What is the real Labor tradition?

By Phil Griffiths, Canberra, Australia. Back to my home page: Australian history: Towards a Marxist analysis

This page contains two articles published in The Socialist in 1989. "Has Hawke betrayed the real Labor tradition?" was published in November 1989; and "The social roots of the Labor tradition" published in December 1989.
      The articles were attempts to come to terms with labourism in Australia, at a time when nearly seven years of Labor government had aroused enormous discontent and disillusionment within the labour movement. They were written in the form of a review of two books:
The Hawke government and the Labor tradition by Graham Maddox; and The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke by Carol Johnson.

Has Hawke betrayed the real Labor tradition?

AS DISILLUSIONMENT has grown, so there has arisen a debate about the historical legitimacy of the Labor government.

Initially, this was expressed in the proposition that Hawke's was “not a real Labor government”, an idea that attracted considerable popular support from 1986 onwards.

This idea has not gone unchallenged. Paul Keating, Bob Hawke and Graham Freudenberg have repeatedly defended the Hawke government as firmly within Labor's tradition, arguing that Labor has only succeeded when it rejected “radical” solutions, ran the economy competently, and captured the middle ground of politics.

Many socialists have argued a parallel position from the opposite side of the barricades — that the attacks on workers, unions and the poor, the pro-American foreign policy, the retreat from even the most modest reforms, such as national land rights legislation, have been constant themes of Labor in power.

This debate is of considerable importance for socialists — indeed, it is far more than a debate, it is a struggle for the allegiance of that minority of politically interested workers (and others) who have traditionally looked to Labor to change society in the interests of the poor, the working class and the oppressed.

Hawke and Keating want to convince these people — and there are hundreds of thousands of them — that the present government represents their only hope. Similarly, those to Hawke's left who share his essential strategy — that change can only come through Labor (or a slightly more left wing alternative) winning parliamentary office — need to convince us that there is nothing wrong with the strategy, only the personnel running the party this time around.

Finally, the myths surrounding Labor, the illusions in the possibilities of change through the parliamentary system, can become a critical break on working class action. Only last year, transport workers in the oil industry were persuaded to give up their struggle for higher allowances so as to not embarrass the rotting corpse of the Unsworth government in NSW. And in the near-revolutionary situation of Chile in 1973, illusions in social democracy were critical to holding back the working class and preparing the way for Pinochet's murderous coup.

A clear understanding of Labor and its traditions is essential for anyone wanting to fundamentally change society.

Embellishing Labor myths

EARLIER this year saw the publication of two books which directly address the relationship between the Hawke government and the Labor tradition.

Although an academic, Graham Maddox's The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition makes no pretence of “objectivity”. He “frankly intended [the book] to be undiluted criticism from the point of view of many disullusioned old-time Labor supporters,”[vii] a passionate polemic against the “betrayal” of the Labor tradition.

To make his case for Hawke's betrayal, Maddox has to repeat and embellish a series of long-standing myths about Labor's purpose and Labor's past.

At its best moments, Labor has attempted to work reform against the opposition of entrenched capital…[64]

Labor's reason for being was to reform society, its entire structure tilted against the inertia and recalcitrance of the capitalist system.[178]


Maddox strongly plays up what he sees as the reforming traditions of past Labor governments.

The governments of Curtin and Chifley moved more strongly than previous federal governments into the areas of health funding, education and housing…[142]

Chifley's expansion of the public sector… is well known. It included setting up TAA …acquiring QANTAS…re-establishment of the Australian National Shipping line, the Snowy Mountains Scheme… Chif~ley's attempt to nationalize the banking system was his most notable failure… [141-2]

It was Curtin who made the first moves towards a truly independent foreign policy by joining the famous alliance with America…[143]

…it is Whitlam's social policies that really place his government so squarely in the Labor tradition. The universal health insurance scheme…[which] was revived as Medicare by the Hawke government… health care centres…

And so on and so on. By contrast, Bob Hawke has

…gladly presided over an economy in which, as the fortunes of our richest people rose and fell by hundreds of millions of dollars and entrepreneurs made millions in overnight deals, real wages continued to decline, poverty traps closed sharply over the unemployed and the employed poor and propertyless pensioners despaired over an inadequate subsidy.[5]

The Scullin tradition

TO ARGUE that Hawke's Labor is something new, Maddox has to avoid any systematic presentation of Labor's history.

Indeed, Labor before the Second World War is studiously ignored. So there is almost no mention of the notorious Scullin Labor government, which came to office at the start of the Depression in 1929 and whose contribution to the Labor tradition was to inflict massive wage and pension cuts — all so that the government could pay its debts to the banks.

