A history of the Australian Labor Party

by

Peter Conrick

Editor’s note. Peter Conrick’s History of the Australian Labor Party originally appeared in Direct Action, newspaper of the Socialist Workers League, between December 21, 1972, and June 14, 1973, and was published as a pamphlet by the Socialist Workers Party in 1979. It has long been out of print. This digital version has been slightly edited, mainly for grammatical and typographical errors.

1. Origins of the Labor Party

There is no set date for the emergence of the Australian Labor Party. Its formal appearance in the early 1890s coincided with an upsurge in working class militancy, but it was by no means a product of that upsurge.

The Australian Labor Party was the product of an evolutionary process in trade unionism that began in the 1880s and culminated in the spread of mass unions to important sections of the working class such as miners and bush workers. The corresponding growth of elementary forms of class consciousness was expressed in the collectivist ethos of these new bush unions.

The roots of the ALP lay solidly in these unions, and their organisational structures were manifested in the emerging political party. To understand the evolution of Labor political representation it is necessary to trace the strands of union development in the 1880s.

Initially, the conditions of labour created by the gold rush and its aftermath gave a characteristic shape to the Australian labour movement. The peculiar development of the Australian economy gave the working class a new composition and weight substantially different from their European proletarian counterparts. Thus we find (at least until 1890) that the Australian working class occupied a relatively strong bargaining position with wage increases and reductions in hours. The perennially heavy demand for labour in the pastoral industry was matched by the growth of light industry in Melbourne and Sydney and the demand for skilled and unskilled workers in the housing boom of the 1880s.

Parallel to such heavy labour requirements was the disorganisation and individualism rife among the bourgeoisie. It was not until 1890 that an effective squatters’ organisation was formed and ready to take on the Shearers’ Union to win back some of the concessions made to labour in the relative prosperity of the 1880s. The story was repeated in the maritime industry, with the organisation of the Shipowners’ Association, as well as the mining industry.

The growth of unionism before 1890 appeared in those industries where capitalist ownership was highly concentrated and where the basis of exploitation was more open. Hence the capitalisation of the mining industry in the decade 1865-75 and the close concentration of labourers in this industry saw the growth of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association in 1874, first in Victoria and later extending into other colonies.

Similarly the tight grouping of itinerant workers such as shearers facilitated the rapid unionisation of agrarian workers.

In short, the mass unions were organisations of unskilled workers, centred on the most developed sectors of primary industry. Despite the expansion of manufacturing in the urban centres of Melbourne and Sydney, unions here still tended towards the more exclusive, craft-orientated organisations of skilled workers. The urban labour movement became a complex of small craft guilds dedicated to the maintenance of an aristocracy of labour. It was these craft unions that were to prove the greatest obstacle to the growth of independent working class political action.

The basic successes of union action in the decade 1880-1890 laid the essential groundwork for the emergence of a political organisation, based on these newly developed structures. Of course, the recognition of the necessity for labour political representation did not blossom overnight. As far back as 1856 Victorian Stonemasons had lobbied parliamentarians on the question of an eight-hour day. The Miners’ Reform League was a prototype of this approach. Created after the Eureka stockade in 1854, the League pursued purely parliamentary goals such as the abolition of property qualifications and payment of members. The Reform League sustained the essentially petty-bourgeois approach of Australian trade unionism towards political action. Yet even at this early stage we can find the contradiction that has plagued Labor Party leaders throughout the party’s history: The Reform League and its unionist progeny were organisations of working class origin, but at the same time the leadership hierarchy of organised labour restricted its political direction to parliamentary gradualism and reformist measures. This ambiguity has remained in practically the same form to this very day.

This dualism appeared in two of the first speeches made in parliament by Labor representative George Black in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in 1891. “The men we represent” he said “are the wage-earners — those who labour with either hand or head, with either mind or muscle”. But on the previous day he had said: “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 — so wide that you may describe it as the class out of which all other classes are built up.”

Fifteen years later W.G. Spence, the founder of the AMA and at this time a Labor member of federal parliament wrote: “Our only hope is with the mass of the people, and above all, with the wage-earners.” At the same time Spence could write: “There are only two parties now; the Anti-Social Party — those who are against society and in favour of class dominance and the Labor Party who stands for justice, for right, for high moral principles … Labor is not for class but for all.”

The strikes of 1890-94

The movement that placed men such as Spence and Black into parliament was precipitated by the bitter strikes of 1890-94. Within the space of three years the colonial unions had conceded almost every major concession won from the capitalist class to that date. The national confrontations between the unions and capitalist organisations involved all sectors of production. Seamen, waterside workers, shearers, coal miners, silver-lead miners, transport workers, were all locked out by their bosses. Police and military actions were used, thousands of special constables were sworn in and detachments of light horse brought out from the barracks.

The bosses’ demands for “freedom of contract” raised during the strikes struck at the root of every gain made by the working class in the previous ten years. In the context of the depression, as tentative prosperity crumbled around the edges, the bosses’ ultimatum threatened to smash the basis of unionism itself.

The defeats experienced by the working-class organisations in this period produced a variety of responses. Most union post-mortems stressed the broadening of their organisations, removing restrictions on membership and the like. If the strikes did nothing else, they forced upon the smug labour leadership the realisation that the old exclusionist policies of membership were relics of more prosperous years. In the context of mass unemployment in the 1890s and attacks on wage levels, union membership suffered a decline as owners found workers willing to labour at below average rates.

Also to emerge from these defeats was an increased emphasis on amalgamation and federation. Without the growth of intercolonial trade union congresses, the national basis for the formation of the Labor Party would have been impossible. Again, the demand for federation did not originate in the strikes themselves but was the product of union growth in the 1880s.

Turn to the political arena

The political lessons drawn here have two aspects. On the one hand the shattering of unionist hopes by this latest confrontation encouraged many flights to utopianism. The response of William Lane was but an extreme version of this malaise. Lane’s answer to the class struggle was to gather together a few dispirited followers and start an Owenite community in Paraguay. Needless to say, this venture ended in abject failure.

On the other hand, the majority of trade union bodies pointed to the necessity of an independent political party whose aim should be the direct representation of trade union interests. At no stage did this proposition contemplate a movement outside parliament. In the minds of men such as Spence, the aims of political labour were as an integrating force, where the party could serve as the go-between and point of contact with unions and the capitalist class.

In the words of Spence, the leaders of the trade union movement saw the Labor Party as “introducing co-operation instead of competition … not because we are going to abandon the principles that guided men in the days of the old unionism” but because “we must unite on the common platform when we speak, and when we vote for reforms that are necessary”.

Nothing could have been more alien to the leadership of the trade unions than a party adapted to a conscious challenge to the power of the state, let alone to any form of socialism.

The confusion in the union leadership over the class basis of the emerging party was not reflected in its rank-and-file support. Although the early Labor Party sought the support of groups other than trade unionists and workers, it was from the working class through the trade unions that the political power of the ALP arose and was reflected.

The call for a party

The impetus for the formation of a Labor Party was not confined to the trade unions. The Australian Socialist League, formed in May 1887, announced a meeting for “the purpose of forming an Australian Labor Party”. The call was stillborn and while the ASL could claim the credit of being the first working-class body to propose a Labor Party, it was left to the Trades and Labour Council to launch the party as a practical objective.

In 1874 the TLC set up a Parliamentary Committee to act as a lobby and successfully sponsored a worker for parliament. Direct representation was hampered, however, by the heavy financial burden on the unions. It was this realisation that prompted the TLC at the Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congresses of 1884 and 1886 to support payment of members of parliament.

It was not until mid-1890 that the TLC moved seriously towards parliamentary action. The decision to commit trade unions’ funds to form Labor Electoral Leagues was in one sense a measure of desperation as reactions against the strikes hardened. While the union leadership sought some form of refuge in parliamentary action, the mass of the working class found in the Labor Leagues what they saw as the means by which to defeat both the capitalists and their parliamentary machine.

Structure of the party

The collapse of the Maritime Strike in November 1890 accelerated TLC interest in taking concrete organisational steps for a political party. On November 28 the executive passed a motion for the establishment of the Labor Electoral Leagues, and the TLC parliamentary committee was delegated to investigate the establishment of branches in all electorates. The impetus for this formation originated within the movement itself. Only socialist fringe groups such as the ASL exhibited any external pressures for independent political action.

In the early years of its existence the ALP’s trade union origin and connections gave it a cohesion that no bourgeois political groupings had possessed in Australia. This was despite the fact that the party suffered from a lack of definition over program and composition.

The division that evolved between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings was in reality the most concrete statement of the party’s ambiguity. Many of the prospective candidates for Labor representation still retained strong links with established bourgeois parties. The imprecision of the party structure was reflected in fratricidal conflicts over the pledge of loyalty to the ALP program. It had to be firmly established that the ALP candidate was not a free agent, but was bound to a common program.

Perhaps in no period in its subsequent 80-year history has the ALP experienced the contradictions and confusions of its dual role more than in its formative years. For many socialists this confusion remains. Revolutionaries cannot ignore or bypass the ALP today. As in 1890, the Labor Party represents a fundamental political step forward for Australian workers. It is the only alternative to the parties of the Australian bourgeoisie, but it also remains an obstacle to the construction of the mass revolutionary party that is necessary for the achievement of socialism and the final emancipation of the Australian working class.

2. Labor in power, 1895-1914

The Australian Labor Party grew to political maturity in a period when great changes were taking place in the nature and function of the Australian state. Federation became the central question to divide the embryonic political groupings of the bourgeoisie.

It is no task of ours to go into the debate over federation. Suffice it to say that stripped of its legalistic coating, the problem of federation turned around the question of which clique considered itself the most efficient and loyal defender of the intertwined interests of British and Australian capitalism. The ALP had its part to play in this movement, particularly in dealing with immigration and arbitration, both key functions of the new, centralised state.

As we shall see later, the role of the ALP in the federal arena was as a national, centralising force, as opposed to the more parochial loyalties of the bourgeois parties. It is in this sense that Lenin emphasised that “the Labor Party has to concern itself with developing and strengthening the country and with creating a central government. In Australia the Labor Party has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals.” (V.I Lenin, The Labor Government in Australia, Collected Works Vol 19)

Federation and the colonial economy

Federation was the most concrete political and administrative expression of the development of each individual colonial economy. In spite of rifts over tariffs and protective devices, the overwhelming trend in these economies was towards national planning, distribution and marketing, accompanied by expansion of exports. The period 1895-1914 was one of slow recovery from the sharp break in the expansion of Australian capitalism that had occurred in the 1890s.

In primary industries the general recovery was punctuated by drought, but then offset by a rise in wool prices and the growth of butter as an export commodity. The expansion of the manufacturing industry was assisted by the elimination of customs barriers between the states. Manufacturing activity, stimulated by the reallocation of resources under federation, became more specialised and tended to concentrate in the major states of Victoria and NSW. (See Boehme, Twentieth Century Economic Development in Australia, pp 18-20) It is in these two states that rising prices and unemployment most severely affected Australian workers.

The unions hit back

Despite this erratic recovery, the opening years of the twentieth century saw a rising confidence in the workers’ movement. After the depression one of the major tasks of the unions was to restore wages to their pre-1890 levels. Some victories were won, although any rise in wage rates was quickly accompanied by the inevitable price rise and jump in the overall cost of living.

The comeback of the working class movement after the defeats of 1890-94 can only be understood in terms of the rapid and often spectacular advances of political Labor. In the context of these gains the trade unions were more prepared to take the initiative and assumed an altogether less defensive posture. Their confidence was further reinforced by the build-up in union membership in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Though unemployment remained at a constant 5.5 per cent, it was far more difficult for capitalists to obtain scabs than it was during the depression. Most unions began where they left off in 1890, developing amalgamation and federation and strengthening their organisational structures.

By 1900 there had been substantial confirmation of the unions’ offensive through the return of Labor representatives in NSW, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian parliaments. As yet, the Labor leadership had had little chance to prove its capacities for strike-breaking, and maintained the fundamental confidence of the whole trade union movement. (Those unions that had initially opposed the formation of an ALP soon recanted when presented with a fait accompli. Quick electoral success brought the affiliation of most unions by 1904.)

The first Labor governments

The ALP did not have to wait long before its conception of ballot-box reform became a possibility. In fact, barely five years had lapsed before it was swept into office in the 1899 Queensland elections. On the federal plane, Australians had only to wait until 1904 before J.G. Watson became the first Labor Prime Minister. Watson’s ministry soon fell victim to the chronic political instability of the period and the party saw its first taste of power fade within four months. In 1905 the ALP was involved in Lib-Lab alliances (coalitions with liberal groupings) in Queensland and South Australia, nowhere having the numbers to form a stable government on its own.

The party supported constitutional reforms by conservative governments, often making unprincipled blocs with bourgeois parties. However, pressure from the trade unions to adopt principled stands in parliament severely limited horse-trading. At the 1905 Commonwealth Conference the federal parliamentarians pleaded to be allowed to decide their own tactics, including alliances with other groups. These pleas were ignored by the majority of the conference and any idea of alliances was rejected. This decision led to early breakaway movements in Queensland, where the ALP had entered a temporary coalition to achieve adult suffrage. When instructed by conference to break the alliance, some 12 members refused and left the party, relegating Labor to opposition for another decade.

The hard line taken on parliamentary alliances at the founding conference of the federal party and expressed again in 1905 marked a definite break with the old methods of loose organisation and lack of control over individual members. These initial problems were resolved as the parliamentary wing increased its strength and political cohesion and was able to co-opt the effective leadership of the whole movement.

While Labor grappled with these problems, the bourgeois groupings began to crystallise, into more precise formations — receiving full confirmation in the emergence of the Deakinite Liberal Party, which held government until 1910. The instability of the first years of federal government came to an abrupt end when the ALP, under the leadership of Andrew Fisher, won the 1910 general elections. It became the first federal party to win a clear majority over all other parties in both houses. In the House of Representatives, Labor won 41 seats to 31 for the Protectionist Liberal alliance (the Fusion).

The main Labor gains were in New South Wales (five seats) and in Victoria (six seats). The Senate result showed that the swing was Australia-wide; Labor won all 18 seats contested, yielding a Senate of 22 Labor and 14 Fusionists. The 1910 election was Labor’s honeymoon in Australian politics. More than anything else this victory snapped the bourgeois groupings out of their protectionist-free trade bickering and laid the foundations for a decisive feature of Australian politics in the century: the permanent anti-Labor bloc of all capitalist parties. From here on, Labor faced a reasonably coherent opposition.

