Trotskyism in Australia

by

Notes from a talk with Ted Tripp (1976)

Peter Beilharz

At the 1991 Labour History Conference in Melbourne, Barbara Curthoys was talking on the Comintern and the Communist Party of Australia. At one stage Barbara mentioned the name of Ted Tripp, saying that he had attended the Lenin School in Moscow in the 1930s. Dick Curlewis then asked from the floor, was this the same Tripp who had been active in the Victorian Labor College. It was indeed, as others present indicated.

E.C. Tripp was a lifelong communist and Trotskyist who died recently, in his eighties. The moment of interchange at the conference reminded me that I had interviewed him in 1976, when I was a new postgraduate at Monash University, planning to write a history of Australian Trotskyism. That project never came off, partly because Australian Trotskyism was historically thin and all over the shop; I felt completely unable to control its endless splits and chicaneries, both global and local, and subsequently became more interested in the question of how Trotskyism worked as a political discourse, how it was that such gifted historians as Isaac Deutscher and Perry Anderson could use a political vocabulary which was both deeply flawed and practically misleading. [1]

While I do not personally practise any longer as a historian, I still have some of the historian’s habits — among other things, never throwing anything out. Printed below is the annotated record of my talk with Tripp. I interviewed Ted Tripp at his Maidstone home on 23 April 1976. He was evidently suspicious of taperecorders, so I instead took notes and spoke with him again on two subsequent occasions seeking further clarification. It is admittedly, only the record of a conversation, but it may be of interest to some. The history of Trotskyism in Australia, lamentably, remains to be written.[2]

Ted Tripp was born in London on 25 September 1900, into what he described as a petty bourgeois family. His father, who was involved in the Liberal movement, died when Tripp was seven. Consequently the family was forced close to the breadline, and Tripp’s mother put him into a boarding school, “a petty bourgeois gentleman’s” school. Tripp took admission exams for Cambridge Junior, but at this stage his mother intervened, removing him from the boarding school in order to place him in an engineering apprenticeship. Were it not for this intervention, says Tripp, he would doubtless not have become a Socialist; plainly, he identified socialism with the proletariat, and scoffed at all things middle class.

In the Locomotive Shop of the Metropolitan Railways, Tripp came to be radicalised around the age of 16. Then came the extraordinary influence of the Russian Revolution. Tripp walked to the other end of London every week to buy the left press. Around this time his socialism remained “instinctive”. At this stage Tripp became acquainted with pamphlet literature; he wanted to read Marx’s Capital, but could not afford to buy it.

In 1922 Tripp came to Australia. Here, in Townsville, he took on locomotive work and made his first political affiliation, to the Queensland branch of the Communist Party. In the next few years he was to see the Townsville branch outgrow the Brisbane branch. He attended the 1927 Conference. Tripp was a CP candidate for Mundingburra in Queensland in 1929 or 1930. He did well in the election, scoring around 1500 of the 4000 votes of Jack Dash (ALP). Around the same time (or a little after) Tripp was offered a position as student at the “Lenin University” in Moscow. This opportunity almost fell through when the CPA spent the money allocated for Tripp’s expenses. The Communist accountant of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council fiddled the TLC’s books to raise the necessary amount — 65 pounds.

1930-31 — a period of some 18 months — were spent in Moscow, under his party pseudonym of Clayton. Tripp worked hard, apparently keeping to himself. This, coupled with his position as the sole Australian attending at this time, was most beneficial. There was no one to betray him. Other students attending were betrayed by their fellows. Tripp remembers that some Polish students sympathetic to Bukharin at the “university” at the time were shot. Tripp even addressed the Comintern, the speech being largely a rhetorical exercise manufactured by a Soviet friend in the Red Labour Union (who later “disappeared”). The speech went down well. On his return, Tripp did a lecture tour on the Soviet Union. He knew what was happening in the CPSU while he was in Moscow; Trotsky was already persona non grata and likewise Bukharin, who he remembered, was popular in the non-Soviet left. He also witnessed an example of kulak liquidation. Tripp’s time in the Soviet Union was thus the moment of the formation of his Trotskyism, but this only emerged explicitly in response to social fascism, that policy insisting that communists should work not only against fascists but also against social democrats.

Tripp returned to Australia in late 1931. Now he was sent to Mildura by the CPA to alleviate the meagre fortunes of the party there. A man called McGillick was the cause of the trouble — a rabble-rouser, he had alienated the citizenry and enraged the local bourgeoisie. Tripp believed that the New Guard were present in Mildura. Two main incidents indicated this. One occurred in a local hall, which was surrounded by antagonistic locals, although Tripp, McGillick, a local woman and her child were the only people attending the “meeting”. Tripp’s strategy was as follows: McGillick rushed the door with a table, Tripp, following closely, leapt on to the table (outside) and began to speak. Fascists de-legged the table. Tripp, however, in the process was able to persuade the police into protecting the leftists present. The second incident occurred on the banks of the Murray River. Here an inflamed populace immersed and almost drowned several communists. The Labour Defence Army had been called in, but seemed to melt away. Tripp was anticipating tarring and feathering. The incident blew over, though local harassed McGillick and Tripp in their boarding house, before Tripp left Mildura in the early hours of the morning (days later).

