LABOUR HISTORY - WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
side are you on?
mundane decline of labour history
years ago, a grouping of communists
and ex-communists in Canberra set up a Society for the Study of Labour
History and prepared a journal, Labour
History. One spur had been the appearance of the Bulletin
of the Business Archives
Council, now known as the Australian
Economic History Review. At the start, the Society and its
publications were part of a struggle for position on the ideological
front, an early campaign in the History Wars.
launching of Labour History needs to be seen also in the context of three books:
Russel Ward’s The Australian
Legend in 1958, which promoted socialism-as-being-mates against the
individualism of Yankee imperialism, and was part of the folk revival as
an alternative to the Coca-colonisation of popular culture; Robin
Gollan’s Radical and Working
Class Politics (1960) where the organisation of working people is
shown to have laid one foundation for bourgeois democracy; and Ian
Turner’s Industrial Labour and
Politics (1961) which lauded the militancy of the Industrial Workers
of the World and of the other socialist internationalists who led
countless industrial disputes as well as the fight that twice defeated
the other side, Noel Butlin in 1958 had challenged the account in Brian
Fitzpatrick’s The British Empire in Australia (1941) which had portrayed
Australia’s economic development as pastoralism. In 1962, Manning
Clark delivered the first volume of A
History of Australia as a clash of ideas, a religiously inspired
piece of Philosophical Idealism which was at once greeted with
enthusiasm by the CIA’s little helpers in the Quadrant
crew. Editing Australian
Civilisation that year, Peter Coleman recognised that ‘the
influence of Manning Clark has been of the greatest importance’ in
‘the Counter-Revolution in Australian Historiography’.
traces of the continuing class struggle appear in the pages of Labour
History, which, its current editors boast, ‘has come a long
way’. Instead, readers of the 100th issue for May 2011 are
becalmed on an ocean of complacency and self-congratulation. The points
of criticism come when authors lament that their particular take on the
past is being granted less attention than they merit. The prime doubter
is Christopher Wright on the retreat from labour-process studies –
labour process being the safe term for class struggle. How telling that
the most critical stance is made from the viewpoint of management.
did it come to this? One answer is to look at the editorial board and
find nothing but academics. Labour
History, which began in reaction to the institutionalisation of
business history, is housed in a School of Business. Even the
neo-liberal economists at the University of Sydney want to escape from
that sausage machine for manufacturing the agents of capital, and, for
once, are in accord with the Political Economy Department which moved to
the Arts Faculty.
give the editors and their panels of advisors the benefit of the doubt
and assume that all the local ones are members of the NTEU. A tiny bit
of research would uncover how many are active on their branch
committees. Again, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and accept
that they know who Ark Tribe is. How many attended any of the protests
against his persecution? How many support the Rudd-Gillard maintenance
of the Howard-era industrial regime? More germane to present purposes is
to ask how many understand why being on a picket line is as much a
prerequisite for writing labour history as is securing a research grant?
Bongiorno’s introductory inquiry into ‘Contexts, Trends and
Influences’ ties the decline of labour history to ‘the evolving
professional imperatives associated with university-based research and
teaching in an increasingly globalised academic culture’. Apart from
identifying this constraint, Bongiorno is too much the cheery optimist
about the self-styled discipline’s commitment to ‘social justice’,
to activism and its scepticism about ‘disinterested scholarship’.
Without a radical intervention from ‘the college walls’, the
momentum is for academic labour historians to slip further away from
serving as protagonists of the proletariat into becoming parasites on
its struggles, sufferings and successes, advancing careers but giving
nothing in return, instead, seeing neutrality and objectivity as morally
and intellectually superior to solidarity. Some of the Daleks who stomp
out of undergraduate politics into ministerial suites, trade-union
offices and ALP machines may yet find labour history as a ladder to
success beyond the universities.
decline of labour history is but one strand in the ALP’s dis-organization
of the working class over the past thirty years. The displacement of a
Labor Party by the ALP as the Anti-Labour Party needs to be understood
in terms of the current needs of global capital to expand by breaking
through the barriers behind which it had accumulated profit.
of the regional branches keep up the original commitment, often under
the impetus of retired workplace activists. Brisbane held a forum
against WorkChoices; the South Coast produced an issue of its journal on
the future of the region’s economy; Adelaide is involved in the
campaign against the anti-labour ALP State regime’s attack on the
conditions of its employees. It’s time that the Hunter Valley took
some propaganda by deed and revised the RTA sign ‘Rothbury Riot
Memorial’ to ‘Police Riot Memorial’.
Conference theme of ‘Labour History and Its People’ spotlights how
bourgeois ideology has taken control: biography - not class. Where is
the sense that the masses make history? Of course, we need to be alert
to the role of the individual wage-slave as the embodiment of labour-time
engaged in a now open and now covert war against the capitalist as the
personification of capital. A few Conference papers come closer to the
class commitments. A closing session reverts to Green Bans in the early
1970s as a model for future struggle, thereby avoiding the need to fight
the ALP’s attack on the BLF’s inheritors through the Australian
Building and Construction Commission or against Killard’s
‘harmonisation’ of health and safety.
opening night address will be given by Senator John Faulkner, assumed to
be the only sound apple in a barrel of maggots. His commitment to
cabinet and caucus ‘solidarity’ allowed him to become even more
complicit in the war crimes in Afghanistan when he took on the
‘Defence’ portfolio after his predecessor was caught up in another
of those arrangements with business which are the hallmark of party
fund-raising. From the backbench, Faulkner gives no indication that he
will sponsor Adam Bandt’s motion to abolish the Construction stasi.
