The MSM has extensively reported Martin Ferguson’s statement, in his resignation speech, that “The class war rhetoric that started with the mining dispute of 2010 must cease. It is doing the Labor Party no good…”. The Murdoch press, and its in-house Labor Right clever person Troy Bramston, has enthusiastically endorsed Ferguson’s statement, with Bramston stating that Labor must adopt a “less combative” approach over issues including the mining tax.
Now Martin Ferguson has not always had such disdain for the language of class struggle. In 1999 he wrote an approving foreword to Michael Thompson’s tract Labor Without Class – also with enthusiastic Murdoch press support for Thompson and himself – which argued that Labor’s revival depended on a revival of a commitment to working class interests and values and a rejection of forces that were seen to be antagonistic to these values.
A contradiction? Not when we unpack the differing rhetorical uses of the word “class” in these and other political contexts.
Firstly, as John Quiggin explained, in 1999 Thompson and Ferguson were not calling for Labor to take up the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class (or fractions thereof). Rather, Thompson and Ferguson were brushing up their medals as the Colonel Blimps of the Culture War that, under the rhetoric of “working class values”, they were urging their supporters (inside and outside Labor) to join against progressive and democratic social movements such as feminism, environmentalism, queer liberation, refugees, multiculturalism, etc., and their allies inside Labor. Labor Without Class was in fact a Manifesto for Howard intended to intensify the crass struggle, as I have termed the culture war waged by ideologically conservative, anti-intellectual and industrially weak elements of the labour movement against what might be called the social unionism constituency within the labour movement and the allies it seeks for labor. In Thompson’s (and presumably Ferguson’s) case, the enemies of the working class included advocates of funding for breast cancer research (down with the chardonnay socialists Glenn McGrath and Kylie Minogue!!!) and working mothers (who, according to Thompson, were responsible for rising rates of violent crime). Their mates in the Forestry Division of the CFMEU placed supporters of same-sex marriage (down with the chardonnay socialist Delta Goodrem!!!) among the workers’ unfriends.
Secondly, the crass struggle is particularly important for people like Ferguson and Thompson who claim some personal and historical affinity with left and/or militant labor movement transitions, in order to maintain a semblance of continuity between that past and their political present. Younger advocates of conservative Labor, liberal Labor or libertarian Labor from student politics central casting (such as Stephen Newnham, Kate “business is not the enemy” Ellis and the Queensland AWU’s rising stars like Kerrie Kahlon – whose side is she on? – and Chaiy Donati) don’t have such appearances to keep up.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, what the current calls of Ferguson, Bramston, et al, for an end to “class war rhetoric” and “class combativeness” amount to is not that the class struggle should end, but that the capitalist class (and in the specific case cited by Ferguson, its mining fraction) should be able to continue to fight the class struggle and win it without even the semblance of resistance from Labor. Let’s not forget how the dispute over the mining tax began in 2010. It did not begin with a class war offensive by the Rudd government. It began with the adoption by the Rudd government of one of hundreds of recommendations from a classic exercise in good technocratic policymaking, the Henry Report, which was then met by a massive and intense mobilisation of real class power by the mining industry and its allies. One does not have to be Lee Rhiannon to recognise that this was a blietzkrieg in what the father of Britain’s next PM once termed “class struggle from above”.
A final irony to note is that on virtually the same day as Rudd backer Ferguson issues his call for surrender in the class war (with its implicit suggestion that the Murdoch Press is correct in its faux Socialist Realist cartoon depictions of Gillard, Swan and Conroy leading the troops, and of Conroy in the company of evildoers), the Murdoch Press’s other in-house Labor Right Clever Person, Cassandra Wilkinson, was on The Drum blaming Rudd and his “socialist” Monthly essay on the GFC as being what “really set Labor down the wrong road”.