By Peter Conrick
Conrick's History of the
Australian Labor Party originally appeared in Direct Action (the precursor to Green Left Weekly),
newspaper of the Socialist Workers League of Australia, between December 21, 1972,
and June 14, 1973, and was published as a pamphlet by the Socialist
Workers Party in 1979. The SWP is now the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP). This digital version was created by Ozleft. The pamphlet reflected the DSP's attitude towards the ALP at that time, however significant changes were introduced to this viewpoint in the 1980s. This document should be read in conjuction with The ALP and the Fight for Socialism. See also The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the 1984 elections.
For a deeper analytical treatment of the social origins of social democracy in general and the ALP in particular, please consult Jonathan Strauss' series of Links articles on the concept of the labour aristocracy.
1. Origins of the Labor Party
There is no set date for the emergence of the Australian Labor
Party. Its formal appearance in the early 1890s coincided with an
upsurge in working class militancy, but it was by no means a product of
The Australian Labor Party was the product of an evolutionary
process in trade unionism that began in the 1880s and culminated in the
spread of mass unions to important sections of the working class such
as miners and bush workers. The corresponding growth of elementary
forms of class consciousness was expressed in the collectivist ethos of
these new bush unions.
The roots of the ALP lay solidly in these unions, and their
organisational structures were manifested in the emerging political
party. To understand the evolution of Labor political representation it
is necessary to trace the strands of union development in the 1880s.
Initially, the conditions of labour created by the gold rush
aftermath gave a characteristic shape to the Australian labour
movement. The peculiar development of the Australian economy gave the
working class a new composition and weight substantially different from
their European proletarian counterparts. Thus we find (at least until
1890) that the Australian working class occupied a relatively strong
bargaining position with wage increases and reductions in hours. The
perennially heavy demand for labour in the pastoral industry was
matched by the growth of light industry in Melbourne and Sydney and the
demand for skilled and unskilled workers in the housing boom of the
Parallel to such heavy labour requirements was the
and individualism rife among the bourgeoisie. It was not until 1890
that an effective squatters' organisation was formed and ready to take
on the Shearers' Union to win back some of the concessions made to
labour in the relative prosperity of the 1880s. The story was repeated
in the maritime industry, with the organisation of the Shipowners'
Association, as well as the mining industry.
The growth of unionism before 1890 appeared in those
where capitalist ownership was highly concentrated and where the basis
of exploitation was more open. Hence the capitalisation of the mining
industry in the decade 1865-75 and the close concentration of labourers
in this industry saw the growth of the Amalgamated Miners' Association
in 1874, first in Victoria and later extending into other colonies.
Similarly the tight grouping of itinerant workers such as
shearers facilitated the rapid unionisation of agrarian workers.
In short, the mass unions were organisations of unskilled
centred on the most developed sectors of primary industry. Despite the
expansion of manufacturing in the urban centres of Melbourne and
Sydney, unions here still tended towards the more exclusive,
craft-orientated organisations of skilled workers. The urban labour
movement became a complex of small craft guilds dedicated to the
maintenance of an aristocracy of labour. It was these craft unions that
were to prove the greatest obstacle to the growth of independent
working class political action.
The basic successes of union action in the decade 1880-1890
essential groundwork for the emergence of a political organisation,
based on these newly developed structures. Of course, the recognition
of the necessity for labour political representation did not blossom
overnight. As far back as 1856 Victorian Stonemasons had lobbied
parliamentarians on the question of an eight-hour day. The Miners'
Reform League was a prototype of this approach. Created after the
Eureka stockade in 1854, the League pursued purely parliamentary goals
such as the abolition of property qualifications and payment of
members. The Reform League sustained the essentially petty-bourgeois
approach of Australian trade unionism towards political action. Yet
even at this early stage we can find the contradiction that has plagued
Labor Party leaders throughout the party's history: The Reform League
and its unionist progeny were organisations of working class origin,
but at the same time the leadership hierarchy of organised labour
restricted its political direction to parliamentary gradualism and
reformist measures. This ambiguity has remained in practically the same
form to this very day.
This dualism appeared in two of the first speeches made in
parliament by Labor representative George Black in the Legislative
Assembly of New South Wales in 1891. "The men we represent" he said
"are the wage-earners — those who labour with either hand or head, with
either mind or muscle". But on the previous day he had said: "We have
been told that we have come into this House to represent a class. Well,
that may be; but that class is the class of all classes. It is a class
as wide as humanity — so wide that you may describe it as the class out
of which all other classes are built up."
Fifteen years later W.G. Spence, the founder of the AMA and at
time a Labor member of federal parliament wrote: "Our only hope is with
the mass of the people, and above all, with the wage-earners." At the
same time Spence could write: "There are only two parties now; the
Anti-Social Party — those who are against society and in favour of
class dominance and the Labor Party who stands for justice, for right,
for high moral principles ... Labor is not for class but for all."
The strikes of 1890-94
The movement that placed men such as Spence and Black into
parliament was precipitated by the bitter strikes of 1890-94. Within
the space of three years the colonial unions had conceded almost every
major concession won from the capitalist class to that date. The
national confrontations between the unions and capitalist organisations
involved all sectors of production. Seamen, waterside workers,
shearers, coal miners, silver-lead miners, transport workers, were all
locked out by their bosses. Police and military actions were used,
thousands of special constables were sworn in and detachments of light
horse brought out from the barracks.
The bosses' demands for "freedom of contract" raised during
strikes struck at the root of every gain made by the working class in
the previous ten years. In the context of the depression, as tentative
prosperity crumbled around the edges, the bosses' ultimatum threatened
to smash the basis of unionism itself.
The defeats experienced by the working-class organisations in
period produced a variety of responses. Most union post-mortems
stressed the broadening of their organisations, removing restrictions
on membership and the like. If the strikes did nothing else, they
forced upon the smug labour leadership the realisation that the old
exclusionist policies of membership were relics of more prosperous
years. In the context of mass unemployment in the 1890s and attacks on
wage levels, union membership suffered a decline as owners found
workers willing to labour at below average rates.
Also to emerge from these defeats was an increased emphasis on
amalgamation and federation. Without the growth of intercolonial trade
union congresses, the national basis for the formation of the Labor
Party would have been impossible. Again, the demand for federation did
not originate in the strikes themselves but was the product of union
growth in the 1880s.
Turn to the political arena
The political lessons drawn here have two aspects. On the one
the shattering of unionist hopes by this latest confrontation
encouraged many flights to utopianism. The response of William Lane was
but an extreme version of this malaise. Lane's answer to the class
struggle was to gather together a few dispirited followers and start an
Owenite community in Paraguay. Needless to say, this venture ended in
On the other hand, the majority of trade union bodies pointed
necessity of an independent political party whose aim should be the
direct representation of trade union interests. At no stage did this
proposition contemplate a movement outside parliament. In the minds of
men such as Spence, the aims of political labour were as an integrating
force, where the party could serve as the go-between and point of
contact with unions and the capitalist class.
In the words of Spence, the leaders of the trade union
the Labor Party as "introducing co-operation instead of competition ...
not because we are going to abandon the principles that guided men in
the days of the old unionism" but because "we must unite on the common
platform when we speak, and when we vote for reforms that are
Nothing could have been more alien to the leadership of the
unions than a party adapted to a conscious challenge to the power of
the state, let alone to any form of socialism.
The confusion in the union leadership over the class basis of
emerging party was not reflected in its rank-and-file support. Although
the early Labor Party sought the support of groups other than trade
unionists and workers, it was from the working class through the trade
unions that the political power of the ALP arose and was reflected.
The call for a party
The impetus for the formation of a Labor Party was not
the trade unions. The Australian Socialist League, formed in May 1887,
announced a meeting for "the purpose of forming an Australian Labor
Party". The call was stillborn and while the ASL could claim the credit
of being the first working-class body to propose a Labor Party, it was
left to the Trades and Labour Council to launch the party as a
In 1874 the TLC set up a Parliamentary Committee to act as a
and successfully sponsored a worker for parliament. Direct
representation was hampered, however, by the heavy financial burden on
the unions. It was this realisation that prompted the TLC at the
Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congresses of 1884 and 1886 to support
payment of members of parliament.
It was not until mid-1890 that the TLC moved seriously towards
parliamentary action. The decision to commit trade unions' funds to
form Labor Electoral Leagues was in one sense a measure of desperation
as reactions against the strikes hardened. While the union leadership
sought some form of refuge in parliamentary action, the mass of the
working class found in the Labor Leagues what they saw as the means by
which to defeat both the capitalists and their parliamentary machine.
Structure of the party
The collapse of the Maritime Strike in November 1890
interest in taking concrete organisational steps for a political party.
On November 28 the executive passed a motion for the establishment of
the Labor Electoral Leagues, and the TLC parliamentary committee was
delegated to investigate the establishment of branches in all
electorates. The impetus for this formation originated within the
movement itself. Only socialist fringe groups such as the ASL exhibited
any external pressures for independent political action.
In the early years of its existence the ALP's trade union
connections gave it a cohesion that no bourgeois political groupings
had possessed in Australia. This was despite the fact that the party
suffered from a lack of definition over program and composition. The
division that evolved between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary
wings was in reality the most concrete statement of the party's
ambiguity. Many of the prospective candidates for Labor representation
still retained strong links with established bourgeois parties. The
imprecision of the party structure was reflected in fratricidal
conflicts over the pledge of loyalty to the ALP program. It had to be
firmly established that the ALP candidate was not a free agent, but was
bound to a common program.
Perhaps in no period in its subsequent 80-year history has the
experienced the contradictions and confusions of its dual role more
than in its formative years. For many socialists this confusion
remains. Revolutionaries cannot ignore or bypass the ALP today. As in
1890, the Labor Party represents a fundamental political step forward
for Australian workers. It is the only alternative to the parties of
the Australian bourgeoisie, but it also remains an obstacle to the
construction of the mass revolutionary party that is necessary for the
achievement of socialism and the final emancipation of the Australian
2. Labor in power, 1895-1914
The Australian Labor Party grew to political maturity in a
when great changes were taking place in the nature and function of the
Australian state. Federation became the central question to divide the
embryonic political groupings of the bourgeoisie.
It is no task of ours to go into the debate over federation.
it to say that stripped of its legalistic coating, the problem of
federation turned around the question of which clique considered itself
the most efficient and loyal defender of the intertwined interests of
British and Australian capitalism. The ALP had its part to play in this
movement, particularly in dealing with immigration and arbitration,
both key functions of the new, centralised state.
As we shall see later, the role of the ALP in the federal
as a national, centralising force, as opposed to the more parochial
loyalties of the bourgeois parties. It is in this sense that Lenin
emphasised that "the Labor Party has to concern itself with developing
and strengthening the country and with creating a central government.
In Australia the Labor Party has done what in other countries was done
by the Liberals." (V.I Lenin, The Labor Government in Australia,
Collected Works Vol 19)
Federation and the colonial economy
Federation was the most concrete political and administrative
expression of the development of each individual colonial economy. In
spite of rifts over tariffs and protective devices, the overwhelming
trend in these economies was towards national planning, distribution
and marketing, accompanied by expansion of exports. The period
1895-1914 was one of slow recovery from the sharp break in the
expansion of Australian capitalism that had occurred in the 1890s.
In primary industries the general recovery was punctuated by
drought, but then offset by a rise in wool prices and the growth of
butter as an export commodity. The expansion of the manufacturing
industry was assisted by the elimination of customs barriers between
the states. Manufacturing activity, stimulated by the reallocation of
resources under federation, became more specialised and tended to
concentrate in the major states of Victoria and NSW. (See Boehme, Twentieth
Century Economic Development in Australia, pp 18-20) It is in these
two states that rising prices and unemployment most severely affected
The unions hit back
Despite this erratic recovery, the opening years of the
century saw a rising confidence in the workers' movement. After the
depression one of the major tasks of the unions was to restore wages to
their pre-1890 levels. Some victories were won, although any rise in
wage rates was quickly accompanied by the inevitable price rise and
jump in the overall cost of living.
The comeback of the working class movement after the defeats
1890-94 can only be understood in terms of the rapid and often
spectacular advances of political Labor. In the context of these gains
the trade unions were more prepared to take the initiative and assumed
an altogether less defensive posture. Their confidence was further
reinforced by the build-up in union membership in the late 1890s and
Though unemployment remained at a constant 5.5 per cent, it
more difficult for capitalists to obtain scabs than it was during the
depression. Most unions began where they left off in 1890, developing
amalgamation and federation and strengthening their organisational
By 1900 there had been substantial confirmation of the unions'
offensive through the return of Labor representatives in NSW,
Queensland, Victorian and South Australian parliaments. As yet, the
Labor leadership had had little chance to prove its capacities for
strike-breaking, and maintained the fundamental confidence of the whole
trade union movement. (Those unions that had initially opposed the
formation of an ALP soon recanted when presented with a fait accompli.
Quick electoral success brought the affiliation of most unions by 1904.)
The first Labor governments
The ALP did not have to wait long before its conception of
ballot-box reform became a possibility. In fact, barely five years had
lapsed before it was swept into office in the 1899 Queensland
elections. On the federal plane, Australians had only to wait until
1904 before J.G. Watson became the first Labor Prime Minister. Watson's
ministry soon fell victim to the chronic political instability of the
period and the party saw its first taste of power fade within four
months. In 1905 the ALP was involved in Lib-Lab alliances (coalitions
with liberal groupings) in Queensland and South Australia, nowhere
having the numbers to form a stable government on its own.
The party supported constitutional reforms by conservative
governments, often making unprincipled blocs with bourgeois parties.
However, pressure from the trade unions to adopt principled stands in
parliament severely limited horse-trading. At the 1905 Commonwealth
Conference the federal parliamentarians pleaded to be allowed to decide
their own tactics, including alliances with other groups. These pleas
were ignored by the majority of the conference and any idea of
alliances was rejected. This decision led to early breakaway movements
in Queensland, where the ALP had entered a temporary coalition to
achieve adult suffrage. When instructed by conference to break the
alliance, some 12 members refused and left the party, relegating Labor
to opposition for another decade.
The hard line taken on parliamentary alliances at the founding
conference of the federal party and expressed again in 1905 marked a
definite break with the old methods of loose organisation and lack of
control over individual members. These initial problems were resolved
as the parliamentary wing increased its strength and political cohesion
and was able to co-opt the effective leadership of the whole movement.
While Labor grappled with these problems, the bourgeois
began to crystallise, into more precise formations — receiving full
confirmation in the emergence of the Deakinite Liberal Party, which
held government until 1910. The instability of the first years of
federal government came to an abrupt end when the ALP, under the
leadership of Andrew Fisher, won the 1910 general elections. It became
the first federal party to win a clear majority over all other parties
in both houses. In the House of Representatives, Labor won 41 seats to
31 for the Protectionist Liberal alliance (the Fusion).
