John Curtin – Socialism, South by Southwest

By Peter Beilharz

John Curtin’s reputation rests on the years of his Prime Ministership. The Marxism and radicalism of his youth are less well recognised. These reflections, originally delivered as a public lecture to Curtin University on the occasion of its fiftieth year in 2017, set out to remind those connected with the University of this legacy, and to puzzle it. For if the young Curtin was some kind of revolutionary, it is less than clear what the content of his socialism actually was. In this, Curtin was typical of his formative period in the period of the VSP, before and independently of the Russian October Revolution. Though he was widely read and deeply provocative in his thinking and writing, revolution here functions as process and prelude rather than as program – this, until the path to reformism opens for him. In opposition, his socialism was characteristically mixed.

Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne, 2017. Photo: Sian Supski.

John Curtin was a socialist. Five words – what might they mean? Whatever Curtin was to become, as the great War Prime Minister, he was earlier the opponent of power, and the victim of Labor in power, under Hughes. He was a man who said no. What did he say yes to, what kind of socialism did he imagine as desirable and possible in Australia? What was the content of Curtin’s socialism?

There is a standard narrative about the special nature of his thinking and its formation, and I do not intend to revise it. It concerns his socialist kindergarten, the Victorian Socialist Party in the first years of the twentieth century.

The culture of the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) was astonishing, though by no means peculiar to its period or place – Melbourne into the new twentieth century – when socialism was referred to as a religion and was about as well organised as the churches, maybe better. The association of religion and socialism was as common more than a century ago as it was apostate after the October Revolution. Socialism in this period, into the new twentieth century, was more often communal and cooperative than aligned with state or even municipality. The dominant model for social organisation on the Marxist left before October was the German SPD, whose culture dominated the Second International.[1] This model came to be known as that of the society within a society. Much later, into the 1960s, this model came to be known as prefigurative, or given to example rather than exhortation. In the hands of much later thinkers like Jim Cairns, another JC influenced by Christian socialism, the claim was that to have a socialist society you first need a society of socialists, folk whose politics you would know not by their badges or even their banners but by their Christian codes of conduct. Cooperation was their moral ideal, but it also came to be a political economy, via the organisational forms of consumer and producer cooperatives. These British influences were also often referred to generically as the social democracy, but here, as in Britain, Marx was one name among many, and the themes and ways of thinking often owed more to Christianity and to cooperation than to any sense of scientific socialism.

The SPD became famous for its chorale, – what better way to promote socialism than to sing it? – its bicycling clubs, its smoking clubs and antismoking clubs, its libraries and its ream of publications from comic books to dailies and serious theoretical journals such as the Sozialistsche Monatshefte and Die Neue Zeit. These were extensive communities of interest, culture, belief and provision. Early critics such as Robert Michels were concerned that cultures like the SPD had become too comfortable for their inhabitants, who were happy to buy cigars from their socialist tobacconists, read the socialist press and no other, adorn themselves with Karl Marx buttons and freely imbibe of Karl Marx liqueurs. Michels worried that socialist community would also risk becoming a ghetto, something Hitler had also worked out. If socialists were a state within the state, they could be bounded, placed and taken out by the dominant state power, which is exactly what the Nazis did after 1933.

In its time the Fabian Society, which emerged from an alternative forum called the Fellowship of the New Life in 1884, also followed the project of the new life inspired by the Christian socialism of FD Maurice, Ruskin and Kingsley, later represented pictorially by Walter Crane.[2] There was of course also a strong and vibrant socialist culture in the USA, drawing both on immigrant traditions, itinerant labour mobility, and local resources. And there was serious cultural traffic between the UK and US, so that for example both Edward Bellamy and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were active in the American Fabian Society.[3] Reaching across the Atlantic, embattled utopian socialists such as Bellamy and Morris nevertheless agreed about at least one thing – the dream of socialism was utopia, and socialism was a religion. And it was seriously international. Remember William Lane, until recently constructed as a pioneer of Australian labour: born in London, to Australia via Canada, then to Paraguay, finally to New Zealand. Marx considered migrating to the USA; and later German marxists, Bernstein and Korsch, both spent time in the UK and joined the Fabians, even though the first was a reformer and the second a revolutionary.

