Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Labor in Office? – A Matter of Working Class Tactics

NOTE: This article was published as a pamphlet in October 1987. The pamphlet was largely drawn from an article in the weekly newspaper “Vanguard”, July 1, 1987 – Ed.


The contempt by the Labor government for rank and file ALP members and the Australian working class movement in the recent years has been a source of anger and disillusionment for many.

The recent Federal elections and resulting re-election of the Labor Party to office gave some insight into people’s attitudes to the Labor leaders and parliamentary politics. In this pamphlet, drawn from an article published in the weekly newspaper Vanguard, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) explains the reasons why Labor should remain in government and outlines some of the likely developments in the progressive and working class movement in Australia today.

If we extract the essence of the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong, it can be seen that the fundamentals are applicable to Australia today. “Left Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder by Lenin is particularly relevant and some quotes are included in the appendix at the back of this booklet. Lenin’s statements were addressed to the Comintern. He says: “Parliamentarism has become ’historically obsolete’” ... but later warns that Communists “...must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses” He urges Communists to “... soberly follow the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not only its Communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only the advanced elements)..”

In the strategic sense the day of minority rule is “obsolete”. It cannot provide an adequate living for the majority and the only solution is for the people to overthrow capitalism, replacing that system with socialism wherein the mines, factories, land, banks, etc. are owned by the people. This change can only be achieved by the action of the majority and not by advanced workers and militants alone.

In Australia today the economic situation has developed to a stage where people recognise “that something has to be done”. Just what and how is yet unclear in the minds of the majority. Experience and learning from these experiences is how revolution (or struggle which alters the structure of society) develops. The 1987 Federal election revealed that, for the majority, experience of Labor in office is still necessary. People believe that it is possible for a Labor government to serve the people and still administer capitalism for the rich.

Yet at the same time, people are fighting the injustices of this system outside parliamentary channels and where they do fight with united strength, they record success. Good lessons are being learned. A strong movement with its roots in the working class is developing. People’s action is beginning to reveal that “to get something done” we have to use every avenue available to us, challenge every attack on people’s living standards and democratic rights and that parliamentary politicians administer in the interests of the rich and not those who elect them.

Labor in government

Many progressive and militant people expressed concern with the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)’s approach to the Labor Party in the 1987 Federal election. We advised a vote for the Labor Party.

Why did we do this?

In order to answer this question, we must remind ourselves of the irreconcilable contradiction between those who own the means of production and those who operate them. This is the very basis of the problems of Australia.

The crisis of capitalism which arises from this reality, will deepen. The competition for profit among the rich and the struggle to survive by the majority of Australians throw the rich and the poor into further confrontation. People take action to survive.

This action is in its early stage of development. Many still see parliament as the avenue where fundamental change can be implemented.

Whichever party forms the government of the time, administers capitalism for the real rulers of Australia. This inevitably throws them into conflict with ordinary people. This conflict will grow and deepen.

In this situation there is the need for us and the working class, working and other progressive people to learn more deeply that Labor governments will not serve the people and will not alter capitalism. Our attitude is determined by what is best to teach ourselves and others that independence for Australia and ultimate socialism must be struggled for.

The process of learning is not easy. Undoubtedly there is developing amongst the people consciousness that their own struggle is the essential factor in bringing about change either on a single social issue or on overall social issues. Finally, in order to realise socialism, overall people’s struggle is decisive. Indeed, without that overall struggle enlightened by Marxism, there can be no socialism. And the spark of socialism dwells in the hearts of all working people.

Had the Labor government been defeated, undoubtedly a Liberal/National government would have seized on and extended reactionary measures that the Labor government had already established. A Liberal/National government would be more overtly anti-working class and anti-people than a Labor government. The effect of this would be once again to generate hope that a regenerated Labor Party would replace the Liberal/National government and repair the damage.

Labor capitalises on people’s support

It is necessary to think back. The Whitlam government came to office in 1972. It aroused great hope among the people for progressive measures. In its early period of office, it did some very good things indeed. But as time went on and difficulties in capitalism asserted themselves, its emphasis went to anti-working class and anti-people’s measures. The Whitlam “wage freeze” should never be forgotten. The important lesson, that struggle was decisive and not Labor government measures, was obscured because of the manner of Whitlam’s dismissal. Kerr’s abuse of the “prerogative of the Crown” turned Whitlam into something of a folk hero. There is no need to complain about that – Whitlam did make some positive contributions. The manner of his sacking also had other important lessons such as Australia’s lack of independence, its absence of republicanism, its subordination to the US and still more. The sacking also concealed the anti-people’s measures that the Whitlam government was steadily promoting. It was largely because of these measures that it was defeated in the election that followed its dismissal.

