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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The Australian Labor Party and the Left

The Australian Labor Party and the Left

Verity Burgmann, Kevin Healy, David McMullen, Max Ogden

Platypus Review 148 | July/August 2022

On November 14, 2021, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion, “The ALP and the Left”, at the New International Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia, to address the following question: “How does the long history between socialists and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) inform the meaning of socialist politics in the present?” The panelists included Verity Burgmann, a professor at Monash University and former member of the SWP (UK) and International Socialists (IS); Max Ogden, former member of the Communist Party of Australia, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, and the ALP; David McMullen, a self-described “unreconstructed Maoist” who writes at; and Kevin Healy, a radio host at the community radio station 3CR who had been part of the Socialist Left faction of the ALP. Ryan M. of the Platypus Affiliated Society served as moderator. A video of the event is available online at <>. An edited transcript follows.

Opening remarks

Verity Burgmann: I’ll be attempting to give a very sketchy, 130-year history of relations between the ALP and the Left. In the 1890s socialists, including Marxists, were important in the founding of labor parties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I tell that story in my book, In Our Time: Socialism and the Rise of Labor. In New South Wales, members of the Australian Socialist League (ASL) were crucial. Of the 35 Labor MPs who entered the New South Wales parliament in 1891, at least eight were members of the League.

It was generally agreed that the task of this new party was to introduce socialism in our time. It didn’t — sorry about the spoiler. Socialist disillusionment with the Labor Party was rapid. As early as January 1892, William Lane had decided that the experiment of Labor Party politics was already proving disastrous. Horrified by unionists scrambling over each other to get seats in the parliament, Lane pointed out that once you sent people into parliament, the labor movement lost all control over them. He and 700 other socialists founded a utopian socialist colony in Paraguay instead. They were that disappointed.

By 1898, the ASL members, who had done so much to establish the New South Wales Labor Party, departed it en masse, saying it had degenerated into a mere vote-catching machine, following a policy of compromise. The ASL renamed itself the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and stood against the Labor Party in the first Senate elections in 1901. It called the ALP the bogus Labor Party and referred to the ALP’s official organ as “The Shirker,” for their failure to represent working class interests, and said its caucus consisted of opportunists eager to sell out the workers at every opportunity. The total number of votes cast for the six Socialist Labor Party candidates in New South Wales amounted to 1,091,393. The SLP argued that it alone was Marxist enough, good enough, pure enough not to betray the workers.

There was another, rather less sectarian Marxist grouping in Australia at the time, the Socialist Federation of Australia (SFA), with branches going by different names in the different colonies and states. For example, the Social Democratic Federation of Western Australia attacked the first Western Australian Labor government in 1904 for a serious falling off in the ideals of the Labor Party in office compared with its time in opposition. The perceived problem wasn’t the stated aims of the Party, but the lack of urgency to achieve those aims. The 1905 objective committed to securing the full results of industry for all producers by collective ownership of monopolies and the extension of the industrial and economic functions of the state and municipality.

The largest of the SFA socialist grouping was the Victorian Socialist Party under Tom Mann, the British trade-union leader who had come to Australia to see whether a social-laboratory country like Australia, which had very early successful Labor Parties by world standards, could bring about a modification of capitalism. By 1905 he decided, “no,” resigned as an organizer for the Victorian Labor Party, and founded the Victorian Socialist Party, saying that there had been too much emphasis on Labor parliamentarians, which had distracted from industrial organization that provided a much better, more reliable defense of wages and conditions.

Labor was in office federally from 1910 to 1913, and again from 1914 to 1917. Their behavior confirmed such attitudes on the Left. Despite parliamentary majorities achieved 35 years before British Labor, Labor governments here were not abolishing capitalism. Lenin famously wrote about the ALP in 1913, describing it as a liberal bourgeois party, and most Marxists followed his lead, arguing a different party was needed. But there was also growing discontent with the whole idea of a parliamentary strategy. There was a rise in syndicalist sentiments in the 1900s and 1910s and, with it, a rise in the popularity of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As these sentiments grew because of disappointment with Labor politicians, the Wobblies argued for revolutionary industrial unionism and against parliamentary activity as a solution for working class problems. Tom Barker, an important figure in the IWW, explained that the experience of Labor politicians made him absolutely convinced that you needed a strong and ruthless industrial organization to see that people were properly protected and properly paid.

The best Wobbly song was “Bump Me into Parliament,” which I won’t sing, but my favorite verse is, “Oh yes, I am a Labor man and believe in revolution, the quickest way to bring it on is talking constitution.” The IWW argued that Labor MPs had far too congenial an atmosphere in parliament to stand up for workers in struggle. They would naturally put their material interests before those of the working class. The worst use you could make of a member of the working class was to place them in parliament. Building the One Big Union was the only reliable route to socialism. This was really the first wholehearted critique of the strategy of Labor in politics, and not just of those chosen to perform that strategy.

In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was founded in the early 1920s. Lenin had recommended that communists support labor parties like a rope supports the hanging man — that is, so the workers would lose their illusions in such parties and turn to a communist party. The infant CPA followed the Comintern policy of the united front. CPA members worked within unions and joined Labor Party branches. They were aiming to unmask Labor leaders, recruit workers dissatisfied with them, and so. The 1922 Communist Party resolution on the Labor Party said it was the political expression of the working class, but its aims and ideals were anti-revolutionary, because the workers themselves lacked class consciousness, which the CPA was going to fix. The ALP retaliated with bans on dual cardholders.

In 1923, the world-famous Australian Marxist prehistorian Vere Gordon Childe published How Labor Governs, a book inspired by his time as secretary to Labor premier John Storey in New South Wales. This period of Childe’s participation in the Labor Party, from 1919 to 1921, is a high point of socialist influence. It had led to the 1921 conference objective of the socialization of industry, production, distribution, and exchange. But that objective, as always, proved elusive. Childe argued it was elusive because the elected representatives of Labor were not properly accountable to working class electors, or even to the Party as a whole. He described a process by which opportunist politicians came to control the movement through structural changes in the Party’s organization, which ensured that the Party bodies that were supposed to control the politicians were in fact dominated by politicians. The ground rule of Labor in politics, control of the politicians by the movement, was turned upside down. So the Labor Party, starting with a band of inspired socialists, degenerated into a vast machine for capturing political power, but did not know how to use that power except for the profit of individuals.

By the late 1920s, the CPA’s united-front tactic had changed into the Third Period Stalinism of class against class, in which the Labor Party is condemned as a social fascist party, but the CPA balked at applying Third Period tactics to trade-union work. The CPA reoriented to a united front from below, or global popular front strategy, by the mid-1930s, and were campaigning with Labor members against the common threat of fascism. The CPA-ers had realized that abusing Labor MPs and union officials had been counterproductive, as it alienated the activists they had been trying to reach. But Labor had been so put off by being called social fascists that they were not interested in popular-front work with the Communists, so the CPA was obliged to make a virtue out of necessity and instead concentrate on work in the unions.

