What is happening in the Communist Party?
By Gil Roper
From The Militant, Sydney, November 29, 1937 (Vol 4,
No 14 — new series)
The partly forgotten world of Sydney Marxism
from the 1930s to the 1950s
By Bob Gould
Gil and Edna Roper were active in the left of the labour
from the 1920s until the 1960s. As a brash young rebel in the 1950s, I
got to know them both, and they were very kind to me.
By the time I met them, they had moved away from Marxism to a
left Labor orientation and I was moving in the opposite direction.
Nevertheless, they both encouraged young rebels, like myself. Gil had
the courtly, careful demeanour of the typical skilled craftsman
autodidact, Edna was more ebullient and colourful.
Gil encouraged Edna to take a major lead in the battles of the
and Edna, as a leading figure in the Labor women's central organising
committee, was an important agitator in the battle to break the grip of
the Groupers in the labour movement in the 1950s.
Along with an old associate, Issy Wyner, Edna was a key member
the old Steering Committee of the ALP left at the critical period in
that struggle, which went on for a couple of years.
Like many of his generation, Gil had become rather
with the Russian Revolution, mainly because of bitter knowledge of the
Stalinist massacre of revolutionaries in the Soviet Union. However, he
retained a powerful, almost utopian, idea about the possibilities of
socialist development in a parliamentary framework, and he nursed along
his personal preoccupation with Percy Brookfield as a significant
socialist figure for many years and reworked the material that
culminated in his little book about Brookfield many times. He clearly
identified with Brookfield.
To my mind, the political high point of Gil's activity was his
initiative in commencing the industrial struggle for the 40-hour work
as a key figure on the committee of management of the Printing Industry
Employees' Union. He organised the initial stoppage of women printing
workers that began the struggle in 1944, and as a delegate to the NSW
Labour Council he followed the struggle through for the next three or
Issy Wyner has an enormous folder of the documentation of this
struggle, which would make an extraordinary book, if ever the
opportunity presented itself for Issy to organise it.
The political atmosphere of the labour movement in Sydney in
1930s and 1940s is captured particularly well by Kylie Tennant in her
novels Ride on Stranger and Foveaux, which include
thinly veiled sketches of people such as Jean Devanny, Nick Origlass,
George Bateman, and others. This material is also covered in Kylie
Tennant's autobiography, The Missing Heir.
Lyndal Ryan is working on a biography of her mother, Edna Ryan
of her father, Jack Ryan, who were immediate contemporaries of Gil and
Edna Roper, when they were all driven out of the Communist movement by
the Stalinist plague.
The Communist writer, Jean
to whom Gil Roper addresses the third of the articles reproduced here,
had her own battles with the Stalinist bureaucracy. The redoubtable
Marxist academic in Queensland, Carol Ferrier, has done us the very
considerable service of editing, organising and publishing one of the
versions of Devanny's almost lost autobiography, which describes, from
her point of view, her collisions with the Stalinist machine.
Ferrier has also written an absorbing biography: Jean
Devanny, Romantic revolutionary (Melbourne University Press, 1999).
In Red Hot, his biography of Nick Origlass, Hall
mentions in passing the interminable telephone conversations between
Nick Origlass and Gil Roper after Gil had moved away from active
involvement in Nick's Trotskyist group. Both men were careful,
considered, slow speakers, so those telephone conversations could go on
As a young man moving out of the orbit of the Stalinist
the middle of the critical battle with the Groupers in the 1950s, I
discovered the small milieu of the old Sydney Trotskyists, and they
were my political university, so to speak. I was particularly impressed
by a little two-page monthly paper that Nick Origlass, Jack Sponberg
and Issy Wyner and others produced from 1945 to 1952, called The
and a file of that little paper, which I read intensively over a couple
of weeks, was my first serious introduction to a concrete critique of
the twists of turns of the Stalinist line in Australian conditions, and
an overview of the class struggle in those seven years.
In the back of my head I have the idea that it would be of
value to mount sufficient effort to get the whole of this publication
up on the web. Anyone interested in helping with this effort ought to
July 27, 2003
More notes on the lives of Gil and Edna
What is happening in the Communist Party?
The author of this statement first contacted the labour
1920, at the age of 15, when the Russian Revolution had established
itself and the IWW frame-up1
was a major issue. In 1925 he joined the Adelaide branch of the
Socialist Labor Party, and became secretary. When it began to oppose
the big strikes in 1929 he resigned and joined the newly formed branch
of the Communist Party. He represented South Australia at the 1929
Congress of the CPA. In 1930 he became district secretary and a
co-opted member of the central committee. As such he was leader of the
party during the turbulent strikes and struggles of the crisis period.
In 1932 he went to Mildura and was prominent in reorganising the party
after the fascist attack2.
Later he worked in the Bendigo Section and became a member of the
Number Two Section, Melbourne. In 1934 he was called to Sydney to
operate printing machinery acquired by the central committee. By April
1937 he had become fully aware of the unscrupulous methods used by the
political bureau in the party printery, and resigned from this work.
This experience led the author to an investigation of the causes of
bureaucratic degeneration in the party, from which point, while
retaining his party membership he proceeded to a critical examination
of its political basis.
The Third (Communist) International was founded in 1919 by
opposition to the opportunist Second International of social democracy"
— which had been, during the Great War; "the agency of imperialism in
the ranks of the working class". Its aim was twofold: 1) to replace the
Second International, to combat reformism, and to develop struggles for
the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the capitalist section of
the world; 2) to consolidated the basis of socialism in the Soviet
Reformism has had a traditional grip on big sections of the
Australian workers and for that reason the struggle against reformism
has been a traditional feature of the revolutionary proletarian
movement in Australia. It was a cardinal point with the early socialist
and IWW groups, and on one occasion Lenin
wrote an article on the special role of the Australian Labor Party
as an agency of reformism.
During the 1929 federal election campaign a sharp struggle
in the Communist Party concerning the line adopted by the central
committee. At Christmas 1929 the party congress decided that the CC had
been guilty of crass right opportunism. In brief, the line of the CC
had been a rejection of the 10th plenum of the Executive Committee of
the Communist International, held in July 1929, which marked a zigzag
by the Stalin leadership of the Comintern towards the new sectarian
theory of "social fascism". Two members of the central committee, Moxon and Sharkey3,
used the 10th plenum decisions as a lever to accomplish the removal of
leadership, a task in which they had the support of the Comintern. The
background of the 1929 congress can now be correctly assessed. It
dovetailed in with the campaign being waged by Stalin in the USSR
against the Left Opposition (Trotskyists), which involved the removal
of many of the old leaders of the Comintern and their replacement by
more pliable leaders.
What was the election policy and tactic of the old CC? First,
maintained that the masses were not becoming "radicalised" as asserted
by the 10th plenum, and therefore would not vote in great numbers for
the independent Communist candidates. Secondly, they said the party, in
view of the above political situation, should support the Scullin5 Labor
Party in the elections "as a rope supports a hanging man".
The majority of the party membership swung behind Moxon and
because they considered that the old CC had failed to make a sharp
enough distinction between the reformist Labor Party and the
revolutionary Communist Party at the elections.
If the line of the Kavanagh leadership was "crass right
opportunism", what must we say of the 1937 federal election policy and
tactic of the Miles6
Between 1929 and 1937 the party had increased numerically
times. Despite this strengthened position, in the 1937 federal
elections the present CC, under the leadership of Miles, jettisoned the
1929 decisions and reverted to the former "crass right opportunist"
The CC made overtures to the Labor Party for affiliation, for
a united front against the Lyons Government7.
