Capitalism, colonialism and class: A Marxist explanation of Indigenous oppression today

by Jordan Humphreys • Published 15 February 2021

The continued oppression of Indigenous people is one of the most potent expressions of the brutal nature of Australian capitalism. Despite all the talk about reconciliation, the reality is that unemployment, poverty and police brutality are rife. In 2018 the Indigenous employment rate was around 49 percent as compared to 75 percent for non-Indigenous Australians – almost the same as it was a decade previously.[1] Racist policing and incarceration rates remain devastating. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended in 1991 at least 434 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have been killed in custody. Not a single one of these deaths – or more accurately murders – has resulted in a successful prosecution of a police officer.[2] This oppression is reinforced for each new generation by the racist structures of Australian society. Aboriginal children are only 6 percent of 10-17-year-olds in Australia, yet in 2019 they made up 54 percent of the juvenile detention population. Indigenous kids also made up nearly 65 percent of children under 14 in detention, and according to a 2016 report 94 percent of children in detention aged 10-12 will end up back in prison before they turn 18.[3]

Recognition of the lack of any real progress for Indigenous people, despite establishment claims to the contrary, has led to growing popular concern over the issue. Ten years ago, the Invasion Day marches around the country were defiant but isolated events attended by at most a few hundred people. Today tens of thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people flood the streets every January 26 demanding justice. The spectacular Black Lives Matter rebellion against race and class in the United States has had reverberations here, reinforcing this shift in popular consciousness. For broad layers of people, this has raised the issue of how we can end Indigenous oppression.

On the Australian left, the dominant explanation for Indigenous oppression is that we are still living in a settler colonial society. Often this is meant in a vague and general way to link anti-Indigenous racism to the continent’s invasion in 1788. It also serves as a rebuttal to right-wing commenters who argue that Australia either has – or will soon – resolve Indigenous oppression by progressing into a post-racial society. However, as a serious analysis, settler colonial theory is both an inaccurate portrayal of the present nature of Indigenous oppression and has had a disorienting impact on attempts to develop a strategy for liberation. There are two key, and interlocking, problems with settler colonial theory that I want to explore in this article. The first is the nature of the relationship between Indigenous oppression and the capitalist system. The second concerns the relationship between the oppression of Indigenous people and the non-Indigenous working class.

Settler colonial theorists argue that the relationship between Indigenous people and “settler society” in contemporary Australian capitalism is a colonial relationship. This means that it is an exploitative relationship in which “settler society” as a whole, ie including migrants of all backgrounds, non-Indigenous capitalists and workers alike, all gain material privileges from the dispossession of the Indigenous population. Core to settler colonial theory is the belief that even working-class “settlers” benefit from Indigenous oppression. Sai Englert puts forward the common sense view:

If settler workers are exploited as workers within the settler colony, they remain settlers. As such they participate in the processes of accumulation by dispossession through the occupation of lands, the elimination or exploitation of indigenous peoples, and the extraction of expropriated resources. For example, at a very basic level, their houses, workplaces, and basic infrastructure such as roads, railways, etc., are all premised on the capture and control of indigenous land. Settler workers are both exploited by settler bosses and their co‐conspirators in the dispossession of indigenous peoples. As such, class struggle within a settler society has a dual character: it is waged over the distribution of wealth extracted from their labour as well as over the colonial booty.[4]

The term “settler” is defined by Sarah Maddison in her book The Colonial Fantasy: Why White Australia can’t solve Black problems:

I use the terms “settler” and “non-Indigenous” in relation to any individual or group of people who came to Australia at any time after the first invasion in 1788. The term “settler” is intended to be discomforting, deliberately underscoring the nature of non-Indigenous people’s relation to this territory and its peoples as a further impetus towards decolonial transformation.[5]

Maddison does acknowledge that “the extent to which settlers benefit from colonisation is modified to varying degrees by their skin colour and cultural background (not all settlers are white or Anglo), and by class, gender, sexuality and physical ability”. However, she is also very clear that settlers “are all complicit in sustaining colonial relationships… We are none of us outside or above these relationships. Migrants are still settlers, white progressives are still settlers”.[6] This analysis is backed up by most left-wing writers on Indigenous issues. Sai Englert is more explicit, arguing in a recent issue of Antipodes: A Radical Journal of Geography that “even if working‐class settlers are exploited by their ruling classes, overthrowing the settler state would mean overthrowing a system in which they share, however unequally, in the distribution of the colonial loot”.[7] In activist circles Clare Land, in her book Decolonizing Solidarity, and the self-described “Aboriginal nationalist” group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) are prominent advocates of the settler colonial argument.[8]

However, this is predicated on a highly misleading analysis of the relationship between Australian capitalism, Indigenous oppression and the working class. It is particularly disorienting to argue that the relationship between Australian capitalism and Indigenous people today is “colonial” in nature, with its implication that all of “settler society” is bound up in a colonial exploitation of the Indigenous population. This is to attribute the continuation of Indigenous oppression to the population as a whole rather than Australian capitalism and those who run it.

Even in the early period of colonisation proper, it is one-sided to present all non-Indigenous people as benefiting from the genocide of Indigenous people. This position becomes more problematic when discussing the period from the late 1800s onwards, when the last major frontier battles ended in defeat for the Indigenous population. This moment marked the dominance of industrial capitalism over the political economy of the continent, decisively ending the colonisation process as the core dynamic shaping society. Indigenous oppression of course didn’t end at this point, but it did undergo an important shift as Indigenous people’s control over the land was broken, and they were forced to find a space within the implanted capitalist system. From this point on it was the capitalist system that structured Indigenous oppression, albeit in ways that reflected the colonial origins of Australian capitalism.

Some aspects of settler colonial theory resemble black nationalist ideas popular in leftist circles during the 1960s and ’70s. The contemporary settler colonial theorists, however, are profoundly shaped by the rise of identity politics and privilege theory to hegemonic status on the broad left, as well as the shift in academia to post-colonial approaches to history. Many of the general problems with identity politics are reflected and heightened in settler colonial theory.[9] Like identity politics more broadly, settler colonial theory developed as an alternative to Marxism, often taking up the criticisms of socialist politics that had already been raised by post-colonial theorists.[10]

This article will argue that it is Marxism which can best illuminate the contemporary causes of Indigenous oppression and help develop a strategy capable of ending it. Indigenous oppression continues today because it is in the interests of Australian capital, rather than the non-Indigenous population as a whole. This argument has important implications for any strategy seeking not just to mitigate oppression but uproot and eliminate it. So in this article, I will discuss the limitations of “decolonisation” theory and explore an alternative strategy based on solidarity and working-class revolutionary agency.

Theorising the roots of Indigenous oppression as capitalist in nature rather than as the result of some separate colonial relationship in no way means downplaying the reality of Indigenous oppression, nor does it mean ignoring the specific dynamics of the Indigenous situation that make it different from other forms of racism. My analysis also has nothing in common with the strain of economic reductionism that has marked some socialist, and in particular reformist socialist, thinking on the question of oppression.[11] Economic reductionists end up oversimplifying the complexity of the relationship between class, capitalism and oppression in a crude way that often downplays the importance of tackling questions of oppression for the development of socialist class consciousness. Instead the development of a genuinely Marxist strategy on this question must take as its starting point the horrific reality of Indigenous oppression and the prevalence of racism within the non-Indigenous working-class and white liberals, even among those who might sympathise with the plight of Indigenous peoples. Given all that, it is even more urgent to accurately understand the causes of that oppression so we can clarify the importance of destroying the racist structures of Australian capitalism.


The colonisation of the continent that would become Australia was bound up in the development of the global capitalist economy and the rise of modern imperialism. Following the American War of Independence the British empire faced two interrelated problems. Further economic expansion into the Americas and the Atlantic was now blocked by the newly established republic and other European rivals. On top of this Britain could no longer use the vast American colonies as a dumping ground for its ever increasing convict population. The establishment of the colony in New South Wales helped in both these respects. A more permanent base in the Pacific could help the British empire make a turn towards expansion into Asia, an area already home to the vast colonial empires of the Spanish, Portuguese and the Dutch, while the creation of a penal colony, with significant room for expansion, would help to relieve the constant pressure on Britain’s prisons. Another factor pushing Britain to colonise the continent quickly was competition from other imperialist rivals. The French for instance were already investigating the landmass: shortly after the British First Fleet arrived, the French explorer La Perouse appeared on a mission to survey Botany Bay.

This colonial project was founded on the dispossession of the Indigenous people and a genocidal offensive against them. Initially, this offensive was confined to the areas surrounding the early colonies. But as the outpost morphed into centres of capitalist expansion in the 1820s, the war against Indigenous people spread throughout the continent.

Henry Reynolds notes that “the documentary evidence left behind all over Australia of these frontiers wars is various and voluminous”.[12] The Indigenous population waged a heroic war of resistance against the destruction of their communities. This war of resistance began within a few weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet. It continued, through ebbs and flows, for the next 140 years, with most historians concluding it reached its endpoint in the 1928 police massacre of a group of Warlpiri people at Coniston in Central Australia.[13] After that, Indigenous resistance would continue but in new forms and a vastly different context. Despite this continued resistance to further intrusions by the colonial authorities, the struggle over the grasslands in the 1840s and ’50s revealed that the Indigenous population was not in a position to organise the kind of military power necessary to successfully defeat the British invaders.[14]

While this genocidal war was organised by the colonial authorities and primarily carried out by their military and police forces, some members of the working class, both convicts and free labourers, also participated in massacres. Probably the most infamous incident of this was the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. This involved the murder of at least 28 Indigenous people by a group of eleven stockmen, including assigned convicts, former convicts and even a black African, and was led by the squatter John Henry Fleming. However, as this example suggests, many instances of working-class participation in violence against Indigenous people were organised by figures in authority.

However, most convicts and free settlers were never directly involved in massacring Indigenous people – particularly as the colony started to attract newcomers by the tens of thousands. The convicts rotting away in the prison hulks on the Thames didn’t decide to establish a colony in 1788. The vast majority of convicts would have happily complied with the Aboriginal people’s demand that they leave the country and never come back. In fact this is what convicts tried to do wherever they were given half a chance. Convicts in the First Fleet tried to convince sailors in La Perouse’s fleet to smuggle them back to Europe. In 1791 Mary Bryant and a crew of convicts managed to steal a boat and escape to Timor in what was at the time the second-longest open boat journey in the world. When escape back to Europe wasn’t possible convicts also fled into the bush and some lived with Aboriginal communities for some time. Further complicating the settler colonial narrative is the existence of the Native Police, a force made up of Indigenous troopers under the command of white officers. In Queensland the Native Mounted Police were involved in some of the worst massacres of Indigenous people. Aboriginal trackers were used to hunt down escaped convicts, bushrangers, and Indigenous people resisting colonisation.

There were also important tensions within colonial society from the outset. The convicts had been brought to the colonies against their will, and suffered under the lash of their colonial overlords. Once free settlers directly experienced the reality of colonial life with its corruption, poverty and brutality, they found much to be discontented with. There were repeated disturbances, riots and clashes. In 1804 200 convicts led by a veteran of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 escaped from a prison farm and fought a defiant battle with the British colonial authorities. By the 1820s early trade unions had begun to form in Sydney and Hobart. The historian Michael Quinlan has documented 5,047 instances of organisation by convict workers and 1,379 by free workers prior to 1851.[15] It was the same colonial state overseeing the oppression of both the European workforce and Indigenous people: “From the moment of the first occupation, force was applied on two fronts, against convicts and blacks – controlling the white workforce by the lash and the gallows, and creating the space within which the settlement could grow”.[16]

The overall context did set very definite limits on the possibility of solidarity between the two groups struggling under the oppression of the early colonial state. The reality of an ongoing colonial war made it almost unthinkable that any sort of serious alliance between them could be constructed. There were some colonial liberals, humanitarians and clergymen who expressed supposed sympathy for the plight of the Indigenous people and even condemned some of the massacres, particularly those not directly organised by the colonial state. For instance, though the settler Fleming escaped justice and became a respected farmer and churchwarden despite leading the Myall Creek massacre, seven of the stockmen involved in Myall Creek were hanged for murder. However, even these early critics never rejected the central logic behind the genocide. After all, to do so would mean going against the whole colonial project upon which they had accrued their relative wealth and authority. For example, the young liberal barrister Richard Windeyer joined the Aboriginal Protection Society in the wake of the Myall Creek massacre. While he campaigned for the right of Aborigines to give evidence in colonial courts he also “disagreed with the sentiments that the natives had been usurped by fraud and violence by the Europeans… Nor could he entertain the ridiculous notion that we had no right to be here”.[17]

From settler colony to industrial capitalism

The colonisation process constructed a settler colonial state, however it also laid the basis for this settler colony to be superseded by a more developed industrial capitalism. Throughout the 1800s the colonial project underwent an enormous transformation. As the frontier wars ended in defeat for Indigenous people across the continent, the colonisation process reached its completion. This is not to say that Australia at this point began developing into a post-racial society. However the context of Indigenous oppression did change as the primitive accumulation of the land in the hands of a small minority was accomplished and the intensive development of industrial capitalism began. This shift would have important consequences for Indigenous people, non-Indigenous workers and Australian capitalism more generally. This shift from a settler colony to an industrial capitalist nation went through several stages but was essentially complete by the late 1800s.

From the 1830s, the colonial project underwent a significant change. Until then, the end goal of the Australian colonial project had been somewhat ambiguous. Was it just to be a penal dumping ground for Britain’s convicts? Or a self-sustaining colonial economy? Two mutually reinforcing processes pushed the colonial project towards the second option. On the one hand, there was the development of a domestic capitalist economy. On the other, there was an influx of capital from Britain as the economic opportunities on offer in the young colonies became clear. Underpinning and further spurring on these developments were the commodification of landed property and the expansion of a market in free labour-power, which were two sides of the same economic process reshaping class relations. This further transformed the colonial economy into the beginnings of an industrial capitalist economy.[18]

These changes had important implications for the nature of Australian society. First of all it laid the economic basis for the development of a distinctive Australian capitalist class, with its own class and imperialist interests, which weren’t always in accordance with those of the British ruling class. Secondly while the colonies had been capitalist from their inception,[19] the class lines of society became more precise as the early colonial system gave way to industrial capitalism and the struggle between the capitalists and the working class sharpened. By the end of the 1800s this had resulted in the creation of an independent Australian capitalism which had developed beyond a settler colonial state. This would have important implications for the relationship between Indigenous people and the non-Indigenous working class.

