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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s stood up strenuously in opposition to racism against Italians and Maltese in North Queensland, obviously partly because they were part of his own flock.

Some of the group settlements of Italians in North Queensland were actually organised by the Catholic Church. A bit later on, during the BritishAustralia hysteria of the First World War, Archbishop Mannix strenuously defended German and Austrian Lutherans and Catholics against the prevailing madness.

While it wouldn't be accurate to idealise the racial attitudes of ordinary Catholics, who no doubt shared, to some degree, the prevailing racism of Australian society at that time, their Irish origins made their racism more equivocal than that of the majority. In addition to this, the international connections of the Catholic Church, and particularly the Catholic hierarchy, brought an international influence into play that implicitly contradicted the local racism.

Even the fact that some Catholic priests went overseas to Rome or Louvain to train, had a rather internationalising effect on the Catholic Church. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Catholics supported, and many were active in the labour movement, brought this influence to bear in the labour movement.

The other major site of opposition to racism was in the socialist, Marxist and secular groups and sects in or around the labour movement. Quite a few early socialists and left-wingers in Australia were themselves non-British migrants. Such groups as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were explicitly anti-racist from their inception.

The largest and most influential socialist group in Australia before the First World War was the Victorian Socialist Party. It was well entrenched in the ALP, and was, through linked socialist organisations in other states, influential all over Australia.

The VSP was repeatedly convulsed by debates and arguments over the White Australia Policy and the race question. There are three important sources on this debate. One is These Things Shall Be, an objective but filial biography of his father, Bob Ross, by Edgar Ross; the chapter, A Socialist Dilemma: Racism and Internationalism in the Victorian Socialist Party 190521 by Graeme Osborne, in the book Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Australian Working Class, edited by Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus; International Socialism and Australian Labor by Frank Farrell; and Doherty's Corner, the biography of Marie E.J. Pitt, by Colleen Burke.

The major debate in the Victorian Socialist Party erupted in 1907. To quote Graeme Osborne:

The case for socialist brotherhood was put initially by a non-Party member, a remarkable Victorian public servant Miss Amelia Lambrick who wrote first under the pseudonym Hypatia. She launched the debate by urging socialists to recognise that they had not yet grasped the full meaning of socialism in Australia. When they did they would see as its unique essence an insistence on brotherhood which demanded freedom and equality for all peoples. Unfortunately Australian socialists who though quick to recognise the nature and beauty of brotherhood… are often slow to realise what it involves. We generalise loudly but particularise softly. We shout «Brotherhood» in the major and «White Australia» in the minor and seem quite unconscious of the discord…

Both «reason and righteousness» compelled socialists to recognise the antagonism between socialism and the White Australia Policy, and the inconsistency involved when «we repudiate the rights of a privileged class, and uphold the rights of a privileged race». Accordingly Australia's socialists must seek to open her abundance to her crowded northern neighbours…

Within the Party her principal support came from the poet Bernard O'Dowd. He acknowledged the delicacy of the issue when he wrote of Hypatia's «courage» and congratulated Tom Mann as editor of The Socialist for running «this dangerous, but necessary discussion». Though conceding that immigration restrictions might be necessary on occasions to protect workers against unfair competition, he attacked the racist assumptions that frequently underlay such a view. European cultures were not necessarily superior, nor was it evident that interracial unions and their progeny were in any way inferior. Further, if such unions were undesirable it was not a matter for males alone to decide. For O'Dowd socialism meant democracy. To realise democracy it was necessary to absolutely eliminate… colour from all State and social policy, unless you would justify… caste, wealth, rank, birth and education, as giving title to privileged treatment…

Some in the Party, however, when discussing the immigration question, saw very definite reasons for limiting the application of the principles of democracy and socialist brotherhood. In advocating restricted immigration, they began by stressing the need to defend the economic position of workers, but nearly always eventually revealed a range of racial assumptions. Prominent in these assumptions were the inevitability of racial incompatibility, the dangers of pollution and contamination, and the horrors associated with sexual encounters across racial boundaries. W.J. Baxter and Mrs M.E.J. Pitt were the leading protagonists of such views…

Baxter's heroic depiction of woman's role as defender of the race and his sexual chivalry won the approval of Mrs Pitt, one of the first Party members to voice doubts openly over coloured immigration. Mrs Pitt found the prospects of sexual encounters across racial boundaries «repulsive» and under normal conditions «impossible». In her view «perfect brotherhood» would be quite as perfect «without any blending of the white and coloured races». She concluded:

«As a woman… I cannot allow the occasion to pass without very sincerely thanking Mr Baxter for his treatment of his subject as affecting the woman, and particularly for his able and singularly luminous expression of the instinct in the woman of any race which makes for racial purity an instinct… as dear… as life itself, and… being so, should be equally dear to the nation to which she belongs.» Clearly, in Mrs Pitt's view the connection between racial purity and nationalism was indissoluble.

This debate continued in the Victorian Socialist Party for the next 10 years, with both anti-racist and pro-racist views having quite widespread support, both among the rank and file and the leadership of the party. The debate was still unresolved as the Victorian Socialist Party gradually declined in the 1920s after many of its supporters and members crossed over to the newly formed Communist Party following the Russian Revolution.

One very significant generally left-wing figure in the VSP was R.S.Ross, who through his own socialist magazine, Ross's Monthly, widely popularised the Russian Revolution. Despite this, Ross remained a defender of the White Australia Policy, and this is discussed carefully and intelligently, but quite critically, in veteran Communist Edgar Ross's very useful biography of his father, Bob Ross.

A rather interesting sidelight on this debate is the personal story of the poet Marie Pitt and the poet Bernard O'Dowd, who clashed so sharply on opposite sides in this debate. As far as one can tell from the records, their views didn't change, but they got together personally and became quite a well-known couple in Melbourne intellectual circles. This was complicated by the fact that O'Dowd was married to a Catholic woman who would not give him a divorce, and so O'Dowd and Marie Pitt became quite a notorious item in the rather moralistic atmosphere of Melbourne in the 1920s, and remained together into old age, until Marie Pitt died. In their own way, they struck a considerable blow for civilised, modern living arrangements. This is all described rather nicely in Colleen Burke's book about Marie Pitt's life, which also contains an excellent selection of Pitt's poetry.

One significant opponent of White Australia at its inception was the quirky, independent-minded Melbourne bookseller, E.W. Cole. He published a number of pamphlets and articles at his own expense, opposing the White Australia Policy, which was quite a courageous line of action, considering that his large Melbourne retail business might have been, on one reading of the situation, affected by his public stand on White Australia. It did not seem to be, as his business went from strength to strength in the early years of the new century.

The most important bourgeois opponent of White Australia was Bruce Smith, the Free Trade MP for Parkes in NSW. He was a very significant figure in the capitalist class. He was the principal of Howard Smiths, the shipowners, and he was a fairly determined opponent of trade unionism.

He was obviously partly motivated by his antagonism to George Reid, the Free Trade leader, who had formed several Free Trade governments in NSW by getting Labor support at the price of enacting a lot of progressive pro-Labor legislation. Smith had been his main opponent within the Free Trade party of this parliamentary line-up.

Smith's lengthy and intelligent speech against all aspects of the bill embodying White Australia in the newly established federal parliament, was the only one against it, and he was attacked by his fellow politicians on all sides for his stand, which didn't seem to overawe him one bit.

He even subsidised the publication of a hardback book opposing White Australia, a large part of which consists of a reprint and discussion of his speech in the parliament.

This 235page book, printe

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