(England vs Germany — always the agonising decision of who you want to lose )

With the resignation from the ministry of John Faulkner, a great part of what was left of the Left has left the centre of the ALP. Faulkner returns to the backbench from a brief and one suspects not particularly happy time as war minister, although it says “defence” on the letterhead. We can’t know what he really thinks of the futile, directionless, meaningless war in Afghanistan. He’s a genuinely good man, but he’s also been a good party man, trotting out the war-against-terror line.

Every general knows the importance of strategy, and Labor is willing to spend Australian lives to not be outflanked where it matters most — in the op-ed pages of Murdoch tabloids. Possibly the deaths of three recently killed servicemen, together with the revival of a baroque logic-chopping refugee strategy, pushed him to come to a decision — one certainly hopes he was as sickened by presiding over military funerals, as many were watching him do so. Possibly he’s escaped what would have been his fate as a latter-day Rubashov of Darkness At Noon, so devoted to the party that he was willing to offer his annihilation as a last service to it.

But with all due respect to Anthony Albanese and a coupla others, that’s pretty much it for anything resembling a Left in the Labor Party. To be sure, it was a vestige of a vestige in any case, for the simple reason that the Labor Left had ceased to produce anything resembling a distinctive intellectual and political position in opposition to the dominant — and now widely discredited — neoliberalism of the past decade or so.

The idea of left and right factions emerged in the ’40s, though the different forces are present at Labor’s inception, constituted around two different ideas of doing things — the Right, a mix of the Catholic social movement and corporatism, the Left with a critique, Marxist or marxisant, of a life dominated by the market and the commodity.

The solution, whether nationalisation of key industries or a Meidner-style plan of buying up the private sector through mobilised capital (pension funds etc), never got to second-base, and the chaotic denouement of the Whitlam government finished it off altogether. In effect you can date the decline of the Labor Left from 1976 — since many of its distinctive positions in the ’80s were based around discrete or foreign affairs issues, such as uranium mining and the US alliance.

You could say that Labor was drifting rightwards from there — in fact it appears to have been drifting to the doldrums. The transformations of the Hawke-Keating years were a series of assemblages with ideas drawn from right, centre-left and left. They changed a great deal, but much of their impetus was in the service of a conservative ideal — to preserve, through piecemeal changes, state/union involvement in setting wages and conditions.

Peter Fray

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