As we have noted, some convicts and free labourers had been involved in the violent struggle over the land with Indigenous people during the early colonial period. We must be careful in unpacking the actual relationship between the different classes in colonial society and the land itself. This is because there has been a strong tendency among Australian left historians to either romanticise the democratic nature of the frontier (as in Russell Ward’s once-classic The Australian Legend) or else to exaggerate the effect that land ownership had on holding back the development of working-class consciousness and in particular entrenching racist attitudes (for instance in Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia). Often these historians were influenced by US theorists who explored the role of the frontier in blocking the development of class organisations in America.

However the relationship between colonialism, the land and popular consciousness was quite different in Australia compared to the United States. The American westward expansion involved over 7 million settlers by 1840. This mass migration campaign was driven by the American government, which granted 600,000 white families farmland almost for free. These settlers were absolutely vital to entrenching the American government’s control over the newly conquered territory that they gained through a series of wars from 1812 to 1867 against the Native Americans, Mexicans and European rivals. Many American settlers had to engage in armed confrontations with Native Americans and Mexicans in order to secure control over their newly acquired land.

In Australia settlement outside the main urban areas involved a significantly smaller proportion of the population, and after the initial invasion there was little serious possibility of the colonial government losing control over its territory. The struggle over control of the land in colonial Australia could at times be an intense political issue, but it was overwhelmingly a debate carried out between different factions of the colonial elite, with limited space for interlopers from the lower classes. As we shall see, from quite early on the majority of the population was concentrated in urban city centres.

In the early colonial period the key site of the struggle over land was within the colonial state organisations. This often expressed itself in conflicts between the governor and the system of magistrates that expanded from the 1820s onwards to oversee the convict system. By its very nature this institution excluded most of the colonial population. As Connell and Irving note, “only gentlemen could be made magistrates, and in much of the countryside the only gentlemen available were pastoralists”.[20] Attempts to limit the power of pastoralist-magistrates via stipendiary magistrates, who were often decommissioned army officers, failed, and at any rate, simply involved the empowering of a different section of the colonial elite. In his time, Governor Macquarie had appointed a few wealthy ex-convicts as magistrates, to the wrath of the country gentlemen. However, the convicts (who from the 1820s onwards were no longer directly controlled by the government but assigned to private settlers) and free settlers did not have the wealth or power to exert significant influence over the land policies of the state.[21]

By the 1820s “practically all the usable land in the Sydney region had passed into private hands”.[22] The overwhelming majority of this land was in the hands of the already wealthy. By 1821 about 80 men controlled 60 percent of all alienated land in New South Wales, and by the 1830s there were around 400 gentry estates in New South Wales and 250 in Van Diemen’s Land.[23] From 1830 onwards colonial policy shifted to the sale of Crown land to private persons rather than the granting of land primarily by political patronage. However, this still excluded the vast majority of the population from access to land. Ex-convicts or free settlers who enriched themselves and established an important place in the colonial economy could now buy land, but this was only a small minority of the population.

The struggle over control of the land continued throughout the 1800s, culminating in the Free Selection Acts of the 1860s. A minority of workers were able to establish themselves as small landholders or independent miners, although many still engaged in waged labour periodically. By the end of the 1800s, the space in Australian society for such a social layer rapidly declined as an economic crisis, the concentration of large pastoral and mining capital and the introduction of new, and expensive, technologies drove many off the land and back into the waged labour force.[24]

Land ownership continued to have some attraction in the imagination of the working masses, but for the vast majority, it remained an unattainable utopia. As Humphrey McQueen notes, despite the ideological importance of the land “Australia had a greater percentage of its population in towns than almost any other country: more than 50 percent in 1891, more than America”.[25] Even those who were able to take the risk often found that land ownership on a small basis quickly turned into an unprofitable trap and either sunk into isolated poverty or returned with broken spirits to the cities after a few years.

Many historians have focused on colonial discussions about the need for a “yeoman” community of small peasant farmers that would create social, economic and moral stability.[26] As interesting as the ideology of this might be, the problem is by focusing on it, writers can end up ignoring the reality that no such community ever came into existence in Australia. The “yeoman” project, which would supposedly reduce class conflict by tying together capitalists and workers as joint landowners, failed against the reality of minority capitalist control over the land.

These economic changes also had implications for the relationship between these workers and Indigenous people. As Heather Goodall explains:

The mainland Australian colonies had now diversified. In the longest settled colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia conflict with Aboriginal landowners had ended, abruptly, in the 1850s, and had only been reactivated sporadically in the following decades… This was in great contrast to the colonies of Queensland and Western Australia, where frontier brutality was flaring violently in the more remote pastoral areas.[27]

The commodification of the land led to greater wealth for those at the top of society. Meanwhile, the expansion of the market in free labour entrenched the mass of the colonial population in waged labour. This was particularly the case after the ending of the convict system throughout the mid-1800s.[28] With the pastoral boom of the 1830s the demand for labour substantially increased and the colonial government “swung from a policy of encouraging rich immigrants whose capital would absorb convict labour, to a policy of encouraging, indeed subsidising, working class immigrants”.

By 1851, when the population of the eastern colonies was approaching 450,000, more than 100,000 immigrants had been subsidised. Most of the men who came, until the time of the gold-rushes, were labourers, and most of the women were domestic servants. A minority had trades and hence had a chance of setting up on their own, but most were unskilled (many being from Irish agricultural districts) and dependent on finding employment when they arrived in the colony.[29]

By the mid-1800s then the mass of the colonial population were propertyless wage workers, mostly concentrated in urban centres. They had little to no direct experience of fighting the Indigenous population, particularly as the frontier wars continued only on the edges of the colonies. Many had little to no direct experience with the Indigenous population on any level whatsoever due to the genocidal effects of colonisation and racist segregation.

After colonialism – explaining the persistence of anti-Indigenous racism

How did the shift from settler colony to industrial capitalism reshape Indigenous oppression? Once the Indigenous population were dispossessed of control over their land, their racist oppression continued through the structures set up throughout the 1800s by, and in the interests of, the Australian capitalist class. The Protection Board, the prison-house, the missions, the courts, the stations, and later the urban slums, welfare departments, shipyards, factories and mines became the vehicles through which Indigenous people’s lives were subordinated to the needs of capital.

The establishment of the first major Aboriginal missions in NSW during the 1830s and 1840s was in accordance with the needs of the colonial elites to find a place to put the dispossessed Indigenous population to make way for pastoral expansion. The colonial and then state-based Aborigine Protection Boards were set up to ensure both that Indigenous people remained in a situation of structural discrimination unable to reassert their rights to the land, and that when possible their labour could be drawn upon to help the capitalist work process. The courts, police and prisons backed up this oppression with brute force. The latter-day welfare departments, urban slums and Aboriginal government departments simply updated these projects for the contemporary needs of the capitalist class. All of these institutions, which are at the heart of Indigenous oppression, were set up, maintained and defended by the capitalist class, its political parties and ideologues. The treatment of the Stolen Generations, Indigenous children who were stolen from their families by federal and state government agencies and church missions, was a particularly barbaric example of the capitalist logic behind Indigenous oppression. While so-called “full-blooded” Indigenous people were mostly condemned to segregation from Australian society, government authorities sought to integrate “half-caste” Indigenous children into the capitalist system by removing them from their communities and training them to be unpaid – and often abused – domestic servants and workers. Many government and church officials gained personal profits from the exploitation of the Stolen Generations while clothing their activities with the ideology of “assimilation”.

Racist oppression is often an expression of the various aspects of the competitive capitalist system. Sometimes, as in the case of the post-war migrant workforce in Australia, this oppression could be expressed very directly in the structure of a segregated workforce with bosses using divisions between workers to cement their control, as well as around the broader political issue of migration. However this isn’t always the way the connection between capitalism and oppression develops. Anti-Muslim racism in Australia is very much linked to the question of imperialism and general political issues rather than industrial relations. One of the historic divisions within the Australian working class was the sectarian divide between Catholics – particularly the Irish Catholics – and Protestants. This divide shaped the development of Australian working-class politics and intersected with questions of class, British imperialism and religious bigotry.

The situation Indigenous people faced, particularly initially, was exclusion from the capitalist labour market and a high degree of government control over many aspects of their lives. For the ruling class the key objective was to stamp out any possibility of an Indigenous challenge to capitalist control over the land and – when that possibility dramatically receded – to ensure that Indigenous people could not stand in the way of capitalist expansion. Over time though, as we shall see later in this article, Indigenous people were drawn into the labour market. However only in particular situations did they form an identifiable and distinct section of the workforce, despite almost always being in a subordinate position. So this situation was quite different from that of post-war era working-class migrants or historically African Americans who formed a significant and very visible section of the blue-collar workforce concentrated in strategically important sections of the economy, such as the auto industry.

Indigenous oppression is constantly reinforced by the capitalist state through the police, the courts, the media, the education and the political system. These institutions both express the oppression produced by capitalism and entrench it further. These are not independent processes but different expressions of the multifaceted nature of Indigenous oppression under capitalism, all of which endures because it is in the interests of Australian capitalism that it continue.

Settler colonial theorists disagree with this analysis, instead arguing that Indigenous oppression endures because of the continuation of colonial structures and “settler logics”. What precisely these colonial structures are, and what their relationship is to class and capitalism is left unclarified. So Sarah Maddison argues that the reason why control over the land is at the heart of Indigenous and non-Indigenous tensions is because of the “need for new territory in order to create an economic base for settler society”,[30] without explaining why this is in the interests of settler society as a whole or what the nature of the economic base of settler society is. Maddison also presents the “failures” of the Northern Territory Intervention, attempts to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates and the Closing the Gap strategy as being rooted in the dominance of the ideology of the “colonial fantasy” on policymakers. On this basis, she then argues that “Australia may yet be capable of decentring colonial power and making space for Indigenous resurgence in the justice system, but first it must relinquish the colonial fantasy”.[31]

However, this is to ignore the real material interests that underlie Indigenous oppression and shape all of these policies. To say that the Northern Territory Intervention “failed” because it was motivated by a paternalist settler colonial logic is to accept at face value the establishment’s self-justification for its actions. As Diane Fieldes has argued in a previous issue of this journal, while paternalistic racism was mobilised by sections of the liberal middle class to justify the Northern Territory Intervention, ‘“underlying these attitudes was something more fundamental: the long-term hostility of pastoralists, mining companies, other capitalists and governments – the Australian ruling class, in other words – to Aboriginal rights”.[32] The demonisation of remote Aboriginal communities was promoted to undermine their legitimacy and justify the expansion of the rights of mining and tourist capitalists over that land rather than some general and amorphous desire of “settler society”. This doesn’t mean that the Northern Territory Intervention was purely about the narrow economic interests of the mining and tourism bosses. Many of the Indigenous communities affected sit on land that isn’t particularly useful from a profitability standpoint.

However the Intervention can only be fully understood in terms of the broader desire by the Australian ruling class to roll back the gains Indigenous people have made to have some control over their land, and to promote racist lies that have always been politically important for the right. Reinforcing this is the centrality of mining for Australian capitalism as a whole. As Martin Upchurch has argued in the International Socialism journal, a number of Global North countries such as Canada and Australia are highly dependent on fuels and minerals. The share of mining in the Australian economy “has grown from around 5 percent of GDP in 2005 to just under 10 percent in 2019”.[33] This provides a strong justification for the Australian ruling class to defend the interests of the mining industry against the claims of Indigenous communities, with a recent example being the extinguishing of an Aboriginal land rights claim in Queensland by the state Labor government to make way for the Adani coal mine.

Similarly, programs to reduce Indigenous incarceration or poverty fail not primarily because of the paternalistic liberal worldview that surrounds them but because there is a strong structural basis to racism broadly, and Indigenous oppression particularly, rooted in the needs of capitalism. To seriously address these issues you would have to confront the underlying problems of structural inequality and the role of the police, the legal and welfare systems in Australian society, all of which bring us back to the logic of industrial capital accumulation, not settler colonialism.

There are more left-wing settler colonial theorists who at least discuss capitalism. However, even the most radical settler colonial theorists rarely clarify the relationship between colonialism and capitalism. Sometimes colonialism is seen as a process that has little to do with questions of class power or capitalist society.[34] Others refer to capitalism without explaining if colonialism is an outgrowth of capitalism, a separate but related structure or something entirely distinct. Even those theorists who have explored how the competitive logic of capitalist accumulation drove the dispossession of Indigenous peoples often end up positing a related but separate colonial structure as being the cause of Indigenous oppression today. So some theorists discuss what is called “colonial-capitalism”,[35] but this suffers from the same problems US writers have identified in the term “racial capitalism”.[36] It avoids trying to grapple with a unified theory of Indigenous oppression and capitalism by presenting colonialism as an external – even if related – phenomenon to capitalism. Just because capitalism oppresses both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers this doesn’t mean that their lives and experiences are the same. However, you don’t have to theorise a separate “colonial” structure of oppression to account for this difference. Instead, by taking as your starting point the development of capitalism, you can explain why certain groups are held down in structurally oppressive conditions.

