A LONG VIEW FROM THE LEFT

 by Max Ogden

Bad Apple Press, 2020

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08LVBZZN5

RRP: $32.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Keith Harvey

 

A Long View From The Left, subtitled: “From the CPA to the ALP, a lifetime of fighting for Australian workers’ rights by unionist and Communist Party of Australia (CPA) activist Max Ogden makes many excellent observations about unionism and various attempts to improve the working life of employees. It also has some perceptive ideas about the industrial and political representation of working people today.

But this memoir also has a glaring omission: any proper consideration of the human cost of the Communist movement to which Max Ogden devoted 25 years or more of his life.

Ogden was born in Melbourne in 1938. His father was a depression-era member of the CPA. In 1954, at age 16, Max Ogden entered the workforce as a fitting and turning apprentice at the former State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV). He joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) one of Australia’s largest Communist dominated unions, later to be known as the AMWU, where he met and worked with well-known union officials who were also CPA members – in particular, Laurie Carmichael (who became AEU/AMWU Assistant National Secretary and, later, Assistant Secretary of the ACTU) and John Halfpenny (AMWU Victorian Branch Secretary and later Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary).

Ogden joined the CPA’s youth organisation known as the Eureka Youth League (EYL) and in 1959 joined the CPA itself, rising by 1967 to become a member of the CPA’s National Executive. Max Ogden was not a bystander in the activities of the Communist Party.

Moreover, Ogden had multiple opportunities to travel overseas to Communist countries from a particularly early age. In 1959 he was selected to travel to the World Festival of Youth and Students – essentially a Soviet Union inspired and controlled front organisation. The Australian delegation travelled to Vienna for this conference via Communist China where it spent a month being feted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Ogden himself notes, at this time China was in the throes of the so-called “Great Leap Forward” in which Mao was determined to overtake the West in industrial production in just 15 years.

 

Great leap Forward

This program involved both forced collectivisation of the peasant farmers into State-run farms and a rapid increase in steel production. The latter was to be achieved not by large-scale industrialisation on the Soviet model but by turning peasants and others into small scale iron and steel producers throughout the country. Ogden notes that in time the Great Leap Forward would be considered to be a “disaster”, “but it was very difficult to see this at the time”. The delegation, he said, formed the view that the small-scale iron and steel production would not be of any use and that they noted small fires burning all over a mountain as they entered Wuhan.

The so-called Great Leap Forward was more than a “disaster” and the main problem was not that the iron and steel produced was not useful. Rather, it was an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in which somewhere between 32 and 45 million Chinese people died through starvation and State killings. The latter figure is most likely to be correct. These deaths resulted from policies imposed by the Chinese Communist Party – through land collectivisation, the diversion of agricultural labour into useless industrial production, the decimation of the environment (burning of trees and other combustibles to run the furnaces, etc etc) melting down of household and agricultural implements to “make steel” and killings to enforce these economically insane policies.

The human impact of these policies has never been acknowledged by the Chinese Communist Party – the years 1958-62 are simply referred to as years of natural disaster, while they were, in reality, a totally CCP-made humanitarian disaster on an enormous scale. [i]

Apart from the minor references noted above, this memoir does not mention the shocking realities of the events occurring in China as this group of Western political pilgrims passed through.

Elsewhere in the memoir there is some muted criticism of Josef Stalin, including a comment on the frequency with which photos of the Soviet leader appeared in pro-Soviet magazines that were seen in the Ogden household. But again, the number of images of Stalin in a magazine is not an issue when you consider the human toll of Stalinism – also numbered in the tens of millions.

 

Stalinism

“Stalinism” does come in for criticism in the memoir, as the CPA in Australia tried to steer a middle course towards communism, particularly after the 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. After the Sino-Soviet split, a smaller pro-Beijing Communist Party split from the CPA, followed later by an openly pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) led by building unionist Tom Clancy. Interestingly, Ogden condemns the Maoists at Monash University for their disruptive activities and their threats turn the Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations in the early 1970s into violent protests.

