Struggling for Recognition: Reading the Individual in Labour History
Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles
The articles drawn together in the thematic section, ‘Struggling for Recognition: the Individual in Labour History’ reveal the diversity of experience and interpretation that opens before the historian seeking to understand and explain how often marginalized historical actors engaged in political or industrial activism, or simply coped with their circumstances. Struggles for security, justice and recognition formed a constant preoccupation and stimulus to action for the subjects under discussion. This article addresses the issue of how historians are to stand in relation to their chosen biographical subjects, and explores various forms of innovative methodology that may assist historians construct a rigorous analysis. A focus on gender also clarifies that the construction of identity is a crucial element in the subject’s response to class, nation and race, and biography can play an important role in exploring how these dynamics are developed and expressed. Finally, the article focuses on the relationship between Australian labour historiography and the study of the individual.
‘Agnes Milne: the Factory Inspector as Political Agitator, 1896-1906’
Agnes Milne was the second female factory inspector to be appointed in Adelaide and in this article I explore how she redefined the parameters of factory inspection by infusing the role with a radical agenda. Through a consideration of Milne’s activism, we can see how she politicised the position of factory inspection. I argue that Milne acted as a trade union advocate and radical social reformer in her capacity as inspector. This article also situates the factory inspector within the emerging practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of the creation of certain classifications and categories which have been termed ‘political arithmetic’. Through an examination of Milne’s activities we can see how factory inspectors paradoxically used similar techniques of classification and observation – often associated with social control – to argue for the regulation of working hours and improved conditions on behalf of the working classes.
They did not Know Their Place: the Politics of Annie Golding and Kate Dwyer
Annie Golding and Kate Dwyer claimed a central place for women within the New South Wales Labor Party. They struggled to ensure that women’s participation in the Party was supported structurally, linked to leadership, valued and rewarded. To understand their priorities and their persistence, this struggle must be viewed in the context of their personal histories, prior political activities and professional careers. As the advent of universal suffrage created expectations of a new dawn for all women, whatever their class background, a personal quest for social standing fed the Golding sisters’ unique contribution to collective organisation and action.
Bathsheba Ghost, Matron of the Sydney Infirmary 1852-66: a Silenced Life
Bathsheba Ghost was Matron of Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary (now Sydney Hospital) from 1852-66. She has been subsumed into the ‘before’ narrative of the bad old days at Sydney Hospital (and Australia) before rescue by the arrival from England of middle-class nurses trained under the auspices of the iconic Florence Nightingale. Matron Bathsheba Ghost was one of the few working-class women who rose to prominence, on her own merits, from a convict past. With her recognition also comes recognition of the major Sydney hospital when it was a pre-industrial style workplace not yet dominated by medical needs. It was an institution run by prominent male philanthropists whose rules were subverted and adapted by the staff, their families and the destitute, chronically ill who found a temporary home.
Rose Summerfield’s Gospel of Discontent: a Narrative of Radical Identity in Late Nineteenth Century Australia
Rose Summerfield (1864-1922), feminist, labour activist and radical, spread ‘the gospel of discontent’ amongst the Sydney working class in the 1890s. Discontent was a defining metaphor of fin de siecle radicalism, a condition of restless proselytising expressed in a range of experimental political, religious and cultural organisations and movements. Rose Summerfield fitfully embraced secularism, women’s suffrage, temperance, labour mobilisation and radical politics. In key texts and performances such as the 1892 Master and Man lecture Summerfield dramatically personalised the sufferings and fears of the working class. Summerfield’s radical texts and performances represented an expression of narrative identity, identifying her subjective sense of self and alienation with the injustice inflected upon women and the working class. Summerfield’s strident racism reflected a need for self definition and social integration, a vilification of the other designed to secure the self in a racially homogeneous and economically stable society. Yet race reflected the turbulent and destabilised nature of Rose Summerfield’s gospel of discontent.
Defecting: Esmonde Higgins Leaves the Communist Party
Esmonde Higgins joined the Communist Party in Britain in 1920; he joined the Labor Party in Australia in 1944. Between those two dates he searched for a political practice that was revolutionary and liberal, practical and intellectual. His defection from Communism was inevitable once it became institutionalised and dogmatic, which is to say almost from the moment of his joining. This article follows the process of his defection, from doubt to disenchantment to apostasy. It concentrates on his experience of crises in his political practice expressed particularly through his personal relations with his comrades and his role as an intellectual. It suggests that Higgins avoided the rancour often found in Cold War ex-communists by dedicating himself to finding a new language for the workers’ movement, and to constructing workers’ education as a site where intellectuals and activists could be brought together. E.P. Thompson’s distinction between disenchantment and apostasy is drawn upon to clarify this suggestion.
Arthur Rae: a ‘Napoleon’ in Exile
Arthur Rae (1860-1943) was a New Zealand shearer and labourer who moved to Australia in 1889. The son of a long-serving official in the New Zealand railway’s union, he became an organiser and later a prominent leader in the Australian Workers Union (AWU) during the 1890s and into the early years of the twentieth century. In 1891 he began his somewhat sporadic career in Labor politics as one of the first Labor members to be elected to the New South Wales Parliament in 1891. Rae’s activism was informed by his deep commitment to late nineteenth socialist ideals and to ameliorating the condition of working people. His commitment to these socialist ideals and his refusal to compromise them were the determining factors in his labour movement career. It eventually cost him his career in, and membership of, his union and relegated him to the periphery of Labor Party politics. Rae’s struggle was to find the ways to proselytise his socialist vision for Australian workers despite his marginalisation within mainstream labour institutions. That he was able to do this over a period of almost three decades is a testament to the powerful role individuals can play making labour history.
