How World War One led to class war

When World War I was declared in August 1914, Australia, and indeed all the combatant nations, seemed to be engulfed by a wave of reactionary patriotic fervour. There were spontaneous pro-war demonstrations and tens of thousands rushed to enlist in the wake of the 1915 Gallipoli landings. Strikes were called off, rioters attacked German-owned businesses, and German-born workers were sacked, often due to pressure from fellow workers.[1] The vicious racist attacks were soon extended from Germans and Austrians to Turks, Serbs and Croatians and virtually anyone who was seen to be foreign. Greeks came under attack as the Greek king was seen as supporting Germany. The systematic process of interning “enemy aliens” in concentration camps soon commenced.

The universities, then very much the preserve of the elite, were in many ways in the vanguard of reaction. The head of Melbourne University’s exclusive Trinity College, Alexander Leeper, a leader of the Orange Lodge (the ultra-racist anti-Irish organisation), spearheaded a wave of chauvinism that purged all German-born staff, while in a patriotic gesture academics and many college students voted “to abstain from alcohol consumption” for the duration of the war. Far from cultivating debate and free speech, the university authorities cracked down hard on any dissenting opinions. Guido Baracchi, a supporter of the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and later a founder of the Communist Party, was hauled before the professorial board, censured for disloyalty to the empire and threatened with expulsion for daring to write an article in the Melbourne University Magazine critical of the war. Egged on by a hysterical press, and with the open encouragement of prominent academics, a few hundred students subsequently seized Baracchi, and after a mock trial, threw him into the Melbourne University lake. The universities and the elite private schools also provided a plentiful supply of scabs during the 1917 Great Strike.[2]

While press, pulpit and academia beat the drum, ALP leaders attempted to outdo them for chauvinism. Andrew Fisher, soon to be elected Labor prime minister, made his famous vow to fight to “our last man and our last shilling” for the British Empire.[3] Even leading left wing Labor MP Frank Anstey declared: “We have a personal interest in what is taking place, and to that extent it becomes our duty to furnish all the aid we can, whether in arms or men.”[4]

Many on the left were shocked and demoralised by this stance, and by the collapse of the mainstream European social democratic parties (with the honourable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks and one or two other smaller parties) into pro-war chauvinism.[5] But they should not have been surprised, for as early as 1910 Labor’s future wartime defence minister Senator Pearce had declared:

[T]he party to which he belonged was trying to realise the high ideals of humanity. There was no surer guarantee for working out those ideals than the Union Jack, the symbol of the British Empire. They had to look further afield than the mere defence of Australia, and be prepared to defend that flag and all it represented.[6]

The mainstream feminist and pacifist organisations openly backed the war. Patriotic fervour led the major middle class pacifist group, the 55,000-strong Australian Freedom League, to suspend its activities and practically dissolve as it did not want “to hamper the Government in the discharge of their grave responsibility”.[7] The right wing bourgeois feminists of the 50,000-strong Australian Women’s National League effectively operated as the women’s auxiliary of the conservative parties and organised violent mobs to attack anti-conscription meetings. The moderate feminists of the National Council of Women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which before the war had been affiliated to various peace societies, also stridently backed the war drive and vociferously campaigned for conscription by forming groups such as the Women’s Compulsory Service League and the One Woman, One Recruit League.[8] The pledge of the One Woman, One Recruit League was: “To do my utmost to enlist one man by appealing through my womanhood to his manhood.”[9] The National Council of Women resolved “that women and girls should refuse to play tennis, golf or join in any kind of sport with eligible men”.[10] Even a number of the leading members of the more radical Women’s Political Association backed the war, and prominent anti-war activist Vida Goldstein was forced to split from it to form the Women’s Peace Army.[11]

Only small groups of socialists, such as the Australian Socialist Party (ASP), the revolutionary syndicalist IWW and the militant and socialist-inclined feminists of the Women’s Peace Army bravely proclaimed their opposition to the war. Immediately on the outbreak of the war the IWW, in their inimitable style, declared in their paper Direct Action:

LET THOSE WHO OWN AUSTRALIA DO THE FIGHTING

Put the wealthiest in the front ranks; the middle class next; follow these with politicians, lawyers, sky pilots and judges. Answer the declaration of war with the call for a GENERAL STRIKE… Don’t go to Hell in order to give piratical, plutocratic parasites a bigger slice of Heaven.

WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! DON’T BECOME HIRED MURDERERS! DON’T JOIN THE ARMY OR NAVY![12]

Courage and determination indeed were needed to stand against the wave of chauvinism. Anti-war meetings and demonstrations were broken up by howling jingoistic mobs. Speakers were assaulted, and respectable middle class citizens urged on squads of soldiers to eliminate the traitors.

Yet within the space of three years, Australia was rocked by a great wave of upheavals that were to continue into 1920. The high points were the 1917 general or Great Strike (usually referred to as the NSW general strike, but it spread to Victoria and to a lesser extent other states) and the massive campaigns that defeated two conscription referenda. The Labor Party split in the face of mass insurgent demonstrations, frequent armed street clashes, the formation of Labor Volunteer Armies to defend anti-conscription rallies, and strike after strike outside the control of union officialdom. Many, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, came to see revolution as inevitable. How did this dramatic turnaround occur, and why didn’t this, the greatest social upheaval ever in Australian history, end in revolution?

To begin to answer these questions, we must briefly trace the development of the working class movement in the pre-war years. The unions had been shattered by the defeat of the great strikes of the 1890s, and the long drawn-out depression that followed – a depression that was deeper and longer than that of the 1930s. There was no sustained recovery in industrial militancy until 1906. In response, the official movement had embraced arbitration and parliamentary Laborism. However, after 1906 there was a rapid recovery in militancy and the growth of socialist groups such as the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP), which under the leadership of the leading British working class activist Tom Mann had recruited 1,500 members within a year of its foundation, and of syndicalist currents that emphasised direct action and scorned parliament.

