Nick Origlass, 1908-1996

by

Issy Wyner


Introduction

Nick Origlass, left activist, expellee of renown, Balmain legend and former mayor of Leichhardt, died in Sydney on May 17, aged 88. Born in Woodstock, North Queensland, in 1908, Nick joined the Communist Party in 1931 but was expelled soon afterwards. During World War II he became a Federated Ironworkers Association delegate at Mort’s Dock, Balmain, and with Issy Wyner and others was a central figure in the Balmain ironworkers’ strike of 1945, which marked the end of Communist control of the FIA. Expelled from the union twice — first by the Communists and later by the right-wing Groupers – he joined the ALP and in 1958 was elected to Leichhardt Council. A decade later, with his comrade, Issy Wyner, he was expelled from the Labor Party, but both were subsequently re-elected to the council as Independent Labor candidates. As mayor of Leichhardt, Nick championed the cause of open government.


Issy Wyner’s oration at the funeral of Nick Origlass, May 21, 1996

Nick Origlass has left us, and with his leaving a sense of irredeemable loss engulfs us. The lamp to our feet has gone. It is as though the world of progressive thought and ideals has lost a beacon beckoning towards the new society for which we yearn. It is as though the world has come to a standstill, uncertain of the way forward.In expressing our deepest sympathy to Nick’s wife, Joan and son, Peter, and all his family, we are saddened at his eventual succumbing to more than 12 months of harrowing and destructive illness, from which his eventual demise released him. An uncomplaining stoic throughout his long and, almost certainly, agonising ordeal of cancer, we are left to wonder how one human being withstood it all for so long.What I have to say today, is my poor effort at paying homage to one who, in my view, was an intellectual giant, standing head and shoulders above all the modern, so-called thinkers, philosophers, economists, politicians, who temporarily are able to dredge up and give effect to outmoded, reactionary and dangerous theses on society and to be hailed as great innovators.

Nick Origlass and I have been mates for some 60 years. When I say mates, I mean not only on a personal level, but as close associates in politics, unionism and local government, where we have striven for the underdog; for the unprivileged and underprivileged; for the exploited and the oppressed; and against exploitation of every kind, in all its capitalist and imperialist forms and especially those which endanger the earth and its peoples.

He could see further, deeper and with greater understanding than any other person I have known, including Jack Sylvester1, the first person to influence me in political understanding in my youth.

I do not have the words to express all that I feel in losing Nick. His demise is part of the depressing shroud that has been flung over Australia by those who, for the time being, sit in the seats of power and crazily seek to turn back the clock by 100 years in their wild rampage against unionism, democracy, humanitarianism and egalitarianism.

Nick read widely in English and French and with a comprehension and appreciation of events and viewpoints that lesser humans could not grasp. Nothing was totally useless to read – there was always something of value in every piece of writing and he usually could find that valuable morsel.

He was, in my view, a giant among the pygmies who professed ownership of all political and social wisdom, in the scope of his knowledge, his assessment of events, his expression of ideas, and in a political integrity and honesty that is absent among so-called leaders in society today. To me, he was, and remains a genuine eminent person. He seemed to have a third-dimensional power to see further around a subject, to grasp its essentials, and to offer solutions.

He insisted on a form of openness, frankness and honesty in all his dealings with people. He rejected proposals to “go into committee”, to deal clandestinely with issues. There could never be genuine democracy, genuine freedom of expression, without that basic tenet, and his life was dedicated to achieving that genuine democracy in every sphere of human endeavour. He was impatient with elitists, the know-alls, the claimants to a wisdom they clearly did not possess, the pundits and oracles who profess to know what is best for the people, for humanity.

There was courage, tenacity and obstinacy when it came to pressing for a well thought-out decision. But, there was also understanding and appreciation of the weakness of others who were unable to grasp what he patiently and persistently, and in detail, put forward. Nothing tried the patience of lesser types so much as his inquisitorial pressing for more and more information and his insistence on pursuing every facet of a subject before he would offer an opinion.

He was never too busy to deal with other people’s problems, at all hours of the day or night or weekends, regardless of his own personal needs, interruptions to meals, to sleep, to study. Always, he was available to listen and to discuss issues and possible solutions and then to pursue what had to be done.

As a speaker, he commanded respect and appreciation. In his heyday, he was a most convincing platform speaker and mob orator and debater. There was a charisma about him that held his audience’s close attention.

His written work is not enshrined in great published tomes that stand on bookshelves in homes and libraries, but it resides in his never-ending writing on political and industrial matters, which appeared in the monthly publications that we produced over many years: The Socialist, About Labor’s Problems, Labor Forward, The Rising Tide, and International, all titles that he had selected as indicative of the task for which the periodicals were produced and for all of which he was the editor and lead writer.

And later, when these publications faded out, he continued to present his views, his ideas, his theses, in a constant flow of letters to the press, documents for conferences on social, political, industrial and municipal themes; resolutions, Mayoral minutes and proposals of various kinds for council meetings; submissions to the Senate and other inquiries; translations from the French of large documents from overseas dealing with the latest trends in genuine socialist thought and action.

He had a phenomenal memory, replete with quotations from Shakespeare, Australian and other poetry, and the classics, as well as the writings of early and modern political figures. It may truly be said that with Nick’s death a great library has disappeared. Nick could, and often did, quote from the early poets who had given expression in one form or another to the visions of the future, or opposition to the powers that be. Such as Shelley in his Queen Mab:

… his age of endless peace,
Which time is fast maturing,
Will swiftly, surely come,
And the unbounded frame, which thou pervadest,
Will be without a flaw
Marring its perfect symmetry.

Or Aristophanes’ antiwar plays, particularly his Lysistrata, who organised the women to “refrain from the mail altogether” as a form of antiwar strike.