Despite rejection of the CC offer, the party members were directed to
lend full and unconditional support to the Labor politicians. In the
electorate of Beasley8,
a bitter anti-communist, the party members even posted up a record
number of posters supporting him! The DLG Fund9
was used to support the party's enemies.
After the defeat of the Labor Party at the elections, the
leaders then began to argue the need for a better Labor Party, one
controlled by the Trades Hall
"industrialists"10. Miles and Sharkey
thus began sowing the very same illusions about which they protested so
loudly in 1929.
Why did Miles and Co jettison the 1929 decisions? Why was
there no revolt of the party membership, as in 1929?
To begin with, it should be stated that Marxists cannot be
on the question of tactics. The tactics of the revolutionary workers
must in all cases be determined by the selection of the most effective
method of furthering the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. If
we examine the attitude of Miles and Co we will grasp the enormity of
the 1937 betrayal.
At certain times, on specific issues, is sometimes became
for the revolutionary movement to make a united front agreement with
the reformists or with the party of some other class. In just such a
way, for instance, did the IWW in Australia form a united front with
heterogeneous elements on the conscription issue; so did Trotsky
advocate a united front of Social Democrats and Communists against
Hitler. Under no circumstances can the revolutionary movement agree to
any so-called "unity" which involves a sacrifice of principle. Unity
can be bought too dearly.
In March 1937, Miles announced the election tactic of the CC
coming federal elections. Opposition soon developed, the extent of
which is not known; but it is clear that some Communists in Queensland
particularly, realised the damaging effect of supporting Labor Party
candidates. This realisation must have grown as Forgan Smith11
used the state forces against the brewery strikes. However, Miles
brusquely warned the opposition, and deferred criticism of the line
until "after polling day". (See Communist Review, June 1937)
After Beasley's speech at Randwick, there was further
expressed to the policy of unconditional support for the Labor Party,
and in one branch a majority opposed the CC line.
It would be incorrect to see the positions of Kavanagh in 1929
Miles in 1937 as exact historical parallels. In 1929 the line of the CC
represented a failure to catch up with the latest zigzag of the
Comintern; but in 1937 the CC line approximated to that of the seventh
world congress and subsequent events in the international. The former
expressed a lag by a single section of the Comintern; the latter
symbolised the complete reformist degeneration of the International.
In 1929, too, it was possible for the party membership to
in a campaign to remove the CC, which they considered had "right-wing"
liquidationist tendencies. Today a similar campaign would be
impossible. The party is organised on a rigid system of bureaucratic
centralism, like a spider web. At the centre is the general secretary,
surrounded by the political bureau, a group of eight party
functionaries and trade union officials. The PB has not been changed
materially for about six years; it is a rump "inner group" with
absolute control over party finance (no balance sheets are shown to the
membership), party publications and the first and last say in the
selection, suspension and removal of party functionaries, the
dissolution of intractable party bodies, and the isolation of
individual members who display "Trotskyist" or other anti-leadership
sentiments. In a circle round the PB are a number of district
committees and a further circle of selection committees. These
committees are completely dominated by groups of functionaries, who can
hold their positions and continue to draw their sustenance only so long
as they agree with the line of the PB on all major and minor political
and organisational issues. The balance of the party membership is split
up into hundreds of microscopic branches, devoid of means of
The same bureaucratic centralism holds true of the Communist
International, with the difference that it is the Mileses who are in a
circle around Stalin, whose every word is law. Is it any wonder that
the party is ideologically dead; that there are no longer any polemics
— only directives?
How did this position arise?
The ebb of the post-war revolutionary movement coincided with
death of Lenin and the beginning of the dominance of Stalin in the
government of the Soviet Union. The masses in the Soviet Union, weary
of war, revolution, civil war and famine, disappointed with the
temporary failure of the world proletarian revolution, were ready for a
long period of internal and external peace. Stalin's new theory of
socialism in one country fell on fertile soil. It helped him to uproot
the old guard of the revolution, headed by Trotsky, and to discredit
them. In 1927 the mistakes of Stalinism caused the terrible defeat of
the Chinese revolution. After the sixth world congress of the
Comintern, Stalin led the international on an erratic course. The
inaugural plenum of the CPA in June 1930 formally introduced the party
to the latest Stalinist theories of the Third Period, "radicalisation"
and social fascism. Every trade union bureaucrat or Labor politician
was a social fascist. Lang, Garden, Kilburn12,
and most of the Sydney "industrialists" with whom Miles and Co have
lately formed a bloc, were dangerous "left social fascists". This was
the period of "head-on collision" with the reformist leaders — on a
The cumulative effect of the theories of social fascism and
socialism in one country constituted a major factor in the defeat of
the German workers by Hitler. As late as the 12th plenum of the ECCI, Piatnitsky13
said that the "united front must be directed against the Social
Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy", while the London Daily
(Communist Party organ) said on May 26, 1932: "It is significant that
Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between the Communist
and Social Democratic parties against fascism. No more disruptive and
counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at a
time like the present".
Too late did the CI effect a change. The main bulwark of the
Union against imperialist aggression — the mighty German labour
movement — was smashed, surrendered "without drawing a sword or firing
a shot". The flight from Marxism continued. Not world revolution but
alliances with the bourgeois states, membership in the League of
Nations, would defend the Soviet Union.
The sections of the CI fell into line with the new turn of the
Soviet Foreign Office. World revolution, "soviet power" (once — how
recently! — the main slogan) were struck off the agenda. The struggle
was no longer for "socialism against capitalism", but for "democracy
against fascism" — the very same bourgeois democracy against which
Lenin and the Bolsheviks had thundered in 1917. All sorts of bourgeois
Philistines and other "queer people" — pacifists, reformers, Christians
— had to be attracted to the party. The "social fascists" became
The seventh world congress of the Comintern — meeting after a
lapse of seven years — legalised the latest somersault. Dimitrov14,
the new "helmsman" of the Comintern, reached into the garbage can of
history and plucked forth the theories of Bernstein, Kerensky and the
"lesser evil" of the German Iron Front; they emerged as the "People's
Front". From Kautsky and Ramsay MacDonald was borrowed the theory of
"the chief instigators of war"; a truce was called with the "peaceful
British, French, Italian and US imperialists — only Germany and Japan
The results of the seventh congress somersault were soon
Under a smokescreen of talk about "unity against war and fascism", the
Comintern discarded the last vestiges of Leninism. In China the
Stalinists discovered that they had nothing "personal" against Chiang
Kai-shek, the bourgeois dictator and butcher of the workers; the
Chinese Red Army and soviet districts were liquidated and combined with
the Nanking national front. In France, the CP swung into a permanent
bloc with Blum and the petty bourgeois Radical Socialists; the mighty
strike movements of the French workers were shunted on to the track of
bourgeois parliamentarism. Reformism secured a new lease of life. Worse
still, in Italy the CP clamoured for unity with the Fascists.
Against this background, the Australian Stalinists evolved
1937 federal election policy and tactic. All Leninist principles were
scrapped. The party leaders refused to nominate independent candidates
(with two exceptions), called loudly for unconditional support of the
Labor politicians, and unblushingly sowed he most dangerous reformist
illusions about electing a "fighting Labor government", which would
legitimise "a better life" for the people. Miles falsified history: "Is
it a gross error," he said, "to see the Labor governments as
administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed
the workers". What contemptible deception! Shades of Andrew Fisher,
Hill, Hogan, Scullin, Lang, Forgan Smith and the rest. Is it not,
rather, the truth to say to say that Labor governments have been merely
the reflection of the level of the class struggle that any reforms
legislated have been forced by extraparliamentary activity of the
masses? Is it not also irrefutable that at all critical junctures Labor
governments in Australia have allied themselves with the capitalist
state against the workers — whether in 1914 or in the latest brewery
strike in Brisbane?
