Notes on four books: Rebel Women, Class & Class Conflict, Years of Rage, and Into the Mainstream

REBEL WOMEN in Australian Working Class History

Edited by Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O'Lincoln. Published by Interventions, Melbourne 1998

Available for $25 postpaid from PO Box 4202, Richmond East, Victoria 3121, Australia. Make cheques payable to The Jeff Goldhar Project.

From the back cover:

HERE ARE stories that challenge the conventional views of working class women and their struggles. Strikes and demonstrations throughout this century shatter traditional images of women as passive victims.

Early in the century the women of Broken Hill fought strikebreakers with axes and broom handles. In the 1930s Depression, women played an important role in strikes and unemployed movements. During World War II they fought explosive struggles for equal pay, and after the War left wing women tried to hold the line on equal rights during a time of conservatism and reaction. The battle for equal pay revived in the 1970s, including a historic campaign in the insurance industry.

For several decades, migrants have been a militant part of the labour movement, including the women textile workers at Melbourne's Kortex factory, whose classic industrial dispute is chronicled here. And in 1986, Victorian nurses waged the historic mass strike that concludes this book.

The contributors, who write from a Marxist perspective, all have a long history of involvement in campaigns for women's liberation, in industrial struggle, and in writing about women's issues.


1. "Militant Spirits: The Rebel Women of Broken Hill", by Sandra Bloodworth.
2. "Brazen Hussies and God's Police: Fighting Back in the Depression Years", by Janey Stone.
3. "Class Struggle on the Home Front: Women, Unions and Militancy in the Second World War", by Janey Stone.
4. "Against the Stream: Women and the Left, 1945-1968", by Tom O'Lincoln.
5. "Equal Pay: The Insurance Industry Struggle,1973-75", by Diane Fieldes.
6. "Sweatshop Rebels: The 1981 Kortex strike", by Sandra Bloodworth.
7. "Dedication Doesn't Pay the Rent! The 1986 Victorian Nurses' Strike", by Liz Ross.


Class and Class Conflict in Australia

Edited by Rick Kuhn and Tom O'Lincoln. Published by Longman Australia, Melbourne, 1996. The book is available from Addison Wesley Longman, 95 Coventry Street, South Melbourne, Victoria 3205, Australia.

From the introduction:

Class analysis will always be controversial. The people who control the most powerful mechanisms for generating and shaping ideas ¾ media barons, government ministers, vice chancellors ¾ are amongst the main beneficiaries of capitalism, and will naturally oppose theories pointing to the inherent inequalities, injustices, and tendencies towards crisis in our society. Many intellectuals will follow their lead. All the more reason why critical voices are necessary to ensure such views get a hearing.

Whether we succeed depends partly on the quality of our work, but partly also on the wider political climate, which is shaped in turn by historic events. Two developments over the past twenty years have undermined the credibility of class analysis generally, and in particularly its most consistent and coherent version, Marxism.

A decline in industrial conflict since the late 1970s was associated with a shift to the right in the political climate, and this discouraged radical intellectuals who had once looked to working class struggle to change the world. Together with substantial economic growth in the 1980s, this gave rise to fashionable notions that class was an outdated concept. The collapse of ostensibly ‘communist’ states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has more specifically undermined the prestige of Marxism.

However, the recession of the early 1990s and the increasing polarisation of Australian society between rich and poor have shown that capitalism is still crisis-prone, and that it consistently reproduces stark class differences. As for the collapse of Soviet-style regimes, the contributors to this volume are all long-standing opponents of such stalinist systems. Our Marxism is a politics of liberation, and we would argue that the best way to understand what was wrong with Eastern bloc ‘communism’ is precisely through Marxist critiques.(1) Our immediate goal in this book, however, is to demonstrate the power of class analysis in explaining and criticising contemporary Australian society.

The first three chapters have been written in close consultation and have the greatest commonality of approach, which is important since capital and labour can only be understood in relation to each other. Tom O’Lincoln profiles the ruling class in the 1990s, Diane Fieldes argues for the continuing importance of the working class and class struggle, and Tom Bramble considers the ways in which the established working class leadership is both shaped and compromised by its position between capital and labour.

