Ninety years ago, on 28 October 2006, the Australian people voted to reject conscription for overseas military service. A year later, on 20 December 1917, a larger majority confirmed that decision in a second plebiscite. A majority of the troops already serving overseas in the First Australian Imperial Force also voted “No”.

Throughout the next fifty and more years, the divide created by those campaigns re-made the working class, embittered sectarianism and split Labor politics. Its last hurrah came with the fiftieth anniversary during the 1966 Federal elections. Labor leader Calwell campaigned against conscription for Vietnam in the conviction that Australians shared his passionate opposition from his youth.

The anniversaries of the struggles over conscription merit notice on historical grounds alone. In addition, the plebiscites are pertinent to three current concerns: the wars around the Middle East; the history wars; and the class war exemplified in the IR onslaught.

First, looking into 1916-17 can help our campaigning against wars today? One lesson is the complexity in the motives of those who voted “No”. The majority did not oppose the war itself. Most supported conscription for home defence. Some voted “Yes” because they feared Japan – others voted “No” on the same ground. The Labor Party had split over economic policy before overseas conscription became central. Reactionary farmers and pastoralists voted ‘No” because they could not afford to lose their workforce. The IRA uprising at Easter 1916 generated perhaps as many “Yes” votes as it did “Noes”.

By appreciating the tangle of reasons for voting “No” in 1916-17, we can accept why opponents of Australian forces in Iraq will start from a multiplicity of positions. Our task, therefore, is twofold. We gather the broadest coalition of opponents. In that process, we seek ways to bring some analysis of oligopolising and of the nation-market-state to as many people as possible. Through that process, we clarify our own understanding of why wars happen. “The educator must be educated.”

Our responses to the present are bound up with how we perceive the past. The Coalition and the Business Council recognise that the history wars are not some academic dispute over Post-Modernism. From the 1980s, Hugh Morgan at Western Mining knew that corporate profits depended on blocking land rights. He and his cronies got rid of two editors of Quadrant to give voice to the Three Cheers view of settler Australia.

Howard told the Quadrant crew at their 50th anniversary dinner how much he resented the class struggle being part of Australian history courses. The call for its erasure coincides with the Coalition’s stepping up of the class struggle.

Howard urged the revision of Australian history within months of becoming Prime Minister. In January this year, he focused on classroom practice by insisting on a narrative of events. Education Minister Baird demands a syllabus which instills how Australia became “a modern liberal democracy”.

What is left out of any narrative about the achievement of bourgeois parliamentary democracy will be as decisive as how we interpret whatever goes in.

Howard refused to join in the 150th commemoration of the Eureka Stockade in 2004. The fact that the “No” votes expressed the free will of a majority of Australians will not earn them a spot in the Tory narrative of democracy. Nor is the majority vote against the Act to ban the Communist Party likely to feature in such a syllabus.

Yet those events contributed more than most to what passes for a “modern liberal democracy” here. Had the results been different, Australia would have shifted towards more open forms of class oppression. In each case, the majority held the line against war hysteria. They defended a kind of freedom against the political forebears of the Coalition and the Business Council.

The Left need never surrender any part of the Australian narrative. It is a mistake to say: we’ll stick by Eureka and they can take Gallipoli. Socialists have stories to tell about Anzac that subvert the militaristic legend. The “man with the donkey”, Jack Simpson, was a red-hot unionist who looked forward to a revolution to rid the world of aristocrats and millionaires. Had he lived, he too would have voted “No”.