Sectarianism and the
Socialist Workers Party
By George Petersen
One of the most depressing features of working class politics
Australia has been the failure of left socialist groups to achieve any
mass support as an alternative to the corrupt and politically bankrupt
The only party which might have done so was the Communist
the early thirties. They ruined this chance when, under the influence
of Stalinist "Third Period" line, they described ALP members as social
fascists and effectively cut themselves off from the mass of Australian
workers. They partly remedied this major blunder in the period of the
"Popular Front". In the late 1930s, by a combination of union militancy
and unsectarian alliances with pro-left trade unionists they managed to
win the leadership of a number of militant unions. Why they were
elected can be easily demonstrated by reference to two books dealing
with workers' struggles.
Sugar Heaven by Jean Devanney is a novel which
portrays the 1935 Queensland sugar strike. It tells an inspiring story
of how a few communist workers demonstrated in action how to win the
support of hundreds of militant workers.
Mount Isa, by Pat Mackie with Elizabeth Vassilieff
the 1964-65 dispute at Mount Isa copper mine in North Queensland.
Whilst there were no communists amongst the workers, the role played by
communists in the leadership of the Queensland Trades and Labour
Council, particularly by Alex McDonald the secretary, was an honourable
one. Whilst one may argue as to whether the dispute could have been won
by the tactic of extending the dispute, there is no doubt about the
effort by Communist Party activists in organising moral and financial
support for the Mt Isa workers in their struggle. When one contrasted
their dedicated and courageous behaviour with that of the despicable
class collaborationist behaviour of the AWU bureaucracy, the
communists, to use the vernacular, came out smelling like roses.
In the 1960s, Communist Jack Mundey was to demonstrate the
difference that a few dedicated communists could make when they set out
to organise builders labourers in New South Wales, whose union was a
byword for corruption.
Unfortunately for the Communist Party, the support they
trade union leaders never spilled over into electoral support. True,
one communist, Fred Paterson, had been elected to the Queensland
Parliament for two terms in the early 1940s, but he was a radical
maverick who had built up an unusual reputation as an independent in
local government, and who personally never accepted any concept of
being controlled by the Communist Party apparatchiks.
It never ceased to amaze me that many workers I knew
would vote Communist in union elections and ALP in state and federal
elections. I have never seen a satisfactory explanation why Australian
militant workers did not emulate their French and Italian comrades,
whose support for communist trade union leaders extended to support for
the Communist Party in government elections. I can only guess that,
living in a country where workers' living standards were much higher
than in the Soviet Union, and being aware that the government of the
Soviet Union was a monstrous tyranny, where workers possessed far less
rights than in capitalist Australia, Australian workers simply did not
want members of the Communist Party of Australia to have parliamentary
If members of the Communist Party were isolated from the mass
Australian workers the situation of isolation was even more pronounced
for the left sects which adhered to one of the ideologies which could
broadly be called Trotskyist. During World War II the Trotskyist group
led by Nick Origlass had successfully won the support of hundreds of
workers in the Balmain area of Sydney when they rejected the then class
collaborationist policies of the CPA leadership. But their example was
not emulated elsewhere, and they lost this support when the Communist
Party swung back to the left, and the choice for most of these workers
was seen as between the communists and the right-wing "groupers", led
by an ex-Trotskyist, Laurie Short.
One of the militant unions where the Communist Party had won
leadership was the Federated Ironworkers' Association. In the early
1950s they lost control to the right-wing ALP Short-Hurrell forces. To
this day the right still have control. The only exception is the
largest branch, Port Kembla, embracing workers employed in the steel
and other metals industries. A new leadership of this branch was
elected in 1971. They represented a Rank and File Committee of Port
Kembla workers who were vehemently opposed to the AWU type leaders of
the Port Kembla Branch. There were some difficulties with the leaders
elected in 1971 who were simply not equal to their responsibilities.
From 1974 onwards the leaders were the branch president, Nando Lelli, a
migrant from Italy, and Graham Roberts, an Australian-born militant.
The significant feature of this left leadership was that none
them was a communist, although they were under the influence of such
communists as Steve Quinn of the Metalworkers Union and Merv Nixon,
secretary of the South Coast Labour Council. The defeat of the 1949
coal strike had a catastrophic effect on the working class membership
of the CPA on the South Coast. In places like the steelworks, once a
hotbed of communist militancy, communist militants were victimised and
the Communist Party ceased to make recruits.
