Australian racism: Whose ideology?

By Terry Symonds

First published in Socialist Worker Review no. 1, November 1997

According to leading British socialist Alex Callinicos: “Revolutionary socialists are anti-racists not only because they despise racism for the moral obscenity that it is, but because a working class movement which does not confront racism will not be able to overthrow capital.”1

Marxists have always argued that racism is not “innate” to the working class, but is a product of the capitalist system. Because it encourages workers to see their fellows, instead of their boss, as their enemy, it is an obstacle to their struggle against the capitalist class. Furthermore, it is precisely in the course of fighting for better wages or conditions or for a socialist society that workers can come to see their own interest in overcoming racism. For that reason, socialists see workers and the union movement as central to any fight against racism today.

This argument is far from orthodox among oppressed people and anti-racists. The most common explanations of racism today see workers as complicit in racial oppression, because they are either uneducated or privileged. In Australia, these explanations rely upon numerous examples of racism in unions. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, in a recent pamphlet called Understanding Racism in Australia, argued that “the earliest racist legislation was largely directed at protecting conditions of employment for Australian workers”, and that unions were “at the forefront in resisting ‘non-Australian’ labour” in the first decades of this century.2

This article examines the history of racism among Australian workers and unions and attempts to set the record straight. It will show that while working class racism has certainly been widespread, it cannot be explained as a simple response to “cheap foreign labour”. Instead, racism has been a central part of Australia’s imperialist history imported by its first ruling class and promoted since for its benefit in dividing workers and winning their support for imperialism.

Finally, we will see that ruling class racism has been fought inside the workers’ movement since the very beginning, by both migrant and Australian-born workers and that the most successful of these struggles against racism have occurred when they have been linked to socialist politics and organisation.

Racism in the union movement

The Australian working class matured during the waves of industrialisation in the latter half of the 19th century. By 1900, workers numbered over a million and a majority were employed in secondary production such as manufacturing. A hundred thousand had joined trade unions by this time, of which there were more than 200. Those unions had already found a political voice in the new Australian Labor Party, operating in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia, with a federal branch to follow in 1901.

Although the first unions in the 1830s had been professional associations of skilled workers, by the 1860s this had begun to change and unions had started to embrace the thousands of new lower-skilled workers. If we are to examine the evidence for racism in the organised labour movement, it is to this period—the second half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th—that we must look.

At first glance, there seems to be a wealth of examples. When the NSW TLC was founded in 1871, it made a call for the “complete prohibition” of Asian immigration on the grounds that Asians could never come to accept Australian industrial standards. In 1878, the largest industrial dispute to that time broke out on the waterfront when the Australian Seamens Union struck against the decision by the Australasian Steam Navigation company to employ Chinese crews on two overseas runs, at much lower wages than their Australian counterparts. The first response of the seamen was actually not to organise industrial action but to lobby parliament for legislation to prohibit all Chinese immigration.

The seamen found wide public support for their eventual strike, no doubt due to the strength of racist feeling at the time. A petition of some 15,000 residents was collected and regular large public meetings were held. This depth of feeling contributed to their “victory”, when the company agreed to limit the number of Chinese crews and later abolished them altogether. In 1881, the NSW TLC sponsored a massive anti-Chinese rally of tens of thousands and similar events marked a campaign throughout the following decade.

In 1891, the ALP was formed, with its first federal objective the “cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity”. This objective was fulfilled with the passage of the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act in 1901 and the enshrinement of the White Australia Policy as law.

Attitudes to Aboriginal workers tended to be more sympathetic than those toward Asian workers, probably because, marginalised from most industry and development, they could not be portrayed as any kind of economic threat. Even the racist Australian Workers Union formally admitted them as members. However, Kimberley shearers later demanded limits on their employment, and the West Australian Labor Party went on in 1912 to call for a complete ban on their employment on private properties, proving that Aboriginal workers were victims of the same arguments that were aimed at foreign workers.

Economic competition?

What are Marxists today to make of such history which seems only to confirm the argument of liberal and conservative historians that the working class is responsible for racism because it sought to benefit from racial exclusion?

