Nick Origlass — a life of struggle and principle

June 5, 1996

By John Percy

Nick Origlass, a central figure in the history of the Trotskyist movement in Australia, died on May 17 at the age of 88 with more than 60 years of political activity on the side of the working class behind him.

Origlass was born in the north Queensland town of Woodstock in 1908. He came to Sydney in 1932, arriving the day before the opening of the Harbour Bridge. He joined the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), but was shortly expelled "on suspicion of being a police agent". He was offered readmission after spending time in Long Bay for defending a meeting against a New Guard assault — it didn't square with the "police agent" charge — but turned the offer down, having by then become acquainted with Trotskyist positions.

In 1934 he joined the Workers Party, the first Trotskyist group in Australia, formed in May 1933. The early Trotskyists were mostly former members of the CPA — Jack Sylvester, CPA central committee member, and national secretary of the UWM, had been expelled in 1932; Laurie Short and Issy Wyner, expelled from the Young Communist League; Professor John Anderson of Sydney University, who transferred his allegiance and his £5 weekly contribution from the CPA to the Workers Party; Ted Tripp, another CPA central committee and political bureau member who was expelled in 1934. Joe Boxhall was the first secretary of the party.

They had a base among the unemployed movement in Glebe, and in October 1933 started publishing their paper, Militant.

During 1935 and 1936, Nick Origlass and Laurie Short were sent to Brisbane and travelled in Queensland making contacts in the trade union and unemployed movements, and set up a Trotskyist group there.

But the movement remained small and was plagued with splits. At the Workers Party conference in April 1937, a group around Tripp and a group around Anderson left. In 1938 another group split. In June 1938 the Tripp forces reunited, and the group changed its name to Communist League of Australia. They began holding weekly meetings in the Sydney Domain, attracting crowds of up to 500, still less than the thousands at the CPA stump. With the establishment of a group in Melbourne in 1939-40, they reached their maximum size, but it was still no more than 50 members.

When war broke out the CPA, and then the Communist League, were declared illegal for their antiwar stand. The league's premises were raided and its assets seized. (What upset Origlass especially, according to his wife Joan, was losing the group's carefully accumulated collection of chairs.)

The CPA changed its opposition to the war once the Soviet Union was invaded, but political life for the Trotskyists continued to be difficult. The group debated the tactic of entry into the Labor Party, the "French turn" suggested by Trotsky. Origlass and his supporters favoured this move, (although Origlass himself wasn't admitted to the ALP until 1955). They started a news-sheet, the Socialist, and took the name Labor Socialist Group. (Rival Trotskyists maintained a small open Trotskyist group for a while.)

Origlass had started work at Morts Dock ship repair yard in Balmain in 1939, moving to live in the area in 1942. Balmain was to be his political base for the rest of his life, and in 1945 the scene of a famous industrial struggle led by the Balmain Trotskyists and focused on Origlass.

Origlass was elected Ironworkers Union delegate in the boiler shop at Morts Dock in 1942 and became an official on all the shop committees. The Communist Party by then controlled the national office and all 11 branches of the union except Balmain. Its policy since the entry of the Soviet Union into the war had been to oppose strikes and support production for the war effort. Although the community in general was behind the war effort, some militant unionists, as in Balmain, resented the whittling away of their rights and conditions. The CPA leadership of the union desperately wanted to gain control of the recalcitrant Balmain branch.

In 1945, 3000 workers went on strike for six weeks after the Stalinists tried to remove Origlass as union delegate. He had overwhelming support at Morts Dock. Cockatoo Island, the other large shop in Balmain, where Laurie Short was a delegate, went out in solidarity. Stormy mass meetings defended the right of unionists to elect their own delegates. Origlass was reinstated, workers took control of their own branch, while a rump branch supported the national office.

A bitter struggle ensued for two and a half years, in the courts and outside. But with the political mood drifting to the right, Origlass allowed control of the branch to revert to the CPA. Short left the Trotskyist group in 1947, rapidly swung to the right, and with the help of B.A. Santamaria's Catholic Action Movement and Industrial Groups, became the national leader of the Ironworkers in 1951, ousting the CPA.

