The militant minority
Organising rank and file workers in the thirties
By TOM O’LINCOLN [email protected]
(This first appeared as a pamphlet, published by Socialist Action [Melbourne] in 1986.)
"EVERY PARTY that desires to belong to the Communist International must carry on systematic and persistent communist work in the trade unions."(1) This was the blunt statement of the Comintern in 1920. Against the objections of a leftist minority, Lenin and Zinoviev insisted that the trade unions were vitally important working class organisations in which revolutionaries must participate. True, they were reformist; true, they were dominated by a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that was part of the "labour aristocracy" spawned by imperialism; but the rank and file working class fighters were inside the unions, and a Communist presence directly alongside these fighters was the basic premise of the united front strategy, "To the masses!" which had been adopted by the Communist International in that year.
In the English-speaking countries, trade union work took on a particular importance, as socialist party organisation was weak. There were, of course, the labour parties but these barred Communists rather early in the piece and the unions consequently became the main arena for united front activity for most of the twenties.
The unions posed certain classic problems both in Britain and in Australia. The established trade union officials were reformist at best, openly pro-capitalist at worst. The union rank and file, though often disaffected and sometimes very militant, nevertheless showed a worrisome tendency to regard these officials as the legitimate leadership in preference to the Communists. The united front concept -- common work with militant rank and file workers around issues of immediate concern, with the aim of exposing the inadequacies of the reformist leaders -- was aimed at overcoming just this sort of problem. But what organisational form was the united front to take in the trade unions?
The Comintern called on the British CP (and by implication the Australians) to establish a broad, oppositional rank and file movement. Losovski spelled this out at the fourth congress in 1922:
As far as Britain is concerned, we see clearly that it would be disastrous if the Party were content to organise its forces only within its little Party nuclei. The aim here, must be to create a more numerous opposition trade union movement ... and the Communist Party will itself grow concurrently with the growth of the opposition. (2)
The British CP had a recent domestic model for this project in the powerful shop stewards’ movement that had grown up towards the end of the first World War. They had, moreover, a relatively favourable environment in the radicalisation and class polarisation which reached its peak in the 1926 general strike. The CP-established "National Minority Movement" was founded in 1924, and in the period just before the general strike it claimed to represent 900,000 workers. (3)
No such hopeful vistas presented themselves for the fledgling Communist Party of Australia. Not only were the mid-twenties a period of reaction in this country, with industrial militancy at a low ebb, but the CPA faced them with a membership of only a few hundred. Even so, they made an effort to implement the perspective. In 1924 the CPA called a series of conferences in New South Wales to launch a "Left Wing Movement (4); but despite a "grand meeting" which saw "the Communist Hall … crowded with militants" (5) no on-going organisation emerged. Nothing daunted, the CPA launched a "Militant Minority Movement" a few years later, and by 1929 was able to hold another major rank and file conference. The conference was told that the MMM had no base outside Sydney apart from the mining centres, but these latter provided some strength. In Queensland the movement was "not of a very strong nature", but it had carried out a successful intervention in the waterside strike of the previous year.(6)
1929 was a crucial year in Australian labour relations, the employers taking the offensive and breaking some important unions. In the coalfields there was a prolonged lockout ending in defeat for the miners. Edgar Ross in his history of the Miners’ Federation suggests that the Communists were able to make some impact on the union rank and file both before and during this struggle. In 1928 they had held a conference to draw up a program for the coal industry:
The MMM spokesmen launched a frontal attack on the tribunal and posed "direct action", with implications of general strike, as the alternative to arbitration. They called for a more centralised union, with a lessening of district authority, on the one hand, and, on the other, greater rank and file participation in union activity. (7)
At the union’s national convention they won considerable support for some of these ideas and they secured the establishment of pit committees. In the lockout of 1929, they appear to have won increasing support for a general strike of all members.
"In all these disputes", Alistair Davidson has written of the 1929 struggles, "a significant contrast became apparent: while the workers were becoming more militant, their union leaders were becoming more defeatist."(8) And Ross writes that the famous demonstration by miners at Rothbury was "essentially a rank and file affair ... striking evidence of the gulf that had developed between the leadership of the union and the membership clamouring for action." (9) Such a situation was seemingly tailor-made for the construction of an oppositional rank and file movement on a mass scale, as envisaged by the Communist International of the early twenties.
IN 1931 the Arbitration Court, sensing no doubt that the unions were weakened by the defeats of 1929 and by rising unemployment, imposed a ten per cent wage cut. The ACTU discussed the cut at a national congress but decided not to do much about it. At the end of this congress the Communists decided to launch a new national rank and file movement, with the shortened name of "Minority Movement". Bill Orr, the militant miner who became its secretary, outlined the circumstances:
The ten per cent wage-cut imposed by the Federal Arbitration Court aroused tremendous resentment.
At the All-Australian Trade Union Congress of 1931 the bureaucrats did not have it all their own way.
Already an extensive agitation had been carried on by the militants amongst the rank and file for struggle against the wage cut, and, when the ACTU met in 1931, although most of the delegates were well-paid trade union officials, there were a number of rank and filers who completely exposed the rottenness and bankruptcy of reformism.
So well did the militants do their work that Davies, who was then general secretary of the Miners’ Federation and vice president of the ACTU, said at the conclusion of this congress that, "it had only been successful for the Communists" …
At the conclusion of the Congress these comrades were forced to the conclusion that a great deal of organisational work would have to be done before they could successfully win the majority of the trade unionists of this country to militancy.
At the conclusion of Congress they decided to constitute themselves as the Provisional Commiittee of the MM in initiating a policy of militant unionism for the purpose of carrying on a struggle against those who were using their positions to betray the struggles of the workers.(10)
The new organisation became the Australian section of the Red International of Labour Unions, replacing the reformist-led NSW Trades and Labour Council. By mid-year it had launched an eight-page newspaper, the Red Leader, and it was set to grow both in size and influence.
The depression was rapidly transforming the industrial scene. Unemployment reached 29 per cent in 1932, and many unions faced virtual collapse under the combined pressure of employer attacks and failing financial memberships. The officials, already distinguished by their lack of militancy in 1929, now became positively timid. Sections of the unemployed found themselves in desperate straits, yet the official labour movement seemed prepared to do little to help them.
A vacuum developed and the Communists attempted to fill it, with some success. The Communist Party’s membership increased four-fold in 1930, and "at one stage unemployed workers were actually queuing up at the Party’s headquarters in [Melbourne] to sign their application forms." (11) This growth occurred as a new and somewhat more dynamic leadership was taking over in the CPA. J.B. Miles had become General Secretary and Lance Sharkey was now editing the newspaper Workers’ Weekly; and these two men had been elected to leadership with the support of the Communist International, which was calling for an aggressive new militancy world-wide.
Moscow had declared that the world was entering a time of wars and revolutions, and that in this time of crisis, capitalist society was polarising. Not only would the open parties of capitalism gravitate to fascist solutions, but even the reformist labour and social-democratic parties were becoming tools of fascism. Ranged against all these reactionary forces were the militant working class and their Communist leadership. United front activity with the "social-fascist" reformists was no longer possible.
The prediction about a new crisis of capitalism was strikingly accurate, as it turned out, for the world was entering a great depression. But the strategic orientation proved disastrous for Communist parties in most places. Describing the labour parties as fascist was hardly a recipe for winning influence among reformist-minded workers, and in Germany the CP’s refusal to unite with the Social Democratic Party against the real fascists allowed Hitler to triumph over the bodies of a divided labour movement. However in Australia the situation was more complicated. The skyrocketing unemployment, and the vacuum of trade union leadership, meant that a small party like the CPA was bound to find areas where its militancy would pay off, and where the more bizarre aspects of Stalinist politics might not be an obstacle for a time.
