Review of Stephen Holt’s biography Vertible Dynamo. Lloyd Ross and Australian Labour 1901-1987, University of Queensland Press, The Australian, 20 July 1996
Lloyd Ross’ impact on the Australian labour movement has been as protean as it has been significant. The socialist incendiary, adult education activist, unionist, communist turned anti-communist, Grouper supporter turned opponent of the Right in the ARU, journalist and theoretician – all these appellations could have applied to Ross at different times.
Growing up in a socialist household under the proselytising influence of his father, Bob Ross – who inspired the wording of the 1921 ALP Socialist Objective – it was inevitable that Lloyd would take an interest in ideas, the purpose of political action and the role of the ALP in social and economic affairs.
Stephen Holt’s book, which is part biography and part an intellectual history of ideas, covers all of the necessary territory and unearths articles, diary notes and other material which helps to explain the trajectory of Ross’ political development. It is a fine achievement.
In the early days of Ross’ political development, until his graduation from Melbourne University in the early 1920s, Ross was part of the milieu of Victorian Socialism. Attendance at Socialist Sunday Schools, reading the works of G.D.H. Cole, R.H. Tawney, Bertrand Russell and the Guild Socialists, participation in Victorian Socialist Party debates, reading Ross’ Monthly, were a part of the religious fervour.
Thus from the outset Ross grew up in a sect which took books and theories seriously. In this sense his socialist tradition was different to much of the rest of the labor movement including the factions and parties to the left of the ALP. Bob Ross, his father, had written Revolution in Russia and Australia (1920) which argued against the idea of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society. In Australia revolution could come by peaceful means. The Victorian Socialist Party – whose most famous member turned out to be Prime Minister John Curtin, about whom Ross wrote a biography – was akin to the Independent Labour Party in Great Britain. Both were part of a larger party – the ALP and the British Labour Party respectively – but retained some independence, especially in encouraging debate on political questions. The Victorian Socialist Party was influenced by anti-statist ideas of socialism. Hence the distinction they drew between socialisation – making society a more social and civilised place achieved through worker pa1ticipation, consultation and democratic decision making – and State socialism, which was favoured in differing degrees by both traditional ALP governments (for example, in Queensland) and by the communists.
This background is crucial to understanding Ross, and Holt captures it well.
The book covers Ross’ radical inheritance, his involvement with the WEA in New Zealand (1923 to 1933), the WEA in NSW (1933 to 1935), his time and achievement as NSW Secretary, and achievements on behalf, of the Australian Railways Union (a position he held from 1935 to 1943), support for and membership of the Communist Party of Australia, his role in the “Hands Off Russia” Resolution at the Easter 1940 NSW ALP Conference (which lead to Federal intervention and the sacking of the NSW Executive and the emergence of the NSW ALP Right), his disillusion with the CPA’s anti-war stance after the fall of France, his reconciling to the Curtin-led ALP and opposition to communism, appointment as an officer in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction (from 1943 to 1949), brief period as a full-time labour journalist (with the Melbourne Herald from 1950 to 1952), reappointment to the ARU, NSW Office, industrial campaigns and battles for election (Ross was again Secretary from 1952 to 1959), involvement in the ALP Groups which he strongly supported, involvement in the Congress for Cultural Freedom (President from 1961 to 1967) and the falling out with the ALP Right faction in the rail union at the end of his career.
This brief summary is indicative of the exciting life that Ross led. Holt picks through the details of such a fertile curriculum vitae to tell a coherent story. However, it is in Holt’s interpretation of the events he describes that he shows some weaknesses. For example, in Ross’ industrial campaign against dieselisation in the railways in the 1960s, there was a touch of myopia. The contortions of the CPA line in the 1930s deserved more critical comment. How could someone from Ross’ background embrace Stalinism, including signing the expulsion letter to James Normington-Rawling when he opposed the Soviet invasion of Finland? How sensible were Ross’ views concerning Post-War Reconstruction? How did Ross’ views on socialism and social democracy develop?
Holt’s answer to such questions is unclear. At one place he claims: “During his entire ARU-ALP career he had no choice but to align himself with either pro-Moscow political devotees or their right wing Catholic ALP rivals – whether Langite or Grouper – if he wished to survive as an influential labour activist. There was no effective middle way.” Well, yes and no. Ross did have choices. He wanted to align himself with the communist side, then at the end of 1940, it was the communists who maligned him for challenging current dogma. The tiny Langite faction in the ARU supported him in the ensuing struggle with the Communists in the union, not the other way round. As for the Groups, Ross had a significant influence on them. His articles in the Melbourne Herald showed, however, his independence. His support for J.D. Keenahan, candidate for the Presidency of the Labor Council of NSW in 1953, against the official Right faction candidate was indicative of his independence. The articles Ross wrote for the Catholic journal Twentieth Centuryin the late 1940s and early 1950s were among the finest things he ever wrote. Ross never uncritically aligned himself with anybody. At the end of the book, Holt runs the “full circle” line; the radical turns communist, turns moderate, turns radical, argument. This shows Holt’s sympathy for a view that Ross belongs to the Left’s inheritance: But for the communist sectarianism of the early 1940s, Ross might have been an heroic example of far left thinking. Elsewhere Holt deprecates the claims by a minor section of the ALP Right to claim Ross as the intellectual forbear. Actually Ross’ support for particular candidates in the NSW ARU elections in 1969 can be made too much of. It’s true that the NSW ALP machine supported the other, winning side in that contest. But it is fanciful to suppose that Ross’ “abiding loyalties reemerged”.
