Monday, October 26, 2009

From the Past to the Future - Unearthing Labor’s Socialist Tradition.

nb:this article concerns the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) dating back to the 1920s and 1930s; the issues should be of interest to a broad audience...

by Geoff Drechsler

Sometimes it seems as if Labor’s socialist past is the victim of the strangest of conspiracies – a curious intellectual alliance of the boosters for moderate politics within the Labor movement, who engage in mild historical revisionism to excise Labor’s radical past, as it sits uncomfortably with the incrementalism and compromise they prefer, and the last remaining revolutionaries, who are loathed to admit that the party they have spent their political lives deriding as a ‘sell out’ actually has a radical past.

This short article will outline one historical example of Labor’s socialist past. While there are numerous examples of this, ranging from the utopian socialism of many of the original founders of the Labor Party[1], the adoption of the ‘socialist objective’ during the ‘20s, to the implicit transformational nature of Chifley’s famous “light on the hill” speech to the inherent internationalism of Labor’s longstanding opposition to foreign wars, this article will consider the ‘socialisation units’ in the NSW branch in the ‘30s.

The example of the ‘socialisation units’ in NSW is important for a number of reasons. Most significantly, the ‘socialisation units’ were an anti-capitalist mass movement. They enjoyed widespread support within the party and in working class areas, and they had an outward looking propagandist strategy, educating and agitating for their program in the general community through a newspaper, public lectures, study circles and reading groups. (It was common for socialisation unit members to doorknock their suburb) Secondly, in the terms of the party and the NSW Labor government at the time, they were in the mainstream of party debate and activities. Later, their ‘socialism in our time’ position competed with party leader Lang’s more limited socialisation of credit position in party forums.

The socialisation units were active between 1929 and 1935, and began from an earlier move to establish a “Labor Propaganda Army” (LPA), supported by branch agitational units, at the 1928 NSW party conference.

Initially, in 1930, the backers of the LPA succeeded in having a ‘socialisation committee’ established by the NSW annual conference to propagate the principal platform of the party – the socialist objective.

The purpose of the new socialisation units was 'to carry the message of a saner, better and more efficient social system through socialisation to those hundreds of thousands of misguided victims of capitalism.' The people who proposed these new units had a five part strategy:
'1. By addressing public meetings either open air or indoor. 2. By distributing leaflets on Socialisation which the Committee hopes to publish. 3. By organising units or groups for the above purposes. 4. By donations to the printing or propaganda fund which the Committee hopes to establish. 5. By any other means…'

Local socialisation units were established in party branches and trade unions (success being found more often in the former rather than the later). They produced a newspaper from April 1931, Socialisation Call, which was a weekly insert in the Labor Daily initially. The newspaper had a readership in the 10s of ‘000s and the widespread public lectures could attract several hundred on a good night. They even had a segment on radio station 2KY. By the 1931 annual conference, there were 97 socialisation units operating[2], by the time they peaked there were 178 units amongst 250 Labor Party branches around NSW[3]. In some cases the socialisation units were bigger than the original branches that sponsored them. There were instances of people specifically joining the party to, so they could join the socialisation units, and thousands of workers participated in this new movement. The range of activities was broad enough that it included a socialisation orchestra and a socialisation drama group. Socialisation units also spontaneously manifested themselves outside of NSW but not in any organised way.

The membership of the Units was not simply a passive voting base for Labor, or fundraising machines. Volunteers, according to the Units, 'must be able to realise that their job is to be one of the worthiest in the party, one full of honour and responsibility, and that only active, convinced enthusiasts need apply'.

Nationally, during the same period, Scullin was elected with the largest Labor vote in Australian history in 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, but was subsequently defeated at the following federal election, which ids still a first for an Australian Labor government. This was due to the unpopularity of his government’s economically orthodox deflationary strategy that sought to deal with the Great Depression by cutting government expenditure (and public sector wages and pensions). Lang’s advocacy of the alternative “Lang Plan”, which advocated repudiation of interest payments to overseas creditors until the Great Depression eased,[4] during the same period, ultimately lead to his expulsion from the party, and the establishment of two Labor parties in NSW. This did not diminish his popularity amongst Labor supporters, as he still addressed rallies of 100,000 in central Sydney. Later, after Lang was sacked in May 1932 by the governor general, Lang would address rallies of up to a quarter of a million.

