The rise and fall of the ALP left in Victoria and NSW
- Written by Corey Oakley
In their introduction to The Labor Party: A Marxist Analysis Mick Armstrong and Tom Bramble say that for socialists to understand and orient to Laborism, we have to
first discard one of the lingering illusions that still comforts many a Labor supporter…the myth that recent Labor leaders do not represent the true spirit of Laborism; that somewhere in the dim mists of time there existed a truly radical Labor Party that fought to defend working class interests.[i]
It is true that the Labor Party has never been a party truly committed to fighting for working class interests and the abolition of capitalism. As Armstrong and Bramble point out, from its earliest days the ALP was a representative not of workers, but of the trade union bureaucracy, whose mediating position between labour and capital led it to seek a way to manage capitalism, not overthrow it. But it is equally true that the Labor Party of today is a pale imitation of its former self. The issue is not simply that recent Labor leaders have relentlessly pursued right wing policies. What is most significant is that they have done so with no substantial opposition from any section of the Party or the trade union movement. The trade union leaders and the Labor left, who have historically presented themselves as the guardians of Labor principles, diverge by only the smallest degree from the extremely right wing rhetoric and program of the leadership. Union officials have offered nothing but the most token resistance to the consistently pro-employer industrial relations policies of the Rudd-Gillard governments. The left faction has for the most part stood silent as the Party shifts ever further to the right, to the point where the political divisions between left and right in the ALP have become next to meaningless. Testament to this is the fact that Julia Gillard nominally comes from the left faction.
It was not always so. The history of the ALP is rich in examples of left wing oppositions and union-led rebellions. At no time have these resulted in a fundamental reconstitution of the Labor Party. All the attempts to transform it into a genuine socialist party have failed. But compared with the nonentities who pass as radicals in the ALP today, the union militants and left leaders of Labor’s past were giants. They were also giants when compared to any of today’s Greens politicians, the “watermelons”[ii] The Australian constantly warns us about. In reality the Greens, whether you are talking about its parliamentarians and councillors, or the party’s activists, are way to the right of the Victorian Labor leadership of 40 years ago.
This reality is sobering for anyone who wants to see a working class fightback and a left wing challenge to the status quo. But there is no wishing it away. Understanding the gulf between the emaciated left in Labor and the Greens today and the truly radical reformism of the past is important on a number of levels.
First, the history of Labor radicalism is an answer to those who think that fundamental change can be achieved through parliamentary gradualism and working within the system. If the enormously powerful left reformism of the past was unable to change Labor, it is laughable to think that the timid, respectable, cap-doffing parliamentarism of Adam Bandt or Doug Cameron will achieve anything of significance today.
Second, understanding the Labor left’s history is useful in dealing with the few remaining voices on the left who, usually with a lot of sanctimonious Marxist rhetoric about “relating to Laborism”, insist that the radical left must water down its politics in order to keep allies in the Labor Party and the Greens onside. Of course the revolutionary left should work with whichever forces we can, particularly those connected to the workers’ movement, when we agree on specific campaigns or policies. But to do that it is not necessary to pretend that such forces are something that they are not, or to see a radicalism that does not exist. Understanding the magnitude of the Labor left’s shift to the right helps us to avoid following them there. It will also help us avoid overestimating the significance of any left reformist current that does emerge within or outside the ALP in the future.
Third, understanding Labor’s radical past is a guard against the increasingly common attitude on the left that there is no difference between Labor and the Liberals, and they should be equally condemned as the enemy. This view dismisses the possibility of any radical reformist current emerging from Labor again, but most importantly, it dismisses the importance of the link between the Labor Party and the trade union movement. That link, for good or ill, even today intertwines Labor with working class politics in a way that is true of no other party. As working class struggle revives in the future, the question of the relationship of the workers’ movement to Labor will again come to the fore.
The union-ALP link is important in another way. Some on the left point to the disintegration of Labor Party branches, its declining membership and activist base, as an indicator that a revival of Laborite reformism is unlikely, if not impossible. But as this survey of the post-war left in
The left and the 1955
The modern Labor left has its origins in the
Irish-Australians, victimised by the Protestant establishment since invasion, had long played a prominent role in working class militancy, democratic and socialist agitation, and resistance to the powers-that-be. There had at times been a tension between the Catholic Church – whose priests and bishops were, in theory at least, loyal servants of the
By the 1940s though, “anti-Communism” was becoming increasingly influential in the Church. In 1941 Bob Santamaria, in collaboration with H.M. Cremean, deputy leader of the ALP in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, approached Archbishop Mannix to discuss setting up an organisation to combat communist influence in the unions and the Labor Party. Mannix agreed, and the Catholic Social Studies Movement – which came to be known simply as “The Movement” – was born. Initially a parish-based network of “concerned Catholic trade unionists” the Movement built up its connections with anti-Communists in the unions and the Labor Party, both Catholic and non-Catholic. The Movement began to publish a newspaper, which in 1945 became the infamous News Weekly. Also in 1945, Santamaria secured episcopal support for the Movement as a national organisation with authority vested in a committee of carefully chosen bishops.[iii]
The Movement was a key force behind the “Industrial Groups” in the unions, which were set up by the Labor Party, supposedly to fight communism and win support for the ALP among trade unionists. The Groups were initially supported by many in the Party, including some on the left. But by the early 1950s, the activities of the “Groupers” and the shadowy Movement that stood behind them was starting to cause concern among sections of the Party leadership. One of the first fights was over Labor’s attitude to Menzies’ attempt to ban the Communist Party (CP). Doc Evatt, the party leader, was no Communist – far from it. But Evatt, a lawyer, willingly represented the CP-led Waterside Workers’ Federation in its challenge to the legality of the ban in the High Court. When they won, Evatt led the successful campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum called by Menzies. The semi-open resistance of many key Groupers to Labor’s stance made them increasingly hated by the left. But it was the Groupers’ startling success in the unions that led a much wider opposition to them to develop. Groupers won smashing victories in a number of key CP-controlled unions, most importantly the Ironworkers. This gave them confidence to expand their attacks to anyone, in either the unions or the ALP, who would not rabidly denounce communism and bow to the power of those controlling the Industrial Groups. Arthur Calwell, who took over the Party leadership after Evatt, gave a sense of it in his autobiography:
The Very Rev Monsignor Martin Toal who is now stationed in one of the Vatican colleges once asked a female employee in Mr B.A. Santamaria’s office: “What is wrong with Arthur Calwell?” She replied: “He won’t do what we tell him.” Another Roman Catholic Priest asked the same question of the Rev Harold Lalor, SJ, a most active collaborator of Santamaria’s. He replied: “Nothing, except that he won’t do what he is told.” [iv]
The ultimate aim of the Movement was to transform the ALP from a social democratic party based on the trade unions into a right wing Christian workers’ party. This meant the Movement was a challenge not only to the Communists and the left, but to Laborism in general, and in particular to the union officials who had established the Labor Party as a vehicle for their interests, not those of a section of the Catholic Church.
By the time the Groupers began to openly attack the party leader, Evatt, the tide was turning against them. Evatt launched a counter-offensive aimed at driving the Groupers out of the Party. His key backers were the left wing unions and parliamentarians like the leftist “firebrand of East Sydney” Eddie Ward (famous for swinging a punch at Gough Whitlam in a parliamentary caucus meeting in 1960)[v] and Arthur Calwell. Both Ward and Calwell had Irish Catholic backgrounds. The passion with which they and others like them hated the Groupers has few parallels in Australian politics. Years later, after he’d had time to calm down, Calwell wrote of the Movement:
I am afraid that an inordinately large number of my fellow Catholics are fear-stricken, communist-hating, money-making, social-climbing, status-seeking, brainwashed, ghetto-minded people… This is tough language, but still no tougher than the times and circumstances demand. After all, Christ did drive the money-changers out of the temple. But a majority of present day Christians of all denominations love to make friends of the mammon of iniquity… Until the Catholic church authorities repudiate the manifestations of McCarthyism in the Catholic community and disown the activities of all those who spread their lying, vicious and unscrupulous propaganda against the Labor Party, the church generally will continue to suffer.[vi]
Crucially, Evatt’s support went well beyond the left and other ideological opponents of “anti-communism”. He was also backed by right wing unions, most instructively the right wing powerhouse, the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). The AWU was led by Tom Dougherty, exquisitely described by Raymond Markey as a “hard-living Presbyterian”.[vii] Dougherty had little time for the devout religious zeal of the Movement members, but he initially put up with them as they were giving the Communists a beating, which he was enthusiastically in favour of. But after the Groupers had pushed back the Communists, they shifted their attentions to “corruption” in the unions and asserting their own institutional power, which did not at all impress the AWU. Opposition to the Groupers on these grounds had a narrow, sectional element to it – the AWU leaders considered themselves to be the kingmakers in the ALP, not upstarts like Santamaria. But there was also a broader sentiment driving hostility to the Groups – the belief that the ALP should be the servants of the trade union movement, not the other way around.
