Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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Jim, what was the essence of the appeal of Marxism and the particular form of Trotskyism for you?

... [question repeated] ... If you had to sum up, looking back now with a bit of distance to the young man you were, what do you think was the essence of the appeal of Marxism for you?

I think it offered an explanation of the ... of the sort of impasse that humanity seemed to have reached. First of all we had the First World War, which of course was a totally pointless war, which was just an immoral war, no side deserved to win. It was a sordid trade war. And it was after that, that you know, 10 or 20 years after the end of that, that I saw the light, the Marxist light. It offered an explanation and, don't forget, there was also the Depression. We were just emerging from the Depression. As a matter of fact, the Depression did not definitively end until the war broke out. I think there were probably about 15 percent unemployed right up to the outbreak of war. It was slowly improving, the position, but it was still bad. Well there we were, the young thinkers of that day, what was recent history to us. It was a wicked First World War in which a lot of Australians had been killed. It wasn't just something that happened outside Australia.

Then there was the cataclysmic Depression and we'd come on the labour market at that time. It seemed that the prevailing economic philosophy, capitalism, was basically flawed, and it was a short step from that with a brilliant mind, like Marx and those around him claiming to have a total answer to the problem. It was a short step to embrace the new religion. And that's what it was for me. It was, it offered salvation where I saw, and my generation saw, almost no solution. I suppose you could say, well, the natural question that flows from that is, well, why didn't everybody become a Marxist? And I would agree that you had to be, you had to be a certain type of what I would call a religious person, a person who believed in miracles, in order to fall for Marxism. I know that the intellectuals who embraced Marxism were basically almost entirely religious sceptics. They were atheists, agnostics, and they saw religion as an impediment to the solution of the problems of the world. What was the old Marxist expression — 'Religion is the opium of the masses.' But nonetheless, those who fell for Marxism had, what I call, the religious temperament. It was religion, it wasn't even religion without God. Marx was their God.

Did you feel that it was inevitable that revolution would come?

Oh, absolutely. It was something that was waiting to happen. It was historically inevitable. I think it was Lenin who coined the phrase, 'Revolution is the midwife of the old society, which is pregnant with the new,’ meaning that revolution was something which the capitalist system inevitably nurtured to the point where there would be a social explosion, the old tyranny would disappear and we'd have the bright new dawn of socialism. We literally believed that rubbish.

Did you believe that there'd be a revolution in Australia?

Oh, certainly. When you see the apathy, the inertia of the Australian working class today, it's almost impossible to believe that anybody would have thought that they'd do the equivalent of storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. It was different in those days because a lot of workers had been radicalised by the Depression. There was much more natural material for a revolutionary stratum in society in those years. Nonetheless it was always fanciful to think that the Australian working class were going to take up arms — and that's what we believed, and storm the barricades and throw off their masters.

Now by this stage you had a university degree and you were working in a white collar job as a ...

Oh, if you come to that, there came a stage when I believed it disgraceful not to be out there with the revolutionary masses. If I was going to play any real role in the impending revolution, which was going to happen in a few years time, it was my duty to join the masses, to go and work with the proletarians. So that's exactly what I did. I resigned from the Railway Department, and went and got a job in a steelworks in Melbourne. There was a small steelworks called Australian Iron & Steel. And I did various jobs, proletariat jobs, and I was a member of the Ironworkers Union, which in those days was totally dominated by the Stalinists. Every official of the union was a card carrying member of the Stalinists. And I used to speak at meetings and be super-militant and, you know, 'what's it matter about the war, the only thing that matters is the interests of the working classes’, you know. Well naturally this got up the nose of the Stalinist officials of the union because after Russia was invaded ... by the way that had been their line also until Russia was invaded. They then became the super-patriots.

They were urging people to work overtime and strikes were evil, all that sort of thing. So I naturally clashed with them. Their leader, the leader of the Ironworkers Union, was a charismatic figure named Ernie Thornton. He was a spellbinder. And with Ernie and me it was loathing at first sight. And he — it'll show you the fanaticism of the Communist Party of that period, that they even considered me anything to worry about. There I was, a member of a small ratbag seat, I had no chance of penetrating their iron grip on the union.

You were very young still too ...

Hmm?

You were still quite young ...

Oh yes, I was about 22, 24. And they set out to expel me from the union. And that's what happened to me. I was expelled from the Ironworkers Union. And then I had no alternative but to go to the capitalist war.

Because you didn't have a job?

No. I ... well ... there was ... what they called protected occupations during the war. If you were involved in work which was connected with the war effort, as it was called, as I was, you were exempt from call-up. But the moment I was, didn't have that protection, I was susceptible to being called up.

Tell me what your parents had thought when you decided to go ...