After the USSR was invaded in June 1941, the CPA tempered its critique of the Labor Party in government, but that truce unraveled later, with the beginning of the Cold War and especially with the 1949 coal strike waged by the miners’ union under CPA leadership. The Labor politicians were condemned for freezing union funds, jailing union leaders, and using troops to break strikes. The CPA argued that the strike proved that the arbitration system upheld by Labor MPs was a vicious bludgeon against the working class. That kind of argument about Labor’s caution on industrial issues and its lack of commitment to abolishing the penal clauses of the arbitration system were the focus of CPA criticism of the ALP in the 1950s and 1960s.

Starting in the 1960s, criticism of Labor also came from the New Left, which condemned Labor MPs’ lack of commitment to working-class struggles, while also raising the arguments of the IWW and Childe: well-paid representatives in parliament would misrepresent the working class. In 1970, Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia said that the record of the ALP proved Robert Michels’s iron law of oligarchy: the organization, despite its democratic structures, was dominated by politicians who used their positions for personal rather than working-class advancement. New Left commentary builds on McQueen’s ideas to develop the notion of technocratic Laborism, which saw the removal of old-style, paleo-Laborites, such as Arthur Calwell, to be replaced by well-educated professionals such as Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan. They didn’t own substantial controlling capital or productive power, but they were nonetheless very different from the previous group of Labor leaders: progressive socially, but deeply critical of ideology around class struggle and working-class power. These were the people who took over the Labor Party and moved it from a party that represented the working class to one that wanted to manage capitalism more efficiently. This is the theme of Robert Catley and Bruce McFarlane’s From Tweedledum to Tweedledee (1974). Labor politicians, they said, had shifted away from concern with redistribution funded by progressive taxation towards an emphasis on economic growth to contain distributional tensions. This opportunism, noted by the New Left critics, was used to explain both the declining economic egalitarianism of Labor as well as its increasing social progressivism. Catley and McFarlane argued that Labor was listening to the new social movements with considerably greater attention than it did to industrial militants, because these new movements were acting to defuse class politics while also broadening the Labor Party’s electoral base.

Raewyn Connell’s Ruling Class, Ruling Culture (1977) noted that the Whitlam government (1972–75) had only squeezed through the mildest of redistributive measures while imposing a partial wage freeze on the union movement and moving towards accommodation with mining and manufacturing capital. Whitlamism was about making capitalism more efficient, rather than more just. Even that had been intolerable to sections of the ruling class. The Kerr coup was a ruling-class mobilization, but also a complete overreaction.

The Trotskyists in the early postwar period were mainly following classical Trotskyism’s line that a party like Labor should be supported like a rope supports a hanging man. Mostly they pursued the tactic of entryism, actively joining the Labor Party and working within it. Bob Gould and George Petersen in New South Wales are prime examples here. By the 70s, the largest Trotskyist group was the Socialist Workers League, with its paper Direct Action. It had a dual policy of promoting its own profile, but also working inside the ALP. However, in the early to mid-80s, the Socialist Workers League recanted. It rebranded itself as the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP). It was noted that Australian socialists have been duped into thinking that the ALP was a working-class party, and suffered from inheriting a Trotskyist scheme of prescribing entry into the Labor Party as a universal, timeless tactic. So they developed a more Leninist analysis and got into party building in order to compete electorally with Labor, leading ultimately, at around the turn of the millennium, to the formation of Socialist Alliance and Green Left Weekly.

All Trotskyists were distinguishing themselves from the Communist Party in those last couple of decades of the 20th century. They honed in on the CPA’s softness toward the Hawke and Keating governments, especially the way former Communist officials supported the Prices and Incomes Accord. They really attacked Laurie Carmichael of the Metal Workers Union, for example. In 1986, Socialist Action published “Labor’s Accord: Why It’s a Fraud,” which argued that the Accord was the Labor government’s way to solve the crisis of Australian capitalism caused by the declining tendency of the rate of profit. It was about running capitalism in ways that protect the interest of the ruling class.

There were lots of critical accounts of the Hawke and Keating governments from Marxist academics, pointing out how Labor governments had promoted neoliberal policies to assist globalization, even though these reversals to traditional Labor policies were unpopular with working class voters because they increased class inequalities. A slightly different critique was mounted in 1999 by Michael Thompson, who argued that the ALP had alienated working-class voters because it had been taken over by tertiary educated professionals who imposed social agendas hostile to blue-collar culture. But as the other academic critics pointed out, it was the neoliberalism of Labor, much more than its social agendas, that alienated workers: imposed wages restraint, privatization, deregulation, etc.

The Communist Party had wound itself up in the early 1990s. There were many attempts to form New Left parties: The Broad Left, the New Left Party, the New Labor Party, the Rainbow Alliance, etc. None really lasted long. Socialist Alliance remains the largest socialist grouping electorally, but has made little headway against Labor, with most of the anti-Labor Left more inclined to vote Green as a way of protesting Labor’s mildness. But it is unclear whether Green protest voters are more concerned about the betrayals on social issues, such as refugees, or about Labor’s backing down on economic issues. On the other hand, you can point to ways in which the Greens have battled for better climate policies on grounds much more critical of free-market capitalism than Labor has ever mounted.

Max Ogden: I was in the Communist Party from 1959. I had been active in its Youth League and as an apprentice in the Metal Workers Union. I came out of a Left-wing family. Like many others, my father had joined the Communist Party during the Depression. I joined because those I worked with in our union were very fine people, hard-working and committed: Laurie Carmichael, John Halfpenny, Allan Ritter, and many others.

I was part of the younger forces who battled against the old Stalinist way of operating within the Party, and was among those who argued strongly against the Maoist line, which was beginning to have quite an impact by 1963 even though 80% of the Party was opposed to that position. Regarding the battle against the Soviet liners, I had already on three occasions been to the Soviet Union. On the last two occasions, in particular, I came away disillusioned by what I had seen, by the lack of democracy and the poor way workers were treated. I visited factories and found an appalling occupational health and safety situation. We were much better here.

We got very excited about what was happening in Czechoslovakia in 1968. I had an argument with Laurie Carmichael at the time.[1] Laurie said, “the Party’s losing control,” and I remember saying, “but that’s the bloody point!” Then there was the tragedy of the Warsaw Pact invasion. I got a phone call at about 2am from my colleague Barry Blears, who was working with the World Federation of Democratic Youth, to tell me about it. I actually cried. That was the end for me in terms of any hope of those countries providing an example that was worth examining.

But the Communist Party of Australia took the right line. We were the first Party in the world to condemn the invasion, so although a couple of people left at that time, most people stayed, because we had taken the principled position. Then we had the intervention of the Soviet Party, and the big conference in 1970, which led about 20% of the Party to leave.

From then on, the CPA was open to developing what eventually was the most democratic political party in Australia. We had terrific discussions about strategy. For those years it was quite an exciting place to be. But the Party was still declining in membership, and a number of us finally decided in 1984 that, despite everything, the weight of the history of Stalinism was just too much for us to ever overcome. The Party was going to keep declining; there was no point in going down with the ship. A lot of us left. Looking back now, I would raise the question of whether it was a wise move to form any communist parties, given the history. At the time, if I had been around, I would have joined. But now I would argue that we should have thought of other ways to do things rather than form a separate party.