In 1955 Origlass again led a strike against the wishes of the union bureaucracy. He had the rare honour to have been expelled from the Ironworkers Union by both CPA leader Ernie Thornton and erstwhile comrade Laurie Short. Throughout his struggles in the union, he stood firm for the interests of the rank-and-file worker, and the principle of rank-and-file control.

Origlass became a close follower of Michel Pablo, secretary of the Trotskyist Fourth International for nearly two decades. He taught himself French in order to translate Pablo's writings into English. He adhered to Pablo's forces when the Fourth International was split from 1953-63.

For most of the '50s Trotskyism in Australia was represented by a small circle around Origlass, winning a few supporters from the CPA following the 1956 Khrushchev secret speech and the Hungarian revolution. In 1960 his group united with another small group that had developed supporting the other current in the FI, the International Committee, whose main component was the US Socialist Workers Party. The united organisation began production of a monthly roneoed magazine, International. The group experienced some modest growth in the first half of the '60s, recruiting some youth and students through activity in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, solidarity with Cuba and anti-apartheid.

When Pablo's supporters left the FI in 1965, establishing themselves as the Revolutionary Marxist Tendency, Origlass' pro-Pablo supporters had a narrow majority in the Australian group. The split left both sides weakened, and marked the end of one phase of the Trotskyist movement in Australia. A second phase began with the youth radicalisation around the Vietnam War, and the development of Trotskyist groups in the '70s and '80s that numerically were much larger than those in that first phase.

Origlass was elected to Leichhardt Council in the early '60s as an ALP member. He stood a good chance of winning preselection for the safe Labor seat of Balmain, but put principles before career. In 1968 he broke caucus discipline and opposed the installation of a dangerous chemical tank farm in Balmain. He was expelled from the ALP, together with his long-time comrade and fellow councillor Issy Wyner.

They stood as Balmain Labor and were re-elected to the council, Origlass later being elected mayor of Leichhardt. He was re-elected mayor in 1972 following intensive red-baiting. A tied 6-6 vote on council resulted in him continuing as mayor after his name was drawn out of a hat. Origlass introduced the "open council" principle for three years, giving residents the right to speak freely at council meetings and committees. He retired from council only in 1995.

Origlass will be remembered by the socialist movement for his strengths, for his stubbornness in continuing to struggle for what he believed in — socialism, working-class power, rank and file democracy, self-management.

He did persist in trying to construct a party, but was hampered by the objective difficulties, the strength of Stalinism and reformism. He was also held back by the sort of problems endemic to small Trotskyist groups, the circle spirit, and was also fettered once Pablo's tendency veered away from a perspective of building an independent revolutionary party.

He was notorious for his lengthy monologues, both within the small Trotskyist circle and in the wider milieu of the ALP and Leichhardt Council. It was no secret that he had a trick of switching off his hearing aid while speaking, to give protection against hecklers or interruption by the chairperson, but he was still a very hard man to get to resume his seat.

In her articles in Labour History on the Balmain ironworkers' strike of 1945, historian Daphne Gollan described him as "a man to whom political struggle came as naturally as breathing. His temperamental and political intransigence was such that neither attacks nor isolation nor setbacks could reduce him to quiescence."

One hundred and fifty people from the many phases of Origlass's long political life attended his funeral. Issy Wyner delivered the main address, with contributions also by Hall Greenland, who has almost completed a biography of Origlass, and Daphne Gollan. Wyner concluded:

"Nick Origlass believed, with a boundless fervour and dedication, in the eventual triumph of the people over the evils accumulated and distilled over past centuries into what we now regard as modern capitalism; in the certainty that humanity will overcome the barbarians, the mass destroyers, the wreckers of the potential for advancement, whether fascist or Stalinist; to the eventual end of a social system which can tolerate what Maxim Gorky described as 'mountains of gold out of seas of human blood'; and in the certainty that the people would soon set their feet firmly and unswervingly on the road to a society that knows no bounds in human endeavour and achievement."

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