Our first step must be to carefully dissect the real motivations for racist campaigns among workers. It is, for instance, not true that “economic competition” provided the sole justification for hostility to non-white workers in the 19th century. One union secretary, in 1912, referred to the Japanese as a “grave social evil”, citing not their threat to his members’ jobs but his view that “they keep quarters which are a disgrace to any civilised community”.3

During public meetings in support of the 1878 seamen’s strike, speakers referred not only to the industrial threat posed by foreign workers but to their sexual vices (including both homosexuality and predation of Australian women!), their refusal to assimilate, and the superiority of progressive, civilised” races. Labor’s first federal leader, J.C. Watson, put it this way: “The objection I have to the mixing of coloured people with the whole people of Australia, although I admit it is…tinged by considerations of an industrial nature, lies in the main in the probability of racial contamination”.4

Even on the goldflelds of the 1850s, where popular myth refers to the economic threat posed by thousands of Chinese diggers, one miner wrote that the attacks were often “without cause” and due only to “the old disgust”.5

Such evidence points to the operation of a much more general and broadranging hostility—a real ideology of racism—than the tensions that might be expected to flow from simple economic competition for jobs. The inadequacy of job competition as an explanation for racism is further confirmed by the fact that that very competition was grossly overstated by racists of the day.

Most Chinese workers did not “take Australian jobs” but worked for Chinese bosses in their own community. In other words, they found jobs that would not even have existed had their countrymen not been here before them. The Melanesians who were brought to Queensland canefields, most against their will, were in a similar position, since many Australian workers refused to cut cane and could hardly object that the “Kanakas” were taking their jobs.

On the goldfields of the 1850s, the Chinese profited not by theft but by their much more diligent and methodical mining of the poorer sites left them by white diggers. It was, of course, true that the greater the number of miners, the less the chance of any one of them finding gold, but since that logic held true for white miners as well as Chinese, its selective application to the Chinese is evidence only of a pre-existing racism in the minds of those making the charges.

What was true on the goldfields was (and is) true of the working class in general under capitalism. The labour market forces workers into competition with each other for work and divides them from each other as individuals and as ethnic groups. Workers’ experience of these divisions forms a material basis on which racist ideologies can build and seem rational. Those ideologies reflect the divisions among workers under capitalism but obscure the deeper reality of workers’ common interests and lead them into conflict with each other.

 As we shall see, employers have often been well aware of how these divisions can be manipulated to weaken workers’ resistance by providing them with a scapegoat. On occasions, Australian employers have introduced immigrant workers as strikebreakers. Yet even then, when a material base for racism seems strongest, there have existed real opportunities to overcome divisions and build a united fight.

Missed opportunities

Contrary to the myth that immigrant workers have been naturally passive and disinclined to take industrial action, there have been many such opportunities for white Australian workers to unite with foreign workers in industrial action.

As early as 1852, Chinese shepherds on the Darling Downs in Queensland staged rolling strikes for better wages, but found no sympathy from their white co-workers. (Their strikes were in fact defeated with the help of white scab labour.) Melanesians formed unions in the canefields of Queensland, such as the Johnstone River Field-labourers Union in 1898, before their European counterparts. Such actions had become so widespread during the 1890s that plantation owners began to plead for legislation to limit the right of Melanesians to bargain industrially. In 1898, Afghan camel drivers in Bourke braved prison in their fight to improve their wages.

Unfortunately, almost all these opportunities for unity were missed due to the influence of racism, in particular among union leaders who preferred to blame scapegoats rather than take up the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, task of uniting all workers in their union. In Perth, Japanese workers attempted to join the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and were not only refused permission, but met with a campaign to have them de ported!

A key example of industrial action by immigrant workers comes from the Melbourne furniture trades. In 1885, some 300 Chinese cabinetmakers struck over wages and picketed their Chinese employer’s factory By 1888, the Chinese Workers Union had been organised and was successful in enforcing minimum rates of pay, a 50-hour week for those not on piece rates, a union shop and half-yearly holidays. There were further strikes in the face of wage cuts in 1892, the outcome of which is unclear.

