The making of Labor

by Mick Armstrong • Published 28 February 2020

Review of Raymond Markey, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900, (Sydney 1988)

Raymond Markey’s important new book, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900,[1] challenges the standard assumptions of most labour historians about the origins of the ALP.

The orthodox view shared both by right wing social democrats like Bede Nairn and left wingers like Ian Turner and Robin Gollan[2] presents the 1870s and 80s as years of unbridled prosperity and growth. They argue that it was possible for Australian workers to take advantage of this favourable economic climate, and in particular of a chronic shortage of labour, to achieve a standard of living and a level of trade union organisation unparalleled elsewhere in the world.

This in turn according to the more conservative historians produced a moderate, respectable labour movement in tune with the dominant middle class opinion of the times – liberal nationalism. It was painted as a working class that was immune to revolutionary socialist ideas, a labour movement that was more concerned to preserve its share of privilege from the threat of supposedly cheap Asian labour (thus the overwhelming support for the White Australia policy), than in class struggle.

One leading left wing historian, Humphrey McQueen,[3] also essentially endorsed this conservative analysis. McQueen indeed argues that the high degree of social mobility, the small-scale nature of industry and the close relationship between small employers and their artisanal workforce meant that there was no genuine working class in Australia in this period, only a petty bourgeoisie of small producers and artisans. Thus for McQueen the early Labor Party was not in any sense a working class party, but simply ‘‘the logical extension of the petit-bourgeois mentality and subordinated organisations which preceded them”.[4]

The populist tradition

The previous generation of left intellectuals influenced by the Communist Party, in contrast, viewed these developments in a much more favourable light. For the likes of Turner, Gollan and Ward,[5] the last half of the nineteenth century was one of unparalleled advance for left and “democratic” forces. They saw the emerging working class militancy of the 1880s and the formation of the Labor Party in the 1890s as a continuation of the democratic populist movements of the previous decades. The struggles against the transportation of convicts, the Eureka Stockade, the fight to unlock the land and the Maritime Strike of 1890 are all subsumed into the “glorious” tradition of Australian radicalism and egalitarianism.

For the traditional Stalinist left then, history was on our side. Australian nationalism, far from being fundamentally racist and pro-imperialist, is seen as having a progressive dynamic, which must be appropriated by the left. So for Gollan the radical nationalists’ “concept of the nation was essentially a class view”.[6] This interpretation of Australian history dove-tailed neatly with the Communist Party’s popular frontist approach from the mid-1930s. The supposed triumphs of populist nationalism last century could provide an attractive rationale for the subordination of working class organisations to populist alliances with allegedly progressive middle class forces in the here and now.

Left nationalists today, though less directly influenced by the CPA, usually still hold to some variant of this analysis. The phoney populist cause may have changed to defending “our” manufacturing industry from being turned into a quarry or the racist hysteria about a supposed Japanese take-over of Australia. However the fundamental message remains the same – the working class must subordinate its class interests and independent organisation to the needs of an alliance with “progressive” bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces to fight the national enemy.

This is why Markey’s carefully detailed study is so useful. He effectively demolishes many of the underpinnings of this traditional left nationalist approach. He establishes that far from there being a simple continuity, the working class upsurge from the mid-1880s to the early 1890s in NSW represented a sharp break with earlier populist movements and a clear step towards independent working class politics.

Markey roots the rise of the militant trade union movement in the 1880s and the subsequent formation of the NSW Labor Party in the changing nature of colonial capitalism during the long boom from the end of the 1860s till the late 1880s. Towards the end of this period NSW industry, which had previously lagged behind Victoria, began to challenge the traditional dominance of pastoral/commercial capital.

While factories remained small, the number of workers employed in the manufacturing industry rose significantly. There was both a rapid expansion of the working class in absolute numbers, fuelled by a high level of immigration, and a more gradual increase in its share of the workforce. By 1891 over two-thirds of the population of the colony were wage earners. The urban working class formed the largest proportion of this growing proletariat. Sydney’s share of the NSW population had increased to 35 percent by 1891.

