Chifley: Extinguishing the light on the hill

by Mick Armstrong • Published 26 August 2022

Ben Chifley has for decades been held up as one of the all-time great Labor leaders, famous for his widely repeated claim that the labour movement represented the striving and aspirations for a better world: “the beacon, the light on the hill”. He was a man who supposedly never betrayed his working class roots, “who gave his all and his life to uphold the dignity and to improve the lot of the humble common man”.[1]

Chifley was Australia’s last blue-collar working-class prime minister; a man who lived throughout his parliamentary career in a small weatherboard workers’ cottage and who spoke with a harsh, working-class Australian accent that shocked polite middle-class society when first heard on the radio. He cuts a starkly different image from today’s overwhelmingly middle-class Labor politicians, whose career path has commonly been university student Labor club member, to well paid party or union staffer, to MP, and who after retiring from parliament are rewarded for their services to business with a plum job in the private sector.

Chifley campaigned against conscription in World War I and was victimised by his bosses for his prominent role in the great mass strike that rocked Australia in 1917. In 1947 he outraged the business establishment when he attempted to nationalise the banks, and in the early 1950s he invoked his Irish heritage, declaring that, as “the descendant of a race that fought a long and bitter fight against perjurers, pimps and liars”, he stridently opposed the Menzies government’s legislation to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).[2]

Yet this supposed working-class hero was, as Labor prime minister between 1945 and 1949, the decisive figure holding the line on behalf of the capitalist class against the magnificent working-class offensive that rocked Australia in the immediate post-World War II years. In spite of his working-class roots he adopted a boots and all approach to crush the great miners’ strike of 1949, including jailing union officials and sending in troops to mine coal. Indeed, in a keynote speech in June 1949 Chifley declared:

I make this challenge here this morning. No government in the history of Australia has ever given to private industry so much assistance and advice and help as has been given by the Commonwealth Labour [sic] government.[3]

This article will explain Chifley’s political evolution from rank-and-file working-class activist to servant of the bourgeoisie. Far from being an outlier, Chifley’s political course reflects the fundamental conservatism of Labor’s reformist project, an analysis that still has implications for socialists in Australia today.

Early years

Chifley was born in 1885 in Bathurst NSW, a relatively posh country town riven by intense class divisions. As one of Chifley’s biographers, David Day, writes:

Around the hospital stood the expansive houses of the wealthier Bathurstians… Even grander houses were plonked about the surrounding countryside, mimicking with their architecture and landscaping, as well as the gracious lifestyles of their inhabitants, the country homes of England. Likewise, these local notables, some of whom traced their holdings back to the original crossing of the mountains, dominated the politics of the town. “Class distinctions were clear cut,” wrote a local historian, “and snobbery rampant”. On the one hand, there was “the glitter and respectability of the fortunate”, while on the other was “the almost incredible squalor in which some of the citizens of Bathurst existed”.[4]

These class divisions had been intensified by the great strikes of the early 1890s and the impact of the very deep depression of that decade, from which the Australian economy did not fully recover until the early years of the twentieth century.

Overlaying and further sharpening these divisions were the racial and sectarian tensions between the predominantly Anglo-Protestant establishment and Irish Catholics who made up a third of the town’s population. The strong Bathurst branch of the viciously anti-Irish Orange lodge, which for many decades had the largest membership of any organisation in Australia, celebrated the English victory of 1690 over the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne well into the twentieth century. Or take the case of Chifley’s own marriage in June 1914. Not a particularly religious Catholic, Chifley agreed to marry Lizzie McKenzie in a Protestant church. Her father – a train driver like Chifley – was a leading figure in the Masons, who were beginning to take over from the Orange Lodge as the main bigoted Protestant organisation. Nonetheless Lizzie’s family refused to attend the wedding, simply because Chifley was an Irish Catholic. The intensity of feeling on the Irish side is reflected in this prayer, commonly recited in the Bathurst district about the ill NSW Premier Henry Parkes, a reactionary who had sponsored the anti-Irish Treason Felony Act:

If he’s bad today, may he be worse tomorrow,
may he be dead, damned and into Hell rammed,
and may the hearthstone of Hell be his eternal pillow
and that is my prayer for him this blessed and holy day.

From the late 1880s onwards the newly emerging labour movement rapidly penetrated deep into numerous rural areas of NSW, including the shearing sheds of the Bathurst district. The message of unionism was being spread by dedicated organisers such as the then socialist but later Labor renegade Billy Hughes. Unionism also found a resonance in the small towns of the area. This included Bathurst itself (population just 9,578 in 1901), which developed into a major railway junction, as well as nearby Lithgow with its coal mines and steel works, Portland with its large cement works and Wallerawang with its railway workers. In 1908 there was a large eight-hour day procession in Bathurst, led by the railway engine drivers’ union. The town had two local papers; one of these, the National Advocate, of which Chifley was to become a board member in 1922, developed into being effectively the local voice of the unions and the Labor Party.

From an early age Chifley seems to have been intent on becoming a Labor MP. He spent nine years of his youth on a small farm at Limekilns, owned by his Irish-speaking grandfather Patrick, who railed against the banks for their role in the 1890s depression and against the English establishment. Along with many of his neighbours, his grandfather was sympathetic to the newly emerging Labor Party. Then, back in Bathurst in 1899 after the death of his grandfather, Chifley came under the influence of his father, also Patrick, a blacksmith and strong Labor supporter. Chifley read the radical literature prominent at the time in Labor circles – George Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel Looking Backwards and the works of George Bernard Shaw and Jack London.