To say that Indigenous oppression today is rooted in Australian capitalism doesn’t mean that the origins of that oppression in the settler colonial period are irrelevant. Quite the contrary. If the Indigenous population had been entirely killed, such as happened in parts of the Caribbean, or if there had been no Indigenous population to begin with, then there would be no Indigenous political question in Australia today. Many Marxists have fruitfully explored how the context of Australian capitalism developing as a settler colony shaped, and continues to shape the politics of race, immigration and imperialism. The point though is we have to explain why Indigenous oppression endured even once the colonisation of the continent was completed. Here we have what are in the end two competing explanations. On the one hand Indigenous oppression can be seen as another facet of the oppressive and exploitative capitalist system, alternatively it can be rooted in an ongoing colonising process. As settler colonial theory has cohered into a more developed challenger to Marxism, this requires socialist writers to more accurately clarify the relationship between settler colonialism, capitalism and the working class, whereas in the past unqualified references to Australia’s settler colonial nature would have been less problematic.

Indigenous oppression and working-class consciousness

If Indigenous oppression is rooted in capitalism then this has important ramifications for the relationship between the Indigenous population and the non-Indigenous working class. Settler colonial theorists argue that the “settler” working class is, in the words of Englert, “complicit in sustaining colonial relationships”. This is only true in the sense that you can be complicit in any injustice by refusing to acknowledge or rebel against it, for whatever reason. However in this sense the working class was – and still is, everywhere in the world – complicit in every injustice and social problem. This list would have to include their own exploitation and oppression, which most workers do little to resist most of the time. This is not complicity in any meaningful sense of the word.

Yet the argument of settler colonial theorists goes well beyond complicity. It is that settlers benefit from the oppression of Indigenous people, and are in fact part of the cause of that oppression. But if non-Indigenous workers did benefit from Indigenous oppression then it is hard to understand the development of Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class relations over the next hundred years. If the working class were beneficiaries of Indigenous oppression, then as workers developed a greater understanding of themselves, their interests, and the strategies they needed to overcome the exploitative nature of the capitalist system, through the class battles over the last several decades, they would undoubtedly have become more hostile to the Indigenous population. However, as we shall see, history shows that they became more open to Indigenous claims and desires.

We previously explained how by the mid- to late 1800s the mass of the colonial population were propertyless wage workers, concentrated in urban centres, who had little direct experience in oppressing Indigenous people. Of course, the working class did not all spontaneously adopt progressive opinions on the Indigenous population. Racism in general was rife, and even workers who had some sympathy for the plight of Indigenous peoples often accepted the dominant idea that they were a “dying race”. However Englert’s assertion that “settler labour movements fought for the intensification of settler expansion and racial segregation through colour bars, boycott campaigns and demands for expulsion” is not an accurate portrayal of the Australian labour movement’s approach to the Indigenous population.[37]

In the early years of the Australian working class it is true that some groups of workers expressed concern over Aboriginal “cheap labour” from time to time, however this was not a prominent issue among the class overall. This is largely due to the fact that Indigenous people were so oppressed and excluded from Australian society that they rarely competed with non-Indigenous workers for jobs. Even when Indigenous workers were able to enter the workforce in relatively large numbers, compared to their overall population the numbers were still tiny. In South Australia, for instance, a layer of Indigenous workers managed to become skilled tradesmen in the shearing industry by the end of the nineteenth century. However in 1901 the total Indigenous population in South Australia was only 3,888 (as compared to 354,001 non-Indigenous people) and there were only 6,000 workers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, employed in the shearing industry, so any competition in this this field would have been marginal in relation to the working class as a whole.[38]

So the question of Indigenous workers was not posed in the same way as migrant workers in Australia or African Americans in the US, that became a key strategic and political question for the labour movement from very early on. It is also different from the question of migration and the White Australia policy, which was a widely accepted idea by the Australian labour movement. In fact most union leaders, when the issue was raised at all, made a distinction between Indigenous people and migrant workers, arguing that as Indigenous people were “native” to Australia they shouldn’t be excluded in the same way as non-white migrants. So the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia and the General Labourers Union excluded non-white migrant workers such as Asians, but “were not prepared to advocate discrimination against Aborigines (and some ‘coloured’ aliens)”. A trade unionist and early leader of the Queensland Labor Party stated in 1897 that Indigenous workers “have the right to be employed; a right to the first show to get a living, and if the aborigine does a day’s work on a station, or on a farm, or anywhere else he is entitled to a fair wage the same as a white man or anyone else”.[39]

If it was mostly in rural communities that tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers arose, it is also here that we find some of the earliest examples of sympathetic working-class attitudes and even joint action. Both of these elements are expressed in the history of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), which had its base among the working class in rural communities. While provisions against the union membership of Chinese and “South Sea Islanders” were present in the formative years of the AWU, these were not extended to include Indigenous workers (or for that matter Maori workers who would travel to Australia during the shearing season). As Judith Elton has explained in her detailed PhD thesis, the different treatment of Indigenous workers by the AWU was due to three factors.[40] Firstly there was “little perceived danger of Aboriginal workers undermining wage rates in shearing related occupations”.[41] Partly this was because they were a small section of the workforce but it was also because where Indigenous workers did form a more substantial part of the shearing workforce, for instance in South Australia, there was no legislation preventing Aboriginal workers from being paid the same as non-Aboriginal workers. In fact Aboriginal workers had started to become increasingly assertive in claims for higher wages as some became skilled shearers working among non-Aboriginal workers. Elton writes: “in these circumstances, employers could not have used Aboriginal shearers and shed hands as a group to undercut the wages of other shearing related workers”.[42] Secondly, the number of Indigenous workers was so small that it was difficult for bosses to generate fear that they were going to seriously take over the jobs done by non-Indigenous workers. Thirdly, the nature of shearing work emphasised the importance of skill and experience. In the context of a mixed workforce Indigenous workers could “prove” their shearing skills in practice and in front of non-Indigenous workers. There is ample evidence that many non-Indigenous workers respected the shearing abilities of Indigenous workers, with the latter winning local shearing prizes as early as the 1870s and 1880s, and Indigenous workers from the Poonindie mission becoming high prized and valued shearers across South Australia and beyond.[43]

Now this doesn’t mean that every AWU member had progressive ideas about Indigenous people. Attitudes could range from supportive to antagonistic, depending on a range of factors. The debate at the 1891 conference of the Australian Shearers Union (ASU) that would later be amalgamated into the AWU, however, reveals that there were unionists grappling with the issue of Indigenous oppression.

At this conference the Creswick (Victoria) branch of the ASU moved a motion that would allow all Indigenous workers to be admitted as life members of the union without paying any union fees, as long as they refused to work in non-union sheds like other ASU members. They were partly influenced to move the motion based on the work of the shearers’ unions in New Zealand in recruiting a highly militant Maori workforce. The ASU general secretary supported the motion with the argument that “It is a graceful act to those from whom the country has been taken. No liberal minded man could surely object to this concession to the original owners of the soil”. Cook, a delegate from South Australia concurred making the point that it would be a graceful act to allow Indigenous workers to join without having to pay union fees considering “their circumstances were not the same as white men, and their earnings were not the same”. Some unionists argued against the motion on the basis that Indigenous workers were less committed to unionism and so shouldn’t get special treatment for their lack of interest. Supporters of the motion however pointed to the loyal character of many Indigenous union members:

Watkins (Adelaide), said “it was a mistake to say the aboriginals were ignorant” and McInerney (Young, NSW), stated that “he wished all the white men were as good as the Australian darkies… – they were fine fellows as far as he saw. He knew a number who had cleared out of the shed when it was found “non-union”. Percy (Cobar, NSW), concurred, “In one shed in Cobar an aboriginal was the only one of twenty who walked away for unionism”.[44]

In the end a compromise motion was adopted which waived the entrance fee for “full-blooded aborigines”, and the requirements of Indigenous members was left to individual union branches to decide. These issues were then put to the test during the economic depression of the 1890s. As unemployment skyrocketed some non-Indigenous workers did start to demand that Aboriginal workers be fired instead of them. However the ASU officials publicly rejected these demands. Even when Aboriginal workers signed on to non-union agreements at lower pay the ASU refused to specifically criticise Aboriginal workers, arguing that it was unfair to target them as many more non-Indigenous workers had signed such agreements than Indigenous workers. When scabbing by Aboriginal workers helped contribute to the defeat of shearers’ strikes in South Australia, the ASU response was to investigate ways they could better recruit and maintain Aboriginal membership, not to blame them as a group.[45]

There was a gap between the formal positions and actual practice of the AWU, as well as a high degree of unevenness across different sections of the union. In 1920 the Queensland branch of the AWU left the federal award in favour of a state award, with the consequence that in that state Aboriginal station hands were no longer covered.[46] This might have been an issue more of neglect than conscious discrimination. However in 1919 the Queensland AWU leadership, pastoral capitalists and the Chief Protector of Aborigines did collaborate on fixing a minimum wage for Indigenous shearers that was only two-thirds of the official shearers award. In the Northern Territory cattle industry the AWU collaborated with other unions to promote the interests of white workers at the expense of Aboriginal workers, although in the end the result was declining conditions for both.[47] Attitudes towards Indigenous membership also varied across the country. So the Indigenous activist William Ferguson joined the AWU in 1909, becoming a union representative in the Riverina, and found the shearers “free-and-easy” in regard to him being Indigenous. In rural New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia Indigenous workers seemed to be welcomed into AWU membership with few tensions. However at the same time branches of the AWU in Western Australia had local autonomy over whether or not to exclude Indigenous members, with the Broome branch excluding them while Port Hedland admitted small numbers. In the Northern Territory the Northern Australia Workers Union (NAWU) excluded Indigenous members unless they had one parent of European descent. This decision was shaped by the fact that it was illegal for “full-blooded aborigines” to be covered by union award wages in the Northern Territory at the time. The gains of the AWU were also whittled away over time. While the 1917 award included Aboriginal workers, by 1920 these gains had been undermined by the decisions of the Arbitration Court, and then they were lost completely by 1932 when working-class organisation and confidence collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression.[48]

It is worth comparing the relationship between the non-Indigenous working class and Indigenous workers in Australia to that between the Israeli and Palestinian working classes. This is because many settler colonial theorists draw a comparison between these two situations in order to argue that the Australian working class benefits from Indigenous oppression.[49] And as Israel is still a settler colonial state the comparison can also help to draw out the similarities and differences between countries which are presently settler colonial in nature and those which still have Indigenous oppression but are industrial capitalist nations with completed colonial processes.

In Israel the colonising process is ongoing, with Israel’s expansionist desire to claim more Palestinian land coming up against the armed resistance of the Palestinians, resulting in sections of land still under at least the formal political control of Palestinian authorities.[50] In Israel there is compulsory military service, so significant sections of the Israeli working class have some direct experience in oppressing Palestinians. There is also a sizeable minority of Zionist settlers who are involved in recurring violent struggles with the Palestinians over land control on the borders of the Israeli state. The question of the expansion of the Zionist project and the subjection of the Palestinians is the major question of Israeli politics. Even most of what passes as the left and the socialist movement in Israel supports the continued oppression of the Palestinians.

By contrast there is no real equivalent to the Zionist settler population among the Australian working class. While some racist workers have acted in appalling ways towards Indigenous people, the vast majority of the working class has never been involved in violent conflicts with Indigenous people over control over their land. The battle over Indigenous rights in Australia is still very much a politically contested one, however hegemonic support for oppressing the Indigenous population does not exist to the same degree in Australia as in Israel. For instance there is no serious discussion, even among liberal-minded Israelis, about moving the date of Israel’s Independence Day or acknowledging the harm done to the Palestinians, even symbolically.

It could be argued that non-Indigenous workers in Australia benefit not because they are directly involved in the colonisation of land but because without the dispossession of Indigenous people the whole economy and society in which they live wouldn’t exist. This is the implication of the arguments of many settler colonial theorists. It also bears some similarity to the theory of the labour aristocracy that is popular with some sections of the socialist left.[51] In fact it has the most in common with the most extreme versions of the theory of the labour aristocracy, such as the Japanese-American Maoist J Sakai, who argues that the white working class of the US forms a privileged and reactionary social layer incapable of uniting with any section of the oppressed.[52]

The problem with this argument is that it can’t explain why non-Indigenous workers have supported Indigenous struggles. In fact it generally suffers from a lack of historical analysis. Englert argues that class conflict in settler colonial societies can be “resolved…by intensifying the dispossession of indigenous populations in order to improve the material conditions of settler workers”.[53] But this is not a dynamic within the history of the Australian labour movement. No government has ever seriously attempted to resolve a period of intense class conflict by increasing the dispossession of Indigenous people and somehow passing on better material conditions to the non-Indigenous working class. This was not a feature of the great strikes of the 1890s, the 1917 general strike, the militancy of the inter-war years or the 1960s and ’70s. In fact the main dynamic shaping the intensification of attacks upon Indigenous people has been the changing interests of Australian capitalism. So the increased assault upon land rights throughout the 1990s wasn’t driven by an attempt to resolve class conflict by giving out benefits to the working class, rather it was shaped by the needs of mining capitalists to stop any serious expansion of Indigenous land rights in a period of an expanding market for raw minerals, bolstered by a conservative cultural offensive by a new generation of emboldened right-wing politicians in the Liberal and National parties. And the mining companies driving attacks upon land rights could hardly be called friends of the working class. CFMEU mining division President John Maitland made the connection between the exploitation of non-Indigenous workers and the mining companies’ campaigns against land rights in the aftermath of the 1992 Mabo High court decision which granted some Aboriginal people land rights:

What is driving CRA, BHP, MIM and the rest in their campaign of vague and dreadful threats about withdrawing investment is exactly the same pressure that drives them to lecture the United Mineworkers’ Union about “unreasonable wage claims” and “restrictive work practices” – the lust for profit. The blackmail is the same, only the targets differ.[54]

The settler colonial argument that non-Indigenous workers and bosses are simply fighting over the spoils they have stolen from Indigenous people also doesn’t capture the actual dynamics of class struggle and exploitation. The reality is that where bosses are able to get away with a deeper exploitation of Indigenous workers, the rest of the working class suffers, rather than benefits. The Communist novelist Frank Hardy noted that where unions in the Northern Territory allowed bosses to get away with paying Indigenous workers little or nothing at all, white workers’ wages were also the lowest in Australia.[55] Conversely, as we shall see later in this article, joint struggle by Indigenous and non-Indigenous dock workers in Darwin led to workers there having the highest wages in any tropical port. More broadly the capitalist society that has been created on the dispossessed lands of the Indigenous peoples is one filled with exploitation, oppression and cruelty. It is not the interests of the non-Indigenous working class that this society continues as it currently exists, rather it is in their interests to overthrow this society and build a radically different one based upon workers’ democracy and socialist liberation.