The first and most obvious area of recruitment was among the unemployed. But in addition to the actual jobless, the Communists found an important area of work among a special section of the unemployed: those working on sustenance schemes. These were public works projects designed to get the unemployed off the streets -- indeed out of the towns, for many of the projects were located outside city limits -- and into some kind of work at starvation wages. In creating these projects the authorities ironically gave a gift to the Communist Party, which set about to unionise the sustenance workers with sometimes spectacular results. Some of the first strong Minority Movement groups were among the "dole workers" and a number of famous strikes were won. Work was stopped on the Melbourne Shrine for eight weeks before the government, was forced to grant pay rises of around 50 per cent. Other victories were won on relief jobs both in Victoria and NSW.
How could relief workers, who had no real bargaining power, win such gains? Ernie Thornton, later secretary of the ironworkers’ union, raised this question rhetorically at the national MM conference in 1933:
Why was it that the watersiders, timber workers and meat workers were defeated and yet 4000 dole workers who went on strike -- without by doing so interfering with production, and actually saving the government the necessity of feeding them -- were able to win their strike? The only answer is that, in the strikes of the timber workers etc., the union officials had control, and in the dole workers’ strike, they had no influence.
The three strikes of employed workers were sold out, but the dole workers were under the leadership of the Central Rank and File Strike Committee.
The dole workers won their strike only because they adopted tactics that hit the boss where it hurt -- for instance, the demonstrations in the City on the main shopping night; one result was that the London Stores were 1500 pounds behind at closing time that night, and Myers sent their hundreds of shop girls home at 7:30 pm. The very next night the Melbourne Herald came out with a leading article demanding that the unemployed be given more work. (12)
The analysis was perhaps simplistic but the message was clear: rank and file control, distrust of officials, and direct action aimed both at "hitting the boss where it hurt" and at making an impact on public opinion.
The relief strikes allowed the MM to establish new unions run on the lines it advocated, and lead them to victories which it could hold up as exemplary; it provided a training ground for trade union cadres; and it offered a more stable recruiting ground among the unemployed than was to be found at random in the localities. When these recruits later found regular employment they provided an important source of experienced trade union activists.
IN A LETTER published at the beginning of 1933, the Red International of Labour Unions congratulated the Minority Movernent on the "recruitment of nearly 3000 individual members", the "building of 60 job groups and the organising of eight shop corTimittees", and also the "winning of affiliations from reformist union branches" (although the latter were short-lived).(1 3) It was clear that by this time the movement had passed a crucial test, the establishment of a modest but real base in the "big battalions" of the regular trade union movement.
The strongest base was among the coal miners where the national secretary of the MM, Bill Orr, won the general secretaryship at the end of 1933. The scope of the organisation behind his election may be surmised from the fact that ‘130,000 leaflets and manifestos were distributed, and tens of thousands of local leaflets and special bulletins."(14) And no sooner was he elected than he and his supporters found themselves in the midst of one of the great strikes of the thirties, in the Victorian mining centre of Wonthaggi.
The Wonthaggi mines were owned by the Victorian government, which used them to supply the railways. With the deepening of the depression this government had adopted a strategy of eroding conditions and wages, which were already none too good. Wages were poor with small margins for skill, and the Miners’ Federation Central Council asserted that conditions of work were "the worst in the Commonwealth ... one mineworker out of every three was injured last year in the course of his occupation, and on top of this the union has to meet the bill of 150 to 160 pounds per fortnight to alleviate sickness arising out of unemployment." (15)
The employers’ offensive led to guerrilla warfare on both sides, management retaliating against stoppages with victimisations. The union declared that it was an "accumulation of attacks, pin-pricking, intimidation and the failure of the management to co-operate in easing the situation which have led to stop-work demonstrations" and that management were singling out individuals for discipline in an arbitrary fashion. (16) Management had also refused to recognise pit representatives. Finally the sacking or suspension of nine men led to a general stoppage.
The Wonthaggi strike was later regarded as a model dispute by the miners and the MM, so it is worth looking at how it was waged. "More important than the actual issues involved in the strike," writes Edgar Ross, "was the organisation of the strike activities ... The basic approach was to make every striker an activist. It could be correctly stated that there was nothing essentially new in this but the thoroughness with which it was done did in fact add up to something new in the history of the union." (17)
One key to the strike organisation was the hegemony of the Minority Movement, which had already established a substantial base in a series of struggles the previous year. It went into the strike with a membership of some 140, and recruited another 130 miners in the course of the dispute itself. Another central factor was the strength of local solidarity: while coal mining communities are traditionally closely-knit, Wonthaggi had an especially strong tradition of communal self-help. For example, the miners owned their own hospital, a dental clinic and a dispensary. Given this background, one is not really surprised at the high level of strike organisation that the Wonthaggi miners achieved, and that was vividly described by one of the strikers:
The town is a hive of industry. Cars are coming and going; meeting after meeting is being held; butchers, barbers, rabbitters, woodcutters, committee members, mien and women -- hundreds of them -- are busier now than when the mines were working.
On the broad committee leading the strike there are sixty activists, and in the various propaganda, relief, and other activities over 200 men and women are working hard ... Wonthaggi is a town at war -- on active service against the boss.
He went on to cite an Agitation and Propaganda Committee with an average of 16 members, a Relief Committee of 30, a free hairdressing salon with four barbers, a butchering department distributing 6000 pounds of meat per week, a bakery, an entertainment committee which organised "concerts and dances in the surrounding country to raise finances," and the women’s auxiliary -- first of its kind. The MM itself published a bulletin once or twice a week.
"The militants outside Wonthaggi hold the balance of power," the striker concluded, "and if they back us up, we are sure of victory." (18) This support, too, the Wonthaggi miners set out to organise, with nearly twenty speakers touring near and far, some even out to Western Australia, and a massive blitz on Melbourne which they planned for May Day. This latter proved quite an adventure.
One hundred and fifty miners accompanied by their union band were to visit Melbourne, hold twenty factory gate meetings and address five mass rallies. That they managed to accomplish a substantial proportion of this program was a tribute to their determination in the face of intimidation and sabotage.
The Police Commissioner instructed the local sergeant to warn them that they were sure to meet trouble in Melbourne. Bus drivers, fearing police harassment, refused at the last minute to transport the delegation. When the undaunted miners sought to travel by rail, "the local stationmaster wasted so much time cashing the cheque for tickets for our contingent that the train left without us." And Albert Monk at Trades Hall did his bit for the class struggle by telling the union that a "bashing" was almost inevitable. (19) The strikers finally hired cars to get them to Melbourne, held at least a dozen meetings, and addressed a thousand workers at Trades Hall and another fifteen hundred at the Yarra Bank.
Support from Victorian workers was considerable. Bill Orr reported that Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Ballarat and Bendigo Trades and Labor Councils had declared their support, and "the Victorian comrades have been able to raise by their own efforts, nearly 1000 pounds in cash and a considerable amount of food-stuffs to aid them in the struggle."(20) In Melbourne on June 6, five hundred job delegates voted unanimously to support the strike, and the ALP executive followed suit.
The struggle ended in a famous victory, with the victimised workers reinstated, the State government abandoning its offensive on wages and conditions, and the management recognising the pit committees. If there were any doubt about the significance of the outcome, it would be dispelled by the grumbling of the Melbourne Argus:
The Ministry’s terms were generous -- too generous to men who have behaved so badly … while it is gratifying to know that the strike has been settled, no strong belief will be entertained that the strikers will return to work chastened in spirit. (21)
At the same time the Minority Movement swept the polls in local union elections, bringing to power the popular Idris Williams who would remain a prominent leader of the miners for many years. This in turn led in short order to the affiliation of the local union as a whole to the MM, which brought about the dissolution of the MM as a separate group in Wonthaggi; however in its place there stood a strong new branch of the Communist Party, with Williams among its members.
