Introduction to the 1979 edition of Industrial Labour and
By Ian Turner
The dynamics of the labour movement in eastern Australia, 1900-21
This book was written in 1959-63 and first published in 1965.
introduction to that first edition argued that "Labour history is
history of a new kind: it introduces the concept of masses rather than
elites as the moving force in the historical process. ... The labour
movement is the institutional method by which the masses transform
themselves from passive to active elements in society, from weights to
be pushed around to social levers in their own right." My argument was
that Pareto's theory of a circulation of elites, in which succeeding
elites used the masses in their drive for power and manipulated them
while in power so as to advance elite interests, was not an adequate
explanation of the entry of organised labour into politics. A study of
the history of the labour movement suggested that labour elites were
"more subject to intervention from below and even to a direct action
which cuts across or negates the intentions of the leaders" than were
the elites in other social institutions. Given the democratic processes
of the labour movement, that conflict between leaders and rank and file
resulted in a "continual tendency towards purification, towards the
restoration, perhaps in new forms, of the original values."
That argument met two major criticisms: first, that the
suggested that the conflict between leaders and rank and file concerned
immediate economic issues rather than the reconstruction of society
along socialist lines; and secondly that the possibility which existed
for the masses to deny their leaders did not necessarily involve the
masses becoming "social levers in their own right".
The first point is well taken. My starting point was that when
labour elites assumed political (that is, parliamentary) power they
tended to promote "national" rather than class interests; and that when
the rank and file asserted a "class" position — often in relation to
immediate economic demands — they would as a consequence move towards
an understanding of the need for social reconstruction. That was part
of the common currency of Marxist thinking at the time when I was
writing. It was true, as Lenin had said, that of itself the working
class could only develop "trade union consciousness"
but, given the input of ideology from a revolutionary vanguard, the
workers would draw the necessary political conclusions from their
I would now modify my original position in several ways.
Raymond Williams says, "There are ... no masses; there are only ways of
seeing people as masses".
The movement from economic demands to political consciousness is a much
more complex process than I then suggested. The working class does not
operate as a "mass". The growth of political consciousness is not an
incremental process; rather, the translation of economic into political
demands ebbs and flows through different sections of the working class
at different times and at an inconstant rate. The experience of the
labour movements of various countries suggests that it is only under
rare and exceptional circumstances (for example, the breakdown of the
established social order during war) that a majority or the decisive
sections of the working class accept the necessity of radical or
revolutionary political action to achieve their objectives.
Secondly, I would now argue that it is not simply a question
labour elites "betraying" the interests of the working class in order
to maintain their political power (and to advance their personal
careers). That judgment measures labour leaders (both industrial and
political) against ideal standards, against the desirable rather than
the possible. If a labour movement chooses to operate within the system
of parliamentary democracy — and most labour movements which have had
that option open to them have chosen it — the question it confronts is
always: how far, how fast? What program can it advance that at the same
time satisfies its supporters, furthers its long-term objectives, and
is capable of attracting majority electoral support? To ask that
question is not to deny that there can be "betrayal" within the labour
movement. It is rather to suggest that it is important for historians,
as well as for contemporary activists, to distinguish between the
argument about principle and the argument about tactics and timing.
Thirdly, I would now modify in some respects my earlier
generalisation about the character of labour movements. In the first
edition, I wrote:
The character of the movement depends on the circumstances
of its formation. If, as was the case in most of Europe, the working
class is formed and begins to organise in conditions of political
autocracy, the tendency is for the formation of political parties,
illegally if necessary, to defeat the autocracy and to create the
conditions for the formation of economic organisations, trade unions,
which, because of their mass character and the necessarily public
nature of their activities, could not long exist in defiance of the
prohibitions of the state. In these circumstances the formation of
trade unions is stimulated by the political parties as legal
concessions are won. From this two things follow.
First, the political party, formed for struggle against
tends to have a revolutionary ideology, although this may become mere
ritual as the party operates within a bourgeois democracy which it may
have itself played a major part in creating. Second, the initiative
within the labour movement rests with the political wing, while the
trade unions, in so far as they take on a life of their own, tend to
become a conservative force within the movement, at least so long as
the political party remains in opposition and its revolutionary zeal is
uncompromised by political alliances or the responsibilities of
On the other hand, the natural first move of the working
towards economic organisation, so that if the working class first
begins to organise within conditions of an already existing bourgeois
democracy, trade unions are formed before political organisations and
stimulate the movement of labour into politics, at first as a pressure
group and later as an independent working-class party — but one which
is reformist and empirical in character, concerned with immediate
legislative reform rather than revolutionary social reconstruction.