The miners led the way. In these years of limited large-scale manufacturing, the mines, especially at Broken Hill, were some of the largest workplaces. And they were militant centres. The 13,000 or so NSW coal miners and the 9,000 Broken Hill metal miners accounted for three-quarters of all strike days in the pre-war upsurge. They emerged as clearly the most politically advanced section of the class, and consequently developments in the mines were central throughout this period. The year 1909 was the initial peak of the pre-war upsurge, with an 18-week coal strike in Newcastle and a four-month lockout of Broken Hill miners. The coal strike was savagely defeated, with five of the leaders sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour, including the radical socialist Peter Bowling, who was sent to Goulburn jail in chains, while the outcome of the bitterly fought Broken Hill lockout, where workers also faced systematic police intimidation, was more like a draw.

The other highpoint was the 1912 Brisbane general strike, which quickly spread throughout Queensland. Despite severe repression by the conservative state government, no work could be done in Brisbane without a special permit issued by the strike committee, which during the course of the six-week strike became a virtual alternative government. But in the absence of a clear socialist leadership, the ALP politicians and union leaders were able to derail the struggle. Although they were defeated, the morale of the workers largely held up. Indeed, by 1914 the movement had bounced back from these setbacks, and the war interrupted a new surge of struggle.[13] Responding in large part to the abject failures of Labor in government, radical currents supporting direct action were taking hold even amongst the supposed labour aristocrats – the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) – who were involved in a series of often illegal strikes in 1913 and 1914, including an 11-week strike by railway workers in Townsville.[14]

On the back foot

With the outbreak of war, a number of strikes were immediately called off, or in the case of the north Queensland rail strike, collapsed – though not all. NSW South Coast miners fought on despite the patriotic euphoria, and there was a virtual mutiny by seafarers aboard the troop ship Kanowna over their water allowance. Still the general mood was such that the number of strikes halved in 1915. There was a high level of enlistment amongst unionists. Even in some mines, workers forced the sackings of Germans,[15] and the Broken Hill miners’ union paper initially took a pro-war stance.

Nevertheless, the traditional impression – sustained by the likes of C.E.W. Bean, the official war historian, and Melbourne University history professor Sir Ernest Scott – of indescribable enthusiasm and unity across all social classes must not go unchallenged.[16] While a minority of workers were caught up in the chauvinist frenzy, the general mood, despite the abject capitulation of the ALP leaders and many union leaders, was more one of confusion, regret, apprehension and resignation.[17] Most participants in pro-war demonstrations were middle class. While respectable middle class society engaged in a chauvinist frenzy against everything German, some unions stood out against the worst excesses of the authoritarian and racist tide. The Australasian Council of the Australian Society of Engineers (ASE) for example declared: “We must remember that the German workman has had no voice in declaring war, and trust that no animosity will be shown towards him in the workshop.”[18]

Many workers undoubtedly enlisted at least in part for patriotic reasons. But there were other factors at work – a naive sense of adventure, the chance of a free trip to Europe or simply the desire to escape from the humdrum existence of working six days a week in a poorly paid labouring job. The dull compulsion of economic facts was also at work. Many volunteered because of unemployment, which rose sharply from an official rate of 6.5 per cent in 1913 to 8.3 per cent in 1914 and peaked at 9.3 per cent in early 1915 due to wartime disruption of trade.[19] Once unemployment declined and the horrors of the slaughter on the western front became well known, enlistments dropped off dramatically. This was doubly the case for that significant component of the working class that had an Irish Catholic background and was less enchanted with the “glories” of the empire.

Spontaneous patriotic outpourings were very short-lived. The Labor government had to mount a massive propaganda offensive about the evils of the Kaiser to try to maintain recruitment, and imposed draconian censorship to hide the horrors of war. One example: in late 1914 the government released a film of supposed German atrocities in Belgium. It had been shot “on location” outside the Sydney gas works![20] The racist propaganda campaign was backed up with extremely harsh repression directed against “enemy aliens” and anyone who was seen to be in any way “disloyal”. The War Precautions Act, first introduced in October 1914 and stiffened by a series of amendments during the course of the war, was used to militarise society and give the government total control over the economy, the press and social life.

An estimated 2 percent of the Australian population was of German origin – 100,000 or so people in 1900. The government set out systematically to “destroy the community as an autonomous social and cultural entity” by closing down Lutheran schools and German clubs, changing German place names and interning community leaders and Lutheran pastors. “Enemy aliens” were not “allowed to possess motor cars, telephones, cameras or homing pigeons”. During the war 6,890 people were interned in concentration camps. This included not only people born in Germany, Austria, Serbia, Croatia or Dalmatia, but people of second or even third generation German ancestry. At the end of the war, 6,150 people were deported to Germany.[21] But it was not just “enemy aliens” who were interned and deported; so were numerous radicals from Russia and Ireland, and even the British-born leader of the IWW, Tom Barker.

Most workers had naively expected the war to be a smashing victory – all over in a few short months. As the death toll mounted, the mood became more subdued. Casualties undermined morale within the army itself. There was a wave of rioting by soldiers in army camps across Australia in 1916.[22] By August 1916, recruitment had collapsed. Billy Hughes, who had replaced Fisher as Labor prime minister, began a relentless campaign for the introduction of conscription.

One symptom of the shift in mood was the fall-off in church attendance. From the outbreak of war, Protestant pulpits were draped with the Union Jack, and it was difficult at times to distinguish between sermons and calls for recruits.[23] While respectable middle class society revelled in this jingoism, workers were increasingly repelled. Soldiers who had seen the slaughter in the trenches turned sharply away from religion. Another reflection of the class divide was on the football field. At the beginning of 1916, the more ruling class and middle class Victorian football clubs such as Melbourne, Essendon and St Kilda withdrew from the competition in support of the war effort. Indeed, every Melbourne player who had been passed medically fit had enlisted.[24] In sharp contrast, the four most working class teams – Collingwood, Richmond, Fitzroy and Carlton – determinedly played on in defiance of the patriotic hysteria.

At the same time, working class resentment was building up over a series of economic grievances – unemployment and prices were spiralling while wages were held down. Workers were angry at massive wartime profiteering, which multiplied shipping profits alone twelve-fold between 1913 and 1916. For a period, high levels of unemployment, which undermined workers’ confidence to fight, helped hold these frustrations in check. The first sustained outbreak of unrest came on the Melbourne wharves in late 1915, culminating in a successful strike in early 1916, in defiance of union officialdom, to stop the export of wheat while the price of bread was so high at home. These were the same workers who only a year earlier had been driving Germans off the wharves.