The high point of the socialisation units was the 1931 Easter Conference, where they succeeded in getting the conference to adopt a motion calling on the state Labor government to fight the subsequent state election on a program of implementing socialism within three years (this even made The New York Times). The conference passed this resolution, but it was amended the following day when the conference reconvened after some intense lobbying. By this time, the socialisation units were characterised by two distinct schools of thoughts – the democratic socialism of the leadership group and the revolutionary socialism of some rank and file members. [5]

The socialisation units’ decline began in 1932 when Lang and his Inner Group considered they constituted a genuine threat to their pre-eminence within the NSW party, as the socialisation units turned their focus to the trade union movement and appeared on the cusp of holding sway over conference. Lang and his supporters began mobilising against the units, and they were ordered disbanded at the 1933 party conference (though the same conference also passed a motion supporting the socialisation of credit as an immediate policy aim of the ALP).

So what are the lessons from this for Labor activists in the 21st century ?

Many of those who currently advocate ‘mainstream’ positions exclusively within the labour movement are motivated by a misplaced belief that a Labor Party with a left wing agenda is unelectable and that a left wing agenda will never attract mass support. History does not bear this out. As Andrew West has pointed out (“Centrists Don’t Make Landslides”, New Matilda, 23 May, 2008), when Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 on very much a minimalist program, he achieved a two-party preferred vote of 52.70%, with Labor’s primary vote at 43.38%. By comparison, Gough Whitlam in 1972, who sought to strike a contrast between himself and his conservative opponents in every way in policy terms, and was viewed as much more likely to shake up the status quo, also achieved the same two-party preferred vote of 52.70%, with a primary vote of 49.6%. The strangest long term legacy of the Whitlam reform agenda is the ‘Whitlamite voting cohort’ of 35 – 49 year old men, who are still so enamoured of Whitlam’s progressive social polices that it appears that they have influenced their voting preferences permanently, as these voters upset the normally observed voting pattern of the old favouring the Right, and the young favouring the Left in Australia, by continuing to vote progressively as they age.[6]All of this suggests there is room within the Australian political discourse to pursue more radical positions.

More recently, social commentators Hugh Mackay and David Chalke[7] have argued that their research leads to the conclusion that the voting public are wary (weary ?) of neo-liberal solutions. The most common manifestation of neo-liberal economic solutions, in Australia, is privatisation, which remains perennially unpopular with voters. The debacle around the planned privatisation of NSW’s state electricity assets, with rank and file party members and the community being unconvinced by then Premier Iemma’s privatisation plan, also suggests there is more political space on the left side of the Australian political debate that Labor could utilise. Queensland Premier Bligh’s current privatisation plan seems only to be fairing a little better.[8]

The example of the ‘socialisation units’ is one historical example of the potential for a mass movement that outwardly advocates positions that seek to tackle capitalism’s failings. Most importantly, it shows that these kinds of ideas are a central part of Labor’s history and have motivated previous generations of Labor activists. In order to achieve a fairer and more inclusive society, this should encourage us to be freethinking enough to see beyond policy solutions that are based exclusively in the mainstream. Mainstream ideas primarily seek to perpetuate the status quo, as Scullin discovered too late in the 1930s too.

NB – If you want to read more about this period of Labor history, you should seek out the following article “‘Bucking the machine’: Clarrie Martin and the NSW Socialisation Units 1929 – 35” by Nick Martin, and the definitive book is Lang and Socialism – A Study in the Great Depression, Robert Cooksey, Australian National University Press, 1971.

We are also building our own movement for a democratic economy - and those who are sympathetic are welcome to join another Facebook group of ours: "Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy"...
And readers are welcome to join our Left Focus group at Facebook - to discuss our material, and keep track of new posts...

[1] One example of which was at Mallacoota, in the state’s far east in the late 19th century, by writer, socialist and poet, EJ Brady.

[2] Formed by branches or groups of branches. 70% were in the Sydney metropolitan area, 10% in the Newcastle area and 5% in country districts

[3] 20% of party branches outside of Sydney had a socialisation unit or participated in one.

[4] It also called for the abolition of the Gold Standard, to be replaced with a "Goods Standard" where the amount of money in circulation was linked to the amount of goods produced, and the immediate injection of 18 million pounds of new money into the economy in the form of Commonwealth Bank cedit.

[5] An example of the revolutionary tendency is manifest in the Payne Report (prepared by Tom Payne) in the wake of the 1931 conference declared - 'social revolution, which means… complete destruction of the capitalist state apparatus… a dictatorship of the working class' following a 'revolutionary conflict between the classes'. Despite its controversial radical remedies, it was still discussed and debated at branch and unit meetings across New South Wales.

[6] “Voters across the genders see Super-Kevin as leader” p4 Weekend Australian, September 5 – 6, 2009
[7] Hugh Mackay and David Chalke (“The nail in the coffin”, Herald Sun, August 9, 2007)
[8] Premier Bligh’s local ALP branch, South Brisbane, moved to expel her from the party in June.
“South Brisbane ALP branch votes to expel Anna Bligh from party”, The Courier Mail, June 05, 2009
“Unions launch campaign protesting state asset sell-off” ”, The Courier Mail, July 28, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Laborious Effort - by Wes Bishop

In 1939, amidst a flurry of controversy one of the greatest American novels hit the book stands to a population divided over the message that the book sought to explore. The book was The Grapes of Wrath, written by the American literary master John Steinbeck.

