Tom McDonald: a view inside Australia's Communist movement


Intimate Union: Sharing a Revolutionary Life
An autobiography by Tom and Audrey McDonald
Pluto Press Australia, 1998

By Melanie Sjoberg

Aspects of many of the dramatic shifts in the world's and Australia's politics and labour movement during the last few decades are captured in the lives of Audrey and Tom McDonald, who committed themselves to the trade union and Communist movements from the time of the Cold War to the return of the Howard Liberal government. Their autobiography, Intimate Union, offers an intriguing insight into discussions and debates around key political issues. These include the particularly overt collaboration between the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party in the years of the Accord during the 1980s, the Communist movement's confrontation with the collapse of Stalinism and the fall of the Berlin wall, and their personal development and visions.

The book is easy to follow. It is organised chronologically, with separate contributions by Audrey and Tom in each section. This allows the reader to appreciate their differing reflections, and also generates a sense of shared but independent activity.

Tom McDonald's life has been tied up with the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), of which he was a leading official, interrelated with the Communist Party (CPA) and then the Socialist Party (SPA), of which he became a central leader.

Audrey's political experiences began in the trade union movement. But her life become most closely entwined with the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and the peace movement. Being a Communist informed her as she trod this path.

Audrey captures the dynamism and breadth of radicalisation of the Vietnam War period. She describes the UAW organising petitions and providing support to the Vietnam Women's Union.

Audrey also shows that the emergent women's liberation movement was not always a unifying sisterhood. The UAW disagreed with "feminist concentration on sexual and women's only issues". It also found working with the movement's lack of structures difficult and the notion of consensus frustrating; yet the movement thrived, despite the differences within it, with healthy debate.

One section describes the CPA's battle during the Cold War to prevent the party being banned. A massive grassroots campaign was designed, and broad layers of the left and progressive movement became involved, to shift public opinion to the "No" case in the 1951 referendum.

Tom vividly recalls his early memories of struggles with other workers to consolidate awards and to clean up the building industry and discusses the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation's (BLF) green bans. He says the Socialist Party mistakenly characterised these as trendy, isolated attempts to protect the environment — in reality they were a consistent campaign as part of a broad movement.

Tom defines the Accord as a conscious agreement between government and the ACTU which created the most highly centralised and regulated wages system in Australian history. He states the Accord "achieved what the [Industrial Relations Commission] was never quite able to achieve: an end to union inspired wage increases outside the arbitration system". This aroused opposition from workers and challenged union leaders with the task of policing and disciplining members.

Tom was a member of the ACTU fact-finding mission to Europe that wrote Australia Reconstructed in 1987. He says this was a turning point which ensured "we [sic] remained relevant amidst globalisation and great change". He argues that unions had to accept rationalisation, i.e., workers being sacked to ensure efficiency and international competitiveness.

Tom says the Accord brought significant gains in social reforms, such as superannuation and family policy, but there was less success in the battle against deregulation of the finance sector, the entry of foreign banks or achieving a more interventionist industry policy. Unfortunately, he doesn't draw a balance sheet on this. The Accord provided the largest ever shift in income from the working class to government and big business.

Tom suggests, though, that "the wages outcome over the 13 years of the Accord was a reasonable across the board result". He asks: "Would workers as a class have done better on wages with or without an Accord?"

Tom doesn't believe there is a conclusive answer. He justifies this by claiming that many unions were incapable of achieving those increases. Yet research and documents published from the end of the 1980s on show that different outcomes could have been achieved.

Tom says the Accord led to a realignment on the left. This included him and many more of the SPA's union activists, but a minority of the party's membership, splitting away on the basis of support for the Accord to form the Association for Communist Unity.

Meanwhile the SPA, the formerly Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Maoist CPA-ML developed formal and informal anti-Accord alliances. They claimed the Accord was class collaboration and a betrayal of workers' interests.

Tom gives little time to these groups. He argues that their response was dogmatic and irrational, because employers were not a party to the Accord. Then he says nothing more, despite the fact that the tripartite "summit" after the 1983 election and the many other "tripartite" bodies subsequently established to implement the Accord did have employer participation.

Tom acknowledges that the support of the traditional left, including the BWIU, within the ACTU was necessary to get the Accord through. This was given without genuine debate in those unions, where the Accord's agenda could have been challenged.

Tom concludes: "The greatest weakness of the Accord was that it disempowered workers to the extent that it took away from them the right to struggle for higher wages and better conditions". At the end of the 1990s, many unions are still struggling with the legacy of this top-down process Tom identifies, which led workers to view unions as an arm of government and reduced the unions' ability to organise and activate members.

Tom's attempt to justify the BWIU's support for the state crushing the BLF also leaves a bad taste. He says it was a "worrying decision", but characterises BLF leader Norm Gallagher as an autocrat and an unscrupulous person to justify the outcome.

Tom argues that the BLF discredited all unions in the industry and brought workers' support for unions into question: "Gallagher had to be destroyed in the interests of trade unionism".

Tom's own criticism of the SPA leadership's defence of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in a speech he gave on the 75th anniversary of the CPA — "On reflection I must now say that history has proven that the leadership of the CPA was generally correct in respect of their criticisms of the Soviet model of socialism. Czechoslovakia should have been allowed to develop its own society." — suggests he needs to rethink his view on the BLF.

A similar concern about democracy can be raised. Education and a democratic challenge would have been a much more useful model for a working-class organisation to uphold.

Both Audrey and Tom detail the splits and changes in the Communist movement, especially following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The SPA grew out of disaffected layers of the CPA which were united by strong pro-Soviet views. SPA supporters came from the BWIU, Waterside Workers Federation and Miners Federation, and the Greek and Arab communities.

Tom reveals the SPA's problems with democratic processes and factionalism. These led to further splits, especially in the early 1980s, when membership stagnated.

Tom alleges that the party's union officials became the target of criticism in a politically conservative climate. Party leaders alleged that the union officials were adapting to that climate, but Tom claims that the leadership of Peter Symon and Jack McPhillips pushed for "guided democracy" in the party.

Tom says that the SPA central leadership proposed a control commission to protect the party and to strengthen control over members who worked in the trade union movement. He argues instead that unions should be independent: a communist is obliged to express party views, but once the decisions of unions are made, communists must carry these out.

As long as you bear in mind that this is a personalised outlook, not an objective assessment, the book provides a fascinating, if one-sided, exploration of the many manoeuvres and shifts that have affected labour struggles in the past few decades.

Both Tom and Audrey conclude that as Communist and labour movement activists they retain hope for the working class's future. Audrey says that she has never doubted the necessity of Marxism and harks back to the Communist Manifesto. Tom believes that capitalism will eventually fail, because of its inability to satisfy people's needs and aspirations and their desire to master their own lives.

True to their socialist and labour movement ideals, the royalties of the sale of the book are offered to the Evatt Foundation and APHEDA for a child nutrition project in South Africa.