A major chapter from a sorry history

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A Veritable Dynamo: Lloyd Ross and Australian Labour 1901-1987
By Stephen Holt
University of Queensland Press, 1996. 196 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Lloyd Ross made "a lasting contribution to genuine social — but definitely not socialist — democracy in Australia". This claim by Ross' biographer, Stephen Holt, is true, in ways that Holt did not intend, in reflecting the sorry political history of social democracy as practised by the ALP and its supporters in the trade union bureaucracy.

Lloyd Ross, brother of the more well-known CPA and SPA member Edgar, was born in Brisbane in 1907. He inherited his father's "faith in the socialist potential of mainstream Labor Party politics", a faith which stayed with Lloyd, doing immense damage to the concept of "socialism" along the way, throughout his labour movement career.

Beginning as a socialist of radical hue in the '30s, Ross revitalised the Workers' Educational Association in New Zealand and Newcastle, spurning its spurious political impartiality and enlivening it with drama workshops and lunchtime classes taken to factories.

Ross was appointed secretary of the NSW branch of the Australian Railways Union in 1935, the year he also joined the CPA, which he did mainly because of his opposition to war and fascism but also to ensure his union position against the right-wing Lang Labor forces in the ARU hierarchy.

Even during his "Marxist" years, however, Ross did not believe that the ALP, for all its faults (reformist caution, nationalism and militarism for starters) was beyond redemption. Socialism, he argued, could be legislated by an ALP government, and would take the shape of centralised control of the economy. His vision not-so-splendid of socialism had no room for democratic workers' power. His membership of the CPA was thus more a reflection of the dilution of revolutionary politics by the CPA during its popular front days.

Expelled from the still antiwar CPA in 1940 for his new-found support for the war, Ross opted for the mainstream ALP in NSW, rejecting the leftish breakaway State Labor Party. He moved even further right, when, needing factional allies against the ARU's now-outlawed CPA forces, he cosied up to the right-wing Langites. He was also learning new skills such as union branch stacking and overturning members' ballots.

After the war, the ALP gave Ross a job with the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, where he promoted the collaboration of labour and capital to increase national productivity. The virtue of private economic ownership (with mild doses of nationalisation) was sung, a comedown from Ross' Melbourne University days when he advocated workers' control.

The right-wing political consequences of a pro-capitalist ALP continued apace when, in the late '40s, Ross turned against trade union militancy, which he feared might disrupt the economy and destabilise the ALP (Chifley) government (a golden oldie from the ALP hit parade of anti-working class political logic). Ross supported the anticommunist Industrial Groups in the unions, denouncing the 1949 coal strike and organising the ARU to transport scab coal, a policy which Holt sees fit to praise — not heeding his own words that Communists did not create industrial grievances out of thin air, Holt labels the coal strike a "Stalinist Conspiracy".

Aided by all this anti-strike and anticommunist activity from the Labor right, the Liberals (under Menzies) won re-election (another ALP top of the Pops). Out of a job, Ross turned to right-wing labour journalism before his return as a Grouper-supported ARU secretary in 1952. He ditched the Groupers when Evatt turned the federal ALP against them. Ross was good at picking winners to ensure his survival.

Still an anticommunist, though, Ross became president in 1961 of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, a descent from his WEA days when he had organised re-enactments of the Second Congress of Soviets (starring Lenin) to hobnobbing with CIA-funded "cultural freedom fighters" like John Kerr.

The ever-alert survivalist antennae of Ross, however, picked up a revival of rank-and-file agitation during the '60s. Realising that he had to surf this wave to retain his position, he swung back to the centre "to ensure rank and file discontent was expressed through formal channels". His was a strategy to control the grassroots turbulence and ensure that power in the union remained with the officials. The CPA rediscovered Ross briefly at this time, but this says less about his new-found "militancy" than the CPA's increasing moderation.

Fittingly, the sole recognition from the union movement of Ross after his death was from the right wing. Initiated by Michael Easson, secretary of the NSW Labour Council, the Lloyd Ross Forum has since 1990 functioned as that body's think-tank.

Ross' story is that of the dead ends that have plagued the history of reformist "socialists". Ross did not see socialist strategy as the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist power directly by the working class itself, but rather as grabbing the reins of the (capitalist) state through the vehicle of an ALP government. With the related failure of political imagination to envisage a socialist organisational alternative to the ALP, Ross was led ever rightward down the road to maintaining an ALP government at all costs and hence maintaining the capitalist system the ALP was committed to managing.

Ross' story is also a cautionary tale about the "art of self-preservation" of a trade union official whose allegiance was to the ALP rather than to union independence, acting as a brake on union effectiveness and democracy.

These are the lessons that can be learned from Ross' biography, despite Holt's attempt to resurrect Ross' labour movement cred. To do this, Holt rejects what he calls "the harsh simplicities of ideological conflict" so that an ALP-aligned union official like Ross, variously of both "left" and right hue, can be welcomed back into the fold of "genuine social democracy".

Holt's project also requires a top-down focus on the labour movement, concentrating on the factional sagas of the ALP and the factional games trade union officials play. Deeper consideration of the politics of class struggle is neglected, and we are also treated to the obligatory politically correct denunciation of the "Leninist path of political sectarianism and violent revolution". The result is a biography that is acutely uninspiring and decidedly unheroic.

For all that, the book has a certain grim value as a how-not-to manual for labour movement activists and socialists.