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Issue #1790      August 16, 2017

Commemorating the General Strike of 1917

On Saturday August 5, my wife and I attended the commemorative exhibition at the Sydney Industrial Park for the Great Strike of 1917. Sydney Industrial Park is actually the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops where thousands of employees of the NSW Government Railways were employed. They built and maintained the locos and carriages and all the rest of the equipment necessary for operating a state-wide rail system transporting a multitude of passengers and freight. Even the tools they used were made in-house.

When the workshops closed in 1988, property developers salivated in anticipation: it was a huge site, close to the centre of the City. Only after a determined struggle did a reluctant State government agree to the site becoming what it is today: a mix of offices for NGOs, exhibition areas and what is effectively an industrial museum.

As the venue for an exhibition and other events commemorating the great strike of 1917 (more correctly known as the General Strike of 1917) it was certainly appropriate: the strike began virtually simultaneously in the Tramway workshop at Randwick and the Railway workshops at Eveleigh.

The strike was brought on by an attempt by the employers to introduce a timecard system that would clearly be accompanied by a speed-up. The workers were not prepared to work harder for the same – or possibly less – money. By the time it was over about 100,000 workers were involved.

The commemorative exhibition included photographic displays, a short film, an art exhibition featuring works by Jane Bennett, the indefatigable chronicler of Sydney’s disappearing industrial heritage, a performance by the Trade Union Choir, and demonstrations of blacksmithing and other skills used in the workshops.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable and enlightening day, marred only by the signal failure of the organisers to relate the Australian strike to other events and movements that were taking place elsewhere, especially internationally.

The Great War was raging at the time, the first war in history to be global. Conscription had been introduced in Britain the year before but the attempt by Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes to introduce it in Australia saw him expelled from the ALP. Hughes and his supporters went over to the Liberals (not to be confused with the present Liberal Party but similarly bourgeois), formed a new National Party and became the government in October 1916. Their attempt to introduce conscription however was rejected in a hard-fought referendum.

In Ireland there was an abortive Socialist uprising at Easter, 1916, and civil war continued intermittently thereafter. In the middle of the year, to counter German military successes, Britain stepped up its naval blockade of Germany. In response, the Germans renewed their submarine campaign. In January of 1917, 368,000 tons of shipping was sunk and the next month Germany announced that all ships, neutral or otherwise, might be attacked without warning. This seriously alarmed the USA, which had supplied the Allies with vast quantities of war materials on credit, debts that might never be collected if Germany won. And a German victory seemed quite possible.

So, on April 6, 1917, the USA entered the war on the Allied side, although its troops were not ready to take an active part for another six months. At around the same time, the Russian masses, tired of the pointless slaughter (in 1915 alone Russia lost 750,000 captured and countless killed and wounded) temporarily combined with the bourgeoisie – who wanted to carry on the war more efficiently than the corrupt Tsarist bureaucracy was able to do – and overthrew Tsarist rule.

The capitalist government installed by this bourgeois revolution tried to drive the Russian army into yet another doomed offensive, even as the soldiers were leaving the front in droves. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks, with their simple but popular program of “Peace, Bread and Land” were able to overthrow Kerensky’s capitalist government and seize power for the workers. Although the peace proposals of the new Soviet government were largely kept secret from the people in the belligerent countries, the first Russian revolution, in March 1917, had already resonated with war weary workers sick of being used as cannon fodder.

Desertions in the French army in 1917 rose to 21,000. After the October Revolution numerous mutinies broke out, at one point involving no fewer than 16 French Army Corps. In Germany, there was a serious naval mutiny led by revolutionary socialists and a series of strikes (a general strike in January 1918 involved over a million German workers).

In England, 10,000 men struck in November 1916 in protest at a worker being conscripted. In May of 1917, 250,000 engineers from almost every centre in England ceased work to protest a proposed extension of conscription.

The NSW government tried to convince the public that the strikers here in 1917 were – consciously or unconsciously – acting for the Germans, or possibly for radical anarchists like the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) but without great success. However, the General Strike in Australia was marred by divided leadership and reliance on reformist demands. Largely due to these internal contradictions the strike ultimately collapsed.

Nevertheless, the ruling class here, as in France, Britain, Ireland, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and elsewhere had received a very bad fright. The world war was brought to a hasty conclusion so that the spectre of revolution could be satisfactorily laid to rest. Unfortunately for capitalism, although the revolutionary regimes that emerged in Hungary, Finland and Germany were crushed with relative ease, the regime in revolutionary Russia proved impossible to shift, and stayed in place until 1989.

One development of profound significance that the ruling class did not expect, following their failure to crush the new Socialist government in Russia, was the formation of Communist parties around the world, including in Australia on October 30, 1920. The political – and the industrial – scene would never be the same again.

Next article – Marie Lean – Tireless battler for the working class

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