If the Communists are, as Marx said, that section of the
class which clearly understands the line of march of the proletariat —
that sees ahead — what shallow theoreticians we have in the Central
Committee. In the federal elections they failed badly in their estimate
of the mood of the masses. They assessed incorrectly the results of the
Gwydir poll; they failed to attach sufficient importance to Lyons'
defence policy as a vote winner; they overlooked the effect on the
petty bourgeoisie of the upward trend of Australian economy; they
anticipated the sweeping away of Lyons. Dixon15
in reply to Beasley, on September 24, suggested that there would be a
"landslide to Labor". Exaggerated as was this estimate, and others, it
can be matched by the wretched prediction of Miles (Communist Review,
July 1937): "the masses are not moving consciously to us. It is
questionable if in the elections we could generally increase our vote".
trebled his vote — not, of course all Communists).
As the campaign developed, the party leaders and press sank to
most vulgar deception and parliamentarism. All the ancient
stock-in-trade of the reformists was displayed once again by the party
leaders. The number three party election leaflet touches zero: "British
policy … endangers the Empire ... The Lyons government supports this
perilous policy ... Stand by the League of Nations." And the party
members collected thousands of pounds for the DLG fund to pay for this
Nor is there any hope of a change. Dixon warned his audience
(Darlinghurst, October 24), that the Communists were going to "clean
out the ALP stables", making a start with Lang, ultimately restoring
the faded glory(!) of the ALP by combining the workers, farmers and
middle class of Australia into a single party — a non-Marxist concept
which even Stalin in 1927 considered to be "impossible". (Leninism,
Vol II, p 85)
This statement was almost ready for the printers when news
the press of a new and even greater purge of anti-Stalinist elements in
the Soviet Union. This time there are more framed-up charges against
old Bolsheviks (Bubnov17,
etc). The new purge underscores the dangerous international position of
the working class. The war danger grows; fascism continues to expand;
the strategic position of the Soviet Union grows weaker; today it must
rely on the shifting sands of the Franco-Soviet Pact, or on Litvinov's18
manoeuvres in the thieves' kitchen at Geneva.
The internal position of the USSR gives ground for alarm.
abundant proof of inequality, the existence of a huge bureaucracy and
the rebirth of bourgeois-minded elements. Andre Gide says of the Soviet
masses: "They are more than ever bowed down."
Those workers who revolt against the sickening flattery of
the bureaucracy of the party, and the tailing after reformism, should
begin a study of the recently published works of Trotsky — The
Third International After Lenin, The
Stalin School of Falsification, and The
Revolution Betrayed. In these works is preserved the spirit and
teaching of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The Third International died as a revolutionary force in the
that Hitler came to power; the defeat of the German workers revealed at
one time the bankruptcy of both the Stalin and the reformist
leaderships. In the capitalist world the remnants of the Comintern now
pursue a reactionary line, supporting their national reformists and
applauding the provocations and frame-ups against Trotsky and the old
Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.
The needs of the toilers, the defence of the Soviet Union,
return to the program of world revolution, to the teachings of Marx and
Lenin. These teachings are being developed in a new party and the
rising Fourth International — commonly known as "Trotskyists". That is
the direction in which the workers will march.
November 12, 1937
1. Twelve members of the IWW were arrested
September 23, 1916, and charged with arson and treason, the latter
charge under the archaic Treason Felony Act of 1848. At the time, Prime
Minister William Morris Hughes was campaigning to introduce
conscription for World War I and the IWW was central to the oppositon
to conscription. Seven of the 12 (John Hamilton, William Beattie,
Joseph Fagin, Donald Grant, William Teen, Tom Glynn and Donald
McPherson) were sentenced to 15 years in prison; four (Thomas Moore,
Bob Besant, Peter Larkin and Charles Reeve) were sentenced to 10 years;
and Benjamin King was sentenced to five years. The 12 were jailed until
the Labor government of Premier John Storey was elected on March 20,
1920. It appointed Judge N.K. Ewing to inquire into the trial and
sentencing, and 10 of the 12 were released in August 1920.
2. For a description of this incident, see Trotskyism
in Australia: Notes from a talk with Ted Tripp, 1976 by Peter
3. Herbert Moxon, who deposed Jack
CPA general secretary at Christmas 1929, expelled in 1931 after being
displaced from the top post by Comintern representative Harry Wicks.
Lance Sharkey, an ally of Moxon in 1929, became general secretary in
the late 1940s.
4. Jack Kavanagh (1879-1964) was born
Ireland and fought for the British in the Boer War before emigrating to
Canada in 1907, where he joined the Socialist Party of Canada. In 1918
he was President of British Columbia Federation of Labour, and a One
Big Union organiser. Expelled from SP in 1919, by 1922 he was an
executive committee member of the Communist Party and editor of its
newspaper. He emigrated to Australia in 1925, and became a leader of
the Communist Party of Australia, which was at a low ebb. Kavanagh
preferred the old-style socialist leadership to the new democratic
centralism demanded by the Comintern, and as general secretary he
resisted attempts in the late 1920s to declare the NSW Labour Council
and the Australian Labor Party "social fascist". He allowed relatively
open discussion in the pages of Workers Weekly, and allowed
publication of a statement by prominent trade union leader Jock Garden
when he and his supporters left the CPA in 1926. Herbert Moxon and
Lance Sharkey received Comintern support to oust Kavanagh as general
secretary, which they did in 1929. Kavanagh was expelled in 1934 and later
joined the Trotskyists.
Jack Ryan was an official of the NSW Labour Council and a close
collaborator with Kavanagh, he was expelled from the CPA in 1930.
5. James Scullin, Prime Minister in a
federal Labor government from 1929-31, and leader of the federal Labor
Party until 1935.
6. J.B. Miles, general secretary of the
CPA from 1931 to the late 1940s.
7. Joseph Lyons, elected to federal
for the Labor Party, split from Labor in 1931 and formed the right-wing
United Australia Party, for which he was prime minister from 1932-39.
8. Jack Beasley was a member of the
Representatives 1928–46 for West Sydney, most of that time for the
Labor Party, except in 1931–36 when he was a member of the Lang Labor
Party and 1940–41 when he was a member of the Anti-Communist Labor
9. Defeat the Lyons Government Fund.
10. The Trades Hall
a group of union leaders who at this stage were left opponents of Lang
in the NSW Labor Party, and formes a loose bloc with the Communist
11. William Forgan Smith, Labor premier
of Queensland, 1932-42.
12. Jack Lang, NSW Labor premier from
1930–32 and an independent member of the federal House of
Representatives from 1946-49. He led a generally left-wing breakaway
from the Labor Party in the 1930s, often referred to as Lang Labor.
Jock Garden was a leader of the Trades Hall Reds, a group of unionists
central in the formation of the Communist Party. He and his supported
drifted away from the CPA around 1926, and joined the Labor Party.
Garden later became a central adviser to Jack Lang. Jock Kilburn was a
long-time left-wing unionist who was prominent in the Socialisation
Units that arose in the Labor Party during the depression.
