Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Imperialism in Australia

The Menace of Soviet Social-Imperialism


Britain ruthlessly seized the continent now known as Australia from its native black people and settled it as a penal colony in 1788. Over the remaining part of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century (and indeed to the present day) the black people have been ruthlessly pushed aside as capitalism in Australia has developed. The methods have varied from shooting, poisoning, starving, to “assimilation” and “equal rights” (while always denying the economic and social basis of equal rights; a “right” is not much good without the wherewithal to enjoy it). The black people have resisted and still resist in various ways, the imperialist occupation of Australia. They form an important component of the independence movement in Australia. There can be no independence for Australia without the independence of the black people.

British imperialism used Australia as a penal colony with an added semi-peasant economy. In its early days the British imperialist idea was to develop Australia as a penal colony with this added semi-peasant economy to maintain the inhabitants. But with the release of prisoners and “free” immigration, and above all the process of land occupation and commodity monopoly of the New South Wales officer corps, the (Australian) colony of New South Wales developed as a pastoral country. It occupied the classic position of a colony, a supplier of raw materials to the colonising country, and recipient from Britain of the finished products of British industry.

But the characteristic of the development of imperialism is the export of capital. This reached formidable proportions at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. In terms of Britain and Australia, Britain, having been the earliest capitalist country and the so-called workshop of the world, had accumulated an “enormous superfluity of capital”. (Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 12 Vol. Edn., Selected Works, Vol. 5, p. 56),Hence the question was forced on the British finance capitalists what to do with this superfluous capital.

Lenin said: “It goes without saying that if capitalism could develop agriculture, which today lags far behind industry everywhere, if it could raise the standard of living of the masses, who are everywhere still poverty stricken and underfed, in spite of the amazing advance in technical knowledge, there could be no talk of a superfluity of capital. This ’argument’ the petty bourgeois critics of capitalism advance on every occasion. But if capitalism did these things it would not be capitalism; for uneven development and wretched conditions of the masses are the fundamental and inevitable conditions and premises of this mode of production. As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will never be utilised for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists; it will be used for the purpose of increasing those profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries, profits usually are high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The possibility of exporting capital is created by the entry of numerous backward countries into international capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been built or are being built there; the elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc. The necessity of exporting capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become ’over-ripe’ and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the impoverished state of the masses) capital cannot find profitable investment.” (Ibid., p. 57).

The British imperialists had largely financed railways in Australia before they began the mass export of capital. In other words they had through this and in other ways created the elementary conditions for industrial development in Australia. Fitzpatrick said that when “7,000 miles of railway was laid in the seven colonies, and borrowing for irrigation began, more than twenty five per cent of British capital exported was exported to Australia.” It is to be noted that when Fitzpatrick spoke of seven colonies he included New Zealand: this is the way in which the British imperialists saw the position even to the extent that the British Imperial Act entitled “Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act” (63 and 64 Victoria Chapter 12) in Section 6 defined “The States” as “such of the colonies of New South Wales, New Zealand ... as may be admitted into ... the Commonwealth, as States . . .” For present purposes we may leave New Zealand aside. British imperialism exported a vast amount of capital to its colonies in Australia which was invested largely in land, banking, insurance and other finance institutions. Some British capital was invested in industry. But until World War I there was not a great development of industry in Australia. Lenin produced statistics of 1910 in terms of German marks to show the comparative distribution of investment of the then imperialisms in the various colonies. At that time the three main imperialisms were Britain, France and Germany. Under the heading Asia, Africa, Australia, Lenin showed that Britain had an investment of 29 billion marks, France 8 billion and Germany 7 billion. And in all colonial countries Britain’s investment was almost four times that of Germany and more than four times that of France, while in Europe British investment was less than a sixth that of France and about a quarter that of Germany. Hence British domination of investment in the colonies emerged clearly. Included in that was her dominant position in Australia.

From the very earliest time of white settlement there had been a certain movement of independence of Australian entrepeneurs from Britain. As has been indicated previously, the original British imperial conception was of a penal colony sustained by something of a peasantry settled on small areas of land and producing to feed the colony. This was very rapidly challenged by the New South Wales corps (the officers of the garrison sent for penal purposes). These officers grabbed large areas of land, used convict and free labour to work “their” land and established a virtual monopoly in land, food and other commodities. Fitzpatrick, Evatt and others ascribe this process to the bad motives of the NSW officer corps. Actually however, it was the inexorable development of Australia’s economy. Large scale farming, particularly the running of sheep was far more efficient then than the peasant economy that the British authorities and the British governors appointed by them sought to enforce right up to the governorship of Macquarie (1809-1821). The attempted semi-peasant and ultimately the penal economy simply gave way to the inexorable advance of large scale farming and commodity sale. Certainly the New South Wales officer corps were ruthless exploiters. They rebelled, broke what law there was, caused endless trouble to the governors but they were behaving as all capitalists do. It was their “enterprise” that constituted the basis for British development of Australia as a colony. Dr. Evatt was no doubt correct in his proof that there was a seditious conspiracy by the New South Wales officer corps against Governor Bligh, but the economic basis of the conspiracy was the development of the system of large scale farming and large scale commodity monopoly against an attempted peasant economy sought to be enforced by the governor. It was just as inexorable a development as the enclosure system in England.

The large scale immigration in the first half of the 19th century, then the comparatively very large immigration of the gold rushes in the middle of the century, provided another essential basis for the development of capitalism in Australia, that is, a “free” working class. Thus it was not the will of man that determined the shape of the development of Australia as a field of British investment but the actual economic development within Australia. Because British imperialism was the earliest imperialism and because it had early seized Australia, Australia was a ready field for the investment of British superfluous capital.

