Labour History: a Journal of Labour and Social History (Volume 126/ Issue 1)

Almost 50 years ago, Labour History published a special issue on the problem of racism in the Australian labour movement. Its theme and the question contained in its title – Who Are Our Enemies? – were prescient then and remain pressing for labour historians to examine. Edited by young scholars, Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus, who would each go on to very distinguished careers, the issue’s publication was a landmark event for them and for the field. It was conceived at a moment of optimism when academic history and political activism promised real change in knowledge and direction. Curthoys’ and Markus’ own scholarship, and their collection of essays, built a bridge between sub-fields and opened up research possibilities for Australian historians. In the 1970s, Aboriginal history was an emerging specialism. Racial capitalism was a concept yet to be taken up. Today, this field has a well-established and abundant academic literature.
With th is current special issue, guest edited by a new generation of historians, we revisit the question posed to frame that initial work. In a conversation demonstrating its long-term significance, articles here also reveal a little of how the field has developed in the interim. Fortunately, we have been able to include a reflective contribution by Ann Curthoys, which locates the history of the original issue and identifies themes of subsequent research for which it laid the groundwork. Nascent themes (transnationalism and internationalism) have been strengthened over the ensuing years; settler colonialism has been deepened as a distinct field of enquiry; and labour migration (imperial, coerced and/or free) has been placed at the forefront of a more globalised approach.
The articles published here were selected from those presented at a dedicated symposium. Once again, we have a mix of well-established and newly emergent researchers in a collection of articles pushing the discipline with their probing questions and politically engaged scholarship. We learn that, at the end of the twentieth century, old certainties about “friends” and “enemies” no longer held even as the question – of who are the enemies we struggle against – remained constant into the twenty-first century.
One stark continuity with the earlier issue is the reality of racism as the enemy of working-class solidarity. This current special issue was begun before Australia officially embarked on a referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise and give its Indigenous population a Voice to Parliament. The process of article selection and refereeing was undertaken almost simultaneously with the referendum campaign. The Australian Constitution was written as a colonialist document: containing principles of exclusion of people who were living here when the first Europeans arrived, it enabled the subsequent enactment of laws and policies against Indigenous and other non-European peoples. That colonialist legacy has been resisted constantly by those affected and their supporters, as labour history has, over the years, revealed; but it also inflected the labour movement as workers and their unions sought to protect their jobs and wages from capitalist imperatives. The past is messy, complex, and often surprising when historians dig into the details hidden in the archives. Through this scholarship we have a better understanding of the processes, encounters, and efforts the working class made to good, or not so good, effect.
The 2023 referendum offered another chance to acknowledge Australia’s colonialist past and bring meaningful change, and it failed for reasons future historians will explore. But it showed how powerful the political mobilisation of racialisation can be. This special issue is timely, appearing as Australia comes to term with its continuing settler colonialism, and as local protests against the horrors in Gaza gather momentum.