13. Ossip Piatnitsky, a central
figure in the Comintern.
14. Giorgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian
Communist Party leader who became general secretary of the Comintern
15. Richard Dixon, CPA central committee
16. Fred Paterson in 1944 became the
candidate elected to an Australian parliament, the Queensland
parliament, representing the seat of Bowen.
17. Andrei Bubnov, old Bolshevik, made a
the Red Army by Stalin in 1924, removed from his position in 1934,
arrested in 1937 and died in prison in 1940.
18. Maxim Litvinov, an old Bolshevik
who was made Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1930 and was later an
ambassador to the US.
The alternative to the Communist Party
By Gil Roper
The Militant, Sydney, December 27, 1937
A month has elapsed since I publicly dissociated myself from
Stalinist renegade leadership of the Comintern by publishing a
statement entitled, What is happening in the Communist Party?
The intervening weeks have been full of events confirming the
correctness of that action.
In reply to my criticism of the political degeneration and
organisational bureaucracy of Stalinism, certain indirect answers have
already appeared in the central CP organ.
Firstly, the local Stalinist leadership has sharpened its
unscrupulous and foundationless attack upon the Trotskyist movement,
linking it up in an utterly fantastic manner with Les Cagoulards1
in France, and has given even more prominence to the venomous slogan of
Miles: “Drive the Trotskyists out of the labour movement.”
Secondly, the political bureau of the CP, contrary to its
practice, has published in its organ a “balance sheet of the Defeat the
Lyons Government Fund. This document succeeds in accounting for about
one tenth of the £6200-odd collected, but workers will note that
unattested by any auditor's certificate. Most of the CP election
expenses seem to be covered by the “balance sheet” (leaflets, posters,
radio, fares, etc) So what has happened to the other nine-tenths of the
money? Is it true that a great part of the DLG Fund, like other funds
which preceded it (and of which, also, no proper accounts have been
published), was not used for the purpose implied by its name, but was
appropriated for general party revenue.
The last month has brought further evidence of the need for
every principled Marxist to support the movement for a Fourth
International. In the Soviet Union the blood purge has mown down more
of the old Leninst Bolsheviks. Is it possible now to doubt the
Thermidorian character of the regime? The new Stalin constitution
stands exposed as a monstrous fraud. To use Stalin's expression, it is
“tragi-comic”. Every columnist in the capitalist press finds it an easy
target for ridicule, and certainly there are some comic features about
the one-candidate constituencies. But basically the new constitution is
a tragedy for the Soviet masses — an effort to secure mass endorsement
of the unbridled tyranny of Stalin and the bureaucracy. Elsewhere on
the continent, a Soviet diplomatic official is reported to be
undertaking the organisation of mass pressure to stay the hand of
Stalin's jailers and executioners. In Switzerland the government has
arrested several OGPU agents on a charge of having murdered Ignace
Reiss, a Communist who, like myself, had linked up with the
Trotskyists. The trial promises important disclosures of Stalinist
terrorism, perhaps having a bearing on the murder of Nin2
and other anti-Stalinist working-class leaders. In France a secret
meeting of representatives of 17 national sections of the Comintern has
discussed a plan to liquidate the international in order to satisfy the
demands of Stalin's bourgeois military allies. The Comintern leaders
hope either to merge with the Second (reformist) International or to
dissolve into a new People's Front International. Finally, in the
principal capitalist countries various factors seem to be unexpectedly
shortening the duration of the period of relative prosperity. The first
shocks of the approaching economic crisis are being felt in Australia.
Prices have been pegged by the armament drive, but at any time the
export and home markets may collapse and bring down the bloated credit
system like an avalanche. An economic crisis will cause a political
The replies of the Miles leadership and the march of events
confirm the urgent need for the rejection of Stalinism by the masses.
Not only is “the great teacher of the proletariat” going ahead with the
physical obliteration of every possible alternative leader in the
Soviet Union, but the OGPU terrorism is spreading to Spain, China,
Switzerland and elsewhere. What is the meaning of Miles's slogan,
“Drive the Trotskyists out of the labour movement”? We get the answer
in Radek's final statement (inspired, of course, by the OGPU) in the
court during the recent Moscow Trials:
We must tell the Trotskyist elements in France, Spain
and other countries that the experience of the Russian Revolution has
shown that Trotskyism is a pest of the labour movment. We must warn
them that they, too, will pay with their heads unless they learn by our
This threat and the frequent excitements in the Workers
are the expression of terrorist moods, which are symptomatic of the
anti-Trotskyist panic now seizing the whole Stalinist leadership. Let
the murder of Nin, Reiss, Freer, and countless revolutionary pioneers
in the USSR waken the Australian working class to the deadly menace of
Stalinism, the new scourge of the labour movement.
The behaviour of the leaders of the CPA typifies the decline
the Third International. There is the reticence in accounting for large
sums of money collected and earmarked for the Defence of the Party,
Defeat of the Lyons Government, etc. Then there are the crazy
manoeuvres with the NSW reformist groups. A few months ago the CP was
strongly advocating union affiliation to the ALP (Seamen, Printers,
etc). Members of the CP, urged on by Miles, were ostentatiously
collecting funds for the Lang apparatus. Now everything is suddenly
reversed: cash must be cut off from the Labor Party. In the NSW
municipal elections Miles and Co had at least three different tactics,
and they all failed. In Paddington, the CP supported the “rebel”
aldermen, who were duly defeated by the official Labor ticket; in Glebe
they somersaulted and supported the “inner group” men against the
“rebels”, and again failed; in a few areas independent CP candidates
were nominated, somersaulting on the very recent decision of the
central committee “not to split the workers' vote”. By carrying on with
the treacherous People's Front policy, instead of a bold, revolutionary
program, the CP is rapidly being forced to abandon all consistency and
sense of direction. It is becoming irretrievably lost in the reformist
Furthermore, these parliamentary intrigues cannot disguise the
opportunism of the Stalinists on the industrial field. The CP leaders
are fond of boasting of the enormous progress made by party members in
winning elections to paid and honorary positions in the trade unions.
Some time ago a report claimed that CP members held 1000 such
positions. What gains have the workers made as a result? The answer is
that a who period of relative prosperity has come and almost gone
without any commensurate movement of the workers for a greater share of
the prosperity. There was every indication of a great struggle of the
miners in New South Wales. A few concessions were negotiated by the
officials, but in return the miners were hog-tied for two years by an
arbitration agreement, and the remainder of the miners' urgent demands
were shelved. The seamen's strike was a defeat of the first magnitude,
despite direct CP leadership. Other strike movements have been sporadic
and narrow in scope and the results won have been correspondingly
meagre. Instead of concentrating all forces on the development of a
mighty industrial movement comparable with the recent upsurges in
France and the USA, Miles and Co prefer to misrepresent the ALP faction
fight as the decisive question for the Australian working class. Time
and opportunity have shown the Stalinist leaders to be merely
pseudo-militants. Instead of accelerating the progress of the class
struggle, they act as a throttle.
It is difficult to realise that the Communist International,
which inherited the most noble traditions of the labour movement of the
world, and which gave such great promise for the proletariat, is
nearing an ignominious end. The first four congresses of the CI (held
annually) were under the direct leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. But in
the last 13 years there have been only two congresses, and the latest
(the seventh) marked the complete renegacy of the CI leadership. So
great was Stalin's contempt for the seventh congress that he took no
part in the business except for a brief introductory speech. Now steps
are being taken towards the complete liquidation of the Comintern.
