A Worker Looks at Australian History

Lloyd Ross (The Tramway Record 19.5.27)

Like memory, history is the re-calling of experience – the experiences of the individual or of the race. Every school of thought has its own interpretation of these facts of the past, and history becomes the shuttlecock of nations, classes, and creeds.

In this society in which we live there are two classes, the rich and the poor, the two nations, as Benjamin Disraeli called them those who own and control the machinery of production, and those who merely have their labour-power, and are compelled to work for others. Because there inevitably arises a struggle between these classes over the sharing of the products of the world, there will be two interpretations of social change. There will be those who look into the past for a justification and a defence of their possessions, and those who seek merely a shameful robbery of what should have been theirs.

History to the well-born will be a procession of fatherly kings and virgin queens, because today Royalty is the romantic symbol of property rights, a drum and trumpet tale of the glorious victories of the “nation”, or it will be a weathercock of political parties, for the constitution is based on a recognition of property rights.

But to the propertyless history will be a description of the lives of the masses of the people; it will not confuse the wealth of a few with national welt-being, but it will be a tale of the struggle of the disinherited for freedom and equality.

The property-owners see social change ending today with the acquisition of their own power. “The sacred rights of property”, “the Constitution”, “Sedition,” and “Bolshevism” are common phrases which mean “thus far and no farther.” The propertyless see evolution still going on. “Nothing is – everything is becoming.”

No History Can Be Impartial

History generally has been written to consolidate the existing order. Seldom has it questioned the rights of property. The history taught in our schools is the history of the possessing class. Labor Governments form no exception.

Even in Australian history we get the two main divisions in society consciously or unconsciously expressed. In the early days of discovery and settlement the difference is not very great, but the nearer we get to modem times the more past facts become the play-balls of present parties and the greater the differences that arise. The differences are two – a difference in a selection of facts, and a difference in interpretation.

Some years ago a popular history of Australia was written “Chief Events of Australian History” – which contained no mention of Australian trades unionism. The name of William Lane is not found in Professor Scott’s excellent “Short History”, while unimportant Governor Bligh gets five pages. Writing as he does under the stress of the war. Professor Scott tells at length of the regime of Rabaul by Germany – but there is no discussion of the principles of the Labor Party.

Even if the selection of facts were agreed upon by all parties and creeds, there is hardly a fact that is not subject to varying interpretation. The Eureka Stockade may appear “a seditious rising encouraged by foreigners and extremists against the Queens’ government,” or it may be the first rising of the proletariat, or merely the effort of a few small capitalists to keep for themselves all the gold they had discovered. The Conscription referenda, the imprisonment of workers during strikes, the burning of the “Rodney” in the ‘nineties, are a few incidents capable of very different interpretations to the customary .

H.G.Wells, in the introduction to his last “Outline of History”, sees this variety as merely a difference of personalities. But, as I have suggested, the wide and main differences today are due to a difference in economic interests. No Imperialistic State could permit the economic interpretation of overseas expansion to be taught in its schools; no capitalist State could teach the point of view of the workers, because the “doctoring” of history is one of the means by which it retains its power.

As this series of articles is unfolded, differences between the two interpretations will be explained. This outline is the truth as I see it, but it is not impartial.

Watery Working-Class History

This book selects from Australian history those facts and those movements which are of value for the world today. “We study the past that we may mould the future.” I am not interested in the fine points of archaeology, of philology, in the date of the first chimney erected in Melbourne, or the problem whether Hume or Murray deserves to give his name to our main river. History to me is a weapon – the keener and cleaner it is the better for the purpose of gaining economic freedom. This history is for the workers by hand or brain, who must own and control the machinery of production and exchange before they can be materially secure and eventually free. What is of importance to them? What has been their history’! How would they interpret the past?

It is more important that we should know how the people have suffered and struggled and hoped than that we should know the doings of puppet kings and warriors, the rise or fall of ministers, and the battles of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But we must go deeper. Working-class history needs must be scientific. It claims to see history as the gigantic unfolding of cause and effect, as the expression of deep social laws.

