Technocratic Laborism: Introduction

Arena, 25, 1971, pp. 53-56.

No one could pretend that even the most skilful propaganda or the most scholarly tomes will cause the ALP to lose its mass electoral base. Only the dialectics of class struggle can achieve that outcome. But detailed analyses of the ALP are nonetheless an essential ingredient. At this early stage they can provide the final straw for individual militants. IN the heat of future battles, these militants, and their understanding of the nature of the ALP, will be available to wider audiences for tactics and propaganda. Until quite recently the revolutionary left in Australia had been poorly served in the material available for dealing with the ALP. There was Gordon Childe’s brilliant fragment How Labour Governs (1923). But that was all. After that, there were a variety of Communist party pamphlets but these were slight in terms of the material they contained and the theoretical apparatus they employed. Works of substance of socialist academics gave the ALP critical support and invariably pictured it as the achievement of a radical working class in the nineteenth century. It was with this legacy that the miniscule revolutionary left fought and lost the 1966 elections as hewers of wood for the ALP.

Something had gone wrong: if the Australian working-class was what Gollan and others had said it was there should have been overwhelming support for Calwell’s anti-imperialist and anti-conscription policies. But there wasn’t. In this mood (though unable to articulate it), a group of young revolutionaries in Melbourne planned a week-end conference on “Which party for socialists?” The movement away for the ALP could not repeat the experience of the 1930s, if only because the disillusionment of the 1960s was not with the ALP so much as with the entire tradition of which it (and its Trotskyite and CPA defenders) were part: it was not a rejection of the ALP because another Labor government had failed to live up to expectations, but because the ALP’s universe was no longer habitable.

The task of examining the ALP historically fell to me. There were two models from which to choose: either an Australian equivalent of Ralph Milliband’s Parliamentary Socialism, or Antonio Gramsci’s demand in The Modern Prince that the history of a party must be the history of a society from a monographic point of view. The choice had to be Gramsci since it was necessary to start at the beginning if the ALP was to be understood. Fortunately, the conference did not take place, because at the time for which it had been scheduled, March 1968, I was still thrashing around with the convicts.

Out of this proposed conference paper emerged A New Britannia in which I attempted to show that the ALP is umbilically linked to capitalism, that its misdeeds are not contingent, not the result of wicked individuals, and that it is irrevocably incapable of achieving socialism. A New Britannia did not become the title until a few weeks before completing the manuscript; until then, the title (and the filing-cabinet drawer) were labeled “Laborism”. A New Britannia ends around 1920, rigorously excluding the proletariat emerging from the nineteenth century on. Even if A New Britannia is seen as satisfactory for the 19th century, it leaves a vast amount to be done on the ALP; my chapter “Power without Glory” in the forthcoming Australian Capitalism, edited by John Playford and Doug Kirsner, is no more than a sketch of the Party from 1920 to 1960.

Moreover, by concentrating on the past I had failed to absorb fully the important changes being attempted inside the ALP. As Kelvin Rowley commented when reviewing my essay “Laborism and Socialism”, from Richard Gordon’s edited collection, The Australian New Left:

… one could say that the critique of Laborism has come just at the moment it is rendered redundant … the last five years have been the last gasp of the old Laborism in the ALP. It is currently being isolated and purged by the ascendant forces … the victors have been the Whitlamites, representing the new petit-bourgeois mentality of what Galbraith called the “technostructure”. (Farrago, 16 October 1970)

John Playford had already provided a solid basis for furthering this investigation with his 1969 monograph Neo-capitalism in Australia. As Rowley, McFarlane and I were all working on chapters for the Playford-Kirsner volume. we arranged discussions which altered the shape of our contributions and spawned my paper to the anti-war conference on “The ALP’s strategy for counter-revolution in Asia”, [an expanded version of which appeared as “Living off Asia” in Arena, 26, 1971]. From these background studies, and with the appearance of some new pieces on “technocratic laborism”, discussion quickly turned to extending the survey to areas such as industrial, social and educational policies. Because Dunstan was the only “labor technocrat” in office, it was agreed that a study of his administration take priority. The result is John Lonie’s researches in this issue as the first essay under the general heading “technocratic laborism”.

