The Australian general strike of 1917 began 100 years ago on 2nd August. It was not strictly ‘general’, as it was mainly confined to New South Wales. Nevertheless, there are numerous lessons that can be drawn from it. It showed that in times of crisis, the capitalist class will use all tools available to them to defend their privileges. Most importantly, the strike clearly exposed the limitations of the reformist trade union leaders, who acted as the biggest brake on the success of the strike.

Development of the Australian labour movement

In Australia, the decade of the 1880s had been a period of relative boom. There was an increase in real wages among the skilled and organised sections of the working class.

The development of the Australian economy was similar to that of India in that it was mainly used by British imperialism as a source of raw materials that could then be manufactured into other commodities in the UK and sold on. Australia then had to import the produced goods from the UK (which made up 60% of its imports). This had a knock-on effect, leaving the productive forces of the Australian economy relatively underdeveloped. This was also reflected in the ranks of the working class, which had its main reserves in the shearers, miners, and transport/waterside workers. The development of Australian capitalism largely depended upon the importation of not only capital, but also of labour.

The period of capitalist primitive accumulation was typified through the use of virtual slave labour in the colonies. Natives were paid a pittance - that is if they were even paid a wage - for their backbreaking labour in the sugar farms and in the wool industry. The exploitation of the aborigines was utilised, along with the importation of prison labour from Britain. The prisoners’ labour not only benefitted the nascent bourgeoisie in Australia but was also a benefit to the British capitalists, acting to remove unwanted trade unionists, Chartists, and Irish Republicans from the UK.

The use of aboriginal labour by the growing bourgeoisie had two benefits: firstly, since the aborigines lacked any form of workers’ organisations, they could be severely exploited so the employer could extract more surplus value (i.e. profit); and secondly, the use of aboriginal labour could be used to drive a wedge between the working class upon racial lines. The second use was used frequently throughout Australian history as the Labour and trade union leaders had swallowed the racist ‘White Australia’ policy of the bourgeoisie.

The importation of prison labour would help to lay the foundations of a bourgeoisie in Australia, not just in terms of the use of prison labour by petty-proprietors, but also with some of the prisoners themselves developing into one of the major substrata of the Australian bourgeoisie – the squatters. The squatters would either legally or illegally take up vast swathes of land to use for the grazing of cattle. A lot of the squatters who took this land for themselves is still owned by their descendants today.

The development of the Australian working class and the growth of its ranks depended mainly upon immigration from the Old World (mainly British and Irish) which by sail ship took four months at the best of times. Although, the discovery of gold did bring more people to the otherwise desolate wasteland. Because of this slow trickle of labour, it took over 100 years since the first ship to Australia before the first major class battle between capital and labour. Before then, there had only been small isolated events such as the Eureka rebellion. Those who were enticed to come to Australia, under the illusion of it being a ‘workers’ paradise’, soon realised that it was no different than back home.

The strike wave of the 1890s

As a prelude to the 1890 crisis, Australia’s main export – wool – had declined in price by nearly half. In the four years prior to the 1890 crisis alone, £53 million of capital had flowed into the country. With the stream of loan money drying up for public works, workers began to be thrown on the scrapheap. This crisis brought about a collapse in shares and property prices and thoroughly exposed the extent to which the government had been borrowing from British capitalists to fund public works.

In a short space of time, shares plummeted from being worth pounds to being worth a couple of pence. Fortunes of the petty-bourgeois layers in Australia society were reduced to about 0.4% of what they used to be (just as a clarification, there were 240 pence in a pound at that time). The employers pursued a relentless attack on the working class to make them pay for this crisis. The government of Queensland even went so far as to reintroduce the native slave trade to allow employers to cut costs.

The crisis precipitated the first major class battle between labour and capital in Australia – and would prove to be one of the bloodiest.

The Mercantile Marine Officers’ Association (MMOA) was a union representing workers who managed the running of ships. They were one of the most badly paid and overworked workers on the waterfront – working up to fourteen to eighteen hours a day was the rule rather than the exception. It had been a relatively inert layer of the working class. But the 1890 crisis had affected every section of society. The Melbourne branch of the MMOA had voted to affiliate with the Melbourne Trades Hall Council (the regional branch of the Victoria Trades Hall Council which was the Victorian equivalent to the TUC in Britain or AFL-CIO in the US). The affluent ship-owners did not take too kindly to this. The bosses demanded that the officers should cancel their affiliation because it would interfere with discipline on the ships.

The stage was being set for a major class confrontation. The year earlier, in 1889, there had been a major dock strike in Britain where up to £30,000 had been sent to the strikers from Australian workers. The Australian maritime workers took inspiration from their brethren across the oceans and fought back against their bosses.

On the pastures, the petit-bourgeois squatters were preparing for a similar confrontation against the shearers. The shearers were organised in the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (ASU) which had come to a collective agreement – the ‘Union Agreement’ – with the squatters on the subject of wages and conditions in 90% of the sheds. After the crisis, with the fall in the price of wool, the squatters were determined to tear up these agreements. The squatters organised in the bosses’ ‘Pastoralists’ Union’ and wanted to revert to a system where each employer would negotiate with his workers individually. Unsurprisingly, before the Union Agreement, workers were forced to accept the wage rates and conditions set out by the Pastoralists’ Union. Understanding that this was a direct attack on the rights they had won collectively, the ASU called on all its members to refuse to work in sheds which did not adhere to the Union Agreement.