In 1893, the Chinese Workers Union asked to be allowed to affiliate with the Trades Hall Council (and was refused). It made donations to strike funds to benefit European unions, but received nothing like the same in return, or even gratitude (the cabinetmakers’ union in 1890 demanded that shearers return one donation they had received from the Chinese unionists).

The response of one union leader to the 1892 strike that “we can afford to laugh—it does not affect us”6, could not have been more wrong. It would have benefited al workers in Australia if wage cuts had been beaten. The general downward pressure on wages would have beer lessened if bosses had not been able to force any section of workers to accept lower standards.

Events during the 1911 Queensland sugar strike show how even in situations where racist divisions seem almost impossible to overcome, opportunities for an anti-racist strategy exist. In this strike, employers used Melanesian Asian and white workers as scabs. The strikers, however used quite different tactics against these strikebreakers depending upon their ethnic origin. White scabs were met and argued with. They were urged to support the strike and some did.

Non-white scabs, on the other hand, were met with violent intimidation. Indeed, one group of Pacific Islanders who joined a strike meeting on their own initiative were then denied entry to the strike camp. Not surprisingly such selective appeals for solidarity weakened the strikers’ own fight and made it easier for the employers to win eventual victory

In this case and that of the furniture trades, we can see that racism by white workers did not benefit them financially. In both cases, the divisions between workers were an obstacle to a united campaign that could exert maximum pressure upon the boss for their demands. All employers benefited from this situation and some of them, as in examples cited below, set out to promote such divisions for precisely that reason.

Racism as ideology

This article argues that the ideology of racism dictated the conflict between groups of workers and not the reverse. To explain how that ideology came into play, we must return to the writings of Karl Marx. Marx realised that in any class society, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class. He connected this to the control which ruling classes have over the “ideological means of production”— the church, the state education system, the media, etc.

But he also understood that the influence of bourgeois ideas among workers relied upon alienation, and the lack of control which workers in capitalist society have over their lives. The divisions which capitalism itself imposes upon the working class, in having to compete individually for jobs, helps to form a material basis for the acceptance of superficial ideas about their own interests. Such ideas can take the form of “common sense” such as “everyone can get ahead if they try”, sexism (“married women take men’s jobs”), or racism. These ideas can be overcome to the extent that workers overcome divisions between themselves in struggle.

This link between workers’ confidence and racism has been explained this way:

When the class is engaging successfully in battles with the bosses, then white workers are more likely to place their confidence in workers’ self-organisation to defend their interests, and to see themselves as part of the same class as their black brothers and sisters. By contrast, when the workers’ movement is on the defensive and the employers are generally more able to impose their will, then workers are much less likely to look towards class-based collective organisation and action to solve their problems Racism can, in these circumstances, increase its hold on white workers, both because of the psychological compensations it seems to promise, and because it offers a diagnosis of their situation that focuses their sentiments on a visible scapegoat, black people.7

In addition to this general theory of working class racism, it is possible to trace the specific influence of the ruling class in the development of Australian racism, chiefly through its support for the ideology of racial superiority, a key part of Australia’s colonial origins and ongoing relationship to the British Empire.

Australia’s racist origins

Australia was deeply racist in its origins. It could not have been otherwise since the development of a capitalist economy depended upon justifying the near genocide of the Aboriginal inhabitants. The history of that conflict has been written elsewhere and does not need to be repeated here, although an editorial from 1839 helps to illustrate the general point that racist attitudes flowed directly from the needs of the ruling class:

Sordid interest is at the root of all this anti-Aborigines feeling Because they interfere, in some of the frontier stations, with the easy and lucrative grazing of cattle and sheep, they are felt by the sensitive pockets of the graziers to be a nuisance, and the best plea these gentlemen can set up for their rights to abate the nuisance by the summary process of stabbing, shooting, burning and poisoning is that the offenders are below the level of the white man’s species.8

A contemporary historian could not better describe the relationship between the racist ideology of white superiority which existed in every avenue of establishment opinion and the development of a capitalist pastoral industry. That racist ideology did not need to be invented in Australia—it was imported directly from Britain.