Just because the non-Indigenous working class in Australia doesn’t benefit from the oppression of Indigenous people doesn’t mean that many workers can’t accept bigoted ideas about Indigenous people. And even after the end of the frontier wars, anti-Indigenous racism has remained a constant feature of Australian society. Settler colonial theorists would argue that such racism continues to have a hold over significant sections of the non-Indigenous population because of the privileges they receive as settlers. Here I will map out an alternative explanation.

Marxists have always argued that workers can and do accept ideas that are contrary to their interests, from right-wing conservatism and fascism through to social-democratic reformism. These ideas can be promoted by various capitalist institutions, from political parties to the education system. However the extent to which they are taken up depends upon the state of working-class organisation and consciousnesses. When the working-class movement is weak then the reality of alienation and the pressures of capitalist ideology are felt more deeply by the working class. This opens up workers to reactionary ideas rooted in oppression such as sexism, racism and homophobia but also to all sorts of sectional ideas, such as the divisions between blue-collar and white-collar workers, or casual and permanent employees. Given that, it’s not particularly surprising that workers accept some racist ideas about Indigenous people that are pushed by the racist media and produced by structural oppression.

However as workers begin to fight, they can gain more confidence in themselves and their class, and can begin to see through the lies and divisions fostered by the ruling class’s propagandists. It is not surprising then that, as with the example of the AWU explored above, it was during the periods of working-class combativity and union growth that anti-Indigenous ideas receded greatly. In fact this was strong enough to even survive the depression of the 1890s. However the containment of working-class advancement and the incorporation of union leaderships within the arbitration system started to undermine these advances throughout the 1920s. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the utter collapse of the AWU throughout much of the country and ensuing decline in working-class confidence opened the space for the strengthening of anti-Indigenous ideas across the class.

These dynamics are even clearer in some of the history explored in the rest of this article, which shows how opportunities for anti-racist action emerged in parts of the working class, and the key role played by left-wing minorities within the broader union movement. In this way, non-Indigenous workers are very different from politicians, government officials, middle-class professionals or business people. Whatever backward ideas they might believe about society, workers genuinely have no interest in the continued oppression of Indigenous people, unlike those classes that draw their power and authority from the structures of capitalism. This distinction is rarely discussed by settler colonial theorists.

At any given moment there is a significant gap between the objective possibilities of opposition to Indigenous oppression and its concrete realisation. The same is true of all aspects of class consciousness, which does not develop in a linear process. It is the product of a complex interaction of objective circumstances, social struggle, historical experience and political intervention. It emerges in fits and starts, develops unevenly across different sections of the class, and moves only by a series of approximations. Even then there are periods of retreat in which lessons are lost and consciousness recedes. Unsurprisingly, the struggles of Indigenous people for self-determination have been crucial in driving the development of mass opposition to their oppression. These struggles have been deeply shaped by the transformation undergone by the Indigenous population in the aftermath of the frontier wars, and in particular by the formation of an Indigenous working class.

In the second half of this article, we will look at just how this played out through the development of Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class relations throughout the twentieth century.

The Indigenous working class and capitalism

Reconstructing the history of the Indigenous working class, particularly in its early years, is a difficult task. First of all, Indigenous people were often excluded from regular participation in the labour market, and due to the effects of colonisation and racism, formed a very small percentage of the working class as a whole. Added to these difficulties has been the lack of interest in Indigenous workers, even by anti-racist theorists. Elements of settler colonial theory often end up reinforcing the impression that while Indigenous people were exploited by colonial society, they shouldn’t be considered as a part of the working class. This is rooted in the emphasis settler colonial theorists place on what they call the “logic of elimination”.[56] This logic meant that settler colonial societies sought to violently remove Indigenous people from their land and replace them with white settlers rather than transforming the Indigenous population into a mass exploited workforce. This is compared to colonial, but in the view of these theorists, non-settler colonial societies, such as South Africa, which did focus on developing the original population into a mass exploited workforce. A dichotomy is set up between the “bodily exploitation” of some populations and the “territorial dispossession” of others.[57] However this rigid distinction between settler colonial and other colonial societies is at odds with the actual history of colonisation.

While the “logic of elimination” might appear to explain the situation in Australia and the United States, the situation was quite different in other countries also considered settler colonial by these theorists. In New Zealand, the Maori population began to be dispossessed by settlers following its formal annexation in 1840. However Maori labour was significant for the colonial project from very early on and they were never as excluded from the economy as Indigenous people in early Australia. From 1840 to the late 1850s Maori “competed vigorously with settlers in the grain and vegetable produce as well as the labour markets”.[58] The colonial government also made use of Maori labour in public work gangs. In the late 1850s the collapse of produce markets and the introduction of steam-powered ships undermined the economic power of the Maori community, however for a whole period the settler and Maori economies were interdependent. Following Maori defeats in the wars of the 1860s land was rapidly transferred to the colonialists. Most of the Maori population tried to eke out an existence on what little land was left, but they often had to supplement their incomes by working as farm labourers, road builders and meat workers. As the rural economy developed they also started to work as shearers and station workers. By the late 1800s Maori workers were essential for shearing in Wairarapa, Hawke’s Bay, the East Coast and Poverty Bay. This tendency increased over time, with one writer arguing that “by the early twentieth century the completely self-sufficient Maori family was rare. The most fundamental and characteristic feature of Maori life was casual employment”.[59] Close to 90 percent of stations in Hawke’s Bay and the East Coast employed Maori shearers and on the large East Coast stations the coverage was 100 percent.[60] Maori workers also played an important role in the timber industry. From the 1930s onwards Maori workers also increasingly played an important role in the urban economy. The urbanisation and further proletarianisation of Maori in the post-war boom concentrated them in the blue-collar working class, of which they were a militant section.[61]

Even in South Africa things aren’t as clear cut as sometimes presented. While the labour of Africans was indeed key to the economy, the white settlers needed to dispossess them of vast swathes of profitable land for their farms and mines. Expropriating the African population from the land was also essential for creating an African labour force to use in the gold-mines.[62] There is a growing body of academic work on Africa, South America and Asia criticising the rigid distinctions often taken for granted by settler colonial theory.[63] What all this work reveals is that different colonial regimes almost always had to use some combination of “bodily exploitation” and “territorial dispossession”. This is also true of Australia.

The focus that settler colonial theorists have on the purely territorial aspect of Indigenous oppression ends up distorting their understanding of the relationship between Indigenous people and capitalism. For while they acknowledge that there have been changes in the nature of Indigenous oppression over time, they argue that the “logic of elimination” is the constant driving force behind settler colonial societies’ relationship with Indigenous people. In so far as this means that racism, oppression, and a lack of control over the land is a constant feature of Indigenous oppression, this is accurate. As an explanation of what is driving that racism and oppression, however, it is ambiguous, unclear and not rooted in any serious discussion of the changing dynamics of Australian capitalism.

The result of this is a strong tendency to treat Indigenous people as totally divorced from the rest of the working class, and indeed capitalist society. Instead, they are presented as being dispossessed by an amorphous colonial power structure whose relationship with capitalism is always nebulous. When settler colonial theorists do discuss Indigenous labour relations, they often refer to it as “colonial” labour relations, even well into the twentieth century. This can appear to be justified because Indigenous labour often had specific features such as the non-payment of wages, or the payment of goods or welfare instead of wages, and systems of extreme exploitation or even slavery such as “black-birding” which involved the use of Aboriginal workers as enslaved labourers in the early Western Australian pearling industry and Pacific Islanders in Queensland. However, as Marxist historians have shown in regard to the persistence of “unfree” labour, such particular forms of exploitative work are not incompatible with capitalism. They do not constitute a separate structure within the capitalist mode of production but rather are one of the many forms that capitalist labour relations can take.[64]

It is true that during the initial colonisation process in Australia the motivation of the capitalist class wasn’t to incorporate Indigenous people into the workforce but rather to continue the process of driving them off profitable land. As one study of the early South Australian economy puts it, “when the colony of South Australia was planned, the possibility that Aboriginal people might be a significant source of labour was never seriously contemplated… It was Aboriginal land that the colonists wanted; if Aboriginal labour proved valuable, then this was a bonus, but it was not an expectation”.[65]

While Aboriginal labour came to play an essential role in the pastoral industry, particularly in the less populated states and territories, this was exceptional. In New South Wales and Victoria, Indigenous workers were a small minority of the population, and their labour wasn’t in particular demand for any sections of the capitalists, so they often had to suppress or obscure their identity to enter into the predominantly white workforce. Patterns of Indigenous employment also shifted over time:

By the early years of the twentieth century, increasingly segregationist government policies began to force Kooris out of the workforce. Furthermore, as the huge sheep stations were broken up, Kooris had to move their makeshift homes to reserves. The 1930s Depression reinforced this trend, as Kooris who had supported themselves all their lives were forced onto settlements to get unemployment relief.

During World War II Aborigines were drawn back into the labour force and for the first time moved in significant numbers from rural areas to the cities. Hundreds came to Sydney to work in munitions factories at St Marys or crowded into the slums of South Sydney. This trend was reversed in the immediate post-war years, as housing shortages and a slump in employment drove many from the cities back to camp on reserves and riverbanks.[66]

The general pattern is that where capitalists were able to find an exploitable use for Indigenous labour then they used them. Where they couldn’t, Indigenous people either had to try their luck on the labour market or else were condemned to live in the ever-expanding network of missions.

Some Indigenous people entered the workforce not because capitalists found a use for their labour in a particular context but because they moved to urban areas and found that there was no way to survive except as a waged worker. There is some evidence that some Indigenous people purposefully moved to the cities in the belief that they would be able to have a better life for themselves or at least for their children, than what they could eke out on the missions.[67]

The waterfront became one such place that attracted Indigenous workers. From the early 1920s, a vibrant multi-racial workforce of white, Indigenous and migrant wharf labourers emerged on the Darwin waterfront, many of whom were the descendants of Indigenous and migrant pearl divers. Industrial port cities like Wollongong and Newcastle also attracted Aboriginal workers from local missions and reserves into the expanding and interlocking maritime, steel manufacturing and coal mining industries. The railways were also an important place of employment. Torres Strait Islanders who had originally been involved in the marine industry and cane cutting started to work on railways in northern Australia after the Second World War, with several hundred laying railway tracks by the 1960s.[68]

Those Indigenous people who found themselves being drawn into the capitalist labour market strove to adapt to their new conditions of life while holding on to what aspects of their traditional culture they could. In the process, their lives, conditions and consciousness underwent an enormous upheaval. As Scrimgeour explains in regard to Aboriginal workers in Western Australia:

Some of the people who went on strike in 1946 were the children of desert migrants, while many had themselves undertaken the long journey and made the profound changes involved in the transition from a hunter-gatherer economy to life in the settler-dominated Riverline region. They remembered living as children at the desert waterholes of their home country, the long journey they had made with their families… It seems likely that these cultural adjustments…resulted in a dynamic Aboriginal culture accustomed to adaptation and change, which would serve as the bedrock of the Aboriginal industrial and political action in the 1940s.[69]

While Indigenous life was still dominated by racism, poverty and violence, here and there Indigenous people were able to start to carve out spaces to live and then resist. In Sydney, the waterfront became an important site in the development of a political consciousness for a minority of Indigenous workers. Given the extremely limited options for them, this was an important route towards being able to fight for their rights in the new situation. To combat the structural racism integrated into the state – a particularly vicious and oppressive outcome of the colonial settler origins of Australia – Indigenous workers needed to find allies who could offer serious solidarity. The mixing together of left-wing trade union activism, socialist politics and the influence of overseas black nationalist ideas, for instance Garveyism, through foreign sailors,[70] made the waterfront an essential site in the development of political consciousness for a minority of Indigenous workers such as the future founder of the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association and active member of the Waterside Workers Federation, Fred Maynard. Later generations would undergo similar changes through their experiences on the waterfront. Many of these Indigenous working-class activists would either be influenced by or become members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), as we shall explore later in this article. In 1940, Chicka Dixon left Wreck Bay Aboriginal Reserve on the NSW South Coast, aged 14, to work as a casual labourer at Port Kembla. Later he moved to Sydney, getting involved in union activism as a builders’ labourer and then on the Sydney waterfront, before becoming an organiser for the Waterside Workers Federation and later a leading Aboriginal activist during the 1960s and ’70s.

Kevin Cook, who also went on to become an important Aboriginal and trade union activist, was born in Wollongong and his early life was shaped by the militant working-class culture that had developed there. One account of his life explains that he grew up

hearing stories from his uncles about the work on the local farms, picking beans and other crops as well as the long days in the heavy iron and steel works of the towns, and about the work in coal mining in the surrounding escarpments. That meant he was hearing from an early age about the unions on the South Coast, where working people, black or white, had often been able to work together across colour lines to gain better conditions.[71]

When the government pushed Aboriginal children out of public schools during the 1920s and ’30s, Aboriginal communities on the South Coast fought back and won the support of local trade unions.[72]

In Darwin during the 1930s, initial opposition to the employment of Indigenous and migrant workers on the waterfront gave way to significant struggles for equal wages.[73] These struggles produced a culture of solidarity on the docks. In 1932 Johnny Ah Mat, the son of a Malay pearl-diver and a Torres Strait Islander woman, was elected as a union delegate for the Sorting Shed Section in Darwin, and one writer explains:

The NAWU (Northern Australian Workers Union) organised the casual labourers into three semi-permanent gangs. There was no “racial” division within the gangs – each had a mixture of workers. There is no evidence to suggest that “half-caste” workers were forced to take on the more physically taxing jobs such as working in the ship’s hold, nor that they could not hold positions of seniority. Certainly, the union did not judge its workers according to “racial” stereotypes. There were over one hundred unemployed men in Darwin in 1937. On the list of Relief Workers each worker was judged by the union as fair, good or poor, but there was no correlation between this assessment and the worker’s “race”. Furthermore, there were capable white workers on the unemployed list while “coloured” workers remained employed as waterside workers. This suggests that white workers were not given preferential treatment.[74]

The strong bonds of solidarity forged in Darwin benefited all workers. The 1937 Payne and Fletcher report found that Darwin waterside workers were paid almost double the wages of wharfies in Brisbane and higher than any other tropical port. For Indigenous workers, this meant getting paid more in a month than they could hope to earn in an entire year while employed by the Aboriginal Department.

