Don't mention the war
- Don't mention the war. Why the DSP leadership has great difficulty
discussing Gallipoli and the Australian conscription referendums
By Bob Gould
In John Percy's memoir of the first seven years of the DSP, he has the
following timeless words to say: (page 16) "We can assess how little
it aided working-class struggles and how little it was independent of
the capitalist class by its actions over the next 100 years. It has
been the alternative party of rule by the bosses in times of crisis.
Its goal is class peace and preservation of the status quo.
"Its influence is directed to convincing workers that their needs can
and must be met through parliament and arbitration (objectively the
employers' policy), rather than through their own organisation and
activity. From its inception, the role of the ALP has been to
integrate the working class and its struggles into the capitalist
framework, not to break from it. It hasn't been `a historic step
And (page 17): "Every `socialist objective' adopted as in 1919, or
1921, for the `socialisation of industry, production, distribution and
exchange' was intended to contain radicalisation. It was designed to
prevent the development of a strong independent working class
alternative following the hopes raised among workers after the 1917
And (page 17): "the ALP is more suited to implement the collective
needs of the capitalist class for example, to implement structural
changes in the interests of capitalism as a whole, which the openly
capitalist parties would find difficult because of their ties to
particular sections of the class."
And, page 18: "It's not our tradition. It's not a radical tradition,
but an obstacle to the development of a radical tradition, an
instrument to counter radical or revolutionary developments. The
capitalists will promote that tradition; it's useful for them."
What John Percy is expounding here amounts to a fully fledged
conspiracy theory of politics applied to the development of the Labor
Viewing the foundation and development of the Labor Party as a
contradictory process driven partly by the desire for radical social
change, and in part by the aspirations of many people who considered
themselves socialists, it is presented as a conspiracy of the
bourgeoisie to construct a consciously second party of capital.
Percy then goes on to list the crimes of Labor leaderships and
governments over 115 years, many of which are quite real.
He is then able, out of this catalogue of crimes and betrayals, to
sketch a picture of a Labor Party that is a complete conspiracy of the
The first question for advocates of this crazy schema is why would the
organised working class be so doggedly loyal, electorally and
organisationally, to such a reactionary conspiracy?
It's only necessary to ask that question to be able to answer it by
pointing to the undialectical, dishonest and selective character of
Percy's narrative. (Percy ought to read and digest E.P. Thompson's
"Making of the English Working Class", and so should Nick Fredman,
before they write another word about labour history.)
In nearly all of the instances that Percy cites, conflicting
tendencies were present in the development of the Australian labour
In passing, in reply to Nick Fredman
it's nonsensical to apply the overused and half-developed theory of
the labour aristocracy to the formation of the Labor Party. It's
absurd, and obviously so, for Fredman to say, in his post, "the
largely petty bourgeois membership of the rural Australian Workers
Union, who were mostly attached to, or hungered after, land".
To describe a semi-skilled union of shearers, miners and rural
labourers as petty bourgeois, or part of a labour aristocracy, is
sociological nonsense. They may well have been motivated by the desire
for land, and some of them may have been small landholders who
couldn't make a living from their holding (a situation not uncommon
throughout the history of the working class, and common today in many
Third World countries where industrial and peasant economies exist
side by side), but that doesn't make them petty bourgeois, and they
constructed their union in a series of big and militant strikes.
It's worth noting that the difference between Australia and the US,
where no Labor Party developed, partly lay in the fact that land was
relatively free in the US west, which to some extent served as a
safety valve in the US for the build-up of the sort of class pressures
that contributed to the establishment of the Australian Labor Party.
The other unions active in the formation of the Labor Party were
largely "new" unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers: the
miners, builders labourers, rockchoppers, the Balmain labourers union,
etc. The skilled unions were slower to join the push for a labour party.
The retrospectively constructed labour aristocracy theory applied to
the formation of the Labor Party is mainly instrumentalist
The other, non-conspiratorial side to the history of the Labor Party,
as it actually developed, proceeds this way: the first Labor
governments, introduced arbitration as a legal system with the
intention of entrenched the legal rights of trade unions at state and
federal levels. Particularly in the years from 1905 to 1912, pretty
well the whole of the blue collar workforce was unionised, including
many groups of women workers and those in light industry who did not
have much immediate industrial strength.
When World War I was declared, it's true that Labor leader Andrew
Fisher pledged the support of the labour movement to the war. It's
also true, however, that most trade unions and Labor politicians, both
federal and state, opposed conscription for overseas service.
That opposition hardened in 1916, when the Labor Party all over
Australia expelled pro-conscription Labor leaders and government
figures such as federal Labor leader Billy Hughes and NSW
parliamentary leader William Holman, and the Labor Party was the major
social force campaigning for the defeat of conscription that took
place in the two referendums.
This was the only defeat of conscription in time of war anywhere,
outside of Ireland, where conscription was defeated in a de facto way
because the masses simply refused to sign up.
The Labor Party took the lead in repeating the defeat of conscription
in the second referendum, which brings me to the bizarre quiescence of
the DSP weekly paper and website, "Green Left Weekly", in recent weeks
in the face of an orgy of bourgeois nationalism in which the
Australian ruling class is trying to soften up the youth for the
impending resource wars of the 21st century by whipping up patriotic
and militarist hysteria.
The DSP leadership is incapable of commenting on any of this, because
to comment in any way intelligently it would have to tell the true
story of the conscription battle, which split the country, and split
and radicalised the labour movement, for the next 20 years or so.