Contrary to popular wisdom, racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Early civilisations—class societies—such as those of the Greeks or Romans, were brutal and oppressive, but did not seek to justify those features with racism. Aristotle believed that there were “natural slaves”, but these were not from any particular ethnic group. The key division for the Greeks was between “civilised” peoples and “barbarians”. Much later, religious differences became the justification for conflict.

It was only with the beginning of European imperial ism and the slave trade in the 1600s, in which millions of Africans were deported, that racism became necessary to the ruling class. The brutal treatment of the slaves coincided with the new liberal ideals of the rising bourgeoisie—liberty,  equality, fraternity—in a massive contradiction. How could all men be created equal if it was accept able for some to destroy the entire civilisations of others and put their people into slavery? The answer was racism. By denying that its slaves were really human, the capitalist ruling class could justify (both to itself and its white subjects) its appalling acts.

Contrary to the claim by historian Andrew Markus, that “in the 1850s…there was a lack of entrenched racial attitudes applicable to non-European immigrants in Australia”9, these racist attitudes came with the First Fleet and certainly predated the development of any working class in this country In 1843, (before the formation of mass unions) a petition of 4000 NSW residents was sent to Britain in opposition to Indian immigration. Petitioners feared that the Indians would “debase by their intermixture the noble European race. They would bring with them the idolatry and debasing habits of their country”.

Racists in Australia did not simply employ the same stereotypes and theories as their British sponsors. They amplified the racism which colonists brought here through their conflict with the indigenous people of this continent and their particular relationship to the British Empire. Humphrey McQueens’s A New Britannia first pointed this out by showing that Australia was a “colonial settler state”, an outpost of the empire in a region dominated by Asian peoples and therefore totally dependent upon the maintenance of close ties with that empire.

As Phil Griffiths has put it:

Australian capitalism faced two serious problems. On the one hand, Australia has an enormous coastline…On the other hand, its growth was continuously hampered by a shortage of labour… For young Australia’s ambitious politicians, one part of the solution lay in extensive economic development which necessitated a forced march to boost the labour force…The second part of the solution lay in making sure that British imperial ism maintained the strongest possible military presence in the region.10

The twin demands of labour and security thus required a racist immigration policy which could promote the intake of reliable British subjects at the same time as repel ling Asian neighbours. White Australia was a combination of both.

There was nothing working class about this “racism of empire”—it was discussed and formulated in reputable journals and among the leading figures of the new colony and the Colonial Office in Britain long before the first union was formed and for a long time thereafter.

In July 1843, the permanent head of the Colonial Office, James Stephen, wrote that “there is not in the globe a social interest more momentous…than that of reserving the continent of New Holland as a place where the English race shall be spread from sea to sea unmixed with any lower caste”. He added that “we now regret the folly of our ancestors in colonising North America from Africa.11 When Australia squatters attempted to import Indian and Chinese workers in the 1820s, their proposals were vetoed by a Colonial Office keen to prevent the development of a low-paid Asian workforce which would supposedly discourage British settlement.

Australia’s foremost writer of the time on race, Charles Pearson, argued in the early 1890s that “the black and yellow belt, which always encircles the globe between the tropics, will extend its area and deepen its colour with times. It followed for Pearson that the duty of the white British Empire was in “guarding the last part of the world in which the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilisation”12. Such “scientific racism”, from a former education minister in Victoria, would form a key source for debates around the first White Australia legislation in 1901.

Henry Parkes, regarded as the father of federation, argued in 1888 that the Chinese were “a gangrene in the body politic” and called for legislation “to terminate the landing of the Chinese on these shores forever”.13

For Alfred Deakin, Australia’s first Attorney-General, the creation of a federated colony was based upon the idea that “we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races”. One historian described this view as “Australia’s Monroe Doctrine”: “Australia stood surrounded by coloured races’ who were disposed to in vade its shores. The task was to safeguard the country and to pass on to the next generation a heritage undiminished”.14

This analogy is a good one, for it locates the impetus for White Australia within ruling class strategic interests, rather than in some defensive instincts of Australian workers. Such interests were not unique to Australia, since “all around the Pacific, white nations were erecting immigration and tariff barriers. Official commissions and committees in Pacific countries kept in touch and copied each other’s legislation”.15 Elements of the same attachment to Empire have informed Australia’s role in the region ever since (see David Glanz’s article this issue).