The key battleground of the Split, and the one that was engaged first, was Victoria, where the Groupers were strongest and controlled the party machine. At the 1955 Federal Conference in Hobart the Industrial Groups were disendorsed, and the Grouper-controlled Victorian State Executive was dismissed. In their place a radical new, leftist executive was installed, and the Groupers were driven out of the party, forming the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).
The federal leadership and the right wing officials who opposed the Groupers were willing to allow a radical takeover of the Victorian branch, and a deep purge of the right wing, because at that point Santamaria’s movement was the key enemy, and a real threat. When the epicentre of the fight subsequently moved interstate, the right were much more circumspect. The backbone of Grouper power had been broken in Victoria, so the existential threat had faded. The Groupers, instead of forcing a split, were adopting a policy of “stay and fight”. And the challenge to the Labor moderates from the other direction was becoming more apparent. Many in the left, including prominent figures like Ward, saw the battle against the Groupers as an opportunity to purge the ALP of rightist elements and turn it into a “real socialist party”. This, and the press hysteria about the new “commo” Victorian branch, meant that moderate and right wing party leaders were increasingly concerned to prevent a left takeover in other branches. So in NSW the purge was much more limited. Deals were done that enabled most of the Groupers to remain in the party, although they had to cede leadership to the anti-Grouper right. As an article written later in the Victorian left’s Inside Labor, put it:
The 1955 split…had very little effect in NSW. No parliamentarian or major union official joined the DLP. After a brief period in which right, left and centre uneasily co-existed on the State Executive, the right soon put the others in their place and took complete control. The State Parliamentary Party and most of the Federal Parliamentarians continued to be mostly a mixture of right opportunists and right fanatics, whilst the State Upper House, with its peculiar, undemocratic constitution continued to be a haven for superannuated groupers.[viii]
The different way in which the Split played out in different states was a crucial factor in determining the development of Labor politics over the next three decades. You cannot understand the left-right dynamics in any state, or the dramatic differences between them, without understanding the variegated ways the Split played through in each branch. In this article, we are only going to be able to look at two branches, Victoria and NSW. These are the most important branches to discuss not only because they are the most populous states, but because politically, although they form only a part of a variegated national picture, the juxtaposition of the two illustrates most clearly the hope, the great radicalism, the tragedy, and the farce of Labor’s left in the post-war era.
The post-Split left in Victoria
For 15 years after the Split, the Victorian ALP was controlled by a left wing, union-led leadership that was deeply hostile to what it saw as the cancer of “parliamentarism”, and considered that the primary role of the ALP was to support the trade union struggle, not to win elections. The left leaders were driven by a deep hostility to the Groupers, and were contemptuous of those in the Party who accommodated to them. The left worked closely with the Communists in the unions, and were influenced by their Stalinist world view, but in the course of the struggle in the unions sections of the left developed a considerably more radical outlook than that of the essentially moderate Communist Party.
It is often supposed on the left that one of the big problems with the Labor Party is that the branches do not have enough influence. Branch members are held up as the true believers, the beating heart of real Laborism. In fact, in the Split in Victoria the local branches were a key organisational base of the Groupers. It was the unions – and in particular the big industrial unions – which led the resistance and took control of the Party from the Groupers. As a result, the Victorian branch was dominated by union officials in the wake of the Split. In 1954 (before the Split) the powerful Victorian Central Executive (VCE) had only seven union officials on it. On the first post-Grouper Executive, 21 of 24 positions were held by union officials.[ix] There were non-union opponents of the Groupers on the Executive, like right wing party machine politician Pat Kennelly, the embodiment of “Tammany Hall” politics in Australia. But all the officers of the VCE were union officials. Of these, a minority were from the smaller craft unions, but the dominant part was played by the big, industrial, left wing, militant unions who had played the key role in resisting the Movement.
A key instrument in maintaining union control of the ALP was the Trade Unionists’ Defence Committee (TUDC), formed in 1961.[x] Its membership varied over time, but for the most part had representatives from between 27 and 30 unions. The stated focus of the TUDC was preventing union takeovers by “the National Civic Council (NCC) and Mr Santamaria’s infiltration ideas.”[xi] This was no small task. While in a number of states the battle with the Groupers was over by the 1960s, in Victoria the struggle with the DLP raged for another decade at least. The TUDC played a crucial role in pushing back their influence in the unions. This fed back into the Labor Party. Left-aligned unions that constituted the core of the TUDC – the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Australian Railways Union, the Builders Labourers’ Federation, the Electrical Trades Union, the Furnishing Trades Society, the Seamen’s Union, the Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association and the Waterside Workers’ Federation – were not about to let the right regain the ascendency in the ALP. Historian and commentator Paul Strangio writes:
Established ostensibly as a defensive organisation to combat union takeovers by [the NCC], the TUDC, in fact, became an instrument for the left to consolidate its hold over the Victorian ALP.[xii]
The left unions’ tight control over the Party machine gave them the decisive levers of power in the Party as a whole. The Central Executive and its officers had enormously more power over the parliamentary wing of the party than their counterparts today. An important aspect of this was the VCE’s control of preselections, originally established during the Split as a “temporary expedient” but entrenched at the 1960 State Conference.[xiii] But as well, officers of the Central Executive regularly wrote articles in the press putting the line of the Party, and the President spoke on the ALP’s behalf. The Executive saw itself as – and was – considerably more powerful than the parliamentary leaders of the Party. This was not simply a result of the formal mechanisms of control, such as power over preselections. The idea that the politicians in the parliamentary wing needed to be controlled by the party apparatus and the unions was a powerful ethos established out of the Split, and it gave the Executive the moral authority to wield the powers it formally held.
Communists and the rebel unions
Unusually, the rise of the ALP left in Victoria was not the result of a radicalisation amongst workers, or the challenge from a new political force on the left, but instead was enabled by the right. The ALP right, in the top party leadership and in the unions, let the left off the leash because their own anti-Grouper agenda, for a time, fitted with the left’s. The fight against the Groupers also pushed the left towards the Communists. The relationship between the Labor left and the Communist Party, and later the wide array of new leftist forces that emerged in the course of the 1960s, had a significant impact in pushing the Victorian ALP left in a more radical direction.
The left unions that controlled the numbers in the ALP were run not only by Labor union officials, but also many officials from the various communist parties.[xiv] In the fight with the Groupers during and after the Split, there was very close collaboration between the Communists and the ALP in the unions. The Communists, burned by a series of setbacks in the late 1940s – most dramatically the failed 1949 miners’ strike, and the loss of a number of unions to the Industrial Groups – had moved towards collaboration with the ALP from the early 1950s onwards.[xv]
This first took the form of “unity tickets” in union elections, where Communist and ALP members would run together in opposition to Grouper candidates.[xvi] Unity tickets were highly controversial in the ALP, due to the opportunity it gave the press, the DLP and the Liberals to scream about communist influence. In the 1960 Victorian election the DLP campaign “exposed” unity tickets in the Australian Railways Union, the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Central Gippsland Trades Hall Council, and ran lurid television commercials suggesting that “Khrushchev must be pleased with the Victorian ALP”.[xvii] The issue was a major source of division for years, as some ALP figures who had fought the Groupers hard during the Split – Evatt, most prominently, and in Victoria, Pat Kennelly – tried to outlaw unity tickets. In the view of the Victorian left, the problem was not just that Evatt and his supporters were sacrificing principle for the sake of electoral gain. It was also strongly suspected, probably accurately, that the campaign in the Party against unity tickets reflected a desire by some to come to a rapprochement with the DLP.
The left block in the unions was further consolidated by the fight within the Melbourne Trades Hall which led to the establishment of the “rebel unions”. While the left controlled the party apparatus through its control of the large industrial unions, it did not, after 1964, control the peak union body. With the death of long-time Trades Hall Council (THC) Secretary Vic Stout,[xviii] a fierce battle broke out to determine his successor. Mick Jordan, a Grouper, was opposed by left winger Jack Wood, a former organiser for the Plumbers’ Union and Assistant Secretary of the ALP. Wood’s support came from the TUDC unions and the ALP party machine. In the campaign, nine prominent party figures permitted their names and party positions to be used on Wood’s literature.[xix]
Jordan won, though by just 13 votes (there were 273 delegates on the council), and shortly after the right won all five vacant positions on the Council Executive, giving it an overwhelming majority.[xx] The right had the numbers in Trades Hall that it lacked in the ALP by virtue of the different voting systems. The THC system over-represented smaller unions, where the right was concentrated. For ALP conferences, delegates were allocated by a method much more proportionate to the number of members a union represented. As well, the Grouper-controlled unions had a vote in Trades Hall that they didn’t in the ALP.
