The Red North: how not to write useful labour history from a Marxist standpoint
In January 2001, Jim McIlroy gave some lectures on Queensland labour history at the Democratic Socialist Party national conference. These lectures have been published by the DSP as a pamphlet, and an effusive review of them appeared in Green Left Weekly. Jim McIlroy is one of the elders of the DSP, and the person most responsible for building a relatively successful branch of the organisation in Brisbane. He is a genial kind of bloke and he speaks and writes in a more careful tone than, say, Dick Nichols. Nevertheless, despite McIlroy’s low-key, pleasant writing style, his pamphlet is a vintage product of a peculiar DSP genre of labour history. The set of three parables selected by McIlroy throws into bold relief the un-Marxist, ahistorical features of the DSP brand of labour history.
The purpose of this odd pamphlet can be seen clearly in the two following extracts from the conclusion: Learn the Lessons of the Past.
The purpose of such an account, published at the beginning of a new century of anti-capitalist struggle, is to assist our study of labour movement history, so that its lessons can better prepare us to understand and deal with new and surprising upheavals, as they inevitably emerge from the class struggle.
And the lesson emerges:
The defeat of that titanic struggle led, correctly, to the conclusion by the unions that political party organisation was necessary. Tragically, however, because of a lack of conscious leadership, the movement took the parliamentary road as the way to go for the Australian labour movement.We have suffered the consequences of this turn to the formation of the ALP as an electoralist party for all of the following century.
Hopefully the new century will see a radical change in the political allegiance of Australian workers in a revolutionary socialist direction.
The universal historical lesson
This should be called the Universal Historical Lesson. It is common to Stalinists and some neo-Trotskyists, particularly such groups as the SLL, the DSP and the Spartacists. The timeless Universal Historical Lesson applicable to all modern history, in all places at all times, is that there should have been a revolutionary Marxist party to lead the workers to power. Presented in this crude fashion, without any objective description of the contradictory social forces in each situation, this Universal Lesson raises the question: why bother studying history at all?
If the lesson is as simple as Jim McIlroy and these others assert, why not just make a record of this mantra, and play it when required? This approach to labour movement history is a bizarre caricature of historical materialism and Marxism. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg would turn in their graves at this crude Universal Lesson approach to history. One of Marx’s favourite aphorisms was: “history is whole cloth”.
All the great pioneers of modern Marxism adhered to the general view that, within certain limits, men and women do make history by their independent activity, but that this independent human activity is necessarily circumscribed by the framework of social and historical circumstances in which human beings inevitably have to operate.
This core tenet of Marxism and historical materialism is completely different to the crude didactic moralism of the Universal Lesson approach.
The Jim McIlroy, DSP, SLL, Spartacist and Stalinist approach to history has a fair bit in common with Calvinism in the sphere of religion. Calvinist Anglicans, who dominate the Anglican Church in the Sydney Diocese, believe in the Universal Truth, and Direct Godly Inspiration of all the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations.
They deduce from their study of the Bible, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. This doctrine asserts that some people (usually the people who hold the doctrine) are chosen by God for Salvation, and other people are chosen by the same good God for Damnation. They deduce from their Bible study that only people who profess Jesus Christ can be saved, and that members of all other religions, or people who know nothing about religion, are inevitably damned.
One of the Sydney Diocese’s disputes with the Anglican Primate of Australia, Peter Carnley, is Carnley’s alleged heresy: that conscientious adherents of non-Christian religions can be saved. The McIlroy-DSP-SLL-Spartacist-Stalinist approach to labour history is a kind of Marxian Calvinism embodying the notion of an elect, sanctified by strict adherence to a very specific and detailed set of Marxist beliefs, tactics and practices, applicable in all places and times, irrespective of the objective circumstances.
This doctrine derives from the inward-looking, self-interested style and atmosphere of the Marxist sect. The current doctrines and tactical priorities of the particular group are elevated into Universal Principles, and then read backwards into history.
This peculiar historical narrative has the added benefit to the sect of sanctifying its unique, special, universal mission. This eccentric doctrine is often blamed on the greatest socialist revolutionary politician of the 20th century, Lenin, who would definitely turn in his grave at this madness being attributed to him.
Trawling back through history in the way McIlroy does is only a means of giving validity to the current strategy of the sect. It is an exercise similar to geometry, where you start with what is to be proved, and then do the exercises to get back to the inevitable QED. In this case the QED is that what was required in all places and times was a perfect Marxist party like the one we’ve got now!
What a bizarre brand of “Marxism” this approach has become, and what eccentric and dangerous practical politics this selective and false historical approach is used to reinforce.
McIlroy’s selection of sources
McIlroy has three chapters in his lecture/pamphlet. They are presented like biblical parables from a Baptist Sunday School, and the three historical episodes discussed are used selectively to lead to the same inevitable conclusion: Laborism in the past was completely bad, Marxist party must be built through the exposure of Laborism and independent socialist electoral activity with an expose-Laborism edge!
The genial McIlroy has to be extremely selective about Queensland history to draw this lesson. In a sense, he falsifies the rich labour history of Queensland (in a way not dissimilar to the method pinpointed by James P. Cannon in the quote below), by the careful choice of three events, and three events only, from the sweeping scope of Queensland working class history and the large number of publications on this history.
In particular, the 40-year-long publishing program of Queensland University Press has given Queensland labour history more thorough documentation than that of any other state. In his important book, The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon, the pioneer US Communist and Trotskyist leader, prints an exchange of letters between himself and the historian Theodore Draper, who was at that time writing his definitive histories of the origins and early development of the American Communist Party. Part of one of the letters reads as follows:
Iris Kipnis’s book, The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it …From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis’s objectivity. There are some telltale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by a selectivity of sources, as well as outright falsification.
In skimming through the book for the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left wing, and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.
It may seem to some people rather extreme of me to devote a whole article to a polemical overview of Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet, but given the political influence of the DSP as the largest organisation on the far left, and the ideologically dominant group in the Socialist Alliance, its approach to labour history has considerable significance. The only other pamphlets or books specifically on labour history published by the DSP were Peter Conrick’s useful history of the ALP, long out of print, and Renfrey Clark’s little book, The Picket about a mining strike in Western Tasmania.
Both of these were published before the DSP’s dramatic shift to ultraleftism in relation to the ALP in 1984. This new pamphlet by McIlroy is obviously the beginnings of a new DSP version of labour history, and will probably be followed by other “biblical” texts of a similar nature, so a detailed analysis of it seems relevant to me.
The other good reason for writing this piece is that McIlroy’s pamphlet opens the question of Queensland labour history, and gives me a good opportunity to write a, somewhat longer, short description of the history of the workers’ movement in Queensland without major developments left out, and treated in a serious dialectical way, in contrast to Jim McIlroy’s method. Comparison of the two narratives will speak for itself. I believe that a serious overview of the history of the labour movement in Queensland indicates conclusions quite different to those drawn by McIlroy.
The use of history and ideology. The DSP and its Red Professors
During the process of Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, the Stalin-Bukharin faction made use of the energetic work of young intellectual enthusiasts, drawn from the universities of the new Soviet state, to do major ideological work, framed, in an extremely instrumental way, within the then current tactical needs of the Stalin-Bukharin faction. These people were energetic, well-read and erudite, but everything they wrote, on assigned topics, had the angle of justifying the short-term necessities of the Stalin-Bukharin faction.
They were past masters at stringing together quotes or historical examples that were, within limits, accurate enough, but were organised, often out of context, to justify the current line of the Stalin-Bukharin group. (Most of these unfortunate intellectuals were adherents of Bukharin, and were exterminated by Stalin along with Bukharin when he fell.)
