[Marxism] Don't mention the war
ozleft at optushome.com.au
Mon Apr 25 23:24:34 MDT 2005
Don't mention the war. Why the DSP leadership has great difficulty
discussing Gallipoli and the Australian conscription referendums
By Bob Gould
In John Percy's memoir of the first seven years of the DSP, he has the
following timeless words to say: (page 16) "We can assess how little it
aided working-class struggles and how little it was independent of the
capitalist class by its actions over the next 100 years. It has been the
alternative party of rule by the bosses in times of crisis. Its goal is
class peace and preservation of the status quo.
“Its influence is directed to convincing workers that their needs can
and must be met through parliament and arbitration (objectively the
employers’ policy), rather than through their own organisation and
activity. From its inception, the role of the ALP has been to integrate
the working class and its struggles into the capitalist framework, not
to break from it. It hasn’t been ‘a historic step forward’."
And (page 17): "Every ‘socialist objective’ adopted – as in 1919, or
1921, for the ‘socialisation of industry, production, distribution and
exchange’ – was intended to contain radicalisation. It was designed to
prevent the development of a strong independent working class
alternative following the hopes raised among workers after the 1917
And (page 17): "the ALP is more suited to implement the collective needs
of the capitalist class – for example, to implement structural changes
in the interests of capitalism as a whole, which the openly capitalist
parties would find difficult because of their ties to particular
sections of the class."
And, page 18: "It's not our tradition. It’s not a radical tradition, but
an obstacle to the development of a radical tradition, an instrument to
counter radical or revolutionary developments. The capitalists will
promote that tradition; it’s useful for them."
What John Percy is expounding here amounts to a fully fledged conspiracy
theory of politics applied to the development of the Labor Party.
Viewing the foundation and development of the Labor Party as a
contradictory process driven partly by the desire for radical social
change, and in part by the aspirations of many people who considered
themselves socialists, it is presented as a conspiracy of the
bourgeoisie to construct a consciously second party of capital.
Percy then goes on to list the crimes of Labor leaderships and
governments over 115 years, many of which are quite real.
He is then able, out of this catalogue of crimes and betrayals, to
sketch a picture of a Labor Party that is a complete conspiracy of the
The first question for advocates of this crazy schema is why would the
organised working class be so doggedly loyal, electorally and
organisationally, to such a reactionary conspiracy?
It's only necessary to ask that question to be able to answer it by
pointing to the undialectical, dishonest and selective character of
Percy's narrative. (Percy ought to read and digest E.P. Thompson's
"Making of the English Working Class", and so should Nick Fredman,
before they write another word about labour history.)
In nearly all of the instances that Percy cites, conflicting tendencies
were present in the development of the Australian labour movement.
In passing, in reply to Nick Fredman
it's nonsensical to apply the overused and half-developed theory of the
labour aristocracy to the formation of the Labor Party. It's absurd, and
obviously so, for Fredman to say, in his post, "the largely petty
bourgeois membership of the rural Australian Workers Union, who were
mostly attached to, or hungered after, land".
To describe a semi-skilled union of shearers, miners and rural labourers
as petty bourgeois, or part of a labour aristocracy, is sociological
nonsense. They may well have been motivated by the desire for land, and
some of them may have been small landholders who couldn’t make a living
from their holding (a situation not uncommon throughout the history of
the working class, and common today in many Third World countries where
industrial and peasant economies exist side by side), but that doesn't
make them petty bourgeois, and they constructed their union in a series
of big and militant strikes.
It's worth noting that the difference between Australia and the US,
where no Labor Party developed, partly lay in the fact that land was
relatively free in the US west, which to some extent served as a safety
valve in the US for the build-up of the sort of class pressures that
contributed to the establishment of the Australian Labor Party.
The other unions active in the formation of the Labor Party were largely
"new" unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers: the miners, builders
labourers, rockchoppers, the Balmain labourers union, etc. The skilled
unions were slower to join the push for a labour party.
The retrospectively constructed labour aristocracy theory applied to the
formation of the Labor Party is mainly instrumentalist sociological
The other, non-conspiratorial side to the history of the Labor Party, as
it actually developed, proceeds this way: the first Labor governments,
introduced arbitration as a legal system with the intention of
entrenched the legal rights of trade unions at state and federal levels.
Particularly in the years from 1905 to 1912, pretty well the whole of
the blue collar workforce was unionised, including many groups of women
workers and those in light industry who did not have much immediate
When World War I was declared, it's true that Labor leader Andrew Fisher
pledged the support of the labour movement to the war. It's also true,
however, that most trade unions and Labor politicians, both federal and
state, opposed conscription for overseas service.
That opposition hardened in 1916, when the Labor Party all over
Australia expelled pro-conscription Labor leaders and government figures
such as federal Labor leader Billy Hughes and NSW parliamentary leader
William Holman, and the Labor Party was the major social force
campaigning for the defeat of conscription that took place in the two
This was the only defeat of conscription in time of war anywhere,
outside of Ireland, where conscription was defeated in a de facto way
because the masses simply refused to sign up.
The Labor Party took the lead in repeating the defeat of conscription in
the second referendum, which brings me to the bizarre quiescence of the
DSP weekly paper and website, “Green Left Weekly”, in recent weeks in
the face of an orgy of bourgeois nationalism in which the Australian
ruling class is trying to soften up the youth for the impending resource
wars of the 21st century by whipping up patriotic and militarist hysteria.