I went on to join the Labor Party, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. I knew quite a few fine people, because I had come through the union movement. In 1973, I became the full-time education officer for shop stewards training in the Metal Workers Union, which was a very exciting job. I loved every minute of it. The objective was to help make the workers, particularly the shop stewards, self-acting as much as possible, and to equip them both with the daily skills they needed and also with knowledge about society and capitalism.

I joined the Labor Party because I couldn’t see any other alternative. I was soon invited to join the Socialist Left, for which I only attended a handful of meetings, and found them dispiriting quite frankly. I had been looking at the big picture, looking at strategies, trying to learn from all around the world, and you go to a meeting of the ALP Socialist Left faction, and there’s none of that. It was all about focusing on this recommendation, or this policy, or who was going to be pre-selected. I soon thought, I’m not sure I’m interested in all that stuff.

That lack of a big picture is the problem today with the Left. Having said that, there were a lot of fine people in the Australian Labor Party, and still are. The other interesting thing about that period was how the Communist Party’s demise opened things up. Over the first few years, ALP Left union officials would say that they missed the Party, as we always had some thoughts about strategy and where we should be going. Nobody does that for us now. The Communist Party of Australia, more so than any other one in the world, actually had a lot of influence in the union movement. We developed important union leaders, starting with people like Jim Healy. The last line of those people, nationwide, had people like Laurie Carmichael, who was just brilliant at strategic thinking.

The problem now is that we don’t have a proper forum on the Left for people to think through strategy. This impacts the union movement too. Our current union leadership has good people, like Sally McManus. But there’s none of the bigger thinking that used to go on. At least the Communist Party, at the Congresses of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), would really think through thoughtful policies to put up. Even then, there was a weakness, in that it is not just policies you need, but also strategic objectives, which should have two elements to them. In the next 5 to 10 years, what is important to achieve is not just about living standards (as important as those are), but how to open up struggles for greater power. That’s what is badly missing.

There is no collective, thoughtful, overall strategy with real themes. For example, I’m not sure what the policies are to change industrial relations, but there are a couple of strategic objectives we should have, particularly if there is a possibility of a Labor government. One should be winning back the right to bargain across industries. As I say in my book, I was opposed not to enterprise bargaining in itself, but enterprise bargaining without industry-wide facility as well. We were successful back in the 60s and 70s in the over-award campaign, led by Laurie Carmichael, where you not only lifted the wage of the enterprise, you also lifted the wage in the award. I would have thought that is one of the key strategic objectives you pursue through wage increases and shorter hours. You get all the unions focused on that, and even though it is illegal, you start to put demands on the industry, as well as on the enterprise. An extra two weeks’ leave a year would be attractive, etc. Have a real go, break the law on that issue, use pattern bargaining. I don’t see any of that kind of thinking taking place.

The union movement should think seriously about strategically moving away from reliance on the Fair Work Commission. It is going to have some sort of role, but sideline it, and make collective bargaining the way we do everything, from the national, to the industry, to the enterprise level. You won’t do that overnight. But have the vision, have the objective, that that’s where we want to arrive in 10 years. There’s no coherent Left developing those ideas, and a lot of us have been thinking for a while about how we do that, through which organizations, and what people want to be a part of it.

Very controversially, I came to the conclusion quite a few years ago, as a matter of principle, that unions should not be affiliated to any political party; they should always be independent, no matter what. We’ve seen the disasters when they were just an arm of the state in the Soviet Union and China and so on, and we’ve seen similar results here. They get locked into situations which they don’t always agree with. You would improve the relationship with Labor and other parties if the unions were independent and able to negotiate everything at arm’s length. If you were independent, you could negotiate with every party.

The other point arising from that is, given my experience, I’m quite opposed to permanent factions. They just become so locked in and inflexible. I saw it so often with the Metal Workers Union — good people, but bloody hopeless, being promoted because they were loyal to a particular faction. Factions should come into being around ideas and strategic thinking, but not as hard organizations. Among other things, you have a situation where you might have a group of people come together, liaise about getting some policy issue up, which is perfectly legitimate, but on the next issue there will be a different group of people. You should allow for people to change in their thinking and not have this artificial Left–Right stuff. People change. One time you can’t work with them, next time you can, but permanent factions make that very difficult.

David McMullen: People on the Left have always had an ambivalent relationship with the ALP. However, they are always happy when they win elections and downcast when they lose. There is a perception that their policies are more progressive and favorable to the working class and low-income earners.

The Left and the ALP were furthest apart in the late 1960s. I don’t remember the ALP having any presence in the radical youth movement of that period. I seem to recall the ALP denounced Monash students for their aid to the campaign of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam. In fact, Bob Hawke was on the University Council and was decidedly unhelpful.

Back when virtually all blue-collar workers voted Labor, a common view was that the ALP was the party of the working class and therefore it had to be supported. I never understood what that meant, but anyway it has become irrelevant because blue-collar workers are now just as likely to vote for the Coalition.

I don’t know if they still do, but I recall people citing Lenin favoring the election of the British Labour Party because it would expose the Party in the eyes of workers. Lenin took this position when the British Communist Party was trying to lure away politically advanced workers from the Labor Party at a time when it was sounding very socialist, back in the early 1920s. This is not at all relevant in the present context, either in Britain or Australia. Although it was perhaps relevant under Jeremy Corbyn. In the case of the ALP the only people who think it is on the radical Left are those on the political Right, and of course they don’t vote for it for that very reason.

On domestic issues the Left has mainly differed from the ALP by being more militantly reformist than the ALP, demanding more government funding for this and that, and bemoaning the ALP’s shift to a less interventionist economic policy. It criticizes the ALP for betraying its own reformism. The Left becomes what it wants the ALP to be. On international issues the Left has differed far more from the ALP, for good or ill, often expressing solidarity with all sorts of strange people.

“Labor to power with socialist policies” is a slogan that I recall. I don’t know if anyone still uses it; if so, it just causes confusion. If by socialism we mean what happens after the revolution, then nothing you do under capitalism can be socialist. It suggests that socialism could be achieved without a revolution that seizes power from the bourgeoisie.

Let’s look at the Whitlam era, which has a special place in Left mythology. People like to describe the sacking of Whitlam on November 11, 1975, by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr as a coup. At the time I took that view and went along with all the conspiracy theories. However, I was later persuaded that this was nonsense. The Labor Government came across as incompetent. It was going through an economic rough patch and of course was blamed for this. In fact, I don’t think any Western government that went to the polls in 1975 managed to survive. In the Senate, the Coalition forced the general election. This was against convention but not illegal. The Coalition then went on to win the biggest landslide ever — end of story.

The changes from the Whitlam years were generally not undone, if you look at areas like healthcare, education, indigenous affairs, multiculturalism, art, and culture. I’m not saying everything is wonderful, but things are generally not worse. The big exception was free tertiary education, but that was eliminated by the Labor government of Paul Keating. The Whitlam government was also quick off the mark in recognizing China; unlike the Coalition, the ALP was not left flat-footed when the Americans changed their China policy. Whitlam visited China while still in opposition and prior to Henry Kissinger. The ALP had adopted a policy of recognition back in 1955, and they had established diplomatic relations within three weeks of coming to office. The ALP of course did not take account of the counter-revolution in China after Mao’s death. This was shared by most of the Left, including most so-called Maoists. In fact, we still have people who refuse to recognize that the regime needs to be overthrown by a democratic revolution, just like all the other tyrannies in the world such as those in Egypt, Iran, and Cuba.

