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Workingman’s Paradise: Part I


A Storm in Paradise

Who would not, if they could, drop civilisation from them as one shakes off a horrid nightmare at the dawning of the day? Only to stand for a moment, free, on the barricade, outlawed and joyous, with Death, Freedom’s impregnable citadel, opening its gates behind—and to pass through, the red flag uplifted in the sight of all men, with flaming slums and smoking wrongs for one’s funeral pyre!

William Lane, The Workingman’s Paradise (1892)

Australian labor-power arrived relatively late in global capitalism, and yet the Australian Labor Party is not only the oldest national political party in Australia but the first national labor party to form a government in the world. From its inception, socialists have had a complex and sometimes volatile relationship to the Labor Party, as has the party to the class it claims to represent and vice versa. Many leftists pride themselves on a history of pushing the Labor Party to the left. Today some point back to the Anti-Vietnam War Coalition successfully pressuring the Labor Party to move left on the Vietnam War. Others go further and claim that the New Left paved the way for the 1972 election of progressive Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Indeed, the Left is still almost unanimously outraged at his sacking by the Governor General, with many leftists claiming his dismissal was a CIA plot.

Emerging out of the mass opposition to the Iraq War, the Millennial Left have often found ourselves in a strange rehearsal of history. We even had our very own Labor leader apparently ousted by the CIA, and following the perceived anarchist shortcomings of the Occupy movement, we turned to progressive capitalist politics for a renewal of the Left. The Millennial social democratic critique of Labor Party politics has been directed towards the party’s enduring commitment to a neoliberal agenda, but this pre-neoliberal nostalgia for Whitlam-era Labor flattens the experience of the New Left, taking for granted the essentially leftist character of Labor— a perception that was much less ubiquitous with the New and Old Left. But the source of this ambivalence is no mystery. It is deeply bound, as we will further examine, to the missed opportunity for the overcoming of the national framing of this question.

Depending on whom you ask, the crisis of the Left’s relation to the Labor Party can be traced to any number of historical inflection points. It’s worth remembering that the Labor Party itself, as well as the Left’s relation to it and what this means for independent working-class politics are not in fact set in stone. This is especially true today when politics — indeed, history itself — is very much in flux. But the reality of the labor bureaucracy, with the union factions cemented into the Labor Party, even in its diminished form today, seems a citadel that looms too large for us Millennials, blotting out a horizon of imagination for an independent socialist politics. And yet you don’t have to dig too deep to find a time when the workingmen of the world, including those who found themselves in Australia, believed that anything was possible.

In this, the first of three articles, I will attempt a critical investigation of the Left’s historical relation to the Labor Party and the potential for an overcoming of this historical wreckage.

Part I: A Storm in Paradise

A Negro is a Negro. Only under certain conditions does he become a slave. A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.

Karl Marx 1847

The second half of the 19th century saw the inter-colonial rivalry of the different Australian colonies (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, etc.) grow increasingly untenable. Conflicting protective tariffs and labor legislation began to undermine the boom in population, wealth, and productivity. At the same time, although geographically isolated, Australia found itself drawn into international crisis. At the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, plantation owners looked to tracts in Queensland to maintain profits from cotton production. For a time, Australia was even used by the Confederacy as a supply port for blockade runners. At the time, imperial Russia, a tactical ally of the Union, was engaged in a Cold War or “Great Game” with the British Empire, and even threatened to invade Australia if Lord Palmerston (and Emperor Louis Bonaparte) intervened on the side of the Confederacy.

Cotton does not thrive in tropical conditions, so many cotton planters invested instead in the Queensland sugar industry. Convict transportation to the eastern colonies ended in the early 1850s, and freedom and self-governance was gradually granted to masses of convicts previously used as a source of cheap labor. Unable to entice free workers to work in tropical heat for low wages, the planters began the practice of “blackbirding,” bringing in thousands of indentured servants from the Pacific Islands. Starting in the 1860s, the planters shipped in by some estimates over fifty thousand “Kanakas” from the Pacific Islands to work as indentured servants.

