The Australian general strike of 1917 began 100 years ago. It was not strictly ‘general’, as it was mainly confined to New South Wales. Nevertheless, there are numerous lessons that can be drawn from it. It showed that in times of crisis, the capitalist class will use all tools available to them to defend their privileges. Most importantly, the strike clearly exposed the limitations of the reformist trade union leaders, who acted as the biggest brake on the success of the strike.

We publish here the second in a three part article by Luke Boulby about this mass militant movement of the Australian working class.

Read part one here.


Quantity into Quality

The cost of living had been steadily rising over the course of the First World War. Before the general strike on 2nd August, average price increases were 33% above their pre-war levels. Real wages had also fallen by about 20% during this time. While the workers were told that certain sacrifices had to be made during wartime, the capitalists had made enormous profits from the war. The workers were not blind to this either. They had seen how profits had soared whilst they had to receive massive reductions in living standards. It would only take a spark to light this powder keg. As is often the case in such great events, the ‘Great Strike’ started from an accidental incident. The introduction of a card system by the Railway Commissioners as an attempt to speed up work was that spark.

The preceding period before the general strike had seen an upswing in strike activity. Far from cutting across the labour movement, the year the war started in 1914 saw a sharp rise in the amount of strikes and the workers involved in them. The Labor and trade union leaders had kept a check on the militancy of the workers, to a degree, through the use of compulsory arbitration courts to negotiate with employers for the workers’ demands.

In 1916, Billy Hughes, who was the Labor Prime Minister, had passed through a referendum to introduce conscription. The vote was lost narrowly by 2% against conscription and consequently the Labor party expelled Billy Hughes and his supporters for their support of conscription to the war. Billy Hughes, with his chauvinist fellow travellers, then formed the ‘National Labor Party’ before merging with the Liberals into the ‘National Party’. 1917 saw the election of Billy Hughes to the office of Prime Minister for a second time.

This government then went on the offensive which provoked the workers into action. As one of its first attacks, the government began to implement a card system in the Railway industry which would be used to measure how long it took for workers to complete certain tasks; the result would be to intensify the exploitation of the workers and fire those who were too ‘inefficient’. This system had been attempted in 1916, whilst a Labor government was in power, but was scrapped following negotiations between the government and union officials. It was re-introduced in 1917, and this time the government was fully prepared to fight it out till the end.

Following a mass meeting of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) who were affected by this card system, it was decided that they would refuse to work as long as the system was in place. The Secretary of the Labor Council of NSW, E. J. Kavanagh, announced a meeting between the Railway Unions and the Labor Council. The next day, representatives from both these bodies went to the Railway Commissioner and he told them that the card system would not be withdrawn under any circumstances. When delegates from the various Railway Unions heard the news, they passed a resolution stating that unless the card system was scrapped, they would stop work on 2nd August.

The resolution was carried by a number of unions representing workers from engineering, electrical, plumbing, metal, transport, timber, and other similar industries. However, no plans were ever set to whether all of these unions would stop work or whether it was just those affected by the card system, i.e. the railway workers. Although the government had made it known to them that they would not withdraw the card system, the trade union leaders still hoped that a compromise could be achieved. Kavanagh met with the Commissioner the day after and presented him with the ultimatum. The Commissioner dug his heels and stated that the card system would not be withdrawn. The Commissioner had thrown down the gauntlet by drawing up and announcing plans for the reduction of train services as an act of provocation.

The trade union leaders had pinned their hopes on the Government backing down and resolving this issue through the arbitration courts like it normally would. However, these were not normal times. Because they didn’t expect the government to fight back, they consequently didn’t make it clear to the workers in these unions what would happen on the 2nd August if the card system was not withdrawn. The initiative was left to the workers and they did so courageously. When the 2nd August came, there was a staggered process to workers joining the strike. Workers in Randwick and Eveleigh Railway Workshops came out on strike with small isolated groups from other workshops and depots joining them. However, only 5,780 workers came out on strike by the first day compared to the 42,000 workers in the whole rail and tram service. By the next day, other workers were brought into the strike. The engine drivers, cleaners, boilermakers and other workers came out on strike. Although they had hoped such a situation wouldn’t occur, by the scruff of their necks, the trade union leaders had been thrown into action by the rank and file.

