Obituary: Nick Origlass (1908-1996)

Issy Wyner

Nick Origlass, left activist, expellee of renown, Balmain legend and former mayor of Leichhardt, died in Sydney on 17 May, aged 88. Born in Woodstock, North Queensland, in 1908, Nick joined the Communist Party in 1931, but was expelled soon afterwards. During World War 2 he became a Federated lronworkers’ delegate at Mort’s Dock. Balmain, and with Issy Wyner and others was a central figure in the Balmain Ironworkers’ strike of 1945 which marked the beginning of the end of Communist control of the Federated Ironworkers. Expelled from the union twice – first by the communists, then by the groupers – he joined the ALP and, in 1958, was elected to Leichhard Council. A decade latter, with his comrade, Issy Wyner, he was expelled from the Lahor Party, but both were subsequently re-elected to Council as ‘Independent Labor’ candidates. As mayor of Leichhardt, Nick championed the cause open government. The following is the text of the oration delivered by Issy Wyner at Nick’s funeral, held on 21 May, last.

Nick Origlass has left us, and with his leaving, a sense of irredeemable loss engulfs us. The lamp to our feet has gone. It is as though the world of progressive thought and ideals has lost a beacon beckoning towards the new society for which we yearn. It is as though the world has come to a standstill, uncertain of the way forward.

In expressing our deepest sympathy to his wife, Joan, and son, Peter, and all his family, we are saddened at his eventual succumbing to more than twelve months of harrowing and destructive illnesses, from which his eventual demise released him. An uncomplaining stoic throughout his long and, almost certainly, agonising ordeal of cancer … we are left to wonder how one human being withstood it all for so long.

What I have to say today, is my poor effort at paying homage to one who, in my view, was an intellectual giant, standing head and shoulders above all the modern so-called thinkers, philosophers, economists, politicians, who, temporarily, are able to dredge up, and give effect to, outmoded, reactionary and dangerous theses on society and to be hailed as great innovators.

Nick Origlass and I have been mates for some sixty years. When I say mates, I mean not only on a personal level, but as close associates in politics, unionism and local government where we have striven for the underdog; for the unprivileged and the underprivileged; for the exploited and the oppressed; and against exploitation of every kind, in all its capitalist and imperialist forms and especially those which endanger the earth and its peoples.

He could see further, deeper, and with greater understanding than any other person I have known, including Jack Sylvester, the first person to influence me in political understanding in my youth.

I do not have the words to express all that I feel in losing Nick. His demise is part of the depressing shroud that has been flung over Australia by those who, for the time being, sit in the seats of power and crazily seek to turn back the clock by 100 years in their wild rampage against unionism, democracy, humanitarianism, egalitarianism.

He read widely in English and French and with a comprehension and appreciation of events and viewpoints that lesser humans could not grasp. Nothing was totally useless to read – there was always something of value in every piece of writing and he usually he could find that valuable morsel.

He was, in my view, a giant among the pygmies who professed ownership of all political and social wisdom, in the scope of his knowledge, his assessment of events, his expression of ideas, and in a political integrity and honesty that is absent among so-called leaders in society today. To me, he was, and remains, a genuine eminent person. He seemed to have a third-dimensional power to see further around a subject, to grasp its essentials, and to offer solutions.

He insisted on a form of openness, frankness, and honesty in all his dealings with people. He rejected proposals to “go into committee”, to deal clandestinely with issues. There could never be genuine democracy, genuine freedom of expression, without that basic tenet, and his life was dedicated to achieving that genuine democracy in every sphere of human endeavour. He was impatient with elitists, the know-ails, the claimants to a wisdom they clearly did not possess, the pundits and oracles who profess to know what is best for the people, for humanity.

There was courage, tenacity and obstinacy when it came to pressing for a well-thought-out decision. But, there was also understanding and appreciation of the weakness of others who were unable to grasp what he patiently and persistently, and in detail, put forward. Nothing tried the patience of lesser types so much as his inquisitorial pressing for more and more information and his insistence in pursuing every facet of a subject before he would offer an opinion.

He was never too busy to deal with other people’s problems, at all hours of the day or night or weekends, regardless of his own personal needs, interruptions to meals, to sleep, to study. Always, he was available to listen and to discuss issues and possible solutions and then to pursue what had to be done.

As a speaker, he commanded respect and appreciation. In his hey day, he was a most convincing platform speaker and mob orator and debater. There was a charisma about him that held his audience’s close attention.

His written work is not enshrined in great published tomes that stand on bookshelves in homes and libraries, but it resides in his never-ending writing on social, political and industrial matters which appeared in the monthly publications which we produced over many years: The Socialist, About Labor’s Problems, Labor Forward, The Rising Tide, and International, all titles which he had selected as indicative of the task for which the periodicals were produced and for all of which he was the editor and lead writer.

And later when these publications faded out, he continued to present his views, his ideas, his theses, in a constant flow of letters to the press, documents for conferences on social, political, industrial and municipal themes; resolutions, Mayoral minutes and proposals of various kinds for council meetings; submissions to Senate and other inquiries; translations from the French of large documents from overseas dealing with the latest trends in genuine socialist thought and action.

He had a phenomenal memory replete with quotations from Shakespeare, Australian and other poetry, and the classics, as well as the writings of early and modem political figures. It may truly be said that with Nick’s death, a great library has disappeared.

