Industrial Labour and Politics

by

Introduction to the 1979 edition: The dynamics of the labour movement in eastern Australia, 1900-21

Ian Turner

This book was written in 1959-63 and first published in 1965. The introduction to that first edition argued that “Labour history is history of a new kind: it introduces the concept of masses rather than elites as the moving force in the historical process. … The labour movement is the institutional method by which the masses transform themselves from passive to active elements in society, from weights to be pushed around to social levers in their own right.” My argument was that Pareto’s theory of a circulation of elites, in which succeeding elites used the masses in their drive for power and manipulated them while in power so as to advance elite interests, was not an adequate explanation of the entry of organised labour into politics. A study of the history of the labour movement suggested that labour elites were “more subject to intervention from below and even to a direct action which cuts across or negates the intentions of the leaders” than were the elites in other social institutions. Given the democratic processes of the labour movement, that conflict between leaders and rank and file resulted in a “continual tendency towards purification, towards the restoration, perhaps in new forms, of the original values.”[1]

That argument met two major criticisms: first, that the evidence suggested that the conflict between leaders and rank and file concerned immediate economic issues rather than the reconstruction of society along socialist lines; and secondly that the possibility which existed for the masses to deny their leaders did not necessarily involve the masses becoming “social levers in their own right”.[2]

The first point is well taken. My starting point was that when labour elites assumed political (that is, parliamentary) power they tended to promote “national” rather than class interests; and that when the rank and file asserted a “class” position — often in relation to immediate economic demands — they would as a consequence move towards an understanding of the need for social reconstruction. That was part of the common currency of Marxist thinking at the time when I was writing. It was true, as Lenin had said, that of itself the working class could only develop “trade union consciousness”[3] but, given the input of ideology from a revolutionary vanguard, the workers would draw the necessary political conclusions from their economic experience.

I would now modify my original position in several ways. First, as Raymond Williams says, “There are … no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses”.[4] The movement from economic demands to political consciousness is a much more complex process than I then suggested. The working class does not operate as a “mass”. The growth of political consciousness is not an incremental process; rather, the translation of economic into political demands ebbs and flows through different sections of the working class at different times and at an inconstant rate. The experience of the labour movements of various countries suggests that it is only under rare and exceptional circumstances (for example, the breakdown of the established social order during war) that a majority or the decisive sections of the working class accept the necessity of radical or revolutionary political action to achieve their objectives.

Secondly, I would now argue that it is not simply a question of labour elites “betraying” the interests of the working class in order to maintain their political power (and to advance their personal careers). That judgment measures labour leaders (both industrial and political) against ideal standards, against the desirable rather than the possible. If a labour movement chooses to operate within the system of parliamentary democracy — and most labour movements which have had that option open to them have chosen it — the question it confronts is always: how far, how fast? What program can it advance that at the same time satisfies its supporters, furthers its long-term objectives, and is capable of attracting majority electoral support? To ask that question is not to deny that there can be “betrayal” within the labour movement. It is rather to suggest that it is important for historians, as well as for contemporary activists, to distinguish between the argument about principle and the argument about tactics and timing.

Thirdly, I would now modify in some respects my earlier generalisation about the character of labour movements. In the first edition, I wrote:

The character of the movement depends on the circumstances of its formation. If, as was the case in most of Europe, the working class is formed and begins to organise in conditions of political autocracy, the tendency is for the formation of political parties, illegally if necessary, to defeat the autocracy and to create the conditions for the formation of economic organisations, trade unions, which, because of their mass character and the necessarily public nature of their activities, could not long exist in defiance of the prohibitions of the state. In these circumstances the formation of trade unions is stimulated by the political parties as legal concessions are won. From this two things follow.

First, the political party, formed for struggle against autocracy, tends to have a revolutionary ideology, although this may become mere ritual as the party operates within a bourgeois democracy which it may have itself played a major part in creating. Second, the initiative within the labour movement rests with the political wing, while the trade unions, in so far as they take on a life of their own, tend to become a conservative force within the movement, at least so long as the political party remains in opposition and its revolutionary zeal is uncompromised by political alliances or the responsibilities of government.