Scullin described proposals that Labor use the money instead for the millions of hungry and poor unemployed as “treacherous and disloyal nonsense”, telling one interviewer that rather than fail in paying bondholders, “he would tax Australians to the last penny”. Even Scullin's most ardent defenders, like the right-wing historian John Robertson, restrict themselves to arguing that he had no real choice but to do what he did and that basically he was a decent man.

There is no mention from Maddox that in the end, the Scullin government was so hated by the working class that when Labor regained power in 1941, Scullin himself, one of the most experienced politicians in the party and personally popular with his parliamentary colleagues, did not stand for the ministry — it would have discredited the government.

Scullin's own minister for health and repatriation, Frank Anstey, reflected the anger of millions when he declared that:

This Labor government has outraged every principle it was sworn to preserve and has been false to the class that had given it life.

Sound familiar? Later in his memoirs, Anstey wrote,

I decided I was finished — not again would I be a candidate. The worldly hopes I had set my heart upon had turned to ashes and everything was sour in the mouth. There was no prospect that if Labor returned to office…it would be any different to its competitors. It was only the difference ~between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The one mention of Scullin in the Maddox mythology tells you a lot about the dishonesty necessary to perpetuate the Labor myth. Scullin, according to Maddox,

railed against the “accursed thing” called capitalism, which, “by reason of its sins and failures, is marked down for destruction as surely as were Babylon, and Nineveh and Tyre.” (p172)

The truth is that every Labor government has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of its supporters when it lost office. The 1914-16 Labor government led by Billy Hughes was so unpopular the party machine expelled the prime minister from the party. The formal reason was his attempt to introduce conscription for the First World War, but Hughes' attacks on the unions and living standards were just as important in creating the willingness in such an electorally oriented party to take such a drastic step.

The Chifley government, which Maddox sees as the model for the Labor Tradition, lost office after breaking the 1949 miners' strike, by whipping up a Communist scare campaign which was then expanded on by the Liberals and used to paint Labor as “Red”. It also jailed officials of the miners' union, passed laws making it illegal to give money to the strikers, and sent troops in to dig the coal — actions as draconian as anything Hawke has done, all of which led to the resignation of a leading minister, Eddie Ward, and great bitterness from many workers.

Then there is the Whitlam government, which came to office as a mild reforming government but which began doing a painful U-turn once the crisis hit in mid-1974. Whitlam and his ministers blamed wage rises for unemployment, called the unemployed “dole bludgers”, and cut government spending at the same time as allowing bosses like BHP huge price rises. For many, the last straw was Whitlam's enthusiastic support for the Indonesian takeover of East Timor, a takeover that led to a near genocidal war against the local liberation movement, Fretilin, that saw some 100,000 of the 600,000 Timorese killed.

One of the main reasons for the enduring Whitlam legend is the way he lost office — not through an election, but a vice-regal coup, a coup which led to a huge struggle in Whitlam's defence, a struggle in which many of his outrages were put aside as the main danger, the union-bashing drive of the Liberals, was focussed on.

A moral critique of Labor's failure

MADDOX'S remarkably one-sided account of Labor's history and traditions requires him to retail some pretty outrageous “myths”.

I mean, what can you say about someone who promotes Whitlam as a socialist? — Whitlam, who spent his political life on the extreme right of the party, who did all he could to water down and get rid of the party's token “socialist objective”, who fought tooth and nail for state aid to private schools which will channel $1.2 billion to the rich this year, who sponsored the claims of NCC operative Brian Harradine (now a “pro-life” senator for Tasmania) to a seat on the party's federal executive and caused a massive crisis in the party?

What can you say about a writer who claims that, “Mr Keating was quite possibly justified in claiming the government's attack on child poverty as the greatest single social reform ever carried out in Australia.”?[52]

Some of Maddox's mythology is highly conservative, reflecting his class position as a petit-bourgeois ideologist. He makes a long argument about the “majestic” qualities of parliamentary democracy and the two-party system. Indeed, he sees the three central points of Hawke's departure from Labor tradition as,

…first, the Labor Party as a whole has choked back many of its former aspirations; second, the prime minister has, to some extent, distanced himself from his own party; third, the government has withdrawn its commitment to two-party, adversary politics characteristic of the form of democracy we have known in this country.[66-7]

So whilst the book has many arguments Labor supporters will strongly sympathise with, they would have trouble making sense of much of Maddox's thesis.

In the end, the central problem with Maddox — as with most of the left — is that his critique of Hawke is a moral one — Hawke has failed to stand up for goodness and caring, embracing instead the greed and self-enrichment of the capitalists. Maddox can only explain why this has happened in terms of the personal failings of individuals at the top.

So he never even asks why it is that virtually the whole of the parliamentary party has accepted this, most especially the leading, self-proclaimed “socialists” in the government. He doesn't ask why it is that the vast majority of our trade union “leaders” not only accept this, but people like Bill Kelty lecture the government on the need to hold their nerve.

