Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

The struggle against centrism

92. In the lead-up to the founding of the Fourth International, the most important political struggles in Australia were those led by Nick Origlass against various centrist groupings inside the Workers Party. Origlass had joined the Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communist Party in 1932, but was expelled soon after. He joined the Workers Party in 1934 and by 1937 had become its leading figure.

93. The most significant petty-bourgeois grouping inside the Workers Party was headed by John Anderson, professor of philosophy at Sydney University. Anderson was a supporter of Sidney Hook and, like Hook and James Burnham in the United States, an avowed opponent of dialectical materialism. He was, however, a founding member and leading public speaker for the Workers Party and wrote several articles in The Militant and elsewhere, exposing the Moscow Trials frame-ups and the strangling of the Spanish revolution by the Stalinists. In 1937 he began arguing that the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy signified that the Soviet Union could no longer be considered even a degenerated workers’ state—a position that won considerable support in the party. As in the case of other rightward-moving centrist tendencies in the United States and Europe, behind Anderson’s rush to abandon a Marxist—i.e., scientific and historical—analysis of the class nature of the Soviet Union, and thus any basis for defending the USSR against imperialist attack, lay a profound scepticism in the revolutionary capacities of the working class. In a paper circulated prior to the April 1937 Workers Party’s Fourth Conference entitled “In Defence of Revision”, Anderson argued that the source of Stalinism lay in Marxism itself. “As has been indicated,” Anderson wrote, “the crudities which are the whole stock-in-trade of the Stalinists have their basis in the theories of Marx. His ‘reflection theory’, his denial of the independence of social movements, is based on his monism, his conception of reality as developing along a single track—a position most appropriate to the fanatical sectarian. With this goes the theological conception of the inevitability of Socialism as rooted in the ‘nature of things’.”[1]

94. In opposing monism and the “reflection theory”, Anderson was attacking the very philosophical basis of the Marxist materialist world outlook: that the unity of the world consists in its materiality; that thought is a reflection of the external world, which exists independently of man’s consciousness; that social being determines social consciousness. His equation of socialism with theology was an expression of the hostility of all bourgeois ideology to the Marxist analysis of the law-governed character of historical development. While Anderson denied the laws of the class struggle, they nevertheless determined his own evolution. His opposition to the Marxist understanding that all social movements ultimately arise from and reflect class interests, was itself a well-known class phenomenon. It was an expression of the striving of petty-bourgeois layers, especially sections of the intelligentsia, for their own “independence”—a feature of Anderson’s outlook that was to make him a central figure in the individualistic, anti-Marxist “libertarian” movement that emerged in the 1950s. After his positions were opposed by Origlass at the 1937 conference, Anderson’s hostility to the party emerged even more openly. Its weaknesses, he insisted, were due to the “bankruptcy of Trotskyism”, a product of Trotsky’s attachment to Bolshevism. “The lesson we have to learn today is that Bolshevism is dead…”[2] Accordingly, Anderson endorsed the call by another Workers Party member to “broaden the base” of the party, declaring that it should be open to all who had “a belief in militant struggle and a desire to work out the conditions of the Australian revolution.”[3] Not for the last time, anti-Bolshevism joined hands with Australian nationalism. By the end of the year, Anderson’s group had broken with the party and within two years he was publicly championing “liberal democracy”. In the post-war years he was to become an open anti-communist, attacking communism as “the disease of the modern times”.[4]

95. Origlass led an even more protracted struggle against a centrist grouping headed by Ted Tripp. In 1929, Tripp was the first member of the CPA to be sent to the International Lenin School in Moscow. On his return, he worked as a party activist until his expulsion in 1934 for “right opportunism”—i.e., opposition to the Third Period line of “social fascism”. Not long after, Tripp joined the Workers Party, and for a short time edited The Militant. In 1937 he opposed the Workers Party formally affiliating to the Movement for the Fourth International. Claiming agreement with Trotsky’s analysis, Tripp and his followers sought to utilise the political authority of Trotskyism while maintaining a free hand to determine their own syndicalist and opportunist orientation within the national arena. At the most fundamental level, Tripp opposed the subordination of the Australian party to the principles, program and organisational discipline of the International. His group quit the party after the 1937 conference.

96. On September 3, 1938, the Fourth International was founded at a conference in Paris to take forward the struggle for socialist internationalism in the international working class. Its founding program, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (The Mobilization of the Masses around Transitional Demands to Prepare the Conquest of Power), defined the central task of the epoch as the resolution of the crisis of revolutionary leadership.

97. In May 1938, Tripp’s group had reunited briefly with the Origlass-led Workers Party to found the Communist League of Australia (CLA). But at the very beginning of the CLA’s January 1939 conference, where the question of affiliation to the new Fourth International was to be finally decided, Tripp and his co-thinkers reaffirmed their hostility to internationalism and staged a walkout. This ended Tripp’s brief association with Trotskyism. He moved to Melbourne and, for the rest of his life, immersed himself in the Victorian Labor College—a training ground for trade union careerists and bureaucrats.

98. The CLA conference voted to affiliate to the Fourth International. Writing to Trotsky on May 8, 1939, Origlass, after detailing some of the manoeuvres of the opposition, concluded: “What was really at stake was our insistence that the Transitional Program [the founding document of the Fourth International] applies also to Australia.”

99. In March 1940, in an introduction to the Australian publication of the Transitional Program, Origlass summed up the lessons of the preceding struggle: “For the Australian section of the Fourth International (the Communist League of Australia) the presentation of this program marks a significant step forward. Situated as they are in a backwater isolated from the main stream of world developments, with class antagonisms mollified by virtue of a liberal capitalist regime made possible in the developmental period of a new land, the Australian people have developed an insular backwoods outlook of disdain for the ‘foreign’ doctrines of Marxism. Nevertheless Australia is not excluded from the imperious sway of the laws of world economy, as has been demonstrated in the first imperialist world war, in the world-wide economic crisis of 1929–32, and in the imperialist slaughter of the peoples today. This epoch of the decline of the capitalist system is rapidly eliminating Labor reform politics from the agenda and poses to the Australian people the inescapable alternative: the socialist revolution or fascism.”[5]

100. The political clarification provided by the Fourth International and its struggle to delineate the independent interests of working class against all forms of national opportunism laid the basis for the courageous stand taken by the Trotskyists of the CLA during WWII against state repression and the combined forces of the Stalinists and Laborites, who sought to subordinate the working class to the imperialist war effort.


John Anderson, ‘In Defence of Revision’, A Perilous and Fighting Life: The Political Writings of Professor John Anderson, Mark Weblin (ed), Pluto Press, Sydney, 2003, p. 145.


Hall Greenland, Red Hot, The Life and Times of Nick Origlass, Wellington Lane Press, Neutral Bay, 1999, p. 76.


Ibid., p. 77.


A Perilous and Fighting Life: The Political Writings of Professor John Anderson, op. cit., p. 18.


Red Hot: The Life and Times of Nick Origlass, op. cit., pp. 92–93.