Drawing on more recent historical research, Markey demolishes the standard historical argument that the boom resulted in markedly increased working class living standards. He points out that the wages rates compiled by the Statistical Register, upon which historians such as Butlin[7] base their evidence for working class prosperity, are of dubious standing. The Statistical Register relies largely on trade union “standard” rates for the job. However union membership was less than 20 percent of the workforce till the end of this period. Many unorganised workers are unlikely to have obtained “standard” rates, and probably not even all union members. As well, wage rates tell you little about actual earnings in an economy which was dominated by casual employment.

In Sydney temporary unemployment and under-employment were commonplace. Opportunities for social mobility were increasingly limited and that great labour boon, the eight-hour day, was limited to a few sections of well organised workers. Furthermore, from the mid-1880s working class conditions were increasingly under attack. Wages in particular were coming under downward pressure. In the cities technological change and industrial reorganisation were undermining the position of a number of skilled trades such as bootmaking. Sweated industries relying on outwork and piecework expanded rapidly, especially among the growing female workforce. Conditions in the cramped and dirty “new” factories were notoriously unsafe.

The onset of crisis

These circumstances inspired trade union organisation and for a period industrial action managed to hold the line on wages. However, a series of key industries with large workforces – shipping, grazing, coal and metal mining – were moving into crisis and as a result the bosses in these sectors emerged as an aggressive vanguard of their class throughout the colony. By the end of the decade this maturing crisis meant that even before the full onset of the 1890s Depression, the bosses were moving towards a major showdown. They faced a confident and vibrant labour movement, which had expanded extremely rapidly. Just over 20 percent of the NSW workforce were now unionised, probably the highest level in the world at the time. It was a working class increasingly embittered with the failure of the boom to deliver significant improvements in living standards.

In fact the myth of a former golden age of lost opportunity provided a cohering and radicalising force amongst broad layers of the working class. Resentment against stagnant or falling living standards in the “land of opportunity” served to unite immigrant workers, who had failed to make good, with native artisans whose trades were being undermined.

Nor was it simply workers’ industrial conditions that were in decline. The provision of social services and amenities had not kept pace with the rapid expansion of Sydney’s population, which trebled to almost 400,000 between 1870 and 1890. The housing stock decayed and there was a proliferation of slums which were even worse than London’s. Health standards deteriorated sharply. The overcrowding and non-existent sewerage system encouraged the rapid spread of disease. The infant mortality rate shot up.

AII the class tensions came to a head in the great Maritime Strike of 1890. Starting on the wharves, it rapidly spread to transport, the mines and eventually the shearers. It was generalised into a monumental battle between capital and labour, as workers closed their ranks throughout the colonies. The bosses mobilising behind the slogan of “freedom of contract” received the full backing of the forces of the state. Three thousand special constables were appointed in NSW, and artillery was despatched to Newcastle. The middle class rallied to the defence of “law and order” and swelled the ranks of the special constables.

Markey establishes that despite all the romantic imagery surrounding bush unionism (for example the idea of Spence, the founder of the Shearers Union, that “unionism came to the Australian bushman as a religion”) that in fact the decisive section of the labour movement was the city based trade unions. It was they that led the way, both in terms of industrial mobilisation and in the formation of the Labor Party. Long established unions such as the Stonemasons moved sharply to the left in the face of labour reorganisation, which undermined their trade.

Nor were the Stonemasons some aberration. The skilled unions generally were not as conservative as they are often portrayed. Markey argues that the close parallels that are drawn between the labour upsurge in Australia and the “new unionism” in Britain in the same period are overplayed. In Britain the working class upsurge in the late 18805 was epitomised by the emergence of new radical unions of the unskilled and semi-skilled, which organised the mass of workers abandoned by the narrow traditional craft unions.

By contrast in Australia the mass organisation of certain areas of unskilled labour, especially on the waterfront, pre-dated the 1880s. Furthermore many of the mass unions such as the Wharf Labourers, Metal Miners, Railway Workers and the Shearers copied the traditions of the craft unions by maintaining high benefit payments for accidents, funerals and so on. In fact, the Wharf Labourers’ very high entrance fee to sustain their funeral benefits proved disastrous for them during the Maritime Strike, as it made it difficult to enrol large numbers of new members.