From late 1915, there was a series of localised strikes in Queensland and the Northern Territory – involving sugar workers, meatworkers, coal miners, building workers and wharfies in Mackay, copper miners at Cloncurry and Darwin hotel workers – prompted mainly by inflation and the failure of the Labor government to go ahead with its promised referendum to control prices. Then, from April 1916, wildcat strikes of shearers swept first across much of Queensland and subsequently across western NSW as soon as the shearing season commenced there. Despite virulent opposition to the strikes by the shearers’ union officials of the right wing Australian Workers Union (AWU), the pastoralists were forced to grant significant pay increases. The strikes were organised by local rank and file committees in centres such as Moree, Bourke and Walgett. These rank and file committees were strongly influenced by IWW supporters; indeed the Sydney strike committee held its meetings in the IWW hall. [25] Strikes for higher pay in north Queensland meatworks, another area of strong IWW influence, were also victorious. Late 1915 also saw considerable unrest over wages in the metal trades, with numerous strikes, including a month-long stoppage at BHP’s Newcastle steelworks. While not as yet anti-war, the mood had changed to one of demanding equality of sacrifice.

Nonetheless, pro-war sentiment continued to hold numerous other groups of workers in check. This was reflected in January 1916, when 2,000 coal miners on the NSW South Coast, led by syndicalist militants, struck for shorter hours in defiance of their left officials. The continuing patriotic mood meant they could not pull out the northern NSW fields. They were isolated and forced back to work.

Turning against the war

In the last half of 1916, this mood began to change sharply. Industrial grievances were now reinforced by political ones. At Easter 1916, British troops brutally crushed the Dublin uprising for Irish independence. The execution of the leaders of the rising, and a vicious outburst of Protestant sectarianism against the Irish-Australian minority of the working class, turned the latter increasingly against the war. In a relentless campaign, leading members of the ruling class, the press and the government labelled the Irish as traitors. A wave of repressive laws was introduced targeting Irish Australians; flying the Irish Sinn Fein flag was outlawed, and employers were encouraged to purge their workforces of such disloyalists. In response, Irish Australians, who were disproportionately drawn from the poorer sections of the working class, mobilised in their hundreds of thousands in huge rallies and demonstrations and coalesced behind the anti-conscription cause. One of the highpoints was a 100,000-strong rally at the Richmond racecourse in November 1917 addressed by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, who in this his most radical phase had declared that he was on the side of the workers in the “cruel war raging – it is virtually a civil war – between the workers and the employers”.[26]

But it was not only Irish Australian workers who were being radicalised. The growing threat of conscription served to galvanise the organised working class across sectarian lines into an enormous mass movement. Workers saw conscription as undermining union organisation, and bitterly opposed the unfairness of conscripting labour when there was no conscription of capital.

Broken Hill was in the vanguard. This isolated mining town had established itself as an important centre of the labour movement, with a comparatively strong socialist presence. It came to be seen as a Mecca of militancy.[27] Initially after the outbreak of war, the metal miners were on the back foot; half the workforce had been sacked because the main markets for ore were Germany and Belgium. Unemployment led to a high level of enlistment and provoked a wave of anti-German and anti-migrant racism. Anti-war militants here, just as in the rest of Australia, were at first an isolated minority. In September 1914 the first anti-war demonstration by a small group of socialists, at a farewell for departing troops, was attacked by a patriotic mob that chased them to the nearby Socialist Hall and made several attempts to smash their way in to get their hands on the “anti-Britons”.[28]

Despite this the miners’ union, the Amalgamated Miners Association (AMA), under socialist and syndicalist influence, began to campaign against the war. Sensibly, they linked anti-war agitation to the miners’ economic grievances. Agitation to cease paying rents till the war was over led in 1915 to a general stoppage of rent payments. The major issue the militants took up was shorter hours. In May 1915 a move to strike for a 44-hour week was defeated due to continuing pro-war sentiment. However by now the militants had cohered as a “vociferous, uncompromising…and well organised minority”.[29] By October they were on the march. The underground miners formed a separate committee, headed by leading socialists and syndicalists. They broke with the more conservative surface workers and their left officials, and under the slogan “If you want a 44-hour week, take it”, refused to work Saturday afternoons.[30]

The bosses responded with sackings, which provoked a month-long strike. The extremely determined and well organised underground miners set up mass pickets to impose their will. After clashes on the picket lines with the pro-war engine drivers, they closed down the mines. The strike was widely perceived as undermining the war effort since it threatened munitions production. As one historian put it: “It implied an unequivocal rejection of all appeals to patriotism, arbitration, and the public interest in favour of the assertion of their rights by force.”[31] Precisely!

The strike had little support outside Broken Hill, and even in the town itself the underground miners were a minority. However, their bargaining position was strong, since with the shift to war production the mines were making massive profits and the government badly needed their output for munitions production. It was a magnificent victory; a minority within a minority had broken through. This economic victory now gave a major boost to the political struggle against the war. The ideas of the anti-war socialists who had led the strike began to gain a mass resonance. In July 1916, in the face of the growing threat of conscription, the militants launched the Labor Volunteer Army (LVA). The 2,000 draft-aged workers who enrolled in the LVA in Broken Hill all took the following oath:

I, …, being fully convinced that conscription of life and labour in Australia will be a death blow to organised labour and will result in the workers of this land crushed into subjection by a capitalist military oligarchy, do hereby pledge myself to the working class of Australia that I will not serve as a conscript (industrial or military) and that I will resist by every means in my power any attempt to compel me or any of my comrades…to break this pledge, even though it may mean my imprisonment or death, and I take this pledge voluntarily and freely, knowing that if I break it I will be branded as a traitor to my class.[32]

The LVA soon grew into a huge mass movement. In August 1916, after empire loyalists physically attacked an anti-conscription meeting, 10,000 out of a population of just 30,000 rallied to denounce them. There followed weekly one-day stoppages against conscription and a series of monster demonstrations. In the wake of this campaign two leading socialist militants, Percy Brookfield and Mick Considine, were elected to parliament in place of the local federal and state Labor MPs, who had not taken a strong stance against conscription. The Broken Hill example spread to the capital cities, with strikes against conscription and the formation of Labor Volunteer Armies. On 4 October 1916 there was a nationwide anti-conscription stop-work.