Great things were also achieved among North Queensland sugar workers, a group who had grievances against their officials if ever anyone had. In May 1934, the MM convened a rank and file sugar workers’ conference at Innisfail, with 34 delegates including representatives from two Italian and one Yugoslav workers’ clubs. "Five hours were devoted to discussion of the report and resolution," (22) indicating the considerable dedication of the activists if not much variety in the conference format. And in the course of 1934 the hard work put into rank and file organisation paid off in a series of wildcat strikes, some of them in successful protest over Weil’s disease, a form of plague carried by rats in the cane:
At Inkerman, at the beginning of the season, the workers struck against breaches of the award. The officials endeavoured to get them to resume work, and when they failed in this, tried to isolate them from their fellow workers in other areas … the workers remained solid and were successful in having their grievances rectified.
At Tully and South Johnstone, the mill management tried to get the men to work forty-eight hours instead of forty hours per week. The union officials advised the men to accept this. Once again they were repulsed and the workers refused to surrender their hard-won principles.
The next development was unforeseen. Weil’s disease broke out at Ingham. Fifteen men died and over 150 more were taken to hospital, but neither government nor bosses, Arbitration Court nor union officials, called a cessation of work … The men attempted to get their union active but received no assistance, and so were forced to strike under their own leadership. They forced the court to sit while they were on strike and grant them burnt cane and increased prices ... (23)
Similar victories were won at South Johnstrone, Goondi and Mourilyan and in the aftermath of these upheavals, rank and file area committees were established in several centres, linking up in a central body. In this manner was built the Communist base in the sugar industry, which was soon to bear fruit in the great strike of 1935, "not a struggle for wages but for life" which is chronicled in Jean Devanny’s novel Sugar Heaven. (24)
Another major centre of the MM was the railways. The Australian Railways Union was a left bastion from early on, even affiliating briefly with the RILU in the early thirties. Although the Communist Party attacked its leadership as "social fascist", the ARU leaders nevertheless were much more tolerant of the CPA’s activities than even most left officials. Here the centre of MM work was in the shop committees, which will be discussed below. Other important areas of work were the building trades, the tramways, and the maritime unions where the Communists won control in the latter half of the decade.
Finally there was the Pastoral Workers Union, a small breakaway from the Australian Workers Union, set up in 1930. Norman Jefferey emerged as General Secretary and the PWU became the MM’s main base in the countryside for a time, with some 2000 members at its height, largely in southern NSW. The MM paid considerable attention to the bush, and one of the minor delights in reading the Red Leader is the occasional headline such as "Bush Workers’ Committees Rally Country Toilers -- Rabbit Trappers Organise At Last". (25)
SHOP COMMITTEES have occupied a central place in the thinking of leftwing trade unionists in Australia since the end of World War 1, when such bodies were briefly established in meat works and dockyards. The idea of shop committee organisation flowed logically from ideas of industrial unionism which were growing in influence at that time, and many leftists saw them as the logical building blocks of the "One Big Union", a scheme which was prominent around 1920. (26)
However the first stable shop committee movement was established in the late twenties in the railways, beginning in NSW. Why here and not somewhere else? Partly it had to do with the tolerance shown to the committees by the railways management in the first few years; the management does not seem at first to have understood the radical potential of the committees, and only began to crack down on them when it was too late. In addition there was the distinctive structure of the industry:
First, the railway system was geographically spread with a natural communications system ... Guards, engine drivers and some permanent-way workers were, of course, able to travel freely. Shop committee broadsheets and newspapers could be loaded on to the trains for distribution …
Second, the railway workshops possessed structural characteristics that encouraged shop committee organisation. They contained a large number of employees, organised into numerous different unions. The largest railway workshops in Australia … have all employed more than 4000 workers at different times … (27)
From the railways, this form of organisation spread to the NSW power industry, where it remained a potent force until fairly recently.
The railway shop committees would have been formed in NSW with or without the Minority Movement; they were well under way by the late twenties. But that does not mean they were not of central importance for the MM. The call for rank and file committees of one sort or another was a key demand of the movement, and their success in the railways was something to point to. Moreover, the MM played a central role in building shop committees in a great many other places. Ted Rowe, an engineer at the North Ballarat workshops "was the guiding spirit behind the inauguration of the first stable shop committee in the Victorian railways", and JJ. Brown, an ARU member at the North Melbourne workshops, was substantially responsible for the shop committee formed there in 193411. Both were active in forming the Combined Railway organising committee, a subsection of the Militant Minority Movement, and the organising base from which the shop committee movement spread throughout the Victorian Rail Service."(28)
Wherever they were active, MM members called for shop committees; wherever these were formed, they sought to work within them and win leadership. Consequently, shop committees became and remained centres of Communist union strength for long periods to come, for example in the NSW power industry and in the naval dockyards.
IN LATE 1930, sheetmetal worker Tom Wright commented that successful Communist work in the unions depended on the revolutionary minority "winning the leadership of the workers, independent of the reformist bureaucracy, and based on rank and file organisation." (29) What sort of organisation did the Party seek to build?
Shop committees represented only one of many possible forms of organisation, alongside "committees of action", strike committees, "rank and file committees" and MM groups. In practice, the organisational forms might merge easily into one another. Creating a local MM group might make it possible to establish a somewhat broader "committee of action"; should a strike occur, this body might the secure the election of a strike committee, which might take on a permanent shop committee form in the aftermath of the dispute. What matters most, therefore, is not the formal structures but the organising methods that lay behind them.
Rank and file publications on the job occupied a central place in the MM approach. "The most important part of our activity in the tramway industry is the bulletin," a trammie told the MM national conference. (30) But a successful bulletin had to be more than a passive propaganda sheet. A miner from Kurri Kurri took up the role of job bulletins at some length:
A pit paper where a comrade from the local headquarters obtains one or two articles of job news and then fills up with general articles and prints underneath the name issued by the ……Pit Group of the MM is obviously a fraud. The group itself feels no responsibility for such a paper and naturally such a paper does not throb with the life of the enterprise.
The Kurri miners had a much more elaborate conception of what a workplace publication could be:
Before or after the business has been discussed, half an hour or more is allotted to a class on organising the MM … These lessons deal concretely with the role of job papers, how they are organised, how the group collectively discusses what articles are to appear …
The bathrooms are causing a lot of discontent … Here is a campaign for our proposed paper, and someone volunteers to investigate. In other sections of the pit, where we have no members, the workers have grievances, and some of our members volunteer to get full information from acquaintances in these sections. Thus we obtain the material for further campaigns.
All this information is brought to the meeting and discussed, and comrades are selected to write and edit the articles and produce material on general campaigns. Other comrades are elected to draw up headings or print the paper, thus developing a real collective interest in the paper. (31)
Of course, not all the results were quite so successful. The central leadership of the MM had regularly to chide its local groups for producing papers so badly printed as to be unreadable, and for "merely criticising the officials without offering the workers an alternative" and thus being placed in the category of belly-achers." (32) More than once the job bulletins were slated for being boring, and E.A. Knight, Sydney district secretary of the movement complained that some were "so stiff in their make-up that the workers reading them could naturally ask, ‘Do these blokes ever make a joke?’" (33) Even so, the steady proliferation of rank and file papers throughout the thirties must be accounted one of the big successes of Communist trade union work.
