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William Lane
William Lane


Australian Socialists
and the Problem of Racism

Publisher's note: These writings are the work of a cosmopolitan liberal-internationalist; who rejects the European foundations of our Australian nation, attacks the "racial consciousness" of William Lane, at the same time seeking to impose the divisive view of "class struggle" upon Australian society.

Nevertheless, for Australian Nativists/Nationalists, the historical content within this document provides a wealth of worthwhile information. The ideas of William Lane further underpin our commitment to an Australian social and political order drawn from our roots; and to the pursuit of cultural, economic and political independence.

Although based in Queensland, the writings of William Lane were influential throughout the Australian labour movement, and more than any other agitator of the time, it was Lane who sold racism to the working class.1* Lane edited the Boomerang from its first issue in November 1887 until he joined the Queensland Worker at the beginning of 1890. Amidst articles on the necessity for better irrigation and control of rabbits, attacks on capital punishment and cruelty to animals, support for Prohibition and anti-gambling legislation, Lane outlined his racist and nationalist philosophy vividly and frequently. No issue spared the "inferior" races detailed and scathing attention. Lane's journalism deserves consideration not merely because of its role in promulgating working class racism but because an examination of his philosophy also contributes to an understanding of the racist psychology of the Australian working class in the 1880s, and in particular, of the working class response to the Chinese and Melanesians.

The problem with the Chinese was simple. Because of his colour he was unchangeable, not just physically, but culturally, as well.

Anti-Asianisation cartoon, 1870

Anti-Asianisation cartoon, 1988
Like the Bulletin, Lane made much of the possibility of actual physical contamination, and in classic racist fashion, all imaginable sins were thrown at the Chinese: "They skin our goldfields, they debauch our children, they undersell our merchants, shopkeepers, and producers, availing themselves of trade-tricks and subterfuges such as no honest community could descend to, in order to achieve the white man's ruin more happily..." These unimprisoned villains, Lane continued, "are the pest and bane of commerce and industry, the blood-leeches of many a struggling shopkeeper and merchant and householder..."3

This concern for the plight of the white shopkeeper and his fellow petty bourgeois is a dominant theme in Lane's writing on the race question. The opposition of race against race, rather than class against class, is the real core of Lane's philosophy. So Lane called on the Australian working class to defend the interests of their white employers on the basis that the viability of capital was the proper concern of labour. He considered joint white economic resistance essential, because the Chinese "crowds out both the white worker and the white shopkeeper and the white manufacturer..."5

The logic of Lane's racist-nationalism led him to a federationist position, as race traitors tended to concentrate themselves in some colonies more than others, creating soft underbellies that endangered the whole of Australia.6 "It is as a nation that we must beat the yellow men... One strong prohibitive should bar from this continent all alien peoples whose presence tends to adulterate and weaken our civilisation".7 Lane's racism was so uncompromising that he abhorred petty expressions of prejudice such as stone-throwing that substituted for a full-blooded movement of expulsion.8 The Chinese were clever, but Lane was confident of the result of the race war. "They are nomads, sly as serpents, treacherous as cats, greedy as hogs, and lascivious with the hideous immorality of Eastern peoples. We don't fear the result of such a civil war, but we do dread the price we should pay for victory".9*

Being based in Queensland, a central preoccupation of the Boomerang was the "kanaka menace". "Upon the Black Labour question", Lane wrote, "all progressive men agree".10 Queensland, for Lane, was a divided society, with the south representing the will to be white and free, the north representing backward elements. The Separation debate was between the man who would rather be a despot ruling over an inferior caste against him who would sooner stand, a citizen-king, among his sovereign equals. Lane insisted that black labour debauched the white employer as much as it degraded the white labourer, and that its presence was fatal to the growth of a free state and subversive of the political equality which must be maintained if Australia was to be great and happy.11 "We will not have a piebald people here in Australia. We are white and progressive and we will stay white and progressive although we have to eat beet-root sugar and to dispense with the company of the genial and hospitable planter".12

However, Lane was prepared to advocate extreme measures to suit the convenience of the genial and hospitable planter. "Anything that will assist the planters, except black labour, we are ready and willing and want to further". Lane suggested a bounty scheme, a loan scheme, land banks, a reciprocity scheme, co-operative mills, protection, and rewards for mechanical inventions.13 He particularly favoured protection for the industry as the solution. Such an example of "Nationality" could take the sugar industry in its arms and lift it high above the competition of slave labour and degraded isles by throwing a wall around the continent over which competition could not pass. It could say to the planter: "Grow sugar with white labour and Australia will back your bills".14