In 1967 the Council split, with the big industrial unions breaking away and refusing to pay their THC affiliation fees.[xxi] These rebel unions heavily overlapped with those in the TUDC who effectively controlled the ALP. From then on there was a somewhat paradoxical situation in which the right controlled the Trades Hall, and the left controlled the ALP.
The rebel unions presented themselves as industrially militant. One of the reasons they cited for the split with Trades Hall was its “complete ideological bankruptcy which had led to a do nothing, tame cat attitude on wage complaints and other matters of importance to the workers”.[xxii] When compared to the THC and the Grouper-controlled unions, the rebels doubtless were industrially militant. But the rebel officials fell well short of pursuing a relentless class struggle unionism. The rising levels of industrial militancy in the late 1960s were driven much more by an upheaval from below than by the trade union leadership. Nonetheless, to a certain extent, the rebel union officials wanted to ride the tide. The most important struggle of the period – the 1969 Clarrie O’Shea strike which smashed the penal powers (anti-union laws) – was widely seen as an indictment of Mick Jordan and the THC, who refused to back the strike, and a triumph for the rebel unions which “vindicated their radical methods and showed that gains could be achieved by militant action”.[xxiii]
Vietnam and the new left
By the late 1960s the student movement was beginning to explode, most importantly in opposition to the Vietnam War, and a new radical left was emerging. The “new left” spawned a generation of young revolutionaries – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and rebels of all stripes. These forces, along with a broader “new left”, articulated (to greater and lesser extents) a general critique of the system, and raised the possibility of a revolutionary alternative to tame cat Laborism. They fused with the upheaval in working class struggle and industrial militancy to create a powerful wave of radicalism and resistance through wide layers of society. This was crucial not only in pushing Labor to the left, but to giving the revived left in the party an ideological framework.
Radicalism in the Labor Party was not simply a matter of rhetoric. ALP branches were a key organising point for the movement against the Vietnam War and, along with students and the unions, provided the backbone of the campaign and many of its activists. The Victorian ALP left, led by Jim Cairns MP, a key figure in the anti-war movement, played a central role. The left’s strength was one of the reasons the Moratorium marches were bigger in Victoria than in any other state. Contrast this with the situation today, when “support” for a campaign from the ALP left or the Greens rarely goes beyond offering official endorsement and perhaps a speaker at a rally or public meeting.
While there were considerable numbers of people in the anti-war movement to the left of the Victorian ALP, its members nevertheless engaged in all kinds of activities that would make your modern-day Labor left member’s blood run cold. Some of the best accounts of these activities come from Joan Coxsedge, who went on to become a state parliamentarian from 1979 to 1992. In her autobiography Cold Tea for Brandy, she recounts how in 1969:
sections of the ALP were prepared to stick their neck out and break the law as an identifiable group. After a prolonged debate, the Balwyn Branch…agreed to a head-on confrontation with federal authorities. A paid ad in the local paper baldly stated that we were a Draft Resistance Centre and would not only give advice, but give shelter to those on the run. Which we did and were never prosecuted.[xxiv]
On another occasion Coxsedge and other ALP members involved in the anti-war movement took the inspired step of defoliating the US Consul’s South Yarra garden with a chemical similar to Agent Orange.[xxv] But perhaps their most memorable action was at a July 4 dinner held by the American-Australian Association. Coxsedge and other SL members, decked out in their poshest clothes to avoid looking like anti-war activists, turned up at the event with stink bombs stashed in their pockets. She recounts what happened:
Dinner was announced and we trooped upstairs with the hungry throng, passing well-known Special Branch plod Larkin, who looked puzzled and sort of recognised us, but not quite. We got as far as the door, but without passes couldn’t get in. Knowing we were about to be sprung, we dropped the phials and crunched them into the carpet. The pungent odour permeated every nook and cranny and the dinner was called off.[xxvi]
The group was unceremoniously ejected and told they were barred for life. Satisfied, they headed off to Her Majesty’s Theatre for a Socialist Left fundraiser, a performance of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Unfortunately the stink bomb smell was still on their clothes, so they nearly cleared that event as well.
This “protest politics” ethos was dominant in the Victorian ALP in the 1960s. The Victorian Party backed the 1965 “freedom rides” through rural NSW, demanding Aboriginal rights, whereas the NSW Branch studiously refrained from doing so.[xxvii] In 1969 Arthur Calwell led delegates to State Conference in a march to Pentridge Prison, protesting against the jailing of John Zarb, a conscientious objector to conscription for the Vietnam War. John Fitzgerald, in his useful thesis on Victorian Labor, writes:
The emphasis placed on protests and demonstrations was important to the leaders of the ALP. It was a symbol of their militancy as well as a means to an end.[xxviii]
The Participants, Gough Whitlam, and other enemies of the left
The radicalism of a Victorian ALP run by the union-dominated left did not go unopposed. The main enemy was the DLP and Santamaria’s NCC. But within the unions, and within the ALP, new threats to the left’s control emerged through the 1960s, culminating in the 1970 federal intervention that sacked the Executive and dissolved the branch.
The Participants,[xxix] who were formed around 1965, opposed union control of the Party, and in particular the dominance of the left wing unions. Their overwhelmingly intellectual, middle class composition made them easy hate figures in the self-consciously working class atmosphere that dominated the Party at the time.
The Participants set out their agenda in their publication, Labor Comment. They stood for “a party that is concerned about the welfare of the great majority of people” – which, translated, meant not “narrowly” the working class or unionists. They called on the party to operate “without any influence or direction from outside entities”, by which they meant the unions. Labor needed to be “prepared to regard parliamentary members as more than ciphers”, that is, give the politicians the freedom to ignore the members, platform, unions and voter base once they had secured their bum to a parliamentary seat. The ALP, the Participants said, should be “conducted as a party capable of government. It is clear that the party in Victoria is run as a narrow sectional pressure group more concerned with running marches, protests and demonstrations than winning political office.” [xxx]
The leadership argued, with justification, that calls for organisational reforms were a covert means of undermining the party’s left wing political line. State Secretary Bill Hartley said:
The State Executive had been under attack by people endeavouring to use claims concerning organisational and constitutional change as arguments when their real quarrel with the executive was an ideological one.[xxxi]
One of the reforms advocated by the Participants was a requirement for the state parliamentary leaders to be members of the Executive, and for branch members to be able to elect their own delegates to the Conference and the VCE. The Executive responded by saying: “The people pressing for greater branch representation are Groupers who have crept back into the party.”[xxxii] As with many accusatory statements made about Groupers, there were two sides to this. On the one hand, the left recognised an attack for what it was: the campaign to give more power to branches was aimed at undermining the role of the unions. And the various embodiments of the right in the Party, after 1955, did want to accommodate to the Groupers, and in some cases even bring them back into the fold. On the other hand, constant fearmongering about the Grouper threat disguised the fact that there were greater and more present dangers to the left developing in the Party.
The Participants had little support in the Victorian branch, so looked for allies elsewhere. One was the right wing leadership of the Trades Hall around Mick Jordan. But while Jordan won the battle for control of Trades Hall, in the Party the left union leaders had a tight grip. A coalition between the Participants and the unions who backed Jordan ran a ticket for the State Executive in 1964 but was badly beaten. According to Fitzgerald:
By 1968 the group had been so disheartened by its lack of impression that it decided to boycott the conference that year. 61 delegates from 16 unions and one State Electorate Council stayed away. However 437 delegates attended the Conference, indicating the numerical weakness of the dissidents.[xxxiii]
The other part of the Participants’ strategy was to lobby for federal intervention. Several people, including John Button, federal Cabinet Minister-to-be, travelled to Sydney to meet with NSW ALP officials in 1967 and demand intervention and the sacking of the Victorian Executive.[xxxiv]
There were many people outside Victoria who were unhappy with the state of the Victorian branch. But the nemesis-in-chief, the opponent who towered above all others, was Gough Whitlam. Today, Whitlam is something of a cult figure for what remains of the Labor left. For some years now his image has been used by Labor campus clubs, adorning club bags and posters, a nostalgic reminder that once there were Labor leaders with genuine reforming zeal. Labor left clubs at some campuses are even called the “Whitlam Club”. This retrospective adulation bears no relation to the left’s attitude to Whitlam in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Victorian ALP leaders were bitterly hostile to Whitlam. His opposition to unity tickets, advocacy of party reform to increase the power of parliamentarians, support for state aid to non-government schools and opposition to the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam all put him in conflict with the left.