Other comrades have promised material on industrial policy; TPNG; education; incomes policy; and the NZ Labor Party, which has been forced further down the road of open class collaboration because of the chronic economic crises there. In future issues, it is hoped to publish trailers, notes, documents and reviews as well as full-length articles.

This long explanatory background has been presented so that readers and future contributors can appreciate more fully the implications of what might otherwise appear unconnected writings. As an exercise in protracted intellectual warfare by a wide-ranging ménage, the project on “technocratic laborism” might point the way to appropriate means of fostering socialist scholarship in Australia. By publishing material piecemeal, rather than in a special issue, it is hoped to offer opportunities to correct errors, and to redirect emphases. Of course, the material will be largely useless if it cannot penetrate beyond Arena subscribers, so, unless otherwise stated, all the items on “technocratic laborism” will be available for reprinting without permission. The material could be useful for discussion groups – even in ALP branches. We are anxious to receive reports of speeches or actions by Whitlam and his retinue which might otherwise pass us by; country meetings are relevant here. Just as the coming battles against Whitlam as prime minister must have a mass character, so much their ideological preparations.

Already it is clear that the federal Labor government will be met by a revolutionary left which will be better prepared – ideologically and organisationally – to deal with the dynamics of labor-in-office than at any previous period. This is no local phenomenon, but is indicative of the world situation; that is, the phase of US imperialism’s defeat and destruction. Previous labor governments have largely maintained or regained their mass electoral support because the imperialist power(s) to which Australia was tied was able to play both time and space. But time and space are what British and US imperialism do not have. We are witnessing

… the march of this retreatin g world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Strategies to deal with particular contradictions such as an ALP split which look to previous splits for guidance are doomed unless they recognise that the principal contradiction now centers on the rout of US imperialism, less than 30 years after its world conquest.

The effect of this rout on Australia in the 1970s will be anything but a mechanical reflection of US imperialism’s crisis. Alternatives for Australia include an accelerated decline comparable to that of New Zealand vis-à-vis Great Britain; a switch to the patronage of Japan which is unlikely to feel obligated to maintain our high domestic living conditions; become an imperialist power in our own right. Each of these will doubtless occur to a certain extent in different sectors of the economy, but for the present, Australia is deriving benefits from imperialism’s forced retreat.

Blainey points out that there is not so much a mining boom as an exploration boom. Minerals are very difficult to find here and once found are costly to develop but they have one over-riding virtue – they are in a politically stable country. Even Allende’s pseudo-victory in Chile led to the suspension of Japanese iron-ore negotiations and their transfer to Australia. (Financial Review, 28 September 1970) Constant supply of raw materials is essential to maintain markets; disruption for even a few months could lead to a competitor’s penetration. As less and less of the world remains quiescent, the attractiveness of Australia as a place for mineral investments will increase.

While minerals have helped counter-balance declining primary-product income, they produce tensions of their own: they generate a boom economy from which inflationary pressures lead to working-class demands for the maintenance of real-wage levels; they by-pass the old producers and leave small farmers, for instance, faced with insoluble problems; they intensify the imbalance of public squalor and private affluence. Ultimately, and not so far in the future, they will demand the presence of Australian conscripts in New Guinea and Fiji. That Whitlam fully recognizes this last point is evident by his rush to grant self-government to the former so that he can prop up an “independent” administration there. These are not answers but areas for investigation and action.

In form, the project on “technocratic laborism” will be like Arena’s continuing work on education and the intellectually-trained.[1] In content, however, it will present an immediate denial of the Arena thesis since, at this time, but perhaps only for the present phase, the intellectually-trained are providing Whitlam with his constituency and are not even a secondary motor of revolution. This link may break when Whitlam-in-office has exhausted the potential for his rhetoric. The conjuncture of Arena’s intellectually-trained thesis and the new project on technocratic laborism can be resolved only dialectically. It will not be a matter of choosing one or the other, but of tracing uneven developments. Not the least of the virtues of this confrontation will be the need for the keener theoretical tools offered by Mao’s On Contradiction.

[1] For an exposition of the Arena project see Warren Osmond, “Towards Self-Awareness”, The Australian New Left (Heinemann, 1970) pp. 192-98.