Susanna Short’s Laurie Short: A Political Life


A summary history

Shane Hopkinson


The following are summary notes to a longer piece I was planning to write some time ago about the early days of the Trotskyist movement in Australia, based on Susanna Short’s book on her father, Laurie, and Hall Greenland’s book on Nick Origlass, to tell the story of the early days of the movement in Australia.

As time has got the better of me I decided to simply post my summary of the relevant part of Susanna Short’s book, which is all I have been able to complete. I have tried to aviod editorialising over her comments but I will say a few words here that might clarify the story.

Laurie Short, who pioneered Trotskyism in Australia, would go on to head the one of the most right-wing unions in Australia. He won control of the union by imposing a court-controlled ballot on the union leadership, which was controlled by Communist Party members at the time. This was a turning point for Communist influence in the union movement. Hence Susanna Short’s early references below to “rigged elections” and the “tyranny” imposed by the CPA on union members, reflect the legal terms on which a union member could challenge the leadership’s right to control the ballot, not merely bias on her part.

I think it is important too, for post-1960s activists to see how these early pioneers put Trotskyist principles into practice. While there was some student milieu that was supportive (and indeed many intellectuals were drawn to Trotskyism in the 1930s) their working assumption was that the centre of their work was the union movement, in which they were key activists and leaders. This necessarily meant that they worked closely with Labor Party members, and tried to affect ALP policy, since that is where most workers placed their loyalty. The Trotskyist focus on “party-building” came later. The old Trotskyists’ theme, in the face of Stalinism, was democracy – a theme that Nick Origlass would maintain through his life (at least in relation to political practice outside his own socialist circle).

Despite being a partly completed project I hope the following encourages people to read the full story in Susanna Short’s book, Laurie Short: A Political Life and, more especially, the excellent account in Hall Greensland’s book Red Hot: The Life and Times of Nick Origlass.

Laurie Short was born in Rockhampton in Central Queensland, in 1915, the son of famine-emigrant Irish and Scottish parents. The family was caught in the events of the Great War, which, while many were staunch supporters of God, King and Empire, also opened up some of the greatest divisions in Australian society.Many in the Irish community supported the Republican cause in Ireland and many union militants also opposed the war. Labour Prime Minister Billy Hughes tried to introduce conscription and failed, but not before the Australian Labor Party split, taking the extraordinary step of expelling the PM, who then joined the Conservatives.Short was exposed to the patriotic fervour around the war but also to the antiwar views of his uncle, who returned from the war disillusioned. In the 1920s the Shorts moved to inner suburbs of Sydney, running a number of small businesses.In the Depression Laurie Short’s father, Alexander, was forced to “go bush” to work as a shearer or a shearer’s cook. Here he belonged to the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and served as a delegate. Apart from supporting the family, he was thus exposed to ideas of militant unionism.While concepts of collective action had been prevalent in the shearing sheds since the Great Strikes in the 1890s, it was the Great Depression that produced a new wave of strikes and retaliatory actions by capitalists backed by the state. This industrial warfare provided fertile ground for socialist ideas.Since World War I Alexander had been a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a syndicalist movement founded in Chicago. The IWW had two factions, both present in Australia after 1911. Alexander supported the more militant wing, which sought to mobilise workers against capitalists and to create a society based on collective ownership.While the IWW adopted the classical Marxist idea of class war, its strategic emphasis was on unions. The aim was not to build a revolutionary party but revolutionary unions, with the aim of eventually uniting these into One Big Union (OBU) that could take over the means of production in a general strike.The “Wobblies”, as they were called, advocated militant direct action – sabotage, go-slows and strikes – aimed at “abolishing the wage system”. They developed a larrikin style – their movement producing such songs as Bump Me Into Parliament, reflecting their belief that involvement in “politics” was a dead-end, pointing to the experience of numerous good Labor men and women who changed allegiances the minute they got a seat in parliament.This militant approach of course brought them into conflict with the bulk of working class institutions, which were at the time becoming absorbed into the state – the Conciliation and Arbitration system and parliamentary politics.In 1904, the new Commonwealth parliament passed a Conciliation and Arbitration Act providing for compulsory Conciliation and Arbitration for interstate disputes. The Act made provision for registration of unions and bosses’ organisations. This became part of the broader “Australian settlement”, which included award protections, tariff barriers and, more notoriously the exclusion of coloured immigrants. In 1907, the Conciliation & Arbitration court ruled on the “basic wage” declaring it should be based on need of a worker to live in “frugal comfort” with his wife [sic] and three children. This (sexist) definition plus margins for skill became the basis of the award system.The gradualist approach to socialism was reflected in the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which formed the political wing, and the unions the industrial wing, of the labour movement. Unions paid affiliation fees that entitled them to representation at the annual ALP policy-making conference. The bigger the union, the greater its representation (and the higher the fees). That gave the AWU – the biggest union in Australia – a big influence in ALP affairs.The IWW saw the AWU leadership as “bureaucrats”. Inevitably, the showdown between militants came to a head over control of the reformist ALP. Around World War I as the influence of the adherents of OBU grew in the working class, the AWU leadership took the lead in opposing the scheme, eventually defeating its adoption by the New South Wales (NSW) Labor Party conference of 1919.Following this defeat IWW militants and others left the ALP and looked to the formation of new revolutionary Labor parties. This would eventually lead to the foundation of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1920.Short accompanied his dad to hear IWW speakers in the Domain – a area of open parkland in Sydney that attracted a range of speakers – and read the American IWW newspaper. The strike wave on the eve of the Depression in 1928-30 involved strikes in a range of industries following the Arbitration Court decision to reduce wages and conditions. Unionists went out, often against the wishes of the leadership, who feared reprisals in the form of new laws passed by the Conservative Bruce-Page government.

These laws included heavy fines, imposition of “secret” ballots and allowed the state to change union rules that were ruled to be “oppressive”. The 1920s strikes were marked by physical conflicts with the police, culminating in their firing on a peaceful protest, killing one young miner, Norman Brown, at Rothbury on the Northern NSW coalfields in 1929.

On the day after the shooting , the 14-year-old Short accompanied his father to a 20,000-strong protest rally in Hyde Park in central Sydney. The meeting took place at night and was lit by miners’ lamps. The crowd was addressed by well known militants such as Jock Garden, who denounced the action as “wanton murder”, and led a chorus of The Red Flag, and Jack Kavanagh, a Labor Council organiser and central committee member of the infant Communist Party, which had been active in the strike action.

Short left school at 15, went to work in a radio factory and discovered communism. During the 1920s the CPA had consisted of loosely organised groups focused on propaganda work. Following the 1919 NSW ALP conference, many militants had rejoined the ALP, their outlook not markedly different from that of other socialists.

Most militants connected with the Bolsheviks action in withdrawing from the War, few were aware of the tightly disciplined approach characteristic of the Bolshevik system. This was true even after the CPA joined the Communist International, which formed in 1919. Many resisted attempts to form a Russian-style party. But at the December 1929 conference, a group of younger members trained in Moscow deposed the old leadership accusing them of “right deviationism” and imposed the Stalinist model, so that by the mid-1930s the CPA was rigidly hierarchical, centralised and promoted “discipline” as key elements of Bolshevik methods.

It was in the inner-Sydney industrial, working-class suburb of Camperdown that Short attended his first meetings and learned about basic Marxist ideas such as “imperialism” and the “decay of capitalism” and “crisis”, all of which struck a chord with the largely unemployed audience. His father opposed this, having mellowed a little with age, and was distrustful of the Communists who he saw as personally offensive – attacking those who disagreed with them – authoritarian and mindlessly using the language and slogans of the Russians.

No doubt this had something to do with the CPA’s Third Period line, as a result of which non-CPA working-class leaders were denounced as “social fascists”. This line was imposed by the Stalinised Comintern at its Sixth Congress in 1928. The new period, it was argued, was to be one of “wars and revolutions” and so any other working class leaders, even if sympathetic to socialism were “objectively” class traitors since in a revolutionary situation they would inevitably sell out.