Walter Crane’s The Workers’ Maypole, 1894
Walter Crane’s The Workers’ Maypole, 1894

Where the English Fabians shifted from new life into social statistics, becoming the first left think tank, the VSP moved from gathering data about poverty in Melbourne to communal activities, including choir, orchestra, drama society and its useful offspring in oratory, various classes including Esperanto and a Ruskin class, the running of a reading room, library, information bureau, bicycle club, cricket, football and calisthenics, even games like drop the hanky – for this was also a courtship network for young folk – , a cosmopolitan or multicultural committee, a consumer coop and even a bank. The bank is interesting, as it responds to the phantom of the Money Power. The VSP published The Socialist, ran Socialist Sunday Schools, and a Young Socialist Army, and observed the Socialist Ten Commandments. Its pledge read: “I am sorry that there is suffering through poverty. I believe socialism will cure this evil and make it possible for all to be happy.” It was another version of what Beatrice Webb called the consciousness of sin.

Tom Mann was the key activist in the Social Questions Committee, which he founded in 1905, and in the VSP, which grew from it later into 1906. Mann’s formation had begun in Sunday school, the conventional kind. He was, like Curtin, a preacher of the gospel of socialism.[4] Mann delivered Sunday lectures called Socialist Sermons, and socialist christenings. Its lieutenants included Curtin, who had come from two years playing cornet with those other eminent Salvationists, the Salvation Army proper. The VSP boasted a team of 61 available lecturers, Curtin first among them, observing that they were able to sustain fifteen street corner meetings per night. Other significant VSP actors, to return in this story, were Bob Ross and his son Lloyd, as well as Vance and Nettie Palmer and many others. The VSP also delivered balls, picnics, socials, theatre trips and bay cruises. According to Race Mathews, this was a level of cultural activity which excelled even that of the English Fabian Society.[5] Certainly this looks like a culture, in the sense that Raymond Williams indicated ‘a whole way of life.’ By the 1960s, it perhaps began rather to look like what we then hoped for as a counterculture. By definition, its beliefs would be all mixed up.

Taking a longer, imperial view, for here it seems likely that the paths of cultural traffic were heavily biased to the Anglo world rather than to Germany, there was also a thick past of activity, as sketched for example by Stephen Yeo in his pathbreaking 1977 History Workshop essay, “A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883–1896.”[6] Coming in at fifty pages, this is a small book, or in period terms perhaps a robust pamphlet, bearing the imprimatur of his own socialist hero Edward Thompson. It opens with Blatchford, and with Morris, who like Curtin was both revolutionary and religious. It describes the association, or even identification of religion and socialism through Belfort Bax, referring even to Engels’ interest in the Salvation Army. It evokes the obvious parallel themes: redemption, salvation, Second Coming, the New Jerusalem, conversion, apostles, rebirth, evangelism. And more names: William Booth, Glasier, Henry George and many more less known to us, the Labour churches and socialist churches. It also identifies a key motive or driver: History, for while the language of evolution came to dominate left thinking, and Darwinism came to dominate the claim to so called scientific socialism, the key motive sense here was rather of necessity and myth. Socialism would come, must come. In the mainstream of the Second International, as in Kautsky, this would famously elicit the assurance that the SPD was a revolutionary, but not a revolution-making party.[7] Or as Bebel earlier had put it, we merely needed for socialism to drop into our laps like ripe fruit. The senses of the inevitability of socialism ran right through to the German Communist Party, KPD, with its tragically mistaken slogan, ‘First Hitler, Then Us.’ This sense that socialism was written into the order of things, and must out, was, of course, also to become a practical issue for Curtin, who committed to international socialist revolution but did not know how it might come about.

How did this socialist efflorescence come, into the new twentieth century, and pass? Yeo indicates some factors – not least that which distracted Michels, the arrival of the massive paid party apparatus of the labour parties, and their appended career escalators. Into the new century, socialism could be less a way of life and more a way of making a living, and this is not to be sneered at – everyone, John Curtin included, had to make a living. His socialist father in law, Abraham Needham, made a living by sign writing and organising socialism in South Africa, his brother in law William by fighting the Boers and even by body building and display. Needham senior had also been an Anglican preacher, as well as a passable landscape painter. He was deeply influential on Curtin, to the extent that David Day implies that his romantic attraction to Elsie Needham, his wife to be, was initially mediated through this family and socialist influence.[8] Jack was looking for love with Elsie, but he also seems to have been looking for a family.

