I always had a strong underlying humanist bias. I tended not to view things not just from an ideological viewpoint, as was the rule in the SPA [Socialist Party of Australia, a “hardline” pro-USSR split-off from the Communist Party of Australia]. My moral break from authoritarian state-capitalism, or Stalinism, which still infects the Australian left and the Australian trade union movement to a much larger degree than people realise, took a long time. I would say it took from 1979, when I joined the SPA, to the final break in about 1994.
The last five years has been my great political growing-up. I joined the SPA when I was 19. At the time, fundamentally I viewed things from an anarcho-syndicalist viewpoint. I was a keen student even then of the US labour movement, and the nobility and courage of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) impressed me a great deal.
The SPA influence came from the seamen’s journals. My father was a member of the seamen’s union for 35 years, a middle-of-the-road Labor Party person in politics but a very strong industrial delegate. I’ve only really understood a lot of his political ideas in the last five years. When I joined the SPA, I expected to find a dynamic organisation. What I saw was a group of mainly older people, very dedicated, with the party having a certain degree of influence in a number of union leaderships.
I respected the older people. My major contribution to party work was selling the party paper. But I couldn’t feel that it was a revolutionary organisation. Then I was sent to Moscow for political training in 1980. It was a great opportunity, to spend six months studying Marxism-Leninism. I met some wonderful people, including a woman I later married.
On Afghanistan, I followed the party line. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan to defend the rights of the people of Afghanistan. How stupid that sounds now is beyond a reasonable person’s comprehension, but within the closed circles of the SPA it made sense. What did I think of Moscow when I arrived there? What would a boy from Brisbane think? I thought I had come to a place where the workers had finally gained control.
We were kept within a closed university structure, and because of the language difficulties we had difficulties knowing what life was really like for Russian workers. You could see that things weren’t quite as the party hierarchy said they were. I remember one lecture which said there was no such thing as dissidence in the Soviet Union, and even then I found that hard to swallow. Some comrades from Northern Europe who were there at the time wanted half the course based around Stalin’s time. They got one four-hour lecture, and that was it.
Then I lived in Denmark for a while, and was fortunate to ship out on the Australian coast in 1981. I got back into the swing of the SPA. By then there was a split in the SPA between the industrial side of it and the bureaucracy side of it. I sided with the industrial wing. I started reading much more broadly. I started reading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and looking at things more from a cultural-historical side.
What also changed my ideas is that I did a job on a fellow during the 1987 union elections — a prominent rank-and-filer called Harry Leonard, who was in the CPA [Communist Party of Australia, then more democratic-minded than the SPA which, confusingly has now taken the CPA name dropped by the old CPA in 1991]. I betrayed a friendship with an old-time seafarer there. I believed then (or fooled myself into believing) that what comrade Leonard was writing, about furthering democracy in the old Seamen’s Union, was tantamount to destroying the union. All he and a few other CPA members in the union wanted was a more open union.
Being a good attack dog for the hierarchy of the union, I got stuck into him, using all the vitriolic polemics of a committed Stalinist. Even twelve years later I feel I can’t wash the shit off me. Almost instantly I wanted to square up with Harry, but he died before I could. I realised that there are certain human values which you can’t walk across. If you’re going to be a revolutionary, you have to treat people decently.
In 1989, I went to North Korea as the leader of a youth delegation. It was a horror story — state capitalism gone insane. I contracted some type of gastro-enteritis that miraculously cleared up when we touched down in the far less intrusive police state of Singapore. But then I guess I threw myself into the union.
I’d been one of the tradeunion coordinators of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and done a heap of work on that. I became a full-time union official in 1994, but I spent a lot of time relieving in the union office before that, from 1988 onwards. By that time I’d developed a lot of ideas. I’d read Darkness At Noon, by Arthur Koestler, and I’d started becoming a fan of George Orwell’s. But, while it has turned out that a lot of the old Communists were just social-democrats looking for an excuse to become open social-democrats, I still believe very deeply that we will never have any peace from war or peace from want unless we have a society where working people are in control and own the means of production. I don’t believe you will find that by being a social-democrat.
Over the last three years before the Maritime Union dispute of 1998, I was putting in at least 100 hours a week. I was working full-time as a union official plus part-time as an International Transport Workers’ Federation inspector. On top of that I was the chairperson of the Queensland Workers’ Rights Coalition, which fought three major campaigns to enable workers in this state to have access to common law if they are injured at work.
More and more I was seeing things within my union similar to those described by Orwell and Koestler and even Trotsky: I started reading a little bit of Trotsky, which was probably the worst possible thing I could have done as far as the leadership of the MUA were concerned. It was becoming obvious that to some of the leadership of the union that I was not in agreement with them on some key issues. I was becoming in their eyes and I quote “a loose cannon, a Trotskyite, or a maverick”. To a man like myself I found this type of character assassination not only untrue but also extremely hurtful.
After the 1998 Maritime Union dispute, I ended up getting very sick partly because of the huge contradictions I faced: whether to stay as a well-paid union official, and a fairly effective one at that, but betray fundamental working-class ideals. Before my resignation from my union position I was constantly telling workers that left was right, right was wrong, night was day. It was Stalinism. I faced a huge contradiction between loyalty to the union leadership and loyalty to the rank and file.
I’d known the leadership of the union, particularly on the seafaring side, virtually all my adult life, but I knew they were going down a completely wrong path. Some of them convinced themselves this was the only plan on offer; some of them, I think, had convinced themselves that they were brilliant Marxists, with the most brilliant plan to save the union. The leadership’s answer was for the workers in the industry to forgo stabilisation and to have it replaced by casualisation. In the stevedoring area, casualisation is now an integral part of the industry.
To the leadership’s credit a rank and file delegates’ conference was held, and these measures were passed. However, several points have been disregarded which were critical to the package in areas such as training and single-point-of-engagement for seafarers, and of course government assistance to the industry, all of which has not occurred.
What do I now think about the Soviet Union? It had very little to do with socialism. It was state capitalism. It was the greatest armed encampment created in human history. The last chance that I think the Soviet Union had of resurrecting itself was in the late 1920s, just before Trotsky was expelled and then Bukharin was destroyed by Stalin. When I think over the little problems I’ve had in my life, the times when your point of view won’t even be listened to within a Stalinist union structure, I understand what people like Trotsky went through on a much grander scale in the USSR in the 1920s.
Stalinism has compromised the language of socialism. It has become culturally stupid to speak about socialism. I think Lenin still has a great deal to offer, though I wouldn’t regard the Leninist political party model as one that we would adopt these days. For us to be a small conspiratorial party of a new type will not attract people. We have to learn from people like Lenin and Trotsky, but also learn from the great Marxist libertarians like Erich Fromm and anarchists like Bookchin and Chomsky. There’s a whole range of ideas on the left — take people like Gabriel Kolko, for example.
His exposure of the complicity of the Stalinist CPs of Europe after the war with US and Soviet imperialism in ensuring that the left would be defeated is tremendous. But the Leninist party? There’s a problem with any exclusive group which claims that it is the only force in society which can deliver freedom for the workers. Undemocratic practices are bad in a trade union. But in a political party which ends up having control of the coercive means of the state you’re dealing with a much higher level of disaster. Though maybe you’re right that this is the Stalinist political model, rather than the norm of Lenin’s party, before Lenin’s death.
• After further discussions, eventually Bob joined Workers’ Liberty.