Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 70 • December 2020

The Aboriginal National Minority

Class and National Formation

1. Introduction

The ancestors of the Aborigines came to Australia at least 60,000 years ago. They developed a semi-nomadic, hunting and gathering economy based on communal ownership of the main means of production, the land. Their intimate and detailed knowledge of the land and nature was essential for their economic success.

They lived as an integral and integrated part of the natural environment rather than alienated from it, not dominating or exploiting nature, and their social life reflected this harmony. They developed relations of co-operation and reciprocity for production, distribution and exchange, expressed through their classificatory kinship system.

In their mode of production, in everyday life there was a biological division of labour in which the hunting work of the men and the collecting done by the women were complementary (although women provided the bulk of the food) and the products of their labour were shared.

Traditional Aboriginal social organisation was based on their economic life and allowed them to use the available food and other resources efficiently and effectively. It was specifically adapted to their environment to ensure the continuation of the group.

In times of localised hardship extended families could move and exercise secondary rights to live on and use the food and water resources on land belonging to a different local group.

The territory of each group was defined and recognised; members of other local groups were expected to contribute some form of payment to use it. Collective ownership of a specific area of land by a local group was expressed and reinforced through spiritual beliefs and ceremonies.

Traditional economic and social life was the antithesis of individualism and competitiveness; a society in which the highest value was placed on the collective nature of its constituent communities and on co-operation and sharing between its members.

The Aboriginal people, because of their economic dependence upon and spiritual ties with the land, had intensely emotional feelings for it. To be alienated from their land meant loss of a sense of physical and spiritual continuity and psycho-social security and also led to death, great material poverty and massive socio-cultural destruction.

This destruction was brought about as British imperialism, from 1788 onwards, colonised the Australian continent, seizing vast areas for farming, for sheep after the 1820s, and then later for more agriculture and in the north for cattle. Land was the key to the struggle that developed as settlement was expanded despite the bitter and prolonged guerilla war fought by the Aborigines.

Despite the destruction sharing and concern for other people persisted. In 1970 Gurindji men and women explained their attitude towards me by saying: “No matter who you are, we are here to look after each other.”

2. Class Formation

The establishment of a convict colony in 1788 had catastrophic effects on traditional Aboriginal society. The colonists brought with them the ideology of racism which was used to justify the theft of land and the murder of Aborigines.

With the impact of British colonialism the socio-economic base of traditional Aboriginal society was destroyed as local groups were driven from their land, were killed or died from new diseases, malnutrition and despair.

The basic means of production, the land, was taken over, farming, sheep and cattle modified the environment in which the Aborigines had previously lived and worked, and social relationships were disrupted by deaths and forcible relocation.

Sheep, gold and later agriculture laid the basis of prosperity for the colonists in the south and cattle did the same for the north.

As well as causing a dramatic increase in the white population, gold (discovered in 1851) made an essential contribution to the foundation of modern Australia. It stimulated the development of an Australian local industrial capitalism and with it the growth of a local bourgeoisie and proletariat.

There was a sharp distinction between settlement of the south, dominated by sheep between the 1820s and 1860s, and the occupation of the north after the 1880s for the pastoral (beef cattle) industry. The former was accomplished by murder, deaths from disease and starvation and relocation of the indigenous population with enforced segregation on reserves.

In the north, however, different geographical and climatic conditions strictly limited the number of cattle that could be maintained. This, combined with slowly changing attitudes towards Aborigines (much assisted by consolidation of the process of land theft) and a developing appreciation of their labour potential for the pastoral industry, meant that extermination was not carried out to the same extent as in the south and Aboriginal traditional society remained relatively unchanged for a longer period. An uneasy compromise between the needs of Aboriginal communities and of the cattle grew up.

The results of the two different forms of colonialism, however, were the same in content. The people were changed from self-determining, semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers into dependent, settled, unskilled labourers held in subjection by monopoly capitalism under conditions more often like slavery than wage labour.

Aborigines were gradually drawn into and exploited by the money-commodity, economy of monopoly capitalism in Australia. In the workforce they were used predominantly as cheap labour or a form of reserve army and with the impact of racial discrimination and oppression, segregation and isolation, they came to comprise the lowest stratum of Australian capitalist society under imposed conditions of backwardness, extreme poverty and deprivation.