The fact that the ALP now is no more reformist and no less conservative than the Coalition creates an opportunity for the Left to become the party of reform. However, for this to occur it would have to be far more grounded than it is. Policies would have to be based on thorough investigation of the facts and really get into specific detail. They would also have to stand the test of scrutiny. You have to go beyond the knowledge needed for merely expressing outrage or engaging in virtue-signaling: not vague sentences in a leaflet that you handed out at election time, but ideas you are constantly discussing out there in the community. By developing our abilities to put out policies to solve problems in the here and now, we are also in the process of preparing ourselves to run a revolutionary government.

We should have a special interest in reforms that serve the aims of the revolution — ones that provide a better starting point for transforming society. One in particular is in the area of education. At the moment, about 20% of the people leaving the school system have learned virtually nothing. This is a problem because, after the revolution, you don’t want to find yourself with a large section of the proletariat that are at a low cultural and educational level. It will cause lots of extra difficulties. This is also an important area for closing the gap between indigenous people and the rest of society. Continuing to sort out relations with the sexes is another important area. It is critical for creating a new society based on mutual regard rather than exploitation. I was struck by a proposal for paternity leave coming from the Grattan Institute. This could significantly increase the role of fathers in childbearing. The Grattan Institute is a politically centrist think tank in Melbourne, but I reckon they could be a role model for the Left when it comes to the work they put into their policy proposals. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree with them, but I recommend that you have a look at their stuff. They bring out reports and they publicize them through press releases, seminars, and podcasts. Recently they have done a lot of work on how to get Australia to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it is worth a look.

Kevin Healy: I joined the ALP in an interesting period, given the split of course, when the ALP in Victoria was genuinely Left-wing in many policies. As a young communist at the time, in my matriculation year at Catholic College here in Melbourne, we had in the first period every Friday a full-time worker for the National Civic Council who used to be a school captain come and lecture us on so-called “Christian Doctrine.” Every week he would hook up his map and pull it down and there were red arrows zooming down on China, coming for us. Regularly I’d ask him what year they’re going to get here, and he said 1964 every time. I think we all know he was just slightly out on that. Although if Peter Dutton gets his way, it won’t be long. At home I had parents who absolutely loathed the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and the anti-communists with a passion. My mother’s brother worked as assistant secretary to the Australian Railways Union (ARU) with J. J. Brown, the communist secretary.

I joined the ALP because at that time it was developing very good policies, but it was a transitional period. From the very outset we opposed the Vietnam War, but Whitlam was saying it was wrong to oppose the war, because that would cost you votes, and that’s all that matters. In the biography she wrote about her father — which is more of a hagiography, but nonetheless — Mary Elizabeth Calwell points out that Whitlam undermined Arthur Calwell in 1966 when Whitlam ran a dirty and unwinnable war election. She’s quite accurate on that one, and so it’s ironic that by 1972, when Whitlam won, a key factor that got him victory was the anti-war movement. He saw the writing on the wall and changed his mind. There are other policies that people aren’t aware of. For instance, at the 1969 ALP conference, Judy Bornstein moved a motion for abortion on demand and, unless it has been rescinded since, that is still ALP policy officially. That sort of thing was going around in the ALP at the time and it was refreshing.

The reason for it was because of the 1955 split. The Victorian ALP was very heavily influenced by the left unions in Victoria, who played a key role. They chose the executive. There were certainly Stalinist elements, but nonetheless, the policies that came out of it were excellent. For instance, during the 1969 or 70 conference, just after John Zarb became the first draft-resister jailed in Pentridge Prison, we took the conference to Pentridge and protested. At the time I thought that was the real ALP; we used to laugh at the “Left” in New South Wales, calling it “Her Most Gracious Majesty’s Left.” But I was naïve; that was actually the real ALP. Looking back now, what was happening in Victoria was an aberration.

After the 1955 split, the Right-wing unions in New South Wales were still controlling the show, but not in Victoria. For that brief period, before those unions came back, the ALP was very much a Left-wing party in Victoria because of union control. The ALP never has been, nor ever will be, a Marxist party. However, many of the unionists and people in the party at that time were Marxists. They used to put working-class people into parliament. These days you’d be wracking your brain to think of one member who is genuinely working class. Just after that period we saw the influx of people into these positions who didn’t come out of unions — the Hawkes, the Creans, people like Ralph Willis. They came straight from education into positions in the union and labor movement. That was part of the whole decline of the ALP and the Left.

Anyway, the Federal Party intervened in September 1970 to get rid of this terrible Left-wing branch. The next night, five of us got together at Bob Hogg’s place, including my uncle Bill, George Crawford, and Bill Hartley. We decided to call a meeting of the Left union leaders, and once that got together, we formed the Socialist Left faction of the ALP. The old executive split about half and half into those who joined us and those that became part of the Right faction. There were also people in the middle, like Jim Cairns who had no faction whatsoever. So, the ALP, on the whole, was not really Left wing as such. It was half and half.

Max talked about being disillusioned when he joined. By that time, I could fully understand why. He also mentioned the exciting democracy in the Communist Party in the years before. It was the same in the Socialist Left, which originally met en masse once a month at a hall in North Melbourne to discuss and form policy. I saw it as a better spot than the Communist Party to instigate debate around issues in society. We discussed all that at these meetings; people would bring lunch, we would have an all-day session, and it was totally democratic.

For some time, it was a very exciting place to be. But then, once they came to meetings and said, “we’ve talked to Clyde Holding, we’ve talked to these people,” it started to decline. They said, “Let’s have an executive that can meet between meetings.” It became bureaucratic and began to get back into the mainstream ALP, which after the four unions came back of course, was now slipping back into being the “real” ALP, similar to every other state in the country. By the time Max joined, it had reached the stage where people were joining just to have bums on seats. Once they started opening up and doing deals with other factions, people joined the Socialist Left just to get into parliament. That was virtually the end for me in the ALP and the Socialist Left. There had been a period when the ALP was genuinely Left. Not Marxist Left, although there were a lot of people who would have called themselves Marxist, but there was a significant Left tendency.

As for people talking about where we are now, the ALP is a totally lost cause. But I’ve been doing things at 3CR, the community radio station, for forty years. I’ve seen heaps of young people come through. Two young people are working with me on a program at the moment, and they are so encouraging. The important thing is that none of them wants to join a political party. But they are incredibly active around politics, climate change, and those sorts of issues. I see great hope in the youth movement around the world. Political parties might not be the answer, but there are young people who are able to raise these issues. In the end, whatever we do, we have got to challenge capitalism. It is the enemy; it is what we have to get rid of. We hope these young people put so much pressure on capitalism that it has to move. Young people could start leading another revolution that hopefully changes things in the future. We oldies are just going to drift away, eventually.


