What if not a military language?

11 Jan


I’m currently writing a chapter for a book to be called Crucial Moments in Australian History (edited by David Roberts and Martin Crotty for UNSW Press). My “moment” is the Maritime Strike of 1890, when 60,000 unionists went on strike for a few months across a large part of Australasia.

One of the things I’m grappling with is the fact that it’s difficult to talk about the Strike without replicating the kind of military cliches beloved of labour historians. During the 1940s and beyond, the Marxist-inspired historians of Australia’s Old Left wrote about the Strike as war. Here is Brian Fitzpatrick, for example: “class warfare on the scale of 1890 … had never taken place in Australia before, and has not been repeated”.

The phrase “the sinews of war”, used by union leaders in 1890, and the command of an anti-union militiaman to “fire low and lay them out”, are quoted over and over again in the literature. Everywhere, you find the Stendhalian tints of red and black: intimations of blood, fear of after-dark violence, the treachery of the “black-legs” (non-union workers who refused to strike). And as the ever-empathetic historian Bruce Scates points out, the whole story of the Strike is skewed because it focuses on the struggles of the men at the picket-lines to the exclusion of those who scrounged for food to keep the pickets going. There are no women in the history of the Strike (except in Scates’ article, that is) – both the focus and military language of labour historians exclude them.

Having said this, I don’t want to downplay the potency of the Strike, and the sense that it was indeed cast in warlike terms among many who participated at the time. The Strike was a gripping conflict for the men and women involved. And the issues which animated them – the extent to which “freedom of contract” should replace collective bargaining by unions with employers – obviously remains pressing today.

My problem at the outset is, then: how to convey a sense of the moment of the Strike, of the effort and conviction and other passions involved, and also the urgency of the industrial issues underlying it, without falling back on the same tired vocabulary? How to find a language to describe labour conflicts which does not trundle out the same metaphors of war, and the same heroic tonality?

(See Brian Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labour Movement; Stuart Svenson, The Sinews of War, and Bruce Scates’ chapter in Jim Hagan and Andrew Wells, eds, The Maritime Strike: A Centennial Retrospective).

2 Responses to “What if not a military language?”

  1. david tiley 3 February 2008 at 11:41 am #

    Very good questions. My inclination would be to keep the martial language in areas of the story in which the participants perceived it like that, and rely on language that describes the tactics in detail elsewhere.

    I guess a lot of labour historians would say it was class war, and the stakes were that high.


  1. Historia i Media | History Carnival #61 - 2 February 2008

    […] Bellanta in her post about the Maritime Strike of 1890 reflects on the language importance in historiography. Writing a chapter for a book to be called […]

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