Interview: The New Democrat
Bad Boss: The Ugly Australian
Unions: Free Spirits and Slaves
Industrial: National Focus
History: A Class Act
International: Across the Ditch
Economics: Home Truths
Review: No Time Like Tomorrow
Poetry: Silent Note
The Locker Room
Last Year’s Model
Ground Staff Spread Fashion Wings
Ghan Raises Trans-Continental Stink
Rail Workers Cop ‘Beer Nannies’
Big Business Plan to Cripple Compo
Safety Defects Plague Adelaide
Police Investigate Assault Claim
Labor Council of NSW
A Class Act
The Australian and US labour movements had their inspiration in the British union movement. They followed different trajectories from the 1890s. What was the significance of these decisions on direction and how did the ideology of race impact on all the labour movements?
Neville Kirk's new look, in Comrades and Cousins, at the old sources attempts an answer to this question. He briefly refers to earlier radical and revolutionary movements that I think are central to the ideology of race and which other historians have placed at centre stage in the development of capitalism and globalisation, stating in the 16th century.
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, in The Many Headed Hydra trace the history of internationalism amongst labour and capital. Globalisation had its origins at this time, and one thing that was traded in was labour. Slave labour was the commodity and the movement of that labour between the old world and the new world was based on class, not race. The Irish were often slaves, as well as the downtrodden and defeated of all nations/districts as the imperial order demanded and got the labour power needed from wherever it could.
Linebaugh and Rediker use the recurring motif of the Hydra and its slaying by Hercules as thread drawing together the revolutionary projects of each age. Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor in the early 1600s, was a philosopher who advocated inductive reasoning and scientific experimentation, but who was also a politician who fell in and out of favour with monarchs. He had a notion of utopia, and of empire. One of his early essays was occasioned by anti enclosure rioters who sought to "have a merrier world..."where they could "work one day and play the other." Bart Steere suffered two months of torture (a long tradition of empire builders that continues) for taking part in the riots. Bacon claimed to be seeking to "enlarge the bounds of human empire to make all things possible, but his will to power violently crushed alternatives such as the one hoped for by Steere.
His will to power meant that he sought be a favourite of those in absolute power, and after falling out with Queen Bess, he regained favour with James, partly by addressing the conflict between king and members of Parliament. His solution was to heal the breach by engaging another country in some popular quarrel.
The Hydra came into its own when he developed this theme. People, he said, had "degenerated from the laws of nature and taken "in their body and frame of estate a monstrosity". He drew upon classical antiquity, the Bible, and recent history to provide examples of multitudes who deserved destruction" West Indians; Canaanites; pirates; land rovers; assassins; Amazons and Anabaptists.
The hewers of wood and drawers of water were those who bore the curse of labour. Those who laboured created the colonies, were dragooned into naval service, slaughtered the native inhabitants of the new colonies, and fought the wars for those who sought absolute power.
Of curse, expropriation began at home for the British Empire, and the enclosures that Steere was rioting against led to the removal of much of the English forest. Agriculture took over, but the large oaks felled by the hewers went into the ships that carried soldiers overseas and goods to and fro for the wealthy. Commoners were dispossessed at home and later the native peoples were dispossessed in the colonies. The commoners were drummed into service, the natives were shot, poisoned diseased. All made possible by the ideology of those like Bacon. Resistance is what Linebaugh and Rediker document. How close much of the resistance came to overturning the powerful is well illustrated in their account. Bacon's warnings to the powerful about the Hydra resonated for centuries, as does the term Hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Where Linebaugh and Rediker go deeper than the great teacher E P Thompson is in their look at the ideology of race and power. The problem for Bacon with all those in the categories that he saw as appropriate for slaughter was their unity across land masses, time and colour. Race was not an issue or even an idea.
Those levellers and diggers who wanted and almost achieved an English revolution against the King AND Cromwell were of all colours and creeds, as were those who revolted against the British in New York and elsewhere in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries before the War of Independence.
The famous debates amongst soldiers in Cromwell's army are known as the Putney debates, and the arguments revolved around the issues of "a future with commons and without slavery, or to one with slavery and without commons. The commons were a reality, not pie in the sky."
Slavery was going on in England as ships sailed for the new world with children and adults hauled off the streets by press gangs. This slavery of the English people was the same as the slavery of the African people. Colour was not an issue. Drudges, hewers of wood and haulers of water were from anywhere without the power to resist.
The Irish resisted fiercely of course, and Cromwell and his men visited terrible punishment on them. Those who lived were carried away as slaves as well.
Divide and Rule has long been a sound principle and the invention of race as an ideology was and remains a powerful tool of those who want to retain power by any means at whatever cost. Slavery became a system that only blacks suffered under, and the savage from the "dark continent" in need of our civilising virtues, or incapable of anything but being hewers of wood and drawers of water, was born.
English and Irish slaves were bought and sold. Later this was the domain of Africans. African slaves began as a dribble into North America from 1619 it seems. The landowners and capitalists who wanted to expand the colonies began to see that the harsh conditions and short lifespan of the indentured "white" servants was a potential disaster for their expansion plans and thus shifted their focus to the Caribbean and to Africa, to create another layer. The race ideology was developed to set these peoples apart from the white servants, and to ensure no bonds of class solidarity developed, as described by Barbara Fields in here excellent Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.
They did develop bonds, as Linebaugh and Rediker explain, with various attempts a revolutionary change being just thwarted by authorities in New York and London, and in the Caribbean itself. Haiti eventually did have a successful revolution, despite the opposition of the so-called libertarian Thomas Jefferson.