The idea that Australia’s future depended on its “whiteness” was one hammered home in every newspaper and journal, so that a thick atmosphere of the most virulent racism prevailed in every corner of the colony. Taking Marx’s point about the hegemony of ruling class ideas among workers, it should be no surprise that Australian workers were to imbibe more than their fair share of this racism simply by being subject members of a colonial settler state.

The popular Sydney Bulletin threw its weight behind the anti-Chinese campaign in August 1886, with a “special edition” based upon “several months of investigative journalism”. This expose detailed supposed opium dens in Sydney with the most offensive physical descriptions of Chinese men and the Australian women they had “seduced”, and ended with a call for “agitation, by the popular voice, and by unflinching legislation”. Even earlier, in 1855, the Melbourne Age had warned of an “invading army” of Chinese.

The seamen’s strike of 1878 was arguably the most popular strike in Australian history and attracted the support not only of other workers but of most of the media (the Sydney Morning Herald being a temporary exception—at first supporting the idea that companies should be free to do what they like), churches, most politicians (except two in the Senate) and ruling class bodies such as the Queensland Chamber of Commerce.

Attempts by anti-racists to win unions to unity with immigrant workers have always been attacked by the establishment. The Sydney Morning Herald noted with alarm that “pale faces were at work” among blacks pro- testing in the Darling Downs. Strikers in Bundaberg who dared to sympathise with their Sri Lankan fellows were labelled as “cowardly…law breakers” by the Brisbane Courier and other papers. Editorials pointed out that “the cry of ‘Queensland for the white man’ will not derive additional force from such displays of puerility” as the actions of the Bundaberg strikers. In 1910, members of the Sydney Peace Committee, who advocated the end of Australia’s racist imperialism, were denounced by the Bulletin as “anti-White Australia scum”.

While the main ruling class motivations for White Australia were linked with their visions of a white outpost in Asia, there were certainly employers who could see the industrial value of a divided workforce. During the 1911 sugar strike in Queensland, employers revealed their conscious desire to promote racism among workers by declaring that “Italians and possibly Spaniards would…be preferred, because they would be more difficult for unionists to handle than labourers from Great Britain”.

During the strike, CSR’s national general manager wrote to one of the Queensland mill managers, offering to pay for the passage of Italian workers, “for a large proportion of Italians on your River…were undoubtedly the stumbling block with the unions in preventing them from enforcing their demands on the farmers”. (He added that it was “not desirable that our active assistance in this mat ter should become known”.)16

In such an overwhelmingly racist climate of fear and hysteria toward immigrants, what is surprising is not that workers should have accepted such ideas but that some repeatedly resisted the orthodoxy and fought for a different tradition of unity and anti-racism.

Anti-racism in the union movement

During the seamen’s dispute of 1878, at a meeting of New castle miners called in support of the strike, one brave miner suggested that instead of trying to exclude the Chinese crews, unions should campaign for their wages and conditions to be brought up to the same standards as those of the Australian seamen. Whether or not this speaker was opposed to the racism associated with the strike, his speech gives a glimpse of an alternative strategy to that pursued by most unions at the time. Amid the anti-Chinese hysteria of the meeting, however, he was howled down immediately.

The earliest example of unity between Australian and foreign workers seems to be in 1882, when cane farmers in Bundaberg attempted to use indentured labour from Sri Lanka in place of higher paid Australian cane cutters. After a tense stand-off, the two groups began to exchange stories of their ill treatment at the hands of the sugar bosses. The next day, the workers united in a march on the property of the offending farmer and burnt his farm to the ground.

 This century the fight against racism in the Australian labour movement has been bound up with the growth of socialist organisation in the unions. The Industrial Workers of the World, Australia’s first mass socialist movement, wrote in their paper that “instead of ‘where do you come from?’, workers should ask: what are you—worker or parasite?’.” The Wobblies, as they were known, appointed a full-time organiser to the task of recruiting Asians and thousands of Chinese language propaganda sheets were published for this task.