He never asks why it is that the inner-party debate has never been more sterile than it is under Hawke, because to answer it would begin to draw out that the problem lies right at the heart of the Labor Party's very being.

The closest he comes to an explanation is:

The Labor Party is what it is today partly because of the Whitlam dismissal… Consensus politics, which is in the end a desire to please everybody all the time, is a policy of party whose psyche was shattered in 1975, and of politicians who are too deeply conscious of what those who are socially and economically more powerful than themselves can do if they step one centimetre out of line.

Like much of Maddox's book, there is a substantial element of truth in this. And the obvious conclusion is that therefore, Labor is and must be a captive of the ruling class and its demands.

But Maddox can't afford to really confront this problem — to do so would be to reveal the utter impotence of any parliamentary government to take on the rich and powerful in society, and thus reveal the hopelessness of any electoral strategy.

So having raised the problem, he merely sidesteps it, essentially arguing that Labor has to stand up for its constituency, without explaining why it should engage in such electorally suicidal behaviour.

To realise its vision, Labor has to change, not the structure of society, but the way people think.

The cultural ascendancy of socialism over capitalism implies an ethical preference for community-oriented rather than individualist thinking…

…while the socialist is instructed by the promptings of conscience and by the endless vision of the socialist political tradition, his or her policies are tempered to the scale of practical possibility…

Such a “socialism” involves not the self-emancipation of the working class, but the gift of caring handed down from above thanks to the goodness of good people. “Quaint it may sound, but high moral vocation is still the first requirement”. No wonder that he lauds all the woolliest and most utopian elements in the socialist tradition, not least the Christian socialists.

This profoundly elitist view accounts for much that is left out of Maddox. Struggle from below, on the rare occasions it appears, merely represents the elemental strivings of the mass against injustice. This struggle never appears as the secret behind so many reforms — whether enacted by Labor or the Liberals — nor as the force that can really change society, nor as the process by which the ordinary workers can begin to take charge of their lives.

Labor's tradition of reformism

BY CONTRAST, Carol Johnson's short, new book, The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, has its feet firmly on the ground.

After a turgid first chapter, which signally fails to come to grips with any of the central theoretical questions (but which does at least allow her to distance herself from “simplistic” Marxism), she discusses aspects of the economic and social policies of the three post-war Labor governments.

The Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam Governments all emphasised the need for wage-restraint, adequate levels of profitability and assistance to private enterprise with only minimal, if any, controls attached. They all urged the working class to make short-term sacrifices which, it was argued, would lead to increased investment, economic growth and full employment.[p96]

Johnson is at pains to puncture the illusion that Hawke represents anything substantially different.

The real break with Labor tradition would have come if the government had responsded to the crisis [of the early 1980s] in a left-wing direction, for example by arguing for substantial controls over private investment.

Johnson pursues a number of themes. She sees “social harmony perspectives” — what we “simplistic” Marxists call reformism — as central to Labor and documents the commitment of all three Labor governments to both private enterprise in general and manufacturing capital in particular. She quotes Chifley in 1949 as claiming that,

no Government in the history of Australia has ever given to private industry so much assistance and advice and help…whether it is a matter of increased steel production at Port Kembla, Broken Hill or Newcastle, or whether it is any other industry, no matter how small is the man or how large is the company, the doors of the Government have always been open to these persons…

Indeed, Labor's hostility to the banks, expressed in Chifley's failed attempts to nationalise them, was not a reflection of hostility to capital or capitalism, but because Labor

believed that the banks would not finance Australian industrial development… Chifley argued that the banks contributed to depressions by allowing over-expansion in boom times. They then imposed restrictions on government spending in times of depression.

Whitlam was no less right wing.

The program of social reform embarked upon by the present Government cannot be achieved without a strong and growing private sector. Nothing could be further from the truth than that we are anti-business or hostile to business.[p.56]

Whitlam's economic policy was no feather-bedding exercise, however. The “economic rationalism” so fashionable today was really inaugurated in 1973 when he suddenly cut all tariffs across the board by 25% in an attempt to jolt industry into recognising the need to become more internationally competitive. He set up both the Trade Practices Commission and the IAC to weed out cosy cartels and to institutionalise the process of cutting tariffs further. Later on, as the world crisis finally hit Australia in 1974, Whitlam's became the first to cut government spending.

The myth of Labor welfarism

BUT perhaps the greatest area of mythology surrounding Chifley and Whitlam are their “social reforms”.

Johnson argues that the introduction of social security benefits such as child endowment, widows' pensions, unemployment and sickness benefits under Curtin and Chifley was more an initiatve of previous UAP (Liberal) governments and that the extra spend under Labor had been very modest.

She quotes another writer, Rob Watts, who argued that

At the very moment that the Australian welfare state emerged it was relegated to a residual role. By definition real social security was to be dependent on the realisation of full employment within a working, reconstructed efficient capitalism.

