A socialist who grew with the movement

Submitted by martin on 24 October, 2016 - 2:52 Author: Jeff Rickertt in conversation with Martin Thomas

Ernie Lane was an active fighter for revolutionary socialist politics - as he understood them, in different ways over the years - in Brisbane, Australia, from the late 1880s through to 1954, a model of persistence and tenacity though not always of acuity. Jeff Rickertt, author of a recently-published biography of Ernie, The Conscientious Communist, talked with Solidarity about Ernie and about the book.

I was interested in pre-Bolshevik socialism in Australia, and even the better books written about that don't have much in them about Queensland. Another reason for writing about Ernie was his political longevity. He spanned the whole period of pre-Bolshevik socialism, from the Single-Taxers (following Henry George) and utopian colony-building through to "state socialism" in the early Australian Labor Party and the revolutionary syndicalism of the IWW and the One Big Union movement.

The way he learned and changed gives a picture of all the different currents.

In terms of density of description, the book focuses most on World War One. That was when Ernie was most prominent, in the anti-conscription movement, in the Australian Workers' Union (AWU), and in the Australian Labor Party. He also had relations with the Wobblies (the IWW), and became a conduit for their propaganda into the state.

Ernie is interesting as an individual who had the capacity to think and change and reflect on new situations, to take up new ideas and figure out how they could be applied.

He had the capacity to operate in a non-sectarian way. He maintained links with the Wobblies and with the Bolshevik Russian émigrés in Brisbane at the same time that he served on the Executive of the Queensland Labor Party (though he hardly ever had a win there). That capacity to work with different forces across the far left and through to the social-democratic mainstream is something we can learn from today. Some other groups of his time, like the Australian Socialist Party, did not have the capacity.

We tend to take it for granted today that the Labor Party is a certain kind of beast. It is important to understand what it meant to the people who founded it, and not to let that understanding be crushed by prejudging the outcomes we now know about. People like Ernie Lane and Ted Brady invested so much in the Labor Party and its parliamentary efforts because they genuinely believed it was possible to introduce radical programs of reforms through parliament. The trajectory from utopian socialism to "state socialism" to the IWW is an important part of the book.

The term "state socialism" has had many meanings. When Bronterre O'Brien's strand of the Chartist movement were called "state socialists", that meant that they were for political activity as distinct from building utopian colonies or cooperative institutions inside existing society. Later, when the Second International denounced "state socialism", they meant bourgeois reformism "from above", or the reduction of socialist goals to mere public ownership of industry...

In Australia, "state socialism" took a meaning different from in other countries. It meant building a parliamentary party of the labour movement that could come to power and begin a program of nationalisation which would reach the point when all the main productive industries came under state control.

In Australia in the late 19th century, the bourgeois state was not yet consolidated. There'd been parliaments in the different colonies, but the infrastructure of the state was still in its infancy. That coloured the way that the early worker activists in Australia regarded the state: they genuinely thought it possible to capture that apparatus, and through it take control of industry.

By 1891 most of the pastoral holdings in Australia were owned by finance capital, much of it based in Britain. The enemy was seen as monopoly capital, typically represented in the labour press as Mr Fat, and "state socialism" was seen as the possibility of building something different in Australia from in Britain. Manufacturing was undeveloped in the colonies, there were few large and permanent concentrations of industrial workers to give effect to the idea that socialism could be built from below through control on the job. The larger worksites – the shearing sheds, the meatworks, the railway construction sites, even the wharves – were seasonal or transient. In Queensland many workers drifted between wage labour and self employment as small land holders. In these conditions, it made sense to see the task of creating an alternative to monopoly capital as a parliamentary project, divorced from the workplace.

The ruling class, too, was uncertain about state formation in the colonies, and what organised labour might do if it won parliamentary power. In 1890 the labour movement in Queensland formed the Australian Labour Federation, combining industrial organisation with a radical parliamentary program of socialisation. It was this development that united the employers and forged their determination to smash the unions. They were shit-scared of labour turning to parliamentary politics. In Queensland they even systematically removed workers from the electoral rolls.