After finishing primary school at age 15 Chifley initially worked as a cashier’s assistant in Meagher’s department store. After failing in an attempt to improve the “sweated” conditions of the juniors he quit the job. According to his biographer LF Crisp, this experience left a lasting impression on Chifley and strengthened his Labor sympathies:

Long afterwards he often said that this employer and two others – three of the most prosperous merchants of the city and pillars of their respective churches – were in fact three of the greatest exploiters of labour he had ever known and that this reality behind their Sunday facades was one of the most damaging influences he had known to the link between organised religion and the common people of Bathurst.[6]

After briefly working in a tannery Chifley got a job in 1903 in the railway yards of South Bathurst, initially as a shop boy, then as a cleaner, and eventually obtaining his driver’s certificate in March 1912. He became active in both his union and the ALP. As early as 1912 he represented the railway drivers’ union before the NSW Industrial Court. Though never a full-time union official, Chifley “was the union” in the Bathurst sheds, along with W Shanks, the Bathurst secretary. However, as his glowing biographer Crisp is at pains to emphasise, Chifley “was himself no ‘militant’, but rather the man who negotiated a beneficial settlement or a constructive compromise with firmness and tenacity softened by a certain sweet reasonableness”.[7]

The Great Strike[8]

The World War I anti-conscription campaign sharply divided Bathurst along class and religious lines, with the Church of England bishop heading the pro-conscription forces. Pro-conscription meetings were continually disrupted by militant protests in which working-class women played a prominent role. In 1916 Bathurst voted against conscription by more than three to one, well above the national anti-conscription vote of 51.6 percent.

Chifley never volunteered for the army and was prominent in the anti-conscription campaign, though on the moderate/right wing of the movement. The moderate anti-conscriptionists proclaimed they were loyal Australians who were not opposed to the imperialist war as such, but insisted that the army be volunteer-based. They raised the racist bogey that conscription would undermine the White Australia policy and lead to the mass importation of coloured labour to take white workers’ jobs.

In August 1917 the furious build-up of class tensions – brought on by the imperialist war and the immense sacrifices demanded of workers, with wages falling well behind escalating inflation – exploded in the Great Strike. This sweeping mass movement from below spread from industry to industry in defiance of the trade union bureaucracy, rocking Sydney and all the industrial centres of NSW. Within weeks rank-and-file workers had spread the strike to Melbourne and then on to involve workers in every state. The core sections of the strikers were out for five weeks, and some workers, including the coal miners, Broken Hill miners and seafarers, for another month. The defiant Melbourne wharfies stayed out until 4 December 1917.

The Great Strike erupted first amongst the skilled engineering workers of Sydney’s tramway and railway workshops on 2 August 1917. It quickly spread to the engineering workers employed in Bathurst’s locomotive sheds – which with over 400 workers was easily the largest employer in the city. However the maintenance workers striking on their own could not immediately stop the trains leaving Bathurst. A key question was whether the train drivers would come out in solidarity.

The drivers’ union was industrially conservative and had never been on strike. Driving a train, along with other highly skilled occupations such as printers and engineers, was an elite blue-collar working-class job. Drivers were the “aristocrats” of the working class, a cut above “mere labourers”. It was a job that you had to work your way up to over a period of many years, going from labourer in the workshops to cleaner to fireman to assistant driver to driver, and passing numerous exams along the way. But the drivers had their own grievances. Their elite position was being undermined. It was highly dangerous work on poorly maintained country train lines, involving night work, long 12–14-hour shifts and lengthy periods away from home. Moreover the drivers had been infected with the rebellious mood that was sweeping the working class during the war years. So within days the Bathurst drivers voted overwhelmingly and enthusiastically to strike. Solidarity was strong in a close-knit railway community like Bathurst, with only five out of 150 drivers scabbing.

Chifley, who had been a union activist since 1907 and was close to the drivers’ union officials in Sydney, played a prominent role in the strike. His was, however, very much a moderating influence that helped ensure that the strike and picketing in Bathurst remained peaceful, in contrast to the riots that swept through the central business district of Melbourne and the mine invasions in Broken Hill.

On 9 September the union leadership in Sydney called for the ending of the strike on utterly degrading terms that didn’t even guarantee workers their jobs back. There was shock, outrage and strident hostility from the rail workers in Bathurst, including the previously conservative drivers, over this sell-out. According to the National Advocate:

[T]he full text of the terms accepted by the Central Defence Committee (Sydney) fell like a bombshell amongst the railway unionists in Bathurst yesterday. It completely electrified the atmosphere in union circles and caused an almost unanimous expression of disapproval… For the first time during the strike the members got out of hand (at union mass meetings) and were disorderly.[9]

Chifley was to play a decisive role in carrying the union officials’ line and undermining the solidarity of the strikers. He cajoled the drivers to break ranks with the other Bathurst workers and sign the management’s forms to return to work. There was great reluctance amongst the drivers to do so, but without an alternative proposal or leadership, Chifley was able to browbeat the drivers into submission. The National Advocate reported:

But it was a hard task to induce many of the men, whose one ambition was to fight on. Messrs. Chifley and Shanks had all their work cut out and only succeeded after exerting much eloquence.[10]

Even as Chifley and Shanks led the other hundred or so drivers to the office to sign on, the situation remained touch and go. According to the Bathurst Times:

Mr. Chifley appeared to be “laying down the law” to his brother driver. He was busily engaged in thumping his right hand with his left until the pair neared the Inspector (McGuiness) who received them in front of his office.[11]

Despite his moderating role Chifley, like numerous other union activists, was victimised by management. He appealed against his sacking, correctly claiming that he had “endeavoured to prevent any semblance of violence, disorder or unlawful tactics”.[12] He was eventually re-employed but in a substantially lower-paid job, and it took years to regain his position as a permanent driver.