Watts also pointed out that the introduction of the National Welfare Fund also involved increasing taxation on the working class. Under Chifley, the level at which the income of single males could be taxed was lowered from œ156 to œ104, forcing two million people who had never paid tax to start paying it. At the same time, company taxes fell from 36.9% of the total to 31.4%.

Many of the reforms of the Whitlam government were real enough, yet even the best of them were fatally flawed by their acceptance of existing capitalist relations. Medibank was financially crippled by huge rip-offs by doctors, whose swollen incomes gave them the wherewithall to continue their struggle against it. This was only possible because Whitlam refused to really confront the doctors and nationalise health along British lines.

Anyway, Whitlam's reform program collapsed when it was most needed — when the economy plunged into crisis through 1974. Soon all the compassionate rhetoric went out the window, replaced by attacks on “dole bludgers” and those who relied on the government to survive.

The difference with Hawke is that in an environment of greater economic pressure, his government consciously set out to cut welfare spending, but to do it selectively. So policy has been a mixture of outright attacks — the cutting of the under-18 dole being the most notorious — and marginal improvements — in family allowances, for instance, to partly compensate for the massive cut in real wages he has orchestrated.

Carol Johnson's virtue lies in recognising that Labor, with its commitment to the capitalist system, is part of the problem for socialists, not part of the solution. Yet, to the extent she has an alternative, it is a miserable shadow of Labor's own orientation of gradual reform using the existing state apparatus. She seems to have drawn no fundamental conclusions from her own book — such is the theoretical poverty of academic “Marxism” today. All she can offer is hand-wringing.

Socialists face major problems in formulating strategies which respond to the problems people face in a capitalist economy but move in a long-term socialist direction.

She sees that Labor's ability to run things has continually been frustrated by the intervention of the ruling class and concedes that the problems facing socialists

are exacerbated by the economic disruptions that would result from challenges to the power of the private sector.

Yet the power of the private sector, whilst enormous, is far from absolute. It was unable to prevent the Builders' Labourers Federation holding up billions of dollars worth of development in its famous Green Bans; it was unable to prevent workers winning substantial pay and conditions improvements in the early 1970s; and attempts by both the private sector and the government combined to privatise such instrumentalities as Qantas and Commonwealth Bank have been thwarted so far by the opposition of the left unions.

These examples are but a pointer to the tremendous power and even greater potential power of the organised working class — a power capable of sweeping the whole capitalist system aside in revolution.

Yet astonishingly, the workers hardly feature in Carol Johnson's book and where they do it is either as a problem for a government trying to restrain wages, as victims of wage or social security cuts, or to lament the fact that they are not all socialists.

In every case, the workers are the object of her history, not its subject. Her socialism is about an elite changing things for the masses, not the masses liberating themselves. The class struggle is therefore only an occasional element in the narrative.

What is the real Labor tradition?

N THE end Johnson's book fails because although she is able to identify the weakness with certain key elements of the Labor tradition, she can't explain the tradition.

If Labor's class collaboration comes up hard against the rock of opposition from the dominant class in society, why doesn't Labor abandon this class collaboration? Why don't the working class abandon Labor if every Labor government betrays them? Indeed, why does Labor have a “social harmony perspective” in the first place?

Equally, why do the ruling class sometimes support Labor coming to office — and then mobilise to get rid of them? Why ever support them? Why not always support them?

Anyway, Labor's tradition itself is no static thing. As Graham Freudenberg mischievously pointed out in his December 1988 McKell lecture,

… for the longer part of its history…White Australia was probably the Party's greatest single source of electoral strength, and one of the most important springs of its idealism and faith — certainly stronger than any commitment to socialism…

We, of our generation, would only have cause for shame had we allowed the weight of history prevent us from changing the policy.

To understand what is fundamental to Labor we need to draw out its dynamic — the contradictions that give it its life and its specific role in society.

We will do that next issue.

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The social roots of the Labor tradition

AS DISCONTENT with Hawke has grown, so has the idea that this is not a “real” Labor government.

To refute this notion, I began last issue by reviewing two books on the Labor's tradition: Graham Maddox's The Hawke government and Labor tradition, which largely consists of sentimental myths, and Carol Johnson's very useful, but politically flawed, The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke.

Johnson's critique showed that Labor ideology has always been built around “social harmony” ideas — in other words reformism — and that Hawke was firmly in the tradition of the other three administrations she looked at which all acted as instruments of capital.

But she was unable to explain why, in the face of this, Labor had endured, or what the left could do to break with Labor's miserable tradition of betrayal.

The answer to the first question can only be found by examining the roots of Labor's reform~ism in Australian society — in the reformism of the mass of the working class, in the nature of the state under capitalism, and the distinctive social position of the trade union bureaucracy who are the ultimate arbiters of the party. I will deal with each briefly in turn.