They were jointly dubbed by a wit from the Left Opposition, the “Red Professors”, and the name stuck. The DSP has its own brand of Red Professors, who are past masters in the use of history and ideology in an extremely instrumental, often quite ahistorical, way to reinforce the current tactical line of the DSP.
A vintage example of this genre is Iggy Kim’s pamphlet, The Origins of Racism. Another example is the work of James Vassilopoulos on permanent revolution and other topics. One quite useful DSP Red Professor is Norm Dixon, whose work on the national question is intrinsically extremely valuable, but is used selectively by the DSP for limited tactical purposes. The Red Professor of all DSP Red Professors is Doug Lorimer, who writes in a totally instrumental way on many questions to give intellectual reinforcement to the DSP’s current tactics.
Characteristic of this DSP Red Professor intellectual activity is that it starts from the current needs of the DSP as a political sect, and the intellectual activity is primarily and selectively used to justify immediate DSP tactics. As the dominant current DSP tactic is to expose Laborism, all subjects tend to be pushed and pulled, pummelled and moulded, to fit the needs of this overriding preoccupation. It is useful to examine McIlroy’s pamphlet, The Red North, as a revealing example of this genre.
McIlroy’s Biblical lessons
Jim McIlroy’s first lesson is taken from the great strikes of the 1890s. They failed, apparently, because of the lack of a Marxist party of the modern sort (like the DSP), and out of this defeat, because they didn’t have a Marxist party of the modern sort (like the DSP), they went ahead and formed a parliamentary Labor Party which was, of course, a kind of defeat because it wasn’t a Marxist party of the modern sort (like the DSP).
McIlroy has here a series of idiot tautologies, which is what you get if you read history backward in this way from the perceived current tactical priorities of your sect.
Jim McIlroy’s rhetorical posturing about “parliamentary road” versus “revolutionary road”
McIlroy locates the original sin of Queensland Laborism as adopting a “parliamentary road” rather than a “revolutionary road”. This is mind-blowing demagogy, particularly considering that it is used to buttress an argument that socialist revolutionaries should place their major current tactical emphasis on independent socialist electoral activity.
This question was never posed so clearly in the actual development of any labour movement, as McIlroy attempts to pose it in hindsight. Most Marxists, even in the earliest days, did not counterpose parliamentary activity against other class struggle activity. Certainly, Marx and Engels didn’t, and Lenin and Trotsky didn’t.
The reformist adaptation to the new environment of working class and socialist representatives in bourgeois parliaments emerged as a problem as the working class movement developed.
Lenin originally regarded the German Social Democrats in the German Reichstag as serious and effective representatives of the working class. His attitude to them only changed to intense hostility as they degenerated. After the Russian Revolution, in those countries where the Marxists remained a tiny minority of the working class, where there were large labour parties based on the unions (Australia and Britain), Lenin, Trotsky and the Communist International insisted strenuously that the communist parties attempt to affiliate to, and work within, the labour parties in those countries, as well as developing their own independent organisation.
McIlroy’s method of trawling back into history to attack the early Laborites for some alleged definite, deliberate and conscious decision to follow the parliamentary road alone is butchering and chopping up history in a crudely obvious way to fit a current tactical preoccupation.
There is a rich literature on the great strikes, and the formation of the Labor Party in Queensland, and on the interplay between socialists of various sorts and the developing bureaucracy in the trade unions, particularly the dominant Queensland union, the Australian Workers Union, and the development of a parliamentary Labor Party.
Dennis Murphy, Stewart Svenssen, Ross Fitzgerald, Joe Harris and a number of others have documented these developments in major historical works, to none of which McIlroy refers. Ernie Lane wrote a major memoir, Dawn to Dusk (reprinted by Left Press, Brisbane in 1993), describing, from his own experience, the development of the labour movement, and the rise of the AWU and the ALP, and their bureaucratisation. If you take an appropriately Marxian history-is-whole-cloth approach, this development had a dynamic character.
Socialists of various sorts, of whom Ernie Lane was representative, were involved from its inception in the Queensland labour movement, although of course, being real men and women who existed in the ideological and social circumstances of their times, they were not DSP-style modern “Marxist” sectarians who sprang predestined from the hand of some Marxian God.
The complex development of the Queensland labour movement up to the foundation of the CPA in 1921, all of which McIlroy leaves out
McIlroy gives a scientific edge to his lesson about the great strikes by asserting that the pastoral industry was highly significant, and that the industry in Queensland was the most dominated by big capital, and therefore had the most centralised workforce. There is some truth in this, but McIlroy really ought to draw attention, in this context, to the pioneering and useful historical work of Stuart Svennsen.
Other peculiarities of Queensland were also significant. In the first place, Queensland was the scene of the most brutal, semi-military episodes of dispossession of, the originally very numerous, Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia. North and central Queensland were also, from the time of European settlement, areas of a fairly mixed racial composition, including Chinese on the goldfields, and South Sea Islanders who worked in the sugar industry for about 40 years, until three quarters of them were brutally deported in the first decade of the 20th century.
There was also a much higher proportion of non-British European settlement than in any other State: Germans, Italians and Maltese. Much of this non-British migration was group settlement sponsored by the Catholic Church. Queensland also had a higher proportion of Irish Catholics in the population than any other colony, even NSW, which also had a high proportion of Catholics.
For a number of economic, geographic, ethnic, cultural and religious reasons, Queensland was a very unusual colony. The early labour movement had a widespread and rather diverse socialist tinge as well. Because of the vast distances involved, different areas in Queensland had a distinct life of their own. For instance there were many local newspapers, and many of them were labour newspapers, which was unusual for the Australian colonies.
In the appendix to Dawn to Dusk Ernie Lane lists the wide and interesting variety of socialist literature circulated in Queensland, often through the AWU. While McIlroy contemptuously dismisses this literature as mostly Utopian, it spread very widely and had a radicalising impact on the self-educated proletarians and farmers who made up the early labour movement. The ahistorical condescension displayed by McIlroy towards this whole autodidact proletarian political culture is a definite obstacle to understanding the actual development of any labour movement, particularly in Queensland.
I recommend that McIlroy re-educate himself by a thorough rereading of E.P. Thompson on such matters, and it might begin to dawn on him what universal pomposity the Universal Lesson approach has led him to. One feature of the Universal Historical Lesson approach to labour history is that it is an almost insuperable obstacle to any serious attempt to understand the context of the earlier working-class and socialist movements, from which modern movements have evolved, partly, obviously, by a process of negation, but also by more or less straightforward evolution.
I note that Jim McIlroy is about to give a lecture at this year’s DSP gathering on the early Australian socialist movement, and someone else is giving a lecture on the early Australian Trotskyist movement. One trembles to think what pearls of historical wisdom will be produced in these two lectures.
This is kind of sad, because there is a rich, relatively recent literature about the early Australian socialist movement, particularly two books, A New Australia by Bruce Scates (Cambridge 1997) and The Peoples Party about the Victorian ALP by Frank Bongiorno (MUP 1996). Both these books recreate critically, but affectionately and non-judgementally, the real historical development of the early socialist movement in Australia.
The battle for an independent Labor Party in Queensland
The first 20 years of the ALP in Queensland were dominated by the struggle of the labour movement to break free of coalitions with liberal capitalist parties. This big division in the ALP was with Labor parliamentary leaders like William Kidston, who wanted to participate in a coalition government with the liberals in Parliament, and who were eventually forced out of the ALP on this question.