Whitlam’s conflict with elements of the Party was not limited to Victoria. He had numerous blow-ups with Arthur Calwell, who saw Whitlam as a middle class lawyer with no real loyalty to Labor ideals; a man who stood not for socialism, but for “the creation of a working class-lower middle class society that would humanise capitalism and make it more acceptable to the masses”.[xxxv] Calwell blamed Whitlam for the 1966 election loss, on account of an act of treachery when Whitlam went on television six days before the election and, according to Calwell, intentionally muddied the waters over Labor’s Vietnam policy, saying that while conscripts would be withdrawn, regular soldiers might stay.[xxxvi] It is doubtful that the confusion this caused made that much difference to the election, but it did highlight Whitlam’s highly ambiguous attitude to the war in Vietnam, something his modern hagiographers are at pains to brush over.
Over the next two years Whitlam had numerous run-ins with the left and with the apparatus of the party, in particular the Federal Executive. Aside from Vietnam, the other big issue was “reform” of the Victorian branch, by which Whitlam meant intervention to throw out the left leadership. At the June 1967 Victorian ALP conference Whitlam gave a speech in which he unambiguously asserted that “the party’s only legitimate raison d’être resided in the attainment and exercise of parliamentary power”.[xxxvii] He attacked the TUDC, comparing them to the Movement:
There is no formal link between the TUDC and the handful which elects the Central Executive. It happens, however, that the membership of both bodies is predominately the same. Thirteen years ago, few delegates at the Conference would have known of the Movement or of Mr Santamaria. No one now doubts the influence that they had on the party’s affairs at that time. The party’s controllers have swung from one extreme to another.[xxxviii]
In 1968 Whitlam resigned as leader and declared the position open, in a provocative move designed to assert his authority in the party and lay the groundwork for intervention in Victoria. But the vote did not have the effect Whitlam intended. He was re-elected leader, but only by a narrow margin of 38-34. If three people had voted differently Jim Cairns, the most well-known face of the ALP left, would have won the leadership.
This close shave sent Whitlam a message that taking on the left was riskier than he had previously thought. When the Victorian State Conference rolled around, the Victorian Executive anticipated a repeat of Whitlam’s aggressive 1967 speech. Bill Hartley even suggested that plans should be made so that if Whitlam went on the attack the microphone would be seized from him to prevent him continuing.[xxxix] The Executive resolved to hear Whitlam in silence, but as it happened they need not have worried. Whitlam had got the message from the close leadership ballot and his speech was much more measured than a year earlier.
Instead it was the left that went on the front foot. Victorian President Bill Brown made a thinly veiled attack on Whitlam, for which he received a standing ovation. Opposing “some destructive compromise”, Brown raised the fear of the party being reduced to a “pseudo-Liberal Party”. “Whatever comes and goes”, he said, “this Victorian branch of the ALP is not prepared to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.”[xl] The final snub was when Arthur Calwell received warm applause for accusing Whitlam of running away from the Vietnam issue.[xli]
The Victorian Executive’s attitude to Whitlam was summed up by Fitzgerald:
To the VCE, Whitlam could not have been a true Labor man; he looked different, he spoke differently and his background was untypical of a Labor man; he was also openly ambitious – never an encouraging feature of a potential leader after the example of Hughes and Lyons. To make matters worse, the causes Whitlam promoted were either not “sound” Labor policies and practices or they appeared downright dangerous to the welfare of the party.[xlii]
Federal intervention and the Socialist Left faction
Things came to a head in 1970. During the Victorian election campaign in May, a fight broke out over the policy of providing state aid to non-government schools, which the left strongly opposed. When the Victorian Executive put out an education policy calling for the phasing out of state aid, they met a firestorm of opposition from Whitlam and from Upper House leader Jack Galbally. Labor lost the election, and at the subsequent State Conference Galbally was suspended for 12 months after a bitter debate that had all the heat and animosity of the Split era. In the wake of this the numbers shifted away from the Victorians on the Federal Executive, with South Australians Clyde Cameron and Mick Young (Federal Secretary) moving against them, and the NSW delegates accepting what was in reality a token “intervention” in right-controlled NSW in exchange for federal intervention in Victoria.
The dispute over state aid is generally cited as the core issue in the dispute, but this was only one aspect of the struggle. The key charge of Whitlam and co. was that the Victorian branch was so radical that it made the party unelectable federally, and that the Victorians couldn’t give a damn about the parliamentary system. This latter charge was an exaggeration, but not by that much. In 1969, in his address to the ALP State Conference, outgoing President Bill Brown set out the strategy of the Victorian Party:
Only conscious organisation of social production in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way can save the world from destruction. This cannot be achieved by simply winning seats in Parliament and seeking to change capitalism into a morally good society. It can only be realised by a complete break from capitalist institutions, culture and morality.[xliii]
The Victorians’ reaction to the prospect of intervention was vitriolic, with a number of left leaders on the Executive openly threatening to split the Party. They seemed to have the backing of the rebel unions:
Ken Carr, “spokesman” for the left industrial unions, encouraged party officials to believe that “should the crunch come” the unions would defect from the ALP to establish an Industrial Labor Party.[xliv]
But when Mick Young responded by declaring that if a breakaway party was formed, official ALP candidates would run in union elections in order to oust the rebel unionists, support for such a move died away. The lack of enthusiasm for a breakaway party is, on the face of it, surprising. After all, there is no shortage of historical examples of left breaks from Labor, although they have been mostly in NSW. And the political context was anything but unconducive: the union movement was already split between the rebels and Trades Hall, and the radicalism of the times meant there would have been a substantial constituency among workers and students for a new, mass, radical union-based party.
So what reasons can be advanced for the reluctance of the union officials to commit to such a path? One is the legacy of the Split, with all the accompanying rhetoric about “Labor rats”, the most vitriolic of which came from the left, creating apprehension about a new breakaway. Another is the failure of earlier left wing breakaways to hold together – in the pre-war period there was a string of splits that attempted to establish a left and union based “Industrial Labour Party”, but none had succeeded. If you leave out the splits where the left won – i.e. the conscription fight in World War I and the 1955 Split, the most successful “left” breakaway was Jack Lang’s “Lang Labor” in Depression-era NSW. A key difference between Lang and the Victorian left was that Lang had the NSW state parliamentarians behind him. In Victoria, a substantial majority supported intervention, including the state parliamentary leader, Clyde Holding, who had been chafing against the VCE’s power since he took the leadership in 1967.
What this meant is that a breakaway party would have been, at least in the short term, a narrowly based party of the unions and the left. The union leaders were not so much concerned that this would leave them out of office – Victorian Labor prided itself on being supremely unconcerned with that question. But it would also leave them outside the mainstream of the Labor movement and create a deep break with the national right from which, for all their denunciations, the Victorian left did not want to totally disassociate. This is not to say they were beholden to the right, far from it. Unlike today’s Labor left and union leaders, they carried out a determined fight to make Labor a left wing party, and to defeat the right. They wanted desperately to maintain left control in Victoria, and were appalled at the craven approach of the left in other states. But when given an ultimatum by the federal leadership – submit to intervention or split and form a new left party in opposition to the ALP – they baulked.
Various attempts were made, mostly on the Victorians’ side, to find a compromise, but to no avail. On September 5 an inquiry into the Victorian Branch began at the Travelodge Motel in St Kilda, which after six days of deliberations found the Victorian Branch guilty of two charges. The first was that it had violated federal policy on state aid in the Victorian election campaign. The second was:
An outside group referred to as the TUDC group has been permitted to influence and dominate the Victorian state branch and the Victorian Executive to the detriment of the Labor Party’s basic principles. This is precisely the same complaint as was made in 1955 about the group referred to as “The Movement” and which at the time led to federal intervention in Victoria.[xlv]
On September 14 the Federal Executive, on a motion by Clyde Cameron, abolished the Victorian Branch. A 14-person Advisory Council was established to oversee its reconstruction. This began a period of intense struggle, and the emergence of a new force, the Combined Unions Socialist Left (usually referred to simply as the Socialist Left, or the SL), which was formed to fight the intervention. The SL adopted extremely leftist, militant rhetoric. Many within it were dubious about the idea of a parliamentary road to socialism, and determined to build a fighting, radical ALP that would drive the right out of the Party. Consider this editorial in one of the first issues of Inside Labor, the publication that was put out by the left almost weekly at the height of the fight after intervention. The maximal tone is not an aberration – it is typical:
The whirlwind events which spun the Victorian ALP into dissolution were…a direct result of the class struggle in a capitalist society, and reflect the fear this society’s controllers held of the policies expressed by the Victorian branch. At a time when society is polarising into acceptance or rejection of capitalist structures, including “parliamentary democracy”, the thought of an ALP as a parliamentary alternative which may not conform entirely to the status quo is viewed as a threat by the controllers.[xlvi]
In an interesting prefiguring of the Occupy movement, the SL dubbed these “controllers”, the ruling class, “the 7 percent”.
