An episode from Australian labour history
ozleft at optushome.com.au
Tue Jul 29 21:24:30 MDT 2003
New on Ozleft, three articles by Gil Roper from 1937-38 on his break from
the Communist Party of Australia, and some biographical material
The partly forgotten world of Sydney Marxism from the 1930s to the 1950s
By Bob Gould
Gil and Edna Roper were active in the left of the labour movement from the
1920s until the 1960s. As a brash young rebel in the 1950s, I got to know
them both, and they were very kind to me.
By the time I met them, they had moved away from Marxism to a simple left
Labor orientation and I was moving in the opposite direction. Nevertheless,
they both encouraged young rebels, like myself. Gil had the courtly, careful
demeanour of the typical skilled craftsman autodidact, Edna was more
ebullient and colourful.
Gil encouraged Edna to take a major lead in the battles of the day, and
Edna, as a leading figure in the Labor women's central organising committee,
was an important agitator in the battle to break the grip of the Groupers in
the labour movement in the 1950s.
Along with an old associate, Issy Wyner, Edna was a key member of the old
Steering Committee of the ALP left at the critical period in that struggle,
which went on for a couple of years.
Like many of his generation, Gil had become rather disillusioned with the
Russian Revolution, mainly because of bitter knowledge of the Stalinist
massacre of revolutionaries in the Soviet Union. However, he retained a
powerful, almost utopian, idea about the possibilities of socialist
development in a parliamentary framework, and he nursed along his personal
preoccupation with Percy Brookfield as a significant socialist figure for
many years and reworked the material that culminated in his little book
about Brookfield many times. He clearly identified with Brookfield.
To my mind, the political high point of Gil's activity was his initiative in
commencing the industrial struggle for the 40-hour work as a key figure on
the committee of management of the Printing Industry Employees' Union. He
organised the initial stoppage of women printing workers that began the
struggle in 1944, and as a delegate to the NSW Labour Council he followed
the struggle through for the next three or four years.
Issy Wyner has an enormous folder of the documentation of this struggle,
which would make an extraordinary book, if ever the opportunity presented
itself for Issy to organise it.
The political atmosphere of the labour movement in Sydney in the 1930s and
1940s is captured particularly well by Kylie Tennant in her novels Ride on
Stranger and Foveaux, which include thinly veiled sketches of people such as
Jean Devanny, Nick Origlass, George Bateman, and others. This material is
also covered in Kylie Tennant's autobiography, The Missing Heir.
Lyndal Ryan is working on a biography of her mother, Edna Ryan and of her
father, Jack Ryan, who were immediate contemporaries of Gil and Edna Roper,
when they were all driven out of the Communist movement by the Stalinist
The Communist writer, Jean Devanny, to whom Gil Roper addresses the third of
the articles reproduced here, had her own battles with the Stalinist
bureaucracy. The redoubtable Marxist academic in Queensland, Carol Ferrier,
has done us the very considerable service of editing, organising and
publishing one of the versions of Devanny's almost lost autobiography, which
describes, from her point of view, her collisions with the Stalinist
Ferrier has also written an absorbing biography: Jean Devanny, Romantic
revolutionary (Melbourne University Press, 1999).
In Red Hot, his biography of Nick Origlass, Hall Greenland mentions in
passing the interminable telephone conversations between Nick Origlass and
Gil Roper after Gil had moved away from active involvement in Nick's
Trotskyist group. Both men were careful, considered, slow speakers, so those
telephone conversations could go on for hours.
As a young man moving out of the orbit of the Stalinist movement in the
middle of the critical battle with the Groupers in the 1950s, I discovered
the small milieu of the old Sydney Trotskyists, and they were my political
university, so to speak. I was particularly impressed by a little two-page
monthly paper that Nick Origlass, Jack Sponberg and Issy Wyner and others
produced from 1945 to 1952, called The Socialist, and a file of that little
paper, which I read intensively over a couple of weeks, was my first serious
introduction to a concrete critique of the twists of turns of the Stalinist
line in Australian conditions, and an overview of the class struggle in
those seven years.
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