Sectarianism and the Socialist Workers Party

by

George Petersen

One of the most depressing features of working class politics in Australia has been the failure of left socialist groups to achieve any mass support as an alternative to the corrupt and politically bankrupt ALP.

The only party which might have done so was the Communist Party in the early thirties. They ruined this chance when, under the influence of Stalinist “Third Period” line, they described ALP members as social fascists and effectively cut themselves off from the mass of Australian workers. They partly remedied this major blunder in the period of the “Popular Front”. In the late 1930s, by a combination of union militancy and unsectarian alliances with pro-left trade unionists they managed to win the leadership of a number of militant unions. Why they were elected can be easily demonstrated by reference to two books dealing with workers’ struggles.

Sugar Heaven by Jean Devanney is a novel which accurately portrays the 1935 Queensland sugar strike. It tells an inspiring story of how a few communist workers demonstrated in action how to win the support of hundreds of militant workers.

Mount Isa, by Pat Mackie with Elizabeth Vassilieff deals with the 1964-65 dispute at Mount Isa copper mine in North Queensland. Whilst there were no communists amongst the workers, the role played by communists in the leadership of the Queensland Trades and Labour Council, particularly by Alex McDonald the secretary, was an honourable one. Whilst one may argue as to whether the dispute could have been won by the tactic of extending the dispute, there is no doubt about the effort by Communist Party activists in organising moral and financial support for the Mt Isa workers in their struggle. When one contrasted their dedicated and courageous behaviour with that of the despicable class collaborationist behaviour of the AWU bureaucracy, the communists, to use the vernacular, came out smelling like roses.

In the 1960s, Communist Jack Mundey was to demonstrate the difference that a few dedicated communists could make when they set out to organise builders labourers in New South Wales, whose union was a byword for corruption.

Unfortunately for the Communist Party, the support they received as trade union leaders never spilled over into electoral support. True, one communist, Fred Paterson, had been elected to the Queensland Parliament for two terms in the early 1940s, but he was a radical maverick who had built up an unusual reputation as an independent in local government, and who personally never accepted any concept of being controlled by the Communist Party apparatchiks.

It never ceased to amaze me that many workers I knew personally would vote Communist in union elections and ALP in state and federal elections. I have never seen a satisfactory explanation why Australian militant workers did not emulate their French and Italian comrades, whose support for communist trade union leaders extended to support for the Communist Party in government elections. I can only guess that, living in a country where workers’ living standards were much higher than in the Soviet Union, and being aware that the government of the Soviet Union was a monstrous tyranny, where workers possessed far less rights than in capitalist Australia, Australian workers simply did not want members of the Communist Party of Australia to have parliamentary power.

If members of the Communist Party were isolated from the mass of Australian workers the situation of isolation was even more pronounced for the left sects which adhered to one of the ideologies which could broadly be called Trotskyist. During World War II the Trotskyist group led by Nick Origlass had successfully won the support of hundreds of workers in the Balmain area of Sydney when they rejected the then class collaborationist policies of the CPA leadership. But their example was not emulated elsewhere, and they lost this support when the Communist Party swung back to the left, and the choice for most of these workers was seen as between the communists and the right-wing “groupers”, led by an ex-Trotskyist, Laurie Short.

One of the militant unions where the Communist Party had won leadership was the Federated Ironworkers’ Association. In the early 1950s they lost control to the right-wing ALP Short-Hurrell forces. To this day the right still have control. The only exception is the largest branch, Port Kembla, embracing workers employed in the steel and other metals industries. A new leadership of this branch was elected in 1971. They represented a Rank and File Committee of Port Kembla workers who were vehemently opposed to the AWU type leaders of the Port Kembla Branch. There were some difficulties with the leaders elected in 1971 who were simply not equal to their responsibilities. From 1974 onwards the leaders were the branch president, Nando Lelli, a migrant from Italy, and Graham Roberts, an Australian-born militant.

The significant feature of this left leadership was that none of them was a communist, although they were under the influence of such communists as Steve Quinn of the Metalworkers Union and Merv Nixon, secretary of the South Coast Labour Council. The defeat of the 1949 coal strike had a catastrophic effect on the working class membership of the CPA on the South Coast. In places like the steelworks, once a hotbed of communist militancy, communist militants were victimised and the Communist Party ceased to make recruits.