In sharp contrast to the hostile attitudes expressed towards Chinese immigration, the Boomerang called a very different tune when considering the many thousands of white migrants who were pouring into Australia in far greater numbers than the Chinese. In discussing the system of assisted passages, blame for its shortcomings was always laid squarely on the shoulders of the authorities, not the British immigrants, who were cast as innocent victims, as much an object of concern as Australian workers.16 "We don't blame the new chum. He also is deceived and wronged. He is usually an honest, industrious fellow, who only asks the riqht to live and labour and to eat a "fair" share of the fruit, his toil produced".17 Assisted immigration was only unfair, in Lane's opinion, because it treated the immigrants unfairly, as well as Australian workers; Chinese immigration was unfair because it threatened Australian racial purity. Population increase per se, then, was perfectly acceptable; coloured immigration, however, was not at all acceptable. The Boomerang even expressed anxiety that assisted immigration might cease altogether, if abused. Because it was desirable that Queensland's population be augmented by British immigration, it was the duty of politicians to provide employment for all, by devising schemes such as land-settlement and protection, so that immigration need not cease.18

It is this concern with nation-building that explains both Lane's antagonism to other races and his qualified enthusiasm for assisted British immigration. The Chinese could not participate in the great project of building the Australian nation; the British, by dint of their ability to become Australian, could. And the children of British immigrants would be indistinguishable from the rest.

Homogeneity was the key-note of Lane's concept of the ideal Australian nation, not simply racial homogeneity, but also social. Lane's nationalism, then, had egalitarian overtones. Equality amongst the citizenry was desirable but could be achieved only if this citizenry was composed of identical units with identical aims. However, the struggle for a more equitable share for Australian workers was seen, not in class struggle terms, but as a means of contributing to the glory of the entire Australian nation, bosses and workers alike. Good working conditions were desirable for the sake of the nation, not the class. Employers and employees were partners in this great national enterprise, if white. The alpha and omega of Lane's politics was the Australian nation, not the Australian proletariat, and certainly not the international proletariat. "Our principles are easily declared. They are Australian. Whatever will benefit Australia, that we are for; whatever will harm Australia, that we are against".20

This egalitarian nationalism entailed for Lane a rejection of the imperialist link with Britain. Britain's association with coloured races, even in the role of exploiter, made her an object of suspicion; far better was it to have no contact at all with other races. And Britain's method of government fell far short of Lane's egalitarian ideals. The hopeless ignorance and depravity of the ruling oligarchy in Tory-ridden England was proved also by their lack of understanding of the importance to Australians of racial purity. Salisbury, for instance, revealed his backwardness by suggesting that the Australian colonies settle the Chinese question by dealing with foreign immigration generally, by putting Americans, Germans, Swedes, and Danes on the same footing as the yellow-hordes. Lane regarded the idea as preposterous, and explained why. Lane differentiated between jingoism, which was aggressive, and patriotism or nationalism, which was defensive, and the righteous expression of love for a country that deserved this affection. To be worthy of this love, Australia had therefore to solve the "social problems" of the old world.22

Lane's model nation was to be purged of class conflict, not by the abolition of classes, but by careful attention to the needs of both capital and labour. To avoid "bitter social war", Lane urged both the encouragement of the enterprise of Capital as well as the consideration of the "just claims of Labour". The "Radical Programme" had to embrace proposals for the surmounting of these difficulties so that the government would be brought into line with the perfect State of Lane's imagination, and the supremacy of this State be justifiable. Lane suggested some prerequisites: Protection and Federation, "the twin steps towards complete nationality"; adult suffrage, "without which there cannot possibly be political freedom"; the Land Tax, which admitted "that the suzerainty of the soil never leaves the people"; and Labour Legislation, "which will replace to some extent the 'liberty of contract' which our competitive civilisation has broken into pieces".23 Lane's Social Darwinism was therefore the collectivist interpretation, not the individualist; a welfare state was quite compatible with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Australia as "Working Man's Paradise" was simply part of a great nationalist dream, a means of proving superiority to older, less progressive nations. The Paradise was to be created for the sake of the Australian nation-state, as a testament to its glory; the State, for Lane, was not to be purely and simply a means of protecting the Paradise. The aim of reforms was not so much the betterment of the condition of the working class, but the creation of a perfect State. This ideal State was really the starting point of Lane's racial politics. "The very same arguments which make for Protection make for a white Queensland - the foundation of the whole is that the State is supreme and that the good of the community at large is the only thing that makes social 'right',"25

