1920s >> 1923 >> no-232-december-1923

Labour Governments. The Australian Fiasco

One of the greatest pieces of sustained and successful bluff imposed on the modern working class is the bluff about that colossal fraud, Labour Government in Australia. In the early days of the war we read pamphlets sold by the I.L.P. describing the New Jerusalem under such lying titles as “Socialism at Work in Queensland.” Unfortunately, the credulous—who are legion—believed this fiction; not only those who in a vague way desired Socialism, but also those who opposed it. The harm done to the cause of Socialism was enormous. It provided, first of all, yet another bogey to be used by the anti-Socialists in their frantic anxiety to attack anything on earth except Socialism. It also closed to Socialist propaganda the ears of all those who were persuaded that here at last was to be found a satisfactory and working substitute for Socialism. Their ultimate, but inevitable, disillusionment will make our task harder than ever.

Before we can preach Socialism we have to destroy belief in such spurious imitations. Let me therefore emphasise the fact that in no part of Australia has the capitalist system been destroyed or even checked ; nor has any attempt been made to destroy it by any Labour Government at any time. Capitalism was, and is, the economic system; the capitalists were, and are, the dominant class ; and the workers were, and are, exploited. The only noteworthy change during Labour’s term of office has. been a heightening of the degree of exploitation.

Before the Labour Party came into existence in Australia the capitalist system was in full working order. That is to say the land, the factories, mines, steamships, railways, and all the means of production and distribution were privately owned, and the class who owned them was able to live on the revenue which came to that class as rent, interest, or profits. The work was done and profits produced by a propertyless class compelled to sell its mental and physical energies for wages or salaries. The workers were politically free to come and go as they pleased, but because the land in which they lived belonged not to society but to a section only, they might work only by permission, and on the one condition of allowing the capitalist class to live without the obligation of useful service merely by virtue of having and holding.

Capitalism was working very well, which means that the constant overcrowding of the labour market was putting into the hands of the employers a weapon, which they naturally used, to beat down the workers’ standard of living. As invariably happens, the workers in their discontent organised into Trade Unions in order that in the daily struggle over the amount of their wages they might lessen somewhat the disadvantage under which they suffered through having no accumulated property.

In 1890 and the following years these industrial organisations were put to the test, and failed to do what had been hoped of them. In great and bitter strikes Maritime workers, Miners, and Sheep-shearers were in turn heavily defeated. The cause of the defeats appeared to be the support given to the employers by the Governments of the various States. Police, armed strikebreakers, legal intimidation, in fact all the usual methods were freely employed to crush the revolt. It was at once seen that only by first capturing the State machine could the workers hope to achieve anything material, and Labour Parties were at once formed for this purpose.

Having the backing of the organised workers, and attaching to themselves the support of different groups of discontented small capitalists and farmers, the Labour Party met with rapid success in the years preceding the war, and by 1914 there were Labour Governments in five out of six States, and also a Labour Federal Government.

Now it had been supposed by the Trade Unionists who formed the Labour parties that political control was to be used to further their interests. They, or many of them, made an initial mistake in thinking that State enterprise was Socialism, and that its extension (while leaving capitalism intact) could better their position. They made a second mistake in supposing that their leaders had any intention whatever of defying the capitalists, or that they could have done so if they had wished.

State railways already existed before 1914, and their existence in no way constituted a denial of private property rights. All such State concerns are based, like company-owned ones, on the exploitation of the workers. Profit is made and is either paid away as interest on loans and bonds, or else it goes into State revenue as taxation relief. The capitalist class draw all the benefit either way. If every branch of industry and commerce, wholesale and retail, was turned over to this form of State capitalism, the worker’s lot would be worse not better, and his struggle to live intensified not eased. The real problem of abolishing the wages system, giving the wealth producers direct access to the means of production, and eliminating’ profit-making, would still have to be faced. The capitalist class would still have to be fought and defeated.

But the Australian workers trusted their leaders, and these leaders did not attempt to face up to this problem. Instead they did what we have always said they would have to do in such circumstances :—

“The Labour Party in Queensland found itself called on to administer a capitalistic state of society, and without any direct mandate or authority to overturn the existing order or to undertake a drastic reconstruction.”—(Labour Premier Theodore, The Labour Magazine, Sept. 1923.)

And what Theodore says of Queensland applies equally to other Australian Labour Governments.

So these Labour men “administered capitalism” ; they used the armed forces to protect capitalist private property against the misguided workers who had put them in office; they put penalties on strikes; they provided blacklegs to smash them; they armed police to protect their blacklegs and browbeat strikers ; they jailed men for their organising activities, and when all these methods failed they sent troops to crush them as if they had been at open war. They organised to carry on the capitalist war in Europe, and to further the foreign interests of the Australian capitalist class; they introduced repressive legislation at home to prevent the propagation of anti-war and Socialist views, and four Governments out of five supported conscription. In short, they “administered capitalism.”

