Ian Turner’s Industrial Labour and Politics: The Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900–1921 is a major re-interpretation of the development of the Australian Labour movement. It is a useful model of the proper examination of labour movements in general and it is one of the few studies in labour history where the specific institutions evolved by the labour movement are not viewed as isolated factors in themselves but as a momentary expression of the movement itself. Finally Turner makes some important statements about the bases of social investigation. Factually, his study is certainly the finest study in its field. He investigates the period from the creation of the Commonwealth to Australia’s emergence from the First World War and also presents two detailed studies of the Australian working class in 1900 and 1921.
There were immense changes in Australian society over those 21 years. They marked the transition from the hegemony of the older craft unions to that of the unions of unskilled workers and the establishment of a new pattern of industrial unionism. The industrial and social changes were basically those found in Germany during the 1870’s, Britain in the 1880’s, and France from about 1890 to 1910. The basic shift from primary to secondary industry meant that the influence and the ideas of the pastoral workers and the miners gave way to those of the railwaymen, engineers, seamen, and unskilled production workers. As in Europe, the transition was marked not only by a period of heightened industrial unrest directed against management but a ‘civil war’ in the Labour movement. Here, however, the similarity between Europe and Australia ends. For what particularly complicates our understanding of this period is the fact that an alp built round an artisan ideology was in power for much of this period and the government was deeply involved in the industrial unrest not only as a government but when the alp was in power as part of the Labour movement. Again, the
Like many of the early European Socialist parties, the early pof, the Lassalle and Eisenach parties, the alp was an amalgam of workers in those industries still not affected by the division of labour and of what we will call homogeneous working communities—in this particular case miners and pastoral workers. If we had an occupational breakdown of the party activists in the sdp, pof and alp we would find them remarkably alike. Looked at closely these groups had the same vision of the world. They were governed by a desire for economic security and the maintenance social integration. The important thing is not the external logic of these demands but that they were not felt to be contradictory either by the participants or by those observing them. In their views insecurity was limited to work and did not extend to the community. This extension was a later addition brought about by the division of labour. Community was thus to some extent separate from work activities. It was closely bound up with a remembrance of the age before the machine and with a projection into the future. This vision can be traced, in part, to the nature of their particular work situation, but also to their particular history. Their basic ‘political’ aim was a corporative representation of interests. But unlike those organizations which maintained much the same view, the tuc in the 1870’s, Auguste Keufer’s Fédération du livre or the early German trade unions under Lassalle and Schweitzer, the context of the Australian trade unions was entirely different. The Australians were forced to organize what we would judge to be a serious political organization rather than relying upon infiltration of existing political organizations and pious hopes invested in the efficacy of collective bargaining.
The reason for the founding of the alp was not the assertion of a norm, the ideology of working class independence and aspiration towards a Socialist state as both early social scientists and orthodox Marxists would have concluded. Nor was it adherence to a universal pattern. It was a far more mundane social fact. The miners and pastoral workers were more profoundly interested in finding a single negotiator than the artisan. They were particularly keen on state intervention and were relatively stronger than the similar homogeneous communities in Europe. Like the homogeneous trade unions in Europe (miners and textile workers are notable examples) they demanded arbitration and the political power required to guarantee that bargains would be kept and regulated. With such a narrow basis one can begin to understand why the early alp in power was what Michels in unison with Kautsky would have called an ‘unprincipled’ party whose economic and social
Early trade unionism was shattered by the continuous process system and the new form of social relations it engendered. But the nature of the movements together with their institutions, the party, the trade unions and friendly societies, was altered. In Europe, its manifestation was the struggle between the Old and New Unionism in Britain, between the spd Kontrollkommission (Executive) and the Freie Gewerkschaften (Socialist trade trade unions) in Germany, and the syndicalists and a combination of guesdistes and réformistes in France. In Australia, the internal struggle was confused with political issues, the alp being in power, arbitration, the war, anti-conscription, etc. In general terms: with the atomization of work, the hierarchizing of tasks, and the destruction of even minimal control over the product there evolved organizations which believed in state sponsored welfare measures and state controls.
In every way the new unionists’ concepts, actions, rallying-points, and their utilization of organization contrasted with those of the old unionists. Their struggle had its own particular language. Hence the iww had some measure of success not because it had a specific ideology, nor because it was an international movement, but to the extent that, more than any other group, with its demands for independent and united action it struck a responsive chord in the new Unions. Similarly the concept of the General Strike was supported not because it was ‘revolutionary’ or a ‘utopian ideology’ but because it was a means of identification and a battle code. The split in the alp over conscription would probably have been less severe had it not been for these basic differences. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that the entire Hughes issue was the mask that hid the true nature of the struggle within the Australian Labour movement. Whereas the concept of French syndicalism was by the same token a symbol of a regressive section of the artisan working class, in Australia syndicalism symbolized the split that allowed the gradual transformation of the alp into a party whose structure and expressed aims conformed to the European model.