Is there a labour aristocracy in Australia?

by Tom Bramble • Published 12 July 2012

Part 1: The international debate

One of the most common explanations in the Marxist literature for the creation and persistence of reformism is the theory of the labour aristocracy. This suggests that reformism is the ideology of a small, relatively privileged layer of workers which uses its grip on the trade unions and the Labor Party to perpetuate the dominance of pro-capitalist ideas within the working class. This article will argue that this explanation is erroneous, misleading and dangerous. The article starts with an outline of the theory in the international literature, starting with Engels, Lenin and Zinoviev, before providing a brief critique. The majority of the article is devoted to an examination of the theory in the Australian context, starting in the late nineteenth century before proceeding to the twentieth. The article will demonstrate that the theory fails to provide any understanding of the evolution of Australian working class politics in either period, and that as a guide to practice it leads only to a dead-end in that it exaggerates divisions within the working class and underestimates the potential for working class unity against the capitalist class. The article concludes by providing a materialist explanation of the social roots of reformism, based on insights from Lukács and Gramsci, which explains both the persistence of reformism within the working class and also the circumstances in which it can be challenged.

The first appearance of the theory of the labour aristocracy was in Engels’ studies on the English working class in the period between the effective demise of Chartism in the late 1840s and the rise of New Unionism 40 years later, a period of social conservatism and working class quiescence. In 1858, Engels wrote to Marx that “the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie”.[i] England’s working class, Engels argued, was bought off by the benefits that the capitalists derived from their industrial monopoly. In 1885, Engels wrote that tradesmen such as engineers, carpenters and joiners and bricklayers “form an aristocracy among the working-class” which had “succeeded in enforcing for themselves a relatively comfortable position, and they accept it as final”.[ii] They could be contrasted to “the great mass of working people” for whom “the state of misery and insecurity in which they live now is as low as ever, if not lower”.[iii] The privileged position of this labour aristocracy was, however, due to pass into history, Engels averred, as England’s industrial monopoly was breaking down under competition from Germany and the United States.[iv] As the British capitalists came under pressure they would no longer be able to afford to co-opt a layer of privileged workers. Like the less skilled workers, the labour aristocrats would be forced to fight for their bread.

More than two decades later, Lenin and Zinoviev came to very different conclusions. The labour aristocracy was more powerful than ever and had sunk deep roots across the imperialist powers. The monopoly position of British industry was no longer the source of the “bribe”. It was now the super profits that capitalists reaped from the exploitation of low-wage labour in the colonies. Lenin and Zinoviev saw the labour aristocracy as the source of the opportunism apparent in the Second International’s support for the imperialist war. Bribed by the “morsels of loot” obtained via imperialism, Lenin wrote that the labour aristocracy of Western Europe had become “completely bourgeois in their world outlook” and, as a result, “served as the main support of the Second International and the principal social (not military) support of the bourgeoisie”.[v] Similarly, Zinoviev argued that the victory of opportunism was “intimately bound up with the victory of the narrow, corporate interests of the relatively small group of labour aristocrats”.[vi]

The theory was adopted by the Comintern in 1920. Lenin wrote that the labour aristocracy

forms the real social pillar of the Second International, of the reformists and the “Centrists”; at present it might even be called the social mainstay of the bourgeoisie. No preparation of the proletariat for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is possible, even in the preliminary sense, unless an immediate, systematic, extensive and open struggle is waged against this stratum.[vii]

With the Comintern stamp of approval, the theory was adopted by the Communist movement worldwide. In more recent times, the work of British Communist Party historians Eric Hobsbawm and John Foster did much to popularise the idea in the 1960s and 1970s.[viii] Influenced by and drawing from the theory of the labour aristocracy, the standard labour historiography has it that British unionism was restricted in the latter half of the nineteenth century to stable, right wing, industrially conservative, highly sectional, bureaucratised craft unions which were dismissive of unskilled workers. The explosion of unionism in 1889 amongst the dockworkers, gas workers and seamen following a big London docks strike ushered in the so-called “New Unionism”, “all-in” industrial and general unions organised without regard to occupational boundaries, regularly engaged in mass strikes, and infused with radical politics.

The theory of the labour aristocracy is related to other theories and ideological totems which have kept it alive. Any search for “labour aristocracy” in a university library database will throw up hundreds of articles. In the past couple of decades, autonomists, Maoists, radical feminists and a range of self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the United States have rallied around a book by Japanese-American Maoist J. Sakai called Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat.[ix] Sakai’s thesis is that the white workers of America live off the sweat of the Blacks, the Hispanics and the indigenous population and form a reactionary layer incapable of uniting with those it participates in oppressing. This notion of “white skin privilege” was further developed in 1991 by David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness, which initiated a whole new university discipline of “whiteness studies” which assumes that whites are unified more by their joint privileges vis-à-vis non-whites than they are divided by class.[x]

Anarchists, too, frequently counterpose a relatively comfortable minority of workers to the unorganised, downtrodden mass. Seattle-based anarchist group Black Orchid Collective argued during debates about how Occupy should relate to West Coast waterfront unions in early 2012 that “very real and material divisions [exist] between union and non-union workers, many of whom see unionized workers as remote and unrelated to their lives at best and as privileged workers who do not understand the realities of the proletariat at worst”.[xi]

Slavoj Zizek also takes up the idea, even if he changes the terminology, when he describes the mass strikes in Europe against austerity in 2011 as primarily a revolt of the lower ranks of the “salaried bourgeoisie” who are not exploited but share in the surplus creamed off by the capitalists from their exploitation of the Global South. Those who took part in these strikes were not proletarians, according to Zizek, but “privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police)” who “[a]lthough their protests are nominally directed against the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting against the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged place”.[xii]

The theory of the labour aristocracy also fits in with theories of unequal exchange and dependency. These suggest that the wealth of the imperialist countries is drawn from the super-exploitation of the Global South and that the condition of the development of the North is the under-development of the South.[xiii] The main line of division on a world scale, these theorists argue, is no longer class but nation, with the world divided between oppressor and oppressed nations. Unity between the workers of these two blocs is a fraught process since the working class of the oppressor nation benefits from the low wages prevailing in the South; indeed, union action to force up wages in the North actually contributes to lower wages in the South.[xiv]

The theory of the labour aristocracy is not applied just to workers in the imperialist nations. Some writers on the left have argued that unionised workers in the Global South constitute a labour aristocracy in relation to the mass of workers in the “informal” sector – those living a hand-to-mouth existence doing casual and low-paid work outside big companies and the public sector. Their conditions supposedly mark them out as a privileged layer of the working class.[xv]


The theory of the labour aristocracy, although popular, has been critiqued by a range of labour historians and Marxists over a period of several decades.[xvi] One difficulty with any criticism of the theory is its formlessness. Gareth Stedman Jones argues that:

In most Marxist writing, the use of this idea has been ambiguous and unsatisfactory. Its status is uncertain and it has been employed at will, descriptively, polemically or theoretically, without ever finding firm anchorage.[xvii]

And he has a point. The theory of the labour aristocracy is weighed down by a basic definitional problem: who is part of the labour aristocracy? Is it the union bureaucracy and the parliamentarians? Plus the skilled tradesmen? Or, indeed, is it the entire Western working classes?[xviii] At times, Zinoviev for example suggests that the labour bureaucracy and labour aristocracy are different elements within the labour movement, but at other times the two are treated as essentially synonymous. The imprecision has led British historians to vary their estimate of the size of the labour aristocracy in late nineteenth century England as from anything between 12 and 40 percent of the workforce.

Here I summarise only the barest points of a critique, with my focus on evidence from the nineteenth century and early twentieth. The first problem, as British Marxist Tony Cliff suggested, is how exactly the “bribe” is paid by the capitalists to the labour aristocracy.[xix] How did the super profits arising from imperialism, in Lenin’s variant of the argument, translate into higher wages for this layer of workers and only this layer? To the extent that imperialist expansion created demand for British manufacturing goods and thus industrial employment, it raised wages for all workers, not just a narrow elite. But this is just a by-product of any period of capitalist ascendancy. Technological innovation, the discovery of new supplies of raw materials, gold rushes and so on all have the same effect. Sometimes after a lag, real wages rise pretty much across the board and new historical and moral norms are established for going rates of pay. This is not the same as saying that the capitalists paid any “bribes” to the labour aristocracy: no employer goes out of their way to pay any section of the working class any more than they have to.

More generally, the notion that higher wages in the developed countries derive from low wages in the less developed, a central proposition of Emmanuel’s version of unequal exchange, overlooks the fact that while wages may be higher in the former, the rate of exploitation – the proportion of the value created by the worker appropriated by the capitalist – is also higher. This apparent paradox can be explained by the fact that technique of production, and thus productivity, is usually far greater. Higher wages in the developed countries simply reflect the much higher value of labour power owing to the skills, training and cultural development of workers in such countries.[xx]

Following on, there is no obvious tendency for imperialism to be associated with a widening of differentials between skilled workers and unskilled. For example, legislative reform and an expanded supply of cheap food from the colonies in the nineteenth century tended to lift living standards for both skilled and unskilled workers.[xxi] Indeed, because low-paid workers spent a higher proportion of their wages on food, it could be argued that the impact was more beneficial for the low-paid. Even though there is some evidence that the wage differential between unskilled and skilled workers did widen in Britain between 1850 and 1890, this took place before significant capital export, which, according to Lenin, was the source of the super profits from which the labour aristocracy was bribed.[xxii] And, over the long term, through the twentieth century, capitalist development in a period of modern imperialism saw differentials between skilled and unskilled workers narrow. The same is true when comparing wage differentials internationally at a point in time: these tend to be more compressed the more developed is the country, i.e. the more integrated it is into the imperialist system, and widest in those countries that are the victims of imperialism or otherwise less industrially developed.[xxiii]

Cliff also refers to what he calls the “boomerang effect” in late nineteenth century England. Capital export to the colonies might expand demand overseas for the products of industry in the imperialist nation thereby raising employment and wages, but in the longer term the need for the colony to repay interest and principal depresses demand. Chris Harman also points out that capital export was only a significant feature of one major imperialist power at this time, Britain, and even then only for two decades at most.[xxiv]

Labour historians of nineteenth century Britain have demonstrated that the situation was much more complex in relation to unionism than Engels and, to a still greater degree, Lenin and Zinoviev believed. Kevin Corr and Andy Brown argue that the political conservatism of the English working class in the latter half of the nineteenth century was due not to the emergence of any aristocracy of labour but to the stabilisation of the British economy and the defeat of the radical wave of the 1840s.[xxv] With the workers’ movement in retreat and with capitalism apparently in rude health, based on rapid advance in manufacturing, revolutionary politics were marginalised.[xxvi] Corr and Brown also refute any idea that skilled workers were particularly responsible for working class conservatism. Generally speaking, the artisans tended to be the most involved in radical and labour politics, the unskilled workers the most disengaged. These artisans also had reason to fight: far from any cosseted existence, even craft workers suffered insecurity of employment and threats to their position.[xxvii] The terms “Old” and “New” Unionism do not capture the situation correctly.

Skilled workers were often in the forefront of the rising wave of struggle in the early twentieth century. It was the better paid sections of the European working class movement that were the most active in struggles during World War I. Examples include workers at the giant DMW works in Berlin and the Putilov works in Petrograd, as well as Weir’s engineering works on Clydeside.[xxviii] At times, the less skilled sections of the proletariat (the textile workers of Moscow, for example) leapt to the fore, but the so-called labour aristocrats of Petrograd did not slacken the pace. The skilled machinists and metalworkers went on to form a crucial element of the cadres of the new German, Italian and French Communist Parties after World War I.[xxix]

The idea that only a narrow aristocracy of labour was responsible for reformism in the British labour movement in the late twentieth century is also inaccurate. Reformism sank deep roots into the British working class in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of capitalist expansion. Post-war prosperity made the reformist project both plausible and, to some modest extent, a reality.[xxx] Cliff predicted that as the post-war boom gave way to bust, the material basis for reformism would be undermined as the Labour Party leadership was forced to attack its support base in the working class. So it proved: 5.4 million fewer workers voted Labour at its 2010 defeat than had voted for the party when it lost office in 1951.

