Labour History

Constructing a Socialist Community: The Victorian Socialist Party, Ritual, Pedagogy, and the Subaltern Counterpublic

Labour History (2015), 108, (1), 103–121.


The Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) was a vital crafter of Australian labour’s political culture in the early twentieth century. It engaged in a wide array of cultural activities, most often associated in historical literature as an attempt to create a socialist ‘community’ which operated as a replacement for mainstream religion. Here, I endeavour to demonstrate the political implications of the organisations’ cultural activities and connect them to its broader project of social transformation. I do so by considering these acts of cultural creation against international literature on labour culture and propose a new understanding of the VSP as a subaltern counterpublic, as identified by Nancy Fraser, operating within a broader proletarian public sphere, a concept elucidated by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge. This unique perspective enables an appreciation of the varying components involved in constructing labour’s culture, and enables such cultural expressions to be considered as fundamentally political, connected to a project of social change.

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*I would like to thankLabour History‘s two anonymous referees for their many helpful suggestions. Many thanks also to Sean Scalmer for his advice and comments on the drafts of this article. Google Scholar

1.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 27 July1906, 3. Google Scholar

2.Ibid.;“Another Dedication Service,” Socialist, 31 August1907, 3. Google Scholar

3.“Socialists’ Dedication,” Argus, 22 July1907, 5. Google Scholar

4.The party itself suggested that this was the case;“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 20 July1907, 1. Gerrard suggests that this practice existed in Britain by 1910:Jessica Gerrard, “‘Little Soldiers’ for Socialism: Childhood and Socialist Politics in the British Sunday School Movement,” International Review of Social History, no. 58(2013):86. Google Scholar

5.This membership of around 2,000 makes the VSP the largest pre-Communist radical socialist organisation in Australian history. However, just as with the CPA, the VSP were never a serious electoral challenger to the ALP, and their importance does not derive from its contest of ballots. Membership estimates can be found inFrank Bongiorno, The People’s Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875–1914(:Melbourne University Press, 1996), 155. Google Scholar

6.Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans.Thomas Burger(:The MIT Press, 1989), 27. Google Scholar

7.Ibid., 52–57, 73–74. Google Scholar

8.Oskar Negt andAlexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere(:University of Minnesota Press, 1972), xlviii, 1. Google Scholar

9.Ibid., xliii. Google Scholar

10.Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia(:Melbourne University Press, 1923), 71–81. Google Scholar

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12.Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition(:Routledge, 1997), 81. Google Scholar

13.Graeme Osborne, “Tom Mann: His Australasian Experience 1902–1910”(PhD diss.,ANU, 1972), 141–46. As Frank Bongiorno notes, at the same time the VSP was establishing itself O’Dowd was “now moving into the world of Melbourne’s bourgeois intellectual elite”;Frank Bongiorno, “Bernard O’Dowd’s Socialism,” Labour History, no. 77(November1999):107, 110. Google Scholar

14.Mann explains the class basis of the organisation:Tom Mann, Tom Mann’s Memoirs(:MacGibbon and Kee, 1967), 157. Google Scholar

15.Including those with which it joined in the Socialist Federation of Australasia in 1907.Ian Turner, “Socialist Political Tactics:1900–1920,” Bulletin of the Society for the study of Labour History, no. 2(May1962):13. Google Scholar

16.Geoffrey Charles Hewitt “A History of the Victorian Socialist Party, 1906–1932,”(MA Thesis,La Trobe University, 1974), viii–ix. Google Scholar

17.Donald Sassoon, The Culture of the Europeans: From 1800 to Present(:HarperCollins, 2006), 609. Google Scholar

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22.Ibid., 159. Google Scholar

23.Vernon L. Lidtke, The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany(:Oxford University Press, 1985), 4–9. Google Scholar

24.Stefan Berger, Social Democracy and the Working Class in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Germany(:Pearson Education, 2000). Google Scholar

25.Ibid., 78–79. Google Scholar

26.A dynamic it had in common with the SPD:Geoff Eley andKeith Nield, The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social?(:University of Michigan Press, 2007), 159. Google Scholar