Within the book Steinbeck discussed many issues, one of which was the labor movement in the United States. For this exploration, and his other thoughts, Steinbeck created a backlash within the conservative community that resented the fact that an author would dare to explore the darker side of American life. So infuriated where many that a plot developed to arrest Steinbeck and falsely charge him with raping an underage girl. Fortunately for Steinbeck the plot was foiled but the resentment none the less continued to boil.

Such an occurrence is unfortunately common in the States where patriotism is hijacked by the nationalistic to become a state where only certain values are championed and where problems that are inconvenient are white washed and ignored. Such is the case with the labor movement in the United States.

As Steinbeck shows in his novel the right for the worker to organize and work for better conditions in the work place is a fundamental and natural state for workers to gravitate towards. In the book Steinbeck illustrates this by having his protagonist family, the Joads, go to work on a farm picking fruit. Upon arriving they discover that the wages, although not stupendous, are acceptable. It is only later that they find out that they are “strikebreakers”, workers that have been shipped in to force the old workers who are demanding better wages to give up their strike for better wages and working conditions.

In the actions that follow Tom Joad (one of the main characters) tells Preacher Jim Casey (another main character) that the strikebreakers will not join the strike because the wages they are currently receiving are “pretty good.” Jim Casey tries to reason with Tom that the only reason they are getting good wages is because the strike is forcing the hands of the bigger companies. Tom says that this may be so but to most workers it will not matter, all they will care is that they are receiving good wages for the time. Before the conversation can go much further company thugs show up and kill Preacher Jim Casey. This effectively ends the strike and the very next day the wages of the strikebreakers are reduced.

This scenario is not a farfetched science fiction plot. Instead it is a very plausible situation and it is because of its stark realism that many were angered by its being vocalized, because as it is mentioned above there is a strong tendency in the United States to overlook the blatantly unjust, the painfully unfair, and the pathetically inequitable. This tendency is so because it is accepted by many to be unpatriotic to make America look the fool, and to point out the inequities in the society, for if this is ever done the idea that this is the nation of the free and unrepressed is questioned. Again as it is mentioned above, patriotism is all too often interchangeable with nationalism.

Nearly half a century later the lesson of Steinbeck is still pertinent because despite all that has been achieved for the common worker much still remains to be accomplished.

FDR’s New Deal and the natural political evolution that grew out of that movement has done much to help working people but much of that natural evolution was later retarded by the rise of the conservative forces in the country.

Beginning long before the 1980’s but definitely coming to age in the time period known as the Republican Revolution, views towards unions and organized labor began to sour. Instead of policies that were pro-union and for a strong middle class, philosophies that favored concentrations of wealth and greater inequity began to come back into popular favor.

The reasons for these are many, one of which were the points that conservatives began to espouse to the American people. These messages included the idea that the government was a nuisance that needed to be removed and limited, that the best way to lead a country was not to look towards democratic institutions but instead private companies, and finally that those who had very little deserved their state and that concern for them was dangerous communism. Although the politicians of this era are very much to blame for what they did to harm the labor movement it should be noted that they were not alone in their progress. It should always be remembered that politicians are only as strong as the people who support them. The situation that the United States finds itself in at any time period is the direct result of citizens either demanding certain policies or being apathetic towards the government, therefore to summarize Shakespeare the fault dear reader lie not in our political leaders but in ourselves.

There will of course be many who read this essay that say that this is ridiculous and that the conservative philosophy towards economics is somehow superior. Fortunately the conservative movement is not renowned for innovation and therefore the points that will be raised by the conservative reader can easily be foreseen. To begin the underlying statements of conservatism will be examined.

Conservatives essentially make two claims when it comes to governing and the role of government in economics. On the one hand they claim that the government should simply stay out of as much as possible and instead give the keys to leading the country to the “people.” This is the first claim, and intellectuals on the left, eager to finally break from arguing with evangelicals, embrace it as a legitimate academic thought, ignoring the following point conservatives make about the economy. That second claim is that all in all unions and organized labor is bad for the economy.

Now the term “people” is a confusing expression because on the surface it looks as if the conservatives are saying that every single citizen is collectively responsible and therefore valued in the decision making process. Yet, on a closer examination people can see that “people” are really a select few, who have either been diligent or simply lucky enough to come to a position where they can gain enough financial might to earn a place on the American Mount Olympus where they can then hand down their decisions to others.