The working class must reply to Stalin by building a new
revolutionary organisation. Ideologically, this movement is led by
Trotsky, president of the Russian Soviet in 1905, organiser of the 1917
Russian Revolution, Commander in Chief of the Red Army during the whole
of the victorious Civil War in Russia, and one of the main pillars in
the construction of the Third International.
There are Trotskyist groups in about 30 countries. The Workers
Party of Australia is the vanguard of the Fourth International in this
country. It has survived a tendency to splinter, and although
numerically very weak, it is able to give a clear Marxist analysis of
the main problems of the Australian workers. Its platform is sound: for
an international revolutionary struggle against capitalism, leading to
the dictatorship of the proletariat, resting on soviets elected from
units of production; against the confusion of the People's Front and
for a real proletarian united front; against pacifism and for a
revolutionary struggle against war; for a militant industrial policy;
for the initiation by the trade union movement of a democratic
unemployed movement; against reformist parliamentary illusions; for the
unconditional defence of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the
Stalinist bureaucracy; for a new international based on real democratic
centralism, with free election of officials, full information of the
membership, and free discussion without baiting or threats of
Eight years in the Communist Party have led me to
irreconcilable disagreement with the attitude of the Stalinism on a
number of major issues. On the other hand, I find myself entirely in
accord with the Trotskyists and the Workers Party of Australia.
December 16, 1937
1. French racist organisation similar
to the Ku Klux Klan.
2. Andreas Nin, a leader of the Spanish
Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), murdered by the Stalinists.
A letter to Jean Devanny
Concerning the Communist Party's printery
The Militant, January 24, 1938
Dear Jean Devanny,
Last Sunday a worker whom I have known for a number of years
reported to me some remarks passed by you at a meeting of writers held
recently in Sydney, to the effect that I had “sabotaged” the printing
works of the Communist Party. Such allegations from you caused me a
great deal of surprise; firstly, because our personal relationships
have always been of a most comradely nature; secondly because your only
direct knowledge of my work in the party printery relates to the
production of your novel, Sugar Heaven. I think you will admit
that I strove to assist you with the typography of that book in every
way that lay in my power.
There is evidence that sinister allegations of “sabotage” are
being circulated by other members of the Communist Party, so that I can
assume that just as the Stalinists debase your imaginative brain to the
level of a publicity hack, so they are using your prestige to further a
systematic slander campaign against me. By such a scheme, no doubt, the
authors of the slanders hope to offset the results of the publication
of my brochure, entitled, What is happening in the Communist Party?
The conduct of the party printery is a damning indictment of
the political bureau, the inner group of the Communist Party. But it
would be naïve to presume that the PB, which is prepared to
every one of the crimes of Stalin against the old Bolsheviks of the
Soviet Union, has any scruples about projecting the whole blame for the
condition of the printery on to the workers in the plant.
I was invited to Sydney a little over three years ago to
operate a typesetting machine acquired by the political bureau. The
circumstances of the purchase were to be kept strictly confidential,
owing to the current danger of illegality, but the party chatterboxes
soon broadcast the news among non-party circles, and there is certainly
no point at this stage in keeping it mum. I registered myself as the
sole proprietor of a dummy firm known as Standard Typesetters, and
personally managed the business. According to an official audit of the
accounts by Comrade B, the first three months of trading allowed a net
profit of £80. The business continued along even more
lines for a further three months, when the PB merged Standard
Typesetters with the party's dummy printing firm of Wright and Baker. I
was again registered as the sole proprietor of the new firm, which I
named The Forward Press.
Heavy financial losses
About 12 months ago an official audit showed that The Forward
Ltd (by that time, as you see, a limited company) was working at a loss
of £500 per year. Now, Comrade Devanny, I have already quoted the
profit earned by the separate typesetting business. How, then, did it
come about that this tidy profit was swallowed by a huge loss after the
merging of the plant?
Prior to moving to the new premises, the PB (I do not know on
whose recommendation) purchased a Michle printing press for £600.
machine was badly needed to expedite production of the Workers
The installation of this machine was a task for an expert, but the PB
stupidly engaged a general engineer. Chaos resulted. Then, after weeks
of muddle, the truth was discovered: the new press was too small to
print the Weekly. From that time up till just recently, the
printery workers had to make shift with a hopelessly antiquated
machine. In addition, the PB failed for a time to appoint a manager,
and the departmental foremen struggled along in anarchy. In the new
plant, endless difficulties (partly due to understaffing of the
office), continually delayed the delivery of publications. Inability to
fulfil impossible tasks bred discontent. Mutual suspicions turned old
comrades into enemies. Four party members went on strike and picketed
the works. It was a repetition of Lane's New Australia.
During the period of less than two years spent by me at The
Forward Press, the PB appointed no fewer than six managers. Some of
these comrades were unfitted for administration. Nearly all the
customers were party organisations or “fraternals”. They constantly
clamoured for low prices. With profits cut to the bone, any bad debts
or errors in cost estimation tended to bankrupt the finances. Subsidies
from the party made good the deficits. If the managers failed in their
task, they became … white cargo. Such was the position of The Forward
Press, the product of the sterile brains of the PB.
Withering criticism of party leaders
The party members employed in the plant were ever groping for
solution of the problems. Their opinions are interesting. JA was the
third manager. Despite personal shortcomings, he attacked the problems
of the printery with remarkable energy, and was the first manager to
ensure prompt deliveries. He attended frequent meetings of the CC
secretariat (members of the PB) dealing with printery affairs. Shortly
before he left he expressed himself thus: “the PB is hopeless from a
business point of view”.
Again, about a year ago a meeting was called of all party
members employed in the printery. J.B. Miles was present. The then
manager, LB, was in the process of being forced to resign by the PB.
During the meeting, RB, a machinist, caused a stir by reading a
statement in which he mercilessly flogged the PB for their incompetent
meddling in the conduct of the printery. Miles took possession of this
document, and I would urge, Comrade Devanny, if you are still of the
opinion that it was I who sabotaged the printery, that you ask to see
this document, which should be in the CC files.
The meeting referred to above seemed to mark a decisive stage
in the history of the printery. It was followed by an intensive purge
of party members. At one stage there was upwards of 20 party members
employed at the printery. Many of they were splendid workers, but they
were not servile enough to suit the PB. Six months after the above
meeting all except two or three of these party members had resigned or
The case of LB (the fifth manager) is instructive. J. Simpson
of the PB told me that the PB was not satisfied with his work and
desired to replace him. However, they preferred that the position be
developed in such a way that he would resign. At the meeting I have
already mentioned, which took place about 12 months ago, attacks were
made on LB. He duly resigned. Later, at a PB meeting, just before I
left the printery, I was baited by Miles for having failed to join in
this chorus of criticism of my old comrade. Miles interjected my speech
(in which I was defending myself against a charge of factionalising)
thus: “What about B?”
Working conditions were gradually made unbearable. RB (not
previously referred to) was framed on charges of not filling in his
time docket correctly, permitting a junior to feed a press
inaccurately, and guillotining magazines on a slant. He resigned as a
protest against “fault finding”. Because I tried to conciliate this
comrade I was trenchantly criticised by the PB. It became, in fact,
another “charge” against me. J. Simpson whispered to me, at the
conclusion of the last PB meeting which I attended that RB “might be an
agent provocateur”. Let me add that this comrade subsequently left to
join the International Brigade in Spain.