The main Labor gains were in New South Wales (five seats) and
Victoria (six seats). The Senate result showed that the swing was
Australia-wide; Labor won all 18 seats contested, yielding a Senate of
22 Labor and 14 Fusionists. The 1910 election was Labor's honeymoon in
Australian politics. More than anything else this victory snapped the
bourgeois groupings out of their protectionist-free trade bickering and
laid the foundations for a decisive feature of Australian politics in
the century: the permanent anti-Labor bloc of all capitalist parties.
From here on, Labor faced a reasonably coherent opposition.
Having traced the electoral fate of the ALP in its first 15
it is now necessary to analyse the issues that arose inside the
workers' movement during this period, and which shaped the politics of
the movement outside the purely parliamentary sphere.
Arbitration and conciliation
The question of arbitration and conciliation formed one of the
crucial issues confronting the workers' movement in Australia. Both of
these devices, dedicated to the end of ensuring "industrial peace",
were an integral part of the thinking of the ALP's leadership. They
constituted a key position in the empirical policies of that leadership
and remain there to this day. In the development of the conflict
between the day-to-day struggles of unions and the strategic goals of
political Labor, arbitration and conciliation have been the most
consistent points of contention.
One of the main tasks of the new federation was in this area.
Labor's role during federation consisted mainly of demanding safeguards
and "checks" in the constitution in spheres such as arbitration. It
fell upon John Watson and William Morris Hughes to champion the cause
of flexibility in what was otherwise an extremely rigid bourgeois
constitution. Arbitration proved to be yet another area where the party
leadership could be more "subtle" than the bourgeois parties
themselves. The growth of arbitration and conciliation as legitimate
methods of settling basic confrontations proved to be an important
weapon for governments in attempting to crush workers' militancy and
substituting negotiation for direct action.
W.A. Holman, later a Labor premier of NSW, outlined perfectly
objective role of arbitration when speaking in favour of the 1900
Arbitration Bill: "Today there is one way of settling a dispute; if the
bill passes there will be another way of settling it. All that the
passing of the bill will do is to substitute the method of reason,
arbitration, common sense and judgment for the methods of brute force."
Holman did not elaborate any further on the meaning of those methods of
"brute force", upon which he had so conveniently arisen to power.
Holman's elevation of "industrial-peace" to the level of a
cure-all did not go unchallenged. Attempts to push through arbitration
legislation met with strikes from the coal miners and maritime unions
in particular. However, these challenges were the exception rather than
the rule and the strikes did nothing to stop the passage of the
Commonwealth Arbitration Act.
The ministry of Andrew Fisher (1910-1913) regarded arbitration
one of its most valuable weapons in maintaining its own political
stability. Fisher mapped out what has become a standard manoeuvre for
the party's leadership once in power. The ALP in government has seen
arbitration as a way of escaping its obligations to the workers'
movement — a method of avoiding commitment to unions in industrial
disputes. Thus Labor has been content to demand that unions accept the
jurisdiction and decisions of "independent" industrial courts.
Such concepts were closely linked to the need felt by the
leadership to become the inheritors of Australian nationalism. Their
policy was to transcend class. It was "a national one which they felt
sure would result in the development of the Commonwealth along right
lines and the general well-being of the people", said one of Fisher's
ministry. (Cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics in
Eastern Australia, 1900-1914)
While there was talk of Labor's "national tasks", it was not
perfectly clear how, or for whom, these tasks would be resolved.
It was argued that: "The worker's great concern is not how he
temporise with the robber, not how he might persuade the robber to take
a little less of what he produces; his great concern is rather how to
get rid of the robber." But how was this to be done? — It was the
mission of Australian workers "to effect the social revolution by means
of an intelligent use of the ballot". (Platform of the ASL, in People,
July 14, 1900)
Clearly, this confusion had its repercussions in the early
the ALP. It had to be established once and for all that Labor was a
parliamentary party, no matter how unclear its political ideology.
White Australia Policy
One issue over which there was very little argument was
defence policy of the ALP was closely related to the sponsoring of the
racist White Australia Policy — to the preservation of a white,
democratic Australian nation. Many early Labor leaders such as George
Black and William Lane reinforced and popularised some of the basest
fears and lies. During the 1901 House of Representatives debate, one
Labor member claimed that those Asians "who do raise themselves to the
level of the whites get as cunning as foxes ... they beat us at every
turn". (Cited in H. McQueen, A New Britannia, p 50)
With both immigration and defence, Labor leaders invoked the
fears and most backward elements present in the working-class movement.
Class interests were made to appear complementary to "national
interests" and "national interests" to imperial interests. The struggle
that arose inside the ALP over such questions of war and peace were to
foreshadow the pressures building up in relation to conscription — an
issue that was to split the party in 1917.
The rise of syndicalism
Around this time two influences emerged in the trade union
Both were syndicalist-type currents, one personified by the English
socialist Tom Mann, the other by the strongly anarcho-syndicalist
Industrial Workers of the World.
The ALP's monopoly of working-class support had pinpointed two
distinct responses from Australian socialists in the period before the
outbreak of the First Imperialist World War. Some, such as the IWW had
correctly diagnosed the ALP as a non-socialist" party, but then
proceeded to turn away from the ALP altogether. In the long run groups
that tried to ignore the ALP were condemned to oblivion.
One member of the Chicago-line IWW recognised this when he
that the result of the IWW's sectarian campaign against Labor was that
"workers who regarded the ALP as bona fide were antagonised". (Member
of Broken Hill IWW local, cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour
and Politics in Eastern Australia, p 61).
Other socialists took the view of Tom Mann, and made some sort
attempt to concretely relate to the ALP. Mann was a former secretary of
the Independent Labor Party, a forerunner of the British Labor Party,
and had been brought out to Australia by the ALP to work as an
organiser at the Trades Hall in Melbourne. It was under Mann's
influence that the Victorian branch of the Labor Party adopted what
came to be known as the "socialist objective". In reality, this concept
was fairly remote from socialism. Nonetheless Mann made it clear that
any attempt to ignore the ALP altogether was "doctrinaire, exclusive,
pedantic, narrow ... comparatively useless and perhaps mischievous".
(T. Mann, Memoirs, London, 1923, p 197)
Mann's influence, like that of the IWW, was short-lived. Yet
brief period 1910-1914 syndicalist ideas had a remarkable influence on
the workers' movement. The influence of syndicalism was at its height
when an important dispute broke out in Brisbane during the opening
months of 1912.
The Brisbane general strike
A direct confrontation between the conservative Queensland
government and the workers pushed the ALP leadership to the front of
what was to be its first experience of a workers' mass movement since
the party's inception. The strike followed a refusal by the state to
recognise union rights in public service industries such as transport.
If the strike did nothing else, it did illustrate a new
consciousness within the movement, as shown by the publication of a Strike
Bulletin. The January 31 edition of this Bulletin
carried this remarkable passage: "The Workers Raise the Flag of
Solidarity. First Simultaneous Strike in the World At 6 o'clock last
night the signal was given to down tools. Brisbane unionists nobly
responded ... Superb demonstration this morning ... City business
ceases ... Unparalleled proof of the Solidarity and Power of Labor ...
Brisbane toilers class conscious at last."
The industrial action was accompanied by daily processions
the streets. In each case demonstrations were led by state and federal
Labor MPs. The state threatened that "this strike must end in the
downfall of socialism". In spite of its militancy, the Brisbane strike
ended in defeat after lasting out five weeks. The return to work was
not accompanied by any real gains. (Strike Bulletin, January 31,
1912, cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics)
The Brisbane strike was to be the last major struggle before
imperialist war. In the years leading up to 1912 Labor had made some
spectacular gains. The ALP began its drive into the 20th century from a
minority position, but by August 1914 Labor had created a national
party, in office in three of the six states and fighting to regain
control of federal parliament. Labor could now look forward to becoming
the dominant factor in Australian politics.
3. Labor and the war
War is an acid test for all political parties, particularly
of the working class. The pressures of an imperialist war such as the
one that opened in 1914, proved to be no exception. Capitulation,
chauvinism and narrow national interests triumphed in the European
sections of the Second International. Only the Bolsheviks and a handful
of individuals remained steadfastly in line with the principles of
If parties under the leadership of men with the capabilities
Kautsky and Plekhanov succumbed so effortlessly to bourgeois
patriotism, what of the reaction of a dual-class party such as the ALP?
Labor's response to the war
Given the hegemony of imperial economic ties and ideology in
Australian society, it was destined that large sections of the masses
would temporarily swing in favour of the war in its initial stage. The
claim of the Labor Party leadership to represent a variety of classes
and interests melted into an open and enthusiastic support for the
prosecution of the war. It was Labor Prime Minister Fisher who
attempted to call off the federal elections scheduled for September
1914 in the name of "national stability". The conservative government
in control of the House of Representatives went ahead and called an
election, which the ALP won, gaining control of both the
Representatives and the Senate.
The support of the party's leaders for the war was not an
and precipitous act of patriotism. It flowed from the
class-collaborationist line pursued by the leadership well before the
war and was the extension of the militarist foreign policy advocated by
Hughes and others to maintain Australia as an outpost of European
The characteristic reaction of the union movement was usually
the lines that "we must protect our country. We must keep sacred from
the mailed fist this splendid heritage." (The Worker, August 6,
Among the followers of the Second International in Australia,
Victorian Socialist Party offered a public condemnation of the war. At
the same time the VSP chose to work inside the ALP because of the
influence of "the unions and leagues and conferences at the back of the
Labor Party". Besides, claimed the VSP, the workers stood a better
chance with Fisher than with the conservatives. (The Socialist,
Other socialist sects expressed their opposition to the war
the context of support for the ALP. Rather than drawing towards the
masses of workers who blindly followed the ALP leadership into the war,
the majority of the socialist groupuscules adopted the approach that
the leaders of the federal party were "fakers, twicers and
bloodsuckers". Such predilections belied a fatal attempt by some of the
early socialists to bypass the hold of the ALP on the organised working
As for the parliamentary wing of the ALP, its position on the
was defined thus: "Our interests and our very existence are bound up
with those of the Empire. In time of war half measures are worse than
none. If returned with a majority we shall pursue ... every course
necessary for the defence of the Commonwealth and the Empire." (The
There was never any question among the Labor leadership about national
defence. Even national republicanism was prepared to forego
"independence" in favour of imperial service to Great Britain.
Hughes and conscription
The pressures on the right-wing leadership, from Britain, for
troops, increased during 1915, when William Morris Hughes replaced
Fisher as Prime Minister. Hughes immediately launched an attack upon
the working-class organisations. His first move was to ban the IWW,
which had maintained a persistent antiwar stand and by late 1915 was
gaining some influence among government workers in the railways and
Concurrent with this note of repression was the calculated
Hughes' own political base in the trade union movement. In Hughes'
case, his influence lay in the Australian Workers Union, which had the
largest number of delegates to ALP conference. The AWU was a
conservative union, which favoured arbitration to settle disputes and
usually condemned strike action.
The dilemma of Hughes' position was this: on one side stood
British War Council demanding new divisions of troops for the war of
attrition that was developing on the Western Front and on the other was
his realisation that there would be fierce opposition to the
introduction of conscription. When in August 1916 the War Council
cabled to the Australian government a threat that one of Australia's
divisions would have to be disbanded, Hughes was forced to move.
The proportionally enormous casualties suffered by the
Imperial Forces at the Battle of the Somme and throughout the allied
imperialist summer offensive in 1916 severely extended the already
strained Australian Army. Hughes took great pains to point out to his
audiences that the homogeneity of the AIF would be destroyed unless
conscription was introduced.
He did so in the most calculated demagogic and chauvinistic
possible: "every Australian is bound by every sacred tie of honour and
of duty, every instinct of loyalty and self-preservation to do his fair
share in the mighty efforts of the Empire". Hughes had a long record of
militarist sympathies and he needed no great moral persuasion from the
allied command to commit Australian troops to Europe under compulsion.
(W.M. Hughes, Melbourne, September 21, 1910, cited in J. Main, Conscription:
The Australian Debate, p 40)
The union opposition to Hughes
The Prime Minister did not speak for the rest of the ALP, nor
the whole Labor movement. Opposition to the conscription proposals
inside the working-class organisations rested on the assumption that
national service would weaken the trade union movement and open the way
for a capitalist class attack on wages and conditions. Under the
wartime circumstances of state intervention in industrial production,
the manufacturing sector had expanded and diversified into chemicals
and rubber. But unlike European capitalism, wages in Australia remained
at a relatively high level. The threat of compulsory military service
to the worker became a welcome medium for the industrial bourgeoisie to
cut costs. In particular, the replacement of adult males by female and
child labour resulted in the reduction of wages by 50 per cent in
The allegation that conscription would turn Australia into a
man's hell" was an integral and racist component of the campaign
against Hughes organised by the Labor bureaucracy. While the more
progressive sections of the workers' movement rejected the blatant
racism of some trade unionist arguments, others tended to centre on the
ambiguous, but just as dubious issue of "mass immigration". Of course,
Hughes was just as guilty of racist paranoia as some of his opponents.
As a matter of fact, a large measure of the Prime Minister's assessment
of the danger to Australia lay in an undisguised fear of Japan.
It was the Melbourne Trades Hall Council that delivered the
blow against Hughes' promise to the British government. In May 1916 a
special conference was convened to define Victorian Labor's attitudes
towards conscription, which resulted in a resolution being passed
opposing conscription. Hughes returned to Australia from a trip to
London in July 1916, as yet uncommitted to national service. On
September 1 of that year he attacked a meeting of the Victorian
executive and tried to gain support for his conscription proposals, but
Despite an alliance with Premier Holman in NSW Hughes failed
carry the party in his own state. On September 15 Hughes and Holman
were expelled from the Labor Party.
Hughes walked out with a ginger group of four ministers and 17
parliamentarians, although there was still no formal split.
The conscription campaigns
Hughes was forced to abandon his hopes of getting conscription
through parliament. Even if he had been able to steer the bill through
the House of Representatives, he would have faced an open revolt of
Labor senators. The decision to put the question of conscription to a
referendum was precipitated by several ministerial resignations.
Ultimately the referendum was the only way for Hughes to oppose the
demands of the unions that he drop his militarist posturing. Besides,
he thought he could win.
The mass campaign that followed the announcement of the
was the largest and most intensive confrontation between the industrial
and political organs of the working class and the front organisations
of the Australian bourgeoisie. For scope and depth of mass involvement
Australia has never witnessed a more open battle. Conscription and the
issue of whether working people should be forced to fight and die for
imperialist wars became the touchstone of a renewed radicalisation of
the working class. Under pressure from thousands of workers, the Labor
Party eventually swung behind the upsurge of strikes and lockouts that
followed the aftermath of the referenda and the 1917 general elections.
