian indentured labour, opposed, and scabbed against, efforts by 
Chinese workers to organise, and championed a White Australia. All this 
suited the interests of the capitalists of course, but was also pushed 
by the largely petty bourgeois membership of the rural Australian 
Workers Union, who were most attached to, or hungered after, land. The 
racism of the movement was also materially based on the 
differentiations of the working class:

“The [perceived racial] threat was especially pertinent to the craft 
unionists who dominated the labor movement in most white settler 
societies in the nineteenth century. For them, racial exclusion was a n 
extension of exclusivist policies that maintained high wages and 
favourable working conditions by restricting entry to the trade or 
calling” (p. 346).

The strength of the racist tide is shown by the fact that even 
anti-racist socialists adapted to it. Markey cites an 1897 issue of 
/Australian Workman/:

 “We have no down on the alien as such … We know the Asiatic races are 
not what the capitalist frauds … make them out to be” but as a “matter 
of expediency … “pending the solution of social questions … the 
population should be restricted to the White, and as far as possible, 
the British speaking element, for the time being”.

Gould claims Bob Connell and Terence Irving work supports his view of 
the early Australian proletariat. Wrong again. Their summary of the 
late colonial working class, in /Class Structure in Australian History/ 
(1992), fully supports Percy’s contention that racism was a significant 
force that both reflected and helped reproduce differentiations within 
the class. Like MarKey, they do not explicitly use the term “labour 
aristocracy”, but their analyses also support the contention that this 
was a constant feature of the Australia working class, if a feature 
that is contradictory and changing and somewhat different from the 
European experience:

“The labour market [from the 1870s] was showing signs of becoming 
increasingly differentiated. In Queensland, employers introduced some 
60 000 Melanesians for sugar plantations, so that field labour became a 
separate segment of the labour market, where inferior working and 
living conditions persisted because of the racist disdain of white 
workers for ‘nigger work’. In the boot, tobacco and clothing trades of 
Victoria and New South Wales, women and children became the major 
components of the workforce in the 1870s, displacing several hundred 
male workers at a time when near full employment and sluggish 
immigration was forcing wages up …

“Yet although the labour market was beginning to follow the classic 
path of increased exploitation of labour through differentiation, it 
did not produce overnight discontinuities and sufferings on the scale 
of European capitalism … By early the next century, the Chinese had 
been excluded, most of the Melanesian repatriated, and the labour 
movement and liberal reformists had made so obvious their opposition, 
on racist grounds, to cheap contract labour that it was very difficult 
for employers to indenture even southern Europeans without being 
accused of damaging ‘White Australia’”. (pp. 108-109).

Differentiation within the working class based on ethnicity, sex and 
skill means relative privilege for some. Yes this is fundamentally a 
lesser order contradiction than that between capital and labour, yes it 
is flexible and changeable (not least in this period because of the 
success of racist campaigns!), yes it has to be understood concretely 
as a  complex phenomena that is different from the European experience, 
yes its impact on politics is contradictory and not necessarily 
reactionary. But to deny that such differentiation, in a dialectical 
relationship with strong bourgeois and petty bourgeois influences on 
the labour movement, has an impact on consciousness and politics is to 
deny reality.

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