It took 15 years for a completely independent Labor Party, with trade union dominance, to emerge in Queensland. The emergence of this independent Labor Party in the Parliament may not fit McIlroy’s retroactive formula, but it was a very great step forward for the Queensland working class.
The relatively powerful socialist current in the Queensland ALP and the trade unions, including some prominent figures in the AWU, such as Ernie Lane, were in the forefront of the long and complex struggle for an independent Labor Party in the Queensland parliament.
The 1912 Brisbane General Strike
The early institution of the arbitration system in the Commonwealth and the states caused considerable argument in the labour movement. Most socialists and syndicalists opposed the arbitration system initially, in favour of collective bargaining. But the institution of arbitration became established anyway, and it had one unforseen and unpredicted result, which was to provide a framework for the organisation of unions and the achievement of awards among sections of workers who had little industrial muscle.
Socialists and syndicalists, in both stronger and weaker industrial settings, soon learnt that they were forced by circumstances to operate within the framework of the arbitration system and that it even provided some openings and opportunities for organisation.
In 1911, the AWU amalgamated with an embryonic union in the sugar mills and commenced a major campaign for union recognition and an award. This culminated in a bitter strike, in which the union and the workers were victorious. This victory gave enormous impetus to trade union development throughout Queensland.
A long struggle commenced in Brisbane for the organisation of tramway workers, who worked for a notoriously open-shop tramway company that constantly victimised workers who joined the union. As a result of one of these incidents of victimisation, all the unions in Brisbane called a general strike, the first in Australia.
This strike was marked by the ruthless use of capitalist state power, with a massive police mobilisation, during which the notorious English “remittance man” Police Commissioner Urquhart was the main actor. Urquhart had cut his teeth in the brutal police massacre of lightly armed Kalkadoon Aboriginal warriors in North Queensland.
During the Brisbane Strike, Urquhart issued the famous threatening order to the police: “Aim low and lay them out.” After three weeks of this sort of state intimidation and bitter industrial struggle, the Brisbane General Strike was defeated. The aftermath of the strike included an electoral swing to Labor all over Queensland, and the first Queensland Labor Government was elected in 1915, led by T.J. Ryan, a Catholic who regarded himself as a socialist.
1915. The first Queensland Labor government. The defeat of conscription in two referendums
This first Queensland Labor Government was, by the standards of the time, rather radical. It set up a number of state enterprises and campaigned to abolish the notoriously conservative and squatter-dominated Queensland upper house. This abolition was finally achieved in the early 1920s.
When the conscription crisis split the Labor Party nationally in 1916-17, the Queensland Labor government as a whole opposed, and campaigned against, conscription, the only Labor government in Australia to do so.
Queensland Labor Premier Tom Ryan, a powerful public speaker, campaigned all over Australia during the conscription referendum. He and Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix were the two most prominent public personalities who spearheaded this successful campaign against conscription. The greater unpopularity of conscription in Queensland was due to the combination of the fairly active presence of socialists in the Labor Party, the greater number of Irish Catholics in Queensland, and the greater weight of non-British migrants, particularly Germans, Italians and Russians.
Renegade Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s fury when the local Irish Catholic copper at Warwick stood with his hands folded while Hughes was attacked by anti-conscriptionists, highlighted the unusual character of Queensland. Hughes’ anger had unusual repercussions. He was so bitter with the Ryan Government for failing to use the state police to protect him that he immediately set up a separate body that eventually became the Commonwealth Police.
The electoral strength of the Labor Party was, for most of this period, in north, central and western Queensland. The ALP was initially much weaker in Brisbane, and held only a small number of seats in the state capital and in the southern rural areas.
Even at the time of the first Labor government, the bureaucratisation of the labour movement in Queensland was setting in, although it was vigorously resisted by the socialist current in the ALP, in the unions, and even in the AWU. This is well described in D.J. Murphy’s The Big Strikes, Queensland 1889-1965, (University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1983), Ross Fitzgerald’s books and Ernie Lane’s Dawn to Dusk, as well as in the two useful recent histories of the AWU: Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles’, One Big Union. A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994 (Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1996), and John Merritt’s The Making of the AWU (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1986).
Even so, the climate in the Queensland labour movement was still sufficiently radical for a number of the Queensland delegates, including some of the AWU representatives, to vote for the socialisation objective at the 1921 ALP federal conference, where it was adopted. (Murphy, D.J. ed, 1983, The Big Strikes, Queensland 1889-1965, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane).
The Red Flag Riots and the formation of the Communist Party
McIlroy’s second lesson is an account of the turbulent events in 1921 that culminated in a reactionary mobilisation in Brisbane. He relies heavily on Ray Evans’s useful book about these events, The Red Flag Riots. McIlroy treats these events in a rather romantic way, and focuses almost entirely on the foundation of the Communist Party, which is a simple-minded approach.
The end of the First World War precipitated considerable industrial turmoil in North Queensland, one example of which was the bitter and militant meatworkers’ strike in Townsville, which is well described in the book Strikes edited by John Merritt and John Iremonger (Angus and Robertson 1973).
Once again, North Queensland was at the cutting edge of Queensland labour radicalism in this period. The meatworkers’ union and the Queensland Railways Union began to emerge as centres of industrial militancy under the general influence of syndicalism.
When the Communist Party was formed, the branches in North Queensland were initially a bit stronger than those in Brisbane. The reactionary mobilisation against “Bolshevism” and “Sinn Feinism” in southern Queensland, which culminated in the Red Flag Riots, was ostensibly against international Bolshevism and Russians, but it also had a significant aspect of a reactionary mobilisation against the Queensland Labor government, opportunistically orchestrated by the Queensland bourgeoisie in Brisbane, where the Labor movement was relatively weak, compared with areas such as north and western Queensland.
That this reactionary mobilisation was also directed against the Labor government was underlined by the Queensland Loans Affair, in which the London money market suddenly rejected the refinancing of Queensland government loans in a completely unprecedented way in an unsuccessful attempt to precipitate a political crisis in the hope of bringing down the Labor government. To reduce this reactionary mobilisation to a simple attack on “Bolshevism”, as McIlroy does, is historical idiocy.
Once again, his treatment of this question is a trawling back into history to simplify the lesson for his current tactical purposes. The Queensland Loans Affair is covered in the book Blockade by Tom Cochrane, University of Queensland Press, 1989.
The Russian revolutionary diaspora in Australia and its sad fate
As Ray Evans and McIlroy point out, there were several thousand Russian revolutionary exiles in Australia, mainly because Australia was the logical place to go to work for Russians escaping from the eastern end of the Russian Empire. Many of them settled in Queensland, and they were an energetic leaven in the more syndicalist wing of the Australian labour movement in the early years of the 20th century.
Overwhelmingly, they rallied to the Bolshevik cause at the time of the Russian Revolution, and they helped found the Communist Party in Australia, as they did in the United States. It appears to me slightly obscene to celebrate their revolutionary activities without a sombre and sober commemoration of their memory by a truthful account of their subsequent sad fate.
Hundreds of them, and possibly thousands, certainly the overwhelming majority of the active revolutionaries among them, returned home to help build the new revolutionary society in Russia. Two of them, Tom Sergyeff (Artem) and Peter Simonoff (the first unofficial Soviet consul in Australia) were important founders of the Australian Communist movement.
