1990s >> 1997 >> no-1113-may-1997

Book Review: ‘Class and Class Conflict in Australia’

Class down under

‘Class and Class Conflict in Australia’, edited by Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln, Longman, Melbourne, 1996.

This is a collection of chapters written by a dozen “left” Australian intellectuals and is edited by two of them. The editors describe the “immediate goal” of the book as “to demonstrate the power of class analysis in explaining and criticising contemporary Australian society”. They speak for all the contributors in claiming to draw on the Marxist traditions of the old and new left. They reject Stalinism, but a chapter on labour leadership and reference in another chapter to the challenge of building “alternative leaderships” suggest a leaning towards Trotskyism.

The contributors to this book parade the usual reformist lines with which we have unfortunately become too familiar. Points are made that don’t sound too bad in themselves, but still leave us with capitalism and its problems and no nearer socialism: “the experience of oppression shapes the self- understanding of very large numbers of people”, “the continuing relevance of class analysis to the struggles of today”. At best such statements pave the way for delivering a socialist message: at worst they disguise a diversion from, and an alternative to. that message.

Two chapters in particular deserve attention. One is on intellectuals and the new social movements, the other on class analysis and the left in Australian history. Burgmann and Milner are in the uneasy position of being self-styled professional intellectuals who really don’t think much of intellectuals. They tell us they are products of the Sixties, they were “into” politics, yet “we were substantially mistaken”.

After three decades of misguided reformism and single-issue activism-anti-war campaigns, homosexual liberation movements, first and second wave feminism, and so on-they admit that “the new social movements have clearly not challenged the fundamentally class-divided nature of societies such as ours”. They are forced to concede that “capitalism today is much more consistently capitalist in its social relations than thirty years ago . . .  this regenerative process has been significantly facilitated by the interventions of the radical intelligentsia”.

Co-editor Kuhn is no pushover for capitalist propaganda. He knows, for instance, that the Accord (the Australian version of a prices and incomes policy) was simply “an attempt to solve capital’s problems at the expense of the working class”. Yet he seems to have learned nothing about how reforms frustrate the efforts to achieve the goal he professes to support, that is, “the workers’ struggle for their own emancipation”. Then applauds early Australian “socialist” analyses which advocated nationalisation. He believes that in the 1990s “it was possible to get a wider hearing for genuine socialist ideas” and he quotes as examples Socialist Review and Reconstruction.

We certainly agree with Kuhn in wanting a wider hearing for genuine socialist ideas. But the journals he names have hindered rather than helped that aim. If you doubt that last point just have a look at Unfinished Business: 20 Years of Socialist Review. Verso. 1991). It’s full of statements like “the (French) Socialist Party has clearly given up on socialism” and “state socialism” in the Soviet Union has been a disaster”. It never seems to occur to these intellectuals that such people and parties that call themselves socialist and support reforms of capitalism aren’t socialist at all. and that genuine socialism hasn’t been tried anywhere because there simply haven’t been enough socialists to make the change.

Stan Parker

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