What is happening in the Communist Party?

by

Gil Roper

From The Militant, Sydney, November 29, 1937 (Vol 4, No 14 — new series)


Introduction

The partly forgotten world of Sydney Marxism from the 1930s to the 1950s

Bob Gould

Gil and Edna Roper were active in the left of the labour movement from the 1920s until the 1960s. As a brash young rebel in the 1950s, I got to know them both, and they were very kind to me.

By the time I met them, they had moved away from Marxism to a simple left Labor orientation and I was moving in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, they both encouraged young rebels, like myself. Gil had the courtly, careful demeanour of the typical skilled craftsman autodidact, Edna was more ebullient and colourful.

Gil encouraged Edna to take a major lead in the battles of the day, and Edna, as a leading figure in the Labor women’s central organising committee, was an important agitator in the battle to break the grip of the Groupers in the labour movement in the 1950s.

Along with an old associate, Issy Wyner, Edna was a key member of the old Steering Committee of the ALP left at the critical period in that struggle, which went on for a couple of years.

Like many of his generation, Gil had become rather disillusioned with the Russian Revolution, mainly because of bitter knowledge of the Stalinist massacre of revolutionaries in the Soviet Union. However, he retained a powerful, almost utopian, idea about the possibilities of socialist development in a parliamentary framework, and he nursed along his personal preoccupation with Percy Brookfield as a significant socialist figure for many years and reworked the material that culminated in his little book about Brookfield many times. He clearly identified with Brookfield.

To my mind, the political high point of Gil’s activity was his initiative in commencing the industrial struggle for the 40-hour work as a key figure on the committee of management of the Printing Industry Employees’ Union. He organised the initial stoppage of women printing workers that began the struggle in 1944, and as a delegate to the NSW Labour Council he followed the struggle through for the next three or four years.

Issy Wyner has an enormous folder of the documentation of this struggle, which would make an extraordinary book, if ever the opportunity presented itself for Issy to organise it.

The political atmosphere of the labour movement in Sydney in the 1930s and 1940s is captured particularly well by Kylie Tennant in her novels Ride on Stranger and Foveaux, which include thinly veiled sketches of people such as Jean Devanny, Nick Origlass, George Bateman, and others. This material is also covered in Kylie Tennant’s autobiography, The Missing Heir.

Lyndal Ryan is working on a biography of her mother, Edna Ryan and of her father, Jack Ryan, who were immediate contemporaries of Gil and Edna Roper, when they were all driven out of the Communist movement by the Stalinist plague.

The Communist writer, Jean Devanny, to whom Gil Roper addresses the third of the articles reproduced here, had her own battles with the Stalinist bureaucracy. The redoubtable Marxist academic in Queensland, Carol Ferrier, has done us the very considerable service of editing, organising and publishing one of the versions of Devanny’s almost lost autobiography, which describes, from her point of view, her collisions with the Stalinist machine.

Ferrier has also written an absorbing biography: Jean Devanny, Romantic revolutionary (Melbourne University Press, 1999).

In Red Hot, his biography of Nick Origlass, Hall Greenland mentions in passing the interminable telephone conversations between Nick Origlass and Gil Roper after Gil had moved away from active involvement in Nick’s Trotskyist group. Both men were careful, considered, slow speakers, so those telephone conversations could go on for hours.

As a young man moving out of the orbit of the Stalinist movement in the middle of the critical battle with the Groupers in the 1950s, I discovered the small milieu of the old Sydney Trotskyists, and they were my political university, so to speak. I was particularly impressed by a little two-page monthly paper that Nick Origlass, Jack Sponberg and Issy Wyner and others produced from 1945 to 1952, called The Socialist, and a file of that little paper, which I read intensively over a couple of weeks, was my first serious introduction to a concrete critique of the twists of turns of the Stalinist line in Australian conditions, and an overview of the class struggle in those seven years.

In the back of my head I have the idea that it would be of great value to mount sufficient effort to get the whole of this publication up on the web. Anyone interested in helping with this effort ought to contact Ozleft.

July 27, 2003

More notes on the lives of Gil and Edna Roper.


What is happening in the Communist Party?

Biographical note

The author of this statement first contacted the labour movement in 1920, at the age of 15, when the Russian Revolution had established itself and the IWW frame-up1
was a major issue. In 1925 he joined the Adelaide branch of the Socialist Labor Party, and became secretary. When it began to oppose the big strikes in 1929 he resigned and joined the newly formed branch of the Communist Party. He represented South Australia at the 1929 Congress of the CPA. In 1930 he became district secretary and a co-opted member of the central committee. As such he was leader of the party during the turbulent strikes and struggles of the crisis period. In 1932 he went to Mildura and was prominent in reorganising the party after the fascist attack2. Later he worked in the Bendigo Section and became a member of the Number Two Section, Melbourne. In 1934 he was called to Sydney to operate printing machinery acquired by the central committee. By April 1937 he had become fully aware of the unscrupulous methods used by the political bureau in the party printery, and resigned from this work. This experience led the author to an investigation of the causes of bureaucratic degeneration in the party, from which point, while retaining his party membership he proceeded to a critical examination of its political basis.


The Third (Communist) International was founded in 1919 by Lenin “in opposition to the opportunist Second International of social democracy” — which had been, during the Great War; “the agency of imperialism in the ranks of the working class”. Its aim was twofold: 1) to replace the Second International, to combat reformism, and to develop struggles for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the capitalist section of the world; 2) to consolidated the basis of socialism in the Soviet Union.Reformism has had a traditional grip on big sections of the Australian workers and for that reason the struggle against reformism has been a traditional feature of the revolutionary proletarian movement in Australia. It was a cardinal point with the early socialist and IWW groups, and on one occasion Lenin wrote an article on the special role of the Australian Labor Party as an agency of reformism.During the 1929 federal election campaign a sharp struggle developed in the Communist Party concerning the line adopted by the central committee. At Christmas 1929 the party congress decided that the CC had been guilty of crass right opportunism. In brief, the line of the CC had been a rejection of the 10th plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, held in July 1929, which marked a zigzag by the Stalin leadership of the Comintern towards the new sectarian theory of “social fascism”. Two members of the central committee, Moxon and Sharkey3, used the 10th plenum decisions as a lever to accomplish the removal of the Kavanagh-Ryan4 leadership, a task in which they had the support of the Comintern. The background of the 1929 congress can now be correctly assessed. It dovetailed in with the campaign being waged by Stalin in the USSR against the Left Opposition (Trotskyists), which involved the removal of many of the old leaders of the Comintern and their replacement by more pliable leaders.What was the election policy and tactic of the old CC? First, they maintained that the masses were not becoming “radicalised” as asserted by the 10th plenum, and therefore would not vote in great numbers for the independent Communist candidates. Secondly, they said the party, in view of the above political situation, should support the Scullin5 Labor Party in the elections “as a rope supports a hanging man”.The majority of the party membership swung behind Moxon and Sharkey, because they considered that the old CC had failed to make a sharp enough distinction between the reformist Labor Party and the revolutionary Communist Party at the elections.If the line of the Kavanagh leadership was “crass right opportunism”, what must we say of the 1937 federal election policy and tactic of the Miles6 leadership?Between 1929 and 1937 the party had increased numerically about 10 times. Despite this strengthened position, in the 1937 federal elections the present CC, under the leadership of Miles, jettisoned the 1929 decisions and reverted to the former “crass right opportunist” position.The CC made overtures to the Labor Party for affiliation, for a united front against the Lyons Government7. Despite rejection of the CC offer, the party members were directed to lend full and unconditional support to the Labor politicians. In the electorate of Beasley8, a bitter anti-communist, the party members even posted up a record number of posters supporting him! The DLG Fund9
was used to support the party’s enemies.After the defeat of the Labor Party at the elections, the party leaders then began to argue the need for a better Labor Party, one controlled by the Trades Hall “industrialists”10. Miles and Sharkey thus began sowing the very same illusions about which they protested so loudly in 1929.