Having traced the electoral fate of the ALP in its first 15 years, it is now necessary to analyse the issues that arose inside the workers’ movement during this period, and which shaped the politics of the movement outside the purely parliamentary sphere.

Arbitration and conciliation

The question of arbitration and conciliation formed one of the most crucial issues confronting the workers’ movement in Australia. Both of these devices, dedicated to the end of ensuring “industrial peace”, were an integral part of the thinking of the ALP’s leadership. They constituted a key position in the empirical policies of that leadership and remain there to this day. In the development of the conflict between the day-to-day struggles of unions and the strategic goals of political Labor, arbitration and conciliation have been the most consistent points of contention.

One of the main tasks of the new federation was in this area. Labor’s role during federation consisted mainly of demanding safeguards and “checks” in the constitution in spheres such as arbitration. It fell upon John Watson and William Morris Hughes to champion the cause of flexibility in what was otherwise an extremely rigid bourgeois constitution. Arbitration proved to be yet another area where the party leadership could be more “subtle” than the bourgeois parties themselves. The growth of arbitration and conciliation as legitimate methods of settling basic confrontations proved to be an important weapon for governments in attempting to crush workers’ militancy and substituting negotiation for direct action.

W.A. Holman, later a Labor premier of NSW, outlined perfectly the objective role of arbitration when speaking in favour of the 1900 Arbitration Bill: “Today there is one way of settling a dispute; if the bill passes there will be another way of settling it. All that the passing of the bill will do is to substitute the method of reason, arbitration, common sense and judgment for the methods of brute force.” Holman did not elaborate any further on the meaning of those methods of “brute force”, upon which he had so conveniently arisen to power.

Holman’s elevation of “industrial-peace” to the level of a social cure-all did not go unchallenged. Attempts to push through arbitration legislation met with strikes from the coal miners and maritime unions in particular. However, these challenges were the exception rather than the rule and the strikes did nothing to stop the passage of the Commonwealth Arbitration Act.

Parliamentary orientation

The ministry of Andrew Fisher (1910-1913) regarded arbitration as one of its most valuable weapons in maintaining its own political stability. Fisher mapped out what has become a standard manoeuvre for the party’s leadership once in power. The ALP in government has seen arbitration as a way of escaping its obligations to the workers’ movement — a method of avoiding commitment to unions in industrial disputes. Thus Labor has been content to demand that unions accept the jurisdiction and decisions of “independent” industrial courts.

Such concepts were closely linked to the need felt by the reformist leadership to become the inheritors of Australian nationalism. Their policy was to transcend class. It was “a national one which they felt sure would result in the development of the Commonwealth along right lines and the general well-being of the people”, said one of Fisher’s ministry. (Cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics in Eastern Australia, 1900-1914)

While there was talk of Labor’s “national tasks”, it was not perfectly clear how, or for whom, these tasks would be resolved.

It was argued that: “The worker’s great concern is not how he might temporise with the robber, not how he might persuade the robber to take a little less of what he produces; his great concern is rather how to get rid of the robber.” But how was this to be done? — It was the mission of Australian workers “to effect the social revolution by means of an intelligent use of the ballot”. (Platform of the ASL, in People, July 14, 1900)

Clearly, this confusion had its repercussions in the early stages of the ALP. It had to be established once and for all that Labor was a parliamentary party, no matter how unclear its political ideology.

White Australia Policy

One issue over which there was very little argument was defence. The defence policy of the ALP was closely related to the sponsoring of the racist White Australia Policy — to the preservation of a white, democratic Australian nation. Many early Labor leaders such as George Black and William Lane reinforced and popularised some of the basest fears and lies. During the 1901 House of Representatives debate, one Labor member claimed that those Asians “who do raise themselves to the level of the whites get as cunning as foxes … they beat us at every turn”. (Cited in H. McQueen, A New Britannia, p 50)

With both immigration and defence, Labor leaders invoked the worst fears and most backward elements present in the working-class movement. Class interests were made to appear complementary to “national interests” and “national interests” to imperial interests. The struggle that arose inside the ALP over such questions of war and peace were to foreshadow the pressures building up in relation to conscription — an issue that was to split the party in 1917.

The rise of syndicalism

Around this time two influences emerged in the trade union movement. Both were syndicalist-type currents, one personified by the English socialist Tom Mann, the other by the strongly anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World.

The ALP’s monopoly of working-class support had pinpointed two distinct responses from Australian socialists in the period before the outbreak of the First Imperialist World War. Some, such as the IWW had correctly diagnosed the ALP as a non-socialist” party, but then proceeded to turn away from the ALP altogether. In the long run groups that tried to ignore the ALP were condemned to oblivion.

One member of the Chicago-line IWW recognised this when he explained that the result of the IWW’s sectarian campaign against Labor was that “workers who regarded the ALP as bona fide were antagonised”. (Member of Broken Hill IWW local, cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics in Eastern Australia, p 61).

Other socialists took the view of Tom Mann, and made some sort of attempt to concretely relate to the ALP. Mann was a former secretary of the Independent Labor Party, a forerunner of the British Labor Party, and had been brought out to Australia by the ALP to work as an organiser at the Trades Hall in Melbourne. It was under Mann’s influence that the Victorian branch of the Labor Party adopted what came to be known as the “socialist objective”. In reality, this concept was fairly remote from socialism. Nonetheless Mann made it clear that any attempt to ignore the ALP altogether was “doctrinaire, exclusive, pedantic, narrow … comparatively useless and perhaps mischievous”. (T. Mann, Memoirs, London, 1923, p 197)

Mann’s influence, like that of the IWW, was short-lived. Yet in the brief period 1910-1914 syndicalist ideas had a remarkable influence on the workers’ movement. The influence of syndicalism was at its height when an important dispute broke out in Brisbane during the opening months of 1912.

The Brisbane general strike

A direct confrontation between the conservative Queensland government and the workers pushed the ALP leadership to the front of what was to be its first experience of a workers’ mass movement since the party’s inception. The strike followed a refusal by the state to recognise union rights in public service industries such as transport.

If the strike did nothing else, it did illustrate a new consciousness within the movement, as shown by the publication of a Strike Bulletin. The January 31 edition of this Bulletin carried this remarkable passage: “The Workers Raise the Flag of Solidarity. First Simultaneous Strike in the World At 6 o’clock last night the signal was given to down tools. Brisbane unionists nobly responded … Superb demonstration this morning … City business ceases … Unparalleled proof of the Solidarity and Power of Labor … Brisbane toilers class conscious at last.”

The industrial action was accompanied by daily processions through the streets. In each case demonstrations were led by state and federal Labor MPs. The state threatened that “this strike must end in the downfall of socialism”. In spite of its militancy, the Brisbane strike ended in defeat after lasting out five weeks. The return to work was not accompanied by any real gains. (Strike Bulletin, January 31, 1912, cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics)

The Brisbane strike was to be the last major struggle before the imperialist war. In the years leading up to 1912 Labor had made some spectacular gains. The ALP began its drive into the 20th century from a minority position, but by August 1914 Labor had created a national party, in office in three of the six states and fighting to regain control of federal parliament. Labor could now look forward to becoming the dominant factor in Australian politics.

3. Labor and the war

War is an acid test for all political parties, particularly parties of the working class. The pressures of an imperialist war such as the one that opened in 1914, proved to be no exception. Capitulation, chauvinism and narrow national interests triumphed in the European sections of the Second International. Only the Bolsheviks and a handful of individuals remained steadfastly in line with the principles of internationalism.

If parties under the leadership of men with the capabilities of Kautsky and Plekhanov succumbed so effortlessly to bourgeois patriotism, what of the reaction of a dual-class party such as the ALP?

Labor’s response to the war

Given the hegemony of imperial economic ties and ideology in pre-war Australian society, it was destined that large sections of the masses would temporarily swing in favour of the war in its initial stage. The claim of the Labor Party leadership to represent a variety of classes and interests melted into an open and enthusiastic support for the prosecution of the war. It was Labor Prime Minister Fisher who attempted to call off the federal elections scheduled for September 1914 in the name of “national stability”. The conservative government in control of the House of Representatives went ahead and called an election, which the ALP won, gaining control of both the Representatives and the Senate.

The support of the party’s leaders for the war was not an isolated and precipitous act of patriotism. It flowed from the class-collaborationist line pursued by the leadership well before the war and was the extension of the militarist foreign policy advocated by Hughes and others to maintain Australia as an outpost of European civilisation.

The characteristic reaction of the union movement was usually along the lines that “we must protect our country. We must keep sacred from the mailed fist this splendid heritage.” (The Worker, August 6, 1914)

Among the followers of the Second International in Australia, the Victorian Socialist Party offered a public condemnation of the war. At the same time the VSP chose to work inside the ALP because of the influence of “the unions and leagues and conferences at the back of the Labor Party”. Besides, claimed the VSP, the workers stood a better chance with Fisher than with the conservatives. (The Socialist, September-August 1914)

Other socialist sects expressed their opposition to the war outside the context of support for the ALP. Rather than drawing towards the masses of workers who blindly followed the ALP leadership into the war, the majority of the socialist groupuscules adopted the approach that the leaders of the federal party were “fakers, twicers and bloodsuckers”. Such predilections belied a fatal attempt by some of the early socialists to bypass the hold of the ALP on the organised working class.

As for the parliamentary wing of the ALP, its position on the war was defined thus: “Our interests and our very existence are bound up with those of the Empire. In time of war half measures are worse than none. If returned with a majority we shall pursue … every course necessary for the defence of the Commonwealth and the Empire.” (The Labor Manifesto) There was never any question among the Labor leadership about national defence. Even national republicanism was prepared to forego “independence” in favour of imperial service to Great Britain.

Hughes and conscription

The pressures on the right-wing leadership, from Britain, for troops, increased during 1915, when William Morris Hughes replaced Fisher as Prime Minister. Hughes immediately launched an attack upon the working-class organisations. His first move was to ban the IWW, which had maintained a persistent antiwar stand and by late 1915 was gaining some influence among government workers in the railways and transport industries.

Concurrent with this note of repression was the calculated weight of Hughes’ own political base in the trade union movement. In Hughes’ case, his influence lay in the Australian Workers Union, which had the largest number of delegates to ALP conference. The AWU was a conservative union, which favoured arbitration to settle disputes and usually condemned strike action.

The dilemma of Hughes’ position was this: on one side stood the British War Council demanding new divisions of troops for the war of attrition that was developing on the Western Front and on the other was his realisation that there would be fierce opposition to the introduction of conscription. When in August 1916 the War Council cabled to the Australian government a threat that one of Australia’s divisions would have to be disbanded, Hughes was forced to move.

The proportionally enormous casualties suffered by the Australian Imperial Forces at the Battle of the Somme and throughout the allied imperialist summer offensive in 1916 severely extended the already strained Australian Army. Hughes took great pains to point out to his audiences that the homogeneity of the AIF would be destroyed unless conscription was introduced.

He did so in the most calculated demagogic and chauvinistic terms possible: “every Australian is bound by every sacred tie of honour and of duty, every instinct of loyalty and self-preservation to do his fair share in the mighty efforts of the Empire”. Hughes had a long record of militarist sympathies and he needed no great moral persuasion from the allied command to commit Australian troops to Europe under compulsion. (W.M. Hughes, Melbourne, September 21, 1910, cited in J. Main, Conscription: The Australian Debate, p 40)

The union opposition to Hughes

The Prime Minister did not speak for the rest of the ALP, nor for the whole Labor movement. Opposition to the conscription proposals inside the working-class organisations rested on the assumption that national service would weaken the trade union movement and open the way for a capitalist class attack on wages and conditions. Under the wartime circumstances of state intervention in industrial production, the manufacturing sector had expanded and diversified into chemicals and rubber. But unlike European capitalism, wages in Australia remained at a relatively high level. The threat of compulsory military service to the worker became a welcome medium for the industrial bourgeoisie to cut costs. In particular, the replacement of adult males by female and child labour resulted in the reduction of wages by 50 per cent in certain industries.

The allegation that conscription would turn Australia into a “black man’s hell” was an integral and racist component of the campaign against Hughes organised by the Labor bureaucracy. While the more progressive sections of the workers’ movement rejected the blatant racism of some trade unionist arguments, others tended to centre on the ambiguous, but just as dubious issue of “mass immigration”. Of course, Hughes was just as guilty of racist paranoia as some of his opponents. As a matter of fact, a large measure of the Prime Minister’s assessment of the danger to Australia lay in an undisguised fear of Japan.

It was the Melbourne Trades Hall Council that delivered the first blow against Hughes’ promise to the British government. In May 1916 a special conference was convened to define Victorian Labor’s attitudes towards conscription, which resulted in a resolution being passed opposing conscription. Hughes returned to Australia from a trip to London in July 1916, as yet uncommitted to national service. On September 1 of that year he attacked a meeting of the Victorian executive and tried to gain support for his conscription proposals, but failed.

Despite an alliance with Premier Holman in NSW Hughes failed to carry the party in his own state. On September 15 Hughes and Holman were expelled from the Labor Party.

Hughes walked out with a ginger group of four ministers and 17 parliamentarians, although there was still no formal split.

The conscription campaigns

Hughes was forced to abandon his hopes of getting conscription through parliament. Even if he had been able to steer the bill through the House of Representatives, he would have faced an open revolt of Labor senators. The decision to put the question of conscription to a referendum was precipitated by several ministerial resignations. Ultimately the referendum was the only way for Hughes to oppose the demands of the unions that he drop his militarist posturing. Besides, he thought he could win.

The mass campaign that followed the announcement of the referendum was the largest and most intensive confrontation between the industrial and political organs of the working class and the front organisations of the Australian bourgeoisie. For scope and depth of mass involvement Australia has never witnessed a more open battle. Conscription and the issue of whether working people should be forced to fight and die for imperialist wars became the touchstone of a renewed radicalisation of the working class. Under pressure from thousands of workers, the Labor Party eventually swung behind the upsurge of strikes and lockouts that followed the aftermath of the referenda and the 1917 general elections.

The first referendum, decided on October 28, 1916, resulted in a rejection of conscription. Hughes ignored this edict and a second referendum in December 1917 brought an even firmer rejection of conscription.

Both results were crushing victories for official Labor and a clear, unmistakable voice against Australia’s continued involvement in the war. The true winning margins of the referenda have never really been released. One sector of the vote was especially embarrassing for the supporters of conscription — that was the voice of the Australian Infantry Force. The official statistics registered the army vote as a narrow victory for compulsion, however many reports have since indicated that the final figures were tampered with. On several occasions Hughes’ agents in London reported on the unrest of AIF soldiers at the front. If the army did record a Yes vote, it was only because of reservists uninitiated in trench warfare.