Needless to say this did not win them many friends and in 1930 they were banned from ALP membership. For revolutionaries at the time this was seen as potentially fatal to the development of a serious revolutionary current in the labour movement.

In 1931 Jack Lang was elected premier of NSW for the second time, and became a focus for popular discontent in the years of the Depression. He was a Labor Party machine politician, known to deal with certain “colourful Sydney identities”, a populist given to radical rhetoric against the rich, employers and imperialists, who became a source of hope for many. In 1931 he refused to implement an Arbitration Court decision reducing awards wages by 10 per cent – the first time the court sacrificed the “needs” of workers to the “capacity to pay” of the employers and the “economy”. He proposed the Lang Plan to counter the Depression – postpone interest repayments on British loans and limit interest rates – in opposition to the federal ALP’s deflationary policies under Scullin. This made Lang a champion of most workers and many small businesspeople because he refused to “sell out” to big business and foreign bankers. This led to his sacking at the hands by the NSW governor, Sir Phillip Game.

Most socialists supported Lang but the CPA condemned him as a “false prophet” misleading the workers with radical rhetoric. He was thus a “social fascist” of the worst kind, pandering to the nationalism of the masses (as opposed to Communist internationalism). The Right for their part saw Lang as part of a Communist conspiracy and in June 1931 formed the New Guard, a quasi-Fascist organisation to defend the citizens of NSW from being “Sovietised” by Langites.

Short adopted the CPA view, leading to clashes with his father, and in 1932 (aged 16) at the depths of the Depression he left home and began working with the Young Communist League (the CPA youth organisation), throwing himself into party activity. He took part in all aspects of party work, educationals, demonstrations, paste-ups, mail-outs. Fronts, or “fraternals” as the CPA called them, were ostensibly independent bodies that served as a “bridge to the masses”. Kavanagh establish a few fronts after being ordered to do so by the Comintern in 1926, and with Stalinisation these served as the chief means of drawing in workers to the CPA. Attending various front meetings was nearly a full-time job – he attended two such meetings a day, often more, and as part of the CPA fraction sought to recruit from them.

The CPA’s most successful front was the Militant Minority Movement (MMM) designed to draw in militant trade unionists. Drawing on the old IWW traditions of direct action (not arbitration), they used Lenin’s Left Wing Communism as a guide. It advocated carrying out trade union work by any means necessary – in Lenin’s words “to get into the trade unions, to remain in them, at any cost, to carry out communist work in them”. Militant workers, disappointed with the timidity of their leaders in the 1928-30 strike wave, were drawn to the MMM, whose leaders showed the dedication and self-sacrifice lacking in their officials. By 1932 the MMM was established in 33 unions in NSW and Queensland, with members holding key posts in Australian Railways Union, the Waterside Workers Federation and the Miner’s Federation, with about 12 per cent of Australian unionists under their leadership.

The second most important front was Unemployed Worker’s Movement (UWM), which aimed to recruit the thousands made jobless by the Depression. This movement became notorious for its “people’s defence corps”, which tried to prevent evictions. Short joined the UWM in early 1933 when it was led by the charismatic Jack Sylvester, who had a background as a ship painter and docker and was on the CPA central committee. He organised a hostel for the unemployed and produced a weekly newspaper, The Tocsin. He was often under police surveillance. Despite his popularity he was expelled from the CPA in late 1932 as an “enemy of the working class”.

In the first half of the 1930s Sylvester inspired a tiny group (including Short) – outside the mainstream parties and the CPA – which was organised, articulate and committed to the true ideals of the Russian Revolution. The group contributed to a well-informed local critique of Stalinism. When Short met Sylvester in late 1932, he was, at 16, already impatient with the emphasis of Young Communist League (YCL) leaders on “discipline” and critical of following a particular “line” because it was party policy.

Before linking up with Sylvester and joining the UWM Short had already been expelled for “disruption”. Ironically this occurred because he had come to the defence of another promising young Communist who was their District Four organiser, Ernie Thornton, who had been accused of adopting an “individualist approach”. Thornton had had an argument with the district secretary and refused to sign a statement of self-criticism. After he relented, he was readmitted in what was clearly a victory for the new pro-Stalin leadership, and its policy of “Bolshevisation”.

Short had written to a comrade asking for more information about the Thornton dismissal. The return letter, expressing the view that it was wrong, was handed over to the central committee by a YCL comrade who knew Short was under suspicion. Short was called to a disciplinary tribunal, asked to explain, and then expelled.

Short worked hard in UWM, helping to produce 700-800 copies of The Tocsin from advertiser’s subscriptions with another ex-YCL member Issy Wyner. They all joined in the anti-eviction actions in and around the local area. They organised a rally that won free use of public baths for the unemployed, and they experimented with communal households.

Short continued to read Communist theory, going each day to the NSW Public Library, and made connections with others who had been expelled from the CPA. These included Jack and Edna Ryan. Jack was a former research officer with the NSW Trades and Labour Council (TLC), who received dozens of periodical and newspapers, and Edna was a pioneer in the campaign for equal pay for women.

One day on a visit to the Ryans, Jack showed Short two newspapers. One was Workers’ Age published by the CPUSA (Opposition) under Jay Lovestone, a founder and first general secretary of the CPUSA, and a major force until accused by Stalin of “exceptionalism” at a meeting in the Kremlin in 1929, after which he was expelled. Ryan supported the Lovestonites, who had been allied with Nikolai Bukharin until Bukharin was forced from office in 1929 and later executed.

The other newspaper was The Militant, organ of the Communist League of America (Left Opposition), which was being produced by two ex-CPUSA members, James Cannon and Max Shachtman. Both groups attacked the Stalinist leadership as a cynical betrayal of the ideals of 1917. Short was immediately drawn to the Left Opposition, regarding Trotsky as a “scintillating personality” and a “dazzling pamphleteer”. His call for permanent revolution and his critique of Stalinism captured Short’s imagination and he immediately showed the paper to Sylvester and to a former CP supporter associated with the Balmain group, John Anderson.

Anderson was a philosophy professor at Sydney University, a controversial figure at the centre of free-speech struggles, and a focus for 1930s intellectuals. He was close to the CPA in the 1920s, during the Third Period, theoretical advisor to the Stalinist leadership, where he had met Sylvester who introduced him to Short. Anderson had supported the Stalinists in 1930-31 due to his optimism about the USSR but now was a determined critic. Short visited Anderson at university and discussed Communist theory and read widely, including Max Eastman and Sidney Hook.

Both Anderson and Sylvester were impressed with the The Militant and Short wrote to the Communist League, requesting back copies. Three months later, they received bundles of the paper back to the end of 1928. These papers formed the basis for a local Trotskyist group.

Short said:

We were very interested to read these newspapers, to say the least, as they confirmed all our doubts, not only about the Communist Party of Australia, but the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement. After a close study of them, we decided what we really were Trotskyists.

On this basis, the Balmain group resolved to form a Left Opposition party in Australia. Their aim was to give workers a “fighting lead” in their struggle against their capitalist oppressors and to expose the bankruptcy of the official Communists or “Stalinists”.

In May 1933, a group of about 20 mostly unemployed men met in a disused billiard hall in Balmain to form the Workers’ Party of Australia (Left Opposition). All had a sense of making history, of following in the footsteps of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, setting out to build, as Short would say later, “a political party to end all political parties”.

What they lacked in resources they made up for in energy, campaigning on street corners in Balmain and elsewhere calling for the need to build an effective left-wing opposition to the “official” Communists.

They denounced the Communist Party on two main grounds: that the Soviet Union was a “degenerated worker’s state” and the policy of national socialism (“socialism in one country”) that it pursued had led to a new kind of bureaucrat – obedient to cental authority. Secondly, that affiliation to the Comintern made the USSR and its problems the focus of Communist Party activities and this was detrimental to the worker’s movement in their own countries.