In chapter 4, Mick Armstrong uses a largely historical approach to consider the prospects for unity between black and white workers, while in chapter 5 Janey Stone looks in detail at women’s position in the work force today. In chapter 6, Robert Tierney concentrates on migrants’ position within the working class. Whereas Tierney makes extensive use of a class segmentation approach, Stone warns of the dangers of applying such approaches simplistically to women. Both, however, argue the importance of uniting the working class rather than accepting divisions as inevitable.

Chapter 7, by Verity Burgmann and Andrew Milner, combines their expertise in history, political science and cultural criticism in a study of intellectuals and the fate of modern social movements. John van der Velden and Rob White employ a conceptual analysis in chapter 8 to explore the economic, social and political dimensions of crime and criminality, and the ‘law and order’ debate. The final chapter, by Rick Kuhn, traces the differences between populist and socialist versions of class analysis in Australian history.

Despite much common ground individual contributors are responsible only for their own chapters and readers will undoubtedly discern some political differences. The editors, for example, do not share Burgmann and Milner’s thesis about the prospects for an end to certain forms of oppression under capitalism, but we publish it as a stimulating discussion about issues of contemporary importance. We share neither the ‘post-structuralist’ notion that incompatible points of view can somehow be simultaneously valid, nor the Stalinist caricature of ‘Marxism’ which imposed a monolithic orthodoxy. Rather we take the view that the differences between theorists can and should be resolved through amicable debate and by testing ideas in practice.

What all contributors agree on is the importance of class.(2) This category is first and foremost an aspect of the organisation of production, so it is inseparable from the ownership and control that a tiny minority of employers, senior officials and politicians exercise over productive resources like factories, warehouses, offices, machinery, equipment and land. They need the labour of other people to put such resources into motion. In modern capitalist countries such as Australia, employers pay wages to buy the right to direct their workers’ activities (to make use of their ‘labour power’). With the wages they earn, workers are usually able to feed, clothe and house themselves, as well as bring up the next generation of workers so that labour power is continually available to capital. The existence of these basic classes, capital and labour, therefore springs from the fundamental nature of capitalist relations of production.

Human labour, unlike machines, creates new wealth. So because employers own the product of the labour done under their supervision or that of their subordinate managers, they own the new value created by workers. Profits derive from the difference between the costs of workers’ labour power and the value of the products of the labour they actually perform while they are at work. This analysis, rather than a moral argument about cheating or theft, is the basis of the Marxist theory of exploitation.(3)

In this book we define the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) as those who own or control productive resources and employ people to bring it into use. The working class (or the proletariat), is made up of people whose only means of making a living is to sell their ability to work to an employer. This includes those dependent on a wage, the spouses and children, or workers who are not themselves in paid employment. Unemployed workers unable to get a job because there is not enough paid work available and who therefore have to try to survive on meagre social security payments are also part of the working class.

Not everyone in the Australian work force is, however, either a boss or a worker. There are a number of middle layers sharing some characteristics with capitalists and others with the majority of wage earners. The traditional middle class (or petty bourgeoisie) own small amounts of productive resources. Often their ownership of a truck, a shop, computers or production equipment is limited by heavy indebtedness. Unlike capitalists, members of the petty bourgeoisie are primarily dependent on their own labour, perhaps aided by family or a small number of employees. Some professionals, independent solicitors, accountants and doctors operate in a similar way.

Many writers (4) also distinguish a ‘new middle class’: diverse groups of employees of large organisations in a hierarchy of senior supervisors, professionals and middle managers. Specialised professionals, engineers, lawyers or accountants in such bureaucracies may have considerable autonomy in their work. Some professionals and other supervisors have power over subordinates and limited rights to decide how productive resources are used. But they don’t participate in major decisions about levels of employment, large scale transactions or the kind of business their organisation is in.

All of the employees of a large business or government department, from cleaners, through technicians, team leaders and managers to the chief executive officer may get their income in the form of a salary. But this is much less important in shaping their lives and, generally the level of their income, than their role in production: whether they essentially do what they are told at one extreme or make the key decisions and give the most important orders at the other.