The mass campaigns and the IWW

Socialists and syndicalists alike played a leading part in rolling back conscription. The audacity of the IWW and their stress on rank and file organisational forms won them the support of a considerable section of the labour movement during the war. Moreover, the IWW produced a weekly newspaper, Direct Action, which sold, around 10,000 per issue at the height of its influence. The importance of Direct Action as a focus for building the anti-conscription campaign cannot be underestimated. Its attraction was borne out by the considerable attention the Wobblies received from the state repressive apparatus, including those former Labor men gathered around Hughes.

One of the most influential organs of the imperial bourgeoisie, The Round Table, gives this revealing summation of Hughes’ position in the Labor machine. “Mr Hughes has always been at daggers drawn with any section which has sought to identify the Labor Party with the outlook of industrial unionism. The Round Table benignly excused the working class for accepting “that the governing classes of all countries were responsible for the war”. The journal concluded that the conscription campaign had been largely a struggle between Hughes and “the alternative of violence and the class war — the social revolution to be achieved through … the brute force of organised unionism”. (The Round Table, Vol 7, 1910-17, pp 389-391)

The unremitting anti-conscription campaign of the IWW resulted in a growth of support for the movement among the working class. This influence could have been extended into the army. But rather than having an interventionist orientation towards the army, the IWW exhibited a naive anti-capitalist puritanism, which ultimately led to isolation from thousands of workers already in the AIF.

The abstention from army agitation work was in line with a general syndicalist rejection of all forms of political struggle.

Thus the IWW rejected all parliamentary action. It made no distinction between reformist politics and revolutionary politics, and analysed the opportunism of the ALP purely in terms of its commitment to parliamentary activity. Direct Action claimed that “for the first time in the history of the working-class movement in Australia a paper appears which stands for straight-out direct-actionist principles, unhampered by the plausible theories of the parliamentarians, whether revolutionary or otherwise”. (Cited in E.W. Campbell, History of the Australian Labour Movement, Sydney, 1945, p 70)

The IWW was to learn that such sectarian parity did nothing to mobilise the ranks of Australian workers who shackled their hopes and aspirations to the ALP.

The indictment of the IWW twelve

In 1916 the central leadership of the IWW was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit arson. It is quite probable that this was a false charge, but the government availed itself of the opportunity presented by the trial to pass the Unlawful Associations Act, banning the IWW and the publication of Direct Action.

Still the bulk of the IWW remained unreconciled towards the ALP. Some sections of the movement re-formed themselves under new names to avoid the act. The ban on the IWW led directly to the formation of the One Big Union, which unsuccessfully attempted to unite all trade unions into one massive organisation along the lines of industry, rather than by craft. The stillborn plan for the OBU had the support of those who were to become the nucleus of the Communist Party. Its most enthusiastic supporters were the Socialist Labor Party, independent socialists, left-wing ALP members and former members of the IWW. In real terms the OBU had cashed in on a period of upsurge in 1917, otherwise its organisational and political influence was negligible.

The 1917 general strike

Two upsurges on the industrial front represented the culmination of widespread discontent over wartime profiteering, high food prices, long hours and speed-up methods in production, plus the refusal of the arbitration courts to increase wages sufficiently to offset the increased cost of living.

The lead-up to the big strike of August 1917 was the coal mining dispute of October 1916, which effectively closed down all mines in the Commonwealth, causing a serious dislocation of most other industries. Despite its limited demands for shortened hours, its political impact was magnified by the threat to wartime production.

This tactic was extended to other industries by the adoption of go-slow methods. In the railway workshops in NSW, where syndicalist influence considerable, posters began to appear, proclaiming: “Slow work means more jobs. More jobs means less unemployed. Less competition means higher wages, less work, more pay.” (IWW poster, 1916, In I.H. Turner, Sydney’s Burning, p 90)

Attempts were made by the government to speed up work, but all such efforts met with walkouts throughout Australia. The strike rapidly spread to other industries: coal and metalliferous miners, seamen, waterside workers and others such as carters and storemen, who refused to handle blackbanned goods. At its climax, close to 100,000 workers were involved in what turned into the biggest industrial upheaval experienced in Australia.

It was not until September 19 that the strike was defeated by the unions agreeing to sign application forms for re-employment. (See J.A. Sutcliffe, A History of Trade Unionism in Australia, pp 225-232, and E.W. Campbell, op cit, pp 78-102, for details of the strike.)

The effect of the split

When Hughes finally broke away from the ALP in early 1917 to form the Nationalist Party, he left the parliamentary wing of the ALP demoralised and defeated. This was in spite of the success of the anti-conscription campaign. The political demoralisation of the ALP was concretised in the victory of the Nationalist coalition in the 1917 elections. It left the Labor Party unable and unwilling to lead the thousands of workers involved in the industrial upheavals of 1917. The role of the ALP during the general strike was not so much a betrayal as almost complete ineffectiveness. It was not the ALP but the bourgeois Nationalists and employers who smashed the strike. In the parliamentary arena Labor paid the price of the split: virtual political oblivion throughout the 1920s, until the rise of Scullin’s government in 1929.

4. Labor in the 1920s

The final war years

There exists a deep feeling of war weariness that if taken in hand can be used to checkmate the jingoism and sophistry of the patriots and ultimately bring about a stop-the-war feeling.” F.J. Riley, secretary of the Peace Alliance, 1917. (Cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, p 172)

The author may well have added that Labor did not sense this change in mass feeling towards the war. ALP parliamentarians continued as the most enthusiastic supporters of the war, despite their opposition to overseas conscription. At the same time, pressure from below had forced the passage of a strongly worded antiwar resolution through the NSW branch, which tended to be under the control of more progressive unionists.

The motion was passed at the NSW conference in June 1917, declaring that war was the inevitable outcome of capitalism and “peace can only be accomplished by the united efforts of the workers of all the countries involved”. In spite of opposition from Labor parliamentarians this motion was passed unamended. It was an accurate and revealing reflection of the tenor of ALP politics: on the one hand there was a militant and responsive industrial-based wing, on the other a flabby and timid parliamentary body. As the war became more and more unpopular, the tension between these rival tendencies increased.

Labor emerged from the war in complete political disarray, still licking its wounds after the exodus of the Hughes group, which now held parliamentary office in coalition with anti-Labor forces. Like most deserters from Labor’s ranks, Hughes moved effortlessly along a right-wing, nationalist road. The explanation for this rapid shift was not a sudden “ratting” by Hughes, but the logical outcome of the pro-imperial wing of parliamentary Labor.

The 1917 split had effectively liquidated Labor’s electoral fortunes and ushered in almost a decade of Nationalist government, first under Hughes, then under the mediocre leadership of Stanley Bruce. The social and economic upheaval of the war had resulted in new divisions and alignments in Australian politics and the creation of new parties, all of which tended, at one stage or another, to displace the ALP as the focus of working-class politics.

The failure of the ALP to command national politics in the 1920s was due partly to the destructive influence of the split, but also to the division in the labour movement itself between sectors that actively supported the October 1917 Revolution and others that remained committed to parliamentary reformism. The impact of the Russian Revolution, and its morale-boosting effect on rank-and-file militants, necessitated an even firmer reaffirmation of the principles of gradualism by the official Labor bureaucracy.

New directions in the economy

The upheaval in political life was an approximation of the new directions of the Australian economy in the closing stages of the war and the years immediately following. Except for a brief recession in 1922 manufacturing industry enjoyed a period of expansion and diversification under solid tariff protection, high export prices and continued government spending. An important change in manufacturing was the growth of heavy industry and a move away from the old comprador industries of the colonies.

In real terms this meant a lessening of direct company ties with British imperialism. The history of manufacturing in the 1920s was that of government aid to industry helping to make inroads into imports and ultimately capture the home market from Great Britain. Despite tariff preference, British imperialism found its share of the Australian market had dwindled to almost two thirds of its pre-war position by 1928.

The United States benefited from these developments, doubled its share of the market and established a firm hold in the local economy. (See Forster, Industrial Development in Australia, 1920-30)

The growth of heavy industry was epitomised by the founding of a large-scale iron and steel works nourished by government contracts and protection.

The nullification of the old colonial industries and corresponding rise of modern manufacturing produced a general instability in the allocation of labour. Particularly in the years 1919-22 people found themselves out of jobs and thrown into new work situations. All the militancy of the final years of the war did not fade away but was carried on into a series of bitter and prolonged strikes and lockouts.

The influence of the Russian Revolution

One of the reasons for the upsurge in the closing months of the war was the impact of and widespread sympathy for the first successful proletarian revolution in Russia. News of the February Revolution reached sympathetic ears in large sections of the population. A dearth of factual material had condemned the Bolsheviks as liberals in most peoples’ eyes. Little authentic news was available, since most international socialist publications had been banned by regulation under the war Precautions Act.

However the Bolshevik victory and the peace on the Eastern Front were widely welcomed by almost all extra-parliamentary sections of the labour movement. Australian socialists tended to support the majority of the British and French sections of the Second International. News of the minority Zimmerwald Left led by Lenin and Luxembourg was scant and it was left to Russian emigres in Australia, many of them Bolshevik sympathisers, to explain the details of the factional situation in the European Left.

From the beginning of 1918 the most militant of the Australian industrial organisations, the Barrier (Broken Hill) AMA and the Brisbane Industrial Council, were calling for a Commonwealth labour and trade union conference to put pressure on the government to declare itself for immediate peace. By and large the official labour bureaucracy ignored this call and supported Hughes’ demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender.

Labor’s reaction to the Russian Revolution

The general upturn in the revolutionary movement internationally gradually seeped through to many in the ALP. E.J. Holloway, secretary of the Melbourne Trades’ Hall Council, wrote a preface to “a wonderful speech” by Trotsky (The World Crisis, by Leon Trotsky, preface by E.J. Holloway, Melbourne, 1922), concurring with his analysis of the imperialist crisis.

Holloway’s position typified that of many inside the ALP, who responded to the October Revolution in a romantic, sometimes semi-mystical fashion. Basically, the concept of a Leninist party (such as it was understood) was seen as irrelevant because Labor’s dominance in Australia “had firmly laid the basis of a new nation”. Labor ideology was to seek an Australian exception to the unfolding of a class society. While acknowledging the existence of class in Australia, the ideologies of parliamentary labour hoped to unite all classes in a utopian state that was above class itself.

More than any other event, the Russian Revolution and the mass support that it evoked, inspired a “genuine revolt of the unionist background of the party against the time-serving and inaction of the politicians”. The formation of the Communist Party of Australia
Few radical Australian historians have grasped the peculiar circumstances leading to the formation of an Australian Communist Party, and the repercussions that these circumstances had on the orientation of the CPA to the mass working-class party. It would be impossible in the space available here to analyse this in detail, but perhaps our understanding of the nature of the relationship between the CPA and the ALP will be clarified by recalling that the CPA was formed largely by militants disillusioned with the Labor Party. In this sense the CPA at its emergence in October 1920 began with a rather eclectic and haphazard attitude to the ALP. The indigenous suspicions and fears of early Party leaders such as Miles and Sharkey were compounded by the intervention of the Stalinised Communist International after 1927. Now one way, then the other, the Communist Party scuttled about the fringes of the labour movement searching for a line of clarity, which it never found. The confusion continues to this day.

The Communist Party of Australia was formed at a meeting in Sydney on October 30, 1920, which was attended by 26 people. At its foundation the party encompassed three main groupings, already dealt with in previous articles in this series: former IWW militants led by Jock Garden, members and former members of small socialist parties, and the largest socialist party then in existence — the Australian Socialist Party. (R.S. Ross, Revolution in Russia and Australia, Melbourne, 1920, p 49)

Two months after its formation, the CPA split over its strategy towards the ALP. The IWW group favoured “white-anting” or boring from within, the remnants of the socialist sects opted for an even more sectarian approach, befitting their petty bourgeois outlook and former isolation in the labour movement. Rivalries carrying over from the pre-amalgamation period led the ASP also to distrust the Garden group and it shortly refused to pool its resources into the new party. The ASP and the CPA thus came to compete with one another for the honour of becoming the Australian section of the Third International, the world revolutionary party founded by Lenin and Trotsky in 1919. Finally, after delegates from both parties had attended the third congress of the International, the CPA was granted affiliation (August 1922). The bulk of the membership of the ASP then left their former party to its fate and joined the CPA.

While the founding congress of the Third International had adopted a policy of open hostility towards the labour and social democratic parties, which had betrayed the working class in the war, it changed that in 1921, after the ebb in the world revolution. It changed to a policy of forming united fronts with labour parties, a tactic devised by Lenin and Trotsky to prevent the newly formed communist parties from becoming isolated sects, sealed off by traditional working class allegiance to mass parties such as the ALP.

Reluctantly and gradually, the CPA took up this policy, but the ebb of militancy in Australia reduced its influence in the labour councils to almost zero. Notwithstanding the CPA’s recalcitrance, some members of the party joined the ALP.

A proposed official united front policy at leadership level between the ALP and CPA was defeated due to the ALP bureaucracy’ suspicions and instinct for survival. ALP leaders too, had heard Lenin’s dictum that communists should support them “as a rope supports a hanging man”. Only in 1924 did the CPA win a brief success at the NSW ALP conference, when it was granted provisional affiliation. It was expelled a few months later.

For the remainder of the 1920s the CPA was forced back into an essentially propagandist role, where it lay estranged from the mass of workers.

Labor, on the other hand, secured the support of a new layer of militants with its so-called socialisation objective. (V.G. Child, How Labor Governs)

The socialist objective

The adoption of a policy in favour of the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange by the Labor Party in 1921 was conceived from two contradictory directions. While acknowledging its vulnerability to the new-found working-class militancy, Labor leader Scullin also went to great pains to point out that the objective was an attempt “to prevent revolution by force”. (Cited in H. McQueen, Glory Without Power, in Australian Capitalism, ed Playford and Kirsner). Years later Arthur Calwell explained that the socialist objective would combat “the spurious claims of the communists to be a working class party”. Indeed, one of the more remarkable aspects of the socialist objective was the procession of repudiations it suffered immediately following its adoption. Despite its aura of progressiveness, the objective was never more than talked about. In many ways it became the concentrated expression of Labor’s role as a block to a genuine socialist movement in this country. This was especially true in the years of NSW Premier Jack Lang’s pre-eminence in the 1930s. Nevertheless, those proposals for socialisation, in the words of one ALP delegate were “from 700,000 trade unionists”, not just from the delegates at ALP conference.

