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Fourth International, July 1944


Australian Working Class And The War

From the Manifesto of the Revolutionary Workers Party,
Australian Section of the Fourth International


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.7, July 1944, pp.227-228.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In the June issue of Fourth International we published the first section of this interesting document of the Australian Trotskyists. The following is a second instalment. It will be concluded in a subsequent issue.

Australian Labor Party

Until the most recent times the Australian working class has been satisfied to devote its organizing energies to gain a greater share of the profits of expanding Australian capitalism. Through the trade unions and the Labor Party, both essentially reformist organizations, the workers won a relatively high level of wages and secured social legislation famous throughout the world. These gains were possible because of the rapid expansion of Australian capitalism.

After the great strike defeats of 1890-91, the workers believed that the struggle in the industrial field would have to be accompanied by an attempt to gain representation in Parliament; the unions sponsored the formation of the Australian Labor Party. In its ideology the Labor Party has never progressed beyond a vague gradualism, rather akin to English Fabianism, but lacking any clear-cut political theory. The social theories that have been so important elsewhere, Owenite-Socialism, anarchism, Syndicalism, Marxism, failed to take root in the insular soil of the Australian Labor movement. Comparatively good wages and plentiful jobs made the workers unresponsive to the idea of any radical change in the ownership of the means of production, a change from capitalism to Socialism.

There were experiments in state capitalism, such as the railways and other forms of transport, banking and insurance, shipbuilding, brickwork, etc., designed to fill in gaps in the capitalist economy. These, however, either languished in an atmosphere of capitalist hostility or were incorporated in the general structure of Australian capitalism. They in no sense represented a movement towards a working class control of the economy.

Speaking in economic terms the role of the Labor Party has been to assist in the development, along purely capitalist lines, of Australian secondary industries upon whose prosperity the high standards of the workers depended. It endeavored to prevent the influx of cheap labor by vigorously supporting the White Australia Policy, a policy which has an economic basis that is quite justifiable but which fosters an inter-racial animosity that is entirely opposed to all the international traditions of the working class. No attempt has been made at any time to meet the problem that does exist by action designed to raise the living standards, on an international basis, of the workers of the Pacific and the East. In conformity with its function the Labor Party adopted an extreme protectionist tariff policy and, in general, it has sought, whilst advancing the interests of the workers within the limits of capitalism, to foster national capitalist industry and to. protect it against its world rivals.

Thus until the permanent crisis of world capitalism commenced in 1928, the Labor Party tended to reflect the reformist ambitions of the workers. Nevertheless, the Labor Party instilled an elementary sense of class unity and of the antagonism between capital and labor.

The Labor Party in the Depression – A New Role

The world depression found the Labor Party unable to understand what was happening or to point a way to the abolition of capitalism. It capitulated to the “recovery” plans of the government, to the wage cuts, currency depreciation, and miserly doles of the Premiers Plan. In Australia, as in every other country, the reformist labor movement revealed that it had in its armory neither the ideological nor the organizational weapons to attack the tottering structure of capitalism. But the setting up of the Socialization Committees, though they were rapidly liquidated by the bureaucracy, showed that among the rank and file of the [Labor] Party the sparks of revolutionary thought were appearing.

The world crisis, culminating in the present imperialist war, has brought about radical changes in the roles of the various political groups. Basically these changes flow out of the new organizational form of capitalism, the totalitarian state. For the purpose of waging war, which is the sole remaining avenue for capitalist expansion, the capitalist groups are forced to introduce some measure of planning into the economy, and to regiment every section of the community. The Labor party is being used by capitalism to subject the working class to the rigid discipline of the totalitarian state. This is the prevailing tendency, though it has not yet reached full fruition. Hence, whether in or out of office, the Laborite leaders find themselves, willy-nilly, servants of the real controllers of the country, the great capitalist combinations. They are, in an undeveloped, embryonic fashion, performing the function of the Hitlerian Labor Front.