Charles Post has challenged the whole notion of a labour aristocracy, with an emphasis on the US working class.[xxxi] He examines in detail the argument that wage differentials between skilled and unskilled workers can be explained by the degree of monopoly in particular sectors of the US economy, a central element of the labour aristocracy thesis employed by American socialists Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer.[xxxii] Post finds no such connection: higher wages tend to prevail in the more capital intensive sectors of US industry because the higher rates of mechanisation that tend to be present reduce costs of production and make it possible for such companies to pay higher than average wages.[xxxiii] Nonetheless, the effects of capitalist competition can also undermine their relative cost advantage and compel them to erode the higher wages enjoyed by workers in such companies. This has been very evident in the USA since the onset of the economic crisis of the 1970s. Blue collar male American workers have seen their wages stagnate, if not actually fall, since the early 1970s. Any notion that they constitute a labour aristocracy is plainly absurd.

That the theory does not fit the actual course of class struggle is evident from the fact that even its proponents do not use it as a guide to their own practice – at least those who aim to build a socialist workers’ party.[xxxiv] There is no evidence, for example, that the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership disdained work in the Putilov works or that American Communists avoided intervening in the unionised heavy industries in the 1940s.

Part 2: A labour aristocracy in Australia in the nineteenth century?

Zinoviev made the first notable reference to a labour aristocracy in Australia when he argued in 1917 that:

…the Australian labour movement has been a constant prey of leaders on the make for careers. Upon the backs of the labouring masses there arise, one after another, little bands of aristocrats of labour, from the midst of which the future labour ministers spring forth, ready to do loyal service to the bourgeoisie.[xxxv]

The theory of the labour aristocracy became an article of faith for the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). National Secretary Lance Sharkey argued in 1942 that the reformism which dominated the labour movement

…is the outlook of the higher paid, skilled craftsmen, the “aristocrats of labour”. This “aristocracy” is given concessions on the basis of imperialist exploitation – super profits – from the colonies. This induces the belief that workers’ conditions can be continuously improved within the framework of the capitalist system, and that therefore there is no need to struggle for socialism.[xxxvi]

CPA historians adopted the theory in their work. Lloyd Churchward argued that the outlook of Australian unions in the 1880s was “essentially that of a labour aristocracy, characterised by a desire to maintain their privileged position, friendliness towards the employers and a failure to recognise the need to extend unionism beyond the ranks of the skilled and semi-skilled workers”.[xxxvii] Robin Gollan and Ian Turner also drew on British historiography to distinguish between the characteristics of the older craft unions and the newer unions dominated by the unskilled, with Turner arguing:

Once they are organized, unskilled workers tend to be more militant and to rely more on their industrial strength than skilled workers; consequently social factors combined with geographical factors to turn the mass unions towards industrial methods for realizing their ends and the craft unions towards more moderate and parliamentary means.[xxxviii]

Australia’s unions of the unskilled and semi-skilled, Turner argued, had low membership subscriptions and therefore little in the way of strike and benefit funds, were intercolonial rather than local, and were more radical in their orientation.[xxxix]

In A New Britannia, Humphrey McQueen argued that the CPA had been far too modest when it referred to conservative tendencies amongst skilled workers in late colonial Australia. The entire working population in this period was completely saturated with a petit bourgeois outlook.[xl] The urban Australian worker, employed by and large in small workshops, simply did not appear as a moving force on the historical stage. High wages in rural industries, resulting from labour shortages on the one hand and abundant land and imported capital on the other, impeded the formation of a distinct rural working class as well. This had an impact on the political complexion of the rural trade unions – they were marked by conservatism and, in the case of the shearers and miners, riddled with a petit bourgeois (small business owner) mentality. The result, said McQueen, was that when the Labor Party was formed in the early 1890s, it was liberal rather than socialistic.

In contemporary times members of the Socialist Alliance have devoted some effort to using the theory to explain features of the Australian working class movement. They see the origins of the labour aristocracy in the super profits of empire. Jim McIlroy argues:

These super profits enabled the emerging independent Australian capitalist class to convert accidental divisions with the working class into more lasting ones – to foster an aristocracy of labour among the better-paid skilled sections of the working class.[xli]

The better-off Australian workers, McIlroy went on, were “co-beneficiaries of British colonial hegemony”. Indeed, the Australian labour aristocracy “experienced even greater relative privilege as inhabitants of an outpost of empire, than their British colleagues”. The ALP, with its class collaborationist world view, was its political vehicle.[xlii] Racism in the labour movement was also the natural product of the influence exercised by the labour aristocracy. Prominent Socialist Alliance member Jonathan Strauss argued that as a result of its action against Chinese seamen and furniture workers in the 1870s, “[t]he labour movement sought and won from capital restrictions on Chinese labour in the workforce”.[xliii]


The conditions of the working class in the late nineteenth century

Life for the Australian working class in the late nineteenth century was no bed of roses. While wages were higher than in Britain and Ireland and conditions of life somewhat better, especially in Melbourne, the differences were not substantial. Sydney, in particular, was scarred by poor housing, regular epidemics of diseases, low wages, casual work, bouts of unemployment, and ruthless employers.[xliv] Shirley Fitzgerald points out that municipal authorities were entirely in the hands of the wealthy and their representatives and failed to take even basic steps towards provision of clean water, decent housing, factory inspections or enforcement of health and safety. Infant mortality rates were high. Poverty was endemic for unskilled workers and the Sydney Benevolent Home was a workhouse to which the indigent poor were dispatched. The vast majority of workers owned little more than their clothes and some furniture. Historian W.D. Rubinstein writes:

If Australia offered the highest standard of living in the world to the working class, as was widely believed, it was not high enough to permit more than a minority to own a house and bank account, or indeed, measurable property of any kind.[xlv]

Home ownership in Sydney actually fell during the boom of 1870-90, so that by 1890 less than half of Sydney’s houses were owner-occupied and in some areas rentals accounted for 80-90 percent.[xlvi] Further, there is little evidence that social mobility was significantly easier in Sydney than in England, even during the boom years of the 1870s and 1880s.[xlvii] With the onset of the 1890s Depression matters took a turn for the worse as unemployment soared to nearly 30 percent and wages were slashed.

It is difficult therefore to make a case that the Australian working class as a whole enjoyed a privileged existence. What, then, of the tradesmen in the metalworking, printing, and building industries, the kind of “higher paid skilled craftsmen” referred to by Sharkey? Ray Markey has surveyed the evidence of NSW tradesmen in the late nineteenth century. Their wage differential compared to labourers ranged from 25 to 100 percent. They were more likely to work an eight-hour day and to own their own homes.[xlviii] They regarded themselves as a “cut above” labourers, indeed as “gentlemen”. They also enjoyed prospects for social advance from apprentice to journeyman to master. Even if they did not set up on their own account, they were often promoted to supervisory or managerial positions and this prospect earned them respectful treatment from supervisors and employers.[xlix]

Nonetheless, set against these factors Markey notes others of greater weight. The eight hour day was not widespread for tradesmen outside the building and metal trades.[l] The apprenticeship system was weaker in Australia than in Britain and even though tradesmen earned more than labourers the margin was lower than in the mother country, where they typically earned between 100 and 150 percent more than labourers.[li] Tradesmen were just as affected as unskilled labour by wet weather, subcontractors going bust or absconding without paying wages, poor living and working conditions and climatic hardships in the primary industries associated with working outdoors in heat, cold and rain.[lii] Tradesmen were also subject to periodic bouts of unemployment, seasonal layoffs and short-time work even in the metal and building industries.[liii] Added to this in Sydney were the integration of the city’s economy into the seasonal rhythms of agrarian production, the ebb and flow of work on the docks and the vicissitudes associated with the marginal workforce.[liv] Casual employment was the lot of many skilled workers in these circumstances.

Tradesmen suffered greatly during the 1890s Depression.[lv] Indeed, as early as 1885, as the boom began to falter, unemployment and increasing job insecurity became apparent amongst tradesmen in the building and metal trades.[lvi] Further, the very ease with which tradesmen could start up their own businesses resulted in what Markey calls “suicidal competition” between them.[lvii] This was especially true in economic downturns when many start-up businesses went bust and their owners were forced back into the paid workforce.[lviii] Jenny Lee also argues that mechanisation and a more specialised division of labour in the late nineteenth century had a damaging impact on the fortunes of craftsmen. As factory employment grew and primary production receded in importance, “[i]ncreasingly, production was standardised, mechanised and subdivided and craft labour was spread more thinly.”[lix]

More significant than technological change in threatening conditions of tradesmen was what Markey calls “productive reorganisation” in the trades “whereby skills were sub-divided into a number of specialized semi- or unskilled job functions.”[lx] This involved a confrontation with the tradesmen: “the breaking of their job control, in terms of their speed and intensity of work; and the removal of the craftsmen’s strategic monopoly of skill”.[lxi] Employers regularly employed “improvers”, semi-skilled unindentured labourers, to undermine attempts by tradesmen to regulate entry into their fields. Lee argues that “If some aspects of the craft system were weakening in the 1880s, the following decade saw its wholesale dismemberment in many trades.”[lxii] These processes all took place in a compressed time frame, making it all the more unsettling for tradesmen.[lxiii]

The 1890s marked the divide between an earlier period characterised by relative social mobility and class fluidity and the new situation in which the barriers between the classes became stronger and the class structure solidified.[lxiv] As the minimum capital needed to establish a business rose, so the passage from employment to self-employment became increasingly difficult. The result was a sharp shift to the left in the politics of the tradesmen’s unions, evident in the building trades in the 1890s and the metal trades in the 1900s.[lxv]

Charles Fahey disputes Markey’s argument.[lxvi] Using wages books, Fahey argues that while the differential “narrowed a little” in the early twentieth century, there was still “a chasm” between the wages of the labourers and skilled in 1911.[lxvii] But Fahey exaggerates his case. On his figures for wage rates, labourers were earning anything between two-thirds and three-quarters of the tradesmen’s rate in 1911. This is hardly a “chasm”. His data show, furthermore, that differentials were narrowing. Indeed, some tradesmen, such as boilermakers, moulders and tailors, saw their wages actually fall in the first decade of the twentieth century.[lxviii]

Fahey argues that skilled workers had much more regular work and, even if this vanished during the Depression years of the 1890s, it became the norm once again as business picked up thereafter.[lxix] The privileged position of the metal tradesmen in engineering works, building workers and printing tradesmen in particular was assured, even if other skilled workers were not as fortunate. Fahey concludes:

In a world where steady employment could not be taken for granted, more regular earnings and higher base wages were definite privileges. And to retain these privileges, tradesmen frequently identified their interests as opposed to those of labourers.[lxx]

Nonetheless, although tradesmen had, and to this day continue to have, an edge in the labour market on unskilled labourers, reflecting their greater value to the capitalists, a more useful point of comparison is with the capitalist and middle classes. Here there truly was a “chasm”. In his survey of probate records, W.D. Rubinstein finds that the top 1 percent of male wealth holders in Victoria left behind 67 percent of all wealth in 1880 and 45 percent in 1908-09.[lxxi] The big majority left no record of any property whatsoever. The 1915 wealth and income census found that the top 5 percent of the population held two-thirds of the wealth. If there were any “aristocracy” in late colonial and early Federation times, it was not to be found in the working class. It is little wonder in these circumstances that the call of trade unionism was heeded by many.

