Published in Labor Forum, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 1986, pp. 5-9.
The trade union movement, as Engels once said of the proletariat, has discredited itself terribly at various moments of human history.
To many socialist ideologues, the situation is irredeemable. Thus New Left theorist, Perry Anderson, commented:
As institutions trade unions do not challenge the existence of society based on a division of classes, they merely express it. Thus trade unions can never be viable vehicles of advance towards socialism in themselves; by their nature they are tied to capitalism. They can bargain within society but not to transform it.1
In one sense I agree with this observation: trade unions alone are never likely to cause society to advance towards the Socialist Jerusalem. Part of the reason for this is that the union movement, at least the mainstream current, represents a decidedly non-ideological and practical-minded membership.
What the average unionist expects is protection against the more destructive and unpleasant aspects of a market society. From a Marxist perspective this is a scandal.
But the scandal is very much in the eye of the beholder.
It is nonsense to belittle the achievements of one and a half centuries of struggle and the movement’s amelioration of the ills of society. The traditional trade union activities – of challenging the arbitrary decisions of employers, the battles to ensure justice in employment, and the representation of workers to secure improved wages and conditions – have transformed society vastly.
The Australian Worker editorialised three quarters of a century ago that:
The Worker is not among that peculiar and fortunately exclusive species of Socialists who scorn palliatives and hate with vitriolic hatred those who see any virtue in them. It perplexes us to know why sane men should grow so furious when by legislation the lot of the suffering is made a little more bearable. If it is not in our power to completely cure them, must we not therefore do what we can to allieviate their pain? To hold that we should leave them to suffer and go on spouting about the efficacy of a remedy that cannot be applied, strikes us as a sympton of mental disease …2
Indeed one may go further and surmise that the insistence by some socialists that the labour movement’s achievements over the decades “is a sham” or “hasn’t fundamentally changed much” represents a failure of historical imagination and understanding.
The elimination of child labour, the regulation of sweatshops, legislative initiatives to train and indenture apprentices, the adult franchise, the provision of social welfare relief, shorter working hours – all achievements won by the first decade of the twentieth century and built on ever since by the labour movement cannot be dismissed except in a theoretical vacuum.
Practical improvements are the things the trade union movement has traditionally striven for. At different times the objects of reform have changed, but the aims have been relatively timeless: improving the status and dignity of employees, eliminating inequalities in society, and seeking to improve the lot of the common man – nothing grandly theoretical or complicated about this.
The irony is that ‘labourism’, if this is the word to describe the views I have stated, is regularly caricatured and berated in accounts of labour history and theory.
In Jim Hagan’s history of the ACTU, for example, he comments that “[t]he tenets of Labourism were White Australia, Tariff Protection, compulsory arbitration, strong unions, and the Labor Party,”3 thus defining the major tradition within the Australian labour movement in unfavourable and simplistic terms. Which is not to say that, for example, support for the White Australia policy is morally defensible. The point is that such a policy does not a rise out of labourism.
Other writers are keen to point out that labourism does not provide an overall critique of society nor does it provide a compass to guide radical reform.
Arguments of this sort are beloved by socialist intellectuals.4
However, I do not see why a labourist perspective needs by definition to be myopic.
For example, the policies championed in the Accord are compatible with a labourist view – and that this is so is one of the reasons why the Accord is soundly supported within the labour movement. This is a point I will return to later. For the moment, I wish to argue that socialism, though part of the traditions of the labour movement, is an ideology with which most labour supporters and trade unionists are uncomfortable.
As Don Rawson stated in his book Labor in Vain?, written over twenty years ago: “Most party members at most times have not, as a matter of fact, described themselves as Socialists, though it would have been regarded as provocative and in poor taste for them to declare specifically that they were not Socialists.”5
If the situation has changed over the last twenty years, it probably reflects the changing composition of the ALP over the period. The influx of teachers, social workers and white collar public servants into the ALP over the last quarter century and the decline in blue collar membership has increased that percentage of members who would happily describe themselves as socialists, though I suspect only marginally.
