Soon after I began work as a clerk I joined the Clerks’ Union. The Communist Party took a great interest in the trade unions. It regarded work in the trade unions as being pre-eminent in Party work. Correct Communist work in the trade unions is very important. But at that time, this was based on what I came to see was a wrong idea that the unions were themselves socialist and revolutionary. The “theory” went that the Communists simply had to win official trade union positions and the problem of socialist revolution was solved. This “theory” applied to all unions. The Clerks’ Union was no exception. As a member of that union I again came into contact with members of the Communist Party. I was invited to become a member of the Militant Minority Movement, a sort of left, basically Communist organisation promoted on a world scale by the Communist International. (The Communist International was an international body set up in 1919 and to which all Communist Parties were affiliated). Within the Clerks’ Union, this group strove to win leadership of the union. The movement held its own meetings, planned tactics for union meetings, published a little paper. It was extremely active. It met in various odd places. Sometimes it met in an old building in the city of Melbourne in the middle of winter. The floor was concrete, the light was by candles and the meeting went on practically all night. It is now pretty clear that though its members were devoted people, they were not a little attracted by a sense of adventure and something “different”. Some of them were romantics or rather blind enthusiasts like me. Even at that stage, I was called on to advise J. Healy, then a wharfie, later general secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Union, on the rules of the union, so that he could “serve the revolution” by becoming an official of the Wharfies’ Union.
Another organisation of those days was the International Labour Defence. Because of my employment in the law, I was deeply interested in it. This organisation provided support and legal advice for victims of political persecution and their families. It organised the defence of some of the people charged with political “crimes”. Resistance to the prosecution under the political provisions of the Commonwealth Crimes Act of a Communist named Devanny had fallen within the scope of the International Labour Defence. Devanny had been charged with soliciting funds for an illegal organisation, namely, the Communist Party. He was convicted. But on appeal to the High Court, Devanny’s conviction was quashed. There were tactical reasons among the bourgeoisie for this. Even more important was the mass protest movement against the prosecution. One of the High Court judges was Dr. H.V.Evatt, subsequently Minister in Australian Labor governments, and later still, leader of the parliamentary Labor Party. In his judgment in Devanny’s case he discussed his ideas of Communism. They are “sympathetic” but distorted.
I often think it must have startled the “learned” barristers who were law reporters to put Dr. Evatt’s views in the sacred Commonwealth Law Reports (Volume 48) which officially record decisions of the High Court. Dr. Evatt’s judgment had a strongly progressive side.
Mention of the Crimes Act reminds me of one of my earliest public speeches in the town hall of the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in 1935. Its subject was the campaign against the political provisions of the Crimes Act. In the paper which we published within the Clerks’ Union we also published material against the Crimes Act.