Elsie and John Curtin, October 1917. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00004/4
Elsie and John Curtin, October 1917. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00004/4

Other changes were afoot. The emergence of the mass political party and parliamentary socialism was in the foreground for those on the left before 1917. The attraction of the vanguard party beckoned, but not for Curtin, who did not choose the CPA. Yeo also refers to other, structural factors, such as the emergence of new patterns of mass consumption in the west. He adds, significantly, that this was the period before the Doctrine of Socialism in Another Country had taken hold. The Russian Revolution changed everything; all eyes turned east. For Yeo, the decisive outcome here would also be that Soviet Communism would become militantly atheistic, even after a period of avant-garde and God Building. Russian Marxists like Bogdanov had written books on Religion and Socialism, and Lunacharsky, the first Soviet Minister of Culture, enthused for a Cult of Reason, to follow Robespierre’s Cult of Supreme Being. Later critics were to enjoy drawing the parallel between Marxism and religion, from Soviet Stalinism to China and North Korea. From the Cult of Supreme Being, we arrived at the Cult of Reason and finally the Cult of Personality. By this point, the democratic socialist faith in Progress had been seriously interrupted.

What, then was the content of Curtin’s view of socialism, and how did he propose to get there? Many, from Lloyd Ross on, have argued that the VSP was Curtin’s formative culture. The quip was that he was educated on the Yarra Bank, but Curtin was an avid reader as well as a fine soapbox preacher, reading in the public library, later borrowing books by the suitcase, keeping up a Bookshelf column in the Timber Worker, and consolidating with the addition of his live-in father in law’s collection a significant personal library (Needham made the shelves, in Cottesloe; Jack confessed that he could not drive a nail, something of an irony given his long labour of accountancy for Titan Nails in Brunswick). On arrival in Fremantle 1916 one journalist observed that Curtin looked more like a university professor than a leftist politician. Curtin also complained that there were too many professors. Yet he was also a poet, and a journalist.

So he was a bookworm, as well as a spruiker. Key among the titles available to Curtin were books published by Charles H Kerr of Chicago, the major period purveyor of left books in Australia. Kerr began publishing in 1886, to promote Unitarianism. Between 1893 and 1895 Kerr published populist books, and the New Time magazine. From 1900 he published the International Socialist Review, and a sheaf of major works by Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Debs, Boudin, Dietzgen, Labriola, Lafargue, Morris and Bax and Pannekoek – the array of Marxism, the Second International and the IWW. He also specialised in socialist songbooks. Many of the Kerr books were handy pocketbooks. According to Verity Burgmann, the most influential single sourcebook in WA at this time was none of these, but rather the massive compendium edited by the aptly named Rev W. D. P. Bliss, The Encyclopedia of Social Reform, which the local WA SDF actually distributed. The work of Tolstoy, according to Burgmann, was also significant in the west.[9] Marx came later; and Tom Mann’s argument for revolution as evolution fell flat when he toured WA in 1904. As Curtin was also to discover, local issues were more often bread and butter.

Encylopedia of Social Reform, 1897
Encylopedia of Social Reform, 1897

We know from the JCPML Archives that the Curtin Family library contained many of these treats and treatises. Engels, Socialism Utopian and Scientific; Bax, and Morris and Bax, Blatchford, Bellamy, Boudin and Lafargue on The Right to be Lazy, also from Kerr; The Communist Manifesto, the three Kerr volumes of Das Kapital in the Chicago translation, Dietzgen, Kautsky on ethics, Kropotkin, Ross on the Russian Revolution and Australia, the odd Lenin and Trotsky, Wells, Carlyle, Anstey, and a copy of socialist songs. The Family Library also duly contains Tolstoy, as per Burgmann’s advice, and two copies of the Bliss bomb.[10]

Bliss observed of Australia in 1897 that the left here were good at two things, socialist sentiment and State socialist economic activity.[11] This judgement may have been premature; after all, there were the phenomena collectively referred to across the antipodes as the social laboratory. But social progress was imagined to be an evolutionary process, even if specific policy regimes and local choices actually made these developments happen on the ground. Like Kautsky, this might at best mean waiting for the revolution, educating the masses, preparing for revolution but not making it; only Lenin, and then Trotsky from 1917, believed in making the revolution by seizing state power.

