Bob Gould, 2003

Australia, Canada, Argentina, land and class struggle

Source: Marxmail, October 29, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Louis Proyect, in his sometimes overly oracular way, says of my observation that Australia and Argentina for some time occupied a similar position as relatively developed countries: “This is a common perception, but quite erroneous.”

He goes on to tell us, at some length, using as his authority, Jeremy Adelman, that Argentina and Canada are quite different, and at length recounts Adelman’s analysis, which locates the difference in the fact that there was relatively free access to land in Canada, and that the Canadian state and banks made things easier for homesteaders.

He then draws a sharp difference with Argentina, where he says, correctly, that capital, largely British capital, ignored the small settlers and devoted most development money to big ranchers.

By inference, he and Adelman suggest that this produced greater class conflict, which is true, although I am no expert on Argentina or Canada.

He then airily says Australia was similar to Canada, and then infers that Australia and Canada are both in the “global North” and Argentina is in the “global South”. Quite how easier access to land by homesteaders is the decisive difference between the “global North” and the “global South” he doesn’t make clear.

The other problem with his summary judgment on the matter is that he obviously doesn’t know a lot about Australia. On the question of land, Australia, which was also a colonial settler state developed by British capital like Canada and Argentina, was and is much closer to the Argentinian example than to Canadia, at least as Louis and Adelman outline the Canadian example.

There is a substantial literature, some of it socialist, on the economic development of Australia, the land question, and the impact this had on political developments. Labor historians Brian Fitzpatrick, Connell and Irving, Andrew Wells, Buckley and Wheelwright and Australia’s foremost economic historian and statistician, Noel Butlin, among others, have written substantial books on this question.

From the date of settlement in the major colonies, the land was dished out with the support of British banks to major capitalists, who became “squatters”, and even to consortiums set up by the banks. The overwhelming majority of bank finance went to big capitalists in Australia, just like Argentina. For long periods there was a chronic shortage of labour, which was a stimulus to trade union organisation in most colonies.

The working class in the developing cities, and the landless labourers, raised a substantial agitation for access to land with only middling success. Eventually, liberal bourgeois politicians in NSW and Victoria, particularly Sir John Robertson in NSW, brought in laws for free selection, allowing small farmers a limited amount of right to select land within big squatting spreads. (My Irish grandfather and a number of my country relatives were free selectors.)

Free selection, however, was largely unsuccessful in breaking the grip of the big squatters and the British banks on the land, and Australian rural development was dominated by big capital and squatting interests. The resulting class tensions between the small farmers, the urban working class and the big squatters and the ruling class gave impetus to the formation of the Labor Party in the 1890s, the direct trigger for which were the mass strikes of 1891 and 1893-94 of rural and urban workers against the squatting interests.

From its origins the Labor Party in Australia was a kind of coalition between small farmer free selectors and the urban proletariat. The classic novels of rural life, On Our Selection etc, by Steele Rudd, capture something of the harsh life of free selectors.

Inter alia, when I was in the orbit of the SLL-WRP in the 1970s, I attended several WRP schools at their premises in Derbyshire, along with quite a few other Australians. Gerry Healy, Cliff Slaughter and Mike Banda, when they were an ideological and leadership team, had a pedagogic method in which they would take up some simple theme and often associate it with a book on the subject, and drum it into people. Those who went through the orbit of that formation will remember schools at which Healy used Christopher Hill’s excellent book on Cromwell, God’s Englishman, as a simple battering ram to buttress a rather primitive idea that the revolutionary party should resemble Cromwell’s New Model Army.

At one such school that I attended, the subject was Australia, and Healy, Slaughter and Banda put the Australians through the hoops, trying to get them to locate the difference between Australia and the US on the one hand, and the US and Canada on the other, as to why the Labor Party had developed so quickly in Australia in contrast to North America.

Most of the Aussies failed this ferocious test of understanding and it eventually emerged that the correct answer was the fact that easy access to land on the frontier in North America served to release class tensions, and did not produce the build-up of the clashes that led to the formation of the Labor Party. (The aim of this rather cruel pedagogic exercise was obviously twofold. One aspect was to sharpen up the critical faculties of the cadres, the other was to reinforce the extreme claims of Healy, Banda and Slaughter to political leadership of the group, based on their almost occult understanding of these questions.)

Despite the pedagogic crudity of this political lesson, there is no serious doubt that Healy was basically correct on the matter. On the matter of access to land, it is pretty clear that on the question Louis locates as critical vis a vis “global South” or “global North”, Australia has more in common with Argentina than with Canada or the US.

In my view, in locating countries as “global North” or “global South”, the land question is not necessarily vital. Current socioeconomic relationships, both within the economies of countries, and between the economies of countries and the wider capitalist world, are also important, and I would still be interested in a more measured response about Argentina, Singapore, South Korea, etc.