They also focused on events in Germany and the failure of the German Communist Party when Hitler seized power in January 1933. They attacked the Comintern-imposed policy of “social fascism”, which has “thoroughly confused and disgusted the main body of workers”. They called for an “organisational united front” between worker’s groups. This, they said, would allow workers to see through their vacillating leaders, and choose “the most intelligent and militant line of action”.

After the founding meeting they issued a 38-page manifesto, The Need for a Revolutionary Leadership, and in October 1933 started a monthly roneoed newspaper, The Militant. The first issue gave the reasons why they needed their own political party.

An article written by Anderson, Our reply to the CP of A, declared that the decision to oppose the CPA was not taken lightly: “It required a great deal of evidence to make us regard the mistakes of the CP as anything but temporary weaknesses, which would be corrected in the course of the struggle”. The German debacle, though, had shown up the whole Comintern policy.

The Workers Party saw its role as oppositional:

the method of dealing with the German situation shows what scant hope there is that the present ruinous policies will be reversed. In the meantime, our task is an independent one – by constant criticism, by alternative leadership, to build up new forces in the fight for world Socialism.

They went on in reference to the Stalinists:

Our main concern will be to expose their political line, an exposure which … will carry with it the exposure of the divergence of the Soviet leadership from the line of revolution and one which, above all, will be worked out and tested in action. Bureaucracy, whether in the Soviet Union in the Communist International or in its sections, is a reflection of capitalist conditions. The success of a revolutionary movement depends on its development of initiative.

Anderson’s donations helped purchase a new roneo machine. The Workers Party raised money from sales of The Militant, which came out in runs of 2000 and sold for a penny each, often outside meetings including those of the CPA and the Labour Council.

A few were mailed but postage was generally too costly, and on average about 500 were sold, the rest given away. They also published articles and pamphlets by Sidney Hook and Trotsky, taken from US editions. They began a correspondence with their US comrades and started to develop links with British and European Trotskyists, with whom they exchanged material.

While they hoped to attract a large number of ex-CPAers, apart from two in 1934 – Ted Tripp and Nick Origlass – the group remained the same size while the CPA grew. The CPA claimed 3000 members in 1937, which was three times the number in the Depression. After the collapse of the German CP in January 1933, the Comintern changed tack and directed affiliates now to form “popular fronts” with the erstwhile “social fascists”.

Initially this was not well-received by Labor supporters after five years of denunciation, but it brought the Communists success in a number of unions, where they were now free to work with militants of other tendencies. Strikes and tactical use of the Arbitration system won the CPA militants respect as union leaders.

In 1934, miners elected two MMM members as secretary and president and over the next few years they won leadership of the ARU, WWF and Federated Ironworkers’ Association. By 1940 Communist-led militants would be within a few votes of controlling Trade Halls in various capital cities, as well as the peak Federal body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Through these positions the aim was to influence ALP policy.

The growth in numbers would continue through the 1930s and early 1940s. By 1945 the CPA would be stronger in proportion to the population than its counterpart in almost any other English-speaking country.

Later, Short reflected, on the Trotskyists’ lack of success:

In retrospect, we were a very doctrinaire and overconfident bunch and that put people off. At the same time, we were anti-Soviet at a period when many intellectuals, artists and others regarded Communists as riding the tide of history and the USSR as a bold Socialist experiment — the wave of the future. We appeared to be an esoteric little group, forever splitting hairs and barking and snapping at the Soviet Union like a frustrated fox-terrier. Added to this, you had an enormously powerful worldwide Soviet machine attacking us constantly.

From 1937-41 the Workers Party split three times. The first split was led by Anderson at the 1937 conference. He wrote a paper, In Defence of Revisionism, arguing that Trotsky was wrong in seeing the USSR as any kind of worker’s state – whether bureaucratic or temporarily malformed. As early as 1935 Anderson had raised doubts about the extent of rank-and-file participation in Soviet elections, arguing that they merely served the bureaucracy. Now he argued that a “worker’s state” required workers to be in control, which was not the case in the USSR.

He criticised Lenin and Trotsky’s overemphasis on the role of “professional revolutionary”. In a later address, “Why Bolshevism Failed”, to the Sydney University Free Thought Society, he repeated his critique, adding others until a year or so later breaking with Marxism altogether.

In April 1937, a second group left the Worker’s Party led by Ted Tripp. Within a year of joining the Trotskyists Tripp, a former CPA militant, had taken over editorship of the paper from Sylvester and become their key spokesperson as Sylvester moved out of politics, disillusioned.

Tripp clashed repeatedly with the group’s other recruit, Nick Origlass, who was born in Townsville and joined the CPA in Sydney in 1932. He was later suspended on suspicion of being a police agent. He linked up with the Workers Party in 1934 before going to work in Brisbane and returning in 1936.

Tripp and two or three others formed the League of Revolutionary Democracy, later changing the name to Independent Communist League. They produced a broadsheet World Affairs, although only one issue seems to have appeared.

They attracted some disenchanted followers of Anderson from Sydney University but when Tripp moved to Melbourne they approached the Workers Party seeking “rapprochement”. In May 1938 they rejoined the main body of Trotskyists, and at the conference another group around Sydney solicitor Jack Wishart also joined, and the Workers Party renamed itself the Communist League of Australia.

Wishart’s group was later to split, calling itself the Revolutionary Workers’ League, in 1939. It was readmitted the following year and then split again in 1941.

Obviously it was hard for others to take this as seriously as the Trotskyists did. As one Communist sympathiser said:

The Militant and World Affairs make me feel that the Trotskyists are asking to be treated as narks. The purism of The Militant doesn’t answer any of the questions which a well-meaning worker would want to put on present problems … World Affairs is bloody awful.

Short took several part-time and casual jobs in this period and so was absent for these splits, finally finding work as a labourer in Mt Isa in January 1935. He continued his agitation for Trotskyism inside the AWU, after several months winning the post of surface workers representative – at 19 he was the youngest job delegate at the mine.

At AWU meetings he often argued with the few CPA members active at the mine. In an article for The Militant (Oct 1935) “Stuntism at Mount Isa”, he accused the Stalinists taking over the Union Consultative Committee and turning it into a vehicle for Communist policy rather than genuine consultation. At a poorly attended mass meeting the All Union Committee was declared supreme governing body on labour affairs in Mt Isa and declared itself responsible for re-drafting the award. The Militant article said:

No stretch of the imagination, other than Stalinist, could see in these decisions the representative feeling of the Mount Isa workers. All that could be seen by the workers was that a small group that had done nothing to deserve representation of the Mount Isa workers had insolently attempted to over-ride their accredited organisations with such sweeping decisions. Any thinking worker knew that the decisions endorsed by this small gathering would be repudiated by the vast body of Mount Isa unionists, but the Stalinists, trained in stuntism, thought there was a possibility of getting away with it.

Although Short was not opposed to the committee, it was the Communist’s failure to take rank and file feeling into account that was at issue:

Superior methods of struggle cannot be obtained by ignoring the rank and file, by “hoping to get away with it”. The main question confronting us in Mount Isa was: were the workers sufficiently developed to participate in the line of action passed by the handful of militants, and the answer is decidedly in the negative.

In concluding the article he noted that the meeting convened by the AWU of the majority of mine-workers “overwhelmingly repudiated” the All Union Committee, which collapsed soon after:

Thus, once again, are militant activities rendered abortive by Stalinist stupidities … It will be the task of the Workers’ Party to expose these mistakes, to bring realism into our trade union tactics and so develop a real revolutionary opposition to the reformists.

After nine months Short “jumped the rattler” and found work in Brisbane, and with Nick Origlass founded a Workers Party branch in Brisbane. They recruited one other member, Jack Henry, later a federal secretary of the clerks’ union and an Industrial Groups supporter.

In September 1936, Short returned to Sydney becoming one of its leading members. According to Edna Ryan:

Shorty and Tripp are the backbone of the Party – Anderson is essential, but they regard him as a bit of a burden … I’m greatly impressed with Shorty. He is grown up now and is the most promising bloke I’ve seen for years.