Throughout, Lane portrays the State as representative of the interests of all; he explicitly rejects the notion that the State is an instrument of class rule.26 Lane distinguished between state and government, thus managing to accommodate the conservative and the radical aspects of his political philosophy, to justify dissent and change, yet at the same time to ensure stability. Lane predicted that even if all government were destroyed, still the State would live on, unshaken and intact. True government served the State, not mastered it.27 There was nothing sacred about government. The State, on the other hand, belonged to a higher realm similar in some respects to Plato's world of the Forms. Lane posited the notion of an ideal State, a perfect State, a State which human government should strive to approximate. But unlike Plato, knowledge of this perfect State was on a more populist basis, accessible to all who cared for the State, not just to the true philosophers. So the State, to Lane, was the Spirit of the Age, the common body of ideas about how society should operate. Lane argued that it was not the government in the form of police that people really relied upon to defend life, property, the honour of women, and to show people methods of exchange, but our "heritage of civilisation, bred in our bone, stamped into our brains, crystallised into that wonderful orgasm [sic - organism] which we call the State".28

It was because the State was essentially a system of ideas, that racial homogeneity was crucial. An influx of people with inherently different modes of thought and action endangered, not the government, but the otherwise inviolable institution of the State. Herein lay the danger of coloured immigration, as the existence of the State could only be threatened at the level of ideas. The State, as a Common Value System, had necessarily to be composed of more or less identical particulars, or else it failed to exist. Anti-alien restrictive legislation protected the State from without. Compulsory public education guarded the fortress from within.29

However, the crucial flaw in Lane's political philosophy is not his notion of the State as the Ruling Ideas of the Age, but his insistence that these ideas express a real and objective common interest, a "national" interest. Lane has no conception of the State as a class institution, of "public opinion" as a reflection of the ideas of the ruling class. His idealist philosophy prevents any understanding of the material basis from which the ruling ideas of any age spring. He cannot see the strength of racism amongst the working class as an expression, not of their material interests, but of the material interests of the dominant class. Lane does not even acknowledge the division of society into mutually antagonistic classes. Lane is avowedly for progress, yet the real motor-force of history, the class struggle, is excluded from his philosophy, and evidence of its existence is treated as an abnormality.30 So, the limitations of Lane's radicalism, and the explanation for his racism, lie in the essentially class-collaborationist basis of his philosophical system, the supposition that the state is neutral and the representative of a common interest.

Class-collaboration was not only the lynch-pin of Lane's philosophy, but also the aim of his practical politics. He openly espoused the necessity of an alliance between Labour and Capital, in a series of editorials throughout 1889, and referred to class conscious militants in both camps as relics of bygone era. Even the solidarity of labour, which Lane was known to champion was simply a means of facilitating class-collaboration; it was the "sine quo non of a peaceful understanding between Labour and Capital" as, through solidarity, the workers could go into the market as a unit and collectively make the best arrangement possible for the disposal of their collective energy.31 Lane also recommended that employers join their trade association so that each side could talk authoritatively to the other. Such a set-up in the Victorian iron-trade had pretty well obliterated the petty, irritating strike, Lane noted with satisfaction.32 So Lane has not only advocated employer organisation, and reduced labour solidarity to a market mechanism, but has also denounced strike action. He believed both Labour and Capital must organise, "not as enemies in rival camps but as co-operating allies in business fashion".33

Predicably, Lane's musings merged into advocating arbitration as the obvious solution to industrial trouble and the difficulty of the "fair" employer withstanding the unrestrained competition of the "unfair" employer.34 It was this distinction between fair and unfair employers that explains Lane's militancy: unfair employers deserved to be inconvenienced by their workers as they jeopardised the normally smooth working of the capitalist system. Lane reduces the malfunctions of capitalism to the personality defects of the occasional employer, the anti-union "unfair" employer, who breaks an otherwise "happy family arrangement and involves in endless disputes those who... might continue for a generation without trouble".35 Lane insisted labour should not demand too much, and that its demands should be national, not sectional. "We should treat vested interests with consideration because we all have vested interests, but every joint interest which we have got is on the side of local progress and a white race".36

It is not surprising that the Boomerang tended to "tail-end" the Queensland Liberal Party under premier Griffith.37 And Lane was not even immune from supporting the less progressive party in domestic politics. It was not the bourgeoisie as a whole that Lane opposed, but merely what could be labelled in contemporary terminology, the "comprador bourgeoisie", the large capitalists with financial links abroad.39 The domestic bourgeoisie was as much Lane's concern as were the workers. He even explicitly rejected the argument that the race issue was purely a question of wage standards. "Reformism in one white country" would be an appropriate summary of Lane's politics. It was the opposition of race against race, not class against class, that Lane championed. It was against this racist reformism that the Australian Socialist League directed its tentative appeals for a more class-conscious workers' movement.