The hopes of the Great Strike had been thrown away. No militant democratic leadership had emerged to take the revolt forward to victory. In the absence of such an organised socialist leadership the conservative union officials, who had initially been sidelined by the elemental revolt, were able to reassert their authority and utterly betray the great fighting spirit of the mass of rank-and-file workers. Workers had suffered a bad but needless defeat. Numerous unions, including the drivers’ union, were deregistered. Its membership collapsed and Chifley was one of the few who tried to hold the union together in Bathurst.

“Revolution has absolutely no appeal”

Despite his victimisation by railway management, the defeat of the Great Strike had only served to confirm Chifley in his moderate, pragmatic approach. Strikes in his view should only be used sparingly and workers needed to look to parliament, rather than their own organised industrial strength, to achieve change.

Chifley established a profile in Bathurst by his activities in numerous local committees like the hospital board and in sporting activities. However Chifley was defeated when he first stood for Labor preselection for the Bathurst seat in the NSW state parliament in 1922 and again in 1924. He persisted and in 1925 gained preselection for the federal seat of Macquarie that covered Bathurst and the coal-mining town of Lithgow, but also considerable rural areas closer to Sydney and the conservative tourist towns of the Blue Mountains. He lost narrowly despite having substantial majorities in working-class towns like Lithgow and Portland and to a lesser extent Bathurst itself.

In the wake of the slaughter of World War I, the ongoing revolt in Ireland and the 1917 Russian revolution, a radical wave had swept the Australian working-class movement. This saw mass support surging for the syndicalist-inspired One Big Union movement and the formation in 1920 of the Communist Party. Chifley, however, stood determinedly against the radical tide, declaring: “I stand entirely for the principles of arbitration… I say frankly that the policy of revolution, other than the revolution of thought, makes absolutely no appeal to me”. [13]

Chifley ran again for Macquarie in 1928, this time successfully. He doubled down on his ultra-moderate rhetoric, ironically proclaiming, given his subsequent bitter hostility to Jack Lang, that:

[T]he Lang [NSW Labor] Government had achieved more for the workers in two years by legislation than general strikes had achieved in 20 years, while the Fisher [federal Labor] Government had done more to improve the lot of the workers than all the strikes that ever occurred in the history of Australia”.[14]

Chifley made a central point of his campaign a blatant appeal to racism. He declared that “Australia was supposed to be a white man’s country, but Mr Bruce [the conservative prime minister] and his Government were fast making it hybrid”.[15] His scapegoating attacks were specifically directed against southern European migrants who, he claimed, were flooding in and cutting Australian workers’ wages. The National Advocate backed him up with an article on 10 November 1928 calling for a vote for Chifley to protect White Australia.[16]

By the time of the October 1929 election, when Chifley was re-elected with a massively increased majority, Labor had been out of office federally for 13 years. The capitalist class had had no use for them. But that was now to change. The economic downturn which was to become the Great Depression had hit Australia early and hard, polarising society along class lines. The right-wing Nationalist Party government had been severely discredited and seemed to have no answers to the unfolding economic crisis. Industrially, key sections of the working class on the waterfront and in the timber industry had suffered demoralising defeats in lengthy strikes resisting assaults on their pay and conditions. The miners on the northern NSW coal fields were still battling a lock-out by their bosses, determined to slash their wages, that was to last for 16 months.

Scullin’s government

Workers now turned to Labor en masse in the hope that it would defend them from the ruling class assault and the ravages of the developing Depression. Labor was led by James Scullin, who had moved the successful motion to expel all the pro-conscriptionists from the ALP in 1916 and who was one of the architects of Labor’s Socialist Objective, but by 1929 was very much on the moderate wing of the party. Scullin was swept into office on a wave of working-class euphoria, but workers were to be profoundly disappointed.

Labor promised to resolve the growing crisis by appealing to both workers and bosses. Scullin pledged to maintain the federal arbitration system for settling industrial disputes that the Bruce Nationalist government had proposed to abolish. Chifley played a leading role in the Labor defence of arbitration, arguing that what was needed was a system “where reason and moral suasion can operate in the direction of bringing together the parties…under conditions that are conducive to a reconciliation of difference of opinion”.[17] Labor also promised to provide support for farmers and pledged to intervene to end the lock-out of the NSW coal miners. It would raise tariffs on imported goods to promote manufacturing industry and provide jobs – an approach some sections of capital backed.

These measures were to prove completely ineffectual in stemming the surge of unemployment, from 13.1 percent of union members in late 1929 to 23.4 percent at the end of 1930 and peaking at 30 percent in the second quarter of 1932.[18] With the world depression devastating the economy, the ruling class consensus hardened. Business confidence, the establishment proclaimed, had to be restored, and that necessitated sharp cuts to government spending to balance the budget. Wages and pensions had to be slashed. Workers in Australia, the bankers and the business elite declared, had had it way too good for way too long and must be made to bear the burden of the crisis.

Rather than defending working-class living standards, the Scullin government increasingly accommodated to this ruling class agenda. It abandoned its pledge to end the lock-out of the NSW coal miners and imposed the Premiers’ Plan, a vicious austerity policy demanded by the bankers that cut government spending by 20 percent and served to compound the already massive job losses.

A significant minority in the parliamentary Labor caucus voiced opposition to the Premiers’ Plan, but Chifley was not one of them. Indeed, his parliamentary speech in favour of endorsing the Premiers’ Plan was hailed by Opposition conservatives as “a simple and manly speech”.[19] Chifley, who was appointed defence minister in March 1931, was very much on the conservative wing of the Scullin government. He was even offered the position of treasurer in a new conservative government headed by Joe Lyons, the former Tasmanian Labor premier who split from Labor to the right, helping to bring down the Scullin government in November 1931. Chifley stridently opposed NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang (returned to office with a massive majority in November 1930), who had launched a populist campaign denouncing the bankers and who called on Scullin to use the army to break the lock-out by the mining magnates.

