Racism and labor movement

The Archibald paradox is simply the paradox of being colonial…. The Bulletin's republicanism and nationalism flowered out of the paradox.

Racism and labor movement


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Racism and labor movement


Humphrey McQueen, in his influential book A New Britannia emphasises the racism endemic in the Australian labour movement at the start of its development in the 1890s. Iggy Kim, of the Green Left Weekly, in his pamphlet, The Origins of Racism, locates the early Labor Party as the prime source of racism in Australia and then draws a very long bow to argue that you should vote in current elections for his small socialist party, because the Labor Party has these racist roots, and in his view, is still hopelessly deformed by them.

At the same time, Pauline Hanson accuses Labor of flooding Australia with unassimilable migrants, so that by the year 2050 we may be governed by a half-Indian, half-Chinese lesbian cyborg.

Journalist Paul Sheehan accuses the Laborites of stacking safe Labor seats with Asian migrants, and asserts that the whole migration practice of the 198296 Labor government was an attempt to unacceptably change the racial character of Australia. The Geoffrey Blainey, Robert Birrell, Katharine Betts bunch put a similar spin on current Labor attitudes and practices in migration.

News Weekly, the fortnightly newspaper of the National Civic Council, founded by Bob Santamaria, also constantly denounces Laborism for encouraging multiculturalism and «unacceptably high» levels of family reunion. Finally, the Liberal government of Howard and Costello tip their hat towards all this perceived opposition to migration by reducing migration quotas and increasing obstacles to family reunion and to migrants receiving social welfare, obviously with the hope that they will gain electoral advantage from this.

This vortex of accusations against the labour movement about migration has the effect of arousing my latent labour movement patriotism, which has been mostly submerged during the last few years by my anger at the seemingly inexorable shift of the ALP to the right. My old instinct to defend the ALP is stirred up by all these contradictory, but possibly currently popular, conspiracy theories about the Labor Party and migration.

The main aim of most these attacks on Labor over migration is to damage Labor's prospects by appealing to what is perceived by many conservative pundits to be a latent racism and atavism in Australia. All this tends to make me feel that the trundling old ALP monolith can't be quite as bad as it often appears in other circumstances.

A more important question, ideologically and theoretically, and a very useful one strategically, is to try to understand what realities are reflected in these strange, contradictory attacks to equip us for the future. It is a very important question to ask: how we got from the labour movement racism of the 1890s to the relatively civilised policies and practices of the labour movement today.

It is really quite extraordinary that the same political party, the ALP, which fought extremely hard to entrench the White Australia Policy in Australian life, should now be denounced by the Hansons and Sheehans for «being the main agency flooding the country with Asian migrants and pouring them into safe Labor seats». A serious investigation of how the labor movement's attitude to migration, and particularly Asian migration, was changed, has a very practical bearing on how we can ensure that the labour movement develops and entrenches a civilised and realistic policy and practice in migration matters.

Some people interested in Marxist theory raise the question of the «reserve army of labour» in relation to migration. They say that the capitalist class encourages migration in order to create a pool of labour for the development of capitalism and that the capitalists do this with the intention of maintaining a sufficient surplus of labour to keep the price of labour down. They thus extend Karl Marx's discussion of the unemployment/reserve army of labour issue to the question of migration.

However, Marx never argued against the right of workers to migrate to other countries because they might then form part of the reserve army of labour. It is a fact that in whatever they do, including the encouragement of migration, the capitalist class pursues its own interests. They certainly wish to take advantage of a reserve army of labour.

It's worth making the point here that the working class itself has no intrinsic interest in attempting to prevent the development of capitalism as a social system. The working class itself develops its independent consciousness and its organisation as part of the development of the capitalist system, although in conflict with the capitalist class over wages, conditions and other workers' interests.

In Europe, the Americas and Australasia, working-class living standards in the 19th and 20th centuries could not have risen in the dramatic way that they did without the expansion and development of capitalism as a global social system. It's a kind of crude Luddism (machine-breaking) to think you can stop that process of development. It's worth noting the point that in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Latin America, the sites of European mass migration, all the periods of mass migration (the 19th century, and the 1950s and the 1960s in relation to Australia) have also coincided with a rapid rise in living standards.

It is almost a truism of trade union activity that the best time to press hard for improvement in wages and conditions is during the early stages of the upswing in the boom-bust cycle endemic to the capitalist system, and this upswing usually coincides with periods of increased migration.

What actually happens with mass migration is that the capitalist class always attempts to use the latest cohort of migrants as a source of cheap labour, to weaken trade unionism and the struggle for living standards. In most of the cases mentioned, the new migrants, being the objects of greatest capitalist exploitation, usually wise up pretty fast, and become involved in trade union and and other struggles for the economic and social interests of the whole working class.

It was like that in the United States and Australia in the 19th century and it has been like that in Australia in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The capitalist class wants a «reserve army of labour», but what mass migration produces is a proletariat with real class interests, which always poses in real life the question of working-class organisation.

It is always wrong and unprincipled, from a socialist point of view, to try to stop migration. It is unethical to do so from the point of view of the working-class ethics at the core of Marxism. It's impossible to stop anyway, because of the powerful dynamism of the so far not expropriated capitalist system, a dynamism that continues to operate in the same framework as the equally pronounced tendency of the capitalist system to devastating and periodic crisis, which is also inherent in the system.

In migration matters, it is far better, both from the point of view of socialist ethics and practical politics, to accept the reality of migration under capitalism and to turn all energies towards uniting the working class, both migrants and those already here, in common struggle for their economic and social interests. In my long experience of the labour movement, left talk about the reserve army of labour in relation to migration has usually disguised an essentially anti-migration, and often racist content.

From the commencement of white settlement in Australia there was a constant shortage of labour, which slowed down capitalist development and led the representatives of the different capitalist interests to explore different sources of migrants for the Australian colonies. A number of assisted migration schemes were organised from the British Isles by the British and colonial governments and they satisfied the labour demand to some degree, although one constant idiosyncracy was that the assisted migrants included far too many rebellious Irish to make the British Australian ruling class feel comfortable.

From the 1840s gold rushes on, the constant shortage of labor, combined with the development of embryonic but reasonably effective trade unionism in the Australian colonies, forced the price of labour quite high, particularly from the 1860s through to 1890. This caused considerable comment throughout the capitalist world. Australia became quite famous for the high cost of labour, which the capitalist class resented and the working class celebrated.

Because of this perceived high cost of labour, various sections of the squatting elite toyed with the idea of importing large numbers of Indian and Chinese coolies to keep wages down. They also kidnapped («blackbirded» in the racist language of the time) a lot of Kanaks (usually referred to in those times as Kanakas) from the South Sea Islands, with the same intention.

The ship owners tried to run coastal shipping in Australia with cheap Chinese crews. What they found very early on was that even the Chinese «coolies» and «Kanakas», once they landed in the Australian environment, started to get themselves organised. Kanaks in Queensland organised embryonic trade unions and had strikes. The Chinese started to organise a seamen's union, and Chinese in Melbourne organised a Chinese furniture workers union.

Despite the incipient development of trade unionism among the Kanaks and Chinese, the main response of the existing white colonial proletariat was to feel strongly threatene

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