Backing bloodshed a long Labor tradition

Bill Shorten’s uncritical support for Tony Abbott’s renewed war in Iraq has handed the Liberals the political initiative and horrified many Labor voters. But his unquestioning approval of the rush to war has deep precedents in the ALP tradition.

It was Labor leader Andrew Fisher who famously promised Britain in an election speech in the days before the outbreak of World War I that Australia would “defend her to our last man and our last shilling”.

And while Labor was to expel its wartime Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, over the issue of conscription, the argument was always posed in terms of how to win the war, rather than over the war’s legitimacy.

This is the period discussed in “Labour and the Great War: The Australian Working Class and the Making of Anzac”—the May 2014 issue of Labour History, issued by the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.

Douglas Newton’s chapter looks at the way Labor responded to Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook’s offer to the British government on 3 August 1914 of 20,000 troops and the entire Royal Australian Navy. The offer was sent while the British Cabinet was split over the question of war. It was a very public attempt to tip the balance towards hostilities.

Labor’s response echoed Shorten’s today. Fisher issued a statement: “In a state of affairs like this there are no parties. The safety and welfare of our country and all near and dear to us is our first consideration.”

William Hughes made a similar declaration the same day: “Whatever needs to be done to defend the interests of the Commonwealth and of the Empire must be done.”

In a bid to fend off claims of disloyalty during an election campaign, Labor had signed a blank cheque for mass, industrialised slaughter.

Labor in comparison

Robin Archer’s chapter compares Labor’s approach to the threat of war to those of other social democratic parties—and the difference is striking.

In terms of rhetoric at least, virtually every European socialist party condemned the drive to war in July 1914. Jean Jaures, the leader of the French socialist party appeared at a rally with has arm around his German counterpart, Hugo Haase.

The German party’s paper declared: “We want no war! Down with war!” and the party organised mass meetings across the country—27 in Berlin alone—followed by rallies of hundreds of thousands.

All Second International parties (with the exception of those in Russia and Serbia) were to capitulate at the outbreak of hostilities, but the Australian party stood out for its positive attitude to war.

As Archer writes: “There were no frantic meetings to decide how to respond, no declarations denouncing the pending war, no attempts to rally public opposition, no attempts to exert a restraining influence on government, no discussion of blocking finance for the war, and no prominent dissident leaders.”

Why was the ALP so supine? Archer suggests a number of reasons including Labor’s embrace from 1908 onwards of compulsory military training (linked to the desire to defend Australia as a white outpost of the British empire).

But his main argument is that Labor had already travelled much further down the path towards incorporation into capitalist democracy than its counterparts in Europe or the US. On the eve of war, the ALP had already formed government (1908 and 1910) and was to do so again six weeks after war was declared.

Where the ALP had 56 per cent of all MPs by September 1914, the German party had 27 per cent, the French 17 per cent, the Russians just 3 per cent and the Serbs 1 per cent.

Labor’s electoral success made the party the most belligerent of its social democratic peers—the least willing to challenge the aggressive logic of imperialism.

A number of chapters look at Labor’s relationship to the Anzac legend. Mark Cryle argues that Labor immediately accommodated Anzac within its rhetoric, trying to claim the Digger as the archetypal worker and mateship as workers’ solidarity.

Labor speakers and newspapers would decry “militarism” and jingoism, but carefully avoided criticising the soldiers. As future Labor Prime Minister John Curtin wrote in 1918: “The gallantry of the Anzacs is beyond question.”

Nick Dyrenfurth, looking at Labor and the Anzacs through to 1945, writes that the ALP tried throughout that period to appropriate the “working-class heroics of Gallipoli … to inspire labour activists during the trials of the Depression and war”.

It was an argument they could never completely win, as its inherent nationalism conceded the initiative to the unashamed patriotism of the Liberals.
This helps explain how Labor could lead the successful opposition to conscription, but fail to turn that into a solid grasp on federal office. The message for Shorten is that wrapping yourself in the flag always strengthens the Right.

By David Glanz

Labour and the Great War
Labour History No.106 (May 2014)
Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, $40

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