Ross’ sense of integrity and honesty caused him to support activists whom he thought were more likely to lead the ARU well. At the end of his life Ross struggled to finish a biography of his father Red Blood and Black Ink. It remained uncompleted. He was depressed. Although Ross had had a richly interesting life, at the centre of splits and crises in the Australian labour movement, he kept asking: what had he achieved?
His biography of Curtin (1977) was published thirty years later than its original deadline; rave revues did not follow. His earlier biography of William Lane (1937) also won flat reviews. Following the ALP Split in NSW Ross was attacked as a fanatical right-wing ideologue. His interest in sparking a debate on socialism and labour objectives was shared by few. In the union he had devoted most of his energies, the winning team, post his retirement, owed no favours to Ross.
Ross’ contribution to the ARU including the mood of tolerance that still pervades its discussions in NSW is one manifestation of his influence. Ross brilliantly used the media to promote the industrial cause of his members – by pamphleteering, producing slide shows, radio broadcasts and criss-crossing the country in “the Red Terror” as his motor bike and side car became known. In keeping the ALP united in the early 1940s, Ross helped Curtin’s leadership and Prime Ministership. In the lead up to the ALP split, Ross’ finest articles were written: they deserve to be collected. In his advocacy of debate and critical discussion, Ross proposals frequently fell on deaf ears. If this was failure it was not for want of trying.
Originally, or so he told me, Holt planned to write a thesis and a book that would primarily focus on the life, career, and thinking of the former communist and left intellectual James Normington-Rawling (1898-1966). Then his PhD turned to a comparison of Normington-Rawling and Ross, then entirely or almost entirely, on Ross.
I sent a very detailed bibliography of all of Ross’ writing which I had compiled over the years.
Although Holt wrote the book I had hoped to write, I am glad he did. If I ever get back to the idea of writing something substantial on Ross, you could say I would match – or exceed! – the length of time, from thought to finish, 1945 to 1977, that Ross took to write his Curtin book.
As for Holt on Ross, I disagree with what I see as a false perspective about Ross’ political and intellectual development, but this is not to detract from a well-research book. I am pleased that to some degree I helped make it happen.
Where we disagree is over the interpretation of Ross, the radical-turned communist-driven to the right by left sectarianism to Ross returning to form as a left radical at the end of his active life in the labour movement.
On the contrary, I see the trajectory differently, with the communist phase the major aberration. In my reckoning, Ross’ phases were as a critical socialist, suspicious of state control, to hard communist, to social democratic intellectual.
Ross’s father (Robert Samuel “Bob” Ross (1873-1931), was the champion of a kind of anti-statist, worker democracy type of socialism, authentically articulated in an Australian context, drawing inspiration from UK guild socialist critiques of Fabianism. (Guild socialism, roughly, “flourished” from 1914 to the early 1920 in England and Scotland.)
In the aftermath of the strange death of guild socialism in Great Britain, many adherents were drawn to the Russian communist tradition, as many were repulsed by that. The latter saw the Soviet Union as displaying an incorrigible and totalitarian tendency to suppress dissent and make the workforce subordinate to party leadership.
Ross senior, for many complicated reasons, was more in the anti-Soviet category. Reading some of the then contemporary radical and socialist literature of the five years post the Bolshevik Revolution convinces me that there was much self-serving delusion and ignorance about what was going on. Putting that issue to one side, however, there is this observation: Bob Ross’ pamphlet, Revolution in Russia and Australia (1920) argued for the peaceful, democratic road to socialism in Australia and argued that true socialism entailed meaningful control by people and communities over their lives, including self-government in industry.
This was broadly the perspective espoused by Bob Ross in the 1921 debate on the socialisation objective of the ALP. Lloyd Ross also championed this viewpoint. In his book William Lane and the Australian Labor Movement (1935), Lloyd Ross’ respect for the evolving perspective of the guild socialist theorist G.D.H. Cole, including his suspicion of state control, and arbitrary exercise of power pervasively characterised Lloyd Ross’ then outlook.