Nor were a number of the mass unions, such as the Shearers, industrial unions that organised all workers in the industry. The Shearers started as an occupational union of the most skilled section of the pastoral industry. It behaved in many respects like a craft union by attempting to restrict entry to shearing. Only in 1894 after its amalgamation with the General Labourers Union to form the AWU did it organise the whole industry. However even then, its membership among labourers was low and the interests of shearers remained paramount.

These new unions were not necessarily more militant than the older craft unions. The metal miners’ union was numerically dominated by its conservative Victorian members, who were often shareholders in the small gold mining companies. The Broken Hill miners’ militancy was exceptional. The Shearers Union leadership had to be pushed into action by its more militant membership in western NSW. Oh the other hand, the urban craft unions were not as reluctant to resort to industrial action as is often supposed. Despite their preference for negotiations, by the late 1880s they were increasingly involved in industrial conflict. Partly because of their smaller size, Australian craft unions tended to be less bureaucratic and more adaptable than their British counterparts. A number of craft unions aided the development of semi-skilled unions in their industry or even opened membership to them.

Markey’s break with nationalism

Another major strength of Markey’s approach is that he breaks sharply with the nationalism which scars the approach of most Australian “Marxist” historians, an approach which turns them into virtual apologists for the virulent racism that is integral to the nationalism of a white colonial settler state. So for example the recent book, No Paradise for Workers, by Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright,[8] two writers in the left nationalist tradition, is marred by its support for the racist 1878 seamen’s strike to exclude Asians from Australian ships.

Markey rightly sees that one of the progressive elements of the early Labor Party was that it represented at least a partial break with the populist politics which had previously dominated the working class movement. It was a move away from “democratic” alliances with radical liberals and a step towards a clear class identification, even if the promise was short-lived. For while the early NSW Labor Party was in no sense socialist, it was committed to a series of working class reforms. Labor’s initial program centred around basic trade union demands, such as the eight-hour day, and democratic rights. Nationalism was not central.[9] However, by the turn of the century this was no longer the case. Labor had emerged as the party of Australian nationalism. Its central planks now were the White Australia policy and compulsory arbitration to curtail strikes.

The roots of bureaucracy

Precisely because of the strength of Markey’s analysis over the dominant historical tradition, it is important to be clear on the limitations of his book. For a start Markey is virtually uncritical of the NSW Trades and Labour Council and its role in the great strikes of the 1890s and the formation of the Labor party. The emergence of the TLC as the recognised leadership of the NSW working class movement had both a positive and negative side. On the one hand, it was a manifestation of working class mobilisation and up to a point helped carry that mobilisation forward, providing it with a direction and coherence. A centralised leadership helped to overcome some of the sectionalism and narrow craftism which had previously plagued the union movement.

Markey correctly points to these advances. However he effectively downplays the overhead costs. For the development of a centralised union leadership meant that a bureaucracy had emerged which could be used not just to advance struggles but to restrain the class mobilisation through attempts to discipline its more “unruly” constituents. Markey effectively omits to outline the dangers of bureaucratic domination of the movement.

Now it is true that the NSW TLC in the late 1880s was nothing like the entrenched bureaucratic machine which controls the ACTU today. Generally its role was positive. Nevertheless even in this early period there were problems. So for example in the early phase of the 1890 maritime strike the TLC opposed the spreading of the dispute to encompass the whole of the urban trade union movement. As the president of the TLC declared later, one third of the efforts of the Sydney Labour Defence Committee were spent in “stopping two thirds of the different societies from striking”. In particular the TLC’s efforts to keep gas works and other vital services in operation encountered widespread rank and file criticism.

