The origins of the ALP


With a federal election imminent, many working people are placing their hopes of defeating the Howard government in the ALP. Many have hoped that a future ALP federal government will indeed "tear up" Work Choices and other reactionary legislation introduced by the Howard government, such as the "anti-terror" laws.

However the Kevin Rudd-Julia Gillard ALP leadership has already made countless back-flips on industrial relations policy and has clearly displayed its lack of disagreement with the Howard government on a range of issues, from the invasion of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Why is the ALP acting this way? Why is it backing away from commitments to working people, the very people it claims to represent?

In reality, the ALP has from its formation always been prepared to back the interests of capital over those of the working class.

In 1913, Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin accurately characterised the ALP as a "liberal bourgeois party", and this assessment remains true 94 years later. Lenin wrote: "The leaders of the Australian Labor Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and capital-serving element, and in Australia altogether peaceable, purely liberal."

The kind of trade union officials who came to dominate the ALP — with the significant influence of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), with its base in rural itinerant workers rather than the industrial working class — and the alliance they made with petty-bourgeois ALP parliamentarians came to cement in the ALP an ideology based on populist aspirations and ideals.

After the betrayals of internationalism by European social-democratic parties at the outbreak of WWI, Lenin recognised such parties as the seemingly contradictory "bourgeois labour parties" — organisations of the capitalist class that functioned "to systematically dupe the workers".

The ALP has always seen its role as that of mediator between labour and capital; as a party that can moderate the class struggle and civilise capitalism through mediation between the conflicting interests of workers and bosses. From the beginning, there was a confidence that the state was neutral (rather than an instrument of class rule by the capitalists) and could be used by workers to extend and defend their rights and conditions.

From the very beginning, even many of those within the ALP who regarded themselves as socialists had a purely reformist vision of a parliamentary road to socialism. This is the basis for the distinctive ideology of the ALP: Laborism.

Labor's origins

The origins of the ALP lie in the defeat of the great strikes that occurred in the Australian colonies in the 1890s. The Australian union movement had emerged particularly among the craft unions and grown strong during the economic boom of 1860-90. It had swelled to double its size in the 1880s when increasing numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers joined the movement. The condition of permanent labour shortage that existed in this period in Australia also strengthened the movement.

Though the trade unions had entered the struggle in the 1890s with confidence, the defeats they suffered (such as the maritime strike of 1890 and the shearers' strikes of 1891 and 1894) led the labour movement to the correct collective realisation that industrial action was not enough — that workers needed to organise themselves politically to extend and defend their rights and conditions.

However, the historical circumstances of the time led to the establishment and entrenchment of a leadership of the party based in the union bureaucracy and petty bourgeois parliamentarians, whose interests lay in the maintenance of their own positions within the "labour aristocracy" maintained by capitalism. These labour leaders clearly collaborated with the forces of Australian capital, and though there were sectional interests allied with protectionists or free-traders in the early days, the Labor leadership ultimately came to collaborate with the new rising industrial and commercial capital against the free-trading pastoral "squattocracy". This conditioned Labor's priorities of promoting confidence in the capitalist state and a mild reformism as defenders of working class interests.

The collaboration of the labour movement and the industrial capitalists was based on the perception that the protectionism industrial capitalists were seeking offered the best opportunity for creating jobs outside the rural sector, particularly as many diggers were leaving the land after the initial gold rushes. This focus on protectionism in turn promoted the belief that the state could be used to defend working class interests.

In Australia, liberal-democratic reforms were granted to working people at quite an early stage — particularly after the democratic demands of the rebels at Eureka in 1854. The secret ballot for the lower house and male suffrage were granted in Victoria in 1856 and 1857 respectively, and in the other colonies by the end of the decade (though the undemocratic basis of wealth qualifications for the colonial upper houses remained a campaign issue for years).

The early strength of the union movement also meant early democratic rights to organise in trade unions. These circumstances fostered strong illusions in the ability of parliamentary democracy to defend workers' interests, and linked up with the mythology of Australia as a new, egalitarian place where the class struggle might actually dissolve in harmonious resolution of conflict between labour and capital, particularly in the absence of any feudal or semi-feudal land-owning class.