On the other hand, the natural first move of the working class is towards economic organisation, so that if the working class first begins to organise within conditions of an already existing bourgeois democracy, trade unions are formed before political organisations and stimulate the movement of labour into politics, at first as a pressure group and later as an independent working-class party — but one which is reformist and empirical in character, concerned with immediate legislative reform rather than revolutionary social reconstruction.

This has been the pattern in the English-speaking countries, but with important variations arising from the different circumstances of origin. In Great Britain, where the mass unions of unskilled workers were not fully developed and carried little weight in the movement while the old unions of skilled craftsmen had a traditional allegiance to Liberalism, and where there existed a relatively well-organised and widely dispersed socialist party[5] (the Independent Labour Party), it was this party which inaugurated the shift from pressure group to mass labour party, enlisting the often reluctant support of the trade unions and cutting the program of the new party to fit the traditional economic organisations. In Australia it was the new mass unions of the unskilled, influenced by socialists within their ranks, which moved for the formation of a mass working-class party; confronted with the need to win a more general support, this party too tailored its program to craft union measurements and style. … A corollary of this is that the greater the trade union influence in the formation of the party, the more limited is its program, theory, and objective: thus in Australia the party’s program and activities have been concerned almost exclusively with immediate reforms, particularly those of direct interest to the trade unions, whereas in Britain there has always been a stronger element of theory, a clearer socialist aspiration. It does not follow, however, that a union-oriented party is less militant than one with a stronger ideological orientation; on the contrary, given favourable economic circumstances, the former may well fight more vigorously for its objectives than the latter.

That still seems a reasonable generalisation, although it is too much oriented towards the positions taken by labour leaders rather than the rank and file. In many ways, the history of the Australian labour movement could be written from a perspective which proposed that the leaders (both political and industrial) were at most times in advance of the rank and file — not the militant or revolutionary minority but the mass — in terms both of immediate program and long-term perspectives for social reconstruction. Most workers do not look to radical change in their situation or in the institutions which govern their lives unless they can see no hope for amelioration in their present circumstances. It is that which limits the possibility of the “masses” becoming “social levers in their own right”, or the way in which that “lever” operates, rather than any “betrayal” by the leaders.

It is a truism to say that it is the radical minorities (in the Australian experience, most commonly operating through the industrial movement) which provide the drive for social reconstruction and in that sense are the conscience of the movement; but the realisation of their revolutionary solutions depends on their reception by the working class as a whole — and that in turn depends on how the working class perceives its situation. That raises as the central problem class consciousness — which indeed it has always been. At the heart of the Marxist debate is the question, how does the “class in itself” become a “class for itself”? How does the working class transcend immediate circumstances and sectional divisions to reach an understanding that the factor which joins in a single system the multiplicity of its discontents is the private ownership of capital and the exploitative wage relationship which flows from it?[6] Most of the critical discussion of this book has concerned that question.

In an important article, Stuart Macintyre argues that the central weakness of this book (and the books of other historians who write from a similar position) is that it isolates the working class from the system of class relationships which defines it and so confines its study to the “class in itself”. This, along with an “empiricist” methodology, leads to an “economic determinism” which suggests that working class consciousness depends on the workers’ perception of their immediate economic circumstances and that therefore the “possibility of a revolutionary intervention into the present capitalist hegemony” can only arise when exploitation and oppression reach such a peak of intensity as to force the mass of the working class to see their situation in a new and revolutionary way — in other words, that revolutions are not made by the working class but are forced on them by external circumstance.[7]

I agree with the opening point of this criticism. Although I had broken with Stalinism at the time when I wrote this book, I was still in many ways a prisoner of the mechanistic Marxism of the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties.[8] This Marxism inherited from evolutionism, or “social Darwinism”, a belief in the inevitable progress of humanity from slave society through feudalism and capitalism to socialism and finally to the classless communist society — as Terry Irving and Baiba Berzins have pointed out.[9] This was a Marxist extension of such thinking as that of Lewis Morgan, on whom Engels drew freely for his The Origin of the Family:

As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism, and still other portions in a state of civilisation, it seems equally so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress.[10]

The trigger for this progress was the fundamental contradiction between the relations of production and the forces of production, which emerged when class relations became a “fetter” on the further development of the productive forces. In many ways, it was a technological determinist position, as argued capably by V. Gordon Childe in his History (London, 1947).