The first referendum, decided on October 28, 1916, resulted in
rejection of conscription. Hughes ignored this edict and a second
referendum in December 1917 brought an even firmer rejection of
Both results were crushing victories for official Labor and a
unmistakable voice against Australia's continued involvement in the
war. The true winning margins of the referenda have never really been
released. One sector of the vote was especially embarrassing for the
supporters of conscription — that was the voice of the Australian
Infantry Force. The official statistics registered the army vote as a
narrow victory for compulsion, however many reports have since
indicated that the final figures were tampered with. On several
occasions Hughes' agents in London reported on the unrest of AIF
soldiers at the front. If the army did record a Yes vote, it was only
because of reservists uninitiated in trench warfare.
The mass campaigns and the IWW
Socialists and syndicalists alike played a leading part in
back conscription. The audacity of the IWW and their stress on rank and
file organisational forms won them the support of a considerable
section of the labour movement during the war. Moreover, the IWW
produced a weekly newspaper, Direct Action, which sold, around
10,000 per issue at the height of its influence. The importance of Direct
as a focus for building the anti-conscription campaign cannot be
underestimated. Its attraction was borne out by the considerable
attention the Wobblies received from the state repressive apparatus,
including those former Labor men gathered around Hughes.
One of the most influential organs of the imperial
bourgeoisie, The Round Table,
gives this revealing summation of Hughes' position in the Labor
machine. "Mr Hughes has always been at daggers drawn with any section
which has sought to identify the Labor Party with the outlook of
industrial unionism. The Round Table benignly excused the
working class for accepting "that the governing classes of all
countries were responsible for the war". The journal concluded that the
conscription campaign had been largely a struggle between Hughes and
"the alternative of violence and the class war — the social revolution
to be achieved through ... the brute force of organised unionism". (The
Round Table, Vol 7, 1910-17, pp 389-391)
The unremitting anti-conscription campaign of the IWW resulted
growth of support for the movement among the working class. This
influence could have been extended into the army. But rather than
having an interventionist orientation towards the army, the IWW
exhibited a naive anti-capitalist puritanism, which ultimately led to
isolation from thousands of workers already in the AIF.
The abstention from army agitation work was in line with a
general syndicalist rejection of all forms of political struggle.
Thus the IWW rejected all parliamentary action. It made no
distinction between reformist politics and revolutionary politics, and
analysed the opportunism of the ALP purely in terms of its commitment
to parliamentary activity. Direct Action claimed that "for the
first time in the history of the working-class movement in Australia a
paper appears which stands for straight-out direct-actionist
principles, unhampered by the plausible theories of the
parliamentarians, whether revolutionary or otherwise". (Cited in E.W.
Campbell, History of the Australian Labour Movement, Sydney,
1945, p 70)
The IWW was to learn that such sectarian parity did nothing to
mobilise the ranks of Australian workers who shackled their hopes and
aspirations to the ALP.
The indictment of the IWW twelve
In 1916 the central leadership of the IWW was arrested and
with conspiracy to commit arson. It is quite probable that this was a
false charge, but the government availed itself of the opportunity
presented by the trial to pass the Unlawful Associations Act, banning
the IWW and the publication of Direct Action.
Still the bulk of the IWW remained unreconciled towards the
Some sections of the movement re-formed themselves under new names to
avoid the act. The ban on the IWW led directly to the formation of the
One Big Union, which unsuccessfully attempted to unite all trade unions
into one massive organisation along the lines of industry, rather than
by craft. The stillborn plan for the OBU had the support of those who
were to become the nucleus of the Communist Party. Its most
enthusiastic supporters were the Socialist Labor Party, independent
socialists, left-wing ALP members and former members of the IWW. In
real terms the OBU had cashed in on a period of upsurge in 1917,
otherwise its organisational and political influence was negligible.
The 1917 general strike
Two upsurges on the industrial front represented the
widespread discontent over wartime profiteering, high food prices, long
hours and speed-up methods in production, plus the refusal of the
arbitration courts to increase wages sufficiently to offset the
increased cost of living.
The lead-up to the big strike of August 1917 was the coal
dispute of October 1916, which effectively closed down all mines in the
Commonwealth, causing a serious dislocation of most other industries.
Despite its limited demands for shortened hours, its political impact
was magnified by the threat to wartime production.
This tactic was extended to other industries by the adoption
go-slow methods. In the railway workshops in NSW, where syndicalist
influence considerable, posters began to appear, proclaiming: "Slow
work means more jobs. More jobs means less unemployed. Less competition
means higher wages, less work, more pay." (IWW poster, 1916, In I.H.
Turner, Sydney's Burning, p 90)
Attempts were made by the government to speed up work, but all
efforts met with walkouts throughout Australia. The strike rapidly
spread to other industries: coal and metalliferous miners, seamen,
waterside workers and others such as carters and storemen, who refused
to handle blackbanned goods. At its climax, close to 100,000 workers
were involved in what turned into the biggest industrial upheaval
experienced in Australia.
It was not until September 19 that the strike was defeated by
unions agreeing to sign application forms for re-employment. (See J.A.
Sutcliffe, A History of Trade Unionism in Australia, pp
225-232, and E.W. Campbell, op cit, pp 78-102, for details of the
The effect of the split
When Hughes finally broke away from the ALP in early 1917 to
the Nationalist Party, he left the parliamentary wing of the ALP
demoralised and defeated. This was in spite of the success of the
anti-conscription campaign. The political demoralisation of the ALP was
concretised in the victory of the Nationalist coalition in the 1917
elections. It left the Labor Party unable and unwilling to lead the
thousands of workers involved in the industrial upheavals of 1917. The
role of the ALP during the general strike was not so much a betrayal as
almost complete ineffectiveness. It was not the ALP but the bourgeois
Nationalists and employers who smashed the strike. In the parliamentary
arena Labor paid the price of the split: virtual political oblivion
throughout the 1920s, until the rise of Scullin's government in 1929.
4. Labor in the 1920s
The final war years
There exists a deep feeling of war weariness that if taken in hand
can be used to checkmate the jingoism and sophistry of the patriots and
ultimately bring about a stop-the-war feeling." F.J. Riley, secretary
of the Peace Alliance, 1917. (Cited in I.H. Turner, Industrial
Labour and Politics, p 172)
The author may well have added that Labor did not sense this
in mass feeling towards the war. ALP parliamentarians continued as the
most enthusiastic supporters of the war, despite their opposition to
overseas conscription. At the same time, pressure from below had forced
the passage of a strongly worded antiwar resolution through the NSW
branch, which tended to be under the control of more progressive
The motion was passed at the NSW conference in June 1917,
that war was the inevitable outcome of capitalism and "peace can only
be accomplished by the united efforts of the workers of all the
countries involved". In spite of opposition from Labor parliamentarians
this motion was passed unamended. It was an accurate and revealing
reflection of the tenor of ALP politics: on the one hand there was a
militant and responsive industrial-based wing, on the other a flabby
and timid parliamentary body. As the war became more and more
unpopular, the tension between these rival tendencies increased.
Labor emerged from the war in complete political disarray,
licking its wounds after the exodus of the Hughes group, which now held
parliamentary office in coalition with anti-Labor forces. Like most
deserters from Labor's ranks, Hughes moved effortlessly along a
right-wing, nationalist road. The explanation for this rapid shift was
not a sudden "ratting" by Hughes, but the logical outcome of the
pro-imperial wing of parliamentary Labor.
The 1917 split had effectively liquidated Labor's electoral
and ushered in almost a decade of Nationalist government, first under
Hughes, then under the mediocre leadership of Stanley Bruce. The social
and economic upheaval of the war had resulted in new divisions and
alignments in Australian politics and the creation of new parties, all
of which tended, at one stage or another, to displace the ALP as the
focus of working-class politics.
The failure of the ALP to command national politics in the
due partly to the destructive influence of the split, but also to the
division in the labour movement itself between sectors that actively
supported the October 1917 Revolution and others that remained
committed to parliamentary reformism. The impact of the Russian
Revolution, and its morale-boosting effect on rank-and-file militants,
necessitated an even firmer reaffirmation of the principles of
gradualism by the official Labor bureaucracy.
New directions in the economy
The upheaval in political life was an approximation of the new
directions of the Australian economy in the closing stages of the war
and the years immediately following. Except for a brief recession in
1922 manufacturing industry enjoyed a period of expansion and
diversification under solid tariff protection, high export prices and
continued government spending. An important change in manufacturing was
the growth of heavy industry and a move away from the old comprador
industries of the colonies.
In real terms this meant a lessening of direct company ties
British imperialism. The history of manufacturing in the 1920s was that
of government aid to industry helping to make inroads into imports and
ultimately capture the home market from Great Britain. Despite tariff
preference, British imperialism found its share of the Australian
market had dwindled to almost two thirds of its pre-war position by
The United States benefited from these developments, doubled
share of the market and established a firm hold in the local economy.
(See Forster, Industrial Development in Australia, 1920-30)
The growth of heavy industry was epitomised by the founding of
large-scale iron and steel works nourished by government contracts and
The nullification of the old colonial industries and
rise of modern manufacturing produced a general instability in the
allocation of labour. Particularly in the years 1919-22 people found
themselves out of jobs and thrown into new work situations. All the
militancy of the final years of the war did not fade away but was
carried on into a series of bitter and prolonged strikes and lockouts.
The influence of the Russian Revolution
One of the reasons for the upsurge in the closing months of
was the impact of and widespread sympathy for the first successful
proletarian revolution in Russia. News of the February Revolution
reached sympathetic ears in large sections of the population. A dearth
of factual material had condemned the Bolsheviks as liberals in most
peoples' eyes. Little authentic news was available, since most
international socialist publications had been banned by regulation
under the war Precautions Act.
However the Bolshevik victory and the peace on the Eastern
were widely welcomed by almost all extra-parliamentary sections of the
labour movement. Australian socialists tended to support the majority
of the British and French sections of the Second International. News of
the minority Zimmerwald Left led by Lenin and Luxembourg was scant and
it was left to Russian emigres in Australia, many of them Bolshevik
sympathisers, to explain the details of the factional situation in the
From the beginning of 1918 the most militant of the Australian
industrial organisations, the Barrier (Broken Hill) AMA and the
Brisbane Industrial Council, were calling for a Commonwealth labour and
trade union conference to put pressure on the government to declare
itself for immediate peace. By and large the official labour
bureaucracy ignored this call and supported Hughes' demand for
Germany's unconditional surrender.
Labor's reaction to the Russian Revolution
The general upturn in the revolutionary movement
gradually seeped through to many in the ALP. E.J. Holloway, secretary
of the Melbourne Trades' Hall Council, wrote a preface to "a wonderful
speech" by Trotsky (The World Crisis, by Leon Trotsky, preface
by E.J. Holloway, Melbourne, 1922), concurring with his analysis of the
Holloway's position typified that of many inside the ALP, who
responded to the October Revolution in a romantic, sometimes
semi-mystical fashion. Basically, the concept of a Leninist party (such
as it was understood) was seen as irrelevant because Labor's dominance
in Australia "had firmly laid the basis of a new nation". Labor
ideology was to seek an Australian exception to the unfolding of a
class society. While acknowledging the existence of class in Australia,
the ideologies of parliamentary labour hoped to unite all classes in a
utopian state that was above class itself.
More than any other event, the Russian Revolution and the mass
support that it evoked, inspired a "genuine revolt of the unionist
background of the party against the time-serving and inaction of the
The formation of the Communist Party of Australia
Few radical Australian historians have grasped the peculiar
circumstances leading to the formation of an Australian Communist
Party, and the repercussions that these circumstances had on the
orientation of the CPA to the mass working-class party. It would be
impossible in the space available here to analyse this in detail, but
perhaps our understanding of the nature of the relationship between the
CPA and the ALP will be clarified by recalling that the CPA was formed
largely by militants disillusioned with the Labor Party. In this sense
the CPA at its emergence in October 1920 began with a rather eclectic
and haphazard attitude to the ALP. The indigenous suspicions and fears
of early Party leaders such as Miles and Sharkey were compounded by the
intervention of the Stalinised Communist International after 1927. Now
one way, then the other, the Communist Party scuttled about the fringes
of the labour movement searching for a line of clarity, which it never
found. The confusion continues to this day.
The Communist Party of Australia was formed at a meeting in
on October 30, 1920, which was attended by 26 people. At its foundation
the party encompassed three main groupings, already dealt with in
previous articles in this series: former IWW militants led by Jock
Garden, members and former members of small socialist parties, and the
largest socialist party then in existence — the Australian Socialist
Party. (R.S. Ross, Revolution in Russia and Australia,
Melbourne, 1920, p 49)
Two months after its formation, the CPA split over its
towards the ALP. The IWW group favoured "white-anting" or boring from
within, the remnants of the socialist sects opted for an even more
sectarian approach, befitting their petty bourgeois outlook and former
isolation in the labour movement. Rivalries carrying over from the
pre-amalgamation period led the ASP also to distrust the Garden group
and it shortly refused to pool its resources into the new party. The
ASP and the CPA thus came to compete with one another for the honour of
becoming the Australian section of the Third International, the world
revolutionary party founded by Lenin and Trotsky in 1919. Finally,
after delegates from both parties had attended the third congress of
the International, the CPA was granted affiliation (August 1922). The
bulk of the membership of the ASP then left their former party to its
fate and joined the CPA.
While the founding congress of the Third International had
policy of open hostility towards the labour and social democratic
parties, which had betrayed the working class in the war, it changed
that in 1921, after the ebb in the world revolution. It changed to a
policy of forming united fronts with labour parties, a tactic devised
by Lenin and Trotsky to prevent the newly formed communist parties from
becoming isolated sects, sealed off by traditional working class
allegiance to mass parties such as the ALP.
Reluctantly and gradually, the CPA took up this policy, but
of militancy in Australia reduced its influence in the labour councils
to almost zero. Notwithstanding the CPA's recalcitrance, some members
of the party joined the ALP.
A proposed official united front policy at leadership level
the ALP and CPA was defeated due to the ALP bureaucracy' suspicions and
instinct for survival. ALP leaders too, had heard Lenin's dictum that
communists should support them "as a rope supports a hanging man". Only
in 1924 did the CPA win a brief success at the NSW ALP conference, when
it was granted provisional affiliation. It was expelled a few months
For the remainder of the 1920s the CPA was forced back into an
essentially propagandist role, where it lay estranged from the mass of
Labor, on the other hand, secured the support of a new layer
militants with its so-called socialisation objective. (V.G. Child, How
The socialist objective
The adoption of a policy in favour of the socialisation of
production, distribution and exchange by the Labor Party in 1921 was
conceived from two contradictory directions. While acknowledging its
vulnerability to the new-found working-class militancy, Labor leader
Scullin also went to great pains to point out that the objective was an
attempt "to prevent revolution by force". (Cited in H. McQueen, Glory
Without Power, in Australian Capitalism,
ed Playford and Kirsner). Years later Arthur Calwell explained that the
socialist objective would combat "the spurious claims of the communists
to be a working class party". Indeed, one of the more remarkable
aspects of the socialist objective was the procession of repudiations
it suffered immediately following its adoption. Despite its aura of
progressiveness, the objective was never more than talked about. In
many ways it became the concentrated expression of Labor's role as a
block to a genuine socialist movement in this country. This was
especially true in the years of NSW Premier Jack Lang's pre-eminence in
the 1930s. Nevertheless, those proposals for socialisation, in the
words of one ALP delegate were "from 700,000 trade unionists", not just
from the delegates at ALP conference.