Up until about August 1916, the empire loyalists controlled the streets of the main cities. Physical attacks, particularly by soldiers, made it difficult to hold anti-conscription meetings. On 13 August, at a 100,000-strong rally in the Sydney Domain, anti-conscription soldiers joined with working class demonstrators to drive off attacks by a right wing mob. The tide was beginning to turn. In Brisbane a big clash in early October, involving shooting between soldiers and armed workers, led to the formation of a Labor Volunteer Army to defend anti-conscription meetings. The following week more shooting followed as the LVA defeated attacks by rioting soldiers. From now on, it was the pro-conscriptionists whose meetings were more commonly broken up. In the north Queensland town of Bundaberg, a thousand workers rioted at a pro-conscription rally, injuring the speaker – a renegade former Labor Minister. Anti-conscription riots ensued in towns large and small across Queensland from Cairns, Rockhampton, Blackall, Tambo, Emerald to Kalbar. However, in Longreach it was an anti-conscription meeting that was broken up.

Establishment opinion was absolutely shocked by the narrow No victory in the referendum of 28 October 1916 (1,087,557 for conscription, 1,160,033 against). Three states voted No – NSW, where the working class movement was most organised, Queensland and South Australia. Victoria gave a narrow victory for Yes, while Tasmania and WA had decisive majorities for Yes. While not a vote against the war as such, it provided an enormous boost to the anti-war movement. The tensions that had been building up inside the ALP now exploded. Under intense pressure from their radicalised rank and file, the union leaders who controlled the party machine had been forced to make a stand against Hughes’ attempt to impose conscription. When Hughes and his supporters in cabinet refused to accommodate to this pressure, a split became inevitable. The union leaders and those Labor MPs who lined up behind them were no revolutionaries, but they recognised that if the ALP did not shift to the left and disavow Hughes, it would be totally discredited in the eyes of wide layers of workers. A space would then be opened up for the genuine revolutionaries to achieve a mass following.

In November 1916 Hughes and a sizeable block of MPs split away to join with the conservative opposition in a new Nationalist government. The NSW Labor premier Holman followed Hughes out, as did most of the state Labor MPs in South Australia. Yet even after the split, the new Labor leader Tudor, while opposed to conscription, declared himself in favour of prosecuting the war “with vigour and determination”.[33] He and other Labor leaders, such as Queensland premier T.J. Ryan, continued to participate in recruiting campaigns designed to coax young men to the slaughterhouse of the western front. The casualty figures had reached horrendous proportions. At the third battle of Ypres alone, there were 38,000 Australian casualties – about one in three Australians at the front.

The defeat of the conscription referendum served to deepen the economic struggle. An all-out two-month coal strike in November 1916 was marked by a high level of rank and file involvement. With coal stocks already low, the strike quickly began seriously to disrupt factory production, shipping and other transport services, and to threaten the war effort. The Hughes government leant on the union officials, who agreed to conduct a ballot for a return to work. But the miners in the main NSW coalfields defied their officials and refused to have anything to do with the ballot. Their resolute stance forced the government to capitulate, and they won a smashing victory: both shorter hours and a 20 percent wage increase. Massive unrest increasingly spread from the mines to other areas. There were important victories by meatworkers and many other groups of workers.

Workers were beginning to overcome anti-German feelings. In July, Townsville workers, who had previously banned German-born workers, now voted to work alongside them. “The only enemy they had was the capitalist”, one unionist stated.[34] In August 1917 came the first demonstrations for an immediate peace. All of this was occurring in the face of increasingly harsh state repression against any sign of dissent. The provisions of the War Precautions Act were systematically extended to target not just “enemy aliens”.

[T]he machinery of registration, censorship, surveillance, internment and deportation to control the resident “enemy” population in Australia was also being used to investigate and prosecute…pacifists, unionists, radical socialists, Irish nationalists, and anti-conscriptionists of all ideological persuasions, including sections of the Labor Party, practically anybody who dared to speak out against the government’s total commitment to the war.[35]

Military raids were carried out against the Trades Halls in Melbourne and Brisbane. The flying of the red flag was banned; the IWW was outlawed as an organisation and a hundred or so of its members imprisoned.

As the working class revolt intensified, ruling circles sensed that their whole social order was fundamentally threatened and resorted to desperate counter-revolutionary measures. Governor General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson wrote in his despatches to London that the “one hope is that things are so black that the better elements of society will be drawn together in a fight against the Powers of Darkness”.[36] Society began to polarise sharply. Elaborate plans were drawn up to crush riots and disturbances. Secret paramilitary forces were recruited and armed with machine guns to shoot down working class agitators. As Andrew Moore’s research revealed:

Apart from arrangements for the deployment of artillery, infantry and light horse personnel to suppress civil disorder, two aeroplanes were to be used:

(a) to overawe rioters by their presence in the air.

(b) to co-operate with the artillery.

(c) to assist in dispersing the rioters by the use of machine guns and revolvers or by dropping bombs or hand grenades.[37]

The leadership of these reactionary paramilitaries reads like a who’s who of the Australian bourgeoisie – the heads of the major banks, company directors, judges, army generals and university professors. In Victoria, Sir Herbert Brookes, a scion of the Melbourne establishment, was the driving force behind the secret army organised by the Australian Protective League. “Plans were laid for thwarting a proletarian uprising in Melbourne by blowing up the bridges crossing the Yarra, thereby turning the river into a moat and distancing the elite suburbs on the southern side from the working-class north.”[38] By the end of the war these had become truly mass formations. In Queensland alone 70,000 respectable middle class citizens had enrolled in the ultra-right militaristic King and Empire Alliance.

Weaknesses of the movement

So far, I have stressed the enormous strengths of the insurgent working class movement. But we have to examine its weaknesses if we are to understand subsequent setbacks. Inside the anti-conscription campaign, the far left, both socialists and syndicalists, tended to tail the arguments of the moderate leadership – Labor anti-conscriptionists who supported voluntary enlistment, feminists and pacifists. This limited the militants’ capacity to harness the massive anti-conscription sentiment for outright opposition to the imperialist war. This is most clearly seen over the issue of racism. The mainstream of the campaign, including prominent pacifists and feminists such as Adela Pankhurst, raised as a central question the bogey of “coloured” labour being imported if conscription was introduced. This racism had broad populist appeal. Pro-conscription meetings were commonly disrupted by demonstrators yelling that “niggers” were to replace white workers sent to the front. Labor anti-conscriptionists also argued that with “our boys” away in Europe, Australia would be taken over by the Japanese “yellow peril”.