Lang was no left-winger but he was prepared to ride the tiger of working-class discontent. In opposition to the draconian Premiers’ Plan, he launched the Lang Plan, which “called for the suspension of interest payments on governments’ overseas debt, lower interest rates and an end to the gold standard (the valuation of the Australian pound in terms of a specific quantity of gold)”.[20] Under left-wing pressure, and to head off the threat to his control of the party posed by the rapidly growing Socialisation Units that called for a three-year plan to introduce socialism, Lang was more than willing at times to engage in socialist-sounding rhetoric.[21] But Lang’s essential appeal was as the “Great Man” – the mighty, powerful leader standing up for all the little people and the defender of the genuine national interest against a nefarious band of financial conspirators.

Meanwhile the Scullin government was tearing itself apart. Its working-class supporters were becoming increasingly demoralised. Joe Lyons and a coterie of right-wingers in the Labor caucus argued that Scullin was not sufficiently committed to bourgeois financial orthodoxy and split away. In late 1931 these Labor rats backed a no-confidence motion (also backed by Lang’s supporters in the federal parliament) that brought down the Scullin government. In October 1931 Chifley had been expelled from his own union, the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen (AFULE), for supporting the Premiers’ Plan and opposing the Lang Plan. Even his local Bathurst AFULE branch had turned against him. There was strong support for Lang’s radical populism in Chifley’s electorate, especially in Lithgow, the industrial heart of the district. Chifley’s own Bathurst Labor branch voted to oppose the Premiers’ Plan. With the Labor vote split between Chifley, the federal Labor candidate, on 28.1 percent, Tony Luchetti, Chifley’s former campaign manager and now Langite candidate, on 21.6 percent and the Communist Party on 1.3 percent, Chifley lost his seat at the October 1931 election landslide against the Scullin government.

Labor was reduced to a tiny minority of just 14 seats in the federal parliament, with Lang Labor holding another four. Labor had utterly failed to protect workers’ interests during the crisis. It had not even softened the blows. Its austerity measures had simply lengthened the dole queues. Labor had served the bosses well by demoralising workers and helping to frustrate a concerted fightback. But the bosses showed no gratitude, turning sharply against Labor in favour of the new Lyons-led United Australia Party (UAP).

Another long period of opposition followed for Labor federally. Labor had discredited itself in the eyes of many workers and was severely split in NSW. However, unlike after the fall of the Hughes Labor government, there was no swing to the left by the federal ALP after its defeat. Scullin was re-elected leader and – in an attempt to prove his credentials to the powers that be – backed the coup by the NSW state governor Sir Philip Game that overthrew the Lang Labor government in May 1932.

Lang Labor

In NSW the great mass of Labor supporters had split away to back Lang Labor, rallying to the slogan “Lang is Right”. Busts of the “great man” proliferated on the mantelpieces of working-class families all across the state. Lang’s radical-sounding rhetoric terrified the business establishment and the respectable middle class. For the conservatives any talk of repudiation of the debt to the British bankers reeked of national disgrace and repudiation of the links to the Empire. The banks and a virtual Who’s Who of company directors and military officers mounted a furious campaign to bring down Lang, even orchestrating the rise of well armed and well funded far-right and fascist mass forces – the Old Guard and the New Guard. Under this intense ruling-class pressure, and having been given the nod from the King in London, the state governor, Sir Philip Game, orchestrated a coup to remove Lang.

Lang retained mass working-class support, reflected in a rally of anywhere between 200,000 and 750,000 in Sydney after his dismissal. And it was not just in Sydney that workers mobilised to oppose the coup, but in towns all across the state. In Bathurst there was a large demonstration in support of Lang, with talk by railway workers of revolution. In the subsequent state election the Langite candidate Gus Kelly held the largest election rally ever seen in Bathurst – more than 2,000, over a quarter of the town’s population. But Lang, like Gough Whitlam decades later, refused to mobilise workers to overturn the coup. With Lang and his union backers refusing to act, a decisive opportunity to turn the tide against the ruling-class assault was thrown away. Tragically, the Communist Party also did its bit to frustrate the development of a fighting left alternative by simply denouncing Lang as a “social fascist” and the left reformist leaders of the Socialisation Units as “left social fascists” and refusing to mobilise resistance to the coup.[22]

The NSW branch of the federal ALP, of which Chifley was elected leader in June 1931, disgracefully backed Sir Philip Game’s coup:

We declare our faith in the integrity and the honour of Sir Philip Game as the representative of His Majesty the King in this State… it was only Mr. Lang’s characteristic unintelligent obstinacy which left him unmoved after His Excellency had pointed out the plain duty of any man fit to occupy the position of Premier of the State.[23]

Despite the backing of the right-wing Australian Workers Union (AWU) and financial support from interstate Labor branches, the tiny anti-Lang federal ALP made little headway in NSW throughout the 1930s. This left Chifley without a seat in parliament for the rest of the decade, though he was cajoled in 1935 into an unsuccessful attempt to stand against Lang himself in his state seat of Auburn. It was only with the fragmentation of the Langite forces in the late 1930s that Chifley regained any hope of furthering his parliamentary career.

