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Workingman’s Paradise: Part II


“LAST sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,

Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West

In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?

Or Delos of a coming Sun-God’s race?

Are you for Light, and trimmed, with oil in place,

Or but a Will o’ Wisp on marshy quest?

A new demesne for Mammon to infest?

Or lurks millennial Eden ’neath your face?

The cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere

That in your limits leap and swim and fly,

Or trail uncanny harp-strings from your trees,

Mix omens with the auguries that dare

To plant the Cross upon your forehead sky,

A virgin helpmate Ocean at your knees.”

— Bernard O’Dowd, Australia (1900)

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

The 1890s had been a period of defeat and despair for working class socialism in Australia. The extension of the franchise sought to give a democratic voice to fragmented working class interests and the Labor Party’s vote grew rapidly, fulfilling the political aspirations of many workers, unionists, and evolutionary and national visions of socialism.

In part 1 of this series, I spoke of careerism as being a common critique of the Australian Labor Party. While this is undoubtedly true, it is also merely epiphenomenal. We might accurately say the ultimate destiny of the Australian Labor Party to subsume and dominate the entire labor movement is tied up with protectionism and the national framing of the question of socialisation of industry, but this is just another way of saying the Labor Party as a permanent fixture of national culture is tied to the failure of international socialism.

As we examined in part 1, the tendency towards the concentration of industry had provoked a conservative anti-imperialism that wished to retard this process. This saw the working class split between support for the ascendant Labor Party which promised to provide a refuge from the worst excesses of global capitalism, and on the other hand emergent, if heterogeneous Left alternatives, with divergent currents of Marxism, anarchism, and utopian socialism. The anarchists and utopian socialists rejected parliament as a vehicle for realising socialism, instead calling for a pure negation of bourgeois social relations and opting for the doomed communist colony in Paraguay (New Australia/Cosme) or “propaganda of the deed” social actions such as the attempted bombing of the SS Aramac, a ship importing “scab” labor.

As Australian anarchist John Arthur Andrews, wrote in his call for Nihilism,

I submit that every individual has certain natural proportions or relations subsisting within himself, and that all social wrong is the establishment of relations by which persons are made to stand towards each other differently from these natural proportions.

Bourgeois society had evolved for several centuries, with artisanal and peasant labor gradually giving way to the dominance of town dwellers. This was the “new society growing in the shell of the old,” which finally erupted into the revolt of the Third Estate as the culmination of this historical process, seeking to subordinate the state to civil society. Socialism in the 19th century, including anarchist currents, was the inheritor of this bourgeois radicalism. As the crisis of bourgeois society progressed in the 19th century the anarchists began to question the “unnatural” authority that derives from bourgeois social relations. For the anarchists the promise of a self-legislating bourgeois society had regressed leaving the apparently sovereign people, “grovelling in the dust beseeching — in vain — their alleged servants for some trifling bean, some concession to mercy or to justice.”

As Anarchist theoretician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote in 1840,

The people finally legalized property. God forgive them, for they knew not what they did! …The more obnoxious forms of property — statute-labor, mortmain, maîtrise, and exclusion from public office — have disappeared; the conditions of its enjoyment have been modified: the principle still remains the same. There has been progress in the regulation of the right; there has been no revolution.

Indeed, if the bourgeois state derived its authority not from the mediation of free association of producers but rather from the protection of private property, then the bourgeois revolution had produced a legal and juridical order that inaugurated a state dedicated to the protection of social theft. For the anarchists this meant that our bourgeois social relations had to be “discarded” so that we might begin to uncover our natural proclivities for collective cooperation that had been purged by the tacit social contract of the bourgeois state and further degenerated in the fires of industry. The anarchist pessimism about socialist politics completing the bourgeois revolution had important political implications.

Marxism also sought to ultimately overcome the state and bourgeois right. However, if the bourgeois state arose out of the free association of the working masses, the crisis of political mediation could not be circumvented but rather this overcoming required a political act i.e., proletarian socialism was to complete the bourgeois revolution. For Marxism, the authoritarian character of the capitalist state in its violation of bourgeois right was based on the emergency management of bourgeois right and not, as is a common thread in anarchism, the ongoing result of the expropriation of wealth by a ruling elite.

Anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin sought to sidestep the ongoing crisis of bourgeois social relations, and thus sidestep the problem of the capitalist state, by citing a natural — although obscured by modern “individualism”— human capacity for non-authoritarian social co-operation.

Shortly after the 1905 Revolution during a chance encounter with Ernest Lane (youngest brother of William, the founder of the doomed utopian colony in Paraguay) Kropotkin chided Lane for abandoning the “communist” colony. As Lane wrote:

One listened amazed to hear Kropotkin, with his super brain, enthusiasm, and revolutionary ardour, placing his entire faith in the triumph of Communism on the feeble and futile foundation of isolated and ignored settlements.

One might imagine Kropotkin elaborating on the potential of the “communist experiments” of utopian colonies in a similar vein to his arguments made in the preface to the Conquest of Bread,

[Utopian colonies were] — experiments which prepare human thought to conceive some of the practical forms in which a communist society might find its expression. The synthesis of all these partial experiments will have to be made some day by the constructive genius of some one of the civilized nations, and it will be done. But samples of the bricks out of which the great synthetic building will have to be built, and even samples of some of its rooms, are being prepared by the immense effort of the constructive genius of man.

Perhaps Kropotkin elaborated further that these “samples” of a future society weren’t only to be found in isolated communist experiments but were increasingly being seen, despite bourgeois individualism, in the objective cooperative tendencies of late 19th century society.

In spite of the narrowly egoistic turn given to men’s minds by the commercial system, the tendency towards Communism is constantly appearing, and influences our activities in a variety of ways. The bridges, for the use of which a toll was levied in the old days, are now become public property and free to all; so are the high roads, except in the East, where a toll is still exacted from the traveller for every mile of his journey. Museums, free libraries, free schools, free meals for children; parks and gardens open to all; streets paved and lighted, free to all; water supplied to every house without measure or stint — all such arrangements are founded on the principle: “Take what you need.”

In the meeting Ernest Lane eventually asked Kropotkin whether he would be attending a conference of Russian revolutionaries then sitting in London. Kropotkin replied with a definite “no” and explained that “State Socialism”, especially that promoted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany would first have to be destroyed before true socialism could be built. Lane acknowledges from the vantage point of 1939 this prophecy to have been proven unfortunately correct. However, while the avowed ideological commitments of “State Socialism” and anarchism may appear at first glance to stand in diametrical opposition, as any student of history will know, the cunning of the historical process produces strange bedfellows, especially as a storm approaches.

The Second International Down Under

The Revolution of 1905, the “dress rehearsal” for 1917, seemed to begin to upend the dominance of the past over the present i.e., with the proletariat throwing off “petty bourgeois illusions” in weeks which previously appeared to require decades.

As Karl Kautsky wrote in 1908, during a debate over whether to admit the UK Labor Party to the Second International, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had become the model organisation to which proletarian socialism around the world was aspiring. The SPD had not matured under the defensive posture of mass unionism but had emerged with a conscious end in mind: socialist revolution. With the eventual repeal of anti-socialist laws in 1890, the SPD was able to bring its social reach into the open with many civil society organisations becoming openly affiliated, including but not confined to trade unions. The SPD did not seek to palliate proletarianization and arbitrate between classes but rather existed in total opposition to the political status quo, using its presence in parliament to declare the necessity for the working class to take state power via its own transitional organisations. As Kautsky noted, while this had become the highest vehicle for independent working-class politics, a mass socialist party could not of course be conjured out of thin air. As Marx had written, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

At the start of the 20th century, in the context of a “young and free” Australia with an amorphous parliament with newly forming political parties, the power of the ballot box held exceptional revolutionary potential. The newly federated Australian Labor Party enjoyed mass working class support but was opposed from the Left by the relatively small De Leonist Socialist Labor Party (SLP) which had emerged out of the Socialist League. As in the United States the SLP remained aloof from the already existing unions and emerging socialist parties, eventually resisting calls for unification caucuses following the collapse of the Second International.

