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


  1. How can we restore such grass-roots organisations within the party and the movement, so we can get away from the Neo-Liberal rubbish that vanilla leaders like Rudd try and force on us?

    Oh, and Hi Geoff, good to see you're still in the front line of the war :)

  2. Good article... Although one small amendment

    "Scullin was elected with the largest Labor vote in Australian history in 1929"

    1929 ALP 48.84%
    1943 ALP 49.94%
    1946 ALP 49.71%
    1972 ALP 49.59%
    1974 ALP 49.30%
    1983 ALP 49.48%

    ... and for one which Labor didn't win, but should have.

    1954 ALP 50.03%

    (Mind you 1990 made up for 1954)

    Perhaps that line could be changed for the largest Labor vote at the time...

    In response to Paul Gill, I think the best answer is to just do it, rather than waiting for Rudd et al.

  3. I write, presumably as one of those few remaining revolutionaries Geoff refers to. To dispel some myths, let me quote from Tom O'Lincoln's analysis of the Communist Party of Australia at the time of the socialisation units (found in the August 2009 edition of Socialist Alternative at Tom says:

    'In these years the CPA was often "ultra-left". The party didn't know how to build alliances with non-revolutionaries. The Communists saw the opportunist side of the Labor Party, for example, but by simply denouncing Laborism and leaving it at that, they missed important opportunities to influence rank and file ALP supporters. For example, when ALP members formed leftist groupings called "socialisation units" and rallied behind sacked Labor Premier Jack Lang, the Communists largely stood aside from these mobilisations. That was a terrible waste.'

    Far from rejecting a radicalisation of the rank and file of the Labor Party, we revolutionaries would welcome it and work with those comrades in a united front of action.

    But let's be frank. The Labor Party membership and even leadership today is not the Labor Party of the early 30s. Where, to use one small example, is Labor for Refugees, campaigning against Rudd's racism?

    I think there is another element that needs discussing.

    The socialisation units imagined the capitalist Parliament as the vehicle for socialism. A militant and democratic communist party could have oriented towards those comrades in the units to help them understand it was the struggle for jobs, against wage cuts and to save homes from being repossessed(to name a few), that was the way forward.

    But by then the stalinisation of the CPA meant, although it led some magnificent struggles, that the idea of socialism from below had been destroyed as stalinism spread its influence across the communist parties of the world, and the USSR became a state capitalist country.

    I welcome the opportunity to work with colleagues in the ALP when we fight for a common goal. I just don't notice the ALP membership today mobilising itself, let alone wider sections of society, for anything progressive.


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