Labour history and the left
In a letter to Theodore Draper, an important historian of US Communism, the US Marxist James P. Cannon made the important point that omission of relevant facts, by a selective use of sources, is one form of historical falsification.
Two recent articles in Green Left Weekly, an editorial from May 16, 2001, 100 Years of Service to Capitalism and an article, Whose Light on Which Hill?, by John Passant (May 16, 2001), contain this sort of falsification in spades.
The purple prose of the editorial is a vintage exposition of the central axis of the DSP’s current strategy: “expose Laborism and all its works”. It also goes right over the edge into direct falsification when it ascribes a quote to Gough Whitlam “relax, don’t fight, go home, go back to sleep”.
That may well be what you think he wished, but Whitlam never said that, and it is political madness of a high order to invent quotes like that. As Trotsky asserted, referring to the propaganda of the Third Period Stalinists in the 1930s, paper is patient and long-suffering and will take anything that is printed on it.
This unbalanced historiography lies repeatedly by leaving out of the account all gains and reforms achieved within the ALP and trade union framework and only recording betrayals. All working class upsurges that happened within a Labor framework are ignored in these two pieces of writing.
A truthful balance sheet of Laborism should include, along with the betrayals, the following achievements:
- 1. The major improvements in wages and conditions, hours of work etc, achieved by the newly formed Labor parties, in association with the trade unions, in all the states and in the federal sphere, between 1891 and 1914, initially by Labor’s exploitation of its parliamentary balance of power between conservative parties, and subsequently by the first Labor overnments.
- 2. The decisive defeat and expulsion of the conscriptionists from the ALP during World War I, and the defeat of conscription in two referendums, in which the No case was spearheaded by the ALP. The issue of conscription is another place in which the GLW editorial goes right over the edge into spectacular falsification. It baldly asserts that the ALP “brought in conscription during World War I”. This outright lie is extremely weird on two counts. Firstly, the ALP was central to the campaign to defeat conscription in the two referendums, and expelled the parliamentary leader, Billy Hughes, in the course of this struggle. Secondly, due to the defeat of conscription in the two referendums, it was never introduced! The fact that nobody except me seems to have responded to this bizarre GLW editorial lie in the past couple of weeks suggests that the people who read Green Left Weekly know very little labour movement history. It is also very sad that over the last few weeks the unrepentant Stalinists who publish The Guardian have been recycling the vicious Stalinist falsifications about the old Bolshevik leaders murdered in the Moscow frame-up trials, a lie exploded these many years, and have roped in the poor old DSP in as “Trotskyist splitters” like the “criminal traitors exposed in the Moscow Trials”. Quite properly, the DSP has reacted quite sharply in opposition to these ancient Stalinist falsifications. How very sad indeed, then, for the DSP to be engaging in its own falsifications of Australian labour movement history at the same time. From the point of view of Marxism, historical falsification is always pernicious, whether practiced by The Guardian or the DSP. One result of the conscription split was the swing to the left of the ALP, with the adoption of the Socialisation Objective in 1921. One aspect of this radicalisation of Labor was the intorduction in NSW of major industrial and social reforms by the Lang Labor government, such as child endowment and the 44-hour week.
- 3. The major rebellion within the ALP led by Lang and NSW Labor against the Scullin federal Labor government over the Premiers’ Plan, and the stormy development of the Socialisation Units in the NSW ALP, are ignored.
- 4. The opposition to conscription during World War II, from within the ALP by J.T. Lang, E.J. Ward, Arthur Calwell and Maurice Blackburn, are ignored.
- 5. Labor’s initial support for White Australia is denounced, but Calwell’s initiation of mass migration from non-British areas, which commenced the process of undermining “British Australia”, is ignored. The leading role of many Labor politicians, including Whitlam, in campaigning for the end of the White Australia Policy, which culminated in its deletion from the Labor platform, and the final abolition of White Australia during the period of the Whitlam government, is left out.
- 6. H.V. Evatt’s decisive stand as Labor leader in 1955, which led to the expulsion from the ALP of the extreme right-wing Catholic Action Grouper movement of B.A. Santamaria, and shifted the ALP to the left for the subsequent period, is ignored, obviously for the general reason applying to all these points, that it contradicts the weird picture painted in the GLW editorial of universal Labor betrayal.
- 7. Calwell’s courageous initial stand as Labor leader, calling for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam, which vastly widened the impact of, and even in a certain sense, made possible, our successful independent popular mobilisation against the Vietnam War, is ignored. John Percy, now national secretary of the DSP, who was around at that time, at least ought to remember that!
- 8. The incremental industrial and social improvements for the working class, that were initiated by the left in the labour movement, forced through ALP conference after ALP conference, and eventually legislated by Labor governments, are all left out of the bizarre Green Left Weekly narrative.