This has been the pattern in the English-speaking countries,
with important variations arising from the different circumstances of
origin. In Great Britain, where the mass unions of unskilled workers
were not fully developed and carried little weight in the movement
while the old unions of skilled craftsmen had a traditional allegiance
to Liberalism, and where there existed a relatively well-organised and
widely dispersed socialist party
(the Independent Labour Party), it was this party which inaugurated the
shift from pressure group to mass labour party, enlisting the often
reluctant support of the trade unions and cutting the program of the
new party to fit the traditional economic organisations. In Australia
it was the new mass unions of the unskilled, influenced by socialists
within their ranks, which moved for the formation of a mass
working-class party; confronted with the need to win a more general
support, this party too tailored its program to craft union
measurements and style. ... A corollary of this is that the greater the
trade union influence in the formation of the party, the more limited
is its program, theory, and objective: thus in Australia the party's
program and activities have been concerned almost exclusively with
immediate reforms, particularly those of direct interest to the trade
unions, whereas in Britain there has always been a stronger element of
theory, a clearer socialist aspiration. It does not follow, however,
that a union-oriented party is less militant than one with a stronger
ideological orientation; on the contrary, given favourable economic
circumstances, the former may well fight more vigorously for its
objectives than the latter.
That still seems a reasonable generalisation, although it is
much oriented towards the positions taken by labour leaders rather than
the rank and file. In many ways, the history of the Australian labour
movement could be written from a perspective which proposed that the
leaders (both political and industrial) were at most times in advance
of the rank and file — not the militant or revolutionary minority but
the mass — in terms both of immediate program and long-term
perspectives for social reconstruction. Most workers do not look to
radical change in their situation or in the institutions which govern
their lives unless they can see no hope for amelioration in their
present circumstances. It is that which limits the possibility of the
"masses" becoming "social levers in their own right", or the way in
which that "lever" operates, rather than any "betrayal" by the leaders.
It is a truism to say that it is the radical minorities (in
Australian experience, most commonly operating through the industrial
movement) which provide the drive for social reconstruction and in that
sense are the conscience of the movement; but the realisation of their
revolutionary solutions depends on their reception by the working class
as a whole — and that in turn depends on how the working class
perceives its situation. That raises as the central problem class
consciousness — which indeed it has always been. At the heart of the
Marxist debate is the question, how does the "class in itself" become a
"class for itself"? How does the working class transcend immediate
circumstances and sectional divisions to reach an understanding that
the factor which joins in a single system the multiplicity of its
discontents is the private ownership of capital and the exploitative
wage relationship which flows from it?
Most of the critical discussion of this book has concerned that
In an important article, Stuart Macintyre argues that the
weakness of this book (and the books of other historians who write from
a similar position) is that it isolates the working class from the
system of class relationships which defines it and so confines its
study to the "class in itself". This, along with an "empiricist"
methodology, leads to an "economic determinism" which suggests that
working class consciousness depends on the workers' perception of their
immediate economic circumstances and that therefore the "possibility of
a revolutionary intervention into the present capitalist hegemony" can
only arise when exploitation and oppression reach such a peak of
intensity as to force the mass of the working class to see their
situation in a new and revolutionary way — in other words, that
revolutions are not made by the working class but are forced on them by
I agree with the opening point of this criticism. Although I
broken with Stalinism at the time when I wrote this book, I was still
in many ways a prisoner of the mechanistic Marxism of the nineteen
thirties, forties and fifties.
This Marxism inherited from evolutionism, or "social Darwinism", a
belief in the inevitable progress of humanity from slave society
through feudalism and capitalism to socialism and finally to the
classless communist society — as Terry Irving and Baiba Berzins have
This was a Marxist extension of such thinking as that of Lewis Morgan,
on whom Engels drew freely for his The Origin of the Family:
As it is undeniable that portions of the human family have
existed in a state of savagery, other portions in a state of barbarism,
and still other portions in a state of civilisation, it seems equally
so that these three distinct conditions are connected with each other
in a natural as well as necessary sequence of progress.