Where he and his brother, Edgar (1904-2001), departed from their father’s perspective was over the communist party. Interestingly, both the Ross brothers joined the CPA in the mid-1930s after their father died with Lloyd, more or less, as an undercover member. 1935 was the year Ross joined the CPA and when the comrades orchestrated his appointment as Secretary (head of) the Australian Railways Union (ARU), NSW Branch.
This happened as the Australian Labor Party, as well as socialist and social democratic parties across the globe, floundered in the aftermath of the Great Depression and, in Europe, with the rise of fascism.
Support for the Soviet model might appear to be a radical position, but to appropriate a phrase, it was an infantile disorder. Instead of the rethinking and freshly drawing an assessment of old answers to contemporary problems, there was the pseudo daring of revolution and nationalising industries. The communists in this period denounced the Labor, socialist and social democratic alternatives as “social fascism”, as if they were near equivalents of the more obvious enemy.
Lloyd Ross was with the hardliners in the period from the mid-1930s to around the end of 1940.
A double ALP and CPA ticket holder, Lloyd Ross spoke, apparently eloquently, passionately, and persuasively at the NSW ALP Conference which adopted the “Hands Off Russia” resolution in March 1940. This urged no imperialist war against the USSR.
Before the 23 August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Nazi Germany-Soviet Union non-aggression treaty, the fear of the pro-communist left was that Hitler would team up with the west to attack the Soviet Union. After World War II began, the communists feared that war would be declared on the USSR as well as Germany. Both countries, after all, invaded Poland. At the end of November 1939, the Red Army invaded Finland and this conflict ended three and a half months later, with the Finns losing some territory including the Karelian Isthmus, the land bridge that gave access to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). The Moscow Peace Treaty of March 1940 ended hostilities.
Ross agonised over whether a distinction could validly be made between an imperialist war, the German versus the West situation, and the Soviets seeking active measures to defend socialism. Ross closely consulted Leninist tracts, including Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), with almost Talmudic attention to what could be understood from the sacred texts to interpret modern circumstances. His public airing of doubts and challenge to previous allies within the movement, led to his expulsion from the CPA in 1941.
He concluded the Finnish invasion unjustified, the war for freedom in the West against Nazi Germany, and the fight against Stalinist terror were ideas to champion. The spell of communist ideology was forever discarded. (There is a good deal of information in the papers of Lloyd Ross at the National Library of Australia on his personal evolution, including his journey to the light in 1940/41.)
In 1943, Ross moved from the union to the Department of PostWar Reconstruction, and better understood Curtin’s ideals, battles within the ALP, and dreams of creating a better world. Ross knew Curtin, his father had even more so, through common membership of the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP), a party that existed alongside the ALP (roughly from 1906 to dissolution in 1932), much like the Independent Labour Party in the UK, but arguably with a more avowedly socialist-influenced outlook in the VSP’s case.
In 1949 Ross was sacked by Menzies from commonwealth public service, then worked as a journalist for a couple of years (Melbourne Herald newspaper) and returned to the leadership of the ARU, NSW Branch, in 1952.
Ross wrote many pieces for union, labour intellectual, and Catholic journals arguing for the compatibility of democratic socialism and Catholic social ideals. Race Mathew’s book Of Labour and Liberty, Distributism in Victoria 1891-1966 (2017) includes a considered assessment of this period in the late 1940s and 1950s, including Ross’ contribution.
Ross stood with the ALP Industrial Groups, walked out with the NSW and other delegations from the 1955 national ALP Conference and opposed Dr Evatt, and the left-wing attempted putsch in the ALP, NSW Branch. He thought the formation of a rival labor party, what became the DLP, a tragic mistake. For his troubles he was traduced as an “extreme right-winger” by the left.
Within the ARU he continued to champion industrial democracy, participation of workers in local decision making, and other themes and ideals he had long been associated with.
The death of his only son, David, in 1966 plunged him into a period of deep depression.
In 1969 he supported a communist as his successor as NSW ARU secretary, but failed to secure his election.
Significantly, at the end of the 1960s, Ross left the union in a mess; both sides in the contest for taking over claimed allegiance to the ideals he championed.
Ross also was active in cultural and other organisations including the Australian Association of Cultural Freedom, which produced Quadrant magazine. Ross was President of the Association, 1961-69.
The overarching theme of Lloyd Ross’ life was the search for freedom, defence of liberty, and the empowerment of ordinary folk.
His singular departure from that tradition was when he was enamoured with communist ideology for 5 or 6 years from the mid-1930s.
The Australian labour movement was well served by Ross when he shed those allegiances, thought anew, and briefly invigorated the ALP moderates with ideas and perspectives, reform agendas and dynamism, that later was hollowed out, diminished, or became unimaginative, in the aftermath of the ALP factional madness during and post the Great Split.