Why did Miles and Co jettison the 1929 decisions? Why was there no revolt of the party membership, as in 1929?

To begin with, it should be stated that Marxists cannot be dogmatic on the question of tactics. The tactics of the revolutionary workers must in all cases be determined by the selection of the most effective method of furthering the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. If we examine the attitude of Miles and Co we will grasp the enormity of the 1937 betrayal.

At certain times, on specific issues, is sometimes became necessary for the revolutionary movement to make a united front agreement with the reformists or with the party of some other class. In just such a way, for instance, did the IWW in Australia form a united front with heterogeneous elements on the conscription issue; so did Trotsky advocate a united front of Social Democrats and Communists against Hitler. Under no circumstances can the revolutionary movement agree to any so-called “unity” which involves a sacrifice of principle. Unity can be bought too dearly.

In March 1937, Miles announced the election tactic of the CC for the coming federal elections. Opposition soon developed, the extent of which is not known; but it is clear that some Communists in Queensland particularly, realised the damaging effect of supporting Labor Party candidates. This realisation must have grown as Forgan Smith11 used the state forces against the brewery strikes. However, Miles brusquely warned the opposition, and deferred criticism of the line until “after polling day”. (See Communist Review, June 1937)

After Beasley’s speech at Randwick, there was further opposition expressed to the policy of unconditional support for the Labor Party, and in one branch a majority opposed the CC line.

It would be incorrect to see the positions of Kavanagh in 1929 and Miles in 1937 as exact historical parallels. In 1929 the line of the CC represented a failure to catch up with the latest zigzag of the Comintern; but in 1937 the CC line approximated to that of the seventh world congress and subsequent events in the international. The former expressed a lag by a single section of the Comintern; the latter symbolised the complete reformist degeneration of the International.

In 1929, too, it was possible for the party membership to organise in a campaign to remove the CC, which they considered had “right-wing” liquidationist tendencies. Today a similar campaign would be impossible. The party is organised on a rigid system of bureaucratic centralism, like a spider web. At the centre is the general secretary, surrounded by the political bureau, a group of eight party functionaries and trade union officials. The PB has not been changed materially for about six years; it is a rump “inner group” with absolute control over party finance (no balance sheets are shown to the membership), party publications and the first and last say in the selection, suspension and removal of party functionaries, the dissolution of intractable party bodies, and the isolation of individual members who display “Trotskyist” or other anti-leadership sentiments. In a circle round the PB are a number of district committees and a further circle of selection committees. These committees are completely dominated by groups of functionaries, who can hold their positions and continue to draw their sustenance only so long as they agree with the line of the PB on all major and minor political and organisational issues. The balance of the party membership is split up into hundreds of microscopic branches, devoid of means of intercommunication.

The same bureaucratic centralism holds true of the Communist International, with the difference that it is the Mileses who are in a circle around Stalin, whose every word is law. Is it any wonder that the party is ideologically dead; that there are no longer any polemics — only directives?

How did this position arise?

The ebb of the post-war revolutionary movement coincided with the death of Lenin and the beginning of the dominance of Stalin in the government of the Soviet Union. The masses in the Soviet Union, weary of war, revolution, civil war and famine, disappointed with the temporary failure of the world proletarian revolution, were ready for a long period of internal and external peace. Stalin’s new theory of socialism in one country fell on fertile soil. It helped him to uproot the old guard of the revolution, headed by Trotsky, and to discredit them. In 1927 the mistakes of Stalinism caused the terrible defeat of the Chinese revolution. After the sixth world congress of the Comintern, Stalin led the international on an erratic course. The inaugural plenum of the CPA in June 1930 formally introduced the party to the latest Stalinist theories of the Third Period, “radicalisation” and social fascism. Every trade union bureaucrat or Labor politician was a social fascist. Lang, Garden, Kilburn12, and most of the Sydney “industrialists” with whom Miles and Co have lately formed a bloc, were dangerous “left social fascists”. This was the period of “head-on collision” with the reformist leaders — on a world scale.

The cumulative effect of the theories of social fascism and socialism in one country constituted a major factor in the defeat of the German workers by Hitler. As late as the 12th plenum of the ECCI, Piatnitsky13
said that the “united front must be directed against the Social Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy”, while the London Daily Worker (Communist Party organ) said on May 26, 1932: “It is significant that Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between the Communist and Social Democratic parties against fascism. No more disruptive and counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at a time like the present”.

Too late did the CI effect a change. The main bulwark of the Soviet Union against imperialist aggression — the mighty German labour movement — was smashed, surrendered “without drawing a sword or firing a shot”. The flight from Marxism continued. Not world revolution but alliances with the bourgeois states, membership in the League of Nations, would defend the Soviet Union.

The sections of the CI fell into line with the new turn of the Soviet Foreign Office. World revolution, “soviet power” (once — how recently! — the main slogan) were struck off the agenda. The struggle was no longer for “socialism against capitalism”, but for “democracy against fascism” — the very same bourgeois democracy against which Lenin and the Bolsheviks had thundered in 1917. All sorts of bourgeois Philistines and other “queer people” — pacifists, reformers, Christians
— had to be attracted to the party. The “social fascists” became “progressives”.

The seventh world congress of the Comintern — meeting after a lapse of seven years — legalised the latest somersault. Dimitrov14, the new “helmsman” of the Comintern, reached into the garbage can of history and plucked forth the theories of Bernstein, Kerensky and the “lesser evil” of the German Iron Front; they emerged as the “People’s Front”. From Kautsky and Ramsay MacDonald was borrowed the theory of “the chief instigators of war”; a truce was called with the “peaceful British, French, Italian and US imperialists — only Germany and Japan were “aggressors”.

The results of the seventh congress somersault were soon apparent. Under a smokescreen of talk about “unity against war and fascism”, the Comintern discarded the last vestiges of Leninism. In China the Stalinists discovered that they had nothing “personal” against Chiang Kai-shek, the bourgeois dictator and butcher of the workers; the Chinese Red Army and soviet districts were liquidated and combined with the Nanking national front. In France, the CP swung into a permanent bloc with Blum and the petty bourgeois Radical Socialists; the mighty strike movements of the French workers were shunted on to the track of bourgeois parliamentarism. Reformism secured a new lease of life. Worse still, in Italy the CP clamoured for unity with the Fascists.