The roots of working class reformism are found in the contradictory experience of life within capitalism. On the one hand, having no control over the work process, the means of production or the products of our labour, makes the existing system seem impregnable and natural. Living in fragmented family units and being forced to sell their labour-power as indi~viduals repeatedly divides workers and re~inforces sectional and individualist ideas.

Nevertheless, workers are driven to fight their exploitation and do this collectively, gaining a sense of power as production stops, profits dry up and the boss is forced to negotiate.

The experience of class struggle can lead to a certain class consciousness — that workers have a common interest against the bosses. But every strike comes to an end, and then, back at work, capital moves to reassert control.

This experience of capitalist domination inter~spersed with occasional struggles and occasional victories leads overall, if unevenly, to a mixed and contradictory consciousness — combining some of the insights gained in struggle (such as the importance of strong union organisation) with acceptance of the system and its ideas: nationalism, racism, religion, whatever.

Labor and the idea of class

IN AUSTRALIA, the Labor Party is the main political expression of this contradictory consciousness.

Labor was built as a result of both the mass working class upheaval of the 1890s and its subsequent defeat — which emphasised the power of capital.

Labor's formation was a step forward, expressing the idea that workers needed to fight politically as well as industrially to defend their interests, to impose their will on society. Even today, the Labor vote — not all of it, but its core — represents an elemental class consciousness.

It is this class identification with Labor that is the root of the illusions of millions of workers that Labor exists to look after them, and simultaneously at the root of the idea that this isn't a “real” Labor government — despite all the evidence to the contrary.®MDNM¯

Because working class reformism has its roots in society, and is not primarily the product of reformists “convincing” the workers of their ideas, Labor's betrayals do not necessarily loos~en the grip of reformism — indeed, to the extent they weaken the working class without smashing it, they can actually reinforce those ideas.

And the defeat of Labor governments by the Liberals does not “expose” Labor, but increases the feeling of vulnerability within the working class, rekindling illusions in a future Labor government. The gradual recovery of Labor in NSW is stark testimony to that.

Therefore we should not be fooled into thinking that working class resentment at Hawke's attacks represents any break with Laborism to the left. Reformism can only be finally defeated when the working class feels ready to take control of society for itself — ie at the point of revolution.

The second fundamental root to Labor's reformism is the state, whose role it is to preserve capitalist relations of production.

It does this through a mixture of force and fraud; the police, prisons and army on the one hand and on the other, a whole battery of insti~tutions that appear to be above the daily class conflict, representing the interests of all society.

There are elected parliaments with their illusion of democratic control, the arbitration system, the whole social security apparatus, health and safety legislation, not to mention the education system, national sporting teams, the arts and the ABC which all pump out nationalist ideas.

This business of containing the class struggle is so much more reliable if there are mechanisms to co-opt workers' leaders.

For their part, the full-time trade union officials are only too willing to be co-opted. They are not workers. Their job is not to emancipate the working class from exploitation, but to negotiate the terms of that exploitation — wages, working conditions and so on — for the very limited section of the class they each represent.

For the officials, strikes — even the ones they accept are “necessary” — are a nuisance, disrupting what should be an orderly process of making agreements through negotiation and comprom~ise; whereas for the angry and alien~ated workers they represent a chance to get back at their oppressors, to change things a bit.

There is a fundamental conflict of interest within the unions, between workers and the full-time bureaucracy.

The reformism of the officials, therefore, has a fundamentally different content from that of the workers. Reformism does not at all express workers' class interests, whilst for the officials, the idea of a distinct working class interest — necessary to create the unions in the first place and to protect them — but also a common interest with the ~bosses, reflects their real social interests, which lie in being able to continue to mediate between the organised workers and capital.

For the trade union officials, there are considerable benefits in promoting parliamentary illusions. Parliament, and government, appear powerful to most workers. They also appear (and to a limited extent are) open to influence and pressure. Relying on politicians rather than org~an~ised struggle to deliver change avoid any rupturing of the status quo, and can be sold to the workers as a far more desirable than “destructive” class struggle that mightn't even work. This is especially the case when economic crisis forces the ruling class onto the offensive.

So it is no accident that the union officials had sponsored members of parliament even before they were in a position to form the Labor Party.

Because the labour movement's politicians may well end up at the head of the state machine, Labor has to be far more insulated from popular pressure — especially class pressure — than the trade union officials.

In part this is achieved by the extraodinarily undemocratic institution of parliament itself. A strategy based on capturing government necessarily puts the professional politician at the heart of the party. The system of three-yearly elections means that once in parliament, they are removed from any party control.