VB: Max, you described how the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was quick to condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In general, do you think it is possible that the CPA’s de-Stalinization, particularly with the Maoists leaving in the 1960s and 70s, was the key to the CPA’s increasing softness toward Labor? That there is a correlation between the CPA’s de-Stalinization and, say, how it worked to help the Hawke government institute the Prices and Incomes Accord? Was there a lack of analysis around the longer-term implications of the Accord on the workforce? Was there awareness that CPA union officials like Laurie Carmichael and others were presiding over a system that led to a more segmented labor market, which was fine for the best-paid workers at the time, but was a disaster for people at the bottom of the labor market? This all helped usher in the highly casualized labor market we have now, where the discrepancy between the pay of those at the top and the bottom has ballooned.

Dave, I loved your description of the irony in how we bag the Labor Party endlessly, but then are so relieved when they win. It is that sort of lesser-evil argument that has so dominated the relations between the Left and the Labor party for 130 years. To what extent does compulsory voting fit into this? That is a distinctive feature of Australian democracy. On ballots, I’m in favor of compulsory voting. You have to be glad it is there; see what happens in places like the U.S. But it does change the dynamic because Labor, in the final analysis, knows that people like us will give them our preferences, whatever we might do with our first preferences, so they don’t need to keep the Left happy. They don’t need to inspire people to come out to vote in the first instance, which has been the success of Corbynism, which was able to use the non-compulsory voting system in Britain to bring in a new breed of inspired labor activists that completely regenerated the Party for a while. In part, these new activists were even more valuable because there was not compulsory voting.

You said something that I might have misheard, David, about some blue-collar workers being as likely to vote for the Coalition as for Labor. I think we shouldn’t fall into the trap that Scott Morrison always likes to put out, that self-employed plumbers and electricians are working class. They’re not. The plumbers and electricians that work for an employer on a building site are working class. You have to cut through the difference between a manual occupation and the working class. Much of the working class nowadays are nurses and teachers as well as lower-paid office workers. A lot of blue-collar workers are still working class but increasingly, with private contracting work, a lot of them are in a relationship with production that is different from what it used to be, and that’s why they are more likely to vote Coalition compared to those who, 30 or 40 years ago, were employed by an employer, saw themselves as working class, and were in fact working class.

DM: I shouldn’t have said blue-collar. I should have said the working class, perhaps, which incorporates teachers and people like that.

VB: Well, that is where the Labor vote is possibly growing —

MO: Just on that, the figures are very clear. In the last 40 years there has been a decline in working-class voting, in the broadest sense. Forty years ago, a solid 45% of the Labor Party vote was working class, whereas those with tertiary education provided about 20% of the vote. Now it is reversed: only 20% amongst workers and over 40% among tertiary educated.

VB: A lot of workers now have tertiary education.

DM: The reality is about 80% of the population is working class. And the vote is 50–50 Coalition to Labor.

VB: It’s about 60–70% working class —

KH: Unfortunately, many working-class people don’t consider themselves working class anymore, which is another problem.

VB: That’s why there is support for moving away from the language of class. It becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moderator: Is it just Labor’s fault or is it the fault of the socialist Left, that we’ve moved to a more sociological understanding of class?

KH: By “socialist Left” do you mean the Left in Australia generally, or the ALP Left?

Moderator: Both.

KH: The Socialist Left isn’t even socialist anymore. It is ridiculous: they stopped being socialists shortly after the four unions came back. As a good example of that occurred when Andrews became opposition leader: he was interviewed by The Age and they pointed out that he was in the Socialist Left faction, but he clarified three times in the interview that he was definitely not a socialist.

VB: Kevin, your description of how the Victorian Party was more Left-wing because of the split, does raise the question of whether the New South Wales party is completely beyond redemption. It has been amazing that right from about 1891, the political Right in New South Wales became a problem for the Left and remains so. You also raised the important issue of the increasing professionalization of the Labor MPs. Since 2001, the most common occupational background of a Labor MP has been staff to a Labor MP. This is just disastrous for the Labor Party.

KH: If you look at someone who’s considered one of the political “Left” figures in New South Wales, you think of Jack Lang, for example —

VB: A “Left social fascist!”

KH: Exactly. Lang wrote two volumes to explain what a wonderful job he did for the economy. His hatred of bankers was only exceeded by his hatred for communists. And he was the Left-wing figure of New South Wales.

MO: First of all, on the support of reforms regarding Czechoslovakia and opposing the Warsaw Pact invasion, that was a logical development of our thinking that had begun during the movement against the Vietnam War. It was a time of upheaval and discussion going on all around the world. It was an exciting period, particularly if one was on the shop floor and had been to strikes. There was the idea of worker control and power. There was so much to read you couldn’t keep up with it all. That was all contributing to the thinking going on in the Party, particularly in terms of how we can make democracy more central at all levels. In the middle of that, the Czechs were trying to put these things into practice. It was an integral part of our overall strategic thinking that was emerging. It hadn’t gotten far by then, but I remember in 1970 at the first conference of the Metal Workers Union, I was working with Laurie Carmichael to develop what was probably the first policy statement on worker intervention in management prerogatives. The policy went through but it was quite a discussion because some were worried it was too radical.

Regarding the Prices and Incomes Accord, I could go on for hours. I was a strong supporter of it after having discussions with a lot of people who felt it had enormous potential. One of my criticisms of the Accord period was that the unions did not take advantage of anything they could have done under the Accord, due to conservative leadership. One of the things that the Accord did was free us from absolute, total focus on wage increases. The metal workers were brilliant using the over award stuff, but everything else got missed. I used to say, “what are you doing about occupational health and safety? What are you doing about the workers having a say?” I remember going up to have a two-hour meeting one night about the rig workers who were on strike, whether they would accept $34,000 or $36,000 a year, when the women in the auto-component sector were barely on over award, getting a little over $11,000 or $12,000. I hit the roof! I said, we never spend two hours discussing the lowest paid workers, especially when they are women.

The first few years of the Accord were very important in that regard, because centralized wage fixing always works better for the lower paid. The lower paid did quite well in the first 6 to 7 years. The most women ever got as a proportion of the male wage was in those first years of the Accord. What was missing were the things we used to do in the 60s and 70s, campaigning outside the commission. But a lot of good stuff was won in that period. We did a lot of exciting things with the Accord. At the ACTU, we were able to get all the food unions working together and driving a radical agenda of the unions, developing their own strategy for the industry, which included a say in the workplace, intervening into management, etc. What was interesting about that experience was that of the nine unions, four of them were Left-wing, but three or four were out of line, including a couple led by old National Civic Council people. But, because we focused on particular things, we got them united working together. It took a while. It was interesting because even a couple of those officials close to B. A. Santamaria became interested in workers’ intervening into management, as part of enterprise bargaining.

