National unity? Australia’s history is class struggle

“The more Australians work together, the more we share the sacrifice and the burden, the more we do the right thing, the more lives and livelihoods we will save.” So Scott Morrison told the nation in late March. While he was speaking, tens of thousands of people were lining up outside Centrelink offices around the country, in Australia’s first wave of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

“So, we summon the spirit of the Anzacs, of our Great Depression generation, of those who built the Snowy. Of those who won the great peace of World War II and defended Australia. That is our legacy that we draw on at this time”, Morrison continued.

In times of crisis the entire nation – rich and poor, old and young – shares in sacrifice, so they can share in glory later. It’s a useful argument if you’re trying to convince millions to accept a pay cut.

But the history of Australia in times of crisis is a story of intense class struggle. Momentous battles between workers and rulers have determined who will pay for crises, whether in times of war or economic collapse.

Appeals to the “Anzac spirit” have flowed freely in the last few months. They conjure the image of heroic young soldiers hauling themselves across the beaches of Gallipoli, willingly sacrificing themselves for king and country. But the cynical nostalgia hides the reality of the Australian experience in World War I.

That war was fought to carve up the world between competing imperialist masters, using the world’s working class as military raw material. The initial patriotic gloss that swept Australia in 1914 soon dulled as the reality of bereavement and deprivation set in. Between 1916 and 1920, the class struggle was so intense that some of Melbourne’s ruling elite made plans to blow up the Yarra bridges should the working class northern suburbs rise in revolt.

Andrew Fisher, leader of the Labor government of the time, promised to fight to “our last man and last shilling”. His successor, Billy Hughes, made good on that pledge in 1916 when he tried to introduce conscription. Within two years, Hughes would suffer defeat in two referendums attempting to introduce conscription. Eventually, he was thrown out of his own party.

Despite the dictatorial powers to crush political dissent granted through the War Precautions Act, Hughes’ conscription campaign was confronted by a rowdy mass campaign of opposition. As the death toll from the western front mounted, so did workers’ desire to prevent youth being sent on suicide missions around the world.

Trade union branches were the locus of organised opposition. Melbourne Trades Hall convened a national meeting on conscription in May 1916, at which delegates from more than 200 unions voted almost unanimously to condemn conscription. In August, up to 100,000 trade unionists gathered in Sydney’s Domain in the first mass rally of the “no” campaign.

Pro-conscription meetings were hounded by workers. George Foster Pearce, a Labor senator and a leader of the “yes” campaign, tried to address a meeting at Collingwood Town Hall; he was silenced by a large crowd singing “We will keep the red flag flying”. A young man jumped on to his seat and put his coat on inside out, to show the crowd Pearce was a “turncoat” – a traitor to the workers’ movement.

When the vote was held on 28 October, the attempt to introduce conscription was defeated. Unwilling to admit defeat, Hughes pushed for a second referendum in December the following year. Mass opposition from the workers movement only increased, and hundreds of thousands rallied against conscription; the “no” vote increased the second time round.

Class struggle during the war peaked with the “great strike” of 1917, which drew thousands of workers into pitched battle against their bosses and the government. The spark was lit by metalworkers in the Randwick and Eveleigh railway workshops on 2 August 1917, who revolted against the introduction of a card system to closely monitor and speed up their work.

This first rebellion rode rising anger against the generalised assault on workers. The strike quickly spread along the railways, then exploded into other industries. The strike was not organised bureaucratically from above, but built from impromptu walk-offs by the rank and file.

The moaning of the manager of Central Station’s refreshment rooms in the Sydney Morning Herald in mid-August gives us a taste of the exuberant mood: