Workingman’s Paradise: Part I
September 2, 2022
Who would not, if they could, drop civilisation from them as one shakes off a horrid nightmare at the dawning of the day? Only to stand for a moment, free, on the barricade, outlawed and joyous, with Death, Freedom’s impregnable citadel, opening its gates behind—and to pass through, the red flag uplifted in the sight of all men, with flaming slums and smoking wrongs for one’s funeral pyre!
William Lane, The Workingman’s Paradise (1892)
Australian labor-power arrived relatively late in global capitalism, and yet the Australian Labor Party is not only the oldest national political party in Australia but the first national labor party to form a government in the world. From its inception, socialists have had a complex and sometimes volatile relationship to the Labor Party, as has the party to the class it claims to represent and vice versa. Many leftists pride themselves on a history of pushing the Labor Party to the left. Today some point back to the Anti-Vietnam War Coalition successfully pressuring the Labor Party to move left on the Vietnam War. Others go further and claim that the New Left paved the way for the 1972 election of progressive Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Indeed, the Left is still almost unanimously outraged at his sacking by the Governor General, with many leftists claiming his dismissal was a CIA plot.
Emerging out of the mass opposition to the Iraq War, the Millennial Left have often found ourselves in a strange rehearsal of history. We even had our very own Labor leader apparently ousted by the CIA, and following the perceived anarchist shortcomings of the Occupy movement, we turned to progressive capitalist politics for a renewal of the Left. The Millennial social democratic critique of Labor Party politics has been directed towards the party’s enduring commitment to a neoliberal agenda, but this pre-neoliberal nostalgia for Whitlam-era Labor flattens the experience of the New Left, taking for granted the essentially leftist character of Labor— a perception that was much less ubiquitous with the New and Old Left. But the source of this ambivalence is no mystery. It is deeply bound, as we will further examine, to the missed opportunity for the overcoming of the national framing of this question.
Depending on whom you ask, the crisis of the Left’s relation to the Labor Party can be traced to any number of historical inflection points. It’s worth remembering that the Labor Party itself, as well as the Left’s relation to it and what this means for independent working-class politics are not in fact set in stone. This is especially true today when politics — indeed, history itself — is very much in flux. But the reality of the labor bureaucracy, with the union factions cemented into the Labor Party, even in its diminished form today, seems a citadel that looms too large for us Millennials, blotting out a horizon of imagination for an independent socialist politics. And yet you don’t have to dig too deep to find a time when the workingmen of the world, including those who found themselves in Australia, believed that anything was possible.
In this, the first of three articles, I will attempt a critical investigation of the Left’s historical relation to the Labor Party and the potential for an overcoming of this historical wreckage.