There was a time when as a reaction from the drum-and-trumpet histories of kings and queens and rulers the working-class historians described the simple conditions of the people. That, if an advance, was no more scientific than the other sort. Morrison Davidson thought he had found a popular history when he dished up the sordid tales of the private lives of kings and queens. There is a type of Australian working- class historians who emphasises and enthuses over any event in which somebody rebels. Hence the deposition of Governor Bligh in 1828 is hailed as an event of great importance, the first victory of the workers because a governor happened to be overthrown (Governor de Chair fights the abolition of the NSW Leg. Council, so all governors are a nuisance, and hurrah for anyone who opposes them!), whereas in fact the meeting against Bligh was really the work of a narrow clique just as selfishly tyrannical and undemocratic as he was. It had little or no influence on the future of the Australian people. Magna Charta in 1215 is an English event which has been hailed by many Labor politicians as the keystone of English liberties. The proposed deportation of Tom Walsh and Johnson broke rights given by the Charter, a Charter which was more probably an attempt of the feudal barons to freely run their own tyrannical way. The majority of the people were not concerned in the slightest. We want to look deep before we gush!

The Key to History

This outline will have a double purpose – to present Australian history in terms of the workmens struggle and to apply to Australian history a general theory of history.

I believe that there is a key to the past, that there is a principle of social change, an interpretation of history, not merely of more importance to the workers, but more accurate and more satisfying than any explanation yet put forward.

The stream of life goes on. The primary instincts of self-preservation and race continuity are and always have been at work -love and hunger are always driving life on. There may be other instincts just as powerful, but no one would deny the instincts, or that without them life would cease. Having admitted this, we have explained nothing of the cause of history. “The rain falls” – and we are as wise as ever. “Life goes on” – and we know nothing. The question remains: Whither? How have these instincts expressed themselves in history? What has conditioned the acts of man? What has diverted the stream of life?

I like the analogy of a river, the river rises in the mountains and must flow downhill to the sea; its course is determined – by what? By the method of producing food – by the geography, the climate, the tools, the organisation, the material conditions under which men live? As Boudin, in “The Theoretical System of Karl Marx,” expresses it: “The adherents of the Materialist Conception of History therefore assert that production, and next to production, distribution of product, is the basis of every social order; that in every historic form of society the division of the product of human labor produced by it, and with it the social arrangement into classes or estates, depend on what and how is produced in that society, and how the product is exchanged. Accordingly the last causes of all social changes and political transformations are to be sought not in the increasing insight of men into the laws of eternal truth or justice, or some similar ideas, but in the changes of the methods of production and distribution:”

The further away they get from the material basis the more freedom other factors are permitted, but are limited always by the material basis. They always come home; if they escape too far they are pulled back with a jerk, as a dog when it reaches the end of its chain.

There is nothing ignoble or base in this theory. I see it as merely a key which unlocks the past. If we are not to believe that events and human beings are merely the sport of circumstances (like pieces of paper whirled about willy-nilly by a wanton wind, obeying no law, following no relation of cause and effect, just acting thoughtlessly, spontaneously, aimlessly, as in a vacuum or as before Creation); if, indeed, we do not accept this historic nihilism, then we must seek in history for some principle, some guiding thread some underlying, determining force.

Finally, the Materialist Conception of History has nothing to do with individual idealism or individual materialism, individual motives, selfishness or sacrifice. “I don’t always act for purely selfish motives for what profits me most.” Of course you don’t. But who said you did? Certainly not the exponent of the M.C.H. “In every historical epoch” – thus begins a definition which emphasises why we are concerned with historical events, with movements in society, with social changes. History and not individual behavior is our subject.

I have tried then to write the history of Australia from the viewpoint of the workers. I have, too, tried to make the reader feel that history is not a romance, no a hymn of hate, not a series of episodes, but the result of forces, of rules, of principles that are changing society.