On a personal level, all socialists can be inspired by Ernie Lane's political longevity. Ernie had bouts of doubt, and even depression, but he always found a way to bounce back on the basis of a new surge of activity by the working class. His story tells us that in all circumstances socialists and Marxists have to be critical, and not just rely on ideas handed down to them.

When Ernie first became a socialist, in the late 1880s, there was a dearth of Marxist literature here. Ernie was able to learn from people like Francis Adams and Alfred Yewen who had been involved with William Morris's Socialist League in London, and then brought Marxism to Sydney and Brisbane, but beyond that the education of the early socialist movement was rudimentary.

By the beginning of the 20th century, they began to get more literature, especially from the Kerr publishing company in the USA linked with the American Socialist Party. They also had people like Tom Mann coming from England.

The criticisms of "state socialism" were soon tested in practice. The defeat of the great strikes in the 1890s showed that the state was consolidating as a bourgeois apparatus, with bodies of armed men and so on. One response was to withdraw from the struggle altogether and set up separate colonies along socialist lines. Ernie’s brother William led this current, which resulted in some of the most courageous worker activists of that generation sailing off to found a “New Australia” in the wilderness of Paraguay. The other response, paradoxically, was to concentrate even more on capturing the state apparatus here in Australia. This was the route Ernie took.

Then Labor began to win power, and in the process went out of its way to assure the owners of capital that they were safe. The original socialisation program was abandoned. Also, workers in industries that were nationalised found they were not immune from being bossed around and screwed. The classic case is the state-run railways in New South Wales, where management attempts to introduce Taylorist speed-up techniques sparked a general strike in 1917.

Workers began drawing conclusions, and that gave the oxygen for the IWW to become a force in Australia - much more as an ideological influence than as a workplace-organising effort, though it did lead a number of small strikes in North Queensland.

Ernie's trajectory was confusing and contradictory at times. He was sometimes a cipher for the confusion around him. He clung to the Labor Party but simultaneously became a revolutionary industrial unionist.

In some ways his views in that period struck me as close to De Leon's, arguing that workers cannot ignore parliamentary politics and yet real change must come from the industrial movement. Ernie had the idea that at some point the industrial movement would be able to take control of industry, and at that point the Labor Party too would come under the control of the industrial movement. The Labor Party itself would never introduce socialism, but the workers' movement needed to be active in politics.

The single hardest thing for me to explain, when writing the book, was why, after spending a decade fighting for socialist ideas in Australia, Ernie decided in 1903 to move to the settlement in Paraguay. There were family loyalties [Ernie's brother John, who had replaced William as a leader of the colony, wanted him to go], but those were also times of despair for Ernie. He felt that socialists in Australia were not making any headway, his own socialist group in Queensland, the Social Democratic Vanguard, was struggling to have any influence, and I think the despair affected his thinking. He was also tired of the grind of dead-end jobs where he was often victimised because of his public profile as a radical.

As you've explained, early Australian socialism had a nationalist tint, seeing the enemy as foreign capital and the answer as making Australia a unique country. Humphrey McQueen's classic A New Britannia builds on that fact to argue that the early Australian labour movement was thoroughly corrupted by nationalism and racism. What light does your research shed on that argument?

I think the later Stalinist ideas of "socialism in one country" based on bureaucratic control of industry in the name of the working class were, in the Australian context, a reformulation of the "state socialism" and nationalism of the early years of the movement.

But Humphrey's analysis is based on the view that essentially the early Australian labour movement was a petty-bourgeois movement. The activists and the leaders were small landholders, artisans, urban professionals. Out of that petty-bourgeois socialist milieu you had the idea that Australia could become a country of unique social equality, maybe a country of small landholders.

Humphrey is right about the background of many founders of the Australian labour movement. But there were many worker-socialists too, like Ernie and his comrades in the Social Democratic Vanguard in Brisbane.

Ernie came from a petty-bourgeois family background, but his experience from the time he arrived in Brisbane at the age of 15 was as a member of the working class - farm labourer, grocer's assistant, warehouse assistant. When he first got involved in forming a socialist group in Brisbane, he got sacked and had to go bush to find a job to support his family.