Against this background, the Australian Stalinists evolved their 1937 federal election policy and tactic. All Leninist principles were scrapped. The party leaders refused to nominate independent candidates (with two exceptions), called loudly for unconditional support of the Labor politicians, and unblushingly sowed he most dangerous reformist illusions about electing a “fighting Labor government”, which would legitimise “a better life” for the people. Miles falsified history: “Is it a gross error,” he said, “to see the Labor governments as administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed the workers”. What contemptible deception! Shades of Andrew Fisher, Hill, Hogan, Scullin, Lang, Forgan Smith and the rest. Is it not, rather, the truth to say to say that Labor governments have been merely the reflection of the level of the class struggle that any reforms legislated have been forced by extraparliamentary activity of the masses? Is it not also irrefutable that at all critical junctures Labor governments in Australia have allied themselves with the capitalist state against the workers — whether in 1914 or in the latest brewery strike in Brisbane?

If the Communists are, as Marx said, that section of the working class which clearly understands the line of march of the proletariat — that sees ahead — what shallow theoreticians we have in the Central Committee. In the federal elections they failed badly in their estimate of the mood of the masses. They assessed incorrectly the results of the Gwydir poll; they failed to attach sufficient importance to Lyons’ defence policy as a vote winner; they overlooked the effect on the petty bourgeoisie of the upward trend of Australian economy; they anticipated the sweeping away of Lyons. Dixon15 in reply to Beasley, on September 24, suggested that there would be a “landslide to Labor”. Exaggerated as was this estimate, and others, it can be matched by the wretched prediction of Miles (Communist Review, July 1937): “the masses are not moving consciously to us. It is questionable if in the elections we could generally increase our vote”. (Actually, Paterson16
trebled his vote — not, of course all Communists).

As the campaign developed, the party leaders and press sank to the most vulgar deception and parliamentarism. All the ancient stock-in-trade of the reformists was displayed once again by the party leaders. The number three party election leaflet touches zero: “British policy … endangers the Empire … The Lyons government supports this perilous policy … Stand by the League of Nations.” And the party members collected thousands of pounds for the DLG fund to pay for this rubbish.

Nor is there any hope of a change. Dixon warned his audience (Darlinghurst, October 24), that the Communists were going to “clean out the ALP stables”, making a start with Lang, ultimately restoring the faded glory(!) of the ALP by combining the workers, farmers and middle class of Australia into a single party — a non-Marxist concept which even Stalin in 1927 considered to be “impossible”. (Leninism, Vol II, p 85)

This statement was almost ready for the printers when news came in the press of a new and even greater purge of anti-Stalinist elements in the Soviet Union. This time there are more framed-up charges against old Bolsheviks (Bubnov17, etc). The new purge underscores the dangerous international position of the working class. The war danger grows; fascism continues to expand; the strategic position of the Soviet Union grows weaker; today it must rely on the shifting sands of the Franco-Soviet Pact, or on Litvinov’s18 manoeuvres in the thieves’ kitchen at Geneva.

The internal position of the USSR gives ground for alarm. There is abundant proof of inequality, the existence of a huge bureaucracy and the rebirth of bourgeois-minded elements. Andre Gide says of the Soviet masses: “They are more than ever bowed down.”

Those workers who revolt against the sickening flattery of Stalin, the bureaucracy of the party, and the tailing after reformism, should begin a study of the recently published works of Trotsky — The Third International After Lenin, The Stalin School of Falsification, and The Revolution Betrayed. In these works is preserved the spirit and teaching of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The Third International died as a revolutionary force in the year that Hitler came to power; the defeat of the German workers revealed at one time the bankruptcy of both the Stalin and the reformist leaderships. In the capitalist world the remnants of the Comintern now pursue a reactionary line, supporting their national reformists and applauding the provocations and frame-ups against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.

The needs of the toilers, the defence of the Soviet Union, demand a return to the program of world revolution, to the teachings of Marx and Lenin. These teachings are being developed in a new party and the rising Fourth International — commonly known as “Trotskyists”. That is the direction in which the workers will march.

November 12, 1937

Notes

1. Twelve members of the IWW were arrested on September 23, 1916, and charged with arson and treason, the latter charge under the archaic Treason Felony Act of 1848. At the time, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was campaigning to introduce conscription for World War I and the IWW was central to the oppositon to conscription. Seven of the 12 (John Hamilton, William Beattie, Joseph Fagin, Donald Grant, William Teen, Tom Glynn and Donald McPherson) were sentenced to 15 years in prison; four (Thomas Moore, Bob Besant, Peter Larkin and Charles Reeve) were sentenced to 10 years; and Benjamin King was sentenced to five years. The 12 were jailed until the Labor government of Premier John Storey was elected on March 20, 1920. It appointed Judge N.K. Ewing to inquire into the trial and sentencing, and 10 of the 12 were released in August 1920.

2. For a description of this incident, see Trotskyism in Australia: Notes from a talk with Ted Tripp, 1976 by Peter Beilharz.

3. Herbert Moxon, who deposed Jack Kavanagh as CPA general secretary at Christmas 1929, expelled in 1931 after being displaced from the top post by Comintern representative Harry Wicks. Lance Sharkey, an ally of Moxon in 1929, became general secretary in the late 1940s.

4. Jack Kavanagh (1879-1964) was born in Ireland and fought for the British in the Boer War before emigrating to Canada in 1907, where he joined the Socialist Party of Canada. In 1918 he was President of British Columbia Federation of Labour, and a One Big Union organiser. Expelled from SP in 1919, by 1922 he was an executive committee member of the Communist Party and editor of its newspaper. He emigrated to Australia in 1925, and became a leader of the Communist Party of Australia, which was at a low ebb. Kavanagh preferred the old-style socialist leadership to the new democratic centralism demanded by the Comintern, and as general secretary he resisted attempts in the late 1920s to declare the NSW Labour Council and the Australian Labor Party “social fascist”. He allowed relatively open discussion in the pages of Workers Weekly, and allowed publication of a statement by prominent trade union leader Jock Garden when he and his supporters left the CPA in 1926. Herbert Moxon and Lance Sharkey received Comintern support to oust Kavanagh as general secretary, which they did in 1929. Kavanagh was expelled in 1934 and later joined the Trotskyists. Jack Ryan was an official of the NSW Labour Council and a close collaborator with Kavanagh, he was expelled from the CPA in 1930.

5. James Scullin, Prime Minister in a federal Labor government from 1929-31, and leader of the federal Labor Party until 1935.

6. J.B. Miles, general secretary of the CPA from 1931 to the late 1940s.

7. Joseph Lyons, elected to federal parliament for the Labor Party, split from Labor in 1931 and formed the right-wing United Australia Party, for which he was prime minister from 1932-39.

8. Jack Beasley was a member of the House of Representatives 1928–46 for West Sydney, most of that time for the Labor Party, except in 1931–36 when he was a member of the Lang Labor Party and 1940–41 when he was a member of the Anti-Communist Labor Party.

9. Defeat the Lyons Government Fund.

10. The Trades Hall industrialists were a group of union leaders who at this stage were left opponents of Lang in the NSW Labor Party, and formes a loose bloc with the Communist Party.

11. William Forgan Smith, Labor premier of Queensland, 1932-42.

12. Jack Lang, NSW Labor premier from 1925–27 and 1930–32 and an independent member of the federal House of Representatives from 1946-49. He led a generally left-wing breakaway from the Labor Party in the 1930s, often referred to as Lang Labor. Jock Garden was a leader of the Trades Hall Reds, a group of unionists central in the formation of the Communist Party. He and his supported drifted away from the CPA around 1926, and joined the Labor Party. Garden later became a central adviser to Jack Lang. Jock Kilburn was a long-time left-wing unionist who was prominent in the Socialisation Units that arose in the Labor Party during the depression.