Markey provides no analysis of the role of the bureaucracy of the labour movement. For him the TLC is simply the embodiment of “a class conscious working class movement”.[10] He does not seem to appreciate that the union officials form a distinct layer with separate and at times counterposed interests to those of their members. They are not subject to the immediate pressures of capitalist exploitation in the workplace. They exist as bargaining agents attempting to obtain the best deal they can for their members within the framework of the existing system. Inevitably they are involved in making all sorts of compromises with the bosses. They prefer negotiations to struggle. They see strong union organisation as a means to strengthen them in negotiations, not as a means to challenge the very existence of capitalism. When they turn to political action it is as a back-up or substitute for a weakened bargaining position.[11]

Political action – revolutionary or reformist?

Thus it was the defeat of the 1890 maritime strike which was decisive in turning union officialdom towards political action. On the one hand the strike had further inflamed the class passions and tensions that had been building up in the 1880s. A mass working class base now existed for a Labor party. But most decisively from the union officialdom’s viewpoint, the strike had demonstrated that industrial action was inadequate as a way to advance their interests. Now it was true that industrial action, in and of itself, was not sufficient to defeat the enormous mobilisation of the power of the bosses and their state exhibited in the maritime strike. Politics were vital. But the question then becomes what type of politics. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein put it in reference to the origins of the British Labour Party:

It was one thing to understand the need to challenge capitalism politically, but it was possible to draw either revolutionary or reformist conclusions.

One possible direction was to use the fight for reforms, including placing demands on parliament, as a means of mobilising the working class and through this experience preparing the final, revolutionary struggle for socialism. But the reformist attitude to parliament was a means of demobilising the class, asking it to rely on leaders who avoid confrontation and work within the system. Their negotiating skills substitute for mass activity.[12]

Given the small size of explicitly socialist organisations in Australia in the 1890s, and their political weakness and confusion, it meant that the first alternative was never seriously argued and the reformist alternative triumphed by default. This is a question that Markey does not squarely face up to. He criticises Verity Burgmann[13] for asserting “that ‘reformist’ State socialism was doomed to failure at the outset because parliament is incapable of legislating for socialism”.[14] He argues that:

It seems peculiarly anachronistic to dismiss State socialism as “reformist”… True, after almost eighty years of the welfare State it is now clear that a mere extension of the State’s role need not produce socialism. However, the nature of the modern State was still at an early stage of evolution in the 1890s. It was still possible to conceive of a significant role for local government in the State apparatus, which might become the grass-roots basis of socialism… Parliament was one aspect only, albeit an important one, in a larger programme for State socialists.[15]

It is the nature and trajectory of State intervention sought, which distinguishes between socialists and non-socialists. All Labor men supported State intervention of some kind, but only some thought in terms of the displacement of capital, in the short or long term.[16]

So for Markey it seems a reformist is a Laborite who attempts to use the state machine to gain a few reforms, while a socialist who wants to make use of the existing state to abolish capitalism apparently is a “revolutionary”. Now this will not do. There is no way at all that the capitalist state machine can be used to bring about socialism. Markey himself talks of “the state as a repressive apparatus”[17] and amply demonstrates the key role played by the state machine in containing the labour upsurge. How on earth are socialists going to be able to use this state machine to abolish the capitalist class?

Surely the lesson of Allende in Chile in 1973 and closer to home the Kerr Coup in 1975 demonstrate that it is a flight of fancy to even contemplate such an exercise. The task of socialists is to galvanise working class energy to smash the existing state machine and replace it with a new workers’ state, not to attempt to skin the tiger claw by claw.

Markey’s failure to come to terms with the real nature of reformism means that his explanation of the sharp shift to the right of the Labor party in the 1890s is one sided. For Markey the more radical early Labor party is a product of the class leadership of the TLC, while its rightward degeneration is a product of the defeats of urban unionism and the rise to predominance in the party of an alliance between the AWU, with its populist base amongst small farmers, and opportunist parliamentarians.