People’s social roles as well as their perception of these roles are influenced by factors such as the mass media, education and personal interactions. These are also shaped by class society. For example the family which offers us basic identities as daughters or sons, wives or husbands, or parents has been moulded by capitalism. The nuclear family of one or two parents and children is a relatively recent institution that emerged from the breakdown of peasant and artisan families. Meanwhile the mass media, schools and education departments and other public bureaucracies are themselves capitalist institutions headed by members of the bourgeoisie. The ideas they support and the rules they enforce reflect this fact.

The experience of oppression ¾ including higher unemployment, restricted access to better paid work, harassment by police, inferior treatment before courts or by public bureaucracies ¾ shapes the self-understanding of very large numbers of people and the way they organise and think about class. Oppression also influences the behaviour of those who are not subject to it. The chapters dealing with Aborigines, women and migrants attempt to demonstrate how their oppression is produced and reproduced by class society.

Classes are not static, and the conflict between them is a crucial element in Marxist analysis. The analysis, in turn, is not an end in itself but aims to assist in the struggle to change society. The changes may be improved wages, free abortion on demand, land rights or better public health care and, ultimately, the abolition of class society itself. But the struggles for these are all shaped by class interests and class power. For the working class, in particular, power is collective. Individual workers have minimal social influence, but together they produce the bulk of social wealth and therefore have tremendous potential power. To the extent that workers are aware of their common class interests, they will be more effective in fighting both for immediate demands and to emancipate themselves from capitalism. In the course of struggles against exploitation and oppression, class divisions become much clearer as do the creative and organisational capacities of ordinary people.

The contributors draw both on this analytical tradition and on their own experiences in struggles against the excesses of capitalism and for socialism. All have been active on the left for a considerable period, participating in debates and campaigns. Drawing on the Marxist traditions of the old and new left, they demonstrate the continuing relevance of class analysis to the struggles of today.


(1) E.g. C. Harman, ‘The storm breaks’, International Socialism 46, Spring 1990

(2) H. Draper, Karl Marx’s theory of revolution: 2 The politics of social classes, Monthly Review Press, New York 1978 is a very readable account of Marx and Engels’ treatment of class.

(3) K. Marx, Capital, (3 volumes) is the most systematic study of capitalist production as the foundation of class society. E. Mandel, An introduction to Marxist economic theory, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1979 or D. Smith and P. Evans, Marx’s Kapital for Beginners, Pantheon, New York, 1982, provide good brief introductions to Marxist economics.

(4) See A. Callinicos and C. Harman, The changing working class: Essays on class structure today, Bookmarks, London, 1987 and C. Carchedi, ‘The economic identification of the new middle class’, Economic and Society, 4 (1) 1975.


Contents of the book

1. "Wealth, Ownership and Power: The Ruling Class", by Tom O'Lincoln.
2. "Still Here, Still Fighting: The Working Class in the Nineties", by Diane Fieldes.
3. "Managers of Discontent: Problems With Labour Leadership", by Tom Bramble.
4. "Aborigines: Problems of Race and Class", by Mick Armstrong.
5. "A Different Voice? Women and Work in Australia", by Janey Stone.
6. "Migrants and Class in Postwar Australia", by Robert Tierney.
7. "Intellectuals and the New Social Movements", by Verity Burgmann and Andrew Milner.
8. "Class Criminality and the Politics of Law and Order", by John van der Velden and Rob White.
9. "Class Analysis and the Left in Australian History", by Rick Kuhn.


Into the Mainstream and Years of Rage:

Tom O'Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism.
Published by Stained Wattle Press, Sydney, 1985. A critical history of the Communist Party of Australia in the postwar period. $15 postpaid.

Tom O'Lincoln, Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era.
Published by Bookmarks, Melbourne, 1993. General strikes, union bans on uranium mining, Aboriginal land rights, women's liberation, and much more. Covers the years 1975-1983. $20 postpaid.

Both available from Bookmarks, PO Box A338, Sydney South, NSW 2000.

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