Jock Garden: A Reassessment

Paul Tracey

Jock Garden was undoubtedly one of the most influential and controversial figures in the NSW labour movement between the two world wars. In thefollowing piece, Paul Tracey offers a reassessment of Garden’s role in developments in the NSW labour movement during the turbulent inter-war years.

John Smith (Jock) Garden was a prominent socialist leader in one of Australia’s most turbulent political and industrial periods – the 1910s to 1930s. Garden’s early aversion to capitalism was informed by religious rather than ideological doctrines but he moved into radical politics to free humanity from want and war. Operating within or alongside the NSW Labor Council, the ALP, the Communist Party and the ACTU, qarden organised the industrial left against the upsurge in political’ conservatism and reaction which followed World War I. This is an account of Garden’s career and causes; his influence and influences; and his contribution to Australian political life.

Born in 1882, Garden was the younger son of a Baptist family living a meagre life in a small fishing village in Scotland. A long absence by his father further impoverished the family, forcing his mother to do washing and domestic work for others. Leaving school at 13, Garden found work as an apprentice sailmaker and sought personal meaning in evangelistic literature, the Church of Christ and the Mutual Improvement Society. Garden soon developed a socialist outlook based on his Christian ethics. Faced with poor employment and living prospects when he finished his indentures, in 1904 he joined most of his family in emigrating to Australia under the sponsorship of his already successfully settled brother. He arrived in Sydney with clear expectations of starting a better life.

Sydney suited Garden admirably. He found work in his trade and he assisted in saving souls by preaching, conducting Sunday schools and performing home missionary work in the poor inner suburbs for the Church of Christ. By 1907 he had married and had accepted. a position of full-time but poorly paid evangelist in the small town of Harcourt, Victoria. To advance his ministering career, he left Harcourt in 1908 and became a bible student in Melbourne where he evidently became more interested in working class politics.

In 1909 he was appointed Baptist pastor at Maclean, NSW, and it was here that he joined both the Clerks’ Union and the ALP. For various financial reasons Garden eventually resigned his pastorate and returned, with his growing family, to Paddington.

The Paddington that Garden returned to was a Sydney suburb that had enjoyed its heyday between the 1860s and I 890s. Its three large storey terraces had been built for Sydney’s wealthy merchants and professionals. By Garden’s time, however, slum accommodation had been added and Paddington had become the province of working class families who clung to inner city areas in order to be close to work opportunities. These people epitomised Sydney’s urban poor. Almost wholly rent-payers, the family breadwinners suffered regular unemployment, and even the largest families were huddled together in single rooms with shared facilities. Many families shifted regularly to escape landlords or in search of cheaper accommodation. Garden, now back at his trade and occasionally working as a tram conductor, became an accepted member of this working class community. As an evangelist, he spread hope and encouragement and shared their frustration, anguishes and tragedies. In 1911 the Gardens experienced personal tragedy themselves when their youngest child was burned to death in her bed. As a socialist, Garden realised that the poverty, tragedy, sickness, alcoholism and despair that engulfed working class communities could not be healed by religious zeal but only by means of political and industrial action. He looked towards the Labor State and Federal governments for answers, but he found them wanting. In an age where Labor’s leaders moved sharply to the political right, Garden found himself moving in the opposite direction – towards the industrial syndicalist views of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

The IWW, based on the One Big Union theories of Daniel De Leon and championed by American militant trade unions, arrived in Australia early in the century to join Fabianism, Chartism, Marxism and Leninism as the philosophies behind of Australia’s internally diverse and divided socialist movement. As the party of ‘electoral’ reform, the ALP, built and based on a now strongly growing trade union movement, accommodated within its ranks socialists as well as many single issue exponents such as Irish nationals and land reformers. From 1905, the ALP’s official objectives were a ‘mixture of nationalism, xenophobia and Fabian socialism’ and focussed Labor on White Australia, the need for defences against the ‘Asian hordes’ and notions of government enterprise and social welfare. Labor was a ‘gradualist’ reform party which operated within the established parliamentary system. Its electoral successes in the early 1910s were promoted as clea~ evidence that organised labour could obtain a peaceful transfer of power.

Garden was not only impatient with this ‘gradualism’ but increasingly unimpressed with Labor’s nationalistic objectives. He was much closer to the poverty and hopelessness of working class Sydney than the politician~and much more in tune with the IWW aspirations of peace and internationalism.