Parliament serves their purposes as a gesture to democracy, giving the adult population a chance every three years to place a “1” in a square in what in practice is a complete contradiction of real democratic participation. However Parliament is merely a stage on which the shadow of democracy is silhouetted. The substance of control is found in the boardrooms of the major companies, where representatives of the 7 percent determine the policies which serve their interests.[xlvii]
Given this situation, the SL argued, an orientation to parliament was inadequate. An Inside Labor editorial on 24 October 1970 stated:
Western society will have to go through radical changes to survive… These changes will not occur…by voluntary means. The controllers of society will not retire gracefully from the scene but will fight to hang on to their power. It is doubtful that any political party acting only through the parliamentary system will be able to have any real effect.[xlviii]
The SL was based on a core of the deposed leadership from the old State Executive, but many of the old Executive members either defected from the left or retreated from active involvement. Of the six pre-intervention VCE officers only the President, George Crawford, and the Party Secretary, Bill Hartley, played an active role in the SL. Sally Johnson, the Junior Vice-President, was not a vocal opponent of intervention; and the other three, Jim Cairns, Ted Innes and Glyde Butler, respectively Senior Vice-President, Treasurer and Assistant Secretary, cooperated and worked with the Federal Executive.[xlix] As Fitzgerald noted, “when the calibre of the people lost to Hartley and Crawford are considered the achievements of the opposition [were] remarkable.”[l]
In the immediate aftermath of intervention the Socialist Left took on not only the federal leadership, but those who had been in the ranks of the left who were bribed or bullied into siding with the Whitlamites. They had to contend with threats of expulsions, and a ferocious campaign in the media, particularly The Age which essentially acted as the factional newspaper of the right.
The left’s central focus was a series of members’ meetings to reclaim the branch. Inside Labor campaigned furiously, dedicating its first four pages to a list of members who, defying an explicit threat of expulsion, put their names to a call for a meeting to resist intervention. Under the headline “Meeting will go on, threats will not deter” they wrote:
The above 326 party members have declared themselves, they have possibly jeopardised their political future. they deserve your support. Organise your members – get them to the meeting. don’t be intimidated!!![li]
The next issue of Inside Labor contained another two pages of names, making the total 507.[lii] In the end 800 people attended the meeting on 1 November, which almost unanimously carried motions of no confidence in the Advisory Council. Ken Carr, a Furnishing Trades official and one of the central figures of the left, announced his resignation from the Advisory Council. But Jim Cairns, easily the most well-known left figure in the Party, did not. At a subsequent meeting on November 22, attended by 1,500 people, Cairns spoke in favour of the Advisory Council’s resolution, contributing to the narrow defeat of the left on the floor.
The exact reasons for Cairns’ refusal to join the fight against intervention are not entirely clear. It was definitely not a question, in his case, of simply being a spineless parliamentarian. NSW Labor left parliamentarian George Petersen cites the collapse of the ideological hegemony of Stalinism in 1968 as a crucial factor, leaving Cairns defending “the unity of the parliamentarians because he had no other rock to which he could cling”.[liii] Cairns’ strained history with the Victorian Executive also played a part. The VCE – perfectly reasonably – had criticised Cairns several years earlier for vacillating on the question of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. And Cairns, although a radical, was an intellectual who had not come from the traditional trade union left. This is partly why in 1969, when Cairns’ seat was abolished in a redistribution, the Victorian Executive backed Calwell against him in the fight for the safe seat of Melbourne. Calwell was, generally speaking, far to the right of Cairns, but he was seen to stand for an old-school working class socialism that the Victorian left identified with. Cairns eventually withdrew, but the battle left a great deal of bitterness.
Either way, the disgust among the Socialist Left with Cairns’ role in facilitating intervention was well justified. But he was far from the only reason the left narrowly lost the vote at the November 22 meeting. The press campaigned remorselessly: “the iron rule of the old Left wing oligarchy must be broken” thundered The Age.[liv] This won them the nickname “the grey gnomes of Spencer Street” from Inside Labor[lv] which was less than impressed with the paper’s “return to its chivalrous task of saving Victorian Labor from itself”.[lvi] The meeting was also stacked with people whose membership was highly questionable. Inside Labor reported that when the crucial motions were put, the vote from those on the floor was almost even, but on the balcony it was 5-1 in support of the right:
The degree of probability of this being chance is remote. Most of those people came in as the meeting was opening. Few were recognisable.[lvii]
Whatever the reasons for the left’s defeat, the November 22 meeting was a setback for the SL. But while it had not been able to win a majority and defeat intervention, the determined campaign had succeeded in keeping the left alive, and as clearly the biggest single force in the Victorian Party. At the April 1971 Special Conference that reconstituted the branch, the Socialist Left controlled 40 percent of the vote, elected 7 out of 18 members to the Administration Committee and got George Crawford elected as Chairman. The SL was by then well organised, with sections in 31 of the 34 federal electorates.[lviii]
A large part of the reason the SL was able to survive and prosper was its ability to draw in layers of young radicals, students and ex-students from the new left, as well as trade union militants. With the exception of the Maoists, most of the far left joined the SL – Trotskyists, anarchists, and others who considered themselves revolutionaries. A sizeable minority held that the SL needed to split or expel the right wing from the ALP, and establish a clearly revolutionary workers’ party.
Dave Nadel, in a document that became, informally, the position of the group that was to become the International Socialists, argued that revolutionaries should work inside the ALP:
not with the aim of eventually replacing right bureaucrats with left bureaucrats, but with the aim of creating a split in the Labor Party which will allow a movement to defend and lead the working class to develop, which will retain the leadership of the class.[lix]
The SL, Nadel wrote, had “the potential to be an alternative leadership in the real rather than the bureaucratic sense”.
Direct Action, the paper of the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA), introduced an interview with an anonymous ALP anti-interventionist (probably Bill Hartley) with the following:
For the SYA, as for all serious socialist-revolutionary tendencies the events in Victorian Labor Party affairs are of tremendous significance. We do not see the present divisions as just another struggle between rival bureaucrats… Now, as never before, revolutionaries must carry the struggle against reformist illusions into the ALP itself… The SYA calls for critical support for the “Inside Labor” group and their interstate allies.[lx]
The SL was at pains to distance itself from the deposed State Executive. In response to the charge that the SL was simply a reincarnation of the “old guard”, prominent SL member Jo Maclaine-Cross said:
Basically, it’s not a description of any significance. There has been such a traumatic re-alignment of forces and personalities that labels like that are useless as a guide.[lxi]
While it defended the hard-left political line of the old executive, the SL distanced itself from their bureaucratic, top-down approach. Influenced by the new radical left, it emphasised direct action, rank and file control and democracy:
One of the mistakes the old executive made was not to consult its rank and file. If it had gone to the membership it possibly would have got the support it needed to prevent intervention.[lxii]
On a whole series of questions – from war, to the environment, to wages policy, to policing – the Socialist Left put forward maximal, generalised socialist arguments, of the type that is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “abstract propaganda”. For example on law and order:
capitalist “law and order” is necessary for the survival of capitalism. Once people begin to reject the system’s self-preserving structures the system is endangered… The “law and order” being preserved in Australia is the “law and order” of the system, designed to preserve the system.[lxiii]
While it would be ridiculous to claim that the SL was established simply as a means to funnel the radical politics of the youth movement into safe channels, a considerable number of people definitely saw it a means to keep the more militant left inside the family. Jo Maclaine-Cross said:
The Labor Party can consider itself damn lucky that they have an outlet like the SL which overcomes the dissatisfaction of the left and keeps them in the ALP because they are valuable people… If the SL development works and starts to give the Party a more radical and socialist appearance and drive, some may modify their criticisms. We are trying to recruit young radicals, particularly from the universities… Basically, though, it has to be accepted that a great many young people are fundamentally disaffected with all the parliamentary parties. The SL would have to show significant results to challenge their cynicism about the major parties which I believe is justified.[lxiv]
“Her Majesty’s Official Left” in NSW
The radicalism of the Victorian left was in stark contrast to the mainstream left leadership in NSW, the Steering Committee, which the Victorian left held in utter contempt.
