Labor, Communism and the Accord

Yet another ‘debate’ about the role of the Communist party in Australian history. It’s like most contemporary political debates purportedly about past events: largely meaningless in the absence of any criteria for making evaluations, in the absence of such criteria history simply becomes a stock of anecdotal examples.  Contemporary discussion of Australian Communism almost entirely ignores the extent to which the Party largely functioned as caucus of left-wing trade union officials with a small intellectual (much smaller after 1956) and organisational tail attached. In Australia unlike Britain trade unions tended to be on the left of the labour movement. The result was that once the Communists gave up their aspiration to challenge the Labor Party for leadership of the labour movement they found a place within the union movement: compare to the marginalisation of Communists within the British Trade Union Congress and the purge of Communists from the American union movement. Many ALP left union officials and Communist union officials shared similar views and outlooks and in many aspects they were closer to each other than the ALP leadership which fearful of the Communist tag or of the Communist leadership which had more grandiose political aspirations and also international linkages, it was also the case that Communist unionists, such as Laurie Carmichael were often more intelligent and perceptive than their ALP Left comrades as the later plodded on in the sure knowledge of eternal reward in the Victorian Legislative Council (think George Crawford).  Consider Martin Ferguson formed in the milieu of the old pro-Soviet ALP Left. The relation between Communist and ALP unionists concerned British-style social democrats such as Don Rawson and James Jupp, the later complained in 1965 that:

A party which is largely concerned with local affairs and whose left is trade unionist is a sitting duck for Communist influence…the Australian Left allows the Communists to lead it by the nose on most issues…an industrial-based Left in which solidarity is far more laudable than intelligence

The exception to the left dominance of the unions was NSW and the history of the Labor Council is well-chronicled by Ray Markey. The right’s ascendancy in NSW however excluded them from the ACTU leadership. The result was that the ALP-ACTU Accord was driven by an alliance of the left and Victorian Labor Unity (whose origin could be traced back to Bob Hawke’s left-wing support base in his successful campaign for the ACTU presidency). The NSW right always felt somewhat estranged from the Accord process, see on this Marilyn Dodkin’s Brothers in which Paul Keating is quoted:

Kelty supporters in those days were some members of the Right, but more likely to be members of the industrial Left. They became the core of the Accord and ths used to rankle with a few people in Sussex Street

This annoyance inspired Micheal Costa’s book of 1991 Labor, prosperity and the nineties in which he seeemd to argue that the Accord was too far removed from economic liberalism whereas Peter Sams and John MacBean seemed closer to an old labourist position (an interesting response to Costa was Politics and the Accord). Now we have Julia Gillard as PM like Bob Hawke a former Victorian left-winger now on the right, the Victorian Labor government is travelling reasonably in the polls given its age and NSW Labor once the beacon of pragmatic labourist political success is in an unbelievable mess. No wonder Bob Carr is so unhappy! On Communism generally Norman Geras:

Paradoxical as it may appear to some, the existence of the USSR and its Marxist pedigree—however narrowed, distorted, and traduced—linked the Marxist and Marxist-influenced Western left to the notion of working-class agency as crucial to their politics, and thereby linked it, also, to democratic principles and forms of action. The link was strengthened by the practice of alliance with other democratically minded constituencies. Working-class agency was, of course, one of the crucial problems that Marxism yielded to its followers and to the broader body of opinion that it influenced. It was a problem because the working class in the developed capitalist countries failed to play the revolutionary role allotted to it. Be this as it may, the idea of the working class, and the political traditions of the working class in the Western democracies, had provided the Marxist-influenced new left with a kind of anchorage. The transformations in the East after 1989, quickening the decline of Marxism’s reputation as a political credo, seem not only to have liberated part of this section of the left from a rightly discredited model of socialism; it also freed many leftists from the demands of democratic agency that the tradition had embodied.

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