As a pacifist Garden was shaken by Labor’s growing commitment to militarism, which included compulsory military training, conscription for service within Australia and the building up of Australia’s defence capabilities. Fisher’s pledge to support the ‘mother country’ ‘to the last man and the last shilling’ left him cold, as it was obvious that the Great War which commenced in 1914 was merely a conflict between European capitalists in which the working class would be sold or told to test their emotions of nationalism by providing the cannon fodder for both sides.

By 1916, protest against Australia’s involvement was focussed not only on the immorality of war itself, confirmed by the heavy tally of casualties and deaths, but on the use and abuse of wartime powers by Governments to stifle dissent, impose censorship and controls, deny wage justice, dislocate industry, encourage profiteering~ and probably most of all, attempt to bring in compulsory service to bolster flagging overseas recruitment. As the war dragged on, the opposition to Prime Minister Hughes was coming increasingly from his own side of politics.

The narrow defeat of the 1916 conscription referendum – largely by the campaign waged by socialists, pacifists and trade unions – might have occasioned the greatest of Labor’s splits but its cleansing effect o~ the labour movement was evidenced by the expulsion of its ‘pro war’ politicians, leaving the party leadership dominated by its radical industrial wing. By the time of the split, Garden’ was President of the small Sailmaker’s Union and Assistant Secretary of the NSW Labor Council. In March 1917, he ran as the ALP candidate for the State seat of Parramatta, still partly rural. He was defeated but fare from discouraged by his first attempt for parliamentary office. That year Garden was also occupied in Labor Council’s efforts to gain the freedom of the ‘IWW Twelve’, who had been originally charged with treason against the war effort but actually jailed for conspiracy to commit arson.!

Despite their shared election victories with the Labor ‘rats’, two events in 1917 greatly worried the conservative forces. The first, a general strike, involved up to 100,000 unionists who opposed the introduction of American ‘speed-up’ methods. Rather than being held under the auspices of the Labor Council, the strike was badly organised by its rank and file leadership who received only vacillating support from Labor Party politicians. While the union movement was demoralised, impoverished and badly beaten by the experience, the conservatives were shocked by what they saw as working class sabotage of the war effort. The other concern that year was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. That event eventually added Leninism to pacifism, syndicalism, internationalism and Christianity as great influences in Garden’s life.

Garden organised the now greatly strengthened industrial wing of the party’to victory at the NSW ALP Annual conference of 1917 with a view to radicalising the ALP with the IWW ideals of revolutionary union government and militant socialism. In recognition of his value as a radical organiser and propagandist, Garden easily beat eight other candidates to become Secretary of the Labor Council ofNSW in 1918 and leader of the ‘Trades Hall Reds’. He was to occupy this position until 1934. ‘

The Trades Hall Reds now advocated the creation of a Workers’ Industrial Union as the single union for Australia. This proposal, under Garden’s influence, was endorsed by an All Australian Conference of Trades Unions later in 1918. However, following opposition by craft unions and, more importantly, by the A WU, which saw itself as an already formed, but non-revolutionary, One Big Union, the plan failed to get the backing of the ALP. In fact the AWU rallied moderate politicians and the Catholic Church hierarchy to combine forces and recapture the NSW ALP at the state conference of 1919. After some machinations, the beaten radicals, including Garden, formed an Industrial Socialist Labor Party and the conference victors proceeded to expel the ‘Reds’ from the Labor Party altogether.

Garden now joined the Socialist Labor Party. Far from being a unified force for socialism, the various doctrinal socialist parties vied for the status of the true party of revolution. Garden, in fact, was the main driving force in joining some of them into an Australian Communist Party in 1920. In his evangelistic style, in the Sydney Domain and in the socialist and labour press, he proclaimed the new party as the Armageddon of capitalism. After some wrangling about which group had the real claims to be credentialled in the world Communist movement (Com intern), the division was duly resolved in Garden’s favour. As the NSW Labor Council had affiliated with the RILU (Profintern) Garden was credentialled in 1922 to be joint Australian delegate to both the Profintern in Petrograd and to the Com intern in Moscow. Despite only having 750 members, the Australian Communist Party contained most of the NSW Labor Council officials and, probably with Soviet funding, ran an established weekly paper, The Communist, which Garden used regularly to spread the word.