It is a measure of what has happened to the labour movement that such a
person is treated as an honoured guest.
keeping with the debilitation of labour history in academe is the
session seeking to theorise its practice. The founders knew that the
theory they needed existed in Marx’s labour theory of value as the
lynchpin of his analysis of the accumulation of capital through
exploitation. To adopt that theory would require today’s labour
historians to stretch their intellects beyond the presumption that
theory is the generalising from fact-grubbing, and thus become more than
glorified antiquarians. (Antiquarianism had its virtues as anyone who
has used Sam Merrifield’s catalogues and newspaper indexes in the
Victorian branch’s Recorder
parents of one of the conference organisers, Ann Curthoys, would have
been behind barbed wire had the vote gone the other way. They would have
insisted on training the connections between then and now. Instead of
continuing their fight for socialism, the conference is nothing more
than another occasion to garner career points and be published in Australian
Historical Studies. The organisers hope that the two days will
‘provoke discussion of new ways of approaching and writing Communist
history in the 21st century’ – not lead to action.
today’s representatives of the unions that took the case to the High
Court invited to speak about their current struggles against UnFair Work
Australia? Sad to say, fewer union officials now understand why the
lessons from past struggles are important. Of course, plenty of them
retain a desire to see their own names in print in official histories.
of all, the Melbourne conference dredges up disgraceful behaviour by
certain labour historians in their use of the illegally gathered
material in ASIO files. The privacy of innocent by-standers is again
invaded because they were associated with activists. Historians complete
ASIO’s dirty work. It is one thing for a rabid anti-Communist like
Robert Manne to volunteer as Spry’s amanuensis, but anyone with a
progressive bone should endorse the demand by the Committee for the
Abolition of the Political Police to destroy the files.
instance of La Trahison des Clercs is Ian Hunt’s five-page entry on ‘Marxist
Philosophy’ in A companion to
Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand from Monash University. The
source of the lopsidedness in Hunt’s contribution is not clear, though
the bias of the Companion
means that its title should have included ‘Academic’. Hunt might be
excused for conforming to editorial directives.
reason cannot explain why he makes no mention of the head of his
department at Flinders, the late Brian Medlin. Nor does Hunt indicate
the praxis that initiated ‘Redgum’ and encouraged visual artists
such as Ann Newmarch. Flinders students experienced philosophy as
sensuous human activity on street marches to oppose US imperialism’s
war against the peoples of Indo-China; by occupying the office of
vice-chancellor Roger Russell, a beneficiary of CIA patronage; and by
moving into factories under the Worker-Student Alliance – all stimulated
by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Four Essays on Philosophy.
Hunt’s concentrating on what he calls the high point of Marxist
philosophy from 1975 to 1995 does a disservice to the thousands of
Australian workers who helped each other to think through their lives in
terms of materialist dialectics, applying insights from Marx’s Wage-labour
and Capital and Engels’s Socialism,
Utopian and Scientific to their industrial and political struggles.
On that criterion, Marx and Engels would have seen the ‘high point’
from the 1930s to 1950s. Hunt has erased that mass self-education
activity in favour of the study and seminar room.
production of knowledge?
research into the current state of the reproduction of knowledge should
begin from a critique the explanations proposed for the student revolt
of the 1960s. We need to break through the Idealist accounts of cultural
rebelliousness by linking those attitudes to the new needs of capital in
production and the realisation of the surplus value through marketing
and debt. A study of working conditions in tertiary institutions needs
to identify the causes and effects of the retreat from the participatory
democracy in the classroom and throughout the administration. Can we
trace that loss to the managerialism and credentialism galloping throughout the economy out of the Schools of Business?
the post-graduates stacking supermarket shelves between short-term
contracts, a job is experienced, as Adorno observed, as disguised
unemployment. The super-exploitation of casuals is driving them to of
accumulate points from peer-reviewed conference papers, even at events
such as a one-day seminar on ‘Capital
against capitalism’. The scramble for short-term contracts compels
applicants to publish at least one peer-reviewed article each year. How
has that pressure encouraged the linguistic turn which values the
critique of existing texts rather than spending time on original
research? In addition, we need to examine the role of NTEU in the
conflict between tenured staff and those on contracts who hew the wood
red armband version
put these facts of life into historical form we need to
these objectives will help workers to picture their lives within the
making of the Australian working class on a global scale. Many have been
denied a chance to see how our class has made its way to where we are.
founders of the Society and journal sought to redress the 1927 complaint
from New South Wales rural labourer Charlie Sullivan:
first steps for activist-researchers who want to revive the class
commitment of the founders of the study of labour history will be to see
the present as history and to take to heart Brian Fitzpatrick’s 1955 Meanjin essay ‘The Origins of the People are not in the