Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Book Review - The Expropriators are Expropriated

 From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #59 (Autumn 2016)
Australia’s Minority Movement

The Expropriators are Expropriated and other writings on Marxism
Tom O’Lincoln
Interventions Inc, (Carlton South, Vic., Australia), 2016
ISBN 9780994537805

Tom O’Lincoln has been an activist on the Australian far left since 1972, a leading figure in the International Socialists and more recently Socialist Alternative. He has also written extensively on historical topics, for example Australia’s Pacific War [reviewed here http://londonsocialisthistorians.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/book-review-australias-pacific-war.html ] and Years of Rage [reviewed here http://londonsocialisthistorians.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/book-review-years-of-rage-familiar-story.html ] For a list of many other publications see http://www.redsites.info/writings.htm

The present collection contains a number of short pieces, including outlines of various aspects of Marxist theory. There are three essays providing an introduction to Marx’s economic theory, putting the arguments in clear and accessible language; O’Lincoln reminds us that “you and I create wealth by working every day …. share traders just shuffle it around” and that “what distinguishes Karl Marx’s economic theory is that the centre of the analysis is the production process”.

A piece on dialectics only scratches the surfaces, but reminds us that Marx bases “the dialectic on the activity, the labour and above all the class struggles of real human beings”. A critical account of the theory of base and superstructure argues that by taking human labour as a starting-point we can go beyond the false alternative of determinism and voluntarism. A more polemical piece on wage labour under Stalinism argues that in his analysis Tony Cliff “ignores the class struggle altogether”.

But I think the piece that will of greatest interest to socialist historians is the account of the Australian Minority Movement [ http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/interventions/minority.htm ], which allows us to make comparisons between the achievements and limitations of this strategy in Britain and Australia. The Australian “Minority Movement” was launched in 1931, becoming the Australian section of the Red International of Labour Unions.

The Communist Party, which played a key role in the movement, accepted the Moscow line of the “Third Period”, which described social democrats as “social fascists”, an almost insuperable barrier to united front work. But in the particular circumstances of Australia it proved to be not so much of an obstacle. The MM began to organise among unemployed working on public works projects at starvation wages. It bypassed union officials and stressed rank-and-file control, and won several strikes despite the workers having little real bargaining power. An even more effective intervention was made in the Wonthaggi miners’ strike of 1934. As one striker reported:

“On the broad committee leading the strike there are sixty activists, and in the various propaganda, relief, and other activities over 200 men and women are working hard … Wonthaggi is a town at war – on active service against the boss.”
Though obstacles were placed to bus and rail travel, strikers hired cars to send a delegation to Melbourne, which addressed at least a dozen meetings, including one of a thousand and another of 1500, and raised considerable financial support. The strike ended in victory – victimised workers were reinstated, attacks on wages and conditions were abandoned, and pit committees were recognised. A number of similar victories were won by sugar workers.

The example spread; the MM paper even reported “Bush Workers’ Committees Rally Country Toilers – Rabbit Trappers Organise At Last”. Shortage of rabbit pie would not bring down capitalism, but the MM influence spread through major industries, notably playing a central role in building railway shop committees. O’Lincoln summarises: “Wherever they were active, MM members called for shop committees; wherever these were formed, they sought to work within them and win leadership.”

The publication of workplace bulletins, with active involvement of local members, was stressed. A Kurri Kurri miner described the process:

“All this information is brought to the meeting and discussed, and comrades are selected to write and edit the articles and produce material on general campaigns. Other comrades are elected to draw up headings or print the papers, thus developing a real collective interest in the paper.”

Given the widespread distrust of unions the MM argued that non-members should be drawn into strike committees. And in areas where it did not have support the MM intervened from the outside by issuing leaflets.

The MM developed a programme for women workers, including equal pay for equal work, equal unemployment relief and and fighting dismissals of married women. It demanded that women should be represented on all strike committees and that where women were a majority of those employed in an industry, women should be in a majority on the strike committee. Strikers’ wives were organised into women’s auxiliaries.

The British experience was an important source of inspiration for the MM and provided an organisational model. But because of the Communist Party’s position there was some confusion as to whether the MM was a militant reform movement or a part of the revolutionary movement; Yet perhaps half the members of the MM were not Communist party members.

The Communist party had to warn its more zealous members not to write articles for rank-and-file bulletins which began “Do you know there is a Social Fascist Dictatorship running your union?” and urging workers to “Roll up to your next meeting and show the Fascists where they get off”. And there were real weaknesses in the MM. O’Lincoln notes “It may of course be true that some MM groups demanded unrealistic levels of activity, but there is ample evidence that the general run of MM members were, if anything, rather slack”.

By 1935, with the advent of the Popular Front, the MM came to an end. As O’Lincoln sums up: “The concept of a rank and file movement across industry lines, broader than the Communist Party’s own membership but organising workers on a class-wide basis, had been abandoned in favour of organisation within individual industries.”  Yet as he concludes, the MM rebuilt trade unionism in some areas and vastly strengthened it in others, and won a number of epic struggles. It should not be forgotten.

Ian Birchall

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