Published in Labor Leader, Vol. 5, No.1, April 1981, p. 6.
“It is only because modern labourites and socialists have neglected their own history, and no longer read their theoretical classics, that these strains of liberty, industrial democracy, workers’ self-government, have been forgotten and their lessons for today neglected.” So wrote Lloyd Ross – socialist pamphleteer, union official, workers’ educationist and labour historian in 1947.
What Lloyd Ross set out to do in the 1940s, when he was Public Relations Director under Labor’s Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction was to galvanise the community and the ALP to think hard about creating a democratic, egalitarian society free of the scourges of mass unemployment.
He warned: “the main enemy to democratic socialism is not the resistance of private enterprise, not the existence of crypto fascists not even the threat from monopolistic American capitalism, but the failure of Labor to use its present opportunities to advance the cause of democracy and socialism.”
In the years that followed, the ALP largely failed to capitalise on its advantages or present itself as a party of moral purpose. But this was not the fault of Lloyd Ross who throughout his life challenged the lethargy that grips the labour movement on questions of principle and policy. This article is a brief account of Lloyd Ross’ life and some of the things he believed worth fighting for.
Lloyd Ross was born in Brisbane eighty years ago, the son of Robert Ross, a propagandist for socialism and leader of the Victorian Socialist Party.
After graduating with arts and law degrees from Melbourne University Lloyd Ross found employment as tutor/organiser with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Dunedin, New Zealand.
The WEA was a movement founded in Britain for running classes for working class students in economics and liberal education. (In NSW in 1913 the WEA was co-founded by the Labor Council of NSW.)
After eight years in New Zealand, Ross successfully applied for positions with the WEA first in Newcastle and then two years later as Assistant Director of Tutorial Classes in Sydney.
“In Dunedin, Newcastle and Sydney I ran workfront classes. These were held during lunchtimes and covered a range of topics especially labour economics and current issues,” Ross states.
Ross impressed some of his railway workshop students so much that a few suggested he run for the position of NSW Secretary of the Australian Railways Union (ARU), left vacant after the death of the Secretary.
In October 1935 he was elected Secretary of the ARU and shortly afterwards joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
“I was critical of the ALP during the Depression and felt that the CPA understood the challenge from fascism.”
When World War II erupted Ross became increasingly critical of the CPA line, namely that the War was an imperialist war thus the anti-Hitler effort was not one to get fired up about. The Stalin-Hitler pact cemented an uneasy alliance between those two powers.
In breaking with the CPA in 1941, Ross faced a battle for control of the ARU. Only 2 or 3 out of 21 executive members of the union were not communists or communist supporters. Some were won over, the remainder were defeated in union elections.
In 1942 Ross accepted Curtin’s offer to take up the position of Public Relations Director in the Ministry of Post-War Re-construction.
This was not the beginning of his association with Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. Ross knew Curtin through his father, a life-time friend since the days when both Robert Ross and Curtin were members of the Victorian Socialist Party prior to joining the ALP.
Curtin “was a courageous leader, for a lifetime he was a pacifist who dreamed of changing Australia to an egalitarian society. He came to office having to battle with an issue that tore apart the ALP a generation earlier: the conscription question.
Ross says: “It was characteristic of Curtin’s authority, integrity and sincerity that having decided to introduce a change of policy, he asked support from no one, took no one into his confidence but decided, in view of the uproar that would result, to bear full responsibility for raising the question at a Labor Party conference. He acted as a delegate in the highest tribunal of the Labor Party.
There is no thing ‘sinister’, ‘hidden’ or wrong in this behaviour. It was the action of a Labor Party member who knew that the only method whereby Labor Party policy could be altered was by a conference, not by Caucus or Cabinet.” Curtin’s life, achievements, sensitivity and openness to criticism are recorded in Ross’ biography of his great friend.
After Curtin’s death Ross worked under the direction of Chifley.
In the post-war years Ross and the Labor government were struggling with ideas to create a new world. Ross wrote most of the 1947 White Paper on Full Employment which set down reasons why full-employment should be the key to economic planning.
“This was the major ideological achievement of the Labor government. Even the conservatives had to accept full employment as a non-negotiable plank of their policy,” Ross says.
“At this time I was critical of the rank and file laziness in the ALP. Many people felt that since Labor was in office, there was no need to worry about details. Bill Taylor, then the Vice President of the ALP NSW Branch, and I hit upon the idea of one-day regional ALP conferences to discuss post war policies. In the morning I would open up discussion on the White Paper and in the afternoon agenda items were debated. These conferences were successful in getting people to think about our problems.”
The late 1940s were a period of tremendous strain for the Labor government. The ACTU was almost captured by the CPA and their supporters in 1945 and communist militancy in the unions aggravated industrial tensions.
The great coal strike of 1949 severely damaged the government.
“We should have anticipated this. We failed to understand the grievances of the miners and mining areas generally, and these were ruthlessly exploited by the communists who recklessly attacked the Chifley government.
“Once the communists determined to use the mining unions against the government we had to intervene,” Ross says.
However, the strike was a running sore in the ALP, it shattered the argument that the ALP was far superior to the conservatives in handling industrial relations because of the loyalty of workers to Labor, and it caused a feeling of disillusionment throughout the labour movement.
“Bank nationalisation and petrol rationing were extremely important in defeating us in 1949, but the coal strike seemed to be the beginning of the end,” Ross says.