TrainStrike1917

The ‘Great Strike’ Begins

On 5th August, a meeting between the Locomotive Engine Drivers, Firemen and Cleaners’ association and the Amalgamated Rail and Tram Service Association decided to join the strike. All rail and tram services were declared to cease at midnight. However, the lack of co-ordination between unions in this trade meant that a number of workers still remained at work.

Despite this, the 660 trains that normally ran were reduced to 34. By the end of 7th August, the figure stood at 30,000 workers being on strike, involving some 18 unions. However, of the workers employed by the Railway Commissioners, 40% of workers were still in work. This was mainly down to the lack of unity and organisation between these unions. Miners, drivers, dockers, and metal workers would join the strike on 9th August; the figure now stood at 45,000.

Despite the government threatening the strikers that they would be subject to victimisation if they did not return to work, on 10th August, the last day of the ultimatum presented to the strikers, the workers held out. Three days later, the government announced that all rail and tram workers on strike would be dismissed and the unions would be forced to deregister. The government was talking the language of class war. The union leaders, on the other hand, were determined to confine the strike to a purely economic struggle. One could imagine the trade union leaders scratching their heads, thinking that if only the government could see how reasonable they were being, then maybe they’d change their mind.

Trade union officials of the NSW Trades and Labour Council had formed a strike committee called the ‘Defence Committee’ and attempted to negotiate with the government. The Defence Committee published a document detailing how inefficient and incompetent the running of the railways had been and demanded a Royal Commission to investigate these charges. They stated that the card system was the spark which set off the strike, because the workers did not trust the Railway Department due to gross corruption and mismanagement. However, the government had already set out that it would set up a Royal Commission after the card system had been implemented for three months. The government could sense the weakness of the union leaders and decided to push further. Instead of extending the strike to other sections of the working class and bringing them into the struggle, the Defence Committee had played into the hands of the government by further confining the aim of the strike.

Instead of narrowing the scope the strike, the trade union leaders should have fought the government back on the political front. They should have pointed out how the workers were being made to pay for this war whilst the capitalists were amassing enormous profits from the war. They should have pointed out that the government was using the war as a pretext to tear up the rights which had been bravely fought for over the preceding period. By exposing the role the government was playing with its open collaboration with the employers to smash the strike and ultimately the trade unions, the trade union leaders could have won the support of wider sections of the working class and could have had changed the tide of the fight.

The government stepped up their efforts to break the strike. By 14th August, the Railway Commissioner had implemented the mass dismissal plan and the government gave itself the power to seize all private motor vehicles for the duration of the strike. On top of this, this day was the day of the first arrest of a union official connected with the strike. Vice President of the Seaman’s Union, W. Daly was charged with conspiracy to instigate an unlawful strike whilst the seamen were considering joining the strike. On August 17, three more union leaders, E. J. Kavanagh, A.C. Willis, and C. Thompson (of the Amalgamated Railway and Tram Service Association), were arrested and also charged with conspiracy.

The Federal Government stepped in on the pretext of the strike breaking the War Precautions Act and set up the National Service Bureau to organise scab labour if the seamen joined the striking workers. The NSW Government also passed a number of bills further extending its powers. It was now under no obligation to maintain supplies to the public. It could also employ inexperienced labour in the coal mines and gave the miners until 23rd August to return to work before they would place ‘loyalists’ to take over their jobs. The Federal Government also took drastic action on 20th August by empowering the Navy to transport coal in the Commonwealth and to distribute supplies for industrial and other purposes.

Cracks began to show in the leadership of the Defence Committee which the government exploited to full effect. On the same day as the intervention of the Federal government, the Defence Committee proposed to the government that they would call off the strike if they would agree to modify the card system and guarantee that the striking workers would not be victimised on returning to work. The proposal was unsurprisingly rejected. The workers were not blind to the machinations of their supposed leaders. Consequently, the next day, the Defence Committee pivoted and denied that it was prepared to call off the strike and accept the card system, whilst appealing to the workers to remain steadfast.

The government reaffirmed its policy and announced it would no longer negotiate with the Defence Committee as it now declared it an illegal body. The Defence Committee, continuing to waver, stated:

“We are willing at any moment to resume work, and will agree to any other method of recording time, free from the degrading, features of the Taylor system … and we are now ready as we have been all along to meet the Chief Commissioner fairly in the matter, to resume work under neutral conditions and to pledge ourselves faithfully to abide by the decision of an independent tribunal on the system in dispute.”

