How Australian Workers Prepared to Socialize Industry During the Great Depression

In the 1930s, working-class radicals in the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party established Socialization Units, mass organizations parallel to the party. Their goal was to prepare for the democratic takeover of industry, and to build “socialism in our time.”

A construction worker on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1930. (Fox Photos / Getty Images)

In Australia, the Great Depression was a time of bitter class struggle that radicalized every section of society. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) was no exception, as rank-and-file members of the New South Wales (NSW) branch established the “Socialization Units,” working-class organizations whose stated purpose was to prepare for a takeover of industry under workers’ control.

Members of the Socialization Units claimed that they were merely carrying out Labor’s program, which calls for “the democratic socialization of industry, production, distribution and exchange.” Yet, as labor historian Nick Martin observed, the Socialization Units came up against the party machine and therefore constituted “one of the great rank-and-file revolts” inside an established social-democratic party.

“Socialism in Our Time”

Jack Lang’s NSW state government formed the backdrop of the Socialization Units. Premier from 1925–27 and 1931–32, Lang was a reformer who rose to prominence after opposing the pro-conscription wing of his party during World War I.

Lang had his own political shortcomings, but his rebellion was made possible by widespread working-class radicalization, both inside and outside the ALP. In turn, his premiership accelerated a leftward shift in the Labor Party. At the head of this stood the Socialization Units.

Left-wing grassroots ALP members and junior union officials first established the Socialization Units in 1930, in an attempt to battle Lang and the party machine. In the words of A. W. Thompson, ALP branch president and organizer for the milk employees union, their purpose was to “devise ways and means to propagate … the socialization of industry.”

Drawing in and educating Labor’s mass base, the Socialization Units rejected a purely parliamentary road to socialism. Instead, they proposed to elect an ALP government that would nationalize industry. Subsequently, the units would push further, democratizing workplaces and paving the way for a socialist society.

Prior to the emergence of a formalized faction system in the ALP in the 1970s, the units also functioned as a socialist bloc within the NSW ALP’s rank-and-file membership. In place of Labor’s distant and utopian commitment to socialism as a “light on the hill,” they advocated a rather more immediate slogan: “socialism in our time.”

Propagating the Socialization of Industry

The units operated in working-class areas of NSW, primarily in Sydney, where they won a mass audience. They mainly campaigned by hosting widely attended public meetings and by organizing militants to knock on doors in working-class suburbs surrounding the city while selling copies of the unit’s newspaper Socialisation Call.

Interestingly, a Labor Propaganda Army had been established two years previously, also supported by branch-based agitational units. It was a precedent and a substrate for this style of bottom-up organizing. Thanks to their emphasis on grassroots activism, the Socialization Units quickly built a mass base, inspiring an influx of young workers to join the ALP.

At their height, the units organized thirty socialist education classes, teaching history and economics. They also maintained a theater group, and even a socialist orchestra. This allowed the NSW ALP to relate to a broader social radicalization while strengthening its own organization.

The Socialization Units demonstrate the power of independent socialist education, communication, and cultural production, especially when such initiatives are embedded deeply in working-class communities. By establishing the Labor Education League, the units both pioneered large-scale socialist education and took steps toward forming a labor college.

There are echoes of our own time in a context where the mass media was hostile to workers’ interests, while university education was inaccessible to many and often ideologically compromised for those who could afford it. The efforts of the 1930s offer a strong template for how to build class consciousness from below under such challenging conditions.

Challenges From Below, Death From Above

When the 1931 NSW Labor conference took place, the units had grown rapidly so that they came close to securing majority support. Delegates loyal to the units were able to push through a provocative motion insisting that the ALP commit itself to the socialization of Australian industry “within three years.”

Such militancy revealed a willingness to confront the ALP’s top-down, conservative leadership structures. It makes for a stark contrast with today’s highly bureaucratized Socialist Left faction inside the ALP, renowned for collaborating with the Labor Right.

The NSW Labor leadership did not approve. The Socialization Units were soon locked into a bitter rivalry with Jack Lang’s Inner Group, an alliance of union officials also known as the “Trades Hall Reds.” Although the Inner Group often supported militancy, they regarded the Socialization Units as a direct political rival and a threat to their hegemony over the labor movement.

Clarrie Martin, a Labor parliamentarian who helped establish the units, was frustrated by the conflict. Following a poor election result, he criticized Lang at a meeting of the units:

My experience in parliament has consolidated my socialist beliefs and made me realize more fully than ever [the] need for spreading socialist thought … in my opinion Lang, though a good fighter, knew very little about socialism.