- 9. At the federal ALP Conference in 1971, just before Whitlam came to power, Clyde Cameron spearheaded an attempt to impose a prices and incomes policy, similar to the 1982 prices and incomes accord, on the incoming Labor government. At this conference, which I attended as the one delegate (among six from NSW) from the newly formed NSW Socialist Left, these wage-freeze proposals were defeated due to the agitation of the NSW and Victorian Socialist Lefts. This defeat of wage-freeze proposals in the ALP led directly to the 1974 wages outbreak that so outraged the Australian ruling class. (At the same conference, my motion for the abolition of ASIO, was initially carried, and only narrowly defeated on a re-committal.) John Percy and the DSP ought to remember all this, as they were then participants in the NSW Socialist Left.
- 10. The recent defeat at the NSW ALP conference of electricity privatisation is ignored. This omission highlights the problem for the GLW approach. All serious attempts to defeat privatisations under Labor governments necessarily involve an appeal to the better aspects of Labor traditions, and an agitation within the ALP-trade union framework, for the defeat of such privatisations. This is the only way most privatisations can be defeated in the real world. As this contradicts the DSP’s futile “strategy” it must be omitted from the GLW editorial narrative.
The situation is similar with the many limited improvements to homosexual rights, abortion rights, the introduction of heroin injecting room trials and other social reforms. Although not the whole of the social revolution, by any means, these reforms nevertheless are important in themselves, and in recent times have mostly been implemented under Labor governments, and bitterly opposed by conservative parties.
Any serious examination of these social developments, as they have actually happened, contradicts the GLW editorial approach, and so therefore these questions must be ignored in the GLW story.There are a large number of other improvements for the working class that have taken place within the ALP framework, but space prohibits listing them.
If the GLW editorial version of Labor history were true, the dogged electoral adherence of most the organised section of the working class, and the progressive section of the middle class to Labor, for the past 110 years, would be one of the major metaphysical mysteries of our times, but in fact the GLW version is a rather stupid, self-serving historical falsification.
The addition to the historical record of all of the things that the GLW editorial leaves out, makes the stubborn electoral allegiance to Labor of the broad masses of the organised working class, and the progressive middle class comprehensible, and underlines the devastating current reality, for the DSP and the Socialist Alliance, that this Labor electoral allegiance will continue, and probably dramatically increase, in the context of the forthcoming federal election.
The GLW editorial insults Lenin by roping him in, via his 1913 comment on Australia, quoted out of context, to buttress a false argument, in the way Stalinist historians like E.W. Campbell used to do. Lenin was the most accomplished theorist and practitioner of revolutionary politics ever, but a throwaway remark in 1913 about Australia is hardly the last word on the topic.
Further down the track in the early 1920s Lenin gave strong advice to the British Communists to spare no trouble and expense in their efforts to get the Labor Party, led by Ramsay McDonald, elected in England. He also supported the election of Jock Garden, the Communist secretary of the Sydney Labour Council, to the Comintern executive, despite Garden’s well-known penchant for exaggerating the influence of the Australian CPA, under his leadership, in the unions and the ALP.
At that time, in the early 1920s, the Russian Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky insisted very firmly that the Communist Parties in Britain and Australia should campaign vigorously for affiliation to, and participation in, the mass labour parties in those two countries, mainly because of the organic link between the trade unions and the labour parties in Britain and Australia.
Lenin’s book, Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, takes up this question in detail, and the documents of the early Comintern congresses contain a detailed account of the struggles that took place on this question, with the Russian Bolsheviks always on the side of participation in the mass labour parties in the English-speaking countries.
If Green Left Weekly’s litany of betrayal was the whole story about Laborism, Lenin and Trotsky must have been awful opportunists! Before 1984, in the period when they practiced the orientation generally described as building a class-struggle left-wing in the labour movement, the DSP used to educate its members in a much more dialectical way about Australian labour history.
Peter Conrick’s booklet on labour history, which the DSP used before they started their exposure of Laborism orgy, is a very serviceable short account of labour history, as is another short pamphlet by Mick Armstrong published by the International Socialist Organisation in 1989.
The two longer books (incidentally advertised in GLW), Ian Turner’s Industrial Labor and Politics and Ray Markey’s work on the origins of the ALP in NSW, are also useful sources, and contradict the narrative in the GLW editorial. It is fascinating that the GLW editorial version is, in all its essential historical respects, similar to the approach of Stuart Macintyre in his recent Concise History of Australia. Macintyre also ignores most past Labor upsurges, but his political conclusion is rather different to the GLW standpoint. He wishes to glamorise modern Laborism, rather than denounce it for its betrayals.
Why are these historical questions important?
