The party of labor and the Labor Party

In the birthplace of industrial capitalism, the young proletariat went through a protracted process of formation into a class. In the first decades the individual wage-laborers were assembled by the development of the capitalist process of production itself, and thrown together in factories and industries, trades and labor markets, cities and slums.

industrial England

Industrial England, 19th century

Marx and Engels report that in this period in England, workers were too stunned by the upheavals of their transformation into a propertyless class to offer much resistance to their exploitation. When resistance did develop, for many years it took the form of crime: theft, individual sabotage and terrorism, and small-scale conspiracies. Assassinations of individual capitalists, wrecking of machinery, and other illegal acts were common (described in detail in Engels’ classic The Condition of the Working Class in England).

The illegal act punished most severely was combination, the initial attempts by workers to act collectively; to mitigate the competition among themselves by forming themselves into unions. It took many decades of illegal struggle before the workers were strong enough to compel the bourgeoisie to recognise their legal right to form unions. Even then, most unions had a fleeting and temporary existence, and were largely limited to the skilled trades. Further decades were required before stable union organisation was established, coverage extended to the unskilled workers, and class consciousness developed to the point where workers saw the need for political independence as well.

This long process was greatly compressed in the colonial-settler states of North America and Australasia. Here, it was only a matter of a few decades at most between the creation of a hereditary proletariat and the creation of a mass political party dedicated to the advancement of the interests of the laboring class. In some respects, the two processes occurred almost simultaneously.

The formation of a hereditary proletariat had been retarded in both North America and Australasia by the free availability of land for farming (following the dispossession of its indigenous owners). This allowed worker-settlers from Europe to escape wage-slavery relatively easily, by becoming independent farmers.

Engels wrote in 1886, “… America after all was the ideal of all bourgeois; a country rich, vast, expanding, with purely bourgeois institutions unleavened by feudal remnants or monarchical traditions, and without a permanent and hereditary proletariat. Here everyone could become, if not a capitalist, at all events an independent man, producing or trading, with his own means, for his own account. And because there were not, as yet, classes with opposing interests, our – and your – bourgeois thought that America stood above class antagonisms and struggles. That delusion has now broken down…” [Letter to American socialist Florence Kelley-Wischnewetzky, June 3 1886]

1877 railroad strike. Workers block trains at Martinsburg, West Virginia

1877 railroad strike. Workers block trains at Martinsburg, West Virginia

Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did that possibility of escape from wage-slavery close off, and a hereditary proletariat came into existence. The year 1877 marks the violent birth of the working class in the United States, with the twin defeats of Radical Reconstruction in the south and the railroad workers in the north. In Australasia, the seminal event was the defeat of the Maritime strike in 1890.

Once the conditions for capitalist production were met, capitalist industry experienced an extraordinarily rapid development, especially in North America. The proletariat also underwent rapid growth and development. Union organisation mushroomed, and the workers took the first steps towards independent political organisation. Throughout the 1880s Engels was writing to his co-fighters in the United States, urging them to support and participate in the early labor parties, despite the political confusion that prevailed in these formations. “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the [working class] movement is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers party.” [Letter to Adolphe Sorge in Hoboken, 29 November 1886]

Adolphe Sorge, German communist who emigrated to United States after 1849

Adolphe Sorge, German communist who emigrated to United States after 1849

In the late nineteenth century when Harry Holland became a union militant in the Australasian labour movement, the question of working class political action was posed sharply. Every serious strike – of which there were a great many in Australia at this time – set in motion the forces of the bourgeois state, intervening on the side of the employers.

Union militants in Australasia were in close contact with the North American labor movement. (Hence the fact that in both Australia and New Zealand, the American spelling of ‘labor’ was used by the early labor parties, contrary to the more common British spelling ‘labour.’ The Australian Labor Party retains that spelling to the present day.)

Holland himself got a taste of state intervention when in 1908 he went to Broken Hill in western New South Wales, to build support for a bitter strike that had begun there. The Broken Hill miners were battling against atrocious health conditions, including lead poisoning and psthisis, as well as a wage cut imposed because of the falling price of ore.  Faced with an armed attack on their picketline by the state police, Holland urged the strikers to defend themselves – and was jailed for sedition.

By that time, Holland was a already firm advocate of the unions forming a labor party to wrest state power from the capitalists and build a socialist society. But things were not so simple: an Australian Labor Party already existed, sponsored by the unions. It had already won some electoral success, even winning elections at state level. It was the Australian Labor Party that introduced the system of arbitration of industrial disputes in New South Wales in 1901. In fact, it was a Labor Party federal government that offered to send troops to help the state government break the miners’ strike at Broken Hill.

strikers hang a scab in effigy, Broken Hill 1909

Strikers hang a scab in effigy, Broken Hill 1909

The Australian Labor Party had been founded by labor leaders with a vastly different aim in mind than Holland’s. Rather than overturn the capitalist state, their goal was to integrate the labor movement into that state, and to advocate for workers interests within it, just as the various competing capitalist groupings advocated for their own particular interests. Their starting assumption was not the antagonism between employer and worker, but a supposed identity of interests between them.

Police train their guns on miners' picket line, Broken Hill 1909

Police train their guns on miners’ picket line, Broken Hill 1909

These two opposing tendencies, the class-collaborationist leadership of the ALP and its ilk on the one hand, and the class-struggle current which included Holland on the other, battled for leadership of the labor movement and its parties that were in the process of formation throughout Australasia and North America.

In Australia, the early advantage was all to the class-collaborationist current, despite much frustration and violent struggle to the contrary. For several decades after its founding in the wake of the1890 defeat, the Australian Labor Party became the largely unchallenged party of social reforms and of arbitration of class conflicts.

Harry Holland

Harry Holland

However, in New Zealand this arbitration-and-reform role was taken by the Liberal Party after 1890. To construct a labor party on an identical programme as the popular Liberal Party proved impossible, despite various attempts by the leadership of the Trades and Labour Councils to do exactly that. It was not until two decades later that a Labor Party was founded in New Zealand, and its character was very different from the Australian Labor Party.

By that time, the industrial landscape had been deeply shaken by two major strikes and an imperialist war. And Harry Holland was now the foremost leader of the labor movement in New Zealand.

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2 responses to “The party of labor and the Labor Party

  1. Pingback: GPJA #489 (2 of 3): News from Aotearoa New Zealand (26/1/14) | GPJA's Blog·

  2. Pingback: GPJA #489 (2 of 3): News from Aotearoa New Zealand (26/1/14) « ForeignAffairs.co.nz·

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