For this they won, but did not keep, the good opinion of the ruling class. Our Labour Leaders (some of whom, like Henderson, have nothing to learn about the use of armed force against workers who dare to struggle for better conditions) are now asking you to vote for them, and are instancing the alleged beneficial results of Labour Government in Australia. If you are alive to your own interests you will have none of it.

Let me quote for your guidance some statements of what Labour Government really meant:—

“The last days of the Dooley Government in New South Wales were marked by free use of the police to crush unemployed demonstrators, and by a campaign led by the Treasurer to reduce the minimum wage of State employees “—(Quoted by the Labour Monthly, Oct., 1923, from “How Labour Governs,” by V. G. Childe, who was pri¬vate secretary to John Storey, Labour Premier of New South Wales.)
“Labour Governments have not only neglected to carry their platform into effect, in several cases they have initiated movements directly hostile to the workers. … In 1913 Labour Premier McGowen called for ‘volunteers’ to man the retorts during a gas strike. It was a Labour Federal Government which passed the merciless War Precautions Act which was used only against militant workers.”—(“How Labour Governs”)

The International Communist (Sydney) (March 11th, 1922) sums the matter up as follows :—

“Why are the police armed with army service rifles under Labour Governments despite protests m the organised workers? To protect the workers? When the Townsville workers were fired upon by the Labour Government’s police, in rushed 100 special armed police to reinforce the local police, and said ‘Law and Order must be maintained,’ and the train men who refused to take the police were sacked. When the Brisbane workers in March, 1919, decided to celebrate the Russian Revolution, Theodore and his Cabinet gave orders to the police to stop the Red Flag bring carried, although the Sinn Fein flag had been carried without any trouble. The Labour Government imprisoned 14 men for taking part in the Red Flag procession, and a number of others were deported.”

The Socialist (Melbourne) was a consistent supporter of the Labour Party, and was owned by an affiliated body. In its issue of November 4th, 1921, it reported, under the heading “Queensland Govern¬ment joins the conspiracy to reduce wages,” the attempt of that Labour Government to force an all-round attack on wages. The attempt led immediately to a 20 per cent. reduction for 17,000 miners, and the expectations of the Government’s capitalist masers were soon fulfilled by a general reduction.

In a strike of waterside workers at Mourilyan Harbour and Innisfail, Queensland Labour Party officials lent their aid to employers :—

“The shipowners not being able to succeed by themselves had called upon various craft union officials and Labour Politicians to assist them in their attempt to utterly crush this militant section.”—(Communist, Sydney, March 2nd, 1923.)

These are a few illustrations of the methods Labour Governments will use when capitalist interests are in danger. As for their so-called Socialism, it is, as we have said, just the same profit-making system as existed before the advent of these Labour Governments. The workers are paid on a cost-of-living basis, and the surplus goes as, interest, or as tax relief, into the pockets of the class who own the country :—

The Federal Government “entered the clothing trade and sold clothing … 20 per cent, cheaper than capitalist clothiers. Even then they made profits, after allowing for payment of interest and sinking fund.”—(“Labour in Power,” by Leach Williams.)

The lower price of clothing was no benefit at all to the workers, because the State Arbitration Boards based their awards on cost-of-living figures into which the cost of clothes had already entered.

In the enterprises of the Queensland Government the “actual profits earned were £140,686 on the State Butcheries, £6,830 on the State Hotels, £52,361 on railway refreshment rooms—a total of £199,877. There was a loss on the State Fishery and Cannery, but when this is deducted there remains a net profit on these State concerns of £131,262.”— (Labour Magazine, Sept., 1923.)

And this is the system which has moved Tom Johnson, Editor of Forward, and other Scotch left-wing I.L.P.ers to delirious enthusiasm. In defending it they are, of course, doing the greatest possible disservice to Socialism. Johnson believes that workers under Labour Governments are better off than others, but he cannot prove (although he seems to believe) that there is or has been Socialism in Queensland or under any other Labour Government

Labour Premier Theodore states specifically that “capitalism has not been abolished.”—(Labour Magazine, Sept. 1923.)

Also not only has Johnson to prove that the workers there are better off than, say, those in Victoria; he has also to show that any difference that may temporarily exist (it could not be permanent) is due to the existence of a Labour Government. He has not done so yet.

Sir John Simon made a statement that in Queensland there was in 1921 more unemployment than in any other State.. Johnson’s “triumphant” reply (Daily Herald, July 28th, 1923) consists of evidence to show that in fact Tasmania had a percentage of unemployment among Trade Unionists of 16.7, N.S. Wales 11.9, and Queensland 11.3, as against as low a figure as 5.9 for Victoria, the only State which never had a Labour Government.