While the post-war period saw a rapid growth of the confidence
the workers' movement, this growth soon stagnated and by the mid-1920s
the Nationalist government felt prepared to struggle to win back
concessions it had made in the past. The rate of growth of the economy
had slowed down from a reasonable 3.5 per cent per annum in 1920-21, to
1.5 per cent in 1926. The impetus of a backlog of demands on consumer
durables, and new industries under tariff protection, had spent
themselves by 1926.
The government offensive
The ruling party throughout the 1920s was a combined
Country Party coalition under Bruce. Factional interests and
personality clashes meant that Bruce's government was a precarious one.
It was never solid within itself. That problem was largely negated by
the absolute ineffectiveness of Labor as an opposition to Bruce. In
pure parliamentary politics the ALP was an erratic and rather flabby
current; a reflection of its confusion in the debate between the
supporters and opponents of the October Revolution. The Labor
bureaucracy just did not know where it stood.
Bruce suffered no such confusion. He was perfectly unequivocal
where his class interests lay and led off an enthusiastic redbaiting
attack on Labor for the 1926 general elections. In so doing Bruce
pioneered the first of many desperate red-scare election campaigns that
have been used by the anti-Labor forces. The 1926 campaign of
non-issues was won easily by the Nationalists and Bruce returned for
another three years.
The maintenance of "industrial peace" became an obsession with
and his pursuit of this goal ultimately led to his downfall. The lull
in the working class movement between 1922-26 ended with the
re-election of Bruce and his efforts to shackle labour to increased
hours and strengthen the power of the Arbitration Court.
He tried to amend the Crimes Act to deal with militants and
introduced a bill to maintain essential service industries in the event
of disputes. Bruce was never subtle about his sustained attempts to
smash unionism. In doing this, he frightened the parliamentary ALP into
submission. The result was that Scullin threw his support behind the
amendments to extend the Commonwealth's powers in Arbitration. This
was, of course, in harmony with the ALP leadership's traditional view
that instruments such as arbitration were vital to maintaining the
neutrality of the state apparatus. Scullin declared that anyone who
opposed the proposed amendments was a "traitor". Despite the support of
Scullin the amendments were rejected by the majority of Australians in
In characteristic style, Bruce, undeterred by this
rejection of his anti-working-class legislation, proceeded to amend the
Arbitration Act in 1928. This refusal and an inability to respond to
the interests and desires of the majority of the population cost Bruce
an election. In 1929 Labor won in a landslide and Bruce became the
first and only Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat.
The end of the 1920s
Although Labor had been eclipsed nationally throughout the
had enjoyed a resurgence in state politics. There were Labor
governments in all states at various periods during the decade.
But the militancy of the workers' struggles, particularly the
workers and coal miners in the last years of the decade took Labor by
surprise. The willingness and audacity of the trade unionists to adopt
innovative forms of action, aside from the use of the strike, only
drove the Labor bureaucracy back even more firmly to arbitration and
reconciliation with the industrial courts.
Under the witch-hunt atmosphere of the Bruce government the
looked to political Labor for leadership. Instead, Scullin, and other
Labor politicians such as "Red Ted" Theodore responded with support for
some of the most reactionary anti-union legislation ever framed in this
While ALP parliamentarians carefully avoided the task of
working class in a political fight against Bruce, the industrial
section of the party made some token efforts to carry on "an
unremitting and intensive fight against the arbitration proposals."
Again, the ACTU effectively sidestepped the key issue by refusing to
indicate what form of action should be taken against the amendments.
Thus the way was left open for the Nationalists to protect the
coalmine owner John Brown, who had locked out thousands of miners from
his colliery. The refusal of Bruce to prosecute Brown was a triumph for
the capitalist offensive, despite the fact that the Brown case finally
provoked political Labor into action. Labor's return to power was aided
by the government's "pledge to defeat the class struggle" and the
ruthless attempts to defeat the seamen's strike in 1925 by deporting
leaders of their union, Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnston. (Report of the
1921 Commonwealth Conference of the ALP, p 26)
Out of office for 15 years, Labor had no difficulty in
Australians that it would be a step forward from the most reactionary
politics of Bruce — it was a negative example, but a good one, and so
Australian capitalism entered its most severe crisis — the depression
of 1929-32 under the Federal Labor government of James Scullin.
5. The Scullin government, 1929-32
Australia's second major Labor administration was the
James Scullin. There were complex changes in the labour movement during
the depression of the thirties and these were reflected in internal
divisions and splits of the federal Labor Party through the years of
the worst crisis Australian capitalism has yet faced.
The economic depression that overwhelmed the advanced
world in the early 1930s was of unprecedented magnitude and intensity.
Australia, involved in the cataclysm, was to be wracked by the most
profound social and economic crisis in its history.
It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the
depression for the Australian Labor movement, which proved unable to
cope with the formidable challenges it encountered. Workers' interests
were not successfully defended by either the trade unions or the Labor
governments, which were in office in the Commonwealth and three states.
Under the impact of the crisis, the effectiveness of the unions as the
basic economic organisations of the working class crumbled and the
political labour movement was shattered.
On the other hand, the Communist Party was to become a real
trade union life. More than any previous historical example, the
fortunes of the Scullin Labor government offer an unparalleled view of
the class contradictions that exist within the ALP. One of the decisive
factors in the demise of Scullin was his refusal to take a clear stand
on the basic issues of the right to strike, unemployment and welfare,
which confronted the whole workforce during the depression.
Scullin at first opted for the opinions of the conservative
against the more radical Lang Plan, then under pressure from Labor
caucus, adopted a mid-way position. His vacillation resulted in the
desertion of Labor's supporters, who had looked to the party in the
crisis and ended in splitting the ALP from left to right. In federal
politics, Joseph Lyons stepped into the vacuum as the new
representative of anti-Labor, and from the left of Scullin Jack Lang
emerged to lead the NSW branch of the ALP into direct confrontation
with the federal Labor Party.
Prelude to a crisis
In 1929 Labor won its most resounding victory ever in
politics. From a weak and ineffective opposition of 23 in the House of
Representatives, Labor defeated the ruling Bruce-Page coalition with an
enormous majority. The general elections of 1929 followed the
dissolution of the House of Representatives only, and Scullin faced
considerable limitations on his government's freedom of action. In the
Senate, seven Laborites faced 29 Conservative opponents, and bill after
bill was thrown out. Timidity and an irresponsible satisfaction with
the newly won "fruits of office" frittered away the chances of a double
dissolution. So Labor's office was restricted to negative government
rather than effective political power. In the long run it was this
timidity that prevented Labor following up on its most resounding
One of the first confrontations of the depression was the
Valley coalmines lockout. Ted Theodore, as deputy leader of the Labor
Party, had promised as part of Labor's election campaign that the mines
would be reopened on the miners' terms within a fortnight of being
elected. Pressured by the labour movement at large, Scullin could
scarcely disavow this promise. However, upon election, Scullin refused
to force the owners to reopen the mines.
The only excuse the Prime Minister could make was that there
"constitutional means" open to him to ensure a workers' victory. Lang
advised Scullin to "forget the constitution", but Scullin did not heed
this advice and the mine-owners triumphed. The NSW industrial working
class movement denounced the Labor leader's treachery and cowardice and
thus laid the political basis for the organisational split between the
Lang-controlled NSW branch and the centre faction of the federal party,
headed by Scullin.
On the other hand the Australasian Council of Trade Unions
Scullin, his cabinet was undivided and only three members of caucus
expressed their opposition to his handling of the coal dispute.
The blatant sellout of the Hunter valley actions was the
many similar concessions to bourgeois public opinion, the press and
conservative financial interests, which the Scullin government was
prepared to accommodate.
Drift into depression
Political instability and the intensification of class
confrontations highlighted the serious problems of the country. At the
same time these immediate conflicts diverted attention away from the
worsening international monetary crisis. The more conservative (and
politically influential) sections of the bourgeoisie reflected the view
that there should be immediate wage cuts.
S.M. Bruce's pursuit of this policy had been one of the
his crushing defeat in 1929. Although Bruce had departed, the new Labor
government inherited his specially chosen top civil strategists,
including the reactionary head of the Commonwealth Bank Board, Sir
Robert Gibson. Scullin's second major blunder after the sellout of the
coal lockout was to retain Gibson as director.
It was Gibson who was behind the move to bring Sir Otto
the British financier, to "solve" the crisis. Scullin's sponsoring of
Niemeyer ran up against opposition in the federal executive of the ALP,
which resolved that "any such wage reduction propaganda would be at the
expense and sacrifice of the workers by reducing their wages and living
standards". (Resolution of the ALP federal executive, adopted October
1930, cited in L.J. Louis and I.H. Turner, The Depression of the
1930s, p 64)
By any comparison, the Australian economy fared badly during
depression. Its fate was in common with all countries where world
conditions had encouraged the rapid development of agricultural and
pastoral production, and the prosperity of which, therefore, depended
to an unusual degree upon the prices of the products of these
industries. Corresponding with this vulnerability was Australia's
newness to the capitalist system, which in times of upswing attracted a
considerable flow of capital from abroad. Even if this inflow had been
restrained within the most conservative limits, any sharp fall of
prices was likely to impose a severe strain if the efforts to keep up
interest payments were to be maintained. One of the recurrent problems
of the Scullin government was its failure to pay the rapidly mounting
external debt. (See C.B Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression,
Labor's attempt to deal with the crisis
Scullin's subservience to financial orthodoxy had led him to
that Labor drop every plank in its platform in order to find a way out
of the depression. Despite the fact that one in three of the workforce
was unemployed, despite the creaking welfare and benefits system,
Scullin refused to adopt any of the measures of socialisation to which
Labor had been committed. A proposal to put into effect the
government's election promise to nationalise banking was fobbed off as
"impractical". The crowning disgrace of Labor's domestic welfare
performance in the depression was its decision to cut back pensions and
similar payments by 20 per cent in the interests of balanced budgets
and reduced costs.
It was the attempt of Labor to core to grips with the crisis
led directly to the development of the three plans of Lang, Theodore
and Lyons. All the plans, despite apparent differences of method,
worked for economic stability within the confines of capitalism. In
practice, the Labor governments of the depression sought to promote
what they loosely defined as the interests of the people as a whole. On
both state and federal levels they saw their responsibility to
"national interests" transcending any allegiance to class interests,
notwithstanding the pressure of the union movement.
Despite emergency measures, Australia continued to slip deeper
depression, so that as the months passed it became increasingly
apparent that the government could not, or would not, do much in the
way of redeeming its election promises. A hostile Senate and the
growing confidence of a right-wing rump in the federal Labor Party
reduced the influence of the union movement to wishful thinking. The
Prime Minister bluntly dismissed the unemployment insurance scheme
drawn up by the 1930 ACTU Congress as "financially impracticable" and
at the Victorian ALP annual conference of the same year, Scullin did
not offer any prospect that the workers' interests would be advanced.
Although the governments' records and pronouncements were hardly the
basis for optimism, the trade unions throughout 1930 continued to
assert that determined action on the part of the federal government
would check the depression. Despite tremendous pressures from all
quarters of the labour movement, Scullin remained unmoved.
The personalities of Lyons, Scullin and Theodore dominated the
federal Labor cabinet. Theodore resigned in 1930 as federal Treasurer
when the Queensland (non-Labor) government set up a royal commission to
inquire into the sale of mines at Mungana. (See W. Denning, Caucus
p 105). The commission found that Theodore, while Queensland Premier in
1919, had conspired with others to defraud the government of
Theodore asked for a trial, but this was not granted. When, however,
the Queensland government took action during the following year to
recover money from him and his associates, the jury found in Theodore's
favour and he returned to the treasury. Theodore did not remain in the
Labor Party for long as he was one of many Labor MPs to go down in the
disastrous 1931 elections.
Theodore was a bitter opponent of the extreme conservatism of
as well as an antagonist of the Lang party machine. Since he had
entered Federal parliament through a safe Labor seat in Sydney, he had
been regarded by Lang as a rival for dominance in NSW Labor.
Lang's determination to destroy Theodore had drawn Scullin's
cabinet straight into the centre of another NSW faction fight.
Soon after Theodore became treasurer again, the death occurred
the member for East Sydney, a very safe electorate. The federal and NSW
Labor governments began a fierce contest to gain the affection of the
Labor vote in this distressed inner-suburban area. This contest
sharpened because it coincided with a premier's conference on the
economic crisis, at which the first battle of the three plans was
Theodore and Scullin devised a plan which was intended to
Lang, and at first the NSW premier seemed ready to accept. Lang was not
ready, however, to appear to compromise himself in the eyes of the East
Sydney rank-and-file militants. In response to the federal plan, Lang
concocted an even more radical economic draft in an effort to stem the
rising combativity of the Sydney working class. Lang eventually won the
fight to represent Labor in East Sydney, and E.J. Ward thus entered the
House of Representatives, whereupon Scullin ruled that the new member
was not eligible to enter the federal ALP caucus.
Ward and some sympathisers then left the party room. All told,
senators and five members of the House broke away, robbing Scullin of
his majority in the lower house. Eventually a Lang attack on Theodore
brought down the Scullin government, the five Langites in the House
joining hands with the conservative opposition (For details see J.R.
Robertson, Scullin as Prime Minister, in The Great
Depression in Australia,
ed Robert Cooksey, pp 31-32). Scullin had seriously miscalculated the
strength of opposition within the party to Theodore and at the same
time failed to recognise the incipient power of the mass workers'
movement that was developing behind Lang.
Lang used the militancy of the workers as a lever for
with Scullin. Within a few months, the extraparliamentary movement of
unemployed and oppressed workers was making its own impression inside
the federal cabinet. Whereas a non-Labor government could sit in
relative isolation from the demands of the workers' movement, Scullin
could not. Bereft of a viable alternative, the workers' aspirations
remained directly focused upon the Labor government in Canberra. By the
end of his office it was not the conservative financiers that dogged
Scullin, but the mass movement of workers, which had thrust him into
power only 20 months previous.
By March 1931 the NSW ALP executive had been expelled by a
interstate ALP conference and soon there were to be two rival Labor
parties in NSW.