13. Ossip Piatnitsky, a central figure in the Comintern.

14. Giorgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian Communist Party leader who became general secretary of the Comintern 1935-4.

15. Richard Dixon, CPA central committee member.

16. Fred Paterson in 1944 became the only CPA candidate elected to an Australian parliament, the Queensland parliament, representing the seat of Bowen.

17. Andrei Bubnov, old Bolshevik, made a leader of the Red Army by Stalin in 1924, removed from his position in 1934, arrested in 1937 and died in prison in 1940.

18. Maxim Litvinov, an old Bolshevik who was made Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1930 and was later an ambassador to the US.


The alternative to the Communist Party

By Gil Roper

The Militant, Sydney, December 27, 1937

A month has elapsed since I publicly dissociated myself from the Stalinist renegade leadership of the Comintern by publishing a statement entitled, What is happening in the Communist Party? The intervening weeks have been full of events confirming the correctness of that action.

In reply to my criticism of the political degeneration and organisational bureaucracy of Stalinism, certain indirect answers have already appeared in the central CP organ.

Firstly, the local Stalinist leadership has sharpened its unscrupulous and foundationless attack upon the Trotskyist movement, linking it up in an utterly fantastic manner with Les Cagoulards1
in France, and has given even more prominence to the venomous slogan of Miles: “Drive the Trotskyists out of the labour movement.”

Secondly, the political bureau of the CP, contrary to its usual practice, has published in its organ a “balance sheet of the Defeat the Lyons Government Fund. This document succeeds in accounting for about one tenth of the £6200-odd collected, but workers will note that it is unattested by any auditor’s certificate. Most of the CP election expenses seem to be covered by the “balance sheet” (leaflets, posters, radio, fares, etc) So what has happened to the other nine-tenths of the money? Is it true that a great part of the DLG Fund, like other funds which preceded it (and of which, also, no proper accounts have been published), was not used for the purpose implied by its name, but was appropriated for general party revenue.

The last month has brought further evidence of the need for every principled Marxist to support the movement for a Fourth International. In the Soviet Union the blood purge has mown down more of the old Leninst Bolsheviks. Is it possible now to doubt the Thermidorian character of the regime? The new Stalin constitution stands exposed as a monstrous fraud. To use Stalin’s expression, it is “tragi-comic”. Every columnist in the capitalist press finds it an easy target for ridicule, and certainly there are some comic features about the one-candidate constituencies. But basically the new constitution is a tragedy for the Soviet masses — an effort to secure mass endorsement of the unbridled tyranny of Stalin and the bureaucracy. Elsewhere on the continent, a Soviet diplomatic official is reported to be undertaking the organisation of mass pressure to stay the hand of Stalin’s jailers and executioners. In Switzerland the government has arrested several OGPU agents on a charge of having murdered Ignace Reiss, a Communist who, like myself, had linked up with the Trotskyists. The trial promises important disclosures of Stalinist terrorism, perhaps having a bearing on the murder of Nin2 and other anti-Stalinist working-class leaders. In France a secret meeting of representatives of 17 national sections of the Comintern has discussed a plan to liquidate the international in order to satisfy the demands of Stalin’s bourgeois military allies. The Comintern leaders hope either to merge with the Second (reformist) International or to dissolve into a new People’s Front International. Finally, in the principal capitalist countries various factors seem to be unexpectedly shortening the duration of the period of relative prosperity. The first shocks of the approaching economic crisis are being felt in Australia. Prices have been pegged by the armament drive, but at any time the export and home markets may collapse and bring down the bloated credit system like an avalanche. An economic crisis will cause a political crisis.

The replies of the Miles leadership and the march of events confirm the urgent need for the rejection of Stalinism by the masses. Not only is “the great teacher of the proletariat” going ahead with the physical obliteration of every possible alternative leader in the Soviet Union, but the OGPU terrorism is spreading to Spain, China, Switzerland and elsewhere. What is the meaning of Miles’s slogan, “Drive the Trotskyists out of the labour movement”? We get the answer in Radek’s final statement (inspired, of course, by the OGPU) in the court during the recent Moscow Trials:

We must tell the Trotskyist elements in France, Spain and other countries that the experience of the Russian Revolution has shown that Trotskyism is a pest of the labour movment. We must warn them that they, too, will pay with their heads unless they learn by our experience.

This threat and the frequent excitements in the Workers Weekly
are the expression of terrorist moods, which are symptomatic of the anti-Trotskyist panic now seizing the whole Stalinist leadership. Let the murder of Nin, Reiss, Freer, and countless revolutionary pioneers in the USSR waken the Australian working class to the deadly menace of Stalinism, the new scourge of the labour movement.

The behaviour of the leaders of the CPA typifies the decline of the Third International. There is the reticence in accounting for large sums of money collected and earmarked for the Defence of the Party, Defeat of the Lyons Government, etc. Then there are the crazy manoeuvres with the NSW reformist groups. A few months ago the CP was strongly advocating union affiliation to the ALP (Seamen, Printers, etc). Members of the CP, urged on by Miles, were ostentatiously collecting funds for the Lang apparatus. Now everything is suddenly reversed: cash must be cut off from the Labor Party. In the NSW municipal elections Miles and Co had at least three different tactics, and they all failed. In Paddington, the CP supported the “rebel” aldermen, who were duly defeated by the official Labor ticket; in Glebe they somersaulted and supported the “inner group” men against the “rebels”, and again failed; in a few areas independent CP candidates were nominated, somersaulting on the very recent decision of the central committee “not to split the workers’ vote”. By carrying on with the treacherous People’s Front policy, instead of a bold, revolutionary program, the CP is rapidly being forced to abandon all consistency and sense of direction. It is becoming irretrievably lost in the reformist labyrinth.

Furthermore, these parliamentary intrigues cannot disguise the opportunism of the Stalinists on the industrial field. The CP leaders are fond of boasting of the enormous progress made by party members in winning elections to paid and honorary positions in the trade unions. Some time ago a report claimed that CP members held 1000 such positions. What gains have the workers made as a result? The answer is that a who period of relative prosperity has come and almost gone without any commensurate movement of the workers for a greater share of the prosperity. There was every indication of a great struggle of the miners in New South Wales. A few concessions were negotiated by the officials, but in return the miners were hog-tied for two years by an arbitration agreement, and the remainder of the miners’ urgent demands were shelved. The seamen’s strike was a defeat of the first magnitude, despite direct CP leadership. Other strike movements have been sporadic and narrow in scope and the results won have been correspondingly meagre. Instead of concentrating all forces on the development of a mighty industrial movement comparable with the recent upsurges in France and the USA, Miles and Co prefer to misrepresent the ALP faction fight as the decisive question for the Australian working class. Time and opportunity have shown the Stalinist leaders to be merely pseudo-militants. Instead of accelerating the progress of the class struggle, they act as a throttle.

It is difficult to realise that the Communist International, which inherited the most noble traditions of the labour movement of the world, and which gave such great promise for the proletariat, is nearing an ignominious end. The first four congresses of the CI (held annually) were under the direct leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. But in the last 13 years there have been only two congresses, and the latest (the seventh) marked the complete renegacy of the CI leadership. So great was Stalin’s contempt for the seventh congress that he took no part in the business except for a brief introductory speech. Now steps are being taken towards the complete liquidation of the Comintern.