While the post-war period saw a rapid growth of the confidence of the workers’ movement, this growth soon stagnated and by the mid-1920s the Nationalist government felt prepared to struggle to win back concessions it had made in the past. The rate of growth of the economy had slowed down from a reasonable 3.5 per cent per annum in 1920-21, to 1.5 per cent in 1926. The impetus of a backlog of demands on consumer durables, and new industries under tariff protection, had spent themselves by 1926.

The government offensive

The ruling party throughout the 1920s was a combined Nationalist and Country Party coalition under Bruce. Factional interests and personality clashes meant that Bruce’s government was a precarious one. It was never solid within itself. That problem was largely negated by the absolute ineffectiveness of Labor as an opposition to Bruce. In pure parliamentary politics the ALP was an erratic and rather flabby current; a reflection of its confusion in the debate between the supporters and opponents of the October Revolution. The Labor bureaucracy just did not know where it stood.

Bruce suffered no such confusion. He was perfectly unequivocal about where his class interests lay and led off an enthusiastic redbaiting attack on Labor for the 1926 general elections. In so doing Bruce pioneered the first of many desperate red-scare election campaigns that have been used by the anti-Labor forces. The 1926 campaign of non-issues was won easily by the Nationalists and Bruce returned for another three years.

The maintenance of “industrial peace” became an obsession with Bruce and his pursuit of this goal ultimately led to his downfall. The lull in the working class movement between 1922-26 ended with the re-election of Bruce and his efforts to shackle labour to increased hours and strengthen the power of the Arbitration Court.

He tried to amend the Crimes Act to deal with militants and also introduced a bill to maintain essential service industries in the event of disputes. Bruce was never subtle about his sustained attempts to smash unionism. In doing this, he frightened the parliamentary ALP into submission. The result was that Scullin threw his support behind the amendments to extend the Commonwealth’s powers in Arbitration. This was, of course, in harmony with the ALP leadership’s traditional view that instruments such as arbitration were vital to maintaining the neutrality of the state apparatus. Scullin declared that anyone who opposed the proposed amendments was a “traitor”. Despite the support of Scullin the amendments were rejected by the majority of Australians in a referendum.

In characteristic style, Bruce, undeterred by this overwhelming rejection of his anti-working-class legislation, proceeded to amend the Arbitration Act in 1928. This refusal and an inability to respond to the interests and desires of the majority of the population cost Bruce an election. In 1929 Labor won in a landslide and Bruce became the first and only Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat.

The end of the 1920s

Although Labor had been eclipsed nationally throughout the 1920s it had enjoyed a resurgence in state politics. There were Labor governments in all states at various periods during the decade.

But the militancy of the workers’ struggles, particularly the timber workers and coal miners in the last years of the decade took Labor by surprise. The willingness and audacity of the trade unionists to adopt innovative forms of action, aside from the use of the strike, only drove the Labor bureaucracy back even more firmly to arbitration and reconciliation with the industrial courts.

Under the witch-hunt atmosphere of the Bruce government the workers looked to political Labor for leadership. Instead, Scullin, and other Labor politicians such as “Red Ted” Theodore responded with support for some of the most reactionary anti-union legislation ever framed in this country.

While ALP parliamentarians carefully avoided the task of leading the working class in a political fight against Bruce, the industrial section of the party made some token efforts to carry on “an unremitting and intensive fight against the arbitration proposals.” Again, the ACTU effectively sidestepped the key issue by refusing to indicate what form of action should be taken against the amendments.

Thus the way was left open for the Nationalists to protect the NSW coalmine owner John Brown, who had locked out thousands of miners from his colliery. The refusal of Bruce to prosecute Brown was a triumph for the capitalist offensive, despite the fact that the Brown case finally provoked political Labor into action. Labor’s return to power was aided by the government’s “pledge to defeat the class struggle” and the ruthless attempts to defeat the seamen’s strike in 1925 by deporting leaders of their union, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnston. (Report of the 1921 Commonwealth Conference of the ALP, p 26)

Out of office for 15 years, Labor had no difficulty in persuading Australians that it would be a step forward from the most reactionary politics of Bruce — it was a negative example, but a good one, and so Australian capitalism entered its most severe crisis — the depression of 1929-32 under the Federal Labor government of James Scullin.

5. The Scullin government, 1929-32

Australia’s second major Labor administration was the government of James Scullin. There were complex changes in the labour movement during the depression of the thirties and these were reflected in internal divisions and splits of the federal Labor Party through the years of the worst crisis Australian capitalism has yet faced.

The economic depression that overwhelmed the advanced capitalist world in the early 1930s was of unprecedented magnitude and intensity. Australia, involved in the cataclysm, was to be wracked by the most profound social and economic crisis in its history.

It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the depression for the Australian Labor movement, which proved unable to cope with the formidable challenges it encountered. Workers’ interests were not successfully defended by either the trade unions or the Labor governments, which were in office in the Commonwealth and three states. Under the impact of the crisis, the effectiveness of the unions as the basic economic organisations of the working class crumbled and the political labour movement was shattered.

On the other hand, the Communist Party was to become a real force in trade union life. More than any previous historical example, the fortunes of the Scullin Labor government offer an unparalleled view of the class contradictions that exist within the ALP. One of the decisive factors in the demise of Scullin was his refusal to take a clear stand on the basic issues of the right to strike, unemployment and welfare, which confronted the whole workforce during the depression.

Scullin at first opted for the opinions of the conservative bankers against the more radical Lang Plan, then under pressure from Labor caucus, adopted a mid-way position. His vacillation resulted in the desertion of Labor’s supporters, who had looked to the party in the crisis and ended in splitting the ALP from left to right. In federal politics, Joseph Lyons stepped into the vacuum as the new representative of anti-Labor, and from the left of Scullin Jack Lang emerged to lead the NSW branch of the ALP into direct confrontation with the federal Labor Party.

Prelude to a crisis

In 1929 Labor won its most resounding victory ever in Australian politics. From a weak and ineffective opposition of 23 in the House of Representatives, Labor defeated the ruling Bruce-Page coalition with an enormous majority. The general elections of 1929 followed the dissolution of the House of Representatives only, and Scullin faced considerable limitations on his government’s freedom of action. In the Senate, seven Laborites faced 29 Conservative opponents, and bill after bill was thrown out. Timidity and an irresponsible satisfaction with the newly won “fruits of office” frittered away the chances of a double dissolution. So Labor’s office was restricted to negative government rather than effective political power. In the long run it was this timidity that prevented Labor following up on its most resounding victory ever.

One of the first confrontations of the depression was the Hunter Valley coalmines lockout. Ted Theodore, as deputy leader of the Labor Party, had promised as part of Labor’s election campaign that the mines would be reopened on the miners’ terms within a fortnight of being elected. Pressured by the labour movement at large, Scullin could scarcely disavow this promise. However, upon election, Scullin refused to force the owners to reopen the mines.
The only excuse the Prime Minister could make was that there was no “constitutional means” open to him to ensure a workers’ victory. Lang advised Scullin to “forget the constitution”, but Scullin did not heed this advice and the mine-owners triumphed. The NSW industrial working class movement denounced the Labor leader’s treachery and cowardice and thus laid the political basis for the organisational split between the Lang-controlled NSW branch and the centre faction of the federal party, headed by Scullin.

On the other hand the Australasian Council of Trade Unions supported Scullin, his cabinet was undivided and only three members of caucus expressed their opposition to his handling of the coal dispute.

The blatant sellout of the Hunter valley actions was the prelude to many similar concessions to bourgeois public opinion, the press and conservative financial interests, which the Scullin government was prepared to accommodate.

Drift into depression

Political instability and the intensification of class confrontations highlighted the serious problems of the country. At the same time these immediate conflicts diverted attention away from the worsening international monetary crisis. The more conservative (and politically influential) sections of the bourgeoisie reflected the view that there should be immediate wage cuts.

S.M. Bruce’s pursuit of this policy had been one of the factors in his crushing defeat in 1929. Although Bruce had departed, the new Labor government inherited his specially chosen top civil strategists, including the reactionary head of the Commonwealth Bank Board, Sir Robert Gibson. Scullin’s second major blunder after the sellout of the coal lockout was to retain Gibson as director.

It was Gibson who was behind the move to bring Sir Otto Niemeyer, the British financier, to “solve” the crisis. Scullin’s sponsoring of Niemeyer ran up against opposition in the federal executive of the ALP, which resolved that “any such wage reduction propaganda would be at the expense and sacrifice of the workers by reducing their wages and living standards”. (Resolution of the ALP federal executive, adopted October 1930, cited in L.J. Louis and I.H. Turner, The Depression of the 1930s, p 64)

By any comparison, the Australian economy fared badly during the depression. Its fate was in common with all countries where world conditions had encouraged the rapid development of agricultural and pastoral production, and the prosperity of which, therefore, depended to an unusual degree upon the prices of the products of these industries. Corresponding with this vulnerability was Australia’s newness to the capitalist system, which in times of upswing attracted a considerable flow of capital from abroad. Even if this inflow had been restrained within the most conservative limits, any sharp fall of prices was likely to impose a severe strain if the efforts to keep up interest payments were to be maintained. One of the recurrent problems of the Scullin government was its failure to pay the rapidly mounting external debt. (See C.B Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression, pp 108ff)

Labor’s attempt to deal with the crisis

Scullin’s subservience to financial orthodoxy had led him to suggest that Labor drop every plank in its platform in order to find a way out of the depression. Despite the fact that one in three of the workforce was unemployed, despite the creaking welfare and benefits system, Scullin refused to adopt any of the measures of socialisation to which Labor had been committed. A proposal to put into effect the government’s election promise to nationalise banking was fobbed off as “impractical”. The crowning disgrace of Labor’s domestic welfare performance in the depression was its decision to cut back pensions and similar payments by 20 per cent in the interests of balanced budgets and reduced costs.

It was the attempt of Labor to core to grips with the crisis that led directly to the development of the three plans of Lang, Theodore and Lyons. All the plans, despite apparent differences of method, worked for economic stability within the confines of capitalism. In practice, the Labor governments of the depression sought to promote what they loosely defined as the interests of the people as a whole. On both state and federal levels they saw their responsibility to “national interests” transcending any allegiance to class interests, notwithstanding the pressure of the union movement.

Despite emergency measures, Australia continued to slip deeper into depression, so that as the months passed it became increasingly apparent that the government could not, or would not, do much in the way of redeeming its election promises. A hostile Senate and the growing confidence of a right-wing rump in the federal Labor Party reduced the influence of the union movement to wishful thinking. The Prime Minister bluntly dismissed the unemployment insurance scheme drawn up by the 1930 ACTU Congress as “financially impracticable” and at the Victorian ALP annual conference of the same year, Scullin did not offer any prospect that the workers’ interests would be advanced. Although the governments’ records and pronouncements were hardly the basis for optimism, the trade unions throughout 1930 continued to assert that determined action on the part of the federal government would check the depression. Despite tremendous pressures from all quarters of the labour movement, Scullin remained unmoved.

Theodore’s defeat

The personalities of Lyons, Scullin and Theodore dominated the federal Labor cabinet. Theodore resigned in 1930 as federal Treasurer when the Queensland (non-Labor) government set up a royal commission to inquire into the sale of mines at Mungana. (See W. Denning, Caucus Crisis, p 105). The commission found that Theodore, while Queensland Premier in 1919, had conspired with others to defraud the government of £30,000. Theodore asked for a trial, but this was not granted. When, however, the Queensland government took action during the following year to recover money from him and his associates, the jury found in Theodore’s favour and he returned to the treasury. Theodore did not remain in the Labor Party for long as he was one of many Labor MPs to go down in the disastrous 1931 elections.

Theodore was a bitter opponent of the extreme conservatism of Lyons as well as an antagonist of the Lang party machine. Since he had entered Federal parliament through a safe Labor seat in Sydney, he had been regarded by Lang as a rival for dominance in NSW Labor.

Lang’s determination to destroy Theodore had drawn Scullin’s cabinet straight into the centre of another NSW faction fight.

Soon after Theodore became treasurer again, the death occurred of the member for East Sydney, a very safe electorate. The federal and NSW Labor governments began a fierce contest to gain the affection of the Labor vote in this distressed inner-suburban area. This contest sharpened because it coincided with a premier’s conference on the economic crisis, at which the first battle of the three plans was fought.

Theodore and Scullin devised a plan which was intended to placate Lang, and at first the NSW premier seemed ready to accept. Lang was not ready, however, to appear to compromise himself in the eyes of the East Sydney rank-and-file militants. In response to the federal plan, Lang concocted an even more radical economic draft in an effort to stem the rising combativity of the Sydney working class. Lang eventually won the fight to represent Labor in East Sydney, and E.J. Ward thus entered the House of Representatives, whereupon Scullin ruled that the new member was not eligible to enter the federal ALP caucus.

Ward and some sympathisers then left the party room. All told, two senators and five members of the House broke away, robbing Scullin of his majority in the lower house. Eventually a Lang attack on Theodore brought down the Scullin government, the five Langites in the House joining hands with the conservative opposition (For details see J.R. Robertson, Scullin as Prime Minister, in The Great Depression in Australia, ed Robert Cooksey, pp 31-32). Scullin had seriously miscalculated the strength of opposition within the party to Theodore and at the same time failed to recognise the incipient power of the mass workers’ movement that was developing behind Lang.

Lang used the militancy of the workers as a lever for bargaining with Scullin. Within a few months, the extraparliamentary movement of unemployed and oppressed workers was making its own impression inside the federal cabinet. Whereas a non-Labor government could sit in relative isolation from the demands of the workers’ movement, Scullin could not. Bereft of a viable alternative, the workers’ aspirations remained directly focused upon the Labor government in Canberra. By the end of his office it was not the conservative financiers that dogged Scullin, but the mass movement of workers, which had thrust him into power only 20 months previous.

By March 1931 the NSW ALP executive had been expelled by a special interstate ALP conference and soon there were to be two rival Labor parties in NSW. Confusion in the party
As mid 1931 approached, the federal government was faced with the prospect of imminent defeat. Workers were being informed by Scullin and other Labor leaders that the bottom had been reached, but the way out was clouded by the bitter differences of opinion over financial policy that were convulsing the movement. As a correspondent in the Labor Call complained:

Despite the desperate position of the nation and the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, half a dozen schools of thought within the Labor camp are broadcasting their opinion vehemently, bewildering most of their supporters and rendering it almost impossible for the average elector to thread the maze of conflicting policies. (Labor Call, April 30, 1931)

Lang’s plan adopted

In the end it was the simple, yet economically naive, plan of Lang that was to be taken up by the Labor movement. At the core of Lang’s proposals were the reduction of interest on government borrowings and the abolition of the gold standard. The essence of Theodore’s plan was “the creation of additional bank credit, concurrently with reductions in government expenditure, and a reduction of costs in industry. (Cited in L.J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression, p 91)

The attempt by Labor to cope with the 1930s depression produced many strange theories of international monetary plots. More often than not the theories of “money power” ascribed the world’s ills to the “nefarious operations” and “selfish incompetence of financiers”.(Cited in L.J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression, p 91) Not only did such beliefs conjure up conspiratorial ideas on the functioning of capitalist society, they also facilitated the rise of a new wave of economic nationalism. Once more high tariff rates and protection became the cornerstone of the ideology and politics of the Labor leadership. But this time, the faith of Labor caucus in its national role was virtually ignored by the thousands of unemployed and starving unionists who now sought the apparently more radical solutions of the Lang Labor Party.