The chosen issue might not always be bathrooms, but anyone out to build job organisation had to relate to all the immediate concerns of the workers. ‘Workers are more interested in an organisation which can show them how to fight a reduction in wages than in a sect which merely indulges in abstract revolutionary propaganda," insisted the Red Leader. (34) Sugar worker Karl King related how he built up job control in Mourilyan, North Queensland by starting out with a small victory: obtaining soft soap for the workers to wash their hands after work. (35) And a worker at the Enfield railway workshop in Sydney indicated how careful work around people’s cultural and leisure interests could both be linked with industrial issues and be used to raise consciousness:
To get the workers interested in committees of action on the job, we find that it is necessary to broaden these committees and link them up with the sport and social side of the workers’ life … For instance, some are interested in football, others in cricket … Then there is the social side … those interested can be elected onto the social committee, and will assist in running dances to finance the various objects, including the industrial side and the job papers …
All these methods can be adopted successfully, thereby bringing the workers together, getting them interested, and proving to the workers that they have unlimited talent which, if they like to use it, will eventually show them that they do not need to depend on trade union secretaries or politicians to do anything for them.
Under the benign gaze of the Committee of Action there was even a "team of young footballers, on whose jerseys is sewn, ‘COA Enfield Juniors’."(36)
One vexing question in the early thirties was who would be allowed to participate in job organisation. Because of the disastrous failures of trade unionism at the onset of the depression, and also no doubt because of many workers’ considerable poverty, far too few workplaces were closed shops. And where workers were union members, they were not always financial -- even those who belonged to the MM! Bill Orr later wrote that in 1931 "the situation demanded that special measures be taken to turn the attention of militant workers towards the trade unions." (37) In 1932 the Sydney MM complained that there were "some members of the MM in the AEU who treat trade union work as a joke", that in the ETU "only two or three members take the question seriously", and that among the seamen "this phase of MM activities is carried on in a light-hearted manner." (38)
If the militants often looked askance at the unions, one could hardly expect the general run of workers to rush to pay their dues. Consequently the MM called for strike committees to be "broad in composition, embracing all sections of the workers, whether they be members or not." (39) This in itself might be unproblematic, since anyone who was on strike was, at least, not a strike-breaker and might claim the right to participate in electing the leaders of the struggle. But what of permanent shop committees? One obvious solution was for shop committees to represent all the workers, while campaigning for 100 per cent financial membership. But eventually in 1937 the NSW railway shop committees amended their rules to exclude non-unionists, and this move was supported by the CPA -- which by this time had moderated its attitude to official union structures in any case.
The Communist conception of rank and file organisation and control sometimes contained a utopian element which emerges clearly from one episode in the building trades. In the depths of the depression, many unions moved towards amalgamation, often on the basis of extremely bureaucratic administrative structures. The MM campaigned for rejection of such schemes in favour of amalgamation on the basis of rank and file democracy. The two opposing approaches were put before the rank and file at a meeting of 70 Melbourne building workers in 1932. The MM proposal dealing with the proposed amalgamation read, in part:
Election of job and area committees responsible to the workers on the job and in the locality … the democratic election of rank and file organs of struggle containing representatives of the unemployed.
All official positions to be immediately declared vacant, all officials to be elected annually, and to be subject to recall at any time by the rank and file, all officials’ salaries to be no more than the average ruling rate received by the workers in the industry; the majority of the executive positions to be held by the rank and file workers …
That the fighting programme of demands include a seven hour day and a five day week (without reduction in the weekly wage) … against arbitration and conciliation ... equal pay for equal work for youth workers.
That a rank and file committee be elected from the mass meeting to work out the details of a resolution to be submitted to a further mass meeting ... that no official of the union shall sit upon the rank and file committees.
Such a proposal was excellent in the abstract, but could only be put into practice as the culmination of a long process of base-building by the Communists. The motion was passed, reflecting perhaps a general atmosphere of discontent among the union members. But any illusion that the vote reflected a strong and organised base of support for the MM was immediately shattered, for as soon as the vote was taken "there was a general exit" and no rank and file committee could be formed. Thus nothing came of the whole exercise except a superficial propaganda victory for the Communists.(40)
ALONG WITH the MM’s general disregard for official union structures went a relative indifference to union boundaries. If a struggle was going on in an industry where the movement had few or no members, it simply intervened from outside. Two examples will illustrate the pattern.
In August, 1932 employers at Victorian spinning mills announced a 15 per cent wage cut. At one of them, Yarra Falls, all 800 workers took quick strike action and forced employers to retreat; management offered to limit the cut to 7.5 per cent. On the following day the union officials successfully persuaded the strikers to return to work on these terms pending negotiations; soon after that, two other mills won the same terms without having to strike. A victory of a sort had already been won, and it appeared that additional industrial action might secure further improvements.
The MM had by now swung into action and "by good fraction work in the different mills -- coupled with an extensive distribution of leaflets despite police intimidation at all mills -- real preparations were made for the Textile Workers Union meeting on Monday." It seems clear that unemployed supporters were used for much of this leafletting. At the union meeting "the workers attacked the attitude of the officials" and voted, that negotiations be conducted by rank and file delegates, a step that the Red Leader called a "precedent in working class history in this State". And at a following mass meeting, attended by a thousand workers, a rank and file strike committee of 25 members was elected, to be backed by committees in each mill. (41)
Now, however, the officials moved to isolate the strikers. At Geelong, where the workers had thus far remained solid in support, the union’s State secretary persuaded them to accept the 7.5 per cent compromise. Soon after, a similar result was reported from Ballarat. While the rank and file strike committee voted for bulletins, grassroots strike organisation and appeals to the labour movement at large, the officials simply refused to implement the decisions. Ultimately, when the employers refused to budge, the strikers were forced to return to work on the basis of a 7.5 per cent wage cut. The MM summed up its intervention in these rather critical terms:
The MM, with very weak contact in the union and the mills before the strike, was unable to influence large sections of the workers to any extent. Our message has been given daily to the workers. At a conservative estimate, 32,000 leaflets have been issued during the strike. Our influence has widened. We must crystallize it into organisational forms.(42)
A similar situation arose in the Sydney fur trade in September 1933, when a strike of fellmongers ended in defeat despite a spirited MM intervention, which was all the more noteworthy for the fact that the movement began with no base at all in the industry. The Red Leader report provides a very useful summary of the MM’s methodology, and can stand on its own:
The MM, although not having a group among the strikers, was able to lend a hand early in the dispute by making contact with the strikers, placing the Red Leader at the disposal of the Fellmongers so that the case for the fighting workers could be placed before the working class.
The Minority Movement was also able to begin the campaign for support in a number of directions through unemployed organisations and other unions, who were very early in the field with messages of encouragement and promises of support. The MM also made the suggestions which led to the election of the Rank and File Committee and the drafting of the strike committee’s program for publicity, relief, picketing etc.
The MM however must accept its full measure of criticism for relying too much upon the officials and the inexperienced fellmongers’ strike committee, who could not see the need for wide agitation and publicity as a necessary step to prepare the way for the extension of the dispute and for the collection of relief.
The MM did organise the production of strike bulletins for the fellmongers and textile workers, and organised a broad, independent publicity campaign through leaflets, MM bulletins, etc. but only after waiting too long for the strike committee to undertake the job. (43)
CONTRARY TO what is sometimes supposed, the central leadership of the Communist Party has usually placed considerable emphasis on work among women. However, translating this emphasis into practice on the ground has encountered two major difficulties: first, the political perspective within which this work was supposed to take place, which mostly dealt with women as housewives rather than as workers and which accepted the family institution; and secondly, the consciousness of the membership itself. Male members often refused to take the work seriously as did some female members, and many women lacked confidence or felt (often rightly) that initiatives on their part would only be opposed by men or denounced as "feminism" by the leadership.
The second factor has been a long-term problem on the left as elsewhere, but the first was largely a product of the Party’s move to the right after the end of the "Third Period". Until then the CPA placed considerable emphasis on women as workers, even publishing a regular paper called The Working Woman. The Minority Movement attempted to do its bit to put this orientation into practice.