It is worth highlighting the relative strength of the union movement and Labor in working-class communities in NSW in these pre-war decades, compared to their ossified state today. Both the unions and the Labor Party had a genuine array of rank-and-file worker activists and a penetration into working-class life incomparably greater than anything that has existed in recent decades. Country towns such as Bathurst and Lithgow held large Labor election rallies. Unions held regular eight-hour day or May Day rallies in town after town. Even a town of just a couple of thousand like Oberon had an active ALP branch, whose large annual ball Chifley attended in the course of his 1928 election campaign. Labor preselection battles were often intensely fought affairs, with large numbers of rank-and-file union members voting. There were widely circulated union papers such as the miners’ Common Cause and the AWU’s Australian Worker, as well the pro-Lang Labor Daily that reached a peak circulation of over 160,000 at the time of the coup against Lang.[24]

The second imperialist war

After a bitter preselection battle in the now reunited Labor Party, Chifley was returned to parliament in October 1940. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming treasurer and a key offsider to John Curtin after Curtin was installed as prime minister a year later. Labor had been in opposition for a decade. The deeply conservative Lyons government had well suited the bourgeoisie. However following the death in April 1939 of Lyons, who was replaced by Menzies, the United Australia Party government limped from crisis to crisis, exacerbated by the outbreak of war. It only retained office at the 1940 elections thanks to the support of two independents – one of whom was Arthur Coles, the managing director of Coles stores and the former lord mayor of Melbourne. When Coles crossed the floor in October 1941 to install Curtin as prime minister it was a clear sign that Labor had been given the nod of approval by an important section of the establishment. Indeed the ultra-conservative Sydney Morning Herald subsequently went on to praise Curtin in gushing terms:

John Curtin has…become Australia articulate… In every race, someone arises at its direst extremity, with the gift of the very best in that race. Sometimes he is a poet, but rarely. Today we are fortunate in having him a Prime Minister.[25]

There was a feeling in ruling circles that Labor would be better placed to galvanise the working class into an all-out war effort. The conservative parties were bitterly divided and too publicly associated with the interests of the rich to inspire workers to sacrifice their lives in the tens of thousands on the battlefields, and to work incredibly long and exhausting hours in the munitions factories. On top of that, the conservatives had little credibility to make the argument that all Australians had to unite to fight a supposedly heroic war against fascism when they had championed the fascist cause in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and funded the far-right Old Guard and New Guard in Australia.

Workers’ long memories of the terrible slaughter of World War I meant there was little enthusiasm in 1939 for another war. Indeed as unemployment fell with the pickup of industry following the outbreak of the war, there was a surge of strike action in 1940 as key sections of the workforce sought to regain the losses they had suffered during the cruel Depression years.

In the late 1930s the only significant pro-war current in the labour movement was the CPA and their Popular Front supporters, some of whom had secretly entered the ALP. The CPA-led Movement Against War and Fascism had essentially become a movement for war against fascism and at the outbreak of the war advocated sending an Australian expeditionary force to Europe. The mainstream of the broader labour movement and especially the Langites held to an Australian nationalist, isolationist standpoint. Irish Australians in particular had little appetite to die for King and Empire, and they now made up a decisive majority of the rank-and-file membership of the ALP. Further to the left was a principled anti-imperialist current influenced by syndicalism and Marxism.

The parliamentary ALP, reflecting in part their closer connections to the capitalist state, had immediately backed the war, though it took somewhat longer to pull the leading union officials into line.

This all changed in 1941, when Japan entered the war and Labor was elected to office. On the left, Hitler’s invasion of Russia meant the world communist movement abandoned its effectively pro-German stance in favour of a strident pro-Allies and pro-war posture. The voices against the war were now few and far between. By 1942 the war was no longer some far away event in Europe, and Curtin, with Chifley’s backing, could appeal to traditional racist, anti-Japanese “Yellow Peril” sentiment to whip up pro-war support. Curtin, the onetime international socialist and opponent of racism and imperialism, did not rely on half measures. A week after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 Curtin assured parliament of his government’s

determination that this country shall remain forever the home of descendants of those people who came here in peace [!] in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British races. Our laws have proclaimed the principle of White Australia… We intend to maintain that principle.[26]

Then in March 1942, after the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces, the Labor government launched its infamous “Hate” campaign, essentially calling for the genocide of the Japanese population. Government newspaper advertisements screamed: “We’ve always despised them, NOW WE MUST SMASH THEM”.[27]

Conscription, however, remained a flashpoint. Opposition to conscription for overseas service had become an article of faith in the ALP following the experience of the First World War. Curtin’s move to impose conscription in late 1942 thus faced bitter opposition from rank-and-file party members and from the Langites, though it was stridently backed by the Communist Party.[28] However Curtin, again backed by Chifley, was able to use their authority as anti-conscription campaigners in World War I to defeat the opposition led by Labor traditionalists like Arthur Calwell and Labor leftists like Eddie Ward.

At the height of the racist hysteria about the supposed threat of a Japanese invasion in 1942 the number of strike days fell substantially. But by 1943 they had rebounded, and by 1945 they were surging. Amongst the militants in the most politically advanced sections of the class, especially the coal miners and seafarers, there was a genuinely anti-imperialist sentiment. CPA miners’ union officials complained that they had difficulty convincing militants that the supposedly anti-fascist war wasn’t simply just another imperialist war like World War I. But with the CPA being aggressively pro-war there was no political force capable of organising and cohering these militants to influence broader layers of organised workers who might not yet have opposed the war outright but did not see why they should sacrifice their living standards for the sake of the bosses’ profits.