To get elected the politician has to please a majority of the electorate, including the backward workers and the middle classes. The poli~ticians relate to workers at their least powerful — as isolated individuals at home — giving the capitalist media the maximum opportunity to intervene. The average party member is reduced to the role of a drudge, used to get the vote out, because “only” the politician has the ability to secure real change.

This is quite different from he unions which organise the workers at their most powerful — at the point of production — and which rest on the willingness of the mass of workers to struggle. Thus the Labor Party is unreformable. Unlike the unions it can never be captured by revolutionary socialists, never turned into an effective weapon of class struggle.

From the point of view of the ruling class, Labor's base in the union bureaucracy has contradictory implications: it represents both the risk of pressure from below on the administrators of their state machine, and the means through which a government can best contain the class struggle.

Helping run the system

THE interest of the union officials in influencing the state is not simply a question of throwing dust in the workers' eyes.

Nor is it just in establishing institutions like arbitration to resolve disputes “peacefully”. Their social position gives them a genuine interest in how Australian capitalism is run.

Today this can be seen most starkly in the metal industry unions, whose officials have spent the last thirteen years whipping up campaigns to defend “our industry”.

First the problem was the Fraser government supposedly turning Australia into a “quarry” in the interests of the transnational corporations.

But the recession of 1982, which cost metal manufacturing 100,000 jobs, shifted the issues. Rather than fight the system that produced the crisis, these left officials began promoting the idea of an Accord with Labor more than six months before Hawke was elected. The idea was to offer wage restraint and no-strike deals in return for policies to promote manufacturing. They abandoned their previous hard-line support for higher protection, seeking instead to promote manufacturing export industries.

Indeed, John Halfpenny, that darling of the left, has been actively seeking more investment to enhance export of military production!

They promoted restructuring, the hated two-tier wages system and when some of their members tried to get the second tier rise by forcing the bosses to pretend productivity would rise, the union refused to present the case, demanding real increases in productivity.

Class struggle from below that might encourage workers to fight for wage rises is, in a period of intensified competition on the world market, a threat to the viability of Australian capitalism. Therefore, the logic of the social position of the trade union officials drives them to oppose such militancy — and in the case of the BLF and the pilots, they have been prepared to tolerate quite violent attacks from the state.

The commitment to Australian capitalism leads to a commitment to Australia's links with imperialism. Labor was always utterly loyal to the British and now America. Its imperialism and its base in the white, Anglo-Australian section of the international working class were the roots of Labor's struggle for White Australia.

In the late 1960s, Whitlam scrapped Labor's White Australia policy — not because racism divided the international working class, but because it damaged the interests of Australian capital in regard to the newly independent Asian states and Japan, which had become our major trading partner.

Likewise, Labor historically supported the establishment of state industries. This had nothing to do with any socialism that benefited the working class. State industries were, for over a century, promoted by both right wing and reformist governments because they were seen as a way of forcing the development of a vulnerable outpost of the British Empire.

Being less directly driven by the profit motive and more open to political pressure than private bosses, they gave union officials more space to mediate between the bosses and workers, and more opportunity to argue for a vote for Labor which would in turn supposedly “look after” the conditions of government employees.

Hawke and Keating have thrown that logic out the window, like governments everywhere — whether reformist, state capitalist or right wing — because the development of the world system and inefficiencies in state industries have generally made them a liability, and because privatisation divides workers and makes it easier to impose the discipline of the market.

Who controls Labor?

ALTHOUGH the union officials are ultimately decisive inside Labor, and even though Labor is the political expression of trade union officials trying to influence the state, they do not control the politicians day to day, nor do they want to.

If they did, the workers might expect them to issue orders to the politicians which again would make the party too sensitive to working class demands, and hence too unreliable for the task of running the state.

So Labor politicians have always set out to broaden the party's base — amongst farmers, small business, publicans, the middle and upper ranks of the public service and even sections of capital — and to use these as a counterweight against the influence of the unions, especially the more powerful ones.

Thus between the union officials and the politicians there is both a mutual dependence and a permanent tension. Although they are both part of the same labour bureaucracy, their social roles are quite distinct — the officials resting on the workers at the point of production, mediating directly between them and the bosses, whilst Labor is a whole step removed from this, representing the officials (not the workers!) inside the state machine, at the same time acting as an arm of the state (and the ruling class generally) within the labour movement.

Managing the class struggle means that the policy Labor governments pursue is not primarily dictated by their consciences or political views, but, as Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argue in their history of the British Labour Party:

Like any mediating element between the classes, the Labour Party depends in the final analysis on the balance between the contending classes…

They then went on to conclude that:

Any meaningful analysis of the Labour Party, therefore, must view its history as being determined above all by the changing balance of class forces.

This is the key to understanding the right wing nature of the Hawke and Scullin administrations — they both came to office at a time of recession or depression when the working class had either been massively defeated (1929) or lost the confidence to fight (1983).