Keeping a job in the family
Non-party workers were included in the purge. J. Simpson
that he knew “a young woman” whom he desired to place in employment in
the printery. About the same time, a “case” began to be made out
against the forewoman, Miss R. Later she was curtly dismissed, no
reason being given, and the “young woman” immediately took her place.
A few months previously, at a Christmas Eve party in the
J.B. Miles, in the hearing of a number of workers, had said to Miss R:
“I hope you will be with us for 50 years.” I left the printery about
the same time as Miss R, but the records of the union carry on the
The union secretary (I quote from The Printer, June
1937, p 540 “interviewed the manager of The Forward Press, and pointed
out that the policy of the union was preference to employment for
financial members. If this policy was departed from there was a
probability that his employees would refuse to work with non-members”.
The “young woman” seems to have been put off. But that is not all.
Simpson next accused me of being responsible for the failure of her
application to join the union. Who was this “young woman”? Those hewers
of coal who are struggling for seniority rights would learn with
amazement that she was none other than the sister in law of a member of
the PB, who draws £8/15/- a week as general secretary of the
The history of the purge concludes with the following extract
from The Printer, official union of the PIEUA, dated November
Correspondence between the secretary (Mr Wilson) and the
manager of The Forward Press Ltd, relative to payment of overtime for
work on Sunday nights; and the dismissal of the union collector, was
referred to the executive with authority to take whatever action may be
necessary to uphold the policy of the union and ensure compliance with
And up till the time when I broke with the party, despite all
extraordinary events, the PB gave not the slightest indication to the
rank and file of the party of anything amiss.
Manager No 6 has a flair for “inquiries”
Towards the end of 1936 a party member by the name of Granger
in Victoria as T. Duncan) arrived in Sydney to handle the accounts of
The Forward Press and some other party enterprises. He brought
references from several big capitalist concerns in Melbourne and a
special commendation from E. Thornton, federal secretary of the
ironworkers union. One reference stated that he was an expert on
“inquiries”. In the early part of 1937 Granger-Duncan replaced LB as
The management of the plant under Granger-Duncan prompted me
compile a severely critical letter to the PB, in which I demanded a
change, otherwise it would be impossible for me to continue working
The events which followed are a lesson in chicanery. After
read my letter he assumed a friendly demeanour and said he agreed that
affairs at the printery were not at all satisfactory. A meeting of the
PB and party members in the printery was called. Here Miles turned a
somersault. He, Simpson and Granger-Duncan joined in a counterblast to
my accusations. The accused became the accuser. A hurriedly concocted
tirade of slanders astonished the audience. However, a charge that I
had delayed publications was categorically denied by three party
editors; a lie about lack of co-operation was annihilated. It was said
that I had factionalised with WB, a worker in the plant. The evidence —
believe it or not — revealed that the manager had seen me at a distance
several times talking to WB “with a sneering grin”. In any case the
meeting was only a readied-up farce because Miles incautiously admitted
that the PB had already decided “to support Granger”.
The meeting proved abortive. Soon afterwards the tension in
plant became worse. JC, a fairly recent addition to the staff, alleged
that his assistant was timing his output. His resignation coincided
with mine. At the last meeting of printery workers which I attended —
and one of the last, I believe, ever held — discontent was rife.
Simpson, forming a bloc with the manager and his wife, tried to force
through a nomination for party membership. One worker described the
nominee as a “bosses' man and a crawler”. The nomination was deferred.
Communist in name — bourgeois in methods
Towards the end of April, I complained to Miles again
manager's attitude. Another PB meeting was held. A new counterblast
alleged that I did insufficient work and asserted that I spent too long
on a certain task. The total time was, I think, less than three hours,
and I proved beyond dispute that 20 minutes at least of that time was
accounted for by a conversation with Granger-Duncan in which he
aggressively demanded that I go on night shift, because he thought some
of the night workers were “taking things very easy”. (I refused to
accept.) This intrigue and contemptible haggling forced me to resign
from the printery.
There, Comrade Devanny, you have the origin of the slanders;
there you have the character of their authors. The searchlight of
exposure was moving inexorably towards the PB. The critics had to be
Were the charges bogus? If they were not, why was I permitted
to remain long afterwards a member of an advisory bureau, handling
highly confidential work for the NSW district committee of the party,
to continue as a branch chairman? Why was I approached to resume oral
propaganda work for the party? Was there no suspicion of sabotage? And
finally, if I was a known saboteur, why was I summoned at 1.30am one
morning last October to rectify a mechanical fault in the printery so
that the Weekly might appear on time?
The answer is clear: there was no sabotage. The slanders
me were crushed last April by the weight of evidence and ridicule. They
have been revived by the little Stalins in the PB only because such an
unscrupulous trick is easier than replying to my purely objective
polemic against the present treacherous policy and tactics of the
History has already placed the skids under the Comintern and
its leaders. They are moving to destruction. It is time for all sincere
revolutionaries to begin a study of the literature of the Fourth
International, to take the path of Ignace Reiss and Andre Gide.
Yours for the Fourth International,
January 15, 1938
Gil Roper and Percy Brookfield
By Wendy and Allan Scarfe
To Gilbert Roper, Percy Brookfield was one of the great
socialist heroes. He also saw himself as being in the same tradition.
Although a generation separated them and they never met they had the
same roots in the Labor movement — the books and songs that moved
Brookfield moved Gilbert; both were first and foremost trade unionists
who wanted to uplift the poor and exploited; both wanted to restructure
society through direct action with the factories owned and managed by
the workers; both were passionately anti-war and for holding such
"unpatriotic" views both were jailed. Labor's Titan is not,
then, a dispassionate academic biography. It is a work of commitment,
addressed to people of similar commitment, notably within the trade
union movement, who have long been denied short, layman-oriented
biographies of early socialist pioneers by the increasing tendency to
prepare such undertakings for a highly specialised scholastic
readership. (Though it is hoped that these latter will also find the
present volume of interest).
Born in 1905 Gilbert Giles Roper was a descendent of the
South Australian pioneer family, the McFarlanes. His father died when
Gil was three leaving his two sons to be reared by their mother,
grandmother and uncle, Edgar Giles, the Commissioner of Audit for South
Australia. As a boy Gil experienced the glamour and flamboyance of the
march past of the first troops to leave Australia for the "Great" War
and he was aware of the widespread grief when few of them returned.
During the war years he also felt keenly the humiliations of the
previously respected German community of South Australia.
At 14 Gil began his working life as a printer at South
Australia's oldest newspaper, The Register.
Here he experienced the extremes of the class system and gained a deep
knowledge of union and labor philosophy. He also developed life-long
At 16 Gil became a Sunday orator at “The Stump” in Botanical
Park for the Socialist Labor Party. In the following years he threw
himself into the free speech conflicts which the radical groups fought
with the Adelaide City Council. In the split which occurred in the
Socialist Labor Party, Gil became secretary of the leading faction
while avoiding most of the violent fights, but dissatisfaction with the
lack of support given to workers by the Socialist Labor Party led him
to join in founding the Marx-Engels Club in 1928.
In 1928 Adelaide was rocked by the most memorable conflict of
her history, the waterside workers' strike against the degrading
conditions imposed by the federal arbitration court. Shipowners were
encouraged to employ scabs and the unemployed watersiders attacked
them. Gil, who had won a reputation for his knowledge of
Marxist-Leninist theory, was enlisted as a lecturer for the Port
Adelaide waterside workers. He was very sympathetic to the beliefs in
direct action propounded by the International Workers of the World and
was driven by compassion for the unemployed and exploited. Believing
both the Australian Labor Party and the Adelaide Trades Hall Council
had betrayed the workers in their struggle, Gil joined other radicals
in reviving the South Australian Communist Party in 1929, aiming to rid
Port Adelaide of the police patrols and the scabs.
