Australian Stalinist academics face the 1980s

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I recently described how prominent contributors to the CPGB’s Eurocommunist monthly Marxism Today  the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, historian Eric Hobsbawm, and journalists Geoff Mulgan, Charles Leadbeater, Martin Jacques and Beatrix Campbell — helped transform the British Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and laid the foundations for Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Those intellectuals were preoccupied, as Jacques put it recently, with ‘Post-fordism, globalisation, the state, the changing nature of the culture, post-modernism’.

Several of them founded a Third Way think tank and later worked as policy advisors for Downing Street.

The CPA’s Australian Left Review followed a similar trajectory until its end in 1993.

During the 1980s CPA leaders Brian and Eric Aarons sought to preserve their flagging apparatus by appealing to a ‘diversity of radical movements.’

Most ALR contributions thus included admiring references to Gramsci and the ‘post-Marxists’ Laclau and Mouffe.

Images of Madonna dotted the pages in a feeble attempt to mimic the style of Marxism Today. The self-conscious cuteness and sham populism of an article like ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Kylie Minogue’ was representative.

The ALR‘s last editor, David Burchell, later became a Third Way cheerleader for Mark Latham.

Sadly, for those interested, little from the ALR has been digitized and made accessible online.

The final issues were mostly given over to questions of ‘cultural policy’. Debate participants included a nest of ‘culture industry’ experts (Graham Turner, Stuart Cunningham, Colin Mercer, Tony Bennett, John Hartley) from Queensland universities.

During the 1980s these academics, several of whom were then CPA members, had (following Stuart Hall) written of a need for the ‘left’ to re-evaluate ‘popular culture’ (i.e. adopt a less critical attitude toward products of the media and entertainment industries).

These figures were now, by the early 1990s, jockeying for Creative Nation funding and consulting work from the Keating government. Accordingly they had discovered that ‘cultural practices’ were ‘intrinsically governmental’ and required the formation of ‘cultural policy’.

Closely related to this group, and in solid agreement with them, were Queensland Foucauldians such as Jeffrey Minson, Gary Wickham, Ian Hunter and Denise Meredyth. They were preoccupied with cultural ‘governance’, and wrote in support of the Dawkins reforms to higher education.

With them stood the British ex-Althusserian, Barry Hindess (who incidentally was last seen here).

Most of the remaining contributions came from cultural studies academics such as Jennifer Craik, Toby Miller, Gay Hawkins and Meaghan Morris (who, inspired by the ALR’s ‘showbiz profile’ of Paul Keating, notoriously described the strange ‘ecstasy’ inspired in her by the appearance of the then-Treasurer).

Of the few recognizably political articles, the tone and substance of the following is representative:

Whether an airline is government-owned or privately owned is never going to be as important to people as whether the planes have a tendency to drop out of the sky. Careful regulation is obviously necessary here. Similarly with water supply – a privatisation campaign of much controversy [sic] in Britain. Who cares whether water authorities are publicly or privately owned? People care much more about the quality of the water provided. Again, careful regulation is obviously necessary… The truth is that debate about good services in most complex societies will very rarely reveal a compelling case either for or against privatisation.

Though most of these intellectuals had once described themselves as Marxists, there now was no residual trace of a political allegiance or theoretical commitment, save the occasional invocation of Gramsci (‘counter-hegemonic’ cultural policy, etc).

The historical significance of these figures, and that of the CPA’s late publications, may therefore seem slight, besides the obvious contribution made by each towards the intellectual and cultural degeneration of Australian society.

But some Stalinist and social-democratic academics did play an influential political role in the institutional and ideological renovation of Australian society undertaken by the Hawke-Keating ALP governments of the 1980s and 1990s. These changes included cuts to real wages, creation of permanent pools of mass unemployment, sharp redistribution of income in favour of property owners, privatization of state assets, assignment of new decision-making powers over large pools of assets to union bureaucrats, and rapid destruction of local steel production, car-making, heavy engineering and clothing, textiles and footwear manufacturing, etc.

Several of these consequences ensued directly from the Prices and Incomes Accord between the ALP and ACTU. So I’m going to briefly describe how some intellectuals contributed towards the forming of that agreement, in its various stages.

The Accord couldn’t have taken place without Stalinist union officials, as Bill Kelty has declared. Today, Julia Gillard’s former membership in the Socialist Forum of Bernie Taft and John Halfpenny is one of the few reminders that such circles ever existed. These people and organizations were effaced in part by the results of their own deeds. Yet exist they did, and in determinedly pursuing their project they found practical assistance from avowedly socialist and left-wing intellectuals.

The most important role fell to left-nationalist (Ted Wheelwright and Greg Crough) and social-democratic (Frank Stilwell) members of the University of Sydney economics department.

From the mid-1970s these economists, based around the Journal of Political Economy and Wheelwright’s Transnational Corporations Research Project, became closely aligned with the Stalinist leadership of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (and to a lesser extent with the Building Workers Industrial Union, Seamans Union, Waterside Workers Federation, etc).

AMWU deputy leader and CPA president Laurie Carmichael, together with union research officers Ted Wilshire (a former graduate student of Wheelwright’s at Sydney, and later an Executive Director of the Trade Development Council), Bill Mountford (later CEO of WorkCover Victoria and currently a commissioner at the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission) and Max Ogden, had written a series of pamphlets bemoaning the state of local manufacturing. Dwindling investment and employment growth in the sector was blamed on multinational mining and energy corporations and on what Wheelwright and Crough called the Australian ‘client state’.

To reverse Australia’s gradual deindustrialization and incipient ‘dependency’, the AMWU released pamphlets (Australia Ripped Off, Australia Uprooted and Australia on the Rack) and policy reports that proposed an alternative economic strategy, inspired by the British Labour Party and Swedish social democracy. It would include ‘industry development’ programs, a ‘Department of Economic Planning’, wage restraint and consultation between trade unions, firms and governments on ways to improve productivity.