The subordinate contradiction was that between social production and private appropriation, and that would be overcome when the working class took power and socialised appropriation. The assumption of the inevitability of working class victory led those who wrote from this position to reduce the problem of class relations and working class consciousness to the relationship between vanguard (party) and class, as Macintyre and R.W. Connell[11] have said.[12]

(Macintyre suggests further that “scientific empiricism” — taking an objective reality as the starting point and trying to derive from that reality the laws of social change — and “economic determinism (led) inexorably to dispirited withdrawal from the class struggle”. There is some truth in that. Our analysis led us to predict the final crisis and imminent end of capitalism, a fate which necessarily arose from its own internal contradictions — yet capitalism had proved unpredictably resilient. It had survived two world wars and the 1929-33 crisis and — despite the new communist victories in Eastern Europe and China — it seemed stronger than ever.[13] At the same time, what we learned of Soviet society from the revelations of 1956 put a large question mark over the reality of the vanguard-class relationship. Roberto Michels seemed very persuasive; the late fifties were not years for revolutionary optimism.)

Humphrey McQueen produced one answer: the mistake was to see the “working class” as a single, social formation.[14] There were really two classes within the wage and salary earners, divided by ideology — a petit bourgeoisie, deriving from nineteenth century craft and light industry, who held individualist values and were incurably reformist; and a proletariat, the workers in twentieth century heavy and large-scale industry, who held collectivist values and were (at least potentially) revolutionary. But that schematic division (which owed something to Lenin’s concept of a “labour aristocracy”[15]) at the same time denied the generally accepted Marxist analysis of the “class in itself” and was not firmly based in the history of the working class movement.[16]

McQueen used Gramsci’s concept of “bourgeois hegemony” — the predominance of capitalist values in working-class consciousness as the factor which inhibits the development of revolutionary consciousness — but he confined this to one section of the working class, his “petit bourgeoisie”. This seemed to beg the question.

“Hegemony” has been the concern of most of the more recent critics of this book, and, having now read Gramsci and some of those who have expounded and debated his ideas, I agree with that emphasis. The survival value of capitalism rests not only on its presumed ability to call on the state apparatus whenever its power is seriously threatened but also — and perhaps more importantly — on its ideological dominance.[17]

Given the point, the problem is, where do we go from there? I do not accept that part of Stuart Macintyre’s argument which seeks to break the nexus between consciousness and objective situation. That seems to me to lead to a dangerous voluntarism. The workers’ situation is determined by factors over which they have no control (the working of the capitalist market economy, including the labour market) except in so far as their organised strength enables them to modify the labour contract. Their perception of that situation is structured by an ideological hegemony which leads them to seek immediate and temporary solutions within the labour market, in terms of individualist, consumption-oriented values — but they can only realise those solutions by collective action. It is a closed circle. How can it be broken, other than by a crisis which results from the contradictions inherent in capitalism?

Macintyre writes: “Our history is based on a quite different problematic from that which is presently dominant (ie the ‘empiricism’ of the earlier radical historians). Yet ultimately we will have to demonstrate the necessity of the problematic by its results.” To this time, those results are to be seen in critique and in an increasingly sophisticated historical analysis. But it is an analysis which stands at some distance from social and political reality. “Praxis” is removed from the cut and thrust of political action and becomes an object — perhaps the object — of theoretical debate.

In many ways, that debate reminds me of Lord Macaulay’s remark about the school of Socrates: “This celebrated philosophy ended in nothing but disputation … it was neither a vineyard nor an olive-ground, but an intricate wood of briars and thistles, from which those who lost themselves in it brought back many scratches and no food.[18]

The final thrust of the recent criticism of the radical historians of the nineteen forties and fifties is that they too are prisoners of the bourgeois hegemony — not only because they adhere to an empiricist tradition, but because of their “Left Australianism”, their belief in a continuity of tradition from the radical and working class movements of the nineteenth century to the contemporary labour movement and socialism, and in the special nature of the Australian experience.[19]