History is important in itself. The misleading, denunciatory GLW version of labour history is defeatist, negative and boring. It reduces a stormy, colourful, interesting and contradictory labour movement history of achievements and defeats, of struggles led and betrayals perpetrated, to a depressing, moralising, completely inaccurate litany of total betrayal. This kind of false history is hardly likely to stimulate a serious interest in labour history among the cadres of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.
The intention of the editor of GLW is clearly to erect a noisy literary barrier between the activists of the DSP and any Laborites moving to the left. The effect on any Laborites reading it is only likely to antagonise them, particularly as it is obviously falsification by omission.
I was initially puzzled as to why the GLW editor would write such a curious, ahistorical piece. Would not his readers, who have, one presumes, some historical knowledge, react in a similar way to me? Over the past week or so, I have subjected two or three (extremely patient) DSPers who were buying books in my shop, to one of my well-known diatribes on this topic. What emerged from these exchanges is that they didn’t know much of this history, and took the GLW editorial account of events as good coin, which rather flattened me but explained, a bit, the function of the editorial.
The GLW editorial is obviously written primarily for internal consumption among the members and supporters of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance, relying on the fact that many of them are new to politics, and don’t know much history. Its function is to indoctrinate them in a special historical narrative, and thereby to inoculate them against the Laborite virus considered to infest the external world.
In my view, this strange DSP style of creating a rather closed political fraternity, with its own special tailored version of historical events, is a pretty dangerous way for Marxists to proceed. It tends to establish a small, inward-looking political community, with its only interaction with the external world being a kind of proselytising militancy driven by a special historical narrative, which marks off the members of the sect from all others.
At its worst, this kind of training produces organisations and activists who have quite a lot in common, in the political sphere, with Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons in the sphere of religion. The historical writing in Green Left has the same function as the Book of Mormon for Mormons, in the sense that it is an esoteric alternative history of the world, properly understood only by the converted faithful, whose task it is to bring an unbelieving world to an appreciation of the importance of this esoteric knowledge.
I issue this challenge to the editor of GLW. Why don’t you serialise Peter Conrick’s small booklet (considering that it was published by the DSP) on the history of the Australian labour movement, in GLW, with a critical appraisal of what you now consider to be its errors. Such a project would be a useful beginning to a critical approach to the history of the Australian labour movement, and would contribute to the necessary political education of the adherents of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.
Dick Nichols fulminates against the Laborites
The next issue of Green Left Weekly (May 23, 2001) has a full-page article, Who’s afraid of the Socialist Alliance?, which is ostensibly a response to a critic of the DSP named Lev Lafayette. This article by Nichols, who used to be the industrial organiser of the DSP, and is its expert on Cuba, indicates that Nichols in an acting convenor of the Socialist Alliance.
This article is a vintage piece of fulmination against Laborism. It starts by asserting that there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who understand that the Laborites are essentially the same, in Nichols’ view, as the Howard Liberals, and just might vote for the Socialist Alliance because several socialist groups have made friends.
Well, desirable although it undoubtedly is that these socialist groups have stopped slagging each other off and got together, the surreal leap that Nichols makes to the possibility that disillusioned voters may, in the current circumstances, vote for the Socialist Alliance, is wishful thinking of the highest order.
The disillusioned voters in this election will vote, in their vast majority, for the Greens, the Democrats, and One Nation. The vote for the new Socialist Alliance in this very polarised election will be tiny. This can quite confidently be asserted now, well before the election, on the basis of the minuscule votes achieved by socialist candidates in the recently similarly polarised Western Australian and Queensland elections.
Nichols is obviously aware of this likelihood, as he spends quite a lot of time in the article attacking the Greens, who will obviously get the lion’s share of disillusioned leftist votes in this election.
Nichols simplifies history enormously by ascribing the ending of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, and the defeat of the Franklin Dam proposal, simply to “democratic mass movements”. In both these instances, the very existence of these democratic mass movements was profoundly assisted by the courageous intervention and leadership of leading figures in the ALP, particularly Arthur Calwell on Vietnam, and both the withdrawal from Vietnam and the stopping of the Franklin Dam were finally ratified by Labor governments.
Nichols makes the rather inspired leap from the relative electoral success of far left groupings in Portugal, France, Denmark and Italy to the possibility of Socialist Alliance candidates being elected in Australia, without any reference to the particular historical circumstances that apply in those countries, which made their electoral successes possible, and which, when examined, demonstrate the virtual impossibility of a similar development in Australia in the current elections, because the concrete immediate circumstances in Australia, and the historical political set-up that bears on these current circumstances, are quite different.
Nichols clearly reveals the immediate electoral illusions embedded in this Socialist Alliance electoral project, in the following sentence:
Sending even one fearless and forthright socialist “tribune of the people” to Canberra would bring an inspiring shock wave through the dozy irrelevance of Australia’s national parliament.