Another aspect of the early labour movement in Australia is the importance of rural workers within it. The "small men" of the bush — the itinerant workers such as the shearers who made up the backbone of the AWU, who directly faced the enemy of the pastoral capitalists — were a central force in the formation of the ALP. But importantly, many of these rural workers were also small landholders themselves (or at least aspired to be). These small landholders were too small and impoverished to be able to compete in any meaningful way with the pastoral capitalist class of the squattocracy, and were forced to supplement their life on the land with months each year in itinerant rural wage labour.

After brief leadership of the Labor Party by more class-conscious industrial working class trades and labour councils, it was an alliance of utopian socialists and rural AWU-style populists who came to win the struggle for the party's leadership.

Unfortunately, the base of militant, industrial working class leadership was decimated in the struggles of the 1890s and failed to come up with an alternative program to Laborist populism.

Raymond Markey, in his book The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1880-1900, clearly demonstrates the influence of this rural populism, expressed through the AWU, on the development of the Labor Party in NSW.

The inclusion in the ALP's early make-up of substantial numbers of rural workers who were also small landholders meant that a significant base of Labor's support was a group of people who held petty-bourgeois aspirations of becoming independent of wage slavery (even if this was rarely achieved) — of life as a "small man" on the land — as distinct from the aspirations of the urban, industrial working class.

In turn, the ALP's populist ideology meant the party happily admitted all kinds of members and leaders from middle-class backgrounds with associated aspirations: small businesspeople, liberal lawyers and journalists. Such people, generally better educated and with more resources than the party's working class base, have generally made up the parliamentarians of the party, and in alliance with the union bureaucracy quickly took over the leadership of the ALP.


Populism is an ideology that stresses the struggle of the "small men" versus the interests of the "big men" — in the Australian context of small landholders and workers versus those of the rich and powerful (particularly the squattocracy in the early years of the Labor Party). It stresses the supposed similarities of such "small men", as opposed to the real, material similarities shared by all working people that is the basis of a Marxist analysis.

Populism actively works to downplay the real class struggle. In fact, the utopian socialists and populists who came to dominate the Labor Party abhorred the class struggle and actively promoted the myth that Australia was well on the way to becoming a classless, egalitarian society.

This populism was readily incorporated into the mythology of the rugged, egalitarian "mateship" of the bush, and tied in with the parallel nationalist ruling class ideology. The ALP populist base was ripe for the furthering of such middle-class aspirations and nationalism rather than class consciousness and struggle, and this populism was a key factor in why the ALP came to an ideological position of defence of capitalist property relations.

The alliance of these petty-bourgeois elements with the labour aristocracy that came to dominate the ALP leadership is the vital factor in why the ALP from its early years saw its role in pro-capitalist terms, as a mediator of the class struggle, as an organisation that could use the capitalist state in the interests of the working class and the other "small men", and importantly, as a promoter of the most favourable conditions for the accumulation of capitalist profits — promoted as the best way to facilitate the growth of secure jobs and the economic well-being of working people.

It is also a vital factor in the history of ALP sell-outs of working class interests, from the role Labor played in smashing the 1949 coal strike to the treachery of the Prices and Incomes Accord in the 1980s.

The ALP's view of parliament as the only legitimate arena of democratic political struggle has led it to actively work to limit working-class, grassroots organisation, despite the affiliation of so many trade unions to the party. The ALP has a long history of attacking militants in the trade union movement, including the smashing of the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1980s and the more recent attacks on Victorian Electrical Trades Union leader Dean Mighell and WA Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union leader Joe McDonald.

The ALP has been entrusted by the Australian bourgeoisie with leading the country through significant crises. It was the early Andrew Fisher Labor government that set up the federal requirements of a national currency, army, navy and postal and railway services. The ALP has also been relied upon to provide leadership through wars, such as the Fisher and Billy Hughes governments during the first half of WWI and the John Curtin government during WWII.

The ALP has also often been entrusted with the introduction of labour and industrial relations reforms — reforms that would have been harder to introduce if the conservatives had attempted to do so. The classic example here is that of the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating years and the Accord. The Australian bourgeoisie knows that it can rely on the ALP to ultimately safeguard its interests in these matters.

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