Labour History

Coolies or Comrades? Labor Socialism and the Contradictions of Internationalism, 1909–22

Labour History (2017), 113, (1), 157–181.

Abstract

In the first decades after Federation, Australian Labor Socialist intellectuals warned that capitalists desired to reduce Australian labour’s working conditions to the “coolie standard.” Such dire predictions replicated the derogatory and racialised discourse that defined the white Australian labour standard against that of the indentured “coolie.” Yet, alongside this, these movement intellectuals explicitly argued that white labour needed to unite with non-white workers in the region to resist the capitalists’ designs. They did so while maintaining faith in White Australia and racial exclusion. This article explores this tortured form of internationalism, and how the concept of the “coolie” was maintained, utilised, and transformed in the period of the early twentieth century. It writes against two trends: one that presents Australian labour as a homogenous intellectual bloc on the question of race and internationalism, and a second that identifies internationalism in the Australian labour movement as originating in the 1920s. It argues that in this period the concept of the “coolie” was utilised in both an overtly racialised manner, and began to act as a signifier of broader anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critiques that helped consolidate an internationalist identity. These Labor Socialists helped establish the intellectual ground for more developed and consistent internationalist politics that would take root in the 1920s.

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Footnotes

*I would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees. Many thanks toJackie Dickenson,Sean Scalmer, andChloe Ward for their comments on drafts of the article. Google Scholar

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Byrne, Liam