The working class must reply to Stalin by building a new revolutionary organisation. Ideologically, this movement is led by Trotsky, president of the Russian Soviet in 1905, organiser of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Commander in Chief of the Red Army during the whole of the victorious Civil War in Russia, and one of the main pillars in the construction of the Third International.

There are Trotskyist groups in about 30 countries. The Workers Party of Australia is the vanguard of the Fourth International in this country. It has survived a tendency to splinter, and although numerically very weak, it is able to give a clear Marxist analysis of the main problems of the Australian workers. Its platform is sound: for an international revolutionary struggle against capitalism, leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat, resting on soviets elected from units of production; against the confusion of the People’s Front and for a real proletarian united front; against pacifism and for a revolutionary struggle against war; for a militant industrial policy; for the initiation by the trade union movement of a democratic unemployed movement; against reformist parliamentary illusions; for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy; for a new international based on real democratic centralism, with free election of officials, full information of the membership, and free discussion without baiting or threats of expulsion.

Eight years in the Communist Party have led me to irreconcilable disagreement with the attitude of the Stalinism on a number of major issues. On the other hand, I find myself entirely in accord with the Trotskyists and the Workers Party of Australia.

December 16, 1937

Notes

1. French racist organisation similar to the Ku Klux Klan.

2. Andreas Nin, a leader of the Spanish Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), murdered by the Stalinists.


A letter to Jean Devanny

Concerning the Communist Party’s printery

The Militant, January 24, 1938

Dear Jean Devanny,

Last Sunday a worker whom I have known for a number of years reported to me some remarks passed by you at a meeting of writers held recently in Sydney, to the effect that I had “sabotaged” the printing works of the Communist Party. Such allegations from you caused me a great deal of surprise; firstly, because our personal relationships have always been of a most comradely nature; secondly because your only direct knowledge of my work in the party printery relates to the production of your novel, Sugar Heaven. I think you will admit that I strove to assist you with the typography of that book in every way that lay in my power.

There is evidence that sinister allegations of “sabotage” are being circulated by other members of the Communist Party, so that I can assume that just as the Stalinists debase your imaginative brain to the level of a publicity hack, so they are using your prestige to further a systematic slander campaign against me. By such a scheme, no doubt, the authors of the slanders hope to offset the results of the publication of my brochure, entitled, What is happening in the Communist Party?

The conduct of the party printery is a damning indictment of the political bureau, the inner group of the Communist Party. But it would be naïve to presume that the PB, which is prepared to endorse every one of the crimes of Stalin against the old Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, has any scruples about projecting the whole blame for the condition of the printery on to the workers in the plant.

I was invited to Sydney a little over three years ago to operate a typesetting machine acquired by the political bureau. The circumstances of the purchase were to be kept strictly confidential, owing to the current danger of illegality, but the party chatterboxes soon broadcast the news among non-party circles, and there is certainly no point at this stage in keeping it mum. I registered myself as the sole proprietor of a dummy firm known as Standard Typesetters, and personally managed the business. According to an official audit of the accounts by Comrade B, the first three months of trading allowed a net profit of £80. The business continued along even more satisfactory lines for a further three months, when the PB merged Standard Typesetters with the party’s dummy printing firm of Wright and Baker. I was again registered as the sole proprietor of the new firm, which I named The Forward Press.

Heavy financial losses

About 12 months ago an official audit showed that The Forward Press Ltd (by that time, as you see, a limited company) was working at a loss of £500 per year. Now, Comrade Devanny, I have already quoted the net profit earned by the separate typesetting business. How, then, did it come about that this tidy profit was swallowed by a huge loss after the merging of the plant?

Prior to moving to the new premises, the PB (I do not know on whose recommendation) purchased a Michle printing press for £600. The machine was badly needed to expedite production of the Workers Weekly. The installation of this machine was a task for an expert, but the PB stupidly engaged a general engineer. Chaos resulted. Then, after weeks of muddle, the truth was discovered: the new press was too small to print the Weekly. From that time up till just recently, the printery workers had to make shift with a hopelessly antiquated machine. In addition, the PB failed for a time to appoint a manager, and the departmental foremen struggled along in anarchy. In the new plant, endless difficulties (partly due to understaffing of the office), continually delayed the delivery of publications. Inability to fulfil impossible tasks bred discontent. Mutual suspicions turned old comrades into enemies. Four party members went on strike and picketed the works. It was a repetition of Lane’s New Australia.

During the period of less than two years spent by me at The Forward Press, the PB appointed no fewer than six managers. Some of these comrades were unfitted for administration. Nearly all the customers were party organisations or “fraternals”. They constantly clamoured for low prices. With profits cut to the bone, any bad debts or errors in cost estimation tended to bankrupt the finances. Subsidies from the party made good the deficits. If the managers failed in their task, they became … white cargo. Such was the position of The Forward Press, the product of the sterile brains of the PB.

Withering criticism of party leaders

The party members employed in the plant were ever groping for a solution of the problems. Their opinions are interesting. JA was the third manager. Despite personal shortcomings, he attacked the problems of the printery with remarkable energy, and was the first manager to ensure prompt deliveries. He attended frequent meetings of the CC secretariat (members of the PB) dealing with printery affairs. Shortly before he left he expressed himself thus: “the PB is hopeless from a business point of view”.

Again, about a year ago a meeting was called of all party members employed in the printery. J.B. Miles was present. The then manager, LB, was in the process of being forced to resign by the PB. During the meeting, RB, a machinist, caused a stir by reading a statement in which he mercilessly flogged the PB for their incompetent meddling in the conduct of the printery. Miles took possession of this document, and I would urge, Comrade Devanny, if you are still of the opinion that it was I who sabotaged the printery, that you ask to see this document, which should be in the CC files.

The meeting referred to above seemed to mark a decisive stage in the history of the printery. It was followed by an intensive purge of party members. At one stage there was upwards of 20 party members employed at the printery. Many of they were splendid workers, but they were not servile enough to suit the PB. Six months after the above meeting all except two or three of these party members had resigned or been dismissed.

The case of LB (the fifth manager) is instructive. J. Simpson of the PB told me that the PB was not satisfied with his work and desired to replace him. However, they preferred that the position be developed in such a way that he would resign. At the meeting I have already mentioned, which took place about 12 months ago, attacks were made on LB. He duly resigned. Later, at a PB meeting, just before I left the printery, I was baited by Miles for having failed to join in this chorus of criticism of my old comrade. Miles interjected my speech (in which I was defending myself against a charge of factionalising) thus: “What about B?”

Working conditions were gradually made unbearable. RB (not previously referred to) was framed on charges of not filling in his time docket correctly, permitting a junior to feed a press inaccurately, and guillotining magazines on a slant. He resigned as a protest against “fault finding”. Because I tried to conciliate this comrade I was trenchantly criticised by the PB. It became, in fact, another “charge” against me. J. Simpson whispered to me, at the conclusion of the last PB meeting which I attended that RB “might be an agent provocateur”. Let me add that this comrade subsequently left to join the International Brigade in Spain.