Neville Kirk takes up the story about a century later, but again he emphasises the class solidarity that was undermined by racist ideology. The Australian movements push to create the ALP was a stunning success, and was only followed much later and with less initial momentum in the UK. The US labour movement under Gompers resisted the socialists who wanted a political party, but a force that drove the movements in all three countries, and in South Africa, was the race based class solidarity, which seems to undermine much of their initial success and could be seem as a major reason that the victories at ballot boxes and at the workplace did not translate into crating truly socialist societies.
Linebaugh and Rediker see the 1790s as a crucial period that perhaps shaped some of the views workers had in the 1890s. William Blake's poetry and artwork seem to sum it up. After the French Revolution the idea of liberties for all seemed achievable for all. The Haitian slave revolt also seemed to promise class solidarity as a way to achieve a just society. With the authoritarian reversals of the 1790s Blake himself seemed to move back from his earlier views. In 1793, as Rediker and Linebaugh put it, he had expressed hope for freedom through his depictions of slaves in the South American colonies. By 1803 his seems to have shifted, as that was the year he wrote what has become an ENGLISH anthem: "And did those feet in ancient time/ walk upon England's green and pleasant land.
England could hope for freedom, but he wasn't looking beyond.
Kirk continues the story from the 1880s in his account of how the labour movements formed or didn't form Labor parties. Race was central to all. "For there existed throughout the British Empire a racialized class struggle."
For Australian workers, Federation was a mixed blessing, and the Empire was both good and bad. For the left, it was a symbol of slavery and racism, but or the orthodox and fairly powerful stream of labour movement opinion, the Empire was OK, as long as it did not threaten t undermine the hard won conditions of the "Workingman's paradise" by the cheap labour of the orientals and blacks. The Boer War was he symbol of the dangers. The Worker summed up the race anxieties of the white class conscious mainstream:
"On the one side the Capitalistic classes, commanding the docile hordes of the Empire, of Asia and of Africa; opposing them the ranks of White Labour in revolt, disciplined and determined, fired with a sense of justice, and the Red Flag of Socialism over all." (Brisbane Worker 1904)
As Kirk puts it "Labour's purportedly inclusive ideological embrace was, in practice, limited and fractured. Above all...it was heavily disfigured and diminished by racism." (Kirk also emphasises that it was a WorkingMANs paradise and women's role was certainly a marginal one, notwithstanding that universal suffrage applied in Australia from the early 1900s. This was also a division not on class lines that disfigured and limited the movement).
The race issue is the focus of Kirk's fascinating chapter "The Rule of Class and the Power of Race" and he gives a great overview of the many voices and the differing views. The left certainly seems to have had a much more internationalist view, with class the key, not riven by racial divides, although there still seems to remain a certain view that the "capacity" of other "races" were a bit limited, although not fixed. The left remained a minority, as it does today, and its internationalist views did not dominate any of the major labour movements then and don't now. The left still leads the way on international campaigns in Australia and elsewhere, with the centrist, labourist views prevailing in the offices of power. As Linebaugh put it in an article on May Day 2003, perhaps we did not stop the invasion of Iraq because we did not call for revolution. A revolution in ideas about power and race is crucial and class struggle must transcend race for this to be successful.
As Kirk sums up, the class consciousness of the British, American and Australian labour movements was nationally based and accepting of an imperialist UK. The British model of the labour movement was the basis for the US and Australian movements, although they did not follow the British and in fact lead them in many areas. Internationalism had its greatest push from the left, in particular the Industrial Workers of the World (in the period just after Kirk's time line). Sarah Gregson has looked at the race issue in the disputes and riots in Broken Hill in 1915. She shows how bosses sought to play the race card to divide and conquer. The influence of internationalism lead to failure. for the capitalists.
Gregson, Julia Martinez and Phil Griffiths and others have been pushing into this field of Australian labour movement history and illustrating Kirks' point that there was not a fixed monolithic labour movement attachment to White Australia. although it certainly, as Kirk puts it, "disfigured and diminished" the labour movements of the US, Australia and the UK.
Kirk's conclusion related directly to twenty-first century globalisation, and Linebaugh and Rediker would concur that labour would gain "from a strategy of inclusiveness...". He argues that "this inclusive aim must be pursued not only as a counter to the divisive elements of globalisation in national and international labour markets - in setting 'white' against 'black' and 'coloured', skilled' against 'non-skilled', men against women, and workers of the 'developed' world against those of the 'developing' and 'undeveloped' - but in all aspects of life. For, in truth, the 'utopian' principles of inclusivity, equality, democracy and respect for genuine diversity and choice have pragmatically assumed the utmost urgency in the face of increasing global inequality, chronic mass poverty, and the barbarism currently being visited upon the world by arrogant, intolerant and unashamedly imperialist capitalist 'crusaders' and religious fundamentalists."
Neville Kirk. Comrades and Cousins: Globalization, workers ands labour movements in Britain, the USA and Australia from the 1880s to 1914. (London: Merlin Press, 2003)
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic. (London: Verso, 2000)
Peter Linebaugh. Against Defeat, Laughter: May Day at Kut and Kienthal. May 1st 2003.
Sarah Gregson. 'It All Started on the Mines'? : the 1934 Kalgoorlie Race Riots Revisited (Labour History no 80, May 2001)
Sarah Gregson. Defending Internationalism in Interwar Broken Hill (Labour History no 86 May 2004)
Barbara Jeanne Fields. Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America
(New Left Review. no 181, May/June 1990; pp95-118).
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online