The worker-socialists did buy into the nationalist project of Australia as a unique new country, but ultimately they were more open to workers' unity across barriers of nation and ethnicity. For example, we see Ernie winning substantial minority support for a racially-inclusive membership policy at the 1912 state conference of the AWU. We see Wobblies in North Queensland leading strikes against racist employment policies pushed by AWU officials.

As a young man, Ernie was influenced by his big brother William, a strident racist. I think William learned his racism from his experience in the USA in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s. But even in the early years Ernie was close to people like Francis Adams who were challenging William's racism. He was influenced also by his exposure to workers' struggles in Argentina, after he left Paraguay.

In the anti-conscription movement of 1916-7, Ernie's anti-racism seemed to go up in smoke. He was on the literature committee of the movement, and everything it put out against conscription was tinged by racist and nationalist ideas. We find racist ideas in Ernie's own writings at the time, too.

Evidently his anti-racism was shaky, and it's true that in the Daily Standard [a labour movement newspaper in Brisbane where he was a columnist from 1915 to 1931] he never mentioned Aboriginal Australians. But, under the influence of the IWW and later of the early Communist International, his anti-racism strengthened.

Ernie was a strong supporter of the Russian Revolution, and quit the Labor Party in 1925 because it excluded Communists. Yet he did not join the Communist Party in the 1920s, when it was a genuine revolutionary socialist party, though frail and with many faults; he endorsed it and worked with it (though he never joined) only from the late 1930s, when the CPA had become thoroughly Stalinist. Why was that?

The early CPA was very dismissive of ideas which were important to Ernie about developing a socialist ethos within the labour movement even under capitalism. It presented socialism simply as a matter of the working class winning power and then changing society; it focused only on what it thought was required to seize power.

Ernie thought that socialism was also about comradeship in the movement of today, whether in industrial unionism or in a political party. He had an instinctive aversion to sectarianism, coupled with an abiding confidence in the “toiling masses”. The early CPA’s quite crude formulation of vanguardism left him cold.

Essentially, Ernie was by then a revolutionary industrial unionist. Though many former Wobblies joined the CPA, they left no specific mark on CPA policy and practice, except in their general orientation to revolutionary class struggle. Lane was certainly open to the CPA, and did not criticise the Communist Party in his Daily Standard column. But he saw revolution arising from industrial organisation, a strategy the CPA rejected outright.

His view of the CPA was coloured by local factors, too. In Brisbane J B Miles [later Stalinist general secretary of the CPA, 1931-48] joined the CPA, and went to the Queensland Central Executive of the Labor Party to argue that the CPA should be allowed to affiliate to the Labor Party on the basis of denying that the CPA was a revolutionary organisation. Ernie's disgust at those tactics, and a lingering loyalty to the Labor Party, held him back. When he left the Labor Party in 1925, he found it emotionally quite difficult.

After resigning from the Labor Party, and losing his positions in the AWU, Ernie essentially dropped out of active politics, though for a few years he managed to keep his column in the Daily Standard. Then, when he published his autobiography Dawn to Dusk in 1939, his own children were active in the CPA or close to it, and he began to work with the CPA too.

It is odd that in Dawn to Dusk, Ernie uses the old Stalinist definition of the Labor Party as "fascist", though the CPA itself had abandoned that definition many years before. Did you find any record of Ernie's activities and attitudes during the Spanish Civil War?

I found no mention of the Spanish Civil War in the records, although Ernie's son-in-law Clarrie Beckingham was one of the main Brisbane organisers of CPA-backed campaigns to support Republican Spain in the Civil War. I suspect Ernie did attend meetings after 1925, but it is hard to find records of that.

Dawn to Dusk is a bitter book. Ernie was still very bitter about the Labor leaders who had betrayed the movement. So the ‘social fascist’ label, though outdated, suited Ernie’s strong emotional reaction against the traitors and careerists, many of whom he had known well.

You also have to remember that the Communist Party in Australia was not quite the Stalinist monolith it was in countries more in Moscow's eye. In Queensland, even in the 1930s, CPAers tended to run their own show, and CPA statements could often be at odds with each other, with different versions from different leading people. Amidst this confusion, the language of social fascism lived on.