Keeping a job in the family

Non-party workers were included in the purge. J. Simpson advised me that he knew “a young woman” whom he desired to place in employment in the printery. About the same time, a “case” began to be made out against the forewoman, Miss R. Later she was curtly dismissed, no reason being given, and the “young woman” immediately took her place.

A few months previously, at a Christmas Eve party in the works, J.B. Miles, in the hearing of a number of workers, had said to Miss R:
“I hope you will be with us for 50 years.” I left the printery about the same time as Miss R, but the records of the union carry on the story.

The union secretary (I quote from The Printer, June 11, 1937, p 540 “interviewed the manager of The Forward Press, and pointed out that the policy of the union was preference to employment for financial members. If this policy was departed from there was a probability that his employees would refuse to work with non-members”. The “young woman” seems to have been put off. But that is not all. Simpson next accused me of being responsible for the failure of her application to join the union. Who was this “young woman”? Those hewers of coal who are struggling for seniority rights would learn with amazement that she was none other than the sister in law of a member of the PB, who draws £8/15/- a week as general secretary of the Miners’ Federation.

The history of the purge concludes with the following extract from The Printer, official union of the PIEUA, dated November 5, 1937:

Correspondence between the secretary (Mr Wilson) and the manager of The Forward Press Ltd, relative to payment of overtime for work on Sunday nights; and the dismissal of the union collector, was referred to the executive with authority to take whatever action may be necessary to uphold the policy of the union and ensure compliance with the award.”

And up till the time when I broke with the party, despite all those extraordinary events, the PB gave not the slightest indication to the rank and file of the party of anything amiss.

Manager No 6 has a flair for “inquiries”

Towards the end of 1936 a party member by the name of Granger (known in Victoria as T. Duncan) arrived in Sydney to handle the accounts of The Forward Press and some other party enterprises. He brought references from several big capitalist concerns in Melbourne and a special commendation from E. Thornton, federal secretary of the ironworkers union. One reference stated that he was an expert on “inquiries”. In the early part of 1937 Granger-Duncan replaced LB as manager.

The management of the plant under Granger-Duncan prompted me to compile a severely critical letter to the PB, in which I demanded a change, otherwise it would be impossible for me to continue working with him.

Ridiculous slanders

The events which followed are a lesson in chicanery. After Miles read my letter he assumed a friendly demeanour and said he agreed that affairs at the printery were not at all satisfactory. A meeting of the PB and party members in the printery was called. Here Miles turned a somersault. He, Simpson and Granger-Duncan joined in a counterblast to my accusations. The accused became the accuser. A hurriedly concocted tirade of slanders astonished the audience. However, a charge that I had delayed publications was categorically denied by three party editors; a lie about lack of co-operation was annihilated. It was said that I had factionalised with WB, a worker in the plant. The evidence — believe it or not — revealed that the manager had seen me at a distance several times talking to WB “with a sneering grin”. In any case the meeting was only a readied-up farce because Miles incautiously admitted that the PB had already decided “to support Granger”.

The meeting proved abortive. Soon afterwards the tension in the plant became worse. JC, a fairly recent addition to the staff, alleged that his assistant was timing his output. His resignation coincided with mine. At the last meeting of printery workers which I attended — and one of the last, I believe, ever held — discontent was rife. Simpson, forming a bloc with the manager and his wife, tried to force through a nomination for party membership. One worker described the nominee as a “bosses’ man and a crawler”. The nomination was deferred.

Communist in name — bourgeois in methods

Towards the end of April, I complained to Miles again concerning the manager’s attitude. Another PB meeting was held. A new counterblast alleged that I did insufficient work and asserted that I spent too long on a certain task. The total time was, I think, less than three hours, and I proved beyond dispute that 20 minutes at least of that time was accounted for by a conversation with Granger-Duncan in which he aggressively demanded that I go on night shift, because he thought some of the night workers were “taking things very easy”. (I refused to accept.) This intrigue and contemptible haggling forced me to resign from the printery.

There, Comrade Devanny, you have the origin of the slanders; there you have the character of their authors. The searchlight of exposure was moving inexorably towards the PB. The critics had to be silenced.

Were the charges bogus? If they were not, why was I permitted to remain long afterwards a member of an advisory bureau, handling highly confidential work for the NSW district committee of the party, to continue as a branch chairman? Why was I approached to resume oral propaganda work for the party? Was there no suspicion of sabotage? And finally, if I was a known saboteur, why was I summoned at 1.30am one morning last October to rectify a mechanical fault in the printery so that the Weekly might appear on time?

The answer is clear: there was no sabotage. The slanders against me were crushed last April by the weight of evidence and ridicule. They have been revived by the little Stalins in the PB only because such an unscrupulous trick is easier than replying to my purely objective polemic against the present treacherous policy and tactics of the Communist Party.

History has already placed the skids under the Comintern and its leaders. They are moving to destruction. It is time for all sincere revolutionaries to begin a study of the literature of the Fourth International, to take the path of Ignace Reiss and Andre Gide.

Yours for the Fourth International,
Gil Roper
January 15, 1938


Gil Roper and Percy Brookfield

Biographical note from Labor’s Titan

Wendy and Allan Scarfe

To Gilbert Roper, Percy Brookfield was one of the great socialist heroes. He also saw himself as being in the same tradition. Although a generation separated them and they never met they had the same roots in the Labor movement — the books and songs that moved Brookfield moved Gilbert; both were first and foremost trade unionists who wanted to uplift the poor and exploited; both wanted to restructure society through direct action with the factories owned and managed by the workers; both were passionately anti-war and for holding such “unpatriotic” views both were jailed. Labor’s Titan is not, then, a dispassionate academic biography. It is a work of commitment, addressed to people of similar commitment, notably within the trade union movement, who have long been denied short, layman-oriented biographies of early socialist pioneers by the increasing tendency to prepare such undertakings for a highly specialised scholastic readership. (Though it is hoped that these latter will also find the present volume of interest).

Born in 1905 Gilbert Giles Roper was a descendent of the famous South Australian pioneer family, the McFarlanes. His father died when Gil was three leaving his two sons to be reared by their mother, grandmother and uncle, Edgar Giles, the Commissioner of Audit for South Australia. As a boy Gil experienced the glamour and flamboyance of the march past of the first troops to leave Australia for the “Great” War and he was aware of the widespread grief when few of them returned. During the war years he also felt keenly the humiliations of the previously respected German community of South Australia.

At 14 Gil began his working life as a printer at South Australia’s oldest newspaper, The Register. Here he experienced the extremes of the class system and gained a deep knowledge of union and labor philosophy. He also developed life-long anti-war attitudes.

At 16 Gil became a Sunday orator at “The Stump” in Botanical Park for the Socialist Labor Party. In the following years he threw himself into the free speech conflicts which the radical groups fought with the Adelaide City Council. In the split which occurred in the Socialist Labor Party, Gil became secretary of the leading faction while avoiding most of the violent fights, but dissatisfaction with the lack of support given to workers by the Socialist Labor Party led him to join in founding the Marx-Engels Club in 1928.