By and large the far left, including the usually stridently anti-racist IWW, went along with or did not directly challenge much of this racist agitation. The IWW referred to William Morris Hughes as “Wilhelm Maltese ’ughes” because he supposedly attempted to import “coloured labour” from Malta. In December 1916, the IWW conceded in self-criticism: “There is little doubt that many of our speakers used that bogey [the importation of ‘coloured’ labourers] as a weapon to fight conscription.”[39] Even in Broken Hill, where the campaign was dominated by the militant left, the racist bogey was raised.[40] This inevitably limited the anti-capitalist dynamic of the campaign. Instead of emphasising a class-based, internationalist opposition to imperialist war, the far left helped channel the movement into narrow nationalism.

Furthermore, by not challenging the racism at this stage, the militants left open the space for a subsequent racist red-scare campaign by establishment forces. In 1919 a large fascist-style movement was mobilised against the local pro-Bolshevik Russian community, and socialists were attacked for adopting the “alien” ideology of the red “degenerates”. The RSL organised violent armed mobs to invade the Russian area in South Brisbane, smashing and looting homes, shops and restaurants. This virtual pogrom was prevented from spreading to the nearby Jewish area only by residents arming in self-defence with shotguns and dynamite. The government and employers backed up the right wing mobs with widespread sackings, arrests and deportations of Russians.[41]

The second key weakness of the movement was that most of the militants did not have a conception of building a socialist political alternative to the ALP. Heavily influenced by syndicalist ideas, most saw the key task as reorganising the unions on industrial lines into a militant One Big Union. The One Big Union would, depending on the brand of syndicalism you professed, either totally bypass the ALP or pressure it to act in the interests of the working class. Reliance on unions as the revolutionary instrument limited the militants’ capacity to challenge effectively the politics of Laborism. This became most obvious in the decisive struggle of the period, the 1917 Great Strike.

The Great Strike started on 2 August 1917 among skilled metalworkers in the Randwick railway workshops.[42] The formal issue was the introduction of the card system – speed-up. It was, however, simply the final straw, unleashing a wave of bitterness over falling real wages and the sacrifices demanded to maintain the war effort. The railway commissioner had entered into a compact with what was considered a comparatively conservative workforce not to introduce changes in work practices during the war. On their side, the workers had undertaken not to agitate for any reforms. The workers kept their part of the bargain but the commissioner repeatedly violated the “scrap of paper”.[43]

While the strike was not directly aimed against the war, it reflected growing working class questioning of the whole structure of society. After four days, the skilled workshop workers were joined on strike by the large general unions in the railways and tramways. A wave of sympathy action rapidly spread the strike to involve up to 100,000 workers, mostly in NSW and Victoria but also groups of workers in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania. The core sections of the strikers were out for five weeks, and some workers, such as coal miners, Broken Hill miners and seafarers, for another month. It was not until 4 December 1917 that the Melbourne wharfies voted to return to work.

It was an elemental revolt. There was a very high degree of rank and file involvement, and the spirit of the strikers was insurgent. As Robert Bollard wrote: “This was not a passive bureaucratic strike, but a tumultuous carnival of protest.”[44] Most had struck in defiance of the union bureaucracy or before they were officially called out. As E.J. Kavanagh, the secretary of the NSW Labor Council, notoriously declared, the difficulty was not in getting the workers to come out but in keeping them in! The approach of the young women who worked in the refreshment rooms at Sydney’s Central Station was typical. They refused to serve scabs and, when upbraided by their manager, “they all put on their hats and coats and marched off, amidst laughter and cheers”, to join the swelling ranks of the strikers.[45] Working class women were to play a prominent role in the vibrant demonstrations that flooded the streets singing Solidarity Forever, the boisterous mass meetings in the Sydney Domain and the riots that swept through the central business district of Melbourne.[46]

The government, which had built up a large stockpile of coal, responded with a well-coordinated scabbing operation and a wave of repression. In NSW alone, 1,524 special constables were enrolled to back up the police. A 7,326-strong “farmers’ army” armed with iron bars and pistols descended on Sydney to put down the strike. This counter-revolutionary force formed a core element of the fascist-style paramilitaries that were to proliferate over the next two decades. Despite all this, throughout August and into September, more and more workers overcame the opposition of their union officials and joined the strike as it spread interstate. The response of the union official-dominated defence committee was totally inept and cowardly. The Newcastle defence committee called for an all-out national general strike, but this was not taken up by the Sydney officials. In Broken Hill 2,000 miners invaded the mines and took one of the management staff prisoner. In Melbourne, wharfies rioted against the scabs who had taken their jobs. Yet despite this militant mood and broad popular support, no concerted left challenge was mounted to the official leadership.

No sizeable socialist organisation had emerged to agitate to spread the strike, to initiate the formation of a rank and file strike committee, to coordinate mass picketing and, most importantly, to give political direction to the insurgent movement. The failure to organise mass picketing to take on the scabs was one of the key tactical reasons for the defeat of the Great Strike. This should have been a straightforward task for any committed leadership, given the spirit of the strikers and the huge size (100-150,000) of the regular mass rallies in the Domain in support of the strike. The IWW proved incapable of intervening to offer a road forward. In part, this was due to police repression that had led to the imprisonment of a considerable number of its members; but more importantly it reflected the inability of syndicalism to face up to the challenge of providing revolutionary leadership.

