Tony Laffan, Good Work at Westy: the Socialist Labor Party on the Northern Coalfields 1901-1921

Hall Greenland

Tony Laffan: Good Work at Westy: the Socialist Labor Party on the Northern Coalfields 1901-1921, Toiler Publications, P.O. Box 235 Singleton NSW 2330. $10.00, including postage.

It is doubtful whether the American Marxist Daniel De Leon, whose local disciples are the subject of Tony Laffan’s monograph, will ever get the New Yorker treatment like C.L.RJames did in the July 29, 1995 issue – a full page photo and four pages of revelations and gush. The West Indian legend, it must be said, is the more enchanting subject – friend of Windies batting legend Learie Constantine, respected cricket commentator, literary critic, leading activist for Caribbean and African independence, as well as Trotskyist and revolutionary Marxist. Yet De Leon was a more significant figure in terms of his influence and impact on the Labor movement.

The Socialist Labor Party, which he founded, was briefly a force in the IWW and the most important socialist group in various classically proletarian districts of Britain (principally the Clyde in Scotland) in the first two decades of the century. His party also had significant outposts in Australia – in Sydney and in the small town of West Wallsend in the Hunter Valley in NSW.

Tony Laffan recounts the story of the latter band of brothers, almost all of whom were coal miners. The SLP creed was strict, insisting on industrial unionism and full socialism or nothing, and pitted them against the prevailing craft unions and Labor Party of their time. The West Wallsenders embraced the cause with enduring enthusiasm. Laffan recounts how their SLP branch became a centre not only for political agitation and propaganda, but their social life and their intense self-education.

Readers will chose their own favourites from this bunch of sectarian enthusiasts. Mine are Joe Charlton and Maud Woodbury. Joe was a principled opponent of the imperialist war who was expelled from his lodge (and his job) at the Aberdare mine in 1915 – such was the strength of war fever – and forced to go to the IIIawarra to earn his I iving, but was then restored in triumph to his lodge and job in 1918 when the tide of opinion turned against the slaughter. Maud, a cripple who lived with her sister who ran a boarding house in nearby Cessnock, was a journalist, poet and activist. She was writing a column called ‘Revolutionary Love Letters’ for the miners, paper, Common Cause, in 1920 when she was expelled from the SLP “over a disagreement on the social role of inventors”, in Laffan’s words. Unfortunately the specialist focus of Laffan’s story does not allow him to tell us what became of Charlton and Woodbury.

From 1909 onwards the SLP comrades in both the Hunter. and Sydney were involved semi-permanently in union and political campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of people. These were ‘storming the heavens times’ around the world. The second decade of the century was the most politically challenging since 1848, and this was no less true of Australia than elsewhere. The SLPers were up to their proverbial necks in the Peter Bowling strike, the resistance to ‘boy’ conscription, the IWW clubs, anti-war agitation, debates at mass meetings with Labor leaders and fellow sectarians, union referenda, the anti-conscription and anti-recruitment campaigns, the 1917 general strike, the OBU, the Industrial Labor Party, and major strikes in the coal industry.

In these struggles the clear implication of Laffan’s account is that the West Wall senders began as spokesmen for a substantial minority and became popular local leaders. Faced with the choice of continued loyalty to their sect or accepting the logic of their situation, which meant leadership positions in their craft union (as the miners’ federation was), they chose the later and were expelled by their purist Sydney comrades led by the inflexible and indefatigable Ernie Judd.

The virtue of Laffan’s pamphlet is that it quite effortlessly interweaves the issues of the times into his narrative. He has a particularly impressive grasp of the operations of the coal industry and how the miners sought to impose their political economy on its operations. As far as miners were concerned, the industry suffered from over-capacity which resulted in boom and bust and periodic unemployment The essence of their industrial action was to limit that over-capacity, particularly by abolishing two shift operation at the biggest and most efficient mines and shortening the working day. The contemporary relevance of that kind of thinking, as we face the monstrous social inequalities and ecological disasters of unrestricted market capitalism, is obvious.

What is equally obvious to the reader at the end of the century is how critically anaemic, in terms of democratic debate, the current Labor movement really is, compared to the decades covered by Laffan’s work. Whether this is a terminal condition intimating the an age where all the old institutions and certainties are being undone remains to be seen, and this raises the question of whether the Labor Party can survive in this post-modern world. Laffan’s monograph, in looking at the failure of sects like the SLP, underscores the extraordinary tenacity of working people’s attachment to the party they formed at the end of last century. Yet if this movement of workers’ selfdetermination (and how else can the unions and their party be defined?) is to successfully revive, then a strong dose of the spirit of the second decade of the century will be needed.