In a huge mass of documents, pamphlets and booklets, lies the profound wisdom of a man dedicated unswervingly to setting humanity on the path to the perfect society – the society in which, as Trotsky so clearly stated it: “the average human being will approximate to a Marx, a Goethe or an Aristotle, and above that plateau new peaks will rise”.

The words of Tennyson, too, are surely apt:

“For I dipt into the future, far as the human eye could see
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that could be.”

Nick’s energy and drive, his persistence against odds, was almost legendary. In Kipling’s words, he filled “the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.”

We both had a short stint in the Communist Party during the Depression, but very soon became aware of the evils of Stalinism, including the wiping out of a whole generation of those who had established the Soviet regime. Trotsky was among the few who escaped the Stalinist holocaust until struck down by Stalin’s henchmen in 1939. But his work and ideals were carried on by others throughout the world, including the group formed in Australia, for which Nick became guide and mentor.

The young German activist, Bahro2, wrote recently that socialism was a form of society that had yet to be tried, and the strange grotesques in Russia, China and elsewhere were far removed from that utopia on earth. This was the view of the Australian group.

Later we joined the ALP in the birthplace of the Labor Party, Balmain. We remained for many years as members of the Labor Party, until expelled for daring to side with the people against a benighted caucus that insisted on allowing a dangerous chemical tank farm to be established in a close-knit community.

It was during our years in the ALP that the party arranged for a great debate among the branches within a number of state electorates. None of the branches in our electorate wanted to be represented in the competition, so Nick and I volunteered. The judges voted us the best two-man team in the debate, which was held in Drummoyne Council Chambers.

After our expulsion from the ALP, we formed our own party, the Balmain-Leichhardt Labor Party, under the slogan “People come first”. In coalition with Campaign for a Better Council group on Leichhardt Council we established that great step forward on the road to genuine democracy, the Open Council, with Nick as mayor for two of the three years of its existence.

In his lifetime Nick achieved something that is not commemorated in bronze or stone. Rather, it resides in the knowledge and memory of the many generations who have witnessed and learned of the essence of democracy and fighting for the worthwhile things in life, as demonstrated through our involvement in a variety of struggles over more than 60 years: for egalitarianism in every sphere of life, for protection of the environment and ecology, for people’s right to participate in decision-making that affects their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Much of this found expression in Nick’s major struggle against the Stalinist rulers of the ironworkers’ union in the 1940s, who had declared not only that Nick was no longer permitted to represent the workers who had elected him, because he advised them to go on strike, but also that those workers were obliged to accept representatives appointed by the union executive. That fight led to his reinstatement as the workers’ delegate and the eventual ousting of the arrogant, ruthless and dictatorial so-called leadership of the union. That fight taught most observers the importance of defending workers’ rights, of guaranteeing workers’ democratic expressions of their needs and aspirations, of standing up fearlessly against oppressors.

It is important, too, to note another side of Nick’s character, when during this struggle he was obliged to trade blows with on Stalinist official, who happened to have some training in boxing, outside the Mort’s Dock gates, and to have come off best in the encounter.

The union scene was translated to the municipal scene, where the open council threw open council meetings and committee meetings, and where Nick as mayor invited the people to take part in discussion on matters seriously affecting them. Here, too, was the same lesson that people’s rights must be respected, that genuine democracy could not exist without such respect and that people must be consulted and allowed to participate in decision-making.

Nick Origlass believed, with a boundless fervour and dedication, in the eventual triumph of the people over the evils accumulated and distilled over past centuries into what we now regard as modern capitalism, in the certainty that humanity will overcome the barbarians, the mass destroyers, the wreckers of the potential for advancement, whether fascist or Stalinist; to the eventual end of a social system that can tolerate what Maxim Gorky described as “Mountains of gold out of seas of human blood”, and in the certainty that the people would soon set their feet firmly and unswervingly on the road to a society that knows no bounds in human endeavour and achievement.

The society of abundance and peace for the free and equal peoples of the world has not so far existed, except in the minds of the great utopians and the scientific thinkers who followed them.

Nick, in his 89th year, outlived by some three months an international figure for whom he had the greatest admiration. In February this year, Michel Raptis, generally known as Pablo, died at the age of 83. He was one who had the ear of a Greek prime minister and leaders of other European and North African countries, and who as his close comrade, Gilbert Marquis described him: “has contributed the most theoretically to the genuine content of socialism … he taught us to struggle for the self-management republic of free men and women”. Nick was pleased to have had the opportunity, when he went overseas some years ago, of meeting Pablo.

Farewell, Nick, comrade in many political and industrial battles, fighter in countless causes, embodiment of political honesty and integrity, warm family man and friend. Unlike Hamlet, you suffered both the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and you took arms against a sea of troubles. May your going be seen, not as a defeat, but as an unquenchable light still guiding the way towards the new, yet-untested socialist society. Intellectually, you bestrode our narrow world like a colossus. We shall not see your like again. We salute your memory and your greatness. Vale.

Notes

1. Jack Sylvester (1894-1965), born in London, fought with the British army in World War I, decorated for bravery at the battle of Mons and promoted to sergeant major, migrated to Australia in 1925, where he joined the Communist Party, was later expelled and was a founding leader of the Trotskyist Workers Party. He was a leader of the unemployed movement in Balmain and other suburbs of Sydney during the Great Depression, organising anti-eviction struggles.

2. Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997). East German dissident Marxist and environmentalist.

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One Response to “Nick Origlass, 1908-1996”

  1. Fabian Davey Says:

    i have are post card photo of the leichard central working staff 1908. 11 men. it was sent to mitchell jsland, of manning river

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