Despite the compromising and appeasing attitude of their leaders, the workers morale remained high. Nearly every day, other layers of the working class would be drawn into the strike. By the end of the strike, 100,000 workers overall had been on strike across NSW, Victoria, and other states (but obviously at staggering periods) with the most ever out on strike at any one time was 68,000.

But by the end of August, the Government had been given ample time to organise a reactionary force to break the strike. When new workers came out on strike, within a couple of hours the workplace would be filled with loyalists.

Capitulation and betrayal

On 6th September, the Industrial Commission discussed with the Defence Committee for two days until the Defence Committee finally announced their unconditional surrender. Naturally, there was immense anger and hostility of the workers towards their ‘leaders’ for this betrayal.

Despite the capitulation of their leaders and the Defence Committee, however, some sections of the working class would still continue to strike. The miners would only return to work a month later on 3rd October. The seamen and dockers would strike even longer, but they would return over a month later since the official end, on 18th October. This was when the government finally decided to release the imprisoned union officials. Although the strike would eventually fizzle out, some isolated sections would stay out on strike as late as December. Even though the government had told the defence committee they wouldn’t victimise workers, when the workers returned to work, they were given a good lashing by the government and the employers.

The bosses went on the offensive following the defeat of the strike. Billy Hughes would also try another referendum on conscription but, although the strike had been a big defeat for the workers, not all their power had been expended and the second referendum was subsequently defeated by an even greater margin than before. The working class would regain its strength and another strike wave would occur in 1919. They would not forget what had taken place during this strike and consequently learnt some of lessons of this strike – even if their supposed leaders hadn’t.

Part three -->>

Marx Capital in a Day

Marx Capital in a Day

Educate Yourself

  • Educate Yourself
  • The Fundamentals of Marxism
  • Dialectical Materialism and Science
  • Historical Materialism
  • Marxist Economics
  • The State
  • Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalinism
  • Anarchism
  • Feminism
  • Fascism
  • The National Question
  • Imperialism and War
  • Revolutionary Strategy
  • Revolutionary History

Socialist Appeal are proud to publish this basic guide to help focus your studies of Marxist theory and practice. Visit the various tabs to find links to introductory articles, classic texts, and audio talks for different topics. We also invite our readers to become acquainted with the more basic ideas of Marxism by starting with the recommended short reading list, going through the FAQ section, reading this article that combats the myths about Marxism, and listening to the following audios:

Why Marx Was Right - Alan Woods

What is Marxism? - Alan Woods

What Will Socialism Look Like? - Fred Weston

What is Capitalism? What is Socialism? - Fred Weston

We will be expanding and developing this section over time. Please contact us if you have any questions, or if you'd like any suggestions on what to read next.

Reading the classics of Marxism is the best way to understand these ideas. At first it may seem difficult, but every worker and young person knows that things worth having are worth working hard for!  Patient and persistent study, discussion, and ultimately, the day to day application of these ideas over a lifetime are the key.

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Marxist theory is the basis upon which our analysis, perspectives, program, and participation in the movement are based. It is our "guide to action." This why Socialist Appeal and IMT place so much emphasis on political education. To this end, we have created an extensive Education Plan to assist comrades in their political development. This is an important resource.

However, it's length and scope may seem daunting to new comrades. With this in mind, Socialist Appeal has compiled a shorter list of classic works and other important writings we think will serve to lay a strong foundation in the ideas and methods of Marxism. We would like to encourage all our supporters and those interested in learning more about Marxism to read (or re-read!) through the works on this list.

This selection of writings is an excellent introduction to many of the fundamentals of Marxist theory. There are many other writings that could be added, but this selection provides a strong basis for those wishing to equip themselves with the necessary ideas for the daily work of fighting for socialism.

Many of these are smaller books or pamphlets; some are more lengthy books; and others are just short articles. This list should therefore be more digestible than the full Education Plan, particularly those with busy work or school schedules. All of them are available to

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

The ideas of Dialectical Materialism, based on the best traditions of philosophical thought, are not a fixed dogma but a system of tools and general principles for analysing the world materialistically and scientifically.