It is difficult to get into Ernie's mind on issues like the Moscow Trials and the cult of Stalin, because the archives do not contain much that he wrote in that period, other than his work for the Daily Standard and Courier-Mail, mostly reports of local trade-union matters. There are some letters to Ted Brady [an old comrade of Ernie's] from that period, which give you a general idea that Ernie believed that with the growth of the CPA in the 1930s, communism was on the up.

Ernie had been involved in, or tried to form, lots of socialist groups which, as he saw it, could exert pressure on the labour movement to keep it true to the socialist path. They had all come and gone, risen and collapsed. So we shouldn't underestimate how impressive the growth of the CPA in the 1930s would have seemed to him. The CPA was growing, it had led important struggles, in the unions it was a force to be reckoned with. The Party’s success seemed to vindicate his own life of socialist activism. And he would have been flattered by the attention he got from the CPA as a “socialist pioneer”.

I don't think Ernie would have had contact with Trotskyists, or left critical perspectives on the USSR, even though the Trotskyist Nick Origlass was in Brisbane in the mid-30s as a construction worker on the Walter Taylor Bridge.

Your book mentions that the writings of Shelley and William Morris helped win Ernie to socialism. What other writing do you think most influenced him?

He was a huge reader. One of his columns in the Daily Standard paraphrases the Communist Manifesto. In his early years he read a lot of anarchist literature. His granddaughter Iris still has some of his books - Shelley, other poets, socialist novels, Kropotkin's Mutual Aid. In Dawn to Dusk Ernie reprinted the 1913 booklist of the AWA [the union he was then active in: the top four texts on the list were The Soul of Man under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde; My Country Right or Wrong, by Gustave Hervé; Studies in Socialism, by Jean Jaurès; and Fabian Essays on Socialism].

But after he returned from Paraguay I think the single biggest written influence on him was Kerrs' International Socialist Review.

Ernie Lane, 1868-1954

1887: influenced by Shelley, William Morris, and his older brother William, Ernie becomes a socialist. He is a teenager recently arrived in Brisbane from England.

1888-9: active with Australian Socialist League in Sydney.

1889-90: works as a labourer in California.

1890-6: returns to Australia, active in support of big strikes of those years.

1896-7: becomes founding secretary of Queensland Socialist League, which aims to be an educational outrider for Labor Party (founded 1891). It collapses when Lane leaves Brisbane in 1897-8 to find work in rural Queensland.

1900: becomes founding secretary of Social Democratic Vanguard, a group with aims similar to QSL but larger.

Early 1903: goes to Paraguay with his family to join utopian communist colony set up by his brother William. The colony collapses in late 1904; Ernie gets a job in a meat works near Buenos Aires, where he takes part in a mass strike.

1907: returns to Brisbane; becomes SDV secretary again in 1909; becomes active in a general union, the AWA, which will later merge into the AWU (Australian Workers' Union, long Australia's biggest general union) and in the AWA Literature Committee, which circulates socialist pamphlets, especially from the USA.

1912: takes part in Brisbane general strike (in solidarity with tram workers sacked for wearing union badges).

1915: becomes columnist for Daily Standard, paper established by unions following 1912 strike.

1916-7: leading activist in anti-conscription campaign.

1918: one of the first in Australia boldly to endorse the Bolshevik revolution; but Ernie does not join the Communist Party of Australia when it is founded in 1920. He remains active in the Australian Labor Party, in the AWU, in the One Big Union movement, and through his Daily Standard column.

1925: leaves the Labor Party in protest at its exclusion of Communists, and around the same time loses his positions in the AWU.

1931: sacked from the Daily Standard; becomes an industrial reporter for the mainstream local capitalist paper, the Courier-Mail.

1937: dropped from Courier-Mail.

1939: publishes an autobiography, Dawn to Dusk. The now-Stalinist Communist Party of Australia promotes the book, and from 1939 to his death in 1954 Ernie has an occasional collaboration with the CPA.

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