Against those who argued that migrants caused unemployment, the IWW replied that “this curse (unemployment) is world-wide and these workers have themselves been forced to leave the land of their birth by the unemployment existing there…The real cause of unemployment is because the workers have not reduced the hours of their labor in proportion to the productivity of the machine.”7 The solution lay in organising all workers to enforce a shorter working week and thus create more jobs. In one of their many articles on the topic, the Wobblies pointed to a successful strike by Spanish and Italian sugar mill workers in North Queensland as an example of how workers could stick together and win.

Still later, in 1931, the Communist Party’s program on Aboriginal and Islander peoples included a demand for equal wages. The Communist-led (and short-lived) Pastoral Workers Industrial Union made a point of admitting all workers to its membership at a time when other unions retained a colour bar.

In 1927, the CPA assisted in the formation of the Pan- Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, a body set up to foster cooperation among trade unionists throughout Asia and the Pacific. Communists were successful in securing the affiliation of the ACTU to this body, although right-wing trade union leaders managed to overturn this victory in 1930. A newspaper, the Pan-Pacific Worker, was published for a short time and the paper’s stated aims included not only support for national liberation movements throughout Asia but also to publish information about working conditions in different countries and to advocate trade union unity at all levels.

The newspaper also recognised the principle that people should have the right to emigrate freely between countries, irrespective of race, and argued it was the duty of Australian unionists to bring all migrant1s who entered Australia into the union movement. This policy earned the paper the abuse of establishment racists and those union leaders who supported the White Australia Policy and it was discontinued after a few years.

In the North Queensland sugar canefields, communists fought against the policy of “British preference” in employment and were rewarded with a strong layer of members in the Italian community in that region which was to last for many years. When the Australian Workers Union attacked the relaxation of British preference as a “dago invasion”, the CPA responded with a strong push to unite Italians and Europeans in the canefields.

When sugar workers took unofficial strike action in 1934 against the employers’ refusal to stop the spread of Weil’s Disease, communists were able to counter attempts by AWU officials to divide the strikers along ethnic lines and helped the workers to win their demands. Such work contributed to the success of the CP in winning their only Australian parliamentary seat in the area in 1944.

During the 1930s, the Communist Party fell under the nationalist influence of Stalinism and adopted elements of the anti-Asian racism which accompanied that racism, particularly during World War Two. Despite that, the CP’s work over decades remains a flawed testament to the fact that racism in the Australian working class has never gone unchallenged from within its ranks. There have, in fact, always been two traditions in the Australian working class: one of exclusion and racism, the other of unity and anti- racism.


The myth that racism in Australia has been a working class ideology does not fit the facts of Australian history In fact, Australian racism predates the formation of the Australian working class, it came with the first colonists from Britain and was only amplified by the Australian experience as an outpost of a white empire and of a bloody frontier war against the Aboriginal people.

It was not a result of immigration or the role of migrants in the workforce. On the contrary it was racism which shaped the position of migrants in the labour market and forced them into certain occupations or drove them out of others. The resulting divisions between workers, combined with the violent segregation between Aboriginal and white people, formed a material basis for workers’ acceptance of racism when it was promoted by the media, politicians, businesspeople and their own labour movement leaders.

They did not benefit from that racism, since it played into the hands of small and big business by diverting workers’ anger into a fight against immigrants instead of a fight against their real enemy, the mostly white Australian employers who exploited them.

For that reason, there has always been a tradition of anti-racism inside the Australian working class and one which can be rebuilt today. The prospects for success are undoubtedly greater than they were a century ago. For one thing, the workforce today is thoroughly integrated across ethnic boundaries. One 1992 study found that fewer than 8 per cent of people objected to having an Asian work companion.

The last few decades have thrown up spectacular examples of workers’ struggles which unite ethnic groups and break down hostility between them. Forty-seven nationalities were represented among strikers at Mount Isa Mines in the historic strike of 1965. In the 1970s, the un ion shop committee at Ford Broadmeadows car plant brought together workers from Greek, Italian, Turkish, Yugoslav, Vietnamese and Anglo-Australian backgrounds. Attempts by the company to divide these workers with racism were beaten and a strong united union was able to win several key disputes.