Right from the moment that Curtin and Chifley took office they made it clear that their overwhelming priority was waging the war on behalf of the capitalist class, not advancing working-class living standards. Chifley’s first budget essentially copied that of the previous conservative Treasurer Fadden and was initially rejected by the Labor caucus for not sufficiently increasing old-age pensions. Chifley subsequently went on to systematically raise income taxes on low and very low income earners. Even the moderate NSW union leader Jim Kenny described Chifley as “hysterical about the war effort…completely indifferent to the requests of the trade unions”.[29]

In an attempt to quieten union discontent, Eddie Ward, widely seen as the most left-wing member of the Labor caucus, was appointed minister for labour and national service. But to back up Ward’s velvet glove approach, the Curtin/Chifley government employed the iron fist, with harsh national security regulations aimed in particular against the militant coal miners who continued to strike despite the pleas of their union leaders. Any miner who struck in defiance of the union hierarchy was to be expelled from the union and face conscription into the army. In 1944 Chifley condemned the rank-and-file miners for not working hard enough to meet wartime production targets, declaring that “the miners had been treated [by the Commonwealth and State Labor Governments] with a consideration and a generosity amounting to indulgence, and that this liberality had been shockingly requited”.[30]

Post-war industrial upsurge

Despite considerable internal tensions, Labor was able to ride out the wartime working-class unrest without a major split in its ranks, as had occurred during World War I. But with the war coming to an end, the pressure on the Labor government mounted as the mood in the working class shifted further. It was one thing, the feeling went, to accept sacrifices during the war but now we have to fight to improve our lot – win shorter hours and much better wages before another recession hits. There was a widespread view that things had to fundamentally change. There could be no return to the 1930s with its mass unemployment, poverty and misery, the rise of fascism and then the sacrifices of another murderous war.[31] Capitalism had been massively discredited in workers’ eyes. As a leading business magazine, Rydge’s, acknowledged in April 1944:

If I were asked to debate the proposition that state ownership is preferable to the system of private enterprise I would prefer to argue on the side of state ownership if I wished to take the less difficult side in the debate. It is so very easy to put forward powerful compelling reasons which would promise so very much more to the community than is possible under private enterprise.[32]

Labor, however, had absolutely no intention of challenging the capitalist market. Chifley had taken over as prime minister after Curtin died on 5 July 1945, and maintained his conservative approach. With the capitalists widely discredited, the Chifley government, in alliance with the union bureaucracy and the Arbitration Courts, was to prove to be the key bastion of defence of capitalism against an insurgent working class. Chifley saw his task as holding the line as long as possible against even workers’ most basic demands – the 40-hour week and improved wages. In a letter to the peak union body, the ACTU, in November 1945 he stated:

My Government is greatly disturbed by the prevailing industrial unrest throughout the Commonwealth and is most anxious that this unrest should be replaced by a spirit of harmony and co-operation that will enable both Employers and Employees to work together in the solution of the Industrial and Productive tasks which face Australian industry.[33]

By trickery and clever manoeuvres Chifley exploited workers’ illusions in the good intentions of the Labor government to maintain the stringent wartime wage-pegging controls. He was ably abetted by the arbitration courts, which dragged out hearings of workers’ claims for months, and a union bureaucracy which put loyalty to the ALP and the stability of the capitalist system well above the interests of its rank-and-file members. Nonetheless pressure from below was building. Strike after strike broke out, with nearly five and a half million working days lost between 1945 and 1947.[34] Even the bosses acknowledged that there was widespread public sympathy for striking workers, especially in 1946 and 1947.

Eventually the pressure was too much and workers crashed through Chifley’s wage-pegging barriers. The 1946–47 Victorian metal trade dispute was a decisive battle. In response to overtime bans and other limited industrial action in support of a wage claim, the bosses locked out 20,000 workers in Victoria in November 1946. From there the battle spiralled. When on 20 January 1947 the employers lifted the lock-out, the workers bluntly refused to go back to work. They were determined to teach the bosses a lesson.

The skilled metalworkers of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) were at the forefront of the struggle. They constantly pushed their officials, some of the most militant in the country at the time, to pull out more and more workers, including the apprentices on the railways and in the power plants and the vital maintenance workers in a broad swath of industries. Not one of Melbourne’s 49 suburban AEU branches voted to accept a compromise offer from the Arbitration Court. Their determination and defiance of arbitration delivered them a path-breaking victory – the biggest gains ever in the long history of their proud and militant union.[35] This was but one of the many major strike battles of this era – two of the most famous being the victorious 1948 Queensland rail strike against the Hanlon Labor government and the defeated seven-week long coal miners’ strike of 1949.

Workers made some very important gains from these militant struggles, including the long sought goal of a 40-hour week. However it remains the case that Chifley’s relentless delaying measures paid off for the ruling class at a time when they were in a very difficult situation during the most turbulent phase of post-war economic and social reorganisation. The Labor government set the Australian capitalist class up to profit enormously at workers’ expense from the post-war boom.

Part of the reason that the Labor government was able to hold the line as struggle rose sharply in the last year of the war and the immediate post-war years was the role of the Communist Party, which had substantially strengthened its position in the unions during the war years. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia the CPA had adopted a win the war at all costs approach, stridently opposing strikes and backing the Labor government virtually uncritically. At war’s end the CPA leadership shifted somewhat; its rank-and-file members were able to play an active role in the strikes that broke out as the party became marginally less hostile to workers’ struggle. But as a party they did not radically change course between 1945 and 1947, and did not attempt to seriously radicalise and lead the strike movement forward. Indeed party members were urged to oppose any attempt to use strikes to break Labor’s wage controls, and CPA leaders were particularly concerned not to unduly embarrass the Chifley government in the lead-up to the 1946 federal elections.