The savage defeats of the Depression years and the virtual collapse of urban trade unionism were important elements in the rapid move to the right by the Labor party. However, Markey underestimates the whole logic of reformism which would have pushed the party in that direction, though at a slower pace, even without the rise of the AWU to dominance. It is not necessary to invoke the peculiar petty-bourgeois base of the AWU to explain the strength of populism in . reformist parties. After all, labourism in Britain has not been decisively different to the Australian variety. It also has placed its prime emphasis on “nation” rather than “class”. And yet there was no British equivalent of the AWU.

For the reality is that the whole logic of reformism pushes in the direction of populist nationalism. Seeking to do things “for” workers, rather than mobilising their strength to fight capitalism, reformists are inevitably pulled towards the state, which appears to have the capacity to introduce change and regulate capitalist society. But a strategy of “capturing” the state inevitably leads to a capitulation to nationalism. All states are by definition national states. If you wish to make use of the state, then you are compelled to defend “your” state against rival states, “your” nation against rival nations.

It is true that the accommodation to nationalism and racism of the Australian labor Party took a grosser form than its continental and British reformist counterparts. However this can be largely explained by the peculiarities of early Australian capitalism. Australia was established as a white colonial settler state, an outpost of British imperialism in Asia. To secure the land the white settlers first had to dispossess the Aborigines. Then they turned their attention to colonial expansion in the Pacific.

Like other colonial settler states such as South Africa, Israel and the French in Algeria, a virulent racist ideology was necessary to justify this “civilizing mission”. The very economic, geographic and social position of the settlers impelled them to an extreme imperialist position. They were more imperialist than the imperialists. So there was never anything “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” about Australian nationalism. Racism was the single most important component in the formation of Australian nationalism. The idea of racial purity was the lynchpin around which a national consciousness cohered. In this context any Australian reformist party was bound to be racist.[18]

There is always a tension in a reformist party between the ideas of “nation” and “class”. The exact balance between them depends on the state of the class struggle, the economic situation, whether the party is in government or opposition and so on. The defeats of the 1890s and the consequent demobilisation of the working class movement hastened the capitulation of Labor to arbitration and an extremely racist variant of Australian nationalism. There was little rank and file pressure on the party to hold back from an extreme accommodation with Australian capitalism. This provided the space for the alliance of right wing MPs and AWU bureaucrats to rapidly secure their domination over the party.

A revival of struggle could push Labor back to the left, as did the mass upsurge during WWI . However unless a political and organisational break was made with reformism of all shades, the move to the left was bound to be contained. This is the key insight missing from Markey’s book. While he is bitterly hostile to “laborism”, and is clear on its central role in incorporating the working class within Australian capitalism, he never poses the need for a revolutionary alternative.[19]

[1] Raymond Markey, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900 (Sydney 1988).

[2] Bede Nairn, Civilizing Capitalism. The Labor Movement in New South Wales, 1870-1900 (Canberra 1973). Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics. The Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900-21 (Melbourne 1965). Robin Gollan, Radical and Working Class Politics. A Study of Eastern Australia, 1850-1910 (Melbourne 1960).

[3] Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia (Melbourne 1970).

[4] McQueen, p20.

[5] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne 1958).

[6] Gollan, p114.

[7] N. Butlin, Investment in Australian Economic Development 1861-1900, Canberra, 1964.

[8] Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright, No Paradise for Workers. Capitalism and the Common People in Australia 1788-1914, Melbourne 1988.

[9] Though there was a racist call for the stamping of Chinese made furniture.

[10] Markey, p6.

[11] The best Marxist analysis of the trade union bureaucracy is contained in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926, Bookmarks, London, 1986.

[12] Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History, Bookmarks, London, 1988, p10.

[13] Verity Burgmann, In Our Time. Socialism and the Rise of Labor, 1885-1905, Sydney, 1985.

[14] Markey, p231.

[15] ibid., p232.

[16] ibid., p232.

[17] ibid., p121.

[18] For a more substantial elaboration of the centrality of racism in the early Labor Party, refer to my forthcoming pamphlet on the origins of the ALP.

[19] This unfortunately represents something of a political retreat for Markey himself, who in an earlier work, Revolutionaries and Reformists (Labour History 31, November 1976), seemed to identify with a revolutionary Marxist standpoint.

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