December 3rd is the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade battle of 1854 when the rebellious gold-miners of Ballarat were overwhelmed by troops and armed police. The symbolism and magnitude of this significant event in Australia’s history continued to influence the political consciousness of following generations. Over 30 miners were killed at the Eureka Stockade, along with six troopers and police. Some 125 miners were arrested and many others badly wounded.
The “diggers” of Ballarat had met on Bakery Hill on the 11th November to demand radical but essentially reforms from the rulers of the colony of Victoria. Led by the Ballarat Reform League, their main claims included parliamentary representation without any property qualification, voting rights for males, the right to own land, and the abolition of oppressive taxes such as the Diggers’ and Storekeepers’ Licences. These demands were also voiced at similar protest meetings in the goldfields of Bendigo and Castlemaine, as well as in Melbourne. Prominent among the miners were some with republican and anti-colonial views, such as Raffaello Carboni who had fought with Garibaldi in Italy, a large contingent of Irish, and a few American and European socialists.
The miners swore allegiance to the blue and white flag of the Southern Cross which was more or less adopted by the working class during the industrial struggles of the 1890’s, including the shearers’ strikes in 1891 and the later maritime strikes. Some unions have incorporated the flag in their official logos and union banners (now it has been sadly appropriated by the far-right party Australia First.)
In 1854, the miners rebelled against a state dominated by unelected colonial officials and the owners of property. The colonial parliament, bureaucracy, courts and armed forces were all instruments of class-rule used to defend the interests of the colonial ruling class. To win economic and social reforms the miners had to fight for the extension of democratic rights to all classes. The ruling class viewed this with alarm and were determined to prevent it occurring. On November 30, Goldfield Commissioner Rede met a delegation of miners and asserted that "The licence is a mere cloak to cover a democratic revolution".
To demonstrate their determination, they constructed a makeshift barricade at nearby Eureka, formed into armed squads, and called on other supporters to join them, actions that were regarded as an insurrection against the Crown. Initially, the miners enjoyed widespread public support and were well supplied by the surrounding rural populations. After several weeks of inactivity, some followers drifted away and the stockade was ill-prepared for the dawn charge of the troopers on that Sunday morning. After a short and violent battle, the flag of Eureka was torn down. Some miners were killed as they tried to surrender, others hunted down as they fled into the bush. In the aftermath, public outcry led to the release the arrested leaders and due course many of the reforms demanded by the rebellion were granted such as the introduction of the Electoral Act 1856, which mandated full white male suffrage for elections for the lower house of the Victorian parliament, the second instituted political democracy in Australia (women's suffrage was not achieved at a national level until 1902). As such, the Eureka Rebellion is controversially identified with the birth of democracy in Australia and interpreted by some as a political revolt. Karl Marx wrote:"Buying Jobs – From Australia" for the Neue Oder-Zeitung newspaper of Wroclaw, Poland, in which he pointed out that:
“We must distinguish between the riot in Ballarat (near Melbourne) and the general revolutionary movement in the colony of Victoria. The former will have been suppressed by now; the latter can only be suppressed through complete concessions. The former is by itself only a symptom, an incidental eruption of the later … The really important questions at issue, around which the revolutionary movement in the province of Victoria revolves, are two. The gold diggers demand abolition of the licences for gold prospecting, ie, a direct tax on labour; secondly they demand the abolition of the property qualification for members of the Chamber of Representatives … It is not difficult to notice that these are essentially similar reasons to those which led to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, but with the difference that in Australia the opposition arises from the workers against monopolists tied up with the colonial bureaucracy.” (Neue Oder-Zeitung, ("Buying Jobs – From Australia")
Australia's first socialist organisation was the Democratic Association of Victoria which was influenced by the utopian socialism of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier and essentially a moral reform society. But nonetheless, the DAV was accepted as its "Australian section" of the International Working Men's Association (the First International) and a delegate was present at the international's Hague congress in September 1872.
Mark Twain visited Ballarat in 1895 and wrote the following summary of the significance of the Eureka rebellion:
“The Ballarat miners protested, petitioned, complained – it was of no use; the government held its ground, and went on collecting the tax. And not by pleasant methods, but by ways which must have been very galling to free people. The rumblings of a coming storm began to be audible.
By and by there was a result; and I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. It was the Barons and John, over again; it was Hampden and Ship-Money; it was Concord and Lexington; small beginnings, all of them, but all of them great in political results, all of them epoch-making. It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.”
The "democratic revolution" achieved by the provides a stable political framework for the development of a modern capitalist economy. Citizens of all classes have the equal right to vote. However, this formal equality does not contain actual equality of power when it comes to making decisions about the direction of society. Parliamentary democracy rarely encroaches on the massive power of private companies and corporations. Boards of directors are free to make decisions that impact on the lives of millions of people, decisions about what to invest, how to restructure the economy , who to make redundant. In capitalist society, an unelected class of wealthy individuals holds the real power.
That’s why for workers and our communities, democracy is a class question. Those who manage and run society constantly seek to limit our democratic rights to influence or challenge their decisions. These decisions may be about a company sacking workers, the building of a toxic waste dump or the detention of refugees. Democratic rights accepted as normal today have been won as a result of struggle and pressure from below. Those in power have never granted rights out of a generosity of spirit. Because of the nature of capitalist society democratic rights are always under pressure and need to be defended. The ruling class concedes minimum rights to give workers a limited stake in the system but acts quickly to attack these rights if they are used to challenge its social or economic power. Workers’ right to organise is a democratic right that is constantly under threat. The greatest strength of the miners’ movement of the 1850s was the unity built between men and women from different nations. The leaders of the movement always stressed its international character and refused to succumb to the politics of anti-Chinese scapegoating. The colonial authorities feared this unity and tried to undermine it in various ways. They appealed to the loyalty of "Englishmen" and tried to paint the rebellion as mainly the work of disloyal "foreign" agitators. The best antidote to division and fear has been unity. Attacks on our fellow workers will only be defeated and society changed for the better by a struggle fought inside and outside parliament against the smug ruling class alliance of politicians, employers and the rich. We will win by asserting our democratic rights to strike at the employers’ profits, to assemble and march in the streets, to speak out in every forum and to build new organisations of unity and struggle.
Nevertheless, always remember, under capitalism, workers can win battles, but never the war.