Review of Max Ogden, A Long View from the Left, Bad Apple Press, 2020, $28.49 (ex GST)
In 1955, Max Ogden joined the Australian Engineering Union (AEU), a precursor of what is now the Amalgamated Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU). This book is an intimate, and at times very candid, memoir of a life (and lifetime) in the Australian labour movement.
And, as he says, it is a ‘long view from the left’ especially the industrial and political spaces of the Metal Workers, the Communist Party of Australia and, more recently, the Australian Labor Party.
The book has illuminating, and sometimes humorous, accounts of overseas excursions. His first trip was to the Seventh World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna in 1959 with travel via Hong Kong, a month in the People’s Republic of China and the Trans-Siberian Railway via Moscow.
The next trip was six months in 1965 as part of the organising committee for the ninth festival in Algeria. This culminated when Ben Bella, the First President of Algeria was deposed in a coup led by Houari Boumédiènne, the head of the military. The festival was abandoned and Max and partner got back to Australia via Paris, Tampere in Finland and Moscow.
The funniest, though quite sinister, is the account of a visit to Papua New Guinea in 1972 to visit his sister and partner and where “It turned out I was the first member of the Communist Party to be officially allowed in to New Guinea prior to independence” (p82). He was accompanied throughout by a substantial number of very conspicuous ASIO and Special Branch agents. Overseas travel as a member of the CPA was never easy - in 1978 Bob Hawke was needed to seek dispensation for Max to get a visa for the United States (p111).
The memoir covers Max’s times as a shop steward and workplace delegate, state and national education officer and industrial democracy officer for the AMWU and then industrial officer at the ACTU. It includes times as an office holder in the Eureka Youth Leader (youth wing of the CPA), member of the CPA Central Committee and, most recently, ALP Branch activist. As Max says, ‘sixty-five years as a union activist, thirty of them as a fulltime official’ (p211). And as Bill Kelty says, his ‘unusual contribution is that of a left-wing warrior’ and, ‘he carried out his reputation as a Bologna Socialist - practical, honest and pragmatic advances for working people’ (Foreword).
While Max does not use the term pragmatic, it is evident throughout the his accounts of numerous workplace and industry disputes. Repeatedly he returns to the adage ‘working with management does not mean being the bosses’ lackies. It creates opportunities to broaden the bargaining process and include management and wider issues’ (p168). He records more than a few instances where what he sees as misplaced left ‘radicalism’ or just plain rigid views meant workers exerted less influence than they could, or should, have done.
Bill Kelty does not expand on the meaning of Bologna Socialist and I speculate that it is a reference to participation and industrial democracy linked with the creativity of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) in the 1970s. This was the start of “Eurocommunism” and when the PCI adopted the conception of revolution as a process instead of a moment of social rupture. Max acknowledges the influence of Antonio Gramsci who he read in 1968 (p71) and emphasises the need for a ‘socialist/progressive ideological hegemony’ that is ‘strategic, visionary but also… attuned to the real, felt needs of workers’ (p212).
Not all the left, then or since, has welcomed the PCI’s shift away from the centrality of revolution. There’s been considerable criticism of what is claimed to be the rejection by the Bologna communists of ‘the revolutionary potential of the city's youth’
1 and the automania movement
2. Much the same occurred in Australia which makes Max’s chapter on “How the Left Works Against Itself” compulsive reading; he does not miss whether the “ supermilitants”, the “sectarians“, those who profess “correctness” or those (including some Greens) who “make grandiose gestures”. Max’s experience deserves respect; ‘theory’ should explain and promote planning and vision; it should not be an all-consuming end-in-itself even among academics.
As Donald Sassoon describes in his introduction to Red Bologna, ‘Bologna’s decades-long experiment in participatory democracy — which, up until then, had marked the PCI as a leading force of democratisation among the Western European communist parties’
3. Or, as a more recent contributor puts it, ‘a harmonious mixture of discordant elements was achieved in Emilia: efficient institutions, notwithstanding the Italian historical ‘absence of the state’, blended with vigorous trade union activity'
A fundamental part of Max’s approach as detailed in his book is long-term strategic planning by unions and socialists about what to do, how to do it and who to do it with. His overwhelming contribution was that workers and unions should build on day-to-day bargaining by widening the issues on which they make demands and developing long-term strategies for the firm, industry and economy. ‘Industrial democracy’ and the quality and design of work were central to this. Worker education - which he very much saw as first of all an opportunity for learning practical skills of organising and second in extending horizons -- was a vital component.
He notes the lost opportunity that was Australia Reconstructed; a momentous strategic statement adopted unanimously by the 1987 ACTU Congress but of which little was implemented apart from union amalgamations (and those not really on the recommended industry lines) (pp162-5). Many industry policy and strategic developments from the Accord were also lost opportunities; some like change in the Pilbarra fell at the hurdle of
“productivity is the bosses job” (p168) and others like Pacific Dunlop with the incompetence and short-term financial horizons of corporations (p160).
In these areas, there’s a heavy emphasis on Nordic influences - exchanges with unions and practitioners in Norway, Sweden and Finland and accounts of worker education facilities and courses. The epitome of the approach was probably the Volvo plant at Uddevalla where cars were built by teams and not on an assembly line
Note; A version of this review was published in the Queensland Journal of Labour History, No 34, 2022