In a rehearsal of the revisionist dispute that had engulfed the Second International, the SLP insisted that despite the pronouncements of Labor politicians of “socialistic laws” and government ownership of industry there was no socialism in Australia. The SLP ran against the ALP in elections and sought to distinguish themselves from the various other parties and propaganda groups that were attempting to drive the Labor Party in a socialist direction. As De Leon reported to the 1904 conference of the Second International,

In the other Australian States there exist organizations more or less socialistic, under such names as International Socialist, Vanguard, Fellowship, and Social Democratic clubs. None of them take definite political action, being mere adherents of the existing Parliamentary Labor Parties of the different States, who endeavour not to overthrow the capitalist system, but to make such system bearable, being destitute of any revolutionary aim.

If one looks beyond the polemics of the SLP the dispute turned on the question of the possibility of the new society growing within the old, a project many socialists considered the Labor Party capable of legislating piece by piece, i.e., “a peaceful evolutionary emergence of the workers out of the house of bondage into the promised land along a flower strewn path of parliamentarianism.” This very same question would be raised, in albeit a radically different way, by the wayward offspring of the SLP, the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Self-Defeat of the IWW

The SLP’s importation of the IWW is widely acknowledged as the most decisive factor in the upsurge of class struggle in Australia. With the reverberations of the beginning of 1905 Revolution echoing in their ears, the founders Daniel De Leon, Eugene Debs and Bill Haywood, recognised that the world revolution was entering a new phase, with industrial unionism and the organising of the unorganised a potentially mighty weapon in the rising class struggle. In Australia it revealed to the working class the overtly repressive character of the Labor Party, and yet, in its eventual collapse and failure the IWW’s model of industrial unionism and cross sector organisation laid the foundation for a more efficient management of the working class by the state.

Importantly, the repressive state management that characterized the ALP in government is perhaps best understood not via the polemics of the time (e.g., “class traitors”) but rather as the inheritors of the crisis of bourgeois right. The first majority Labor government worked towards a living wage, welfare provisions, protectionist tariffs, while also expanding the military, and the role of the police. The arbitration courts and various subsidiary wage boards, versions of which persist until this day, are also direct examples of the state stepping into society to mediate the permanent crisis of wage labor. These seemingly innocuous bureaucratic bodies would eventually preside over jail-time for strikers who threatened “essential industries” during the First World War, fulfilling Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s promise to defend the British Empire “to the last man and last shilling.”

Henry Cohen President of the N.S.W court in 1901 provides a snapshot of the ideological foundation of the practice of arbitration “I think that all parties are beginning to recognise – many have already recognised – that capital and labor are co-partners: that one is necessary to the other; that the welfare of capital means the welfare of labor; and the welfare of labor means the welfare of capital.”

Justice Cohen points us again back to the question driving the revisionist dispute within the Second International i.e., was the worker’s self-activity and self-consciousness of such activity pointing towards socialism “in our time”? As we noted earlier the anarchists had long since affirmed the spontaneous self-consciousness of the producers. Kautsky in his polemics with the economists and revisionists insisted that the class struggle alone pointed back rather to the reconstitution of capitalism. As Marx had written, “…the bourgeoisie and its economists maintain that the interest of the capitalist and of the labourer is the same. And in fact, so they are! The worker perishes if capital does not keep him busy. Capital perishes if it does not exploit labour-power, which, in order to exploit, it must buy.”

As Marx and Engels elaborated, the self-contradiction of the bourgeois social relations resulted in a reversal of means and ends: the working class would seek to conserve their bourgeois right to work, which compelled the capitalists to abolish labor. This process, of which the class struggle was a constitutive element, was not an absolute but a relative tendency. What this meant is that the society of Capital was compelled to both dissolve and reconstitute forms of labor in an ongoing “moving contradiction.”