The reasons for this phenomenon of skepticism concerning socialism are fourfold: first, the generally recognised incoherence of what contemporary socialism entails; second, the discrediting influence of certain socialist dogmatists, largely to be found in this country in the socialist Left of the ALP; third, the almost secret acceptance of the failure of traditional socialistic economic methods; and fourth, the embarassment of societies in Eastern Europe which describe themselves as socialist.
To this audience I trust that I need only mention the situation in Eastern Europe – with various police states using socialism as an ideological figleaf – to establish the last point.
John Dunn, the English political theorist, has recently written that:
At present, this combination of evasion, debility and insight has left modern socialists with no coherent and defensible concept of the desirable form for a socialist State, and with an increasingly indefensible set of presumptions about the appropriate organisation for a socialist economy.6
Despite these problems, there is considerable reluctance within the labour movement to face up to them or define one’s political philosophy in other than socialist slogans.
Moreover, there is a timidness to say anything against socialism or to express views in the prosaic terms of labourism. There’s a fear that unless the Party accepts socialism it will become little different from the liberals.
Thus I suspect that almost everyone at this conference will declare that socialism is not dead, that it is a living tradition, which inspires and gives being to the labour movement – or significant parts of it. Fabians, afterall, are used to hearing these things.
Part of the reason for such declarations is that most of us want to say we believe in something; that there is a philosophy behind our actions.
The safest way to make such a statement within the Labor Party, particularly the Victorian Branch, is to assert that underlying the chaos and activities of our involvement in daily politics are actions based on, or at least some actions consistent with socialism – practical socialism or democratic socialism – as the case may be.
It is interesting that shortly after the 1983 Federal election the Prime Minister was interviewed and the question was put: “Do you believe in socialism?” Mr Hawke replied that he did not believe in any “-ism”, a response with which I am entirely sympathetic.
The point here is that it is stupid to pretend that socialism is a theological term.
To position ourselves prostrate, knocking our heads against the floor, is not the best position for critical analysis.
This may be why so much that is written and said about socialism is incoherent:
Hence the massive scholasticism of discussions of socialist conceptions of the good, their heavy grounding in scriptual citation and their infuriating tendency towards a purely verbal circularity. For those socialists who already hold State power, ideological self-defence in the face of the discouragements of experience does offer, at least for a limited time, a combination of pyschic relief with the opportunity to continue to exercise power.7
Anyone who follows the theoretical debates within the labour movement concerning socialism knows that this analysis rings true. Last Easter’s Broad Left conference was an excellent example of psychic relief: Ask Brian Howe, for example.
The point here is that what socialism entails and what are the characteristics of a socialist program is not clear.
This is related to the lack of meaning in debates concerning the so-called ‘essence’ of socialism.
Throughout Australian history, socialism has been as inspiration, a swear word, a red herring.8
Debates about its real meaning are irrational. Socialism, like any other term, describes or encapulates something.
But it is also true that there are many definitions ranging from variations of the classic liberal idea of ‘equality, liberty, fraternity’ to “the ownership by the State of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
Traditionally, socialism is defined in terms of the organisation of an economy and State power: “… it cannot simply be dissolved into the name for an assemblage of miscellaneous cultural enthusiasms which happen to be current at a particular time. The classic questions of socialist political theory concern the form of the state and the organisation of the economy.”9
It is in these terms that socialism has become enfeebled. It is common now-a-days to proclaim that nationalism and the classical ideas of organising a socialist economy are merely means to an end, and not particularly effective means at that.
Hence, a way around the theoretical and practical difficulties of organising a socialist economy is to argue that the idea of socialism – essentially a strong version of the liberal values of equality, democracy and liberty – does not imply any particular economic model.
Socialists of this sort defend their position as more than “mere liberalism”. A famous quote from R.H. Tawney is apt:
It is idle for a nation to emblazon Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, or other resounding affirmations on the facades of public buildings, if to display the same motto in its factories and mines would arouse only the cynical laughter that greets a reminder of idealism turned sour and hopes unfulfilled.10
Attractive as this outline of socialism sounds – and it is the version closest to traditional labourism – it avoids questions related to the nature of a socialist economy.
The other typical response concerning the definition of socialism is to avoid the question altogether and define socialism as a ‘movement’.