Trade union organisation

By the 1880s, trade unionism in Australia was amongst the most developed in the world. Nonetheless, its development did not at all fit the pattern associated with British trade unions which it was assumed to follow. If the “Old/New” distinction does not work well with British unions, it has even less purchase with the Australian. Tom O’Lincoln argues:

The term [New Unionism]…has been taken to mean that organisation of the unskilled and semi-skilled was a radical innovation, that the new unions were all committed to industrial unionism, and that they were more militant than traditional craft organisations. Strictly speaking, none of this is true.[lxxii]

What is true is that unions of skilled operatives in the building, cabinet making, printing and metal working trades were the first to be established. In comparison to their early successes, “up to the middle ’seventies there was virtually no organisation of unskilled workers.”[lxxiii] But unionism was not limited just to a few exclusive trades. Groups of workers with particular skills, even if they were not apprenticed trades, gathered together in numbers. In 1860, the NSW coal miners organised and in 1861 railway engine drivers in Victoria. This was more than ten years before the boilermakers and tinsmiths in Sydney, who did not found their unions until 1873 and 1881 respectively.[lxxiv]

The distinction between a unionised “aristocracy” of labour and an ununionised unskilled and semi-skilled rabble becomes even less convincing in the 1870s and completely unsustainable in the 1880s. The year 1874 marked the formation of both the Seamen’s Union (in Sydney and Melbourne) and the Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA) in Victoria. Five years later, the Operative Bootmakers Union was founded. The wharfies followed in 1882-85, the gold miners joined with the NSW coal miners in 1884 and in 1887 the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU) was established. Union membership in NSW doubled from 30,000 in 1885 to 60,000 by 1891, representing one fifth of the workforce. Unionism grew in other states as well, albeit at a lower level. Nor were the unions an exclusively male affair, with the Victorian Tailoresses Union being established after a strike by 500 women in 1882 against a wage cut; because of its quick success the union soon had a membership of 3,000.[lxxv]

Solidarity became more obvious and divisions less so in the 1880s. While the slogan of the craft unions in the mid-nineteenth century had been “United to Protect, Not Combined to Injure”, class organisation became much more in evidence by the end.[lxxvi] The various trades and labour councils which had formed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in the 1850s and 1860s began to take on a real life. The first Intercolonial Trade Union Conference was held in Sydney in 1879. This tendency towards class organisation also became obvious in action. In 1886, when Melbourne wharfies struck for pay increases and the eight-hour day, the Seamen’s Union told the Shipowners Association that it would not crew ships carrying scabs to smash the wharfies’ strike: “We are compelled to take this course owing to the struggle having assumed a new phase – Capital vs. Labor.” And in 1891, the ASU called out for the widest layers of workers to be organised:

Unions should be made as attractive as possible and the chief aim should be to gather as many of the workers as possible into the ranks, instead of raising barricades with a view to keeping them out, which fault many unions have been guilty of in the past.[lxxvii]

Amongst the craft unions the absence of strikes did not necessarily imply cosy relations with employers – they could get what they wanted by controlling the supply of labour, at least until the 1880s.[lxxviii] They preferred negotiations, but they certainly struck when required, taking advantage of their strategic position to win concessions. Further, the craft unions tended to have very little in the way of a full-time machinery and were less bureaucratic. The urban craft unions also tended to be the home of the socialist-oriented workers.

Nor were the craft unions all exclusive in their outlook. Even if they jealously guarded admission to their trade, they were keen to bring unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the fold of trade unionism.[lxxix] Delegates to the 1888 Intercolonial Trades Union Congress lamented that “tradesmen were united as a rule, and unionists were pretty well protected; but what was wanted was the organisation of unskilled labour, so that all might be protected”.[lxxx] And they took practical steps to put this into effect through bodies such as the Organising Committee of the NSW Labour Council. In 1886, O’Lincoln notes that

workers in one of the New South Wales railways formed a single union open to porters, signal operators, guards and blacksmiths. Around the same time, the 250-strong Mildura Land and Labour Union combined engineers, shed hands and unskilled grubbing gangs.

In the latter case, skilled workers combined with the grubbers to strike in support of shedhands.[lxxxi]

Signs of working class militancy were evident in the political realm as well. Largely due to working class pressure, including a couple of highly charged meetings of thousands in Melbourne following the Eureka uprising of 1854, universal suffrage for men came to Australia decades before Britain (at least for representation in the lower houses). And trade unions played an important part in pushing for the franchise to be extended to women, starting in South Australia in 1895.[lxxxii] No attempt was made by skilled workers to restrict the franchise to only the more “respectable” sections of the working class, as their British brothers had done – the demand in all cases was for abolition of any property requirement.

If the skilled and craft unions were not a picture of conservatism and elitism, nor were the newer unions covering the semi-skilled and unskilled models of internal democracy, militancy and political radicalism as Turner suggests. The shearers limited entry to “competent shearers” and the Victorian engine drivers did not admit firemen until 1872 and engine cleaners until 1902. Many recruited new members on the basis of their benefits schemes to pay for funerals, accidents and so on and devoted a much bigger proportion of their funds to these ends than the craft unions, many of which were too small to offer much.[lxxxiii] The resulting high fees levied by the newer unions proved to be prohibitive to many unskilled workers. Nor were these unions all national in orientation. The ASU and AMA may have operated across colonial boundaries but the ASU did not cover Queensland (where a separate shearers’ union operated) and the AMA, even though a national union in form, did not operate across colonial boundaries in any coherent fashion.

The new unions were also prone to industrial moderation and support for arbitration.[lxxxiv] The Australian Workers Union (AWU), by far the most important union by the end of the 1890s and covering overwhelmingly unskilled and semi-skilled workers, was the most notable in this respect but it was not unique: the all-in railway unions in NSW and Victoria condemned strikes.[lxxxv] Eric Campbell notes that even the strongest unions were heavily involved in arbitration and conciliation by the 1880s.[lxxxvi]

The AWU was also a byword for top-down and centralised control – by 1900 the union had replaced direct election of officials by their appointment at small conferences dominated by full-timers.[lxxxvii] This union also spent a large proportion of members’ fees on salaries, office rent and equipment.

The imprecision of the term labour aristocracy is particularly evident in the Australian case. There was a range of workers who were not qualified tradesmen but who enjoyed one or more of relatively high wages, job security and prospects of promotion. Were they part of the aristocracy? In a debate with leading Socialist Alliance member Peter Boyle in 2002, Bob Gould referenced the shearers, cane cutters, railway workers and rock choppers as examples of workers who could, on these criteria, be conceivably included in the labour aristocracy.[lxxxviii] In a rare concession to concreteness, Boyle argued that shearers were part of the labour aristocracy by virtue of their high wages.

If so, as Gould points out, the shearers were very peculiar aristocrats. During the big battles with the pastoralists in the first half of the 1890s, the shed hands were commonly involved along with the shearers.[lxxxix] Shearing was not an apprenticed trade restricted to a few sons of the existing workforce but was learned on the job by shed hands from the established shearers. This hardly constituted restricted entry to the job. Queensland cane cutters believed that their work was highly skilled, Gould argued, yet it was extremely hard and conditions were brutal. Neither group of workers was industrially moderate: cane cutters, along with the shearers, were often a militant edge within the AWU, taking up the fight against the right wing leadership of the union in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Railway workers enjoyed permanent employment and a grade structure that enabled them to be promoted up the ranks, but they were also denied the right to vote in state elections in Victoria, and their wages remained very low. Most of their early battles were attempts to win basic civil rights, including the right to strike.[xc] And, finally, the rock choppers who dug the trenches in Sydney to build the sewage lines and water supplies were highly skilled and yet their work was extremely dangerous and the dynamiters died young from lung disease. As a result they were an extremely militant group who fought hard to win the six-hour day in the early twentieth century.[xci]

In none of these cases is there clear evidence of close collusion with employers, supposedly a feature of the labour aristocracy. The alleged “bribe” used to domesticate the labour aristocracy was a very odd sort of bribe that had to be wrenched from the hands of the employers. The great lockouts of the 1890s demonstrated the determination of the employers to hang onto every shilling of their profits and to smash trade unionism, amongst the skilled and unskilled alike. They were backed by the entire political, judicial and banking establishment of the day.

The politics of the labour aristocracy

If the labour aristocracy does not make much sense as a distinct political, occupational or industrial category in the Australian labour movement of the nineteenth century, nor is it the case that that “labour aristocrats” were responsible either for the White Australia policy or for the opportunist politics of the ALP.

The argument that the labour aristocracy, or the white working class in general, was responsible for the White Australia policy has been subjected to a searching critique by Verity Burgmann, Jerome Small, Phil Griffiths and Tom O’Lincoln.[xcii] First, racially exclusionary legislation was introduced when the working class enjoyed no political representation. The legislation was introduced entirely by ruling class parties. Nor was it the case, universal manhood suffrage notwithstanding, that the capitalist parties were unwillingly pressured by the working class to introduce White Australia. Parliamentarians were for the most part wealthy urban and rural businessmen, landholders and Establishment figures, utterly insulated from such pressure. That the working class would be powerful enough in these circumstances to force these bourgeois parties to pass legislation that ran against the interests of the ruling class beggars belief. Furthermore, the ruling class parties were not in the business of introducing legislation to protect the wages of white workers when all the actions of the employers were directed towards the opposite.

Second, White Australia remained ruling class policy, reflected in the platforms of the ALP, the Country Party and UAP/Liberals right the way through until the late 1950s. The working class was able to win some partial reforms through parliamentary legislation in the twentieth century but it was not capable of cementing in place such a core element of national identity for three-quarters of a century.

True, the Australian labour movement was racist. This was most obvious with its official representatives such as William Lane, W.G. Spence and Billy Hughes. Racism penetrated deep into the ranks of Australian workers, manifest in opposition to migration (although at times this was extended to British migration, convict transportation and assisted settlement, suggesting that an economic motive of job competition against all nationalities may at times have trumped pure racist ideology). While class differentiation had become more obvious by the late 1880s, it was still the case that the ideology of the petite bourgeoisie permeated sections of the labour movement via the small farmers, shopkeepers and small businessmen active around the AWU periphery. Bosses for their part used racism to divide workers and cripple strikes.

While we must not downplay the racism of the Australian working class, an exclusive focus on this phenomenon overlooks the times when union members were more open to ideas of inter-racial unity. At the instigation of a militant organiser Robert Stevenson, the Bourke (NSW) branch of the ASU, for example, allowed Chinese shearers to retain their membership of the union. Being predominantly landless labourers, the Bourke shearers were more open to ideas of working class unity than members nearer the coast, where small farmers predominated.[xciii] And, as Burgmann and Griffiths have made clear, the labour movement did not create White Australia even if the policy won widespread support in its ranks. Gould makes the same point: “It was initiated by the British ruling class, emanating from the Colonial Office in London, and it oozed out of the general fabric of British-Australia imperialist bourgeois ideology.”[xciv]

Racism in the union bureaucracy was associated with the consolidation of an opportunist leadership within the ALP. On its formation in Queensland and NSW in 1891, the ALP bore the stamp of socialists and militants. The platform of the NSW Labor Electoral Leagues, for example, was social democratic and focused clearly on a working class audience, even if it was by no means as radical as that of most European social democratic parties. By the late 1890s, however, Labor’s platform had moved away from basic class demands. White Australia, arbitration, and incremental reform now became the order of the day. Labor now sought to win votes not as a class party but as the party for the “Australian people”. The balance had shifted from social reform to nationalism.[xcv]

Why did this change take place? According to the proponents of labour aristocracy theory, the labour aristocrats were to blame. This is a complete misreading of the situation. The rightward shift of the ALP was not the outcome of an aggressive labour aristocracy trying to impose its gradualist worldview on the rest of the working class, but of the defeat of the workers in the early 1890s strikes and lockouts and the demoralisation and disorientation that followed. The relative social weight of the AWU bureaucracy and parliamentarians increased, as did their perception of themselves as a conservative layer with their own material interests. The AWU had funds, a large number of organisers and a big membership which included many small farmers and rural shopkeepers who were able to mobilise a strong Labor vote in rural NSW. This social base had a conservatising impact on the ALP. The AWU leaders worked together with another conservative layer, the newly elected parliamentarians, to shift Labor’s platform to the right. It was the AWU which watered down the Party’s commitment to the eight-hour day under pressure from its shopkeeper membership.

Far from any labour aristocracy dominating the ALP, the urban craft unions in many cases kept their distance from the new party. It was the less skilled and less “aristocratic” unions, chiefly the AWU, who were central to the ALP project.[xcvi] Support for arbitration also tended to be more evident amongst the shearers and maritime workers, together with coalminers and railway workers, than amongst the urban craft unions.[xcvii] The engineers’ union, surely the apex of any supposed labour aristocracy, actually supported the socialist opposition to arbitration that was being waged by the Australian Socialist League and sections of the Victorian Socialist Party at the turn of the century.