In June 1932 the Red Leader published a program of women’s demands which it expected MM supporters to organise around. It called for:
This appears an ambitious program and one gains the impression that the movement intended to do something serious among women; what is more, perhaps the MM leadership was indeed as serious as it appears. Unfortunately, an essential resource was lacking:
Although it is essential that a woman comrade should take up work among women, the National Committee finds itself without any assistance from a woman comrade. This appears to be an indication that women comrades regard the MM as purely a man’s organisation. (46)
What is more, the Red Leader did not feel this was all the women’s fault. It slated "an attitude which almost amounts to flippancy" towards this question in "each organ of the MM’. (47) However there seemed to be no way out of this situation except to plug away, and this the movement did, demanding on October 1932, for example, that women should be represented on all strike committees, and "where women are a majority of those employed in any industry, there should be a majority of women on the strike committee."(48) And above all, the MM sought to mobilise women through conferences, of which there seemed to be an endless progression. One held in Sydney in early 1933 attracted 200 women; this was considered a major success, because it was larger than previous efforts and there were new faces present. Support for it had been laboriously built through local meetings. Unfortunately, the conference report suggests that while the movement could get a couple of hundred women together in a hall, it was not sure what to do next except talk to them:
The chairwoman’s address, which opened the conference at 11 am, dealt with the world-wide movement of the workers towards their emancipation, and contrasted the glowing achievements of workers in the USSR with the conditions of workers … in capitalist countries. She pointed out, in conclusion, the part that women were playing in the working class movement in all countries and in Australia. (49)
Reports followed on the danger of war, unemployment and (finally) women in industry. The only action to come out of all this was the election of a series of delegations and deputations.
In principle the movement was in favour of organising separate groups among women in the factories, though these were not supposed to be autonomous groups but were to work "under the direct leadership of the MM", and their tasks were to "draw the masses of the workers into the MM" (50) -- that is, they were to mobilise women to support the general aims of the movement. However, it is not clear that much organisation of this sort was actually created.
What was accomplished was the mobilisation of women to support their striking husbands. The Wonthaggi strike gave rise to the first coal miners’ women’s auxiliary, a form of organisation which later became common among the miners and was emulated by other unions in the postwar period. But perhaps the most interesting work was done among the wives of relief workers, as exemplified by this report of a struggle at Como near Sydney (the report was headlined "Women Play a Big Part in Como Strike"):
They have consistently helped the men in their fight. They have organised social functions, raffles, canvassed for food, collected at pay depots and on the jobs, spoken at meetings and contributed articles to the local press.
When the strikers marched to Sutherland to demand the dole, between 20 and 30 women accompanied them. Dole was refused to the men, but the women demanded relief for themselves and their children. This, too, was refused. That evening they went on a mass deputation to the Shire Council, and the women spoke on how the strike affects them.
On January 11 they organised a deputation to the Minister for Labor and Industry and other government officials, but were refused a hearing. That same night two of the women spoke to a crowded meeting at the Sutherland school of arts, and were given a rousing reception. At this meeting the local MLA announced that the dole would be issued on January 14.
And at a later meeting one of the women was quoted as saying:
We did not need a strike to bring poverty into our homes. It has been there for five years …grinding us down … but we are standing staunch and solid behind our men. (51)
Around the same time the Red Leader published a short story about women learning industrial militancy on the job (52) and the NSW State Unemployed and Relief Workers’ Council organised a conference that attracted 100 wornen from 35 organisations. This conference led to the formation of local "women’s bureaux" of the unemployed and relief workers’ organisations (which were led by the CPA and allied with the MM). Unfortunately, most of their energy seems to have gone into organising themselves: they were to "build up local committees, arrange deputations to local MP’s around various demands affecting women and children, elect delegates to local unemployed and relief councils, and from time to time call conferences. . ." (53) It was not a prospect to set the blood racing, and it was a sign of the changes that were coming over the Communist Party.
The original orientation to women as workers was fading. The Working Woman gave way to a magazine, Women Today, designed for housewives and aiming to "unite all classes of women." (54) These were the politics of the Popular Front, which sacrificed militancy for the sake of appealing to sections of the upper classes, and in the case of women, sacrificed a class orientation for an appeal to women as wives and mothers. In mid-1935 the Red Leader published a round-up of what the local women’s groups were doing in parts of Sydney. In St George they were "organising a campaign for free milk for children", while at Granville they had sent a deputation to the local member about special food orders and had bought a sewing machine for members’ use; at Balmain they had held a ‘Market Day and won the backing of the Parents and Citizens for a deputation to school authorities, in protest against "children being detained at school during the lunch hour." (55) These changes in the MM’s work among women were a sign of decline in the MM as such -- of which more below.
THE MINORITY Movement drew its most immediate inspiration from the earlier British experience. At first the aim was to establish a national rank and file movement on the British model, which would become an alternative to the official union structure. Bill Orr said in 1932 that the MM could be defined as " the organisation of workers for the establishment of the independent leadership of economic struggles"(56) and the movement continued for several years to speak of building an "alternative leadership." (57) What did this mean in practice?
There had always been certain ambiguities in the Minority Movement concept. Of the British movement, Hinton and Hyman have written that at various times "at least six distinct definitions were given of the Movement’s purpose":
Its function was to co-ordinate rank and file opposition movements within the unions; to co-ordinate industrial militancy, involving those union leaders who were prepared to fight; to campaign for the organisational restructuring of the trade-union movement, and in particular the TUC; to pursue a program of transitional demands; to provide a nursery and recruiting ground for potential CP members; or to build revolutionary trade unionism. (58)
In particular it was never quite clear whether the movement was conceived as a militant reform movement, uniting the Communists with other workers around a program of immediate demands; or whether it was part of the revolutionary movement. (59)
Similar confusions arose in the Australian context. But whereas the British MM normally came down in practice on the side of "militant reformism" the Australian MM was led by the Communist Party in the "Third Period", a time of extreme leftism. In theory, though not always (in Australia never) in practice, the Communist Parties at this time were committed to establishing "red unions" which would challenge the existing "social fascist"-led unions for mass support. These extremist notions were muted somewhat in the daily industrial work, but they had an impact nevertheless.
Thus the movement’s newspaper was called the Red Leader, which sometimes made reformist workers reluctant to buy it. The members were called "comrades" and the press abounded with praise for the Soviet Union. When the Red Leader asked its readers what changes they would make if they were the editors, one comrade wrote, apparently in all seriousness, that he would "devote the front page every week to a big illustrated picture of workers in the USSR or their activities. In my opinion this would help to increase the sales …" (60) But in 1934 Ernie Thornton and E.A.Knight both wrote in to complain that the MM was involved in too much pro-Soviet campaigning to the detriment of industrial issues. (61)
Even so, perhaps half of the members of the MM were not members of the CPA, and most of the movement’s practical activity was devoted to militant reformism by force of circumstances. For example Doug Olive recalls that in the Ayr MM group, "we never discussed political issues … It was purely a rank and file organisation concerned entirely with problems affecting the workers." (62)
Such ambiguities were papered over for a time by certain theoretical concepts which arose logically out of the "Third Period" perspective. According to the perspective, all reformist union officials and politicians were "social fascists", the class enemy. This was because in the capitalist crisis that was at hand, there was no room for reforms. The system could not afford to concede them.
In such a situation, simple militancy around immediate demands might be considered beyond the power of capitalism to contain, and would therefore appear to take on a revolutionary cutting edge. Mlilitancy -- which is normally understood as a relatively elementary level of combativeness that can be quite common among reformist-minded union activists -- seems to have been understood by the MM as essentially the trade-union expression of revolutionary politics.