There were also broader cultural ramifications. Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers played in mixed-race football teams. Indeed the Buffaloes, who won the 1936 premiership, were captained by Johnny Ah Mat’s brother, a tradition continued for many decades with Robert Ah Mat, Johnny’s grandson, playing for the Sydney Swans in the 1990s. The NAWU newspaper championed the Buffaloes, making them into heroes for its working-class readership. Football games also included mixed-race afterparties and unions fought for the right of Indigenous workers to drink at Darwin pubs. When racists banned Indigenous players in 1927 it led to a community boycott and attendance at the games fell from several hundred to a small handful.[75] Police Paddock, an area set aside for the “coloured” community just outside Darwin, became an important space for developing this culture of solidarity. Unemployed white men who emigrated to Darwin made their camps near the area and appreciated the help they received from the community. The Ah Mat family organised social events and music nights for the unemployed men to welcome them into the city. In return, the Unemployed Workers Movement organised their own mixed-race social events and invited the Police Paddock community.

The culture of class struggle and solidarity created in Darwin during this period highlights one of the problems with settler colonial theory – its tendency to treat the non-Indigenous population as a homogeneous bloc. As Julia Martinez argues, “there has been a tendency, in discussing Darwin, to depict the white population as colonial masters, ignoring the role of white workers”. However, as she points out, it is “only within a working class perspective of Darwin that one can find images of worker solidarity to act as a counterpoint to colonial elitism”.[76]

There were real limits to the anti-racist working class culture in Darwin at this time. While the rights of so-called “half-castes” were championed, those deemed to be “full-blooded” Aborigines were excluded from the union movement. The union campaigns to support Aboriginal workers on the docks did accept much of the assimilationist framework promoted by the government. However, it is worth noting that while the official assimilation policy entrenched the division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers, union policy in Darwin challenged this division, even if not in a consistent way. Interestingly, the division between “half-castes” and “full-blooded” Indigenous people was also widely accepted by early Aboriginal activist organisations. Both these organisations and non-Indigenous anti-racist activists would change their views on this question over the coming years.[77]

Even though many Indigenous people often found themselves excluded from or a small section of the workforce, some industries did find a specific use for Indigenous labour. In her research into the use of Aboriginal labour in Western Australia’s north, Anne Scrimgeour found that:

As early as 1879, for example, all of the 18,000 sheep on the large coastal station of Mundabullangana were shepherded by marrngu, and a newspaper report stated in 1883 that on De Grey Station, which ran 40,000 sheep and 6000 heads of cattle, all the work was “done by natives, sheep shearing, washing wool, fencing, tank making, bullock and horse driving, in fact all the work required on and about the station”.[78]

A similar process took place in South Australia. While Aboriginal labour had been used during the gold rushes of the 1850s, a new wave of European migration had pushed them out of the workforce. But in the less populated northern and western parts of the colony, Aboriginal labour was still needed for the stations to function.[79]

As capitalist expansion penetrated ever deeper into the far reaches of the continent and the frontier wars suppressed resistance, Aboriginal groups often had little choice other than to move closer to areas settled by whites. As traditional Aboriginal society collapsed in the face of colonial violence, the attraction of moving closer to white settlements increased, particularly as the spread of flour, tea, sugar and tobacco seeped into Aboriginal communities. As they did so, local bosses worked out that they could benefit from incorporating them into their exploitative system. As Scrimgeour puts it, the requirement for Aboriginal people to live in designated “native camps” near the stations left “the country free for pastoral activity while simultaneously creating a pool of labour for the stations”.[80] Indigenous labour proved useful for a number of purposes: women were widely used as domestic servants, while pearl fishing was extremely profitable for a lucky few. But it was the pastoralists who were most reliant on their talents.

The role that Aboriginal labour played in the Western Australian pastoral industry was often deliberately obscured by the bosses. To justify the lack of payment in wages and other discriminatory practices, these pastoralists often argued that they only allowed Aboriginal people to work on their stations out of charity. They argued that their labour was in effect costly because they would have to give provisions not just for the individuals working but for their extended family as well. Many pastoralists complained about “lazy” Aborigines who had to be constantly overseen. In reality, through a combination of outright violence and their control over rations , the pastoralists disciplined Indigenous workers into a highly profitable workforce that could be paid well below what other workers would accept.

The testimony of Frank Gare, an officer of the Department of Native Affairs in the 1950s, is interesting for the light it throws on the importance that pastoralists held Aboriginal labour:

Most of the station people you talk to, the employers, spoke very well of their stockmen. They usually had criticisms in a general way of Aborigines in general, but they usually said, “Oh, but I’ve got good men here, they’re good stockmen. I couldn’t do without them”. It was rather an odd attitude that their employees were well above average. But if you went to each station in turn they all had the same idea.[81]

Charles Baxter, a Country Party MP, told the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1943 that if the government was given too much control over Aboriginal labour it would “render the position of the pastoral industry impossible inasmuch as those engaged in that industry will not have labour available from the native race”.[82] In South Australia, similar views were expressed in the late nineteenth century. In 1892 the Sub-Protector for Aborigines found that most cattle and sheep stations employed up to a dozen Aboriginal workers. When a station manager from the MacDonnell Ranges was asked if the stations could be worked without Aboriginal labour he replied “No, probably not”. A telegraph officer responded to the same question: “I don’t know what they [the squatters] would have done without them”.[83]

Perhaps no further proof of the importance of Aboriginal labour for the pastoralists in Western Australia is needed than the fact that when Aboriginal groups or individuals tried to leave the station, they were forcefully brought back by the local police force. Similarly, if Aboriginal people camped near a station where their labour was not needed or was deemed by the pastoralists as harming the “work ethic” of those already being used as labour, they were driven away. Like so many others, Aboriginal people’s lives and experiences were organised according to the needs and desires of capitalism and the labour market.

The left wing of the workers’ movement and early Indigenous activist organisations

Sarah Maddison argues that contemporary progressive thought on Indigenous oppression remains trapped within what she calls the “Australian colonial fantasy”, in particular the belief that “colonialism was something sad but inevitable” which would be resolved through a process by “which colonialism would come to be supplanted by a modern, unified nation” backed up “by the misplaced belief that public policy would provide the means of resolving the colonial problem”.[84] While this is an accurate criticism of much middle-class liberal thinking on racism in Australia, a very different tradition emerged within the radical wing of the workers’ movement and the Australian left in the early 1930s. This tradition started to reflect the changing objective possibilities for solidarity between non-Indigenous workers and Indigenous people. It built on some of the earlier attitudes taken by more progressive trade unionists, but also went beyond them.

Unsurprisingly, the most significant advances in solidarity with Indigenous people were made by the most radical wing of the workers’ movement at the time. During the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, the Communist Party of Australia took a radical stand against Australian imperialism and nationalism.[85] This put them in a good position to reject the founding myths of the Australian state, arguing instead that Australian nationalism was reactionary. The CPA’s strong opposition to nationalism and racism were also deeply influenced by the anti-colonial and anti-racist positions of the international Communist movement.

Articles criticising the ALP’s racist policies towards Indigenous people appeared in the Communist Party’s press by the mid-1920s. In 1931 they published Communist Party Fight for Aborigines: Draft Programme of Struggle Against Slavery which included:

a call for the abolition of all forms of forced labour; equal wages; abolition of the Aboriginal Protection Boards – “capitalism’s slave recruiting agencies and terror organisations”; release of all Aboriginal prisoners and the empanelment of Aboriginal juries to hear cases involving Aborigines; the restoration of Central, Northern and N-W Australia to form independent Aboriginal republics; and the development of Aboriginal culture.[86]

These positions were built upon throughout the 1930s. The 1934 issue of The Proletariat put out by Communists in the Melbourne University Labor Club carried an article called “Towards the Emancipation of the Aborigines”. The article declared that “It is no exaggeration to state that there has been a great awakening of interest in the Australian Aborigines during the last two or three years”. After describing the “slave-labour” which Indigenous people are forced to carry out for “colonial super-profits of the Australian bourgeoisie” and the robbery of “all political rights”, the author proceeded to demolish the idea that colonisation benefited Indigenous people, arguing that “the aborigines have been brought very close to total annihilation at the hands of the imperialists”. Notably, the article also takes aim at the idea that they are simply a “dying race”, arguing that:

Bourgeois scientists who predict the extinction of the aborigines, also reckon without the broad sections of the population who are vigilantly watching the treatment of the aborigines, and who are exposing and resisting the worst of the attacks upon being launched against the natives… [W]e must…then reject decisively the bourgeois theory that aborigines are doomed to extinction. Even without Socialism, they may be saved from extinction.[87]

This article wasn’t an exception. The Communist Party press carried articles throughout the 1930s on the economic exploitation and political oppression of Indigenous workers. These were not just words: in 1933 the Communist Party played a key role in preventing a massacre of Indigenous people in Arnhem Land.[88]

There isn’t space here to critically engage in-depth with the development of the Communist Party’s analysis and practice concerning Indigenous oppression and its relationship to the Communist Party’s Stalinist politics. It is sufficient to say that a new generation of anti-Stalinist revolutionaries can learn much from their contributions to the struggle for Indigenous liberation, while critically examining how the evolution of their Stalinist politics undermined their approach to this vital question.

Alongside this development on the left, the first modern Indigenous activist organisations were being formed. In NSW, Aboriginal communities had taken disputes with the Protection Board to the public and the press since the early twentieth century. In 1915, on the Hasting River, Aboriginal protesters confronted an inspector with spears and shields in defiance of legislation taking away their children. In 1919, returned Aboriginal servicemen from the north coast protested against segregation and presented a petition demanding civil rights to the state government.

In the early 1920s this activity culminated in the formation of the first state-wide Aboriginal political organisation in NSW. Fred Maynard founded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in response to the growing segregation of rural towns, and it quickly spread, building an initial base among Aboriginal farmers, carpenters and boat builders on the Macleay, Nambucca and Bellinger rivers.[89] The Association engaged in a tireless campaign against the Protection Board, fighting against the separation of Aboriginal families, government restrictions and segregation laws. By August 1925 the AAPA had eleven branches on the north coast, with a membership of 500. In 1926 the organisation formed links with similar struggles on the south coast and in Sydney. Unfortunately, by 1927 the organisation was broken up after two years of ceaseless harassment by the Protection Board, but many took the lessons from these battles as they went on to play a role in other organisations.

William Ferguson was another important early Indigenous activist.[90] He had strong links to the workers’ movement, the AWU in particular, from his many years working as a shearer. In 1916 Ferguson and his family settled in Gulargambone, a small town in the central west of NSW. In Gulargambone he led a campaign to reform the local branch of the ALP and helped establish a new Trades and Labour Council in the town, which then elected him as its secretary for two years. During this time he was also a leading local campaigner against the use of conscription in the First World War. Ferguson was clearly trusted as an important working-class leader in the region by workers, non-Indigenous and Indigenous alike. During the 1930s Ferguson launched the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), one of many Indigenous activist organisations formed around this time. The APA itself was divided into two wings, with Ferguson’s wing drawing on support from left-wing trade unionists and socialist activists.

There was also important activism by Torres Strait Islanders throughout the 1930s and ’40s. In 1936 a strike of 400 Torres Strait pearl divers broke out in response to increased controls over the ownership of boats and lack of payment in wages by the Queensland government. After six months of the strike, the government sacked the local government Protector, leading to a “jubilant atmosphere” on the Islands.[91] This strike laid the basis for a series of stay at home strikes by Torres Strait Islander soldiers during the Second World War. In 1947 white Communist activist Gerald Peel published Isles of the Torres Strait which detailed the exploitation and oppression on the islands. Peel had been inspired to write the book after meeting a Torres Strait Islander at the Communist Party offices in Sydney. The Islander explained to him that he had had political discussions with American and Australian Communist seamen who were stationed in the Torres Strait during the war. One seaman encouraged him to read historical and political books, and while mixing with them the Islander told Peel it felt “like back home”.[92] Peel’s book championed the rights of Torres Strait Islanders and recognised them as a distinct identity long before other organisations, with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines only changing its name to the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in 1964.

The CPA developed a distinctively radical approach to the question of Indigenous oppression that emphasised working-class solidarity against racism. The fruits of this approach would become clear in a number of important Indigenous struggles in the post-war period.

Indigenous struggles and working-class solidarity

Contemporary discussions of the possibility of Indigenous and non-Indigenous solidarity are fraught and overwhelmingly pessimistic. In Decolonizing Solidarity Clare Land argues that there “are limited scenarios in which non-Indigenous people or institutions in settler colonial contexts are motivated to engage with Indigenous people out of a concern for their own immediate material self-interests”.[93] When Sarah Maddison discusses the possibility of non-Indigenous people supporting Indigenous struggles she is exclusively concerned with the role of “progressive settler scholars”.[94] This dovetails with much mainstream history, which emphasises the role played by progressive clergy, students or middle-class humanitarians and either downplays or ignores the role of workers. Land to her credit does discuss examples of working-class solidarity with Indigenous struggles, however her reliance upon settler colonial theory prevents her from explaining why some sections of the working class support Indigenous struggles while others don’t. After all, according to her framework, they’re all equally “settlers”.