Finally, the very nature of the ALP project pushed it rightwards in the 1890s. Once it had embraced the belief that it could take over the capitalist state machine and wield it in the interests of workers, opportunism was only going to grow. The state is by definition a national state and a focus on winning over the state inescapably leads to a capitulation to nationalism. Labor’s embrace of racism, tariff protection and imperialism were the product of this underlying project.[xcviii]

The theory of the labour aristocracy does not fit the facts about the nineteenth century. This helps to explain why it has remained so vague. Nonetheless, attempts have been made to revise it and apply it to the twentieth century.

Part 3: A labour aristocracy in the twentieth century?

Although the theory of the labour aristocracy formed part of the theoretical apparatus of the CPA, the Party devoted no effort to elaborating on it or trying to work out how it fitted into the Australian environment. This job has, however, been taken up with some enthusiasm in recent years by various members of Socialist Alliance. Jonathan Strauss, in particular, has written five articles about the labour aristocracy in the Socialist Alliance journal Links, two of which are devoted to the theory of the labour aristocracy in Australia.[xcix]

Strauss’s grievance with the left-wing historiography of the Australian working class is that even though it has now embraced some understanding of the insidious effects of racism and sexism on working class politics, contrasting with the traditional CPA view advanced by figures such as Turner, Gollan and Fitzpatrick, “it has made little use of the theory of the labour aristocracy” and “still understood the principal trend in politics of the working class to be one towards a unity effective for the common interests of the class”.[c] Strauss’s project is to apply the theory to the Australian circumstances to convince us that this is not the case.

Strauss defines the labour aristocracy in a conventional way: it is “a strata [sic] of the working class, which enjoys relative privileges sustained by monopoly super profits, [and] is the part of the class susceptible to becoming the social basis of opportunism – that is, collaboration with the capitalist class against the mass of the proletariat and its historic interests”.[ci] It is the material base for the ALP’s reformist politics. Strauss sets great store by the “Australian settlement” at the time of Federation, comprising a package of measures designed, the argument goes, to achieve a class compromise between capital and labour. Features of this settlement were White Australia, a high tariff wall, arbitration, state economic intervention and welfare activity and regional militarism. This, Strauss asserts, was “a class settlement in which the labour aristocracy’s leadership of the working class was exerted”.[cii] While Strauss acknowledges that this settlement was soon assailed by militant union activism on the one hand and the bosses’ refusal to deliver their side of the bargain on the other, it survived and went on to prosper again in the 1920s. Strauss quotes Andrew Wells approvingly: “The organised working class had a real stake in the preservation of the given economic and social relations…a small island of relative wage justice”, even if this, he argues, did not extend to women and non-whites, in particular Aboriginal people.[ciii]

Strauss argues that arbitration allowed white male workers to establish a gradation within their ranks, with skilled workers the main beneficiary as they enjoyed a substantial margin over unskilled workers who were dependent on the Basic Wage.[civ] Strauss describes arbitration as “the main forum in which concessions in the class struggle created an upper stratum of the working class”.[cv]

Skilled workers, Strauss goes on, could further advance their position by pursuing over-awards which otherwise remained rare for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the first half of the twentieth century. These wage differentials gave the labour aristocracy their claim to respectability.[cvi] Apprenticeship systems, reinforced by arbitration and, from 1945, federal legislation, restricted entry to trades jobs, giving craft workers more regular employment than most labourers. And while workers of all kinds suffered during the Great Depression the less well-off workers suffered most from the reduction in the Basic Wage by the Arbitration Court.[cvii]

In the 1930s, Strauss argues, the craftsmen were increasingly joined by white collar workers who enjoyed some protection from labour market competition by virtue of the requirement for professional or technical qualifications in their field, preventing women and many poorer men from being engaged. In the public sector, these workers also enjoyed job security even if they suffered pay cuts of 20-30 percent during the 1930s Depression. According to Strauss, the growth of these workers “renewed the labour aristocratic stratification of the working class”.[cviii] Even the bitter struggles of the post-war years are recruited to Strauss’s argument, as these “resulted in a reinforcement of the ‘wage-earners’ welfare state’ and a relative stabilisation of the labour aristocratic stratification.”[cix] In the post-war decades, the labour aristocracy underwent some restructuring, according to Strauss. Skilled manual workers became less important in the upper stratum of the working class, as workers in power generation, newspapers, the coal mines and waterfront lost their jobs to new technology. The “labour aristocracy” was supplemented, however, by administrators and professionals in the public sector who “began to play an extraordinary part in politics in the working class”.[cx]

Looking back over a century, Strauss concludes that while the composition of the labour aristocracy might change, opportunism remained the unbroken thread that ran through this whole period. It was “rooted in the monopoly relations of production of a social formation and the benefits that are won from super profits, especially by the upper stratum of the working class.”[cxi]

Peter Boyle, of Socialist Alliance, also argues that Australian workers more generally, most obviously white workers, and not just a thin aristocratic crust, benefit from racism. In the context of ruling class attempts to whip up anti-Muslim racism in the early years of the War on Terror, Boyle wrote in 2002: “Racism and xenophobia is [sic] being revived and the material base for this is the relative privilege of workers in the imperialist countries.”[cxii] This relative privilege only delays the project of revolution in advanced countries. Favourably quoting the words of British socialist Alan Jones in 1985, Doug Lorimer, then a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, a precursor of the Socialist Alliance, wrote that imperialism’s super profits drawn from the colonies were “the key factor in retarding and delaying the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries”.[cxiii] By contrast, workers in the less developed countries are exempted from the baleful influence of reformism. Iggy Kim, then a leading member of the Democratic Socialist Party (which later dissolved into Socialist Alliance), argued that:

Laborism refers to the very narrow policies of that privileged layer of workers exclusive to the first world [emphasis added] which ultimately seeks to conciliate with the bosses at the expense of the workers as a whole.[cxiv]

Similarly, Boyle writes:

Reformism may and does develop in a variety of situations but a material base for a persistent, consolidated and virulent labour reformism is strongest in the imperialist countries. As for the more developed Third World or semi-colonial countries, I have yet to see one where a stable base for parties like the social democratic parties of Australia, Britain and Western Europe exists.[cxv]


Conditions of the working class and the “bribe”

There is little evidence of any attempt by the capitalists to bribe the Australian working class using the spoils of imperialism or monopoly profits. Class conflict is a far more reliable starting point to understanding capital-labour relations in the twentieth century than any idea of a settlement between either part or the whole of the working class and the capitalists.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, employers fought tooth and nail to prevent the reestablishment of trade unionism after the smashing victory that they had won in the early 1890s. This applied across the board, to skilled workers as much as unskilled workers. In 1908, the Vice President of the NSW Labor Council Harry Thyer remarked that “everywhere the workers are not organised the employers are doing all they can to prevent them from organising”.[cxvi] Employer victimisation led to the destruction of small struggling unions and the sacking of many union activists.[cxvii] Blacklisting was a common tactic (and remains so today).

Arbitration was little help, again either to skilled or unskilled workers. Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore describe the role of arbitration in assisting workers to build unions as either irrelevant or “disappointing”.[cxviii] Based on a study of building and construction unions in the early 1900s, Peter Sheldon finds that arbitration was a costly, time-consuming process with benefits accruing mainly to employers.[cxix] Cooper argues that “Arbitration itself seems to have constituted a barrier to the success of the Organising Committee” of the NSW Labor Council which was devoted to establishing unions in ununionised areas. Arbitration was, at best, a “double-edged sword”.[cxx] Arbitration imposed heavy legal costs on unions of whatever type wanting to appear before the Court. Further, the Court allowed employers widespread scope for the exercise of their “prerogatives” and imposed serious limits on union rights to strike. The restrictive role of arbitration was a recurring feature of the labour movement’s struggles throughout the twentieth century, and this held true for both skilled and unskilled workers. Indeed, because skilled workers tended to be better organised and in a greater position to strike effectively, arbitration had a particularly obstructive impact.

Strauss quotes Wells’ argument that the “organised working class”, which, remember, by 1916 comprised nearly 50 percent of the workforce, “had a real stake in the preservation of the given economic and social relations”. Is this an accurate assessment of the impact of arbitration as one lynchpin of these economic and social relations? Before the 1907 Harvester Judgement it is hard to make any case that arbitration served to buy off any section of workers. The wages for unskilled workers were set very low and for skilled workers below what they could achieve by directly bargaining with their employers.[cxxi] Even the Harvester Judgement, which established the so-called “Family Wage”, had little effect for skilled workers because the new wage of 10 shillings per day was still below the going rate for many trades.[cxxii] But what of the seven shilling Basic Wage for labourers established by Justice Higgins as a “living wage” irrespective of the profitability or capacity to pay of industry? On one estimate, the judgement raised rates of pay for the unskilled by 16 percent.[cxxiii] But it was undermined by high levels of temporary and casual employment which meant that, “spread over twelve months, the seven shillings often meant six shillings or less”.[cxxiv]

Even if some workers received a boost from the new Basic Wage, inflation soon ate away at its value. Successful strike action was the only way to ensure that wages kept abreast of inflation as the Court did not raise the Basic Wage for the first six years of its existence. When the Court did raise the Basic Wage periodically over the next 40 years, starting in 1913, it “did no more than award what had already been gained independently of, and to a considerable extent, in spite of arbitration tribunals”, as the Metal Trades Federation of Unions put it in 1953.[cxxv]

And so, no sooner had the Harvester Judgement been handed down than workers began to strike for more. In 1908 lead and silver miners at Broken Hill and coal miners in the NSW coalfields struck for higher wages. In 1911 Queensland sugar workers won a big fight with the cane cutters using militant industrial tactics and operating outside the remit of arbitration. The victory of the sugar workers gave a fillip to the emerging syndicalist trend in Queensland, sending a signal that strikes were the way to win. In 1913, 50,000 workers were involved in the more than 200 strikes that took place across the nation. It was this that forced the Court in 1913 to lift the Basic Wage to eight shillings a day, the first increase since 1907. Nonetheless, the Basic Wage was still lower in real terms than in 1907 even after this increase.[cxxvi] Thereafter, the Basic Wage was adjusted on a more or less annual basis for the next seven years but, again, not sufficient to compensate for inflation.[cxxvii]

Between 1922 and 1930, the Basic Wage kept on par with the inflation rate but in the Depression the Arbitration Court slashed it by 10 percent and froze it at that level until 1934.[cxxviii] Following the partial restoration of the 10 percent cut in 1934 subsequent increases still allowed the Basic Wage to fall behind inflation. It required a massive strike wave in 1944-50 to see the Arbitration Court lift the Basic Wage substantially. The Court also lifted margins for the skilled workforce and weekend penalty rates and introduced the 40-hour week off the back of these strikes.[cxxix]

Even in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s there are few signs of any wage concessions, any “bribes”, voluntarily given by the capitalists. The value of the Basic Wage was undermined by wage freezes and partial adjustments, with the result that it was lower in real terms in 1961 than in 1950.[cxxx] Declining per capita consumption of basic foodstuffs such as meat, fish, eggs and butter between 1937-38 and 1957-58 is another indicator that the working class was not enjoying any “bribe” from the capitalists even during a period of relatively strong growth and full employment.[cxxxi] The CPA’s Jack McPhillips concluded in 1961 that “the economic position of the working class has suffered a relative decline in the past ten years”.[cxxxii] Working class living standards were maintained by married women entering the paid workforce in increasing numbers and by the boost from overtime, over-awards and bonus payments. It is safe to say that a substantial component of the “organised working class” got little out of “the given economic and social relations” that prevailed in the 40 years following World War I.

What of the tradesmen, the core of the alleged labour aristocracy? Here too the data do not support the argument. Between 1947 and 1961, the margin awarded to tradesmen fell in value from one half to one third of the Basic Wage.[cxxxiii] This compression of relativities is something admitted by Strauss himself when he writes that “Arbitration levelled up labourers’ wages, unlike the pay rates of craft workers.”[cxxxiv] When the decline in the real value of the Basic Wage is combined with that of the margin for skill, award wages for skilled workers fell in real terms in this period by just under 17 percent.[cxxxv]

Only with the strike push of 1968-74 did workers finally begin to make significant wage gains from the post-war boom, and unskilled or semi-skilled workers won as much from this as the more skilled workers. The wages share of income surged by nearly 10 percentage points between 1968 and 1974. National Wage Case decisions (which replaced Basic Wage determinations in 1967) were forced to play catch-up with the steep wage increases being won by workers through strike action. Any increases won by skilled workers in strongly unionised workplaces flowed through, either directly (as bosses were forced to pay higher wages just to keep staff), or indirectly via the Commission, to the less well placed workers in the same industry or occupation.

