'A Political ... as Well as a Propagandist Movement': Cultural Politics and the Rise of Fisher Labor

By Dyrenfurth, Nick | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, May 2012 | Go to article overview

'A Political ... as Well as a Propagandist Movement': Cultural Politics and the Rise of Fisher Labor


Dyrenfurth, Nick, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


'[N]ever ... in the history of the world had a greater victory been achieved'. (1) So declared Ernest Farrar, Vice-President of the NSW Political Labor League, addressing a euphoric Sydney gathering in the aftermath of the April 1910 federal election. In simple electoral terms, Farrar was correct. Following its defeat of Alfred Deakin's 'Fusion', the Andrew Fisher-led Australian Labor Party (ALP) became the first party of its type to hold national office in its own right anywhere on earth.

Federal Labor previously enjoyed three months of minority government under Chris Watson's leadership during mid-1904; in 1899 Anderson Dawson's Queensland Labor party formed a seven day colonial administration, each representing world firsts. By 1913, the ALP had held office in every state, albeit for farcically short periods in both Tasmania (1909) and Victoria (1913).

Whereas British Labour was little more than a parliamentary rump and socialist parties in France and Germany extremely weak, during Fisher Labor's three year term (1910-13) the planks of Labor's platform were made law. No 'Labor' party existed in comparable nations such as New Zealand or would ever seriously exist in the United States. (2) These comparisons invite this article's central question: why did Labor enjoy such precocious success?

Labor's emergence during the late nineteenth century has been a well-documented, if narrowly concerned subject. There are institutional accounts of the origins and emergence of Labor's federal and state incarnations, numerous biographies of its leading lights, as well as more wide ranging survey histories of the broader labour movement. Narrative histories of controversial episodes such as the party's split over conscription during World War I are historiographical staples. More recently the early movement's (populist) ideological trajectory and racial and gender exclusivity have been scrutinised, and approaches emphasising locality as well as transnational and comparative frameworks deployed.

Central to this historiography is the concept of 'labourism'. For many scholars, labourism is an ideological marker, or lack thereof, describing the practices of Labor in government. For others, the concept denotes a somewhat esoteric reformist spirit that prefers pragmatism to ideological purity. (3) This longstanding debate scarcely requires explication. Suffice to say, by the early 1990s, labourism, whether celebratory or pejorative, had won the historiographical day. (4) However, many of these analyses relied upon a vision of what the party 'should be' or 'could become'. (5) Furthermore, according to Terry Irving, the dichotomous model of socialism (and we might add social democracy) versus labourism downplayed Labor's complex relationship with socialism meaning 'it was difficult to draw out in any precise way the actual ideas and practices of labourism'. (6)

This article possesses two major aims. Firstly, it seeks to develop a more historically sensitive and methodologically satisfactory model of labourism that moves us beyond the dead-end labourism/socialism debates (indeed elsewhere I argue that labourism must be seen as the Australianist version of social democracy). (7) This is not to argue that historians should jettison the concept. As Frank Bongiorno notes, labourism 'remains useful as a label for a particular set of political attitudes, centring on support for an independent Labor Party committed to constitutional methods and the modification of market outcomes to the advantage of the working class and other productive but disadvantaged members of society'. (8)

Yet few histories systemically examine why Labor governments emerged at all and cultivated constituencies to, allegedly, betray. Even fewer explore labourism's powerful cultural basis. Most assume its existence, rather than understanding it to be a crucial aspect of early Labor politics. By contrast, I will argue that the distinctive language, iconography and narrative tools wielded by early Laborites--what I term the party's cultural politics or cultural labourism--drove much of their precocious success, culminating in Fisher's majority government. …

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