6. Lang and the 1930s

J.T. Lang is unique in the rather tepid and uninspiring history of the Australian working-class movement, and indeed, in Australian politics. For three vital years (1930-33) Lang held the most powerful industrial and political combination of Labor forces in the palm of his hand. Within his own stronghold of NSW, Lang dominated Labor politics for the entire 1930s. It was not until 1939 that he was successfully removed from the leadership of the NSW Labor Party, or “Lang Labor Party” as it was known. Apart from this unparalleled political strength, Lang was possessed of a strong character and even a (somewhat limited) dosage of charismatic leadership.

In part, this charisma has been mythologized over the years by Lang’s estrangement from the official Labor movement and also reinforced in his own writings since the depression. The three major works Why I Fight, The Turbulent Years and The Great Bust, offer no special historical insights, although sections of each can be valuable, and generally serve the doubtful purpose of clouding and mystifying the actual role played by Lang. These books, as Lang himself later admitted, were and still remain, valuable tools in concretising his figure as some sort of legend, albeit a minor one.

Lang and the depression

No matter how large the person of Lang emerges in this period, it should be stressed that it is not Lang himself but the social forces on which he drew for support that are significant. The real actors in this scene are the militant rank-and-file ALP activists, the organisers of the unemployed and, of course, the workers and unemployed themselves. At the height of his power Lang could have led the NSW working class in any direction he chose.

In the final analysis it was the path to parliamentary solutions, not revolutionary conclusions that Lang decided upon. Behind the rhetoric of “financial imperialism” and “foreign masters” lay a new sort of revolution which “has come — is being fought, and will continue a little into the future. It has come without our streets being barricaded, without the accompaniment of fire-arms, but in the way the Labor movement has always said it would come, by Act of Parliament.” (Sydney Morning Herald, October 5, 1931) The promise of socialism through “act of parliament” was used time and time again by Lang to pacify and redirect workers at his meetings who were calling to be armed.

It was in this sense that Lang was more valuable to the conservative powers than their hysterical attacks on him were willing to acknowledge. For three years he consciously pushed back and rechanneled the fundamentally revolutionary demands of the mass of workers by a skilful combination of demagogic populism and caution. Lang threw up a veritable smokescreen of non-issues to divert the dynamics of the workers’ movement. As Robert Cooksey has illustrated in his study, Lang and Socialism, he could “cancelise the motions of his audience”. Lang’s populism has been best preserved in part of a speech that he gave to the opening session of the 1931 Easter Conference of the NSW branch of the ALP.

“The Labor movement in this state requires more solidarity than ever before. We must press on our (socialist) objective and do it quickly. You must get out among the people; you must point out to them the benefit of socialisation, you must make them ready to receive it.” (April 3, 1931, cited in Cooksey, Lang and Socialism) All the strength of the Labor premier’s rhetoric appeared as a favourable contrast to the time-serving vacillation of the Federal Labor government under Scullin. Sitting in the audience at the 1931 Easter conference were men and women who took Lang’s invitation to socialisation seriously, and who proceeded to organise themselves along the lines of “socialisation units”. The growth of these units within the Labor Party was so rapid and their influence so far-reaching that ultimately they struck at the basis of Lang’s power.

Socialisation Units

In its original form, the movement for unconditional nationalisation of all basic industries was to be a limited propaganda campaign. The aim of this campaign was simply “to propagate the objective of the Labor Party, ie the Socialization of Industry” (Labor Daily, May 6, 1930). One of the basic functions of the directing committee was that it was a weapon against Theodore, who had once loomed as a rival to Lang in NSW. The educative role of the committee boosted its more overt political aim of frightening the federal Labor caucus.

While the Socialisation Units were firmly in the grip of the Lang machine, the concept of socialism was a conveniently far-off objective, although just close enough to worry Scullin. However, for thousands of rank-and-file of the party, the units were seen as serious organisations fighting for an immediate objective.

The emergence of the Socialisation Units in 1931 as potential tools of mass struggle was a clear challenge to Lang’s control. Their growth outside the context of the Lang machine illustrated the willingness of Labor supporters to rally around an alternative, anti-capitalist leadership within the party itself.

Lang’s reputation as a radical, partly derived from his initial sponsoring of the units, was not justified by his subsequent rejection of them. By mid-1931, units had been formed in most urban and semi-urban party branches, each group a potential opposition to Lang’s leadership. The salient weakness of the units’ organisation was their failure to establish stronger union links, particularly at the factory level. Had the units been seriously organised in the trade union movement, the outcome of the struggle against Lang may have been different.

The units and the Communist Party

In line with the general ultraleftist turn taken by the Stalinised Comintern in 1929 (known as the Third Period), the CPA had altered its moderately sectarian appraisal of the ALP to one of extreme hostility. Local Communists denounced the Labor Party as “social fascist” and exhorted the workers to create their own “independent” organisations. This turn away from the mass working class party left the CPA stranded at the most crucial time. Instead of working within the ALP, they stood outside and were largely ignored.

The CPA’s denunciation of federal Labor as being “social fascist” was matched only by its characterisation of Lang and the Socialisation Units as “left social fascist”. According to the twisted logic of the Communist Party, the left social fascism of Lang and the units was even worse than the unadulterated social fascism of Scullin.

To the CPA, Lang was a cunning master of deception, whose trickery of the workers was only exceeded by that of the Socialisation Units themselves. The failure to separate the units from Lang cost the CPA thousands of potential recruits. This was despite the fact that certain central leaders of the units, notably Tom Payne, were quite sympathetic to the CPA. (Payne eventually joined the CPA. The other key leaders were McNamara and Kilburn, both active in and around socialist groupings for some years. Donald Grant, another unit leader, was one of the famous IWW 12.)

Throughout the depression, the Communist Party’s principal influence had been in the Unemployed Workers Movement, and its offshoot, the Workers Defence Corps, which offered physical resistance to evictions and the withdrawal of essential services for debt.

In some cases desperate fighting took place between the anti-eviction committees and police. (Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 1931, cited in Turner and Louis, The Depression of the 1930s, p 116) Nonetheless, the sensationalism of these actions was no substitute for the mass work that was required to lead significant sections of the workforce away from the dead-end of Langism. Unbeknown to the Communist Party, the Socialisation Units were the organs through which such an alternative could have been posed.

The demise of the units

For two years the Socialisation Units formed the strongest left formation that has ever existed within the ALP. Whereas in the past socialist groupings had skirted the fringes of the Labor Party, usually devoid of any impact, the units constituted an effective socialist left.

The main reason behind their success lay in the depression and the crisis of Australian capitalism. In such a period, the way became open for an alternative to the reformist solutions of traditional leadership. When one in every three unionists in NSW was unemployed, the units were seen by workers as a way out of the “chaotic miseries capitalism had forced them into”. (Labor Daily, July 24, 1931)

Despite their mass organisation, the units failed, partly through a lack of programmatic clarity and partly because of their weakness within the unions. The units were eventually severed from the Labor Party at the 1933 Easter conferences. Lang had reacted violently to their action-orientated program, but it was only when they posed a real threat to his machine that he cut them off. After the dissolution of the local units, some members joined the Communist Party, others remained inside the ALP, most returned to grey mass of political apathy from which only the great depression and the Socialisation Units had drawn them.

The fall of the Lang government

The short-lived influence of the Socialisation Units corresponded to a general political upheaval in NSW during 1930-33. In 1930, Lang won his second term of office as Premier of NSW, after a short, unspectacular period of government from 1925-27. His first term as premier had produced some indication of his radicalism through a number of reforms in the interests of unions, and new social services. It was in this period that Lang built up a considerable following in the official union leadership, enough even, to defeat an attempt to remove him from the position of parliamentary leader. Later, many unionists came to regret this support, when they found it impossible to dislodge Lang from the NSW executive.

There was none of Lang’s aggressive reformism in his policy speech for the 1930 general elections. It was in fact a surprisingly conservative effort. The elections were held on October 25, and Labor was returned with 55 of the 90 seats, obtaining 55 per cent of the total vote. The result was a personal victory for Lang against the diminishing fortunes of the federal Labor government.

At the conference of Commonwealth and state leaders, held in Canberra in February 1931, Lang unsuccessfully moved that the Australian governments “pay no further interest to British bondholders until Britain had dealt with the Australian overseas debts in the same manner as she settled her own foreign debt with America”. (Shann and Copland, The Battle of the Plans) Lang’s proposal was opposed by Commonwealth treasurer Theodore, whereupon the NSW premier introduced legislation to reduce interest payable within NSW to 3 per cent, and then on April 1, 1931, defaulted on payments to British bondholders. Theodore retaliated by withholding Commonwealth finances to NSW and sued the government of NSW for refusing to pay the bondholders.

After the defeat of the Scullin government, the dispute continued with the new Commonwealth ministry under Lyons. By a process of retaliation and counter-retaliation the conflict between NSW and the Commonwealth came to a head. Finally the Commonwealth pressured the governor of NSW not to sign one of Lang’s more radical financial policies, which provided for the state to acquire unpaid mortgages, as well as directing civil servants not to collect Commonwealth revenue.

When Lang refused to withdraw this piece of legislation, he was asked to resign, but he declined. The governor’s response to this refusal was to dismiss Lang, and Lang quickly withdrew, obviously frightened at the revolutionary forces he had unleashed. In the absence of an alternative leadership to Lang, the massive class movement he had set in motion floundered and was left without direction.

In his memoirs Lang rather belatedly claims he had considered extraparliamentary action. However, he goes on to say: “I was not willing to risk the creation of a situation resulting in bloodshed, particularly as the Commonwealth would have its forces fully armed and our supporters would largely be the unemployed, without weapons of any kind.” Thus Lang has persisted with the myth that he considered a mobilisation of the working class. He is more honest when he admits that “rather than risk civil war and have bloodshed in the streets of Sydney, I decided to accept the dismissal”. (J.T. Lang, The Turbulent Years, pp 208-209)

Labor in the 1930s

It is often stated that the Great Depression did not end in 1933, but continued to the Second World War. For the majority of Australians this was true; their lives were visibly unaltered from the days of 1929-32. Unemployment remained at a steady 8-10 per cent throughout the 1930s, and productivity and output remained stagnant at a little above depression levels. Only in capital inflow and outflow was there anything like a recovery to the norm of the mid-1920s. Even so, this largely superficial recovery was exploited by the government and press as propaganda that “an end was in sight”.

But for the majority of Australians, the depression did not end until after the war. As far as the Labor party was concerned, it faced yet another decade of reconstruction and realignment after the shattering blows it had been dealt in the depression. In NSW the newly constituted Federal Labor Party fared miserably against the Lang party.

In federal parliamentary politics, Labor was outmanoeuvred by the Lyons United Austalia Party — the anti-Labor bloc of the 1930s. At the 1934 elections Scullin made little impact on the position of the Labor opposition. The instability of the ALP’s parliamentary group was compounded by the nagging presence of nine Lang supporters, led by J.A. Beasley, who functioned as the only effective Labor opposition until 1935.

In 1935 Scullin resigned from leadership of the ALP, and was replaced by John Curtin, who saw it as his task to reconstruct the Labor Party as “a popular movement, not a class movement” (Cited in H. McQueen, Glory Without Power, in Australian Capitalism, ed Playford and Kirsner).

Again the catchcry became national unity. So Curtin fought the 1937 elections on the basis of Australia’s defences, arguing more fervently than the UAP for air and sea power for Australia. This belief by Curtin and successive Labor leaders in the ALP’s destined role as a party of national unity, has always been a focal point of the ideology of official Labor.
In a working-class party so imbued with parliamentary traditions as the ALP, it was the commitment to a “national destiny” that enabled the parish pump politics of Curtin (and for that matter Lang) to function on the broader stage of Australian and international politics.

7. The Curtin government, 1941-45

Australia in 1939

World War Two was the most significant turning point in Australian economic and social history. Throughout the 1930s the Australian economy remained fundamentally linked to the British economy through markets, equipment imports and capital flow. But by 1945, due to a series of military and political circumstances, plus the virtual break-up of the British economy in the war, the way had been paved for the United States to enter as the dominant foreign power.

Describing this change one observer has noted: “In the long period from the 1890s to the Second World War, the economic performance of Australian capitalism had been erratic and spotty … The understanding of capitalism held by Australian socialists was identified with unemployment, widespread poverty and the failure to meet even the most elementary needs of the masses.” (K. Rowley, The Political Economy of Australia Since the War, in Australian Capitalism, ed Playford and Kirsner)

The basic groundwork for the stability and growth of the economy since the war was laid in the years 1941-45 by the Labor government of John Curtin. To understand Labor’s role in the strengthening of Australian capitalism during the war years it is helpful to outline the main features of the economy on the eve of the war.

In 1939 Australia’s economy was still largely dependent for its export income on primary production. Even so, this sector was handicapped by drought over much of northern and central Australia’s wool-growing areas, and by a growing glut in the world wheat market. Mining, after the gold boom of the early 1930s, was tending to level out. The promise of building up an overseas trade in iron ore was thwarted in 1938 by a federal embargo on its export.

Manufacturing, although still protected by high tariffs, contributed only a modest share to the gross income. Unemployment, although much lower than at the worst of the depression, still stood at 8-9 per cent in 1938-39. And in parliamentary politics, the colourless leadership of the ruling United Australia Party (UAP) passed from J.A. Lyons to R.G. Menzies.

Labor 1937-39

The Australian Labor Party emerged from the sustained depression of the 1930s, badly battered, disunited and incapable of asserting its traditional political hegemony over the working-class movement. This weakness was reflected by the federal party’s poor performance throughout the latter half of the 1930s, when it remained in opposition to the relatively stable anti-Labor bloc under Lyons.