The problem with this approach is that there have been, and still are, a number of “tribunes of the people” in Australian parliaments, and almost all of them have been elected initially as Laborites, with the exception of one elected as a Communist in the Queensland parliament, and several elected in recent times as Greens.
The very notable tribunes of the people initially elected as Laborites have included such figures as Percy Brookfield, who used his balance of power to achieve the release of the IWW prisoners by a Labor government in the 1920s; Frank Anstey, the socialist voice in federal parliament in the 1920s and the 1930s; the Victorian socialist poet, JK McDougall; Hugh Mahon, the Irish Labor parliamentarian from Western Australia who was expelled from federal parliament by the Tory majority for defending Irish independence (the only man ever expelled from an Australian parliament); the redoubtable E.J. Ward, who defended the interests of the working class belligerently in the Federal parliament for 30 years; Arthur Calwell who lost his Labor leadership because of his intransigeant stand on Vietnam; and George Petersen, who used his 20 years in the parliament of NSW to achieve a royal commission on prisons, homosexual law reform, abortion law reforms, defence of the interests of the Irish and Palestinian peoples, and who even influenced the adoption of proportional representation in the NSW Upper House, which opened democratic electoral possibilities to the people of NSW.
Acting as tribunes of the people in the parliaments of Australia is by no means the exclusive province of the DSP, and in the sphere of cold, hard fact, they have not yet been able to achieve that role, and they certainly won’t do so in the coming election.
Even in the existing parliaments, if you look around for effective tribunes of the people you would have to concede that the modest backbench Laborite, Jenny Macklin, functions pretty well in this regard on health and welfare matters. In current parliaments, federal and state, the Greens Bob Brown and Lee Rhiannon operate as extremely effective tribunes of the people, etc.
The same issue of Green Left has a photo of three presentable young rebels who have formed the Socialist Alliance in Lismore, at a respectable meeting of 45 people. I wish them every luck, but I would sound a note of warning to them. Be very careful in that area about using the current rhetoric of the DSP about Laborites being a bunch of reactionaries.
The ALP candidate for one marginal far north coast seat is Jenny McAlister. She is a competent and confident young left-wing Labor feminist. She isn’t exactly Rosa Luxembourg or Alexandra Kollontai, but she has probably read the works of both those socialist feminst thinkers. She has just been through the bruising experience of a bitterly contested preselection ballot, which she won by the narrowest of margins against the candidate of another faction of the ALP left.
She was born on the north coast, has some experience in student politics, and is an extremely energetic woman. She is already doorknocking the electorate.
Be very cautious about light-mindedly accusing Jenny McAlister of being a reactionary, because she is a pretty assertive kind of woman and is just as likely to bite your bloody head off (figuratively speaking) if you attack her in that way. She will most probably win the seat from the Coalition, and she is on my short list for very likely real and effective socialist tribunes of the people in the next parliament.
Caution in regarding Jenny McAlister and others like her ought to be dictated by the very real prospect that the people in the Socialist Alliance face, that after the election, when the significant number of candidates like Jenny McAlister scattered around Australia have been elected to the parliament, as Laborites or Greens, and no Socialist Alliance members have been elected at all, the people in the Socialist Alliance will have to wake up to themselves.
They will need to develop a civilised relationship with the Laborite and Green leftists, if those Socialist Alliance people are to exert any significant influence on parliamentary developments under the incoming Labor government. One of the important tasks in this situation for socialists will be to exert civilised pressure on the many Labor and Green leftists in the parliament to oppose right-wing policies, and that necessary task is not aided at all by the current GLW indiscriminate abuse of them all as reactionary Laborites.
Nichols gilds his lillies further by Peter Reith-sounding rhetoric about “ALP chieftains on company boards and union barons in harbourside homes” and lengthy diatribes about trade union careerism.
Well, there certainly are some Labor barons and union careerists, but it is wild political sectarianism to then make the leap, as Nichols and the DSP tend to do, to the proposition that the whole of the official labour movement, political and industrial, is made up of such barons and careerists.
There are many people in parliament as Laborites, and many union officials who are not primarily careerists, although obviously career factors bear down on most people in official positions these days, even, dare we say it, people in the DSP and the Socialist Alliance.
In the broad labour and trade union movement, the primary task is to construct an effective socialist left wing in the whole movement, trade union and political, and to defeat the constant pressure for bureaucratisation and careerism. None of this is assisted by cordoning off the young rebels attracted to the DSP and the Socialist Alliance in a sect-like existance, in which they are trained to treat the rest of the labour and progressive movement as reactionaries, unless those people immediately spring to attention and immediately join in the DSP’s current projects.