As secretary of the South Australian branch of the Communist
Party Gil was highly successful in building membership, influencing
young people in the Communist Youth League, in organising the
unemployed and in evading police persecution. His self-sacrifice made
it financially possible for the party to field candidates in 1930 for
the state elections, who stood, although unsuccessfully, for the right
to strike, equal pay for women, workers' compensation for sickness or
accident, a 40-hour week, and two weeks paid annual holiday for all
workers. In 1929 Gill assisted the Stalinists Moxon and Sharkey to take
control of the central committee of the Communist Party. He was later
to regret this. He was co-opted himself in 1930 to the central
committee of the party.
In August 1930 when the shipowners destroyed what little hope
of industrial peace remained in hungry Port Adelaide by replacing
unionised wharfies to stack sugar at Glanville, there was a spontaneous
upheaval. The Port streets became pandemonium. Gil was a delegate to
the Adelaide Trades and Labor Council but he scorned it for its
treachery to the watersiders in 1928. He and his comrades through
euphoric public meetings organised workers into a general strike,
co-ordinated by a Rank and File Council of Action, which bypassed the
Combined Adelaide and Port Adelaide Trades and Labor Councils Disputes
Gil hoped this was the beginning of the revolution in
for the overthrow of capitalism. However, the strike only lasted two
weeks until Labor Premier Lionel Hill revealed to Parliament the evil
conspiracy of Gil's Council of Action. Police raids were followed by
Hill rushing through Parliament in a record 26 hours a hysterical
Public Safety Act, which beat the strikers back to work under even
The failure of direct action and the use of Parliament against
the workers only spurred Gil to increase his efforts for party
demonstrations, enlistments, ideological education of party members,
assistance to the unemployed and the training of a Workers' Defence
Corps. In 1931 the Hill Government reduced its help to the South
Australian unemployed, replacing beef with cheaper mutton chops on the
ration for the unemployed. Gil was active in organising the Beef March,
the greatest protest march Adelaide had seen. But police viciously
attacked the marchers and the court meted out severe punishments to the
march leaders. As a consequence of his involvement Gil was sacked from
his job at the Advertiser newspaper, which had taken over The
Register. Since he was unable to find work he and his mother tried
to live by working a farm at Mitcham, an Adelaide suburb.
However farming was short-lived for Gil, for the state
conference of the Communist Party at the end of 1931 sent him to
Mildura to help reorganise the party there after most of its members
had been assaulted or railroaded out of town.
Gil had planned to marry Edna Sirius Lorence, whose father, a
swashbuckling Norwegian sailor, had reared his two children on a coal
hulk moored in the river at Port Adelaide to the songs of the
International Workers of the World and the struggles of the Waterside
Workers' Federation. Edna followed Gil to Mildura where they lived
temporarily with two other workers in an earth-floored tin and canvas
humpy on the Murray River bank, and then in town.
Taking a job on the Sunraysia Mail Gil successfully
revived the party in Mildura, leaving a branch of 48 members, but after
his departure from Adelaide the South Australian party fell into the
Looking for work, he moved to Melbourne, to Castlemaine, where
their only baby died, to Leongatha and back to Carlton, where Gil was
active in party organisation and in public anti-fascist and anti-war
meetings. In 1934 the party leaders asked Gil to take charge of their
Sydney press and he agreed.
In Sydney Gil was an important functionary of the national
central committee of the Australian Communist Party. He established the
Forward Press, a front which published 60,000 copies of the Workers'
Weekly, the paper to be renamed later Tribune.
He was a member of the Glebe branch of the party and then of the
Randwick branch. He was also elected to the board of management of the
Printing Industries Employees' (PIE) Union and as a delegate to the
Sydney Labor Council. Edna worked daily with Gil at the Forward Press
as a copy holder. She also became business manager of the magazine, Woman
the official organ of the Women's Committee of the Unemployed Workers'
Union. However, it was a time of poverty and things going wrong for
them. Gil's mother and senile aunt who lived with them were difficult
to get on with and Edna was ill and had to undergo major surgery. In
addition Gil began to quarrel seriously with the party leaders, Sharkey
and Miles. He was attracted to the Communist dissidents and Trotskyists
of Nick Origlass's Workers' Party.
In 1937 Gil resigned from the Forward Press and for some
tried to organise a campaign of Communist Party members to remove the
undemocratic Stalinist leadership. He was subjected to unscrupulous
character assassination by the party, and left it. He joined the
Trotskyist group, the Communist League of Australia, becoming their
foremost Sunday orator at the Domain. His oral disputes with the
Communist Party speakers drew thousands of listeners to the Domain in
1939 and 1940 but his anti-war views and world proletarian revolution
notions provoked mobs of soldiers and pro-war citizens to attack his
meetings. His bitter criticisms of the Menzies Government led to the
Trotskyist League being declared illegal. However, Gil defied the ban
and continued to publish and distribute anti-war pamphlets until in
1941 his house was searched, he was arrested, bashed by the police, and
offered a choice in court of signing a bond to renounce his anti-war
views, paying a fine or going to jail. On principle he chose jail and
was sentenced to hard labour in Long Bay Penitentiary. When he became
seriously ill in jail, Edna managed to collect his fine and have him
released. It was this experience which caused him to write so feelingly
in his Brookfield manuscript:
For those who have not endured the grisly experience of
being political prisoners in New South Wales, it should perhaps be
explained that a staple article of diet is porridge, known in prison
terminology as hominy.
During the subsequent years of World War II Gil found at the
Labor Council and in his "PIE" Union that nationalistic loyalty was far
stronger than class loyalty. As the Japanese advanced south in the
Pacific he saw the disintegration of the old socialist beliefs that
workers would combine throughout the world to resist capitalistic wars.
Regretfully he abandoned his emotional belief in a workers' anti-war
world revolution. Brookfield had died holding this absolute view: he
was not faced with the intellectual complexities and controversies
aroused when the Bolshevik regime was required to fight a national war
of survival against fascism. Unlike Gil, Brookfield drew his strength
from the militant, unified working class of isolated inland Broken
Hill: he was not faced with the necessity of conducting his political
campaign in a changing world where the working class was not unified in
its reaction to war or to the Labor movement.
In 1941 Gil saw the Australian Labor Party as reflecting the
majority attitudes of the Australian workers and since it was
consistent with Trotsky's political tactics to serve the working class
by recognising what the majority wanted, Gil joined the Labor Party.
Eventually he persuaded his Trotskyist comrades to do so also.
In 1942 Gil found his first permanent employment since he had
left the Forward Press. He was employed as a printer by the New South
Wales Railways. Before long his printer workmates elected him father of
their chapel, the traditional job organisation of their craft which was
independent of their union, and within months, because of his
integrity, he was setting up the type for the highly secret schedules
of the movements of troop trains. He was passed as fit for military
service but because he was in a reserved occupation he was not drafted
into the army. When the Japanese Air Force bombed Darwin, Prime
Minister Curtin jettisoned the Labor Party's long opposition to
conscription for overseas service. Gil threw himself into the struggle
in the Labor Party against conscription, becoming secretary of the
anti-conscription movement in Sydney. In 1916 and 1917 Brookfield and
the anti-conscriptionists had defeated Prime Minister Hughes'
conscription referendums. To Gil's disappointment Prime Minister Curtin
won the support of the Labor Party.