Despite a shaky unity on the federal level, political Labor suffered from the continued existence of spilt-off groups in South Australia and in New South Wales. In South Australia a left-wing formation opposed federal leader Curtin’s attitude towards defence in the form of “collective security”, thus necessitating the adoption of multiple Labor endorsements in disputed electorates. (G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, ed Playford and Kirsner, p 265) The New South Wales position was far more complex.

By 1937 J.T. Lang and his followers were recognised by the federal party as the legal executive, but their position was challenged by a progressive left group, the Industrial Labor Party, which included, many sympathisers of the old socialisation units, as well as members of the Communist Party. The factional situation inside NSW Labor was exacerbated by the appearance of J.A. Beasley’s Non-Communist Labor Party. This latter group was comprised largely of remnants of the moderates who had been faithful to Scullin in 1931 and who were now embittered by the federal executive’s decision to recognise the Lang faction. (See L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, chapter VII)

Curtin, aware of the delicate balance of forces over which he presided, took to the centre. As Dr J.F. Cairns (minister for overseas trade in the Whitlam government) expressed it: “Curtin was able to find sufficient important issues on which left and right agreed. Curtin left the impression that the other important issues would, if this were done, soon find their place on the agenda”. (J.F. Cairns in the foreword to Irene Downing’s Curtin of Australia, p vii)

One issue that Curtin could not avoid by his policy of attempted reconciliation between right and left was international affairs. In place of conflicting policies over domestic management that had divided the radicalism of Lang from the conservatism of Scullin, Labor now faced alternative foreign policies of isolationism and involvement.

Curtin maintained that a strong air and naval force could make Australia the “policeman of the Pacific”. By contrast, the traditional Labor left advocated a strongly neutralist posture.

An indication of the potential schisms that could have erupted over international events in the late 1930s was the conflict inside the party over the Spanish Civil War. Curtin confided that he was quite prepared to openly support a Republican Spanish government, but the intensity of feeling among the left wing and the Catholic right “all pointed to one moral: that unity depended on avoiding the issue of the Spanish Civil War”. (E. Andrews, Australian Labor and Foreign Policy, 1935-39, in Labor History, No 9, p 27)

One word on Spain, Curtin admitted, would split Labor from top to bottom.

The Communist Party and political instability 1939-41

Australia’s neocolonial ties with Britain were still firm enough for Menzies to announce on the day following Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany that Australia was also at war. The first two years of the conflict were highly unstable ones in Australian politics. With the UAP rapidly destroying itself, the parliament went through four successive ministries formed either by Menzies or the Country Party leader A.W. Fadden. Finally, the UAP coalition crumbled in October 1941 and the first Labor government for nearly 10 years took office.

One of Menzies’ first tasks after the declaration of war had been to move against the extra-parliamentary working-class organisations. An atmosphere of anti-communist, “fifth columnist” hysteria was created, using the Stalin-Hitler pact as a pretext for banning the Communist Party. The ban, imposed by the first Menzies government in June 1940, was not lifted until December 1942, 15 months after the Curtin Labor government had come to power.

From the outset, the attitude of the Communist Party, despite the confusion sown by the non-aggression pact, had been that the war was an imperialist struggle in which Australian workers should take no part. In an interview, the secretary of the CPA (J.B. Miles) was quoted as saying that not one member of the party who enlisted for active service “will lift his rifle against Russian troops, since he will refuse to fight and will try to help the Russians.” (Cited in The State Papers, Australia Outlaws the Communist Party, The Age, November 1, 1972)

Needless to say, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler in June 1941 wrought a drastic and far-reaching change in the party’s strategy towards the war. Where official sources had once feared communist-led strikes disrupting wartime industry, the party now took a leading role in “softening” workers for increased hours and productivity, all on behalf of a patriotic war. So great was the desire of the CPA to maintain its image as a moderate, responsible party that it even went so far as to castigate those who called for an implementation of the socialist objective.

In doing so, it implicitly supported Curtin’s reassurance to Australian big business that there would be no expropriation of companies profiting from wartime production. With this capitulation to national chauvinism, plus the widespread popular support for the beleaguered Soviet Union, it is not surprising that membership of the Communist Party sprang from 5000 in 1940 to an all-time high of 23,000 in 1943-44.

Labor, unions, and the war

From the outbreak of war in September 1939 until the resignation of the Menzies government in August 1941, there had been 835 industrial disputes, an average of eight a week. In the five and a half weeks of the Fadden ministry this figure increased to 14 a week. The subsequent decline of strikes under Curtin is a measure of the ability of Labor governments to use their mass working-class support in the quest for increased productivity. By the seventh week of the Curtin administration all disputes had been “settled”, thanks to the soothing influence of Curtin’s more radical ministers.

Labor historian Brian Fitzpatrick wrote: “Only Labor could have engineered such novelties of manpower control. Even within the parliamentary ranks of Labor itself, it is doubtful whether militant workers would have accepted manpower administration and restriction of consumer supplies from any others than Mr Ward and Mr Dedman, the Curtin Cabinet’s two socialists.” (B. Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, p 248)

The methods used to cut back or at least neutralise industrial stoppages often involved close collaboration with Communist union officials. The job of the Communists was to act as a go-between for the government and the rank-and-file in those unions where they had influence. When this process broke dawn (as it did before 1942) Labor ministers intervened directly in strikes. One of the most important struggles of the war occurred soon after the Curtin government came to power. Four thousand workers went on strike at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory, which at that time was producing rifles for the AIF. The strike began with members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who refused to work with members of the more exclusive Australasian Society of Engineers.

When the dispute snowballed into a genera1 stoppage at the plant, federal minister for labour E.J. Ward tried in vain for two weeks to get a return to work. Despite some government concessions, the strike was a notable example of the way Labor was able to use its mass support to curtail working class militancy.

Thus, for the duration of the war, business and financial interests gave a great measure of support to the Curtin government, realising that only a Labor government could impose the necessary control on workers, including wage controls.

Labor’s new role

The 1943 general elections were conducted under the threat of a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland. The elections were remarkable for the attempts by Labor leaders to disown or downgrade the position of trade unionists in the party. Prime Minister Curtin conducted his campaign amidst reassurances that Labor would give “ample scope” to private enterprise in the post-war years and not attempt more than was necessary to restore industry, provide full employment, full production and full consumption.

During the 1943 campaign, Dr H.V. Evatt attorney general and external affairs minister, declared that Labor “could not govern as a trade union party”. Evatt claimed that Curtin had succeeded because he had refused to govern in the interest of any group or class. Labor’s task was to guard the interests of the “great middle groups”. It was only along these lines that the Labor movement could claim a right to govern the country, said Evatt. (See W.J. Waters, Labor, Socialism and World War II, in Labor History, No 16, p 14)

All possibilities of socialisation, even in wartime, were ruled out. Curtin pledged: “No question of socialisation or any other fundamental alteration in the economic system arises.” (Cited, W.J. Waters, Labor, Socialism and World War II, in Labor History, No 16, p 15)

Not all Labor ministers agreed with Curtin’s flat denial of socialisation. E.J. Ward clearly disliked Evatt’s reference to the party consciously drawing on middle-class sources of electoral support, and caused considerable embarrassment with his statement that “the workers would feel secure in the peace under socialism”. During the 1944 14-powers referendum campaign (designed to centralise all employment, housing and health facilities), Ward was again prominent as an advocate of nationalisation of industry. “What was wrong with nationalisation if the people wanted it,” asked Ward, “They had returned a Labor government knowing its policy, so why should it be shackled and prevented from giving effect to that policy?”

The result of the 1943 elections was a landslide to Labor, which won outright majorities in both houses. In the Representatives, the ALP won 49 seats out of a total of 74. The Senate figures showed an Australia-wide swing to Labor. This was also reflected in the sharply reduced majorities for sitting UAP and Country Party members in safe lower house seats. Leaders such as Evatt were careful to point out that Labor’s great win was due to cultivation of the middle-class vote. The 1943 elections brought the growth in influence of the new Laborites, such as Evatt, in contradistinction to the old-style “fundamentalist” approach of Ward. Evatt was a prototype of the Labor technocrat.

While Evatt is gone, his “revisionism” later became the hallmark of Gough Whitlam’s federal ministry (1972-75) and Don Dunstan’s leadership in South Australia (1970-79).

The turn to America

In late 1941, at the height of Japanese military successes in the Pacific, Curtin made the following dramatic announcement, which was to change the whole orientation of Australia’s foreign policy and ultimately to determine the shape of its, post-war history: “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship to the United Kingdom. (Irene Downing, Curtin of Australia, pp 109-110)

Summed up, Australia’s external policy was designed to commit the US as a keystone of a Pacific strategy. The immediate tasks of Curtin’s strategy were to stave off a Japanese invasion, but it was In the long term that his plan was more important for Australia’s post-war role in South-East Asia. Curtin’s appeal was to tie Australia militarily and politically to the United States’ expansionist aims in that region. The Labor government, unlike the UAP, recognised that the war was rapidly destroying the old colonial system in Asia and that attempts to reimpose it were foolhardy.

Curtin saw Australia’s role in this process as that of a major Pacific power, certainly not as a subsidiary to the US. But in the post-war carve-up of Asia among the big powers, Australia was not to be included, except for retaining its colonial hold in New Guinea.

Industrial and military conscription

The issue of compulsory service, whether in industry or the AIF, really arose out of the redirection of Australia’s foreign policy. Curtin, who had been an ardent anti-conscriptionist in the First World War, became convinced that a form of military conscription was needed to carry on Australia’s war aims in the Pacific. The Prime Minister attempted to close the issue at a special conference of the ALP in Melbourne.

Instead, he found that rank-and-file opinion was more concerned about the implementation of socialisation of industry and nationalisation of banking. His moves foiled by conference, Curtin appealed to cabinet, and met strong opposition from at least four ministers. Unlike the mass anti-conscription campaigns led by the ALP in 1916-17, the l942 affair was confined to the upper ranks of the party. Eventually, Curtin was able to secure overseas drafting through the ALP federal conference, and in early 1943 the first conscripts departed for service outside Australian territory.

The campaign for industrial conscription was less successful. This proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of Australians in the 14 powers referendum in 1944. This was not before Labor had tried all other means to authorise the full direction of labour power. Industrial conscription was one area in which not even the ALP could use its influence on working-class opinion to obtain such wide-ranging powers of compulsion.

In spite of these setbacks to its plans, the Curtin ministry was instrumental in effecting a complete transformation in the function and efficiency of government departments and the public service. Under pressure of war it had laid the administrative basis for the continued expansion of private enterprise after the war. When John Curtin died a few days before the signing of the treaty to end the European conflict, many of these changes lay incomplete. It was left to his successor, J.B. Chifley, to implement the remainder of these reforms.

8. The Chifley government, 1945-49

1945-46 were years of triumph for Social Democracy in the West. Labor governments were elected to power in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The two years immediately following the war were probably the period of greatest influence ever enjoyed by traditional Laborism. The former dominions of the British Empire faced the task of reorienting their economies from total wartime production to post-war growth.

In the ensuing uncertainty, the Australian Labor Party stood alone among the parliamentary parties capable of laying the basis for post-war prosperity. It was easy for Labor to point to its achievements in managing the wartime economy and shrug off the disorganisation and faction fighting of the anti-Labor groups.

War and prosperity

The Second World War was important for Australian capitalism because it served to stabilise a youthful, still emerging economy. Basic industries that had been struggling to establish themselves since the 1920s finally found in conditions of wartime production the assured markets, the disciplined workforce and ready finance they needed.

The role of the Curtin government in the war was to systematically intervene in industry help overcome the various obstacles that had been thrown up in the way of private production programs.

Much of the strategy for this intervention had come through the Treasury under Chifley, and it was only natural that Chifley should extend the various stabilisation plans he had introduced during 1942-45 into his own government. Chifley met the special demands of post-war industrial development with assurances of larger markets, increased labour productivity and availability (through mass immigration), and assisted wherever possible to expand production along already existing lines, as well as developing new ones. (S.J. Butlin, War Economy, 1939-42)

The rapid expansion of industries such as chemicals and explosives, rubber and metal-working, arms and munitions could not have occurred without establishing full employment and limiting consumer spending by strict rationing.

The outcome of these measures in the post-war period was a high level of demand for both consumer and capital goods, which was sustained by a program of large-scale public works and government spending. Given the high level of demand and investment throughout the economy in the years immediately after the war, commercial production in previously stagnated areas (such as motor vehicles and electrical consumer goods) became a viable proposition.

None of the above measures could in any way be conceived of as attacks on capitalism. Indeed, the Chifley government was proud of its record in stabilising Australian society after the war. Labor could point to the disintegration of Europe between 1945-47, the crisis in Britain and, more potently the coming disorder in China, as evidence as to why Australia should stay clear of the civil entanglements of the “old world”.

Chifley’s foreign policy

Basically, the aim of Labor’s foreign policy between 1945-49 was to get what it saw as Australia’s fair share of the post-war carve-up of Asia among the imperialist powers. Evatt proclaimed that the test of war had transformed Australia into “a great nation”, a nation of “destiny” in the Pacific. “We cannot escape such a destiny,” he announced, “we can only try and be worthy of it.” (H.V. Evatt, Foreign Policy of Australia, pp 131-133)

Australia’s hopes as an industrial power rested on its access to Asian markets, concluded Evatt. At the 1946 British Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference, held in London, Chifley was anxious to allay British fears of a “desertion” of Australia to the American camp. Despite Australia’ new liaison with the US, it “would not go around the world begging from people”. (Cited in L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p 282)

For Chifley, Australia was still a part of British civilisation and therefore bound up in the future of the British Empire. Turning to the Pacific, Chifley noted that Australia’s own future security depended upon the alignment of big powers in the Pacific. However, with the development of government factories and the fostering of commercial industries, “Australia is seeking to provide the widest possible base for a supply structure for the needs of the Empire in the Pacific.” (Cited in L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p 283) In the Prime Minister’s own words, Australia was to be the “supply base” for imperialism in the South-East Asian region.

As to military responsibilities in Asia, Chifley’s strategy became identified with the interventionist methods of the United Nations. During the Korean War, Labor did not demand the withdrawal of allied troops from Korea. Instead, it avoided the situation, calling on the United Nations to exercise its powers in the area. In this respect, Labor’s role in Korea was merely to follow the lead of the conservative parties.

