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

The resurgence of the working class

156. The growing disequilibrium within world capitalism both provoked and was intensified by a powerful resurgence of the international working class. The ICFI’s 1988 perspectives resolution explained: “The period between 1968 and 1975 was marked by the greatest revolutionary movement of the international working class since the 1920s. While US imperialism was being hammered by the military resistance of the workers and peasants of Vietnam, the European and American working class launched a mighty offensive to raise its living standards. The French general strike of May–June 1968, the largest in history, sounded the tocsin for the greatest international offensive of the working class. Over the next seven years, country after country was hurled into political turmoil.”[1]

157. Australia was no exception. In 1965, invoking all the anti-communist rhetoric of the Cold War, the Liberal government had committed troops to Vietnam—one of only a handful of countries to do so. The following year it easily won a general election fought over conscription and its commitment to the war. But three years later the political landscape had transformed. While Labor lost the 1969 general election, it recorded a swing of nearly 7 percent and won a plurality of votes. But for the vagaries of the Australian electoral system, the ALP would have formed government. Just five months before the election, in May 1969, a general strike had erupted over the jailing of a Victorian tramways union official due to the union’s refusal to pay a fine imposed under the penal powers of the arbitration system. Mass walkouts followed, leading to a general strike, without the sanction of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). The strike only ended when an anonymous donor paid the union’s fine, enabling the leadership to claim a victory, call off the strike and prevent a full-scale conflict with the government. But the penal powers, which had formed such a crucial component of the post-war industrial system, were shattered.

158. The political mechanisms that had been set in place in the immediate post-war period were now breaking down. The preparation of new ones was to take place through the Labor Party.

159. Upon becoming leader of the ALP in February 1967, Gough Whitlam explained that he regarded his primary task to be the subordination of the working class to parliamentary rule. The Labor Party had been out of office since 1949 and Whitlam was fearful that extra-parliamentary forms of political struggle would develop if it were not returned to office. The next decade would be “decisive” for the future survival of the two-party system. Whitlam argued that his chief aim was, therefore, to create the conditions for the election of a national Labor government. The main obstacle, as he saw it, was the control exercised over the parliamentary party by its organisational wing, especially the left-wing Victorian branch. From 1967 to 1970, Whitlam and his supporters organised a series of interventions to reorganise the party. Couched in terms of “democracy” and “modernisation”, the underlying motivation of the campaign was to free the parliamentary leadership from the control of the party organisation, thus rendering it more responsive to the demands of the bourgeoisie. Whitlam presented his “reforms” as necessary for Labor to secure office. In fact, the Liberal/Country Party coalition was breaking apart. Its support for the Vietnam War, which had led it to victory in 1966, was provoking ever deeper opposition; its industrial relations policy had collapsed under the impact of the general strike; there were conflicts within the Liberal Party leadership and the growing global financial turbulence was creating differences between the coalition partners over economic and currency policies.

160. The Labor leadership manoeuvred between the mounting demands of the anti-Liberal government movement on the one hand, and the demands of the bourgeoisie on the other. Its policy on the Vietnam War was a graphic expression of its dual approach. The ALP adapted itself to the growing opposition to the war while, at the same time, presenting itself as the firmest supporter of the US alliance, which Labor had initiated in 1941. When the bombing of Vietnam began in 1965, the Labor leadership declared as “unexceptionable” a US statement that it was “resisting aggression” and “seeking a peaceful solution”. However, as opposition to the war grew, with millions able to nightly view its horrors on their TV screens, the right-wing of the Labor Party, led by Whitlam, became increasingly discredited. The “lefts”, especially the Melbourne-based Jim Cairns, were called in to head the anti-war movement. Their task was to ensure that it did not go beyond the framework of protest politics, and that it was channelled behind the ALP, even as the party maintained its support for US imperialism.

161. By the beginning of the 1970s key sections of the bourgeoisie, not least among them the Murdoch press, were backing the installation of a Labor government as the only means of restoring political stability. The working class, however, regarded the imminent demise of the Liberal regime, which had held power for more than two decades, as the opportunity to press forward with its own independent demands. The ensuing conflict was to create the conditions for the greatest political turbulence of the post-war period.


The World Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Perspectives Resolution of the International Committee of the Fourth International, Labor Publications, Detroit, 1988, p. 11–12.