Prior to his departure for the Soviet Union in September 1922, Garden was interviewed at Sydney Trades HaIi by D H Lawrence who showed a keen interest in the possibility of civil war between returned soldiers and unionised workers. Garden was the proto-type for the radical socialist leader, Willie Struthers, in Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo, which depicts the socialist ideals of spreading the revolution to Australia and the counter plans by loyalists that involved the maintenance of secret armies to contain organised labour and promote conservative values of nationalism and fascism. Lawrence’s account was well researched and accurately depicted both the influence of Garden’s Christianity on his socialist values and the philosophies of the ultra-right King and Empire Alliance and ‘the Digger’s Clubs whose leaders were determined to deal with Garden and his ilk.

Yet Garden’s Christianity made him a most imperfect Communist. He greatly upset his Communist allies by taking part in a Christian revivalist rally in his native Scotland on the journey home from the USSR. But even before his carpeting, his formal relationship with his church in Sydney was weakened by the sheer pressure of his industrial and political work.

He was kept busy in his role as Labor Council secretary and Communist organiser; attending constant meetings and delegations, preparing talks, writing articlFs and organising stoppages; negotiations and deputations. He led the marche~. to celebrate May Day and the success of the Bolshevik revolution. Some of these, especially the Red Flag marches, spurred a ‘patriotic’ backlash, leading to ‘Union Jack’ counter-processions, huge loyalty demonstrations and general disruptive tactics at socialist meetings by returned servicemen and right wing gangs.

Back in Sydney in 1923, Garden reflected on the militarism and authoritarianism of the Soviet system he had experienced and began to doubt that actions applicable in the Soviet Union could ever be successfully applied under Australian conditions. He must have been relieved when Lenin proposed that communists should ‘white ant’ the more popular workers’ parties. The opportunity to rejoin the ALP had come when the Federal ALP, in an attempt to accommodate some of the new industrial militancy, called a Trade Union congress in 1921. With Garden prominent, the congress opted for a united socialist front and urged the cl:anging of the Federal Objective of the ALP to ‘the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. That objective, after interpretation clauses were added in an attempt to water it down, was adopted by the Federal ALP Conference in Brisbane in October 1921. In circumstances where the legality of Communists as members of the ALP was ambiguous, Garden was not only readmitted in 1923 but a favourable factional balance also saw him elected immediately to the ALP’s NSW executive. Unadvisedly, Garden used this platform to argue that the Labor Party was ‘rotten, corrupt and bourgeois’ and to attack Labor Party leaders for their reactionary stances. This gave the NSW ALp executive the ammunition to rule against known Communists being allowed membership of.e ALP at all and, within months, Garden was once again expelled.

With the introduction of multi-member State electorates, Garden stood as the Communist candidate for Sydney at the 1925 State elections, which were won by Jack Lang. In only obtaining a paltry 317 votes out of 36,000, Garden was not only humiliated but resigned to the fact that Australian Communism and the revolution were largely lost causes. In 1926″ after Lang had introduced the 44 hour week and other labour reforms, Garden publicly resigned from the Communist Party and once again sought readmission to the ALP. Although suspicious of his new supporter, Lang needed Garden’s industrial group muscle to shore up his leadership in a period when the Annual Conference rather than the parliamentary party anointed State Labor leaders. Their teamwork ensured the adoption of the ‘Red Rules’ which allowed non-ALP-member delegates to represent their unions at ALP State Conferences. These tactics stopped the AWU the party’s largest affiliate – from controlling the Labor Party in NSW as it had been able to do in other states.

There is some evidence that Garden’s’ political ‘conversion’ was a sham. Whilst establishing himself on Lang’s inner council, he still retained Communist support as Labor Council secretary and kept his executive positions on both the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat (to which he was denied a passport to allow him to travel to Canton and attend in 1927) and the RJLU, both Communist fronts. He also edited the English-language version of the Pan-Pacific Worker.

In 1927, Garden was instrumental in the establishment of the ACTU. In an effort to trample over rising militancy in the union movement, the Bruce Page Government had invoked the Crimes Act, introduced essential services legislation, sought wider industrial powers, authorised ‘Peace Corps’ and deported and/or jailed union leaders. In response, Garden called for a permanent ‘Australian’ Trades Hall, to protect the movement and its achievements and to take charge of disputes across State borders. But Garden’s aims were also connected to notions of Trade Union Internationalism and he oversaw the affiliation of the ACTU to the Pan Pacific Secretariat, a considerable achievement because the international movement considered the White Australia policy to be ‘racial imperialism’.