The new left leaders of the Port Kembla branch did not belong to any political party, although most of them did join the ALP after they were elected. The gravest weakness of the Rank-and-File leadership was, and still is, their lack of a coherent ideology, but their integrity as militants makes them more responsive to their working-class base than most other union leaderships. This is particularly reflected in their encouragement to the best workers to take on positions of elected job delegate. In 1982 there were 280 job delegates, and they were the most enthusiastic supporters of the branch leadership.

Unlike most union leaderships the Lelli-Roberts leadership continued to keep in existence the Rank and File Committee that had elected them to office, and which selected the “ticket” for union elections. In 1982 the Committee had 95 members out of a union membership of 12,000.

Some time in the late 1970s the Socialist Workers Party decided that a number of their members would obtain jobs in industry. Around nine of them obtained jobs in the steelworks. Most, if not all, of them actually joined the Rank and File Committee. Two were outstanding militant union leaders. Robynne Murphy had led the struggle for the employment of women in the steel industry. She is still employed in the steelworks and is a highly respected job delegate. Phillip Walker led a six-week strike in his department. He was highly regarded by the Lelli-Roberts union leadership, and they had intended to ask the Rank and File Committee to nominate him in the union elections for a position of delegate to Federal Conference of the union.

In the Rank and File Committee the members of the Socialist Workers Party were broadly in agreement with the policies of the Lelli-Roberts leadership. For example, they agreed with a decision by the Committee in April 1982 not to run a national “ticket” in the then forthcoming union elections. At a meeting of the Committee on 23 August, 1982 the SWP members present expressed some criticism of union policies. A sub-committee of three, one Communist, one Socialist Worker and one non-party, was elected to draw up policies for the union elections.

The sub-committee met a week later and thrashed out a comprehensive policy. The only area where there was fundamental disagreement concerned protective tariffs on steel. The Socialist Workers Party members’ opposition to these tariffs was vehemently opposed by the other two. On all other issues — total opposition to retrenchments, for nationalisation of BHP, opposition to sex discrimination and support for rank and file union control — any disagreements were matters of detail rather than principle.

It was at this time that the Socialist Workers Party threw a political bombshell by producing a leaflet headed ONE OUT, ALL OUT. To everybody’s surprise the principal emphasis of the leaflet was an attack on “the phoney Rank-and-File group in Port Kembla” because “our union officials are getting in the way of our unions standing up to the BHP”. The leaflet included a list of demands with a particular demand for mass meetings of steelworkers.

Whilst the leaflet was signed by 43 union members, only seven of the 280 job delegates signed it — and two of them later repudiated their signatures. The other five job delegates, plus four other signatories, who were all either members of the SWP or sympathisers, were virtually the only union activists supporting the leaflet. Most of the other signatories were workers off the shop floor with no record of union activity.

I subsequently learned from one of the signatories, after she had left the SWP and employment in the steel industry, that, during August 1982, the Political Committee of the SWP was examining the question of participation of the SWP as a party in the Ironworkers Union elections. The actual discussion took place over a period of three days, and nobody outside the SWP members took part in the discussion. Some of the Port Kembla worker members of the SWP were vehemently opposed to their separately standing for election in Port Kembla. The final decision was made by a national SWP fraction meeting on 12 September, only when it was promised by the leadership that they would also stand candidates in Newcastle against the right.

With an incredible effrontery, six of the signatories led by Phillip Walker, went to the Rank-and-File meeting on 13 September, 1982 in order to nominate for pre-selection for the Rank-and-File ticket for the union elections. The other 35 unionists present unanimously rejected them.

From that time onwards the mass of militant unionists in Port Kembla have regarded Socialist Workers Party members with the same derision that Stalinists treated Trotskyists. The last time a mass meeting of ironworkers supported a SWP-sponsored nationalisation resolution was on 22 September, 1982. Since then all subsequent resolutions moved by SWP members, regardless of their merit, have been rejected.

When one considers that no other union leadership, whether reformist or communist, would have admitted Trotskyists to their rank and file organisation, one can only be amazed at the political stupidity of the SWP leadership. For me it was a repetition of their intervention in the NSW Socialist Left in 1971, where winning support for the SWP took priority over building a left fraction of the ALP based on a struggle for socialist policies.

The SWP might have saved something from the faux-pas of their leaflet, but they were determined to present themselves as an alternative to the Lelli-Roberts leadership. Calling themselves the “Militant Action Campaign”, they produced a full ticket for all positions in the Port Kembla branch in the union elections to be held between 17 November and 6 December 1982. To justify the fact that they were concentrating their fire on a left-wing union leadership, they also stood candidates for election nationally and in Newcastle.