However, it might also be worth reflecting on the fact that Max Ogden joined the CPA in 1959, three years after the Soviet repression of the uprising in Hungary against Communist rule and Soviet domination of the country. Although Stalin had died in 1953, Stalinism was alive and well in 1959. Many CPA members left the party in disgust after 1956, others after 1968.

Ogden was able to visit the Soviet Union again in 1965 following a failed attempt at holding another World Festival of Youth and Students in Algeria. Ogden and his wife were to be part of the team spending several months helping to organise this conference. (Who paid for all this is not revealed.) The conference collapsed when there was a coup d’état in Algeria. Invited to visit the Soviet Union again, Ogden and his wife spent three weeks touring the USSR visiting workplaces and other places.

They noted that the conditions in workplaces they visited were not impressive but when they raised this, they were given a Party-line response – “a bit of a cop out”, Ogden says. However, “at the end of our visit we concluded things were not too bad…”.

In 1967, Laurie Carmichael was about to make his first trip to the Soviet Union and he sought advice from Ogden, who had been there twice by this time. “What should I expect?”, Carmichael asked him. “Whatever you do, don’t believe a word they say until you have asked plenty of questions. They tend to bullshit”, Ogden replied.

Ogden ended up joining the same trip and later Carmichael told him: “Brother, you’re right. They’ve been trying to bullshit me. I had to ask some hard questions before I got real answers, and they haven’t put anything over me”.

Two responses come to mind in respect to this exchange. Firstly, why would anyone be interested in a system/country/party in which your hosts just want to “bullshit” you? Secondly, and I say this having known and worked with Laurie Carmichael – he had a good and intelligent mind – that this either represents total naivety that “real answers” would ever be given, or it implies complicity on Carmichael’s behalf in the Soviet propaganda system.

To be fair to Max Ogden, he writes that it was because of this trip that he decided that it would be his last trip to the Soviet Union, although he remained in the CPA until 1984 – another 17 years. In that time, the CPA did try to distance itself from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) particularly as a result of the suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968.

 

Regrets? I’ve had a few…

Towards the end of the book, Max Ogden asks himself the question as to whether he regretted joining the Communist Party (he left it in 1984 along with others, later joining the ALP, the Socialist Forum and later the ALP Socialist Left faction).

He answers that he never regretted being a member of the Party that enabled him to work with “many wonderful people”. But he also says that “with the hindsight of the previous 60 years, maybe they [the Communist parties] should not have been formed”. Ogden also says that “communist parties in most countries did a lot of good things through the 20th century, especially during the Great Depression…They were prominent in the anti-war and anti-Nazi movements in the thirties, and right through to the eighties. While 6000 Australian Communist Party members joined the forces to fight the Second World War, those members who stayed at home worked with the Government to increase productivity and efficiency for the war effort”.

It is not clear what countries Ogden is referring to here but again there is a serious omission in this brief justification for membership of communist parties. When the Second World War broke out, the CPA – and other similar parties around the world – attacked the war as an imperialist war. This was, of course, because of the Soviet-Nazi “Non-Aggression” Pact in which Stalin and Hitler did a deal to carve up Poland between them. It was only after Hitler reneged on the deal and attacked the Soviet Union that the war effort became popular with Communists.

And here lies the problem with western Communist Parties of most descriptions: they have slavishly followed the foreign policy lines of Moscow (or Beijing). They were not “anti-war” or pro-peace or anti-nuclear – they just did whatever their political masters told them to and followed every twist and turn of Moscow’s foreign policy.

Even though the CPA began to distance itself from the USSR in 1967/8, CPA members and even ex CPA members still supported pro-Moscow policies. John Halfpenny, who left the CPA before Max Ogden (in 1979) and joined the ALP (in 1982) was instrumental in seeking to implement foreign policies supported by the Soviet Union as recently as the 1980s – for example the creation of a “nuclear-free” Pacific – through continued affiliation by left-wing unions with the pro-Soviet World Federation of Trade Unions based in Prague and support for its anti-western activities in the Pacific. [ii]

Ultimately however, Ogden concludes:

As my experience grew and I read a lot more, I concluded that over the last 150 years the far left have done a lot of harm to progressive movements…Over 100 years ago, Lenin wrote an important small book entitled Leftism – An infantile Disorder. Unfortunately, his own party didn’t take heed of it and that disorder is still with us, but it is well past the infantile stage.