Bank nationalisation

Foreign affairs did not occupy a central place in Australian politics between 1945-49. To be sure, the events in Europe and the civil war in China attracted a constant interest, but this tended to form a backdrop to more decisive internal issues. Thus the 1949 federal elections were fought over the issue of nationalisation, with the Communist victories in China looming behind. In the words of one conservative politician: “The lights have gone out on the Yangtze River … here (in Australia) they begin to dim.” (Sir Wilfred Kent-Hughes, VPD, 1949)

There can be no doubt that the most significant campaign of the Chifley government was its effort to nationalise the banking system. The subject of bank nationalisation was a recurrent one during its entire term of office, and eventually contributed to the Chifley’s downfall. It involved the most systematic and expensive campaign by the banks to convince Australians that nationalisation of the banks was the first step towards totalitarian rule.

Of course, Chifley meant no such thing. If the private banks had settled down and worked harmoniously within the existing financial structure, Chifley would have never moved against them. The government moved with amazing speed to announce that it did not have the power to nationalise anything else. Indeed, it was with a sigh of relief that Labor found it did not have the constitutional power to even take over banking. Chifley was careful to explain that any talk of the government nationalising other industries was “sheer nonsense”.

At the same time, it came as no surprise that Labor should want to nationalise banking. “Money power” was a constant them of ALP propaganda, particularly under Scullin. Nationalisation of banking and insurance had been part of Labor’s fighting platform since 1921.

Since the end of the war, the trading banks had been pressing the government for a relaxation of wartime controls. Under national security regulations the wartime surplus funds of the banks had been held by the Commonwealth Bank, which was to see that trading bank profits were stabilised during the war at reasonable levels. No indication was given by Chifley that these measures would be lifted after the war. The private banks made it quite clear towards the end of 1945 that they were prepared to submit to these controls for the time being, while finance readjusted itself.

Thus the 1946 federal elections were not fought around the question of nationalisation. In fact, banking did not even make an appearance as a contentious issue. The result of the election was to return the Chifley government with six fewer seats, but with still a comfortable majority in both houses. Nonetheless the election gave Chifley the opportunity to go ahead with his plans to control the banks.

The provocation for Chifley’s attack came from the Melbourne City Council, which had gone to the High Court challenging vital sections of the 1945 Banking Acts. The Court, naturally enough, had ruled in favour of the council, thus nullifying the effect of the 1945 acts. It was on these grounds that Labor decided for nationalisation.

The reaction of Chifley’s cabinet to the decision was described as “stunned shock” and “unanimous approval”. Certainly there was no section of the official Labor movement at variance with the decision. This support did not stem from any intrinsic ascendancy that Chifley may have enjoyed over the party, but from a fulfilment of the aspirations of the majority of Labor’s supporters.

Labor had been divided on many matters before, but nationalisation of banking was a plank of party program to which all members had pledged their allegiance. Again, it should be emphasised that Chifley’s decision was not intended to be the beginning of “socialism in our time”. For federal Labor caucus nationalisation was a tactic forced down their throats by uncompromising financiers. The government was soon inundated with representations from various trade unions demanding the nationalisation of their respective industries. To these deputations Chifley replied: “the Commonwealth has no power under the Constitution to nationalise those industries, even if the Government wished to do so”. (Chifley, November 12, 1947, in McQueen, Glory Without Power, in Australian Capitalism, ed Playford and Kirsner, p 363)

In response to the government’s announcements the banks and their allies in the world of big business launched a massive propaganda campaign to arouse the public to the “dangers of an extreme socialistic trend in the affairs of the country”. (Cited in A.L. May, The Battle for the Banks, p 18) By and large this campaign was successful. The ALP made no really serious attempt to launch a counter to the banks’ campaign. There were limited initiatives on a state level, depending upon the enthusiasm of the state branch in question. The responsibility for the defeat for the proposed legislation must rest squarely on the shoulders of the federal ALP.

Except for certain cabinet ministers such as Ward, little leadership was given to ALP rank and file in a national campaign to secure the takeovers. By contrast, financial interests had assembled a wide array of political support for their aims.

An interesting sideline to the bankers’ campaign in Victoria was the vigorous support of the extreme right-wing League of Rights. Overall, the campaign was decisive in persuading lower middle-class groups to turn away from the ALP at the 1949 elections. Their alienation from Labor in 1949 provided the electoral basis for the prolonged existence of the Menzies conservative government.

The strike wave: 1947-49

As Chifley’s biographer, L.F. Crisp, has noted, sections of the press in their franker moments had to admit that “under his careful handling of its finances the country was flourishing as rarely, if ever, before”. (L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p321) On the eve of the l949 elections the press also had cause to be satisfied with Chifley’s record of strike-breaking. During his term of office Chifley had succeeded in creating something of a record for a Labor Prime Minister by smashing prolonged strikes with the help of the army.

To understand the background of union militancy in this period we have to examine the relative weight of the Communist Party in the trade union movement. In 1945 the Communist Party of Australia occupied a position of power and influence unique among Communist parties in the advanced capitalist countries. So much so that its influence threatened the very hegemony of the Labor Party itself in union affairs. Following its “patriotic” line in the Second World War the CPA launched into a new adventurist phase.

A series of political strikes after 1947 had given some substance to the suggestion that the Labor Party was too compromised with the Communist Party to deal with it firmly. It was not surprising, then, to find the federal government and several of the state governments used their legal powers to curb Communist activities in the late 1940s.

In 1949 Chifley introduced important amendments to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act and passed the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act. The latter act, in particular, gave the state unusually strong powers to deal with the 1949 coal strike. In addition, the federal government established the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in March 1949. ASIO’s main object was to check on the CPA’s activities.

Chifley also made use of legislation passed by previous non-Labor administrations to deal with left-wing activities. Under the Crimes Act, three leading Communists, including general secretary Lance Sharkey, were prosecuted on charges relating to the defence of the Soviet Union. The Labor machine also took organisational measures against suspected Communists in the late 1940s and expelled a number of individuals identified with the left of the Labor Party.
Until late 1947 the strikes in communist-led unions were remarkably successful. Most had their origins among a rank-and-file eager to lift wages, which had been pegged during the war and were now depreciating in a steep inflationary wave.

By 1947 the Communists were on the defensive within the trade union movement, largely as a result of the adventurist strategies adopted. Attempts to politicise industrial strikes and to force certain militant unions to break off their affiliation with the ALP produced disastrous results.

The Queensland railway strike in 1948 was seen by the state Labor government as a direct challenge to its power. Thus it introduced drastic strike-breaking regulations, whose provisions were so far-reaching that they were condemned by many traditional unionists. These measures, coupled with the effect of differences that arose as the strike wore on, ensured its defeat, although a few minor wage gains were made. The strike failed basically because of the Labor government’s repressive policies and the fact that non-militant unions could not be drawn into the dispute.

The 1949 coal strike

An even more revealing case of a Labor government’s willingness to resort to extreme strike-breaking measures was the 1949 coal strike. The strike, which arose out of miners’ claims for increased wages, better conditions and a 35-hour week, was supported by a majority of miners. It was opposed not only by the federal and NSW governments but also by the ACTU, the press and radio, and, of course, by the non-Labor parties. The federal government introduced the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act , which froze the funds of the Miners’ Federation and other unions that had offered financial assistance.

Seven Communist and two ALP union officials were fined under the act and received lengthy terms of imprisonment. Communist Party headquarters in Sydney were also raided at the same time. Finally, the federal government sent in the army to work the open-cut coalfields in NSW. The miners, finding themselves isolated from the rest of the union movement, also found that traditionalist and right-wing unions opposed the strike because of the unemployment it had created.

With opinion swinging against them, even within the federation itself, the leadership tried to prevent the holding of a ballot on a proposal to return to work. When the ballot was finally held, the miners voted overwhelmingly in favour of ending the dispute. Almost all the demands for which they had struck were subsequently rejected by the Coal Industry Tribunal. The greatest error was the undue prolongation of the dispute, which only succeeded in exhausting the unity and organisation of the workers. (See J.D. Playford, The Communist Party of Australia, 1945-62, PhD thesis, ANU, 1962, pp 95-97)

It is important to chronicle these events. So much folklore surrounds the so-called “golden years” of the Chifley government that its vicious attacks on militant unions and civil liberties have been forgotten, or worse, blanketed by the apologists of Chifley, who remains a revered figure in the Labor Party today. It is no accident that at the close of his last campaign meeting in Melbourne in 1972, Gough Whitlam drew thunderous and emotive applause when he spoke of the “magnificent achievements of my predecessor, Ben Chifley”. It is as vital a task for socialists today to dispell illusions in the Chifley government as it is for them to unmask the pretensions of the inheritors of that government: Whitlam, Frank Crean and company.

9. The 1954 split

Up to the mid-1950s there had been two major internal crises in the Australian Labor Party, leading to splits. The first of these involved the exodus of the Hughes pro-conscriptionist group from the federal caucus in 1916-17. The second important breakaway occurred during the depression of 1929-33 and resulted in the expulsion of Lang from the party. Concurrent with the struggle against Lang was a less significant exit from Labor politics, centring around the person of J.A. Lyons. While these splits were politically disastrous for the ALP, their effect tended to be short-lived.

The party had recovered from the Hughes split by 1929 and was able to win office. Lang’s influence lingered for the remainder of the 1930s, but its main impact was an organisational decimation of the party, especially in NSW. By contrast, the results of the 1954-55 crisis were to render Labor politically and organisationally bankrupt for nearly a decade and a half.
The impact of this most recent schism had been exacerbated by the fact that it occurred on top of Labor’s most successful and extended period of parliamentary office at either state or federal level. For the Labor political machine in 1954, this was the bitterest pill to swallow. Through their post-war successes, Labor politicians had arrived at a smug belief that they were the best and only government for Australia. Most carried the idea that the Menzies era was only an interlude before they would be back again, holding the reins of power.

The opening of the Cold War

The development of anti-communism in Australia paralleled the rise of the McCarthyist witch-hunts in the United States. With the defeat of the Chifley government in 1949, politics took a sharp turn to the right. The basis for this turn was a stabilisation of Australian society in the years 1949-52.

Communist power in the unions had declined to a point where Menzies felt confident enough to turn his attack from purely rhetorical bombast to practical repression, which took several forms. One of these was the 1949 Victorian Royal Commission into Communism, held with the approval of the Cain Labor opposition in the Victorian parliament. Another was the stepped-up activities of ASIO. However, the most notorious measure used by conservative reaction in this period was the attempt to ban the Communist Party.

This outright attack on working-class rights to organise took the form of the 1951 Communist Dissolution Bill. The record of Labor’s attitude towards this measure is an interesting one. From time to time in the late 1940s, certain ALP leaders had themselves advocated a total ban on Communist activities. The actual proposal to legislate against the Communist Party originated in the Country Party during the period of the post-war strikes and was taken up by Menzies as a sop to his political minor partner during the 1949 election campaign.

Labor and the Communist Party

Labor’s caucus quickly split into three groups in its attitude to the bill. Much of the left and centre, led by Chifley, strongly opposed the bill and wanted Labor’s Senate majority to block it. The second main grouping was the right of the caucus, much of the industrial right and the right in the state parliamentary parties. The attitude of this group was opposition to the bill on the grounds that it would not work.

In neither group was there a strong argument for defending the democratic rights of radicals. Even on the Labor left it was felt that the bill was more an inexpedient way to deal with Communists than an anti-democratic measure. This did not stop some Labor parliamentarians sensing that Menzies attack on the Communist Party was an implicit attack on the rights of organisation of the whole Labor movement. But if some Labor leaders did believe this, they were very much in a minority.

A third, much smaller, grouping actually supported the bill. In caucus this group was led by the pro-Santamaria Victorians, S.M. Kean and J.M. Mullens. Outside federal caucus, this group was strongly identified with the fanatically anti-Communist Catholic Action Movement, and its magazine, News Weekly.

Following a meeting of the ALP federal executive, it was decided to support the ban in principle while moving amendments to water down the impact of the legislation. The refusal of the executive to come out against the bill was founded on the fear of a double dissolution of parliament if the issue was forced.

The federal executive position was largely shaken, however, by Evatt’s acceptance of a brief from the militant Waterside Workers Federation to challenge the passage of the act in the High Court. The verdict of the court was a victory for the unions and practically committed the ALP to oppose the repression. (F.G. Clarke, Towards a Reassessment of Dr Evatt’s Role in the 1954-55 Split, in Labor History, 1971)

A week after the High Court decision Menzies secured the 1951 double dissolution, setting up an election fought mainly on the grounds of “Communism”. Labor gained seats, but not enough for government. Within a month of the election, Chifley died, leaving Evatt as parliamentary leader.

With Labor under a new leader, the government decided to force the Communist party ban to a referendum, the only legal way left in which the powers necessary to ban the party could be obtained.

The defeat of the referendum was largely the result of Evatt’s efforts in pulling the parliamentary machine against the bill, as well as an intense and prolonged campaign undertaken by the Communist Party itself. Perhaps the most surprising element in the whole affair was the narrowness of the final majority against the ban. Barely 50.48 per cent of votes cast opposed the measure.

Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of anti-communism at the time, the verdict was a setback for the conservative repression. Apart from the conservative politicians, the core of the anti-communist crusade had been carried by a force known as The Movement, a group that exercised a disproportionate influence inside the Labor Party and the unions.

Catholic Action, The Movement and the rise of the Industrial Groups

The Catholic Church had always played an important role in the internal politics of the Australian Labor Party. This is not surprising when one considers that the overwhelming majority of the labouring classes before 1949 were of Irish Catholic extraction. Even with a rapid influx of European migrants into the working class after 1949, the core of Labor’s support could still be identified in this group. Without attempting to exaggerate sectarian forces as a factor in Labor politics, one cannot ignore the continuous dialogue between Protestant, agnostic and Catholic Labor supporters.

In 1954, 60 per cent of Labor politicians were Catholics. Before World War II, this influence was most commonly acknowledged in the figures of Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix and the businessman cum racketeer John Wren. The influence of Mannix persisted after the war, but this time buttressed by a more organised group under the leadership of B.A. Santamaria.

In 1937, the Australian Catholic hierarchy approved the establishment of a national secretariat for Catholic Action, which organised a number of associations in an attempt to counter the influence of the Communist Party, expressly within the unions. In August 1942 was held the first meeting of a secret organisation of Catholics, which later became known as The Movement.

This organisation was denominationally exclusive and organised into small activist cells, or groups, within each trade union in which it was interested. By 1945 The Movement had links in every state in Australia and received a mandate from the Catholic hierarchy to oppose militants in the trade unions. It was mainly under the influence of The Movement that the NSW branch of the ALP in 1945 and Victoria in 1946 decided to form and sponsor official anti-Communist groups within the trade union movement.

Such groups were to campaign for union office under the ALP banner. During the war, ALP Industrial Groups had been formed by militants in some unions in NSW and Victoria to counter the right-wing line of the Communist Party, which had opposed strikes and other struggles by workers during the war. After the war these groups were taken over by the right-wing Movement.

