Socialists and the fight for Indigenous rights

29 August 2023
Jordan Humphreys

One of the goals of my new book Indigenous Liberation & Socialism is to highlight the often ignored story of how, throughout the history of this country, the struggles of Indigenous people have overlapped with the socialist movement. Much of this rich history has been either dismissed or significantly downplayed by traditional academic research.

Take just one example: when I started exploring the history of the militant shearers unions in the late 1800s to see if there had been Aboriginal participants, I found endless articles, PhD theses and books arguing either that there had never been any Aboriginal shearers at all or, if there had been, that they definitely wouldn’t have been union members. If they had somehow managed to be union members, then they would have been the most marginalised and despised section of the unions.

But an examination of the publications and records of the shearers’ unions quickly revealed that there had been hundreds of Aboriginal members and that some had played relatively leading roles. Andrew Stuart Stepney, for example, was the leader of a strike camp in Cobar during the 1894 strike and led dozens of horse-riding shearers into battle with the police and scabbing workers. Stepney was so successful as a leader that he was brought to Queensland a few weeks later to lead the struggle at Bowen Downs. The enthusiastic participation of Aboriginal shearers in strikes in western NSW in 1902 caused William Johnson, chairman of the Australian Workers’ Union Central Branch, to write:

“The knock-out to Haley was the unanimous roll up of the aborigines, who are staunch Unionists; and deserve our assistance in other ways. If the whites had been as true to their fellows as the dark skins, Booberoi would be Union today.”

The interconnections between the workers’ movement and Indigenous people were deepened with the formation of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. Throughout the twentieth century, the Communist Party made an important contribution to the struggle for Indigenous rights. For decades, Communists stood against the grain of racism in Australian society, criticised the mainstream of the labour movement for its failure to take Indigenous rights seriously and condemned the Australian Labor Party for its role in enforcing oppression and racism at both state and federal levels.

Communists tried to build solidarity with Indigenous struggles and promoted anti-racist ideas among their predominantly working-class membership and audience. No other predominantly non-Indigenous organisation contributed as much to the Indigenous struggle in Australia as the CPA.

From the Day of Mourning and Protest in 1938 to the post-World War Two strikes of Aboriginal workers in the Pilbara and Darwin, to the land rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, Communist Party members fought alongside Indigenous activists in common struggles against our class-divided, profoundly racist, capitalist society.

Some of this history has been covered by other left-wing historians who have tried to keep alive the memory of these connections between working-class politics and the fight for Indigenous rights. The important role that the Communist Party in particular played within movements for Indigenous rights, however, raises a whole series of political issues and problems, particularly for those of us who are coming at this history from a socialist but anti-Stalinist perspective.

As anti-Stalinists, we want to defend the contributions of the Communist Party, and the workers’ movement more generally, to anti-racist struggles from those who want to dismiss or downplay the significance of the workers’ movement and the socialist left in history. However, we have to combine that with a critical assessment of how the Stalinist politics of the Communist Party negatively impacted its interventions into different struggles, including those for Indigenous rights.

Sometimes the issue is obvious. For example, in articles and public meetings, Communists would often end a denunciation of the racist crimes of the Australian government by comparing it to the supposed equal treatment of national and racial minorities in the USSR, therefore proving in their eyes how socialism would be better than capitalism. The problem with this, of course, is that it wasn’t true; Stalin and his successors brutally cracked down on any serious moves for national autonomy or rights within the old Soviet Union.

But the problems go much deeper than just the Communist Party’s support for an authoritarian dictatorship. From the mid-1930s, and particularly in the postwar years, the Communists turned towards reformism in practice, even while they kept much of the rhetoric of the Marxist movement. They embedded themselves within the left wing of the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy and thought that creating a unified and broad-based popular front of all working-class organisations, the progressive middle classes and even sections of the establishment was key to advancing the socialist project. Alongside this came a shift in Communist attitudes towards Australian nationalism and a re-conceptualisation of imperialism.