Crucially, the units did not involve themselves directly in unions, isolating themselves from many politically active unionists. Although they did later turn toward organized labor, by that time it was too late.

This gave the Inner Group a free hand to use the political resources of the party machine to attack the Socialization Units, outvoting them with sizeable union-based voting blocs at ALP conferences, and publishing hit pieces in the widely circulated official party newspaper, Labor Daily. This magnified a built-in weakness of the Socialization Units. Their attempt to democratize the Labor Party relied on using party resources. When the party machine turned on the units, this made them vulnerable.

Perhaps the most dramatic phase of this rank-and-file revolt was its rapid disorganization and demise, led by Jack Lang himself, who passed a motion at the NSW ALP’s 1933 conference, severing the Socialization Units from the party. Just two years after their breakthrough victory at the 1931 ALP state conference, the units found themselves isolated.

Social Fascists Among Us

Aside from the ALP, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was the largest socialist organization in Depression-era Australia. By this stage, however, the party had a leadership that was firmly loyal to Moscow. In accord with the so-called “Third Period” line — the label for a strategic orientation promoted by the Comintern to communist parties worldwide — the CPA took a wildly sectarian attitude to the Socialization Units, denouncing them as “social fascists.”

This formulation stemmed from the USSR’s official analysis of social-democratic parties, which argued that they stood in the way of social revolution and paved the way for fascism. According to this view, communists should shun any proposal for fighting unity with social-democratic or labor parties.

As a result, the CPA did not distinguish between rank-and-file workers within the ALP and the party’s officialdom. This was a crude caricature obstructing a more concrete critique of the failures and contradictions of post-WWI social-democracy and the trade union bureaucracy.

The CPA’s sectarianism was not universal, however. Some individuals and small socialist groups did join the Socialization Units, seeing a potential to drive them in a more radical direction while building up the ranks of non-ALP socialists.

For their part, the Socialization Units had a mixed analysis of the ALP. The notion that socialism might be introduced over the space of three years following a conference resolution seems remarkably naive today. But this reflected the enthusiasm of the socialists who built the units, as well as their failure to foresee the extent of ruling-class resistance, or the role that the ALP itself would play.

Their lack of self-sufficient organization also meant that this revolt from below was vulnerable to attack from above, by party and union elites like Lang, who wished to maintain a firm grip on the movement.

Inside or Out?

The early 1930s were a time of deep economic crisis. In this environment, a “rough-hewn class struggle ideology” was attractive to the various fractious left forces, both inside and outside Labor. “Going to the working class” was the order of the day. Yet socialists differed on how this should be done.

The rise and fall of the Socialization Units speaks directly to this question. Their history stands as a caution against the danger of adopting a self-defeating, ultra-sectarian stance, as the CPA did. And it also warns us against the inherent vulnerability of organizational or political dependence on parties like the ALP.

Although his commitment to socialism was largely verbal, Lang’s strategy also failed disastrously. He earned the ire of the ruling class when, in 1931, he rejected the “Melbourne Agreement” which committed Australia’s states to austerity in order to satisfy their debt to British banks. Lang even withdrew funds from NSW’s state bank accounts and hid them at Sydney’s Trades Hall, the state headquarters of the union movement.

The result was a constitutional crisis and a historic rupture within the ALP. Much to the delight of the bosses, the pro-austerity Labor prime minister James Scullin went ahead and expelled the entire NSW branch. Shortly after, Lang’s rebellion was scuttled in 1932 when NSW governor Sir Philip Game dismissed his government.

As defeat for the units drew near, Clarrie Martin gave the following warning:

If the reactionary elements succeed in liquidating the socialization movement it will be to declare that the Labor Party is not a socialist party; that it is content with the policy and legislation of anemic liberalism.

Those Martin branded as “anemic liberals” showed themselves unable or unwilling to resist the overthrow of their very own government. In a different, more combative scenario, a socialist Labor leader might have called on the Socialization Units to defend a reforming government against a ruling-class coup.

This, in turn, might have helped to overcome the limits of their strategy, transforming their educational and cultural work into industrial and political muscle. It might have taken longer than three years. But if the Socialization Units had anticipated and overcome the contradictions of social democracy, the worker militants who built them may yet have seen socialism in their lifetimes.