However as the Cold War deepened the line from Moscow changed. From about the end of 1947 the Communists became more hostile to Labor. This flowed through to more industrial aggression, but the shift came too late. The wave of militancy had already peaked. The bosses were beginning to regain their confidence and the red-baiting Cold War atmosphere had made the CPA much more isolated politically. The media, the Liberals and the Chifley government blamed any strike that occurred on a Communist conspiracy to sabotage the economy. In reality the strikes overwhelmingly reflected genuine working-class grievances, not sinister Communist manipulation. CPA union officials, even after the party’s left turn, were not as a whole more industrially militant than Labor left union leaders such as the AEU’s Joe Cranwell, who played a central role in the victorious 1946–47 metal trades struggle and in the 1948 Queensland rail strike. Indeed Australia’s most prominent Communist union leader, Jim Healy, head of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), did all he could to fulfil his promise to Chifley “that the Federation would do all in its power to keep the waterfront working prior to the [1949] election period”.[36]

Nonetheless a crunch was coming, and it was the coal miners who were to feel the full weight of the Cold War anti-Communist crusade. The miners were the most militant and politically advanced section of the Australian working class. Rank-and-file miners were commonly more militant and defiant than their Communist and left Labor union officials. They had long endured extremely harsh working conditions and were determined to win shorter hours and longer leave. The miners had the power to shut down all the core sections of industry, as coal was then central not just to electricity generation but to shipping, the railways, the manufacture of gas and much else.

Chifley was determined to teach both the miners and the Communist Party a lesson. He feared that if the miners broke through, their gains would quickly flow on to wide sections of the working class. In the sharply intensifying Cold War atmosphere, Chifley was also determined to demonstrate that Labor was tough on the reds. He introduced draconian legislation to seize strike funds, jailed the miners’ union leaders and ordered police raids on Communist Party offices. But it was not simply repression that broke the strike. Chifley rallied the ACTU and the other key union leaders behind him, and the miners were left isolated, to be starved back to work. Chifley floated the threat of destroying the miners’ union by bringing in AWU members as scabs. To emphasise his determination, he became the first Labor leader in peace time to send in troops to break a strike by working some of the open-cut mines. After seven weeks the miners, with their backs to the wall, folded and returned to work.

It was not simply on industrial relations that Chifley fought to advance the interests of Australian capitalism. In 1946 he won Labor endorsement of the Bretton Woods Agreement which created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (later the World Bank). This came about despite bitter opposition from Calwell and Ward, who denounced it as leading to a dictatorship of finance capital over the population. Then in 1949, under pressure from both the British and US governments, Chifley established the red-baiting spy agency ASIO. Even Chifley’s seemingly most radical measure, his 1947 attempt to nationalise the banks, was not motivated by some socialist desire to undermine big capital. Instead he believed the private banks were an irresponsible vested interest whose financial policies were holding back the rapid expansion of a profitable manufacturing sector and other industries key to the rounded development of Australian capitalism.

However by the late 1940s Labor had served its purpose from a ruling-class perspective. The conservative political forces had been reorganised in a new, highly aggressive Liberal Party with a mass middle-class membership. The intensifying Cold War atmosphere had pushed back post-war radicalism and Robert Menzies had launched a “reds under the beds” anti-Communist crusade. A very well funded reactionary mobilisation was unleashed to bring down the “socialist” Chifley government at the 1949 elections. This involved the banks, who paid off large numbers of their staff to campaign against Labor, the overwhelming bulk of the media, the doctors’ associations and the full array of capitalist and middle-class forces. Menzies narrowly triumphed, with 51 percent of the two-party-preferred vote; though the great majority of blue-collar workers remained loyal to Labor, which received 46 percent of the first preference vote.

After the elections Chifley was re-elected unopposed as Labor leader, but within 18 months he was to die of a heart attack. The new Menzies Liberal government was determined to push society sharply to the right by whipping up a Cold War frenzy with talk of a new world war. One of Menzies’ key immediate objectives was to ban the Communist Party. He understood that this would sharply divide the ALP.

As his draconian measures to smash the 1949 miners’ strike demonstrated, Chifley was not in any sense favourable to or soft on the Communists. He had no hesitation in strongly backing the Korean War in 1950. However he was critical of McCarthyism and of the US’s extreme Cold War approach, and was hostile to Menzies’ proposal to ban the CPA. Chifley saw the ban as an unproductive means of fighting Communist influence in the unions and he feared that this attack on democratic rights would set a precedent for similar measures to be taken against the trade unions and the ALP itself. However the ALP federal executive, under pressure from a hysterical right-wing media campaign and the growing far-right “Movement” inside the party, capitulated. It narrowly voted to overrule Chifley and Labor waved the ban through the Senate, which it still controlled. In defiance, ALP deputy leader Doc Evatt then headed a successful legal challenge by Communist-aligned unions to the ban as unconstitutional. The ban was eventually narrowly defeated in a referendum. By then Chifley was dead.

The Cold War atmosphere had aided the rapid growth of a new right-wing, stridently anti-Communist faction in the ALP associated with BA Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement, which backed outlawing the CPA. The fanatical new Movement leaders viewed traditional Labor moderates and fellow Catholics like Chifley as too soft on the communists in the workers’ movement. The old Labor power brokers in turn saw the Movement activists as “too Catholic for their own good”. Chifley despised newly elected Movement-aligned Labor MPs such as Stan Keon, declaring: “Remember, the religious fanatic is always far worse than the political fanatic”.[37] The scene was being set for the bitter split in the ALP in 1955, leading to the formation of the right-wing Democratic Labor Party (DLP) that was to keep Labor out of office federally for 23 years.