Data on inheritances give little indication of the existence of any “labour aristocracy” in the post-war boom years. In 1973-74, the median amount of inheritance left by males of all classes was only $5005, representing perhaps one quarter of the value of a house at the time.[cxxxvi] Given that the working class was about 65-70 percent of the population, this meant that the average male worker left not even that. Working class women had for the most part even less wealth.

Starting in 1975, the capitalist class hit back against the working class offensive of the 1960s and 1970s and, following the introduction of the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord in 1983 which banned unions from striking for higher wages, the wages share of GDP was reduced to its 1968 level.[cxxxvii] Union coverage fell from one-half of the workforce to less than one-fifth by 2005, a figure that unions had last seen a century earlier. With privatisation, contracting out, “downsizing” and “restructuring”, workers have been under the hammer for more than three decades. In 2011-12, whether coal miners in Queensland, food process workers in suburban Melbourne, Qantas pilots, engineers, refuellers and baggage handlers, Victorian nurses or Big Four bank tellers and back office staff, workers have been attacked by their employers. Far from there being any “settlement” between capital and labour, the current agenda of monopoly capitalism is to increase working class exploitation, and there is no indication that skilled workers are exempt from this.

Patterns of union organising

Just as skilled workers, the supposed “labour aristocracy”, undertook militant industrial action in the nineteenth century, so too was this true in the twentieth. The railway workshops, with large numbers of skilled workers, led the way in the 1917 NSW general strike and maintained very strong workshop organisation through to the 1950s. Print workers took the lead in winning the 40-hour week with a lengthy strike in 1944, a gain that then flowed through to all workers following legislation by the NSW Government. Three years after the printers it was the Victorian engineers who struck for six months for higher pay, their victory paving the way for the substantial increase in the Basic Wage which disproportionately benefited unskilled workers. In the 1950s the Building Workers Industrial Union, which covered skilled building trades, was deregistered for its repeated defiance of the Arbitration Court. The shearers struck for nine months in 1956. It was the relatively skilled boners who led the fight in the meatworks, and in 1968 it was the metal trades unions which broke the power of the Arbitration Commission when it tried to rein in strikes.

Sharkey may have accused the “higher paid, skilled craftsmen” of helping to foist reformism on the Australian labour movement and substituting “class cooperation, class peace, class collaboration for class struggle”, but this did not prevent the CPA from taking leading positions in the coalmining, engineering and building trades unions. This itself was implicit recognition that the theory had no operational value for the Party.

Perhaps the best example of a relatively “aristocratic” union repeatedly going into battle with bosses and governments was the Miners Federation. Although coalmining was not an apprenticed trade, the skill required in the underground mines was extensive, and it was the pitface workers who earned the Federation its justifiable reputation as the nation’s strike leaders – in the 1950s this relatively small workforce accounted for 25 percent of all strike days.[cxxxviii] The labour aristocrats’ very defect, in Engels’ eyes, was that they were “on exceedingly good terms” with their employers. The high strike rate of metalworkers, coalminers, building tradesmen and so forth hardly supports this argument. And it would also be difficult to ascribe what Engels called “a completely bourgeois world outlook” to the meatworkers of Northern Queensland in the 1960s.

Confronted with these facts, the proponents of the theory of the labour aristocracy argue that the organisation of these workers into unions was the result not just of their militancy but also “the concession in practice of the right to organise which was concentrated on the labour aristocracy”.[cxxxix] But what has this got to do with them being any privileged layer? The advocates of the theory of the labour aristocracy are in a bind: as soon as one group of workers is organised and fights serious class battles with the bosses, thereby lifting their wages and working conditions, it is then dispatched into the category of “labour aristocracy”, presumably thenceforth to be castigated as a source of opportunism in the labour movement. One’s victories must therefore also turn out to very soon become one’s defeats. This is truly a counsel for despair.

The theory suggests that the supposed labour aristocracy can only gain at the expense of the rest of the class. Its “privileges” always come with a price for the working class as a whole. This is an old and disreputable argument much beloved of conservatives who never tire of scolding militant workers for being greedy: “Just think of those less well off than yourselves”.[cxl] But it also has its supporters on the left: it was central to the argument advanced by the left wing unions in favour of the ALP-ACTU Accord. Leading union and academic figures from the left of the ALP and the CPA argued that a wages push by the skilled or well organised workers might advantage them but would leave behind unskilled workers or the less organised, particularly women. To ensure that differentials between the skilled and unskilled, or between the organised and unorganised, or between men and women, did not rise further, these “leftists” argued that skilled and organised groups of workers had to restrain their demands. This was simply a cover for their real argument, which was that, for the good of Australian capitalism, workers should accept lower wages. They could not have advanced their agenda openly in this way for fear of losing all credibility so they had to conjure up this seemingly progressive argument to win support.

The argument is fundamentally wrong and indeed counterproductive. The price of labour power, i.e. workers’ wages, is determined, Marx argued, “by the value of the necessaries of life habitually required by the average labourer”.[cxli] Skilled workers get higher wages than labourers not because they are party to colluding with the capitalists to rip off unskilled workers but because what Marx called the “socially necessary labour time”, specifically in the form of training, required to reproduce skilled labour, is greater. Strauss recognises this factor but flatly denies that it can explain the extent of wage differentials established by arbitration. But in reality the wage differential in Australia has not been extreme in any international comparison. Generally speaking, the wage differential between skilled and unskilled labour has tended to fall in Australia over the last 100 years for a variety of reasons, including minimum wage laws, trade union action and rising literacy and skills of the “unskilled”. This hardly bespeaks a “labour aristocracy” tenaciously asserting its privileges at the expense of unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

The Accord strategy of holding skilled workers’ wages back, in the hope that this might allow those of unskilled workers, or women, to “catch up”, was an absurdity. The experience of the 1960s and early 1970s had demonstrated that a wages push by the better-organised workers benefited, by force of labour market competition, the fortunes of the low-paid. It was in this period after all that the Arbitration Commission, under pressure from strikes, made two important equal pay decisions that lifted pay for women and substantially narrowed differentials between women and men. A rising tide of labour militancy lifted all boats, so to speak. To the degree that the stronger unions agreed to wage restraint in the 1980s, so they allowed the Arbitration Commission to cut wages across the board. In the heyday of the Accord, from 1983 to 1990, real award wages fell by 13 percent.[cxlii]

Finally, what of the white collar workers who grew strongly in numbers in the 1960s and 1970s? Strauss is keen to include them in the labour aristocracy on the basis of their continuity of employment and yet in the same breath recognises their increasing tendency to adopt industrial tactics such as bans and, eventually, strikes.[cxliii] While strike action has withered in most sections of the working class since the early 1980s, white collar public sector workers have been one section that has maintained some tradition of struggle as a succession of state governments have sought to cut wages, conditions and jobs.

The labour aristocracy and racism

Do Australian workers benefit from the alleged super profits that result when “their” capitalists exploit cheap labour in the Asia-Pacific? First, Australian capitalists make most of their investments in the local economy, not overseas, and the mass of profits generated in foreign ventures is only a small proportion of the total.[cxliv] Second, given that investment in low-wage countries is only a fraction of total investment overseas, profits from sweatshop labour are virtually irrelevant to the fortunes of Australian capitalism more generally.[cxlv] They are certainly not sufficient to “bribe” the entire working class or even a minority of it. Third, the rate of exploitation of workers in Australia is higher than that of workers in Asian sweatshops because the surplus generated by Australian workers, using more advanced technology and technique in more sophisticated productive operations, relative to the capitalists’ outlay on labour power, is more substantial. And, finally, Australian workers cannot possibly benefit from the low wages experienced by workers in Asia because these serve only to undermine their own, given the potential for bosses to move, or at least threaten to move, their operations to such countries.

What about the ability of the bosses to profit from access to stolen Aboriginal land? Does any section of the working class benefit from this? It is certainly true that this theft is a significant benefit to pastoralists and mining companies. But the main contributor to the profits of mining companies is the sweat of their workforce, which suffers the highest rate of exploitation of any group of workers in the country: for an outlay of $133,230 on the average mining worker in 2008-09, the mining industry made $471,378 in profit.[cxlvi]

What of the second and related argument, that, as Iggy Kim puts it, “The labour aristocracy has used racism and nationalism to safeguard its privileged position against migrant workers and ensure a seat at the bosses’ table, even if it’s only for the leftovers.”[cxlvii] The history of the Australian working class movement does not bear this out.

Australian workers have a history of struggle in support of the oppressed overseas and against the racism of the Australian state. Some elements in the working class movement, including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and sections of the Victorian Socialist Party fought hard against the racism of the leaders of the ALP and unions such as the AWU. A significant minority of anti-conscriptionists, coalesced around the IWW, opposed the Great War itself on internationalist grounds. In 1927 the ACTU affiliated to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, clearly a rebuff to a major tenet of White Australia that foreign labour was a threat, not a potential ally.

It would be hard to call the AWU a stronghold of the labour aristocracy, dominated as it was by the more unskilled occupations. Left wing minorities emerged within the AWU to fight the union leadership on the basis that its racist and right wing policies were a threat, not just to the interests of non-white workers but British and Irish workers as well. Other unions dominated by unskilled and semi-skilled workers, by contrast, for example the Seamen’s Union (SUA) and the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), had a good record of fighting racism and imperialism. We might note the action taken in support of the Indonesian independence struggle in 1946 and the banning of ships carrying war supplies to Australian forces in Vietnam imposed first by the SUA and subsequently by the WWF (Sydney branch). Australian workers also played an important role in the anti-Springbok protests of 1971 and imposed bans on trade and communications with South Africa in the late 1970s and 1980s. We can add to this list of anti-racist actions those taken in support of Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara in 1946 and the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966, land rights demonstrations in the 1970s and the campaign to halt drilling at Noonkanbah in WA in 1980.[cxlviii]

Kim is well aware of this record of anti-racist activity but the theory of the labour aristocracy is an obstacle to explaining it. What incentive is there for this alleged labour aristocracy to offer solidarity to Indigenous people or those oppressed by Australian imperialism, other than charity or possibly false consciousness – perhaps they are somehow tricked into helping others to overcome an injustice from which they themselves benefit? In fact, workers, both black and white, native-born and migrant, have an incentive to fight racism within their ranks. This is obvious in the case of those oppressed by racism. But it is also the case with white workers whose unions are weakened by any internal divisions or failure to involve all workers in their ranks. Where unions allowed the Northern Territory station managers to pay low or no wages to Aboriginal workers in the 1960s, Frank Hardy pointed out that white workers on these properties suffered the lowest wages of any white workers in Australia.[cxlix] In other words, white workers also suffered, albeit obviously not as acutely, from the oppression of Aboriginal workers. In 1993, CFMEU mining division president John Maitland pointed to the common experience and the common enemy of both white workers and Aboriginal people. Speaking of the campaign by the mining industry against the 1992 Mabo High Court decision to grant native title to some Aboriginal people, Maitland argued in the union’s newspaper:

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.[cl]

Kim points to the importance of the CPA’s interventions and the fights it waged with ALP union leaders over these questions. But this immediately raises the point that the political battle around racism within the labour movement has got nothing to do with whether the unions involved represent skilled (“labour aristocracy”), semi-skilled or unskilled workers. It was not just the labourers of the WWF but the skilled tradesmen of the metal trades unions who played an important role in the struggle against racism in the post-war decades. The outcome of this fight was determined by the relative strength of the left wing and right wing forces. Thus we see unions of the same types of membership composition, like the AWU and WWF, taking quite different positions on the fight against racism depending on the nature of the leadership and the politics of the activists. Further, this fight was not just between the ALP and the CPA. Precisely because it is a workers’ party, albeit one that governs for capitalism, minorities of the ALP itself have fought racism and imperialism – including against the White Australia Policy and conscription in the 1960s. These battles within the ALP could not be read off from any reference to the “labour aristocracy”.