More recently, Liam Byrne has proposed that the parallel figure for Curtin was less Kautsky than Rosa Luxemburg.[12] There may be an affinity here, but perhaps no more, when it came to the coupling war/capitalism. Almost nothing written by Rosa seems to have been available in English before 1920; nothing in in Kerr, nothing apparent in the ISR.[13] The sympathy, for Byrne, is in a shared anti-militarism and anti-imperialism. The puzzle, for Byrne as for David Day and others, is how Curtin the radical socialist becomes Curtin the Prime Minister, conscription being one glaring embarrassment in this transition.[14] For the young Curtin, capitalism meant war; and end to war meant a necessary end to capitalism. So far, so good: though this gives us no particular sense of how Curtin saw the content of socialism, or how to get there. Luxemburg supported the Russian Revolution, and opposed the Bolsheviks as barracks socialists. She argued for direct democracy, for the socialism of the councils from below. In Curtin, as in Anstey, the problem of capitalism is far more apparent than the socialist solution, except as in the manner of Morris, for whom as Yeo puts it, the grand power of the vision was of the endgoal, and the short-sighted blur was on the problem of agency, or how to get there. This limit is built into Marx’s own theory, which was always stronger on diagnosis than prognosis.

Luxemburg was a kind of council communist, for whom socialist democracy would arrive as a conscious act, emerging out of the General Strike. Kautsky’s view, in my reading, was closer to Curtin’s, and certainly was more widely available. In The Social Revolution, 1903, which Curtin likely read via Charles H Kerr, Kautsky’s hesitance about describing Revolution follows that of the Communist Manifesto, revolutionary apocalypse and the ten point program of reforms in education and labour legislation. But Kautsky does insist that there must be a final class battle, and that the new revolution will be qualitatively different to all previous revolutions.

Talk about revolution is difficult. We tend to use it as a metaphor for the idea of fundamental social change, reversal or inversion, the carnival of the oppressed. Historically the idea of revolution has two significant definitions, one as repetition, as in RPM, one as rupture, as in the image of 1789 or 1917. But we also know that after 1789 and 1917 it means something else. It means one group of people killing another. And it presumes some kind of social simplicity, or capacity to overturn states or institutions and social relations whose complexity may not make them available to such proposals. In short, the idea of revolution may be neither desirable nor feasible, no matter how unsatisfactory we might find existing relations to be. The notion of evolution, further, was to become a kind of motor or guarantee in this way of thinking. Often it was stadial, presuming progress from one stage to another, as in Marx, feudalism, capitalism, then socialism; or else it imagined a two step, then and now, capitalism and socialism, the new world emerging from the old. The attraction of this teleological thinking was powerful. It was organic, maturational, and triumphalist. Few were those who, like Gramsci and Luxemburg, thought rather of the choice as between socialism and barbarism.

Curtin was clearly attracted to the idea of revolution, but he became a reformer. Curtin supported the Russian Revolution, but only for Russia. Like Bob Ross, he argued against the notion of applying the Russian road to Australia.[15] The Russian Revolution nevertheless became the dominant influence on radicals throughout the world, even if social democracy or labourism became the main currency in western democracies with the exception of France and Italy.

The content of Curtin’s idea of socialism was closer to Kautsky than to Luxemburg, not least, as Day puts it, because of a shared capacity to combine revolutionary editorials and reformist practice into the twenties. In all, though, Curtin’s thinking was likely closer to the cast of Yeo’s Anglo story than any of these continental Marxists. It is tempting to suspect that if there was one key influence for Curtin, alongside Mann and Anstey, it would be his polymath father in law, Abraham Needham, another essentially religious socialist.

Abraham Needham, Bellerive Tasmania, n.d. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/5
Abraham Needham, Bellerive Tasmania, n.d.
Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/5

Consider some examples of Curtin’s socialist claims: “We socialists speak of and to our co-believers as comrades,” (23 November 1908).[16] And later, quoting Morris, Day registers Curtin as a keen reader of News from Nowhere – “Fellowship is Life” – but not, here, mateship (6 June 1912).[17] In his first article for The Socialist, entitled “Revolutionary International Socialism”, (2 April 1906):