Something had to be done to reverse the trend in the union movement to CPA control.
Earlier the ALP Industrial Groups were formed. The coal strike encouraged many to see the importance of electing Labor Party members and supporters to the leadership of key unions.
1949 marked a turning point in Lloyd Ross’ life also: “Menzies’ first act was to get rid of me [in December 1949].”
For eighteen months Ross worked for the Melbourne Herald and then, in 1952, he went back to the Australian Railways Union and to the torrid world of ALP politics.
“My ideological position in the early 1950s was based on a commitment to the development of democratic techniques which encourage participation by the people. I was not sympathetic to those who saw socialism as a grand bureaucratic plan for regulating society.
“Because latter-day socialists are interested only in bread and basic wages, the rest of us must not be bullied or laughed into silence but keep on reiterating that in the democratic socialist attack and cure, the economic and spiritual are organically united,” Ross asserts.
Many of those associated with the ALP Industrial Groups shared his concerns about the bureaucratisation of large-scale industry and trade unions and the threats to freedom posed by communism.
In 1955 Ross was defeated when he ran for the Presidency of the NSW ALP. “Alan Manning controlled the votes of a section of country delegates to the Conference. He argued ‘you can’t have a Grouper as President as well’, and so I was defeated. Ironically Manning was the first president of the DLP in NSW,” Ross says.
Ross attended the 1955 Hobart ALP Conference where the split was consummated. He believed the spilt should have been avoided. Compromise and the spirit of disinterestedness were absent.
As a result the ALP was doomed to opposition until Whitlam’s leadership pulled Labor into government in 1972.
The years of opposition were frustrating to all members of the ALP especially for a critical Lloyd Ross who saw the Federal ALP machine trumpeting a foolish militancy.
Within the ALP socialism was reduced to a vague slogan divorced of meaning.
In 1957 Ross wrote, “socialism to many has become only a word. To most people within the labour movement – ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ – it has no more real significance for today’s issues than the replica of the ‘Mayflower’ has for present day Atlantic crossings. It’s on a journey into the past, or a Viking trip into misty isles from which there is no return – certainly not to the Treasury benches.”
Workers’ Participation in the Ownership and Control of Industry, Ross’ 1959 Chifley Memorial Lecture, issued a major call to the ALP to positively express its ideas.
We cannot “move from ‘capitalism’ to ‘socialism’ as in a train journey from one station to another – preferably falling asleep at a place called ‘capitalism’ and waking up with a cup-of-tea at a place called ‘socialism’.”
Ross argued for worker participation, not as a trick to ensure greater efficiency in production but in recognition of human dignity and democratic rights.
This involves greater “attention by unions to internal problems of information, education, and participation, especially the position of job organisation and participation in the union structure.”
Unfortunately the ALP has not been quick to take up these ideas.
Since his retirement a decade ago, Ross has been busy writing articles and books on labour history. He is now completing a biography of his father, R.S. Ross.
In many ways Ross’ activities have been like those of a deaf person – answering questions that others are not asking.
But if there was ever a man who deserved to be listened to, it is Lloyd Ross who has devoted a lifetime wrestling with the issues that puzzle and bewilder the Australian labour movement.
Lloyd Ross (1901-1987) and Laurie Short were frequently invoked as two non-Catholic, independent Labor thinkers in NSW who sided with the “Groupers”, opposed Dr Evatt, and stuck with Labor during the ALP splits in the mid-1950s.
They were very different people.
I got to know Lloyd Ross well and went out to his flat at Hunters Hill, including meeting his wife Stina (Christina Elvira née Adelskold) on a few occasions before she died in October 1981. They had been married for over 45 years. Ross deserves a more substantial biography and commemoration by the Australian labour movement. My profile was a minor contribution to that end.
Ross replied in the next issue of Labor Leader, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 1981, p. 8:
Thank you for the last issue of Labor Leader. There were two mistakes in the biographical sketch of myself.
One minor: I was born in Brisbane, not Melbourne. And a major: I did not write much of the White Paper on Full Employment, although I read it before publication. I suggested a paragraph in an effort to link the White Paper in continuity with the socialist tradition, but this was not accepted.
The White Paper excited me because it not only was an immediate guide to the methods of re-habilitation and return to civic life of the Forces, but it was a way to find solution of a basic problem for bridging the gap between immediate reform and democratic socialism. I spoke and wrote to a wide variety of audiences and found enthusiasm mounting for a Labor solution – but not always was “socialism” mentioned.
The White Paper, unconsciously for most audiences and the writers, illuminated the importance of the socialist ideology in solving serious problems.
But I often despaired when some people tried to deal with particular or sectional problems without any theoretical guide or stimulus.
In the above, I corrected the Brisbane mistake.
When I became Secretary (head of) the Labor Council of NSW, I set up the Lloyd Ross Form to encourage debate and discussion. We published books on industrial relations, immigration, industry policy, labor history, etc. The Forum continued under two of my successors.
Although I admired Ross, I suspect that he must have been a quirky, sometimes difficult character. Some of his articles, particularly for the journal Twentieth Century in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are among the best writings on Australian labor ideas.
Laurie Short told me that Lloyd never recovered from the death of his son, David, in 1966. (Apparently, he died from a fall, perhaps something more sinister. He may not have been sober at the time.)
One day I would like to write something more substantial on Ross.