The theory of the labour aristocracy leads only to a dead end in the fight against racism. By exaggerating the “privileges” of skilled workers and their supposed collusion with the capitalists, it blurs the class antagonism between these two forces and thus downplays the potential to win over the working class to anti-racism. By the same token, by replacing class by nation as the main pivot in world politics, the theory blurs class distinctions in the less developed countries, a dead end for those, such as Emmanuel, claiming the mantle of Marxism.[cli]

The labour aristocracy and reformism

The idea that the ALP finds its strongest support amongst the more skilled sections or “privileged” layers of the working class is nonsense. There was nothing privileged about the traditional membership of the ALP. In the early 1960s, approximately 80 percent of ALP members in Victoria and NSW were in working class occupations, compared to 69 percent of the population at large.[clii] The party’s working class character was historically reinforced by its association with the Irish and Roman Catholics: in the 1960s, Catholics made up one quarter of the population but 45 percent of the ALP federal parliamentarians.[cliii] With religious sectarianism still a powerful force in the 1960s, this distinction mattered in shaping the way members and non-members alike related to the party. Now, there are many signs that the party membership changed in the 1960s. Active members (as opposed to those signed up as stacks) are now much more likely to be in more professional and middle class jobs or functionaries within the unions and the party. But it is this very process that is eroding the party’s roots in the working class and undermining the party’s ideological hold.

Labor’s core vote did not come from the so-called labour aristocracy but from the more oppressed sections of the working class. Based on a review of a major study of voting patterns in NSW, Gould concluded:

From about 1910, electoral politics in NSW has been a relatively clear map of class. Industrial workers, trade unionists, poorer farmers, most Catholics and some sections of the middle class voted Labor in 1910. In 1999 NSW politics is still a map of class. Industrial workers, organised trade unionists, Catholics, non-believers, non-Christians and NESB migrants in their substantial majority vote Labor.[cliv]

Gould also identified “an overwhelming Labor vote amongst Aboriginals, and other people of colour from the South Pacific”.[clv] Labor-affiliated unions are also much more likely to be blue collar than white collar: those unions covering more professional elements of the working class, such as teachers and nurses, are for the most part not affiliated to the ALP.

The other major voting bloc for Labor has been a layer of white-collar public sector workers who in most cases became ALP supporters as a result of the proletarianisation of their jobs and the increasing tendency in the 1970s for their unions to strike. In the case of these workers, it was the very loss of their relatively “aristocratic” status (in terms of their job security, promotional opportunities and social status) that saw them switch their allegiance from the conservatives to Labor.

Nor is it the case that reformism is restricted to the workers’ movement in the imperialist countries. This is demonstrated by the experience of long-standing reformist organisations, including one (the LSSP) flying “Trotskyist” colours in Sri Lanka. Reformist currents have also emerged or come to dominate labour movements in recent decades in South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria and, just in the last 12 months, Egypt.

The social basis of reformism

If the labour aristocracy is not the social base of reformism within the working class, what explains the persistence of reformism in Australia which has historically taken the institutional form of loyalty to the ALP? To the extent that reformism aims to indoctrinate the working class in the belief that capitalism is reformable and does not need to be overthrown, the capitalist class evidently has an interest in supporting it. In Australia, the capitalist state contributes millions of dollars to the ALP through public funding and the media give extensive airtime and newspaper space to the statements of ALP leaders. Furthermore, the entire parliamentary system is built upon the alternation of governments and oppositions and since 1899, when the ALP in Queensland first formed a government, the ALP has been vested with the trappings of state power when in office, or promoted as an alternate government when in opposition. Even conservative newspapers have at times urged readers to vote Labor – the ruling class needs the ALP as a safety valve when the class struggle heats up or when their own parties are in disarray. These factors give the ALP both resources and social status.

These factors contribute something to our understanding of why the ALP has survived for more than 120 years. But they don’t explain why the working class would be susceptible to, or even enthuse about, the reformist project represented by the ALP, especially when the party has repeatedly betrayed its supporters when in government. Nor does it explain how the working class can break from reformism. In order to answer these questions, we need some understanding of the contradictory life experience of the working class.

Reformist ideas have deep roots in workers’ everyday experience of life. Under capitalism everything is turned into a commodity, whose only purpose for existence is to turn a profit for the capitalist class. The result is that relations between people under capitalism are themselves commodified, transformed into relations between things or, as Lukács put it, “reified”.[clvi] Marx called this “commodity fetishism”, “a definite social relation between men that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”.[clvii] Consider how worth is attributed to people under capitalism not on the basis of their intrinsic qualities but how much they own. Consider the concepts of “the market” and “the economy” – we are told that “the market” demands sacrifice or “the economy” is in poor shape. These are just reifications of capitalist relations of production. Consider, finally, how even our personal lives are subjected to commodification right up to and including our sexuality, the most private of spheres. Under capitalism the commodity rules.

Of particular importance, our ability to labour, our labour power, also becomes a commodity, subjected to the same anarchic laws of capitalism as any other commodity. The worker is thereby dominated by the relationship they enter into in order to earn a living, driven by what Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations”.[clviii] Lukács wrote:

Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.[clix]

The result is that for the most part the working class experiences everyday life under capitalism as a cog in a machine. Lukács argued that: “The personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle fed into an alien system.”[clx] In a similar vein, Marx wrote “the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own”.[clxi] The truth of these comments should be instantly obvious on reflection of the life of a factory worker on an assembly line, but it is as true for a worker in a call centre, a checkout operator at a supermarket or a loans processing clerk in a bank.

While Lukács’ study of reification shares much in common with Marx’s analysis of alienation, Lukács extends his analysis beyond the individual workplace to the whole of society.[clxii] Lukács wrote that:

The atomisation of the individual is then, only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the “natural laws” of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that for the first time in history the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws.[clxiii]

Witness the ways in which the provision of health and education is today subjected to intense strictures of cost accounting and tight managerial control. The repeated nationwide testing of school students starting as early as Year 3 is just one example of the application of these “unified laws” to the education system, whereby students are tested on their fitness for capitalist use. Or consider the experience of pensioners, humoured by politicians in photo opportunities but then quietly condemned as a “drain on the public purse” because they no longer contribute to the production of surplus value. Potential migrants are evaluated by the Immigration Department on a points system which judges them only on the basis of their potential contribution to capital accumulation. Intrinsic human worth counts for nothing.

The result of these phenomena is that from childhood onwards, workers are brought up to feel powerless. John Lennon put it well in “Working Class Hero”, a song that has timeless appeal because of its universal truth for workers under capitalism:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working class hero is something to be.

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be.

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be.

This experience contrasts dramatically with those of children in the elite private schools who are trained from prep school onwards to regard themselves as future leaders.

Powerlessness does not automatically lead to resistance amongst the working class. More commonly, it leads to submission (sometimes dressed up in religious garb), adaptation to capitalist norms and a belief in the “imperatives” of the system. We can see this in some of the most downtrodden workers, domestic servants and farm workers, the archetypal “deferential workers”, who have historically followed the political lead of their masters and mistresses.[clxiv] Deference may be most extreme in such cases but it is very widespread as it seems to fit reality. It is not stupidity that makes workers look to the boss to run the workplace: in the everyday workplace environment, workers are powerless to make any decisions that affect their lives and if “we” don’t compete, “our” company could go out of business resulting in mass sackings. Similarly it is not avarice but the shortages artificially created by capitalism that makes people behave in a competitive fashion: why cooperate with fellow students if by doing so it only helps them to get a university place ahead of me? As Marx wrote: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations”.[clxv]

If that were the end of the story, the capitalist class could breathe easily. They would have achieved what would be for them a utopia, for the working class a living nightmare. But if commodity production is one central feature of capitalism, so too are the incessant efforts by bosses to ramp up exploitation – through cutting staff, replacing permanents by temps or casuals, reducing weekend penalty rates and so forth. Just as workers are subjected to the iron logic of commodity production, so too are bosses. They are compelled on pain of bankruptcy to keep attacking workers. And so the daily experience of workers at the sharp end of exploitation generates not just atomisation but also an understanding of oppositional interests between themselves and the bosses, the foundation of class consciousness. We can see this in such simple examples as when the whole workplace feels more relaxed when the boss is away, or in the disparaging nicknames given to bosses, or the fact that workers regard stealing from the boss as completely different from stealing from your workmates.

The football team or religion of workers bear a strong correlation to the class position of their family, and so expressions of loyalty to them both reflect and help engender class consciousness. Class influences every aspect of life and is writ large in many decisions made by workers, the middle class and the bourgeoisie alike, whether relatively trivial (e.g. choice of alcoholic drinks, fashions, or leisure activities) or more substantial (education, housing). Further, it is not just the direct experience of exploitation, but of the other phenomena that spring from the need by capitalists to maintain their rule, including war and racism. These too play an important part in shaping class consciousness.

It is the combination of the alienation that workers suffer as a result of being treated like a commodity and the impulse to resist because they have to sell their labour power on the market that contributes to the coexistence within the working class of individual impotence and class grievance. Antonio Gramsci put it this way:

The worker’s theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.[clxvi]

Most importantly, class identification underpins political loyalties. This is clear with the experience of the Labor Party. The formation of the ALP in the 1890s was an important, if contradictory, step forward for working class consciousness. But Labor took shape during a period when intense class struggles were defeated. While exploitation led to a desire for justice, workers’ sense of powerlessness following these defeats encouraged the belief that they could not bring about social change through their own direct actions but had to rely on an arm of the state. The result was a strategy of parliamentary reform, which took institutional form in the ALP.

Working class support for Labor has been continually replenished by this mixed consciousness. Their support for the Party grows out of their sense of both powerlessness and class grievance. This is why simple denunciations of Laborism by the far left have never shifted workers’ loyalty from the ALP en masse. Attachment to reformist ideas is not simply a matter of “false consciousness” nor is it the result of the labour aristocracy’s supposed grip on the minds of the mass of workers. It has deep roots in the everyday experience of workers and will only be challenged in a mass sense in the context of large-scale struggle and the intervention of a sizeable revolutionary party.

The influence of the ALP and union leaders

If contradictory consciousness is the wellspring from which reformist illusions flow, the parliamentarians and the union leaders are the agents of reformism within the working class. They encourage and foster reformist sentiments. They also encourage the division in workers’ minds between the “economic” and “political” spheres. Workers through their unions, led by the union officials, can take action on their own behalf to raise wages or cut working hours. But, the reformists argue, only the politicians are competent to run the state, which is a neutral body that can serve the interests of workers. This division of labour suits the capitalist class as well, as the limiting of workers’ struggles to narrow “economic” questions inhibits a thoroughgoing struggle by workers against the capitalist state.

It is the Labor parliamentarians and union officials who benefit materially from class collaboration, in the form of their higher pay, social status, job security and exemption from the exploitation which is the daily lot of the working class. They play a dual role, both articulating working class grievances and promoting capitalist ideology within the working class. They alternate between talking about the needs of “working families” and “ordinary Australians” and the need for “international competitiveness”, “balanced budgets” and so on.

Workers are drawn to vote for the ALP because of its class appeal as “the workers’ party”. For many decades, even right wing Labor politicians were prepared to mouth socialist phrases, by which they meant state ownership and regulation of the economy. The language of socialism, with its connotations of working class emancipation, appealed to workers because it addressed their conditions of existence. Criticisms of inequality and exploitation in terms of class, or vaguer populist ideas, likewise made sense of their experiences.[clxvii] Conservative politicians helped perpetuate the illusion that the ALP was a socialist organisation and hence enhanced the Party’s attractiveness to radical workers. Socialist rhetoric was, moreover, adopted opportunistically to help fend off left wing challenges to Labor’s influence in the working class during the upsurge in militancy after World War I.[clxviii] After the Chifley Labor government’s proposed bank nationalisation legislation was overturned in 1948, the right wing of the Party invoked socialist rhetoric less often and eventually gave it away entirely. The Labor left, however, kept the beacon alight for several more decades, harnessing militant workers to the ALP by invoking left populist ideas and socialism. At no time, though, has any more than a tiny minority of the ALP left desired socialism in Marxist terms, that is, working class self-emancipation.