1 Mansfield pays Lane this dubious tribute: "0f his influence on the developing Labour movement there can be no doubt at all... By the early '90s Lane was the major figure in both the journalism and the organization of Labour in Queensland. The racialism of The Boomerang was bitter and complete. Lane believed that races could not mix, and was terrified at the thought of a "piebald" population in Australia. ("The Origin of 'White Australia'," p. 63).

2 Boomerang, 16 June 1888.

3 Boomerang, 14 April 1888.

4 ibid., 26 May 1888 L.

5 ibid., 24 Nov 1888.

6 ibid., 11 Feb 1888, 23 June 1888.

7 ibid., 3 Dec 1887.

8 ibid., 2 June 1888.

9 Boomerang, 4 Feb 1888. This concern with impending race-struggle is obvious in the Boomerang's serialisation of Lane's gruesome race-yarn, "White or Yellow? A Story of Race War in A.D. 1908", which appeared between February and May 1888. Here, the "revolutionary" race war is fought out between a Chinese dictatorship in Queensland backed by some traitorous Europeans, and the white freedom-loving elements of the community on behalf of Australian democracy and racial purity. Other lengthy articles written by Lane as "Sketcher" completed the picture of Chinese debauchery by fantastic descriptions of the sordid every-day life of the Chinese. Written vividly and with an air of documentary authority, it is reasonable to assume Lane's message got across.

10 Boomerang, 5 Oct 1889 L.

11 ibid., 29 Sept 1888 L, 10 Nov 1888.

12 ibid., 7 Jan 1888.

13 ibid., 10 Nov 1888.

14 ibid., 20 April 1889 L.

15 Boomerang, 16 June 1888. On the question of Aborigines, Lane's racism mellowed to paternalism. In the face of what was regarded as the inevitable extinction of the Aboriginal race, Lane was concerned to ease the passing of this "inferior" race. (See Boomerang, 24 Nov 1888, 16 Feb 1889). This was a typical response for racists at this time, and it is improbable that Lane would have been as "tolerant" if Aborigines were increasing in numbers, and if dispossession were not largely completed.

16 Boomerang, 16th June 1888.

17 ibid., 18 Feb 1888.

18 ibid., 21 April 1888, 7 Sept 1889, 19 Oct 1889 L.

19 Boomerang, 19 Nov 1887 L.

20 ibid., loc. cit.

21 ibid., 14 April 1888, 28 April 1888 L, 16th June 1888, 28 July 1888.

22 Boomerang, 7 April 1888, 1 Sept 1888.

23 ibid., 1 Sept 1888 L.

24 ibid., 14 Sept 1889 L.

25 ibid., 15 Sept 1888 L.

26 Boomerang, 5 Oct 1859 L.

27 ibid., 6 July 1889 L.

28 ibid., 28 July 1889 L.

29 ibid., 19 Nov 1887, 28 July 1888 L.

30 Boomerang, 24 Dec 1887.

31 ibid., 23 Feb 1889, 23 Nov 1889 L.

32 ibid., 23 Feb 1889

33 ibid., 13 April 1889 L.

34 ibid., loc. cit.

35 Boomerang, 23 Feb 1889.

36 ibid., 15 Sept 1888 L.

37 ibid., 10 March 1888 L, 22 Dec 1888 L.

38 ibid., 4 Aug 1888 L.

39 Lane expressed similar ideas as "Sketcher" in his weekly column in the Brisbane Evening Observer before his Boomerang days. On 20th March 1886, he wrote: "Every man has a right to employ his own earnings as capital; no man has a right to employ another's earnings as capital... Every man has a right to compete; no man to monopolise". His column was headed by epigrams such as "If either labor or capital thinks it can go it alone, let it try once". (Lloyd Ross. William Lane, pp.40-3).

40 Boomerang, 4 Aug 1888 L.

This document [a reprint of a pamphlet from the National Republican Movement] is an extract from the Ph.D. Thesis of Verity Burgmann, Australian National University, 1980

"Our principles are easily declared.
They are Australian.
Whatever will benefit Australia, that we are for;
whatever will harm Australia, that we are against"

William Lane

The Association for the Advancement of Australian Culture