I was ... we were living separate lives then. Both in so far as [while] they knew what I was up to, I think they were totally bewildered by it. But it was a cataclysmic period where all standards were in a state of upheaval at that time. Ordinary life seemed to be unreal because, you know, we were bombarded on the radio, day and night, by the press with these awful bloody battles, Stalingrad, and all those things, the Battle of Britain. It was hard to take ordinary, mundane life as being all that important. What was happening out there on the big arena, well at least to people like me, was what mattered.

How did you feel going off to war then, at this point?

Well, I still believed that out of the war we would gradually emerge the ... what we used to call a revolutionary situation. On the basis of what happened in Russia in 1917. Their armies had been defeated, they were being pushed back and there was chaos in the economy. There'd been never any equivalent situation in Australia or in England to that. But we believed that that's what would happen, there would be this upheaval. And so my participation was just an interlude until that happened. And I went to the war with the three volumes of Marx in my kit bag.

That must have been heavy.

The three volumes of Marx came to more than 2,000 pages. And I had one of these airforce blue kit bags, which was heavier than anybody else's, because in the bottom of my kit bags there were these three volumes of Marx. The bible. I hadn't read them, like many Christians who've never read the bible, especially Catholics, they're not encouraged to read the bible. I became a Marxist without having read the Marxist bible. I thought this was a golden opportunity, I knew I'd be facing an awful lot of spare time and boredom. I was a radar operator, you know, I had to sit in front of a screen and watch for planes attacking Australia. I was in Darwin, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, various places like that. And of course, apart from the horror of war, one of the worst aspects of war is the boredom of war. I wasn't in very active zones, and there was nothing else to do. So I used my time, the spare time that I had, while I was at the war, reading the three volumes of Marx.

And I claim, and I'm sure I'd be right, that I am the only man who's ever existed in Australia who read the three volumes of Marx twice. Unfortunately, I was a little bit, I had too much of a naturally sceptical strain in me, despite this religiosity. And I kept doubting, as I read this almost mathematical proof of the inevitability of revolution. I began to see flaws in the argument. If anything, Marx was the biggest influence in converting me from Marxism. So I came back from the war and during the war, during posting to various parts in the north, Darwin, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, I'd passed through Sydney for the first time. And I was absolutely bewitched by Sydney. And I decided that if I survived the war, Sydney was the place to be.

During the war did you see any really active service?

Well, I didn't see any shots fired in anger. And a lot of people at the war didn't see any shots fired in anger, but I was in Darwin shortly after the raid on Darwin and ... but no, I didn't see any active service.

Did you lose anybody close to you?

My brother.

How did that happen?

My brother was killed in Bougainville in the last few months of the war. He was in Intelligence, he was a Japanese linguist. He'd taught himself Japanese, and he was killed at Bougainville in the last few weeks of the war.

You were very fond of him?

Oh yes, very.

Had you seen him during the war?

No, I hadn't. Oh yes, I had. I'd seen him once in New Guinea, our paths had crossed in New Guinea.

How did you hear about his death?

Oh, a telegram from home, from my old folks at home.

And he'd been killed?

Yes.

By Japanese?

Well, that's what we thought at the time. It ultimately turned out, I think he must have been trapped somewhere, and was in imminent danger of being taken prisoner. And he actually shot himself. I didn't find that out until later. I met one of his superior officers, who assumed that I knew and he let it out, and immediately tried to correct himself, but I picked up on it. It was confirmed later that he'd actually killed himself in despair and I suppose fear of what would happen to him, because of ... there were horrendous stories then. You can imagine what the Japanese would have done to an Intelligence officer in an attempt to get information from him.

What was he like, your brother?

Oh, he was a very attractive character. Well, as you can see, intelligent. He'd become fluent in Japanese. He'd only ... he started very late in life, but he went to schools and became very fluent in Japanese. He was a very attractive character. Charming, handsome young man.

So what did you get out of the war yourself, apart from the fact that you read the three volumes?

Well, probably nothing. It was a period of ... the people that I was mixing with, I remember one camp when I'd be buried in my Marx, they all knew that I, you know, that I was a bit of a peculiar figure, that I ... they used to call me Karl. They were a pretty dull lot, a pretty conformist bunch of, oh, young accountants and that sort of people. They weren't fervent patriots, but they were getting through the war as best they could. There were none of them who really became friends. A few years ago I got a Christmas card from one them, I remembered he was an economics student at Melbourne University, under the notorious capitalist authority of Professor Copland [Sir Douglas Berry], who had played an infamous role as far as lefties were concerned during the Depression. He'd been a sort of a mastermind of the Premiers’ Plan — it was something they'd introduced to drastic cut in wages throughout the country. And he was generally concerned by us lefties to be a real reactionary. Well, this young man, who was on the unit with me, was one of his students, and he used to argue with me. He used to prove that it was economic nonsense that they were talking. Anyhow, I saw him once after the war and then our paths diverged. Didn't hear from him. And then a couple of years ago I got this Christmas card from him. He'd read my book, I'd published a book. And he'd read it, and I'd made a reference to him in the book. And he must have been then, nearly my age. And he sent me this Christmas card, and I sent him one back, and we exchanged cards for a couple years, but I haven't heard from him for a few years, so I've assumed that he must have fallen off the twig. But none of the others made any impact on me.