27.Gerrard, “Little Soldiers for Socialism.” Google Scholar

28.Ibid., 74. Google Scholar

29.Ibid., 75. Google Scholar

30.Kenneth Teitelbaum, Schooling for “Good Rebels”: Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900–1920(:Temple University Press, 1993), 5. Google Scholar

31.A similar process of cultural appropriation and differentiation was conducted by the SPD;Berger, Social Democracy, 77–79. Google Scholar

32.Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century(:I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1996), 29. Google Scholar

33.Bertha Walker, Solidarity Forever! A Part Story of the Life and Times of Percy Laidler: The First Quarter of a Century(:The National Press, 1972), 35, 42. Google Scholar

34.Ibid., 30. Google Scholar

35.Edgar Ross, These Things Shall Be! Bob Ross, Socialist Pioneer: His Life and Times(:Mulavon Publishing, 1988), 72–73. Google Scholar

36.Hewitt “A History of the Victorian Socialist Party,” 121, 174. Google Scholar

37.Ibid., 125. Google Scholar

38.Ibid. Google Scholar

39.Ibid., 130. Google Scholar

40.Ibid., 121. Google Scholar

41.Ibid., 104;R. N. Berki, Socialism(:J. M. Dent and Sons, 1975), 76–78.Stephen Yeo, “A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain,” History Workshop 4(Autumn1977):5–36. Google Scholar

42.Bongiorno, The People’s Party, 151. Google Scholar

43.Ibid., 149. Google Scholar

44.Ibid., 151. Google Scholar

45.Paul Strangio, Neither Power nor Glory: 100 Years of Political Labor in Victoria, 1856–1956(:Melbourne University Press, 2012), 74. Google Scholar

46.Ibid., 74–75. Google Scholar

47.Joseph White, Tom Mann(:Manchester University Press, 1991), 134. Google Scholar

48.Berki, Socialism, 50. Google Scholar

49.Yeo, “Religion of Socialism,” 18, 23. Google Scholar

50.Lynne Hapgood, “Urban Utopias: Socialism, Religion, and the City 1880 to 1900,”inCultural Politics at the Fin de Siécle, ed.Sally Ledger andScott McCracken(:Cambridge University Press, 1995), 186. Google Scholar

51.Mann, Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 9. Google Scholar

52.Ibid., 91–95. Google Scholar

53.Ibid., 95. Google Scholar

54.This relates to a point Stuart Macintyre raises as to the impact of religious teachings on proletarian autodidacts in Britain where“Religion was usually important, if only because the Bible was one book which most had read”;Stuart Macintyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917–1933(:Cambridge University Press, 1980), 71. Google Scholar

55.“What Think Ye of Christ?” Socialist, 19 May1906, 4. Google Scholar

56.Ibid. “Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 27 July1907, 3. Google Scholar

57.Victor Kennedy andNettie Palmer, Bernard O’Dowd(:Melbourne University Press, 1954), 65, 70. Google Scholar

58.F. B. Smith, “Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890”(MA thesis,University of Melbourne, 1960)36. Google Scholar

59.For instance in his memoirs Tom Mann, generous in his discussion of the contribution made by others to the socialist cause and the VSP, wrote only thatO’Dowd, “frequently helped us with a topical song or poem to give point to and to strengthen our work.”Mann, Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 160. Google Scholar

60.“A Socialist Catechism,” Socialist, 8 September1906, 6;“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 20 July1907, 1;“Socialist Commandments,” Socialist, 28 September1907, 7. Google Scholar

61.“Is Socialism Religious?” Socialist, 30 March1907, 6. Google Scholar

62.Ibid. Google Scholar

63.Bongiorno, The People’s Party, 152.Hewitt “A History of the Victorian Socialist Party,” 130. Google Scholar

64.Ross, These Things Shall Be, 75.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 3 August1907, 4. Google Scholar

65.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 20 July1907, 1. Google Scholar

66.“Dedication of the Children,” Socialist, 12 October1907, 3. Google Scholar

67.“Another Dedication Service,” Socialist, 31 August1907, 3. Google Scholar

68.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 27 July1907, 3. Google Scholar