So when the sell-out came, despite enormous rank and file opposition – especially by the seafarers and miners, who fought on for another month – the union officials managed to reassert their control. The workers were divided and forced back union by union. The case of the metalworkers’ union, the ASE, was typical:

When the terms of this settlement were reported to a mass meeting of metalworkers on 10 September the audience was hostile. There were calls for the resignation of the Defence Committee, and the meeting ended in chaos when Padgen [the union leader] left the chair without putting to the vote a motion to return to work – he said later that if the motion had been voted upon it would have been defeated by at least 4,000 to 1,000. Nevertheless, the union executives…instructed their railway and tramway members to return to work next day.[47]

This defeat was a key turning point, as the long mass strike had the potential to go forward to an outright challenge to capitalism. That potential was blown, and what followed was the victimisation of thousands of militants, the widespread deregistration of unions and the formation of a series of scab unions. With only one exception, every ASE branch secretary and shop steward involved in the strike was refused re-employment.[48]

Still, the revolt was not yet over by any means. In part this was because, unlike after the defeat of the great strikes of the 1890s, the defeat of the 1917 Great Strike was not followed by an economic depression. Workers’ bargaining power remained largely intact. The militant minority had been tempered by the Great Strike, was growing rapidly and making significant inroads into skilled workers’ unions like the ASE that had previously been less politically advanced. It faced a serious test when Hughes, attempting to take advantage of demoralisation following the defeat and the exhaustion of union funds, once more moved to impose conscription via another referendum. This second campaign was even more bitter and intense, especially in Queensland. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated all over the country. After Hughes unleashed the army to seize the Queensland parliamentary Hansard because it contained anti-conscription speeches, the Brisbane Industrial Council (the central union body) seriously discussed organising an armed revolt. “The general mood within the city was edgy and unstable, with the police commissioner worriedly noting the large number of firearms being purchased and carried, loaded, at public rallies.”[49]

In Melbourne’s working class suburbs, pro-conscription meetings were repeatedly broken up in response to government bans on anti-conscription meetings. There was a phenomenal number of riots. Working class women, in particular young factory workers, played a leading role in these militant protests. “Three women speakers for the National Referendum Council, including the leading figure in the women’s section of the Liberal Party, Ivy Brookes, were pelted with mud as they left a meeting of women factory workers.” Working class protesters repeatedly defied moderate anti-conscription leaders who tried to calm things down. A protest at South Melbourne in October 1917 typified the pattern. When moderate anti-conscription leaders tried to prevent the breaking up of the pro-conscription meeting, “the crowd actually ordered two such men to ‘get off the traitors’ platform’.”[50] These tactics were successful in that they forced the authorities to allow some local government halls to be used for anti-conscription meetings and to allow street meetings which they had previously banned.

Hughes made a determined attempt to rig the ballot. Rather than explicitly asking for a vote for or against conscription, he posed the deceitful question: “Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force overseas?” He changed the polling day from Saturday to Thursday to make it harder for workers to vote, closed the roll early to stop people enrolling and denied the vote to everyone with German ancestry, thus stripping an estimated 300,000 people of their rights.[51] Yet the margin for No was even greater than in the first referendum. This time Victoria joined NSW, Queensland and South Australia in voting No, and the Yes vote was only narrowly carried in Tasmania. Only Western Australia voted decisively for conscription. War-weariness had increased the degree of open anti-war sentiment. The impact of the Great Strike meant the issue was posed much more in terms of capital versus labour. As well, long before the war ended, returned soldiers were begging in the streets. The promises to soldiers were seen to have not been kept, and this had a searing effect.

While in 1918 there was a sharp retreat on the industrial front, in 1919 through into 1920 there was a further upsurge. The need to reorganise the union movement along fighting lines was widely recognised. The idea of the One Big Union in the wake of the defeat of the Great Strike gained an enormous resonance. Militants began to win leadership in union after union, culminating in the Communist-inclined “Trades Hall Reds” winning control of the NSW Labor Council, the most important central union body of that period. The successful workers’ revolution in Russia offered further inspiration. It appeared possible for workers to end both the war itself and the whole system that produced wars.[52] As one account puts it: “Apocalypse was in the air in 1918 as workers, daily expecting peace, read ecstatic accounts of ‘Russia’s stupendous historic achievement’.”[53] Another added: “The revolution was greeted by Labor supporters as the triumph of idealism, socialism and popular liberty.”[54] In Townsville returned soldiers were jeered in the streets and told “to take off that badge of slavery” (their RSL badge). Workers at the Alligator Creek Meatworks openly paraded in red guernseys with “the word ‘REVOLUTION’ woven across them”.[55]

In Adelaide, on the very day the war ended, 850 tramway workers went on strike. Mounted police were unable to disperse the hostile crowd that gathered when scabs were seen driving trams. The crowd grew enormously when thousands of people leaving the peace celebrations at Adelaide Oval joined in the action to stop the trams. Twenty-seven tram cars were forced to return to the depot, some with broken windows. Within a week the tramway workers had achieved a decisive victory.[56] The year 1918 ended with the Darwin rebellion, which forced the removal of the highly unpopular administrator, John Gilruth. The mainly working class protesters marched six kilometres from the meatworks at Parap and invaded the grounds of Government House (the administrator’s residence) and disarmed the assembled police and special constables. In preparation for a follow-up protest, troops were landed and machine guns installed on the Government House veranda. The rebellion was in part a response to a sharp increase in the price of beer in the government-owned hotels, but the underlying causes were the social and economic crisis provoked by the war and the total lack of any form of representative government in the Northern Territory.[57]

Some syndicalists began to see the need to go beyond trade union militancy to build a political alternative to the ALP. This trend was spurred on by the impact of the Bolshevik revolution. But the process took time to work its way through. It was not helped by the fact that there were very few Australian socialists with any real understanding of the Bolsheviks’ politics. The clearest were the local Russian communists, but their numbers were small and they were seen in the broader labour movement as alien outsiders.