What a glorious argument for Johnson’s brand of “Socialism” ! And, moreover, he carefully omitted to point out that four other States whose figures he quoted had also enjoyed Labour Governments, which therefore shared responsibility for the unemployment that existed.

His final shattering argument was that “the experience of the people of Queensland (after testing a Labour-Socialist Government for eight years) has been such that they voted last May for a further three years of it.” But he did not say that its majority, although higher than in 1920, was lower than it had been in either 1915 or 1918 ! And it is surely an indication of the workers’ dissatisfaction with Labour rule that after some years of it they threw the Labour Party out of four States, as well as out of the Federal Government.

Mr. E. J. Holloway, President of the E.C. of the Australian Labour Party, admitted in Conference 1921, that :—

“The members of the Federal Executive know that the men are not satisfied with the programme and objective of the Australian Labour Movement.”—Communist, Sydney, Dec. 1st, 1922.)

Would they be dissatisfied if the Labour Party had been as successful as Johnson pretends ? Below is more evidence of dis¬content.

“Although a young country, Australia presented a picture of economic unloveliness that was staggering to the moral conception. The mass of the workers could not under present conditions look for a reasonable standard of living, or hope to be assured of employment.”—The Chairman, Conference of Victorian Section of A.L.P., Melbourne Age, 19th Sept., 1921.)

The following is a resolution passed by the N.S. Wales Trade Union Congress in condemnation of a Labour Government : —

“That while recognising the futility of solving unemployment under capitalism, this conference registers its protest against the State Government’s action in deliberately allowing workers in this country to starve, and calls upon the Labour Government to grant full sustenance to all the unemployed.”—( Daily Mail, 6th Oct., 1921.)

Why, the very evidence given by the defenders of this damnable system of State slavery is enough to condemn it, and one cannot but be amazed at the mentality of those who so cheerfully smash their own case. Is it the audacity of ignorance, or merely contempt for the understanding of the workers? A Herald correspondent (26/7/1923) actually backs up his case for Queensland by showing that : —

“Far from Labour rule driving capital out of the country fresh capital has been introduced to the extent of over 55 millions.”

What a case for a Labour Government ! Does capital flow into Queensland because there is a more equal distribution of wealth? Do capitalists habitually offer themselves up for willing sacrifice?

No, capital flows into Queensland because exploitation is keener, and the rate of profit higher. With the assistance of the Labour Government wages have been forced down, and Federal arbitration courts have ruled that the pre-war standard of living can no longer be the basis.

Writing of these arbitration acts, the Socialist (Melbourne) (4/11/1921) has this:

“Such acts have greatly increased the efficient of the capitalist system in Queensland. . . . The cost of production … in almost every industry in Australia was never less than it is at the present time, and the amount of surplus wealth over the cost of production which is being appropriated by the capitalist class was never greater.”

Will Tom Johnson defend this, too?

While he is lying about “Socialism” in Queensland, Theodore admits that his parry never proposed to work for Socialism at all. He replied to a Mr. Scullin, who wanted to amend the Party programme, and who had said that “Nationalisation was but State capitalism,” that he (Mr. Scullin) was using the “term socialisation with a meaning quite different to anything which the Labour Party always stood for.” (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 12/10/1921.)

When the Labour Leaders talk about Socialism they do so with their tongues in their cheeks.

It is for these reasons among others that we urge you not to support the Labour Party. We contend that Socialism is the only object worthy of working-class support. The return of a Labour Government will not further that object.

If you ask what is to happen to workers in the meantime, our reply is simple. You are poor and your position is hopeless because you are wage-slaves So long as you remain wage-slaves you will have to suffer from the evils that go with wage-slavery, and it does not matter whether that be under a Conservative, Liberal or a Labour Government. If you think that it is better to be a wage-slave under a Labour Government, I ask you to consider Australia. We however urge you to recognise that it is the capitalist system which is at fault, and it does not matter to you what is the label of the political party which administers that system. Until you have overthrown capitalism you are going continue to suffer as you suffer now. You will not find a solution in binding yourselves hand and foot to the State machine of a Labour Government.

As for the notion that your efforts can be well spent asking for instalments of Socialism, that is based on utter illusion. This country is rotten with social reforms, and they are being added to every year ; and yet not only have these brought no progress towards Socialism, but the real foundation of capitalism is stronger than ever it was. The real basis is the private ownership of the means of life, and both here and in Queensland the rich are richer, and poor are poorer than ever before. After a century of “instalments” of Socialism there is more unemployment, more insecurity, and hopeless subjection than ever; and there are signs on every hand that your position will get worse not better.

The sooner you turn aside from the long-exploded quack remedies offered to you and set yourselves to the task of propagating Socialism and organising the workers for its accomplishment, the sooner your problems will be solved, and the less will be the cost to you in poverty and suffering.


(Socialist Standard, December 1923)

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