The apparent left split delighted the right-wing national leadership, who were only too willing to recommend to their supporters to support the Rank-and-File because “Lelli is the best of the choices in Port Kembla”. This was designed to throw oil on the flames, and push the Port Kembla leadership to accommodation with the right.

The South Coast Labour Council made a unanimous decision to support the Rank-and File ticket. Stewart West, Bill Knott and I issued a joint statement supporting the Rank-and-File, because we believed that their leadership had the support of the mass of Port Kembla workers, and that they were acting in the interests of those workers.

The result was that the R&F swept the board in Port Kembla. The highest vote for an R&F candidate was 3293, the lowest was 2633. The highest vote for a MAC candidate was 1005, the lowest 543. About 500 who voted R&F locally could not bring themselves to vote for anybody nationally. Only about 300 R&F supporters voted for the MAC nationally and 2400 preferred the right wing to the MAC. In Newcastle the right won by about six to one against the MAC. The margins in favour of the right were even bigger nationally, allowing the Short-Hurrell leadership to claim their greatest victory in their union history.

The South Coast Socialist Left did not take sides on the issue of the Ironworkers Union ballot. Most of us supported the Rank-and-File but we did have some SWP supporters in our ranks. There was no point in splitting our fragile organisation on the issue. At a meeting in December 1982 I was asked what I thought about the results of the election. As a result I wrote a 14-page article condemning the elitist, manipulative tactics of the MAC. This article was posted to all members on 23 December, 1982.

It took six months for the SWP to produce a reply. It appeared in the June 1983 issue of Socialist Worker. It was not written by any of the Port Kembla workers but by Allen Myers, one of the leaders of the SWP. To give the SWP their due, they reprinted my article in full. Myers’ reply was equally lengthy.

The Myers article was an expanded version of a leaflet issued by the MAC during the union election campaign, describing themselves as a militant fighting alternative to both the extreme right and the “bankrupt policies of the ‘left’ Lelli”. Its key paragraph was:

    That the first concern of the steelworkers in the MAC was explaining the need and helping to build a united and militant campaign in defence of jobs. Union elections came into the picture only to the extent that leaderships have proved themselves opposed to that sort of campaign.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For some years, members of the SWP had coexisted quite harmoniously within the Rank-and-File Committee with the Lelli-Roberts leadership. Any differences concerned matters of detail, not principle.

What the SWP members had NOT done was to try to present an alternative militant union leadership. This is more than amply demonstrated by the fact that the MAC had the support of only five of the 280 job delegates.

The SWP leadership in Sydney, with an amazing faith in their own infallibility, and a total lack of understanding of the Lelli-Roberts base, really believed that the workers would turn to them for leadership once BHP announced its program of mass sackings. In fact the votes that they got in the election were the votes that anybody could get who opposed a sitting bureaucracy. The militants and the union activists saw the supporters of the MAC as splitters, and voted the R&F ticket.

The tactics of the SWP were a classic example of applying the neo-religious ideology that bedevils left sects: “We and we alone possess the one true faith. Follow us and be saved! Reject us and be damned!”

The SWP displayed a grossly arrogant attitude toward the workers whose support they sought, without having earned it by leadership in struggle. The question that must be asked is: why did the SWP do it? Unfortunately the Allen Myers article does not answer this question. Allen Myers says:

    No one in the Militant Action Campaign expected the ticket to win. The campaign was not about getting union offices, but about building a fight-back against BHP.

If that was the case, the next question that must be asked is: why did all the SWP members except Robynne Murphy give up employment at the steelworks after the elections?

The most long lasting effect of the SWP intervention was that it gave militant workers on the South Coast a deep distrust of any person who attempted to raise “political” issues in a union struggle.

In summary, the SWP intervention was a very valuable object lesson in how left groups should NOT behave when they present themselves as an alternative to reformism.


From George Petersen Remembers, self-published, 1998

George Petersen (1921-2000), a former member of the Communist Party of Australia and some Trotskyist groups, was a member of the Australian Labor Party from 1958 to 1987, when he was expelled for defying a NSW parliamentary ALP caucus decision to support legislation that ruined the NSW workers compensation system. A Marxist, he was elected to represent the heavily working class seat of Wollongong Kembla in the NSW parliament in 1968 and held that seat until 1988. The life and times of George Petersen, 1921-2000

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