Labor and the Fight for Socialism

First published 1985. Second edition 1988.


For nearly 100 years the Australian Labor Party has dominated labor movement politics in this country. For all of that time it has been the main obstacle to the advance of the socialist movement.

Though socialists helped to found the ALP and have always been active within it, and though most of the more politically conscious workers have traditionally given it their support, the ALP has never been a working-class party. Today it remains, as it always has been, a liberal bourgeois party.

The ALP is Australia's oldest continually existing party, and has become the Australian capitalist ruling class's second party of government, being entrusted with management of the state machinery in all of Australian capitalism's most serious crises this century.

Labor has governed federally for about 24 of the 87 years since federation in seven terms of government, ranging in length from four months to eight years and three months.

The first two federal Labor governments were not very significant, lasting only four months and eight months respectively. The first long-term Labor government came to office in 1910, at a time when the other capitalist parties were not making a very good fist of forging a single national state out of the six former British colonies that had federated in 1901. In the decade since the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, these parties had not even been able to create one of the cornerstones of a unified nation-state - a single currency.

Prime Minister Andrew Fisher's ALP government proved its value to the capitalist class as a whole by standing apart from the more short-sighted capitalist factions. It set up the Commonwealth Bank and stopped the private banks issuing their own currencies.

The Fisher government started building the Transcontinental Railway as part of an attempt to quieten separatist agitation in Western Australia. It introduced compulsory military training for young men over the age of 14. In this, it was pursuing one of the constant ALP concerns of the early years of this century - the establishment of an independent Australian military force - another essential pillar of the capitalist state. Fisher's government also broke the deadlock on the site for the national capital and began planning Canberra. It separated the Northern Territory from South Australia.

Through Fisher's government, the ALP proved itself to be a capitalist party different from those more directly controlled by various competing factions of the capitalist class. Labor demonstrated that it was capable of standing above the squab bling vested interests that dominated the other parties.

The ALP showed that it was capable of serving the interests of the Australian capitalist class as a whole, particularly during times of severe crisis when dissension within the ruling class tended to paralyse the other bourgeois parties. For that reason, it was chosen to govern through most of both world wars, and to inflict the savage wage cuts demanded by the ruling class in the early stages of the 1930s depression.

From Whitlam to Hawke

In the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War and the exhaustion of the long wave of economic expansion that followed World War II again destabilised capitalist politics, the ALP was called on to end Australia's involvement in Vietnam and lay to rest the mass antiwar movement.

It was also called upon to open trade with China in an attempt to balance the loss of Australia's traditional markets due to increasing international competition. Labor was also to carry out other economic reforms necessary to prepare Australian capitalism to weather a new period of long-term downturn in the world capitalist economy.

But panicked by the dramatic slump in profits caused by the first recession in the new, post-boom period, the ruling class quickly lost confidence in Labor's ability to deal with the crisis, and orchestrated the ouster of the Whitlam Labor government through the constitutional coup of November 11, 1975.

The permanent rise in unemployment resulting from the 1974-75 recession and the weak recovery that followed it enabled the Fraser Liberal-National government to use the wage-freeze indexation system established under Whitlam to gradually erode real wages.

For five years, it also slashed spending on health, education and social welfare without serious labor movement resistance. However, ruling class confidence in the coalition was eroded by the collapse of the centralised wage-fixing system at the end of 1981. Adding to this loss of confidence was the rise in wages as a proportion of gross domestic product in the year that followed, and the Fraser government's inability to arrest the decline in Australian industry's international competitiveness.

During the 1982-83 recession, the ability of the union movement to defend real wages and to win reductions in working hours led decisive sectors of big capital to turn back toward the ALP, which through its wage-freeze prices-incomes accord with the ACTU offered the promise of a mechanism to contain real wage growth during the upturn in the capitalist business cycle that was already under way internationally by mid-1982.

In March 1983 the ALP was recalled to office under the newly installed leadership of former ACTU president Bob Hawke. It immediately set about institutionalising the 12-month "wages pause" imposed by the Fraser government in late 1982.

