Australian Marxist Review

Australian Imperialism

Alan Miller at Congress.

Alan Miller


Originally Published in the Australian Marxist Review #1 (new series) June 1979

Forward by Australian Marxist Review editorial board August 2022:

The editorial board of the AMR has decided to reproduce an article by Alan Miller on Imperialism in the Australian context. The AMR editorial board will be republishing historic analyses and articles on a periodic basis to assist in the development of our working-class positions. Alan Miller was a leading theoretician in the Socialist Party of Australia, a Central Committee member, and former Victorian State Secretary as well education director of the Socialist Party of Australia.

The article “Australian Imperialism,” originally published in June of 1979 in the AMR, is being reprinted to make readers of the AMR aware of previous thinking on the question of Imperialism and how it relates to Australia in the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), the present-day Communist Party of Australia (CPA). This article was written with its immediate context in mind by its author. In the 43 years since it was written there have been significant changes. It requires explanation to readers for the points it makes to be appreciated today.

At the time of this article’s production serious divisions had occurred in the communist movement and were a prominent feature of the working-class movement. These divisions had split the CPA and had meant there were three communist parties that were highly active, had leading roles in trade unions and social movements, and were seeking a leading role in the Australian working-class movement. These splits cannot be explored in the necessary depth here to explain them, but they will be outlined in this introduction to provide context to readers for this article.

The CPA-ML had split from the CPA in 1964 as a local part of the global Sino-Soviet split in the international Communist movement, with the CPA-ML adopting “Maoist” politics. The “old CPA” had by the late 60s abandoned Marxism-Leninism in favour of “Eurocommunism” that had in practice abandoned the revolutionary road towards socialism. The SPA was formed in 1971 by members of the now liquidated “old CPA.” The old CPA had abandoned the leading role of the working class in the transformation of society and Marxism-Leninism. These are indispensable to the founding and existence of the Communist Party. The comrades who formed the SPA rejected the direction towards liquidation the old CPA was taking and formed the SPA to preserve the Marxist-Leninist and working-class party founded in 1920. Following the inevitable liquidation of the old CPA in 1991 the SPA reclaimed the name of the CPA in 1996 at its 8th congress.

This article was written in the recent aftermath of the SPA’s formation. It is a response to a debate among communists in Australia about the nature of Australia’s role in the international system. It sought from a Marxist-Leninist position to articulate a position on the role of the Australian monopoly Bourgeoisie and its positioning of Australia as an Imperialist power.

At the time of writing the CPA-ML was mechanically applying ideas developed during the Chinese revolution to find a basis for forming an alliance with and supporting the local “national” bourgeoisie against foreign imperialists. The old CPA was also arguing towards an accord with local capitalism, but from a different direction and was bringing forward documents that contained its views such as “Australia reconstructed.” Whilst it seems that differences existed between the positions of the CPA-ML and the old CPA, the reality was that they were both linked by a support, whether conscious or not, for Australian nationalism.

By denying the imperialist nature of Australian capitalism and not understanding the connections it has to Imperialism generally as a global chain of exploitation led to nationalist and opportunist errors in the thinking of these parties. This was a significant contribution towards their support for class-collaboration and the subordination of the working class to capital during the accords in the 1980s. This has weakened the working-class movement in Australia to this day.

The article whilst not directly referring to the views and positions of these organisations gives a measured response to their theoretical considerations. It was in this context that our party developed and maintained its opposition to the accord and to class collaboration. These two alternative trends to a Marxist-Leninist position led to positions that deny Australia as being an imperialist power. This played out with the old CPA undermining the working class through the accords and then liquidating, and the CPA-ML adopting more nationalist positions that led to them supporting the liberal Fraser government at the time. This demonstrates that these debates around theoretical concepts are not an empty academic exercise but have serious implications to the practical work of communists.

However, this article it must be emphasised should be principally used by readers to positively build upon historic thinking around imperialism. This building of our position must aim to strengthen our ideas, arguments, and action today in opposition to imperialist aggression and war, and in support for building working-class unity and power. It should not be viewed as an invitation to further exemplify or reinforce divisions in the communist movement. In today’s conditions with the formation of the AUKUS pact and heightening international tensions there is extensive room and pressing need for future works that explore and clarify Australia’s role within the global imperialist system.

Alan Miller on Australian Imperialism June 1979:

Ray Clarke’s article “Lenin on imperialism” (AMR March 79) provides valuable material to show the correctness of the Socialist Party Program’s statement that “Australia is herself a middle-sized imperialist power with considerable and growing overseas investment. It has a whole continent as its base.”

According to Sydney stockbroker, William Tilley Hudson Evans and Co., Australian overseas investment will reach the $1 billion mark towards the end of this year, and about 600 Australian companies have ventured abroad.

A recent study by a research team from the Macquarie University, entitled “Australian Enterprise Overseas,” revealed that no less than 99 Australian public companies are multi-nationals.

Writing in the Financial Review of January 11, 1977, and using the Macquarie research as source material, Michael Southern revealed the recent growth of Australian overseas investment. In 1961 it was $255 million, but by 1975 it was $845 million. Of that figure, $220 million was invested in New Zealand, $232 million in Papua New Guinea and $253 million in such countries as Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Africa, Fiji and Holland.

Southern, however, showed that the pattern of investment has changed, with a shift away from the traditional areas such as the UK, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand to the Pacific Basin countries and, in particular, Canada and the United States. He wrote:

The annual growth rates for investment in the UK were 11 per cent a year between 1961-1975, but in the last three of those years, 1972-75, it was an average of eight per cent … The United States and Canada, by comparison, took 21 per cent of Australian capital outflow in 1973-74, and in the 1972-75 period the annual growth rate was 35 per cent a year.

