Reflections on Socialism and the Australian Labor Party

I joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in my first year of university. I didn’t know much about Australian politics, least of all the internal machinations of its oldest political party. It therefore came as news to me that there were actually two Labor clubs on campus: the Left and the Right. Although I had unknowingly joined the Right, I quickly learnt that this barely mattered. Many in the ‘Right’ identified as socialists, and those in the Left didn’t always seem more progressive. The main difference was aesthetic: the Left likes to shout at rallies, the Right enjoys murmuring in the pub.

What I experienced was the ideological hollowing out of the Labor Party – a process neatly described by labour historian Liam Byrne. Labor’s factions used to represent competing visions of Australia’s future. Internal opposition between the socialist and moderate factions generated a creative tension which spurred policy ideas and attracted talent. Today, Labor’s intellectual life is moribund. The factions are little more than “vehicles for the distribution of power”.

Byrne’s simultaneous biography of John Curtin and James Scullin is the best book I’ve read about Australian politics. It situates contemporary debates about the future of the ALP in a broader historical context. In many ways, the present is simply an echo of the past. What place does socialism have (if any) in the modern ALP? In seeking to form government, what is the appropriate balance between ideological purity and electoral pragmatism? Is it really the case, as Gough Whitlam declared, that “only the impotent are pure”? These debates are as old as the ALP itself.

Philosophers sometimes talk about “essentially contested concepts” – concepts whose correct definition and usage is always fought over; the only correct statement about the concept would be to say that people disagree on what it means. We might say that the identity of the ALP is an essentially contested concept. Early debates within the ALP – particularly its Victorian branch – concerned the adoption of the socialist objective. As of 2022, Labor’s constitution declares that:

“The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.”

The story behind the socialist objective is a microcosm of Labor history. On the one hand, socialists such as John Curtin advocated for Labor to boldly declare its intention to replace capitalism with socialism. Whereas moderates such as James Scullin were more circumspect: Labor should prioritise addressing the immediate concerns of the working-class. Abstract ideals were fine, but the Party should make clear that any transition towards socialism was far-flung. This attitude was pithily summarised at the time by a Labor delegate: “Socialism was not the objective of the party. The real objective was the well-being of the people”.

This is not to say that socialism and the well-being of the people are somehow at odds, but rather the simple observation that most people don’t vote philosophically. Whether or not a party is committed to the socialisation of the means of production is immaterial to most voters. Votes change because parties successfully speak to people’s daily lives, not because a voter realised that progressive liberalism can only go so far in ameliorating the alienation inherent under capitalism.

Contemporary left-wing critics of the ALP assert that Labor has abandoned its blue-collar base by abandoning socialism. This is an extremely motivated reading of Labor history. Historically, socialism was (and is) the discursive plaything of middle-class radicals. The electoral divide between highly educated, inner-city progressives and the outer suburban working-class is not new or unique.

So where to for Labor? I agree with Byrne that a “socialist ethos” remains essential for critiquing and remedying the worst effects of neoliberalism. The more I read about Australian political history, and political theory in general, however, the less convinced I am that speaking in the ideological language of the nineteenth century wins us any votes. Many socialists want to relive an imagined history where boldly declaring your opposition to capitalism meant electoral success. Rarely was this the case. Labor wins when it speaks for the majority. Unfortunately, most people just don’t like socialism.

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