The Labor Party and the working class — flawed left histories

April 3, 2012

Labor’s Conflict: Big Business, Workers & the Politics of Class
By Tom Bramble & Rick Kuhn
Cambridge University Press, 2011,
226 pp., $39.95
Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide
By Tom Bramble
Cambridge University Press, 2008
293 pp., $49.95

Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, through Bramble’s Trade Unionism in Australia and their jointly-authored Labor’s Conflict, offer substantial histories of two very important elements of the workers’ movement in Australia.

Trade Unionism in Australia is focused on the change from the union upsurge between 1968 and 1974 to a general decline in the fortunes of the union movement from 1983.

On the other hand, Bramble and Kuhn’s history of the ALP affirms fundamental continuities in the party across a dozen decades until now.

The book confirms the ALP’s commitment to managing Australian capitalism in accordance with the economic orthodoxy of the day ; its domination by parliamentarians and union officials and its suppression of workers’ militancy; and its support from workers, whose interests have then been betrayed.

Bramble and Kuhn present a Marxist perspective. But it is a very specific one. They are members of Socialist Alternative, which comes from the tradition of the International Socialist tendency, which is best known internationally through the British Socialist Workers Party.

The books present a wealth of material about, for example, circumstances workers have faced in industrial relations and policies the ALP has pushed — in government and opposition. Yet other elements, which pose different questions, are also needed for the histories that these books attempt to be more profoundly told.

For example, the political economy of Australian capitalism is a key context for the histories.

Bramble and Kuhn consider the wage labour relationship and the cycle of booms and busts. These are common to all capitalist systems.

But Australian capitalism also has its relative peculiarities. It has long been wealthy, exporting raw materials produced under conditions of high labour productivity.

As well, for more than a century Australian capitalism has exerted military and diplomatic power in this region and reaped the economic benefits of this. Has that had an impact on workers’ class struggle and class collaboration?

Then there is the treatment Bramble and Kuhn give to workers’ agency. Bramble’s trade union history, in particular, is dominated by the view that union militants and their networks held together by various left-wing organisations disappeared in the 1980s. This left a union officialdom, subservient to capital’s needs, in command of the movement.

Of course, there is much truth to this, but the militants do keep reappearing. They even won some debates on tactics in the 1998 Patrick-MUA dispute and the Your Rights at Work campaign.

Where those later militants have come from, how they’ve organised and what has limited their success, are not analysed.

Bramble and Kuhn’s assessment of the ALP is that it is a “capitalist worker’s party”. It manages capitalism, but also reflects a particular working class consciousness that mixes workers’ feelings of powerlessness, inculcated by their subordination to employers, and their basic sense of class identification derived from their experience of collective struggle.

According to Bramble and Kuhn, the result of workers’ defeats in struggle, such as took place in the 1890s, is that workers chose to no longer rely on their direct action but instead on an arm of the state. That is, they chose to pursue a strategy of parliamentary reform.

Soon enough, class-conscious workers identified with the ALP as “their party”. And, according to Bramble and Kuhn, even though the ALP now enacts few reforms, is increasingly dominated by its MPs and political staffers rather than union leaders, and is more than ever dependent on business and distant from workers, workers still identify with it — if without illusions of substantial reforms, then with hope.

But why workers would respond to industrial defeats by turning to parliamentary action is unclear. Indeed, the push to form Labor started in the 1880s, when the labour movement’s fortunes were rising.

Might the strategic choice workers made suggest that, rather than feeling powerless, they felt they had power to act within the formal democracy of Australia's capitalist system?

Again, Bramble and Kuhn argue ALP governments’ anti-working class measures have relied on loyalty from top union officials and support or acquiescence from workers. For example, they liken the period during and after World War II to that under the Accord.

Yet the two periods were not the same in these respects. When the war ended, union leaders stopped their support for production for the war effort. There was a strike wave and Communist union leaders became increasingly hostile towards the ALP.

In the 1980s, however, the strike waves and left-wing pressure on the ALP that were a feature of the previous decade came to an end. In the 1990s, union density and levels of industrial action collapsed.

At the heart of the problems of Bramble and Kuhn’s analysis is a lack of consideration of differences in workers’ political consciousnesses, the reasons for this and what is needed to overcome this from a revolutionary perspective.

Bureaucratic union officials are often supported by many union members, including some active unionists who believe some collaboration with capital is possible.

Not all workers have supported the ALP: some have voted for the conservative parties and some have supported the Communist Party or the Greens.

Which sector of workers have actively and consistently supported the ALP? And to what extent have those workers, as opposed to the overall and historic interests of the working class, been betrayed by the ALP in office? The books do not answer this.

Bramble and Kuhn’s solution, instead, is to make the ALP determine working class’ consciousness. For them, in the past, the ALP bound the class to managing Australian capitalism. More recently, the party has been unlikely to deliver reforms, but reformist ideas have been long-lingering.

Their only alternative to the ALP is an anti-parliamentarist “socialist workers’ party”; all other parties are parliamentarist and thus pro-capitalist.

But how do workers view these parties? For example, despite the more conservative elements of the Greens, the party’s popular support comes clearly from the left.

Within the Labor Party there is neither class conflict nor an expression of independent working class politics.

The sustained efforts, and developments in political consciousness, needed to develop a political expression of independent working class politics are not subjects addressed well by Bramble and Kuhn.

Bramble and Kuhn denigrate several steps taken in that direction that do not conform to their model. For example, Bramble highlights the most problematic aspects of the experience of militants in the Workers First reform group in the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union in the 1990s and at the beginning of the last decade.

At the start of Bramble’s book, he says it “takes as its starting point the struggle by the working class for its own liberation”. But despite all these books say about workers’ class struggle , they lack a deep understanding of how the class can come to struggle for its own political interests.

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