Wellington seafarers and the invasion of Finland

Submitted by Matthew on 4 June, 2013 - 9:13

Readers with a knowledge of the history of Trotskyism will know that the USSR’s invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939 marked a turning point for the movement.

It triggered a fierce debate, and eventually a split among the US Trotskyists. What is less well known is that a contemporary parallel development emerged among the Wellington [New Zealand] seafarers.

The Evening Post of 7 December 1939 reproduced the full text of a long resolution passed by a stop-work meeting of the Federated Seamen’s Union which expressed its “profound sympathy with the people of Finland now suffering under a brutal aggression in pursuance of the policies of the Stalin-Hitler partnership.”

The meeting conveyed its “admiration of their splendid fight against overwhelming odds in defence of their homes, of the conditions established in their country, and of their national culture. It notes that the Labour and trade union movements in Finland and all the surrounding Scandinavian countries have expressed their solidarity with the Finnish people and their detestation of the present unprovoked aggression.
“This meeting remembers the conditions under which the Soviet Government was first established in 1917 under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, and how it expressly repudiated the kind of aggression that Stalin and the present Russian dictatorship have launched. Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism,
vigorously opposed aggression against small nations.

“In 1917 the new Soviet Government appealed for, and secured, the support of workers throughout the world, largely because it stood for the freeing of small nations from their oppressors and for the determination of hostilities without annexations and without indemnities. The original Constitution of the Soviet Union expressly stated that it was ‘a voluntary union of equal peoples’ and that each constituent republic enjoyed ‘the right of freely withdrawing.’ Further, the Soviet Government at the time gave practical proof of its sincerity by surrendering the rights it enjoyed over China and Persia under the former Tsarist treaties and by freely granting its independence to the Finland that Stalin is now endeavouring to crush.”

The president of the Seaman’s Union, Fintan Patrick Walsh, wrote to Trotsky in Mexico on 3 January 1940 enclosing a copy of the resolution. Walsh stated, “Although we down under are more or less outside the world affairs we nevertheless take a keen and live interest on matters affecting the international working class.”

Trotsky replied on 19 February, “Thank you cordially for your warm letter of solidarity. I enjoyed it the more that, in this period of terrible chauvinistic pressure in almost all the countries of the world, sincere and consistent socialist voices are rather an exception.” Five months later Trotsky was murdered by one of Stalin’s agents. Walsh, who had cut his teeth as a militant in the IWW in the US during the early 20th-century, was rapidly moving rightwards. By 1951, he would sell out the wharfies in their epic battle against the government.

What makes the Wellington seafarers’ resolution so significant is that, in my view, they had a clearer perspective than the great revolutionaries Trotsky and James P Cannon, who refused to condemn the invasion of Finland in their intra-Trotskyist polemics. (In his public writings, Trotsky was far more critical of the USSR’s invasion.)

Walsh was already an irredeemable bureaucrat in 1939. He was never likely to play a progressive role in politics, and his correspondence with Trotsky is more of a historical curiosity than anything else. What is important, though, is that the resolution was moved discussed and voted for at a meeting of rank and file workers at a crucial point in history.

The record of the seafarers’ position stands as a tantalising glimpse of the “Third Camp” politics that might have been in Aotearoa [New Zealand].

• Sources: Evening Post; Graeme Hunt, Black Prince: the biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh
• Mike Kyriazopoulos is an activist in Fightback (Aotearoa/New Zealand) and a sympathiser of the AWL.