Whose side are you on?

The mundane decline of labour history

Fifty-one years ago, a grouping of communists and ex-communists in Canberra set up a Society for the Study of Labour History and prepared a journal, Labour History. One spur had been the appearance of the Bulletin of the Business Archives Council, now known as the Australian Economic History Review. At the start, the Society and its publications were part of a struggle for position on the ideological front, an early campaign in the History Wars.

The launching of Labour History needs to be seen also in the context of three books: Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958, which promoted socialism-as-being-mates against the individualism of Yankee imperialism, and was part of the folk revival as an alternative to the Coca-colonisation of popular culture; Robin Gollan’s Radical and Working Class Politics (1960) where the organisation of working people is shown to have laid one foundation for bourgeois democracy; and Ian Turner’s Industrial Labour and Politics (1961) which lauded the militancy of the Industrial Workers of the World and of the other socialist internationalists who led countless industrial disputes as well as the fight that twice defeated overseas conscription.

On the other side, Noel Butlin in 1958 had challenged the account in Brian Fitzpatrick’s The British Empire in Australia (1941) which had portrayed Australia’s economic development as pastoralism. In 1962, Manning Clark delivered the first volume of A History of Australia as a clash of ideas, a religiously inspired piece of Philosophical Idealism which was at once greeted with enthusiasm by the CIA’s little helpers in the Quadrant crew. Editing Australian Civilisation that year, Peter Coleman recognised that ‘the influence of Manning Clark has been of the greatest importance’ in ‘the Counter-Revolution in Australian Historiography’.

Few traces of the continuing class struggle appear in the pages of Labour History, which, its current editors boast, ‘has come a long way’. Instead, readers of the 100th issue for May 2011 are becalmed on an ocean of complacency and self-congratulation. The points of criticism come when authors lament that their particular take on the past is being granted less attention than they merit. The prime doubter is Christopher Wright on the retreat from labour-process studies – labour process being the safe term for class struggle. How telling that the most critical stance is made from the viewpoint of management.

How did it come to this? One answer is to look at the editorial board and find nothing but academics. Labour History, which began in reaction to the institutionalisation of business history, is housed in a School of Business. Even the neo-liberal economists at the University of Sydney want to escape from that sausage machine for manufacturing the agents of capital, and, for once, are in accord with the Political Economy Department which moved to the Arts Faculty.

Let’s give the editors and their panels of advisors the benefit of the doubt and assume that all the local ones are members of the NTEU. A tiny bit of research would uncover how many are active on their branch committees. Again, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that they know who Ark Tribe is. How many attended any of the protests against his persecution? How many support the Rudd-Gillard maintenance of the Howard-era industrial regime? More germane to present purposes is to ask how many understand why being on a picket line is as much a prerequisite for writing labour history as is securing a research grant?

Frank Bongiorno’s introductory inquiry into ‘Contexts, Trends and Influences’ ties the decline of labour history to ‘the evolving professional imperatives associated with university-based research and teaching in an increasingly globalised academic culture’. Apart from identifying this constraint, Bongiorno is too much the cheery optimist about the self-styled discipline’s commitment to ‘social justice’, to activism and its scepticism about ‘disinterested scholarship’. Without a radical intervention from ‘the college walls’, the momentum is for academic labour historians to slip further away from serving as protagonists of the proletariat into becoming parasites on its struggles, sufferings and successes, advancing careers but giving nothing in return, instead, seeing neutrality and objectivity as morally and intellectually superior to solidarity. Some of the Daleks who stomp out of undergraduate politics into ministerial suites, trade-union offices and ALP machines may yet find labour history as a ladder to success beyond the universities.

The decline of labour history is but one strand in the ALP’s dis-organization of the working class over the past thirty years. The displacement of a Labor Party by the ALP as the Anti-Labour Party needs to be understood in terms of the current needs of global capital to expand by breaking through the barriers behind which it had accumulated profit.

Some of the regional branches keep up the original commitment, often under the impetus of retired workplace activists. Brisbane held a forum against WorkChoices; the South Coast produced an issue of its journal on the future of the region’s economy; Adelaide is involved in the campaign against the anti-labour ALP State regime’s attack on the conditions of its employees. It’s time that the Hunter Valley took some propaganda by deed and revised the RTA sign ‘Rothbury Riot Memorial’ to ‘Police Riot Memorial’.

