Carol Johnson, The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke

Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1989. Price $14.95

Beverley Burgmann

This book analyses the ideology of the Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam Labor governments and assesses their influence on the Hawke Labor government. It argues that the Labor tradition is largely a reforming tradition which assumes the continuing existence of capitalism. In other words, capitalist ideology is entrenched in the policies of Labor governments.

There is a useful theoretical chapter which attempts to explain why capitalist ideology is so entrenched. Writers such as Anderson, Gramsci, Miliband, Poulantzas, Habermas and Offe are surveyed.

It is not surprising that social harmony perspectives were dominant in the Labor governments of Curtin and Chifley which were in office during the war. Labor represented ‘the great majority of the people’ whereas the United Australia Party served the interests of the banks and the big monopolies. Labor’s support for manufacturing industry during and after the war, and its post- war reconstruction program boosted private enterprise and encouraged industrialisation. Public control of banking would ensure that these economic policies could be pursued with vigour. A chapter on the defeat of the Chifley government points out that there were major difficulties in pursuing policies that would benefit both business and labour. The real class contradictions that exist in capitalist society were not resolved.

The similarities between the Chifley and Whitlam governments are greater than the differences which were largely created by different eras. Both governments tried to implement policies that would improve the lot of the mass of the population in a society in which private business wielded the economic power. Believing in social harmony and in meeting the demands of both business and labour, they underestimated the opposition their reforms would generate.

The last chapters examine the extent that the Hawke government has overcome these problems. A logical successor to the earlier governments, Hawke’s Labor government has moved even further to the right, chasing after social harmony. It has to walk the very difficult tightrope between placating business and satisfying Labor’s traditional supporters. Johnson concludes that in the immediate future the Labor government will be more likely to be threatened by the Liberal Party and other conservative forces than by radical socialists on the left.

This is an ideal textbook – simply written and clearly organised. There is nothing new; it is all ideas and material that we have been acquainted with for a long time. However it is an excellent synthesis and does not read like a Ph.D thesis, which it is.