Back in Sydney, Tripp was expelled from the CP in 1934, essentially for disagreeing with social fascism.[3] There was a streak of irony here: when in the Soviet Union Tripp asked for an organiser to be sent out to Australia. It was that organiser — Herbert Moore, a “slippery type”, who specified the new policy of Social Fascism, recommending opposition to Labor as the left flank of reaction, to the CPA — thus ensuring Tripp’s expulsion. More, Tripp claimed to be disillusioned with the CPA’s parasitic monetary attitude to the CPSU, struggling through the NEP period, hamstrung by famine, the relics of feudalism and insufficient industrial productive capacity, hardly able to support western communist opportunists, nor was he particularly pleased with the CPSU itself — hence his latent Trotskyism. His opposition to social fascism was intuitive, lacking a theoretical dimension. O’Loughran, a co-thinker, was expelled with Tripp but did not become involved in the Trotskyist movement.

Tripp came to move into more substantial Trotskyist material after his expulsion. He read Where is Britain Going and Terrorism and Communism, and joined the Balmain Trotskyists. This was an extraordinarily difficult period for Tripp. The extent of communist and industrial ostracisation of Trotskyists was immense. Working now in the Government Ammunitions Factory, the CPA attempted to get Tripp fired. He was accused of embezzling CPA funds, and the like. The CPA made life close to unbearable, but Tripp was able to stick it out. His total opposition to the war incurred even greater ostracisation, given CPA support for the Soviet Union.

Tripp was in the Independent Communist League in Sydney between 1934 and 1938. This was not the same party as the Workers Party. The Workers Party was formed by Jack Sylvester and Laurie Short — after 1934, Short and Nick Origlass were the dominant figures. The Workers Party eventually became Pabloist. The ICL followed the ideas of Max Shachtman. Tripp remembers contact with J.P. Cannon, leader of the American Socialist Workers Party. He also thought it likely that seamen had been the initial source of Trotskyist material in Australian cities and ports around 1928. The Independent Communist League had no working-class base. Some Sydney University students were involved. Its activities were almost purely propagandist. The Balmain Trotskyists, however, ran the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. The ICL’s basis, like that of international Trotskyism, was the critique of Stalinism. Thus its involvement in opposition to the Spanish Civil War, for example, was based on a critique of Stalin’s tactics. Tripp’s work with the ICL primarily involved writing and lecturing. He edited Permanent Revolution in 1938, but couldn’t remember anything about it particularly, 40 years on.[4]

Tripp “slipped out” of the ICL when he came to Melbourne in 1938, for personal reasons, to get married. He observed that he probably would have stayed in Sydney otherwise. There was no Trotskyist party in Melbourne then — just isolated individuals. He became a tutor at the Victorian Labor College, and has had no affiliations since. In his own mind, he never actually broke with Trotskyism.[5]

Did Tripp think there was a theoretical dimension to Trotskyism in the thirties? Yes and no. It was limited, circumstantially, but there was certainly a dimension of principle. Personalities and vendettas, however, were most important. No one ever left the CP: they were expelled. This bred great and potentially violent animosities on both sides. Tripp picked up valuable strike strategy material from the USSR in 1931. He felt this to be most relevant. He still adheres to the principles of Leninism, a strong sense of the need for discipline, organisation, striking to win, and remains implacably opposed to the ALP. He adheres to a traditional Trotskyist position, exemplified in Trotsky’s Transitional Program: he sees the present situation as potentially revolutionary: all that is lacking is the revolutionary party. At the same time he is today (1976) strongly critical of groups like Spartacists who tend to sloganise. The Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists, likewise, he views as ineffectual.[6] Tripp thinks that a (new) revolutionary party could be established in the Labor College, amidst the very bastions of trade union economism. The only obstacle is that while there has been an influx of students there is a shortage of good working-class propaganda material. We should still be studying Trotsky, according to Tripp, especially the Lessons of October and The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. Tripp places great stress on the fundamentality and moral purity of the working class. The petty bourgeoisie are not to be trusted (a legacy of fascism?). He has a strong distaste for petty bourgeois intellectuals, and for university education. The working class doesn’t need an opportunity to study at bourgeois institutions so long as they have institutions such as the Labor College.

Finally, I asked Tripp his recollections of other actors. Sylvester, he said, formed Sydney Workers Party with Short. Short was a devoted and courageous Marxist — to the extent of selling Trotskyist material outside CPA offices. The rot set in with his coming to a position of power. Of Jim McClelland and John Kerr he knew nothing. Tripp heard that, prior to his expulsion, Lovegrove had pretensions to be forming a faction inside the CPA (with Tripp). This never eventuated. Guido Baracchi may have had Trotskyist sympathies, but was not active, to Tripp’s knowledge. A millionaire, Tripp had heard, he was a Marxist perhaps, but never a revolutionary. John Anderson, similarly too intellectual, had come from the CPA to the Trotskyists; he was a member, in both cases, a Marxist but not a dialectician.[7] Tripp closed the interview by exhorting me not to get caught up in explaining history, rather to join in changing it.