The Marine Officers walked out on the 16th August and were soon joined by the dock workers and coal lumpers. The ASU came out on strike on 11th September and joined with the Sydney Trades and Labour Council and the Maritime Unions in order to block the transportation of non-union wool. They would later be joined by the miners when Northern New South Wales (NSW) and Broken Hill Propriety (BHP) collieries locked out their miners.

These strikes gained widespread sympathy particularly across the working class in Australia as well as globally. This supported resulted in large sums of money being sent to support the strikers. At the height of the strike, it involved 50,000 workers mostly spread across NSW and Victoria. The strike would eventually be broken by scab labour with the full backing of the state. The employers were well organised and leaned upon the state apparatus – the police and the military - to protect volunteer labour. The miners in Newcastle were the last to concede in November.

The employers across the other colonies were taking notes of what had taken place in NSW and Victoria. When in January 1891 Queensland shearers came out on strike to protect the Union Agreement, the employers brought in colonial police troops armed with Gatling guns and Nordenfeldt machine guns to protect the non-union, scab labour and the sheds they worked in. Huge armed bush camps were thrown up by the workers to house the striking workers and they formed and elected strike committees. During one of the first May Day marches in the world, around 1500 armed workers would march through the town of Barcaldine. Eventually, the strikers were starved back to work as the union had run out of funds. The police arrested 13 of their leaders, charged them with conspiracy and sedation, and sent them off to St Helena Island prison.

A similar situation of police violence breaking the strike and protecting volunteer labour would occur in July 1892 when 7000 miners in Broken Hill struck for four months for the retention of an agreement between the miners and BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary Company). It had been agreed two years prior to the strike for an increase in wages and a reduction of hours. This strike wave would end in 1894 when shearers in Queensland would strike again in July for three months over the use of non-union labour and wage cuts. This strike would prove just as violent as the previous shearers strike. It is most famous for an incident where workers torched and sunk a boat which was being used to transport non-union labour. This strike would also result in a number of reactionary laws being passed through the Queensland parliament such as the banning of the possession of firearms.

The failure of these strikes would make the workers understand that the industrial front wasn’t enough; they also needed a political front.

Bump me into Parliament

The Australian Labor Party was formed in 1901 with the federalisation of Australia. Prior to this, in 1899, Queensland would be the site for the first formation of a government by a labour party not only in Australia, but also the first in the world. Although it proved impotent and lasted only a week, it was an event that would help contribute to this idea that Australia was a ‘Workers’ Paradise’. So much so that British Marxist Tom Mann set off for Australia in 1901. When he arrived, he found it no different than back home. Mann writes:

“There is as large a proportion of handy men seeking employment and finding it rarely here as there [Europe], and the evidences of poverty are as apparent in each of the cities here as in the cities of corresponding size in Europe. Those who seek to magnify the prevalence of relatively good conditions here frequently do so by comparing a capital city here, like Sydney or Melbourne, with certain portions of London. Even a novice in social affairs should not require reminding that a city of 500,000 inhabitants should not be compared with the 500,000 of the lowest strata in a city fourteen times the size, if a true comparison is to be drawn. As a fact, the poverty and degradation in the poorest quarters of Sydney and Melbourne are on a par with what I know to obtain in the worst portions of Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Rotherhithe, and Deptford  [our emphasis].”– The Industrial and Social Outlook in Australia, Tom Mann.

For the trade union and Labor leaders it made sense for workers to elect representatives to parliament. The working man and woman far outnumbered the employers; surely it made sense that they could easily replace the employers with representatives of their own and establish a more just society? Therefore, the conclusion from that must be to replace the politicians in parliament with representatives of the workers. The brutality that the state had used to crush the strike of the preceding period was not seen by the Labor and trade union leaders as a fundamental part of capitalist society but the result of ‘bad’ politicians and ‘unjust’ laws – an idea that continues to be propagated by liberals today, such as those who pass off police brutality in the US as the result of a few ‘bad apples’. As the saying goes, however, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

This view served the interests and outlook of the labour aristocracy; in other words, the outlook of the tops of the trade unions and the Labor party, as well as the upper crust of the working class who earned good wages and had a higher social position compared to that of the average worker. This group was satirised in the Australian Wobblies’ (IWW) song ‘Bump Me into Parliament’:

“Oh yes I am a Labor man
And believe in revolution
The quickest way to bring it on
Is talking constitution

So, bump me into parliament
Bounce me any way at all
Bang me into parliament
On next Election Day”

The reality of parliamentarianism is, to paraphrase Marx, the ability to decide every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament - this is true even of the most ‘democratic’ republic. And this was proven through the period of the 1890s and the 1910-20s.

The state is a means for the oppression and subjugation of one class over another; in this case it is the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The working class must not be content with wielding the old state apparatus - it must smash it. Parliament is an institution of the capitalist state which conceals, to quote Lenin, “the real business of the state”, which is performed “behind the scenes and is carried on by the departments, chancelleries, and General Staffs”. The mere “talking-shop” of parliament must be replaced with a system of democratically elected officials, on a worker’s wage, with the instant right of recall, where the whole of society participates in the running of the society.