Nick could, and often did, quote from the early poets who had given expression in one form of another to the visions of the future, or opposition to the-powers-that-be. Such as Shelley in his “Queen Mab”:

his age of endless peace,
Which time is fast maturing,
Will swiftly, surely come,
And the unbounded frame, which thou pervadest,
Will be without a flaw
Marring its perfect symmetry.

Or Aristophanes’ anti-war plays, particularly his Lysystrata, who organised the women to “refrain from the male altogether” as a form of anti-war strike.

In a huge mass of documents, pamphlets and booklets, lies the profound wisdom of a man dedicated unswervingly to setting humanity on the path to the perfect society – the society in which, as Trotsky so clearly stated it,

the average human being will approximate to a Marx, a Goethe or an Aristotle, and above that plateau new peaks will rise.

The words of Tennyson, too, are surely apt:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that could be.

His energy and drive, his persistence against odds, was almost legendary. In Kipling’s words, he filled

… the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run ….

We both had a short stint in the Communist Party during the Depression, but very soon became aware of the evils of Stalinism, including the wiping out of a whole generation of those who had established the Soviet regime. Trotsky was among the few who escaped the Stalinist holocaust until struck down by Stalin’s henchmen in 1939. But his work and his ideals were carried on by others throughout the world, including the group formed in Australia, for which Nick became guide and mentor.

The young German activist, Bahro, wrote recently that Socialism was a form of society which had yet to be tried, and the strange grotesques in Russia, China and elsewhere were far removed from that utopia on earth. This was the view of the of the Australian group.

Later, we joined the ALP in the birthplace of the Labor Party, Balmain. We remained for many years as members of the Labor Party until expelled for daring to side with the people against a benighted caucus which insisted in allowing a dangerous chemical tank farm to be established in a close-knit residential area.

It was during our years in the ALP that the Party arranged for a great debate among the Branches within a number of State Electorates. None of the Branches in our Electorate wanted to be represented in the competition, so Nick and I volunteered. The judges voted us the best two-man team in the debate which was held in the Drummoyne Council Chambers.

After our expulsion from the ALP, we formed our own party, the Balmain-Leichhardt Labor Party, under the slogan “People Come First”. In coalition with the Campaign for a Better Council group on Leichhardt Council we established that great step forward on the road to genuine democracy, the Open Council, with Nick as Mayor for two of the three years of its existence.

In his lifetime, Nick achieved something which is not commemorated in bronze or stone. Rather it resides in the knowledge and memory of the many generations who have witnessed and learned of the essence of democracy and fighting for the worthwhile things in life, as demonstrated through our involvement in a variety of struggles over more than sixty years: for egalitarianism in every sphere of life, for protection of the environment and the ecology, for people’s right to participate in decision-making that affects their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Much of this found expression in Nick’s major struggle against the Stalinist rulers of the Ironworkers’ union in the 1940’s, who had decreed not only that Nick was no longer permitted to represent the workers who elected him because he advised them to go on strike, but, also, that those workers were obliged to accept representatives appointed by the union executive. That fight led to his reinstatement as the workers’ delegate and the eventual ousting of the arrogant, ruthless and dictatorial so-called leadership of the union. That fight taught most observers the importance of defending workers’ rights, of guaranteeing workers’ democratic expressions of their needs and aspirations, of standing up fearlessly against oppressors.

It is important, too, to note another side of Nick’s character, when, during this struggle, he was obliged to trade blows with one Stalinist official, who happened to have had some training in boxing, outside the Mort’s Dock gates, and to have come off best in the encounter.

This union scene was translated to the municipal scene where the Open Council threw open Council meetings and Committee meetings, and where Nick as Mayor, invited the people to take part in discussion on matters seriously affecting them. Here, too, was the same lesson that people’s rights must be respected, that genuine democracy could not exist without such respect and that people must be consulted and allowed to participate in decision-making.

Nick Origlass believed, with a boundless fervour and dedication, in the eventual triumph of the people over the evils accumulated and distilled over past centuries into what we now regard as modem capitalism; in the certainty that humanity will overcome the barbarians, the mass destroyers, the wreckers of the potential for advancement whether fascist or Stalinist; to the eventual end of a social system which can tolerate what Maxim Gorky described as “Mountains of gold out of seas of human blood”; and in the certainty that the people would soon set their feet firmly and unswervingly on the road to a society that knows no bounds in human endeavour and achievement.

The society of abundance and peace for the free and equal peoples of the world has not so far existed, except in the minds of the great utopians and the scientific thinkers who followed them.

Nick, in his 89th year, outlived by some three months an international figure for whom he had the greatest admiration. In February, this year, Michel Raptis, generally known as Pablo, died at the age of 83. He was one who had the ear of a Greek Prime Minister and leaders of other European and North African countries and who, as his close comrade, Gilbert Marquis described him, “…has contributed the most theoretically to the genuine content of socialism… he taught us to struggle for the self-management republic of free men and women.” Nick was pleased to have had the opportunity, when he went overseas some years ago, of meeting Pablo.

Farewell, Nick, comrade in many political and industrial battles, fighter in countless causes, embodiment of political honesty and integrity, warm family man and friend. Unlike Hamlet, you suffered both “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and you took “arms against a sea of troubles”. May your going be seen, not as a defeat, but as an unquenchable light still guiding the way towards the new, yet-untested socialist society. Intellectually, you bestrode our “narrow world like a colossus”. We shall not see your like again. We salute your memory and your greatness. Vale.