1. See Trotsky’s Marxism: Permanent Involution? Telos 39, 1979; The Other Trotsky, Thesis Eleven 3, 1982; Trotsky as Historian, History Workshop Journal 20, 1986; Isaac Deutscher, History and Necessity, History of Political Thought 7, 1986; Trotsky, Trotskyism and the Transition to Socialism, London, Croom Helm 1987; The Young Trotsky: Waiting for History, Political Theory Newsletter 3, 1991; in a different register see T. Ali, Redemption, London Picador, 1991.

2. Alistair Davidson charted some fragments in his Notes on Trotskyism in The Communist Party of Australia, Stanford, Hoover, 1969. Robin Gollan notes Tripp’s activity in Sydney in Revolutionaries and Reformists, Communists and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1955, Canberra, ANU Press, 1975. Frank Farrell refers several time to Tripp mainly in the context of activity in Friends of the Soviet Union and as a writer — alongside John Anderson — for the Workers Party paper, Militant. See International Socialism and Australian Labour: The Left in Australia, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1981, 202, 209-210. Ralph Gibson comments on Tripp’s path in The People Stand Up, Ascot Vale, Red Rooster, 1983, observing that Tripp’s stance in Mundingburra was “labour anti-Labor”, pro-Kavanagh within the CPA (36) Later he reflects that Tripp in mid-1931 was national secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union while Gibson acted as Victorian secretary (72). A useful reference on the postwar period is Denis Freney’s autobiography, A Map of Days: Life on the Left, Sydney, Heinemann, 1991, also see his Trotskyist Trends, Australian Left Review 1972, 12-17. See also Daphne Gollan, The Balmain Ironworkers’ Strike of 1945, Labour History 22, 1972 23-41, and 23 1972, 62-73. Other national Trotskyisms have been more thoroughly surveyed and analysed; material on the French, Italian, English, American, Spanish and Sri Lankan experiences are detailed in Beilharz, Trotsky, Trotskyism and the Transition to Socialism, 192-194, and now see R.J. Alexander, International Trotskyism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991. [Since Pete Beilharz wrote these notes, Hall Greenland’s book, Red Hot, The Life and Times of Nick Origlass has appeared, Sydney, Wellington Lane Press, 1998. George Petersen’s self-published memoir, George Petersen Remembers, Sydney, Breakout Press, 1998, also has some material on Australian Trotskyism. — Ozleft]

3. Workers Weekly, 13 July, 1934.

4. Tripp’s recollection here seems to blur and telescope the chronology, especially across the period from the 1930s to the 1950s. Shachtmanism had its intellectual origins in the 1930s, but the slogans of bureaucratic revolution, or state capitalism only became independent political positions after World War II and subsequent to the publication of works like Bruno Rizzi’s Bureaucratisation of the World (1938) and James Burnham’s Managerial Revolution (1945). For Shachtman, see The Bureaucratic Revolution, New York, Donald, 1962. Similarly, Pabloism is a postwar phenomenon, which has its genesis of Trotsky’s defence of entry into the French Socialist Party in 1936, but this was a tactical response which ran against the broad thrust of the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution and the Tasks of the Fourth International, which in 1938 made emphatic Trotsky’s sense that independent Trotskyist leadership was the vital absence in socialist politics. Pabloism into the 1950s was associated with the idea of entrism or liquidationism into large parties or revolutionary movements, whichever was the larger or more influential. The clearest intellectual expression of this idea can be found in the work of Isaac Deutscher, where the logic of history indicates that historic agents are chosen to lead the revolutionary cause regardless of their Trotskyist credentials. See also M. Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, London, 1982.

5. In 1978 Tripp joined the Socialist Workers Party, see Direct Action, 26 October 1978, 8-9. Direct Action subsequently published Tripp’s article, Moscow in the 1930s: How the Comintern was Stalinised in its 30 November 1978 issue, 10, 11.

6. Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists published a significant pamphlet in 1975 entitled, Towards a Revolutionary Regroupment of the Australian Left. Its content is indicated in Beilharz, Australia, Yearbook on International Communist Affairs, 1976, Stanford, Hoover, 231-8. The Spartacists responded to Tripp’s return to mainstream Trotskyism in 1978 with their broadside, Tripp’s Meanderings Revisited. How the SWP Distorts Trotskyist History. Australasian Spartacist, December 1978, 2, 11. This article quotes Militant, 10 January 1938, which indicates that Tripp quit the Workers Party after an April 1938 conference but did not formally resign until 27 May. In May 1938 Tripp’s group, now known as the ICL, with a paper called Permanent Revolution, fused with the Workers Party to form the Communist League of Australia, minus Tripp. The CL split again in 1939 over the question of adopting Trotsky’s Transitional Program. The splitters formed the Revolutionary Workers League, which rejoined the CLA, splitting again in 1940 when the old RWL became followers of Shachtman.

7. See more generally A.J. Baker, Anderson’s Social Philosophy, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1979.

From Labour History, No. 62, May 1992.

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