The big mistake was to do enterprise bargaining without the facility to bargain across industry. Bill Kelty, with the best of intentions, was keen to have more rank-and-file involvement. Up until that time, so much was done through the Commission, so there wasn’t a big role for the shop stewards. Bill wanted more involvement, but the problem was that getting that through enterprise bargaining without the ability to negotiate across the industry meant we became fragmented. Those with the power could get a big wage and those without could not. I argued that with him. It’s a tragedy. Carmichael had just retired or taken on another job and left the ACTU. If he’d still been around, I’m sure it wouldn’t have gotten through in the way it did. That was where it all started to get pear-shaped. We now have people in the underground metro on $300,000 per year. I never went into the union movement to get people that kind of money. It’s just money militancy now. It has nothing to do with politics or any intervention or anything like that. It’s just been a disaster.

KH: The other factor was that unions used to educate members. Particularly when they had large memberships, most people who were in the union got educated politically. Like your union, Max — you mentioned being the education officer. I remember speaking at a local branch in Moorabbin and spoke with Paddy Garritty. He was a seaman who told us how he got his political education through the books that the unions put in the libraries on the ships. Those things don’t happen anymore. Workers aren’t getting educated in the sort of politics we think they should be learning about.

DM: The key question about the relationship between the Left and the ALP ultimately is, how do we mix reformism with revolution? People on the extreme Left, like myself, are inspired by the idea of getting rid of the existing social order. We have a problem trying to relate that to day-to-day struggles, engaging with people in their everyday activities and trying to make the system better than it is or preparing for a new system for the future. I don’t think we’ve succeeded very well in that.

MO: There’s this myth that the Accord led to the dropping membership of unions. In fact, a lot of research shows that by the time of the Accord, the decline of unions was already underway. In the period just after the Accord it didn’t get much worse, actually. That only happened later, and there have been a couple of studies along those lines.

VB: What about amalgamations? They didn’t help union density.

MO: The big problem was that the unions didn’t amalgamate, except in the white-collar areas — teachers, nurses, etc. — which have been the most successful. The blue-collar unions amalgamated along political lines rather than industry lines, and that was a huge mistake. You had Left-wing unions, instead of unions formed at the level of the industry. Same with the Right-wing unions. It has been a bloody disaster in blue-collar industries.

DM: Regarding Czechoslovakia, I was abhorred by the Soviet invasion, but if the Russians had just left it alone, I suspect it would have become a social-democratic variety of capitalism. It would have merged with the West. It was not much of a revolution.

MO: The way it was going, it would have been a much more advanced, democratic socialist society. It wasn’t coming from the top. It was really mobilizing people from the bottom, in the workplaces and so on. It was so involving and democratic. If it had been able to flower over the next ten years, it would have been something much more attractive even than the Nordic countries.

KH: But also, for example, who knows what Palestine would look like if they get independence of some sort. Will it be a Left government? It may not be. It may be an Islamic government. But we still have to support it.

DM: Absolutely.

KH: Rhodesia was the same. We supported Mugabe at the time, which was the correct thing to do, even though, in the end, he was an example of power corrupting.

KH: Max talked about how he wouldn’t mind eradicating the Fair Work Commission. Kevin Rudd got elected on two issues. There was the massive union campaign and all those rallies denouncing WorkChoices, and the demand to address climate change. He failed miserably on both, tearing about two pages out of WorkChoices.

MO: It was tough negotiating. That’s often forgotten. But part of the problem was that unions didn’t have a bigger vision about what they wanted. I’ve been talking and writing recently about how we need a totally different kind of legislation, what I call “facilitated legislation,” which sets out a whole lot of rights and principles, but is not too narrowly pointed at specific things. So, the unions would have a lot of rights to undertake their efforts, but it is not all laid down in black and white. Then the unions can help to encourage collective-bargaining rights across the board. They’ve got to start doing that now and break the law, even, as a way of starting to achieve it. Just fiddling with a few bits and pieces of the legislation around the edges is not what we want. It’s got to be much more substantial.


Can the panel speak more about their thoughts on the Prices and Incomes Accord? What were the ramifications not just for the Labor Party, but also the union movement and the organized working class?

KH: It was part of the decline of the union movement. Any deal that includes keeping wages suppressed is not good for working people, no matter what the other side of it is.

VB: It was also insidious as an example of a social contract between the union movement and the government, which you know is a “no-no” from the International Socialist perspective. Trotskyist traditions were influenced by the experiences in Britain in the 1970s, which is why the IS tendency here was critical of the Accord and what it was going to do to the labor movement and the Left. [VB holds up a copy of Labor’s accord: Why it’s a fraud (1986).[2]] This is just one of the things from Socialist Action regarding the Accord. They went ballistic over the idea that the Communist Party could have been involved with the ACTU, that the Communist union leaders negotiated with Hawke and Hayden behind the backs of workers, prior to the election of the government in 1983. This collaboration continued for the following decade to sell out the workers and create a labor market in Australia that is much better at increasing profits for corporations than improving wages and conditions for workers.

KH: It is summed up by the fact that the capitalists now repeatedly say they’d love Labor to get back to the good days of the Hawke-Keating government.

MO: We immediately published the Accord widely and discussed it in all our shop stewards’ courses. We looked at all the possibilities, because there were many. One of my big criticisms of the union movement was that we didn’t take advantage of the things we were able to do. We were very conscious about ownership by the members. Nothing was done on the basis of keeping information from them. Every course we ran, we discussed what they could do on the job — the heap of things that the Accord did not stop them from doing in the workplace. There was no ban on negotiation about anything. There was not any ban on wage increases, except we were doing it at the central level. It was nothing like the Prices and Income legislation in Britain.

Moderator: You said that the unions didn’t take advantage of the Accord. What was the Communist Party’s advice or position in the unions?

MO: The problem was typical of the unions for a long time. Marx talked about it, and this is particularly true in Anglo-Celtic culture. They were so focused all the time on wage increases, on money militancy. To get them to think of wider issues took dozens and dozens of shop stewards’ courses. You got them talking about their work, for example, and you’d do a session explaining surplus value, capitalism, and the division of labor. Every time you got a wonderful discussion, people would suddenly say, “Oh shit!” Then they would talk about how they were so alienated, even if they didn’t use exactly those words. There was nothing in the Accord stopping us from doing more about that, from doing things like intervening in how new technology was introduced into the workplace, which we did at the three big aircraft companies. We said, “No, it’s not coming in until we spend six weeks — six weeks! — on shop steward seminars to plan how we’re going to handle this.” That happened just before the Accord, but we could have done the same thing under the Accord. It didn’t stop you from doing any of that, and we negotiated a great agreement on new technology after we had worked out what we wanted: new work systems, new skills, etc. But the culture of most of the union movement is not concerned with that. They have a hard time seeing beyond wage increases.

My understanding is that a lot of the CPA support for the Accord came about because it was considered a move towards a planned economy, that it would get workers, through their representatives, a seat at the table. I understand that as being how it was sold at the time, but I wonder what you think now, in light of more recent discussions around the topic, such as Elizabeth Humphrys’s How Labor Built Neoliberalism[3] and Liz Ross’s Stuff the Accord! Pay Up![4] Perhaps it wasn’t positive, overall. Or was it just a missed opportunity?

