Bob Gould, 2004

Origins of the working class in Australia
A continuation of the labour aristocracy debate

Source: Ozleft, February 2, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

This discussion is developing in a robust, serious and rather complex way. Quite obviously Peter Boyle, Jon Strauss, Shane Hopkinson and myself have put some effort into the necessary reading and research, and that’s a useful development.

I’m still working on a longish article appraising Lenin’s theoretical approach from my own point of view, but that will take a while. In the interim, I’d raise the following issues.

We now all seem to be agreed that a proletariat emerged in Australia in the 19th century. Peter seems preoccupied with describing elements of stratification within that nascent working class, obviously to fit this development of the working class into his schema about the aristocracy of labour.

Jon Strauss is sensibly a bit cautious about Peter Boyle being too specific on this. From my point of view, Boyle is not being specific enough yet.

If Peter Boyle asserts the substantial significance of “aristocracies of labour” in the working class in the 19th century, and if he further asserts that these “aristocracies of labour” were a central part of the construction of Laborism, he ought to be even more specific and give us some sort of outline sketch of which groups of workers, unions, or parts of unions, constituted this “aristocracy of labour” and the role they played in the development of the Labor parties in the various states, say between 1890 and 1910.

He ought to make this analysis more concrete, and relate it more directly to what he views as the Leninist theory for it to be at all persuasive.

So far Peter Boyle has concentrated, at some length, on the shearers, as an example of an “aristocracy of labour”. I reject this example, for several reasons.

I would describe the shearers as a stratum, not an “aristocracy”. Secondly, from the economic point of view, its absurd to describe the modest gains won by the shearers in their fierce struggles as part of the “bribe”given to the “aristocracy of labour” by the ruling class “out of the super-profits of imperialism”.

That “bribe” seems to be hopelessly indirect, and the notion of the “bribe” hardly fits the brutal measures taken by the squatters, the British banks, etc, to resist having to give it.

That line of reasoning is rubbish when you look concretely at the big class struggles of the 1890s.

In addition, Peter should study carefully Stuart Svenssen’s book describing the elaborate machinations of the squatting interests and the Melbourne-based banks to defeat the strikers.

Peter himself has given an account of the shearing sheds that seriously undermines any notion of an “aristocracy of labour” as applied to the shearers. He describes the skill of the shearer as something learned on the job, with no formal apprenticeship, by young men (shed hands) learning to shear in the smokos of the older shearers.

Some “aristocracy of labour”, in which access to the industry is governed not by craft considerations but by the amount of tobacco the established shearers can afford, and the length of their smokos!

In the actual history of the emergence of the Australian labour movement, a very big part was played by the bush unions and the unions of the relatively unskilled.

Laborism certainly was more or less reformist from its first parliamentary appearance, although there was always a socialist minority and some socialist rhetoric. The reformism, however, actually came much more from the less skilled and less “aristocratic” unions, because the more skilled and more “aristocratic” unions were initially much more cautious about involvement in the new Labor parties.

A good example of this was the printers union in the 1890s, which was extremely hesitant about participating in what it called politics. The actual texture of the development of the Labor Party in Australia doesn’t fit Peter Boyle’s retrospectively constructed supposedly Leninist theory very well at all.

Most of the “privileges” of the Australian “labour aristocracy”, a la Peter Boyle, have in fact been won in struggle, often extremely fierce struggle. It seems odd to characterise as a “bribe”, something that the ruling class is so reluctant to concede, and that they are prepared to spend so much money and blood to defeat.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who works in one of the trade union setups in the Trades Hall, and has had responsibility for carefully preserving heritage material found in various rooms in the old Trades Hall, rang me. (The old Trades Hall is being renovated).

He and his fellow preservationists had discovered and carefully preserved all kinds of leaflets, bits of newspapers, etc, found in a number of rooms, under staircases, etc. After they had taken all that was sensibly preservable, from a heritage point of view, for inclusion in the Labor Council archives, there were still a lot left of old leaflets and printed material, big piles of it.

They thought of me, and were happy enough to take me down and show me what was left after they’d done their work. A lot of it was material from the mid-1970s.

There were leaflets from the period of the Whitlam dismissal, and a lot of newspapers and leaflets and strike newspapers produced during several big disputes in the 1970s. One thing I acquired in this selection was a modest flyer, obviously published by the six-hour day committee in the late 1970s.

It has no date, but it is the standard leaflet put out all through the 1960s and 1970s at the then traditional Labor Day march in October, now no longer held.

The authoriser was Frank Kelly, then one of the assistant secretaries of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union, under the then recent amalgamation agreement between the PIEU and the APTU, a small craft union of photo engravers, stereotypers and others of which he had been secretary. Frank Kelly was an interesting person in his own right.

He was a long-time member of the Communist Party, and a thoroughly convinced Stalinist, operating industrially in a tiny craft union of rather privileged workers, few of whom shared his political beliefs, and most of whom used to laugh about them.

He was often called “Russia Kelly”. Nevertheless, these relatively privileged workers who he organised re-elected him again and again because of his fierce energy in defence of their material interests as trade unionists. Rather strange circumstances in this little corner of what Peter Boyle might describe as the “aristocracy of labour”.

Kelly was for many years the secretary of the Six-hour Day Committee. Frank Kelly’s little Six-hour Day leaflet, reprinted (I seems to remember) year after year, telescopes three events: the achievement of the eight-hour day by stonemasons in New South Wales in 1855, the achievement of the 44-hour week by Labor legislation in the Lang period in the 1920s and the achievement of the 40-our week in the post-war period, which Kelly’s leaflet relates to the epoch-making printers’ strike in Sydney in 1944.

