Rulings classes around the world have their national myths. These attempt to tie working people to the capitalist class through the false idea of nationhood - a recent historical development.
The Australian version of this national myth is Anzac day. It is supposedly the day Australia became a nation. It celebrates our defeat at Gallipoli in 1915.
It is important to understand the historical context around the establishment of this day. The first Anzac day was held in 1916. The war to end all wars was bogged down in bloody slaughter. In Australia support for the imperialist adventure was split.
Many workers remembered the bitter class battles of the 1890s and the depression that drove masses into poverty.
Workers had ignored Federation, despite the cheer squads of Australian capitalism attempting to use that event to glue workers to the system and the exploitation that arises from it. For many workers class was the most important determinant of loyalty.
The war further exacerbated class divisions. Many rejected outright participation in the battle between two competing imperialisms. Others, influenced by the Labor Party, supported it but opposed conscription. The class still had a memory of internationalism, and the impending outbreak of revolutions across Europe (including the German revolution, which ended Germany’s war) would only further reinforce this sense of class solidarity across borders and against the common enemy - capital.
Here in Australia the divisions were highlighted by the rapid growth of the Industrial Workers of the World, a revolutionary group committed to a democratic society without bosses. Indeed the “Wobblies” were such a threat that the police and security forces framed leading members for arson, and the state made being a member illegal, closed down their press and finally outlawed the organisation itself.
Conscription was the issue that saw class divisions come out most starkly in Australia. Working people and their parties opposed conscription, and defeated both referendums on the issue. The ALP split, with the forces around Billy Hughes going over to join the Conservatives and form a Government.
In 1917 there was a general strike in Australia. Overseas the Tsar’s regime in Russia collapsed after a five-day strike by women workers which began on International Working Women’s Day.
The first Anzac Day was an attempt to divert anger away from the capitalist class to those who were “disloyal”. It was also an important part of the pro-conscription propaganda.
The immediate concern the ruling class had was that disaffected soldiers - and there were many, having witnessed the reality of war - would link up with the radical sections of society. Anzac day deliberately offered them an alternative, an alternative that celebrated their role and remembered those who died rather than questioning why war occurred and why workers died for profits.
In fact, class polarisation (which reached its apogee in 1917 in Russia with the Bolshevik working class revolution) continued in Australia and elsewhere for a number of years after 1916 and 1917. This saw Anzac day almost disappear in the early 1920s. It revived after that as the revolutionary tide ebbed (exemplified by the rise of Stalin in Russia and Stalinism elsewhere). The forerunner of the RSL rebuilt itself by setting up clubs and pubs and helping returned servicemen and women (especially during the Depression).
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