69.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 3 August1907, 4. Google Scholar

70.Ibid. Google Scholar

71.Antiono Gramsci, “Problems of History and Culture,”inSelections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans.Quintin Hoare andGeoffrey Nowell Smith(:International Publishers, 1971), 5, 9–14. Google Scholar

72.Terry Irving andSean Scalmer, “Australian Labour Intellectuals: An Introduction,” Labour History, no. 77(November1999):6–7. Google Scholar

73.For instance, Hewitt and Bongiorno do not discuss the Speakers Class, and refer to the Sunday school primarily as a part of the new Religion of Socialism they detect:Bongiorno, The People’s Party, 151–52. Ross merely mentions that the party “conducted study classes, had a debating society”:Ross, These Things Shall Be, 73. Google Scholar

74.Walker, Solidarity Forever, 29. Google Scholar

75.As is the case:Ross, These Things Shall Be, 73;Bongiorno, The People’s Party, 151;Strangio, Neither Power Nor Glory, 75. Google Scholar

76.“Training for Socialism,” Socialist, 8 December1906, 4. Google Scholar

77.“In the State Schools,” Socialist, 18 May1907, 2. Google Scholar

78.“The Socialist Sunday School,” Socialist, 14 July1906, 2. Google Scholar

79.Ibid. Google Scholar

80.“Dedication of Children to Socialism,” Socialist, 20 July1907, 1;“Two Years Work,” Socialist, 31 August1907, 4. This count of 200 young scholars was also made by theArgus:“Socialist Sunday-School: Misleading the Youth,” Argus, 10 June1907, 8. Google Scholar

81.“Socialist Sunday-School: Misleading the Youth,” Argus, 10 June1907, 8. Google Scholar

82.Joy Damousi, Women Come Rally: Socialism, Communism and Gender in Australia 1890–1955(:Oxford University Press, 1994), 48–49. Google Scholar

83.“Socialist Sunday School,” Socialist, 6 October1906, 3;“Two Years Work,” Socialist, 31 August1907, 4. Google Scholar

84.Gerrard, “Little Soldiers for Socialism,” 83–86. Google Scholar

85.“Socialist Sunday School,” Socialist, 14 July1906, 2. Google Scholar

86.“Socialist Sunday-School: Misleading the Youth,” Argus, 10 June1907, 8. Google Scholar

87.Ibid. Google Scholar

88.“Sunday Afternoon at Yarra Park,” Socialist, 5 October1907, 3. Google Scholar

89.Ibid. Google Scholar

90.Strangio, Neither Power Nor Glory, 78.Walker, Solidarity Forever, 35. Google Scholar

91.“Work of the Socialist Party,” Socialist, 5 January1907, 4. Google Scholar

92.Macintyre, A Proletarian Science, 98–99. Google Scholar

93.Ibid., 37–39, 72. Google Scholar

94.Ibid., 99. Google Scholar

95.Lidtke, The Alternative Culture, 160. Google Scholar

96.David Day, John Curtin: A Life(:HarperCollins, 1999), 47;Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography(:MacMillan, 1977), 7. Google Scholar

97.“The Speakers Class,” Socialist, 19 January1907, 6. Google Scholar

98.Ibid. Google Scholar

99.Jack Curtin, “Ten Years Ago,” Socialist, 27 August1915, 4. Google Scholar

100.“To Women Comrades,” Socialist, 4 January1908, 4. Google Scholar

101.Hewitt “A History of the Victorian Socialist Party,” 296. Google Scholar

102.“The Movement,” Socialist, 6 April1907, 2. Google Scholar

103.Broadly recognised in:Day, John Curtin, 87. Google Scholar

104.“Speakers Class,” Socialist, 5 May1906, 7. Google Scholar

105.“Training for Socialism,” Socialist, 8 December1906, 4. Google Scholar

106.Ibid.Capitalisation in the original. Google Scholar

107.Its membership being reduced from 2,000 to 430 by 1909.Humphrey McQueen, “Victoria,”inLabor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, ed.D. J. Murphy(:University of Queensland Press, 1975), 314. Google Scholar

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Author details

Byrne, Liam