Having broken with both its trade unionist leadership in 1906 and the SLP in 1908 the IWW was free to become an industrial union fighting for the complete overthrow of capitalism while also avoiding any rigorous ideological concerns. The IWW sat at an odd angle halfway between a party and an industrial union and yet in its agitation and political horizons it continued to see itself as fulfilling a vital role in the division of labour within the international socialist movement. The mainstream press, the Labor Party and union leadership eventually saw the threat of IWW as synonymous with Bolshevism. The IWW was portrayed as an extreme Left excrescence bent on the anti-social destruction of 25 years of progressive Laborism. Even the amalgamation efforts towards One Big Union aligned with the Labor Party, which had initially utilised IWW propaganda, quickly abandoned this approach once the negative nature of the IWW’s political vision became evident.

At the outbreak of war, as is well known, the Second International leadership opted for a conservative strategy, attempting to preserve the gains of the last half century. For the IWW, Australia’s entry into the war in 1914 raised the class struggle to lethal levels, providing renewed revolutionary purpose; agitating against the Labor Party’s attempts to institute conscription, which in turn caused a deep political crisis. Given the decisive rejection of parliament it may sound strange to talk of the IWW as having a “politics” and yet the rejection of parliament was a rejection of the ballot as “the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on a long-suffering and over-patient working-class.” The Democratic Party in the US was of course far older than the Australian Labor Party, however, the horizon of Labor’s politics was convergent with Eugene Deb’s description of the Democrats as the “wail and cry of the perishing middle class.” The Labor Party’s promise to provide a refuge from the ravishes of international capitalism was replete with stark warnings of a return to desperate years of the mid 1890s if the split within the established labor movement was deepened. The IWW rejected these warnings, playing a vanguard role in the struggle for the right of freedom of speech and association, and rejecting the racialisation ofthe working class, thus fulfilling the vision of Second International politics as a “tribune of the people.”

The IWW had not initially been avowedly anarchist in its rejection of parliament, and yet this tactic, adopted in a period of mass strikes was gradually turned into a principle and undermined the IWW’s own strategy of leading the proletariat to power. The IWW came to see itself not only as a fighting organisation that disrupted the corrupting influence of the capitalist parties but also as potentially “building the new society in the shell of the old.” The 1917 revolution threw a spanner in the works of this dual vision of political breakdown and the gradual embrace of revolutionary unionism by the working class.

The IWW initially embraced the October Revolution, but it was unable to imbibe the historical experience of the international proletariat i.e., the combination of social and political action, which had resulted in the proletariat taking state power. Crucially this dialectic of the political and the social held within it the ability to preserve the task of the revolution in moments that called for retreat and consolidation. This became evident when the Russian/world revolution ran aground in Germany 1919, with the final abandonment of the revolution by the leadership of the SPD, who feared a repeat of Allied invasion of Russia if the working-class took power in Germany. As the revolutionary tide ebbed, the ability to perform an orderly retreat tested the reflexive ability of socialist leadership the world over. The IWW was undoubtedly smashed by the state, but its organisational inability to combine both legal and illegal activities had never been subject to a self-critical investigation. The lesson of the failure of the revolution was not the betrayal of the proletariat by its leaders but perhaps more accurately, a self-betrayal of the founding purpose of the Second International. This again pointed back to the difference between the bourgeois and proletarian revolution.

As Leon Trotsky later wrote, consciousness had to play a far greater role in proletarian revolution than it had for the revolutionary bourgeoisie because bourgeois ideology was far older than socialist ideology, the latter which had emerged from the potential of capitalism itself.

The part played in bourgeois revolutions by the economic power of the bourgeoisie, by its education, by its municipalities and universities, is a part which can be filled in a proletarian revolution only by the party of the proletariat.

The Commintern’s 1920 letter to the IWW, reprinted in Australia, beseeched the IWW to work with the Third International,

The new society is not to be built…as we thought, within shell of the capitalist system. We cannot wait for that. THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION IS HERE. And when the workers have overthrown capitalism and have crushed all attempts to re-establish it, then, at their leisure, through their Soviet State, they can build the new society in freedom.