Socialism was the result of such social evolution that only collective production could produce the need of existence. The change may be accompanied with strife and violence [as in France, PB] … So, likewise, the nature of the next revolution could largely depend on how much has to be removed [swept away, PB] … Whatever comes it will be but the evolution of the world reaching such a stage as to necessitate a complete revolution in which it shall advance, and Socialism, founded as it has been in the growth of capitalism, and having as its policy the abolition of the existing system, must be revolutionary, as well as international to accomplish its purpose.[18]

In a followup article, Curtin offers the advice that the obstructionism of the Russian bureaucracy is parallel to that of the Australian plutocracy (1 September 1906).[19] The scope of this thinking is clearly global, but with a national frame of operation. The agent of change is “the Social Democracy”. As Black indicates, Curtin’s early priority is evidently socialism, rather than labour or labourism, though as we know Curtin was working with both, the VSP and the ALP. His rhetoric is florid, as for example when he defends Mann against “The Calumniators, Apostate’s Hatred and Envy’s Spleen”. Some of his work was provocative. The young Curtin upset the bourgeoisie by adopting Lafargue’s famous notion, that there should be a proletarian right to be lazy. As the Wobbly slogan put it, fast workers die young. No need to rush, especially if you are waiting for the revolution.

This way of thinking is consonant with that of the orthodoxy of the Second International, where revolution comes through the order of things as they evolve, and socialists surf the wave of history, rather than forcing it in the manner later indicated by Bolshevism. It also echoes through the long legacy of Christian socialism essayed by Yeo and many others. Here socialism is the Second Coming.

By the time he reaches Perth, and the Timberworker, Curtin’s project seems to be fraternity. He writes in February 1913: “Knowledge is power! It is the power to destroy evil, sweating, child labour, seamstresses in hovels, boys in the gutter, and women on the streets; it is power to build equitable social conditions, proper dwellings, clean homes and contented minds.”[20] Which sounds remarkably like the VSP, or at least the Social Questions Committee. Here speaks the radical autodidact, the socialist as preacher and educator.

Clearly Curtin is antimilitarist, and anticonscription, antimonopoly. Curtin’s socialism was oppositional before it was to become programmatic. He rejected the CPA, and fully embraced the ALP.

“The barrackers for Australian defence are the servants of Capitalism. They are the enemies of the people,” (Socialist, 24 April 1908).[21] As various commentators have observed, this is Anstey’s labour populism without the focus on finance and his attendant antisemitism. But it remains the politics of opposition.

His imagery is mixed. Curtin becomes pro-Bolshevik inasmuch as he supports force against force. But he defends socialism in English terms, as the cooperative commonwealth, or echoing Kropotkin in the idea of collective workshops, but also connects this to the necessity of capitalist collapse and the contradictions of capitalism, as in Marx. He uses Marx’s vampire image for capital[22] and shares the period sensibility, as in Kautsky, which was to connect up Marx and Darwin in the cause of evolution. The early Curtin clearly seeks more than labourism; like GDH Cole, he calls for emancipation from wage slavery.[23] By the time he arrives in Perth he insists that there is no need of civil war, but that labour should establish a proletarian dictatorship to replace the existing capitalist dictatorship (Westralian Worker, 4 April 1919).[24] By 1921 he is prepared to cast socialism as a project of reconstruction, a common image after World War I and then into World War II. In 1921 he argues that socialisation is gradual, industry by industry, with community control or with community control as the prelude to socialisation (Westralian Worker, 25 November 1921).[25] This already seems to anticipate the interwar view of Nugget Coombs and Lloyd Ross, where socialism is increasingly identified with national planning mediated by community planning. After all, Curtin had earlier in the VSP also been a community builder, under the influence of Holloway, and working together with his old mate Hyett.

Cole was an ongoing echo for Ross, guild socialist; Reckitt called Cole in doggerel a bit of a puzzle – a Bolshevik soul with a Fabian muzzle. We can also hear some such in Curtin. Curtin argues that Arbitration is a failure, as it fails to address wage slavery. He is a militant anti-capitalist, pro Bolshevik in the manner seen, critical of Arbitration and suspicious of the PLP, referring early to parliament as an “upholstered gasworks” (2 July 1912).[26] Cole was never to enter the house of power; Curtin did, and many of us are still grateful for this move. The young Cole, for his own part, had a different idea as to agency: socialism must proceed from below, neither by unions nor by parties above, but by guilds. Like Morris, but in a different way, Cole never fully escaped from the power of medievalism.