This reviewer would not be quoting Vladimir Lenin on anything, but Ogden is correct in many ways. One of the problems of the left (and Ogden specifically includes the Greens in this criticism) is the taking of “purist” or extreme positions that are unlikely ever to win support from workers (or anyone else for that matter).

Having the fundamentally anti-democratic Communist parties on its left flank has hindered the ability of the ALP to adopt policies with broad appeal. But even this is not the main criticism of Communism – its ultimate offence is the crimes against humanity that it committed in the name of socialism – whether in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia or Cuba. In “most countries” at most times Communism has been a brutal totalitarian dictatorship – and its worst victims have often been the working classes.

Giving aid and comfort to regimes that had neither the best interests of workers at heart nor the interests of Australia and Australians should, in this reviewer’s opinion, be the biggest cause for regret for CPA activists.

 

Unionism

On the positive side of the ledger, Ogden’s interest in unionism, workers and the way in which work is performed was and is still genuine. Fortunately, he became much more interested in the Nordic models of “strategic” unionism, trade union education, social democracy and work organisation than in the Soviet communist model. In these areas, he made a significant contribution and has worthwhile observations to make about his experience. Many of his conclusions are correct in my view.

Ogden became one of the first full time trade union education officials within the trade union movement. Even in the AMWU there was some hostility initially to the idea of training shop stewards and other honorary officials. Ogden was elected as the VTHC representative on the National Council of the newly established Trade Union Training Authority in 1976 (your reviewer was his deputy). TUTA had been legislated in the dying days of the Whitlam Government and continued under the Fraser Government with some changes.

In 1978, Ogden again spent time abroad, this time in part in Sweden where he was further introduced to the ways of Swedish unionism and “social partnership” with the employers and governments. This influenced his thinking and approach significantly and permanently – and much more so than anything he saw on the same trip in East Germany and, for that matter in Yugoslavia where worker self-management was supposed to operate. He concluded that the Yugoslav model did not work. The Swedish model was more attractive.

 

The Prices and Incomes Accord – the unknown history?

In 1982, the year before the Hawke ALP government was elected, Ogden says he was having a beer with then ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Kelty. Ogden says that Kelty showed him a draft of what was to become the Prices and Incomes Accord between the ACTU and the ALP Government to be headed by Bob Hawke. Ogden says that he liked the strategic approach of the Accord and discussed the issue with Bernie Taft, a senior CPA figure. Taft agreed with the strategy and wanted the CPA to support the idea. Ogden writes:

We invited Bill Kelty to explain the proposal to a meeting of communist union officials in Melbourne. About ten of us gathered in the front room of our house and discussed the idea for about three hours, after which we agreed that the idea was worth pursuing.

Ogden says that the idea went next to a meeting of the national committee of the CPA but there was no consensus. Laurie Aarons and Laurie Carmichael were not supportive. Ogden says he and Taft held a further private meeting with Carmichael at the end of which Carmichael was onside. With Carmichael’s support, the Accord won the support of nearly all the left-wing unions. Ogden claims a leading role in achieving this for himself and Taft.

 

Making capitalism work?

At an earlier stage, such cooperation with any government and proposals to build national industry development plans with employers coming from anyone else in the union movement would have been loudly howled down as “making capitalism work!” These words reverberated loudly around the various State trades and labour councils and ACTU Congresses many times over the years.

Now, the CPA was cooperating to make capitalism function better rather than looking to overthrow it. These were strange times. Laurie Carmichael later visited Sweden himself. Part of the mechanisms of the Accord were the development of industry plans, for example in the manufacturing sector and the food industry. Ogden played a key role in this work.

Both Carmichael and Ogden left the AMWU and worked at the ACTU: Carmichael as an influential Assistant Secretary to Kelty. Later again, Carmichael was appointed by the Hawke Government to chair the influential Employment and Skills Formation Council (EFSC) of the National Board of Employment Education and Training (NBEET) which brought together all the key education and training advisory bodies. In Carmichael’s time as ESFC chair (your reviewer was also a member of the ESFC at this time), the EFSC produced a major report looking to reform the way vocational training was delivered in Australia.

