Verity Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’: Socialism and the Rise of Labor, 1885-1905

George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1985, Pp.236, illus., $19.95 hardback, $9.95 paperback.

[Review by] Frank Farrell

This book is an interesting and vigorouslyargued investigation of the small groups of socialist agitators that were about in Australia in the period 1885-1905. All manner of tiny groups, mini-parties and individual agitators are recreated by the author as part of what is described as ‘first-wave socialism’. The book makes a contribution to labour scholarship in its demonstration that such agitators were diverse, often tolerant of a range of viewpoints and in some cases, composed a genuine strand of workingclass thought. There is also a useful filling out of some of the political background associated with the development of the labour movement.

Burgmann’s account provides chapters arguing her interpretation of William Lane, on quarrols over socialism in New South Wales beforo 1890, on ideology and organisation in that colony in the 1890s, on the impact of socialism in New South Wales in that decade, and on the downturn of interest in socialism in the early twentieth century. Other chapters deal with the position f various agitators in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland. It is argued that ‘first-wave socialism’ provided both theoretical and practical leadership for the early labour movement, an argument similar to that long ago advanced by ‘Old Left’ historians, who are nevertheless criticised by Burgmann because they are said to have been soft on nationalism and dismissive of some of the unorganised propagandists who are studied in this book. Nor, we are told in the Introduction, should the author be identified with ‘New Old Left’ writing, for that is said to be based on a supposition that socialism has a place in the ALP. The ‘Old Right’ historians are stated to have ‘misrepresented’ the ideas of socialist agitators and the ‘New Left’ are not satisfactory for they have not properly challenged these views. The reader is left to decide what is wrong with Burgmann’s account.

The real achievement of the book is its recreation of the tiny propagandist groups that were operating around the city and countryside. The book provides a framework for identifying and rescuing from almost complete obscurity a number of interesting activists who played no great role beyond the spread1ng of ideas. But one might well entertain some doubts concerning the extent to which the author has managed to relate the study to the broader context in which these events occurred.

These matters aside, however, there can be no doubting the vigor and enthusiasm behind the author’s enterprise. Burgmann finishes her book as she begins it in an earnest search for the relevance and meaning of her investigation of propagandist socialism in nineteenth century Australia.