Confusion in the party
As mid 1931 approached, the federal government was faced with
prospect of imminent defeat. Workers were being informed by Scullin and
other Labor leaders that the bottom had been reached, but the way out
was clouded by the bitter differences of opinion over financial policy
that were convulsing the movement. As a correspondent in the Labor
Despite the desperate position of the nation and the sufferings
of hundreds of thousands of unemployed, half a dozen schools of thought
within the Labor camp are broadcasting their opinion vehemently,
bewildering most of their supporters and rendering it almost impossible
for the average elector to thread the maze of conflicting policies. (Labor
Call, April 30, 1931)
Lang's plan adopted
In the end it was the simple, yet economically naive, plan of
that was to be taken up by the Labor movement. At the core of Lang's
proposals were the reduction of interest on government borrowings and
the abolition of the gold standard. The essence of Theodore's plan was
"the creation of additional bank credit, concurrently with reductions
in government expenditure, and a reduction of costs in industry. (Cited
in L.J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression, p 91)
The attempt by Labor to cope with the 1930s depression
strange theories of international monetary plots. More often than not
the theories of "money power" ascribed the world's ills to the
"nefarious operations" and "selfish incompetence of financiers".(Cited
in L.J. Louis, Trade Unions and the Depression, p 91) Not only
did such beliefs conjure up conspiratorial ideas on the functioning of
capitalist society, they also facilitated the rise of a new wave of
economic nationalism. Once more high tariff rates and protection became
the cornerstone of the ideology and politics of the Labor leadership.
But this time, the faith of Labor caucus in its national role was
virtually ignored by the thousands of unemployed and starving unionists
who now sought the apparently more radical solutions of the Lang Labor
6. Lang and the 1930s
J.T. Lang is unique in the rather tepid and uninspiring
the Australian working-class movement, and indeed, in Australian
politics. For three vital years (1930-33) Lang held the most powerful
industrial and political combination of Labor forces in the palm of his
hand. Within his own stronghold of NSW, Lang dominated Labor politics
for the entire 1930s. It was not until 1939 that he was successfully
removed from the leadership of the NSW Labor Party, or "Lang Labor
Party" as it was known. Apart from this unparalleled political
strength, Lang was possessed of a strong character and even a (somewhat
limited) dosage of charismatic leadership.
In part, this charisma has been mythologized over the years by
Lang's estrangement from the official Labor movement and also
reinforced in his own writings since the depression. The three major
works Why I Fight, The Turbulent Years and The
offer no special historical insights, although sections of each can be
valuable, and generally serve the doubtful purpose of clouding and
mystifying the actual role played by Lang. These books, as Lang himself
later admitted, were and still remain, valuable tools in concretising
his figure as some sort of legend, albeit a minor one.
Lang and the depression
No matter how large the person of Lang emerges in this period,
should be stressed that it is not Lang himself but the social forces on
which he drew for support that are significant. The real actors in this
scene are the militant rank-and-file ALP activists, the organisers of
the unemployed and, of course, the workers and unemployed themselves.
At the height of his power Lang could have led the NSW working class in
any direction he chose.
In the final analysis it was the path to parliamentary
not revolutionary conclusions that Lang decided upon. Behind the
rhetoric of "financial imperialism" and "foreign masters" lay a new
sort of revolution which "has come — is being fought, and will continue
a little into the future. It has come without our streets being
barricaded, without the accompaniment of fire-arms, but in the way the
Labor movement has always said it would come, by Act of Parliament." (Sydney
October 5, 1931) The promise of socialism through "act of parliament"
was used time and time again by Lang to pacify and redirect workers at
his meetings who were calling to be armed.
It was in this sense that Lang was more valuable to the
powers than their hysterical attacks on him were willing to
acknowledge. For three years he consciously pushed back and rechanneled
the fundamentally revolutionary demands of the mass of workers by a
skilful combination of demagogic populism and caution. Lang threw up a
veritable smokescreen of non-issues to divert the dynamics of the
workers' movement. As Robert Cooksey has illustrated in his study, Lang
he could "cancelise the motions of his audience". Lang's populism has
been best preserved in part of a speech that he gave to the opening
session of the 1931 Easter Conference of the NSW branch of the ALP.
"The Labor movement in this state requires more solidarity
before. We must press on our (socialist) objective and do it quickly.
You must get out among the people; you must point out to them the
benefit of socialisation, you must make them ready to receive it."
(April 3, 1931, cited in Cooksey, Lang and Socialism) All the
strength of the Labor premier's rhetoric appeared as a favourable
contrast to the time-serving vacillation of the Federal Labor
government under Scullin.
Sitting in the audience at the 1931 Easter conference were men and
women who took Lang's invitation to socialisation seriously, and who
proceeded to organise themselves along the lines of "socialisation
units". The growth of these units within the Labor Party was so rapid
and their influence so far-reaching that ultimately they struck at the
basis of Lang's power.
In its original form, the movement for unconditional
of all basic industries was to be a limited propaganda campaign. The
aim of this campaign was simply "to propagate the objective of the
Labor Party, ie the Socialization of Industry" (Labor Daily, May
6, 1930). One of the basic functions of the directing committee was
that it was a weapon against Theodore, who had once loomed as a rival
to Lang in NSW. The educative role of the committee boosted its more
overt political aim of frightening the federal Labor caucus.
While the Socialisation Units were firmly in the grip of the
machine, the concept of socialism was a conveniently far-off objective,
although just close enough to worry Scullin. However, for thousands of
rank-and-file of the party, the units were seen as serious
organisations fighting for an immediate objective.
The emergence of the Socialisation Units in 1931 as potential
of mass struggle was a clear challenge to Lang's control. Their growth
outside the context of the Lang machine illustrated the willingness of
Labor supporters to rally around an alternative, anti-capitalist
leadership within the party itself.
Lang's reputation as a radical, partly derived from his
sponsoring of the units, was not justified by his subsequent rejection
of them. By mid-1931, units had been formed in most urban and
semi-urban party branches, each group a potential opposition to Lang's
leadership. The salient weakness of the units' organisation was their
failure to establish stronger union links, particularly at the factory
level. Had the units been seriously organised in the trade union
movement, the outcome of the struggle against Lang may have been
The units and the Communist Party
In line with the general ultraleftist turn taken by the
Comintern in 1929 (known as the Third Period), the CPA had altered its
moderately sectarian appraisal of the ALP to one of extreme hostility.
Local Communists denounced the Labor Party as "social fascist" and
exhorted the workers to create their own "independent" organisations.
This turn away from the mass working class party left the CPA stranded
at the most crucial time. Instead of working within the ALP, they stood
outside and were largely ignored.
The CPA's denunciation of federal Labor as being "social
was matched only by its characterisation of Lang and the Socialisation
Units as "left social fascist". According to the twisted logic of the
Communist Party, the left social fascism of Lang and the units was even
worse than the unadulterated social fascism of Scullin.
To the CPA, Lang was a cunning master of deception, whose
of the workers was only exceeded by that of the Socialisation Units
themselves. The failure to separate the units from Lang cost the CPA
thousands of potential recruits. This was despite the fact that certain
central leaders of the units, notably Tom Payne, were quite sympathetic
to the CPA. (Payne eventually joined the CPA. The other key leaders
were McNamara and Kilburn, both active in and around socialist
groupings for some years. Donald Grant, another unit leader, was one of
the famous IWW 12.)
Throughout the depression, the Communist Party's principal
had been in the Unemployed Workers Movement, and its offshoot, the
Workers Defence Corps, which offered physical resistance to evictions
and the withdrawal of essential services for debt.
In some cases desperate fighting took place between the
anti-eviction committees and police. (Sydney Morning Herald,
June 20, 1931, cited in Turner and Louis, The Depression of the
p 116) Nonetheless, the sensationalism of these actions was no
substitute for the mass work that was required to lead significant
sections of the workforce away from the dead-end of Langism. Unbeknown
to the Communist Party, the Socialisation Units were the organs through
which such an alternative could have been posed.
The demise of the units
For two years the Socialisation Units formed the strongest
formation that has ever existed within the ALP. Whereas in the past
socialist groupings had skirted the fringes of the Labor Party, usually
devoid of any impact, the units constituted an effective socialist left.
The main reason behind their success lay in the depression and
crisis of Australian capitalism. In such a period, the way became open
for an alternative to the reformist solutions of traditional
leadership. When one in every three unionists in NSW was unemployed,
the units were seen by workers as a way out of the "chaotic miseries
capitalism had forced them into". (Labor Daily, July 24, 1931)
Despite their mass organisation, the units failed, partly through a
lack of programmatic clarity and partly because of their weakness
within the unions. The units were eventually severed from the Labor
Party at the 1933 Easter conferences. Lang had reacted violently to
their action-orientated program, but it was only when they posed a real
threat to his machine that he cut them off. After the dissolution of
the local units, some members joined the Communist Party, others
remained inside the ALP, most returned to grey mass of political apathy
from which only the great depression and the Socialisation Units had
The fall of the Lang government
The short-lived influence of the Socialisation Units
a general political upheaval in NSW during 1930-33. In 1930, Lang won
his second term of office as Premier of NSW, after a short,
unspectacular period of government from 1925-27. His first term as
premier had produced some indication of his radicalism through a number
of reforms in the interests of unions, and new social services. It was
in this period that Lang built up a considerable following in the
official union leadership, enough even, to defeat an attempt to remove
him from the position of parliamentary leader. Later, many unionists
came to regret this support, when they found it impossible to dislodge
Lang from the NSW executive.
There was none of Lang's aggressive reformism in his policy
for the 1930 general elections. It was in fact a surprisingly
conservative effort. The elections were held on October 25, and Labor
was returned with 55 of the 90 seats, obtaining 55 per cent of the
total vote. The result was a personal victory for Lang against the
diminishing fortunes of the federal Labor government.
At the conference of Commonwealth and state leaders, held in
Canberra in February 1931, Lang unsuccessfully moved that the
Australian governments "pay no further interest to British bondholders
until Britain had dealt with the Australian overseas debts in the same
manner as she settled her own foreign debt with America". (Shann and
Copland, The Battle of the Plans) Lang's proposal was opposed
by Commonwealth treasurer Theodore, whereupon the NSW premier
introduced legislation to reduce interest payable within NSW to 3 per
cent, and then on April 1, 1931, defaulted on payments to British
bondholders. Theodore retaliated by withholding Commonwealth finances
to NSW and sued the government of NSW for refusing to pay the
After the defeat of the Scullin government, the dispute
with the new Commonwealth ministry under Lyons. By a process of
retaliation and counter-retaliation the conflict between NSW and the
Commonwealth came to a head. Finally the Commonwealth pressured the
governor of NSW not to sign one of Lang's more radical financial
policies, which provided for the state to acquire unpaid mortgages, as
well as directing civil servants not to collect Commonwealth revenue.
When Lang refused to withdraw this piece of legislation, he
asked to resign, but he declined. The governor's response to this
refusal was to dismiss Lang, and Lang quickly withdrew, obviously
frightened at the revolutionary forces he had unleashed. In the absence
of an alternative leadership to Lang, the massive class movement he had
set in motion floundered and was left without direction.
In his memoirs Lang rather belatedly claims he had considered
extraparliamentary action. However, he goes on to say: "I was not
willing to risk the creation of a situation resulting in bloodshed,
particularly as the Commonwealth would have its forces fully armed and
our supporters would largely be the unemployed, without weapons of any
kind." Thus Lang has persisted with the myth that he considered a
mobilisation of the working class. He is more honest when he admits
that "rather than risk civil war and have bloodshed in the streets of
Sydney, I decided to accept the dismissal". (J.T. Lang, The
Turbulent Years, pp 208-209)
Labor in the 1930s
It is often stated that the Great Depression did not end in
but continued to the Second World War. For the majority of Australians
this was true; their lives were visibly unaltered from the days of
1929-32. Unemployment remained at a steady 8-10 per cent throughout the
1930s, and productivity and output remained stagnant at a little above
depression levels. Only in capital inflow and outflow was there
anything like a recovery to the norm of the mid-1920s. Even so, this
largely superficial recovery was exploited by the government and press
as propaganda that "an end was in sight".
But for the majority of Australians, the depression did not
until after the war. As far as the Labor party was concerned, it faced
yet another decade of reconstruction and realignment after the
shattering blows it had been dealt in the depression. In NSW the newly
constituted Federal Labor Party fared miserably against the Lang party.
In federal parliamentary politics, Labor was outmanoeuvred by
Lyons United Austalia Party — the anti-Labor bloc of the 1930s. At the
1934 elections Scullin made little impact on the position of the Labor
opposition. The instability of the ALP's parliamentary group was
compounded by the nagging presence of nine Lang supporters, led by J.A.
Beasley, who functioned as the only effective Labor opposition until
In 1935 Scullin resigned from leadership of the ALP, and was
replaced by John Curtin, who saw it as his task to reconstruct the
Labor Party as "a popular movement, not a class movement" (Cited in H.
McQueen, Glory Without Power, in Australian Capitalism,
ed Playford and Kirsner).
Again the catchcry became national unity. So Curtin fought the
elections on the basis of Australia's defences, arguing more fervently
than the UAP for air and sea power for Australia. This belief by Curtin
and successive Labor leaders in the ALP's destined role as a party of
national unity, has always been a focal point of the ideology of
In a working-class party so imbued with parliamentary
the ALP, it was the commitment to a "national destiny" that enabled the
parish pump politics of Curtin (and for that matter Lang) to function
on the broader stage of Australian and international politics.
7. The Curtin government, 1941-45
Australia in 1939
World War Two was the most significant turning point in
economic and social history. Throughout the 1930s the Australian
economy remained fundamentally linked to the British economy through
markets, equipment imports and capital flow. But by 1945, due to a
series of military and political circumstances, plus the virtual
break-up of the British economy in the war, the way had been paved for
the United States to enter as the dominant foreign power. Describing
this change one observer has noted: "In the long period from the 1890s
to the Second World War, the economic performance of Australian
capitalism had been erratic and spotty ... The understanding of
capitalism held by Australian socialists was identified with
unemployment, widespread poverty and the failure to meet even the most
elementary needs of the masses." (K. Rowley, The Political Economy
of Australia Since the War, in Australian Capitalism, ed
Playford and Kirsner)
The basic groundwork for the stability and growth of the
since the war was laid in the years 1941-45 by the Labor government of
John Curtin. To understand Labor's role in the strengthening of
Australian capitalism during the war years it is helpful to outline the
main features of the economy on the eve of the war.
In 1939 Australia's economy was still largely dependent for
export income on primary production. Even so, this sector was
handicapped by drought over much of northern and central Australia's
wool-growing areas, and by a growing glut in the world wheat market.
Mining, after the gold boom of the early 1930s, was tending to level
out. The promise of building up an overseas trade in iron ore was
thwarted in 1938 by a federal embargo on its export. Manufacturing,
although still protected by high tariffs, contributed only a modest
share to the gross income. Unemployment, although much lower than at
the worst of the depression, still stood at 8-9 per cent in 1938-39.
And in parliamentary politics, the colourless leadership of the ruling
United Australia Party (UAP) passed from J.A. Lyons to R.G. Menzies.
The Australian Labor Party emerged from the sustained
the 1930s, badly battered, disunited and incapable of asserting its
traditional political hegemony over the working-class movement. This
weakness was reflected by the federal party's poor performance
throughout the latter half of the 1930s, when it remained in opposition
to the relatively stable anti-Labor bloc under Lyons.