Slavery was denounced by everyone: workers, missionaries, philanthropists, fortune seekers, entrepreneurs, and socialists. But Queensland sugar planters found favor with Premier Thomas Mcllwraith, who, anxious about German imperial expansion in the region (potentially threatening the stream of “coolie” labor), attempted to annex the eastern region of New Guinea. Ironically, the argument of liberal progressives against slavery became the rationale for the White Australia Policy:

It’s just about as clear as figgers,

Sure as one and one make two,

Folks as make black slaves of niggers

Want to make white slaves of you.

The premier of Queensland who succeeded Mcllwraith and, later, co-drafted the Australian constitution, Samuel Griffith, campaigned against “the permanent existence of a large servile population not admitted to the franchise,” which, he argued, “was not compatible with the continuance of free political institutions.” A major conflict at the heart of the battle for democracy in Australia was between decommissioned officers; free and freed settlers who had been granted large tracts of land to cultivate, known as the Squatters, who were backed by the colonial bureaucracy, often with access to convict labor (and later “coolie” labor); and the explosion of immigrant fortune-seekers and political emigres from across the world who wished to break up the economic stranglehold on what had become disparagingly known as the Squattocracy. Australia wasn’t the only convict colony in the region, and sugar slaves weren’t the only thing imported from New Caledonia.

In Europe the revolutions of 1848 had sought to precipitate a transition and further modernization of a society brought into crisis by the Industrial Revolution. With the defeat and subsequent decline of Chartism in Britain and in the absence of an international socialist party, it fell to figures like English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, French President and soon-to-be Emperor Louis Bonaparte and Prussian leader and first German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to address the crisis of society, initiating reforms and public works, while also absorbing social discontents and expanding the police. The unification of German States had been an aim of radicals in 1848, but the potential for a peaceful democratic unification passed. Bismarck predicted that this would finally be achieved not through a stagnant liberalism but rather by “blood and iron,” and indeed, by the end of the 1860s, Bismarck’s military unification of German states under Prussian rule was reaching its apex.

The 1848 revolution in France had also failed, with the conservative monarchist Party of Order and President Louis Bonaparte elected with broad popular support. An uneasy political formation held until Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état, after which the Party was forcibly disbanded. Bonaparte saw the unification of German States as a threat to the French position in Europe and potentially undermining to its economy. By 1870 the French economy was indeed stagnating, and Bismarck, exploiting this development, skillfully goaded Louis Bonaparte into a war. After the decimation of the French army, Paris was placed under military siege. Many of the National Guard had been radicalized by socialists in the worker’s movement. Following the capture of Bonaparte himself and fearing civil conflict, French President Adolphe Thiers attempted to disarm the working class and subdue the revolutionary fervor. As is well known, this had the opposite effect, and the working class seized control of Paris. From March to May 1871 the fledgling workers’ government instituted many social reforms, including the replacement of the police with the armed workers, the elimination of night work and child labor, and a freeze on debts and rent. The Commune was eventually smashed in violent repression by both the French and Prussian armies. Some of the surviving Communards were sent to the French convict colony in New Caledonia. Before long, Communards started escaping, stowing away on ships, and making their way to Australia, a development met with alarm by the Australian press. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, it wasn’t so much the political emigres themselves but rather the revolutionary ideas and historical experience that were being imported from France and elsewhere.

The First International, the International Workingmen’s Association, was founded in 1864 during the world-historical upheaval of the American Civil War and other radical republican movements, such as those found in Italy and Poland. In Australia, the short-lived Democratic Association of Victoria was a member. It had emerged as the spiritual successor to the Chartist-influenced Ballarat Reform League. In the wake of the failure of the Paris Commune, the socialist workers’ movement was split over the meaning of the event and the historical experience that had been imparted to the working class. Anarchists led by Mikhail Bakunin affirmed the potential of the social revolution against the state and all forms of existing political mediation, whereas, for Karl Marx and his followers, the Paris Commune was proof that the class struggle tended towards a transitional state form, the dictatorship of the proletariat. For them the defeat of the Commune confirmed the need for patient international political preparation for the task of the abolition of the state, for which social action alone was inadequate. These debates emerging out of the Paris Commune held significance for the class struggle in every corner of the world.