The situation in NSW went back to the 1955 Split. In Victoria, a substantial section of the right was driven from the party. The new union-backed Executive had clear control of the branch. The limitation on the left was not mainly the weak Victorian right inside the party, but the finely balanced Federal Executive and the parliamentary leadership (in different ways under Evatt, Calwell and Whitlam).
In NSW the Steering Committee, which was formed by union officials at the height of the struggle with the Groupers, evolved into the core organisation of the left in the branch. The Steering Committee was nowhere near as left wing as its Victorian equivalent, and never took control of the party apparatus. It was beholden to the right, which had been reinforced at all levels of the party by the presence of those Groupers who had “stayed in to fight” and now backed up the non-Grouper right majority (and in NSW, because things did not come to a split, the distinction between Grouper and non-Grouper right was, in many cases, very unclear).
At the 1957 NSW Conference, the Executive issued its own ticket for the new Executive, on which it included at least seven candidates associated with the Groups and the Movement. The left initially objected, but eventually fell into line in support of the official ticket, saying: “In view of the danger of more Groups achieving positions on the Executive, [they were] compelled to support the official ticket, rather than split the vote.”[lxv]
One of the Illawarra delegates to the 1962 NSW Conference was George Petersen, who went on to be one of the most radical parliamentarians in NSW history. Petersen was eventually expelled from the ALP for refusing to vote for the slashing of Workers’ Compensation rights in 1987. Back in 1962 though, he joined the Steering Committee. He described its political outlook like this:
Although most of the members of the Steering Committee were obviously not Communists, the ideology that prevailed in this loose and undisciplined organisation was that of the CPA, and specifically that of the Popular Front as adopted at the 7th Congress of the Comintern in 1935.[lxvi]
Former NSW Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, amongst others, has expended much effort stirring up the bogey of Communist influence on the NSW ALP left. There is no doubting the Communist influence on the Steering Committee. It ran so deep that when the Communist Party split in 1971, with a pro-Moscow group breaking away to form the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), the split was mirrored on the Steering Committee. The majority backed the CPA leaders, but Jack Heffernan, who supported the SPA, led a number of people out to form the fairly short-lived “Socialist Objective” faction.[lxvii] But however much reds under the bed kept Bob Carr awake in the 1970s, the fact is Communist influence over the Steering Committee did not push it in a radical direction. The “Popular Front” orientation meant seeking the broadest possible unity against all but the most extreme right wing, like notorious Trotskyist-turned Grouper Laurie Short, Secretary of the Ironworkers’ Union. Petersen writes that:
In the interests of maintaining unity, most criticism of the centre and moderate right was modified out of existence. They were attacked only if our leaders were attacked. In practice, this meant simply voting for the Steering Committee ticket for official positions, and being the cheer squad for our leaders on the floor of the conference.[lxviii]
And by 1970, even Short was not outside the reach of the Steering Committee’s ever widening conception of the united front, appearing on their how-to-vote ticket alongside right wing AWU Secretary Charlie Oliver. The second edition of Inside Labor in Victoria ran a long editorial about the NSW left, with the wonderful title “Her Majesty’s Official Left”. It argued:
The primary function of this left wing has been directed towards getting positions on the state executive. In this they have been partly successful. Over the years a number of left officials have been put on the “official ticket” at the state conference, and have served shorter or longer periods, depending upon the degree of servility to the right. The tragedy of the official left in NSW was that, doomed to what appeared to be a permanent position of inferiority, they saw their future as being based on top level manoeuvres with their right wing counterparts.[lxix]
The momentum in NSW did shift briefly back to the left around the 1966 election, when Calwell campaigned heroically on the then unpopular policy of immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. But defeat at the polls produced a right wing reaction. The influence of the NSW left was used to ensure the 1967 Federal Conference adopted a policy putting conditions on withdrawal from Vietnam, as desired by Whitlam. Bob Gould, a Trotskyist and organiser of the Vietnam Action Committee, was expelled from the Steering Committee for moving a resolution supporting immediate withdrawal.[lxx] Various left spokes-people backed the US-Australia Alliance in glowing terms.
Towards the end of 1967 Balmain aldermen and veteran Trotskyists Nick Origlass and Issy Wyner were involved in a struggle to stop the approval of a highly explosive chemical tank farm in the midst of a residential area. In spite of demonstrations by hundreds of local residents against the farm and resolutions in the Balmain ALP branch supporting Origlass and Wyner, they were expelled from the Party because the municipal council ALP caucus had voted to support the farm. Similar defiance of caucus discipline in municipal matters from the right had, of course, provoked no such response. Faced with this outrage the official left’s publication, Socialist and Industrial Labor, shamefully joined in the attack on Origlass[lxxi] so as to keep on side with the State Executive and the parliamentary leadership. When the appeal against expulsion came to a vote at State Conference, the Steering Committee remained silent, with prominent figures like Tom Uren leaving the room rather than vote on the issue. Hall Greenland, Origlass’s biographer and a long-time Sydney leftist, wrote:
The deep detestation these official left wing leaders felt for Origlass and Wyner, who had criticised their pusillanimous performances inside the party over the past years, precluded any simple feeling of solidarity.[lxxii]
The Steering Committee did, at times, speak with a left voice. But committed to accommodating to the right, they were prepared to pay almost any price to keep their seat at the table. If you are looking for the genesis of the craven, capitulationist version of Labor leftism that dominates today, “Her Majesty’s Official Left” in NSW is a good place to start.
The Steering Committee was deeply hostile to the Victorian Socialist Left. In fact, under the influence of the Communist Party, it had backed federal intervention in Victoria. The generally accepted excuse was that it was in exchange for an investigation into the administration of the right-controlled NSW branch. But this was little more than a fig leaf. The real reason the Steering Committee backed intervention was the same reason Whitlam did: the Victorian Party was too radical. The difference with Whitlam was only on the question of why that radicalism was of concern. Whitlam saw it as a threat to his electoral chances, the CP and the Steering Committee saw it as a threat to their claim to hegemony over the ALP left.
But there was a left opposition to the Steering Committee, whose discontent with the suffocating atmosphere in the NSW left had been growing. One of the incidents that set them off was when, in 1970, Steering Committee members refused to admit Bob Gould to a meeting of the NSW left. When Gould was escorted into the meeting by two burly wharfies, the convenors, instead of putting the matter to a vote, closed the meeting, outraging the left.[lxxiii] This incident, and the formation of the Socialist Left in Victoria, led a small group of radicals to attempt to set up a formation in NSW on similar lines. Hall Greenland, Bob Gould, Stewart West (later a federal parliamentarian), Warwick McDonald, Rod Wise, Bob Hunt and a number of others were involved in the formation of the NSW Socialist Left. Among the leaders of the faction was parliamentarian George Petersen and future state MPs Frank Walker, Rod Cavalier and Jeff Shaw.
At the 1971 NSW conference the Socialist Left candidates – in the face of opposition from the Steering Committee – won from 75 to 100 votes out of 930. Motions moved by Socialist Left delegates to condemn intervention in Victoria, for support for nationalisation of industry without compensation under workers’ control, all failed, with the Steering Committee voting with the right.[lxxiv] The highpoint was getting Bob Gould elected as the last of six delegates to the Federal Conference in Hobart. The most memorable incident of that conference was when he moved from the floor for the abolition of ASIO. According to Gould, Gough Whitlam, who had been out in the hall and not following what was going on, came in and saw some people he identified with voting for Gould’s amendment, and so put up his hand as well. The motion was carried by one vote. Gould writes:
There was much consternation, and Cameron and Egerton, who were the managers of the conference, ran around in a bit of a flap. Eventually they moved for the re-committal of my amendment, which was then lost by a few votes. So, for all of 45 minutes, abolition of ASIO was federal Labor Party policy.[lxxv]
For all the flair of the Labor rebels, fuelled by the energy and radicalism of the 1960s, they were unable to seriously challenge the stifling hegemony of the Steering Committee. There were a number of reasons the SL collapsed, not least sectarian stupidity from some on the far left. But the key reason the left could not go forward was that they had no base in the unions. Without this, they could not break into the party machine, and short-lived successes only served to highlight their structural “outsider” status.
There were future challenges to the Steering Committee from the left, but in the end they had the same problem. A radical left emerged in a number of branches in inner city Sydney – Annandale, Glebe and Balmain – which attempted to build an alternative to the Steering Committee in the 1970s.[lxxvi] Politically influenced by an amorphous combination of bohemian, Trotskyist and libertarian new left ideas, this eclectic milieu was based on white collar workers like teachers and public servants, and the broad radical currents that came out of the 1960s.