Ogden, among others on the left, had come to the view that “management was too important to be left to managers”. There is some merit in this view as well since Australian management has been criticised by many (and not just in the union movement) for being of a poor standard.

Ogden worked, as he well describes in this memoir, with several unions and companies looking to improve the performance of those companies. This was done, as he says, often in the face of opposition from union officials who did not see this work as important or part of a union’s proper role. Much of this work followed the ACTU’s 1987 Australia Reconstructed report following a mission of union officials to Europe.

This part of the memoir tends to be depressing (both for the author and the reader) as initiative after initiative founders on the short sightedness both of unions more concerned with demarcation and “territory” and employers who frequently abandoned these projects which were designed improve work opportunities, productivity, and employment security through the firms becoming more efficient and competitive. After the defeat of the Keating Government in 1996, the incoming Howard Government had little interest in keeping cooperative approaches involving unions and the idea has largely vanished from public policy discussions.

 

What does it all mean?

This is the title of the last Chapter of Max Ogden’s memoir. Your reviewer surprisingly finds himself in agreement with many of the author’s conclusions, including:

  • Defending and expanding liberal, parliamentary democracy is important; democracy cannot be built by undemocratic means; democratic rights are universal (and therefore must apply everywhere, including in allegedly “socialist” countries like China)
  • A socialist society of any sort is not possible in Australia “…for generations. Our best hope is a democracy something akin to the Nordic countries…”
  • “…many left [wing] ALP members, especially in the union movement, expressed their appreciation over the years of the CPA’s role in presenting clear, strategic, long-term ideas which they took a lead from.” [emphasis added]
  • Enterprise bargaining was a “strategic mistake” by the union movement and has been a factor in union membership decline. Industry wide strategies must have their place especially in delivering productivity improvements. Productive, efficient workplaces are good for workers. Unions must be an important element of improved business and productivity performance. Dialogue with employers is important.
  • Cooperatives are a “missed opportunity. Co-ops should feature more significantly in the overall strategic thinking of the Australian labour movement”. Here Ogden refers to the example of the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque region of Spain. Like your reviewer, Ogden says that he has visited Mondragon once. He does not mention that the Mondragon co-operative movement was started by a Catholic priest and is firmly based on Catholic social justice principles – a far cry and a philosophical world away from the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the CPA. But Ogden is right: he was interested in industrial democracy – and Mondragon provides an outstanding example of worker ownership and control.
  • Unions should not be affiliated to the ALP. This is a controversial approach given the history of the industrial and political wings of the labour movement, but Ogden makes a good case for breaking the nexus. It could strengthen the union movement and minimise factionalism and careerism centred only around ALP preselection contests. Middle class issues have come to dominate the ALP, he argues, and the ALP has lost contact with much of its union base and the working classes more broadly.

There are other things in Ogden’s conclusions that your reviewer could agree with. He comes to similar positions in some key respects to those in my own memoir,[iii] although we came from opposite ends of the labour political spectrum. If the adage is true “it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you end that is important”, then Ogden’s journey is an interesting one and the place he has arrived at has little resemblance to his point of departure.

The regret, however, is that the true human cost of the policies and regimes supported by the CPA and other left-wing parties and forces have not been adequately acknowledged along the way.

 

Keith Harvey’s memoir, Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior, is published by Connor Court Publishing, 2021. A review by Michael Danby can be found here: https://thesydneyinstitute.com.au/blog/taking-on-the-left-a-lonely-long-distance-struggle/

 

ENDNOTE

[i] For the best attempts to account for the human toll of the Great Leap Forward see: Jasper Beck, Hungry Ghosts, China’s Secret famine, (John Murray, 1996), especially Chapter 18 How Many Died?; Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao, The Unknown Story, (Jonathon Cape, 2005 at pp 456-7) and Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great famine, the history of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1968-1962, (Bloomsbury, 2010, Chapter 37, the Final tally).

[ii] See Keith Harvey, Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior, Connor Court Publishing, 2021, Chapter 6.

[iii] Ibid