Bob Gould, 2005

Don’t mention the war
Why the DSP leadership has great difficulty discussing Gallipoli and the World War I conscription referenda

Source: Ozleft, April 26, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

In John Percy’s memoir of the first seven years of the DSP he has the following timeless words to say:

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”. (Page 16)

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 Russian Revolution.

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.

Rather than 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, the foundation and evolution of the Labor Party 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 mental picture of a Labor Party that is a complete conspiracy of the ruling class.

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 EP 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” organisations of the unskilled and semi-skilled: 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 nonsense.

The other, non-conspiratorial, side to the history of the Labor Party as it actually developed proceeds this way: Labor supported the introduction of conciliation and arbitration as a legal system with the intention of entrenching 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, mainly by the use of industrial registration and awards, which was part of this new industrial system. The newly organised groups included many women workers and those in light industry, who did not have much immediate industrial strength.

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 referenda.

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 newspaper 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, Interrogating Miriam Dixson, Dumbing Down Labour History and its Teaching and Irish Catholics and the Labour Movement in Australia. 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 arrogantly contemptuous of the people who pushed for the socialist objective. Many of them, even some of the leaders, were deeply committed to the general idea of achieving socialism.

Percy’s mechanical mindset can’t comprehend the contradictions of an uneven 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, for him they aren’t socialists. This is a primitive, smug, ignorant view of the evolution of any labour movement, anywhere.

After the conscription split and the adoption of the socialist objective, 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 and Maurice Blackburn, and even supported in the federal Labor cabinet by Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell.

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 energetically, although ulitmately unsuccessfully, 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.

In 1955 the federal Labor Party parliamentary leader, HV Evatt, took the initiative in launching a struggle in the labour movement against the extremely right-wing Industrial Groups, led by BA Santamaria. In the subsequent labour movement civil war prosecuted by Evatt, the right-wing Groupers, as they were called, were defeated and largely driven out of the Labor Party and Labor domestic and foreign policy swung to the left for the next period.

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 the Labor Party was vital.

In the 1960s came the substantial campaign 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, at the time 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, etc.

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 a cadre for serious activity in the Australian workers’ movement.