Rather than have to discuss these questions, "Green Left" remains
silent. (I have commented at length on Australia's wars, Gallipoli,
etc, in several articles that are available on Ozleft,
http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Catholics.html). I'm in a
fair position to comment on these things because my father was a World
War I digger who lost an arm in 1918 in France, as a result becoming a
lifelong opponent of imperialist wars until his death at 80 in 1974.)
Percy reduces Labor's adoption of a socialist objective as a result of
the radicalisation of World War I to a conspiracy to deceive the
masses. He quotes a couple of Labor politicians who tried with
anti-revolutionary statements to soften impact of adopting the objective.
Percy's approach is deeply contemptuous of the people who pushed for
the socialist objective. Many of them, even some of the leaders, were
were deeply committed to the general idea of achieving socialism.
Percy's mechanical mindset can't comprehend the contradictions of a
mass process in a mass workers' organisation, and even in the minds
and hearts of individuals, over time. The adoption of the
socialisation objective embodied the aspirations of hundreds of
thousands of activists, including some leaders of Labor and the trade
unions for the next 20 years.
Unless these people automatically fit Percy's retrospective schema,
they aren't socialists. This is a primitive, smug, ignorant view of
the evolution of any labour movement, anywhere.
After that, in the 1920s, came the radical policies of the government
of Premier Jack Lang in NSW: the adoption of the 44-hour week, child
endowment, etc, etc, in the teeth of fierce ruling class opposition.
At the start of the Great Depression, Labor expelled right-wing
politicians and leaders of several state governments and some federal
politicians, and a very radical populist centrism developed behind
Lang in NSW. At this time, mass socialisation units developed in the
NSW Labor Party, which were deliberately sabotaged the Stalinists in
Australian Communist Party's first phase of Third Period politics.
At the start of the World War II, the labour movement in several
states opposed the establishment of a national register for military
service, and the NSW Labor Party passed the Hands Off Russia
resolution (strongly influenced, it must be said, by Stalinists
working in the Labor Party).
During World War II a substantial minority of Labor politicians, in
all states and federally, opposed conscription for overseas service.
This opposition was led by Lang, Eddie Ward, Arthur Calwell and
At the end of World War II a mobilisation for the 40-hour week,
largely initiated by the Sydney Trotskyists, was rapidly taken up by
the whole labour movement, and the federal Labor government legislated
for the 40-hour week in 1947.
Labor Prime Minister Chifley moved to nationalise the banks around the
same time, and in the early 1950s a vigorous and successful campaign
to defeat the banning of the Communist Party, firstly by a successful
appeal to the High Court against the ban, and thereafter by defeating
the ban proposal in a referendum, was led by Labor leader Herbert V.
All through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, despite Labor's lack of
electoral success federally, labour moved forward in many states as
pressure from the unions and Labor conferences was important in
securing improvements in wages, conditions and living standards for
the working class. In all of this, agitation in the trade unions and
Labor the Party was vital.
In the 1960s came the agitation against the Vietnam War, courageously
initiated by then Labor leader Arthur Calwell.
In the 1970s the Whitlam Labor government introduced a number of
reforms (and a federal Labor conference defeated the first wage-price
freeze proposal, initiated by Clyde Cameron). I remember that clearly
because I was a direct participant, as the one Socialist Left delegate
from NSW, at the 40-delegate federal Labor Party conference.
Later still came the major agitation against nuclear power by what
turned out to be a substantial minority of the labour movement.
When the Hawke government's Prices-Incomes Accord was adopted by the
ACTU in 1983, after being initiated outside the Labor Party by the
Communist Party and prominent CP metalworkers union leader Laurie
Carmichael, the only elected union official to vote against its
adoption was a Labor Party member, Jenny Haines, the secretary of the
nurses' union in NSW.
At ACTU congresses in the late 1980s, when discontent with the Accord
began to broaden, the vocal critics of the Accord were often Labor
Party members such as Gail Cotton of the Food Preservers Union.
Even in the 1990s, the unions in NSW were able to block electricity
privatisation at a Labor Party conference, and it never went ahead.
The NSW government also, on the initiative of the ingenious then
labour minister Jeff Shaw, succeeded in getting through the Upper
House union-sympathetic industrial relations laws, and to a lesser
extent this happened also in Western Australia.
More recently, the Labor Party in the federal parliament opposed the
Iraq war and opposed Howard's decision to send extra troops to Iraq,
None of the things I've outlined above are part of the political
program of the ruling class. Only the most idiosyncratic,
instrumentalist conspiracy theory of the evolution of the labour
movement can construct a ruling class conspiracy out of the actions
Viewed in a more objective, dialectical way, when you take Percy's
largely accurate list of betrayals and put against it my accurate
account of progressive actions and episodes of robust centrism in the
Labor Party and trade unions, what you get is a clear picture of a
real, bourgeois workers' party in its historical evolution, which
clearly remains one of the main arenas of struggle in Australian life.
Socialists who aren't bigoted, mindless, middle-class sectarians ought
to lend some support, and have an orientation towards, the progressive
side of these struggles.
I've discussed all these questions at considerable length in the past
on Ozleft, Marxmail and the Green Left discussion list, and I suggest
that those interested have a good look at some of those articles.
I don't intend to write too much more about this aspect of political
struggle in the immediate future, as I feel that I've examined just
about every possible angle.
Percy's narrative about the history of the Australian labour movement
is a travesty. It's dishonest by omission and it's completely useless
for training cadre for serious activity in the Australian workers'