The destruction of Aboriginal traditional society, the relocation of the people (on missions and reserves, for example) and their increasing use as cheap labour contributed to the breakdown of local boundaries and the development of new, wider affiliations.

This process (called ethnic consolidation) has continued at an accelerating pace since the Second World War. In the Australian context, the process of ethnic consolidation among the Aboriginal people has taken the specific form of proletarianisation – the transformation of Aborigines from their traditional hunter-gatherer situation into wage labourers working in urban or rural occupations within the capitalist system.

This process of socio-economic integration or proletarianisation has been not spontaneous but forced and has resulted in the great majority of Aborigines being transformed into members of the working class.

However, this has not been and is not a simple process. It must be stressed that in a context of rapid and disruptive social change such as the Aborigines have undergone, the process of class formation is uneven and highly complex and various groups pass through a number of stages before their transition into a particular class is complete.

The process of class formation among the Aborigines has taken two forms, both so far at a low level. Pastoral and other workers, mainly in the north, tend to be in a transitional stage living in traditionally orientated groups or as rural workers. In the south they tend to be wage workers but are scattered, often not union organised, lack training and suffer from high levels of underemployment and unemployment. Thus there is an Aboriginal working class at a number of stages of development towards fully-fledged wage labourers: from groups with much of their social organisation and ideology still largely traditional through rural workers to urban workers and some members of the industrial working class.

This process of proletarianisation is not contradicted by the very high levels of unemployment among Aborigines. Objectively employment as a wage labourer is not what defines a member of the working class; such a position is determined primarily by relationship to the means of production and place in the social system of production. A worker does not stop being a member of the working class because the capitalist system forces her or him into unemployment.

In addition Aboriginal communities in fringe settlements, on stations and reserves, particularly in the north, have traditionally been used as pools of cheap labour. Among them a high rate of unemployment has been maintained in order to ensure a regular supply of replacement labourers (a cheaper way of getting workers than giving wages and conditions adequate for natural replacement). These labour pools have also helped to maintain the very low wages and conditions common to the Aboriginal workforce.

Equally, while it is true that class consciousness is not developed among many Aborigines, class position and class interest are not determined by the consciousness of the class but by its position and role in the system of social production. Ideology here is a significant but secondary factor.

Some of the most traditional Aboriginal groups which are at the lowest stage of the proletarianisation process (such as the Gurindji in the Northern Territory) have also used a typically working class method of struggle, strikes, giving an indication of the proletarian content of their movements.

It is also important to realise that a traditional spiritual expression or form of struggle may tend to obscure the real content of that campaign or movement. Engels has pointed out that:

… religious wars of the 16th Century involved positive material class interests; those wars were class wars, too, just as the later internal collisions in England and France. Although the class struggles of that day were clothed in religious shibboleths, and though the interests, requirements, and demands of the various classes were concealed behind a religious screen, this changed nothing in the matter, and is easily explained by the conditions of the time ... .

F Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, Progress Publishers Moscow, 1956,Preface p 54

The picture of class formation and differentiation among the Aborigines is incomplete, however, without examination of two additional aspects of this process. Firstly, the results of almost 200 years of discrimination, exploitation and oppression have created groups of black Australians with acute problems of crime, juvenile delinquency, prostitution, alcoholism and so on.

While there is ample evidence that, given power to determine the direction and conduct of their own lives, members of such groups can offer a considerable economic and social contribution to their community, under present conditions they cannot be included in the working class.

Secondly, the development of middle class elements and ideology are also part of the picture of class formation. Although clearly quantitatively small at present, there are sufficient concrete examples of small businesses, entrepreneurial activity, employment in government departments and other activities to show that an Aboriginal middle class is growing.

3. National Liberation

The historical period in which the movement of the Australian Aborigines underwent a qualitative change was, and is, decisively determined by the October Russian Revolution, the founding of the first socialist state in 1917 and the defeat of fascism in 1945. It is an age of social revolutions and national liberation struggles.

Australia is not isolated; it has been influenced by international economic and political trends. Developments in Australia will always reflect the dialectical relationship between international trends and specific national conditions.

The political and social struggle that has developed among Aboriginal communities since the Second World War shows that they are part of the worldwide national liberation movement.

What has and is occurring in their fight against the form of colonialism existing on the Australian continent is an example of the extraordinarily rapid growth of a national liberation movement among a numerically small people. The development of their struggle for emancipation and equality has gone hand in hand with the extremely rapid growth of their consciousness and political organisation. Today their struggle has broad aims and is Australia-wide.