Fraser’s government built on reactionary measures taken by Whitlam’s government. Fraser’s government generated great hostility among the people. Many saw a Labor government as the solution. When the Hawke government was elected in 1983, there were tremendous hopes that people’s needs would be met. In its very early stages, the Hawke government did do some very good things, the most dramatic of which was preventing the Franklin Dam. Then as the chronic crisis of capitalism deepened, it followed a course similar to that of Whitlam but worse. It introduced many anti-working class, anti-people’s measures.

In each case, “capital” of people’s support was accumulated in the period which preceded the Whitlam government and the Hawke government. In Whitlam’s case, it was Menzies-Holt-Gorton-McMahon – in Hawke’s case, Fraser. More capital of people’s support was accumulated in the very early phase of the Whitlam and Hawke governments.

As time went on, during each period of government, that capital of people’s support was whittled away.

Amongst the militant and progressive supporters of both Whitlam and Hawke, anti-Whitlam and anti-Hawke sentiments developed. In the case of Hawke, there is positive active hatred amongst militants and progressives, more marked than in the case of any Labor government or Labor leaders in Australian history. There is a good objective (factual) reason for this. That reason is that the chronic crisis of capitalism in Australia has deepened. (It is necessary to mention only the more than $100 billion foreign debt to show this.) The present Labor government has enacted measures worse than those enacted by Liberal/National governments. It has proposed other measures of similar nature. The crisis of capitalism compels governments to enact anti-people’s measures. Insofar as governments influence the operation of the state machine, the crisis of capitalism compels government influence of it in a way adverse to the people. It is thus our view that facts show that the present Labor government has taken more anti-people’s measures than any other Labor government in history. It has cut living standards and enacted repression which in present circumstances, no Liberal/National government could get away with.

It is certain that those measures would have been built on and extended by a Liberal/National government (and will be by the Labor government, since it has been returned). A common accusation made by the Liberal/Nationals is that Labor has stolen their policy and Labor accuses the Liberal/Nationals of stealing Labor policy. In this accusation and its counter-accusation, there is much truth.

The fundamental reason for this, and for the anti-people’s position of the Labor government, is that governments of each party are governments of capitalism. A Labor government administers capitalism. It is a capitalist government.

The present Labor government is a government of capitalism, more efficient for capitalism than any Labor government in history (other perhaps than that of Curtin, which served an overall progressive anti-fascist role). At the present time it is far more efficient than a Liberal/National government. It is more efficient in the administration of capitalism because it uses very cunningly the capital of deception of the people that has accumulated from the time of the birth of the Labor Party in the 1890s. (The birth of the Labor Party was indeed objectively progressive – it registered the seeking of the workers for an independent party. Given the then circumstances, it was a deeply radical action and it left a deeply-rooted radical tradition.)

The present Labor government has a close connection with the A.C.T.U leaders who occupy a position similar to the Labor leaders but directly connected with the trade union structure. Often the expression “delivery” of the workers is used by these people The A.C.T.U. leaders “deliver” the workers for the “accord” or “two-tier system” or some other anti-worker action.

The position of the A.C.T.U. leaders is one of deception of the workers. They too trade on capital for deception accumulated by the progressive traditions of trade unionism in Australia. In fact, they have done nothing progressive at all. They have been flat out in deceiving and misleading the workers. Under their leadership, working conditions and wages have been seriously worsened. Penalties on unions and workers have increased. They have presided over the absolutely disgraceful bosses’ attacks and court actions in the cases of Mudginberri, SEQEB, Dollar Sweets, BLF, plumbers and many others. It is difficult (impossible) to think of a single, positive thing they have done for Australian workers or people. Their support of the Industrial Relations Bill, the associated document “Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement” and the “Australia Reconstructed” plan reveal with stark clarity their real “delivery” of the workers who constitute the militant troops on the ground for struggle.

They have acted in tandem with the Labor leaders to reduce the real wages of the working people, to reduce pensions and all other social services, to reduce workers’ compensation, abolish so-called “restrictive work practices”. There is virtually no end to their imposition of adverse conditions on the trade unions and workers which and whom they are supposed to serve. Yet we said “do not throw out the Labor government”. Yes, we still say that.

And the Labor leaders and A.C.T.U. leaders said something very similar. They said sometimes that things are very bad and admit bad actions but it would be worse under a Liberal/National government, therefore return the Labor government. There is some truth in saying the Liberal/Nationals would be worse but they would be worse because of the anti-working class measures taken by the Labor government in tandem with A.C.T.U. leaders. They have shown the way for worse measures.