However, Gil continued in his opposition to other aspects of
Curtin's war policies, fighting a losing battle at the Sydney Labor
Council for those planks in the Labor Party platform which would
improve working conditions. From 1944 to 1948 he took an active part in
the struggle for the 40-hour week for Australian workers, which was led
by the Sydney printers. He seconded the original Labor Council motion,
led his fellow railway printers on strike, and a mass meeting at the
Sydney Town Hall on 1 September, 1945, overwhelmingly passed his strike
motion and elected him to the disputes committee. For his part in the
40-hour week campaign he was sacked from the Railways.
When he later wrote his Brookfield manuscript Gil saw himself
as having continued the struggle for shorter hours and industrial
reforms that Brookfield had fought for, and in similar circumstances,
against the vituperative opposition of those war supporters who chose
to represent concessions to working people as a threat to the national
In a number of the organisations of the Labor movement Gil
played a prominent part, introducing many proposals which made the
working man's life more pleasant and safe. He pioneered the awareness
of the problems of lead poisoning in the printing industry. His goals
included a 36-hour week, a three week paid annual holiday for all
workers, and a Press Council to give the community control over press
bias. His life-long concern to educate workers found expression in his
lecturing to the Workers' Education Association, where he was the
target of much Stalinist persecution.
also joined the Australian Labor Party,
and rose to prominence in the New South Wales branch to membership of
the state executive, and presidency of the Labor Women's central
organising committee, largely through her vigorous campaigning for
equal pay and equal rights for women. Gil had an influential part in
1945 in setting up the structures and policies of the Labor Party
Industrial Groups, but after these were captured by Catholic Action,
Edna, both at the Women's Conference and on the state executive of the
Labor Party, worked actively against the Groupers. For her loyal
service to the party during the "Split", Edna was nominated for a seat
in the New South Wales Legislative Council. In 1958 at the opening of
the New South Wales Parliament she was given the honour of moving the
Address-in-Reply to the Governor's speech, the first women ever to do
so in 134 years of the New South Wales Parliament.
In 1959 it was suggested to Gil by a Labor Party colleague
he should stand as a candidate for the Sydney City Council. He
hesitated because he had always seen himself as a trades unionist who
believed in direct action and only sought positions to which his fellow
unionists elected him. As Brookfield suspected that he might be
betraying his class by becoming a mmber of prliament, so Gil also
feared that he might be risking his integrity by becoming an aderman.
However he yielded to persuasion, was elected to the Sydney City
Council from 1959 to 1967, and looked back on this as his golden period
of achievement for the Labor movement.
He introduced his fellow adermen to many entirely new concepts
in city planning. He established a reputation for being thoroughly
prepared on any issue and tenaciously persuading those of differing
belief to his own considered view point, and was particularly sensitive
to the problems of residents in his ward. Because of his visions for
the redevelopment of the inner-ity slum areas he became deputy chairman
of the City Council Planning Committee. His proposal to rejuvenate
areas of Wooloomooloo was carried out after the state Labor Government
passed the necessary legislation. He also made the proposal for
developing the run-down area of The Rocks, nowadays visited by more
than two million tourists annually.
He attempted to have the council apply stricter controls over
"boarding houses" and took personal risks to inform the council of the
situation and push it into action over the vice rings racket in Kings
Cross. He was one of the first aldermen to be aware of the
environmental problems of air and noise pollution and urged that more
native trees be planted in the city parks to provide food for the
He believed that Sydney should have central points of beauty
and interest, being one of the originators of the scheme for the
development of Martin Place and Circular Quay and the zoning of
building in harbour areas in the form of a theatre dress-circle to keep
high-rise development from blocking the views and breezes of the
harbour from the less fortunate residents behind them. He gained most
press coverage not from the council's co-operative housing schemes but
over the replacement of the GPO clock and tower. Partly through Edna's
influence the New South Wales Labor Government took the decision to
build the Opera House. He also won equal pay for the women employees of
the council — the rest room attendants and library staff. When the
Liberal Party won the 1965 state election the new government dismissed
the Sydney City Council and replaced it in 1967 with three appointed
commissioners. Gil's subsequent efforts to stand for the city council
and the Randwick City Council proved unsuccessful.
In 1969 Edna was elected for a second term as a member of the
New South Wales Legislative Council, and her career climaxed in 1979
when she received from the Governor of New South Wales the Order of the
After assisting in the 1972 federal election campaign which
brought the Whilom Labor Government to office, and still employed daily
as a printer despite his 69 years, Gil died on 5 December, 1974, after
a life of striving on behalf of the Australian working people.
As for Percy Brookfield, who Gil Roper so greatly admired,
there is no doubt that his life, death and beliefs had considerable
importance in the second decade of this century. Brookfield was
simultaneously one of the most hated and the most loved of men. Most of
those who knew him personally are now dead. The day 15,000 workers of
Broken Hill followed his coffin to the strains of The Red Flag
has disappeared into history. But the passage of time does not destroy
the remarkable nature of these events, nor the values which were
affirmed by them.
Because of the brevity of his political career it is hard to
assess in political terms Brookfield's influence on the mainstream of
Australian political development. Certainly he contributed to the
struggle for shorter hours and to the stream of anti-militarist,
anti-conscriptionist thinking that has punctuated Australian history
since the upheavals of the "Great" War. He contributed his ideas and
actions to that stream of socialist doctrine which believes in
factories for the workers and soil for the tillers rather than a
bureaucratised state ownership which merely replaces capitalist bosses
with button-down officials.
Brookfield's belief in the direct action of the working people
is still valuable in the 1980s. Since World War II capitalism has grown
bigger and more powerful, and changing economic patterns have eroded
much of the class loyalty which was so strong among the miners of
Broken Hill in 1921, but Brookfield's belief in the right of people to
control their work places and their government is a timely lesson to us
that society can be organised on a different pattern from the
prevailing power centralisation of today. Democracy can be more than a
three-yearly marking of a ballot paper for candidates selected by a
party machine. Those who make the goods society needs are entitled to
more than the little they can wrest from the huge international
juggernauts which take no social responsibility for the employment or
non-employment of working men and women in any particular society.
But most of all Brookfield supplied a legend in leadership. He
exuded a special personal attraction -- a warmth a kindness, a
compassion, a directness, a courage, a personal commitment to others
far removed from the bland, remote media image most politicians project
today. There was a passion in the man, a capacity for involvement in
causes that served people that made his four short political years more
a crusade than a political career. He was physically tough. He was
brave enough to confront crowds, to fight attackers and to confront an
armed man who had run amok. He was morally tough: brave enough to
confront bosses, political parties and established conservative
prejudice. Time was kind to him: the years neither corrupted him nor
threw him on the scrap heap, and so the legend remains in all its
purity of a man who never twisted.
No Australian politician has ever received such a spontaneous
tribute at his funeral. The crowd of mourners might only be compared
with the huge emotional farewells the Irish have given their martyrs.
The value of his legend today is that the quality of the man
well as his beliefs set high standards for the Australian radical
movement. Brookfield's life challenges progressive people, as it
challenged Gil Roper, to have courage and integrity, to live up to
Brookfield's self-sacrifice for the embattled and underprivileged
people of this earth.
From Labor's Titan. The story of Percy Brookfield,
1878-1921, by Gil Roper, Warnambool Institute Press, 1982