Short attended the 1937 conference, at which Anderson and Tripp both left. Eventually he found work as a boilermaker’s assistant at Balmain, and in December 1937 he joined the FIA, a union with a long history and a strong sense of solidarity among workers, who endured some of the worst pay and conditions in the country – hot, dirty and often dangerous. There were no showers, washing facilities, lockers or even a lunchroom. Workers had to supply their own overalls and boots.

As the economy began to recover ironworkers had more bargaining power, which they didn’t hesitate to use, and heading up this effort was newly appointed FIA general secretary, Ernie Thornton. This reflected the popularity of Communists as union leaders following the change of line from social fascist to popular front.

With the outbreak of World War II, the economy picked up. Short started 12-hour shifts and continued his activism. During the 1930s, the Trotskyists focused mainly on the threat of Fascism, not just in German but across Europe. It supported the POUM in Spain and denounced the Stalinist betrayal of Spanish workers that brought Franco to power.

In March 1938, the Trotskyists began holding weekly meetings in the Domain – among their new members was Gil Roper, a former CPA central committee member who had helped Herbert Moxon and Lance Sharkey to take control of the CPA in 1929, deposing the leadership of Jack Kavanagh. Roper’s wife, Edna, was a future prominent member of the NSW ALP.

Short, Origlass and Roper addressed crowds under an antiwar banner that read: “Not A Man, Not A Ship, Not A Gun For the Imperialist War!” They produced antiwar supplements for The Militant as well as the documents from the Fourth International.

When in 1939 the new Menzies government introduced the National Security Act, to put Australia on a war footing, they attacked the government for trying to conscript workers for the coming conflict, and organised public protests against the legislation. The CPA during the 1930s had been anti-fascist but in August 1939, when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler, which opened the door for the German invasion of Poland that precipitated the Second World War, they shifted to demanding “peace negotiations” and attaching the “unjust, reactionary and imperialist war”.

When Britain declared war, drawing Australia into the conflict, the Trotskyists adopted a policy of distancing themselves from the war, while actively encouraging workers to defend their own interests. It was mainly a policy of non-cooperation with the war effort.

For many Communists at the time the Hitler-Stalin pact was a turning point. Many left the CPA including J. Rawlings who had headed up the well known CPA-led Movement Against War and Fascism, and Guido Barrachi, one of founders of the CPA. Both joined the Trotskyists. The Nazi-Soviet pact provided the evidence that Trotskyists needed to show that USSR was not really anti-Fascist and that the Comintern was a prisoner of Soviet foreign policy.

In January 1940, in a temporary economic slowdown, Short lost his job and took on full-time politics, moving to Melbourne and setting up a short-lived branch there. The Trotskyists made informal links with other ex-Communists such as Dinny Lovegrove, a former Victorian district secretary of the CPA. He had opposed Ernie Thornton in 1932 and was expelled the following year and brutally bashed.

Lovegrove formed a Leninist League that was sympathetic to Trotskyism. In 1937 he abandoned Communism altogether and by 1938 was president of Victorian Trades Hall Council and a vehement anti-communist.

Short stayed at a hostel for the unemployed, which was raided by police in June 1940 following an article in The Militant that opposed the banning of the CPA. This led to the government banning the Communist League of Australia.

Short began organising meetings and speak-outs on the banks of the Yarra River with the help of supporters who he met through a student at Melbourne University, Les Moroney. In March 1940 The Militant announced:

During February the Communist League has continued to make headway. A number of new members have been enrolled, and propaganda meetings have been continued successfully … The chief organisational achievement has been the establishment of a Victorian branch of the League.

This was the high point, with 33 members in Sydney and 12 in Melbourne. The Militant assured readers in April 1940 that the members in Melbourne were “overwhelmingly proletarian”, although this does not appear to have been the case. Mostly they were students and people such as the young arts graduate “Diamond Jim” McClelland, employed by the Railways as a publicity officer. He and Short became friends and Short would later convince him to become an ironworker. McClelland was quite keen to give up his petty bourgeois background and joined Short in the Balmain dockyards.

The banning of the Trotskyists (and the official communists) did not affect day-to-day operations much. They continued to meet and addressed crowds as individuals rather than as a party. The assassination of Trotsky and divisions in the Trotskyist movement as to whether the USSR should continue to be regarded as a “worker’s state” created more problems.

Trotsky had called for unconditional defence of the Soviet Union, but many of his followers were uneasy about workers shedding their blood for Stalin, especially after the Soviet army invaded Poland and Finland following the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. From the start of the war increasingly anti-Stalinist intellectuals began to critique not only the Soviet Union but Marxism-Leninism.

The battle was fiercest in US, where two leaders of the SWP, James Burnham, an academic, and Max Schachtman, a journalist, resigned in May 1940 over the “Russian question” (Burnham moved quickly to the right, eventually advocating a pre-emptive strike on the USSR during the Cold War).

Short followed these debates and began to have his doubts as well. At the same time he met Lovegrove, who he known since the days of YCL and who was now a union official. He discussed Trotskyism with Lovegrove but the latter “was very emphatic that for anyone who wanted to be active in the labour movement, and a make a contribution, there was only one party to be in, and that was the Labor Party”.

Of course this was not a new idea to Trotskyists. In 1934-35 Trotsky had urged his followers to execute the “French turn”, that is, join large reformist parties in anticipation of an upsurge, to make contact with activists who may lay the basis for a new party. The US SWP entered first the Workers Party and later the Socialist Party, and in November 1941, the Australians adopted the same tactic, although not without some members (such as Wishart) splitting from the League for the last time.

Short and McClelland helped organise a successful four-week strike as part of a rising tide of militancy in which the FIA was central. This was reflected in CPA policy on the war, as Ernie Thornton, the FIA general secretary, frequently cautioned workers not to allow bosses to profit at their expense.

The FIA’s assertiveness of course provoked hostility from employers, who demanded the union’s deregistration, with the government under Menzies keen to fight “the rising tide of industrial lawlessness”.

Short and Thornton were both on the Central Strike Committee that led the actions in 1941, and while the CPA was not happy there was little it could do, as Short said:

We were elected onto the strike committee by our fellow ironworkers at AI&S [Australian Iron & Steel], where we were known as capable and active unionists. If the Stalinists had acted so bureaucratically as to depose us, they could have lost the strike. We would not have remained silent, but would have mounted a protest throughout the union and the Stalinists knew this. So they had to cut their losses and suffer us. They hoped we would sink back into obscurity when the strike had finished.

Short used his position at meetings to raise issues about Hitler-Stalin pact, usually meeting with abuse by Communist officials. While the strike was won, it was only a minor victory.

In 1941, Short would marry and move back to Sydney, where he found work at Cockatoo Island and became a member of the Balmain branch of the FIA, at this time the largest blue-collar union in Australia (about 48,500 members). From mid-1942 he was involved in union work, forming a close alliance with Nick Origlass.

Like most federal unions, the FIA was loosely organised, with high levels of branch autonomy. After Thornton began as general secretary he centralised the structure making it more efficient but also more amenable to CP direction from above.

By 1939 the CPA had replaced older non-communist officials in various branches, which gave the CPA a controlling influence on the federal council. The general secretary was made a full-time position and the council was given the power to appoint officials and close branches. The Adelaide and Newcastle branches were the subject of “disciplinary” actions that extended Communist influence.

A key part of the CPA strategy was to create big “battalions” of industrial unions – an echo of the IWW’s One Big Union idea. Small craft unions were seen as a barrier to revolutionary consciousness. Amalgamations were attempted with 16 unions, four successfully. The merger with the Munitions Workers was a key one in the war years, and Thornton used it to further centralise the structure, removing the branches’ financial autonomy.

Within a month of returning to Sydney Short began a weekly discussion group with Nick Origlass on Friday evenings at each other’s houses. Sylvester had left the group but Issy Wyner, Wakefield and the Ropers were involved, as well as some newcomers.