The new left leaders of the Port Kembla branch did not belong
political party, although most of them did join the ALP after they were
elected. The gravest weakness of the Rank-and-File leadership was, and
still is, their lack of a coherent ideology, but their integrity as
militants makes them more responsive to their working-class base than
most other union leaderships. This is particularly reflected in their
encouragement to the best workers to take on positions of elected job
delegate. In 1982 there were 280 job delegates, and they were the most
enthusiastic supporters of the branch leadership.
Unlike most union leaderships the Lelli-Roberts leadership
to keep in existence the Rank and File Committee that had elected them
to office, and which selected the "ticket" for union elections. In 1982
the Committee had 95 members out of a union membership of 12,000.
Some time in the late 1970s the Socialist Workers Party
a number of their members would obtain jobs in industry. Around nine of
them obtained jobs in the steelworks. Most, if not all, of them
actually joined the Rank and File Committee. Two were outstanding
militant union leaders. Robynne Murphy had led the struggle for the
employment of women in the steel industry. She is still employed in the
steelworks and is a highly respected job delegate. Phillip Walker led a
six-week strike in his department. He was highly regarded by the
Lelli-Roberts union leadership, and they had intended to ask the Rank
and File Committee to nominate him in the union elections for a
position of delegate to Federal Conference of the union.
In the Rank and File Committee the members of the Socialist
Party were broadly in agreement with the policies of the Lelli-Roberts
leadership. For example, they agreed with a decision by the Committee
in April 1982 not to run a national "ticket" in the then forthcoming
union elections. At a meeting of the Committee on 23 August, 1982 the
SWP members present expressed some criticism of union policies. A
sub-committee of three, one Communist, one Socialist Worker and one
non-party, was elected to draw up policies for the union elections.
The sub-committee met a week later and thrashed out a
policy. The only area where there was fundamental disagreement
concerned protective tariffs on steel. The Socialist Workers Party
members' opposition to these tariffs was vehemently opposed by the
other two. On all other issues — total opposition to retrenchments, for
nationalisation of BHP, opposition to sex discrimination and support
for rank and file union control — any disagreements were matters of
detail rather than principle.
It was at this time that the Socialist Workers Party threw a
political bombshell by producing a leaflet headed ONE OUT, ALL OUT.
To everybody's surprise the principal emphasis of the leaflet was an
attack on "the phoney Rank-and-File group in Port Kembla" because "our
union officials are getting in the way of our unions standing up to the
BHP". The leaflet included a list of demands with a particular demand
for mass meetings of steelworkers.
Whilst the leaflet was signed by 43 union members, only seven
280 job delegates signed it — and two of them later repudiated their
signatures. The other five job delegates, plus four other signatories,
who were all either members of the SWP or sympathisers, were virtually
the only union activists supporting the leaflet. Most of the other
signatories were workers off the shop floor with no record of union
I subsequently learned from one of the signatories, after she
left the SWP and employment in the steel industry, that, during August
1982, the Political Committee of the SWP was examining the question of
participation of the SWP as a party in the Ironworkers Union elections.
The actual discussion took place over a period of three days, and
nobody outside the SWP members took part in the discussion. Some of the
Port Kembla worker members of the SWP were vehemently opposed to their
separately standing for election in Port Kembla. The final decision was
made by a national SWP fraction meeting on 12 September, only when it
was promised by the leadership that they would also stand candidates in
Newcastle against the right.
With an incredible effrontery, six of the signatories led by
Walker, went to the Rank-and-File meeting on 13 September, 1982 in
order to nominate for pre-selection for the Rank-and-File ticket for
the union elections. The other 35 unionists present unanimously
From that time onwards the mass of militant unionists in Port
have regarded Socialist Workers Party members with the same derision
that Stalinists treated Trotskyists. The last time a mass meeting of
ironworkers supported a SWP-sponsored nationalisation resolution was on
22 September, 1982. Since then all subsequent resolutions moved by SWP
members, regardless of their merit, have been rejected.
When one considers that no other union leadership, whether
or communist, would have admitted Trotskyists to their rank and file
organisation, one can only be amazed at the political stupidity of the
SWP leadership. For me it was a repetition of their intervention in the
Socialist Left in 1971,
where winning support for the SWP took priority over building a left
fraction of the ALP based on a struggle for socialist policies.
The SWP might have saved something from the faux-pas of their
leaflet, but they were determined to present themselves as an
alternative to the Lelli-Roberts leadership. Calling themselves the
"Militant Action Campaign", they produced a full ticket for all
positions in the Port Kembla branch in the union elections to be held
between 17 November and 6 December 1982. To justify the fact that they
were concentrating their fire on a left-wing union leadership, they
also stood candidates for election nationally and in Newcastle.