Our reasons for not wanting to throw out the Labor government are different. By keeping the Labor leaders in government, their real anti-working class position and that of the A.C.T.U leaders is revealed to more people more clearly. The people are assisted to move to a more progressive position and to rely on their own struggle, provided Communists and other progressives act correctly.

Parliament and universal suffrage are, as Engels said, only a “gauge of the maturity of the working class. It cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state – but that is enough. On the day when the thermometer of universal suffrage shows boiling point among the workers, they as well as the capitalists will know where they stand.” Reverse the order of Engels’ sentence from the passage quoted and we read – “As long as the oppressed class – in our case, therefore the proletariat – is not yet ripe for its self-liberation, so long will it, in its majority, recognise the existing order of society as the only possible one and remain politically the tail of the capitalist class, its extreme left wing. But in the measure in which it matures towards its self-emancipation, in the same measure it constitutes itself as its own representatives, not those of the capitalists”. (Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) In Australia, the thermometer is not yet at boiling point. It is certainly rising.

Parliamentarism’s hold

Australian people are at the present time, “locked into” the parliamentary system. Parliamentarism in Australia operates as a two-party system. Each of the parties serves capitalism.

This is simply to say that capitalism in Australia retains at this stage its ideological, political and organisational command. But its command, its dominance, always has a fragile aspect. It is more fragile than ever today. There is a deep-going cynicism about parliament, about parliamentary politicians, about the A.C.T.U. leaders.

Once all the capital for deception of the people owned by these Labor and A.C.T.U. leaders is spent, they are of no further use to the capitalists. These leaders are used by the monopoly capitalists to act against the people. Reliance is placed by the monopoly capitalists on these Labor leaders to use that deception of the people to take anti-people’s action – action that is more difficult to get away with when taken directly by the monopoly capitalists or by the political parties more directly identified with them.

It is often said the monopoly capitalists prefer Liberal/National governments. Such governments are “governments of choice” it is said. This has a large measure of truth in it.

This is because there is a danger with Labor governments. The danger does not lie with Labor leaders. Those leaders from the very inception of the Labor Party in Australia have always, and in all conditions, served capitalism. But the danger is that the really progressive hopes and programmes that the workers and progressive people have in the Labor Party will be struggled for in a reality beyond parliamentary and controllable bounds. The monopoly capitalists fear that the Labor leaders will not be able to control the genuine expectations that the Labor Party programme and promises aroused. In that way, there is a danger that monopoly capitalism will be swept away.

The Labor Party is sometimes branded as socialist. Its working class connections are played up as a danger. It is, for example, an act of incredible stupidity for people like Packer and Bond to declare their support and friendship for the Labor leaders (the Prime Minister himself is far wiser. He says he is the friend of the rich and the poor, so that he can help them all).

In the present situation then, and up to date, the Labor and A.C.T.U. leaders have demonstrated their capacity to carry out monopoly capitalism’s orders and have not yet sufficiently antagonised the people to cause the monopoly capitalists to throw those leaders away. When that day comes, undoubtedly those Labor leaders will be thrown away.

It is quite correct that the media were biased in favour of the Labor leaders and against the Liberal/Nationals during the 1987 election campaign. The Liberal/Nationals’ “complaint” was accurate. It is quite correct that the media did play up the divisions among the Liberal/Nationals, play up their “errors”, ridicule them, publish “opinion” polls that favoured Labor, etc. The reason had nothing to do with some sort of injustice. It was that the decisive monopoly capitalists and particularly the US citizen and “Australian” traitor, Murdoch, estimated the Labor leaders could do the monopoly capitalist job better than Labor’s parliamentary rivals.

In history, the Labor leaders have always tended to be more farsighted as a whole than their parliamentary opponents. This can be seen from the time of the very first Labor government. It is significant that in war or economic crisis, there have been Labor governments. Whitlam, both before and in government, was much more realistic about the markets of South-east Asia than his parliamentary opponents. Whitlam’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, his relations with China, Japan, the Soviet Union, the ASEAN countries, the Middle East, showed the same thing. They were anti-Communist all right, but realistic in their estimate of Australia’s position, its trade future and foreign relations. The Curtin government turned to the US – far more realistic from a monopoly capitalist standpoint than Menzies’ reliance on Britain. These Labor governments bowed to and saw more correctly the developments in imperialism and they reacted to those developments more rapidly. The march of imperialism and capitalism was inexorable and sooner or later would have asserted itself as, for example, US exploitation of Australia. The political response in Australia was certainly a factor and Labor leaders interpreted the situation more clearly than their rivals.

