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16858Racism and early Australian labour

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  • Nick Fredman
    Apr 16, 2005
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      In this post I make some comments on Bob Gould’s latest critique of
      John Percy’s new history of the DSP,
      http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Percymethod.html , in which
      Gould trumpets his self-perceived superiority in matters of labour
      history. I’ll attempt fairly briefly to make some general points on the
      historiography of the Australian working class, and how this relates to
      racism in the late colonial working class, and more generally to the
      theory of labour aristocracy (issues relevant to an academic literature
      review I’ve been doing).

      Gould claims that Percy relies on a “tiny number of sources, mainly the
      early Humphrey McQueen”. This is grossly inaccurate. The reality is
      that the analysis of the Australian working class in the nineteenth and
      early twentieth centuries presented by Percy is in broad agreement with
      a whole generation of leftist historians (and sociologists) that
      appeared in the 1970s and 80s including MacQueen, Verity Bergman, Ray
      MarKay, Ann Curthoys, Boris Frankel, Bob Connell and Terence Irving
      (the first three cited by Percy). That is, an understanding of the
      context of a developing industrial and agricultural working class in a
      relatively well-off and underpopulated colonial settler society, of the
      differentiations within this class, and of the contradictory political
      role of this class: struggles, often heroic, for workers rights and
      democratic rights, but a class largely imbued with populist and
      nationalist ideas and which participated in racist campaigns.

      Gould seems to prefer older left historians such as Russell Ward, Ian
      Turner and Rob Gollan. He claims Percy ignores these. This isn’t true,
      as Percy cites Turner as a source on the early socialist movement and
      Gollan as “the best source” on CPA history. Percy thus implicitly
      recognises these historians’ strengths in providing accounts of
      specific struggles and organizations of the labour movement. However
      these “old left” historians have been justly criticised by the “new
      left” historians for: their empiricism; a concentration on institutions
      rather than the whole class in its complexity; their nationalism and
      populism; a rose-coloured narrative of labour history as an ever-onward
      march towards democratic rights, egalitarianism and “national
      independence”; a blindness to labour movement racism; and a culturally
      determinist reification, and glorification, of cultural types and myths
      such as “mateship”. Percy briefly mentions these defects (p. 13). His
      account of labour historiography might have been clearer if he
      mentioned the left nationalist historians by name, though he does cite
      Boris Frankel’s account of the debates around nationalist myths and
      national identity in /From the Prophets Deserts Come/.

      Gould claim’s that MacQueen’s later writings (after the 1st, 1970
      edition of /A New Britiannia/), support his views is highly
      disingenuous. Neither the Afterword to the 1986 edition (which Percy
      refers to, contrary to Gould’s claims), nor the Afterword to the
      recently released 2004 edition, modify MacQueen’s views on the extent
      of racism and nationalism in the early Australian proletariat. They do
      however modify MacQueen’s early, somewhat confused, view of the
      essentially petty bourgeois nature of this class and, unfortunately for
      Gould, move in the direction of the DSP’s views of the need to relate
      Australian Laborism to the changing nature of imperialism and to the
      theory of the labour aristocracy.

      On the question of racism, Gould cites the following from Percy, then
      makes his own highly distorted interpretation:

       [Percy] “However, this strong trade union and democratic tradition was
      built on the dispossession of the original inhabitants and accompanied
      by extremely racist attitudes and ideas. ‘White Australia’ was not
      pushed only by the bourgeoisie, but was also championed by privileged
      white workers wanting to protect their patch. This racist poison
      thoroughly infected the Australian labour movement.” (Page 13)

      [Gould] “What a condescending, one-sided approach to the development of
      a working class and its consciousness. Percy tends to reduce this
      development mainly to the question of racism, overstates that issue
      substantially, and ascribes the racism mainly to the working class when
      it clearly came from the dominant imperialist ideology of the British

      Of course nothing Percy writes indicates that racism is “mainly”
      attributable to the working class, or contradicts the Marxist view that
      that racism springs fundamentally from the needs of capital,
      particularly in its imperialist phase. By contrast Gould seems to be
      implying, in denial of overwhelming historical evidence, but in general
      agreement with the old left nationalist historians, that racism had
      little or no importance to working class politics.

      Percy cites Markey’s /The Making of the Labor Party in New South
      Wales/, which covers early labour movement racism, but Markey has more
      systematically done this in the article ‘Race and organized labor in
      Australia 1850-1901’, (/The Historian/, Winter 1996). Unions initiated
      or participated in mass meetings against Chinese immigration and
      Melanesian indentured labour, opposed, and scabbed against, efforts by
      Chinese workers to organise, and championed a White Australia. All this
      suited the interests of the capitalists of course, but was also pushed
      by the largely petty bourgeois membership of the rural Australian
      Workers Union, who were most attached to, or hungered after, land. The
      racism of the movement was also materially based on the
      differentiations of the working class:

      “The [perceived racial] threat was especially pertinent to the craft
      unionists who dominated the labor movement in most white settler
      societies in the nineteenth century. For them, racial exclusion was a n
      extension of exclusivist policies that maintained high wages and
      favourable working conditions by restricting entry to the trade or
      calling” (p. 346).

      The strength of the racist tide is shown by the fact that even
      anti-racist socialists adapted to it. Markey cites an 1897 issue of
      /Australian Workman/:

       “We have no down on the alien as such … We know the Asiatic races are
      not what the capitalist frauds … make them out to be” but as a “matter
      of expediency … “pending the solution of social questions … the
      population should be restricted to the White, and as far as possible,
      the British speaking element, for the time being”.

      Gould claims Bob Connell and Terence Irving work supports his view of
      the early Australian proletariat. Wrong again. Their summary of the
      late colonial working class, in /Class Structure in Australian History/
      (1992), fully supports Percy’s contention that racism was a significant
      force that both reflected and helped reproduce differentiations within
      the class. Like MarKey, they do not explicitly use the term “labour
      aristocracy”, but their analyses also support the contention that this
      was a constant feature of the Australia working class, if a feature
      that is contradictory and changing and somewhat different from the
      European experience:

      “The labour market [from the 1870s] was showing signs of becoming
      increasingly differentiated. In Queensland, employers introduced some
      60 000 Melanesians for sugar plantations, so that field labour became a
      separate segment of the labour market, where inferior working and
      living conditions persisted because of the racist disdain of white
      workers for ‘nigger work’. In the boot, tobacco and clothing trades of
      Victoria and New South Wales, women and children became the major
      components of the workforce in the 1870s, displacing several hundred
      male workers at a time when near full employment and sluggish
      immigration was forcing wages up …

      “Yet although the labour market was beginning to follow the classic
      path of increased exploitation of labour through differentiation, it
      did not produce overnight discontinuities and sufferings on the scale
      of European capitalism … By early the next century, the Chinese had
      been excluded, most of the Melanesian repatriated, and the labour
      movement and liberal reformists had made so obvious their opposition,
      on racist grounds, to cheap contract labour that it was very difficult
      for employers to indenture even southern Europeans without being
      accused of damaging ‘White Australia’”. (pp. 108-109).

      Differentiation within the working class based on ethnicity, sex and
      skill means relative privilege for some. Yes this is fundamentally a
      lesser order contradiction than that between capital and labour, yes it
      is flexible and changeable (not least in this period because of the
      success of racist campaigns!), yes it has to be understood concretely
      as a  complex phenomena that is different from the European experience,
      yes its impact on politics is contradictory and not necessarily
      reactionary. But to deny that such differentiation, in a dialectical
      relationship with strong bourgeois and petty bourgeois influences on
      the labour movement, has an impact on consciousness and politics is to
      deny reality.
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