They started a news-sheet The Socialist and took the non-revolutionary name, Labor Socialist Group, in line with the decision to execute the French turn. By 1942, the Trotskyists and the Stalinists were more opposed than ever and the idea of co-operating in industrial struggles, as in the Victorian strike, seemed unlikely.

On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the USSR and overnight the global Communist movement dropped its opposition to “imperialist” war and joined the “anti-fascist” struggle. According to Thornton, the German invasion completely changed the nature of the war and called for a new approach of co-operation with the parliament.

The ALP was elected in to government in 1941 under John Curtin, which made the job easier. Use of the industrial courts and strikes were to be kept to a minimum. Indeed, the CPA campaigned for increased production. Strikes were not eliminated but minimised.

As the Japanese forces moved closer, support for the war and even conscription, which split the ALP in 1916, was accepted and CPA policy was close to that of the majority of people. Its membership grew to 15,000, and the USSR was perceived by many as an ally. It began to operate openly (it were not unbanned until late 1942), selling 50000 copies of its paper each week. As the Japanese advance was turned back, a general weariness with the war, rationing, restrictions on annual leave, etc, set in, increasingly distancing the CPA militants from the population.

The FIA Balmain branch remained outside CPA control until 1943. It had been pro-Lang and anti-Communist since the 1920s. On the highly unionised waterfront close communities had grown up with strong ties of solidarity and independence, even in union matters. This clashed with the CPA’s desire for centralised control over all FIA branches, particularly because of its centrality to the war effort.

The Trotskyists Short and Origlass had themselves built up strong rank-and-file support. As the struggle for control of the union developed, support extended from other quarters, with the press and employers supporting the CPA and the Langites, via their paper Century, which was at its most anti-Communist.

More surprisingly at fist glance was another base of support was Freedom (later renamed Newsweekly) the weekly newspaper of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, led by B.A. Santamaria. This paper drew on the Catholic idea of Distributism, a back-to-the-land theory, arguing that property should be returned to the people, not owned by the state or by elites. It was vehemently anti-capitalist and anti-communist. The main focus of the Movement’s work was opposing Communist influence in unions, in which it was supported by the Catholic hierarchy and powerful elements in the labour movement. Cells were organised at a parish level based on churches.

The fight in the Balmain branch of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) first flared after Cockatoo Island dockyard workers, including Short, refused to work on the King’s Birthday holiday because penalty rates were cancelled. The strike was not authorised by the union but the branch secretary, Joe Brown, took no disciplinary action, which was contrary to union policy.

Later he was slow to act when management sacked two communists from the dock and the federal FIA intervened, censuring Brown and organising a petition by CPA members demanding an election supervised by head office. In the event Brown and his supporters, including Short, won the election by 2-1 margin. The result was a rebuff for Thornton, which prompted greater efforts to bring the “rogue” branch into line.

There was already a precedent in Victoria, where the FIA had expelled Jim McClelland from the union on a charge of disrupting the war effort. The union explained its action to management, who in turn were happy to fire him due to his activities on the shop floor.

McClelland went to the Century and denounced the CPA leadership as traitors and informers. He also published a four-page pamphlet, Ironworkers: Fight Gestapo Tactics in Your Union. He won some limited support in the union but ultimately was forced to join the Air Force since he no longer worked in a protected industry.

In mid-1943 Thornton and the FIA national executive committee launched an inquiry into the Balmain branch, against the resistance of members. When the branch executive capitulated to federal pressure and supported the inquiry, there was uproar.

Those on the executive who had resigned over the issue were not replaced. This opened the way for the federal office to assume control, freezing the funds and changing the locks on the doors of the branch office. A members’ meeting at Balmain Town hall denounced the action and elected replacements and applied to the Equity Court for an injunction, which was refused, so Thornton suspended the entire executive.

A further meeting in the Balmain Town hall voted down a Short-Origlass motion for an immediate waterfront stoppage and approached the Commonwealth government to investigate. Again they were rebuffed.

Opposition to the Communists slumped and even though Thornton’s report was rejected, he was able to get his own returning officer, Pat McHenry, elected to conduct the annual branch elections. Short and Origlass later questioned the bona fides of those present and accused the CPA of stacking the meeting.

Later they would argue that McHenry was brought in to rig the ballot. In retrospect this does not seem unjustified, since after being decisively defeated just 10 month earlier the CPA won a decisive victory. The issue of ballot rigging became a burning issue for Short and Origlass, and laid the seeds of the destruction of CPA influence in the unions.

Direct action

Relations between Balmain workers and the Communist officials worsened in the first half of 1944. In January, ironworkers at three of the shipyards imposed overtime bans after the cancellation of the Australia Day holiday. The embargo lasted five and a half months and the Communists sided with the government, the Arbitration Court and shipyard owners to have the bans lifted.

During this time, FIA leaders announced the results of their inquiry and charged eight of the former non-Communist executive with financial mismanagement, which led to Brown’s expulsion, the suspension from the union of some and the censure of others, including Short, for distributing a pamphlet critical of the union.

In mid-1944 Thornton, after cancellation of World Federation of Trade Unions meeting in London (to which he was an ACTU delegate), visited the US. He was extremely impressed with US living standards and size and wealth of US unions. Above all, he was impressed with the US Communist leader Earl Browder, who advocated an extreme version of the Comintern’s popular front policy.

Browder claimed that capitalism and communism could co-exist and had disbanded the CPUSA. Communists were free to work in the mainstream and Browder argued that Western democratic capitalism would safeguard worker’s interests. Thornton took on these ideas, and on returning to Australia he called for an end to class war and for worker-management co-operation.

This came at a time when metal unionists could see their industry shrinking as government war contracts wound down. Many felt they needed to act, as their position would be weakened if they waited for the slump to arrive. While this proved not to be the case, the workers were in no mood for co-operation.

While CPA officials had their doubts, they had little option but to support Browder’s ideas. The 1944 branch election results seem even less probable than those of 1943. Short stood for branch president and Origlass for secretary, again beaten by a 2-1 margin, and again they suspected vote forgery but evidence was hard to find.

The federal elections for FIA national office were held on the new rules and showed large gains for the Communists. Short stood for national secretary, not with a serious chance of winning, since the incumbents controlled all the union resources and were under no obligation to publish alternative platforms, but “to keep the flag flying” (he gained 6673 votes to Thornton’s 20,186). By now, though, both he and Origlass were convinced the elections were rigged.

In early 1945, Short won a rank-and-file election as job delegate at Cockatoo Island, which employed the largest number of shipyard ironworkers in the country, and with Origlass who was a delegate at Morts Dock (the biggest ironworking workshop) that put the Trotskyists in a powerful position.

All that was needed was an issue to rally members, and that emerged in late February 1945. On February 21 the boiler shop struck when management suspended the shop committee for an unauthorised meeting in work time. Under wartime conditions management was under pressure to settle quickly and did so the next day, agreeing to a return to work the next day, Friday.

Origlass, a party to the settlement, nevertheless advised strikers to return on Monday since not everyone could be advised, he argued, so it would be bad for solidarity if there was only a partial return on the Friday. This was agreed at a mass meeting but McKeon, the acting branch secretary, accused him of breaking the agreement.

By 1945 the Communists regarded Origlass as the main troublemaker, moreso than Short. He was highly regarded as standing up to “city ironworkers”, but was more of an outsider – a Queenslander and half-Italian in a predominantly Anglo-Celtic community.

On March 21, McKeon called a special FIA executive meeting at which Origlass and seven others were charged with conduct “contrary to the best interests of the union”. The rules required that the executive make it recommendations known to members at the next general meeting, set down for March 27, but it was not until that morning that the executive recommended that for “consistent flouting” of membership policy Origlass be removed as delegate, and as there was no time for Origlass to to rally supporters the meeting endorsed the decision 109-15.