The classic formulation of this view is Eduard Bernstein, the founding father of revisionism. In this book Evolutionary Socialism, he states: “I have extraordinarily little interest or taste for what is generally called the ‘final goal of socialism’. This aim, whatever it is, is nothing to me, the movement is everything.”11
This is an excellent attempt to escape the contradictions and barrenness of traditional socialist philosophy. It is the best formula yet invented. But the attempt smacks of avoiding the dilemmas of socialism, and the escape can only be achieved with great difficulty. After all there is the old saying, if you don’t know where you are going all roads lead there.
I trust that these brief remarks have clarified my points about the confusing nature of the socialist heritage.
My last point concerning the lack of appeal of socialism relates to the influence of some of its adherents. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier a withering account of the characters of many socialists.
Many people who are not repelled by socialism are repelled by socialists. Socialism, as now presented, is unattractive largely because it appears, at any rate from the outside, to be the plaything of cranks, doctrinaires, parlour Bolsheviks, and so forth. But it is worth remembering that this is only so because the cranks, doctrinaires etc., have been allowed to get there first; if the movement were invaded by better brains and more common decency the objectional types would cease to dominate it. For the present one must just set one’s teeth and ignore them.12
Interestingly enough, Orwell also comments that “Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped of it” – a definition entirely compatible with labourism and the revisionist socialism stated above.
From my point of view, Orwell states the strongest argument for anyone to call themself a socialist, which is tactical: socialism is too important a tradition to surrender to the far Left.
What has any of this to do with the trade union movement? The first thing to observe is the web of conflicting and compatible beliefs. The striking thing to any participant in the Australian trade union movement is its diversity and the pluralism of political influences within it.
The ACTU Executive, for example, contains a variety of views: one pro-Moscow Communist, a variety of shades of opinion represented within the ALP, and five non-members of the ALP. Industrially the ACTU Executive is represented by union leaders covering shop assistants, metal tradesmen, wharfies, teachers, public servants, clerical workers, and so on.
One way of answering the question ‘What is the influence of socialism on the Australian trade union movement?’ is to consider what socialism means to the members of the ACTU Executive. At least one would defend the ugly totalitarianism of the Soviet Union as socialism in practice. The overwhelming majority would not. The so-called Left on the Executive would claim allegiance to socialism, as would some of the Centre, the so-called Officers Group. The rest would have various answers to the question, from outright hostility to indifference to acceptance that being a member of the ALP means subscribing to its objective.
That such a diverse group as this was able to agree to something as complicated as the Accord suggests that the tenets of the Accord are at least compatible with both the representatives of the labourists and socialist traditions.
It is a bit artificial to state the case in this way, because the members of the ACTU Executive and union leaders generally do not speak in such terms.
At the last ACTU Congress it was interesting to observe that in Wages Debate and the Economic Policy Debate every speaker punctuated their remarks with comments about “realism”, the need “to face up to economic reality” and strike the right strategy for traditional union aims.
The rhetoric, the atmosphere, the resolutions were decidedly labourist.
Of course, it is possible to present an alternative case to what I have said, which would emphasise the influence of socialism in the union movement. An attempt, for example, is made by Bruce Hartnett in Labor Essays 1981 in his contribution ‘Socialist Strategies and the Trade Union Movement’.13 Hartnett makes the point that many unions and the ACTU itself have socialist objectives in their constitutions and that some unions in the 1970s and 1980s have challenged managerial prerogatives and the nature of industrial relations (by stressing the need for greater participation by workers in the workforce). All this, Mr. Hartnett says, “can be identified as pursuing socialist goals and strategies – goals that extend beyond the narrow confines of wages and working conditions to a concern for transforming our economic and social system.”14
Leaving aside the vagueness of the idea of “transforming” the “system”, I can find nothing in Hartnett’s account which is distinctively socialist and is not compatible with the labourist tradition. Let me justify this point by reference to the examples given in Hartnett’s paper. These refer to campaigns by the Victorian Branch of the ARU [Australian Railways Union] and the ATEA [Australian Telecommunications Employees Association] to develop alternative plans concerning the reorganisation of the kind of work to be undertaken by Vic Rail and Telecom respectively, the Green Bans campaign by the NSW BLF [Builders Labourers Federation] under the Mundey-Pringle-Owens leadership in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the struggle by the Australian Teachers’ Federation concerning the development of the school curriculum and the union movement’s efforts to extend superannuation coverage and control over superannuation funds.