Although left and right were at daggers drawn during the twentieth century, the right, which controlled the Party through most of its history, actually benefited from the activities of the left. With its promises of radical change, the left drew in generations of idealistic young workers and students and helped the ALP recover support after debacles and betrayals. By winning and sustaining the loyalty of militants to the Party, the left prevented them from struggling for a more radical program of social and political transformation, while the right, by demonstrating its firm control of the left, confirmed its value to the capitalist class as a force that could be trusted to run the state.

This explanation of the roots of reformism also helps to explain why it can flourish outside the imperialist nations. As soon as the working class begins to organise en masse for its own class interests, the unions and new parties that they establish also fairly quickly throw up functionaries with an interest in class collaboration, as we saw so vividly in the 1980s with Solidarnosc in Poland, COSATU in South Africa and the Workers’ Party in Brazil.

Breaking the hold of reformism

The preceding analysis is a far richer explanation for Labor’s appeal to the working class, the grip that Labor has maintained – even if it is rather weaker than formerly – and how workers can be won to revolutionary politics. The theory of the labour aristocracy does not offer a social analysis which holds up to any scrutiny. How are workers to be won to revolutionary ideas if it is their structural position, the fact that they have been bribed, which leads them to accept reformism in all its shades? Logically the consequence of the theory is that revolutionaries must plug away in the ideological struggle against the labour aristocrats and their representatives in the workers’ movement and eventually, perhaps, their day will come. This turns everything upside down and back to front; it is social reality, the day to day existence of the working class, that must change first and a change in ideas, on a mass scale, can follow.

Struggle is the crucial element of the changed social reality that can open the way for a breakthrough in the fight against reformism. When the worker is drawn into struggle, or, as Gramsci put it, “the practical transformation of the real world”, that aspect of their consciousness which is “implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers”, i.e. their class identification, becomes stronger, and that aspect that they have “inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed”, i.e. bourgeois ideology, is weakened. The workers can see from their impact in stopping production how the process of exploitation works as the bosses and media scream about lost profits. They can see their strength when they unite. They can see what binds them together with workers in other workplaces. When the police are used against them and when the media lie about their struggle, the state and the media begin to stand exposed. When the arbitration courts try to squash their struggle they can see through the lies of its “impartial” nature. The more that struggles begin to spread across workplaces, the more that workers can see the inherently political nature of their “economic” demands. What Marx called the “totality” of social relations can become more obvious.

This process is not just limited to workers. Precisely because “the whole of society is subject, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process”, as Lukács put it in the quote above, other oppressed groups can also be drawn into challenging commodification. This is evident when tertiary students reject their experience of universities as degree factories or when school students protest at mindless rote learning and disciplinarianism, the drilling required to fit them for a life at the disposal of the capitalist class.

In such circumstances, the audience for revolutionary ideas can begin to grow rapidly. This does not mean that workers all of a sudden become instant Marxists the day they go on strike. But in even quite small struggles workers can be won to a new understanding of reality by a combination of their experience and by arguments put forward by conscious socialists. This is why socialists invariably are in favour of struggle rather than quiescence – it is not just that struggle is the best way for workers to improve their jobs and living standards, but that the struggle is an educational experience. More important than $20 here or there is the ideological residue of a victorious struggle – the class consciousness that workers may develop.

The bigger the struggle, the more sustained it is and the more that the capitalists and state authorities attempt to go on the offensive against it, the more likely it is that individuals within the working class will begin to see the need to go beyond the entreaties of the Labor politicians and trade union officials to direct their cause through “the proper channels”. If a revolutionary socialist party of sufficient size has been built before the eruption of such a struggle, and if it orients to this struggle correctly, it can draw in these individuals to form a much more significant force within the working class.

The role of the revolutionary party is to fight for leadership within the working class and to weaken the hold of the ALP. The terrain is likely to be more favourable for this endeavour if the ruling class is experiencing a crisis in its own ranks, most likely during an economic crash or military defeat. The weaker and more divided the ruling class, the more discredited it is in the eyes of workers and the less capable it is at repelling the sorties mounted by an insurgent working class on the citadels of its power. In such a struggle, any attempt to draw a nice distinction between “labour aristocrats” and the rest of the working class is a complete distraction or worse. Historically, if those who advocated the theory had followed the logic of their analysis, they would have found themselves in hostile opposition to the most politically advanced and militant workers at times of mass struggle. Just think of Broken Hill for much of the twentieth century, the coal miners, waterside workers and seamen.


Peter Boyle claims that:

At the very least, a Marxist should concede the concept of labour aristocracy is useful in so much as it provides a general explanation for the persistence of bourgeois and imperialist ideology in the working class in the imperialist countries, even if we want to argue if it helps at the level of working out revolutionary strategy and tactics today.[clxix]

But that is precisely the point. The theory does not provide any such explanation. It leads socialists decisively off on the wrong track. That is why it cannot be any guide for “working out revolutionary strategy and tactics today”. The theory is empirically flawed and does not give any accurate account of developments in the Australian working class movement. It misunderstands the historical process by which workers came to organise in the latter half of the nineteenth century and today provides no guide as to where socialists should devote resources to rebuilding unions. It cannot explain trends in working class living standards or the methods by which workers make advances, and why some groups of workers forge ahead more quickly than others at times. In the hands of its anarchist exponents the theory might appear to have a radical veneer, but it arrives at the same conclusions as the right wing: that the working class in whole or in part has been embourgeoisified.

The theory is completely irrelevant when it comes to explaining the persistence of reformism and its spread in the Global South. Insofar as it sees reformism as being simply the politics of a thin crust of labour aristocrats (and, parenthetically, the ALP as purely and simply a capitalist organisation, rather than a capitalist workers’ party[clxx]), it encourages a sectarian approach to the ALP and removes any opportunity for a united front strategy. The theory also fundamentally misunderstands the class basis on which racism within the working class can be challenged and therefore substitutes a sentimental rather than a materialist approach to doing so.

Most seriously, the theory leads to the repudiation of the working class as the vehicle for socialist revolution. If the working class is divided between a powerful labour aristocracy, which comprises the best organised section of the working class but which operates hand in glove with the capitalist class, and the rest, how can the working class in the advanced countries actually overthrow capitalism? Given this alleged schism within the working class, it is little wonder that leading members of Socialist Alliance chase after a succession of “progressive” regimes in the Global South as the key to the world revolution. Ultimately, their emphasis on the relative privileges of the Australian working class and its collusion in imperialism positions Australian workers as an agent of counter-revolution on a world scale. The theory only emphasises the divisions in the working class in imperialist countries when it comes to the battle against the bosses at home, but stresses only the tight unity of the working class in imperialist countries, and their collusion en bloc with the bosses, when it comes to opposing the struggles of workers and the oppressed in the less developed world. It is hard to imagine a theory more likely to obstruct working class struggle at home and abroad.

[i] Friedrich Engels quoted in V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, in Selected Works, Vol. 1, International Publishers, New York, 1971, p.247.

[ii] Friedrich Engels, “England in 1845 and 1885”, 1885,

[iii] Engels, “England in 1845 and 1885”.

[iv] Engels, “England in 1845 and 1885”.

[v] Lenin, “Imperialism”.

[vi] Grigori Zinoviev: The Social Roots of Opportunism, 1916,

[vii] V.I. Lenin, “Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International”, 1920,

[viii] E.J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1964, Chapter 15; John Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns, St Martin’s Press, New York, 1974. See also Eric Hobsbawm’s review piece “The labour aristocracy: twenty five years later”, Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, 40, 1980, p.6.

[ix] J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, Morningstar Press, 1983. The third edition of this, published in 1989, is available at

[x] David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Verso, London, 1991.

[xi] Black Orchid Collective, “Longview, Occupy, and Beyond: Rank and File and the 89% Unite!”, 30 January 2012, 2012/01/30/ longview-occupy-and-beyondrank-and-file-and-the-89-unite-2/.

[xii] Slavoj Zizek, “The revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie”, London Review of Books, 34, 2, 26 January 2012.

[xiii] Key texts include Economic Commission for Latin America, The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems, New York, 1950; Arghiri Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1972; Andre Gunder Frank, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1969.

[xiv] See Nigel Harris, “Theories of unequal exchange”, International Socialism, 33, 1987, pp.111-22, and Mike Kidron, “Black reformism: the theory of unequal exchange” in Mike Kidron, Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, London, 1974 for a critique of this approach.

[xv] On the debate in the African context, see Peter Waterman, “The ‘labour aristocracy’ in Africa: Introduction to a debate”, Development and Change, 6, 3, 1974, pp.57-74; Richard Jeffries, “The labour aristocracy? Ghana case study”, Review of African Political Economy, 2, 3, 1975, pp.59-70; Jane Parpart, “The ‘labour aristocracy’ debate in Africa: The copper belt case”, African Economic History, 13, 1984, pp.171-91. For the Latin American case see Charles L. Davis “The ‘labour aristocracy thesis’ and the political quiescence of labor in Venezuela and Mexico”, Social Science Quarterly, 67, 2, 1986, p.419.

[xvi] As well as those that I refer to below, these include Henry Pelling, “The concept of the labour aristocracy”, in Pelling, Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain, Macmillan, London, 1968; Gareth Stedman Jones, “Class struggle and the Industrial Revolution”, New Left Review, 1, 90, 1975, pp.39-69; H.F. Moorehouse, “The Marxist theory of the labour aristocracy”, Social History, 3 (1), 1978, pp.61-82 and “The significance of the labour aristocracy”, Social History, 6(2), 1981, pp.229-33, Marc Linder, European Labour Aristocracies: Trade Unionism, the Hierarchy of Skill and the Stratification of the Manual Working Class Before the First World War, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt, 1985; Jack M. Barbalet, “The ‘labour aristocracy’ in context”, Science and Society, 51 (2), pp.133-53, 1987.

[xvii] Stedman Jones, “Class struggle”, p.61.

[xviii] Kevin Corr and Andy Brown, “The labour aristocracy and the roots of reformism”, International Socialism, 59, Summer 1993, pp.44-45, 47.

[xix] Tony Cliff, “The economic roots of reformism”, Socialist Review, 6 (9), 1957,

[xx] Kidron, “Black reformism”, pp.98-103.

[xxi] Cliff, “The economic roots of reformism”.

[xxii] Cliff, “The economic roots of reformism”.

[xxiii] Cliff, “The economic roots of reformism”. Obviously wage differentials are affected by a host of contingent factors, not least workers’ struggle, but this rule generally holds true.

[xxiv] Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx, Bookmarks, London, 2009, pp.97-98.

[xxv] Corr and Brown, “The labour aristocracy”, pp.67-69.

[xxvi] This point is also made in Stedman Jones, “Class struggle”.

[xxvii] Corr and Brown, “The labour aristocracy”, p.57.

[xxviii] Corr and Brown, “The labour aristocracy”, pp.47-48.

[xxix] Charles Post, “Exploring working-class consciousness: a critique of the theory of the ‘labour aristocracy’”, Historical Materialism, 18, 2010, pp.30-31.

[xxx] Cliff, “The economic roots of reformism”.

[xxxi] Post, “Exploring working-class consciousness”.

[xxxii] Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer, The Labour Aristocracy: The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement, Resistance Books, Chippendale, 2004 [1982].

[xxxiii] Post, “Exploring working-class consciousness”, p.27.

[xxxiv] For anarchists, autonomists and others of similar hue, the theory simply serves as a post facto justification for their own hostility to working class politics.

[xxxv] Zinoviev, The Social Roots of Opportunism.

[xxxvi] Lance Sharkey, The Trade Unions, 4th edition (revised), Sydney, Current Book Distributors, 1960 [1942], p.19.

[xxxvii] Lloyd Churchward, “Introduction” to Noel Ebbels, The Australian Labor Movement, 1850-1907: Historical Documents, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1983 [1960], p.12.

[xxxviii] Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1979 [1965], p.6.

[xxxix] Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, pp.9-12 and Chapter 1 more generally.

[xl] Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1986 [1970]. It should be noted that McQueen substantially revised this assessment; see the “Afterword” published in this edition of the book.

