Bede Nairn and Labor History

Labr History Essays, vol. 3, Pluto Press Australia in association with the NSW Branch of the Australian Labor Party,
Sydney 1991, $9.95 (rec)

This short book is the third title in the ‘Labor History Essays’ series, based on papers delivered to the 1989 Whitlam Conference of Labor Historians. It is the best of the three, perhaps because the opportunity to pay tribute to Bede Nairn has attracted eight of the most important labour intellectuals, some from Bede’s generation, some younger, to come together in his honour. There will be readers of Hummer who will remember Bede’s patient nurturing of the Sydney branch of the Society for the Study of Labour History in its first manifestation, back in the mid-sixties before he went off to Canberra, the ADB and the writing of his two classic studies, Civilising Capitalism and The Big Fella. Those who want to know more about Bede Nairn will find here a warm appreciation of him by Geoffrey Serle.

Also in that vein is the short account by Graham Freudenberg of Nairn’s influence on the writing of the official history of the NSW Branch of the party. It seems that Freudenberg’s decision, to take as central to his history the question of how socialist or laborist the party was, derives in large part from his reading of Nairn. Or could it be that both Nairn and Freudenberg wrote in response to the same factional dynamic in the party?

Graham Freudenberg’s official history has now appeared, as has A History of the Labor Party in New South Wales 1891-1991, by Jim Hagan and Ken Turner. Their contribution, ‘Labour in Sydney, 1891-1910’, is very close to the chapter with that title in their book, but it adds a useful short conclusion. This is a significant study. They show that the party won the 1910 elections because of its well organised campaign in the suburbs, where the ALP targeted particular groups of workers and home-building suburbanites in general. It is the party, not the class, that is calling the shots. In general terms labour historians had access to this interpretation already, for example from Childe’s attack on ‘politicalism’ in How Labour Governs. But now Hagan and Turner have been able to highlight a particular mechani!l:m, and its identity is surprising. Their argument is that the labour movement’s political advances after 1901 flowed from the 1901 Conciliation and Arbitration Act. The unions formed to meet the Act’s requirements were central to the party’s electoral strategy: ‘Compulsory arbitration had more attraction for Labor parliamentarians trying to win elections than it did for trade unions trying to win industrial disputes’ (43). Moreover, the leaders of those unions understood their dependence on politics. Hagan and Turner present their evidence in the context of a study of electoral politics but their path-breaking research raises large questions about the re-structuring of politics, especially the role of the state through compulsory arbitration. It reminds us that institutional studies of which their work is a fine example, can feed into other fields of labour history. It also reminds us that institutional studies are wider than the industrial relations focus of the ‘new institutionalism’.

Ray Markey’s contribution on the political role of the Trades and Labour Council, 1871-1900, takes us back to the period when the unions drove the movement. Although he builds on the work of Nairn he indicates several undeveloped themes which will presumably carry the argument in Markey’s forthcoming book on the Labour Council. Readers familiar with Markey’s writings will recognise the stress here on work practices and the relations of production, and on the rise of the AWU in the party.

Other contributions are Chris Cunneen’s enlargement of his ADB entries on Durack and Dooley, and Sol Encel’s brief social democratic defence of the welfare state, resting on the work of Robert Goodin and Hugh Stretton. He shows the striking overlap between left and right-wing attacks on welfare.

After all these examples of good labour history, and remembering the recent conferences and new branches of the Society, it is rather bemusing to come across Verity Burgmann’s ‘The Strange Death of Labour History’. It turns out that what she means by labour history is confused: on the one hand a triumphalist institutional kind of history and on the other ‘the social history of labour’. Seduced by her catchy title she has to exaggerate the former’s previous influence in the universities and its current vulnerability to the conservatism of the labour movement today. (Jim Hagan and Ken Turner seem to have done alright, both professionally and intellectually!) Meanwhile ‘the social history of labour’ is alive and well. Not only has it adapted to the challenges from the women’s and other new movements but it has escaped the worst defects of apolitical social history. These positive developments Verity Burgmann usefully discusses, concluding that labour history is showing ‘increased signs of vitality’. Unfortunately there are already students citing this article on the basis of its title as evidence for an attack on labour history.

One reply to that kind of attack is to buy this book. It’s cheap, accessible and stimulating.