Artem became a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party on his return to Russia before he sadly died in a rail crash in 1921. In retrospect, Artem was lucky. Peter Simonoff was subsequently murdered in Stalin’s camps in the 1930s. The brutal facts are that the majority of Russian revolutionaries who returned from Australia in the 1920s disappeared into Stalin’s camps in the 1930s and, like other returned Russian revolutionaries from the West, most of them were killed by Stalin’s murder machine.
The Australian communist woman who disappeared into Stalin’s prisons
It has always seemed very sad to me that no scholars have attempted to research the lives and fates of the hundreds of revolutionary returnees from Australia to Russia who disappeared during the holocaust of socialists and communists perpetrated by Stalin in the 1930s.
Italian left-wing scholars have done detailed research into the lives of the hundreds of Italian Communists who disappeared into the gulags. Finnish North American scholars have done extraordinary research into the fate of thousands of Communist Finns who were murdered by Stalin after returning to Soviet Finnish Karelia in the 1930s.
I have just discovered an extraordinary book, Till my Tale is Told. Womens’ Memoirs of the Gulag, (Virago Press and Indiana University Press, 1999). On page 168, in the memoir of Gulag survivor Vera Scholl, there is mention of an Australian Communist woman, from Sydney, Carol Mityanin, who Scholl met in a transfer pPrison in 1937.
She was married to a Soviet diplomat who was also arrested. To the best of my knowledge no one has previously been aware of this Australian woman in Stalin’s camps, or what ultimately happened to her, which underlines the point that serious research into the ultimate fate of the Russian revolutionary exiles who returned from Australia to the Soviet Union still needs to be done.
To celebrate the Red Flag Riots without even referring to the ultimate dark fate of the courageous Russian revolutionary emigrants in Australia is an unreasonably romantic approach to the history of communism in the 20th century.
The Queensland Labor movement in the 1920s and early 1930s. The unions battle the right-wing McCormack Labor government
The dominant feature of the period from 1921 to about 1935 was the increasing bureaucratisation of the labour movement, with a right-wing Labor government for most of that time and a powerful interlocking of interests between this government and the increasingly conservative leadership of the AWU, the largest and most widely spread Queensland union which, unlike many of the other unions, had an infrastructure throughout the state, not just in Brisbane.
The shift to the right of the ALP and the AWU was contested by Ernie Lane within the AWU, and by the only other union with a Queensland-wide infrastructure, the militant Australian Railways Union led by Tim Moroney and George Rymer. In several bitterly fought strikes, the Railways Union collided directly with the Labor government, and bitter struggles erupted over these strikes at a number of Queensland ALP conferences, called Labor in Politics Conventions, with the radical forces, led by Rymer, Moroney and Lane, attacking the government’s strike-breaking activities.
Finally, the ARU was virtually forced out of the ALP because it would not repudiate its radical leaders, who refused to sign an anti-communist pledge that the right-wing ALP parliamentary leadership was insisting on.
The tiny Communist Party did not, at this stage, have much influence on events, although one significant skirmish was over an attempt by Fred Paterson (who later became the only Communist elected to an Australian Parliament) to get Labor pre-selection for a safe seat. He was blackballed by the Queensland Central Executive of the ALP.
In the late 1920s some dissident left-wing ALP election candidates were supported against the official ALP by the Communist Party. This development became embroiled in the conflict over the Stalinisation of the Australian Communist Party. The Comintern implicitly condemned this tactic of supporting dissident ALP members, rather than exclusively running Communist Party candidates, as a “capitulation to reformism”.
This charge formed part of the indictment against Jack Kavanagh and Jack Ryan, founders of the CPA, when they were removed from CPA leadership by the Comintern during the orgy of Stalinist ultraleftism that was the operative part of the Third Period line, which was inflicted on the Australian CPA from 1929 to 1934. The right-wing Labor government fell in 1929, but Labor was re-elected in 1932, after the Liberal Moore government was unlucky enough to preside over the worst ravages of the Great Depression.
The Queensland workers movement from 1935 to 1948. The Red North
By 1935 the worst impact of the Depression had lifted. Also in 1935 the Comintern and the Australian CP, in one fell swoop, shifted over from the ultraleftism of the Third Period to the right-wing opportunism of the Peoples Front. The CPA at least only practised the madness of the Third Period for five years between 1929 and 1934, and a similar ultraleft policy only for another four years between 1948 and 1951.
What can one possibly say about the extraordinary frozen aspect of the DSP’s strategy that has locked them into an ultraleft Third Period tactic for 18 years, from 1983 until now, without any hint of an end in sight!
During the early part of the Depression, the CPA recruited a number of young militants in the course of an energetic agitation among the unemployed. As these new recruits got back into industry, with the gradual lifting of the Depression, they became active in unions, particularly in North Queensland. As McIlroy describes, these young CPA militants led a number of successful strikes, bringing them into collision with the bureaucracy of the AWU, which to some extent lost control of the situation to the militants.
This wasn’t simply the CPA’s doing, as McIlroy implies. The CPA was one part of a general movement of proletarian discontent, which included left-wing unions like the ARU that weren’t under the direct influence of the CPA. It also included oppositional members of the ALP all over North Queensland, with whom the CPA members often had close relations.
These relations were disrupted during the Third Period, but they were rapidly re-established from 1935 onwards. In particular, in the Townsville region, Jim Henderson and Fred Paterson had a political alliance with Tom Aikens, a reformed alcoholic who was the colourful and spectacular leader of left labour insurgency in North Queensland for almost 20 years.
The dominant political force in the Townsville region was the political bloc between the CPA and these insurgent left Laborites, the Hermit Park Labor Party, later the North Queensland Labor Party, who were finally expelled from the official ALP in 1942. Aikens the left Laborite, and Paterson the Communist were aldermen on the Townsville Council for three terms, and the bloc between the four or five left Laborites and the two Communists controlled the council for those three terms until both forces went into decline during the Cold War.
Aikens was elected as the independent Labor MP for a Townsville seat adjacent to the seat won by Paterson as a Communist in 1944, and Aikens went on to hold the seat as a left Labor independent until the 1950s, and as a conservative independent into the 1970s, when he became regarded as the “father” of the Queensland Parliament, as its longest serving member.
Left Laborites were as significant as Communists in the Red North
Another colourful insurgent oppositional Laborite, sometimes a bit leftist, was the exotic “Bombshell” Barnes, who held the seat of Bundaberg as a Labor independent for two terms. The Red North was certainly pretty red during this whole historical period, but the larger part of the redness was a dissident Labor sort of red.
You get no hint of the contradictory and complex nature of these developments from McIlroy’s account, which idealises the CPA as the sole force at work. The book A Majority of One: Tom Aikens and the Independent Politics of Townsville by Ian Moles (University of Queensland Press, 1979) provides a useful account of these events.
Ross Fitzgerald’s biography of Fred Paterson, The People’s Champion, Fred Paterson: Australia’s only Communist Party Member of Parliament (University of Queensland Press, 1997), is useful, as is Jim Henderson’s The Election of Fred Patterson to Queensland Parliament. I find it curious that McIlroy doesn’t even mention Fitzgerald or Henderson.
The labour movement in Queensland from 1947 until the downfall of the Gair government
The Communist Party, Tom Aikens, the North Queensland Labor Party and the rest of the left co-existed awkwardly with the right-wing Labor government throughout most of the Second World War, and into the postwar period. With the onset of the Cold War, which coincided with an industrial upsurge Australia-wide, conflict began to sharpen between the militant unions and the CPA on the one hand, and the Queensland Labor government, on the other. The government was increasingly dominated by the developing Catholic Industrial Groups.