It also went to work on the task of restoring Australian capitalism's international competitiveness through extensive industry restructuring. When the economic recovery, which began in Australia in the middle of 1983, ran out of steam in 1986 the Hawke government responded with a drive to impose the deepest cuts to working people's living standards since the 1930s.

The ALP and the unions

The trade unions played a central role in the establishment of the ALP, though they weren't the sole force. In the 1890s, the formation of the ALP represented an important political step forward by the trade union movement. It reflected the realisation that working people and trade unionists needed their own political arm. But the ALP never became that.

In his 1923 work, How Labor governs, Vere Gordon Childe points to the diversity of the ALP's initial supporters, who included "democrats and Australian nationalists," small farmers, prospectors and mining proprietors, small shopkeepers, the Catholic Church, and "perhaps certain business interests - notably the liquor trade." Childe added:

The heterogeneous elements supporting the Labor Party have naturally led to serious conflicts of interest, The democrats do not necessarily sympathise with the aims of unionism, and may very well be opposed to state interference with private enterprise. Nationalism is diametrically opposed to that internationalist sentiment which is characteristic of the socialist movement. The militarist policy, which the White Australia ideal has forced on the Labor Party, is distasteful to many industrialists [ie unionists].

In The ALP, A short hlstory, published in 1981, Brian McKinlay quotes the words of one of the first ALP members of the NSW parliament:

We were a band of unhappy amateurs, . . made up somewhat as follows: Several miners, three or four printers, a boilermaker, three sailors, a plasterer, a journalist, a draper, a suburban mayor, two engineers, a carrier, a few shearers, a tailor and - with bated breath - a mineowner, a squatter and an MD.

So, from the very beginning, the unions were by no means the only force in the ALP. But even had they been, that was no guarantee of the ALP's commitment to socialist policies.

When the Fisher government fell in 1913, V.I. Lenin, the leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, observed:

What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers' representatives predominate in the upper house, and until recently did so in the lower house as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?

The Australian Labor Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really conservatives.

Capitalism in Australia is still quite youthful. The country is only just taking shape as an independent state. The workers are for the most part emigrants from Britain. They left when the masses of British workers were Liberals. . .

The leaders of the Australian Labor Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and capital-serving element, and in Australia altogether peaceable, purely liberal.

In Australia the Labor Party has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals, namely, introduced a uniform tariff for the whole country, a uniform land tax and uniform factory legislation. (V.I. Lenin, In Australia, Collected Works [Progress Publishers, Moscow], Vol. 19)

Thus, well before the great World War I split in the inter national socialist movement, Lenin regarded the ALP as a bourgeois party, representing above all the conservative, pro-capitalist layer of officials gathered at the head of the trade union movement.

After the increasingly reformist Social Democratic parties betrayed the Marxist internationalist heritage by each supporting the imperialist government of its own country at the beginning of World War I, Lenin characterised these parties as "bourgeois labor parties," that is, "organisation[s] of the bourgeoisie." He later said that the British Labour Party existed only "to systematically dupe the workers."

Socialists and the ALP

While the ALP is such a hourgeois labor party, many Australian socialists have mistakenly interpreted this to mean that the ALP is fundamentally a working-class party, even if a degenerate one, and that socialists should therefore automatically urge workers to vote for it, and should support continued trade union affiliation to it.

The widely held view that the ALP is the political arm of the labor movement, as distinct from the industrial arm represented by the unions, carries with it the idea that socialists are obliged not only to call for a vote for Labor, but to see it as the fundamental organisational framework for their political activity.

The resolution in this pamphlet, The ALP and the fight for socialism, was adopted by the Socialist Workers Party at its eleventh national conference, held in Canberra in January 1986. In it, the SWP argues the opposite point of view: That while it may be necessary to vote for the ALP as a lesser evil against the Liberals or Nationals, the only way to really defend working-class interests is to break politically with the ALP in every arena, including the electoral and industrial arenas.

