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Book Review: Workingman’s Paradise by William Lane

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This semester I was allowed the pleasure of reading William Lane's Workingman's Paradise which happily resides in the public domain. Originally published in 1892, it was written to explain unionism and “socialism” to all who were interested, and to raise funds for the release of gaoled unionists. Since then, it has become part of Australia's literary heritage, and I relished reading every passage of this fine work of propaganda.

The style of the novel is very easy to read and its events unfold at a very casual pace. Through a young man named Ned Hawkin's, who is visiting Sydney after helping to form a shearers' union, Lane takes us into the working and living conditions of ordinary people. Somehow, Lane's occasional tendency to articulate his political views directly in the text does not distract from the telling. His various critiques seem sufficiently balanced like the occasional commentary in a good feature article, and for the most part he prefers to show us what he believes through anecdotes.

Now to those not familiar with the Australian Labour Movement, I cannot stress enough its cultural and political significance. The worst aspects of capitalism were rampant throughout the 19th century, and the centralized ownership of land and capital established a working class who lacked suffrage or any alternative to working. The hyper-competitive job market and absence of a minimum wage or standard working conditions allowed employers to drive wages down and keep them down.

Setting up unions was the only way to gain power and stability in their wages and jobs. When the great Maritime Strike of 1890 and the Shearers Strike of 1891 failed, many participants realized that it was not the union that was at fault, but the whole political system, which was not designed to consider their welfare. It was from this ferment that the Australia's oldest political party, the Labor Party, was formed.

What we see in Workingman's Paradise is a consistent theme of social versus economic liberty. Lane, like the Labour movement around him, expounds on ideas of socialism but does not aim to remake capitalism completely. Of particular note, there are depictions of homelessness but not of poverty, and, while the characters we meet all appear reasonably wealthy, the most consistent source of antagonism comes those who hold property, businesses and government positions. This reflects the realities of late 19th and early 20th-century Australia, in that the country was one of the world's most prosperous and literate, and that the labour movement was essentially a working middle-class movement. While both sides had wealth and education, the conflict was between those with capital and those without.

Reviewing the social life depicted throughout the book, it is interesting to consider the strong social bonds exist between working men and women. There is a consistent theme of mateship and platonic love throughout, and of particular note is the way that women come across as equal yet different, rather than as subordinates to men.

Contrary to popular belief, as noted by conservative historian John Hirst in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Australian women of the period were not slaves to patriarchal households, but active participants in society. Indeed, Emma Miller, who has a statue in Brisbane's King George Square, was active in establishing the Women's Union in 1890, which lobbied for better working conditions in the feminized professions of sewing and waiting tables.

The embodiment of Australian women finds itself in Nellie, who is friends with all, but lover of no one. Ned spends much of the novel travelling around Sydney with her, and something seems to be developing as she attempts to show him what the city is really like. Yet Nellie never seems to look upon him as any more than a friend, despite Ned's deep affection for her (some things never change). This is especially typical of colonial Australia where, according to the Oxford History of Australia, the scarcity of women gave them unprecedented power in their relationships and also made them rather picky.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it is interesting to consider how, unlike much of Lane's more racist work, the Asian minority are represented by the novel. White characters fear their "expressionless" faces and their status as cheap labour, yet there is never the consideration of how these individuals might feel. Such a position seems incredibly objective and honest, since one would expect an alienation to develop between two groups with radically different social rules and backgrounds. In my reading, this suggests a more skeptical approach to the “Asian invasion” myth that is said to have inspired the White Australia Policy.

True, the politics of race have been a key theme in Australian history and literature. In a speech on American radio, John Curtin did indeed boast about Australia as a white country, and the Family Planning Association has a history built around eugenics. However, I'm more inclined to believe that people who held such beliefs were merely doing what they thought was good policy based on the limited information available at the time. Indigenous populations suffered drastic losses from the introduction of European diseases, and when you combine that with the recent theories of Darwin, you're likely to see racial Darwinism emerge as an ideology.

Curiously, you would think that such a philosophy would not fit with the Christian influence throughout this book and other works of Australian literature. Of course, one need only examine the language of “sin” etc to see that Christianity was itself a hot topic. From the 1860s, Australian colonies began providing free secular education that taught a common Christianity to eliminate sectarian conflict, and in reviewing the outbreaks described in Radical Brisbane by Evans and Ferrier, the conflicts were primarily apt to break out where Catholics and Protestants critiqued each other's faiths. With this in mind, it would seem that Lane sought to communicate his message to his listeners with the common Christianity of the time, be they Catholic or Protestant.

Reflecting on the changes of the 20th century, it is interesting to consider how Christianity has since become highly marginalized in contemporary Australian society. According to Amanda Lohrey, in her Quarterly Essay entitled Voting for Jesus, Christian rhetoric has long been marginalized to the fringes of Australian politics, with vast numbers of people selecting “no religion” or writing “atheist” on the census, and mainstream church attendance dwindling at 9% nationally. Maybe there is something to James Franklin's view in Corrupting the Youth, that the failure to establish a national church was key to undermining the role of the church in the community and society, but combine that with free secular education and you've got an enlightenment thinker's dream.

It would seem Workingman's Paradise is in many respects a relic of a very different Australia to the one that we know today. In a century since its publication there has been universal suffrage, an institutionalized industrial relations system, strong immigration from Asia, and a decline in Christianity across the denominations. To the historian, it provides interesting insights into late 19th-century Australia, and to the casual reader it is, at the very least a good yarn.

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About Jonathan Scanlan

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    Thanks Jonathan – sounds like a must-read!