The early wins of the unionized labor movement in Australia were achieved by skilled workers in an era of booming industry and innovation emerging out of the gold rush and the Second Industrial Revolution. “Marvellous Melbourne” temporarily became the second-most populous city in the British Empire, and certainly one of the wealthiest. A general rise in the standard of living continued throughout Australia’s Gilded Age, but the potential for a workingman’s paradise was soon contradicted by labor’s inability to keep pace with the industrial potential being unleashed. In 1890, the “Great Strikes” broke out: The Maritime Officers Union walked off the job over long-standing disputes over working conditions; soon after, the Squatters sought to undercut the rights of shearers by bringing in non-union labor, and the resulting strikes spread throughout the labor movement, across the eastern colonies, and even across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Especially contentious were the rights of different unions to associate and organize cross-industry. The strikers were eventually starved out and defeated in violent repression by the police and the first use of the army as strike-breakers. Workers returned to work on the employers’ conditions. Subsequently, employers organized themselves to lobby for the right of freedom of contract. Although a resounding defeat, the political tocsin sounded: The independence of the working class could not depend solely on the social power of organized labor. Previously lauded liberals like Samuel Griffith had their effigies burned in the streets for their role in breaking up the strikes, and the shearers issued a widely disseminated manifesto calling for “the reorganization of society.”

The Australian Socialist League, which influenced the strikes, was founded in 1887. This was a multi-tendency party primarily made up of anarchists, utopian socialists, and socialist reformers. Subsequently, they became Australia’s first member party of the Second International. It operated in the NSW Labor Party, which was founded in reaction to the suppression of the strikes and the specter of global economic depression. In 1892 the League held eight of the thirty-five seats recently acquired by the Labor Party, which held the balance of power between the Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party.

The working parliamentary function of the Labor Party was typical of the political realities faced by newly established labor parties the country over, “support in return for concessions.” In these early years, a primary aim was the abolition of the property qualification for the franchise, a move that would swell the vote share of the Labor Party. Free trader and “father of federation,” NSW Premier Henry Parkes, and Protectionist Party leader George Dibbs were quick to foment factional disputes within the Labor Party. This they accomplished by offering concessions while also exploiting wedge issues that the party platform was silent on, notably the issue of protectionism. Australia was a relatively young country, and the issue of the protection of domestic industry and jobs from massive, long-established and well-equipped overseas firms, could be used to divide labor. Within the labor movement, sections of the socialist Left supported the protectionism of local industry in return for a living wage and a cap on hours. After the federation of the six colonies of Australia in 1901, a series of referendums were narrowly defeated, each of which sought to deepen the constitutional ability of the Commonwealth government to “smash” the emerging supra-national trusts. They had been supported by the small capitalists, craft unions, and the leaders of the Labor Party. International Socialists were quick to point out that workers’ demands for higher wages had actually spurred on the combination of industry and an international social integration that held unprecedented potential for global revolution.

While the issue of protectionism threatened to undermine the internationalism of the socialist workers’ movement, the heterogeneity of the competing interests within the Labor Party strengthened its purpose to extend the franchise and replace Crown nomination with democratic processes. On this basis, Labor had broad appeal. It provided small farmers a political bulwark against the squatters and large firms. Similarly, Labor promised that the nationalization of industry would provide small shopkeepers freedom from the price-fixing of monopolies. However, by the mid-1890s, the expectation of the small but active socialist cadre within the ranks of Labor that it would become an avowedly Socialist Party seemed increasingly unlikely.

Indeed, dissatisfaction with the political turn of organized labor was swift and found enduring expressions in different, yet interrelated, ways. Its source most often went by one of two names: wage slavery and private property.