Labour history conference
The Golden Jubilee Labour History Conference is on in Canberra from 15th to 17th September. The conference is supported by two universities but no trade unions. A third sponsor is the Labor Club Group, a cesspit of factional brawling oer its millions. It is hard to get the unions to contribute financially to the Society, its journal or its national conference. Why should they? When was there last anything in the journal for their members? Sometime editor John Merritt had carried on the spirit of the founders by including at least one piece in each issue that spoke directly to workplace activists or officials. How long has it been since even one article has done that?  One might well ask how many of the contributions are much use even to other academics. In this, the contents of Labour History are not unique. Read the synopsis and the conclusion and browse the footnotes and you have got almost all that is worth knowing in Australian Historical Studies.

The Conference theme of ‘Labour History and Its People’ spotlights how bourgeois ideology has taken control: biography - not class. Where is the sense that the masses make history? Of course, we need to be alert to the role of the individual wage-slave as the embodiment of labour-time engaged in a now open and now covert war against the capitalist as the personification of capital. A few Conference papers come closer to the class commitments. A closing session reverts to Green Bans in the early 1970s as a model for future struggle, thereby avoiding the need to fight the ALP’s attack on the BLF’s inheritors through the Australian Building and Construction Commission or against Killard’s ‘harmonisation’ of health and safety.

The opening night address will be given by Senator John Faulkner, assumed to be the only sound apple in a barrel of maggots. His commitment to cabinet and caucus ‘solidarity’ allowed him to become even more complicit in the war crimes in Afghanistan when he took on the ‘Defence’ portfolio after his predecessor was caught up in another of those arrangements with business which are the hallmark of party fund-raising. From the backbench, Faulkner gives no indication that he will sponsor Adam Bandt’s motion to abolish the Construction stasi. It is a measure of what has happened to the labour movement that such a person is treated as an honoured guest.

In keeping with the debilitation of labour history in academe is the session seeking to theorise its practice. The founders knew that the theory they needed existed in Marx’s labour theory of value as the lynchpin of his analysis of the accumulation of capital through exploitation. To adopt that theory would require today’s labour historians to stretch their intellects beyond the presumption that theory is the generalising from fact-grubbing, and thus become more than glorified antiquarians. (Antiquarianism had its virtues as anyone who has used Sam Merrifield’s catalogues and newspaper indexes in the Victorian branch’s Recorder will testify).

Anti-Red Act conference
Similar criticisms apply to the conference being held in Melbourne a few days later about the defeat on 22 September 1951 of the Act to ban the Communist Party. There is not a trace in the program about how that campaign from sixty years ago might be relevant to struggles today against anti-terrorism laws; the laws that criminalise workers who defend their wages and OH&S conditions; the attacks on Wikileaks; the rights of refugees, or the legality and morality of the Intervention. The program is as if Evatt in 1951 had done no more than organise a symposium to discuss the 1916-17 defeat of the conscription plebiscites. In the era of focus groups, we should not be surprised that the ALP is not promoting this win as its nominal predecessor’s greatest contribution to bourgeois democracy.

The parents of one of the conference organisers, Ann Curthoys, would have been behind barbed wire had the vote gone the other way. They would have insisted on training the connections between then and now. Instead of continuing their fight for socialism, the conference is nothing more than another occasion to garner career points and be published in Australian Historical Studies. The organisers hope that the two days will ‘provoke discussion of new ways of approaching and writing Communist history in the 21st century’ – not lead to action.

Were today’s representatives of the unions that took the case to the High Court invited to speak about their current struggles against UnFair Work Australia? Sad to say, fewer union officials now understand why the lessons from past struggles are important. Of course, plenty of them retain a desire to see their own names in print in official histories.

Worst of all, the Melbourne conference dredges up disgraceful behaviour by certain labour historians in their use of the illegally gathered material in ASIO files. The privacy of innocent by-standers is again invaded because they were associated with activists. Historians complete ASIO’s dirty work. It is one thing for a rabid anti-Communist like Robert Manne to volunteer as Spry’s amanuensis, but anyone with a progressive bone should endorse the demand by the Committee for the Abolition of the Political Police to destroy the files.

The malaise that has overtaken academic labour history afflicts every recess of the Left intelligentsia where counter-revolutions are being worked from within under the guise of femiotics or Post-Post-isms.

One instance of La Trahison des Clercs is Ian Hunt’s five-page entry on ‘Marxist Philosophy’ in A companion to Philosophy in Australia and New Zealand from Monash University. The source of the lopsidedness in Hunt’s contribution is not clear, though the bias of the Companion means that its title should have included ‘Academic’. Hunt might be excused for conforming to editorial directives.