Industrial Groups were also set up in South Australia in 1947 and Queensland in 1948. The Movement quickly became the hard core of power in these organisations, and Groupers soon gained considerable strength on the various ALP state executives. The influx of The Movement into the unions was accompanied by an invasion of the party at branch level.

Just prior to the split in 1954, some ALP branches in Sydney and Melbourne were reporting 15 new members joined in one night. The policy of branch stacking had very little effect, however, as many of these members were simply names on paper.

As well, concentrations of Movement supporters made it easy for the official machine to pick off particular branches.

In union ballots, the Groupers were able to capture the Federated Clerks Union (which remained DLP for many years) the Australian Railways Union, the Building Trades, the Federated Ironworkers Association and for some time the Waterside Workers Federation. Most of these victories were short-lived, the Groupers being unable to consolidate their positions amid frequent outbursts of rank-and-file militancy.

The hysterical, obsessive anti-Communism of the Groups aroused great distrust among many sections of the industrial and political labour movements. Apart from Communist Party union officials, opposition to the Groupers between 1947 and 1953 was led by sections of the ALP left, both inside and outside the unions. It is doubtful whether even this amalgam of forces could have politically defeated the Groups without the support of the more moderate wing of the Labor Party.

The success of the left in rallying the bulk of the organised workers’ movement against the influence of The Movement was due to a number of factors.

By far the most crucial reason was the error of the Groups in antagonising the middle-of-the-road elements in the unions. Not content with his attacks on members of the Communist Party, Santamaria turned his attention to even the most moderate ALP unionists. In Santamaria’s eyes, no section of the labour movement was safe until it had been purged by the Groups. Santamaria’s fatal mistake of turning against Social Democracy cost the Groupers their most esteemed prize: control of the Australian Workers Union.

The AWU had earlier aligned itself with the Groupers, but by 1954 its leadership had become alarmed at the increasing power wielded by the Grouper fraction in both industrial and political arenas. A speech made by Santamaria in 1954 and circulated inside the AWU, claiming that The Movement wielded considerable power in the Industrial Groups, delivered the conservative leadership of the AWU into the hands of Evatt.

In federal Labor caucus, many traditionalists were also disturbed by the fact that the Groupers were hostile towards the ideas of nationalisation and socialism, which, although their content had been drained away by the 1950s, were still important symbols in the labour movement.

By their vigorous stacking of union meetings, praising of United States foreign policy, open acceptance of the patronage of the Catholic Social Movement and in suggesting that the ALP needed to take a tougher line on Communists generally, the Groupers managed to alienate such traditional industrial and political leaders such as J.A. Ferguson, Clyde Cameron, A.A. Calwell, F.J. Kennelly, P.J. Clarke.

It was becoming increasingly apparent that the thrust of Grouper policy was towards the creation of a Christian democratic party on the European model. The South Australian branch of the ALP, largely on the initiative of Clyde Cameron, had disbanded the Groups as early as 1951. In the other states, the Groupers were finding they faced growing opposition.

From the Petrov affair to the 1955 elections

Early in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a member of the Russian Embassy staff in Canberra, asked for and was granted political asylum in Australia. On April 13, the government, with the approval of the opposition, pushed through a special measure under whose terms a Royal Commission on espionage was later established. Throughout the campaign for the federal elections of May 29, 1954, the shadow of these events loomed large.

Menzies himself did not refer to the affair (he hardly needed to) but many of his followers zealously took up the witch-hunt. Whether it was intentional or not, the Petrov case, especially in its timing, discredited the ALP and influenced the results of the elections.

In the event, the government was returned to power, although its majority in the House of Representatives was reduced from 15 seats to seven. The Royal Commission provided little that was new regarding Soviet intelligence operations, but its proceedings, involving Evatt, gave rise to political controversies of the first order.

Individual Communists, including several journalists, were mentioned in the Commission’s subsequent proceedings, but the person who suffered most from them was one whose name was not associated with any document: Dr. H.V. Evatt. Throughout August and September he fought a long battle to obtain permission to appear before the Commission to defend members of his staff who had been implicated in the proceedings.

Evatt’s allegations that Menzies, Petrov and ASIO had conspired to injure the ALP earned him the scorn of the Groupers and News Weekly. The immediate result of the Petrov Commission, therefore, was to heighten tensions within the Labor Party.

Evatt chose this occasion to act. On October 5 he accused two Victorian members of federal caucus, S.M. Kean and I.M. Mullens, of being disloyal to the Labor Party and of being subject to outside influences in the form of The Movement.

In the recent elections, said Evatt, “one factor told heavily against us — the attitude of a small minority group of members, located particularly in the state of Victoria, which has, since 1949 become increasingly disloyal to the Labor movement and the Labor leadership. It seems certain that the activities of this small group are largely directed from outside the Labor movement. The Melbourne News Weekly appears to act as their organ.”

Evatt was immediately supported by E.J. Ward and Senator P.J. Kennelly, by the South Australian executive and by most of the trade unions that were not under Grouper control, including the AWU. He was strongly opposed by the Victorian and New South Wales executives of the ALP, which were still under strong Grouper influence. A telling factor in drawing both of these states behind Evatt in the long run was the power and prestige of the AWU.

The formalisation of the split took place at the federal conference held in Hobart in March 1955. After the conference refused to admit the old Victorian executive, 17 of the 36 delegates appointed by the various state branches walked out of the conference in sympathy with the Groupers. It was from these disparate elements that the Democratic Labor Party was formed as the parliamentary wing of The Movement.

The epilogue to these events in the summer of 1954-55 occurred in December 1955, when Menzies sprang a snap election. The Labor Party, shattered at both federal and state levels, demoralised and dispirited, was soundly defeated, and conceded a 28-seat majority to the conservatives in the new parliament. For Evatt, the 1955 elections were a personal disaster and undermined his position of leadership against the challenge of A.A. Calwell.

10. The Calwell era

The aim of this series has not been to write an all-inclusive history of the labour movement in Australia. Our purpose has been to attempt to show the evolution of only one part of that movement: the Australian Labor Party.

In writing a history of the Labor Party, we have not concerned ourselves with the subtleties of backroom deals, the running of the party machine or clashes of personalities. Nor has this series attempted to analyse in a systematic way the crystallisation of official Labor ideology, although it has been possible for us to make some generalisations on its more obvious features.

The specific function of these articles has been to trace the origins and development of the ALP in relation to events that have shaped Australian society through the period 1880-1967. Thus we have traced the Labor Party’s response and reaction to the political mass movements of the day.

Strikes, lockouts, wars and great political upsurges have all affected the ALP to one degree or another. If we are to draw any generalisations from the study of this history, we must begin by observing the extreme vulnerability of the ALP to these historical movements.

Mass pressure reacted on the ALP and in turn the ALP responded. We have seen this response take on a multitude of forms. It is impossible to predict the exact nature of this reaction, but it is possible to forecast its political boundaries. The response of the Labor leadership to a given event has always occurred within the circumference of a clash of interests between two historical forces. The susceptibility of the ALP is therefore determined by its dual class representation.

The polarity that strains between the thoroughly bourgeois political program of a parliamentary leadership and the elemental needs of the trade union movement that forms its base represents a basic class cleavage.

The common assumption has been that the two co-exist peacefully within the same organisation. Of course this is false. Despite the fact that the creation of the Labor Party was initiated by the reformist leaders of the trade union movement, it has not always been true to their interests.

Probably the record of the Scullin and Chifley governments stands out most clearly on this point. If the ALP is vulnerable to the mass pressure of the unions, it is equally susceptible to the demands and requirements of the industrial bourgeoisie. Scullin’s subservience to both overseas and local financial interests, and the accommodation of private industry during the war by the Curtin government are two good examples. The ease with which a whole string of Labor leaders have moved to the right is another.

We have sought to emphasise the impact and effect of working-class demands and upsurges on the ALP throughout its history. But whatever is said about the dual nature of the party, the ultimate stress should be laid upon the fact that the Australian Labor Party has been, and always will be, a parliamentary party, a party deeply committed to the bogus traditions of bourgeois parliamentary rule.

Calwell and Vietnam

As an epilogue to this series, it is important that the record of the Calwell leadership be examined, especially on its performance during the early stages of the opposition to the Vietnam War.

By the time the ALP had emerged from the 1958 federal elections, still scarred from the DLP split, it was obvious that Evatt would have to stand down as a parliamentary leader. (For a full outline see K. Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice.) It was apparent that Labor was losing ground with a significant section of its traditional Catholic base and that Evatt was not doing anything to win back that support.

The man chosen as the ALP’s “final solution” to the problem of the DLP was A.A. Calwell, a former minister in the Chifley government. Not only was Calwell a Catholic (which obviously worried the DLP) but he was also an extreme right-winger. Calwell’s zealous sponsoring of the “small business man against the power of the great monopolies”, his chauvinism and racism, plus his mystical regard for the Labor Party, fitted him out in the tradition of the old-time ALP leader. His anti-communism was just as obsessive as that of News Weekly (by now the magazine of the right-wing National Civic Council), and he boasted of being the only ALP leader on friendly terms with Archbishop Daniel Mannix. (Calwell’s regard for Mannix was lifelong. In a radio interview he made great play of the fact that despite everything he and Mannix remained friends to the last, a fact that gave no comfort to the DLP.)

In further moves to the right the ALP federal conference, for the first time since 1921, reworded the socialisation objective to advocate “the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features”. (This was a compromise between the Blackburn Declaration, that only those monopolies were to be socialised that were inimical to the public interest, and the 1921 full objective.) Along with the watering down of the objective, most Labor leaders were forthright in repudiating any charges of socialist intent. Calwell said that the ALP not only could not nationalise any industry because of constitutional difficulties, but did not wish to do so even if it could.

The only discordant voice in Calwell’s caucus was E.J. Ward, who had been narrowly defeated by E.G. Whitlam for the deputy leadership in 1960. He made no apology for his advocacy of nationalisation of rural industries and went out of his way to explain the socialist objective.
But Ward had always been an aberration in the leadership of the party. His political position was to the left of the traditional caucus left. He was, in fact, closer to the contemporary Socialist Left position.

Under Calwell, foreign policy simply became ill-defined. Calwell relied on general support for the United Nations more as a way of concealing uncertainty than as a positive policy. Labor, however, reaffirmed its opposition to the use of Australian troops in the Malayan Emergency and, by implication, elsewhere in South-East Asia.

The 1961 elections

The ALP campaign, the first under Calwell’s leadership, was conducted on the tail end of Australia’s worst post-war recession. The last six months of 1960 were marked by a series of clumsy, almost disastrous, attempts by the Menzies regime to deal with a balance of payments crisis.

The only method by which the government could resolve the crisis was a short, sharp burst of inflation. It was amid rapidly rising prices and abortive efforts to control Australia’s trade balance of payments that Menzies suffered his biggest setback. In a remarkable recovery, the ALP gained 15 new seats, just one short of a deadlock. The seat in the balance, Moreton, was retained by the government after Communist Party preferences strayed from the ALP, where the CPA had directed them.

The 1961 campaign was really the first of the technocratic Labor campaigns. Throughout the early 1960s, the ALP worked hard to “modernise” its platform. As well as trade union and party officials, the policy preparation committees were changed to include outside “experts”, many of whom were university graduates.

However, the party did little to cash in on these gains, and by 1963 had relinquished most of these electoral advantages. By 1964 new forces were clearly beginning to shape Australian politics, centred on the growing United States military invasion of Vietnam. From the outset Labor was not associated with this extra-parliamentary opposition, nor even, in 1964, with parliamentary opposition.

In March 1964 Calwell told parliament: “military support is necessary in the present situation”. His first stirrings of opposition to the war were on the grounds that the longer the war continued, the weaker would the allied position become. Basically, Calwell never changed this conditional opposition. Even so, this equivocation has been lost in the subsequent mythology surrounding the ALP’s Vietnam policy.

Early opposition to Vietnam War

The genesis of the massive antiwar movement, which drew in so many ALP supporters, is really in 1960-61, with the Sydney protests against the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, and in Melbourne with the Student Action group. (See Richard Gordon and Warren Osmond, An Overview of the Australian New Left, in The Australian New Left, ed Gordon, p 3) At a certain point, in 1966 to be exact, these movements campaigned through the ALP, and the ALP was able to draw in, and largely control, the nature of opposition to the war.

After the defeat of the Calwell election campaign, and the mass disillusionment among students, the radicalisation took on a sharper, more conscious character and began to bypass the Labor Party. As the antiwar movement gathered momentum once more, around demonstrations against the Ky government of South Vietnam, the ALP was forced to take a stand.

Before 1966, opposition to the war and military conscription centred on the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC) and the Vietnam Action Committee (VAC). These organisations united women’s groups, left-wing ALP members and churches, with the traditional left. The first indication of mass student opposition to the war came with the visit of US President Lyndon B. Johnson to Australia, just prior to the 1966 elections.

An estimated 20,000 people took part in anti-LBJ protests across the country. The brutality of police charges against the demonstrators was a new experience for most students. However, by this time the antiwar movement had closed ranks behind the militant and spirited, if chauvinistic and racist, election campaign of Arthur Calwell. 1966 was the closest Labor ever came to channelling protest towards the parliamentary system throughout the history of the antiwar movement.

The massive electoral defeat suffered in late 1966, together with the embittering confrontations with police, alienated most radicalising students from the Labor Party. It was the responsibility of Dr J.F. Cairns to once again draw the protest movement “away from throwing stones and petrol bombs” towards parliament where (in Cairns’ words), “the fundamental welfare of the people is attained”. (Quoted by H. McQueen, Living off Asia, Arena, No 26, 1971)
Calwell did not survive the 1966 elections as parliamentary leader. The election of his successor, E.G. Whitlam, marked the biggest victory to that time of the technocratic Laborites over the “fundamentalists”.

Whitlam’s election as leader of the party in 1967 did not go unchallenged. Calwell, for one, did not conceal his dislike of Whitlam. The ex-leader was supported by one Labor MHR who attacked Whitlam during the 1970 Senate elections, complaining that he just wanted “graduates and academics” around him and had no time for the “fellow who had been a battler in the Labor movement”. (C.E. Griffiths, MHR, Newcastle, The Australian, November 4, 1970)

hitlam has attempted to make up for these gross deficiencies by attracting support inside the Labor Party for his image as the logical successor to Ben Chifley (the previous Labor Prime Minister). But Whitlam has another ghost: Sir Robert Menzies, whom he also emulated in office, much to the chagrin, one presumes, of A.A. Calwell.

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