In 1928 Adelaide was rocked by the most memorable conflict of her history, the waterside workers’ strike against the degrading conditions imposed by the federal arbitration court. Shipowners were encouraged to employ scabs and the unemployed watersiders attacked them. Gil, who had won a reputation for his knowledge of Marxist-Leninist theory, was enlisted as a lecturer for the Port Adelaide waterside workers. He was very sympathetic to the beliefs in direct action propounded by the International Workers of the World and was driven by compassion for the unemployed and exploited. Believing both the Australian Labor Party and the Adelaide Trades Hall Council had betrayed the workers in their struggle, Gil joined other radicals in reviving the South Australian Communist Party in 1929, aiming to rid Port Adelaide of the police patrols and the scabs.

As secretary of the South Australian branch of the Communist Party Gil was highly successful in building membership, influencing young people in the Communist Youth League, in organising the unemployed and in evading police persecution. His self-sacrifice made it financially possible for the party to field candidates in 1930 for the state elections, who stood, although unsuccessfully, for the right to strike, equal pay for women, workers’ compensation for sickness or accident, a 40-hour week, and two weeks paid annual holiday for all workers. In 1929 Gill assisted the Stalinists Moxon and Sharkey to take control of the central committee of the Communist Party. He was later to regret this. He was co-opted himself in 1930 to the central committee of the party.

In August 1930 when the shipowners destroyed what little hope of industrial peace remained in hungry Port Adelaide by replacing unionised wharfies to stack sugar at Glanville, there was a spontaneous upheaval. The Port streets became pandemonium. Gil was a delegate to the Adelaide Trades and Labor Council but he scorned it for its treachery to the watersiders in 1928. He and his comrades through euphoric public meetings organised workers into a general strike, co-ordinated by a Rank and File Council of Action, which bypassed the Combined Adelaide and Port Adelaide Trades and Labor Councils Disputes Committee.

Gil hoped this was the beginning of the revolution in Australia for the overthrow of capitalism. However, the strike only lasted two weeks until Labor Premier Lionel Hill revealed to Parliament the evil conspiracy of Gil’s Council of Action. Police raids were followed by Hill rushing through Parliament in a record 26 hours a hysterical Public Safety Act, which beat the strikers back to work under even worse conditions.

The failure of direct action and the use of Parliament against the workers only spurred Gil to increase his efforts for party demonstrations, enlistments, ideological education of party members, assistance to the unemployed and the training of a Workers’ Defence Corps. In 1931 the Hill Government reduced its help to the South Australian unemployed, replacing beef with cheaper mutton chops on the ration for the unemployed. Gil was active in organising the Beef March, the greatest protest march Adelaide had seen. But police viciously attacked the marchers and the court meted out severe punishments to the march leaders. As a consequence of his involvement Gil was sacked from his job at the Advertiser newspaper, which had taken over The Register. Since he was unable to find work he and his mother tried to live by working a farm at Mitcham, an Adelaide suburb.

However farming was short-lived for Gil, for the state conference of the Communist Party at the end of 1931 sent him to Mildura to help reorganise the party there after most of its members had been assaulted or railroaded out of town.

Gil had planned to marry Edna Sirius Lorence, whose father, a swashbuckling Norwegian sailor, had reared his two children on a coal hulk moored in the river at Port Adelaide to the songs of the International Workers of the World and the struggles of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Edna followed Gil to Mildura where they lived temporarily with two other workers in an earth-floored tin and canvas humpy on the Murray River bank, and then in town.

Taking a job on the Sunraysia Mail Gil successfully revived the party in Mildura, leaving a branch of 48 members, but after his departure from Adelaide the South Australian party fell into the doldrums.

Looking for work, he moved to Melbourne, to Castlemaine, where their only baby died, to Leongatha and back to Carlton, where Gil was active in party organisation and in public anti-fascist and anti-war meetings. In 1934 the party leaders asked Gil to take charge of their Sydney press and he agreed.

In Sydney Gil was an important functionary of the national central committee of the Australian Communist Party. He established the Forward Press, a front which published 60,000 copies of the Workers’ Weekly, the paper to be renamed later Tribune. He was a member of the Glebe branch of the party and then of the Randwick branch.

Randwick branch. He was also elected to the board of management of the Printing Industries Employees’ (PIE) Union and as a delegate to the Sydney Labor Council. Edna worked daily with Gil at the Forward Press as a copy holder. She also became business manager of the magazine, Woman Today, the official organ of the Women’s Committee of the Unemployed Workers’ Union. However, it was a time of poverty and things going wrong for them. Gil’s mother and senile aunt who lived with them were difficult to get on with and Edna was ill and had to undergo major surgery. In addition Gil began to quarrel seriously with the party leaders, Sharkey and Miles. He was attracted to the Communist dissidents and Trotskyists of Nick Origlass’s Workers’ Party.

In 1937 Gil resigned from the Forward Press and for some months tried to organise a campaign of Communist Party members to remove the undemocratic Stalinist leadership. He was subjected to unscrupulous character assassination by the party, and left it. He joined the Trotskyist group, the Communist League of Australia, becoming their foremost Sunday orator at the Domain. His oral disputes with the Communist Party speakers drew thousands of listeners to the Domain in 1939 and 1940 but his anti-war views and world proletarian revolution notions provoked mobs of soldiers and pro-war citizens to attack his meetings. His bitter criticisms of the Menzies Government led to the Trotskyist League being declared illegal. However, Gil defied the ban and continued to publish and distribute anti-war pamphlets until in 1941 his house was searched, he was arrested, bashed by the police, and offered a choice in court of signing a bond to renounce his anti-war views, paying a fine or going to jail. On principle he chose jail and was sentenced to hard labour in Long Bay Penitentiary. When he became seriously ill in jail, Edna managed to collect his fine and have him released. It was this experience which caused him to write so feelingly in his Brookfield manuscript:

For those who have not endured the grisly experience of being political prisoners in New South Wales, it should perhaps be explained that a staple article of diet is porridge, known in prison terminology as hominy.

During the subsequent years of World War II Gil found at the Sydney Labor Council and in his “PIE” Union that nationalistic loyalty was far stronger than class loyalty. As the Japanese advanced south in the Pacific he saw the disintegration of the old socialist beliefs that workers would combine throughout the world to resist capitalistic wars. Regretfully he abandoned his emotional belief in a workers’ anti-war world revolution. Brookfield had died holding this absolute view: he was not faced with the intellectual complexities and controversies aroused when the Bolshevik regime was required to fight a national war of survival against fascism. Unlike Gil, Brookfield drew his strength from the militant, unified working class of isolated inland Broken Hill: he was not faced with the necessity of conducting his political campaign in a changing world where the working class was not unified in its reaction to war or to the Labor movement.

In 1941 Gil saw the Australian Labor Party as reflecting the majority attitudes of the Australian workers and since it was consistent with Trotsky’s political tactics to serve the working class by recognising what the majority wanted, Gil joined the Labor Party. Eventually he persuaded his Trotskyist comrades to do so also.

In 1942 Gil found his first permanent employment since he had left the Forward Press. He was employed as a printer by the New South Wales Railways. Before long his printer workmates elected him father of their chapel, the traditional job organisation of their craft which was independent of their union, and within months, because of his integrity, he was setting up the type for the highly secret schedules of the movements of troop trains. He was passed as fit for military service but because he was in a reserved occupation he was not drafted into the army. When the Japanese Air Force bombed Darwin, Prime Minister Curtin jettisoned the Labor Party’s long opposition to conscription for overseas service. Gil threw himself into the struggle in the Labor Party against conscription, becoming secretary of the anti-conscription movement in Sydney. In 1916 and 1917 Brookfield and the anti-conscriptionists had defeated Prime Minister Hughes’ conscription referendums. To Gil’s disappointment Prime Minister Curtin won the support of the Labor Party.