Since even the most immediate needs of the workers cannot be met under declining capitalism, least of all in its semi-fascist form, a split has developed between the Labor Party apparatus and the rank and file members, who are rebelling against the treachery of the bureaucrats. And power seekers such as J.T. Lang seek to capitalize this discontent.

The Trade Unions

The organization of workers in trade unions has been carried further in Australia than in any other country; in general, all workers capable of organization in unions have been organized, a position that has not been approached in any other capitalist country. Inheriting the traditions of Great Britain, unionism in this country began on a craft basis. In a series of strikes, notably by the shearers and seamen, the workers established the right to bargain collectively with their employers. In the course of time the inadequacy of the craft basis became obvious and industrial unions, covering all workers in an industry, have come into existence. Under the pressure of the need for united action a general tendency exists for amalgamation and liquidation among the craft bodies, a tendency that must be assisted by all revolutionary workers.

Reformist methods having proved so successful during the continued expansion of the economy, the workers accepted state sanction for their procedure of collective bargaining and the guarantee – by the law – of the basic wage and the conditions of the awards. The arbitration system was adopted in all industries, thereby creating the illusion that the class struggle was, and should be, fought out in the courts. Inevitably the organization of the unions became more bureaucratic and the workers have become accustomed to compromises with the employers. So far has the process of legalization been carried that it is at the present time being suggested that, in return for the abandonment of the right to strike, compulsory legal unionism be introduced, a measure that could easily he used to enthrone the bureaucrats permanently and turn the unions from organs of working class struggle into integral parts of the apparatus of capitalist oppression.

An important revolutionary task is the education of the union members in an understanding of the real nature of the Arbitration System. Compulsory Arbitration represents an attempt to reconcile the interests of the capitalists and the workers within the capitalist system. As this is an impossibility the Arbitration System operates increasingly in the interests of the capitalists, whose spokesmen are becoming its keenest supporters just as the workers are becoming increasingly suspicious of it. The Arbitration Judges have the job of preserving peace in industry, which means they must constantly force the workers to make concessions, since the capitalists are unable and unwilling to do so.

All that has been said about the new role of the Labor Party machine, its functions within the capitalist totalitarian order, applies to the union movement. The bureaucracy collaborates with the capitalists on innumerable boards and commissions, deciding the fate of the workers without consulting their wishes. If the worker still supports his union, it is because he recognizes it as the only medium available for the defense of his wages and conditions. At the same time the rank and file are pressing always for a genuine working class struggle, and mass revolts are occurring against the class collaborationist policy of the officialdom. In particular, struggles are now occurring in the Miners, Waterside Workers, and Ironworkers Unions, whose officials (so-called “Communists”), have openly announced a policy of collaboration with the capitalists in the interests of the “war against fascism.” Such a policy, if persisted in, will raise the menace of Australian fascism to a new height, and the bulk of the workers instinctively realize this.

In Australia, the workers have developed the shop committee as a method of bridging over the gaps between the various craft unions and of coordinating the forces of the workers on the job against the boss. This form of organization presents the best opportunities for countering the bureaucracies of the unions and of transforming them into mass revolutionary organs. Machinery must be devised to coordinate the work of the shop committees, giving them contact with each other, arranging for the raising of strike funds, sympathetic strikes, propaganda, etc., generally increasing the influence of this type of rank-and-file organization among the workers.

While we sympathize with workers disgusted with some act of betrayal by the union officials, we are strongly opposed to workers leaving their unions or even giving the bureaucracies grounds for expulsion, as this leaves them unorganized, at the mercy of the highly organized employers. We also oppose the building of breakaway unions, on the lines of the “Red” trade unions set up at one stage by the Comintern. To do this is to split the ranks of the workers, to remove all opportunities to strengthen the hands of the rank and file, and to isolate the militants and lay them open to attack. The bulk of the workers will remain in the old unions which alone are recognized by the courts. To try to form pure “left wing” unions is to admit that the militants are unable to gain the leadership of the broad masses, without whose active participation there will be no Socialist revolution. It is a tactic of despair, not of militancy. The only method to beat treachery is to stay in the union, to intensify job organization, and to forge links with the workers in other shops, so that the union functionaries are forced to abide by the will of the membership.