What was it about Sydney that was so alluring?

Oh, it struck me as a gorgeous, hedonistic, wonderful place. Well, everything it's got now, only more. I mean, I think that they've made a mess of Sydney, but such, it's so gifted by nature, it's, they can't make a total mess of it. But it was a lovely place then, you know.

Was it, physically ... was it the physical setting of Sydney that appealed to you?

Yes.

Or was it something about the life here?

Yes, and of course that it was the Trotskyist centre. That's where our gurus lived. People like old Nick Origlass who, from an ambition to be the Marxist dictator of the world, finally settled for Mayor of Leichhardt. Have you heard of him? Yeah. Well that was the Trotskyist centre, Sydney was. And I wanted to be there where the action was.

So you emerged from the war having reading Marx and developed some scepticism ...

Yes.

But nevertheless still a committed communist?

Still a committed Trotskyist. I arrived in Sydney ... as soon as I was demobilised in Melbourne I set out for Sydney. And I arrived in Sydney in 1946, and in ... so I thought, ‘Well, here I am, I've got no trade, what can I do? I've got to earn a living while I'm waiting for the revolution.’ And I began to have little niggling doubts that perhaps that would be a long wait. So I decided I had to equip myself to earn a living. So I did the post-war servicemen's ... you know, there was a scheme under which post-war university courses were open to ex-servicemen, financed by the government, small allowance. So I decided to do law. And I enrolled in the Sydney law course. After a while I became articled to a firm of solicitors. I got married in 1947. And then I did another of my St Paul acts.

Can you describe exactly how that happened?

Well, I used to go across to these meetings at our little Trotskyist cell, which were held mostly at Origlass's house over at Balmain. And I remember, I used to get the ferry, get off at Long Nose Point and walk along to these places that are now very fashionable, since they've been gentrified. Well, I knew Balmain when it was mostly populated by dockworkers and us revolutionaries. And we used to meet there, on a Friday night, and I can remember one Friday night, Origlass was droning on in his dogmatic, doctrinaire way about something or other. And suddenly in a blinding flash I thought, ‘This is all bullshit.’ And I didn't go again.

Just like that?

Like the way I ceased to be a Catholic. I ceased to be a Marxist overnight.

Now did the priests of ...

Oh yes, sure ... a long correspondence ensued in which, you know, it became a doctrinal brawl. What was, you know, what was the basis of my disbelief, etc. And I spelt that out in considerable detail. I think I won the argument hands down, but nothing ... Origlass was one of those impervious Marxists. He probably still is. He's probably still a Trotskyist. And he's about 90 now. And finally I was free of them. And I graduated in law, and that opened up another chapter in my life.

Now, you'd had Catholicism, and then you'd had Marxism to believe in ...

... [question repeated] ... You'd had Catholicism in your youth, and then you'd had Marxism to provide you with a sort of philosophical framework ...

Yes.

... What took their place in your life now?

Well, no all-embracing world view. I suppose you could say I was still on the left. I ... it would never have occurred to me to vote anything but Labor. And I suppose I settled for a less cataclysmic view of the possibilities of human amelioration. I thought it could be done, not in a ... I didn't believe in the bright new dawn, but I believed that things could be made better and I became a member of the Labor Party. I had been for a while, even while I was a Trotskyist. But I ... well I suppose I cut my sights down. I no longer believed in saving humanity. But in just making things a little bit more civilised.

How active a member of the Labor Party were you at the beginning?

Well, I used to go to branch meetings, I suppose like your ordinary Catholic goes to church on Sunday. It was funny, for a while I was in the Double Bay branch, imagine a Labor branch ... and along with a couple of other Labor people who were to become famous, Neville Wran and Lionel Murphy.

A small branch?

A small branch, and there were the three of us, with a few other wealthy kids from the eastern suburbs who used to roll up in the old man's Mercedes to the branch meetings. It was a really funny little branch.

Did you maintain any connections during this time with working people, with the union movement or any other aspects of the labour movement?

