Trying to appease the god of greed


Transforming Labor: Labour Tradition and the Labor Decade in Australia

By Peter Beilharz

Cambridge University Press, 1994. 245 pp., $29.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Phil Shannon

After 11 years of federal ALP government, it is not hard to weigh the harvest of Labor in office. The Accord promised to maintain real wages, reduce unemployment and improve the social wage, but all this has been battered by the hailstones of austerity and the blight of economic rationalism that comes from a strategy of attuning the labour movement to the needs of business profits. Working-class sacrifice does not appease the capitalist god of greed.

Peter Beilharz gets this much right in his book on the Hawke-/Keating Labor government. But his critical edge is blunted. Beilharz himself notes that whilst his "critical sentiments" on the Accord are "too extreme" for left Accord supporters or ALP apologists, they are "insufficient" for Marxist and other revolutionary opponents of the Accord. Beilharz's book (and his politics more generally) is, consequently, a real dog's breakfast.

There are some good, chunky Meaty Bites: the "fatally flawed logic" of transferring wealth from the working class to the capitalist class in the "pious hope that capital would invest" and generate wages and jobs in return for our sacrifice is evidence that Labor as a labour party is "dead", "exhausted", without "purpose or vision beyond efficient managerialism with a social justice gloss".

Early enthusiasm by the Left for the Accord as a "powerful engine of socialist advance" prevented an analysis of the conservative nature of the ALP and encouraged the "simple-minded identification" of the Liberals and the New Right as the sole threat to workers. In the process, the "left logic" of Accordism resulted in many of its left proponents hastening the demise of the left as they dissolved into or around the ALP for the chance of influencing the political and industrial agenda (labour movement "intervention", it was called).

Beilharz's doggy mixture, however, also contains a lot of indeterminate filling — the historical role of Catholicism, the "visual semiotics" of John Dawkins' hat — and a few rat droppings as well: revolutionary political, or industrially militant, opponents of the Accord are, to Beilharz, all "Trotskyists", faded legacies of a socialist project that was buried with the Bolsheviks. If the ALP is exhausted, so too is socialism, he argues.

With all the platitudes of a politically ageing conservative, Beilharz argues that revolutionary ruptures such as 1917 and 1968 are doomed to failure because "the past resurfaces after the carnival". Father knows best! Apart, however, from the fact that we would still have serfs and villeins and lords and nobles if revolutions always failed, or that many areas of sexism and racism have been profoundly undermined since the '60s, the problem of the old ways surviving into the new, and of the causes of post-revolutionary degeneration and reversal, have been recognised and analysed by all the classic Marxists — but with a view to overcoming the problems, not with the aim of using them as a paternalistic, numbing mantra for shelving the banners and placards of revolution in the closet of youthful delusions.

For Beilharz, there is no way out. Strategically, those seeking to challenge the ALP-ACTU Visigoths are left hanging whilst Beilharz delivers a string of jaded, cynical sneers about the revolutionary left and other radical activists. A rising sense of frustration is generated by Beilharz's book because of his superior, mocking tone.

Annoyance also arises from Beilharz's position of hand-wringing despair which, to be maintained, has to ignore those pockets of resistance which have the potential to coalesce into a broader emancipatory force. Beilharz claims to find little left of the left in the '90s. He sees a total "evaporation" of a "left public sphere" with the demise of various left-of-centre publications. He makes no mention of GLW, whose success, based on a radical but ecumenical openness, has surprised and pleased much of the constituency rendered voiceless by the attrition of left publishing. I may be biased, but to completely ignore GLW is wilful blindness.

OK, spleen vented. Beilharz's book is a useful review of the ALP and of why the Accord did not and could not deliver anything but austerity for the working class. There is no question which side of the class barricades comrade Beilharz is on but, oh dear, as for any more of his pages on how we might defend those barricades — forester spare those trees!