If we are to understand society in order to change it, this cannot be done arbitrarily, since the human will is not master of nature; rather, our ideas and thoughts are reflections of necessary material laws. Instead, we must seek to understand the laws of how human society changes. By following our education plan for Dialectical Materialism, the reader will familiarise themselves with this way of looking at the world so that they too can begin to apply Marxist ideas.

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Historical Materialism is the result of Dialectical Materialism applied to human society and history. It encompasses the general theory of how and why society develops in the way it does. A deeper, more concrete understanding of these principles in combination with a study of real, living history of class struggles enables us to come to a general understanding of where capitalist society is headed and what political strategy is required to successfully influence the course of events.

The basic principles of Historical Materialism are that human society has inherent laws guiding it - its developments are by no means arbitrary or accidental, nor the mere subject of the will of great men and ideas. Human individuals can and do influence society according to their ideas, but only ever within definite material constraints and conditions. Above all, the law determining historical development is that of the development of the means of production - meaning economically productive technology, science, technique etc. The extent of the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production - i.e. the structure of society, class relations etc. Each social system has its inherent laws of motion. If we want to overthrow capitalist society, we must understand how capitalism works.

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with the same network of judges, heads of police and army etc. All the key texts explaining how exactly we relate to the state, and the

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

Naturally they are aided in this task by the degeneration of the revolution and by the existence of Stalin’s monstrous dictatorship. However, Stalinism represents the opposite of Bolshevism’s real traditions, which readers can read about in this section, as well as the Marxist explanation for why Stalinism took place and what this means for our movement.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of ideas from feminism, which is a more eclectic and varied set of ideas. We believe that in this section, readers will find the tools Marxism

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the national question, with all the sensitivities and complexity it brings. Therefore this section is of the utmost importance for revolutionaries.

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War is a constant feature of life under capitalism, especially in the epoch of imperialism. There has not been a single day of peace since the end of WWII, despite the appearance of WWII (and all previous wars) of being the “war to end all wars”. Capitalism is inherently unstable, competitive and violent. Moreover, there can be no final peace between the classes, since this system is based on the exploitation of the working class by the rich. 

However, there are wars of different kinds under capitalism. The question of war is the hardest equation of all to judge, so careful study is essential so that revolutionaries are not blown off course by the complexities involved. For example, some “socialists” called for support for the war in Iraq, as it had the appearance of establishing “democracy” over dictatorship. Equally, the failure to understand the true meaning of WWI and its implications was the direct cause of the death of the Second International.

Wars, like revolutions, represent the sharp extreme of capitalism’s crisis. Under capitalism, there will be many wars in the future. The more revolutionaries study and understand capitalism’s previous wars, the better equipped we will be to fight against future wars and the capitalist system itself.

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

However, we must carefully study the history and traditions of the British working class in order for Marxist ideas to connect with them. There are all too many groups who simply declare themselves the vanguard of the British working class, and have a dismissive attitude to the class’ real traditions.

In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

For analysis of 21st Century revolutionary movements, check out the News and Analysis sections of the website!

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Marxist theory

Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany Hitler and the Rise of Fascism in Germany
Duration: 00:51:40
Date: 9 Mar 2017
Workers’ control, democracy, and power Workers' control, democracy, and power
Duration: 00:57:00
Date: 2 Mar 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part two
Duration: 00:21:16
Date: 17 Feb 2017
In Defence of the Russian Revolution -  part one In Defence of the Russian Revolution - part one
Duration: 00:22:04
Date: 1 Feb 2017
Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece Materialism and Dialectics in Ancient Greece
Duration: 00:48:58
Date: 27 Jan 2017
Imperialism in the 21st century Imperialism in the 21st century
Duration: 00:57:35
Date: 13 Dec 2016
Fascism: What it is and how to fight it Fascism: What it is and how to fight it
Duration: 00:36:44
Date: 12 Dec 2016
Dialectics, science, and nature Dialectics, science, and nature
Duration: 00:48:55
Date: 9 Dec 2016
Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution
Duration: 00:42:54
Date: 30 Nov 2016
Marxism, Imperialism, and War Marxism, Imperialism, and War
Duration: 00:50:16
Date: 25 Nov 2016
The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on The Hungarian Revolution: 60 years on
Duration: 00:47:10
Date: 1 Nov 2016