Splits in the Liberal/Nationals

The splits among the Liberal/Nationals reflect the divisions and competition in the capitalist class. The clearest example is Bjelke-Petersen, who clearly serves Japanese monopoly interests. Historically, the Liberal/Nationals have had more sectional monopoly capitalist interests than the Labor Party. Because of its origin and history, the Labor Party has tended to serve capitalism as a whole. Even this latter is being cut away. The Labor leaders can be seen now attached more directly to people like Murdoch, Abeles, Packer Bond. Sectional capitalist interests mean other sections oppose them. (An interesting observation at the time of the election was that the Fairfax press went along with the weakening of the Liberal/Nationals.)

It was critically important in Australia to see the Labor Party in office. The movement of people to that boiling point of which Engels wrote and the political process to the left will be assisted.

It is often asked why we as a party do not stand parliamentary candidates. We have no objection to standing candidates. It offers opportunities of expounding our policies, explaining socialism and explaining our attitude to the Labor Party. The election period itself arouses people’s political interest. At the time of the 1987 Federal election, we estimated that the vote for Communism would be very low. That is not at all a decisive criterion and it does not truly measure support for Communism. However, in our view and activity, parliament is but one aspect of politics. Our estimate was that it was better at that stage to concentrate on all aspects of mass struggle. That mass struggle can be helped by having parliamentary representatives. At the appropriate time we will seek that.

Protest candidates

There were many single issue candidates in the election and other progressive protest groups standing for parliament. This reflected the developing disgust with conventional parliamentary parties and parliamentarism itself.

A large number of people did register a protest, either by voting for an independent candidate, voting informal or even voting Liberal in the belief that a term in opposition would “cleanse” the Labor government and promote struggle. It must be said that the swing away from Labor by traditional voters was less than some had predicted. It was still significant.

The Labor leaders have alienated the best activists in and supporters of the Labor Party. These Labor leaders made a grave error when they simply dismissed these actions. People’s revolt is a fact of deep-going importance which we welcome.

Tactically it was important to use the complex preference system carefully. People spent a great deal of time and thought in placing preferences so that their protest was registered but at the same time, ensuring a Liberal/National government was not returned.

It is possible that even more protest candidates will appear in future elections and even new parliamentary parties could be formed.

The Australian people will undoubtedly continue their struggle around the many issues which concern them. The striving for Australian independence is involved in these matters.

Many still see parliament as playing a role in this process. This may involve progressive new parliamentary parties. The precise path of struggle can only be determined by the participants in that struggle.

Nevertheless history has shown that real change in the interests of the majority can only be achieved by challenging the very core of capitalist exploitation – in the workplace and on the streets. Parliament is an institution of capitalism. It makes the laws which ensure the exploitation of the majority by the rich minority. Where parliament fails to carry out the needs of capitalism, it is removed and replaced by the army, as it was in Fiji. The C.P.A.(M-L) says that people’s united struggle is decisive and places great emphasis on movements which may include parliamentary activity, but extend beyond parliament to include the broadest possible united force.

The alienation of the rank and file and supporters from the Labor leaders has been a feature of the Labor Party’s history just as it is today.

The Labor Party split on the issue of conscription in World War I, the Labor Party in the crisis of the ’thirties split on the issue of the Premiers’ Plan, the Labor Party of the ’fifties split on the issue of the Cold War. The Labor Party, by its very character, is always in danger of splitting. Its main contradiction is between its leaders on the one hand and its rank and file on the other.

All sorts of characterisations have been put on the Labor Party. Communists have attempted to characterise it. Some have said it is a working class party, at one time it was said to be a “two class” party, at another time it was said to be a social-democratic party. As Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name?” There is little point in trying to find an all-embracing label. Our view is that the Labor Party was never a working class party. Lenin pointed out that the British Labour Party was not a social-democratic party in the traditional European sense – the Labor Party in Australia is even less so. In 1913, Lenin spoke of the Labor Party in Australia as a bourgeois-liberal party misnamed “Labor”. The Labor Party is a party of capitalism with very strong and progressive working class connections. Its leaders are closely connected with monopoly capitalism (reference has been made to Bond and Packer and there are Abeles, Murdoch and others). Significantly the connection of these leaders with monopoly capitalism is becoming more apparent as we have said. This intensifies the contradiction with the rank and file and supporters.

Recently, the media ownership legislation passed by the Labor government, glaringly served Packer, Bond and Murdoch. The payoff (much worse than a so-called secret commission) was that the media would support the return of the Labor government. This was very much a two-edged sword. It influenced the people both ways. It influenced some to vote Labor and others to register their protest.