The “Left Australian” intellectuals, argues Tim Rowse, seek to establish a national cultural identity which, against the claims of a British-oriented economic and cultural elite, asserts the egalitarian and anti-imperial values of the “Australian people” and aspires to a radical democratic Australia.[20] But this analysis and aspiration is based on “people” and “nation” rather than on class, and is therefore “populist” rather than Marxist. They are able to do this, in an intellectual sense, because they romanticise the social and political meaning of the nineteenth century rise of the working class (which was oriented towards individual, small proprietor solutions) and because they want to believe that there is some special and unique potential in the Australian national character, arising from its break with the cultural hegemony of the class-ridden Old World.

The “radical nationalists”, argues McQueen, present a case for Australian independence from the economic, political and cultural dominance of British (and later American) imperialism.[21] But the heart of nineteenth century Australian nationalism (carried over into twentieth century Labor ideology) was its racism and its mini-imperialism in Melanesia.

The assertion of a continuity of radical tradition imprisons the “Left Australians” within the dominant ideology, the bourgeois-liberal hegemony, which at the same time rationalises the power of the ruling class and works within the confines of a reformist program and strategy which legitimises that power.

“History is not on our side,” writes McQueen. “The past belongs to the enemy. We must understand it in order to end it.”

“To build a new hegemony, to make a break with the present, the left must make a break with the past,” write Irving and Berzins.

I do not accept that argument. There is a continuity of protest and dissent, of human beings organising to assert the justice of their claims against their masters. There is a continuing struggle of the have-nots against the haves. The goals people established for themselves at any time were determined by contemporary circumstance. In the nineteenth century, it was the hope of independent craftsmanship or a block of land. Those solutions are no longer available in twentieth century industrial Australia; the goal today is the social ownership of the means of production. But to agree that new circumstances pose new questions and demand new answers is not to deny the radical past; and to accept that past is not to confine oneself to its strategies and goals.

Radical nationalism — which is both a way of looking at the past and a program for the future — does seem to me to be useful. It leads towards a political strategy which is based in present realities, and to an attempt to redefine socialist means and ends in terms of a tradition which incorporates whatever is valuable in Australia’s past — including political democracy and intellectual freedom — and which carries a specific Australian resonance.

There may be an element of myth in this. It is not the historian’s task to make myths, but rather to discover them and to explain the reason for their existence. But it is not outside the historian’s competence to assess the value in human terms of myth; and even to describe a myth may help to perpetuate it. I have some sympathy for Georges Sorel’s belief in the organising power of myth[22]; perhaps myth-become-ideology may help to crack the bourgeois hegemony.

That brings me to my final point. In the first introduction to this book, I wrote: “Labour history has a special attraction because of the high aspirations of the movement, which traditionally seeks not just to change governments but to change society. … It is this concern with values, and the conflicts this engenders, which insists that labour history is almost necessarily partisan: not only are the historian’s sympathies engaged, but his work affects present circumstances and is often written with answers to present problems in mind.”

Of this an early critic, Bede Nairn, wrote: “Labour history … of its nature is concerned with the ‘great forces’ of political and economic change; and it can be written with as much objectivity, with its inspiration and message implicit, as any other kind of history.[23]

I have no great belief in historical objectivity. “Facts are stubborn things,” as Lenin once said, and it is the historian’s job to recognise them, not to conceal them, and to get them right. But facts are not gathered at random; they are selected and ordered so as to bear on particular questions. What the questions are, and how they are posed, is a matter of judgment, if you like of ideology. When the historian is writing close up against the events, about ongoing movements with which he or she is engaged, the questions come out of immediate experience and the answers (if they are meaningful) influence, even if only in small measure, contemporary behaviour. That is as true, say, of A.J.P. Taylor writing about anti-intellectualism in America as it is (in a much more modest way) about this book.

From what I have said, it will be clear that the central question posed by this book — the relation between radical and revolutionary vanguards and the mass labour movement — came directly from my own experience. If, in trying to answer it to my own satisfaction, I have helped readers to understand the dilemmas faced by a labour movement in a modern industrial society, and labour movement activists to define the problems they confront, this book will have done its job.