None of these things by themselves are either distinctively socialist or labourist.
Surely it’s sensible for the ARU and the ATEA to take an interest in the strategic planning of the statutory authorities for whom their members work. To the extent that ATEA and ARU officials were spurred to action along the lines described by Hartnett due to their socialist beliefs, then socialism can occasionally be a useful myth. It is also the case, however, that Telecom’s and Vic Rail’s masterplans would drastically affect employment, the quality of working life, and industrial relations in these enterprises. A thoughtful, constructive approach would be to challenge these decisions and seek to involve union members in the development of alternatives.
This is traditional union practice on a larger scale.
The employment of union research officers, the collation and assessment of data, and the development of ideas based on maximising employment, useful productivity and the quality of work is not necessarily socialist.
Its only be defining labourism as an ideology or custom of thinking which leads to purely empirical reactions to immediate issues and a refusal to have any sort of strategic objectives that Mr. Hartnett’s description of “socialist strategies” could be sustained. But this requires labourism to be defined in straw man terms.
The other examples cited do not strike me as necessarily socialist either. A commitment to a healthy environment and the preservation of historical and magnificent buildings, greater discussion of educational issues and the involvement of teachers in issues or the expansion of superannuation coverage are things a very large majority of labourists support – though not necessarily the details described by Hartnett.
Thus even this contribution from one of the most thoughtful thinkers from the Socialist Left requires him to dress sophisticated labourism in ill-fitting socialist clothing.
What follows from what I have said is that poor old discredited labourism is not such a bad guide for thinking and action within the labour movement.
The quicker we drop discussions about ‘is this socialism?’ and, instead, debate whether this measure forwards labour’s ideals of equality, liberty and democracy, and discuss the possible consequences, including unintended consequences, the better.
Incidentally, one of the best consequences of the Accord has been that the one or two sentence slogan-motion is now given short shrift at union meetings and ALP branches. The level of intelligent and informed debate within the labour movement has improved significantly over the last few years.
However, I am also conscious that debates about socialism will still occupy time in labour forums. As Groucho Marx once said about sex, it is likely to be with us for some time.
- Anderson, Perry, ‘The Limits and Possibilities of Trade Union Action’, in Blackburn, S. & Cockburn, A. (editors) The Incompatibles, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1967, pp. 264-265.
- Cited in Stoddart, Jane, The New Socialism, Hodder and Stoughton, London, Second Edition, 1909, pp. 254-255.
- Hagan, Jim, The History of the ACTU, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1981, p. 45.
- For example, see: Savill, John, ‘The Ideology of Labourism’, in Benewick, Robert, Berki, R.M., and Parekh, Bhikhu, editors, Knowledge and Belief in Politics, Allen and Unwin, London, 1973, pp. 213-216.
- Rawson, D.W., Labor in Vain?, Longmans, Croydon, 1966, pp. 61-62.
- Dunn, John, The Politics of Socialism, An Essay in Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, p. xvii. This book has considerably influenced my arguments in this paper.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- Ross, Lloyd, ‘How Relevant is Socialism?’, Quadrant, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1959, p. 39.
- Dunn, John, Loc. Cit., p. xvi.
- Tawney, R.H., ‘Social Democracy in Britain’, in Hinden, R., editor, The Radical Tradition, Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1975, p. 147.
- Quoted in Gay, Peter, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx, Collier Books, New York, 1970, p. 74.
- Orwell, George, The Road to Wigan Pier, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975, p. 193.
- Hartnett, Bruce ‘Australian Unions and Socialist Strategies’, in Evans, Gareth, Reeves, Jock, and Malbon, Justin, editors, Labor Essays 1981, Drummond, Richmond, 1981, pp. 47-67.
- Ibid., p. 47.
This essay was based on an address I delivered to a Fabian Society conference in Melbourne in 1986 on Socialism and the Trade Unions. The paper was also printed in the Fabian Newsletter, Vol. 25, no. 3, June 1986, pp. 16-17; 20-22.