Class Struggle & Socialism


Centenary of the 1916 conscription referendum: a significant defeat for the imperialist war

Max O.

The Australian Government has put enormous effort into commemorating the centenary of the First World War, focusing on our soldier's participation in the Gallipoli invasion and battles on the Western Front. The promotion of the ANZAC legend is to not only glorify past foreign military adventures but to also garner support for future military aggressions.

In promoting the military history of the ANZACS the ruling class in Australia has been mindful to smother the turbulent history of opposition to the First World War and the two failed conscription referendums. The 'Lest we forget' mantra is utilized annually to remember and lionize our soldiers who fought battles in far away places.

However it is a case of let's forget the war at home in 1916/17 by officialdom. Leading up to the first conscription referendum, 28 October 1916, was an acrimonious struggle of riots, sabotage, strikes, frame-ups, gaolings, show trials, surveillance and police persecutions. 

The No Conscription campaign, against enormous odds, won the vote by a slim margin a hundred years ago - a centenary that Australian officials prefer not to remember. No exhibitions or commemorations have been planned by the Museum of Australian Democracy nor the Australian War Museum about the two bitter conscription referendums of 1916/17.

The unwillingness by the two museums to cover this monumental conscription issue could be explained by the fact that Australia was accused by Britain of not pulling its weight in supporting the empire by supplying enough troops to fight against the 'Hun'. To acknowledge this part of Australian history undermines the trumpeting of our country's heroism during the First World War. 

The justification at the time for going to war against Germany was to defend "King and Empire", liberal values of the British 'way of life' and the 'rule of law' that Germanic aggression had crushed. British aggression and autocratic rule of the last 700 years was conveniently overlooked.

First World War, an imperialist war
The First World War was brought about by the competing imperialist interests of the British and German capitalist ruling classes. The established British empire was being challenged by Germany's recent industrialisation and the desire to achieve a re-division of colonies around the world. The capitalist pursuit of profit propelled Germany and Britain into fighting over markets and the capture of valuable raw materials.

Initially people volunteered in their thousands to fight for the British Empire, with many workers hoodwinked by the Labor Party whose leader at the time declared "...stand beside the mother country to help and defend to the last man and last shilling." This patriotic zeal saw at the beginning of the war 53,000 willingly enlist in the military, with 23,000 of these being unionists.

Eventually enthusiasm for the war plummeted with rising war casualties, business war profiteering, inflation, unemployment and falling living standards. Of the 300,000 Australian soldiers who fought on the Western Front, 62,000 died, 16,000 were gassed, 4,000 lost more than one limb and 37,000 were horribly disfigured.

Workers quickly realised that they were the ones wearing the brunt of the war effort and could see that the business class were profiteering at their expense. In 1916, 1.7 million working days were lost through a succession of militant strikes. Workers started pushing for business to share the burden of the war and hit their bosses with strikes for better wages, for shorter hours and against speed ups.

Volunteer enlistment for the war effort plunged  throughout the British empire. The British government overcame this problem by the use of forcible conscription and wanted its dominions to do the same. Billy Hughes, the infamous Labor prime minister of Australia at the time, visited Britain and the Western Front in 1916. 

The British government placed pressure on Hughes to supply 16,500 soldiers a month, which he was quite happy to do. However there was a stumbling block stopping for him in obediently carrying out this order. 

Support for the war in Australia had changed drastically, with divisions emerging both in the Labor party (two thirds of the Labor MPs opposed conscription) and the union movement. Whilst Hughes had majorities in both houses of parliament, he could not get support to pass laws to enact conscription.

The fear of losing the vote over the introduction of conscription laws in parliament attracted Hughes to the idea of winning this issue by plebiscite. He counted on the fact that a campaign backed by business, the press, churches and the whole capitalist state would guarantee victory for implementing conscription.

However, all he achieved in the end was splitting the Labor party.

Repressive capitalist state apparatus employed to ensure conscription victory
Many groups from either side of the conscription referendum campaign vied to win support, especially through massive rallies and mass action. On the 'No side' there were a range of organisations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), Labour Volunteer Army and Women's Peace Army, who bravely agitated against the war and conscription. 

They worked furiously to put out propaganda that challenged the purpose of the Great War. Arrayed against them were the police, military and right wing vigilantes who violently broke up No Vote demonstrations, by bashing, framing and arresting anti-conscription activists.

Using the "War Precautions Act" and "Unlawful Associations Act" more than 3400 people were prosecuted and 2500 were gaoled during the 1914-18 war. Statements and actions that were deemed to 'prejudice recruiting' led to offices, print shops of unions and leftwing groups being raided and their propaganda material declared illegal and confiscated.

In an effort to associate anti-conscription with criminality, the IWW was targeted and charged with treason. The state alleged that the IWW planned to sabotage the war by setting fire to Sydney.

Twelve members were gaoled with sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. Through the efforts of mass action and the personal efforts of the great Labor parliamentarian, Percy Brookfield, it was proven that these 12 were framed. By 1920 the 12 famous IWW members were released.   

Having lost the first conscription referendum - 1,160,033 against vs. 1,087,557 for, a 52% to 48% decision - Hughes and the reactionary capitalist state tried again and held another referendum in 1917. The slyly worded referendum was also rejected with 1,181,747 against vs. 1,015,159 for, a 54% to 46% decision.

War and Peace - a class question
Contrary to what politicians and war museums say, Australia's democratic liberties were won by the majorities of the population who voted No twice against war conscription, and not on the battle fields of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

If the 'Labor rat' Hughes had won the referendum, he and the business class would have had an open road to establish an overt dictatorship. Then workers' rights and liberties would have been eliminated and more soldiers' lives lost in the slaughter house of the front line. War and peace are class questions. 

The challenge for progressive Australian's is to reclaim the war monuments and Anzac Day marches, which are used by monopolising capitals to manipulate working people, and turn them into sites and events of class conflict.  Soldiers of the past and present have to be patiently convinced that they are not actually fighting for their country, but are just canon fodder for the murderous capitalist class.


Centenary of the 1916 conscription referendum: a significant defeat for the imperialist war
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Centenary of the 1916 conscription referendum: a significant defeat for the imperialist war
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