Workers at Morts Dock reacted promptly to the expulsion of their elected delegate – the following day his two co-delegates resigned in protest. The Communists tried to have new delegates elected but the only name put forward was Origlass, who was rejected because he was, McKeon said, “out for the term of his natural life”.

After two weeks the executive appointed its own temporary delegates and on April 16 all of the boilershop ironworkers struck, except for 17 loyal communists. When other boilermakers and crane drivers refused to work with these 17 (ironically labelling them scabs) virtually the whole shipyard came out in support of Origlass. Historically this was probably a unique situation – workers on strike against their union.

The situation escalated when the Cockatoo ironworkers came out in support of their comrades at Morts. What would have been a localised dispute that could be easily isolated was broadened with the help of Short, who had worked closely in the Trotskyist movement with Origlass since 1943 (and would continue to do so until the end of the decade).

Origlass, who lived in the basement flat below the Shorts, put the motion to Cockatoo Island workers to go out in support, so that by the end of April 3000 unionists were on strike. This move by Short was crucial and the dispute was taken up in the mainstream press – with the Sydney Morning Herald doing a lengthy background piece and the company referring the matter to the Arbitration Court (as required under security legislation).

Justice O’Mara announced he would brief council for an inquiry into the causes of the dispute. The acting national secretary (while Thornton was overseas at World Federation of Trade Unions founding conference) was Jack McPhillips, born like Short in Rockhampton and with a similar background. He was leader of Australian Workers Union (AWU) rank and file committee opposed to the AWU bureaucracy, but was appointed to the FIA national office by Thornton. He was a still a committed Stalinist in the 1990s.

The FIA national council summoned a special meeting of delegates from all three Sydney branches, including Balmain. The strike committee wrote to the Minister for Labor and National Service declaring the meeting a “snide attempt to split our forces”.

McPhillips claimed it was necessary to get the full story and accused the strikers of irresponsibly extending the stoppage and not giving members the full story – namely that Nick had only been suspended and that Justice O’Mara had organised an inquiry – rather than ordering a return to work (and allowing the union to sort out its affairs) because O’Mara supported the strikers since he was an anti-Communist.

The special meeting recommended an immediate return to work but the Trotskyists were conducting the strike and thus had effective control of the Balmain branch, which the next day voted 1500 to 27 that the union officials were acting tyrannically and seeking to take away members’ rights. In speaking to the motion Short said the real issue was whether members agreed with the Communist Party policies of the Ironworkers’ union officials.

These officials could expel a member and throw him into unemployment. Responding to a Communist’s objection that the strike was a capitalist conspiracy and reported in all the papers, Short replied: “when a body of men are prepared to lose their wages to restore democracy in their union it is news. The strike is unique in the history of Australian trade unionism”.

In the first week of May 1945 two further mass meetings of Balmain ironworkers voted (about 1500 votes to 200) against the Communist officials, who had clearly misjudged the capacity of Balmain branch to, as Short put it: “resist the Communist bullying”.

During the six-week strike several thousand workers existed without strike pay. The committee collected funds but these were reserved for those in extreme hardship, and most survived on their savings or what work their wives could find.

Organised strike-breakers visited families, and there were threats and intimidation. The union, for its part, formed an ironically named “rank and file committee” to fight the strike, issued thousands of leaflets and used the pages of Labor News to attack the strikers as unpatriotic and class traitors. Freedom, the Santamaria paper, took the side of the strikers, turning it into a struggle between good and evil – with the Labor government on the side of evil, as it was turning a blind eye.

The strike was settled independently of the courts and the union. On May 23 about 700 Balmain ironworkers met and took the unprecedented step of removing the Communist officials and electing replacements. They then stormed the union office and in the melee the office door was smashed open with an axe and one ironworker was taken to hospital with head injuries. In the tense stand-off between the members and the officials, now with the police present, Short addressed the crowd telling them that they should disperse and they would take legal action to gain possession of the office.

Three days after what Short described as “spontaneous rebellion” the strikers met and confirmed their election of new officials, returning to work on May 28, six weeks after the strike had begun. Although the June FIA national conference condemned the new executive as “bogus” and set in motion a plan to abolish the Balmain branch altogether by amalgamating it with Sydney Metro, for the next two years Balmain had two executives, one pro-Communist recognised by the FIA and one anti-communist supported by the majority of members.

Short and Origlass were members of the rebel executive, now with an expanded base to attack their opponents. They would remain a thorn in the FIA’s side until late 1947, when the Cold War ushered in a new period of hostility to Communism.


Following their rejection by the union the Trotskyist officials sought to give effect to decisions of May 22, applying to the Arbitration Court for recognition or for a court-conducted ballot to let the members decide.

This was supported by AWU general secretary “Big” Tom Doughterty who had unexpectedly supported the Balmain strikers, offering them free legal assistance from the AWU law firm. Like Doughterty, who was happy to see a rival union weakened, the lawyers themselves were strongly connected in Sydney Catholic Church circles.

After a two-month hearing, Justice O’Mara found that the “rebels” had acted within the rules, which gave the power to remove officers at branch meeting. That clause was obviously overlooked in the CPA centralisation of the FIA. O’Mara ordered the national council to recognise the new executive but refused to call for a new court-supervised election, stating that the rules already guaranteed fair elections.

The FIA leadership appealed against the decision but also went ahead with plans to “merge” three Sydney branches, but rather than ordering this it decided to put the merger to vote of branch members.

Short saw this an attempt to subvert the court’s ruling, which was reaffirmed in the appeal’s rejection in November. Ignoring the national council decision, Short served on the “rebel” executive and forwarded it the members’ dues he collected at Cockatoo Island.

Following the May 22 meeting the Trotskyists and their supporters rented rooms and spent many hours helping to administer the branch. Origlass (assistant secretary) and McGrath (secretary) also defied the court. The court, while rejecting the appeal found – on new evidence presented – that there had been irregularities in the election.

On November 26, both executives called meetings of ironworkers to discuss the national council call for a 24-hour stoppage in NSW to support striking steelworkers, the first of a series of postwar strikes culminating in the 1949 Miners Strike, which began in late September, shortly after Japan’s surrender and eventually stopped coal and steel production in most of Australia.
It began with a dispute between an FIA job delegate and AI&S management, and in the postwar climate spread rapidly. By November 13,000 workers were on strike in the two steel towns and McPhillips organised a central strike committee, imposed a compulsory levy to support the strikers and made plans for a statewide 24-hour stoppage of all FIA members.

The problem was that, to a large extent, the FIA was isolated, and subject to attack from both state and federal (Labor) governments. The ACTU president publicly attacked the strike, as did NSW branch secretary of the Australian Railwaymen’s Union (ARU).

The rebel meeting voted against participation in the 24-hour stoppage, condemning the strike as “political”, while the Communists and their supporters unanimously endorsed the national council actions, leading to FIA leadership accusations that the rebels, most of whom worked, were “scabbing” on their striking colleagues.

The propaganda war began in mid-1942 and continued throughout 1946-46. The “rebels” accusing the FIA leaders of slavishly following the “dictates of Stalin” and imposing “tyranny” on the union, while the Communists replied that the Balmainers were in the pay of employers and other “reactionaries”. This latter claim was based on the fact that the rebel executive was given financial support by the Catholic Movement.

The Catholic paper, Freedom, had conducted an appeal to support the Balmain strikers and forwarded almost £1500 to the strike committee, which helped the strikers and the survival of the executive until quarterly dues were collected.

The Movement had its origins in a meeting of Catholic bishops after the 1945 ACTU Congress in which the CPA members and supporters controlled a solid bloc of 90 delegates out of 400. Thornton orchestrated the proceedings and three communists were elected to the ACTU executive.

Santamaria was convinced of the need for anti-communist crusade and prepared a secret report that was considered by the bishops. They decided to make the Movement a national organisation funded and organised by the church. When the CPA got a wind of Santamaria’s contribution, they turned it into a pamphlet to attack the Trotskyists, particularly as it contained a direct reference to the funding of the Balmain strikers and to the “Origlass-McGrath” group.

