Diary of a Labour Man 1917- 1945

Full text. Editor of the 'Westralian Worker'


Westralian Worker, 29 August 1924, page 3


Personalities and Points of View – The Right Wing of Labor and the Left Wing – Post-War Reaction and the Disasters Flowing Therefrom – How Hard Facts are Giving Labor its Chance – Power and Significance of the Modern State – The Australian Delegation and the Conference – Proposed Visit to the Commonwealth of a League of Nation's Official.

Mr John Curtin, Editor of the 'Worker,' returned from Europe via Cape Town on Saturday last. His mission was to act as Australian Workers Delegate to the Sixth International Labor Conference of the League of Nations, held at Geneva. He has benefited wonderfully in health and declares himself renewed and stimulated by his holiday and the experiences he has had.

Asked for a few impressions, Mr Curtin said it was extraordinarily difficult to sift the medley of ideas he had formed into their proper classifications. The Conference itself was a veritable education. Not only did he meet the delegates of workers, employers and direct Government spokesmen, but he had associated with political and industrial leaders whose daily round was of the highest importance to the world.

What do you think of them? We asked.

'That is the kind of question which I've often put to myself,' he replied. 'You see, passing judgement on individuals is no light responsibility. Men may easily be the very opposite to what they appear to be. Consider the names of but a few with whom I talked: Justin Godart, Minister in the new French Government led by M. Herriot; Hjalmar Branting, winner of the Noble Peace Prize and former Premier of Sweden; Dr Leymann, member of one of the post-war German Cabinets; M. Pinot, president of what I can call the French Employers' Federation; Audegeese, secretary of the International Federation of Trades Unions; Rossi, a prominent Fascistic Deputy, who claims to be a 'dinkum' trades unionist; Ramsay MacDonald, J. H. Thomas, Miss Margaret Bondfield, and Rhys Davies, all of them members of the present British Labor Government; Cecil Parkin, the professional cricketer who refused to play for England in test matches because he considered Gilligan was not a satisfactory captain; Spahlinger, the famous German medical man seeking a serum to defeat consumption; Jouhaux, general secretary of the French Confederation of Labor; - O, editors of newspapers, orators like Ben Tillett, artists like Lance Mattison (who used to live in Perth), delegates whose names I've forgotten but whose personalities remain a vivid memory, Professor O'Rahilly of the Irish Dail, Cresswell and Boydell, the Labor Ministers in the South African Government led by Hertzog; Fred Bramley, secretary of the British Trades Union Congress; Marion Phillips, secretary of the Labor Women – and so on. What do I think of all these? The answer surely is not one for compression to a sentence.

'You must give me time to unload,' he went on. 'Taking things as they occur to me, I believe the Governments ought to give Spahlinger a chance. The backing he needs should be made available, and even if it be of no avail, it will not cost much more than a few tons of chemical munitions, which, by the way, every Government has tons of money to concentrate on. Then I believe the forces making for peace should be given as much prominence and support as those making for war. Europe is not quite so sick as it has been. This year there has been a decided change for the better, at least that is what I gathered from the information given me.

'Labor will emerge in the old world as the political instrument of the new civilisation.' This sentence fell from his lips deliberately.

Why do you say that? The interviewer queried.

'Because I saw evidence of its truth,' was the answer. 'As you know, the expectation during the war was of revolution and the forcible overthrow of the junkers of the various countries. Even the ruling classes shared that anticipation even as they prepared to struggle for their continued supremacy. Labor – the masses – were not ready: their leaders were uncertain and dubious both as to the efficacy of the revolutionary upheaval and its worthwhileness, even should it be realised. The doubters swung to the right, the revolutionaries to the left; inevitably the masses were divided, and the era of opportunity, passed before effective risings could be promoted. In the sequel reaction planted itself more strongly than ever in the institutionalism of authority. And the new lease of power was marked only by the way in which stupidity endeavoured to keep pace with avarice. All the burdens of the war in all the countries were levied on the masses; the wealthy factions – and never forget war enriches as well as impoverishes – were apparently determined to hold their gains at any cost, and irrespective of the national solvency or insolvency, and therefore manoeuvred a so-called peace which, whatever its justification as a means of punishment for Germany, became the source of aggravated misery for millions embracing every race, and engulfing victor and vanquished in what threatened to become a common ruin. The situation arising from these facts was a great evangel for the Labor policy, which was despised during the war and at the Peace Conference, came to be accepted generally as the one formula on which Europe could survive. Each succeeding election, therefore, resulted in great accessions of strength to the parties that were Labor or Radical, and enormous landslides for those that, while Conservative and Reactionary in their nature, had none the less posed as the sole abode of national patriotism in the public life.

