Looking back, the watershed moment of the modern Australian labour movement was really 1975. The Governor-General sacked the reforming Labor government and put in the conservatives under Malcolm Fraser to govern instead. Workers organised a huge surge of strikes and demonstrations in response; but the union leaders limited and deflected the movement. After that, the left-wing ferment of Australia’s early 1970s subsided quite fast, thought the trade union movement remained strong. You would have been in your early teens then. Do you remember what you made of it?
I remember my father being horrified by it and being on strike — he was a Labor Party man, politically — and I remember the protests on TV. But the protests were in the city centres. There were no protests on the streets in the suburbs. Nothing happened on the streets in the suburbs. We were living in Virginia then, about 10km north of Brisbane city centre.
You wanted to stay on at school — Hendra State High School — after 15, but your parents said no. Why was that? How did you feel about it?
I felt gutted, as if I’d been told I was insignificant. Dad was away at sea at the time, and Mum said I had to get a job and support the household. I think it was so that she would have a bit of money to spend on top of the household basics. When Dad came back from sea, he was not impressed with the decision. Then I worked for a year and saved money so that I could go back to school. Mum was OK with it then, but this time Dad said no: he said I’d made my decision, and I had to stick with it.
You started out working in a bank, though you soon moved on. When did you first get into trade union activity? And then you joined the Socialist Party of Australia: how did you get into that?
I worked for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for the first year. Working for a bank then was like working for the public service: your job was secure and you could expect a good pension. I think I chose the bank because my dad was always a bit in awe of people who worked in offices. I didn’t like the bank. Then I worked as a clerk for a wine and spirits merchant, and went through a few other jobs.
In early 1979 I got a job in the big brewery in Milton, in the Brisbane city centre. That was a good job, and well-organised in the Liquor and Allied Trades Union (which later merged into the LHMU, then into United Voice). Even before that, though, I was interested in the Industrial Workers of the World. I used to buy their paper from a bookstore in the city centre, though the IWW had no group in Brisbane, or anywhere in Australia as far as I know.
I joined the Socialist Party of Australia [SPA, a “hardline” pro-USSR split from the Communist Party of Australia] in a period when I was out of work. I knew they had influence in some unions, and I read their paper.
You knew about the SPA from the union journals which your dad had, since he was a strong member of the Seamen’s Union of Australia. But your dad also warned you against the SPA. And the SPA at the end of the 1970s was an ageing organisation, not very active, and not very attractive to young people. It wouldn’t have been too hard to find out about other left-wing organisations. Why the SPA? What were you reading at the time?
Although I played football and all that, I was a young man who always wanted to listen to older people and learn about their struggles. I was reading a lot about the US labour movement. I got books from the State Library. I particularly remember The Bending Cross, Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs, and the books of Philip S Foner. I didn’t come across any books by Trotsky or Lenin — or Stalin.
In the SPA, I’d sell the paper near the War Memorial as people came out of the Central rail station, and I went to branch meetings. The SPA would have had 30 or 40 people in Brisbane, though often the membership would be divided into a number of small branches in order to increase Brisbane representation at the SPA conference.
I thought the meetings were dull. Most of the members were older people who did their trade union activity and little else. The SPA, on the whole, didn’t give me new stuff to read, though I did read the Communist Manifesto. The main idea in the SPA was slavish devotion to all things “Soviet”. The big debate in the SPA at the time was about the street demonstrations [in defiance of a ban on all such demonstrations imposed by the right-wing Bjelke-Petersen state government] — should the SPA support them or condemn them as student extremism? I thought that was stupid: of course you should support the demonstrations. But I didn’t come across other groups on the left much then, or until I came back to Australia after going to Moscow and to Denmark.
Jim Henderson, the SPA state secretary, took a liking to me, and so about six months into my SPA membership I was asked if I wanted to go and study at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow. Of course I did. I went from downtown Brisbane where it was 32°C, and two days later I was on the tarmac in Moscow Airport where it was -35°C. So, a pretty big difference for a young larrikin from Australia!