Despite a shaky unity on the federal level, political Labor
from the continued existence of spilt-off groups in South Australia and
in New South Wales. In South Australia a left-wing formation opposed
federal leader Curtin's attitude towards defence in the form of
"collective security", thus necessitating the adoption of multiple
Labor endorsements in disputed electorates. (G. Sawer, Australian
Federal Politics and Law, ed Playford and Kirsner, p 265) The New
South Wales position was far more complex.
By 1937 J.T. Lang and his followers were recognised by the
party as the legal executive, but their position was challenged by a
progressive left group, the Industrial Labor Party, which included,
many sympathisers of the old socialisation units, as well as members of
the Communist Party. The factional situation inside NSW Labor was
exacerbated by the appearance of J.A. Beasley's Non-Communist Labor
Party. This latter group was comprised largely of remnants of the
moderates who had been faithful to Scullin in 1931 and who were now
embittered by the federal executive's decision to recognise the Lang
faction. (See L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, chapter VII)
Curtin, aware of the delicate balance of forces over which he
presided, took to the centre. As Dr J.F. Cairns (minister for overseas
trade in the Whitlam government) expressed it: "Curtin was able to find
sufficient important issues on which left and right agreed. Curtin left
the impression that the other important issues would, if this were
done, soon find their place on the agenda". (J.F. Cairns in the
foreword to Irene Downing's Curtin of Australia, p vii)
One issue that Curtin could not avoid by his policy of
reconciliation between right and left was international affairs. In
place of conflicting policies over domestic management that had divided
the radicalism of Lang from the conservatism of Scullin, Labor now
faced alternative foreign policies of isolationism and involvement.
Curtin maintained that a strong air and naval force could make
Australia the "policeman of the Pacific". By contrast, the traditional
Labor left advocated a strongly neutralist posture.
An indication of the potential schisms that could have erupted
international events in the late 1930s was the conflict inside the
party over the Spanish Civil War. Curtin confided that he was quite
prepared to openly support a Republican Spanish government, but the
intensity of feeling among the left wing and the Catholic right "all
pointed to one moral: that unity depended on avoiding the issue of the
Spanish Civil War". (E. Andrews, Australian Labor and Foreign
Policy, 1935-39, in Labor History, No 9, p 27) One word on
Spain, Curtin admitted, would split Labor from top to bottom.
The Communist Party and political instability 1939-41
Australia's neocolonial ties with Britain were still firm
Menzies to announce on the day following Britain's declaration of war
on Nazi Germany that Australia was also at war. The first two years of
the conflict were highly unstable ones in Australian politics. With the
UAP rapidly destroying itself, the parliament went through four
successive ministries formed either by Menzies or the Country Party
leader A.W. Fadden. Finally, the UAP coalition crumbled in October 1941
and the first Labor government for nearly 10 years took office.
One of Menzies' first tasks after the declaration of war had
move against the extra-parliamentary working-class organisations. An
atmosphere of anti-communist, "fifth columnist" hysteria was created,
using the Stalin-Hitler pact as a pretext for banning the Communist
Party. The ban, imposed by the first Menzies government in June 1940,
was not lifted until December 1942, 15 months after the Curtin Labor
government had come to power.
From the outset, the attitude of the Communist Party, despite
confusion sown by the non-aggression pact, had been that the war was an
imperialist struggle in which Australian workers should take no part.
In an interview, the secretary of the CPA (J.B. Miles) was quoted as
saying that not one member of the party who enlisted for active service
"will lift his rifle against Russian troops, since he will refuse to
fight and will try to help the Russians." (Cited in The State
Papers, Australia Outlaws the Communist Party, The Age,
November 1, 1972)
Needless to say, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler in
1941 wrought a drastic and far-reaching change in the party's strategy
towards the war. Where official sources had once feared communist-led
strikes disrupting wartime industry, the party now took a leading role
in "softening" workers for increased hours and productivity, all on
behalf of a patriotic war. So great was the desire of the CPA to
maintain its image as a moderate, responsible party that it even went
so far as to castigate those who called for an implementation of the
In doing so, it implicitly supported Curtin's reassurance to
Australian big business that there would be no expropriation of
companies profiting from wartime production. With this capitulation to
national chauvinism, plus the widespread popular support for the
beleaguered Soviet Union, it is not surprising that membership of the
Communist Party sprang from 5000 in 1940 to an all-time high of 23,000
Labor, unions and the war
From the outbreak of war in September 1939 until the
the Menzies government in August 1941, there had been 835 industrial
disputes, an average of eight a week. In the five and a half weeks of
the Fadden ministry this figure increased to 14 a week. The subsequent
decline of strikes under Curtin is a measure of the ability of Labor
governments to use their mass working-class support in the quest for
increased productivity. By the seventh week of the Curtin
administration all disputes had been "settled", thanks to the soothing
influence of Curtin's more radical ministers.
Labor historian Brian Fitzpatrick wrote: "Only Labor could
engineered such novelties of manpower control. Even within the
parliamentary ranks of Labor itself, it is doubtful whether militant
workers would have accepted manpower administration and restriction of
consumer supplies from any others than Mr Ward and Mr Dedman, the
Curtin Cabinet's two socialists." (B. Fitzpatrick, A Short History
of the Australian Labor Movement, p 248)
The methods used to cut back or at least neutralise industrial
stoppages often involved close collaboration with Communist union
officials. The job of the Communists was to act as a go-between for the
government and the rank-and-file in those unions where they had
influence. When this process broke dawn (as it did before 1942) Labor
ministers intervened directly in strikes. One of the most important
struggles of the war occurred soon after the Curtin government came to
power. Four thousand workers went on strike at the Lithgow Small Arms
Factory, which at that time was producing rifles for the AIF. The
strike began with members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who
refused to work with members of the more exclusive Australasian Society
When the dispute snowballed into a genera1 stoppage at the
federal minister for labour E.J. Ward tried in vain for two weeks to
get a return to work. Despite some government concessions, the strike
was a notable example of the way Labor was able to use its mass support
to curtail working class militancy.
Thus, for the duration of the war, business and financial
gave a great measure of support to the Curtin government, realising
that only a Labor government could impose the necessary control on
workers, including wage controls.
Labor's new role
The 1943 general elections were conducted under the threat of
Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland. The elections were
remarkable for the attempts by Labor leaders to disown or downgrade the
position of trade unionists in the party. Prime Minister Curtin
conducted his campaign amidst reassurances that Labor would give "ample
scope" to private enterprise in the post-war years and not attempt more
than was necessary to restore industry, provide full employment, full
production and full consumption.
During the 1943 campaign, Dr H.V. Evatt attorney general and
external affairs minister, declared that Labor "could not govern as a
trade union party". Evatt claimed that Curtin had succeeded because he
had refused to govern in the interest of any group or class. Labor's
task was to guard the interests of the "great middle groups". It was
only along these lines that the Labor movement could claim a right to
govern the country, said Evatt. (See W.J. Waters, Labor, Socialism
and World War II, in Labor History, No 16, p 14)
All possibilities of socialisation, even in wartime, were
Curtin pledged: "No question of socialisation or any other fundamental
alteration in the economic system arises." (Cited, W.J. Waters, Labor,
Socialism and World War II, in Labor History, No 16, p 15)
Not all Labor ministers agreed with Curtin's flat denial of
socialisation. E.J. Ward clearly disliked Evatt's reference to the
party consciously drawing on middle-class sources of electoral support,
and caused considerable embarrassment with his statement that "the
workers would feel secure in the peace under socialism". During the
1944 14-powers referendum campaign (designed to centralise all
employment, housing and health facilities), Ward was again prominent as
an advocate of nationalisation of industry. "What was wrong with
nationalisation if the people wanted it," asked Ward, "They had
returned a Labor government knowing its policy, so why should it be
shackled and prevented from giving effect to that policy?"
The result of the 1943 elections was a landslide to Labor,
outright majorities in both houses. In the Representatives, the ALP won
49 seats out of a total of 74. The Senate figures showed an
Australia-wide swing to Labor. This was also reflected in the sharply
reduced majorities for sitting UAP and Country Party members in safe
lower house seats. Leaders such as Evatt were careful to point out that
Labor's great win was due to cultivation of the middle-class vote. The
1943 elections brought the growth in influence of the new Laborites,
such as Evatt, in contradistinction to the old-style "fundamentalist"
approach of Ward. Evatt was a prototype of the Labor technocrat.
While Evatt is gone, his "revisionism" later became the
Gough Whitlam's federal ministry (1972-75) and Don Dunstan's leadership
in South Australia (1970-79).
The turn to the United States
In late 1941, at the height of Japanese military successes in
Pacific, Curtin made the following dramatic announcement, which was to
change the whole orientation of Australia's foreign policy and
ultimately to determine the shape of its, post-war history: "Without
any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks
to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship to
the United Kingdom. (Irene Downing, Curtin of Australia, pp
Summed up, Australia's external policy was designed to commit
as a keystone of a Pacific strategy. The immediate tasks of Curtin's
strategy were to stave off a Japanese invasion, but it was In the long
term that his plan was more important for Australia's post-war role in
South-East Asia. Curtin's appeal was to tie Australia militarily and
politically to the United States' expansionist aims in that region. The
Labor government, unlike the UAP, recognised that the war was rapidly
destroying the old colonial system in Asia and that attempts to
reimpose it were foolhardy.
Curtin saw Australia's role in this process as that of a major
Pacific power, certainly not as a subsidiary to the US. But in the
post-war carve-up of Asia among the big powers, Australia was not to be
included, except for retaining its colonial hold in New Guinea.
Industrial and military conscription
The issue of compulsory service, whether in industry or the
really arose out of the redirection of Australia's foreign policy.
Curtin, who had been an ardent anti-conscriptionist in the First World
War, became convinced that a form of military conscription was needed
to carry on Australia's war aims in the Pacific. The Prime Minister
attempted to close the issue at a special conference of the ALP in
Instead, he found that rank-and-file opinion was more
about the implementation of socialisation of industry and
nationalisation of banking. His moves foiled by conference, Curtin
appealed to cabinet, and met strong opposition from at least four
ministers. Unlike the mass anti-conscription campaigns led by the ALP
in 1916-17, the l942 affair was confined to the upper ranks of the
party. Eventually, Curtin was able to secure overseas drafting through
the ALP federal conference, and in early 1943 the first conscripts
departed for service outside Australian territory.
The campaign for industrial conscription was less successful.
proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of Australians in
the 14 powers referendum in 1944. This was not before Labor had tried
all other means to authorise the full direction of labour power.
Industrial conscription was one area in which not even the ALP could
use its influence on working-class opinion to obtain such wide-ranging
powers of compulsion.
In spite of these setbacks to its plans, the Curtin ministry
instrumental in effecting a complete transformation in the function and
efficiency of government departments and the public service. Under
pressure of war it had laid the administrative basis for the continued
expansion of private enterprise after the war. When John Curtin died a
few days before the signing of the treaty to end the European conflict,
many of these changes lay incomplete. It was left to his successor,
J.B. Chifley, to implement the remainder of these reforms.
8. The Chifley government, 1945-49
1945-46 were years of triumph for Social Democracy in the
Labor governments were elected to power in Britain, Australia and New
Zealand. The two years immediately following the war were probably the
period of greatest influence ever enjoyed by traditional Laborism. The
former dominions of the British Empire faced the task of reorienting
their economies from total wartime production to post-war growth.
In the ensuing uncertainty, the Australian Labor Party stood
among the parliamentary parties capable of laying the basis for
post-war prosperity. It was easy for Labor to point to its achievements
in managing the wartime economy and shrug off the disorganisation and
faction fighting of the anti-Labor groups.
War and prosperity
The Second World War was important for Australian capitalism
it served to stabilise a youthful, still emerging economy. Basic
industries that had been struggling to establish themselves since the
1920s finally found in conditions of wartime production the assured
markets, the disciplined workforce and ready finance they needed.
The role of the Curtin government in the war was to
intervene in industry help overcome the various obstacles that had been
thrown up in the way of private production programs.
Much of the strategy for this intervention had come through
Treasury under Chifley, and it was only natural that Chifley should
extend the various stabilisation plans he had introduced during 1942-45
into his own government. Chifley met the special demands of post-war
industrial development with assurances of larger markets, increased
labour productivity and availability (through mass immigration), and
assisted wherever possible to expand production along already existing
lines, as well as developing new ones. (S.J. Butlin, War Economy,
The rapid expansion of industries such as chemicals and
rubber and metal-working, arms and munitions could not have occurred
without establishing full employment and limiting consumer spending by
The outcome of these measures in the post-war period was a
level of demand for both consumer and capital goods, which was
sustained by a program of large-scale public works and government
spending. Given the high level of demand and investment throughout the
economy in the years immediately after the war, commercial production
in previously stagnated areas (such as motor vehicles and electrical
consumer goods) became a viable proposition.
None of the above measures could in any way be conceived of as
attacks on capitalism. Indeed, the Chifley government was proud of its
record in stabilising Australian society after the war. Labor could
point to the disintegration of Europe between 1945-47, the crisis in
Britain and, more potently the coming disorder in China, as evidence as
to why Australia should stay clear of the civil entanglements of the
Chifley's foreign policy
Basically, the aim of Labor's foreign policy between 1945-49
get what it saw as Australia's fair share of the post-war carve-up of
Asia among the imperialist powers. Evatt proclaimed that the test of
war had transformed Australia into "a great nation", a nation of
"destiny" in the Pacific. "We cannot escape such a destiny," he
announced, "we can only try and be worthy of it." (H.V. Evatt, Foreign
Policy of Australia, pp 131-133)
Australia's hopes as an industrial power rested on its access
Asian markets, concluded Evatt. At the 1946 British Commonwealth prime
ministers' conference, held in London, Chifley was anxious to allay
British fears of a "desertion" of Australia to the American camp.
Despite Australia' new liaison with the US, it "would not go around the
world begging from people". (Cited in L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley,
For Chifley, Australia was still a part of British
therefore bound up in the future of the British Empire. Turning to the
Pacific, Chifley noted that Australia's own future security depended
upon the alignment of big powers in the Pacific. However, with the
development of government factories and the fostering of commercial
industries, "Australia is seeking to provide the widest possible base
for a supply structure for the needs of the Empire in the Pacific."
(Cited in L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p 283) In the Prime
Minister's own words, Australia was to be the "supply base" for
imperialism in the South-East Asian region.
As to military responsibilities in Asia, Chifley's strategy
identified with the interventionist methods of the United Nations.
During the Korean War, Labor did not demand the withdrawal of allied
troops from Korea. Instead, it avoided the situation, calling on the
United Nations to exercise its powers in the area. In this respect,
Labor's role in Korea was merely to follow the lead of the conservative
Foreign affairs did not occupy a central place in Australian
politics between 1945-49. To be sure, the events in Europe and the
civil war in China attracted a constant interest, but this tended to
form a backdrop to more decisive internal issues. Thus the 1949 federal
elections were fought over the issue of nationalisation, with the
Communist victories in China looming behind. In the words of one
conservative politician: "The lights have gone out on the Yangtze River
... here (in Australia) they begin to dim." (Sir Wilfred Kent-Hughes, VPD,
There can be no doubt that the most significant campaign of
Chifley government was its effort to nationalise the banking system.