By contrast, the Whitlam years were ones of boom, with an increasingly militant and left wing working class winning victories. The ruling class was in retreat and Whitlam's job was to limit the retreat. Until, that is, the recession of 1974-5 when a ruling class offensive and working class retreat in the face of sackings sharply changed the balance of class forces. Whitlam's move to the right was nowhere near enough for the increasingly hysterical bosses and he was removed.

It is also the key to understanding Labor's role running Australian capitalism during times of war, when the bargaining position of workers is immensely strengthened, and the bosses felt the need to mobilise workers to the maximum behind their war.

Undermining its own base

HOWEVER, running the state on behalf of capital means that Labor must inevitably attack the working class — attempting to weaken its class organisation, its class consciousness, its militancy and indepen~dence in action.

Yet these are precisely the foundations on which the Labor Party is ultimately built!

This explains why, at its heart, the Labor tradition has been to attack its own base — a base which has nevertheless episodically renewed its strength independently of the Labor Party and often against it.

This means that all Labor governments at some stage have ended up in conflict, not only with the workers, but the union officials as well — even right wing union officials. And these conflicts have erupted despite the cringeing desire of both left and right officials to find compromises with “their” government, and their willingness to sell the most outrageous government demands to their members — because the officials' ability to mediate depends on maintaining the independent power of their unions.

A fascinating new book by labour historian, Tom Sheridan, shows how this worked itself out during the Chifley government of 1945-9 — the government most revered by Labor mythologists. Division of Labour: Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years (Oxford Uni Press, $45) illustrates the extreme determination with which Chifley set out to prevent workers winning pay rises and shorter hours after the sacrifices of the Second World War.

He demanded employers stop paying “illegal” wage rises. He sought an extension of the Constitution to help control wages. He was the most dogged and extreme opponent of Victorian metalworkers when they struck — the whole union — for five months during 1946-7 to win a major pay rise.

He lied, he manoeuvred, he threatened, and persuaded union officials to trust him — all in order to screw the workers. He denounced Judge Foster for introducing the 40 hour week and his use of the law and the military to break the 1949 miners' strike are infamous. Even the most right wing and collaborationist officials were moved at times to denounce him.

Sheridan also shows how the pent-up anger within the working class meant that it was all Chifley could do to simply hold the line — and even there that often meant delaying union victories rather than stopping them.

However, by 1949, the Cold War, a certain degree of containment, the prospect at last of prosperity, and a major ideological mobilisation by the bosses meant that Chifley felt confident enough to tackle the powerful miners head on.

The shift in the balance of class forces, both before the miners' defeat and subsequent to it, meant that the need for the bosses to rely on Labor was greatly diminished. A rejuvenated ruling class party, the new Liberal Party under Menzies with its promise to ban the Communist Party, for the first time became an option. Similarly, the shift to the right inside the working class meant that for many workers, voting Liberal did not seem out of the question.

Labor's successful management of the class struggle on behalf of the ruling class drove it into the political wilderness for a generation.

The same political drama has been repeated with every Labor government. Whitlam tried to get constitutional power over wages — Bob Hawke as leader of the ACTU was forced to oppose him. Whitlam, too, turned to arbitration and “wage indexation” — with its familiar “no extra claims” condition — to contain wages once the crisis hit. “One man's wage rise is another man's job,” was the cry from the left Minister for Labour, Clyde Cameron.

Hawke and the class struggle

THE HAWKE government fits perfectly within this tradition as John Minns has shown in The Hawke Government, the Class Struggle and the Left (Bookmarks, $3.50).

Hawke came to office at a time of economic crisis and ruling class concern about the ability of workers to win back what they had lost in the recession of 1982.

Hawke's Prices and Incomes Accord was not only aimed at cutting wages, but gutting workplace struggle, precisely to shift the balance of forces against militants on the shopfloor — which is why the unions now find their members confused and angry, and their numbers falling.

Hawke's successes also created the openings for a number of ruling class offensives — Mudginberri, Dollar Sweets, SEQEB — because Labor had weakened and divided the working class, and because the officials were determined to avoid a generalised union response which would in turn undermine the enforced passivity of the Accord.

The cumulative effect of nearly seven years of Hawke has therefore been a significant shift in the balance of forces towards the bosses and a shift to the right politically, laying the basis for the ruling class to ditch Labor and launch a vicious offensive sometime in the future.

Hawke is a quintessential example of the Labor tradition. But that doesn't mean his administration is the same as previous Labor governments. It has been more right wing than Chifley's or Whitlam's but Hawke has not quite matched the appalling 1949 attack on the miners' union. His rhetoric is more right wing, but his administration so far less vicious than Scullin's.¯

The key to understanding Labor's tradition is not some mechanical comparison of prime ministers in the manner of Maddox and Johnson, but an understanding of the party's dynamic — the forces and contradictions that drive it to attack its base.

