Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

The origins of Australian exceptionalism

22. The fight to win the support of Australian workers for the program of world socialist revolution requires an unrelenting struggle against the nationalist doctrines of Australian exceptionalism that historically have formed the chief ideological obstacle to the development of socialist consciousness.

23. Australian exceptionalism has always been a myth. But it has been sustained over decades by a combination of powerful material factors. Geographic isolation and the material advantages flowing from the economic relationship of the settler-state to the British Empire, in which wool and other exports created the basis for a relatively high standard of living, promoted an insular outlook. A century after British settlement, per capita gross domestic product was amongst the highest in the world—nearly 40 percent more than Britain and the US and more than twice that of other western countries. This wealth made possible the provision of social welfare in Australia, before it developed in many other advanced capitalist countries.

24. Relatively high living standards enabled, as well, the granting of significant political concessions. As the Argus newspaper noted in 1857, social conditions in the colonies were different from Europe. The number of paupers was insignificant compared to the total population and there was no “dangerous class.” Consequently, the “wealthy classes” had “nothing to fear from manhood suffrage.” It might prevent them from abusing their power but there was “no danger of its encroaching upon their rights.”[1] There was no revolutionary struggle for democratic rights, in contrast to Europe. Writing in early 1855 on the conflicts in the Ballarat goldfields that had led to the Eureka Stockade the previous December, Karl Marx noted that while the immediate upsurge would be suppressed, the ferment that gave rise to it could only be overcome with “far-reaching concessions.” Marx’s prediction was fulfilled. Democratic concessions were granted in the 1850s followed by an expansion of the franchise. At the end of the 1880s, payment of MPs was initiated and by 1890, when the Labor Party was founded, the demands of the Chartist movement, carried to Australia by British immigrants, had been largely realised without a significant political struggle. Lenin once referred to the fact that the Russian working class came to Marxism through “agony.” In Russia and Germany, the struggle for democracy was waged against an entrenched reactionary state. As Leon Trotsky noted, while the attainment of democracy in Russia required a “grandiose revolutionary overturn”, conditions in Australia were very different: “The Australian democracy grew organically from the virgin soil of a new continent and at once assumed a conservative character and subjected to itself a young but quite privileged proletariat.”[2]

25. Australian exceptionalism found its embodiment in the Labor Party and the trade union bureaucracy. Closely associated from its very origins with the capitalist state and resting on definite material privileges, the Labor bureaucracy has played the key role, above all in times of economic and political crisis, in mobilising both ideological and material forces to counter the “foreign” doctrines of Marxism and socialist internationalism.

26. Contrary to nationalist myth, the emergence and development of Australian capitalism and the working class were, and always have been, the outcome of international processes. The settlement of Australia in 1788 resulted from the expansionary movement of British capitalism; at that time, the drive to open up new prospects for trade and commerce in the East, as well as the exploitation of the resources of the Pacific that had become possible because of navigational advances. Establishing the framework for the Marxist approach to historical processes, Trotsky wrote: “The railways which have cut a path across Australia were not the ‘natural’ outgrowth of the living conditions either of the Australian aborigines or of the first generations of malefactors who were, beginning with the epoch of the French revolution, shipped off to Australia by the magnanimous English metropolises. The capitalist development of Australia is natural only from the standpoint of the historical process taken on a world scale. On a different scale, on a national, provincial scale it is, generally speaking, impossible to analyze a single one of the major social manifestations of our epoch.”[3]

27. While the settlement was bound up with the expansion of trade, the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain brought far-reaching changes to the new Australian colonies. By the 1820s vast areas of land were being turned over to the grazing of sheep, in order to supply wool to the British mills. This led to an onslaught against the indigenous population, which was “cleared” from the land through the spread of disease, poisoning and shooting, in a campaign that extended well into the 20th century.

28. The violence inflicted on the Aboriginal people was not simply a policy. It was rooted in the very nature of the new capitalist property relations that were being established, starting with the private appropriation of land. It was the bloody expression of the organic incompatibility of this new social order, based on private ownership and exclusion, with the social relations of the hunter-gatherer society of the indigenous inhabitants. Like everywhere else, capital emerged in Australia dripping blood from every pore.

29. Transported convicts provided the initial labour force of the new colonies. But, by the middle of the 19th century, the population had considerably expanded, with the influx of the gold rushes in the 1850s. The development of larger-scale capitalist production in the latter decades of the 19th century closed off opportunities for the small farmer and miner and led to the growth of the working class in the towns. Notwithstanding the importance of wool and other primary industries, Australia was one of the most urbanised countries in the world.


The Argus, Melbourne, January 6, 1857.


Leon Trotsky, ‘Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939–40, Pathfinder, New York, 1977, p. 69.


Leon Trotsky, ‘En Route: Thoughts on the Progress of the Proletarian Revolution’, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 1, New Park, London, 1973, p. 80.