Document Study 4
• Editorial from the Westralian Worker 'Reform or Revolution! Which?' written by John Curtin, 5 August 1921
• Letter from Curtin to his friend and mentor Frank Anstey about solving industrial problems on the waterfront, 1925

Background information

In 1917, John Curtin left his friends in the Labor Party and Victorian Socialist Party in Melbourne and moved West to be editor of the Westralian Worker newspaper.

The political life of Perth was very different to Melbourne. In WA the trade unions and the Labor Party were one movement. When Curtin became involved in the union movement in WA he was drawn more and more deeply into ALP organisation. In Melbourne Curtin had moved mainly with working class people who had few links with people in other classes or with other political ideas. In Perth, however, he was thrown, by the nature of his life and work as an editor, together with people across political and class boundaries.

John Curtin speaking at opening of South Beach, Fremantle, c.1920's. JCPML00376/160

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. John Curtin speaking at opening of South Beach, Fremantle, c.1920's. JCPML00376/160

Until the time he came to Perth, Curtin was convinced that he would see the collapse of capitalism, not necessarily by revolution as in Russia – he thought this extreme was unnecessary in Australia. He believed people would come to understand that capitalism exploited people and so they would naturally favour socialism. The war forced him to reassess his ideas – capitalism had not collapsed as a result of the war and socialism didn’t appear to be working very well in Europe. By 1922 he had come to the conclusion that he would not see socialism in his own lifetime. He was even more convinced that reform rather than revolution was the way when he returned from a conference in Geneva in 1924. On his return to Australia, he committed himself to becoming a member of parliament for the Australian Labor Party, standing for election in 1925.

Document: Editorial from the Westralian Worker 'Reform or Revolution! Which?' written by John Curtin, 5 August 1921

Source: JCPML. Records of the Australian Labor Party WA Branch. Westralian Worker editorial, 5 August 1921. JCPML00302/231

Excerpt from:

Reform or Revolution! Which?

There is much foolish talk concerning the difference between, and the relative social value of, reform and revolution, much of which could be avoided were there a clearer understanding on the part of disputants as to the real nature and meaning of these two terms.

“Reform” is pretty generally understood by most people and is taken to mean an amelioration of existing conditions, an improvement in social and industrial (or other) matters. It means increase of the remuneration of the worker, shorter hours of labor, better surroundings generally. It postulates improvement within the ambit of the present economic system under which the affairs of the world are carried on. Its advocates embrace all shades of political opinion or economic belief. Land nationalisation, factory legislation, tax on unearned increment, for example, find champions amongst all classes. These reformative measures, it will be noticed, may be carried into effect and yet leave the structure of capitalism intact...

“Revolution” comes in a different category. While reform postulates the continued existence of the general principles of capitalism, revolution postulates its abolition and, with its ending, the creation of a new economic system altogether, freed from the selfishness and injustice of its predecessor. Revolution is thus a very different thing to mere reform. The latter but strives to palliate an evil system; revolution would destroy it, root and branch, as incapable of yielding any good fruit.

The term “revolution” is distasteful to most people. They have a vague and crude idea that it means the shedding of blood, barricades in the streets, much shouting, violence and shooting and all the concomitants of a forcible overthrow of existing institutions, together with wounds, suffering and privations. But revolution does not necessarily mean that. There is no reason, except in the greed and obstinacy of those who profit by exploiting their fellow men, why we could not abandon economic methods that are daily proving more and more ineffective and distasteful...

As for our place in this controversy, we are decidedly revolutionists. Which is to say that we have no faith in capitalism as a just, equitable and workable method of producing and distributing the things we need for our sustenance... As for reform, yes! We will take it on our way to the new world we desire to build; we have no objection to having the claws of the tiger trimmed somewhat, preparatory to the process of slaying him outright.

Capitalism has such a grip in every direction that nothing short of its complete dislodgement will avail. We are disgusted with the perpetual attempts at adjustments in order to make the social machine work smoothly, every adjustment constantly requiring more amendments and alterations...

There is no hope for the world but a change, a complete change, from the old methods, old principles and the old basis. We propose to substitute justice and brotherhood as the foundation stones of that new structure we hope to erect... There is no soul in capitalism—we would have a soul in the new system we would create. Nay! we would translate the golden rule into terms of economics—a golden thread that should run through all the processes of the new life. For man does not live by bread alone, a fact which Capitalism has forgotten and, forgetting which, has made a beast of itself and very largely of the world also...

The mere “reformist” is out of date. Capitalism is too ghastly, horrible and inefficient to reform. Only its abolition will avail to save the world. Abolition means revolution. If there be any who shrink at a word, let them calm their nerves by calling themselves “abolitionists.”


Questions

a. Briefly outline the distinction Curtin makes between reform and revolution.
b. According to Curtin, why are people frightened of the word ‘revolution’?
c. What evidence is there in the document that in 1921, Curtin still believes in revolution?

Compare your answers with the Answer Key

Document: Letter from Curtin to his friend and mentor Frank Anstey about solving industrial problems on the waterfront, 1925

Source: JCPML. Records of Lloyd Ross. Research material and notes, 1924-1940. Part 4. JCPML00617/36. Original held by National Library of Australia:MS 3939, Series 11, Folder 36.

You can view each page of the letter by clicking on the images below or read excerpts from the text of the letter underneath.

Letter from Curtin to his friend and mentor Frank Anstey about industrial relations and trouble on the waterfront, 1925, page 1 Letter from Curtin to his friend and mentor Frank Anstey about industrial relations and trouble on the waterfront, 1925, page 2

June 23, 1925

Mr. Frank Anstey, M.H.R.
Howard St,
Brunswick

Dear Frank,

  ... Here is a hypothetical question. Were you Prime Minister tomorrow what would be your administrative policy in regard to the problem of Australian shipping? I am asking myself this problem every day, and I find it extremely difficult to answer.

     First, it occurs that as one Act (Arbitration) has failed why not try the Industrial Peace Act? Give the union and the employers an open tribunal in which they would themselves be the adjudicators, rather than having to submit mere technical details which are but the smoke-screens covering up the real contentions - to a judge sitting trammelled by all the legal precedent and musty tradition inseparable to his authority. Despite all that has been said, it has to be stated that the Seamen's Union and the master class have never yet had a conference to see if they could agree on anything. All they have had is appearances in Court, and their point of contact has ever been one of conflict rather than of consultation.

     All this sounds namby-pamby, but industry has got to be run and so long as the capitalist system operates it has to be run by employers and employees. It is true that agreement is difficult; yet agreement is the basis of function for industry...

Yours sincerely

John Curtin


Questions

a. What evidence is there in this letter that Curtin no longer believes that capitalism will be overthrown?
b. What problems with Australian shipping does the letter outline?
c. How does Curtin think it can be resolved?

Compare your answers with the Answer Key

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