Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

ALP: From socialist origins to capitalist tool

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How the early ALP was transformed

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) may have long forgotten its socialist roots but it was brought into being in the late 19th century by groups of trade unionists and socialists. The Australian Socialist League (ASL) played a major role in the formation of the party, especially in New South Wales.

While founded on socialist ideals, the party shifted its outlook early on and instead sort to reform the capitalist system rather than replace it. The early history of the ALP helps to explain how a party set up to represent the interests of ordinary people was transformed into a tool that has been used to maintain the profit driven system.

A promising beginning

With the depression that hit Australia during the 1890s there was a growing mood of militancy amongst the working class. The divide between labour and capital was growing and the living standards of the working class were being relentlessly attacked.

Socialism was seen as a solution to the problems facing working class people, and it was felt that in order to achieve this aim it was necessary to form an independent working class party. The ASL was one group that saw the need for a Labor Party, and while not adopting Marx’s strategy and tactics for socialism in full, they did accept Marx’s basic analysis and critique of capitalism.

It was Marx’s explanation of ‘surplus value’ in particular that impressed the ASL. The uncovering of the fact that the employer only paid the worker a portion of the wealth created. The rest was kept by the boss as profit. The boss acted like a parasite on the worker, getting rich from exploiting their labour. This understanding was central to the ideas of the ASL.

Two trends

The ASL believed that “capitalism was based on class robbery” and “was destined in the very nature of the orderly sequence of historical human development to go down before the advance of socialism”. While believing this, the ASL was divided on how to achieve socialist change.

The two major theoretical trends that existed in the ASL were the ‘state socialists’ and the ‘modern socialists’. The former argued that through the vehicle of parliament, socialism could be instituted. The state should own the means of production, distribution and exchange and through this, capitalist monopoly would be eliminated.

The modern socialists saw the state road to socialism as a myth and saw the state as an institution of class rule, the role of which was to maintain the privileges of the ruling class. They saw the state as the “supreme monopolist”.

Instead they were in favour of a process of ‘self help’ where workers acted through their own trade unions and not the state as a way to achieve socialism. It was the theory of the modern socialists that was most correct, and the closest to that of Marx’s, but unfortunately it was the state socialists that dominated the ASL.

From the ideas of the state socialists, the ASL looked forward to the instituting of socialism through parliament and to this end as early as 1887 they were meeting and campaigning for the formation of a Labor Party. While not able to achieve it then, they continued to help facilitate the development of a new party through various other organisations.

The most significant of these organisations was the Trades and Labour Council (TLC). The ASL had a base in the trade unions and represented a strong minority block on the TLC. Their influence can be seen in the TLC paper, the Australian Workingman, during this period.

Their ideas were also influential at the Labor Conference in 1897 which passed a motion stating “The time has come when the functions of the government as an employer should be extended. We, therefore, propose that the first plank of the fighting platform shall be nationalisation of land and the means of production, distribution and exchange”.

Parliamentary road?

Through the activities of the TLC, with much assistance from the ASL, Labour Electoral Leagues were formed and members were elected to the New South Wales parliament. From this the Labor Party came into being. The first 35 Labor MPs were elected in 1891 and at least 8 of these were members of the ASL.

The Labor Party in NSW was the first formed in Australia and much of it was due to the role of the ASL. Apart from their level of activity and enthusiasm, one expert on the period stated three other reasons why the ASL played such an important role.

Firstly, the ASL had promoted the need to stand apart from the two existing capitalist parties, the Free Trade Party and the Protectionist Party. They therefore helped assert the initial class independence of the new party.

Secondly, as an established organisation they gave direction and leadership to the collection of trade unionists and individuals that came together to form the Labor Party. And thirdly, they attracted more politically aware and articulate activists and encouraged the further development of their skills. For these reasons they were able to have an influence far greater than their size.

Antagonisms arise

The ASL played a major role imbuing the early ALP with socialist ideals but soon after the party took off, and won parliamentary representation, the ASL abandoned it becoming disillusioned with its direction. They felt that a massive gap was developing between the MPs and the party’s rank and file. They could see the leaders of the party were becoming more disconnected from the aspirations of the mass of workers.