We got to read some basic works of Marx and Lenin in Moscow, with pretty heavy pressure about how to interpret them. The tutors were hyped up on “the leading role of the party” to the exclusion of everything else. They were carried away on a particular interpretation of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? This was at the time of Eurocommunism [a trend, particularly in some European CPs, to be more critical of Moscow: most of the Eurocommunists eventually became ordinary social-democrats or liberals, but at the time there were also leftish currents in Eurocommunism]. By this time the French and Italian CPs had stopped their members going to the Institute. The main CPs represented were hard-line Stalinist parties — the West Germans, the Scandinavians, South Americans. No British. I don’t remember any Greeks. The line from the CPSU was that the Italian CP had played a good role in developing a mass organisation, but we should be critical of its appeasement of capital.
The Danish students asked for a lecture on Trotsky, and were severely reprimanded for the request. Trotsky had been completely eradicated as a figure in history. I found the Russians were very interested in “social origins”. Every form asked about your social origins. I think that was about their distrust of intellectuals: they didn’t like questions. The most powerful moments for me were going on manoeuvres with the Red Army. I had huge respect for the sacrifices of the Soviet peoples in World War Two. Only later did I find out how many tens of millions had died unnecessarily because of Stalin’s policies.
In the Soviet Union the economy was incredibly distorted. There was no obvious poverty, and it wasn’t like what I can imagine it would have been in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s under Stalin, it was more relaxed. But to some extent you knew your movements were watched. In hindsight, the society was not sustainable. Certain things struck me as being very odd, like how a second-hand car was three times more expensive than a new car, because the supply and demand problem was completely out of kilter; the distribution of food was completely disorganised. This was 62 years after the Russian Revolution.
In some respects they just didn’t get it as far as logistics went. For all that, it took me by surprise that I was there in 1980, and eleven years later there was no Soviet Union. It was stunning, politically. A shock to the system.
From Moscow, you did not come back directly to Australia, but went to live for a while in Denmark with your friend Anna. What did you did politically and job-wise while you were in Denmark?
I was stymied by the language barrier. I worked in a textile factory and in a factory rustproofing cars, all minimum-wage jobs, and I had an extended time out of work. Then I told my friend Anna that I had to go back to Australia because I couldn’t live on a woman’s wages: that’s how sexist I was.
I was politically active in support of the IRA hunger-strikers in Northern Ireland, and I attended some meeting with the Danish Communist Party and sold its daily paper. The Danish CP then had 15,000 members in a population of only five million. You could not have imagined then that it would all be over in less than a decade. [The residual Communist Party of Denmark, which operates as a part of the “Red Green Alliance”, has maybe a few hundred members].
Scandinavian social democracy has some pluses that we don’t have in Australia. And you could speak your mind freely in Denmark, while in the USSR you had to be careful. But, I thought, at least in the Soviet Union everyone had a job.
So you came back to Australia and started working as a seafarer. You were still a member of the SPA. In 1982-3 the SPA split. The SPA opposed the Accord [a deal between the unions and the Labor Party, mainly crafted by Communist Party of Australia people in the unions], but its main trade union figures supported the Accord and split away to form the Association for Communist Unity and the Maritime Unions Socialist Activities Association. You went with the ACU and MUSAA...
I thought the Accord was shit, but I also saw it as an issue of loyalty to my union. I was expunged from the SPA around 1983 because I was, according to the SPA leaders, not a revolutionary but a pure trade unionist. The SPA leaders were having a purge of trade unionists at the time who wouldn’t kow-tow to what the party hierarchy wanted. In hindsight, the SPA leaders were right on the issue in dispute — they wanted to oppose the “Accord” between the unions and the Labor government, and the leading SPA trade unionists wanted to go along with the majority of the unions — but I experienced it as an issue of loyalty to my trade union comrades.
The split produced a new organisation, called the Association for Communist Unity, and in the maritime area, MUSAA, the Maritime Union Socialist Activities Association. They were both fundamentally Stalinist organisations. There was also BUSAA, the Building Union Socialist Activities Association, which was supposed to keep their so-called Marxist ideas alive within the building industry. But over time those organisations faded away. I got more and more involved in the seafarers’ union [which merged in 1993 with the Waterside Workers Federation to form the MUA]. I’d be away at sea half the year or more, sometimes for brief stints of six weeks or so, sometimes for three months at a time.