That reason cannot explain why he makes no mention of the head of his department at Flinders, the late Brian Medlin. Nor does Hunt indicate the praxis that initiated ‘Redgum’ and encouraged visual artists such as Ann Newmarch. Flinders students experienced philosophy as sensuous human activity on street marches to oppose US imperialism’s war against the peoples of Indo-China; by occupying the office of vice-chancellor Roger Russell, a beneficiary of CIA patronage; and by moving into factories under the Worker-Student Alliance – all  stimulated by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Four Essays on Philosophy.

Moreover, Hunt’s concentrating on what he calls the high point of Marxist philosophy from 1975 to 1995 does a disservice to the thousands of Australian workers who helped each other to think through their lives in terms of materialist dialectics, applying insights from Marx’s Wage-labour and Capital and Engels’s Socialism, Utopian and Scientific to their industrial and political struggles. On that criterion, Marx and Engels would have seen the ‘high point’ from the 1930s to 1950s. Hunt has erased that mass self-education activity in favour of the study and seminar room.

Political Economy
Matters fare somewhat better at the Journal of Australian Political Economy which always publishes material connected to current struggles in the economy and environment, albeit often from Keynesian or Galbraithian perspectives. The almost total disappearance of Marx’s critique of political economy is apparent from the references to the Journal’s contributions. Next to none are to Marx. The only mention of his works in the special issue on Work Choices concerned the production of ideology, not commodities; only two of the contributions to the issue on the post-1992 boom managed to weave in clips from Marx on economics; more amazing is that only two of the authors for the special on the mis-named Global Financial Crisis thought Marx worth noticing, and one of them was the anti-Marxist Steve Keen who drew on ideology.

The production of knowledge?
These retreats across a variety of disciplines need to be understood in the context of what has happened to education and to intellectual enquiry across some thirty years. As Minister for Education, Gillard assured the Australian Industry Group that ‘the areas covered by my portfolios … are all ultimately about the same thing: productivity’. For her government, the purpose of a pre-school or a university is to lift productivity.

The research into the current state of the reproduction of knowledge should begin from a critique the explanations proposed for the student revolt of the 1960s. We need to break through the Idealist accounts of cultural rebelliousness by linking those attitudes to the new needs of capital in production and the realisation of the surplus value through marketing and debt. A study of working conditions in tertiary institutions needs to identify the causes and effects of the retreat from the participatory democracy in the classroom and throughout the administration. Can we trace that loss to the managerialism and credentialism galloping throughout the economy out of the Schools of Business?

For the post-graduates stacking supermarket shelves between short-term contracts, a job is experienced, as Adorno observed, as disguised unemployment. The super-exploitation of casuals is driving them to of accumulate points from peer-reviewed conference papers, even at events such as a one-day seminar on ‘Capital against capitalism’. The scramble for short-term contracts compels applicants to publish at least one peer-reviewed article each year. How has that pressure encouraged the linguistic turn which values the critique of existing texts rather than spending time on original research? In addition, we need to examine the role of NTEU in the conflict between tenured staff and those on contracts who hew the wood for them.

A red armband version
The task remains what it was fifty and 150 years ago: to put our efforts into helping our class to learn from its defeats and victories by producing labour-versus-capital history. Four precepts underpin this approach:

the masses make history;
there can be no such thing as a fair day’s pay under the rule of capital;
the expansion of capital depends on the disciplining of labour-time;
the state organises capital and dis-organises labour.

To put these facts of life into historical form we need to

  • trace the complexities of class formation with women, indigenes, and waves of immigrants;

  • look past both hagiography and the abuse of ‘union bureaucrats’ to identify effective leadership;

  • provide case studies of workers performing in times when the movement is strong and when it is weak;

  • tell stories to which a worker might respond: ‘I could do that’.

Meeting these objectives will help workers to picture their lives within the making of the Australian working class on a global scale. Many have been denied a chance to see how our class has made its way to where we are.

The founders of the Society and journal sought to redress the 1927 complaint from New South Wales rural labourer Charlie Sullivan:

Not one word is written of the thousands of workers who toiled in the heat, in the cold, and in the rain, who cut through rock and blasted channels, who reared great walls and buildings, not a word of the lives lost, of those who toiled with the crushed fingers of their calloused hands, dripping blood into the concrete, or staining steel. It has been thus from the time millions of straining naked slaves built that magnificence which was Babylon, and those monuments which are known as the Pyramids.

The names of kings and warlords are handed down in manuscripts and in books to after generations, but few ever think of the great and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human flesh.

They will remain un-honoured and unsung till workers write the histories that are taught in our schools.

A first steps for activist-researchers who want to revive the class commitment of the founders of the study of labour history will be to see the present as history and to take to heart Brian Fitzpatrick’s 1955 Meanjin essay ‘The Origins of the People are not in the Library’.