'I find the present position of absorbing interest. Men who candidly oppose Labor's principles when applied to the domestic questions of social reform and economic organisation are clamantly enthusiastic for Labor's policy as applied to international relations. For the Foreign policy of Ramsay MacDonald the House of Commons yields ungrudging support and even admiration. But for the Labor programme of Housing, the Eight Hours Day and similar questions the old undying hatred of the landlords and the manufacturers persists. It is so on the Continent. But the significance of the contrast in the attitude of the old governing classes is keenly appreciated by increasing numbers of the electors. Steeped as the communities have been in the tradition that Labor was not fit to govern, they are perceiving that it is really the only party able to govern. I do not say the outlook of the Laborist parties - I use the term for want of a more accurate description – is completely satisfactory to their well-wishers. It is not. The militant Socialists and the definitely organised Communist parties – these, by the way, are remarkably active and very virile – are frankly critical and even hostile; I am not so sure that they are fundamentally wrong either. Yet it has to be admitted that the alternatives to the continuance of the reactionary policy was strictly limited, and that the course of present day events in Europe squares with the view of those who contend that the one practicable plan of, shall I say orderly, evolution is that which has given to Labor a more or less influential place in the actual manipulation of the State.

'And here I found a point of absolute agreement by all the anti-reactionist groups. Each agreed that more than ever the State was the supreme centre of the conflict for power. To serve one's class possession of the State is now regarded as indispensable. All the demands on nationality, on race patriotism, love of country, and what is called loyalty, radiate from the State. When the capitalists are in absolute control their projects, their organised lootings, their policies of class enslavement, their intrigues to gain advantages over competing capitalists outside the frontier, are labelled and accepted as great national necessities; to oppose the prolongation of the working-day was to be an enemy of the State; to question the schemes of Imperialists was to be a betrayer of the national heritage; and to fall in step with all that was hateful to the glorious instincts of patriotism. Consider the facts: Two years ago Labor was infamous in Britain because it desired to confer with Germany on the question of reparations. When I left England the supreme anxiety of the great newspapers and leading public men was that MacDonald might fail in persuading France to accept such proposals as would make an international conference embracing Germany practicable. The facts were broadly unchanged; all that had happened to precipitate this volte face was a change in the party operating the fabric of Government. Mr MacDonald in his own person is a remarkable illustration of what I mean. The things he is now doing as Prime Minister, and which are winning for him universal approbation, are the things which were advocated by him as a member of the Labor Opposition in the House of Commons and which brought him obloquy and ultimate defeat in his electorate. He has not changed but those who assailed and opposed him have.

'It is somewhat the same in France. Jouhaux told me that generally the members of the new French Cabinet were men who had suffered grievously from the mistaken idea that their refusal to support Clemenceau and Poincaire was evidence of their lack of robust patriotism. Only the pressure of hard facts had turned the scale. He was of opinion that the worst of the difficulties had been passed. International consultation was taboo among workers during and immediately after the war. Now it is recognised as an absolute necessity to the formulation of any concerted plan of working-class action.'

And the Conference itself – what about that? Mr Curtin was asked.

He said that his detailed reports would be forwarded to their respective destinations as soon as he could finalise them. Speaking generally, he was strongly critical of the inadequacy of the Australian delegation. 'Although entitled to four delegates, the Commonwealth had but two and one substitute delegate. No advisers were attached to the delegation, which suffered in comparison with the strength of those from other countries. Without credentialled advisers it is not possible for a delegate to participate in the proceedings of the various commissions dealing with subjects of concern to his country. Delegates from small European States, to say nothing of the larger countries, had the assistance of advisers and were thereby able to secure nomination on every Commission. Very rarely did the Plenary Assembly vary a Commission's findings. A stenographer and typist should also be available. The task confronting delegates is not an easy one, particularly if they regard their work seriously.

'I found considerable criticism respecting the failure of Australia to ratify conventions agreed on at previous conferences. As Sir Joseph Cook was not present we were without any data as to the explanation of the Commonwealth Government, on this point. Most certainly Conference was entitled to known the reasons, if any, for the refusal or the failure of member States to take the necessary action arising out of their responsibilities in this connection. However, I shall discuss this matter in closer detail at another time.

'The Director-General, Mr Albert Thomas, invited me to discuss various matters with him, and I availed myself of the opportunity. He agreed that it was desirable an officer of the Bureau should visit Australia to generally consult with the organisations of workers and employers, as well as the Federal and State Governments, in respect to Australia's association with the League of Nations Labor Organisation. Very probably the officer to be selected for this mission will be Mr William Caldwell, a former Western Australian resident. Mr Caldwell is the head interpreter of the administration and a most capable and zealous official. I understand he will arrive in November should the tentative decision to send him be confirmed.

'For the present I have no more to say. I was delighted, and very proud, to have the privilege of representing the workers of the Commonwealth at this great and wonderful gathering. Whether or not useful work was done remains for the future to decide. All I can say is I did my best to worthily discharge the obligation of service cast upon me.'

Mr Curtin is to be accorded a public welcome home at the Perth Trades Hall, tonight (Friday), August 29. It is expected that the Premier, the Hon. P. Collier, M.L. and Mr A. McCallum, M.L.A. (Minister for Works), will be among the speakers.

JCPML. Records of the Australian Labor Party WA Branch.  Mr Curtin returns from the Geneva Conference. Some impressions of men and governments in Europe. Westralian Worker, 29 August 1924, page 3.  JCPML00984/132.