4. National Formation

Ethnic groups are small communities, ranging from several hundred up to several thousand people, often dispersed and therefore lacking centralised organisation or a cohesive social unity. They are identifiable almost exclusively by language, territory, a sense of common origin and a common culture, life-style and traditions.

In the epoch of the primitive communal system there was a dominant tendency towards the growth and fission of the basic social units, a process of ethnic division. During the decline of this socio-economic formation and in later historical periods, the characteristic tendency has been towards ethnic amalgamation. These processes of amalgamation have taken two forms: consolidation and assimilation.

Ethnic assimilation is most characteristic of countries with a high level of social and economic development. The progress of assimilation is influenced by a number of assimilated, their social and legal status, the type of employment of the members of the group(s) and their economic ties with the dominant (assimilating) group, the attitudes of the dominant group, and the degree of linguistic, cultural, spiritual and racial affinity between the two or more groups.

The processes of ethnic assimilation can be voluntary (subjective) or forced and spontaneous (objective) and it is the latter, together with ethnic consolidation, which is typical of Aboriginal society under the impact of a history of colonisation and integration into monopoly capitalism. It is particularly significant that under the specific conditions existing in Australia these two ethnic processes, consolidation and assimilation, have been and are developing in contradiction to each other.

Under conditions of racial discrimination, exploitation, isolation and extreme poverty, the process of spontaneous assimilation to the (white) Australian nation (a process inevitably produced by integration of the Aborigines into the capitalist system) has been significantly retarded. As a result, Aborigines have retained to a greater or lesser degree many traits of their traditional way of life and thought, culture, languages, customs and institutions although often with new meanings and functions. In addition they have adapted elements of the Australian capitalist nation to their particular needs and imposed low levels in distinctive forms of their own.

While factors such as the small numbers of Aborigines, their scattered distribution and the trend to urbanisation have accelerated the assimilation process, the imposed low economic and social standards Aborigines suffer, the degree of their cultural, linguistic and spiritual differences from white society, and particularly the prejudiced and discriminatory attitudes and practices of the dominant society have all held back ethnic assimilation.

Involvement in a money-commodity economy has promoted ethnic consolidation among Aborigines. The material basis for contradictions and hostilities between different local groups no longer exists and the resultant consciousness of strangeness and suspicion is fast fading. Individuals and groups have been brought increasingly in contact with each other through forced removals to reserves and other areas and even more through their involvement in the same economic activities.

The new material conditions provide a basis for unity and a consciousness of shared experiences and suffering. Ethnic consolidation reflected in this growing consciousness of common identity and interests also retards (but does not negate) the processes of ethnic assimilation among the Aborigines.

Of course this new black consciousness does not include every Aborigine but the knowledge of and interest in other groups among even remote Aboriginal communities is considerable.

The development of a national liberation movement among the Aborigines is both a product of and contributes to ethnic consolidation as well as holding back ethnic assimilation. In their resistance to and struggle against racial discrimination and deprivation the Aborigines have developed an Australia-wide common consciousness of themselves as a people of their own and distinguished from the (white) Australian nation and are organising themselves and campaigning on a continent-wide level.

All this amounts to ethnic consolidation developing to the stage of national formation among the Aborigines. Since they are scattered over the continent either as single local communities or as individuals or small groups in towns and cities they do not constitute a nation but, as an integrated part of Australian capitalist society, they have assumed national traits in the form of an oppressed national minority.

As a national minority the Aboriginal people share a number of determining characteristics:

  • A common territory. This is the national aspect. The Aborigines have rights to land by virtue of prior occupation and ownership.
  • Ethnicity. The Aborigines share a common ancestry; they are a black minority.
  • Language. In their traditional society the Aborigines had several hundred languages (as well as many dialects), some of which are still in use today.
  • In art, dance, myths and stories, in their attitudes towards and appreciation of nature, and in their common social and ethical values (for example, their ideology of co-operation, mutual support and sharing) the Aborigines still have a complex· and distinct culture.

The very fact that imperialism spills over the boundaries of national states and extends and intensifies national oppression on a new historical basis means that we must link the revolutionary struggle for socialism with the revolutionary program on the national question.

The struggle for Aboriginal rights, including improved health, housing, education and employment and for communal, inalienable land rights and autonomous areas, is an integral part of our struggle for socialism.