MO: It’s a bit of both. Take the industry plans developed under Industry Minister John Button. Two or three of them were initiated by the unions. We initiated the one in the food industry, and it was not done just at the top. During discussions about the steel industry plan, I ran a seminar for a hundred shop stewards at Clyde Cameron College. We said to Button, “we’re not finishing this until the shop stewards discuss it.” We were there for about four days and provided significant input for what eventually became the Steel Plan, which gave the unions quite a big say in the industry at the time. We did the same in the food industry. I ran a seminar for 65 shop stewards and officials when we developed the Food Industry Plan, before going back to Button and Simon Crean (ACTU Vice President). We made sure to start with the shop stewards, getting them to think and have input. Some of the other units didn’t do that; they were more top-down. But the Food Industry Plan was bloody terrific. It got us a lot of control in the workplace: the stewards were going to have a much bigger say, we got programs for learning English. A committee was set up jointly to do all of that. Of course, come the Howard years, all of that ended.

Just wondering about the John Button car plan that lowered the tariffs on imported cars, which stuffed our car industry —

MO: That’s not true.

Was that plan merely “including” the workers in the discussions? I work at the post office and I’m a union rep. I see a lot of us being “involved” in this or that magnificent talk fest, but then they just do what they want to us. They talk to us, but that’s it, and then you’re just steamrolled because we’re bloody posties — or they’re car workers, or other people who are about to be reformed out of their jobs.

MO: It didn’t work like that with the Auto Plan. There was a very conscious involvement of the shop stewards. Because our union had a lot of members, we were not joined with the Vehicles Builders’ Employees’ Federation (VBEF) at the time. There was considerable involvement of the shop stewards’ input into the Auto Plan. What happened with the Auto Plan was very good. The unions agreed, and I certainly supported it too. It brought down tariffs while rationalizing a lot of the stupidity that was in the auto industry, like reducing the number of components for all cars down to three or four. The quality of the vehicles improved immensely. We went from one of the worst in quality to among the highest. We were exporting cars. Prime Minister Tony Abbott killed the car industry when his government withdrew the $300 million subsidy. Every country that has a car industry subsidizes it; $300 million was piddling compared with all the others. Up to then it was going well. The Button plan had nothing to do with it. The car industry was 100% unionized. That’s why Abbott went after it.

What policies would a mass-based Left party have to uphold in order to restructure the economy, given a global great depression combined with the global pandemic?

VB: Socialization of all natural monopolies would be a start. Certainly, in the context of the climate crisis, one of the problems has been privatization of the energy sector. You can’t expect private operators to encourage people to reduce emissions. I’m impressed by the work of an organization, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, which has been going for about the last 10 years. They argue that the battlefield for socialism, for a better world, is now inextricably linked with the battle to save the planet. The absolutely crucial role of the Left is to promote greater public ownership, a reclaiming of the commons. What we’ve seen in the last three to four decades under globalization is this constant invading of the commons, along with the socialization of losses and the privatization of profits. That is the starting point for a Left program: reclaim public ownership, starting with the most obvious cases of the natural monopolies in essential services.

MO: I agree that’s what we want, but you have to come back to the current politics and where we work now. The big issue is, how do we do that? What are the steps we can make towards that? We can have all these big ideas: we want a socialist society, a communist society. Beautiful! But how do we do it? Not too many countries are doing it. What is the step we do next week to contribute to that?

Moderator: What would be the role of Marxists and socialists?

MO: Contributing to strategic thinking.

KH: If we knew the answer, we’d do it tomorrow. But that’s the point. I’ve been to so many conferences over the years where the subject matter has been some form of, “Where does the Left go from here?” But we haven’t yet found that solution, unfortunately. That’s just part of the Marxist principle of course. The hegemonic economic order controls society. That’s the problem we face.

VB: There are some opportunities there. The plundering of the commons has brought together people that otherwise wouldn’t see themselves as having common interests. Workers in the privatized industries have interest in common with the consumers, with the people out there in society who are getting such a bad deal from those privatized industries. There are more community alliances and examples of successful struggles — across class lines, in a way — in defense of the public against privatization.

MO: There have been some interesting examples in America, where unions have worked with employees to help the workers take up cooperative ownership. That’s a concrete thing to do. A group of black women in house-care work, very poorly paid, did this up in northern New York with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is a very fine U.S. union. When their work was in danger of being privatized, the SEIU helped them set up a co-op, and they all joined the union. They went from about $7 an hour to about $15, because they knew how to run the whole thing much more efficiently. No bloody management. Some Uber drivers have done the same. One of the unions got the drivers to set up their own co-op and run much better systems than Uber itself. That’s the kind of thing we’ve got to be looking for all the time.

KH: Earthworker Cooperative is doing it here, of course, with co-ops.

MO: One last thing about co-ops — it is not just about democratic ownership. There must be democratic management as well. A co-op that is not democratically managed by its owners is the same as any other company — not worth having.

Let’s return to the question, what politics would a mass-based Left party have? It seems that there was an avoidance of that. Is the ALP that mass-based Left party, or does there need to be a different party? Or is organization going to happen in a completely different way?

VB: Please save us from any more attempts to found a new Left party. The future has to come from below, not from people sitting around in a room like this, deciding to found a party with a perfect program that will solve all problems. Change doesn’t happen like that. Change comes out of struggle, out of movement, out of unrest, out of chaos even, and out of discontent with what capitalists are doing to the planet. That’s what will motivate the transition. Struggle will throw up loose forms of organization. Hopefully there will not be ones laying down lessons for how you’ve got to behave, what contortions you’ve got to do, or what slogans you’ve got to mount.

MO: For 100 years or more there have been attempts to form parties to replace the major party, whatever it is. I’m not aware that one of those has ever succeeded. I mean the Communist Party came into being with the idea of replacing the mass parties of labor. None of them succeeded. We’ve got plenty of lessons to know how that hasn’t worked. You have to build movements and think strategically, not just in the political party, but elsewhere as well. It is interesting that all these independents are emerging in almost every electorate, some of them with fine objectives. That’s a new phenomenon and they’re working together all around the country. Now they are focusing on climate change. That’s terrific, but we’ll have to see what comes out of it all.

KH: They’re very good on the issues they’re very good on, but none of them that I know have any real knowledge of class struggles. So, they’re good, but they’re not going to change things too much.

Moderator: What does that mean for socialists today? If there is little or no class struggle or consciousness of class, how do socialists think and act, in the present?

KH: I think unions are key, but the unions are weak at the moment. You have to get workers aware that they are involved in a class struggle. It is a clever ruse of capitalism to make workers think they are not even working class, let alone that they are engaged in a class struggle. That’s a barrier you have to overcome. That’s where it’s going to come from: workers being aware of their exploitation and the need to change that exploitation. Part of that will also come from other examples of struggles, such as climate change, which will make people increasingly more aware of the problems of capitalism.