The subject of bank nationalisation was a recurrent one during its
entire term of office, and eventually contributed to the Chifley's
downfall. It involved the most systematic and expensive campaign by the
banks to convince Australians that nationalisation of the banks was the
first step towards totalitarian rule.
Of course, Chifley meant no such thing. If the private banks
settled down and worked harmoniously within the existing financial
structure, Chifley would have never moved against them. The government
moved with amazing speed to announce that it did not have the power to
nationalise anything else. Indeed, it was with a sigh of relief that
Labor found it did not have the constitutional power to even take over
banking. Chifley was careful to explain that any talk of the government
nationalising other industries was "sheer nonsense".
At the same time, it came as no surprise that Labor should
nationalise banking. "Money power" was a constant them of ALP
propaganda, particularly under Scullin. Nationalisation of banking and
insurance had been part of Labor's fighting platform since 1921.
Since the end of the war, the trading banks had been pressing
government for a relaxation of wartime controls. Under national
security regulations the wartime surplus funds of the banks had been
held by the Commonwealth Bank, which was to see that trading bank
profits were stabilised during the war at reasonable levels. No
indication was given by Chifley that these measures would be lifted
after the war. The private banks made it quite clear towards the end of
1945 that they were prepared to submit to these controls for the time
being, while finance readjusted itself.
Thus the 1946 federal elections were not fought around the
of nationalisation. In fact, banking did not even make an appearance as
a contentious issue. The result of the election was to return the
Chifley government with six fewer seats, but with still a comfortable
majority in both houses. Nonetheless the election gave Chifley the
opportunity to go ahead with his plans to control the banks.
The provocation for Chifley's attack came from the Melbourne
Council, which had gone to the High Court challenging vital sections of
the 1945 Banking Acts. The Court, naturally enough, had ruled in favour
of the council, thus nullifying the effect of the 1945 acts. It was on
these grounds that Labor decided for nationalisation.
The reaction of Chifley's cabinet to the decision was
"stunned shock" and "unanimous approval". Certainly there was no
section of the official Labor movement at variance with the decision.
This support did not stem from any intrinsic ascendancy that Chifley
may have enjoyed over the party, but from a fulfilment of the
aspirations of the majority of Labor's supporters.
Labor had been divided on many matters before, but
of banking was a plank of party program to which all members had
pledged their allegiance. Again, it should be emphasised that Chifley's
decision was not intended to be the beginning of "socialism in our
time". For federal Labor caucus nationalisation was a tactic forced
down their throats by uncompromising financiers. The government was
soon inundated with representations from various trade unions demanding
the nationalisation of their respective industries. To these
deputations Chifley replied: "the Commonwealth has no power under the
Constitution to nationalise those industries, even if the Government
wished to do so". (Chifley, November 12, 1947, in McQueen, Glory
Without Power, in Australian Capitalism, ed Playford and
Kirsner, p 363)
In response to the government's announcements the banks and
allies in the world of big business launched a massive propaganda
campaign to arouse the public to the "dangers of an extreme socialistic
trend in the affairs of the country". (Cited in A.L. May, The
Battle for the Banks,
p 18) By and large this campaign was successful. The ALP made no really
serious attempt to launch a counter to the banks' campaign. There were
limited initiatives on a state level, depending upon the enthusiasm of
the state branch in question. The responsibility for the defeat for the
proposed legislation must rest squarely on the shoulders of the federal
Except for certain cabinet ministers such as Ward, little
was given to ALP rank and file in a national campaign to secure the
takeovers. By contrast, financial interests had assembled a wide array
of political support for their aims.
An interesting sideline to the bankers' campaign in Victoria
vigorous support of the extreme right-wing League of Rights. Overall,
the campaign was decisive in persuading lower middle-class groups to
turn away from the ALP at the 1949 elections. Their alienation from
Labor in 1949 provided the electoral basis for the prolonged existence
of the Menzies conservative government.
The strike wave: 1947-49
As Chifley's biographer, L.F. Crisp, has noted, sections of
press in their franker moments had to admit that "under his careful
handling of its finances the country was flourishing as rarely, if
ever, before". (L.F. Crisp, Ben Chifley, p321) On the eve of
the l949 elections the press also had cause to be satisfied with
Chifley's record of strike-breaking. During his term of office Chifley
had succeeded in creating something of a record for a Labor Prime
Minister by smashing prolonged strikes with the help of the army.
To understand the background of union militancy in this period
have to examine the relative weight of the Communist Party in the trade
union movement. In 1945 the Communist Party of Australia occupied a
position of power and influence unique among Communist parties in the
advanced capitalist countries. So much so that its influence threatened
the very hegemony of the Labor Party itself in union affairs. Following
its "patriotic" line in the Second World War the CPA launched into a
new adventurist phase.
A series of political strikes after 1947 had given some
the suggestion that the Labor Party was too compromised with the
Communist Party to deal with it firmly. It was not surprising, then, to
find the federal government and several of the state governments used
their legal powers to curb Communist activities in the late 1940s.
In 1949 Chifley introduced important amendments to the
and Arbitration Act and passed the National Emergency (Coal Strike)
Act. The latter act, in particular, gave the state unusually strong
powers to deal with the 1949 coal strike. In addition, the federal
government established the Australian Security Intelligence
Organisation in March 1949. ASIO's main object was to check on the
Chifley also made use of legislation passed by previous
administrations to deal with left-wing activities. Under the Crimes
Act, three leading Communists, including general secretary Lance
Sharkey, were prosecuted on charges relating to the defence of the
Soviet Union. The Labor machine also took organisational measures
against suspected Communists in the late 1940s and expelled a number of
individuals identified with the left of the Labor Party.
Until late 1947 the strikes in communist-led unions were
successful. Most had their origins among a rank-and-file eager to lift
wages, which had been pegged during the war and were now depreciating
in a steep inflationary wave.
By 1947 the Communists were on the defensive within the trade
movement, largely as a result of the adventurist strategies adopted.
Attempts to politicise industrial strikes and to force certain militant
unions to break off their affiliation with the ALP produced disastrous
The Queensland railway strike in 1948 was seen by the state
government as a direct challenge to its power. Thus it introduced
drastic strike-breaking regulations, whose provisions were so
far-reaching that they were condemned by many traditional unionists.
These measures, coupled with the effect of differences that arose as
the strike wore on, ensured its defeat, although a few minor wage gains
were made. The strike failed basically because of the Labor
government's repressive policies and the fact that non-militant unions
could not be drawn into the dispute.
The 1949 coal strike
An even more revealing case of a Labor government's
resort to extreme strike-breaking measures was the 1949 coal strike.
The strike, which arose out of miners' claims for increased wages,
better conditions and a 35-hour week, was supported by a majority of
miners. It was opposed not only by the federal and NSW governments but
also by the ACTU, the press and radio, and, of course, by the non-Labor
parties. The federal government introduced the National Emergency (Coal
Strike) Act , which froze the funds of the Miners' Federation and other
unions that had offered financial assistance.
Seven Communist and two ALP union officials were fined under
and received lengthy terms of imprisonment. Communist Party
headquarters in Sydney were also raided at the same time. Finally, the
federal government sent in the army to work the open-cut coalfields in
NSW. The miners, finding themselves isolated from the rest of the union
movement, also found that traditionalist and right-wing unions opposed
the strike because of the unemployment it had created.
With opinion swinging against them, even within the federation
itself, the leadership tried to prevent the holding of a ballot on a
proposal to return to work. When the ballot was finally held, the
miners voted overwhelmingly in favour of ending the dispute. Almost all
the demands for which they had struck were subsequently rejected by the
Coal Industry Tribunal. The greatest error was the undue prolongation
of the dispute, which only succeeded in exhausting the unity and
organisation of the workers. (See J.D. Playford, The Communist
Party of Australia, 1945-62, PhD thesis, ANU, 1962, pp 95-97)
It is important to chronicle these events. So much folklore
surrounds the so-called "golden years" of the Chifley government that
its vicious attacks on militant unions and civil liberties have been
forgotten, or worse, blanketed by the apologists of Chifley, who
remains a revered figure in the Labor Party today. It is no accident
that at the close of his last campaign meeting in Melbourne in 1972,
Gough Whitlam drew thunderous and emotive applause when he spoke of the
"magnificent achievements of my predecessor, Ben Chifley". It is as
vital a task for socialists today to dispell illusions in the Chifley
government as it is for them to unmask the pretensions of the
inheritors of that government: Whitlam, Frank Crean and company.
9. The 1954 split
Up to the mid-1950s there had been two major internal crises
Australian Labor Party, leading to splits. The first of these involved
the exodus of the Hughes pro-conscriptionist group from the federal
caucus in 1916-17. The second important breakaway occurred during the
depression of 1929-33 and resulted in the expulsion of Lang from the
party. Concurrent with the struggle against Lang was a less significant
exit from Labor politics, centring around the person of J.A. Lyons.
While these splits were politically disastrous for the ALP, their
effect tended to be short-lived.
The party had recovered from the Hughes split by 1929 and was
to win office. Lang's influence lingered for the remainder of the
1930s, but its main impact was an organisational decimation of the
party, especially in NSW. By contrast, the results of the 1954-55
crisis were to render Labor politically and organisationally bankrupt
for nearly a decade and a half.
The impact of this most recent schism had been exacerbated by
fact that it occurred on top of Labor's most successful and extended
period of parliamentary office at either state or federal level. For
the Labor political machine in 1954, this was the bitterest pill to
swallow. Through their post-war successes, Labor politicians had
arrived at a smug belief that they were the best and only government
for Australia. Most carried the idea that the Menzies era was only an
interlude before they would be back again, holding the reins of power.
The opening of the Cold War
The development of anti-communism in Australia paralleled the
of the McCarthyist witch-hunts in the United States. With the defeat of
the Chifley government in 1949, politics took a sharp turn to the
right. The basis for this turn was a stabilisation of Australian
society in the years 1949-52.
Communist power in the unions had declined to a point where
felt confident enough to turn his attack from purely rhetorical bombast
to practical repression, which took several forms. One of these was the
1949 Victorian Royal Commission into Communism, held with the approval
of the Cain Labor opposition in the Victorian parliament. Another was
the stepped-up activities of ASIO. However, the most notorious measure
used by conservative reaction in this period was the attempt to ban the
This outright attack on working-class rights to organise took
form of the 1951 Communist Dissolution Bill. The record of Labor's
attitude towards this measure is an interesting one. From time to time
in the late 1940s, certain ALP leaders had themselves advocated a total
ban on Communist activities. The actual proposal to legislate against
the Communist Party originated in the Country Party during the period
of the post-war strikes and was taken up by Menzies as a sop to his
political minor partner during the 1949 election campaign.
Labor and the Communist Party
Labor's caucus quickly split into three groups in its attitude
the bill. Much of the left and centre, led by Chifley, strongly opposed
the bill and wanted Labor's Senate majority to block it. The second
main grouping was the right of the caucus, much of the industrial right
and the right in the state parliamentary parties. The attitude of this
group was opposition to the bill on the grounds that it would not work.
In neither group was there a strong argument for defending the
democratic rights of radicals. Even on the Labor left it was felt that
the bill was more an inexpedient way to deal with Communists than an
anti-democratic measure. This did not stop some Labor parliamentarians
sensing that Menzies attack on the Communist Party was an implicit
attack on the rights of organisation of the whole Labor movement. But
if some Labor leaders did believe this, they were very much in a
A third, much smaller, grouping actually supported the bill.
caucus this group was led by the pro-Santamaria Victorians, S.M. Kean
and J.M. Mullens. Outside federal caucus, this group was strongly
identified with the fanatically anti-Communist Catholic Action
Movement, and its magazine, News Weekly.
Following a meeting of the ALP federal executive, it was
support the ban in principle while moving amendments to water down the
impact of the legislation. The refusal of the executive to come out
against the bill was founded on the fear of a double dissolution of
parliament if the issue was forced.
The federal executive position was largely shaken, however, by
Evatt's acceptance of a brief from the militant Waterside Workers
Federation to challenge the passage of the act in the High Court. The
verdict of the court was a victory for the unions and practically
committed the ALP to oppose the repression. (F.G. Clarke, Towards a
Reassessment of Dr Evatt's Role in the 1954-55 Split, in Labor
A week after the High Court decision Menzies secured the 1951
dissolution, setting up an election fought mainly on the grounds of
"Communism". Labor gained seats, but not enough for government. Within
a month of the election, Chifley died, leaving Evatt as parliamentary
With Labor under a new leader, the government decided to force
Communist party ban to a referendum, the only legal way left in which
the powers necessary to ban the party could be obtained.
The defeat of the referendum was largely the result of Evatt's
efforts in pulling the parliamentary machine against the bill, as well
as an intense and prolonged campaign undertaken by the Communist Party
itself. Perhaps the most surprising element in the whole affair was the
narrowness of the final majority against the ban. Barely 50.48 per cent
of votes cast opposed the measure.
Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of anti-communism at the time,
verdict was a setback for the conservative repression. Apart from the
conservative politicians, the core of the anti-communist crusade had
been carried by a force known as The Movement, a group that exercised a
disproportionate influence inside the Labor Party and the unions.
Catholic Action, the Movement and the rise of the Industrial
The Catholic Church had always played an important role in the
internal politics of the Australian Labor Party. This is not surprising
when one considers that the overwhelming majority of the labouring
classes before 1949 were of Irish Catholic extraction. Even with a
rapid influx of European migrants into the working class after 1949,
the core of Labor's support could still be identified in this group.
Without attempting to exaggerate sectarian forces as a factor in Labor
politics, one cannot ignore the continuous dialogue between Protestant,
agnostic and Catholic Labor supporters.
In 1954, 60 per cent of Labor politicians were Catholics.
World War II, this influence was most commonly acknowledged in the
figures of Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix and the businessman cum
racketeer John Wren. The influence of Mannix persisted after the war,
but this time buttressed by a more organised group under the leadership
of B.A. Santamaria.
In 1937, the Australian Catholic hierarchy approved the
establishment of a national secretariat for Catholic Action, which
organised a number of associations in an attempt to counter the
influence of the Communist Party, expressly within the unions. In
August 1942 was held the first meeting of a secret organisation of
Catholics, which later became known as The Movement.
This organisation was denominationally exclusive and organised
small activist cells, or groups, within each trade union in which it
was interested. By 1945 The Movement had links in every state in
Australia and received a mandate from the Catholic hierarchy to oppose
militants in the trade unions. It was mainly under the influence of The
Movement that the NSW branch of the ALP in 1945 and Victoria in 1946
decided to form and sponsor official anti-Communist groups within the
trade union movement.
