The Great Depression 1930s
Old Mole, number 4, 20 July 19790, p. 7.
Review of The Great Depression in Australia, Labour History, Number 17.

To ask “Why was there no revolution during the Depression?” betrays the curse of economic determinism. Yet that manner of thinking is so pervasive that attention must be paid. Te question steams from the most vulgar form of materialism – that humans live by bread alone, and is worse even than the “base-superstructure” model, which at least finds the dynamic of political power somewhere in the entirety of the mode of production.

The notion that unemployment or hunger should of itself result in revolution reduces us to a sub-human by depriving us of our total experience. When Marx said that “existence determines consciousness” he meant just that. He was not saying that “economic” existence determined consciousness” but that consciousness was the consequence of a complete set of experiences – religious, cultural and economic. There can e evolution only when all these experiences are disappointed; when the crisis is in fact over-determined.

There is, however, one sense in which an economic depression can be seen as relevant to this total crisis. To the extent to which Marx was right to say that all relationships under capitalism are reduced to a “cash nexus” it is possible to see the breakdown of he monetary system as pivotal. This point is developed in George Steiner’s essay “The Hollow Miracle” in Language and Silence, where he examines the “moral’ consequences of the collapse of the German Mark in the 1920s and in the immediate post-1945 period.

Capitalism cannot reduce all human relations to a cash nexus. It could not function if it did, and socialism would be possible if it had. Socialism requires revolution and both demand human solidarity on a basis other than financial gain. This is part of the explanation for seeing the working-class as the revolutionary class. Their work conditions under capitalism force them into a solidarity which is lacking in the intelligentsia, students and (at least, until now) the intellectually-trained.

And it is precisely this condition of “factory solidarity” which is absent for those who suffer most in a depression, namely the unemployed. Their economic deprivation may well be sufficient to rupture their attachments to capitalism and all its pomps. But it is less likely that they will be in a situation to develop those positive attributes which needed to replace the capitalist-oriented ties if revolution is to occur.

The real problem is the effect of this thinking on contemporary revolutionaries who anxiously watch stock-exchange reports for the next great crash. No less important are those who see all hope for revolution gone because Keynes has put an end to depressions.

If historians bothered to look at Russia or China, they would see that war was the effective force for destroying the cobweb of capitalist hegemony; for arming the people; and for creating conditions for solidarity. For as Chairman Mao says, either war will result in revolution or revolution will prevent war.

That no contributor to The Great Depression in Australia bothers to ask why there was no revolution in Australia in the 1930s is not because they reject economic determinism.

Schedvin opens with a threat to demolish the orthodoxy surrounding the depression’s origins and places himself in the centre ring of Butlin Bros. His act turns out to be nothing more than a slight-of-hand. The role of construction is upgraded but the orthodoxy is confirmed at every point. The trumpet has sounded but Jericho slumbers on.

J. R. Robertson’s account of Scullin as Prime Minister is a miracle of misunderstandings. I thought Crisp on Chifley was the limit, but Robertson beats his sycophancy by a crooked mile. Having managed to see the Lang Plan as a political trick to outdo Theodore, Robertson has exhausted his supply of acumen. So he is puzzled as to why Scullin (an honest man both fore and aft) took Theodore (a crook) back into the cabinet. It escapes Robertson that they were both AWU heavies.

But page 34 holds the delight par excellence. In excusing Scullin’s failure to print an issue of currency to expand credit, Robertson tells us that “the £12m. allocated to relief works would have absorbed only a fraction of the unemployed, and that for only a comparatively short time”. He proceeds to explain why in a foot-note: “For example (if this point be clarified by some unsophisticated arithmetic), £12m. was enough to pay 115,000 men (i.e. about 25% of the males unemployed) the basic wage for slightly less than six months.”

Confronted by such unsophisticated ignorance it is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps one should start by reminding Robertson that the multiplier and accelerator operated before Keynes wrote about them. Although Scullin said in defence of the Premiers’ Plan that “It is really a question of arithmetic”, it is the function of a biographer to report, not repeat, the ignorance of his subject.

Hart’s chapter on Lyons contains a deal of the material which appeared in Robertson’s chapter. This overlap is the fault of the editor. The account of Lyons’s accession to the leadership of the new anti-Labor party, the United Australia Party, has converted me to the belief that there is an executive committee of the bourgeoisie in permanent session. Needless to say, it is not Federal cabinet. Lyons has footnoted a conspiracy that is no “theory”.

Miriam Dixon’s account of the Rothbury strike is more than a lively account of working-class action. It argues against the mainstream of Australian history by showing that “civil war” was on the agenda. Even when we realise that it had not occurred but was the next step, it remains true that Rothbury was a far greater challenge to the ruling class than was Eureka or Barcaldine.