The general pattern is that when workers are well organised, benefits flow to the whole class, whereas when bosses have their way, fragmentation and inequality reigns. In this section I will examine the post-war era, where the full ramifications of the changing relationship between Indigenous struggle and working-class action previously described become clearer. This was an uneven and contradictory process, and the high points of struggle shouldn’t be taken as expressing the average view of workers at this time. Of course, a detailed account of all the post-war Indigenous struggles and the solidarity they did or did not receive is beyond the scope of this article. Instead my goal is to present some vignettes that point to possibilities. Fuller accounts of these struggles can be found in the books and articles referred to in the footnotes. A notable absence in this section is the Gurindji strike which has been well documented elsewhere.[95]

Some of these struggles were Indigenous working-class campaigns that drew upon non-Indigenous working class support. Others are examples of left-wing working-class activists who had gained confidence through their own struggles and were then motivated to take an anti-racist stand. The point of this section is to establish that solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers is possible and to explore the reasons why it can emerge. By examining these events, we can begin to understand the dynamics that make possible solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers and activists.

A key role was played in all of these struggles by members of the CPA and other working class-orientated activists who were often influenced by the Party. Communist activists used their influence with the working-class movement to educate workers in the politics of class solidarity, internationalism and opposition to racism. This approach was vital for the success of many of the struggles I will be discussing, because of the complex way class consciousness develops and the constant pressures against the development of solidarity due to the influence of the capitalist system on the working class.

As Sandra Bloodworth has argued against critics who want to emphasise the weaknesses of the working-class movement and the hegemony of racist ideas, focusing just on the low points of struggle and the limitations of working-class activists even when they are acting in solidarity with Indigenous struggles misses the point. She writes:

The significance of struggle is the potential for ideas and attitudes to be challenged. And the stronger the confidence engendered by the struggle, the more likely it is that racist and sexist ideas (to name just two) will be challenged. Trade unions and their willingness or otherwise to engage in industrial struggle are central. And the historical records (as opposed to academic histories) indicate that the left wing trade unions, most of which were heavily influenced by Communist Party activists, were of great importance in laying the basis for the developing radicalism of the Aboriginal rights movement during the sixties.[96]

The Pilbara strike 1946-49[97]

The roots of the Pilbara strikes lie in the clash between the intensification of discrimination against Aboriginal workers in Western Australia during the Second World War and growing anti-racist sympathy within a section of the workers’ movements and left-leaning society. The exodus of white workers from the pastoral industry and into the army, combined with the importance of continued wool production for the war effort, led to a hardening of the exploitation of Aboriginal workers on the stations. Despite many Aboriginal workers volunteering to help with the war effort, authorities were suspicious about their loyalty, and so military personnel carried out surveillance of Aboriginal communities to detect subversion. Stricter segregation was also put in place across the state to keep Aboriginal people away from soldiers over concerns about “sexual misconduct”.

At the same time, the 1940s was a period of growing sympathy for the plight of Aboriginal people among an important minority of the Western Australian population. A weekly radio broadcast on human rights issues hosted by Edward Beeby, a Communist and founder of the Anti-Fascist League (AFL) regularly discussed the oppression of Aboriginal people. The broadcast was the basis for discussion groups of the AFL which by 1943 had 2,700 members and 72 branches holding weekly meetings across Western Australia. Anti-racist working-class communities had started to emerge in some areas in the state. In Port Hedland, a community of mixed European and Aboriginal descent established a “Euralian Association” which campaigned for decent housing, education, employment and equal status with the non-Aboriginal community. Some of the Association’s members were employed on the wharves or the railway line and were members of the AWU. The Association won a considerable degree of support in the town, leading to a significant undoing of segregation within Port Hedland. This changed in November 1942 when the authorities clamped down, and the Euralian community was declared a Prohibited Area, before being forcibly segregated and a pass system established.

A campaign against the pass system started to take off. One link between the Euralian Association and the Anti-Fascist League was white activist – later Communist – Don McLeod, who would go on to play an important role in the Pilbara strikes. McLeod attended a “big half-caste meeting” in Port Hedland called to discuss how to organise against the pass system. He helped promote the struggle through the AFL’s radio program and articles written for the Fremantle Districts Sentinel. Through this work, he came into contact with a vibrant community of communists and left-wing anti-racist activists in Perth, including the writers Katharine Susannah Prichard and Mary Durack, the anthropologist Fred Rose and Edward Beeby. This community connected McLeod with a broader network of communist activists who were involved in the struggle for Aboriginal rights across the country. It was during this time that McLeod read communist literature on Aboriginal rights. The plan for a strike of Aboriginal workers started to become more concrete through discussions between McLeod, Aboriginal men who worked with him sinking wells and local Aboriginal Lawmen. Also playing a central role was Clancy McKenna (Warntupungkarna) the son of a white pastoralist and a Nyamal woman, who had recently resigned from his job in protest over discriminatory wages.

While there was rising anger in the Aboriginal community about their conditions before McLeod got into contact with them, there was also underconfidence about how to fight. The key ideas McLeod promoted were that Aboriginal labour was essential to the pastoral industry, that because of this strike action was key, that if they fought then working-class allies across the state could be mobilised to support them, and that it was unlikely that the police and pastoralists would just murder them all – a widespread and understandable fear amongst Aboriginal station workers at the time. As Scrimgeour, who generally takes a rather critical view of McLeod’s influence at this time, argues, “although he played down his role in instigating the strike, McLeod clearly took an active role in sowing the seeds of the strike idea. Among a disempowered Aboriginal population seeking a way ‘to help ourself’, his ideas found fertile soil”.[98]

The idea of a strike of Aboriginal workers was discussed in large Aboriginal meetings at Nullagine, Moolyella and Marble Bar. McKenna and the Lawman Dooley Bin Molyullah travelled across the state visiting far-flung stations to promote and organise the strike. At the same time, McLeod started to popularise the idea in Communist Party circles, writing to leading party members about the development of plans for the strike and seeking advice about the way forward. By 1945 the idea of a strike had spread widely, and while McLeod might have been its inspiration, it quickly became driven by the Marrngu people themselves. As McKenna put it, “McLeod gave us a hint about the strike, and we took it up”.[99]

After years of preparation, the strike began on 1 May 1946. Hundreds of Aboriginal workers took part, and strike camps were organised across the Pilbara. Strike action was also taken by hotel workers, domestic servants and miners in Marble Bar on 1 May. One large coastal station on the De Grey River had already gone on strike before 1 May in order to take action just as the mustering began, revealing that the workers were thinking about how best to use their power.

The strike immediately came up against all the racist institutions of Western Australian capitalism, who had previously been sceptical about the organising capacities of Aboriginal workers. Many employers simply sacked the Aboriginal workers who went on strike and expelled them from their properties. The police went station to station threatening the workers with exile if they joined the strike. Then McKenna and Dooley were imprisoned and McLeod arrested.

The leaders of the Pilbara strike knew that for their campaign to be successful, they needed what McLeod called “power behind us”, ie, solidarity action from workers in industrial cities. Following the arrests of McKenna, Dooley and McLeod, a vigorous campaign broke out in the south of the state. Trade unions, civil liberties and women’s groups campaigned against the imprisonment of the strike leaders and in support of the strike movement. Open meetings were held, and protests organised in Perth. Encouraged by the growing show of support from the south the strike movement spread and in Port Hedland strikers marched on the jail in which McLeod was imprisoned, leading to him being freed. As it became clear the strike was going to continue, support flowed in from around the country. Nineteen unions in Western Australia, seven national unions and four Trades and Labour Councils supported the strike and sent money.

The decisive moment came in August 1949 when the Seamen’s Union banned the shipment of wool from the Pilbara. After three days the government caved in and substantial gains were made in wages and conditions.

While the strikers garnered significant union support, this wasn’t universally the case. The leadership of the Australian Workers Union worked with the Department of Native Affairs to oppose the strike.[100] For the AWU this sprang from a combination of its poor record on the Aboriginal issue and its vicious anti-communist stance. While the AWU didn’t deny Aboriginal membership, it left the final decision to local union representatives. So the AWU in Port Hedland welcomed members of the Euralian community into the union, while they were barred from well-paid employment in Broome. When Pilbara strikers tried to find temporary employment on the docks during the long strike, the AWU refused to give them union tickets.

The AWU state secretary Charlie Golding is reported as believing the Pilbara strike

had been inspired by the Communist, Donald McLeod, and because he did not favour the tactics of this individual he proposed to telegram the Union representative at Port Hedland stating that Union tickets were not to be issued to persons deemed to be natives according to the Native Administration Act. [101]

The AWU also campaigned against the employment of strikers on the Port Hedland railway and joined in an anti-communist crusade against the white stationmaster who allowed them to be employed. These attitudes within the AWU didn’t go totally unchallenged. At an AWU members’ meeting on 19 February, the decision to refuse membership to the Pilbara strikers was overturned, and the meeting said they would refuse to work on the wharves if Aboriginal men were not given equal opportunity for jobs.[102] The attitudes of the AWU leadership also stand in contrast to railway workers, who helped Aboriginal strikers board trains after police had attempted to ban them.[103]

How do we explain the differences between the AWU and other unions? The settler colonial perspective doesn’t offer a useful explanation. Don McLeod was as much of a “settler” as Charlie Golding. The difference was politics. The AWU was a right-wing bureaucratic union hostile to the Communists and rank-and file-democracy and deeply embedded within the Australian Labor Party, with its racist policies towards Aboriginal people. On the other hand, McLeod, the Seamen’s Union and the left-wing activists who rallied to support the Pilbara strikers had a commitment to working class action around political and social issues. It is this that allowed them to close the gap between the objective possibilities of solidarity and its realisation, while the AWU remained trapped within the conservatism of ruling-class ideology.

The Darwin Aboriginal workers’ strikes 1947-1951[104]

In February 1947 a strike broke out among Aboriginal workers as a result of poor pay and living conditions in Berrimah Compound outside Darwin. In December 1950 and January 1951 Aboriginal workers employed as cooks, gardeners, painters and general labourers on the Bagot Aboriginal reserve went on strike. These strikes were organised by the Aboriginal workers themselves, who held mass meetings to decide the course of strike action. Serious repression was unleashed to break up the strikes. One of the strike leaders, Fred Waters, was banished to Haasts Bluff, a desert area about 1,000 miles from Darwin, for “organising the natives to strike”. Another strike leader who “neglected to obey a lawful instruction” during the strike was imprisoned for four months.

Two important factors shaped these strikes. The first was the contradictory effects of the Second World War on the consciousness and situation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers in the Northern Territory, which left a legacy after the war was over. The war broke down the isolation of northern and central Australia, with railways and airports being built to facilitate travel and communication to the military base in Darwin. At least 1,000 Aboriginal workers were recruited to work in food production, the Civil Construction Corps and as labour aids to the military base. Middleton writes that “these measures made a considerable contribution to the breakdown of the Aboriginal traditional hunting and gathering economy” which were “destroyed and replaced by new, wider affiliations”.[105]

The experiences of these Aboriginal workers both stirred greater desire in the possibilities of equality and frustrated those desires. Aboriginal workers were paid in cash wages, and despite not being paid the same as white soldiers they were paid many times even the nominal amount that station owners “paid” them in rations. Some Aboriginal workers received training in semi-skilled industrial trades, drove trucks and were housed in the military barracks. They also interacted with white soldiers and workers in a far less segregated environment than during peacetime. Middleton describes the effects on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers and soldiers at the time:

They were the first white Australians in contact with the Aborigines who were not involved or interested in exploiting them. The experience of living and working with such people, the contrast between army conditions and the ways in which they were exploited and treated by the pastoralists, and the observation of the Black soldiers all had important ideological consequences for the Aborigines. Their world view was expanded, particularly their consciousness of support and sympathy among a section of the white population and their shared experiences and aims with other groups of Aborigines. The basis was laid for the unity which was developed and for organisations and campaigns which were begun after the war.[106]

One expression of the growing consciousness of at least some white workers of the plight of Aboriginal people was the novel No Sunlight Singing by Joe Walker. The novel details the exploitation of Aboriginal workers in the 1930s and ’40s in Darwin. Walker published the book in 1960 but it was based upon what he learned first from Aboriginal people he worked with during the war in the Civil Construction Corps in Darwin, and then, after the war, in his role as a left-wing union organiser and editor of the union newspaper The Northern Standard, which openly supported the Aboriginal strikes in Darwin.[107]

At the same time though, the war increased the destruction of what remained of the traditional Aboriginal communities in the areas around Darwin, resulting in the further integration of Aboriginal workers into the exploitative capitalist economy and in greater numbers than before.

Middleton argues that “Communist Party of Australia members particularly used these experiences as the basis for the development of their theoretical policy and practical support for Aboriginal people”. She goes on to make an important point that there was a “reciprocal process” in which the consciousness of the exploitation and oppression of Aboriginal workers “was raised in both the Aborigines themselves and in the white population”.[108]

The other important factor then was the role of the Communist Party. The North Australian Worker’s Union (NAWU) in Darwin organised financial and legal support for the striking workers and their families. This was only possible because in 1946 the NAWU had been taken over by a group of Communist activists led by George Gibbs, who had defeated the right-wing AWU-aligned leadership of the union.[109] The NAWU went to the High Court of Australia in an attempt to challenge the Aboriginals Ordinance that was used to deny Aboriginal workers the right to strike. The Aboriginals Ordinance was a constant source of complaint by the NAWU. It made it illegal for Aboriginal workers to either go on strike or join a union in the Northern Territory. At a conference in 1947, a request that Aboriginal workers be allowed to join the NAWU was denied by the Labor government.