The DSP leadership is incapable of commenting on any of this, because to
comment in any way intelligently it would have to tell the true story of
the conscription battle, which split the country, and split and
radicalised the labour movement, for the next 20 years or so. Rather
than have to discuss these questions, “Green Left” remains silent. (I
have commented at length on Australia's wars, Gallipoli, etc, in several
articles that are available on Ozleft,
http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Catholics.html). I'm in a fair
position to comment on these things because my father was a World War I
digger who lost an arm in 1918 in France, as a result becoming a
lifelong opponent of imperialist wars until his death at 80 in 1974.)
Percy reduces Labor’s adoption of a socialist objective as a result of
the radicalisation of World War I to a conspiracy to deceive the masses.
He quotes a couple of Labor politicians who tried with
anti-revolutionary statements to soften impact of adopting the objective.
Percy’s approach is deeply contemptuous of the people who pushed for the
socialist objective. Many of them, even some of the leaders, were were
deeply committed to the general idea of achieving socialism.
Percy's mechanical mindset can't comprehend the contradictions of a mass
process in a mass workers' organisation, and even in the minds and
hearts of individuals, over time. The adoption of the socialisation
objective embodied the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of
activists, including some leaders of Labor and the trade unions for the
next 20 years.
Unless these people automatically fit Percy's retrospective schema, they
aren't socialists. This is a primitive, smug, ignorant view of the
evolution of any labour movement, anywhere.
After that, in the 1920s, came the radical policies of the government of
Premier Jack Lang in NSW: the adoption of the 44-hour week, child
endowment, etc, etc, in the teeth of fierce ruling class opposition.
At the start of the Great Depression, Labor expelled right-wing
politicians and leaders of several state governments and some federal
politicians, and a very radical populist centrism developed behind Lang
in NSW. At this time, mass socialisation units developed in the NSW
Labor Party, which were deliberately sabotaged the Stalinists in
Australian Communist Party’s first phase of Third Period politics.
At the start of the World War II, the labour movement in several states
opposed the establishment of a national register for military service,
and the NSW Labor Party passed the Hands Off Russia resolution (strongly
influenced, it must be said, by Stalinists working in the Labor Party).
During World War II a substantial minority of Labor politicians, in all
states and federally, opposed conscription for overseas service. This
opposition was led by Lang, Eddie Ward, Arthur Calwell and Maurice
At the end of World War II a mobilisation for the 40-hour week, largely
initiated by the Sydney Trotskyists, was rapidly taken up by the whole
labour movement, and the federal Labor government legislated for the
40-hour week in 1947.
Labor Prime Minister Chifley moved to nationalise the banks around the
same time, and in the early 1950s a vigorous and successful campaign to
defeat the banning of the Communist Party, firstly by a successful
appeal to the High Court against the ban, and thereafter by defeating
the ban proposal in a referendum, was led by Labor leader Herbert V. Evatt.
All through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, despite Labor’s lack of
electoral success federally, labour moved forward in many states as
pressure from the unions and Labor conferences was important in securing
improvements in wages, conditions and living standards for the working
class. In all of this, agitation in the trade unions and Labor the Party
In the 1960s came the agitation against the Vietnam War, courageously
initiated by then Labor leader Arthur Calwell.
In the 1970s the Whitlam Labor government introduced a number of reforms
(and a federal Labor conference defeated the first wage-price freeze
proposal, initiated by Clyde Cameron). I remember that clearly because I
was a direct participant, as the one Socialist Left delegate from NSW,
at the 40-delegate federal Labor Party conference.
Later still came the major agitation against nuclear power by what
turned out to be a substantial minority of the labour movement.
When the Hawke government's Prices-Incomes Accord was adopted by the
ACTU in 1983, after being initiated outside the Labor Party by the
Communist Party and prominent CP metalworkers union leader Laurie
Carmichael, the only elected union official to vote against its adoption
was a Labor Party member, Jenny Haines, the secretary of the nurses'
union in NSW.
At ACTU congresses in the late 1980s, when discontent with the Accord
began to broaden, the vocal critics of the Accord were often Labor Party
members such as Gail Cotton of the Food Preservers Union.
Even in the 1990s, the unions in NSW were able to block electricity
privatisation at a Labor Party conference, and it never went ahead.
The NSW government also, on the initiative of the ingenious then labour
minister Jeff Shaw, succeeded in getting through the Upper House
union-sympathetic industrial relations laws, and to a lesser extent this
happened also in Western Australia.
More recently, the Labor Party in the federal parliament opposed the
Iraq war and opposed Howard’s decision to send extra troops to Iraq,
None of the things I've outlined above are part of the political program
of the ruling class. Only the most idiosyncratic, instrumentalist
conspiracy theory of the evolution of the labour movement can construct
a ruling class conspiracy out of the actions listed above.
Viewed in a more objective, dialectical way, when you take Percy's
largely accurate list of betrayals and put against it my accurate
account of progressive actions and episodes of robust centrism in the
Labor Party and trade unions, what you get is a clear picture of a real,
bourgeois workers' party in its historical evolution, which clearly
remains one of the main arenas of struggle in Australian life.
Socialists who aren’t bigoted, mindless, middle-class sectarians ought
to lend some support, and have an orientation towards, the progressive
side of these struggles.
I've discussed all these questions at considerable length in the past on
Ozleft, Marxmail and the Green Left discussion list, and I suggest that
those interested have a good look at some of those articles.
I don't intend to write too much more about this aspect of political
struggle in the immediate future, as I feel that I've examined just
about every possible angle.
Percy's narrative about the history of the Australian labour movement is
a travesty. It's dishonest by omission and it's completely useless for
training cadre for serious activity in the Australian workers’ movement.
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