The confusion did not pose any immediate practical problems. The Communists were the only significant party of militants; it was they who were building an opposition to a conservative trade union officialdom, and that was all that mattered. Moreover the "militant" perspective was quite radical. In 1933 the MM’s own national conference was counter-posed, in propaganda terms, to the ACTU Congress. In an editorial headlined "Workers, Which Congress?", the Red Leader declared that "the rank and file must repudiate" the official congress and demand a real national rank and file assembly. A week later it declared that "every union should repudiate this proposed ACTU Congress and demand a conference of rank and file representatives. " (64)
This was fantastically over-optimistic. The paper soon sobered up a bit and put the same general approach in more practical and concrete, but still radical, terms:
…at all unions where elections take place the militants must elect fighters to the Congress. Where the officials appoint themselves as representatives, the rank and file .rust repudiate the appointments and demand election. Where election is denied, the delegations must be repudiated. (65)
To be sure, the MM was not really in a position to "repudiate" half the trade union world, yet it had grown enough to be a force, and its conference showed it. As with its British prototype, the MM sought not merely to assemble its membership, but to call delegate conferences, to which workers were credentialed by trade union branches or workplaces. This meant that the conferences were a test not only of numbers, but of roots in the working class. For this reason the national Minority Movement Congress held over Christmas 1933 is most interesting. It registered 124 delegates. Many of them were, of course, from MM groups plus two from unemployed organisations and one from the Educational Workers League. But in addition there were delegates from the following trade union bodies:
In assessing these results, one must first make allowances for the difficulties of interstate travel in the Australia of the early thirties. With some exceptions, the conference only managed to assemble the industrial base of the movement as it existed in one State: NSW. The important work in Queensland, for example, is not reflected at all. Making due allowances for this fact, the conference appears as a striking confirmation of the extent to which the Communist Party had been transformed from a sect into a small party in only three or four years. It is also instructive to compare the conference with those held in the twenties by the British Minority Movement -- making allowances not only for the problems of travel in Australia but also for population differences.
The founding conference of the British movement, held in 1924, registered 270 delegates claiming to represent 200,000 workers. (67) Compared to this, the 124 delegates at the Australian MM conference appear as quite a respectable total. At the 1926 British conference, held two months before the General Strike, the delegates were claimed to represent nearly a million trade unionists . (68) Given conditions similar to those in the run-up to the British general strike, who can say how greatly the Australian movement might have grown? Unfortunately, the 1933 conference was to mark the high point of the MM as such, though not by any means the high point of Communist trade union strength.
And in fact the leadership was not entirely pleased with what the conference showed. It had "recorded a considerable growth in influence", wrote the National Committee, but this "was not accompanied by a corresponding growth in membership. To the contrary, the organisational growth of the was relatively small. The MM organisationally lags behind its mass influence."(39)
The problem was political. The sectarianism and bombast of the "Third Period" had not been an insuperable obstacle in the early stages of building a movement, when the central task was to regroup small numbers of advanced militants, activists who saw fairly clearly the extreme nature of the economic crisis, and the bankruptcy of the reformist officialdom -- and many of whom perhaps felt rather desperate and inclined towards extreme views themselves. The Communists were fighters and organisers, and they filled a vacuum.
By 1934, however, the tasks were becoming more complex. The basic cadre had been gathered in. In the most militant sectors of industry the MM was within striking distance of winning leadership (and in the Miners’ Federation it had already done so). Now the task was to win majority influence in the militant areas, and to find a road to the less advanced sections of the working class. It was no longer good enough, the CPA paper Workers’ Voice felt constrained to warn its readers as late as November 1935, to write articles for your rank and file paper which began: "Do you know there is a Social Fascist Dictatorship running your union?" and which urged the workers to "Roll up to your next meeting and show the Fascists where they get off."(70)
A more subtle approach was required, and in fact the Comintern appeared to be providing just what was needed. The "Third Period" line was being rapidly ditched. The triumph of fascism in Germany had exposed it as catastrophically divisive and indeed suicidal, and by the end of 1933 this lesson was beginning to sink in even in faraway Australia. The alternative, unfortunately, was to have its problems too, as we shall see.
The new turn in trade union work was elaborated in an open letter from the National Committee of the Minority Movement. "A favourable situation prevails for recruiting large numbers of workers to the MM," they wrote, but it was being missed because of mistaken views on the role of the movement:
The name Minority Movement was taken over from the Minority Movement of England. This unsuitable name reflects an anarcho-syndicalist [sic] tendency which still persists and exaggerates the role of the minority of revolutionary workers in the trade unions and in economic struggles.
The MM aims, not at organising a minority of militants, but at winning a majority -- the mass of workers -- for militant trade unionism . . . (71)
One can well imagine there might be a grain of truth in this self -criticism; no doubt the name of the movement, and the name of its paper, sounded a bit narrow and sectarian. But the conclusions which the National Committee drew were rather curious:
Incorrect views concerning the role of the Minority Movement have meant in practice that membership in the main has been confined to the most advanced workers possessing a high degree of class consciousness and devotion to the revolutionary movement.
As a result, there are numerous instances of recruiting activity ceasing while our influence has increased. The existing MM groups have considered it correct only to recruit those workers who were prepared to attend all meetings, sell papers, etc. -- that is, to play an active organising role. . .
For membership in the Minority Movement, it is sufficient for a worker to support its policy, read its press, and make regular contributions. (72)
Other correspondents hammered this theme in the Red Leader. A Sydney tramway worker said that his group had "hand-picked our recruits, expecting them to be revolutionaries and one hundred per cent functionaries before we have even got their nomination papers signed", and that unless "a worker was prepared to sell the paper, help with all the multifarious jobs of a functioning MM Group, and be available at all hours", such a worker was seen as being "all right as a sympathiser, but no good as a member." (73)
There is something unconvincing about this sudden barrage of self-criticism. The letters have the appearance of being orchestrated. It may be of course be true that some MM groups demanded unrealistic levels of activity, but there is ample evidence that the general run of MM members were, if anything, rather slack. One correspondent from Sydney defied the leadership on this issue, pointing out that the modest activity advocated by the National Committee was "nothing new . . . it had never been anything else." (74) Doug Olive said that membership in the Ayr group was rather loose: "You didn’t pay any money to join . . . you just came to the meetings, and participated in the organisation." (75)
And the movement’s newspaper had itself often documented the indiscipline of the membership. In early 1932 it had complained of "apathy, defeatism and inactivity" which it said must be "killed".(76) Some months later, it expressed sympathy with a correspondent who complained of crude organisation [and] failure to keep appointments at workshop meetings."(77) In the central Sydney organisation at the end of the same year, meetings seemed to "continually lapse due to non-attendance of committee members."(78) While in May of 1933, "for the first time the MM is showing signs of functioning properly," still not all the groups were financial. (79) And when it came time to get delegates to the MM national congress mandated from union branches, this slackness led to setbacks:
In a number of cases the resolutions to send delegates viere lost by small majorities. Had MM members of these branches attended the meetings the results would have been different.
Another instance . . . is the situation of the Rozelle subbranch of the ARU, which did not meet recently because there was no quorum present. The quorum was seven, and yet nine members [of the MM] belong to this branch . . . (80)
At the time of the congress itself, half of the membership was unfinancial. This is hardly the picture of a hyperactive organisation! One is inclined to suspect that in the guise of opposing hyperactivity and appealing to the majority of the workforce, the movement was effectively being demobilised as an activist organisation.