Such groups were to campaign for union office under the ALP
During the war, ALP Industrial Groups had been formed by militants in
some unions in NSW and Victoria to counter the right-wing line of the
Communist Party, which had opposed strikes and other struggles by
workers during the war. After the war these groups were taken over by
the right-wing Movement.
Industrial Groups were also set up in South Australia in 1947
Queensland in 1948. The Movement quickly became the hard core of power
in these organisations, and Groupers soon gained considerable strength
on the various ALP state executives. The influx of The Movement into
the unions was accompanied by an invasion of the party at branch level.
Just prior to the split in 1954, some ALP branches in Sydney
Melbourne were reporting 15 new members joined in one night. The policy
of branch stacking had very little effect, however, as many of these
members were simply names on paper.
As well, concentrations of Movement supporters made it easy
for the official machine to pick off particular branches.
In union ballots, the Groupers were able to capture the
Clerks Union (which remained DLP for many years) the Australian
Railways Union, the Building Trades, the Federated Ironworkers
Association and for some time the Waterside Workers Federation. Most of
these victories were short-lived, the Groupers being unable to
consolidate their positions amid frequent outbursts of rank-and-file
The hysterical, obsessive anti-Communism of the Groups aroused
distrust among many sections of the industrial and political labour
movements. Apart from Communist Party union officials, opposition to
the Groupers between 1947 and 1953 was led by sections of the ALP left,
both inside and outside the unions. It is doubtful whether even this
amalgam of forces could have politically defeated the Groups without
the support of the more moderate wing of the Labor Party.
The success of the left in rallying the bulk of the organised
workers' movement against the influence of The Movement was due to a
number of factors.
By far the most crucial reason was the error of the Groups in
antagonising the middle-of-the-road elements in the unions. Not content
with his attacks on members of the Communist Party, Santamaria turned
his attention to even the most moderate ALP unionists. In Santamaria's
eyes, no section of the labour movement was safe until it had been
purged by the Groups. Santamaria's fatal mistake of turning against
Social Democracy cost the Groupers their most esteemed prize: control
of the Australian Workers Union.
The AWU had earlier aligned itself with the Groupers, but by
its leadership had become alarmed at the increasing power wielded by
the Grouper fraction in both industrial and political arenas. A speech
made by Santamaria in 1954 and circulated inside the AWU, claiming that
The Movement wielded considerable power in the Industrial Groups,
delivered the conservative leadership of the AWU into the hands of
In federal Labor caucus, many traditionalists were also
the fact that the Groupers were hostile towards the ideas of
nationalisation and socialism, which, although their content had been
drained away by the 1950s, were still important symbols in the labour
By their vigorous stacking of union meetings, praising of
States foreign policy, open acceptance of the patronage of the Catholic
Social Movement and in suggesting that the ALP needed to take a tougher
line on Communists generally, the Groupers managed to alienate such
traditional industrial and political leaders such as J.A. Ferguson,
Clyde Cameron, A.A. Calwell, F.J. Kennelly, P.J. Clarke.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that the thrust of
policy was towards the creation of a Christian democratic party on the
European model. The South Australian branch of the ALP, largely on the
initiative of Clyde Cameron, had disbanded the Groups as early as 1951.
In the other states, the Groupers were finding they faced growing
From the Petrov affair to the 1955 elections
Early in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a member of the Russian
Embassy staff in Canberra, asked for and was granted political asylum
in Australia. On April 13, the government, with the approval of the
opposition, pushed through a special measure under whose terms a Royal
Commission on espionage was later established. Throughout the campaign
for the federal elections of May 29, 1954, the shadow of these events
Menzies himself did not refer to the affair (he hardly needed
but many of his followers zealously took up the witch-hunt. Whether it
was intentional or not, the Petrov case, especially in its timing,
discredited the ALP and influenced the results of the elections.
In the event, the government was returned to power, although
majority in the House of Representatives was reduced from 15 seats to
seven. The Royal Commission provided little that was new regarding
Soviet intelligence operations, but its proceedings, involving Evatt,
gave rise to political controversies of the first order.
Individual Communists, including several journalists, were
in the Commission's subsequent proceedings, but the person who suffered
most from them was one whose name was not associated with any document:
Dr. H.V. Evatt. Throughout August and September he fought a long battle
to obtain permission to appear before the Commission to defend members
of his staff who had been implicated in the proceedings.
Evatt's allegations that Menzies, Petrov and ASIO had
conspired to injure the ALP earned him the scorn of the Groupers and News
Weekly. The immediate result of the Petrov Commission, therefore,
was to heighten tensions within the Labor Party.
Evatt chose this occasion to act. On October 5 he accused two
Victorian members of federal caucus, S.M. Kean and I.M. Mullens, of
being disloyal to the Labor Party and of being subject to outside
influences in the form of The Movement.
In the recent elections, said Evatt, "one factor told heavily
against us — the attitude of a small minority group of members, located
particularly in the state of Victoria, which has, since 1949 become
increasingly disloyal to the Labor movement and the Labor leadership.
It seems certain that the activities of this small group are largely
directed from outside the Labor movement. The Melbourne News Weekly
appears to act as their organ."
Evatt was immediately supported by E.J. Ward and Senator P.J.
Kennelly, by the South Australian executive and by most of the trade
unions that were not under Grouper control, including the AWU. He was
strongly opposed by the Victorian and New South Wales executives of the
ALP, which were still under strong Grouper influence. A telling factor
in drawing both of these states behind Evatt in the long run was the
power and prestige of the AWU.
The formalisation of the split took place at the federal
held in Hobart in March 1955. After the conference refused to admit the
old Victorian executive, 17 of the 36 delegates appointed by the
various state branches walked out of the conference in sympathy with
the Groupers. It was from these disparate elements that the Democratic
Labor Party was formed as the parliamentary wing of The Movement.
The epilogue to these events in the summer of 1954-55 occurred
December 1955, when Menzies sprang a snap election. The Labor Party,
shattered at both federal and state levels, demoralised and dispirited,
was soundly defeated, and conceded a 28-seat majority to the
conservatives in the new parliament. For Evatt, the 1955 elections were
a personal disaster and undermined his position of leadership against
the challenge of A.A. Calwell.
10. The Calwell era
The aim of this series has not been to write an all-inclusive
history of the labour movement in Australia. Our purpose has been to
attempt to show the evolution of only one part of that movement: the
Australian Labor Party.
In writing a history of the Labor Party, we have not concerned
ourselves with the subtleties of backroom deals, the running of the
party machine or clashes of personalities. Nor has this series
attempted to analyse in a systematic way the crystallisation of
official Labor ideology, although it has been possible for us to make
some generalisations on its more obvious features.
The specific function of these articles has been to trace the
origins and development of the ALP in relation to events that have
shaped Australian society through the period 1880-1967. Thus we have
traced the Labor Party's response and reaction to the political mass
movements of the day.
Strikes, lockouts, wars and great political upsurges have all
affected the ALP to one degree or another. If we are to draw any
generalisations from the study of this history, we must begin by
observing the extreme vulnerability of the ALP to these historical
Mass pressure reacted on the ALP and in turn the ALP
have seen this response take on a multitude of forms. It is impossible
to predict the exact nature of this reaction, but it is possible to
forecast its political boundaries. The response of the Labor leadership
to a given event has always occurred within the circumference of a
clash of interests between two historical forces. The susceptibility of
the ALP is therefore determined by its dual class representation.
The polarity that strains between the thoroughly bourgeois
program of a parliamentary leadership and the elemental needs of the
trade union movement that forms its base represents a basic class
The common assumption has been that the two co-exist
within the same organisation. Of course this is false. Despite the fact
that the creation of the Labor Party was initiated by the reformist
leaders of the trade union movement, it has not always been true to
Probably the record of the Scullin and Chifley governments
out most clearly on this point. If the ALP is vulnerable to the mass
pressure of the unions, it is equally susceptible to the demands and
requirements of the industrial bourgeoisie. Scullin's subservience to
both overseas and local financial interests, and the accommodation of
private industry during the war by the Curtin government are two good
examples. The ease with which a whole string of Labor leaders have
moved to the right is another.
We have sought to emphasise the impact and effect of
demands and upsurges on the ALP throughout its history. But whatever is
said about the dual nature of the party, the ultimate stress should be
laid upon the fact that the Australian Labor Party has been, and always
will be, a parliamentary party, a party deeply committed to the bogus
traditions of bourgeois parliamentary rule.
The Calwell era
As an epilogue to this series, it is important that the record
the Calwell leadership be examined, especially on its performance
during the early stages of the opposition to the Vietnam War.
By the time the ALP had emerged from the 1958 federal
still scarred from the DLP split, it was obvious that Evatt would have
to stand down as a parliamentary leader. (For a full outline see K.
Tennant, Evatt: Politics and Justice.) It was apparent that
Labor was losing ground with a significant section of its traditional
Catholic base and that Evatt was not doing anything to win back that
The man chosen as the ALP's "final solution" to the problem of
DLP was A.A. Calwell, a former minister in the Chifley government. Not
only was Calwell a Catholic (which obviously worried the DLP) but he
was also an extreme right-winger. Calwell's zealous sponsoring of the
"small business man against the power of the great monopolies", his
chauvinism and racism, plus his mystical regard for the Labor Party,
fitted him out in the tradition of the old-time ALP leader. His
anti-communism was just as obsessive as that of News Weekly (by
now the magazine of the right-wing National Civic Council), and he
boasted of being the only ALP leader on friendly terms with Archbishop
Daniel Mannix. (Calwell's regard for Mannix was lifelong. In a radio
interview he made great play of the fact that despite everything he and
Mannix remained friends to the last, a fact that gave no comfort to the
In further moves to the right the ALP federal conference, for
first time since 1921, reworded the socialisation objective to advocate
"the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and
exchange to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other
anti-social features". (This was a compromise between the Blackburn
Declaration, that only those monopolies were to be socialised that were
inimical to the public interest, and the 1921 full objective.) Along
with the watering down of the objective, most Labor leaders were
forthright in repudiating any charges of socialist intent. Calwell said
that the ALP not only could not nationalise any industry because of
constitutional difficulties, but did not wish to do so even if it could.
The only discordant voice in Calwell's caucus was E.J. Ward,
been narrowly defeated by E.G. Whitlam for the deputy leadership in
1960. He made no apology for his advocacy of nationalisation of rural
industries and went out of his way to explain the socialist objective.
But Ward had always been an aberration in the leadership of
party. His political position was to the left of the traditional caucus
left. He was, in fact, closer to the contemporary Socialist Left
Under Calwell, foreign policy simply became ill-defined.
relied on general support for the United Nations more as a way of
concealing uncertainty than as a positive policy. Labor, however,
reaffirmed its opposition to the use of Australian troops in the
Malayan Emergency and, by implication, elsewhere in South-East Asia.
The 1961 elections
The ALP campaign, the first under Calwell's leadership, was
conducted on the tail end of Australia's worst post-war recession. The
last six months of 1960 were marked by a series of clumsy, almost
disastrous, attempts by the Menzies regime to deal with a balance of
The only method by which the government could resolve the
a short, sharp burst of inflation. It was amid rapidly rising prices
and abortive efforts to control Australia's trade balance of payments
that Menzies suffered his biggest setback. In a remarkable recovery,
the ALP gained 15 new seats, just one short of a deadlock. The seat in
the balance, Moreton, was retained by the government after Communist
Party preferences strayed from the ALP, where the CPA had directed them.
The 1961 campaign was really the first of the technocratic
campaigns. Throughout the early 1960s, the ALP worked hard to
"modernise" its platform. As well as trade union and party officials,
the policy preparation committees were changed to include outside
"experts", many of whom were university graduates.
However, the party did little to cash in on these gains, and
had relinquished most of these electoral advantages. By 1964 new forces
were clearly beginning to shape Australian politics, centred on the
growing United States military invasion of Vietnam. From the outset
Labor was not associated with this extra-parliamentary opposition, nor
even, in 1964, with parliamentary opposition.
In March 1964 Calwell told parliament: "military support is
necessary in the present situation". His first stirrings of opposition
to the war were on the grounds that the longer the war continued, the
weaker would the allied position become. Basically, Calwell never
changed this conditional opposition. Even so, this equivocation has
been lost in the subsequent mythology surrounding the ALP's Vietnam
Early opposition to Vietnam War
The genesis of the massive antiwar movement, which drew in so
ALP supporters, is really in 1960-61, with the Sydney protests against
the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, and in Melbourne with the
Student Action group. (See Richard Gordon and Warren Osmond, An
Overview of the Australian New Left, in The Australian New Left,
ed Gordon, p 3) At a certain point, in 1966 to be exact, these
movements campaigned through the ALP, and the ALP was able to draw in,
and largely control, the nature of opposition to the war.
After the defeat of the Calwell election campaign, and the
disillusionment among students, the radicalisation took on a sharper,
more conscious character and began to bypass the Labor Party. As the
antiwar movement gathered momentum once more, around demonstrations
against the Ky government of South Vietnam, the ALP was forced to take
Before 1966, opposition to the war and military conscription
on the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (YCAC) and the Vietnam
Action Committee (VAC). These organisations united women's groups,
left-wing ALP members and churches, with the traditional left. The
first indication of mass student opposition to the war came with the
visit of US President Lyndon B. Johnson to Australia, just prior to the
An estimated 20,000 people took part in anti-LBJ protests
country. The brutality of police charges against the demonstrators was
a new experience for most students. However, by this time the antiwar
movement had closed ranks behind the militant and spirited, if
chauvinistic and racist, election campaign of Arthur Calwell. 1966 was
the closest Labor ever came to channelling protest towards the
parliamentary system throughout the history of the antiwar movement.
The massive electoral defeat suffered in late 1966, together
the embittering confrontations with police, alienated most radicalising
students from the Labor Party. It was the responsibility of Dr J.F.
Cairns to once again draw the protest movement "away from throwing
stones and petrol bombs" towards parliament where (in Cairns' words),
"the fundamental welfare of the people is attained". (Quoted by H.
McQueen, Living off Asia, Arena, No 26, 1971)
Calwell did not survive the 1966 elections as parliamentary
The election of his successor, E.G. Whitlam, marked the biggest victory
to that time of the technocratic Laborites over the "fundamentalists".
Whitlam's election as leader of the party in 1967 did not go
unchallenged. Calwell, for one, did not conceal his dislike of Whitlam.
The ex-leader was supported by one Labor MHR who attacked Whitlam
during the 1970 Senate elections, complaining that he just wanted
"graduates and academics" around him and had no time for the "fellow
who had been a battler in the Labor movement". (C.E. Griffiths, MHR,
Newcastle, The Australian, November 4, 1970)
Whitlam has attempted to make up for these gross deficiencies
attracting support inside the Labor Party for his image as the logical
successor to Ben Chifley (the previous Labor Prime Minister). But
Whitlam has another ghost: Sir Robert Menzies, whom he also emulated in
office, much to the chagrin, one presumes, of A.A. Calwell.