But although it had a significant impact at a local level – getting councillors elected and for some time winning control of local branches – this new ALP left was not able to make real headway, and in the end became obsessed with the minutiae of local government politics, and degenerated. A depressing footnote to the end of this era is the ABC documentary Rats in the Ranks, an early experiment in reality television which followed the shenanigans on the Leichhardt Council in the 1980s.
On the Steering Committee, a new generation came to the fore in the 1970s, led by Peter Baldwin, John Faulkner and Rodney Cavalier.[lxxvii] By 1980, Baldwin was in the Upper House and Faulkner held the left’s key party role of Assistant Secretary.[lxxviii] But whatever differences they had with the older Steering Committee left, the die had long since been cast. The Steering Committee, unlike the Victorian SL, had very little baggage to throw overboard to adapt itself to the factional system that was institutionalised during the 1980s: power plays without politics, wars without substance. Not that the language of the left-right divide was totally forgotten. In the late 1980s the NSW left split between supporters of Anthony Albanese and Jan Burnswoods. Very little was at stake beyond the politics of personality and factional intrigue, though you wouldn’t know it to hear the names they gave themselves and each other. The Burnswoods supporters were known variously as the “Cavalier-ites”, “Mensheviks”, “Radicals”, “Dealers”, “Broad Left”, “Labor Left” or “Soft Left”. The Albanese supporters were known as the “Walker-ites”, “Bolsheviks”, “Ratbags”, “Doers”, “Industrial Left”, “Socialist Left” or “Hard Left”.[lxxix] They had the terms down well enough, but it was a farce; like children playing cowboys and Indians with no conception of what they were taking in vain.
The NSW-ification of the Victorian branch
George Petersen argued that:
With the advantage of hindsight one can say that the meeting on 22 November 1970 [which he attended as an observer] marked the beginning of the end of the ALP left as representing anything more than a few maverick individuals. In Victoria, the Socialist Left was an unconscionable time a-dying, but die it did, so that it is now indistinguishable from the NSW Steering Committee.[lxxx]
For a brief period after the formation of the SL, amid intense mobilisation and struggle in the Party, there was a genuine opportunity to push the SL beyond the limits of reformism. The trade union officials who had dominated the party since the mid-1950s were now engaged alongside new, radicalised elements in a fight against the right. Under pressure from the base, the officials shifted to the left, and loosened their control. In the surging enthusiasm for democratisation and rank and file control a significant space opened up for more radical voices to influence developments.
The union officials played a contradictory role in the SL. On the one hand they had been the guardians of the party’s radicalism in the years after the Split, leading the resistance to efforts to water down the party program or put power in the hands of “modernising” parliamentarians. On the other hand bureaucratic control by the officials put limits on the radicalism of the left. The union officials could be militant and anti-parliamentarist up to a point, but as a collective force the officials, even the left officials, were never going to be the basis of a revolutionary workers’ party. The union bureaucracy is not part of the working class; it is a unique social layer with its own distinct relationship to the class struggle, mediating the conflict between bosses and workers. Because of this there are strict limits on the extent to which the union officialdom will support democracy and rank and file control in the unions, workplaces or the political party. A genuinely revolutionary party would undoubtedly have a substantial number of union officials in its ranks. But it is impossible that such a party could really be the vehicle for a revolutionary workers’ movement if it was controlled or dictated to by those officials.
The opening up that took place as the SL was being formed was therefore very important. The dynamic was totally different from the calls for democratisation by the Participants in the mid-1960s, which had been aimed at undermining the party’s radical political positions, not deepening them. But this opening was relatively short-lived. The reassertion of control by the trade union officials – even if very left officials – was indicated by the fact that it was George Crawford, Plumbers’ Union leader and key figure on the old Executive, who was put up as the SL candidate for President at the 1971 conference. In 1972 the SL, while still highly critical of Whitlam, was much more engaged in the federal election campaign than the old Victorian branch had been. The mobilisation of broad sections of the radical left (not just inside the party) behind Whitlam’s campaign indicated a retreat from revolutionary politics that coincided with the decline of the Vietnam and student movements.
This broader political context made the political ambiguities of the SL more problematic. It was, in one sense, everything to everybody. For some, it was the continuation of the union-based militancy of the pre-intervention period. For others, a home for the broad radical left. For many union leaders the SL was the political vehicle of the rebel unions. The far left hoped it was an intermediate point on the road to establishing a genuinely revolutionary party that challenged Labor. Others thought it the true inheritor of the traditions of Chifley and Calwell, keeping aflame the light on the hill. All this made it very difficult to act decisively. It had a clear program on one level – condemnation of the capitalist system, and at times strident verbal opposition to opportunism and reformism. But those who put forward a strategy that could actually challenge the system, or even begin to challenge it, were too small a force in the SL to make a decisive difference.
The only way to take on the capitalist state is through a party that stands in complete opposition to it, a “combat party” of workers and the oppressed against the current ruling class and its state apparatus. The Australian establishment treated the SL as such a party, mobilising all its weaponry against it. But the leaders of the SL, for all their radicalism, would not break from Laborism, split from the right and establish a new party. The Labor left stayed in the ALP, and, neither conquering nor deserting, found the only other option: accommodation.
By the mid-1970s, the SL had become institutionalised, and aspiring ALP members were told it was the best place to be if they wanted to “get on”. Joan Coxsedge says she
had the feeling that every opportunist and carpetbagger was standing in a queue waiting to join our ranks. Many won preselection and seats in parliament and then turned their backs on the principles they had temporarily embraced. With Hawke and Keating at the top of the Labor hill busily switching off the light and NSW boyos running the federal scene, it was a downhill run.[lxxxi]
This is not to say the radicalism of the SL disappeared overnight. It was, as Petersen said, a long time a-dying. When the Federal ALP officially embraced the need to support private enterprise and corporate profitability at its Terrigal Conference in 1975, the Socialist Left denounced it fiercely. A circular from Casey Action, the publication of one of the most active local branch-based sections of the SL, said:
First among the reasons given to “welcome” the outcome of the Terrigal Federal Conference was “the conference clearly proved that the Labor Party is in the hands of a few parliamentarians (plus their sycophantic followers) who have little conscience when it comes to their aspirations for ballot box success.” Secondly, “the conference forced the Victorian Socialist Left to make its feelings known and this has led to a revitalisation within the socialist Left.
Responding to the embrace of private enterprise, the editorial continued:
The problems which confront working people domestically, nationally and internationally are directly attributable to the Private Enterprise (capitalist) system.[lxxxii]
Hartley and Crawford’s report on the 1975 Terrigal Conference, published in Scope and, in a slightly modified form under just Hartley’s name, in the Melbourne University student paper Farrago, claimed the Liberals would have given enthusiastic support to Labor’s Terrigal policies. The latter article earned Hartley a censure from the Federal Executive, moved by Bob Hawke and passed 13-1 (with several abstentions), which gives some indication of how marginalised the left was by this time.[lxxxiii] There was a sense in the SL that the course of the party was being altered and there was little the increasingly isolated left could do about it. Take this slightly desperate sounding passage in Casey Action:
Although we do not accept the Catch 22 cliché of Jim Cairns – “we cannot have a socialist society until we have a society of socialists” – we realise that the task ahead of socialists in the ALP is a formidable one. The basic division within the ALP is between Social Democrats who wish to promote capitalism in an amended form and socialists who wish to kill it off.
Or this from the same issue:
For the Labor Government to stand even an outside chance of retaining office it must cease its attacks on the working class and must be quite definite in holding the private owners of the means of production responsible for our economic problems. Historically, both in Australia and overseas, the days of Social Democratic governments are numbered whenever they begin to resort to capitalist solutions in an endeavour to solve capitalism’s inevitable crises.[lxxxiv]
The Socialist Left response to the Whitlam dismissal mirrored that of the bulk of the far left, blaming “multinationals” and the CIA. One article published by the SL was actually a compilation of two pieces, one by Joan Coxsedge and another by the Maoist CPA (M-L), the most vitriolic of the left nationalists:
The coup showed that the multinationals, organised by the US State Department, are far more powerful than all the debates in parliament… The US State Department ordered Kerr’s move because they would not wait 6 months or more for a chance to install a completely subservient government by more normal means.[lxxxv]
The emphasis on the role of the US obscured the culpability of the Australian ruling class (although, to be fair, the SL spared a fair few pages of abuse for them as well). But whatever the faults of analysis, the SL was serious about maintaining the rage in a way that few of their descendents today could fathom. For a period after the coup, there was a considerable layer of people open to the argument that the dismissal proved parliamentary politics was a dead end, and a revolutionary alternative was needed. Leading Socialist Left figure Kevin Healy wrote in a submission to State Conference:
Traditional parliamentary democracy had its trial for three years to last December, and failed. Arguments between those advocating a more radical policy approach, and those claiming social conditions could be changed by parliamentary gradualism, have been answered by history.[lxxxvi]
Among the SL leaders, many argued that the ALP could not simply orient to winning back power in another election in three years time, as the coup proved any radical government would be thrown out by whatever means the ruling class deemed necessary. On the other hand, the SL did little to oppose the betrayal of the strike and protest movement that burst up immediately after the dismissal, when Bob Hawke demanded that workers return to their jobs and their homes, rather than solve the crisis with mass action in workplaces and on the streets.