The trigger for this progress was the fundamental
between the relations of production and the forces of production, which
emerged when class relations became a "fetter" on the further
development of the productive forces. In many ways, it was a
technological determinist position, as argued capably by V. Gordon
Childe in his History (London, 1947).
The subordinate contradiction was that between social
private appropriation, and that would be overcome when the working
class took power and socialised appropriation. The assumption of the
inevitability of working class victory led those who wrote from this
position to reduce the problem of class relations and working class
consciousness to the relationship between vanguard (party) and class,
as Macintyre and R.W. Connell
(Macintyre suggests further that "scientific empiricism" —
objective reality as the starting point and trying to derive from that
reality the laws of social change — and "economic determinism (led)
inexorably to dispirited withdrawal from the class struggle". There is
some truth in that. Our analysis led us to predict the final crisis and
imminent end of capitalism, a fate which necessarily arose from its own
internal contradictions — yet capitalism had proved unpredictably
resilient. It had survived two world wars and the 1929-33 crisis and —
despite the new communist victories in Eastern Europe and China — it
seemed stronger than ever.
At the same time, what we learned of Soviet society from the
revelations of 1956 put a large question mark over the reality of the
vanguard-class relationship. Roberto Michels seemed very persuasive;
the late fifties were not years for revolutionary optimism.)
Humphrey McQueen produced one answer: the mistake was to see
the "working class" as a single, social formation.
There were really two classes within the wage and salary earners,
divided by ideology — a petit bourgeoisie, deriving from nineteenth
century craft and light industry, who held individualist values and
were incurably reformist; and a proletariat, the workers in twentieth
century heavy and large-scale industry, who held collectivist values
and were (at least potentially) revolutionary. But that schematic
division (which owed something to Lenin's concept of a "labour
at the same time denied the generally accepted Marxist analysis of the
"class in itself" and was not firmly based in the history of the
working class movement.
McQueen used Gramsci's concept of "bourgeois hegemony" — the
predominance of capitalist values in working-class consciousness as the
factor which inhibits the development of revolutionary consciousness —
but he confined this to one section of the working class, his "petit
bourgeoisie". This seemed to beg the question.
"Hegemony" has been the concern of most of the more recent
of this book, and, having now read Gramsci and some of those who have
expounded and debated his ideas, I agree with that emphasis. The
survival value of capitalism rests not only on its presumed ability to
call on the state apparatus whenever its power is seriously threatened
but also — and perhaps more importantly — on its ideological dominance.
Given the point, the problem is, where do we go from there? I
accept that part of Stuart Macintyre's argument which seeks to break
the nexus between consciousness and objective situation. That seems to
me to lead to a dangerous voluntarism. The workers' situation is
determined by factors over which they have no control (the working of
the capitalist market economy, including the labour market) except in
so far as their organised strength enables them to modify the labour
contract. Their perception of that situation is structured by an
ideological hegemony which leads them to seek immediate and temporary
solutions within the labour market, in terms of individualist,
consumption-oriented values — but they can only realise those solutions
by collective action. It is a closed circle. How can it be broken,
other than by a crisis which results from the contradictions inherent
Macintyre writes: "Our history is based on a quite different
problematic from that which is presently dominant (ie the 'empiricism'
of the earlier radical historians). Yet ultimately we will have to
demonstrate the necessity of the problematic by its results." To this
time, those results are to be seen in critique and in an increasingly
sophisticated historical analysis. But it is an analysis which stands
at some distance from social and political reality. "Praxis" is removed
from the cut and thrust of political action and becomes an object —
perhaps the object — of theoretical debate.
In many ways, that debate reminds me of Lord Macaulay's remark
the school of Socrates: "This celebrated philosophy ended in nothing
but disputation ... it was neither a vineyard nor an olive-ground, but
an intricate wood of briars and thistles, from which those who lost
themselves in it brought back many scratches and no food.
The final thrust of the recent criticism of the radical
of the nineteen forties and fifties is that they too are prisoners of
the bourgeois hegemony — not only because they adhere to an empiricist
tradition, but because of their "Left Australianism", their belief in a
continuity of tradition from the radical and working class movements of
the nineteenth century to the contemporary labour movement and
socialism, and in the special nature of the Australian experience.
