Book Review

Whatever Happened to the Revolution?

Reviewed by Michael Hogan*

Tony Harris, Basket Weavers and True Believers: Making and unmaking the Labor Left in Leichhardt Municipality 1870-1991, Sydney, Leftbank Publishing, 2007, +220, RRP $ 28 

Harris constructs his account from interviews with most of the main participants. This is the strength of the work.

Faction politics acquired its bad reputation in 6th Century Byzantium, when four supporters' groups of teams competing in the hippodrome spread their tentacles into every aspect of the social and political life of Constantinople. Autocratic rulers from Justinian to Napoleon justified their violent suppression of the mob by appealing to a popular revulsion about such destructive and anarchic factionalism. Tony Harris' study of the factional politics of the Left in the Leichhardt municipality from the 1970s to the 1990s is truly Byzantine. It is an account – originally a doctoral thesis – from the point of view of a participant, describing the successful displacement of the traditional inner-city Labor Party Right factional machine by the Left, and then the complete fragmentation of the Left itself. As an observer, Harris tells the story as it was; it is an honest account of the chaos.

As a participant, Harris was, of course, part of the problem. And the problem was that the fundamental skill of liberal democratic politics – a willingness to make compromises and accept second best for the sake of achieving genuine reforms – was systematically rejected. The champion of this denial of liberal team politics was Hall Greenland, who, according to this account, was seemingly incapable of arriving at a caucus agreement even with his closest supporters. A portrait of the Leichhardt Left at the end of this period was provided by the brilliant TV documentary, Rats in the Ranks. The unsurprising result is that most “basket weavers and true believers” mentioned by Harris have now left the Labor Party, leaving the NSW Right unchallenged at State level and with the inner-city machine under the control of a value-free and fragmented Left that is only marginally better than the corrupt ward-boss Right that it replaced.

Harris constructs his account from interviews with most of the main participants. This is the strength of the work. The cast list is like something from a Russian novel, but at least the interviews bring life to the story. I read the book as someone who has lived in the Leichhardt district since 1977, and who has an interest in local Labor politics, but even for me the eyes glazed over and I had to keep telling myself that these names of bit players in a farce from twenty or thirty years ago might be important. I did convince myself, because so much of the political effort was dedicated and well intentioned, and to my mind active participation is so much better than apathy. But it is a struggle having to remember which minute fractions of the Annandale libertarian Left were allied with Origlass and Wyner, which supported Crawford and Baldwin, which had lived in the Greenland communal house, who their partners and friends were, and who were more ambitious than ideological. And that is without considering Balmain, Leichhardt or Glebe.

All the major Australian political parties have suffered from destructive forms of factionalism – none more so at present than the NSW Liberal Party. Consequently, Harris has made a significant contribution to an understanding of Australian politics by examining in detail what factional politics really means at the local level. Many book reviewers are unfair in asking that an author should have written a different kind of book – to answer questions that the reviewer is interested in. With that admission (yes, I am being unfair, and Harris' book stands on its own feet quite well), I would like to suggest a couple of things that might have merited more attention.

The first comment is that a concentration on the local politics of Annandale, Balmain, and the Leichhardt Municipality suggests that the engine of factional politics is local and personal – ward politics. That is only partly true. The other driving force is best described as “machine” politics, which tends to have a wider geographic scope – beyond the immediate branch, SEC or FEC of the Labor Party. Leichhardt Municipality was part of a wider region of inner-city Sydney districts where mechanisms for control were put in place by a number of factions. There were city-wide caucuses of the Socialist Left, and then of the “hard” Left, the “soft” Left, and presumably the female Left. Directions came down from such caucuses to the local level, and influences went up in the other direction. Harris occasionally mentions such bodies, but gives them little importance. The reason is probably that his own faction of libertarians firmly rejected any such machine influence. That did not make it go away. Of local career politicians, people like Peter Baldwin, Peter Crawford and Sandra Nori gained advancement primarily by working the local networks. (Harris has no hesitation in referring to their “stacking” of branches.) Others, like John Faulkner, Meredith Burgmann and Tanya Plibersek, were more astute in working the regional machines and caucuses, even while they had firm local bases. Where does real factional power lie?

My second comment arises out of the personal political journey made by Tony Harris. He abandoned the Labor Party and so he is interested in, to use the title of one of his concluding chapters, the “diaspora” of activists who have done the same. I am more interested in what happened to the Labor Party as a result of the activities chronicled in the book. What would the Labor Party have to do to get rid of branch stacking and the more destructive aspects of factional politics? How can branch participation be revived? The questions are not asked. In effect, the book tells us more about the origins of the Sydney Greens than it does about the Labor Party. One can only hope that current members of The Greens read the book and learn from history.

* A/Professor Michael Hogan is an honorary associate with Government and International Relations, University of Sydney

Posted 22 November 2007

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