From the mid-1930s, the Communist Party argued that Australia was not an independent capitalist country and that all Australian people were exploited by imperialism. From this standpoint, Indigenous people were considered the most oppressed and exploited section of the whole population. The party argued that the struggle for socialism and liberation couldn’t advance until the influence of US imperialism in Australia was defeated by an alliance of workers, the middle classes and progressive “Australian” capitalists.

This led to all sorts of problems. For instance, the 1950s campaigns for Aboriginal rights that the Communists were involved in were politically moderate and cautious, as activists tried to maintain a respectable image in the conservative atmosphere of the Cold War. Petitions were the usual form of activity, and the focus was appealing to the United Nations to pressure the Australian government or looking towards Labor or even progressive Liberal politicians for support. When protests did occur, they usually took the form of a silent vigil, in contrast to the more militant style of direct action that would emerge in the late 1960s.

At the high point of the Cold War, the problems with this approach were not so obvious and could be rationalised as the only orientation possible. However, it stored up problems that came to the fore in the following decades.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a profound radicalisation around the world. University students took to the streets and occupied campuses in protest against the Vietnam War. In the United States, a powerful struggle for civil rights mobilised huge numbers and inspired struggles against racism internationally. United movements of students and workers erupted in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Australia was not immune to this upheaval. Hundreds of thousands marched against the war, the confidence of the working class to take industrial action surged, and a new radical left began to emerge, critical of the conservatism and moderation of both the ALP and the old Communist Party.

In this context a significant radicalisation in the movement for Indigenous rights took place as well, which resulted in the coming together of several new rebellious elements, imbuing the fight for Indigenous rights with a new, more radical, spirit.

First of all was the student movement. Unlike the campaigners of the 1950s, the students engaged in tactics more akin to direct action—marching on the street and clashing with the police, occupying the foyers of office buildings and protesting inside supermarkets against racist companies.

It wasn’t just students who were impacted by the shift to the left. There was also a new generation of younger, more militant Aboriginal activists who were increasingly drawn to the politics of the Black Power movement in the US. Unlike the previous generation of activists, the Black Power activists were more willing to confront the police, to march on the streets and to demand their rights rather than simply ask for them.

The third element was the radicalisation among workers. This really took off after the arrest of trade union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 led to several general strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers.

The industrial militancy also fed into political issues like the Vietnam War, women’s rights and Aboriginal rights. One of the best examples of this was the Builders Labourers Federation, which was a left-wing union that used its industrial power during the building boom of the 1960s to take strike action around social issues, including land rights and in support of the Black Power movement in Redfern.

An event that showed the coming together of these three elements—the student left, the radicalising Aboriginal activists and the workers’ movement—occurred in July 1972: the Moratorium for Black Rights. This was organised by Black Power activists in Redfern, who mobilised around 5,000 people; it resulted in builders' labourers, painters and dockers, and wharfies walking off the job for the day to support the rally, which had a bold left-wing platform of supporting land rights, Black Power and a radical fight against racism.

The coming together of the student left, the Black Power activists and the left wing of the workers’ movement was important because it revealed that the limitations of the old Stalinist left didn’t have to mean junking the whole idea that the working class was the agent of social change—although it did mean that he socialist left would have to clarify what this meant.

People often think that if you want to have a movement with mass support, it has to be politically moderate because that’s the only way you can get everyone on board. On the other hand, the argument goes, if you want something really radical, then it can only be a movement of a small minority. But the radicalisation of the 1960s and 1970s offers us a glimpse into an alternative framework for bringing together the movement for socialism and the struggle for Indigenous liberation—one that looks to the power of workers, but mobilised in a more leftward direction.

The relevance of this for today is that we are currently at an impasse with regard to the struggle for Indigenous rights. Cops continue to murder Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, land rights are trodden on by mining and energy companies, the Liberal Party runs vile, racist campaigns against Indigenous rights, while all the Labor Party offers is symbolic recognition without substantial change.

History does not simply repeat itself. But by looking at how the movements for socialism and Indigenous rights have intersected in the past, we can think creatively about how they can be rebuilt and flourish in the future. It’s with this hope that Indigenous Liberation & Socialism was written.

Indigenous Liberation & Socialism is available for purchase from Red Flag books.

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