[xli] Jim McIlroy, The Origins of the ALP: A Marxist Analysis, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2004, p.34.

[xlii] McIlroy, The Origins of the ALP, pp.52-53.

[xliii] Jonathan Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism in the history of Australian working-class politics”, Links, n.d.,

[xliv] Shirley Fitzgerald, Rising Damp: Sydney 1870-90, OUP, Melbourne, 1987.

[xlv] W.D. Rubinstein, “The distribution of personal wealth in Victoria 1860-1974”, Australian Economic History Review, XIX, 1, 1979.

[xlvi] Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, p.226.

[xlvii] Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, Chapter 4.

[xlviii] Ray Markey, “The aristocracy of labour and production reorganization in NSW, c.1880-1900”, Australian Economic History Review, 28 (1), 1988, p.47.

[xlix] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.48.

[l] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.47.

[li] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.49.

[lii] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, pp.49-50.

[liii] Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, pp.158-62.

[liv] Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, pp.202-13.

[lv] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, pp.51-52.

[lvi] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.51.

[lvii] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.52.

[lviii] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.53.

[lix] Jenny Lee, “A redivision of labour: Victoria’s wages boards in action, 1896-1903, Historical Studies, 22:88, 1987, p.354.

[lx] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.55.

[lxi] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, pp.55-56.

[lxii] Lee, “A redivision of labour”, pp.355-56.

[lxiii] Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, p.160.

[lxiv] Ben Maddison, “‘Deskilling’ the 1891 Censuses in New South Wales and Tasmania”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 53, 4, 2007, p.516; Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, p.227.

[lxv] Markey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.59.

[lxvi] Charles Fahey, “The aristocracy of labour in Victoria, 1881-1911”, Australian Historical Studies, 26: 102, 1994, pp.77-96.

[lxvii] Fahey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.86.

[lxviii] Fahey, “The aristocracy of labour”, pp.82-84.

[lxix] Fahey, “The aristocracy of labour”, p.90.

[lxx] Fahey, “The aristocracy of labour”, pp.95-96.

[lxxi] Rubinstein, “The distribution of personal wealth”.

[lxxii] Tom O’Lincoln, United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, Red Rag Publications, Melbourne, 2005, p.37.

[lxxiii] Brian Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, Rawson’s Bookshop, Melbourne, 1944, p.54.

[lxxiv] Greg Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991, p.68.

[lxxv] E.W. Campbell, History of the Australian Labor Movement, NSW Labor Council, 1944, p.56.

[lxxvi] O’Lincoln, United We Stand, p.28.

[lxxvii] Rae Cooper, “‘To organise wherever necessity exists’: the activities of the Organising Committee of the Labor Council of NSW, 1900-1910”, Labour History, 83, 2002, p.47.

[lxxviii] Patmore, Australian Labour History, p.68.

[lxxix] Patmore, Australian Labour History, p.66.

[lxxx] O’Lincoln, United We Stand, p.38.

[lxxxi] O’Lincoln, United We Stand, p.47.

[lxxxii] O’Lincoln, United We Stand, pp.84-86.

[lxxxiii] Patmore, Australian Labour History, p.68.

[lxxxiv] Arbitration was a process whereby disputes over wages or other conditions of employment were submitted to an industrial tribunal, or court, for resolution. It was designed by its liberal architects to replace open battles between capital and labour involving strikes, bans and lockouts, although it was not always successful in doing this in practice. Voluntary arbitration began to appear in the 1880s and compulsory arbitration was introduced by various states from 1901 onwards and in 1904 by the Commonwealth Government. Decisions of industrial tribunals took the form of awards, which were legally binding and were varied (i.e. updated) periodically by the tribunals over the years.

[lxxxv] Patmore, Australian Labour History, p.68.

[lxxxvi] Campbell, A Short History, p.63.

[lxxxvii] Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, p.11.

[lxxxviii] This debate which originally took place on Marxmail was published as a pamphlet by Bob Gould, The DSP and the So-Called Labour Aristocracy,, 2002. The references to this debate are drawn from this, including from the links to the original Marxmail posts provided in this pamphlet.

[lxxxix] Gould, The DSP and the So-Called Labour Aristocracy.

[xc] Gould, The DSP and the So-Called Labour Aristocracy.

[xci] Gould, The DSP and the So-Called Labour Aristocracy.

[xcii] Verity Burgmann, “Capital and labour” in Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus (eds), Who are our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, Neutral Bay, 1978, pp.20-34; Verity Burgmann, “Writing racism out of history”, Arena [first series], No. 67, 1984; Jerome Small, “Reconsidering White Australia: Class and Anti-Chinese Racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot”, Honours thesis, La Trobe University, 1997; O’Lincoln, United We Stand, pp.89-106; Phil Griffiths, “The Making of White Australia: Ruling Class Agendas, 1876-1888”, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 2007.

[xciii] Mick Armstrong, “Aborigines: Problems of race and class”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996, p.68.

[xciv] Bob Gould, “The ALP, the labour movement and racism”, August 1999,

[xcv] Mick Armstrong, The Origins of the Labor Party, Socialist Alternative, Sydney, 1998, pp.48-58.

[xcvi] Armstrong, Origins of the Labor Party.

[xcvii] O’Lincoln, United We Stand, p.65.

[xcviii] Armstrong, Origins of the Labor Party, p.57.

[xcix] Jonathan Strauss, “Towards a historical materialist history of Australian working-class politics”, Links, 30, 2006,; Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[c] Strauss, “Towards a historical materialist history”; Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[ci] Strauss, “Towards a historical materialist history”.

[cii] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[ciii] Andrew Wells, “State regulation for a moral economy: Peter Macarthy and the meaning of the Harvester Judgement”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 40 (3), p.380, cited in Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[civ] Until 1967, award wages for Australian workers were divided into two categories. The Basic Wage, adjusted at irregular intervals by the Arbitration Court, later Commission, was meant to afford a male worker and his family a life of “frugal comfort”. This Basic Wage underpinned wages for all awards. The margin for skill was, as its name suggests, an addition to the Basic Wage and paid on the basis of the higher value of labour power of skilled workers and varied depending on trade or skill concerned. Margins, too, were periodically reviewed but the margin for the skilled metal trades soon became the test case for all other skilled workers. The Harvester Judgment established a ratio of 10:7 for the wages of the skilled and unskilled worker and this was, more or less, adhered to for many decades. On top of award wages, workers on “minimum rates” awards, which was most of those in the private sector, also fought for “over-awards”, over and above their award rate. In all three cases the ebb and flow of the class struggle helped to shift rates up and down.

[cv] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cvi] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cvii] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cviii] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cix] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cx] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cxi] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cxii] Peter Boyle, correspondence in debate with Bob Gould on Marxmail, 6 November 2002. Subject “Labour aristocracy, instrumentalism, empiricism, etc.”

[cxiii] Doug Lorimer, “The 12th World Congress of the Fourth International and the future of the Socialist Workers Party’s international relations”, in Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer, The Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International, Pathfinder Press, Sydney, 1985, p.37.

[cxiv] Iggy Kim, “Racism in Australia: Where it comes from”, Green Left Weekly, 20 November 1996.

[cxv] Boyle, correspondence in debate with Bob Gould on Marxmail.

[cxvi] Cooper, “‘To organise wherever necessity exists’”, p.57.

[cxvii] Cooper, “‘To organise wherever necessity exists’”.

[cxviii] Rae Cooper and Greg Patmore, “Trade union organising and labour history”, Labour History, 83, 2002, p.10.

[cxix] Peter Sheldon, “Arbitration and union growth: Building and construction unions in NSW, 1900-1912”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 35 (3), 1993, p.379.

[cxx] Cooper, “‘To organise wherever necessity exists’”, p.58.

[cxxi] Lee, “A redivision of labour”, p.353.

[cxxii] Humphrey McQueen, “Australian history: struggles over settlements”, 2007,

[cxxiii] Campbell, The Australian Labor Movement, p.15.

[cxxiv] McQueen, “Australian history: struggles over settlements”.

[cxxv] W.A. Baker, The Commonwealth Basic Wage, 1907-1953, Metal Trades Federation, Sydney, 1953, p.39.

[cxxvi] Baker, The Commonwealth Basic Wage, p.12.

[cxxvii] Baker, The Commonwealth Basic Wage, pp.12-13.

[cxxviii] Baker, The Commonwealth Basic Wage, pp.38-39.

[cxxix] J. McPhillips, Today’s Wages Fight: The Way Forward, Sydney, Current Book Distributors, 1961, p.8.

[cxxx] McPhillips, Today’s Wages Fight, p.13.

[cxxxi] L.L. Sharkey, The Trade Unions, Sydney, Current Book Distributors, 1960, p.67.

[cxxxii] McPhillips, Today’s Wages Fight, p.45.

[cxxxiii] McPhillips, Today’s Wages Fight, p.16.

[cxxxiv] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cxxxv] McPhillips, Today’s Wages Fight, p.17.

[cxxxvi] Rubinstein, “The distribution of personal wealth”.

[cxxxvii] For more on the Accord, see Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide, Cambridge, 2008.

[cxxxviii] L. Perry, “Trends in Australian strike activity: 1913-1978’, Australian Bulletin of Labour, 6 (1), 1979, p.46.

[cxxxix] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cxl] Corr and Brown, p.38.

[cxli] Marx, Capital , volume I, Chapter 17.

[cxlii] Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia, p.139.

[cxliii] Strauss, “The labour aristocracy and opportunism”.

[cxliv] In 2010, Australian direct investment abroad, at $28.0 billion, constituted only 14.6 percent of the total private business investment of $191.5 billion invested locally. Australian Bureau of Statistics, International Investment Position, 2010, Catalogue number 5352.0; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product, December 2011, Catalogue number 5206.0.

[cxlv] Tom Bramble, “Can the Australian working class still change society?”, Marxist Left Review, 2, 2011, p.118.

[cxlvi] Bramble, “Can the Australian working class still change society?”, p.124.

[cxlvii] Iggy Kim, The Origins of Racism: A Marxist Perspective, New Course Publications, Sydney, 1996, p.11.

[cxlviii] Sandra Bloodworth, “Aboriginal rights and trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s”, Marxist Interventions,; Alexis Vassiley, “‘There’s no flies at Noonkanbah but the scabs are on their way’: Trade union support for Aboriginal rights during the Noonkanbah dispute (1979-80)”, BA (Hons) dissertation, Department of History, University of Western Australia, 2012.

[cxlix] Frank Hardy, The Unlucky Australians, Nelson, Melbourne, p.49.

[cl] John Maitland, “A look at Mabo mining myths”, Common Cause, August 1993.

[cli] Harris, “Theories of unequal exchange”, pp.119-21.

[clii] Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers and the Politics of Class, Cambridge, 2011, p.77.

[cliii] Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s Conflict, p.73.

[cliv] Bob Gould, The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in twentieth century NSW: A review, 2002,

[clv] Gould, The People’s Choice.

[clvi] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, 1971.

[clvii] Karl Marx, Capital, volume I, Chapter 1, section 4,

[clviii] Marx, Capital, volume I, Chapter 28.

[clix] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p.89.

[clx] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p.90.

[clxi] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844, See especially the section headed “Estranged labour”.

[clxii] Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts had not been published at the time Lukács wrote History and Class Consciousness, meaning that he independently arrived at similar conclusions as Marx.

[clxiii] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, pp.91-92.

[clxiv] Howard Newby, The Deferential Worker: A Study of Farm Workers in East Anglia, Allen Lane, London, 1977.

[clxv] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part 1, Section B, 1845,

[clxvi] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971, p.333.

[clxvii] See Rick Kuhn, “Class Analysis and the left in Australian History”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman, Melbourne, 1996, pp.145-62.

[clxviii] Humphrey McQueen, “Glory without Power”, in J. Playford and D. Kirsner (eds), Australian Capitalism: Towards a Socialist Critique, Penguin, Ringwood, 1972, p.360.

[clxix] Peter Boyle correspondence on Marxmail, 22 October 2002, reproduced in Gould, The DSP and the So-Called Labour Aristocracy.

[clxx] See Bramble and Kuhn, Labor’s Conflict, pp.14-18, for an explanation of Labor as a “capitalist workers’ party”.

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