The rebellion within the Labor Party against the leadership offers very great opportunities for building up united front activity among wider and wider sections of people in struggle. It is wrong to be mesmerised by parliament or parliamentary parties. Decisive at all times is people’s action. Parliamentary activity can be used in that as a component. Preoccupation with it can be a serious diversion. It is easy too, for Communists and other left activists to over-estimate the degree of disillusion with the Labor leaders. Hatred of those leaders is a healthy thing but it is not healthy to over-estimate mass reaction. Persistent and thoughtful work amongst disillusioned Labor Party supporters is important. Every opportunity should be used to reveal the Labor leaders’ behaviour and promote extra-parliamentary struggle.

Despite alienation of significant sections of Labor-influenced people, the return of Labor to government reveals that the tradition of loyalty to the Labor Party is still very strong. It is wrong to overlook the very great importance of this fact. These sections of people are our friends. We don’t condemn them to hell just because they vote Labor. Nor are there dividends in harping on the undoubted bastardy (political at least) of the Prime Minister and Treasurer. The effect is to alienate many progressive and potentially progressive people from us and with whom we want to see unity in struggle.

There is, in fact, very little difference in essentials between contending Labor and Liberal/Nationals. Capitalism will go on, the state apparatus will function, people will be exploited and suffer, the rich will get richer and the poor poorer, foreign relations will be similar, whichever party is returned. Parliamentarians are certainly concerned with “spoils of office” within capitalism. They will do almost anything for them. This influences “left” ministers and members, “left” trade union leaders. Besides, these “lefts” or erstwhile “lefts” are important in the deception of the people. It enables the monopolists to say, “look, the left leader so-and-so still supports the Labor government”. In fact, these “lefts” are very important reserves for capitalism. The fact that they are called up now indicates deepening crisis.

The future – an independent and socialist Australia

Our vision is far beyond an election and far beyond the Labor leaders. It has its sights on the struggle for an independent Australia and ultimate socialism and for the genuine immediate needs of the people. In the realisation of that vision, there is no straight beautifully-paved road. There are tactical considerations of immense importance. It is well worth reading Chapters 6, 7 and 9 of Lenin’s “Left wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder – if time permits, the whole book. In historical circumstances somewhat different but also with important similarities, Lenin discussed some of these considerations.

Communists should state the unvarnished truth appropriately and should carefully explain and work along the lines indicated.

Appendix I

Listed below is a summary of some of the key anti-people measures taken by the Hawke government as at September 1987:
* Real wages cut by 25 percent.
* Workers’ compensation payments reduced.
* Funding cuts to government schools.
* Introduced $250 tertiary fee
* Increased funding to private schools.
* Reduced funding to public hospitals.
* Cut Medicare rebate by 10 percent.
* Cancelled plans for Aboriginal land rights.
* Mines and exports uranium for nuclear weapons.
* Opens Australia to foreign banks.
* Reduced curbs on foreign investment, allowing more multinationals to exploit Australia.
* Privatisation of public assets.
* Tries to introduce the anti-democratic ID card.
* Attacks trade unions – deregisters the BLF, introduced the Industrial Relations Bill.
* Plays intermediary in the South Pacific and elsewhere for the United States.


Lenin gives us some insight into the situation that exists in Australia today, in his book called “Left Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder. He says:

Parliamentarism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true as regards propaganda. But everyone knows that this is still a long way from overcoming it practically. Capitalism could have been declared, and with full justice, to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the soil of capitalism. Parliamentarism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, that is to say, the era of bourgeois parliamentarism has come to an end and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable But world history reckons in decades. Ten or twenty years sooner or later makes no difference when measured by the scale of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be calculated even approximately. But precisely for that reason it is a howling theoretical blunder to apply the scale of world history to practical politics...
...How can one say that “parliamentarism is politically obsolete”, when “millions” and “legions” of proletarians are not only in favour of parliamentarism in general, but are downright “counterrevolutionary”!? Clearly, parliamentarism... is not yet politically obsolete.
...we (Communists) must not regard what is obsolete for us as being obsolete for the class, as being obsolete for the masses.
... you must soberly follow the actual state of class consciousness and preparedness of the whole class (not only of its Communist vanguard), of all the toiling masses (not only their advanced elements)...
it undoubtedly follows ... that participation in parliamentary elections and in the struggle on the parliamentary rostrum is obligatory for the party of the revolutionary proletariat precisely for the purpose of educating the backward strata of its own class, precisely for the purpose of awakening and enlightening the undeveloped, downtrodden, ignorant rural masses. As long as you are unable to disperse the bourgeois parliament and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work inside them ...
...the action of the masses – a big strike, for instance – is more important than parliamentary activity at all times.