‘Anarcho-Syndicalism in Melbourne and Sydney’ – By Conal Thwaite
Personal Abstract: Anarcho-Syndicalism in Melbourne and Sydney
This year I wrote an honours thesis about the history of anarchism in Australia. I had a great supervisor Stuart Macintyre, which was a fantastic opportunity. I knew before I started that there has only ever been a limited anarchist movement in Australia, but I also knew of several instances worth looking into. These included the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC) of the 1880s and 1890s, and also the relationship between anarchism and the Industrial Workers of the World during the early twentieth century.
Not everything I learnt, however, is contained in the final thesis. Eventually I narrowed the topic to the period after WWII until 1990, mainly because I had more sources and a few more interesting things to say about this period. I also ended up limiting the discussion to anarcho-syndicalism within anarchism, and geographically to Melbourne and Sydney within Australia. This gave me a ready-made definition of anarchism in relation to the labour movement and also meant that I could rely on primary sources from the Melbourne Anarchist Resource Centre (MARC) and the anarchist bookstore Jura Books in Sydney. I found some great anarchist documents dating from the 1950s in boxes that had never (in recent history) been sorted through.
The thesis is therefore structured as an intellectual background, and to some degree an organisational history, of anarcho-syndicalism in Melbourne and Sydney. The first chapter sets up an historical definition of the place of anarcho-syndicalism within the anarchist movement and explains these concepts as I understand them. The second is about migrant anarchists in Australia after WWII and their interactions with libertarian parts of the the New Left. It is argued that migrant anarchists help create a small anarcho-syndicalist tradition in Melbourne and Sydney. The final chapter looks at some of the activity of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation in the late 1980s, and suggests that the introduction of neoliberalism in Australia created more opportunities for an anarchist politics in the labour movement than had previously existed.
If this were to be considered a complete discussion of anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism in Australia, then there are a few parts missing. I do not just mean sources and more information about some of the events discussed. Notably, there is almost no discussion about IWW activist groups after the Second World War which were still significant to the small history of anarchism in Australia. An IWW group in Sydney became the ASF affiliate in the 1980s having moved closer towards classically defined anarcho-syndicalism. Another problem is that because the explicit anarcho-syndicalist tradition in Australia is tiny, it is questionable whether discussion about the influence of anarchism within the labour movement here can be limited to the few instances mentioned in the thesis, or to explicitly ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ events (I would argue that it can not).
The somewhat awkward structure of the thesis also reflects some problems in writing about anarchism in Australia. The confusion that exists in Australia today over what anarchism actually is, as well as being politically problematic, is also just a pain in the arse when it comes to trying to define terms in order to discuss the range of groups that have, and do, exist. Anyone who sat through the anarchist conference in Melbourne a few years ago that discussed the possibility of a federation of groups, will knows that there are serious issues in defining this movement (or scene as it may be). Some of the confusion may be explained by competing notions of libertarianism present within university circles at least since the Sydney Push in the late 1950s. However, even if you look at obvious examples well before this point (the debates within the MAC in the 1890s) you still find an incredibly confused discourse of anarchism. The fact is that the mainstream of the anarchist ideas that anarchists such as myself will invoke (anarchist communism, syndicalism, platformism, or even ‘insurrectionalism’) do not have a strong history here. These words consequently have less meaning and tend to refer to abstract positions rather than concrete local examples.
Nevertheless, these concepts are important and do have a history, including in Australia. It is apparent to me, from what I have read, that even in Australia it is classically defined ideas such as syndicalism, anarchist communism, etc, that still make up the majority of instances within a broader spectrum that you might define as libertarian (to include the Sydney Push for instance). It is a major limitation of anarchist propaganda today, to not know more about concrete, local, examples of anarchist organisation in the past. If anyone else is interested in reading or writing more about anarchism in Australia, you could get in touch with me by using the email below. I may be able to direct you to sources or to others who know a lot more about some of these topics. I also hope to explore some new topics within the Fantin Reading Group operating at MARC.
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