The SWP argues that the trade unions should disaffiliate from the Labor Party and throw their weight behind the construction of a new political party genuinely dedicated to defending working-class interests.

In 1986, this was a new approach for the SWP, which had previously held that the ALP was a party with a dual nature: A party that was pro-capitalist in its program and leadership but working-class in its membership and support. This made it mandatory for socialists to vote for it and to support trade union affiliation to it.

Experience under the Hawke government and its four state counterparts made that view untenable and led the SWP to rethink its approach to the ALP. The conclusions of this process of rethinking are summarised by the second document in this pamphlet - The ALP, the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Elections, which is an abridged version of a report presented by SWP national secretary Jim Percy to the party's national committee in October 1984.

The Hawke Labor government has proven just as savagely anti-union and anti-working-class as the Liberal-National government before it, and the emergence of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the second half of 1984 demonstrated that a break from the ALP could be progressive even if it did not in volve the ALP's traditional trade union base.

While limited to activity on the electoral plane, the NDP nevertheless made a very favorable impact on Australian politics, strengthening the left and providing a rallying point for disillusioned activists leaving the ALP. Of course, that impact would have been even greater had even a few unions thrown their weight behind the NDP.

The ALP's shift to the right has created an electoral vacuum to the left. This was already apparent in the NDP's strong performance in the 1984 federal elections. In the time since that election, this political vacuum has opened up even more, as the Hawke Labor government has moved politically closer to the conservative parties, adopting more and more of their policies.

In the 1987 elections, an impressive range of progressive alternative candidates sought to take advantage of the electoral opportunities created by Labor's right-wing course, and a new NDP senator was elected while Jo Vallentine held her seat as an independent senator for nuclear disarmament.

The liberal-capitalist Australian Democrats, squeezed out of much of their traditional territory by Labor's move rightward, also attempted to fill the vacuum on the left.

The third document in this pamphlet, - SWP policy in the 1987 federal election - is based on a report presented by SWP national executive member Doug Lorimer to a meeting of the party's Sydney branch on June 30, 1987. Lorimer explains why the SWP decided for the first time in its history to call for a vote for the Democrats ahead of the ALP.

For as long as the ALP has existed, some socialists have chosen to work within it, and some without. The SWP believes there are times for both courses of action, and at present the appropriate course is to work from without - to encourage an organisational break with the ALP and the formation of a new party.

That doesn't rule out joint activity with ALP left-wingers who don't accept this course, and who prefer to continue working inside the ALP. But such joint activity should not rule out the need for socialists to explain that working within the ALP is a rather futile activity for leftists at present.

For a good 10 years, the ALP left has known little but defeats, and that has led most of the left forces to leave the ALP. At the very least, that indicates a rather poor immediate future for the ALP left. But more importantly, it points to a more fundamental political weakness. If the ALP left regards its commitment to the ALP more highly than its commitment to progressive social change, and refuses even in the present circumstances to consider a break, it imprisons itself within the capitalist political framework of the ALP, and by doing so automatically concedes the fight to the right wing.

The union movement's great step forward of the 1890s was only ever a partial success. Seeking a political party that would fight for working-class interests, the unions and their allies succeeded only in creating capitalism's party of reform - the one that would step in during times of crisis and carry out measures that could head off social upheaval, so ensuring the maintenance of capitalist rule.

The early years of the party were marked by struggles between those who wanted a genuinely working-class party (however mistaken they may have been in their conceptions of what sort of party that should be) and those who didn't. By the time the Fisher government came to office in 1910, the working-class activists had lost that fight. When the mass anticonscription struggles broke out during World War I the main initiative had to come from outside the ALP - largely from the socialist revolutionaries of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Today's socialists must recognise that the great step forward of the 1890s has become the great obstacle of the 1980s, and be prepared to take all the steps - political and organisational - that flow from that recognition.

Steve Painter

November 1987

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