COMMENT: by Amy McGrathNews Weekly
Getting history wrong - Ross Fitzgerald's 'The Pope's Battalions'
, February 28, 2004
I have followed the so-called "history wars" to date as if they had no direct impact on anyone I knew. I saw them as largely about whether research and narrative of past events has been accurate and, if it they are not, whether the reputations of those involved, be it individuals or groups, have been damaged.
But, when I bought a recent book by Ross Fitzgerald The Pope's Battalions - Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split,
I was confronted with the fact that inexcusable inaccuracy had branded my husband, Frank McGrath, as a "Trotskyite" (world-revolutionary Communist) for posterity in a work with pretensions of academic stature and expertise by referring to him thus: "Trotskyist organisers Nick Origlass and Frank McGrath".Damage done
It is impossible to repair the damage done by the careless reference to him as a "Trotskyist organiser" at a time when his fellow Balmain ironworkers considered the anti-imperialist, anti-war Trotskyite pamphleteering of those who were - Nick Origlass and Laurie Short - as a joke.
They would undoubtedly have been surprised back then if anyone alleged they were members of Short's "domain", as this book does.
Surprised as my husband is, given that he spent a decade strenuously arguing against Marxism notably during four years of law school with Jim McClelland, who used to joke, "You're the first we'll shoot on the barricades." He had also spent time arguing the illogicalities of Trotskyism with Nick Origlass himself over the blacksmith's shop anvil in Morts Dock.
This was not the only inaccuracy in just seven lines on pages 54-55 attributed to the books Laurie Short: a Political Life
by his daughter, Susanna Short, and Revolutionaries and Reformers
by Robin Gollan.
Another indefensible misreporting occurs in the assertion, referring to the Balmain Branch of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), that "In union elections in 1943 Short's Trotskyists defeated Communist candidates by a two to one majority."
The Communist faction led by Tom Brislan was not defeated in that unpleasant election, as is fully described in my book Forging of Votes,
published in 1994, based on an early detailed version recorded in the late 1950s.
In truth, when the Communist branch executive was overturned two years later in 1945 the Trotskyist Communists, Origlass and Short, were only two out of 13 on the Langite ALP non-Communist branch executive.
A further inaccuracy exists in the statement that "the support of Santamaria and Freedom
extended to raising £1,500 ($3,000) for the Balmain strike committee and for two months paid the wages of Trotskyist organisers Nick Origlass and Frank McGrath."
The proceeds of a fund raised from individual donations was offered to the new Committee of Management elected after the strike ended, when the Communist executive was removed by a special meeting of the Balmain Branch in May 1945.
In view of the fact that this action was being disputed in the courts, it was decided to accept the money to be used for Branch outgoings so that union funds would not be touched until the legitimacy of the removal of the Communist officials had been validated by the courts.
Part of the money was allocated to the wages of the branch Secretary, Frank McGrath, who had replaced Bill Burnett after he resigned due to ill health, and the Assistant Secretary, Nick Origlass.
The book also gets it wrong in its conclusion that "this demonstrates the extent to which Santamaria would go to counter the influence of the Communist Party. It seems unlikely that Santamaria's Catholic supporters, such as Archbishop Mannix, were aware that the Movement was giving funds to Trotskyists."
He was in fact not doing so, but giving money to a Balmain branch committee, the large majority of whose executive members were all loyal Lang anti-Communist Labor supporters.
Because my husband played a leading role in the fight against Communism for the next six years and a significant part in proving the Communist Federal Secretary, Ernie Thornton, had committed fraud, forgery and irregularities in the 1949 FIA election, he has long been subjected to such slander, smear, victimisation in his career, and distortion of the truth from the left.
Nevertheless, I was astonished that Ross Fitzgerald was not aware of my book, Forging of Votes,
when he had no less than two assistants, and 79 authorities thanked in his preface.Reliable sources
Let it be said, in this context, that I, myself, was accused of inaccuracy by Gerard Henderson in a review of Forging of Votes
in a Sydney Institute publication. He said that my book could not be accurate because I had no reliable sources.
And what of those who were alive when I wrote the first detailed account of those events in the 1950s? What of Nick Origlass and my husband, both around when I wrote the second account in 1993-94?
When I rang Dr Henderson to complain vehemently that he had seen fit to condemn the accuracy of my book at his Sydney Institute, he responded "I thought he must be dead. It was so long ago."
My husband is perfectly capable of picking any inaccuracies of detail I might commit. Indeed he launched a work of scholarship of his own authorship just a month ago The Framers of the Constitution - Their Intentions.
But he has now been misrepresented once again through slipshod research, which has portrayed him as the very opposite of what he was at the time and still is - an arch-enemy of Marxism in all its shapes and forms, whether Stalinist Communism or Trotskyite Communism.
I might well ask, as Padraic McGuinness did in 1992: "What is the importance of all this history now? First it is still distorted by many of our ideological historians. Second, it is frequently pretended that the creation of the ALP Industrial Groups was an over-reaction to a trivial problem. In those days, Communist imperialism was seen as a clear and present danger to the world." (The Australian,
September 3, 1992)