Amid this tension, violence was never far from the surface. A number of rebels were assaulted (and no doubt vice versa). Short had returned to work since the second half of 1940, tactically calculating that one Trotskyist on the rebel executive was enough (McGrath was a non-Trotskyist and a member of the ALP).

In February 1946, Short and fellow delegate Sid Curran appeared in court in an action between FIA leaders and Cockatoo management. After the suspension of May 22, management refused entry to the Communist organiser (McHenry) on the grounds that it would create dissent among the workers. The FIA appealed to the courts under the Metal Trades award. Short and Curran testified that the presence of a Communist official, given the events in Balmain, would lead to a stoppage of work, if not violence. Judge O’Mara rejected McHenry’s application.

By this time Short had a large following and in mid-1946 was elected secretary of the combined works committee, making him an almost full-time official, covering 3000 workers in 21 unions, each of which had elected delegates that made up the works committee. Handling demarcation disputes and dealing with the age and complexity of one of the oldest industrial worksites in Australia, as well as complaints about the isolation of the workplace, Short was in his element as a gifted organiser.

He focused on bread-and-butter issues facing the workers, not from any lack of militancy but recognising that opposition to Stalinism and shopfloor defence of workers rights were two sides of the one coin (as they were for Origlass).

The isolation of the FIA leadership in the 1945 Steel strike was reflected in Balmain when the Cockatoo management and the NSW ALP recognised the rebels. In June 1946, Short, Wyner and several Balmainers attended the NSW ALP conference and supported the majority vote to back anti-Communist candidates in union elections. The Labor Council recognised the Trotskyists and from June 1946 Short attended Labour Council meetings as a Balmain delegate. Meanwhile the legal battles continued.

In December 1945, the non-Communists applied to the arbitration court to prevent the merger of the Sydney branches of the FIA because it was “tyrannical and oppressive” and not in the best interests of members. The court ruled that the Balmainers had the right to elect their own officials but dismissed the objection to the merger, leaving the way open for Thornton to amend the rules to make them less “oppressive” and press on.

The Communists were now confident of the courts’ backing and in early June 1946 the FIA national council ordered Short, Origlass, McGrath and four others to cease acting as FIA officials. When they failed to comply they were found guilty of a number of charges and expelled. Labor News announced the expulsions as the end of a 15 month campaign of disruption.

At the national council in early 1946 Thornton, now back from overseas, described the situation at Balmain as “disgusting” and accused the Trotskyists of conspiring with the bosses against the union.

During 1946 Thornton adopted an increasingly hard line towards his critics. After attending the first World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) gathering in October 1945, he visited the USSR and returned to make a speech in admiration of Stalin and announced his break with Browder’s collaborationist policies.

Throughout 1946 Thornton went on the offensive, attacking the bosses, press and courts, and increasingly the Chifley government, over the issue of wage pegging (and economic restraint) and the failure to develop an independent foreign policy.

This reflected a CP view that the removal of the threat to the USSR meant a return to economic depression, militarism and class-struggle politics. In common with many other union leaders Thornton reflected the view that the state of the economy gave the workers a strong bargaining position and it was time to demand their cut.

The USSR had emerged from the war a world power, adding weight to the belief that communism was historically inevitable, and Communists’ confidence rose. Control of the unions was central to their strategy, and the USSR, by virtue of its 28 million union members dominated the ICTU.

Tensions grew until in March 1947 when US President Truman announced the policy of “containment” of Communism (abandoning co-operation with the US’s wartime ally) in defence of the “free” world. While this was directed at Soviet satellites occupied during the war its application was much wider.

Three months later, US State Secretary General George Marshall announced the Marshall Plan of massive economic aid to rebuild Europe. At the September 1947 ACTU congress Thornton, just weeks after the establishment of the Cominform, urged affiliation with a proposed Far Eastern Bureau of the WFTU, with Sydney as a possible headquarters.

The Balmain dispute was settled in 1947. In June ACTU secretary Albert Monk brokered a compromise. Short and his colleagues continued in office despite their expulsion and in late 1946 substantially the same team was elected as had been in May 1945.

However, the tide was turning. Support from both the court and Labor Council was stymied. The FIA national council amended the rules to make them less “oppressive”, making it certain that the court would recognise any merging of branches, and in late 1946 the ACTU interstate executive, responding to Communist pressure, affirmed the principle of affiliation being in accord with the rules of the parent body.

This was widely understood to mean that Thornton would be able to rally the numbers at the 1947 ACTU Congress to force NSW Labour Council to withdraw its recognition of the Balmain delegates. Monk proposed that the Short and his colleagues drop the legal proceedings and accept the merger in exchange for the union lifting their expulsions. The Balmain FIA branch then became a sub-branch of Sydney Metro.

In September 1947 Short and his comrades were readmitted to the FIA. Three weeks later Origlass, who had succeeded McGrath as “rebel” branch secretary in late 1946, returned the books of the branch and was asked by Thornton what he intended to do now: “Go back to work I suppose,” was the reply.

Origlass remained a popular figure and easily won the honorary secretary’s position at the end of the year, continuing to fight the FIA leadership, but the return of the branch marked his withdrawal from anti-Communist organising and in 1958 he would accept CPA endorsement for FIA national secretary, standing against Short. Origlass would remain a committed left activist for the rest of his life – his story is told in Hall Greenland’s excellent biography Red Hot.

From left wing to right wing anti-communism

After the return of the branch, opposition to the FIA leadership fell to Short. By October 1947, Short was almost 33 and had all but abandoned his Marxist views. He attended fewer and fewer meetings of the Labor Socialist Group and by late 1948 had given it up altogether.

At the same time he stopped writing for The Socialist and the following year he completed his break with Trotskyism, leaving Balmain and moving to Gladesville, then an outer western suburb of Sydney. It was long journey, from Communist faith to rejection, in which he had contributed to a more critical view of Stalinism, but by late 1948 his days as a Left Oppositionist were over and he would increasingly develop in a right-wing anti-communist direction, as part of the growing Cold War atmosphere in Australia.

Later he would call it “realism”:

I came to see that he claim that people were inevitably radicalised by economic circumstances was at total variance from reality. It just wasn’t happening. In all the time I was a Trotskyist, no more than 50 people in Australia saw the light. I began to wonder whether the evils of capitalism and its overthrow were all that inevitable.

Short’s final break with Trotskyism coincided with the dramatic escalation of the Cold War. In January 1949 the British, US and Dutch representatives walked out of the WFTU, protesting that they were subject to “constant misrepresentation and abuse” and three months later formed the rival “free” trade union body: the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

Six months later, Monk moved against continued affiliation of ACTU with the Soviet-dominated WFTU. Meanwhile, the US government put 12 CPUSA members on trial, creating a national security scare that eventually led to the McCarthy trials.

The US joined NATO and the Communists took control in China. In this climate, after several weeks overseas, the Opposition leader Robert Menzies, launched the first red scare campaign, which would carry him into a Prime Ministership that he held for a record 15 years.

He was helped in this by the disclosures of a former leading CPA member, Cecil Sharpley, which were reported in the Melbourne Herald starting Easter 1949. Sharpley, an FIA official in Victoria, exposed the forced amalgamations processes in the munitions section of the union and charged Thornton with ballot rigging to win the 1937 election. Thornton was away overseas as these articles were reprinted in all the major papers. Short, when interviewed, said the effect on the waterfront shops was “sensational”.

