Whatever happened to the ALP left?
Peter Garrett’s decision as Environment Minister to approve the Four Mile uranium mine in South Australia in July was the last straw for many. Can this be the same man who in the 1980s sang about Aboriginal rights, Blue Sky Mining and saving the environment? Not any more. He’s Rudd’s man now.
But Garrett is not alone as a figure identified with the Labor left who has completely sold out.
There’s Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, who started out as a left-wing activist in the 1980s but now proclaims his admiration for neoliberalism. Yes, he’s in the “hard left” faction of the ALP.
Jenny Macklin, also from the hard left, backed Voluntary Student Unionism as shadow Education Minister under Beazley and is now continuing the racist NT Intervention as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
Then there’s John Faulkner, Defence Minister responsible for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, and Greg Combet, Minister for Defence Procurement in charge of buying more effective means of killing people – both in the left.
But the gold medal for betrayal has to go to Julia Gillard, the left minister who, as Deputy PM and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, has the greatest leverage to push for a genuinely left-wing agenda.
Is there anything that she’s done that isn’t a sell-out? Gillard, the former union lawyer, was responsible for drafting Labor’s “Fair Work” laws which leave unionists with fewer rights than they had under Howard’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act.
Why are the lot of them so rotten?
The lurks and perks of office and outright careerism are certainly important explanations. Once they’ve sunk into the parliamentary leather and start to see a Cabinet post in the offing, the politician’s principles can easily be swallowed. Everything about parliament militates against it being used to up-end the status quo. Those who remain determined to work within it end up compromising whatever left-wing beliefs they might once have held.
There’s a reason for this. Parliament is not a means to challenge capitalism, it is a crucial component of capitalist rule. Working within the parliamentary system means accepting the logic of capitalism, whereby every basic human need is subordinated to the chase for profits and military conquest. When capitalism is in crisis there is less space for reforms in the system. And capitalism has never recovered from the deep world economic crisis of the mid-1970s, which means that every Labor government, state and federal, since that time has been responsible for administering bitter medicine.
The parliamentary road to reform is above all else a nationalist approach. Reformists want to capture the machinery of the state which is, by definition, a national state. Reformists therefore take responsibility for securing the state against threats to it from within (for example, general strikes or “terrorism”) or without (for example, war). And with nationalism goes the idea of “shared sacrifice” that is used to justify attacks on the working class.
A golden era?
But didn’t things use to be different? Many ALP members comfort themselves with the idea that while the current crop of left leaders are all duds, things were better in the old days. The party as a whole, and particularly its left, appeared to stand for something better.
Nostalgic ALP members might point to the decision to expel Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes who attempted to introduce conscription for the slaughter in Europe in 1916.
Or they might tell you of the career of the feistiest socialist in Labor’s ranks in the past 75 years – Eddie Ward, dubbed by his biographer “the firebrand of East Sydney”. Ward was member for East Sydney from 1931 to 1963 and joined Jack Lang in the revolt against Labor Prime Minister Jim Scullin’s austerity plans during the Great Depression. He famously shocked the establishment by refusing to wear formal attire for the Queen’s visit in 1952.
And then there was Jim Cairns, the “Lion of the Left” in Victoria. Cairns played an important role in mobilising for the Moratorium marches against the Vietnam War in 1970.
Certain factors explain these figures and these times. The ALP parliamentary caucus, and especially its left, responds not just to pressure from the capitalist class but also to that from the trade union officials and from the working class.
The ALP’s decision to expel Hughes cannot be understood without reference to mass working class discontent and a wave of strikes around wages and conditions during World War I. The context of Eddie Ward’s career was the immense bitterness in working class circles arising out of the Great Depression and the pressure on the ALP from the wave of strikes following the end of World War II. And Cairns both cohered but also reflected the enormous wave of revulsion towards the carnage in Vietnam.
But it’s also important to understand the limits of the ALP even at its best. The party doesn’t act just to reflect the pressure from radicalism and militancy but also to contain and co-opt it. Labor acted in 1916 to ensure that radical forces to the party’s left were not able to tap into the massive discontent that was building up. Had a section of the union officials broken with Labor and established a genuinely socialist party, the ALP would have been in big trouble. Hughes’s expulsion was necessary at least in part to prevent this. Cairns’s role in leading the big Moratorium marches gave the ALP a left-wing image when thousands of young people were beginning to look to revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 70s. The activities of Cairns, and indeed the Whitlam government itself in its first 12 months, drew many of these people into the ALP instead.
The ALP left today
The fact that the ALP, or at least a section of it, can shift to the left when under pressure from the working class and the unions helps explain why the left in the ALP is so appalling today. With strikes and trade union membership at their lowest level for a century, and with the various social movements weak or non-existent, the left in the ALP is under no pressure from the labour movement. The union leaders may grizzle about Labor’s WorkChoices-Lite legislation, but you’re as likely to hear paeans of praise for the Rudd government as you are criticisms from the vast majority of them.
There are other factors as well. The collapse of the Communist Party, which provided many in the ALP left with their intellectual and ideological framework, left them bereft of any political compass. The end of the Cold War meant that the traditional axis of political competition between left and right in the ALP was gone.
And the decline of the left is self-reinforcing. No-one with a drop of red blood is likely to be inspired to join the party after seeing Martin Ferguson or John Faulkner in action. ALP membership has been in decline for decades and shows no signs of recovery. Most of the branches are dormant, in disarray or torn apart by branch-stacking factional warlords. There is therefore no pressure on the parliamentary left from within the party itself.
And, finally, the Labor left has been implicated in carrying out right-wing policies in government at state and federal level for 25 years. This has compounded the effects of the declining level of class struggle in turning the left into just an alternative career pathway. The battle between left and right factions inside the ALP is now simply a contest for parliamentary placement, not political principle.
These factors all limit the potential for the Labor left to revive. Nonetheless such a revival cannot be ruled out in the event of a general political radicalisation in society. However, unless these left reformists move towards revolutionary politics they will suffer from the same limitations as the party as a whole: its fetishisation of the capitalist state and its submersion in the parliamentary apparatus. We only have to look at the careers of their illustrious predecessors to understand this.
In 1936, while in Opposition, Eddie Ward told parliament in a debate about compulsory military training: “I should not be prepared to take up arms against the workers of any country, whether they be Germans or of any other nationality. As a matter of fact, because I am not prepared to do that, I am not prepared to tell others to do so.” And when in 1942, with Labor in office, Curtin proposed to introduce conscription, Ward fought him in caucus. But when the majority of the Labor caucus voted in favour of it, Ward buckled in order to present a “united front” in parliament.
As for Jim Cairns, the experience of being in office shifted him to the right as well. In opposition he had been a committed leftist who spoke often of the inhumanity of capitalism. In 1975, however, as Treasurer and Deputy PM under Whitlam, it was Cairns who mounted the rostrum at the 1975 party conference to lecture delegates that with the onset of economic crisis the big business wolf had to be fed, and the flesh had to be flayed off the backs of the workers.
The fate of Ward and Cairns awaits all who try to achieve fundamental change through the ALP. We have to look for other means if we are to realise the dream of ridding the world of hunger, poverty and war.
This article, by Tom Bramble, first appeared in the August edition of Socialist Alternative.