I was still reading a lot: Upton Sinclair, anything I could get my hands on about the US labour movement. I was interested in the Middle East, the civil war in Lebanon, the Druze. I wrote away to Progress Publishers, found books in second-hand stores, borrowed books from the State Library. Then in 1985 I was active in supporting the SEQEB dispute. The end of it all came with the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation [federally, in 1986]. We just stood by and let it happen: worse, Tom McDonald and Pat Clancy [ACU leaders in the Building Workers Industrial Union] planned it. I remember McDonald saying: “Gallagher [Norm Gallagher, federal secretary of the BLF, a Maoist] will be fixed this time”.
In 1988, Children of the Arbat, a semi-autobiographical novel about the mid-1930s USSR, was published for the first time in English. Anna, my Danish friend, sent it to me: she was splitting from Stalinism. I started realising that I had very serious deficiencies on the question of democracy, and I set out to change that. I had become a stooge for the Stalinist union officials. I had to become what I was going to be true to, not necessarily what would have advanced my career in the union.
I read other books critical of Stalinism, like Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
As you became more critical of the SPA and post-SPA tradition, you were in contact with groups like the Democratic Socialist Party, which also offered criticisms [the DSP was a Castroite group with a Trotskyist back-story, which until about a decade ago was the biggest far-left group in Australia]. What did you make of them?
The first thing that put me off the DSP was when I was in prison for my activities in the SEQEB dispute in 1985. There was a split in the Nuclear Disarmament Party [a party which flourished briefly in the mid-80s], and it seemed to have been inspired by Jim Percy [then leader of the DSP]. I thought: if this is Trotskyist politics, it is not for me. Then I saw the DSP move Sue Bolton out of the bus workers’ union in Brisbane, where she was building a real base, and down south to work in their office. I thought it showed they didn’t understand how to deal with workers.
I came across Ian Rintoul and the ISO [then the Australian satellite of the SWP], too. But I didn’t go to any of their meetings. I saw them mainly as university people, with no roots in the working-class movement.
What did you make of the collapse of the Stalinist order in Eastern Europe and in the USA in 1989-91, at the time it happened?
Because the left is so fragmented in Australia, there was no real analysis of what was happening. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 was shocking, but there had been a big lead-up to it. I don’t remember any big discussions. But at that time I was away at sea a lot.
You’re critical of the way that some of the Trotskyist groups train and form their activists to operate in the working-class movement. What lessons would you draw for how Trotskyist groups must train our young activists, who almost always start off with no trade union background, and sometimes with a social background in the middle class or in the markedly better-off sections of the working class, in how to operate in workplaces, in union organisations, and in struggles and campaigns?
I would train them to become excellent industrial delegates [shop stewards] first and then, through winning workers’ confidence by showing that they are fearless industrially, inject the politics. I’ve seen some brave young Trotskyists go into jobs and run a very strong political line straight off which isolates them. It’s important that people in the workplace feel that you’re part of them, not separate from them.
The Stalinists say you have to be the best worker in the workplace, but that’s wrong. Just be a good worker and do your job. It almost never happens that the workers who complain most are the most militant, so don’t get dragged into that. The main thing is: be yourself. At the same time, we need to train and educate our young activists not just to be effective in day-to-day battles and to win the respect of their workmates, but also to contribute intellectually to building a revolutionary organisation sharp, clear, and theoretically-grounded enough to make a positive contribution towards rebuilding the political, social, and moral culture of the labour movement.
What ideas would you propose, from your experience, on how best to do that?
There is a huge danger of being consumed by trade unionism. You have to stayed rooted in your beliefs and your political organisation, attend your political meetings, and understand that the theoretical basis is fundamental. The world is full of trade union deadbeats, and we don’t need any more of those. Being just another union delegate or another union official will give you no capacity to change the basis of society to one based on human need, not greed. It is the job of the organisation to avoid a divide between the trade union activists on one side, and the writers, speakers, etc. on the other.