The year 1919 brought an explosion of economic struggles over wages, which in real terms had been slashed by around 30 per cent during the war, and against the threat of post-war unemployment. Broken Hill was again in the forefront. After an 18-month lockout, the miners won a 35-hour week, an amazing achievement for that period. Following on from this victory, industrial action by building workers and metal trades workers in NSW in 1920 won a 44-hour week. However, the key post-war struggle was by seafarers. Because of their central role in the shipment of coal, their four-month long strike paralysed industry right across the continent. This, combined with their defiant solidarity even in the face of the jailing of their newly elected revolutionary socialist officials, won them a decisive wages victory in defiance of arbitration.[58]

The tactics adopted in a number of these strikes reflected the extreme bitterness and insurgent spirit of many workers. In May 1919 in Fremantle a full scale riot, which became known as “Bloody Sunday”, drove out the scabs who had been installed on the waterfront after the defeat of the 1917 Great Strike. The wharfies, who were joined in solidarity by returned soldiers, took on and defeated in a pitched battle the armed police, who had killed one wharfie, Tom Edwards. For the next few days Fremantle was a no-go area for police, and workers controlled the town. In Melbourne workers also successfully purged the scabs from the wharves.[59] As for the coal fields, it can be very dangerous working down a deep, dark mine when you are a hated scab. As Vere Gordon Childe put it:

[D]espite their revolvers and their police bodyguard, [the scabs] grew weary of living in constant terror from the unionists. So they elected to be repatriated, and most of the unionists gradually drifted back to the pits.[60]

In June 1919, armed workers in Townsville seized the city after demonstrators who marched on the local jail demanding the release of two arrested strike leaders were fired on by police. A series of bitterly fought strikes in the two large Townsville meatworks had included armed clashes between strikers and scabs. Then, on the morning of 28 June, 300 strikers raided the Stuart’s Creek cattle yards, tearing down the gates and releasing 500 cattle. The following day two militant leaders, Pierce Carney and Mick Kelly, were arrested. The response was immediate. Three thousand workers marched on the jail. Shots were exchanged with police, and nine workers were wounded. The next morning, following a mass meeting at the “Tree of Knowledge”, workers and their unemployed supporters raided hardware stores for guns and ammunition and took over the city. Railway workers then struck in an attempt to prevent police reinforcements sent by the state Labor government reaching the city.[61]

This working class ferment intersected with the bitterness of unemployed ex-soldiers who increasingly participated in angry demonstrations demanding jobs. Peace Day celebrations in July 1919 were marked by rioting in city after city. In Melbourne, after police arrested two returned soldiers, part of the crowd attempted to storm the Town Hall to free them. Shops were looted in Swanston Street. Shooting broke out between military police and the returned soldiers, one of whom was killed. Fighting lasted until midnight and continued to flare for the next three days. In protest at police violence, around 8,000 mainly former soldiers marched on the office of the conservative Victorian premier Harry Lawson. About 100 soldiers smashed down the doors and broke into the building. The offices were ransacked, and Lawson was assaulted and hit over the head with a heavy inkstand. When police arrived, they were met with a hail of stones from the angry crowd.[62]

Class divisions in the army were extremely sharp. The officer corps was drawn overwhelmingly from the elite private schools; for example, every single one of the 417 former Geelong Grammar students who enlisted became officers.[63] They returned to prosperous business or professional careers. Reactionary officers dominated the Returned Services League (RSL) and were central to the formation of a series of mass fascist-style militias that were unleashed against the left and the working class movement. In sharp contrast, returned soldiers from working class backgrounds faced much more uncertain futures. Many of them had been badly wounded and had to eke out an existence on a miserable pension. Others faced prolonged periods of unemployment or being banished to small, marginal blocks of land in the bush as part of ill-fated soldier-settler schemes. It is little surprise then that the bulk of those arrested or hospitalised during the 1919 Peace Day riots came from working class suburbs.[64] Some of the more politically conscious amongst them formed a Returned Soldiers’ Labour League, which argued that it was capitalism that was responsible for unemployment.[65]

The international context

Internationally 1919 was a year of revolution. What is invariably omitted from the history books is that the First World War was not ended at the negotiating table of the high and mighty at Versailles, but through mass action by millions of workers and rank and file soldiers. The revolutions in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in November 1918 were decisive. In both countries the outbreak of war had led to a wave of patriotic euphoria and, as in Australia, the opponents of the war were initially isolated. But the explosive combination of privation at home and slaughter in the trenches eventually provoked revolt. For while capitalism is a system that breeds wars, it also breeds resistance. The twentieth century was a century of war and revolution. War is the inevitable product of the division of society into classes. The threat of it will never be ended by begging our rulers to make peace. The arms have to be wrested from their hands by a movement fighting to overturn class society once and for all. That means mobilising the only power capable of stopping the drive towards war, the working class. Only socialist revolution can end the horror of war.

In February 1917, the women workers of Petrograd, protesting against food shortages, sparked off a rebellion that toppled the tsarist empire. In October, mobilising around the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”, the Bolsheviks led the working class to power in a revolution that was eventually to take Russia out of the war completely. Then, in November 1918, a mutiny by German sailors in the port of Kiel provoked a revolt in which workers’ councils were set up in all the major cities of Germany. As one observer described the scene:

The Kaiser Alexander Regiment had gone over to the revolution; the soldiers had rushed out of the barracks gates, fraternised with the shouting crowd outside; men shook their hands with emotion, women and girls stuck flowers in their uniforms and embraced them. The officers were being stripped of their cockades and gold lace.[66]

And another:

No elegant gentleman or well-to-do lady dared show themselves in the streets. It was as if the bourgeoisie had vanished from the surface of the globe. Only workers – wage slaves – were to be seen. But they were seen with arms.[67]

In the following year the revolutionary wave spread across Europe, toppling old monarchies and empires. In despair, British prime minister Lloyd George wrote: “The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other.”[68]

Unfortunately, only in Russia did the working class actually take control of society into its own hands. In Germany and the rest of Europe, the traditional reformist leaders of the labour movement eventually managed to channel the revolt away from an outright challenge for power. The failure of socialists outside Russia to build a clear revolutionary alternative to the Labor and Social Democratic parties before the onset of mass upheaval was decisive in allowing the reformist leaders to derail the movement. The Russian revolution was left isolated, surrounded by a sea of hostile capitalist powers. The defeat of the revolution in Germany was crucial for the rise of Nazism and for the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia.[69]

By the early 1920s, world capitalism had been temporarily restabilised politically. Reflecting this trend, the radical tide in Australia was ebbing. In part, this was due to the victory in the war, which took some of the sting out of anti-war feeling. Unemployment also rose sharply as the war came to an end, reaching around 11 per cent by late 1920 and forcing workers onto the defensive industrially. As well, the ALP, following the split with the pro-conscriptionists, deliberately sought to project a more left wing image. This assisted it to channel working class aspirations into directions less threatening to capital. The forces of the right that had been thrown onto the defensive in 1917 now reorganised. They mounted a furious red scare campaign, backed up by huge paramilitary mobilisations, which intimidated many workers. A wave of government repression saw tens of thousands of radicals and migrants jailed or deported.