Garden was arrested on many occasions in the name of free speech or the rights of unions to organise. In 1923, he served 14 days for not taking notice of a police direction that a meeting was illegal. On another occasion he served a short period for refusing to disband a picket line. The most serious charge however was in 1928 when he was arrested for incitement to murder after he publicly suggested that new tactics for the Marine Cooks strike might include the scab cooks ‘loosing their balance (in) dark nights (and falling into) deep seas’ . He was actively involved in the long and bitter Timberworkers’, coalfields and Waterfront disputes of the late I 920s, fighting to protect award conditions, organising relief or negotiating settlements.

Despite his continued militancy, Lang brought him back into the ALP in 1929 and smootlied Garden’s election to the Sydney City Council in 1930 where he led a minority ALP group. Lang’s patronage both opened and closed doors for Garden.

The Third International had by then dropped the ‘common front’ approach to the ALP and instead criticised its every action, forcing Garden to muster more moderate support at the Trades Hall to survive. As an unlikely member of Lang’s ‘inner group’, Garden was vilified by his former comrades in the Communist Party and ridiculed by Lang’s enemies on the right of the ALP. Garden was also physically attacked in his home by eight thugs from the fascist ‘pack of cards’ band of the New Guard movement.

As the Great Depression bit deeper, Garden, still the radical, called for the repudiation of overseas interest payments, but Lang back-pedalled s~arply on the issue in the 1930 State election campaign. Twelve months later, repudiation was the chief plank of Lang Plan; the Scullin Government had been torn apart by internal dissension and Langite subterfug~ and the events of the great ALP 1916 split seemed to be repeating th”emselves with ex-Labor minister, Joe Lyons, leading the Federal conservatives to a landslide win.

At the 1931 federal elections, Garden stood as a Lang Labor candidate for the seat of Cook, centred on Sydney’s southern suburbs, and was beaten narrowly. He defied moves at the Trades Hall to remove him as Secretary between 1931 and 1934, and so kept control of the Trades Hall Radio Station 2KY (which he helped establish for the NSW Labor Council in 1925) for the Lang forces. He campaigned intensively for the Lang Group to be regarded as the true ALP but his influence was clearly waning.

Garden was the ‘Communist bogeyman in the Labor Party’ and was used skilfully by Lyons to frighten the electorate. Nevertheless Garden won Cook for Lang Labor in the 1934 elections and severed his connections with the Trades Hall. His parliamentary career was hardly remarkable. He advocated governmental controls, the restoration of pensions and nationalisation of the sugar industry. He ‘lectured’ parliament on the social dangers of mechanisation and unemployment. But behind the scenes Garden was working towards Labor reunification. As part of the negotiated peace deal between John Curtin and the Lang NSW Branch, Garden, when readmitted to the Federal Party, was not re-endorsed for Cook against the new Lang Labor candidate. He therefore served a single terf!l and did not recontest his seat in 1937, effectively removing him from the political centre stage after a twenty year career.

Garden’s final fall from grace came after he was involved in serious criminal forgery matters after World War Two. By the time of his death in 1969 Garden had been largely forgotten by the labour movement and was treated harshly by historians who represented him as a political manipulator and demagogue. Almost wholly unacknowledged was Garden’s lifelong commitment to build a better life for the working people who were treated unjustly by the greed and avarice of the ruling class and for whom he had devoted his evangelistic, oratorical and organising skills. His championship of unpopular industrial causes, socialism, internationalism, pacifism and syndicalism naturally incurred the permanent wrath of the ruling class, whilst his footwork between the various ‘leftish’ politicalparties and personalities was misunaerstood as opportunism instead of pragmatism.

Rather than any personal aggrandisement, he faced ridicule, vilification, violenGe, arrest and imprisonment. His trade union and political career is a reminder that Australians were bitterly divided by the First World War, that the world socialist movement, of which he was part, regarded White Australia as unacceptable and that Australia was a sharply divided class society rather than an egalitarian one. Garden’s contribution to Australian life include his navigation of the NSW Labor Council through many industrial and political storms; his co-founding of the Australian Communist Party, Radio Station 2KY and his forming of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. But perhaps the most salient monument to Jock Garden’s life is the continuing (but admittedly diluted) socialist objective of the ALP, now with a life of over 70 years. The notion of the ALP as a socialist party has largely survived despite the party’s evolutionary transformation to the popular or ‘catch all’ party of today.