The "Left Australian" intellectuals, argues Tim Rowse, seek to
establish a national cultural identity which, against the claims of a
British-oriented economic and cultural elite, asserts the egalitarian
and anti-imperial values of the "Australian people" and aspires to a
radical democratic Australia.
But this analysis and aspiration is based on "people" and "nation"
rather than on class, and is therefore "populist" rather than Marxist.
They are able to do this, in an intellectual sense, because they
romanticise the social and political meaning of the nineteenth century
rise of the working class (which was oriented towards individual, small
proprietor solutions) and because they want to believe that there is
some special and unique potential in the Australian national character,
arising from its break with the cultural hegemony of the class-ridden
The "radical nationalists", argues McQueen, present a case for
Australian independence from the economic, political and cultural
dominance of British (and later American) imperialism.
But the heart of nineteenth century Australian nationalism (carried
over into twentieth century Labor ideology) was its racism and its
mini-imperialism in Melanesia.
The assertion of a continuity of radical tradition imprisons
"Left Australians" within the dominant ideology, the bourgeois-liberal
hegemony, which at the same time rationalises the power of the ruling
class and works within the confines of a reformist program and strategy
which legitimises that power.
"History is not on our side," writes McQueen. "The past
belongs to the enemy. We must understand it in order to end it."
"To build a new hegemony, to make a break with the present,
the left must make a break with the past," write Irving and Berzins.
I do not accept that argument. There is a continuity of
dissent, of human beings organising to assert the justice of their
claims against their masters. There is a continuing struggle of the
have-nots against the haves. The goals people established for
themselves at any time were determined by contemporary circumstance. In
the nineteenth century, it was the hope of independent craftsmanship or
a block of land. Those solutions are no longer available in twentieth
century industrial Australia; the goal today is the social ownership of
the means of production. But to agree that new circumstances pose new
questions and demand new answers is not to deny the radical past; and
to accept that past is not to confine oneself to its strategies and
Radical nationalism — which is both a way of looking at the
a program for the future — does seem to me to be useful. It leads
towards a political strategy which is based in present realities, and
to an attempt to redefine socialist means and ends in terms of a
tradition which incorporates whatever is valuable in Australia's past —
including political democracy and intellectual freedom — and which
carries a specific Australian resonance.
There may be an element of myth in this. It is not the
task to make myths, but rather to discover them and to explain the
reason for their existence. But it is not outside the historian's
competence to assess the value in human terms of myth; and even to
describe a myth may help to perpetuate it. I have some sympathy for
Georges Sorel's belief in the organising power of myth;
perhaps myth-become-ideology may help to crack the bourgeois hegemony.
That brings me to my final point. In the first introduction to
book, I wrote: "Labour history has a special attraction because of the
high aspirations of the movement, which traditionally seeks not just to
change governments but to change society. ... It is this concern with
values, and the conflicts this engenders, which insists that labour
history is almost necessarily partisan: not only are the historian's
sympathies engaged, but his work affects present circumstances and is
often written with answers to present problems in mind."
Of this an early critic, Bede Nairn, wrote: "Labour history
its nature is concerned with the 'great forces' of political and
economic change; and it can be written with as much objectivity, with
its inspiration and message implicit, as any other kind of history.
I have no great belief in historical objectivity. "Facts are
stubborn things," as Lenin once said, and it is the historian's job to
recognise them, not to conceal them, and to get them right. But facts
are not gathered at random; they are selected and ordered so as to bear
on particular questions. What the questions are, and how they are
posed, is a matter of judgment, if you like of ideology. When the
historian is writing close up against the events, about ongoing
movements with which he or she is engaged, the questions come out of
immediate experience and the answers (if they are meaningful)
influence, even if only in small measure, contemporary behaviour. That
is as true, say, of A.J.P. Taylor writing about anti-intellectualism in
America as it is (in a much more modest way) about this book.
From what I have said, it will be clear that the central
posed by this book — the relation between radical and revolutionary
vanguards and the mass labour movement — came directly from my own
experience. If, in trying to answer it to my own satisfaction, I have
helped readers to understand the dilemmas faced by a labour movement in
a modern industrial society, and labour movement activists to define
the problems they confront, this book will have done its job.