However, just as important as these factors were the weaknesses of the vanguard of the class. The working class as a whole had moved sharply to the left from 1916 onwards, but the organisations of the far left were unable to take advantage of the upheavals of 1917 or of the subsequent explosion in 1919. Partly this was a product of the small size of the revolutionary left at the beginning of the war. But it also reflected political weaknesses. The IWW collapsed, unable to offer a road forward. Other syndicalists were slow to draw the lesson of the Russian Revolution – that a revolutionary Marxist party was decisive if the working class was to take advantage of the crisis to overthrow capitalism. By the time the Communist Party had begun to be formed here in late 1920, the flood tide had passed.

Conclusion

While the revolutionary potential of the movement was not fulfilled, it would be wrong to end on a pessimistic note. The years 1916-20 were ones of fantastic struggle – a real high point of Australian working class history. Major political victories were chalked up, most importantly the defeat of both conscription referenda, which established a tradition of working class anti-militarism, as well as key victories on the industrial front by seafarers, coal miners, meatworkers, shearers, wharfies and Broken Hill miners. These years also saw by far the longest mass strike in Australian history.

New forms of organisation, such as the Labor Volunteer Armies to defend anti-conscription meetings and workers’ demonstrations, were thrown up. Above all, these tumultuous years demonstrated the potential of ordinary working class people to radically change society by their own activity. In the space of a few short years, the mass of workers broke through the fog of patriotic euphoria that engulfed Australia at the outbreak of the war and struck out in defence of their own class interests. As Marilyn Lake wrote:

A new development in Australian history after 1916 was that imperial loyalties became increasingly the preserve of the right. The working class…became increasingly concerned with class; loyalty to empire often came into conflict with class interests and in most cases it was the former which suffered. Pride of race was overcome by pride of class.[70]

The powers that be have fought for a century to bury the true story of Australian society during the years of the war that was supposed to end all wars – years of class against class in a brutal civil war. To distract us, they manufactured and have relentlessly promulgated the nationalist myth of the bronzed Anzacs at Gallipoli. We need to reclaim the real history of the working class during this horrific war that caused one of the greatest slaughters humanity has ever witnessed. We must learn from both their triumphs and their failures, if we are to confront successfully a world capitalist system that continues to condemn us to economic crisis and never-ending imperialist wars under the guise of the “war on terror”.

 

 

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Cathcart, Michael 1988, Defending the National Tuckshop. Australia’s secret army intrigue of 1931, McPhee Gribble.

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Cliff, Tony 1985, Lenin: All Power to the Soviets, Bookmarks.

Cliff, Tony 1988, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks.

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Evans, Raymond 1988, The Red Flag Riots, University of Queensland Press.

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Harris, Joe 1970, The Bitter Fight. A pictorial history of the Australian labor movement, University of Queensland Press.

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[1] Lockwood 1990, p128: “A pole was transfixed above the entrance door of the club’s premises [the union club – MA] and a Union Jack, 10 feet by 4 feet, was suspended over the doorway. Every member entering the building was compelled to raise his hat and salute the flag.” He goes on to describe how the well organised Melbourne wharfies bashed their German-born fellow workers and drove them and other foreign-born workers off the wharves.

[2] Armstrong 2001, pp24-26.

[3] The Argus, 3 August 1914.

[4] Roper 1983, p29.

[5] Cliff 1985, pp1-44.

[6] Farrell 1981, p9.

[7] Jauncey 1968, p103.

[8] Jauncey 1968, p190.

[9] Shute 1975, p10.

[10] Shute 1975, p9.

[11] Gowland 1980, p217-221. Shute 1975, p11.

[12] Direct Action, 22 August 1914.

[13] Armstrong 2006.

[14] Buckley 1970, pp219-224.

[15] Gollan 1963, p137.

[16] Bean 1921, Scott 1940.

[17] Evans 1987, pp20-41.

[18] Buckley 1970, pp224-225.

[19] Bollard 2013, p28.

[20] This was first exposed in Direct Action, 1 December 1914.

[21] Helmi and Fischer 2011, pp21-42.

[22] Robson 1974.

[23] Jauncey 1968, pp204-205.

[24] Taylor 1957, p51.

[25] Burgmann 1995, pp165-167.

[26] Kiernan 1984, pp93-116, Evans 1987, p89, McConville 1987, pp104-123, Gilbert 1969, pp54-71, O’Farrell 1987, pp252-288.

[27] Dale 1965.

[28] Kennedy 1978, p128.

[29] Kennedy 1978, p134.

[30] Adams 2010, pp25-45.

[31] Kennedy 1978, p135.

[32] Roper 1983, p36.

[33] Turner 1979, p119.

[34] Evans 1987, p117.

[35] Helmi and Fischer 2011, pp22.

[36] Moore 1989, p18.

[37] Moore 1989, p18.

[38] Moore 1989, p31.

[39] Direct Action, 16 December 1916.

[40] Main 1970, p54.

[41] Evans 1988.

[42] There are numerous accounts: Bollard 2013, Bollard 2010, Gollan 1963, Turner 1979, Buckley 1970, Coward 1973.

[43] Harris 1970, p248.

[44] Bollard 2013, p133.

[45] Bollard 2013, p112.

[46] Armstrong 2012, pp168-170.

[47] Buckley 1970, p268.

[48] Buckley 1970, p271.

[49] Evans 1987, pp106-109.

[50] Smart 1989, pp207-217.

[51] Lake 1975, pp121-122.

[52] O’Farrell 1963, pp177-197.

[53] Kennedy 1978, p155.

[54] Lake 1975, p137.

[55] Evans 1987, p133.

[56] Moss 1985, pp256-257.

[57] Brian 2001, pp73-77.

[58] Morris 1979, pp52-62.

[59] Bollard 2009, Oliver 1995.

[60] Childe 1964, p160.

[61] Hunt 1983, Cutler 1973.

[62] Cathcart 1988, pp89-91.

[63] Cathcart 1988, p103.

[64] Cathcart 1988, p92.

[65] Evans 1987, p151.

[66] Harman 1982, p9.

[67] Harman 1982, p10.

[68] Harman 1982, p10.

[69] Binns et al 1987, Cliff 1988.

[70] Lake 1975, p192.