There is also some evidence that Communists in the NAWU helped the Aboriginal strikes in more direct ways. In his memoirs Murray Norris, a Communist Party activist in the NAWU, recalls:

Early in 46 the first of the Aboriginal strikes took place. I can’t remember the date now, but it was after the first strike that took place on the wharf. I had come up from the Centre to report, which I generally did about every four months, and was sitting in the union office when I heard a stone drop on the roof. I had a look around and couldn’t see any kids about. A little later I heard another one on the roof so I figured that I had better take a better look. As I walked all around the buildings and at the back I heard the familiar sound “Eh”, the sound that an Aborigine makes when he wants to get your attention. I walked over to some long grass and hidden there were seven Aborigines. They told me that they wanted to talk to the union about striking. They wanted assistance and advice what to do. As I am tone deaf I have great difficulty in translating broken English and they had to keep repeating what they were saying. I told them to hold on and went back to the union office. Frank Whiteoak, the Darwin Organiser, was there so I told him about it and took him back down. Some of them knew him and he was the bloke they had really come to see. They were too polite to tell me that they didn’t know me. Frank took over and formed a strike committee with himself as adviser in the background. I still have a photo of this first strike committee with Frank.[110]

This support shown by the NAWU was then reciprocated by the Aboriginal workers themselves. During a six-week-long hospital strike in 1948 wealthy women attempted to scab on the strike. In response Aboriginal domestic workers who were employed by these wealthy women went on strike, refusing to do the laundry and clean the house. As Norris puts it in his memoirs, “as soon as the ‘silver tails’ found that there was nobody at home to do all the dirty work, they quickly turned tail and went home”.[111]

The 1957 Palm Island strike[112]

Palm Island has a long history as the “Alcatraz” for Indigenous people in Queensland. Established in 1918 as a “reserve” to send particularly “rebellious” Indigenous people to, including the leaders of a strike at the Taroom reserve in 1916, it became a horrifying prison island. It was also a key part of capitalist strategy to control Indigenous people more generally by segregating Indigenous workers considered unsuitable for labour while simultaneously being used as a threat to intimidate the rest of the Indigenous workforce. As Peggy James of the Boulia region put it, “they only had to mention Palm Island and we were quiet”.[113]

As more and more Indigenous people spoke out against discrimination on the mainland the numbers of explicitly political and activist Indigenous workers sent to Palm Island increased. The conditions on the island were absolutely appalling. Under the virtual dictatorship of the ex-police officer Roy Henry Bartlam, Indigenous “inmates” were forced to salute all white people, work without pay, and labour for the personal gain of Bartlam and his friends. Resistance to any of this was met with extreme brutality and imprisonment in solitary confinement without pause for weeks on end. Repression was particularly harsh in terms of labour relations, with Bartlam enforcing strict segregation and punishing the most minor misdemeanours in the workplace. The building trade was a particular focus for Bartlam’s brutality and desire to squeeze whatever labour he could out of his workforce. Indigenous workers started meeting in private to discuss the possibility of strike action on the island.

In June 1957 these issues came to a head when Bartlam tried to have Albie Geia, a Palm Island native, deported from the island for demanding his correct wage. In response the Palm Island community declared a general strike and the Indigenous population rallied to support Geia. The strike quickly raised the general issues affecting the Indigenous community, demanding better wages, housing and for Bartlam to leave the island. The strike ground the island to a halt, with even members of the police force joining, leaving Bartlam to barricade himself in his house with his remaining supporters. Eventually Bartlam called for reinforcements from the Queensland police to help put down the revolt. After five days the strike was eventually crushed, with many Indigenous workers deported from the island with machine guns pointed at them.

While the mainstream press painted the strikers as ungrateful natives and the Queensland state Labor government sent in the police, it was the Communist Party and their supporters who campaigned to support the Indigenous strikers. The Communist newspaper Tribune defended the strike as “thoroughly justified”, denounced Palm Island as a “penal colony” and called for a public inquiry staffed with trade union representatives in order to stop a whitewash by the police and the government. The Townsville Trades and Labour Council, which was led by Communist Party members at the time, campaigned against the repression of the strike. They also tried to use the strike and its repression as a chance to educate workers across the state about why it was important to stand in support of the Indigenous workers.

More broadly the historian Joanne Watson has made the point that you can’t understand the actions taken by the Indigenous workers on Palm Island without placing them in the context of industrial struggle and left-wing working-class politics at the time.[114] Many of the “rebellious” Aboriginal workers sent to the island had experience with trade unions and the Communist Party. In 1942 a group of non-Indigenous miners in north Queensland, likely influenced by the Communist Party, called for the payment of award wages for Aboriginal station workers. This action inspired Aboriginal stockmen at Woodleigh station to walk off the job in protest. In response the police cracked down and the ringleaders were deported, likely some to Palm Island. In the early 1950s the Communist Party raised the issue of Aboriginal rights at rank-and-file workers’ conferences across the state, and organised research teams to visit Indigenous workers at Weipa and Yarrabah, which then reported back to union meetings on the exploitative conditions faced by Aboriginal workers.[115] Indigenous workers native to Palm Island also had links to trade unions and left-wing activists, some of which dated back to connections made during the Second World War.

The South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League[116]

In November 1961 the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League was founded by a number of white Communist trade unionists and local Indigenous activists. The formation of the League was inspired by a conversation between white Communist Joe Howe and Aboriginal activist Joe McGinness, who met while working on the Cairns waterfront. Upon returning to Wollongong Howe got in touch with local Communist trade unionists. The Illawarra had a strong left-wing trade union tradition that had been spearheaded by Communists during the 1930s and then consolidated during and after the Second World War in the coal mines, docks and briefly at the steelworks. The South Coast Labour Council (SCLC) was notable for its radical positions and its interventions into local unions to back up left-wing challenges to right-wing union bureaucrats.

Prior to establishing the League, the SCLC organised a survey of the conditions of Indigenous seasonal pickers who worked for white farmers on the South Coast. Despite resistance by reserve managers, they travelled south and documented not only widespread exploitation and poor housing conditions but also the political aspirations of Aboriginal people. When Howe introduced the survey to a meeting of the SCLC he noted that Aboriginal people had been “deliberately kept in a humiliating condition” by both Liberal and Labor governments:

Through bitter experience they see governments and employers as their enemies. They are unionists, some of them, they are part of the Australian Labour movement. We in our Unions, do not practice discrimination. Our Aboriginal people are fighting for freedom in common with the African people, American negroes and others. Greet our Aborigines as friends. Your co-operation will end discrimination.[117]

The report also noted the desire of Illawarra Aboriginal communities for land rights and an end to the abuses of the Welfare Board and the desecration of sacred sites. Once the League was formed, it set about campaigning against discrimination across the Illawarra. The focus of the League was on the everyday racism and segregation that Aboriginal people faced. The League worked with the Waterside Workers Federation to win the right of Aboriginal people to drink at the Port Kembla and Wollongong pubs. Throughout the rest of the South Coast discrimination was even more entrenched, particularly in the rural towns. Aboriginal people were excluded from pubs and faced segregation in schools, pools, shops and cinemas.

In March 1962 a branch of the League was set up in Nowra. Fred Moore, a longstanding trade union activist from Wollongong, spoke at its inaugural meeting and was particularly impressed by the involvement of young women. For the new branch’s first action, an Aboriginal woman, Norma Sherman, some of her friends and Moore entered a café that refused to serve Aboriginal people. Moore explains what happened next:

Well, we sat there and sat there and they wouldn’t serve us. So I got up and said “What’s your problem mate?” The man said he did not want the custom of the women because if he served them he’d get no more business from other people. He said he would serve us if we moved to the back of the café, out of sight. We refused. Racism was pretty rampant in Nowra then. Well, we left and put out the word that if anyone refused to serve an Aboriginal person again we would ban all deliveries of food to their business.[118]

A week later the women returned and were served, and by 1964 segregation had been defeated in Nowra. This was a year before the far more famous Freedom Rides organised by Charles Perkins and the student activists at Sydney University. The activism of the League also laid the basis for future struggles in the Illawarra such as the campaign during the 1967 Referendum and the fight for land rights at Wreck Bay. A layer of Indigenous working-class activists was formed out of these struggles in the Illawarra and would go on to play important roles throughout the rest of the country.

The events in the Illawarra are a particularly strong refutation of the settler colonial thesis. Here we have mostly non-Indigenous working-class activists leading a struggle for Indigenous rights. Why these “settlers” took up the fight against segregation in the Illawarra will forever remain a mystery to most contemporary academic writers on Indigenous issues. No wonder then that it has almost been entirely forgotten from history.

The NSW Builders Labourers Federation and Aboriginal rights 1967-1975

The radical and class struggle-oriented NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), with members of the CPA playing a leading role, formed a strong alliance with the struggle for Aboriginal rights and the emerging Black Power movement. This alliance built upon earlier work that the BLF had done to build solidarity with Indigenous struggles. In 1967 Dexter Daniels, an Indigenous organiser for the North Australian Workers Union and leading figure in the Gurindji strike, spoke at a BLF meeting in Sydney. The building workforce at the time was very ethnically mixed, and so the lines of racial segregation were less rigid. The BLF took a strong stand against anti-migrant racism by the bosses and argued against anti-migrant attitudes among workers. This put them in a strong position to discuss the issue of Indigenous rights with the union’s membership, which included a number of Indigenous members. The relationship built up between migrant and Indigenous BLF members at the time goes some way in showing what is wrong with the emphasis of settler colonial theorists on the “privileges” of settler migrants.

Kevin Cook, Aboriginal activist and BLF organiser, explains how the racism of the bosses helped them build an opposing culture of solidarity:

I think the bosses played right into our hands, because, on a building site, most of the bosses, whether they be foremen, leading hands, thought they were a cut above everybody else and they’d go along and say, “Get out of here you wog bastards” and all of that, and the Builders Labourers’ union got onto that, and started pulling the bosses up and in fact sacking the bosses for being racist.

So that built the migrant people up too, no longer could the boss come up and call an Italian a wog, in a detrimental way. He might say, “Hey you wog bastard” if he was a mate of his, but on no account could he do that if he was angry or had the shits, he just couldn’t do it, because he’d get the sack. That made it a lot easier when you were talking about black issues, it was a social issue the same as not calling migrants “wogs” on the site. And the bosses done that a hell of a lot and the migrants got very, very angry.[119]

BLF activist Bobby Baker remembers Greek and Italian BLF members joining the land rights marches. They formed links with left-wing migrant organisations such as the Greek Communist Party and the Federation of Italian Migrant Workers and Families (FILEF) that would continue for many years, including participation in the 1988 anti-bicentennial marches.

From the late 1960s onwards an Indigenous urban militant activist milieu started to emerge in Redfern that quickly embraced the politics of Black Power.[120] This younger generation of Indigenous activists were open to more confrontational methods of social change. As Gary Foley writes, “when the high expectations created by the 1967 referendum were dashed by government inaction, the younger activists felt a strong sense of betrayal and cynicism at the more non-confrontational methods and tactics of the older generation”.[121] A new attitude was reinforced by nightly clashes with the NSW police who patrolled Redfern and inspired by the general radicalisation of the 1960s and development of Black politics in the United States.

These activists formed strong links with the radical left organisations and movements flowering in Sydney at the time, and in particular with BLF leaders Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens and the Indigenous BLF activist Kevin Cook. The BLF saw its role as a democratic workers’ organisation that used its industrial power to take stands on broader social issues. Both the BLF and the Black Power activists in Redfern played a key role in the anti-apartheid protests during the 1971 Springbok tour, with Bob Pringle arrested for trying to saw down a goalpost at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Perhaps the most important intersection between the BLF and the Black Power activists was in Redfern itself. In the early 1970s building developers began to circle “The Block”, two streets of semi-derelict houses near Redfern Station that had become an important social and political centre for the Indigenous community in Sydney. With the building boom at its height, the developers wanted the houses torn down and replaced with new high-rise housing and offices. Here we have the perfect test case for the settler colonial thesis. “Settler” building workers were being asked to demolish Indigenous housing by their bosses. If they refused their jobs, and “privileges”, would be at stake.

The BLF immediately banned any demolition or construction work on the Block, essentially ending plans by developers to purchase the land. The pressure brought to bear on the Whitlam government by the Black Power activists in Redfern and the BLF led the government to fund the purchasing of the land by an Aboriginal-controlled organisation, the Aboriginal Housing Company, in the first urban land rights claim in the twentieth century.[122]

Clare Land can acknowledge the “longevity” of the BLF’s engagement with Indigenous struggles, and can even point to important reasons why this was the case: the union’s industrial strength and radical politics.[123] However, she never engages with how this fits in with her broader commitment to settler colonial theory. The classic Marxist strategy of uniting the oppressed and exploited in a common struggle against the conditions produced by capitalism is not some pie in the sky dream or a dogmatic scheme forced onto social movements. The history presented in this section shows that it is a viable strategy grounded in the actual relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers under Australian capitalism. Settler colonial theory can not explain these struggles. Its lack of a class analysis and assertion that all non-Indigenous people are privileged as “settlers” makes it impossible for settler colonial theory to appreciate the possibilities of solidarity.

Decolonisation, revolution and the working class

The analytical problems with settler colonial theory have repeatedly been expressed in more concrete debates over how we can build a movement to challenge Indigenous oppression today, and what kind of movement we want to build into the future. Supporters of the settler colonial argument often point to the genuine failures of paternalistic approaches to solving the so-called Indigenous “problem”. But their correct criticisms of middle-class liberal racism often spill over into scepticism about genuine displays of popular support for Indigenous justice by non-Indigenous people. It often seems that the central point for these theorists is to aim their fire at those seeking to show solidarity with Indigenous struggles rather than the exploitative system that oppresses both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous workers. A particularly noxious example of this recently was the attacks on young African migrants in Melbourne who sought to organise a solidarity rally with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Members of WAR demanded that these young African migrants cancel their demonstration on the basis that they are “settler Africans” whose experience of racism is fundamentally different to that of both African Americans and Indigenous people. This ignores the fact that African youth in Melbourne are a constant target for racist police harassment. After a strident online campaign backed by hysterical white liberals, the demoralised African youth abandoned their plans for a protest.