Morris insisted that revolution would come. But what would this revolution consist in? As I have suggested, Curtin’s weakness in defining socialism or revolution is by no means unique; it is the common property of the socialist tradition. This has to be a major reason for Curtin’s embrace of labourism, for Labor has a policy and platform, and it offers more than the economism to which trade unionism is prone (Curtin to Ross, 30 July 1935).[27] And this was a constant lament for Curtin, that the union movement was too much occupied with bread and butter, insufficiently willing to be elevated into socialist culture.

In 1922 Curtin writes, Westralian Worker 4 August 1922: “Revolution is manysided, in science, mathematics, religion, in letters, war, art, politics, industry,” but we are not revolutionary: “the social transformation it [labour PB] seeks is a social transformation to be gained by peaceful, even if revolutionary(!) methods.” “Labor’s Social Revolution by no means implies or necessitates the resort to violence. Its conception is not catastrophic; its procedure is progressively constructive and reconstructive.”[28] Later, 17 November 1922, Curtin claims that we are not revolutionary but given to social reconstruction. Or 11 November 1925, where Labor is constitutional and representative.[29] 3 April 1925, Curtin writes to Anstey, inquiring if Anstey has read Trotsky’s Lessons of October.[30] He quotes and interprets Trotsky for Anstey, concluding that, “Boiled down, it is with us as it is with the Soviets a question of the use to which mass forces shall be put”. By the thirties, John Curtin MP is referring to socialism as a ‘dead tiger’. But he retains something of his early sense of the national right to self-determination. Curtin PM, (CPD, 24 June 1941), refuses the ethical stance taken by Kautsky against both Soviet and Nazi roads. [31] “The Labor Party has no objection whatever to the Germans practising nazi-ism in Germany: that is their concern,” so long as they don’t spread it.

A young Frank Anstey (c 1912). National Library of Australia, Frank Anstey, Papers, 1880-1920, MS 512.
A young Frank Anstey (c 1912). National Library of Australia, Frank Anstey, Papers, 1880-1920, MS 512.

Had Curtin by this stage forgotten about imperialism? Surely not, but his focus was on the north, and Japan. In more general terms, it may be the case that this was also the logic of Curtin’s defence of White Australia, which ever sat uneasily with his claim to internationalism. The postcolonial observation today might be that internationalism was often, or even necessarily white, and intercolonial. On this view even internationalism would be innerly white, a new spin on the old joke about leftwing radishes: red on the outside, white on the inside. Curtin’s self-defence would likely be the claim to self-determination: white Australia was the national tradition. He adjusts his sense of solidarity to the scale of the nation state. When he was young, his sense of community was local and concrete, as in the folk of the VSP, and global and abstract, at the level of socialist internationalism. Into the thirties the nation state became the third and then the dominant term. For this was the epoch of nationalism, and of the development of national welfarism and social democracy. As Trotsky after 1914 had coupled war and revolution, this period, after 1939, was the emerging period of war and reconstruction.

Yet this was also the emerging moment of socialism as planning, not least via Postwar Reconstruction. And here the focus returns momentarily to the southeast, or to Canberra and Sydney. Stuart Macintyre visits some of our interests in his massive study of Postwar Reconstruction (PWR), Australia’s Boldest Experiment.[32] At leadership level, Macintyre credits the most important force to Chifley and Coombs. Curtin’s enthusiasm for PWR was reluctant and late. His focus was on the War, and here we turn full circle, a literal revolution, to the image of Curtin that dominates, in and outside these University walls, that of War Prime Minister. Less immediately given to the project of civilising capitalism, as Macintyre observes, into and after 1942 Curtin was preaching austerity for the war. Early in 1942 he warns a meeting in Fremantle Town Hall that anyone wanting a blueprint for what follows the war will have to wait. He is not engaged in property improvement but in firefighting. Chifley, at this point, had a longer line of vision and a little more life left. His sense of socialism was closer the often Catholic social justice stream of labourism. As Macintyre summarises Chifley, “As far as possible he translated his party’s socialist platform into a practical idiom of the public interest.”[33]

This was another world, discursively speaking. The language of socialism gave way to that of planning, as is well evidenced across the life and work of Lloyd Ross. Full employment, public enterprise, the proposed nationalisation of the banks, all this read through the prism of community development – this still looked like a version of the new dawn, after two decades of mass misery and social turbulence. Some lines of continuity persisted, even forty years after the SQC and the VSP. There was at last one line of continuity in this labour tradition: the commitment to the idea of social justice. Socialism turns to reform when revolution fails to arrive.