During the War the CPA had emerged as the dominant force in the Queensland Trades and Labor Council, and the AWU remained separate from that body. In this period militant leftists Mick O’Brien and Frank Nolan, in the same mould as Moroney and Rymer, took over from them as dominant figures in the ARU, which remained disaffiliated from the ALP.
The rising arc of industrial militancy meshed in, towards the end of this period, with the extravagant ultraleftism practiced politically by the CPA from 1948 to 1951, in which it believed it could displace the ALP as the political representative of the working class in Australia. This culminated in Queensland in the brutal events of the Queensland Railway Strike in 1948, during which a number of pickets, including Fred Paterson, were viciously bashed by police. This bashing, at the instigation of the right-wing Labor government, was denounced emotionally in the Queensland Parliament by Tom Aikens.
The build-up to the great Labor split in the 1950s
The dominant feature of the Australian labour movement in the middle to late 1950s was the bid for labour movement power of the Catholic Action Industrial Groups, and the overthrow and defeat of that movement, followed by parliamentary splits in Victoria and Queensland.
At the onset of this period, the federal Labor leader, Dr Herbert Evatt, and the right-wing AWU bureaucracy in Queensland led by Joe Bukowski, were in an awkward alliance with the Grouper movement of B.A. Santamaria. This alliance was busted apart, in a piecemeal way, in a complex series of events that culminated in Evatt’s attack on the Groupers after Labor lost the 1954 federal election.
Tom Dougherty, the powerful AWU national secretary, resident in Sydney, joined in Evatt’s attack on the Groupers, and prevailed on Bukowski in Queensland to dump them and turn the power of the AWU against the Groupers, which Bukowski did. The AWU also lurched into a conflict with the pastoral employers, who attempted to block certain industrial demands of the shearers, an important force in the AWU, and reduce their wages.
Despite its bureaucratic set up, the AWU traditionally attempted to look after the shearers, who historically supported the AWU leadership in most conflicts. For this basically industrial reason, and because of a number of irritations with the state Labor government, which was beginning to be more independent of AWU pressure than the AWU liked, the AWU cautiously formed a bloc with the CPA-influenced Queensland Trades and Labor Council and affiliated with the TLC.
The AWU also encouraged all the left-wing unions to reaffiliate with the ALP, including the ARU, which had not been affiliated for almost 30 years. Frank Nolan from the ARU rapidly became a force in ALP affairs.
The 1956 shearers’ strike and the expulsion of Grouper Premier Gair from the ALP
When the pastoralists’ conflict with the shearers finally erupted in the famous 1956 shearers strike, the atmosphere of which is well captured in the film Sunday Too Far Away, trade union solidarity from the left-wing unions was a critical element in the effectiveness of the strike.
For a complex moment, leftists from all the traditional CPA-influenced unions flocked into the ALP, and made common cause with the AWU against the Groupers. These issues came to a head after a period of development, at a Labor in Politics Convention, which instructed the Labor state government to legislate for three weeks annual leave.
For the previous 30 years, the ALP structure in Queensland provided that the Queensland central executive, the governing body of the ALP between conventions, consisted of some members elected at convention, plus direct representatives from affiliated unions, roughly according to membership. The reaffiliation of the left-wing unions, combined with the bloc vote of the AWU, gave the critics of the government a majority on the QCE.
At a bitter, many-hours-long, late-night meeting of the QCE, the broad alliance of the AWU, the left-wing unions and many branch representatives, expelled the Grouper Premier Gair from the ALP by a vote of 35 to 30 for refusing to legislate for three weeks annual leave as instructed by the Labor in Politics Convention. The government fell.
In the subsequent 1957 Queensland election, Labor won the majority of previously Labor seats, but the Grouper Queensland Labor Party won a minority of previously Labor seats and the Liberal-National Party Coalition was elected to office, which it held, as it turned out, for an electoral term that ended up being a bit over 30 years.
The labour movement in Queensland after the Labor Split
The late 1950s and the early 1960s were a difficult period for the labour movement and the left in Queensland, although the defeat of the Groupers in their bid for control of the labour movement was a very healthy development. The Communist Party shrank to a relatively small organisation, although it still had considerable institutional influence in the trade unions (other than the AWU).
The Communist E.J. Hanson remained secretary of the Queensland Trades and Labor Council, which was still largely influenced by the CPA. The leaderships of the unions that had traditionally aligned with the left were gradually becoming more bureaucratised and shifting to the right.
The leading personalities in the group of left unions shifting to the right were Jack Egerton from the Boilermakers Union, Frank Waters from the Postal Workers Union, Neil Kane from the Electrical Trades Union and Arch Bevis from the Transport Workers Union. They soon coalesced with elements in the residual state ALP parliamentary opposition to become known as the Old Guard of the Queensland ALP.
The Old Guard retained links for a period with the national ALP left, but it behaved in a conservative and bureaucratic way in Queensland. The Old Guard and the AWU soon had a spectacular falling out, and the AWU for a period disaffiliated from the TLC and the ALP.
On the left there were some personalities who were principled socialists. A tiny group of four Trotskyists, an English bank manager who had immigrated to Australia for his health, a wharfie, the secretary of the tiny Meat Inspectors Union, and a north Queensland school teacher, decided during the ALP split period that in the conservative climate of Queensland it was a sensible thing to set up a Fabian Society as a vehicle for socialist thought and agitation.
This small Fabian Society played a determined role in developing socialist ideas and organising the left in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were joined a bit later by Joe Harris, an official of the Building Workers Union, an ex-member of the CPA, a colourful autodidact, who spent quite a lot of his life collecting the material for his life work, the wonderful illustrated book, The Bitter Fight: The History of the Labor Movement in Queensland (University of Queensland Press, 1970).
This small group of Trotskyists had a number of important ALP left indigenous allies in the Fabian Society, the most notable of whom was Jim Keefe, who was both a Catholic and a principled left-wing socialist. Keefe became a Senator, and eventually federal ALP president, and a close ally of Joe Chamberlain from Western Australia in attempting to keep the federal ALP on a leftist course.
The 1964 Mt Isa miners’ strike
One interesting feature of the early 1960s was a bitter industrial dispute in the isolated north-western mining centre of Mt Isa in 1964, led by the colourful Pat Mackie, which involved a bitter struggle against the right-wing bureaucracy of the AWU. Mackie became an ally of the federal Labor politician from South Australia, Clyde Cameron in Cameron’s protracted and intense campaign against the bureaucracy of the AWU, in the course of which a major rank and file movement, the Council for Membership Control, developed in the AWU.
The Mt Isa strike was ultimately defeated, but it polarised labour movement opinion throughout Queensland and Australia. A number of books focus on this dispute, which is discussed in Cameron’s books of autobiography, in Bill Guy’s A Life on the Left: A Biography of Clyde Cameron, in Pat Mackie’s own book Mt Isa, the Story of a Dispute, in Knowles and Hearn’s AWU history, and in a rather weird 400-page hardback book, self-published by Edgar Williams, the then Queensland secretary of the AWU, which consists almost entirely of a vituperative denunciation of Mackie.
In the 1961 federal elections, to everyone’s surprise, the federal ALP, now led by Arthur Calwell, got within one seat of tipping out the Menzies government during a vicious credit squeeze. Unfortunately for the electoral activities of the CPA, the last seat declared, by the narrowest of margins, was Moreton in central Queensland, held by Jim Killen.
The Communist candidate in the seat, the Brisbane solicitor Max Julius, was at the top of the ballot paper and consequently his couple of hundred votes were inflated by the donkey vote, which unfortunately flowed down the ticket to Killen, who was thus elected by this leakage of Communist preferences.