On moving to Gladesville, Short wrote to Origlass announcing his resignation from the Labor Socialist Group. In his letter dated February 20, 1949, he said he no longer accepted the Trotskyist definition of the USSR as a workers’ state suffering from “bureaucratic malformations”. He referred to a meeting Origlass had chaired late the previous year, stating:

Some months ago we had a discussion on the Trotskyist slogan: “The unconditional defence of the Soviet Union”. Although this slogan has been a cornerstone of Trotskyist policy, it immediately became apparent that there existed a wide divergence of opinion among members as to its precise implications and continued validity. One member declared emphatically that if ever the armies representing the “workers’ state” attempted to invade Australia, he would resist with arms in hand. Other members questioned the “progressive” role of the armies of the “workers’ state” and expressed doubts as to whether the people of France and Germany would welcome their presence in their countries. The chairman refused to be drawn into any discussion as to what Trotskyists should do if the armies from a “workers’ state” entered other countries. He limited his contribution to a reiteration of all the old slogans and phrases … as though all practical questions were forever answered by reference to programmatic documents. Of course the chairman was on the line. His was the Trotskyist position.

I left the meeting that night with the realisation that it was time to do some solid thinking about the Soviet Union and about Stalinism in general. It was brought home to me most forcibly that I could no longer regard the Labor Socialist Group as primarily a group of unionists striving to better the conditions of their fellow workers and at the same time fighting strongly against the menace of Stalinism. Looking back, I can now see that this estimate of the group has been the principal reason for my adherence to it in recent years.

The Trotskyism of the group, its adherence to the Fourth International, has not loomed large with me in these years. Its existence was justified, in my eyes, only by its participation in the struggles to better the conditions of the workers and in the fight against the greatest evil of our generation … the evil of Stalinism.

I was forced to admit to myself that I was no longer enthusiastic about a movement with which I had been so closely identified since its inception in Australia in 1933. Still, since it was a big decision for me to break with the movement, I wanted time to think it over.

I have devoted as much time as I could in the last three months to a study of the Soviet Union, Stalinism, and Trotskyism. This in turn has led me to re-examine some aspects of Marxist-Leninism.

Short went on to summarise his conclusions. Under the heading “The Workers’ State” he wrote:

No Trotskyist denies that there exists in the Soviet Union a monstrous tyranny. It is freely admitted that the workers there has no power at all, that the bureaucracy drains off an enormous portion of the national income (Trotsky, in 1939, placed the rake-off as high as 50 per cent), that the workers are hungry and clad in rags, that the masses live in squalid slums, that the working conditions are inhuman, that slave labour is used on a vast scale, that there are millions of political prisoners, that the gulf which separates the workers and bureaucrats is wider than that which separates the workers and capitalists in any other country, that the world’s workers are regarded by the bureaucracy as cheap merchandise, so much blackmailers’ stock-in-trade.

All this and much more are conceded … but, the Trotskyists assert: in the Soviet Union there is nationalised, planned property and a state monopoly of foreign trade, which by themselves, are great progressive factors in history. While admitting that the set-up in the Soviet Union is politically reactionary, they claim it is economically progressive.

This separation of political and economic raised further questions in Short’s mind:

Under what heading … would you put such questions as housing, working conditions, slave-labour and the distribution of national income? Are these political or economic questions? Surely they contain an element of both.

He went on to attack nationalisation:

Is nationalised property necessarily progressive? This is a question which every Trotskyist should ponder deeply, for his whole position on the Soviet Union rests on its answer. For myself, I firmly believe that the answer to this question is “No”.

Short discussed the phenomena of “state capitalism” under Stalinism, naming several countries in Eastern Europe. He continued:

I know that it is always asserted by Trotskyists that what makes the decisive difference in the case of nationalisation in the USSR is that it is the outcome of a proletarian revolution. But how does the origin of this nationalisation fix for all times the character of the Soviet economy? Writers defending this point of view have taken refuge in such terms as “the traditions of October” to describe what it is in Russian nationalisation which distinguishes it from nationalisation in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

If the “traditions of October” mean the struggle for a free and equal society, there is no trace of these traditions in the forms and practices of the Russian state today. Only in the revolutionary aspirations of the masses who struggle against the state could it be said that the “traditions of October” live on.

He went on to discuss state planning:

Is planning, in and of itself, or linked with nationalisation, progressive? Surely it depends on what the plan is for, and who is to benefit from the plan. Atomic energy in the hands of some could lighten the burden of mankind, in the hands of others it could be used to destroy mankind.

To the extent that there is planning in the Soviet Union, it is used to exploit labour and enslave labour, to give 11 or 12 per cent of the population 50 per cent of the national income. As in the case of nationalisation there is no necessary social virtue in planning.

Likewise with the monopoly on foreign trade. Short went on to discuss Russia’s industrial expansion: “How the building of factories and dams with slave labour and savagely exploited wage-labour makes an economy ‘progressive’ is something that is now beyond me” and continued:

Having arrived at the position where I can no longer regard the USSR as a “workers’ state’, a number of related questions arise: what sort of state is it? What brought about the bureaucracy? I do not pretend to have fully rounded answers to such questions. But the more I investigate, the more I incline to the view that the Trotskyist answer, which for so long I accepted, is a gross over-simplification, and that the theory that Stalinism is the outcome of Bolshevism cannot be disregarded.

Finally he directed some remarks to Marx (and Origlass)

While a member of the Young Communist League, 1930-32, I made a determined effort to assimilate the Marxist theory. I went to study classes and I read many books by Marx, Engels and Lenin.

After two years of concentration, I thought I understood the basic propositions of Marxism. Some of it, including the Dialectic, I just couldn’t make head nor tail of; but as the dialectic kept cropping up among so much else which struck me as sensible and comprehensible, I accepted it also as dogma.

Following upon my rupture with Stalinism I again struggled with the dialectic, only this time with a little less reverence. I remember wading through Lenin’s book on philosophy and a number of works upholding the dialectic. About the same time I read [Max] Eastman’s The Last Stand of Dialectical Materialism. My suspicions were aroused, but I decided that the dialectic had no practical implications and consequently agreement, or otherwise, did not matter much. And there the matter rested until recently, as far as I was concerned.

During the past three months I have given the dialectic a lot of attention. I am now convinced that Dewey, Burnham, Eastman, Hook and Anderson, to mention just those better known to you, have shown the dialectic to be just a jumble of religious hocus-pocus.

Stripped of all its trappings, dialectical materialism means that the universe is evolving with reliable, if not divine, necessity in exactly the direction the believers want it to go.

Armed with this belief, the dialecticians become the “leaders”, and they alone know the truth. All who reject the dialectic are … reactionary and counter-revolutionary.

It is the state of mind brought about by this sort of indoctrination which leads the chairman of the Labor Socialist Group to boast, “The Socialist is the best newspaper in Australia.” When I first heard this remark, I thought it was made in jest. When it was repeated again and again, it dawned on me that it was meant in dead earnest. The chairman really thinks The Socialist is the best paper in Australia, because he thinks the Trotskyists have a monopoly of the truth, as the “real inheritors of Marxism”, and consequently of the dialectic, this is “logical” enough.

I believe that truth is not the monopoly of any one person or group, but is a common human possession. Those who think to the contrary are treading in the footsteps of the totalitarians.

In conclusion he wrote:

I could write a fair sized book on my differences with the Trotskyist movement, but what I have written in this statement is enough to demonstrate that continued membership in the Labor Socialist Group is impossible for me.

Short regarded this statement as sufficiently important to send a copy to John Anderson. At about the same time Short joined the Gladesville Branch of the ALP, transferring his membership from Balmain.

By early 1949, the Industrial Groups were a powerful force in the labour movement. They had formed at the June 1945 NSW ALP conference to combat Communist industrial strength, at a time when the CPA, on conservative estimates, had a controlling influence over a quarter of all Australian unionists.

Like Santamaria’s “vocational groups” the ALP Industrial Groups sought to encourage ALP members to be union activists and to stand against Communist candidates, but the ALP groups operated openly and stood as Group candidates in union elections.

The Catholic movement was secret and although organisationally separate about 30 per cent of Industrial Groups were in the Movement and about 60 per cent were Catholic (about the same proportion as in the ALP generally).

The NSW organisation was reaching its peak at the time Short joined, with its big successes still to come in the FIA, Federated Clerks and the Miners Federation. Several months after his transfer to Gladesville, Short joined the ALP’s Industrial Groups. This was the most controversial act of his whole career.


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