The weaknesses of settler colonial theory are also present in the political strategy of “decolonisation”. Originally decolonisation referred to the process by which the colonially dominated nations of the global south achieved national independence. Today it is a more amorphous term that refers to the process of deracialising oppressive structures, societies and cultures. It can encapsulate any number of mutually contradictory political practices and strategies. The more moderate strands of decolonisation bear a striking resemblance to traditional liberal strategies for social change, with a focus on education, cultural representation and individual empowerment.

More left-wing proponents do look to transform the racist structures of society. However, without clarifying the relationship between Indigenous oppression and capitalism, let alone the question of solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers, it is difficult for settler colonial theorists to develop a strategy for defeating racism that doesn’t fall back into a liberal or reformist framework.

Take, for example, this guide for how white “allies” can help the struggle for decolonisation:

To engage with decolonisation you can:
• value Indigenous knowledge and scholarship. In Australia, this can mean listening to Indigenous people on their knowledge about bushfire management
• encourage and insist on teaching about Indigenous people and cultures in schools
• support restitution efforts, such as programs which are revitalising Indigenous languages
• call on institutions – including across education, the arts, media and politics – to hire Indigenous people throughout the organisation and in positions of leadership
• look for ways people in your workplace might face discrimination and unconscious bias, and speak up against these structures
• fight for justice arising from Indigenous guidance, by walking alongside Indigenous people at rallies and placing their voices front-and-centre at events. [124]

These might all be worthwhile activities in and of themselves, but they don’t add up to a strategy for liberation. The analysis of Indigenous oppression as rooted in the nature of Australian capitalism outlined in this article lays the basis for the elaboration of genuine revolutionary strategy. The united struggles that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers were able to forge during the post-war years show that such solidarity isn’t some utopian dream. Despite such a working-class culture of solidarity being beaten back during the decades of the neoliberal offensive, it remains a broken thread to be remade on a deeper, broader and stronger basis.

There are, however, significant obstacles to the recreation of such a united movement. These obstacles are reflected in the trajectories of Indigenous politics over the last four decades. The forging of solidarity between sections of non-Indigenous and Indigenous workers from the post-war years to the heights of the late 1960s and early ’70s was rooted in the strength of the working-class movement. The retreat of the workers’ movement from the mid-seventies onwards reversed this process, although not totally. The gains of that period couldn’t be entirely obliterated, either from the consciousness of working people or society in general, and lived on in various ways. However, the forward momentum was definitely checked, as revealed by the pushback against land rights from the late seventies. While important struggles continued to attract significant levels of sympathy from unionised workers, they generally weren’t able to mobilise the kind of social power necessary to win.

This relative decoupling of the workers’ movement and Indigenous activism reinforced the growing sense of pessimism of much of the left and the retreat into the beginnings of what we would today call identity politics. Separatist arguments emphasising the autonomy of different struggles gained a stronger foothold. This kind of destructive politics simply served to further the fragmentation of the solidarity and unity that had emerged in the sixties and seventies. Struggles didn’t just disappear; from the 1988 anti-Bicentennial marches to the Invasion Day rallies today people continued to be mobilised around the issue of Indigenous justice. However, they generally suffered some of the same weaknesses as those in the late seventies and eighties, the lack of some form of economic or political power to begin to challenge the roots of Indigenous oppression.

A new development reinforced these trends – the slow emergence of an Indigenous middle class. It is important not to overestimate the size of this social layer. Indigenous people are extremely oppressed, and historically have been more excluded from any toehold in mainstream middle-class society than African Americans in the United States. However, from the mid-seventies onwards, and speeding up at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is a development of class differentiation with the Indigenous population of Australia.

In 2016 20 percent of Indigenous men and 27 percent of Indigenous women who live in major cities and were working, were employed as either managers or professionals.[125] This compares to 15 percent and 24 percent respectively in 2006.[126] While this category does include some white-collar workers it also embraces roles within what Marxists have called the new middle class in education, human resources, psychology, medicine, law and the media. This Indigenous middle class is a small social layer. However, it can have a disproportionate weight within Indigenous circles and society at large due to the access the middle class has to the media and political power and the convergence between its aims and that of the liberal non-Indigenous middle class. A stark example of the emergence of this class differentiation within the Indigenous community was on display during the battle over the “redevelopment” of the Block in Redfern which pitted the local Indigenous community and activists like Jenny Munro against Mick Mundine, CEO of the Aboriginal Housing Company.

This Indigenous middle class has different elements within it. There is a small, but vocal, extremely conservative wing represented by the likes of Noel Pearson, Mick Mundine and Jacinta Price. The dominant current though is a liberal progressive wing which in turn has various shades of more moderate opinion. There is a strong identification with the Indigenous middle class by the non-Indigenous liberal middle class. The politics of settler colonial theory suit both these social layers. Their strategy is rooted in the traditional liberal ideas of cultural representation, education and individual empowerment and based upon an alliance between the progressive non-Indigenous middle class and the emerging Indigenous middle class. The radical Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley pointed almost two decades ago to the dangers of the emergence of an Indigenous middle class and its links to the incorporation of community services into the public service, with the resulting changes of consciousness even for well-meaning Indigenous activists.[127] For both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous middle class there can be a convergence around criticism of some of the failures of government policy and mainstream liberalism, combined with an elitist cynicism towards working-class politics.

The history of anti-racist struggles explored in this article point towards an alternative strategy for Indigenous liberation. The starting point for this strategy is an understanding that Indigenous oppression is unambiguously rooted in the nature of Australian capitalism. It cannot be overcome without the Australian ruling class being overthrown. The only social layer capable of doing this is the working class, which includes within it both non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. Because Indigenous oppression is rooted in capitalism, the working class has an interest in challenging Indigenous oppression, even if significant sections of the working class are not always aware of that interest. Through the complex interaction of working-class struggle, the development of an anti-capitalist layer of workers through that struggle, and the creation of strong revolutionary working-class organisations, the possibility for a sustained movement in solidarity with Indigenous struggle can emerge. As the history of the NSW BLF shows, such a movement, while rooted in the industrial power of the working class, would not be counterposed to mass street protests or militant actions by minorities. These actions can play a vital role in giving confidence to the oppressed, publicising their issues and politicising the working class. Such a movement could, in the immediate sense, challenge many of the expressions of Indigenous oppression and in the long run, contribute to the formation of a revolutionary movement that could end Indigenous oppression forever.

The formation of a layer of radical Indigenous activists and the rebuilding of a militant and socialist workers’ movement are then necessarily prerequisites for the construction of a sustained movement for Indigenous liberation. An essential part of this process is the growth of the revolutionary Marxist left. The objective possibilities for forging a culture of united working class struggle are in many ways greater today than in the past. Consciousness of Indigenous oppression among the population is much greater today, thanks to the legacy of the struggles during the 1960s and ’70s and recent Indigenous activism. The development of this consciousness is made easier by the greater urbanisation of the Indigenous population which has both helped to generate and sustain Indigenous activism while also making the possibility of unity among Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class people more feasible. The emergence of a radical layer of Indigenous activists, a significant left-wing class struggle current within the workers’ movement and a revival of the revolutionary left will not appear overnight. Clarity about the political basis upon which such a movement could be constructed will be a vital part of its emergence.


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[1] Closing the Gap report 2020.

[2] Russell and Cunneen 2018.

[3] Allam and Murphy-Oates 2021.

[4] Englert 2020.

[5] Maddison 2019, pxii.

[6] Maddison 2019, pxiii.

[7] Englert 2020.

[8] Land 2015 and Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance 2014.

[9] For a classic Marxist critique of identity politics see Smith 1994.

[10] Foster et al 2020.

[11] See Garnham 2018 for a critique of economic reductionism.

[12] Reynolds 2013, p26.

[13] Reynolds 2013 for an overview of both the genocide by the colonial authorities and the resistance to it by the Indigenous population.

[14] Goodall 2008, pp25-39.

[15] As quoted in Fieldes 2019.

[16] Connell and Irving 1980, p32.

[17] Windeyer’s views are quoted in Keneally 2009, p407. Windeyer’s comments do raise the question of whom he was arguing against. This is also raised by a 1844 letter from Henry Mort, who was living on the frontiers of settlement in Queensland, that describes a debate amongst stockmen over whether a nation has the “moral right… to take forcible possession of a country inhabited by savages”. The majority of the stockmen agreed that they do, but who disagreed? And why? See Keneally 2009, p406.

[18] This is a summary of the detailed studies of the transformation of the colonial economy by Wells 1985 and Connell and Irving 1980.

[19] See Humphrys 2012 and Hillier and O’Lincoln 2013.

[20] Connell and Irving 1980, p34.

[21] See Connell and Irving 1980, pp33-35.

[22] Connell and Irving 1980, p35.

[23] Connell and Irving 1980, pp51-2.

[24] Markey 1988, pp56-86.

[25] McQueen 1976, p151.

[26] See for instance Goodall 2008, pp47-48.

[27] Goodall 2008, pp124-125.

[28] The following summarises Connell and Irving 1980, pp36-44.

[29] Connell and Irving 1980, p 38.

[30] Maddison 2019, pp75-76.

[31] Maddison 2019, p153.

[32] Fieldes 2010.

[33] Upchurch 2020.

[34] So Sarah Maddison doesn’t even refer to capitalism or class in The Colonial Fantasy.

[35] Fiedler 2018.

[36] Post 2020.

[37] Englert 2020.

[38] Elton 2007, p36.

[39] All quotes from Markus 1978.

[40] Elton 2007, pp70-72.

[41] Elton 2007, p70.

[42] Elton 2007, p70.

[43] Elton 2007, p34.

[44] Elton 2007, p74.

[45] Elton 2007, p74-76.

[46] Elton 2007, p133.

[47] Elton 2007, p171.

[48] See Chapter 4 in Elton 2007.

[49] See for instance Englert 2020, who argues that the Australian working class benefits from Indigenous oppression without using a single example of this occurring in Australia. Instead he references union attitudes towards migration and then asserts a comparison with the Israeli working class.

[50] Thier 2018.

[51] For a critique of the theory of the labour aristocracy in the context of Australian history see Bramble 2012.

[52] Sakai 2014.

[53] Englert 2020.

[54] Quoted in Bramble 2012.

[55] Quoted in Bramble 2012.

[56] Wolfe 2016.

[57] Wolfe 2016, p17.

[58] Nightingale 2007, p77.

[59] Nightingale 2007, p81.

[60] Nightingale 2007, p84.

[61] Roper 2011, p27.

[62] Callinicos and Rogers 1978, p18. This book also contains an important critique of the “internal colonisation” theory in South Africa that influenced an earlier strain of left-wing Australian analysis of Indigenous politics. Many of Callinicos’ and Rogers’ critiques apply to the Australian version of this theory. See Goodall 2008, pp76-77.

[63] See Englert 2020 for an overview of this work.

[64] See Banaji 2010, in particular chapter 5.

[65] Foster 2000, p1.

[66] Armstrong 2005, p4.

[67] See Scrimgeour 2020, p5.

[68] Lui-Chivizhe 2011.

[69] Scrimgeour 2020, pp5-7.

[70] For the influence of Garveyism on Aboriginal waterside workers see Maynard 2005.

[71] Cook and Goodall 2013, p14.

[72] Cook and Goodall 2013, p12.

[73] The following section on Darwin is drawn from Martinez 1999, pp188-210.

[74] Martinez 1999, p194.

[75] Martinez 1999, pp196-198.

[76] Martinez 1999, p204.

[77] Martinez 1999, pp204-208.

[78] Scrimgeour 2020, p1.

[79] Foster 2011, p1.

[80] Scrimgeour 2020, p11.

[81] Quote from Scrimgeour 2020, p16.

[82] Quote from Scrimgeour 2020, p11.

[83] Quotes from Foster 2011, p2.

[84] Maddison 2019, pp218-219.

[85] For the early CPA’s analysis of Australian capitalism see Kuhn 1986, pp14-18. It is worth noting that this analysis would undergo significant change during the Popular Front period from the mid 1930s.

[86] Boughton 1999.

[87] All quotes from GR 1934.

[88] Gibson 2019.

[89] The following is from Goodall 2008, pp178-87.

[90] See Stanbrook and Fieldes 2019.

[91] Wetherell 2004.

[92] Jordan 2011, p254.

[93] Land 2015, p216.

[94] Maddison 2019, pxxxvii.

[95] See McConvell 2018.

[96] Bloodworth n.d.

[97] This section draws heavily upon Scrimgeour 2020.

[98] Scrimgeour 2020, p78.

[99] Scrimgeour 2020, p94.

[100] Scrimgeour 2020, pp255-270.

[101] Scrimgeour 2020, p258.

[102] Scrimgeour 2020, p261.

[103] Scrimgeour 2020, pp265-266.

[104] The following account comes from Middleton 1977, pp99-101 and Day 2019.

[105] Middleton 1977, p78-79.

[106] Middleton 1977, p80.

[107] Thanks to the excellent website run by Joe Walker’s son Alan Walker which is dedicated to keeping alive No Sunlight Singing.

[108] Middleton 1977, p81.

[109] See Townsend 2009, p27.

[110] Norris 1982.

[111] Norris 1982.

[112] The following section draws heavily on Watson 1995.

[113] Watson 1995, p151.

[114] Watson 1995.

[115] May 1994, p161.

[116] The following section draws heavily from Donaldson, Bursill and Jacobs 2017.

[117] Donaldson et al 2017, p59.

[118] Donaldson et al 2017, pp62-63.

[119] Cook and Goodall 2013, p41.

[120] Foley 2001.

[121] Foley 2001, p7.

[122] Cook and Goodall 2013, p50.

[123] Land 2015, pp63-65.

[124] O’Dowd and Heckenberg 2020.

[125] Venn and Biddle 2018, p10.

[126] Gray et al 2013, p12.

[127] Foley 2019.

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