1. For the full argument, see Industrial
Labour and Politics, Australian National University, 1965, xvii-xx.
2. Ken Turner, Politics, Vol 1,
No 1 (1965).
3. V.I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?
4. R. Williams, Culture and Society
(Penguin, 1961), 289.
5. This use of the word "socialist" begs
revolutionary question posed by the Leninists. However, the word is
used in this broader sense throughout this book.
6. That is not to say that abolition of
private ownership of capital necessarily ends injustice, inequality and
exploitation, as the example of the USSR amply demonstrates. Social
ownership may be a pre-requisite; it is certainly not a sufficient
7. Radical Politics and Bourgeois
Hegemony, Intervention, No 2 (1972).
8. It derived from Chapter 4/2 of the Short
History of the CPSU(B), published anonymously in 1938 but later
published in a pamphlet, Dialectical and Historical Materialism,
under the name of J.V. Stalin. Although Stalin had by then liquidated
Nikolai Bukharin, his presentation of historical materialism rested
heavily (though in a grossly oversimplified form) on Bukharin's Historical
Stalin was, for communists, the undisputed authority on everything.
Other communist writings on historical materialism were largely
exegetical extensions of Stalin's account. Gramsci was known as a
victim of Mussolini, but few of his writings were available in English
and, if they were read, they were not studied. Lukacs was in disrepute
following a denunciation of him by the authoritative Joseph Revai of
the Stalinist Hungarian Workers' Party. Althusser, Marcuse, Anderson
and Poulantzis had not yet been invented.
9. History and the New Left: Beyond
Radicalism, in R. Gordon (ed) The Australian New Left
10. L.H. Morgan, Ancient Society
(Chicago, nd), 3.
11. Ruling Class, Ruling Culture
(Cambridge, 1977), Chapter 2.
12. Stalin had defined that
relationship, too, in his Foundations of Leninism (1924), Chap.
13. There is an excellent extended
of the dilemma of revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary situation in
E.J. Hobsbawm's Revolutionaries (New York, 1973).
14. A New Britannia (Melbourne,
1970); Laborism and Socialism, R. Gordon (ed) op cit.
15. See Lenin on Britain
(London, 1941), Part III, Chap. 1.
16. See McQueen: Labour versus the
Unions, Arena, No 20, and I. Tumer: A Reply, No 21
17. I have a reservation about the
analysis of the state. In advanced capitalist societies, it seems
possible to argue not that the state is neutral but that, given the
countervailing power of the organised working class, it is not
necessarily and under all circumstances at the service of capitalism.
18. Francis Bacon, Critical and
Historical Essays (Everyman, London, 1907), 360.
19. Those usually named are Brian
Fitzpatrick, Robin Gollan, Russell Ward, and the present writer.
20. Australian Liberalism and
National Character (Melbourne, 1978).
21. A New Britannia. McQueen's
position has changed in some respects since that book was published.
22. Reflections on Violence,
Chapter 4. Australian Book Review, April 1966, 110.
23.Australian Book Review, April
Note: In addition to the references cited in the footnotes,
the following articles are relevant to this discussion:
Gollan, Robin, Radicalism in the Working Class, Arena
No 21 (1970) and Kelvin Rowley, An Inquiry into the Australian
Radical Tradition, Arena No 24 (1971).
Lewis, Glen, Go to the Mirror, Boys, Overland No 64
Macintyre, Stuart, Reply to McQueen, Arena No
38 (1975) and Early Socialism and Labor, Intervention
No 8 (1977). McQueen, Humphrey, Reply to Russell Ward, Overland
No 48 (1971) and Reply to Bob Watts, Arena No 37 (1975).
T.R., Nationalism on the Blink, Intervention
No 8 (1977).
Turner, Ian, Introduction to Brian Fitzpatrick, A
Short History of the Australian Labor Movement (Melbourne, 1968)
and review of H. McQueen, A New Britannia, in Historical
Studies No 56 (1971).
Ward, Russell, Britannia Australia, Overland
No 47 (1971) and Reply to Humphrey McQueen, Overland No
Watts, Bob, New Directions in Australian History, Arena
No 34 (1974).
From Industrial Labour and Politics, The Dynamics of
the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia, 1900-1921 (Hale and