To this day the absolute volume of British investment in Australia is the greatest (the 1969 figure was $5,300 million) but its force has greatly diminished in comparison with that of U.S. imperialism. British finance is predominantly invested in banking, insurance, other forms of finance and land including city real estate, while there is of course British industry in Australia such as Imperial Chemical Industries, Unilever, Courtaulds.

Reference has been made to the development of a certain entrepreneurial Australian bourgeoisie. Macarthur had developed sheep. He was in continual trouble with the British appointed governors but managed to get British imperial support against the governors. He set out to get terms from the British government advantageous to the growth of the pastoral industry and to the New South Wales corps’ sale of commodities within the colony. This involved certain concessions from the British imperial authorities.

The pattern of this phase of Australia’s development largely followed the acquisition of better terms by the local or incipient bourgeoisie and landholders for their development in Australia. But the colonies remained heavily dependent upon British imperialism.

The Eureka struggle commented upon by Marx (see appendix) revealed the revolt of the embryonic working class and the embryonic national bourgeoisie against the British autocracy in Australia. Again, it resulted in compromise by the British colonial authorities with the granting around the middle of the 19th century of so-called responsible government in the various colonies. The compromise resulted in elected parliaments.

British investment in Australia increased. Perforce it created a working class. And the national bourgeoisie grew.

The working class struggles of the nineties demonstrated the comparatively high degree to which the working class had developed.

It was out of the working class and national bourgeoisie’s struggle that the British imperialists’ compromise constitution of 1900 for Australia arose. Australia became a so-called self-governing Commonwealth. The former six colonies ceased to exist and became “States” within the new Commonwealth. It is not necessary to trace in detail here the various legal changes made in the status of Australia within the British Empire after 1900. The British imperialists, bowing both to the movement for independence within Australia and to the pressure of imperialist rivals and in an attempt to hold their empire together called their empire the British Commonwealth of Nations. In accordance with this, the British imperialists called Australia, along with other such erstwhile colonies, self-governing dominions within the “British Commonwealth of Nations,” and used other devices in the struggle to hold the British Empire together.

It is however rather important to comment upon one or two matters.

In the British imperialist war against Germany in 1914, Australia was sufficiently enmeshed with British imperialism, that is, with British finance capital, to be at war with Germany without any independent declaration of war by Australia itself. Australia provided troops for the British imperialists without any questioning, let alone any serious challenge by the Australian bourgeoisie. Those troops served in Europe far from Australia’s shores. The ideological and political appeal and “justification” for this was loyalty to the British Crown, loyalty to the ”mother” country. The real basis for it was the economic dominance of British imperialism in Australia.

The movements in Australia of 1916 and 1917 against conscription for overseas service for British imperialism marked a certain movement in the working class, confused though it was, against the imperialist war, and a certain united front of the working class with wavering Australian national capitalists against British imperialism. It was by no means a clear-cut movement except by the small left of the working class, the advanced workers.

After World War I, British imperialism declined as a world imperialist power. U.S. imperialism emerged as a new and dynamic imperialism. That is matter for later comment.

Between World War I and World War II, British imperialism continued to exert powerful influence in Australia. In this period British imperialism continued to strive desperately to find new forms to hold her empire together. Hence the imperial conference of 1926 insisted upon the conception of self-governing dominions within the British Commonwealth (Empire) of which Australia was one such self-governing dominion.

The British Statute of Westminster arose from this line of approach. It was passed by the British imperial parliament in 1931 and commenced by saying it was “An Act to give effect to certain resolutions passed by Imperial Conferences held in the years 1926 and 1930.” It contained provisions that enabled the “Dominions” to cut certain legal ties with Britain. NOTE THAT IT WAS A LAW OF THE BRITISH PARLIAMENT THAT CONFERRED LEGAL POWER ON THE DOMINIONS, in this case Australia. That is, it revealed an acknowledgement by the “dominions” that a dominant British parliament had power to make laws for Australia.

It was not until 1942 that the Australian parliament at the instance of the Curtin Labor government actually availed itself of these powers. This throws a light upon the comparative positions of the Labor Party in service to the Australian national bourgeoisie (and in a degree of service to the U.S. imperialists) as against the predecessors of the Liberal Country Party who accepted without question subordination to British imperialism and refrained from adopting the Statute of Westminster.

At the outbreak of the British imperialist war with imperialist Germany in 1939, the then Prime Minister Menzies (leader of one of the several forerunners of the present Liberal Party) declared that Australia was at war with Germany because Britain was at war with Germany. Again as Menzies saw it, it needed no independent declaration of war by Australia, her position was so enmeshed with that of Britain that she was automatically at war with Germany. And it is interesting, in view of the subsequent position of U.S. imperialism in Australia, to note that in adopting the Statute of Westminster in 1942, the Labor Party government made that adoption retrospective to the very date of the declaration of war by Britain, namely September 3, 1939.

After World War II, British imperialism declined even more sharply as a world imperialist power. Still there remained in Australia relics of Australia’s colonial position in relation to Britain. Such for example, are the allegiance to the British Crown, the existence of certain rights of appeal from Australian courts to the British Privy Council, the appointment of governors to act in place of the Queen, etc. These relics remain to be smashed. But they demonstrate that Britain still maintains a hold in Australia, even though that hold has seriously declined, particularly in face of the advance of U.S. imperialism.