After the 1975 election defeat, the creeping accommodation with Labor’s right became clearer. The SL endorsed Whitlam to be re-elected as leader, for fear of a more reactionary member of the NSW right taking over. This was wrong, even on narrow tactical grounds, but the SL went further than that. Bill Hartley wrote:
Mr Whitlam has a great many good qualities and he campaigned extremely well against heavy odds. Mr Whitlam was deeply shocked by the conspiracy against him, as all his life he believed the social change and human values he favoured could be achieved through the parliamentary system. Mr Whitlam has now become well and truly aware of the true position and the failures of parliamentary democracy.[lxxxvii]
Over the next decade, a new generation of left leaders emerged – Brian Howe, Lindsay Tanner, Gerry Hand and others. They were a different breed from those blooded in the Split and later through federal intervention. But they were still a thousand times more radical than their future selves, prepared to oppose the policies of privatisation, attacks on social spending, tax cuts for the rich, support for budget surpluses at all costs, and other policies of the Keating/Hawke leadership that marked Labor’s embrace of “economic rationalism”. Lindsey Tanner, in articles that would no doubt embarrass him today, railed against the first Keating budgets, with their savage attacks on workers’ living standards.
In contrast to today, the left was prepared to criticise the right’s electoral tactics. Hawke was re-elected in 1984, but with a swing against Labor of a hardly earth-shattering 1.7 percent. Under the front page headline “PROTEST VOTE” the SL paper Socialist Objective wrote:
The tacticians of the Right will argue that the election result calls for more anti-Labor excesses if the ALP is to remain in office. But the political judgement of the Right has been totally discredited. If we want more of the electorate to support the Labor Party, we have to give them more of a Labor Party to support.[lxxxviii]
But such rhetoric was, by the mid-1980s, little more than that. Strongly worded motions about secondary issues had come to substitute for any real attempt to build a socialist opposition to the right. The left’s support for the Prices and Incomes Accord in the early 1980s was a key turning point. The ability of Bob Hawke to enlist his supposedly bitter enemies in the Communist Party and the Socialist Left to fight for an agreement to hold down wages was one of the key elements in finally crushing the upsurge in working class struggle that had extended from the Clarrie O’Shea strike in 1969 until the end of the Fraser Liberal government in 1983. As the Hawke era wore on and the mantras of economic rationalism tightened their grip over the party, the left capitulated ever further. John Minns, in a pamphlet written for the International Socialists in 1989, said:
Although they are “statist”, the left are extremely timid about advancing proposals for state control which would conflict too sharply and publicly with the right wing of the Party. The Labor left no longer calls for, and never campaigns on, a program of large scale state ownership.[lxxxix]
One left winger in the Labor Party expressed what Minns says was the most common feeling on the issue:
To pursue nationalisation now, however justified, probably would unite the right more than it would unite us.[xc]
In the mid-1980s the Victorian SL still had around 1,200 members,[xci] far and away the most significant and active membership of any left Labor faction in the country. But the period of the Accord had seen a split develop between the “hard left” or “old guard” around Hartley, Coxsedge, Crawford, Tom Ryan and Jean McLean, and an ascendant “soft left”. The base of the hard left was in smaller unions like the Food Preservers and the Plumbers, whereas the core strength of the soft left was the giant Metalworkers’ Union, the AMWU. The hard left group, with a small number of honourable exceptions, had not fought against the Accord. But the role that the soft left in the unions played in policing the Accord brought them into conflict with people like Hartley, who publicly supported the BLF when it came under attack.
If the real fight in the 1980s was over the Accord, the proxy fight – i.e. the fight the hard left enthusiastically engaged in – was the debate over the readmission of four Grouper unions to the party: the Federated Clerks, Shop Assistants, Ironworkers, and Carpenters and Joiners. At the 1985 State Conference, the Grouper unions were, after a marathon debate, admitted with a vote of 183 to 150, but only because 117 delegates from nine soft left unions, led by the Metalworkers, abstained from voting. Placards were thrown at them from the balcony and scuffles broke out as the 117 walked out of the conference. The next day, Sunday, saw passions boil over when the Groupers entered the hall to take their seats. Hundreds wore a black armband and joined in the shout of “scabs”, while Alex Huchinson from the Musicians’ Union played the last post on his clarinet. According to Joan Coxsedge:
There was a lot of jostling and punches being thrown – along with some overripe tomatoes – before the NCCers were rescued by their Centre Unity pals.[xcii]
It was this that led to the radicals being known as “the tomato left”. But while there was a lot of heat generated over the readmission of the Groupers, this fight was, in reality, a sideshow. The championing of the Accord by the vast bulk of the left, and then the brutal way in which it was carried through, is what killed off what remained of the radicalism of the Socialist Left. After several years of bitter fighting, involving wrangling over preselection for safe seats, the soft left moved to expel Hartley from the SL.[xciii] That, in turn, gave the green light for the Federal Executive of the Party, dominated by the right, to expel him from the party for his support for the BLF and attacks on Bob Hawke. This was the final nail in the coffin for the Socialist Left as any kind of radical alternative to mainstream right wing Laborism.
The political differences between left and right in the ALP have not entirely disappeared. The left is capable, if only occasionally and with excruciating slowness, of publicly articulating a policy in opposition to the right. It was the left that campaigned in the party to change the policy on same-sex marriage, and the left voted against the “conscience vote” provision which gave the conservative forces in the party the right to vote against the new policy without sanction. The left is the core of internal pressure groups like Labor for Refugees. Those in the ALP who want a party with “real Labor values” largely sympathise with the left. Industrially the picture is more mixed, but in most cases elements associated with the left are more likely to oppose the draconian industrial agenda of the leadership.
Nonetheless, the points of difference between left and right today are but a faint echo of the struggles of the past. Whereas once the left was willing to speak out fiercely, regularly and publicly against the betrayals of party leaders, today silence is its default position, when not openly championing the policies of the right. Whereas once the left aimed to control and transform the party, to defeat the right and, in the minds of some, drive it from the party, today it aims to influence the direction of policy. Only a fool would assert today that the left faction intends to turn the ALP into a radical and genuinely socialist party. At the height of the left’s power in
There was always an accommodationist element to the Labor left, epitomised by the NSW Steering Committee. But at the highpoints there was a genuinely radical leftism that wanted fundamental change and had a will to fight for it up to a point. This latter element was decisively purged from the ALP in the course of the 1970s and early 1980s. First Whitlam, and then Hawke and Keating, waged a relentless war to rid Labor of its radicalism and turn it into a party which was unambiguous in its determination to serve the existing social order. In making itself a trusted servant of Australian capitalism, Labor has created for itself an existential crisis of the highest magnitude. It has been able to win temporary electoral victories, such as Kevin Rudd’s in 2007, or a series of state elections prior to that. But this has only served to hide the enormous damage that Labor has done to itself and its working class base, damage that what remains of the left has been utterly complicit in.
The crisis of Australian Laborism is a crisis mirrored in the traditional social democratic parties throughout the Western world, crises that have only become deeper since the beginning of the global economic crisis in 2008. Social democracy, far from saving the world from neoliberalism, as Kevin Rudd briefly dared to dream, has been torn apart by its support for brutal austerity measures, and unwillingness to take on the industrial and financial warlords of international capital.
This all makes it difficult to envisage – although it cannot be entirely ruled out – that a new radical reformism will emerge from within the ALP. But, whether from inside or outside Labor, the basis for such a reformist revival undoubtedly still exists. In post-war
Those on the left who say that the decline of official social democracy means that we have entered a “new paradigm” in which the struggle between reformism and revolutionary politics in the workers’ movement is irrelevant are deluding themselves. But so are those who, in defending the need to “relate to reformism”, prop up the tin-pot reformism of the modern ALP left as the genuine article. The revolutionary left will have to deal with, relate to and defeat reformism if our side is ever to win the class struggle in