It is worth making a comparison between Scullin’s broken promise to open the mines with Chifley’s treatment of the miners in 1949. Scullin could have opened the mines only by sending in the troops. This he declined to do because it would provoke more strife than it would solve. Chifley had not such inhibitor. The difference is not evidence of a double standard of values, on the part of ALP leaders, or a decline in radicalism over twenty years to 1949. Scullin and Chifley applied the same standard in each case: what would serve capitalism.

Sheridan on the AEU gives a competent and reasonable account of those labour aristocrats who managed to maintain benefit payments of some kind throughout the 1930s. He is the only contributor to remind us that statistics are a poor substitute for lived experience, or for fictional evocations of misery:

Unemployment figures can provide only the barest outline of the impact of the depression. They do not indicate the physical and mental deterioration of men permanently out of work for periods of up to five years. They do not convey the effect on either the youngest workers who were often immediately dismissed upon completion of their apprenticeship, or on the oldest who were sometimes sacked upon reaching an arbitrary age limit and who were always handicapped in the search for work by their grey hairs. (p. 61)

But even Sheridan does not develop this. It is significant of the non-human, economic approach of all contributions that there is not one line of verse or one fictional reference in the entire collection. Nothing as “suspect” as first-hand memoirs is included alongside the opinions of scholars.

Bolton’s study of unemployed agitation in Western Australia comes closest to recognising that real, living people were involved. Yet there is none of the feel for the organisations of the oppressed that one finds in E. P. Thompson. Instead, there are strong whiffs of academic hindsight and scientifically detached amusement. This distancing is most marked in Bruce Mitchell’s treatment of the NSW Teachers’ Federation. 

Peter Cook’s treatment of the adoption o the Premiers’ Plan by the Labor Government is a superb analysis of the dominance of bourgeois thought patterns over non-Marxist workers. It is far and away the best piece in the collection.

Don Hopgood’s “Lang Labor in South Australia” fails to impress as much only because he is dealing with a less subtle form of bourgeois ideology, namely, corruption. The fault is in the ALP, not Hopgood.

Loveday’s dissection of “Anti-Political Political Thought” is the worst example of crude economic determinism I have encountered for some time, which is striking because of the author’s conservative political stance. Loveday declines to accept that people take ideas seriously. From his point of view, people merely use “ideas” as a cover-up for economic interests.

Trevor Mathews’s “The All for Australia League” is not quite as reductionist since it sees ideas as politically determined. Both pass up the opportunity to examine concepts of “service”, “sacrifice” and “national interest” as components of the ideologically that affects petit-bourgeois supporters of capitalism whose “economic” interests appeared to be in opposition to the policies they espoused.

On the other side of the class fence, Baiba Berzins’s concentration on the organisational aspect of the penetration of the ALP by Social Credit meant that she has failed to explore the components of “corporatist” thinking among the politically conscious workers. Social credit, with its easy solution and back for “grand conspiracy” notions, seems to be an excellent place to start such an investigation.

The last two chapters both argue that the Depression did not have a very great or lasting effect on the attitudes of the Australian people. This view is expressed in passing by some of the other contributors.

Although Aitken, Kahan and Barnes are tentative in the details of their answer to “What happened to the Depression Generation?” they are in no doubt that these are few, if any, residual today because they found little difference in attitudes between the generations.

Two points should be made. First, the effect of the post-1945 boom cannot be underestimated although it has been marginalised by left historians.

Secondly, we need to be ask if the non-impact of the depression by itself is the result of its being typical of the experience throughout the era from 1890 to 1940. In short, was the effect of the depression lessened by the long trough in working-class standards of living after the 1890 collapse? To this query must be added consideration of the psychological effects of industrialisation and the end of political and social consensus, expressed in the Lib-Lab alliance at the parliamentary level. If so, the impact of the 1930s depression will have to be evaluated as the concluding phase in a 50-year experience.

Gollan’s concluding chapter argues that there was one very important consequence of the depression: namely, the policy of post-war full employment. He quotes extensively from the Labor Government’s 1945 White Paper to show how deeply this concept was embedded in the minds of Labor politicians. Before accepting this at face value it would be advisable to read W. J. Waters’ article on the full employment objective in the April 1970 issue of the Australian Journal of Politics and History. Waters shows what while the ALP was committed to full employment they defined this as not more than 5-6 per cent.

(It would be worth comparing this article with Angus Calder’s account in The Peoples’ War, of the watering down of the original Beveridge Report.)

Gollan concludes with a few stray sentences about the long-term political consequences of the depression. These can be summed up by asking “Why did a socialist Party not emerge with mass support?” The answer to this lies not only within the unexplored history of the 1930s but also in the long tradition from 1788. But until it is answered there can e no strategy for Australian socialists.