Moreover, Richard Dixon, on behalf of the central leadership of the Communist Party, was already beginning to take this line of argument much further. In his pamphlet Towards Militant Unionism, Dixon contended that it was "necessary to go over to a still broader conception … of militant unionism. We must consider all those workers who, in the main, support a militant line in the trade unions, or on the job, as militant unionists, irrespective of whether they have formally joined the MM or not."(81) One might well ask: why then have a separate Minority Movement at all?At the same time, there was an important shift in the attitude to reformist union officials. These had been denounced as "social fascists" at the start, but this term began now to fade out of the press, usually being replaced with the term "reformist". Another term that had been in favour at the start was "bureaucrat", and as this term is more specific to the trade union situation, it is interesting to see just what the MM took it to mean. Responding perhaps to membership queries, the Red Leader offered a definition in 1932:
A bureaucracy is a group of officials who take dictatorial powers to themselves and issue commanding orders without consulting those who may be affected by those orders.
When we speak of "trade union bureaucracy" we refer to those trade union officials who have entrenched themselves behind rules and constitutions and by these means assume unlimited power without consulting the rank and file. (82)
Obviously the term bureaucracy was not being used here in a sociological sense, to denote a specific layer of people whose consciousness was affected by their social position. Rather it was being used in moral terms, to denote people who behaved in a dictatorial manner because they were, presumably, either evil or misguided. This superficial understanding of the problem reflected not simply the crudity of "Third Period" Communist theory, but also a traditional weakness going back to the early Comintern. Although Marxists such as Gramsci and Luxemburg had made contributions which could have been the basis of an important breakthrough in this area, Comintern theory on the question had been shaped decisively by Lenin’s simplistic theory of the labour aristocracy" with its implications of simple corruption and betrayal. (83)
There are rather obvious problems with a theory of bureaucracy which sees the problems in terms of evil or misguided people. For even if the officials were dictatorial traitors (as no doubt some were), there remained the question: why do the workers follow them, and not the Communists, not just for a day or a week but over many years? This is not the place to attempt to elaborate a sociology of trade unionism which might suggest some answers. (84) The point is that the Communists of the time certainly did not possess one. What they had was a sort of conspiracy theory, and ironically it was one which may be seen in retrospect to have contained the seeds of the accommodation of the Communist Party to that same bureaucracy, which began a few years later.
For if the problem is the attitudes of the officials, a matter of consciousness, two solutions seem to suggest themselves: on the one hand changing their minds, and on the other hand getting Communist officials into office who are free of such attitudes. By 1935 the CPA had drawn these very conclusions. Reformist union officials were now seen as basically well-meaning people, with whom one could collaborate closely while trying to persuade them to mend their ways. The Workers’ Voice declared:
The Communists must learn to be flexible, to adopt better tactics. . . and to exert every effort to win to our side the union officials who are honest and sincere, but who, maybe [!] are still steeped in a whole series of reformist illusions, habits and customs. (85)
If the problem could be reduced to "illusions, habits and customs", then "maybe" it was not so serious. Meanwhile, the Communists who were beginning to move into official positions would, of course, be free of such blemishes. A fire-breathing campaign spirit against "social fascists" could thus, in principle, be turned into a modest union reform perspective by a simple dialectical twist.
IN THE early months of 1935, three important articles in the Red Leader heralded the beginning of the end of the Minority Movement. On April 4, the paper headlined: "Uniting The Trade Union Movement -- RILU initiates Move of Historic Importance" (86), and this was followed by an RILU open letter to the reformist Amsterdam International on May 1, under the headline: "For World Trade Union Unity". (87) The Communist International was beginning to implement a new strategy, soon to be spelt out in full at its seventh world congress. In a famous speech, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov was to call for a united front against fascism. This meant a more conciliatory attitude toward the social democrats (and, in fact, in its full blown "People’s Front form, a more conciliatory attitude towards sections of the bourgeoisie).
Meanwhile, the Red Leader had launched a campaign to raise its circulation from 10,000 to 15,000 -- and had failed miserably, leading Tom Wright to ask on behalf of the National Committee: "Should The Red Leader Continue In Its Present Form?"
Why had the circulation campaign been a flop, asked Wright. The movement’s influence was growing, but "it is now evident that this growing influence is being expressed not through increased sales of the Red Leader but mainly through steady progress in the new press organs of militant unionism which are being established on an industry basis" as well as the militant official or semi-official papers like Common Cause (miners) and Magnet (railway shop committees).
The central MM publication, said Wright, no longer could or should deal with "the detailed particular questions of some of the industries, as they are adequately featured in the industry papers." He suggested a monthly review instead, to "deal with the issues which affect the industries generally."(88) E.A.Knight pursued the theme a fortnight later. But it was comrades outside NSW who posed the question most sharply. "PC" of Townsville wrote that "in a great number of far-distant centres, two or three weeks elapse from the time news is forwarded for publication until the paper is circulating on the jobs" and that for this reason the Red Leader was of limited use as an agitational tool. (89) And "JH" of Melbourne made a very revealing comparison of the national paper with a local industry bulletin:
The Red Leader goes into the homes mainly on Sunday mornings, and is looked upon as being a review of militant industrial activities. Also there is definitely no sign of growing demand.
The other publication, the Marine Worker, goes directly to the men on the job, creates keen discussion, is readily looked for and can deal more fully with matters of immediate vital interest to its readers.(90)
These were real problems. Even with today’s communications and transport, it is difficult to run a national newspaper in Australia; even the biggest establishment newspapers are fragmented along State lines. And certainly by 1935 the workplace and industry bulletins had an immediacy which the Red Leader lacked. Yet this was almost certainly not the whole story.
The Communist Party had responded to the geographical limitations by producing newspapers on a state-wide basis, and there was nothing stopping the MM from doing the same. Moreover, if the job papers were better than the Red Leader, this was partly a reflection of what the industrial perspectives of the Communist Party had become.
The national MM congress at the end of 1935 was the last, and no State conferences were held after that either. Instead there were endless sectional conferences, for industry groups, women, unemployed, etc. The concept of a rank and file movement across industry lines, broader than the Communist Party’s own membership but organising workers on a class-wide basis, had been abandoned in favour of organisation within individual industries.
How was this connected with the right turn in international Communist strategy? In the abstract, there was nothing to stop individual industry groups from being as militant as ever. But in practice the fragmentation of the work introduced a conservatising tendency. Communists facing relative isolation in one industry missed out on the encouragement of working together with those in a stronger position somewhere else. Successes in one area could not be so easily translated into successes in another. At the same time the CPA could blur the issue of just how militant its overall policy was to be. The militant group in, say, the AEU could make compromises with the reformists that would not be contemplated by their comrades in the AWU.
Moreover, the abandonment of the MM as a cross-union organisation meant that where CPA members had won office, they could build up their own individual machines without interference from rank and file firebrands in other industries. In doing so, they could demobilise the most militant aspects of work in their own patch. Ted Hill has testified to this pattern, writing of the Party’s job organisation:
it was based in the workshops but having achieved the objective of winning the given union leadership, it largely collapsed as an effective organisation . . . the persons elected to the leading positions were never too keen about maintaining the organisation because even though those elected may have been unconscious of it, organisation in the workshops always has revolutionary possibilities and it can easily disturb the peaceful and privileged position of a trade union official who has succumbed to bourgeois politics. (91)
If you look through the Red Leader for 1934 and 1935 you notice a slow but steady change in the content. The word "social fascist" disappears of course but so, gradually, do words like "reformist" and "bureaucrat" which come to be applied only to genuinely rightwing officials. The paper loses its crusading quality and becomes more and more a passive recorder of events. There are no longer any national or even State-wide MM activities to report. It seems clear that in the course of these years the MM gradually ceased to exist as a movement, leaving behind a fragmented .series of industry organisations, linked up through the Communist Party itself. Having failed in early 1935 to breathe new life into the newspaper, the CPA decided to wind up what had become an organisational shell.