The apparent left split delighted the right-wing national
leadership, who were only too willing to recommend to their supporters
to support the Rank-and-File because "Lelli is the best of the choices
in Port Kembla". This was designed to throw oil on the flames, and push
the Port Kembla leadership to accommodation with the right.
The South Coast Labour Council made a unanimous decision to
the Rank-and File ticket. Stewart West, Bill Knott and I issued a joint
statement supporting the Rank-and-File, because we believed that their
leadership had the support of the mass of Port Kembla workers, and that
they were acting in the interests of those workers.
The result was that the R&F swept the board in Port
highest vote for an R&F candidate was 3293, the lowest was 2633.
The highest vote for a MAC candidate was 1005, the lowest 543. About
500 who voted R&F locally could not bring themselves to vote for
anybody nationally. Only about 300 R&F supporters voted for the MAC
nationally and 2400 preferred the right wing to the MAC. In Newcastle
the right won by about six to one against the MAC. The margins in
favour of the right were even bigger nationally, allowing the
Short-Hurrell leadership to claim their greatest victory in their union
The South Coast Socialist Left did not take sides on the issue
the Ironworkers Union ballot. Most of us supported the Rank-and-File
but we did have some SWP supporters in our ranks. There was no point in
splitting our fragile organisation on the issue. At a meeting in
December 1982 I was asked what I thought about the results of the
election. As a result I wrote a 14-page article condemning the elitist,
manipulative tactics of the MAC. This article was posted to all members
on 23 December, 1982.
It took six months for the SWP to produce a reply. It appeared
in the June 1983 issue of Socialist Worker.
It was not written by any of the Port Kembla workers but by Allen
Myers, one of the leaders of the SWP. To give the SWP their due, they
reprinted my article in full. Myers' reply was equally lengthy.
The Myers article was an expanded version of a leaflet issued
MAC during the union election campaign, describing themselves as a
militant fighting alternative to both the extreme right and the
"bankrupt policies of the 'left' Lelli". Its key paragraph was:
That the first concern of the steelworkers in the MAC was
explaining the need and helping to build a united and militant campaign
in defence of jobs. Union elections came into the picture only to the
extent that leaderships have proved themselves opposed to that sort of
Nothing could be further from the truth. For some years,
the SWP had coexisted quite harmoniously within the Rank-and-File
Committee with the Lelli-Roberts leadership. Any differences concerned
matters of detail, not principle.
What the SWP members had NOT done was to try to present an
alternative militant union leadership. This is more than amply
demonstrated by the fact that the MAC had the support of only five of
the 280 job delegates.
The SWP leadership in Sydney, with an amazing faith in their
infallibility, and a total lack of understanding of the Lelli-Roberts
base, really believed that the workers would turn to them for
leadership once BHP announced its program of mass sackings. In fact the
votes that they got in the election were the votes that anybody could
get who opposed a sitting bureaucracy. The militants and the union
activists saw the supporters of the MAC as splitters, and voted the
The tactics of the SWP were a classic example of applying the
neo-religious ideology that bedevils left sects: "We and we alone
possess the one true faith. Follow us and be saved! Reject us and be
The SWP displayed a grossly arrogant attitude toward the
whose support they sought, without having earned it by leadership in
struggle. The question that must be asked is: why did the SWP do it?
Unfortunately the Allen Myers article does not answer this question.
Allen Myers says:
No one in the Militant Action Campaign expected the ticket to win. The
campaign was not about getting union offices, but about building a
fight-back against BHP.
If that was the case, the next question that must be asked is:
did all the SWP members except Robynne Murphy give up employment at the
steelworks after the elections?
The most long lasting effect of the SWP intervention was that
gave militant workers on the South Coast a deep distrust of any person
who attempted to raise "political" issues in a union struggle.
In summary, the SWP intervention was a very valuable object
in how left groups should NOT behave when they present themselves as an
alternative to reformism.
From George Petersen Remembers,
George Petersen (1921-2000), a former member of the Communist
of Australia and some Trotskyist groups, was a member of the Australian
Labor Party from 1958 to 1987, when he was expelled for defying a NSW
parliamentary ALP caucus decision to support legislation that ruined
the NSW workers compensation system. A Marxist, he was elected to
represent the heavily working class seat of Wollongong Kembla in the
NSW parliament in 1968 and held that seat until 1988. The
life and times of George Petersen, 1921-2000