Notes:

1. For the full argument, see Industrial Labour and Politics, Australian National University, 1965, xvii-xx.

2. Ken Turner, Politics, Vol 1, No 1 (1965).

3. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done? Section II.

4. R. Williams, Culture and Society (Penguin, 1961), 289.

5. This use of the word “socialist” begs the revolutionary question posed by the Leninists. However, the word is used in this broader sense throughout this book.

6. That is not to say that abolition of the private ownership of capital necessarily ends injustice, inequality and exploitation, as the example of the USSR amply demonstrates. Social ownership may be a pre-requisite; it is certainly not a sufficient condition.

7. Radical Politics and Bourgeois Hegemony, Intervention, No 2 (1972).

8. It derived from Chapter 4/2 of the Short History of the CPSU(B), published anonymously in 1938 but later published in a pamphlet, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, under the name of J.V. Stalin. Although Stalin had by then liquidated Nikolai Bukharin, his presentation of historical materialism rested heavily (though in a grossly oversimplified form) on Bukharin’s Historical Materialism. Stalin was, for communists, the undisputed authority on everything. Other communist writings on historical materialism were largely exegetical extensions of Stalin’s account. Gramsci was known as a victim of Mussolini, but few of his writings were available in English and, if they were read, they were not studied. Lukacs was in disrepute following a denunciation of him by the authoritative Joseph Revai of the Stalinist Hungarian Workers’ Party. Althusser, Marcuse, Anderson and Poulantzis had not yet been invented.

9. History and the New Left: Beyond Radicalism, in R. Gordon (ed) The Australian New Left (Melbourne, 1970).

10. L.H. Morgan, Ancient Society (Chicago, nd), 3.

11. Ruling Class, Ruling Culture (Cambridge, 1977), Chapter 2.

12. Stalin had defined that relationship, too, in his Foundations of Leninism (1924), Chap. VIII.

13. There is an excellent extended discussion of the dilemma of revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary situation in E.J. Hobsbawm’s Revolutionaries (New York, 1973).

14. A New Britannia (Melbourne, 1970); Laborism and Socialism, R. Gordon (ed) op cit.

15. See Lenin on Britain (London, 1941), Part III, Chap. 1.

16. See McQueen: Labour versus the Unions, Arena, No 20, and I. Tumer: A Reply, No 21 (1971).

17. I have a reservation about the Leninist analysis of the state. In advanced capitalist societies, it seems possible to argue not that the state is neutral but that, given the countervailing power of the organised working class, it is not necessarily and under all circumstances at the service of capitalism.

18. Francis Bacon, Critical and Historical Essays (Everyman, London, 1907), 360.

19. Those usually named are Brian Fitzpatrick, Robin Gollan, Russell Ward, and the present writer.

20. Australian Liberalism and National Character (Melbourne, 1978).

21. A New Britannia. McQueen’s position has changed in some respects since that book was published.

22. Reflections on Violence, Chapter 4. Australian Book Review, April 1966, 110.

23. Australian Book Review, April 1966, 110.

Note: In addition to the references cited in the footnotes, the following articles are relevant to this discussion:

Gollan, Robin, Radicalism in the Working Class, Arena No 21 (1970) and Kelvin Rowley, An Inquiry into the Australian Radical Tradition, Arena No 24 (1971).

Lewis, Glen, Go to the Mirror, Boys, Overland No 64 (1976).

Macintyre, Stuart, Reply to McQueen, Arena No 38 (1975) and Early Socialism and Labor, Intervention No 8 (1977). McQueen, Humphrey, Reply to Russell Ward, Overland No 48 (1971) and Reply to Bob Watts, Arena No 37 (1975).

T.R., Nationalism on the Blink, Intervention No 8 (1977).

Turner, Ian, Introduction to Brian Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement (Melbourne, 1968) and review of H. McQueen, A New Britannia, in Historical Studies No 56 (1971).

Ward, Russell, Britannia Australia, Overland No 47 (1971) and Reply to Humphrey McQueen, Overland No 50-51 (1972).

Watts, Bob, New Directions in Australian History, Arena No 34 (1974).

From Industrial Labour and Politics, The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900-1921 (Hale and Iremonger, 1979)

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