MO: We talk about class war and the class struggle, but the struggle in the class war needs two sides. The ruling class is always attacking the working class. But I haven’t seen any evidence of the working class, as a whole class, responding. We are responding in a fragmented way, like the waterfront dispute, or the big strike when Clarrie O’Shea was jailed and we had a million workers walk off the job, which had been prepared for a few years. That was a wonderful result, but that is the nearest we have come to what we would call a class struggle. Nowadays, it is worse than that because of the demise of unions, and the fact that we don’t have huge numbers of workers under one plan. The single biggest employer under one roof in Australia is the Crown Casino, which has 8,000 people. Could we have ever imagined years ago that a casino would be the single biggest employer in the country, in terms of people working in a single location? It was just not unusual when I was young. In my workplace at CIG Gases, we had eight or nine hundred blue-collar workers under the same roof. At Fords, there were several thousand. All that has dissipated — class thinking, solidarity, and so on. We could never foresee that the auto industry would be gone. We had thousands of well-organized, good, strong union people there. There’s no evidence that workers want to come together to battle as a class.

Lenin famously said, Australia is a funny place because they have a labor party that is really like a liberal party and then there is a liberal party that is like a conservative party. To what extent has the Labor Party, from its inception, been an obstacle to the independence of working-class politics in this country? I’d say this relates to the problem of the state in capitalism. In America, they say the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements.

VB: The Labor Party’s existence has certainly dampened down working-class aspirations and struggles, there’s no doubt about that. Do you mean that you need an analysis that says the state cannot be captured, it has to be smashed and overthrown, in the sort of classic Leninist position?

I was thinking about some of the history from your opening remarks, around the crisis emerging from World War I. You have the IWW fighting against conscription and it is ultimately a labor party that gets the police force going. The Labor Party is not just dampening this struggle, but is representative of the ruling class against the working class. Perhaps the Labor Party is, to use an old-fashioned Marxist expression, Bonapartist. They take up certain social discontents, but at the expense of class struggle.

VB: Bourgeois opportunism.


VB: That is absolutely true. There is this perennial problem that the Labor Party has been bad for class struggle, but workers are nonetheless convinced that it is the lesser evil. That workers think it is the lesser evil is part of the process of class struggle being diffused and deflected.

MO: It had a huge impact on me when I first read Gramsci, after it came out in English in about 1970. I read his Prison Notebooks and all that stuff. It was an exciting read because it brought a whole new approach to the fact that workers were imbibing capitalism, and nobody else had thought through it like Gramsci did. Therefore, part of the struggle is ideological, because an overwhelming number of workers today, no matter in what capacity, think capitalism is pretty good. There is some thinking among certain younger ones that maybe it’s not so good, especially when you must bid for your jobs. But I thought Gramsci was helpful in understanding that.

KH: It has probably happened naturally, but part of the way capitalism has taken people away from class struggle and awareness is through urban sprawl itself. Years ago, inner-urban areas were factories and workshops, where people all worked together. They had a sense of being working class together. There were evictions and the struggles of depression that people in local communities fought for with each other. But now, there are a hell of a lot of people getting in a car in the office carpark, driving out to their homes and quarter-acre blocks somewhere in the wider suburbs, and they have no other relationship with the human race. In terms of seeing themselves as workers, I think that has played a key role. Workers do not see themselves as part of their own working class.

What the panelists raised about politics coming out of struggle and the diminishing of that struggle — obviously you very much feel that today. But I was just thinking about how the Labor Party got started and the background to that, because, from my very sketchy reading of 19th century history, the ALP was formed in the wake of tensions and defeats in the labor movement. Can we see it, then, as a party that departed from something that came before? Can we call it a party of labor at that time, if it came into being as a result of these declines and defeats?

VB: The argument was that you had to send trade-union representatives into parliament so that the state, or the party in parliament, would act as a shield to protect the industrial working class in their struggles. It was because of the defeat that you had to pursue a parliamentary strategy in order to ensure that the state powers were not used viciously against workers, like it was in the 1890 Maritime Strike and the 1891 Shearers’ Strike. But then you had the irony of the Chifley Government in 1949 sending troops in to crush the miners’ strike, which just shows what happens when you pursue a strategy with a certain end, that ends up doing the opposite, which is what the Wobblies always said would happen.

MO: The problem was the way we went about it. Due to those big defeats, there was a strong syndicalist tendency coming through and influencing the Labor Party at the time. There was little in terms of other political thinking, such as Marxism. That came through the smaller groups, later on, although as Kevin said, some of the good Left people had strong Marxist backgrounds. But, I would make a comparison, having been in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries on a number of occasions. The Social Democrats and other parties there were originally formed in the 1880s to 1890s by people who actually were Marxist, who had worked with Marx and Engels, but there were only a few unions because it wasn’t highly industrialized. The new Social Democrats, with what was then a strong Marxist influence, led the formation of a few of the unions themselves, and they were conscious about forming industry-wide unions. What struck me when I’ve been there is that the influence remains. The unions in Norway and Sweden are very political. They think politically, much more so than our unions, and they are still much more powerful than ours. In Sweden there’s still 75% membership, Norway just dropped a bit below 50%.

KH: I know it’s got a positive side, in that superannuation gives a cushion to workers on retirement — even if, at the moment, the government works for its own purposes and wants to wrestle all that money and give it to the bankers. But there’s the other side of it, which is superfunds like Cbus becoming so big now that there are workers employing workers. So, workers are exploiting workers, to the stage where they are going to be separated from thinking about class struggle. Recently, Cbus has been trying to lower conditions for its own workers, and even the State Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union in Queensland, Michael Ravbar, has urged members to leave Cbus. It’s another way in which workers are going to be divorced from thinking about their class struggle. Workers are almost exploiting themselves, in many ways, with the investments they’re making. Workers’ organization is becoming just another part of capitalism.

MO: Cbus builds such shit buildings too.

KH: Cbus is probably one of the biggest developers of office space in those big developments around Sydney, while below them are people on the streets who can’t find a bloody roof over their head.

There’s a union comrade I know who was a dedicated organizer around construction for a period of time. I remember he said that Cbus was the most anti-union employer he had ever encountered in his decade as an organizer across various workforces and unions.

KH: Their stance has been that they are giving the other employers the way out. The superfunds have been saying, “increases in the levy won’t affect wages,” and Cbus is now saying to its workers, “if there’s an increase, we’re going to lower your wages,” so the big bosses are now using that and saying “we told you!” It has given them ammunition.

MO: I get sick of people raising all the big problems without making any suggestions as to what you might do. There’s a very good book by Paul Adler called The 99 Percent Economy.[5] He’s an Australian living in America, a professor whom I’ve known since he was a student. He not only talks about the problems, but offers creative thinking about what you can do. He is an academic, but he is thinking about how you can change things. |P

Transcribed by Jonny Black, Shane Hopkinson, Liam Kenny, Addison Kwasigroch, Michael McClelland, and Duncan Parkes.

[1] See Max Ogden, A Long View from the Left (Sydney: Bad Apple Press, 2020).

[2] Available online at <>.

[3] Elizabeth Humphrys, How Labour Built Neoliberalism: Australia’s Accord, the Labour Movement and the Neoliberal Project (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).

[4] Liz Ross, Stuff the Accord! Pay Up!: Workers’ Resistance to the ALP-ACTU Accord (Melbourne: Interventions, 2020). See also the interview with Ross, “When Australia’s workers fought back against the Accord,” Red Flag, July 13, 2020, available online at <>.

[5] Paul S. Adler, The 99 Percent Economy: How Democratic Socialism Can Overcome the Crises of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).