Breaking the grip of reformism

ONE OF the central strategic tasks of revolutionary socialists is to convince the mass of the working class to break with reformism.

Our approach, first outlined by Lenin and Trotsky during the upsurge following the Russian revolution, is rooted in the contradictions within reformism itself.

Every time workers struggle collectively for their class interests they are inherently challenging the logic and rule of capital. Here lies the potential for them to be won to revolutionary socialism, which is nothing more nor less than their class interests and the potential of their struggle generalised into a political theory.

Whilst we are for prosecuting the class struggle to the limit, the union officials and Labor politicians are not. They are committed to the system. Thus, to the extent that workers and the oppressed really want to defend themselves, they will ultimately come into conflict with their established leaders as they manoeuvre and profess support while trying to derail things and divide the militants from the mass.

And these leaders will throw back all the reformist ideas workers have swallowed over the years — it's against the “national interest”, you can't win against the system, it's all the fault of the Japanese/Vietnamese, it's more effective to work through parliament and elect a Labor government — or these days, we know Hawke's terrible so we have to strengthen the left to bring him into line.

In the process of struggles led by the officials or even Labor politicians, a minority — eventually a majority — can see the through logic of these ideas and begin breaking with them.

So our long-term, strategic orientation is to work with and against reformists, both workers and leaders. With them in the struggle; against all ideas and all actions that hold the struggle back and divide the workers.

Therefore we are for voting Labor in elections. We distinguish between Labor's reactionary politicians and the class that gives them their position in society. Next year, we will not be voting for Hawke, but with the class conscious workers who see voting Labor as an attempt to impose their class interests on the state. We are with them in that aim, whilst arguing not to trust Labor, to expect to fight to get anything.

Some sections of the working class are less willing to accept Labor's sellouts, and more willing to fight “their” government.

This unevenness within the class provides the basis on which it will be ultimately possible to built a distinct revolutionary party consisting of that minority of the class committed to smashing the system.

This unevenness is also the foundation for the party's factions, with the left historically based on the more militant unions.

Militant unionists are more likely to elect professed socialists to lead them. If these officials in turn didn't organise separately within the party from the Hawkes and Keatings, if they didn't rubbish the right to the militant shop stewards, if they didn't promote politicians willing to ally with them, they would have trouble maintaining credibility with the militants.

At the same time, the support of left officials for Labor governments is decisive in containing the most powerful and class conscious workers. It is officials from the left unions like the metalworkers and BWIU who have played the decisive role in imposing the Accord and keeping Hawke in power because it is their members who, at any stage, could have blown it to pieces, won significant real wage increases and opened the way for the rest of the working class to follow suit.

So the whole process of mediating between capital and labour produces the institutionalised tensions we see inside the Labor Party. At times of downturn in class struggle, the internal party conflict can be relatively muted (as at the present), but at times of great struggle it can lead to war within the party.

In the early 1930s, under the impact of the Depression, the Scullin government was prepared to wreck the party to impose austerity on the working class. The NSW branch — that is the entire structure of the largest wing of the party — was expelled for attacking the “Premiers' Plan” cuts.

And within NSW a massive movement around the so-called “socialisation units” attacked the demogogic Premier Lang, demanding Labor introduce socialism within three years to deal with the crisis.

The Stalinised Communist Party dismissed all wings of Labor as “social fascist” and refused to critically support the left in these struggles, isolating itself from the best and most political elements within the Labor Party.

These internal struggles themselves have become part of the Labor tradition. The supposed ascendancy of the “industrial wing” over the “political” — a result of the 1916 split — was Labor folklore for decades when militants were more self-confident and sceptical of their need to rely on Labor governments.

This points to the existence of other elements to the Labor tradition — in conflict with the interpretation pushed so strongly today, that Labor's success has flowed from its running the state “responsibly” and not getting too far ahead of the electorate.

Indeed, there is not and cannot be one single Labor tradition, because Labor's contradictory class content creates both a dominant history of betrayal but also a history of struggle against that betrayal.

Today, reformism has less than ever to offer workers. Nearly seven years of Hawke government have not been about reforming the system for workers and the oppressed, but about cutting wages and removing reforms given in the past.

This does not mean, however, that reformism has no future. It can continue to exist as reformism without reforms, because its roots lie, not in Labor's willingness to improve things, but in the fact that whilst workers have partially organised on class lines, they do not yet feel confident to overthrow the system.

That can only change when workers themselves start winning the class struggle. But the other key element is a political alternative — a party that the mass of workers believe can lead them in tearing the system down. Socialists today cannot noticeably change the balance of class forces, but we can begin to start building that political alternative.

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This page updated 14 November 2002. For feedback email phil.griffiths@optusnet.com.au