Jack McPhillips, communist and trade unionist


Jim McIlroy

Leslie John (Jack) McPhillips, a long-time leader of the Communist Party of Australia and trade union official, died last month, aged 94. Jack was one of the early generation of CPA union officials, who were prominent in the union movement of the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Born in Rockhampton, Queensland, Jack travelled with his family around country Queensland and NSW, along with his father, who was a railway engineer. He had a very varied early working life, from wool-classer to clerical assistant, and was deeply involved in union activities wherever he worked.

Attracted to politics from an early age, Jack joined the ALP in 1928, becoming secretary of its Hopetoun branch. But, drawn by more radical convictions and the tumult of the times, he joined the CPA in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression.

Along with millions of other workers, Jack was forced into unemployment between 1931 and 1939, only finding work for short periods in that time. He became active in the Unemployed Workers Movement, which organised, and provided material and political support for, the jobless. He was also a leader of the CPA-led Militant Minority Movement, which sought to unite unionists into a militant, class-struggle current within the Australian trade union movement.

In 1941, Jack became an official in Sydney with the Federated Ironworkers Union. He became national secretary of the FIA in 1950. Jack was jailed twice in 1949, for criticising an industrial court, and for actively supporting striking coal miners.

Jack was defeated in his union position by the anti-communist "industrial groupers" in 1952. From 1952 to 1968 he worked full-time for the CPA, helping to lead up the party's work in the unions.

After the CPA criticised the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and moved away from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the direction of "Eurocommunism", Jack was heavily involved in the split which led to the formation of the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1971.

In 1984, Jack was elected president of the SPA. It was in that role that he became a leading advocate within the SPA of co-operation with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, renamed the Democratic Socialist Party in 1990), based on a common opposition to the class-collaborationist post-1983 ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord.

In 1988, Jack supported steps toward the political unification between the SPA and the SWP, including the establishment of united electoral tickets under the name Socialist Alliance. The unity process, which had reached the point of discussion of a common draft party program, was halted after a sharp dispute with the SWP over the Chinese government's massacre of pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The SWP denounced the Beijing regime's actions, while the SPA supported them.

Jack continued to be active within the SPA, which adopted the name Communist Party of Australia in 1996 (after the old CPA had finally dissolved in 1991).

Despite remaining loyal to politics of the CPSU regime, in the face of all the evidence of its bureaucratic degeneration in the 1920s, Jack was willing and able to adjust to new needs and opportunities to rebuild the Australian socialist movement in later years. This marks him out from many of the other Communists of his generation, who have tended to abandon political activity in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 rather than continue in the struggle for socialism.

From Green Left Weekly, September 8, 2004.

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