The fact that the Menzies government got back by one seat on these preferences was thereafter used against the CPA by vindictive Laborites, although it was hardly the CPA’s fault. The late 1950s were the electoral low point for Labor in Queensland. The ALP eventually won back most of the seats held by the Groupers, although some Groupers joined the Nationals, and eventually one became a minister in the National Party government.
The ALP remained a small rump opposition in the state house as its vote dropped to less than 30 per cent, the lowest vote ever in Queensland since the formation of the ALP, and indeed the lowest Labor vote anywhere in Australia since the 1890s.
The Vietnam War. The rise of the antiwar movement and the revival of the Labor movement. The Right-to-Demonstrate struggle against the Queensland government
From 1965 onwards, Australian and Queensland politics were dominated by the Vietnam War, conscription for Vietnam and the struggle against those evils. To his very great credit, Arthur Calwell staked his federal leadership of the ALP on leading the opposition to the Vietnam War and conscription.
The repercussions of this antiwar campaign in Queensland were enormous. The conservative Queensland government banned street demonstrations, so every demonstration involved a collision with a rather belligerent, and somewhat corrupt, state police force from day one of the Vietnam conflict. The sharpness of this collision with the state apparatus rapidly radicalised the Queensland movement against the war.
As this movement unfolded over the next few years it developed an alliance with the more left-wing unions. From quite early on, tension built up with the Old Guard in control of the Queensland ALP.
The Queensland CPA, which was, like the CPA nationally, beginning to de-Stalinise a bit, rapidly formed an alliance with the more leftward moving elements in the student movement. For a period the CPA went along with a rather ultraleftist mood that developed in the Queensland student movement, exemplified by charismatic figures like Brian Laver and Mitch Thompson, who used extravagant anarcho-syndicalist, anti-parliamentary rhetoric, which gained a certain momentum from the brutal repression by the Queensland government of even the most minimal right to demonstrate.
The three, four or even five-sided relationships in the developing movement in Queensland became rather complex over the next few years. Initially, the CPA courted the radical student leaders like Brian Laver, as well as courting the more moderate leaders of the radicalising movement in the universities, of whom the colourful, well-loved figure, Professor Dan O’Neill, was an example.
For a period the ALP Old Guard trade unions, the CPA, and all wings of the new university-based movements coexisted. At this moment the CPA used its influence in the Trades and Labor Council to persuade it to give space in the Trades Hall for a radical off-campus youth movement called Foco. But stresses and strains existed within these coalitions, and they erupted in some sharp clashes between the different components
The Old Guard unions became quite hostile to the students’ necessarily confrontational demonstration strategy, which was really the only one available to the Right-to-Demonstrate movement in Queensland conditions. On the other hand, Laver and his associates, and also the CPA, began to broaden and deepen their extraordinary anti-Labor and anti-parliamentary rhetoric.
The united front exploded in several different directions. Foco was closed down. The most spectacular public expression of this phase was the collision at the Labor Day Rally in 1970, when trade union stewards vigorously prevented Laver from speaking, in front of television cameras.
The break-up of the radical student movement
Eventually, the leftist student movement broke up in three or four directions. Some Laver supporters broke away, eventually to form the International Socialists in Queensland. Another small group became orthodox Trotskyists. Laver’s group continued as a group of anarcho-syndicalists.
Another quite large group from the student movement, led by one Lee Bermingham, including some of the most ultraleft students, joined the CPA, and took it over organisationally in Queensland. They pushed the CPA in an ultraleftist direction for a few years, and then spectacularly walked out at the same time as the Taft Group in Victoria, leaving the CPA in Queensland moribund.
Bermingham and several of his close associates almost immediately shed their ostensible ultraleftism, joined the ALP and offered their organisational skills to the AWU right-wing faction, becoming the primary organisation men for the AWU for a number of years until for reasons that remain obscure, they turned “queen’s evidence”, so to speak, against the AWU faction in a scandal over alleged electoral rorts. Queensland labour history throws up some quite extraordinary transformations.
In industrial affairs, the radicalisation of the 1960s was expressed in the defeat of the penal clauses against unions in 1969, when Clarrie O’Shea, the Tramways Union secretary, went to jail in Victoria rather than pay a fine imposed on his union. The sympathy strikes all over Australia for O’Shea forced his release and effectively ended the penal clauses. The sympathy strikes for O’Shea in Queensland were very widespread.
The Springbok South African Rugby Union tour. A generation of Queensland demonstrators clash with the police in the most spectacular way
The high point of the Right-to-Demonstrate struggle came during the Springbok Tour of 1971. The Queensland government declared a state of emergency for three weeks in an attempt to prevent demonstrations. Nevertheless, demonstrations against the Springbok Tour assumed massive proportions.
The Trades and Labor Council and 40 unions called a strike against the state of emergency. The battle against the government during the Springbok Tour radicalised a whole generation of Queenslanders, including the present Labor Premier, Peter Beattie who, along with many other demonstrators, had to scuttle down a steep embankment in a park in Central Brisbane to escape police. The late 1960s and the early 1970s were exciting times in Queensland.
Withdrawal from Vietnam and the electoral victory of the Whitlam government
The culmination of the Australiawide 1960s and 1970s radicalisation was the recognition of reality by the McMahon Liberal government in its dying days, when it began the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. In 1972, the nationwide radicalisation finally found electoral expression in the election of the Whitlam Labor government, which ended conscription, and completed the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam.
The 1971 ALP federal conference in Launceston
I was a delegate, elected by the skin of my teeth, the one delegate representing the NSW ALP Socialist Left, at the 1971 ALP federal conference, just before the victory of the Whitlam covernment. At that conference I got a bit of an insight into the Being For Self, so to speak, of the Queensland ALP Old Guard.
At this conference, the essentially dominant factional forces were Clyde Cameron and his younger protege Mick Young from South Australia, and Jack Egerton and Tom Burns, the ALP parliamentary leader, from Queensland. They did their best to ensure a smooth conference for Whitlam by avoiding anything too radical.
Cameron suffered one major setback at this conference when his prices and incomes freeze proposals were effectively defeated in an agitation in which the Victorian Socialist Left and myself played a significant role. In that debate, their syndicalist traditions led even the Queensland Old Guard to draw back from Cameron’s industrial proposals.
The Queensland Old Guard federal conference delegates read the newspapers
On everything else, the tight bloc between the South Australians and the Queenslanders prevailed in defeating all propositions considered too radical with which to encumber Whitlam. These Queensland delegates were big, burly, overweight trade union bureaucrats of the left, with a rather skinny Bill Hayden and Tom Burns sandwiched in the middle.
Frank Waters, one of their leaders, from the postal workers, made a great point of offering the use, to all and sundry, of the queue of Commonwealth cars parked patiently outside the conference, with their drivers. Each morning of the five-day conference, at about 11 o’clock, Waters would make a bit of a show going down to the Launceston newsagent in one of the Commonwealth cars and bringing back the Queensland papers, which the bunch of Queensland delegates would then read ostentatiously inside the conference.
This daily tableau was quite striking, as in those days federal conference only had about 40 delegates, six from each state, plus the parliamentary leaders, and the picture of six burly union bureaucrats reading the Courier Mail from cover to cover, in apparent disrespect for the proceedings, made quite an impact.