As in the early years of this century socialists have played a key role in the building of this tradition. The 1966 strike for equal wages and land rights by Gurindji stockmen in the Northern Territory might never have taken place were it not for the key role of the Communist Party in organising support and publicity among workers across the country. Vital to that fight was a socialist understanding that racism is not a working class ideology but acts against workers from all countries. Armed with that understanding, socialists today must set out to win greater influence for their organisation and ideas in the battle against racism.

Further reading

An excellent starting point for the study of working class racism in Australia is the collections of essays in a special issue of Labour History, entitled Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia (1978). Andrew Markus’s Australian Race Relations (Allen and Unwin, 1994) and Race and Racism in Australia, by McConnochie, Hollinsworth and Pettman (Social Science Press, 1 988) are both good general textbooks with some excellent primary evidence of racism among both the working and ruling classes.

A Most Valuable Acquisition, Vol. 1 of A People’s History of Australia, edited by Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (McPhee Gribble, 1988) is also excellent and contains a key chapter by Raymond Evans covering some of the debates on this topic. Race Relations in Colonial Queensland, edited by Evans, Saunders and Cronin (UQ Press, 1993) is a good and detailed history with chapters on different ethnic groups and their experience.

Phil Griffith’s article “Australian perceptions of Japan: the history of a racist phobia” in Socialist Review, No.3 (Bookmarks Australia, 1990) gives a good idea of imperialism’s role in Australian racism. For an inspiring look at the alternative to racism, try Verity Burgmann’s history of the IWW, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (Cambridge, 1995). The Communist Party’s work can be found in a variety of sources, including Frank Farrell’s International Socialism and Australian Labour (Hale and Ironmonger, 1981) and Alastair Davidson’s The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History (Hoover, 1969).

For a study of the modern working class in Australia and its capacity to overcome racism, read A Divided Working Class, by Constance Lever-Tracy and Michael Quinlan (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988). Finally, for an excellent introduction to the Marxist tradition on racism, read Alex Callinicos’s Race and Class (Bookmarks, 1993).


1 Alex Callinicos, Race and Class, Bookmarks, 1993, p 68

2 Sue Zelinka, Understanding Racism in Australia, Dept of lmmigration and Multicultural Affairs, 1996, p 13

3 Kay Saunders, “Masters and Servants”, Who Are Our Enemies?, ed. Curthoys and Markus, 1978, p 106

4 Ray Markey, “Populist politics”, Who Are Our Enemies?, p 66

5 C.N. Connolly, “Miners rights”, Who Are Our Enemies?, p36

6 Andrew Markus, “Divided we fall: the Chinese and the Melbourne Furniture Trade Union, 1870-1900”, Labour History, 26,1974, p 9

7 Callinicos, p 61

8 from The Colonialist, 1839, cited in McConnochie, Hollinsworth and Pettman, Race and Racism in Australia, 1988, p 59

9 Andrew Markus, Fear and Hatred, Hale and Ironmonger, 1979, p 237

10 Phil Griffiths, “Australian perceptions of Japan: history of a racist phobia”, Socialist Review, No.3, Bookmarks Australia, 1990, p10

11 C.M.H. Clark, Short History of Australia, Mentor, 1963, p 103

12 Markus, Fear and Hatred, p xiii

13 Ray Evans, “Keeping Australia Clean White”, in Burgmann and Lee, A Most Valuable Acquisition, 1988, McPhee Gribble, p 82

14 Markus, Fear and Hatred, p xii

15 Margaret Franklin, Black and White Australians, Heinemann, 1976, p 80

16 Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright, No Paradise for Workers, Oxford University Press, 1988, p 256

17 Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 1995, Cambridge University Press, p 8


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Labor’s migration policy puts profit before people

Labor is fuelling racist views about migration, announcing a major crackdown on the number of people entering Australia to study or work.

White Australia and the labour movement

This is the text of the 2023 Alex Macdonald Memorial Lecture, delivered by Phil Griffiths. With thanks to the Brisbane Labour History Association.

French riots a rebellion against poverty, racism and police

Riots swept France in early July after cops shot dead a 17-year-old, Nahel M, and then lied about it.