Frank Anstey: from Heroic Persona to Embattled Identity
Frank Anstey’s political career in the Victorian and Commonwealth parliaments (1902-34) centred around his reputation as a working-class hero and harbinger of revolution in the 1917-21 ‘red dawn’. The volatile energy that drove his indefatigable organising, passionate oratory and dramatic writing was such that the public persona it fuelled gradually suffused his private identity. But when political Labor surrendered to the strictures of orthodox economics and the people acquiesced in the wretched compromises of 1930-31, his public persona collapsed into an embittered cynicism and, as death approached, his personal identity retreated in time to a smaller, private world through a romantic reconstruction of childhood.
A Life on the Left: George Lansbury (1859-1940), a Case Study in Recent Labour Biography
‘The most lovable figure in modern politics’ was A.J.P. Taylor’s verdict on the British Labour pioneer, George Lansbury. Marxist SDF organiser, rebel East End MP, suffragette ally, Christian socialist editor of the militant Daily Herald, imprisoned Labour mayor, anti-imperialist, republican and pacifist-Lansbury’s political trajectory was often stormy from his days as a Gladstonian Liberal Party agent to his leadership of the British Labour Party during the 1930s Depression. His career throws significant light on the myths, traditions and crises of the British Labour Party – from its origins as a parliamentary pressure group to a party of national government. However no comprehensive account of Lansbury’s life appeared for 50 years after Raymond Postgate’s authorised biography in 1951. This article draws on research for a new study of Lansbury-started under ‘Thatcherism’ and completed in the era of ‘New Labour’ – which attempts to evaluate his varying roles as a pioneer in the British Labour history.
‘Young, ambitious and eager’: Stan Keon and the Victorian Public Service Association
Standish Michael Keon (1913-87) was one of the ‘seven’ defectors from the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party at the 1955 Split. His narrow defeat at the subsequent election terminated a decade-long parliamentary career (state and federal) during which he had earned a formidable reputation – some predicted that he had the stuff to attain the highest political office. Despite this reputation, the published literature on Keon is scarce. This paper fills part of that void by exploring his period as secretary of the Victorian Public Service Association between 1939 and 1949. It particularly focuses on his successful prosecution of the Association’s campaign for an independent Public Service Board that brought him into direct conflict with Albert Dunstan, the longest serving Victorian Premier during the first half of last century. The paper shows that Keon’s secretaryship acted as a springboard to entry into the Victorian parliament in 1945. It also illuminates his style as a trade union official, a style confrontational and compelling. Through this evocation of Keon as militant trade unionist, the paper offers a counterpoint to standard assumptions about the anti-communist breakaways of 1955.
Biography and Social History: an Intimate Relationship
Biography has been considered as outside the discipline of history by many historians. Since the chronological framework of the study is pre-determined, given the subject’s life, it has been argued, it does not meet the fundamental historical test of analyzing historical change across time. Others, particularly literary critics, have suggested that the biographical emphasis on the personal is itself, at root, invalid. This comment instead suggests that the recent turn to biography in labor and social history is most welcome, for it creates the possibility of a broader understanding of the interplay between an individual and social forces beyond one’s ability to control. But to write a social biography demands a disciplinary rigor and thorough research effort that treats equally seriously both the subject and the context that shapes that life.
‘A Helping White Hand’: Assimilation, Welfare and Victoria’s Transitional Aboriginal Housing Policy
The provision of welfare for Aboriginal Australians has always been a complex and contentious issue. Since 1788, many secular and religious Aboriginal welfare programs were based on paternalistic ideals which reinforced the need for Australian society to be hierarchical. These programs were often based on racial theories, such as ‘Social Darwinism’, which deemed Aboriginal people to be inferior beings in need of State supervision and care. Consequently, many Australian states and territories passed protectionist legislation to isolate and socially control Aborigines. In the 1930s, changing ideas of race resulted in the re-evaluation of Aboriginal welfare policies and protectionism was replaced with assimilationism. In theory, assimilation placed Aborigines on equal terms with Anglo-Australians. However, years of exclusion from Anglo-Australian society meant that many Aboriginal people were unprepared for life in mainstream communities. To make this transition easier for Aborigines, many Anglo-Australians became involved in assimilationist welfare activities. Although elements of paternalism were sometimes evident in the new régime, ideas of citizenship and equality often dominated welfare programs. This new attitude towards Aboriginal affairs was evident in the provision of Aboriginal welfare at two housing estates, Rumbalara and Manatunga, in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s. This study explores the complexities of Aboriginal welfare at these estates and Aboriginal responses to assimilationist initiatives.
‘Melbourne and Mars’ : the Australian All Electric Communist Utopia
Melbourne and Mars, a neglected work of utopian socialist fiction published in Australia in 1889, is indebted more to Edward Bellamy (author of the famous Looking Backward: 2000-1887) than to Karl Marx. It is more concerned with the future effects of technology, specifically electrical technology, than with the inherent contradictions of capital, yet it nonetheless presents the reader with an alternate reality made possible by advances in technology and socio-economic organisation. This is not to question the distinction between scientific and utopian socialist writing in the late nineteenth century, but rather to challenge the stretching of that distinction. In Melbourne and Mars there are only a few vague references to the labour theory of value and the alienation of surplus product. Conversely, ‘scientific’ texts fail to provide a detailed program for the realisation of those class ideals upon which they are based. Both types of socialist literature could be, and were, used for propaganda purposes and they are by no means mutually exclusive.