In Australia the IWW initially joined the newly forming Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which unified trade unionists and socialist parties, excluding the SLP which stood aloof from unity conferences and subsequently faded into obscurity. The IWW soon found the discipline of the Third International irksome, particularly the strategy of revolutionary workers joining existing conservative unions, many of which had expanded massively in the years following WW1. In a sad historical irony, the IWW came full circle, returning to the sectarianism they sought to escape in their break with the SLP.

Advancing Dusk

Emerging in the 19th century, the proletariat, a class progressively divesting themselves of their labor power became the most acute symptom of the crisis of the freedom promised by the bourgeois revolution. For Marxism the proletarian revolution wasn’t to realise new social relations already growing in capitalism but was based on the recognition that the strikes, suffering and political and social revolts that emerged in the 19th century pointed to a new necessity and possibility-the completion of the old bourgeois task to begin the new.

Lenin stressed that while parliament had regressed into a “pigsty” of competing rackets, it was nonetheless the result of the revolutionary self-becoming of bourgeois society and encompassed the unfinished tasks of the revolts of the Third Estate. As such the proletarian revolution-the dictatorship of the proletariat-was necessarily a revolution that proceeds through bourgeois forms, with the goal of the transition to something qualitatively new.

As Georg Lukacs wrote in 1923, even if the working-class was to take state power under the advice first formulated by Voltaire to, “Burn your laws and make new ones,” the question remains, “from whence can new Laws be obtained?” Voltaire writing in the Age of Enlightenment could declare with confidence, “From Reason!” Yet the necessity driving the revolutionary bourgeoisie fell into self-contradiction. Inaugurated most pointedly by the failure of the 1848 revolution, state repression became the self-repression of the workers themselves i.e., the state began deputising the working-class as the special bodies of armed men. As Lenin wrote this process had come to be reified as a necessary function “of the growing complexity of social life, the differentiation of functions and so on.” Marxism was not to be the solution to the crisis but was rather an attempt to provide proletarian socialism a critical recognition of the crisis of our self-mastery. A crisis not to be naturalised or lamented but rather probed for its historical potential, as it had been in practice by the accumulated defeats of the proletariat.

The apparent antinomy of social and political action was a symptom of the growth and strength of the workers movement for socialism, and in a twist of fate those who had disavowed parliament appeared more political than the parliamentary Labor Party which happily set the “socialist objective” somewhere over a distant horizon. Yet both sides of this antinomy held fast to the notion that the process of history was pushing the working class inevitably closer to a new and better world. On both counts this resulted in an affirmation of the spontaneous consciousness of the working-class. As Lenin famously stressed, historical consciousness did not spontaneously blossom from the immediacy of working-class interests, as with the self-evident truths of the bourgeois revolution, but was rather the result of the working-class being saturated by the proletarian party with the consciousness of its historical mission towards self-abolition. As Ernest Lane wrote following the imprisonment of Eugene Debs in 1919:

’Gaol is the gateway of freedom, declared the imprisoned Debs, and from that gateway in America another sufferer for the workers’ cause, Arturo Giovannitti, some years ago, delivered a passionate appeal to the workers to think, to use their divine powers of brain for the world’s salvation, not its enslavement. This message is the one great need of the hour, it is the lesson which must be learned by the workers; must be the cornerstone of the new temple of freedom which suffering workers are so anxiously attempting to build today. To think – can it be said too often? Therein full success awaits the toiling millions, without such thought the reconstructed temple will be built in vain.

Think! Think! Unburden, liberate

Your brains from all its waste and loss,

Throw down from it the age-worn weight

Of few men’s feet and one man’s cross.

Think! If your brain will but extend

As far as what your hands have done,

If but your reason will descend

As deep as where your feet have gone,

The walls of ignorance shall fall

That stood between you and your world,

And from its bloody pedestal

The last god, Terror, shall be hurled.

Think! Think! While breaks in you the dawn,

Crouched at your feet the world lies still,

It has no power but your brawn;

It has no wisdom but your will.

From you, the chained, reviled outcast,

From you the brute inert and dumb,

Shall through your wakened thought at last

The message of To-morrow come.

To be continued . . .