The tangled roots of Labor

Looking at Labor’s history can help us understand the party’s inadequacies today, explains Erima Dall

RUDD WAS a bitterly disappointing alternative to Howard. His failure to act on climate change, his anti-refugee hysteria and his concessions to big business are just a few reasons why the government has been thrown into crisis recently. Julia Gillard has shown herself so far to be on the same trajectory. But this is nothing new for the Australian Labor Party, whose periods in office over its 120-year history is characterised by sell-outs and disappointments.

The ALP was formed by the union leadership in response to a series of defeated strikes in the 1890s. On the one hand this was a step forward because it recognised that the working class has interests contradictory to those of the bosses, and these interests need political representation. On the other hand, rather than seeing the working class as a force that could overthrow capitalism, Labor’s objective was to win representation in parliament.

A background of class struggle
Moves to form a Labor Party grew during a period of bitter class conflict. In the 1880s industry expanded rapidly. Existing unions swelled their ranks and previously unorganised sections of the workforce formed unions. In NSW the total number of unions doubled from 50 to 100 between 1885 and 1891, and overall membership increased from 30,000 to 60,000. The unions won some spectacular successes, such as in 1886 when a brickmakers’ strike won an 8-hour day. In 1889, the miners’ union (AMA) held their first strike and in just eight days won closed shop (compulsory workplace union membership), a condition existing nowhere else in the country.

As class struggle increased, so did class-consciousness. In 1885 the Seamen’s Union refused to crew ships carrying scab labour to Melbourne because, they wrote, “…the struggle having assumed a new phase, viz., Capital v. Labor.”

But as the unions grew more powerful, they faced more brutal resistance. Strike leaders in the baking, seamen and miners’ unions were jailed on charges such as “conspiracy” and “intimidation”. Class tensions exploded in August 1890 when Maritime officers went on strike for higher wages. Ordinary wharfies and sailors joined the strike out of principle, and coal miners responded by refusing to provide coal for shipping. The situation quickly escalated into generalised class struggle and soon about 50,000 Australian workers were on strike.

In order to defeat the strike, the bosses employed scab labor and even transported their own goods from the railyards to the wharves. The state stepped in to assist them by providing soldiers and ammunition. Colonel Tom Price is infamous for telling his troops in Melbourne, “If the order is given to fire, don’t let me see one rifle pointed up in the air. Fire low and lay them out.” By November of 1890 the strike was defeated and the marine officers returned to work.

The Party is formed
The Labor Party emerged out of this devastating blow to the union movement, which was followed by further defeats for shearers in 1891 and 1894, metal miners in 1892, seamen in 1893 and coal miners in 1894, 1895 and 1896. Workers had been exposed to the truly antagonistic nature of capitalism. The wrath of the bosses and the full force of the repressive apparatus of the state had been brought against them. Without a strong Marxist voice in the movement, the question of how to move forward was left to the union bureaucracy.

As early as 1874 the union officials of the Sydney Trades and Labor Council (TLC) had formed a parliamentary committee which routinely endorsed and even sponsored candidates who ran in elections. In 1884 the Melbourne Trades Hall Council also established a parliamentary committee. But at this stage they did not consider it necessary to seek direct labour representation through parliament.

This changed in 1890. The union officials had seen the state intervene to defeat striking workers, and they became convinced that for labour to win industrially, they would need to control or at least neutralise the state apparatus. As the Labor Defence Committee put it, “the time has come when Trades-unionists must use the Parliamentary machinery that has in the past used them,” and, “Once the worker determines—as he has determined—that the very basis of modern industry is antagonistic to his welfare…he must set about the work of reform where it seems that reform can alone be obtained—and that is the Parliament.” In 1891 the Sydney TLC ran candidates in the election for the first time, through Labour Electoral Leagues and won 35 of the 141 seats, giving them the balance of power in NSW.

Managing capitalism

If trade union officials are once removed from the rank and file workers they represent, then Labor Party parliamentarians are at least twice removed. Almost as soon as the Labor members were in parliament it became clear that “managing capitalism” was going to take precedence over defending the working class.

George Black, Labor member of the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1891, declared, “We have been told that we have come into this house to represent a class. Well that may be, but that class is the class of all classes. It is a class as wide as humanity.”

Then, in 1892, seven leaders of the Broken Hill miners’ strike, called when mine owners reneged on a wage agreement, were arrested and sentenced to jail. This kind of injustice was exactly why the TLC had initiated political representation, and they resolved, “The Labor Party would be false to cause…if they do not use every endeavor to oust the present government, after the latter’s action in regard to the Broken Hill strike.”

But in parliament, the Labor members lined up, not for interests of the class that elected them, but according to free trade/protectionist lines that divided the main ruling class parliamentary factions at the time. When an opportunity came to defeat the government, 11 Labor MPs, including four union leaders and two ex-presidents of the TLC, actually voted to preserve the pro-protection government that had jailed the strike leaders.

By 1894, some Labor politicians were declaring that close links with the unions were an electoral liability.

Labor’s concern to manage capitalism rather than fight it is a manifestation of its origins as a party of the trade union bureaucracy. While the officials represent the workers, they are a layer committed to mediating the terms of the exploitation of labour by capital, not to end that exploitation. Class conflict demands a negotiated solution, a compromise with the bosses who run the system.