However, Gil continued in his opposition to other aspects of Curtin’s war policies, fighting a losing battle at the Sydney Labor Council for those planks in the Labor Party platform which would improve working conditions. From 1944 to 1948 he took an active part in the struggle for the 40-hour week for Australian workers, which was led by the Sydney printers. He seconded the original Labor Council motion, led his fellow railway printers on strike, and a mass meeting at the Sydney Town Hall on 1 September, 1945, overwhelmingly passed his strike motion and elected him to the disputes committee. For his part in the 40-hour week campaign he was sacked from the Railways.

When he later wrote his Brookfield manuscript Gil saw himself as having continued the struggle for shorter hours and industrial reforms that Brookfield had fought for, and in similar circumstances, against the vituperative opposition of those war supporters who chose to represent concessions to working people as a threat to the national war effort.

In a number of the organisations of the Labor movement Gil played a prominent part, introducing many proposals which made the working man’s life more pleasant and safe. He pioneered the awareness of the problems of lead poisoning in the printing industry. His goals included a 36-hour week, a three week paid annual holiday for all workers, and a Press Council to give the community control over press bias. His life-long concern to educate workers found expression in his lecturing to the Workers’ Education Association, where he was the target of much Stalinist persecution.

Edna also joined the Australian Labor Party, and rose to prominence in the New South Wales branch to membership of the state executive, and presidency of the Labor Women’s central organising committee, largely through her vigorous campaigning for equal pay and equal rights for women. Gil had an influential part in 1945 in setting up the structures and policies of the Labor Party Industrial Groups, but after these were captured by Catholic Action, Edna, both at the Women’s Conference and on the state executive of the Labor Party, worked actively against the Groupers. For her loyal service to the party during the “Split”, Edna was nominated for a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council. In 1958 at the opening of the New South Wales Parliament she was given the honour of moving the Address-in-Reply to the Governor’s speech, the first women ever to do so in 134 years of the New South Wales Parliament.

In 1959 it was suggested to Gil by a Labor Party colleague that he should stand as a candidate for the Sydney City Council. He hesitated because he had always seen himself as a trades unionist who believed in direct action and only sought positions to which his fellow unionists elected him. As Brookfield suspected that he might be betraying his class by becoming a mmber of prliament, so Gil also feared that he might be risking his integrity by becoming an aderman. However he yielded to persuasion, was elected to the Sydney City Council from 1959 to 1967, and looked back on this as his golden period of achievement for the Labor movement.

He introduced his fellow adermen to many entirely new concepts in city planning. He established a reputation for being thoroughly prepared on any issue and tenaciously persuading those of differing belief to his own considered view point, and was particularly sensitive to the problems of residents in his ward. Because of his visions for the redevelopment of the inner-ity slum areas he became deputy chairman of the City Council Planning Committee. His proposal to rejuvenate areas of Wooloomooloo was carried out after the state Labor Government passed the necessary legislation. He also made the proposal for developing the run-down area of The Rocks, nowadays visited by more than two million tourists annually.

He attempted to have the council apply stricter controls over “boarding houses” and took personal risks to inform the council of the situation and push it into action over the vice rings racket in Kings Cross. He was one of the first aldermen to be aware of the environmental problems of air and noise pollution and urged that more native trees be planted in the city parks to provide food for the native birds.

He believed that Sydney should have central points of beauty and interest, being one of the originators of the scheme for the development of Martin Place and Circular Quay and the zoning of building in harbour areas in the form of a theatre dress-circle to keep high-rise development from blocking the views and breezes of the harbour from the less fortunate residents behind them. He gained most press coverage not from the council’s co-operative housing schemes but over the replacement of the GPO clock and tower. Partly through Edna’s influence the New South Wales Labor Government took the decision to build the Opera House. He also won equal pay for the women employees of the council — the rest room attendants and library staff. When the Liberal Party won the 1965 state election the new government dismissed the Sydney City Council and replaced it in 1967 with three appointed commissioners. Gil’s subsequent efforts to stand for the city council and the Randwick City Council proved unsuccessful.

In 1969 Edna was elected for a second term as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, and her career climaxed in 1979 when she received from the Governor of New South Wales the Order of the British Empire.

After assisting in the 1972 federal election campaign which brought the Whilom Labor Government to office, and still employed daily as a printer despite his 69 years, Gil died on 5 December, 1974, after a life of striving on behalf of the Australian working people.

As for Percy Brookfield, who Gil Roper so greatly admired, there is no doubt that his life, death and beliefs had considerable importance in the second decade of this century. Brookfield was simultaneously one of the most hated and the most loved of men. Most of those who knew him personally are now dead. The day 15,000 workers of Broken Hill followed his coffin to the strains of The Red Flag has disappeared into history. But the passage of time does not destroy the remarkable nature of these events, nor the values which were affirmed by them.

Because of the brevity of his political career it is hard to assess in political terms Brookfield’s influence on the mainstream of Australian political development. Certainly he contributed to the struggle for shorter hours and to the stream of anti-militarist, anti-conscriptionist thinking that has punctuated Australian history since the upheavals of the “Great” War. He contributed his ideas and actions to that stream of socialist doctrine which believes in factories for the workers and soil for the tillers rather than a bureaucratised state ownership which merely replaces capitalist bosses with button-down officials.

Brookfield’s belief in the direct action of the working people is still valuable in the 1980s. Since World War II capitalism has grown bigger and more powerful, and changing economic patterns have eroded much of the class loyalty which was so strong among the miners of Broken Hill in 1921, but Brookfield’s belief in the right of people to control their work places and their government is a timely lesson to us that society can be organised on a different pattern from the prevailing power centralisation of today. Democracy can be more than a three-yearly marking of a ballot paper for candidates selected by a party machine. Those who make the goods society needs are entitled to more than the little they can wrest from the huge international juggernauts which take no social responsibility for the employment or non-employment of working men and women in any particular society.

But most of all Brookfield supplied a legend in leadership. He exuded a special personal attraction — a warmth a kindness, a compassion, a directness, a courage, a personal commitment to others far removed from the bland, remote media image most politicians project today. There was a passion in the man, a capacity for involvement in causes that served people that made his four short political years more a crusade than a political career. He was physically tough. He was brave enough to confront crowds, to fight attackers and to confront an armed man who had run amok. He was morally tough: brave enough to confront bosses, political parties and established conservative prejudice. Time was kind to him: the years neither corrupted him nor threw him on the scrap heap, and so the legend remains in all its purity of a man who never twisted.

No Australian politician has ever received such a spontaneous tribute at his funeral. The crowd of mourners might only be compared with the huge emotional farewells the Irish have given their martyrs.

The value of his legend today is that the quality of the man as well as his beliefs set high standards for the Australian radical movement. Brookfield’s life challenges progressive people, as it challenged Gil Roper, to have courage and integrity, to live up to Brookfield’s self-sacrifice for the embattled and underprivileged people of this earth.

From Labor’s Titan. The story of Percy Brookfield, 1878-1921, by Gil Roper, Warnambool Institute Press, 1982

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