The passing of Gough Whitlam is a time for reflection on the rich lessons to be learned from his period of government.
Those lessons embrace the nature of the Labor Party, the role of the state and imperialist interference in and control of Australia’s internal affairs.
The capitalist press keeps alive the myth that Labor is a party of the working class. It is true that it has more support from the working class than its conservative rivals, and that it has enacted reforms that benefit the people. This was particularly true of Whitlam. He abolished conscription, tertiary fees, capital punishment, imperial honours and the White Australia Policy. He created Medibank, poured the earth of the country through the hands of its original owners and custodians, and recognised the People’s Republic of China.
Such reforms always have a dual character. On the one hand, they serve the immediate needs of the people and have a progressive character. On the other hand, they make capitalism more palatable for the working class and help prolong the life of a system that keeps the working class in its precarious and vulnerable existence.
The state is the apparatus that maintains the rule of the capitalist class. Good people often make the mistake of saying that this or that political party gets into “power” when it wins an election. This is a fundamentally mistaken view. Power is held by the ruling class. Political parties get into “office” and administer and regulate the power of the ruling class. Whitlam, for all his charisma and vision, essentially kept his reforms within the bounds of a capitalist economy. Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen tellingly noted that Whitlam’s “socialism required a larger public sector, never a reallocation of wealth.”
Nevertheless, US imperialism was scared by the mere rustle of Whitlam’s leaves in the winds. Whitlam was lifted by a genuinely popular wave of demand for real independence from imperialism. Riding that wave, his Christmas 1972 criticism of the US bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong was a shock to the Nixon administration. He supported proposals for an Indian Ocean “zone of peace” opposed by the US. Whitlam also sought to end the outsourcing of US coup attempts in Cambodia and Chile to the Australian Security Intelligence Service (ASIS), threatened not to extend the agreements covering US bases in Australia, and challenged US corporations with vague plans to “buy back the farm”. In 1973, his Attorney-General Lionel Murphy raided the offices of ASIO through which the US kept the Australian people under surveillance.
Destabilisation of Whitlam’s government became a priority for US imperialism. Experienced coup master Marshall Green was sent as US Ambassador in 1973. When Whitlam sought funds from the Middle East to finance nationalisation of multinational energy companies, all the tricks in the book were brought into play. A fabricated letter was used to force the sacking of Treasurer Jim Cairns. Various other forgeries were put together and leaked to the press. Millions of dollars were channelled from the CIA to the Liberal and Country Parties through the Nugan Hand Bank, causing Whitlam to label them as “subsidised by the CIA”.
In the end, there was no need for Marshall Green to repeat the slaughter he had visited upon the Indonesian people when he oversaw Suharto’s coup against Sukarno. Whitlam had stupidly appointed Clarrie O’Shea’s jailer, Sir John Kerr to the Governor-Generalship despite knowledge of Kerr’s ties to various “foundations” financed and controlled by the CIA. A crisis around the Supply Bills was manufactured and on November 11, 1975, the very day when Whitlam was to inform Parliament everything he knew about the CIA and US bases in Australia, he was sacked by Kerr.
Whitlam had more than once declared proudly that he was bourgeois. Now that class membership and his underlying fear of an independent, organised working class, kicked in. He advised supporters to “maintain their rage”, but remained impotent himself, meekly accepting the transition by means of a semi-fascist coup, to the caretaker Prime Ministership of Malcolm Fraser. Future Labor leader and ACTU head Bob Hawke kept the working class from a general strike.
The message was not lost on Labor. As a party of capitalism that had adopted some of the policies and practices of a social-democratic party, Labor was to refashion itself under Hawke and Keating as an ardent supporter of neo-liberalism. This corresponded with the ascendancy of finance capital over industrial capital and a change from Labor’s championing of manufacturing to its embrace of deregulation and privatisation.
Rather than advancing itself as a champion of independent nation-building, Labor’s former support for Australia’s national development was subsumed by its fundamental support for the US-Australian “alliance”, a relationship in which the demands of the stronger partner are willingly enacted by the weaker.
The parliamentary process can never buck the power of the ruling class. The Labor Party cannot be the party through which the fundamental interests of the working class are pursued.
Only the development of a revolutionary movement for anti-imperialist independence and socialism, led by the working class through its own independent organisation, can realise the vision that the state and the imperialists conspired to drown when they deposed Whitlam.
The Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) exists for that reason, and for that reason alone.
Building the Party of the working class is a challenge in Australian conditions, but understanding the significance of the Whitlam era encourages us to redouble our efforts to regroup, to rebuild, to resist and to rebel.