The policy of the Revolutionary Workers Party towards the unions may be summarized: Strengthen all along the line the power of the rank and file against the bureaucracy! The unions remain the basic mass organs of the workers, and they must be transformed into revolutionary weapons of the class struggle.

Within the labor movement as a whole, the Labor Party as well as the unions, the revolutionist should not cease in his activity, but should always attempt to stem the rising tide of reaction, calling for resistance to the growing subordination of the officialdom to the capitalist state. He should also cooperate with any section of the movement that adopts a sound working class policy on some particular issue. The aim must be always to steer these limited demands towards the wider goal, the attainment of state power by the workers. There will be no difficulty in showing the rank and file that the attainment of the most limited demands calls, in this epoch of capitalist decay, for the abolition of the capitalist system of exploitation.

Fascism in Australia

During the depression a fascist movement first showed its teeth in Australia. The “New Guard” was formed to solve the crisis of capitalism by the violent suppression of all working class activities and the reduction of the workers to the level of the dole. It represented the reaction of the most ruthless section of the ruling class to the hand to mouth policy of J.R. Lang. Financed by the biggest monopoly capitalists, led by every type of political careerist, it found its mass basis in the ruined middle class and farmers. During the worst years of the depression the capitalists were ready to call on these elements to preserve their rule.

Nothing is more certain than that Australian capitalism, faced by the ever intensifying crisis, will turn again for salvation to the fascist gangs. Already marked fascist tendencies appear in the services, particularly among the officer groups; and the capitalist press encourages this tendency by incessant propaganda aimed at sowing antagonism between the workers and the soldiers, Ruined petty-bourgeois elements such as small farmers and shopkeepers will swell the fascist ranks as the crisis grows. We must expect anti-capitalist demagogy from the spokesmen of fascism on the lines of the Nazi slogans, but their objective role in the defense of the capitalist system will be revealed by their hostility of the workers organizations, their opposition to the workers class struggle, their claim to represent the whole nation, irrespective of class, and above all by their opposition to the demand for the abolition of private property in the means of production.

The answer of the Socialist movement to the onslaught of fascism is not to be found in reliance upon the protection of the law, or an appeal to the state apparatus to restrain the violence of the Storm Troops. European experience proves that the capitalist state machine, the police, courts, army, etc., is always thoroughly infected with the virus of fascism. Nor does protection lie in the “Popular Front” movements in which the working class surrenders leadership in the struggle to a motley collection of petty-bourgeois elements, many of whom, in the final crisis, will find more in common with the capitalist regime than with the workers. Of course, this does not prevent the workers from finding allies among the other classes, but always the leadership of the anti-fascist struggle must lie with the workers, under the direction of the workers’ revolutionary organizations.

The workers’ answer to fascist thug tactics lies in building organizations designed for the actual process of fighting – physical fighting in the last analysis. Force must be met by force. In the course of the actual class struggle such bodies as strike committees, strike pickets, defense guards, will be set up. These must be placed on a permanent, disciplined basis, forming the nucleus of a workers’ anti-fascist militia.

So long as there is no slackening in the building of this fighting organization, and so long as the revolutionary groups preserve their organizational independence, it is correct to call for a united front of all the working class organizations against the fascists. Never again must the workers commit the mistake of the German Communist Party in 1932, which split the ranks of the German workers by proclaiming that the Social Democrats were a greater enemy than the fascists; the notorious theory of “Social Fascism,” with its slogan of “After Hitler Our Turn!” which resulted in an alliance between the Communists and the Nazis on the basic issue of the Prussian Referendum and the consequential victory of fascism.

Once it is made clear that the workers intend to fight fascism and not capitulate before it, large sections of, the petty bourgeoisie will be attracted to the workers just as the slogans of the Bolsheviks and their determination to seize power in 1917 attracted the vast masses of the peasantry to their leadership.

(To be continued)

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