This particular dispute requires a little more elaboration. It happened a few weeks after the successful and important strike of female members of the PKIU in the government railways, which achieved a much higher proportion of the male rate of pay than previously.

The leading spirit behind this dispute was Gil Roper, the then Trotskyist, who was a member of the PKIU board of management.

He played a major role on the board of management in making the 40-hour week strike an official strike of the PKIU against the initial resistance of the Communist Party, which was still caught up in that point in the all-for-the-war-effort opposition to strikes.

The CP speedily dropped its opposition, and got on side as the battle widened. Issy Wyner has an enormous folder full of documentation of this widening and complex struggle, mainly industrial disputes, which culminated in a strike at Bunnerong power station.

This mainly industrial campaign eventually led to the ratification of the 40-hour week in the Commonwealth Industrial Court in 1947. All these events are also covered in a matter of fact way in the book Industrial Relations in the Chifley Era, by Tom Sheridan.

The point of all this is the following: in extending Lenin’s experimental, half-developed observations about the “labour aristocracy” into a universally applicable, global, “Leninist theory”, Peter Boyle skates over some of the limitations and contradictions in Lenin’s observations.

There was an element of truth in Lenin’s investigations of the “labour aristocracy”, but there were also always weaknesses in his account, and his epigones worsen these weaknesses by turning Lenin’s observations into some quasi-religious, almost cultic, schema.

In Australia there are several problems with this approach. Firstly, the facts of the development of the working class in the 19th century indicate a limited stratification, rather than the wholesale development of a massive “labour aristocracy”.

Secondly, the facts of the development of the political labour movement do not bear out the idea of any “aristocracy of labour” having a decisive influence on the development of the Labor Party.

Thirdly, most gains for the working class, including those made by ostensibly “aristocratic” elements, were very clearly won in struggle, often very harsh struggle, which tends to make notions about the “bribe” rather fanciful.

In addition to this, the economic surplus allowing for concessions, conceded after bitter struggles, came much more directly from conjunctural economic developments such as the Gold Rush and the marketability of wool and meat on the London markets, than any straightforward economic transfer of the super-profits of imperialism, unless that is presented in a super-indirect way.

Of course, the one major exception to this economic aspect is the enormous economic benefits derived by the Australian ruling class from the initial barbarous conquest and theft of Aboriginal land.

In addition to this, to extend the “Leninist” theory, as the DSP theorists understand it, to the origins of Laborism and the notion that modern-day Labor reformism is related in some overarching way to a “labour aristocracy”, runs up sharply against the social structure and the economic facts of the modern Australian economy and society.

It is true that in a global, moral, sense the populations of all imperialist countries have a higher standard of living that has its historical origins partly in the terms of trade between imperialist countries and the Third World, and the history of imperialism and those terms of trade.

Nevertheless, modern economies in advanced capitalist countries have a number of other aspects, and it is not very useful or effective, strategically, to think that you can develop a strategy for class struggle and the labour movement by concentrating on the imperialist aspect alone.

All socialists should be internationalists concerning the terms of trade between the first and the third worlds. They should also recognise, however, that one of the most effective ways they can assist their comrades in the Third World is to vigorously prosecute the economic class struggle against the ruling class in advanced capitalist countries.

=========== 8 HOURS LEAFLET ==========




In 1855 the Stonemasons Society met to discuss the severity of the Sydney summer that together with long hours of work was having an ill effect on the health of its mostly English-born members. The solution they saw was a shorter working week and they began collecting finance for the fight which they saw ahead.

On 18th August 1855 an ultimatum was sent to all employers of masons stating that six months from that date stonemasons would only work an eight-hour day. Further, as if to give an emphasis to their determination to meet the coming struggle as a united front, all members struck on October 1 of that year.

It is that day that workers now honour, as we have done for more than a century.

At 4pm on February 18, 1856, all stonemasons stopped work in conformity with the decision that they had made six months previous. The strike was short lived, the masons having by that time financed and organised the struggle to ensure victory.

The workers of New South Wales achieved a 44-hour week after a royal commission and by state and federal courts, arising from wide industrial agitation. All of this was supplemented by legislation in 1920 and later.

The 40-hour week — the printers

In September 1944, the workers at Sun claimed a 40-hour week. Management refused and the printers declared that they would work no more than five shifts a week. The Sun ceased work on October 7, 1944, and together with the printers from other newspaper factories now involved and members of the Australian Journalists Association, produced their own newspaper, the News.

After a succession of conferences, newspaper employers agreed to a 40-hour week. Our members then resumed work on October 20, their victory complete.

Printing union members outside the daily newspapers met in April 1945, and resolved to press for a shorter working week on their own behalf and from then on to work only eight hours on five days a week. Employers undertook mass sackings and the battle was joined. The dispute quickly became before the court following the federal Labor Government’s intervention, which made the printers’ case a general application for a standard working week of 40 hours.

Following proceedings before industrial commission, a resumption of work took place on the understanding that rosters embracing 40 hours would be adopted. It took a lot of time and money and intensified trade union campaigning to win the 40-hour week for the Australian workers, but it was well worth it.

Authorised F.A. KELLY

See also:

Some questions on the DSP’s theory of a “labour aristocracy”

The “labour aristocracy” and groundhog day

The DSP and the so-called “labour aristocracy”