Gilbert Giles Roper, 1938

Concerning the Communist Party’s printery
A letter to Jean Devanny

Source: The Militant, Sydney, January 24, 1928
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

Dear Jean Devanny,

Last Sunday a worker whom I have known for a number of years reported to me some remarks passed by you at a meeting of writers held recently in Sydney, to the effect that I had “sabotaged” the printing works of the Communist Party. Such allegations from you caused me a great deal of surprise; firstly, because our personal relationships have always been of a most comradely nature; secondly because your only direct knowledge of my work in the party printery relates to the production of your novel, Sugar Heaven. I think you will admit that I strove to assist you with the typography of that book in every way that lay in my power.

There is evidence that sinister allegations of “sabotage” are being circulated by other members of the Communist Party, so that I can assume that just as the Stalinists debase your imaginative brain to the level of a publicity hack, so they are using your prestige to further a systematic slander campaign against me. By such a scheme, no doubt, the authors of the slanders hope to offset the results of the publication of my brochure, entitled, What is happening in the Communist Party?

The conduct of the party printery is a damning indictment of the political bureau, the inner group of the Communist Party. But it would be nave to presume that the PB, which is prepared to endorse every one of the crimes of Stalin against the old Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, has any scruples about projecting the whole blame for the condition of the printery on to the workers in the plant.

I was invited to Sydney a little over three years ago to operate a typesetting machine acquired by the political bureau. The circumstances of the purchase were to be kept strictly confidential, owing to the current danger of illegality, but the party chatterboxes soon broadcast the news among non-party circles, and there is certainly no point at this stage in keeping it mum. I registered myself as the sole proprietor of a dummy firm known as Standard Typesetters, and personally managed the business. According to an official audit of the accounts by Comrade B, the first three months of trading allowed a net profit of 80. The business continued along even more satisfactory lines for a further three months, when the PB merged Standard Typesetters with the party’s dummy printing firm of Wright and Baker. I was again registered as the sole proprietor of the new firm, which I named The Forward Press.

Heavy financial losses

About 12 months ago an official audit showed that The Forward Press Ltd (by that time, as you see, a limited company) was working at a loss of 500 per year. Now, Comrade Devanny, I have already quoted the net profit earned by the separate typesetting business. How, then, did it come about that this tidy profit was swallowed by a huge loss after the merging of the plant?

Prior to moving to the new premises, the PB (I do not know on whose recommendation) purchased a Michle printing press for £600. The machine was badly needed to expedite production of the Workers Weekly. The installation of this machine was a task for an expert, but the PB stupidly engaged a general engineer. Chaos resulted. Then, after weeks of muddle, the truth was discovered: the new press was too small to print the Weekly. From that time up till just recently, the printery workers had to make shift with a hopelessly antiquated machine. In addition, the PB failed for a time to appoint a manager, and the departmental foremen struggled along in anarchy. In the new plant, endless difficulties (partly due to understaffing of the office), continually delayed the delivery of publications. Inability to fulfil impossible tasks bred discontent. Mutual suspicions turned old comrades into enemies. Four party members went on strike and picketed the works. It was a repetition of Lane’s New Australia.

During the period of less than two years spent by me at The Forward Press, the PB appointed no fewer than six managers. Some of these comrades were unfitted for administration. Nearly all the customers were party organisations or “fraternals”. They constantly clamoured for low prices. With profits cut to the bone, any bad debts or errors in cost estimation tended to bankrupt the finances. Subsidies from the party made good the deficits. If the managers failed in their task, they became … white cargo. Such was the position of The Forward Press, the product of the sterile brains of the PB.

Withering criticism of party leaders

The party members employed in the plant were ever groping for a solution of the problems. Their opinions are interesting. J.A. was the third manager. Despite personal shortcomings, he attacked the problems of the printery with remarkable energy, and was the first manager to ensure prompt deliveries. He attended frequent meetings of the CC secretariat (members of the PB) dealing with printery affairs. Shortly before he left he expressed himself thus: “the PB is hopeless from a business point of view”.

Again, about a year ago a meeting was called of all party members employed in the printery. J.B. Miles was present. The then manager, L.B., was in the process of being forced to resign by the PB. During the meeting, R.B., a machinist, caused a stir by reading a statement in which he mercilessly flogged the PB for their incompetent meddling in the conduct of the printery. Miles took possession of this document, and I would urge, Comrade Devanny, if you are still of the opinion that it was I who sabotaged the printery, that you ask to see this document, which should be in the CC files.

The meeting referred to above seemed to mark a decisive stage in the history of the printery. It was followed by an intensive purge of party members. At one stage upwards of 20 party members were employed at the printery. Many of them were splendid workers, but they were not servile enough to suit the PB. Six months after the above meeting all except two or three of these party members had resigned or been dismissed.

The case of L.B. (the fifth manager) is instructive. J. Simpson of the PB told me that the PB was not satisfied with his work and desired to replace him. However, they preferred that the position be developed in such a way that he would resign. At the meeting I have already mentioned, which took place about 12 months ago, attacks were made on L.B. He duly resigned. Later, at a PB meeting, just before I left the printery, I was baited by Miles for having failed to join in this chorus of criticism of my old comrade. Miles interjected my speech (in which I was defending myself against a charge of factionalising) thus: “What about B?”

