Marxism’s Australian Origins

By Mark Steven



Here’s my hypothesis: the Russian Revolution of 1917 is an indictment of the thing we call Australia. That sounds ludicrous, but only because it’s a statement that wants for mediation. To make good on this claim we need to establish a third term that orchestrates the transfer of energies between these two seemingly autonomous entities – what the economists call a “lateral field of causality” – and that is precisely what I want to do with this post: secure a concrete mediation between Australia and the Russian Revolution. If “mediation” is a key term for certain strands of materialist thought, this particular mediation takes its proper name from their best-known thinker: Karl Marx. Let’s proceed by way of two separate but related propositions.

First proposition. 1917 was a reaction to capitalism as it had been understood and accounted for by Marx. This one seems relatively sensible. Before Marxism-Leninism solidified into an official ideology of the CPSU under Stalin, the proper names combined by that hyphen were integral to the actualization of revolution. Lenin, to be sure, updated Marxism for a new historical moment, and he did so by recognizing that revolution is the ultimate charge against capitalism, the categorical imperative of political critique. We read as much in The State and Revolution, written in August 1917, a guidebook for the obliteration capitalism the thinking of which is principally adapted from the writings of Marx and Engels. “The monstrous oppression of the working people by the state,” writes Lenin, “which is merging more and more with the all­-powerful capitalist associations, is becoming increasingly monstrous. The advanced countries –­ we mean their hinterland –­ are becoming military convict prisons for the workers.” The counterforce to all of this is, Lenin knows, the very revolution he will force into becoming. Revolution, in this view, is a curative to a sociality predicated on mass immiseration. “The unprecedented horrors and miseries of the protracted war are making the people’s position unbearable and increasing their anger,” he speculates. “The world proletarian revolution is clearly maturing.” Marx, Lenin, 1917. So far, so Hegel.

Now, second proposition. Without Australia, there would be no Marxism of the sort to which Lenin appeals. Or, more specifically, Australia is essential to Marx’s understanding of capitalism as an historical construction, the corrective to which is socialist revolution. We advance this argument with reference to Marx’s magnum opus, the first volume of Capital, published in 1867. The final chapter of this volume is idiosyncratic to what came before, in that it appears to historicize an economic system the previous chapters had drawn into view precisely as a system – a coda that reads like the diachronic X-axis to the preceding chapters’ synchronic Y. This chapter – “The Modern Theory of Colonization” – provides an account of the way capital establishes itself in new territories, colliding with, in Marx’s phrase, “the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist.” The result of this collision is asymmetrical warfare, wherein the capitalist – backed by the mother country – clears the way by force, exterminating indigenous populations and subjugating propertyless immigrants and native survivors alike.

For Marx, it is here in the new world that the inner truth of capitalism is confirmed once and for all. So we learn from the book’s final sentences, which employ one of Marx’s favored rhetorical devices, the bait-and-switch, to indicate what is really at stake for the theory of colonization. “The only thing that interests us,” we are told, “is the secret discovered in the new world by the Political Economy of the old world, and proclaimed on the housetops: that the capitalist mode of production and accumulation, and therefore capitalist private property, have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of self-earned private property; in other words, the expropriation of the laborer.” It is this, the very lesson of Marx’s book and the primal truth of all capitalist accumulation, that finds its exemplary form in the Antipodes.

It should come as no surprise that with all of this Marx is thinking about Australia. After a theoretical prolegomena, we are introduced to an illustrative scenario, a kind of Robinson Crusoe story, to whose location we return before the chapter’s end:

… in the Colonies, property in money, means of subsistence, machines, and other means of production, does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative – the wage-worker, the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own free will. He discovered that capital is not a thing, but a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things. Mr. Peel, he moans, took with him from England to Swan River, West Australia, means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 300 persons of the working class, men, women, and children. Once arrived at his destination, “Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.” Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!

The point, here, is that this is not in itself a capitalist economy. The ingredients for capitalism are all present and accounted for, but they are yet to take their places within the requisite social relation (i.e. the division of classes by wage-labor).

Capitalism’s sociality, we learn, is completely unnatural; it is the result of a manufactured dispossession, compelled in equal measure by legislative rule and coercive force. Specifically, colonial governments affix prohibitively expensive prices to the land, bequeathing real estate to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, thereby compelling landless immigrants and the surviving natives to work for wages that are in turn extorted back from them as ground rent. And it is this, the unholy preconditions for all wage-slavery, that Marx found in Australia:

The shameless lavishing of uncultivated colonial land on aristocrats and capitalists by the Government… has produced, especially in Australia, in conjunction with the stream of men that the gold diggings attract, and with the competition that the importation of English-commodities causes even to the smallest artisan, an ample “relative surplus laboring population,” so that almost every mail brings the Job’s news of a “glut of the Australia labour-market,” and the prostitution in some places flourishes as wantonly as in the London Haymarket.

This is how capitalist accumulation operates everywhere, through blackmail and extortion written into the social structure, but it is an operation that Marx ultimately learned – or at least saw confirmed – by looking in our direction, to Australia.

It’s tempting to overstate this. If no Australia, no Marx; and if no Marx, no 1917. But not quite – for, after all, if not Australia there is always North America! Instead, we should work backward, and reformulate the lineage this way. 1917 was a material indictment of capitalism as Marx described it half a century earlier, and capitalism in Marx’s description found an exemplary articulation in Australia. In a sense, then, 1917 is an indictment of Australia, a foil to our many and ongoing atrocities, but – and this must be emphasized – it is not just an indictment of our colonial prehistory. 1917 is also an indictment of the present. The social relation described by Marx as particular to the settler colony is still with us today – and it is experienced as everyday extortion by those of us who have to work in order to eat and who are subject to the laws of tenancy for our shelter. Australian literature has always been sensitive to this fact, the longevity of dispossession, but perhaps it is felt nowhere more powerfully than in the literature of the livestock industry, and especially in that which pertains to sheep and shearing. For Marx, the objective of colonization is to subsume foreign lands, “which are thereby converted into settlements for growing the raw material of the mother country; just as Australia,” he adds, “was converted into a colony for growing wool.” From within this context comes a literary response to collective dispossession, a “rebel chorus” inscribed by Henry Lawson in 1891, the final quatrain of which sounds out a promise to landlords and bourgeoisie everywhere, none of whom are any better than their slave-driving ancestors:

We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!