While they hadn’t foreseen it at the outset, the source of these problems was the mistaken ideas taken into the ALP by the state socialists. By believing that Labor only had to win a majority in the parliament, and socialism could be legislated, the party had an over-emphasis on electoral work and therefore subordinated the active role of rank and file workers in the class struggle. They did not see the need for theory as a guide to action.

The TLC, before the formation of the ALP, had campaigned for wages for parliamentarians and it was this that also contributed to the further isolation of the party from workers. The fight for wages for MPs was progressive in itself in that without wages MPs had to be independently rich to survive. But the salary of 300 pounds per annum was double the average wage putting many Labor MPs out of touch of the class they were supposed to represent.

The party did not have a policy whereby workers’ MPs should receive only the equivalent of a skilled workers’ wage, with the rest being donated back to the labour movement. Such a policy would have kept the MPs in check and connected to the rank and file.

Coupled with the high wages, the prestige of being an MP saw them drift into an elite group and their role as representatives of the working class became much lower in their order of priorities. Conservative ideas began to take a hold and soon many MPs and party leaders thought their own interests would be better served by working within the system rather than striving to change it. Even a number of the ASL MPs began to shift in an opportunist direction.

A number of disillusioned ASL members began leaving the Labor Party although the group as a whole remained tied to the ALP until Easter 1898 when right wing elements took control of the party.

As Verity Burgmann says in her book ‘In our time’, “the ASL rupture with the Labor Party was traumatic for the ASL. It… had tried to push the ALP in a more rigorously socialist direction, because it believed that parliament was the appropriate arena in which to work for socialism. The ASL saw the ‘rats’ problem as the result of the ALP neglecting to guard the purity of its cadre and not as a predictable hazard to be encountered on the parliamentary road to socialism.”

Burgmann continues, “the history of the ALP in this period suggests it was the creation of militant workers who believed in some kind of socialist future… The victory of the Right in 1898 was not regarded as a return to normal but as a marked drift in the direction of control by the parliamentary party over the outside movement and in the direction of negating those principles, of socialism, that had to a great extent inspired that formation of the party”.

Unrealised potential

The initial formation of a party representing the interests of labour over capital was a huge step forward for the working class. Prior to the establishment of the Labor Party working people in Australia were mostly without any sort of independent political representation. In its early stages the party had a huge amount of unrealised potential but it was unfortunately dominated by mistaken and naive ideas.

While it may not have been obvious at the time, on the basis of further experience gained by the socialist movement internationally, it became clear that far from being the main vehicle, parliament should instead be used as a clarion for the working class.

Even a socialist party with a parliamentary majority would need to ensure decisions are implemented outside of the parliament by the organised labour movement in the trade unions and in workers councils. These bodies would act as an alternative power structure to the capitalist state and become the embryos of a new form of democratic socialist government.

While the ALP’s socialist outlook was diminished early on it did go on to attract the support of big sections of the working class. This was because despite its weaknesses it did stand for some basic reforms that were aimed moderating the excesses of capitalism. In reality the party had a dual character whereby the tops of the party were committed to the capitalist framework but it had a mass working class base.

Over the decades however right wing influences on the party increased. Its democratic structures were diminished and it became overrun with middle class careerists. By the 1980s and 1990s it had been mostly emptied of its working class membership base and its policies were indistinguishable from other capitalist parties. The process of transforming it into and outright capitalist party was complete.

Lessons for today

In many ways the situation faced by working people today is similar to the one faced prior to the 1890s. While the capitalists have two major parties to choose from ordinary working people have no mass party that represents their interests. As a result living conditions are being diminished while huge profits are being accumulated by the capitalists.

The challenge ahead is to once again build an independent party that stands for the interests of ordinary people – the 99% of society that work to eke out a living. Learning from the experiences of the early Labor Party however any new working class party must be built on the right ideas. Unless it unashamedly stands for a system that puts people before profits it will leave itself open to be hijacked by those who seek to maintain the status quo.

By Robyn Hohl


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