When the paper was wound up in July 1935, it was replaced by a monthly magazine called Trade Union Leader. But while formal continuity was maintained in this manner, the new title indicated a shift of orientation away from the rank and file and towards the official structures. The magazine, moreover, was simply subtitled "Central Organ of Militant Unionism". The Minority Movement was mentioned nowhere; it had disappeared without any accounting.
Was it a success? It is not hard to point to its limitations. In the "Third Period" it was probably prevented from achieving greater successes by the sectarian theory of "social fascism" and by over-ambitious strategic concepts. In 1934 and 1935, it faded into a collection of union reform movements. In both periods it showed a rather superficial understanding of the problems of reformism and union bureaucracy. Yet it is equally possible to outline some important achievements. It built a presence for the Communist Party in industry, and was the launching pad for the trade union careers of Bill Orr, Tom Wright, Ernie Thornton, JJ Brown and Ted Rowe, as well as any number of less prominent figures. It rebuilt trade unionism itself in some areas, and vastly strengthened and rejuvenated it in others. It popularised the idea of organising women as a distinct group in industry and in women’s auxiliaries. And above all it won a number of epic struggles, from Wonthaggi to the northern cane fields.
Nor must we forget that it was done by rank and file workers operating with few resources and against great odds. The shillings-and-pence entries in the fighting fund of the movement’s press are eloquent witness to this side of the story. Then there were the injuries suffered at the hands of the police, victimisations endured, energy invested. We shall leave the last word on the Minority Movement to the miners of Mount Oxide and Dobbyn, who won a seven-month strike with the MM’s help and wrote to thank them:
On behalf of the strikers of Mt. Oxide and Dobbyn and their dependents, 1 send to you our sincere thanks for your advice and assistance; we anticipate with confidence your continued support. If the great spirit of sacrifice and comradeship which you have shown us could only permeate the ranks of the working class to the extent that it should, then the days of the exploiter would be ended.
1. "Conditions of Admission to the Communist International", in Helmut Gruber, ed., International Communism in the Era of Lenin, New York, 1972, p.244.
2. Quoted in Ken Appleby, "The Rank and File Movement Yesterday and Today", International Socialism (old series) no. 83, London, November 1975, p.13.
3. For background to the British Minority Movement, see James Hinton and Richard Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution, London 1975, and Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman, Days of Hope, London 1981.
4. The term "Left Wing Movement" also derived from Britain, where it was used by the CP’s supporters within the Labour Party. It seems likely that the CPA’s use of it reflects its awareness that with its small numbers it could not hope to build a rank and file movement in industry without attracting support from the Labor Party.
5. Workers’ Weekly, Communist newspaper, Sydney, 20.2.24.
6. "Report of the MMM Conference" in Plebs League Folio, Mitchell Library, Sydney.
7. Edgar Ross, A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia, Sydney 1970, p.322.
8. Alastair Davidson, The Comrnunist Party of Australia, Stanford 1969, p.44.
9. Edgar Ross, op. cit., p.342.
10. Red Leader 24.1.34.
11. Ralph Gibson, My Years in the Communist Party, Melbourne 1966, p.10.
12 Red Leader 17.1.34.
13. Red leader 4.1.33.
14. Red Leader 8.11.33.
15. Red Leader 28.3.34.
16. Red Leader 21.3.34.
17. Edgar Ross, op. cit.., p.366.
18. Red Leader 30.5.34.
19. Red Leader 9.5.34.
20. Red Leader 2.5.34.
21. Red Leader 25.7.34.
22. Red Leader 30.5.34.
23. Red Leader 13.3.35.
24. Jean Devanny, Sugar Heaven, Melbourne 1982, p.5.
25. Red Leader 7.3.34.
26. Malcolm Rimmer and Paul Sutcliffe, "The Origins of Australian Workshop Organization, 1918 to 1950", Journal of Industrial Relations, June 1981, p.226.
27. Ibid., p.228.
28. Ibid., p.225.
29. Workers’ Weekly, 28.11.30.
30. Red Leader 24.1.34.
31. Red Leader 8.11.33.
32. Red Leader 23.5.34.
33. Red Leader 27.6.34.
34. Red Leader 20.7.32.
35. Karl King, interview with Phil Griffiths, 15.10.82.
36. Red Leader 7.6.33.
37. Red Leader 3.7.35.
38 Red Leader 14.12.32
39. Red Leader 28.9.32
40. Red Leader 7.9.32.
41. Red Leader 24.8.32.
42. Red Leader 7.9.32.
43. Red Leader 25.10.33.
44. For background on women and the CPA see: Janey Stone, "Brazen Hussies and God’s Police: Fighting Back in the Depression Years" and Tom O’Lincoln, "Against the Stream: Women and the Left, 1949-1968", in Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Melbourne 1998.
45. Red Leader29.6.32. (Slightly abridged)
46. Red Leader10.3.32.
47. Red Leader 7.9.32.
48. Red Leader 19.10.32.
49. Red Leader 8.3.33.
50. Red Leader 6.7.32.
51. Red Leader 23.1.35.
52. Red Leader 6.3.35.
53. Red Leader 29.5.35.
54. As described in a historical article in the 1963 anniversary issue of Our Women, Union of Australian Women, Sydney, p.17.
55. Red Leader 5.6.35.
56. Red Leader 22.1.32.
57. Red Leader 28.3.34.
58. James Hinton and Richard Hyman, op. cit, p.53.
59. Ibid., p.54-5.
60. Red Leader 11.7.34.
61. Red Leader 27.6.34
62. Doug Olive, interview with Phil Griffiths, 10.10.82.
63. Red Leader 4.10.33.
64. Red Leader 11.10.33.
65. Red Leader 1.11.33.
66. Red Leader 3.1.34.
67. Hinton and Hyrnan, op, cit., p.28.
68. Hallas and Harman, op. cit.
69. Red Leader 7.3.34.
70. Workers’ Voice, Communist newspaper, Melbourne, 1. 11.35. Nearly a year earlier Richard Dixon, a party leader, had commented: "one could say that our whole trade union work suffers seriously from sectarianism." (Towards Militant Unionism, Sydney 1935, p.19.) However this was almost certainly a deliberate exaggeration designed to support the growing inclination of the CPA leadership to liquidate the MM. See below.
71. Red Leader 7.3.34
73. Red Leader 28.3.34.
74. Red Leader 16.5.34.
75. Doug Olive, op. cit.
76. Red Leader 22.1.32.
77. Red Leader 3.8.32.
78. Red Leader 7.12.32.
79. Red Leader 24.5.33.
80. Red Leader 6.12.33.
81. Richard Dixon, op. cit., p.19. That sections of the party membership feared he meant abandonment of genuine militancy altogether is implied on p.24 of this pamphlet where he remarks tartly: "This does not mean we are liquidating anything -- except, maybe, confusion."
82. Red Leader 27.7.32
83. See Antonio Gramsci, Soviets in Italy, Nottingham, n.d., p. 11 and 17, and Rosa Luxemburg, "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions," in Mary-Alice Waters, ed., Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York 1970, p. 214-5. For a critique of Lenin’s conception of the "labour aristocracy", see Tony Cliff, "Economic Roots of Reformism" in his Neither Washington Nor Moscow, London 1982. p. 108.
84. I have made some comments in an unpublished article, if anyone’s interested.
85. Workers’ Voice 1.11.35.
86. Red Leader 3.4.35.
87. Red Leader 1.5.35.
88. Red Leader 15.5.35.
89. Red Leader 26.6.35. On the other hand, Jim Henderson who was Collinsville secretary of the CPA at the time, said the Red Leader arrived "fairly quickly" (Interview with Phil Griffiths, 21.9.82).
91. E.F. Hill, Looking Backward, Looking Forward, Melbourne? 1968, p. 57.
92.Red Leader 16.8.33.
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