Even before the Labor Party was formed, the 1886 the Intercolonial Conference of Trades Unions voted to support the legislation of the Boards of Conciliation and Arbitration “in order that disputes between employer and employed may in future be adjusted without recourse to the cruel and unscientific means which have usually been adopted in the past, viz., strikes and lockouts.”

Arbitration is a way to undermine the power of industrial action by forcing workers into sometimes lengthy negotiations with employers, and for the state to impose a compromise solution supposedly based on balancing the interests of workers and employers. With the defeat of the strikes, the union officials became even more committed to the idea of using the state to avoid the “cruel means of strikes and lockouts.” In 1895 Labor MPs supported the Reid government’s legislation for compulsory arbitration, and in 1899 the TLC put compulsory arbitration on the official party platform. Over 30 years later, in the Great Depression, the Arbitration Court imposed a 10 per cent wage cut across the board.

Party of class or nation?
A consequence of trying to manage capitalism was that the union bureaucracy accepted the dominant ideology, nationalism, on which capitalism is based.
The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), for example, put the national interest—and the racism that went with it—over working class interests when it wrote in The Hummer in 1890, “The camels must go; the chows must also leave; and Indian hawkers must hawk their wares in some other country. This country was built expressly for Australians, and Australians are going to run the show.”

Such racism was a clear obstacle to working class unity and only benefited the Australian bosses. In the maritime strike, union officials refused Chinese workers’ donations to the strike fund even though Chinese wharfies had refused to load a boat crewed by scab labour.

Labor Party continued to try to straddle the contradiction between nation and class. In 1905, two points were at the top of its platform: “a) The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity and; b) The securing of the full results of their industry to all producers by the collective ownership of monopolies.”

But the two objectives are incompatible. As long as the party adhered to the first point, the second was unachievable. The tension between class and nation characterises much of Labor’s history in government. Labor’s vote may be based on the working class but in office it is capitalism’s interests that come first.

One of the bitterest splits inside the Labor Party came about precisely because of the tension between nation and class, over the question of conscription. Labor PM Billy Hughes, eager to push Australian imperialist interests further during World War One, sought to introduce conscription. In October 1916 he put it to a referendum. In his Call to Arms published in the papers, he appealed, “If you love your country…then take your place alongside your fellow Australians at the front.”

But union opposition, rank and file Labor members, and the anti-war movement strenuously opposed Hughes conscription proposal. Conscription was voted down, and in November Hughes was expelled from the party. He took 24 other Labor MPs with him, to form their own National Labor Party.

No power in parliament

On the rare occasion that a Labor government has posed a challenge to the capitalist interests, it has quickly become apparent that the people elected to parliament do not really have the power to change society. Nor are the Labor leaders willing to lead a serious fight against those interests.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Labor Premier of NSW Jack Lang opposed the federal Labor PM James Scullin for his attacks on workers and willingness to bow to the banks’ demands that government loans be re-paid. At the NSW Labor Party conference in 1930 a left wing vote was carried to introduce “socialisation units” in order “to carry the message of a saner, better and more efficient social system through socialisation to those hundreds of thousands of misguided victims of capitalism.”

Lang later opposed the socialisation units but at this time his focus was on drawing up an alternative economic plan as an alternative to Scullin’s, which included halting the repayment of interest on overseas loans. Scullin quickly convinced the Federal conference to expel Lang from the party, but this only boosted his popularity.

In 1932 Lang was taken to court for failure to repay the loans. The NSW Governor used the court case to sack him. The newspapers turned on Lang with vicious anti-communist hysteria, and the party lost more than half their seats in the election a month later. There were massive demonstrations in support of Lang that could have been mobilised to fight his sacking, but Lang was not willing to challenge the system. He later explained, “While I was satisfied in my own mind that there were hundreds of thousands of people in the state who would rally to the defence of their elected government, I was not prepared to risk the creation of a situation resulting in bloodshed, particularly as the Commonwealth would have its forces fully committed.’

A similar situation occurred in 1947, when Labor PM Ben Chifley declared he would nationalise the banks. The Liberals and media waged an ideological onslaught, accusing the government of being Communist. Chifley’s decision was supported by both the upper and lower parliamentary houses. But the High Court and the British Privy Council ruled it ‘unconstitutional’. Rather than rally working class support, Chifley simply accepted the ruling of unelected judges.

Socialists and Labor
Labor in power cannot be relied on to deliver on it promises—it is too committed to running the system. But understanding the contradictory nature of parliamentary reformist parties like the ALP, helps us understand why it is a mistake to call it Another Liberal Party. Labor may have a declining working-class membership but it continues to have a mass working-class vote and retains an organic connection through the trade unions. Affiliated unions still control 50 per cent of the vote at the Labor federal conference and provide money and personnel for Labor’s election campaigns.

When it comes to fighting the Liberals—the open party of the ruling class—socialists stand united with the millions of workers who look to the ALP to protect them from the bosses and to provide social welfare. This is why we have argued that the government should not back down on the mining tax and let the mining bosses win.

This is important in itself, but it is also necessary if the working class is ever to be won over to revolutionary politics during points of high struggle. When Labor inevitably backs down and tries to contain working class militancy, previous Labor supporters begin to learn about the limits of Labor for themselves. If socialists are to be trusted and taken seriously they must seek to unite with unionists and other supporters of the Labor Party to fight for common goals.


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