Reading the paper did not prevent the Queensland delegates from putting their hands up as a bloc when tapped on the shoulder to vote down leftist proposals. Each night after the conference closed, the Queensland delegates would be the centre of the conviviality in the bar, singing The Red Flag and other revolutionary songs in an exuberant way. Jack Egerton, the leader of the singing, was later knighted by the Queen, and was expelled from the ALP for accepting the knighthood.
The long battle to reform the Queensland ALP and defeat the Old Guard
After Kerr’s Coup against the Whitlam government in 1975, there was a massive influx into the ALP throughout Australia, including Queensland, of people who had been radicalised in the previous 10 years. In Queensland, these new forces began to collide with the increasingly conservative bureaucratic clique of the Old Guard, who were shifting steadily to the right, and who hung on to power ruthlessly.
The Old Guard routinely accused anyone who challenged their power of being Industrial Groupers, despite the fact that most of the challengers were left-wingers. The events of this struggle against the Old Guard, which went on in the ALP for about 15 years, are described usefully and in detail, in two books, Ross Fitzgerald’s History of Queensland from 1915 to the 1980s (University of Queensland Press, 1984) and in the informative chapter on Queensland by Wayne Swan in Machine Politics in the Australian Labor Party, edited by Parkin and Warhust (Allen and Unwin, 1983).
Discontent with the bureaucracy of the Old Guard produced a reform movement led by such personalities as Dennis Murphy, Peter Beattie and Manfred Cross, in the centre; and Jim Keefe, Senator George Georges, Ian McLean, from the Telecom union, and Joe Harris from the BWIU, on the left.
The reform movement generated the demand, based on the post-federal intervention settlements in the ALP in NSW and Victoria, for an ALP structure in Queensland with 60 per cent from the unions, 40 per cent from the branches, proportional representation for all factions at all levels, and for a new preselection system incorporating proportional representation in a collegiate framework, rather than the then existing system of plebiscites of union members, which was viewed as too easily manipulated by the bureaucratic clique at the centre of the Old Guard.
After a disastrous result in a state election, the reform movement was successful in achieving an initial federal intervention which, however, resulted in a reform of the ALP structure to a 60:40 arrangement between the unions and ALP branches, but without proportional representation.
As well as this, the AWU reaffiliated to the ALP at precisely that moment and promptly formed a bloc, at the first ALP convention under the new rules, with the Old Guard. The Old Guard-AWU alliance consequently had a majority at the convention, much to the frustration of the reform forces, both left and centre, which by this time had the overwhelming support of ALP branch members all over Queensland.
The Old Guard is overthrown and 60:40 with proportional representation is finally entrenched in Queensland
After this convention, the Old Guard-AWU grouping behaved in an even more arbitrary and bureaucratic way. They suspended Peter Beattie and Senator George Georges from the ALP, expelled Joe Harris and they were even unwise enough to attack Bill Hayden, their former ally, who had been recently elected federal parliamentary Labor leader.
Hayden’s enmity tipped the balance against the Old Guard at the ALP federal executive, and a new federal intervention then took place, which removed the Old Guard executive, installed a caretaker executive, and finally imposed proportional representation, as in other ALP state branches.
The Old Guard conducted a bitter rearguard action, refusing to relinquish the ALP’s assets, and mounted a court case against the intervention, which it lost. A Labor in Politics convention was held under the new rules and a four-way factional situation eventually emerged, under proportional representation, with two minority left-wing factions divided by personalities, and the dominant force being an awkward, often stormy alliance, between two right-wing factions, the larger one grouped around the AWU, to which most of the rump of the Old Guard eventually adhered. The smaller right faction was based on the centre members of the old Reform Group.
The most best-known personality in this last group was Peter Beattie, now Premier of Queensland. Over the next 15 years or so, the AWU faction gradually expanded its influence and tended to use its organisational power ruthlessly. Nevertheless, the proportional representation system prevented the AWU from achieving total power, as it had in the previous epoch, and a number of left-wingers were elected to public office. The left had some influence in the general ALP set-up, including usually one of the two delegates to the ALP federal executive. This was quite important to the factional balance in the ALP nationally.
The decline of the unions during the Accord years
In 1982 the federal ALP and the ACTU adopted a Prices and Incomes Accord, placing unreasonable restraints on the activities of trade unions. At the federal unions conference that endorsed the Accord, only one far-sighted union official was game to vote against it.
Enforcement of this Accord was spearheaded by the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy, with the slowly expiring Communist Party taking the lead. Industrially resistant unions such as the Airline Pilots and the Builders Labourers were destroyed.
In the mid-1980s a bitter industrial dispute erupted at the Southern Queensland Electricity Authority, when the state government contracted out major services, thereby destroying hard-won union conditions. The electricity workers responded to this with a combative mass strike, but the trade union bureaucracy in Queensland and nationally, rather than mobilising a general industrial response, eventually left the SEQEB workers twisting in the wind.
They were defeated and victimised. Left-wing film-maker Tom Zubrycki got a grant from the ACTU to make a film about the dispute, but when he finally finished editing it, the ACTU officials found the coverage of the events much too raw for their liking and suppressed the film.
It is now fashionable for young career trade union officials in the ACTU to admit that the Accord was a mistake, and to describe it as a small blip in the history of the trade union movement. However it was a devastating 14-year-long blip, and it had disastrous consequences for the trade union movement, including the trade union movement in Queensland.
Without the previously normal trade union focus on periodic campaigns for improved wages and conditions, many workers could not see the point of being in a union. As a result trade union density dropped from around 50 per cent to a bit over 30 per cent of the employed workforce during the Accord period.
The fall of the Bjelke-Petersen government, and the end of the long period of conservative government in Queensland
In the late 1980s, a major series of corruption scandals and the extraordinary political hubris of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, brought down the conservative government. Adverse findings in the Fitzgerald Corruption Royal Commission eventually forced the dismantling of the Queensland electoral gerrymander in favour of country areas that had first been constructed by the Labor government in the 1920s, and had been extended and perfected under Bjelke-Petersen.
Under the new electoral arrangements, with more or less one-vote, one-value, the Labor government of Premier Wayne Goss was elected. This government proved to have some defects, and was too much under the thumb of the AWU faction. After two terms, it was beaten narrowly in a state election.
However the Rob Borbidge National Party government proved rather incompetent, and was subsequently narrowly defeated by the ALP, which, with the support of an independent, managed to form a government led by the old reform leader, and bete noir of the AWU faction, Peter Beattie.
In its turn, the Beattie Government was precipitated into a crisis by the AWU faction’s electoral rorts, but Beattie’s political skills, combined with the enormous popular resentment of the federal Howard Liberal government’s goods and services tax, produced an unexpected and unprecedented electoral swing to Labor. The Beattie government was returned with the largest majority in Queensland history.
What lessons can be drawn from Queensland Labor history for the activity of organised socialists in the new century?
For our genial Red Professor Jim McIlroy, the conclusion from his three parables is quite simple. If only socialists separate themselves permanently, and forever, from rotten Laborism, engage in some agitation, strenuously denounce the Laborites, particularly the left Laborites, build up the DSP sect and the Socialist Alliance sect, and run in elections from time to time in opposition to the Laborites, eventually the oppressed will turn to this new organisation, which will in due course lead the socialist revolution.
His three political parables, treated romantically, wrenched out of space and time, with the rest of Queensland labour history ignored, are meant to propel the reader towards the above tactical conclusions. Stated baldly, as I just have, this political perspective is obviously doomed to permanent futility.
This is the political perspective for a timeless religio-political grouping, not a serious Marxist perspective, based on an appraisal of current political and social circumstances, combined with a serious examination of Queensland and Australian labour movement history.