William Lane, a utopian socialist and prominent working-class leader who had been deeply influenced by the Paris Commune and also by Edward Bellamy’s futuristic utopian novel Looking Backward, saw the Labor Party becoming an end in itself rather than initiating a transition beyond capitalism. He abandoned the socialist movement in Australia, founding a utopian colony in Paraguay or, as he called it, “New Australia,” which he envisioned becoming a powerful beacon to the international socialist movement within a generation. It drew freedom seekers and socialists from around the world. Infamously, Lane had inherited some peculiarities from his experience in Australia, including teetotalism, pacifism, and racism. But perhaps on reflection these weren’t so peculiar. Lane lamented both the subduing of the intellect and the dampening of radicalism that alcohol had on the working class. He saw alcohol as a palliative that allowed working people to resign themselves to their lot. While acknowledging the need for class struggle, Lane also deplored the suffering and violence that widespread strikes and industrial disputes often wrought upon the working class. Leaving aside the evident influence of scientific racism, which attempted to explain the revival of slavery under conditions of capitalism, Lane’s racism was largely tied to practical barriers to revolution in Australia. He despised the use of sugar-slaves and would regularly sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to his younger brother Ernest. After being subject to outright “blackbirding” in the early 1850s, the Chinese, as an isolated cultural group with no national history of labor organizing, were brought in as another source of cheap labor. As Lane wrote, “down would come the wages, up would go the hours, and in would come the Chinese.” But the capitalists, being the “Representatives of Universal Capital,” merely sought to preserve their freedom of contract, instrumentalizing non-union (scab) labor to this end. Certainly, the labor movement did itself no favors by not absorbing Chinese and forms of “coolie” labor earlier, but this wasn’t due to some backwardness in the “Australian character,” as is widely lamented in liberal and leftist historiography.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Britain’s empire of liberty had fallen into crisis, with domestic radicalism seen as a threat to political stability and an increasingly autocratic orientation to the colonies. Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, when Britain could no longer send convicts to Georgia, Australia became a convict colony. While the Americans and French were undertaking their world-historic revolutionary experiments with freedom and democracy, Australian convicts labored under the despotic rule of the likes of the “Rum Corps,” who were later deployed by the English against the United States in the War of 1812. Colonization expanded during and after the defeat of the French Revolution. and the large-scale industrialization of Britain only accelerated the process. By the latter part of the 19th century when Australia found itself in the throes of the crisis of free labor, global capital was already beginning to have all the transitory, semi- and unskilled workers it would ever need, “white” or otherwise. Karl Marx, whose critique of socialism became increasingly influential in post-federation Australia via the deepening influence of the Second International, wrote that capital is not reducible to the interests of the capitalists or the workers, but is rather the estrangement of man from the total process of society which he is compelled nonetheless to reproduce. The consciousness informing the socialist movement recognized that wage labor was not the final form of the social relations of society, but only transitory. But the historical transition initiated by the modern revolution had stalled, both individually and collectively. Society seemed doomed to reproduce a disintegrating wage labor relation.

Lane’s abandonment of the project for socialism in Australia for the colony in Paraguay was a failure. Meanwhile, those who had stayed in Australia found themselves increasingly at odds with the leadership of the Labor Party, which already at this early stage was given to careerism and vote capturing. By the end of the century, the battle of democracy in Australia seemed to have fulfilled Bakunin’s prediction that the inevitable character of politics was to stifle the potential of social revolution. As he had written,

[political parties] may renew their composition, it is true, but this does not prevent the formation in a few years’ time of a body of politicians, privileged in fact though not in law, who, devoting themselves exclusively to the direction of the public affairs of a country, finally form a sort of political aristocracy or oligarchy.

But the fate of the Left’s relation to the Labor Party was by no means settled.

Many socialists remained within it, seeking to push it beyond its increasingly ossified form. Others founded new parties — significantly, Second International member party, the Socialist Labor Party, which later imported the IWW under the influence of the American socialists, particularly that of American Marxists Daniel De Leon and Eugene Debs. As we will further examine in Part 2 of “Workingman’s Paradise,” when the curtain closed on the 19th century, it was only just opening on a renewed potential for the politics of world revolution.