Ben Chifley, unlike his friend and fellow Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, had never been a radical socialist. But nor, unlike so many Labor politicians today, was he some middle-class careerist. As a young worker he became active as a rank-and-file member of his union and of the ALP, though he never held a full-time union position. He was ambitious and talented, and saw himself as advancing the interests of his fellow workers and the people of his home town Bathurst. But these advances were to be achieved via the official channels of capitalist society – through arbitration courts, lawful union bargaining, through parliament, the local shire council, the local hospital board and myriad other local committees. Chifley did not set out to challenge the existing power structures of capitalist society. Even before his election to parliament he saw strikes very much as a last resort. They should be run in an orderly way and not “get out of hand” by inflaming class tensions, let alone lead to workers imposing their own power on society.

To operate successfully within the framework of the official parliamentary and legal channels you have to adapt more and more to the rules of the game. And those rules were not set by the workers of Bathurst and Lithgow who voted Chifley into office, but by those with the real power and wealth in society – the capitalist class. Having chosen this reformist path of relying on the official channels Chifley necessarily came to accept the constraints that the legal system, the financial markets, the bosses and the bourgeois media impose upon the class struggle. Even in the best of times that means being prepared to compromise the interests of working-class supporters so that capitalist profitability is not seriously undermined. In times of war or economic crisis, a commitment to reformism means a willingness to impose harsh measures – the slashing of living standards and compelling workers to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields.

But more than that, Chifley, like the overwhelming majority of Labor politicians before and after him, increasingly came to identify with the interests of the Australian capitalist nation state rather than with the interests of workers. He became a servitor of the bourgeoisie. That is the whole logic of Labor’s reformist politics that has been played out time and time again over the last 120 years. Socialists should be under absolutely no illusions that the new Albanese government, coming to office at a time of deepening economic volatility, will in any way break with this pattern. To defend, let alone advance their living standards and social conditions, workers are going to have to fight the Albanese government just as they had to fight all the Labor governments that Chifley was a part of. That also sharply poses the vital need to build a militant socialist party that is prepared to forthrightly oppose Labor’s betrayals; a party that is determined to lead the struggle to get rid of the capitalist system that Labor leaders like Ben Chifley have so long defended.


Armstrong, Mick 2015, “How World War I led to class war”, Marxist Left Review, 9, Summer.

Bollard, Robert 2013, In the shadow of Gallipoli. The hidden history of Australia in World War I, NewSouth.

Bramble, Tom and Rick Kuhn 2011, Labor’s Conflict. Big business, workers and the politics of class, Cambridge University Press.

Bramble, Tom and Mick Armstrong 2021, The Fight for Workers’ Power. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the 20th Century, Interventions.

Cooksey, Robert 1976, Lang and Socialism. A study in the Great Depression, Australian National University Press.

Crisp, LF 1963, Ben Chifley: A Political Biography, Longmans.

Day, David 2001, Chifley, Harper Collins.

Griffiths, Phil 1990, “Australian Perceptions of Japan: The History of a Racist Phobia”, Socialist Review, No.3,

Johnson, Carol 1989, The Labor Legacy. Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Allen & Unwin.

Louis, LJ and Ian Turner 1968, The Depression of the 1930s, Cassell.

McMullin, Ross 1991, The Light on the Hill. The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, Oxford University Press.

O’Lincoln, Tom 1985, Into the Mainstream. The decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press.

Ross, Lloyd 1977, John Curtin. A biography, Sun Books.

Sheridan, Tom 1989, Division of Labour. Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years, 1945–49, Oxford University Press.

Walker, RB 1980, “The fall of the Labor Daily”, Labour History, No.38, May, pp.67–75.

[1] As Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix wrote to deputy Labor leader Doc Evatt on the announcement of Chifley’s death; quoted in Crisp 1963, p.413.

[2] Day 2001, p.509.

[3] Sheridan 1989, p.36.

[4] Day 2001, pp.41–42.

[5] Crisp 1963, p.7.

[6] Crisp 1963, p.7.

[7] Crisp 1963, p.13.

[8] For an overview of the Great Strike of 1917 see Bollard 2013 and Armstrong 2015.

[9] Crisp 1963, p.20

[10] Crisp 1963, p.21.

[11] Crisp 1963, p.21

[12] Day 2001, p.144.

[13] Day 2001, p.197.

[14] Day 2001, p.229.

[15] Day 2001, p.231.

[16] Day 2001, p.231.

[17] Crisp 1963, p.48.

[18] Louis and Turner 1968, p.89.

[19] Crisp 1963, pp.60–62.

[20] Bramble and Kuhn 2011, p.48.

[21] For the Socialisation Units see Cooksey 1976.

[22] For the role of the CPA in these years see Bramble and Armstrong 2021, Chapter 9.

[23] Crisp 1963, pp.87–88.

[24] Walker 1980, p.69.

[25] McMullin 1991, p.226.

[26] Griffiths 1990, p.50.

[27] Griffiths 1990, p.51.

[28] Ross 1973, pp.288–308.

[29] Crisp 1963, pp.155–56.

[30] Crisp 1963, p.215.

[31] For an overview of this period see Bramble and Armstrong 2021 and Sheridan 1989.

[32] Sheridan 1989, p.81.

[33] Johnson 1989, p.29.

[34] O’Lincoln 1985, p.53.

[35] The best account of the strike is in Sheridan 1989, pp.125–48.

[36] Sheridan 1989, p.174.

[37] Crisp 1963, p.384.

Australian perceptions of Japan: The history of a racist phobia

Phil Griffiths explores the origins and ongoing realities of anti-Japanese bigotry in Australia.

The making of Labor

Mick Armstrong reviews The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900 , a text which challenges the standard assumptions of most labour historians about the origins of the ALP.

How World War One led to class war

Mick Armstrong explores how World War I led to enormous class struggles in Australia, and led to a split in the Labor party, a general strike and a political radicalisation that shaped the next decades of working class politics.