In 1982 the JAPE devoted a full double issue to these questions, including contributions by left ALP parliamentarians John Langmore and Andrew Theophanous. Stilwell later wrote a long positive article about the AMWU’s policy document.

The Australian Left Review hosted pieces by Ogden, Mountford and others. These writers spoke favourably of a wage-freezing Prices and Incomes agreement, pursuit of which had become ALP policy under Bill Hayden. Bruce Hartnett (now chairman of the Victorian State Services Authority and a director of VicSuper) advanced this ‘counter-strategy’ as the means by which Labor and unions could pursue ‘socialism.’ Using Leninist language, Carmichael dismissed ‘economistic’ struggles for higher wages, in favour of ‘political unionism.’

Yet it soon became clear that left-wing ‘strategic unionism’ was merely a formula for pursuing objectives  especially real-wage cuts for employees  held by right-wingers on the ACTU Executive (Kelty, Simon Crean), by the ALP and the policymaking elite generally, and by owners and managers of firms.

Carmichael and the BWIU’s Pat Clancy, Tom McDonald and Stan Sharkey (long-time members of the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia) became prominent and fierce supporters of the Accord between the ACTU and ALP.

In 1986 Carmichael and Wilshire were sent as part of a joint delegation from the ACTU and the Trade Development Council, on a ‘fact-finding mission’ to West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Britain and Austria. The resulting report, Australia Reconstructed, suggested that Australian manufacturing should adopt features of the ‘Swedish model’, with union-led adjustments to wages, ‘work practices’ and training, as a means to ‘secure price and productivity movements in the internationally traded goods and services sector’.

Also on this trip was former CPA theorist Winton Higgins, now an expert on Swedish employment relations.

During the 1970s, Higgins had been one of many historians and political theorists, including Stuart Macintyre, Alastair Davidson, Tim Rowse, Douglas Kirsner, Kelvin Rowley and Bob Connell, to advance a Eurocommunist outlook, based variously on Althusser and Gramsci, in new journals like InterventionArenaThesis Eleven and Australian Left Review.

Arena had long expressed a fascination with technology and education as ways to bring forth socialism. The outlet therefore took a close interest in Australia Reconstructed, and during the late 1980s it hosted a debate on the report between editor Geoff Sharp (a critic) and McKenzie Wark.

The latter, who would later write for ALR, chose to hail  while ‘deconstructing’  Australia Reconstructed:

The most immediate danger for Australia is that our productive culture is not innovative. The pace of innovation in many sectors of our economy is slow, non-existent, or totally dependent on imported expertise and hardware. We have a declining manufacturing sector, not because manufacturing ceases to be a player in the hi-tech game, but simply because our manufacturing sector has suffered too long from bad policy decisions, bad management, and labour movement strategies rooted in a long-vanished past.

[…]

[Wage] militancy is not a progressive policy in its own right. Wage growth has be linked to growth in output.

By 1997 Wark was writing Derridean deconstructions of native title for The Australian, saluting Barry Jones as ‘Australia’s first postmodern politician’, describing Peter Garrett as an ‘organic intellectual’, and expressing Third Way enthusiasm for Mark Latham and Lindsay Tanner (‘The agenda for Labor beyond 2000 is clear: it has to spread the cultural and economic benefits of cyberspace’).

Soon after he emerged as an internationally prominent videogames theorist.

I’ve described the bare bones of this history in preparation for the post to follow this one. I anticipated that the argument of that next post would, in the absence of the facts presented here, seem unconvincing and provoke unvoiced objections from people unfamiliar with this material. Yet raising any of this stuff in the following post would have taken me too far afield from its main topic: the role of ‘progressive’ history, and the political and intellectual origins of progressive historians, in Keating’s ‘big picture’ of Australian nationalism.

Update: What I promised to deliver in the following post eventually came here.

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7 Responses to “Australian Stalinist academics face the 1980s”

  1. The southern anchor: APEC and Canberra’s so-called Asian engagement since the 1980s « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] Churls Gone Wild Some churls are bigger than others « Australian Stalinist academics face the 1980s […]

  2. ‘We are us’: Australian economic nationalism under Hawke and Keating « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] The economic nationalism of the 1980s was rather different, though any novelty might have been difficult to perceive at the time. In 1975 Wheelwright had sat alongside ACTU President Bob Hawke on the Jackson Committee of Inquiry into the Australian manufacturing industry. Several of the guiding principles and policy recommendations developed there would subsequently form part of the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord under Hawke’s party leadership. And the weakness of the Australian manufacturing sector, a key complaint during the 1970s from the Stalinist AMWU official Carmichael and the ‘dependency’ economists, would eventually be a key pretext for the ‘reforms’ of the 1980s. […]

  3. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] is one of many Stalinist and ex-socialist academics who played a part, now largely forgotten, in the Hawke and Keating ALP governments’ institutional and ideological […]

  4. Keeping a lid on it: maintaining political stability under austerity conditions in Australia « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] this period, and present as an exemplary model for the present day, involved (as I’ve written several times recently) the fulsome participation of the trade-union leadership, including key […]

  5. A sticky end « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] a previous post I discussed the origins of the Socialist Forum, born during the mid-1980s amid the organizational […]

  6. An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] is one of many Stalinist and ex-socialist academics who played a part, now largely forgotten, in the Hawke and Keating ALP governments’ institutional and ideological […]

  7. Distributional conflict and technical change in Australia, 1963-2009 | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] changes to labour-market institutions (including the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord and the dissolution of the ALP as a social-democratic or labourist party) and the replenishment of […]

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