Well, that happened a little later in my legal practice. I had a period of relative passivity politically, where I've always dropped out, I was on the periphery. And what livened my interest again was the brawl that erupted in the union movement at the time that the industrial groups were making their run against the communists.

The industrial groups being the Catholic groups?

Yes, it was. It was actually inspired by Santamaria, who I hadn't seen all those years. Might have just heard he was a vague, shadowy, éminence grise, behind some deep right-wing Catholic movement.

Could you tell us what was the idea behind the industrial groups themselves?

Well, the industrial groups were composed of a variety of elements. First of all, the communists in the period immediately after the war, really did loom large in the union movement. They got control of a lot of major unions. They even had a majority, I think, at one annual meeting of the ACTU, that is a meeting of all the unions. They were to be taken seriously, and they, of course, even though they didn't have the view that the Trotskyists did of a sudden uprising, they still did aim to become the rulers of this country. As the Cold War developed they were seen by many people as being almost traitorous, this working in the Russian interest against the Western interests. And there was some truth in that. And they got control of these major unions. And at this time I'd become a solicitor. And I had links with some unions, especially with Laurie Short, whom I had known in my Trotskyist days.

He'd been a Trotskyist?

He'd been a Trotskyist, yes. I deserted them a little while before he did. But he'd long got over that. And he got locked in a mortal combat with the Stalinists, who were running the union. They expelled him, they did all the silly things, they overplayed their hand, or they were, apart from being doctrinally wrong they were also a bit stupid. Anyhow, they made a mortal enemy of him and a martyr of him, and at this stage there was a great movement in the unions against the sort of pushbutton industrial warfare that the communist union leaders were sponsoring. You know, getting them to stop work over non-industrial matters, you know — I'm trying to think of an example — there'd be some political issue of the day which'd get the coms all worked up and they'd declare a strike in the union that they controlled. And of course the old masses, you know, these people who were supposed to be the edge-in of revolutionary change, couldn't have cared less about the things that they were all steamed up about.

And there gradually was a ferment in the unions to get rid of the communist officials. Now Santamaria and his mob, the movement, decided to capitalise on this because they saw the coms literally as anti-Christs. They had ... Santamaria especially ... there was great divisions in the Catholic church about this I discovered later. And Santamaria, who had the backing of the Melbourne Pope, Archbishop Mannix, ultimately found that his [ideas] did not run in Sydney. This bloke who died a week or two ago, Archbishop Carroll, put pay to Santamaria's attempt to move into New South Wales. But I'll come to that. But I ... Short consulted me about his contest to stay in the union, the Ironworkers Union, and ultimately he aimed to supplant the communists, to cash in on this anti-communist movement that was developing in the union movement in general. And there were, there was a series of cases in which I acted for Short in the Arbitration Commission, and I used Kerr ... that's when I met Kerr.

John Kerr?

John Kerr. He was a brilliant barrister. And we had a series of victories which ultimately resulted in Short taking over the Ironworkers Union. Well that was a ... at the time that was a major event, 1951. And at the height of the contest we'd made contact with Santamaria. See what Short ... in a contest, in a union election, the advantage that the communists had was that they had foot soldiers. They had people who could go out knocking on doors, persuading the apathetic masses to cast a vote. I mean a union election's something like an American election. About 40 percent vote. And the question of getting the vote out required getting foot soldiers. Well, Santamaria supplied them. He had all these zealots, these sort of Christian Democrat types. People who wanted to turn Australia into ... wanted to turn the Labor Party into a party like the Christian Democrats in Italy or Germany. And they were motivated by this zealous loathing for the anti-Christ, communism. And we formed an alliance with them, Short and I, and they were a great help.

Did you feel strange about forming an alliance ...

Yes I did, I did, but I thought that I ... don't forget that I had maintained my loathing for Stalinists for what they had done to me.

Well, you'd been thrown out of this very same union.

I'd been thrown out. Sure. And I didn't take much persuasion to join in an anti-communist crusade. Because I did seriously regard them as an enemy of democracy and a real menace.

Was there also a little element of personal revenge in it?

Yes, there was. Sure there was. I enjoyed ... I had a hell of a lot of fun. I remember sitting in a court, a few seats away from Thornton, who'd expelled me from the union, and seeing him lose the case in which I was acting for his enemy. I certainly got a little fun out of that. And of course, in a purely commercial sense, it really made my fortune, because I became the ... I became the man that people went to who were involved in any union in contest with the coms. I became the sort of official expert on how to do the coms. And I had success in several other unions as well.

It sounds as if, in acting as the solicitor to Laurie Short, you were offering a little bit more than legal advice?

Oh, I held his hand, I was his guide, philosopher and friend, I more or less took over his life for a few years.

What was he like?

Well, he's still ...

[end of tape]

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