McIlroy will no doubt say, in response to any criticism of his historical approach, that these parables are really just three episodes, recounted to acquaint the young with some Queensland labour history, but the selective and rather deceptive way they are strung together clearly indicates, along with McIlroy’s specific conclusions, that they are propaganda for the above perspective, and not particularly effective propaganda at that, when subjected to serious political and historical analysis.
The DSP supports the reactionary campaign to remove unions from the ALP
It is worth savouring the full, right-wing, sectarian enormity of the current DSP perspective towards the Labor Party. Conservative ALP electoral figures, like Mark Latham from the right, and Lindsay Tanner and Carmen Lawrence from the left, are campaigning strenuously, with the energetic support of the Liberals and the ruling class, for the reduction or removal of union influence in the ALP.
This campaign is very public. It can probably, however, be defeated by an appropriate mobilisation of trade union interests in all ALP factions. Properly organised, the unions of all ALP factions are unlikely to accept any self-enying ordinance and give up their institutional influence in the ALP in each state. This seems extremely unlikely in Queensland for instance.
Australia is not Britain, where Labor leadership is centralised on a national basis. Happily, in this instance, federal parliamentary leader Simon Crean is not a powerful, unchallenged parliamentary Bonapartist like Blair. It is particularly dangerous in these circumstances for a left sect like the DSP to continue its campaign to remove the unions from the ALP. This campaign locates the DSP squarely in the same camp as the most conservative sections of the ruling class on this issue.
The Queensland ALP is now at the all-time peak of its general electoral influence on the working class
Recent events have been distinctly unkind to the DSP and McIlroy’s perspective. Just a month or two after McIlroy delivered his lecture at the DSP conference in 2002, the political crisis precipitated by the AWU Queensland faction’s electoral rorting compelled the holding of a Queensland state election in circumstances most disadvantageous to the Queensland ALP.
One would have thought that the scandal over the electoral rorting would have produced an absolute electoral disaster for the ALP but the result was precisely the opposite. The spectacular Labor success in that election had something to do with Labor Premier Beattie’s down-home Queensland folksiness, and his very public distancing of himself from the AWU faction’s rorts, but the underlying factor was the deep discontent of the working class, and the self-employed petty bourgeoisie, with the federal Liberal government after the introduction of the GST.
Nevertheless, the electoral avalanche to Labor was quite extraordinary — about 66 per cent of the vote and three quarters of the seats — in Queensland, where the ALP had been reduced to less than 30 per cent of the vote in the grim years of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In that state election the DSP stood two candidates. One of them was Coral Wynter who ran against Beattie. The DSP candidates averaged only a bit more than 1 per cent of the vote, as did the Socialist Alliance candidates in the lower house in the recent federal elections.
In the recent federal elections, held in the most adverse circumstances for Labor, the Queensland ALP vote held up surprisingly well, at about 40 per cent, two-party-preferred. The Greens got a significant protest vote to the left of Labor. The Socialist Alliance was nowhere in sight of a significant vote.
The Queensland ALP is now at a peak of its mass influence. Most unions are affiliated to the ALP, including, for instance, the rather large Queensland Nurses’ Union. All the unions that disaffiliated from the ALP at the time of the split in the 1950s, and all of the unions that went with the Old Guard, are now reaffiliated to the ALP. One of the old Grouper unions, the clerks, now the ASU, is these days on the left of the ALP after a successful rank and file reform group victory a few years ago.
The two factions of the Queensland ALP left have just amalgamated after a long period of separation. A study of the Queensland Year Book shows that there are more than two million employed workers in Queensland, although trade union membership has dropped somewhat, as it has Australiawide, and union density is now about 33 per cent.
Nevertheless, a number of unions, particularly the Nurses’ Union, are still growing, and there is plenty of scope for serious socialists to be active and effective in trade unions if they adopt a sensible and realistic militant strategy. The recent round of elections underlines, particularly in Queensland, the resilient hegemony of Laborism over the bulk of the organised working class, and a big section of the radical middle class, although these days a significant minority also vote for the Greens.
This set of circumstances is particularly striking in Queensland, where my brief overview of Queensland labour history underlines the point that, in the period after the Labor Split in the 1950s, the electoral allegiance to Labor dropped dramatically. The radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s reversed this decline and created the conditions for the revival of the electoral hegemony of the ALP.
Ultraleft groupings have made a lot of noise in Queensland since Brian Laver and Mitch Thompson started doing so in the 1960s, but these ultraleftist groupings have never come with cooee of making any kind of dent on the hegemony of Labor . The study of Queensland labour history and current circumstances is extremely valuable in helping to formulate a realistic perspective for socialist groups in Australia as a whole, because the way that Laborism has revived in Queensland, from a very low point, without any alternative radical group, of which there were quite a few in the 1960s and 1970s, replacing Labor, underlines the necessity of socialists incorporating a realistic recognition of the grip of Laborism into their perspectives.
A perspective for Marxists in the 21st century
It follows from any serious appraisal of the current circumstances, combined with an overview of Queensland labour history, that the following perspective would be useful to any group of serious Marxists operating in Queensland. An essentially similar perspective is applicable to the whole of Australia, and is thrown into bold relief by a serious inquiry into Queensland labour history.
- First of all, have a serious discussion of all the historical problems of the socialist movement, and the outstanding tactical questions, between the members, as well as the leaders of the socialist organisations, which are for practical purposes in Queensland, the ISO, the DSP, Socialist Alternative, Left Press and various groupings in the ALP Socialist Left.
- Secondly, maintain the useful and effective work done by some of these groups in universities and high schools, to interest younger people in socialism.
- Thirdly, maintain and develop the various agitations conducted by the groups, such as the Campaign for Refugees, the movement against globalisation, the agitation against racism, etc.
- Fourthly, commence a serious program of educational work, common to all the groups, directed at their members and supporters, with a serious combination of discussion and development of basic Marxism, with examination of current Australian reality, linked with a thorough. comprehensive and dialectical account of Australian labour history.
- Fifthly, begin long-term, patient and energetic rank-and-file organisation in trade unions and the working class.
Marxist groups, including the DSP, should adopt a rational strategy, summarised in a slogan like “Build a class-struggle left-wing in the labour movement”.
A genuine attempt to build a class-struggle left-wing, rather than the demagogic caricature of such a left-wing advocated by the DSP, would inevitably involve ditching the completely futile and destructive expose-Laborism-and-all-its-works strategy practised by the DSP.
In sum, the above perspectives, if practised seriously, would necessarily involve the adoption of a united front strategy towards Laborism, and would also involve the socialist groups encouraging the serious development of the Labor left, rather than regarding the Labor left as an organisational rival to be destroyed.
Such a reorientation, the adoption of a thoroughgoing united front strategy, is a necessary precondition for Marxist groups to be able to adopt any serious orientation towards trade unions, the organised labour movement and the working class. A similar united front strategy should be adopted by the socialist groups towards the Greens, with the encouragement of the development of a socialist left within the Greens.
There are problems with this in Queensland, where the Greens are more right-wing than in other states, but such a unity strategy should be seriously commenced. It follows, from all the above, that in present circumstances the futile independent socialist electoral activity should be ditched. This electoral activity has little impact, and the energies devoted to it could obviously be well used in all the other projects suggested in this perspective. The Socialist Alliance should be maintained, not as the ineffective electoral formation it has been, but as the arena for necessary, serious discussion between organised socialists.
January 1, 2002
See also Jim McIlroy’s timeless history