Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2
THE author of this biography, who was for a short time the organising secretary of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in Britain, has given us a well-sketched-out picture of one of international Trotskyism’s most endearing characters, as well the authentic flavour of the Australian labour movement, so like our own, and yet so unlike. Let us hope that we do not have wait for the death of his old comrade Issy Wyner before we get a similar biography of him.
After leaving the Communist Party in 1931, at the height of the ‘Third Period’ lunacy orchestrated there by the double agent H.M. Wicks (p. 25), Nick Origlass was for many years the leading Australian Trotskyist. His infectious activism left a permanent stamp upon his movement, which has always carried on a high level of political activity on both local and international issues, and never spawned such contemplative sects as we trip over in Europe and North America. So the great value of this book lies in its detailed descriptions of Jack Sylvester’s work amongst the unemployed (pp. 15ff., 34ff.) and the industrial conflicts in which Origlass himself invariably played a courageous and honourable rôle (pp. 7–13, 48–54, 105–9, 122–35), culminating in the historic Balmain strike of 1945 that put an end to the onward march of Stalinism within the Australian trade unions (chapter 15, pp. 137-–48). This heroic wartime activity is by far the most exciting part of the book, even if its context is hampered by the author’s inability to grasp Trotsky’s politics at the time. For it is very dubious to argue that Trotsky ‘spoke out in favour of the entry of the United States into the war, principally because it would give Stalin courage to break his alliance with Hitler’ (p. 99; cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no. 3, Autumn 1988, pp. 39–40; Volume 3, no. 4, Autumn 1991, p. 14), and it is simply not true to say that Trotskyists ‘would not sabotage production for the war effort in countries allied to the Soviet Union’ (p. 100).
However deeply involved he was in his own movement, Origlass never forgot the international dimension of all true working-class politics. His first contribution to the American Militant was as early as October 1935 (p. 65), and for many years it was he who sat painfully translating Pablo’s manifestos and theses, word for word from a French dictionary (p. viii). It was on his insistence that the Australian group continued to support Pablo after Frank, Maitan and Mandel had decided to remove him from the leadership of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. The description of this unseemly operation, which was carried on after Pablo’s imprisonment over the Algerian currency affair, so that the Troika could end its divorce with the Americans, occupies several pages (pp. 227–35). ‘When the Secretary was released after being captured by the enemy’, complained Origlass, ‘resumption of his position should have been automatic.’ (p. 231) The full toy-box of factionalism’s petty tricks is poured onto the floor for us to look at, including a notable contribution from Livio Maitan (p. 230). (Maitan seems to have been even better at this sort of thing than Frank, for he once allowed one of our comrades to go all the way to northern Italy to appeal to a world congress, and then had him ordered home on the station platform.)
But it is interesting (and enigmatic) to note that whilst Origlass insisted upon international democratic centralism, it appears to have been purely on the level of programmes and manifestos, for he does not seem to have applied it to himself. The mid-1930s was the first period of Trotskyism’s entry into Social Democracy, and the author admits ‘the absolute centrality of the Labour Party for anybody interested in working-class politics’ in Australia (p. 199). Yet Origlass himself was for many years the main opponent of entry into the Australian Labour Party on a thoroughly Oehlerite basis, it was only undertaken by the group as late as 1941, and he only applied to join himself in 1950! So having refused to accept Trotsky’s policy, when he did finally get in, it was in order to carry out the ‘sui generis’ tactic of Michel Pablo instead (pp. 202ff.).
For all its value (and it is considerable), the book still cannot escape history’s curse, which comes from its very nature, that it is always written with the advantage (?) of hindsight. Origlass himself rose to the leadership of the Australian group at its 1937 congress (pp. 73–7) by opposing the revision of Trotskyist theory and practice undertaken by John Anderson, described as a ‘precursor of the New Left ideas of the 1960s and 1970s’ (p. 74). ‘It seems ironical when we consider the later Nick Origlass, the pioneer of participatory democracy, that he should have been such an uncritical Bolshevik at this time’, comments the author; ‘later, of course, he would come to agree with much of Anderson’s thesis. Experience, social change, Balmain and Michel Pablo would ring that change.’ (pp. 77–8)
This is therefore very much a book written from an ex-Trotskyist point of view, so we get the obligatory references to the New Left, along with Gramsci, ‘the great Italian reformer [!]’ (p. 5). And whilst we can agree with its description of the War/Revolution thesis of the Third World Congress of the Fourth International as ‘apocalyptic’ (p. 193), the same label is also applied to the Transitional Programme, along with ‘messianic’, ‘dreaming’, ‘sectarian certainties’ and ‘a strong whiff of determinism’ (pp. 90–3). The author evidently shares Origlass’ final break with Trotskyism, repeatedly describing his politics as ‘maximum democracy – in the factory, in the office, in the union, in the neighbourhood – anywhere and everywhere’ (pp. vii–ix, 137, etc.), ‘the urban environment being important’ (p. viii).
So from the mid-1960s onwards, Origlass became increasingly involved in the sort of green and community politics that we associate with crusties and Young Liberals, with the inevitable result of emptying them of all class content. Since the focus of the last five chapters is limited to Balmain, an area not much larger than Stepney, the book from then on loses all its international appeal, and I suspect that it must leave many Australians themselves mystified. How did a man who set out so bravely to change the world end up in his own backyard?
Enquiries for this book in Britain should be addressed to 11 Temple Fortune Lane, London NW11 7UB.
Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011