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Race Mathews on the significance of Catholic & co-operative social reform movements.

Reviewed by Bruce Duncan

As one of Australia’s most eminent Labor figures and historians, Race Mathews has offered a fresh interpretation of the Australian labour movement over the last 125 years, examining the development and impact of Catholic social ideas and movements. Other historians have covered the industrial and political struggles well, particularly dealing with the Santamaria Movement, the Communist Party, and Labor networks, most recently Bob Murray in his Labor & Santamaria.

Race Mathews’s new book, Of Labour & Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966, brings a different perspective. Though not a Catholic, he probes this period to trace the unfolding Catholic critiques of capitalism, and proposals to develop an economy with widespread ownership and participation by workers in the management of their industries and workplaces. As a leading member and former president of the Fabian Society, Mathews also examines the often neglected overlap in streams of Catholic and socialist thought.

Mathews has a long history in the Labor Party as both federal and state member and minister, and was formerly chief of staff to Gough Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition 1967-72. He has written extensively on Labor and co-operative movements. His books include Australia’s First Fabians: Middle-Class Radicals, Labour Activists & the Early Labour Movement  (1994), and Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society in 1999.

In Of Labour & Liberty, Mathews focuses particularly on Catholic social movements and the role of key Catholic clergy in their critiques of forms of capitalism. After an opening contextual chapter, a chapter on the English Cardinal Manning sets the tone for the book, and recovers Manning’s outstanding contribution to Catholic and English social thought. He is often remembered as a strong Ultramontane Catholic, particularly for his role in declaring the infallibility of the Pope at the First Vatican Council in 1870. But his social vision is frequently overlooked.

Manning had been an Anglican priest very involved in social activism, and brought his social consciousness with him into the Catholic Church. He consistently tried to rouse the 200,000 English Catholics to increased social activism, just as England was inundated by a million Irish Catholics, often quite impoverished after the famine years.

Manning became internationally significant for his personal intervention in the London dock strike of 1890, securing a settlement in favour of the strikers. His speeches and advocacy for social reform had reinforced the activism of other Catholic reformers in Europe, and helped prepare the way for Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which Manning helped translate into English, giving it the title On the Condition of the Working Class.

Mathews then traces how Sydney’s Cardinal Patrick Moran emulated Manning in his support for social reform efforts in Australia. He tried unsuccessfully to help settle the 1890 Maritime strike, and strongly promoted Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in its call for a living wage for workers, a much wider distribution of wealth, defence of trade unions and the right to strike, and the need for the state to intervene to regulate the economy and working conditions to advantage the poor. Manning also supported mechanisms of conciliation between employers and workers to settle disputes. He recognised that there were many forms of socialism, and rejected only the extreme.

Of Labour & Liberty traces how the mantle of Catholic leadership passed to Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix after Moran. Mathews follows Mannix’s life and early career through the acerbic debates of the Irish troubles, the conscription debates during the First World War, and his social commentary during the Depression years.

Lay activism

Catholic social activism changed significantly with the emergence of sustained, intelligent Catholic lay leadership with the Campion Society from 1931, drawing heavily from the thinking of English and European Catholic writers, including Jacques Maritain and the English Distributists, Hilaire Belloc, and G K Chesterton. Also important was the influence of the young Campion activist, Kevin Kelly, who introduced into Melbourne the Young Christian Workers movement, which was inspired by the Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn.

Cardijn promoted the ‘see, judge, act’ method which encouraged working youth to form small groups to discuss issues in their workplaces, to reflect on these in the light of the Gospel, and then to take some action to try to remedy concerns. It was a method of empowerment, raising their consciousness about social conditions, reflecting on the spiritual and human significance of this, providing powerful motivation, and arousing their sense of responsibility to challenge or change unjust situations.

Through their public advocacy, activities and writings, including the Catholic Worker monthly paper, the Campion Society educated a generation of Catholic social activists about the history and relevance of Catholic social thought overseas, encouraging them to develop practical visions of social uplift and reform in Australia. There were numerous links with Catholic politicians of the time, almost always Labor Party members, like Arthur Calwell, though the politicians were generally pragmatic about what the electorate wanted in social change.

Two main issues confronted the new Catholic movements: the relationship between Catholic movements and political parties, and secondly the emergence of practical efforts to develop co-operatives as an expression of the activism inspired by YCW ideas about how to transform capitalist economies.

Co-operatives as practical economic reforms

Mathews outlines the polarisation of political views among the Campions and other activists, especially around the political activity of B A Santamaria and his anti-communist movement. But Mathews brings to the fore the long efforts by Frank Maher and others to develop the Distributist vision of widely spread small ownership, with independence and self-management, competing commercially in a free market through co-operatives.

Mathews investigates how the anti-communist campaign was able to dominate Catholic activism from the 1940s, diverting resources and support from pragmatic efforts to build wider community support for co-operative development in farming, industry, finance and housing.

Of Labour & Liberty gives the first detailed account of the development of the YCW co-operative credit unions, expanding later into the wider community co-operative movements.

Race closes his history with a review of the giant Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain, which have been spectacularly successful, and demonstrate how co-operatives, with extensive involvement of the workers in processes of consultation and management, can compete in the most sophisticated and technologically advanced markets.

In the conclusion, Mathews gives a counter-factual of what might have been in Australia, had the anti-communist movement not gone to such political extremes and polarised Labor and political networks along often sectarian grounds. How different the Australian economy today might look if Fabian Socialists and other Labor moderates had joined with the YCW and other co-operative groups in the 1940s to drive self-management and worker participation schemes, somewhat like those which developed in Germany after the war.

In light of the current political and economic crises brought on by growing and at times extreme inequality and a widespread sense of disempowerment, Of Labour & Liberty is a very timely book, inviting us to reimagine how we can develop a humane and sustainable economy, empowering communities consciously to take charge of their own destinies.

Race Mathews, Of Labour & Liberty: Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966 (Melbourne: Monash Publishing, 2017) 397pp. RRP: $35.95.


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