The Macquarie University research says that Australia is poised for more rapid growth overseas in the next two decades. In certain areas of technology, Australia has sprung to world leadership because of local conditions, the study claims.

These statements certainly bear out the Socialist Party Program that “because of its advanced industry, food production and abundant natural power resources and the difficulties of its rivals, Australian imperialism holds the promise of becoming stronger.”

The Macquarie document indicates that Australian concerns are particularly keen to keep absolute control over their foreign activities. It says:

Australian companies have generally preferred, and still prefer, 100 per cent ownership of foreign operations.

Almost exclusively, overseas operations have been tied to head office by rigid reporting systems and procedures. If anything, the trend is for this rigidity to become more widespread, with little indication of desire to change organisational structures to those obtained in modern multi-nationals.

BHP well illustrates the power of the Australian monopoly bourgeoisie. At the beginning of this year, BHP made Australian history when it became the first publicly listed company to be capitalised at more than $2,000 million. BHP’s last half yearly profit was $160 million. (BHP uses a special system of accountancy which halves the actual profit). BHP and its direct subsiduaries have capital invested in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, United States and Indonesia.

Soviet academic, I. Lebedev, in his article “Australian Imperialism Yesterday and Today,” published at the end of the sixties, pointed out that Australian capitalism entered the imperialist stage when it was comparatively young. At the beginning of the century Australian already had (for those times) large monopolies, Lebedev said. Michael Southern, in his 1977 Financial Review article, wrote that “Australians are not new to the multi-national business” and referred to the “move into Fiji by CSR in 1882 to protect the Australian company’s sugar from a competitive threat in the then British colony.”

Lebedev, wrote that “between the two world wars Australia remained to a high degree, economically dependent on Great Britain … The Second World War proved a turning point in the development of Australian imperialism … According to some estimates Australia’s industrial progress in the war years equalled 15 to 20 years of peacetime development.”

To my mind, there is no doubt that the Australian monopoly capitalists – the Australian imperialists – constitute the real ruling class of this country. They, and their political representatives, the Fraser Government, act, above all, in their own economic and political interests. The whole state machinery is designed to serve the interests of the monopolists. Australia is, in fact, a good example of what Marxist-Leninist theory defines as state monopoly capitalism.

The growth of foreign capital economic penetration, accompanied by its consequent political and military influences, particularly by the US imperialists, could lead to the estimation that Australia was becoming merely a neo-colony and the monopoly class a mere puppet force for the US. The political conclusion could be made that the progressive forces in Australia should concentrate on the struggle against foreign capital and regard the fight against the Australian ruling class as secondary.

However, the increased foreign penetration, in my view, provides insufficient evidence to suggest that the Australian monopoly ruling class is, in any way, in danger of being dislodged from its position of economic, political and military power in this country or that it has ceased to act primarily in its own interests.

Australian and foreign multi-nationals carry out joint exploitation in this country. This activity is typical of the capitalist world today. Australia and foreign imperialists join in political struggle against the Soviet Union and socialism generally and enter into joint military arrangements to further that political struggle. The latter is associated with the main antagonistic contradiction between the capitalist and socialist world systems.

At the same time, there are secondary but antagonistic contradictions between imperialism, each one acting in its own interests. The fact that one imperialist power is stronger than the other suggests a greater ability to dominate the capitalist world and to put pressure on the weaker imperialist power, but it doesn’t overcome contradictions between the two.

Even a smaller imperialism acts in its own interests. I suggest that the 1975 bloodless coup which toppled the Whitlam government was essentially an act by the Australian monopolists to strengthen their position by having their own direct political representatives form the central government. At the same time, it was associated with world imperialist interests, particularly the US, and, indeed, the CIA played a significant part in what took place. I also suggest that Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war was not merely at the direction of the United States, but also because it served the interests of Australian imperialism in the area.

By its exploitation of Australia on behalf of its narrow class interests, the ruling class here acts against genuine national interests. In its links with foreign capital, Australian imperialism permits overseas imperialist interests to penetrate this country and this also is opposed to the real national interests of Australia. Thus one can see the close relationship between the working class struggle against the Australian ruling class and the struggle for national independence.

In the Australian context, the Socialist Party must concentrate on the monopoly capitalist ruling class, on Australian imperialism. In that concentrated effort, the party also tackles foreign capital because of its very relationship with the Australian ruling class, a relationship which, despite the conflict of interests, is also associated with sharing the spoils of exploitation as well as the political and military “responsibilities” of anti-Sovietism and anti-communism. Indeed, concentration on Australian imperialism is part of the struggle against world imperialism, part of the struggle for world peace and world socialism. I am, of course, dealing here with our overall approach. I appreciate that there can be particular circumstances when there would be concentration on foreign capital. These circumstances could involve a particular threat from foreign capital which, from a working class viewpoint, would require the rallying of all available forces. Indeed, in the general political struggle, the party can well make use of contradictions which exist between Australian and foreign capital. However, extreme care needs to be taken against any drift to nationalism by presenting the whole Australian situation in terms of struggling mainly against foreign capital and seeking our own ruling class as “allies.”

The Socialist Party Program is profoundly correct where it advances the concept of the working class struggle against monopoly capitalism in Australia, seeking allies even in non-monopoly capitalist circles, and going through the stage of anti-monopoly democracy to the socialist stage of the revolutionary transformation, beginning with working class power which uproots capitalism itself and builds the socialist economic system.