Working conditions were gradually made unbearable. R.B. (not previously referred to) was framed on charges of not filling in his time docket correctly, permitting a junior to feed a press inaccurately, and guillotining magazines on a slant. He resigned as a protest against “fault finding”. Because I tried to conciliate this comrade I was trenchantly criticised by the PB. It became, in fact, another “charge” against me. J. Simpson whispered to me, at the conclusion of the last PB meeting which I attended that R.B. “might be an agent provocateur”. Let me add that this comrade subsequently left to join the International Brigade in Spain.

Keeping a job in the family

Non-party workers were included in the purge. J. Simpson advised me that he knew “a young woman” whom he desired to place in employment in the printery. About the same time, a “case” began to be made out against the forewoman, Miss R. Later she was curtly dismissed, no reason being given, and the “young woman” immediately took her place.

A few months previously, at a Christmas Eve party in the works, J.B. Miles, in the hearing of a number of workers, had said to Miss R:

“I hope you will be with us for 50 years.”

I left the printery about the same time as Miss R, but the records of the union carry on the story.

The union secretary (I quote from The Printer, June 11, 1937, p 540 “interviewed the manager of The Forward Press, and pointed out that the policy of the union was preference to employment for financial members. If this policy was departed from there was a probability that his employees would refuse to work with non-members”. The “young woman” seems to have been put off. But that is not all. Simpson next accused me of being responsible for the failure of her application to join the union. Who was this “young woman”? Those hewers of coal who are struggling for seniority rights would learn with amazement that she was none other than the sister in law of a member of the PB, who draws £8/15/- a week as general secretary of the Miners’ Federation.

The history of the purge concludes with the following extract from The Printer, official union of the PIEUA, dated November 5, 1937:

Correspondence between the secretary (Mr Wilson) and the manager of The Forward Press Ltd, relative to payment of overtime for work on Sunday nights; and the dismissal of the union collector, was referred to the executive with authority to take whatever action may be necessary to uphold the policy of the union and ensure compliance with the award.”

And up till the time when I broke with the party, despite all those extraordinary events, the PB gave not the slightest indication to the rank and file of the party of anything amiss.

Manager No 6 has a flair for “inquiries”

Towards the end of 1936 a party member by the name of Granger (known in Victoria as T. Duncan) arrived in Sydney to handle the accounts of The Forward Press and some other party enterprises. He brought references from several big capitalist concerns in Melbourne and a special commendation from E. Thornton, federal secretary of the ironworkers union. One reference stated that he was an expert on “inquiries”. In the early part of 1937 Granger-Duncan replaced L.B. as manager.

The management of the plant under Granger-Duncan prompted me to compile a severely critical letter to the PB, in which I demanded a change, otherwise it would be impossible for me to continue working with him.

Ridiculous slanders

The events which followed are a lesson in chicanery. After Miles read my letter he assumed a friendly demeanour and said he agreed that affairs at the printery were not at all satisfactory. A meeting of the PB and party members in the printery was called. Here Miles turned a somersault. He, Simpson and Granger-Duncan joined in a counterblast to my accusations. The accused became the accuser. A hurriedly concocted tirade of slanders astonished the audience. However, a charge that I had delayed publications was categorically denied by three party editors; a lie about lack of co-operation was annihilated. It was said that I had factionalised with W.B., a worker in the plant. The evidence — believe it or not — revealed that the manager had seen me at a distance several times .t.alking to WB “with a sneering grin”. In any case the meeting was only a readied-up farce because Miles incautiously admitted that the PB had already decided “to support Granger”.

The meeting proved abortive. Soon afterwards the tension in the plant became worse. J.C., a fairly recent addition to the staff, alleged that his assistant was timing his output. His resignation coincided with mine. At the last meeting of printery workers which I attended — and one of the last, I believe, ever held — discontent was rife. Simpson, forming a bloc with the manager and his wife, tried to force through a nomination for party membership. One worker described the nominee as a “bosses’ man and a crawler”. The nomination was deferred.

Communist in name — bourgeois in methods

Towards the end of April, I complained to Miles again concerning the manager’s attitude. Another PB meeting was held. A new counterblast alleged that I did insufficient work and asserted that I spent too long on a certain task. The total time was, I think, less than three hours, and I proved beyond dispute that 20 minutes at least of that time was accounted for by a conversation with Granger-Duncan in which he aggressively demanded that I go on night shift, because he thought some of the night workers were “taking things very easy”. (I refused to accept.) This intrigue and contemptible haggling forced me to resign from the printery.

There, Comrade Devanny, you have the origin of the slanders; there you have the character of their authors. The searchlight of exposure was moving inexorably towards the PB. The critics had to be silenced.

Were the charges bogus? If they were not, why was I permitted to remain long afterwards a member of an advisory bureau, handling highly confidential work for the NSW district committee of the party, to continue as a branch chairman? Why was I approached to resume oral propaganda work for the party? Was there no suspicion of sabotage? And finally, if I was a known saboteur, why was I summoned at 1.30am one morning last October to rectify a mechanical fault in the printery so that the Weekly might appear on time?

The answer is clear: there was no sabotage. The slanders against me were crushed last April by the weight of evidence and ridicule. They have been revived by the little Stalins in the PB only because such an unscrupulous trick is easier than replying to my purely objective polemic against the present treacherous policy and tactics of the Communist Party.

History has already placed the skids under the Comintern and its leaders. They are moving to destruction. It is time for all sincere revolutionaries to begin a study of the literature of the Fourth International, to take the path of Ignace Reiss and Andre Gide.

Yours for the Fourth International,

Gil Roper