Who was to know all this would in turn be swept away by decades of growth, minerals extraction, and the obliteration of austerity for many by the shift into real estate as the new, private utopia of the present times? What are we now left with? Socialism, not even in one country but in each backyard? As Macintyre concludes his study, a people that can throw up leaders with the qualities of Curtin and Chifley should honour them. Period romantic he may have been, but there are things to learn from Curtin yet. This is a world we have lost, and will not recover. Curtin at the very least refused to let go of the idea that there might be social alternatives. What he seems to have come to accept is that these would emerge from the path of modernity, rather than from its inversion or reversal. What he refused to accept is that we could do no better. What he left to us is a sense of adaptation to a world where the project of socialism would seem ever more distant, though, as William Morris understood, the struggle would never end, and the hope would never subside.




Peter Beilharz is Professor at Sichuan University and Curtin University. He has published 28 books and 200 papers, and has edited Thesis Eleven for forty years. His latest books are Intimacy in Postmodern Times – A Friendship with Zygmunt Bauman (Manchester University Press) and Circling Marx – Essays 1980–2020 (Brill).


With thanks to my Curtin colleagues, Steve Mickler, Bobbie Oliver, Paul Genoni, and the staff of the JCPML; to Stuart Macintyre, and to Sian Supski.




[1] Peter Beilharz, Labour’s Utopias: Bolshevism, Fabianism, Social Democracy (London: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Ian Britain, Fabianism and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1982).

[3] Peter Beilharz, “Edward Bellamy: Looking Back at American Socialism in the Nineteenth Century,” in Circling Marx, Peter Beilharz (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

[4] Neville Kirk, Transnational Radicalism and the Connected Lives of Tom Mann and Robert Samuel Ross (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017).

[5] Race Mathews, Australia’s First Fabians (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993); cf. Kirk, Transnational Radicalism.

[6] Stephen Yeo, “A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain, 1883–96,” History Workshop Journal no. 4 (1977): 5–56.

[7] Beilharz, Labour’s Utopias.

[8] David Day, John Curtin: A Life (Sydney: Harper Collins, 2000), 168–9.

[9] Verity Burgmann, In Our Time: Socialism and the Rise of Labour 1885–1905 (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985), 167.

[10] Catalogue, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, SER0001, Curtin University, WA.

[11] William D. Bliss, Encyclopedia of Social Reform (Westport: Greenwood reprint, 1970/1897), 103.

[12] Liam Byrne, “John Curtin: Labour Movement Intellectual 1906–1917,” History Australia 13, no 2 (2016): 243–257; See, Liam Byrne, Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin: The Making of the Modern Labor Party 1876–1921 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2020).

[13] Peter Hudis, email communication with author, 5 July 2020; See, Peter Hudis, “New Perspectives on Rosa Luxemburg’s Concept of the Transition to Socialism,” Thesis Eleven (forthcoming).

[14] Byrne, “Labour Movement Intellectual,” 251.

[15] Robert S. Ross, Revolution in Russia and Australia, And the Australian Alternative (Melbourne: Ross’s Book Service, 1920).

[16] David Black, ed., Friendship is a Sheltering Tree. John Curtin’s Letters 1907–1945 (Perth: JCPML/API, 2001), 27.

[17] Ibid, 57.

[18] David Black, ed., In His Own Words. John Curtin’s Speeches and Writings (Perth: Paradigm/Curtin University, 1995), 4.

[19] Black, In His Own Words, 5.

[20] Ibid, 10.

[21] Ibid, 11.

[22] Ibid, 91, 95, 105.

[23] Ibid, 34–6.

[24] Ibid, 37.

[25] Ibid, 38.

[26] Ibid, 59.

[27] Black, Friendship is a Sheltering Tree, 178.

[28] Black, In His Own Words, 52.

[29] Ibid, 54.

[30] Black, Friendship is a Sheltering Tree, 141.

[31] Black, In His Own Words, 167.

[32] Stuart Macintyre, Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s (Sydney: NewSouth 2015).

[33] Ibid, 304.

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