In the United States we fuel our egos and pretend this is somehow original to the world and therefore call it Reaganomics, a system that proudly espouses that the super rich will hold the keys to the economy and a trickledown effect will benefit everyone. Of course to any adequate historian or political scientist a brief musing over Reaganomics shows that it is nothing new but instead a reinvention of the socio-economic wheel. All one need do to see Reaganomics at work in history is to peruse European history. Feudalism, as any grade student will dutifully report, is a system where a few landed gentry (individuals who got to that position because of diligence or luck) have control over a mass majority of the population. The only way this system really works is if a political philosophy prevails where it is deemed ethical that a few have more than the many. This is not only true for material goods, but also influence in policy, practical control over what is circulated in the media, and monopoly over the direction of public discourse. In short Reaganomics is American feudalism.

Now the reason it is odd that conservatives make the two claims is that on the one hand they say that citizens and the public should determine the course of the country, this is illustrated in private companies as well as gatherings of citizens to bring about change on their own. However, conservatives also state that unions are a bad thing for the financial system so what occurs is
only the private companies are legitimate in the conservatives’ eyes for shaping the economy.
The next argument that conservatives are prone to make concerning unions is the idea that unions hurt worker productivity, that they are detrimental to a company’s profits, and that in fact they do more harm than good. This is a very bizarre claim because again anyone who has seriously studied history knows this to be false. Granted is the point that unions bring about their own issues and complications. Such is the case with anything in life, but to go from that admittance to the idea that somehow unions have led to a worse environment is ridiculous. Before organized labor it was common to have children work in coal mines and expose workers to equipment that could lead to serious disfigurement or even death. It is difficult to imagine that there is any human alive who would honestly hold that it is far worse for company’s profits to be cut then it is to have a child killed in a coal mine.

This should be very apparent because although unions have been hurt in the past few decades it is nothing compared to what the rest of the world has had to experience. In an attempt to short change the American people companies have not only outsourced jobs but also pre-New Deal working conditions to the people of the developing world. And the cruelest irony of all is that for the most part people will become angry at the poor soul in India, China, or some other nation for taking “their” job instead of becoming mad at the companies that refuse to recognize their work force as human beings.

In closing, I would like to address all of those who still slumber in ignorance over this issue and continue to yell “communist”, “socialist”, or whatever large companies are labeling those who believe workers have fundamental rights. This is not communism, or socialism. It is in essence simply right; humans have the right to be treated like humans.

To quote the great social philosopher himself, “The strongest bond of human sympathy outside the family relation should be one uniting working people of all nations and tongues and kindreds.” No it was not Karl Marx, but instead the radical Abraham Lincoln. If you will excuse me now dear reader I have some reading to catch up on and judging by the refusal of many to accept the simple, I will probably be engrossed with Steinbeck for quite some time to further understand our present state.

-Wes Bishop
Dayton Ohio
October 11, 2009
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Monday, October 12, 2009

Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy

What is the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy?

What is the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy?We’re a network of progressives in dialogue with each other – working to contest the dominant economic paradigm – and to promote an alternative which is democratic; involving mixed forms of ownership. We believe there is a substantial role for the public sector.
We accommodate many positions ranging from the restoration of a “traditional social democratic” model of the ‘mixed economy’ (inspired by the ‘Keynesian Golden Age’) – to more radical positions envisaging extensive public and democratic ownership and control.
We also believe strongly in promoting democratic forms of non-state ownership – co-operativist, mutualist, collective capital formation, participatory economic (PARECON) models...
We believe there is a place for co-operation and competition: planning and markets. And we support discussion of other economic issues of interest to progressives. (eg: principles of post-materialism)
We aim to provide a forum for both radical and more mainstream positions – with a shared objective of challenging the ‘common sense’ of neo-liberalism.
We endeavour to establish the ‘democratic mixed economy’ as ‘common sense’ – and to refashion and contest the relative political and economic ‘centre’.
And though our positions are many and varied – we endeavour to support each other – that all our voices are heard in an inclusive and rational exchange of views.
Again: we support both radical and relatively moderate interpretation of the ‘democratic mixed economy’.
We do not, however, include perspectives which are authoritarian: which deny our liberal human rights.
We seek to include socialists, social democrats, liberals, Greens and libertarian leftists – co-operating and in dialogue with each other.Finally: We are seriously in the business of promoting social change.
To begin we need to build our Facebook Group as an extensive network. But once we are in dialogue with each other – hopefully we will provide a real forum for members to organise and co-operate in pursuit of real social change.
If you are sympathetic with these principles and objectives PLEASE JOIN.
Tristan Vaughan Ewins (Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy Moderator)

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