Tom O’Lincoln’s moving political memoir, The Highway Is for Gamblers, is a testament to a life worth living in the ranks of those fighting for human liberation. Tom became politicised in the turbulent 1960s and spent decades writing, organising and travelling in a lifelong effort to renew a creative tradition of Marxism in Australia and abroad (one of his many accomplishments was to establish the first Marxist website in the Indonesian language).
Everyone’s story is an interesting whole in its own right, and this book is what Tom has made of his – but it also captures the rich political history of the past six decades. The German student movement, Berkeley radicalism, the Whitlam sacking, the Portuguese and Nicaraguan Revolutions, the Lebanese civil war, dissidence in the Eastern bloc, labour struggles in South Korea, the fall of Suharto – many such episodes are told as eyewitness accounts, amid Tom’s reflections on building the International Socialist tradition in Australia. This account of the hands-on building of the Australian radical left, alongside momentous historical global events, is written with a pen that burns with indignation against oppression.
Importantly, this is not a nostalgic memoir of reminiscence, but rather an insight for the activists of tomorrow who hope to change the world. It is hard to pick from such a valuable collection, so this review will stick to some main lines of Tom’s biographical-political development.
The formative years
Tom spent the 1967–68 year at the University of Göttingen, where he joined the Socialist German Student Union and discovered Marxist ideas. He took these ideas back to a United States reeling from incipient rebellion and political fallout from the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. There, he came into contact with the International Socialists (whose Marxism was radically democratic and anti-Stalinist), who he joined in 1969, alongside Janey Stone. Being at Berkeley, the centre of a worldwide youth radicalisation, the pace of politics and the educative value of the IS must have been impressive, and indeed the experience gave them a firm political grounding before their arrival in Australia.
This period includes an interview with Joel Geier (a member of the Berkeley IS when Janey and Tom were there, and today editor of the International Socialist Review), which opens a fascinating window into the American ‘New Left’. Berkeley IS politics were against all oppression, making the organisation favourable to the emergence of the women’s and gay liberation movements (unlike some other left-wing groups at the time, unfortunately). ‘The question comes up and you may not be very sophisticated in the theoretical explanations,’ Geier explains. ‘But people are raising a question of oppression. Well, we’re against it [oppression] and that’s that.’ The garbage strike in Mississippi that Tom witnessed was also an acute example of the relationship between class and racial oppression. These moments of struggle and debate were fundamental to the development of a socialist vision determined to fight oppression in each of its incarnations. It is this tradition that Tom and Janey imported to Australia.
After arriving in Australia in late 1971, contact was made with Dave Nadel’s Marxist Workers Group at a May Day rally in Melbourne. Members in the group were open to the ideas of International Socialism, because they had an orientation to the working class as a force for historical change. In a short time the group changed its name to Socialist Workers’ Action Group and produced a newspaper – The Battler. The editorial of their first paper gives a flavour of the moment:
[T] he institutions that control people’s lives [are] in the hands of a small group of rich exploiters, who run society not for the good of all but for private profit. That profit in turn is created out of the exploitation of the working class. To maintain that exploitation and supplement it overseas, the Australian ruling class … is attacking the jobs and wages of workers, and trying to build up a ‘mini-imperialism’ in the Pacific Region. To keep its opponents among themselves, it fosters poisonous divisions in society along racial, ethnic and sex lines, and an ugly national chauvinism.
These lines aren’t out of place in today’s world. The group itself was in great flux, engaged in a process of learning, openly declaring ‘SWAG is not, at this time, a disciplined organisation’ – yet the orientation to working-class politics was the group’s strong point and they were subsequently able to evolve into an organisation with a national presence.
Direct Action. They were, however, able to win serious radicals to their politics, laying the foundations for a more serious organisation in the future. A window had opened between 1967–1974 with a wave of torrential social protest, radicalisation and class struggle. The traditional organisations of the workers’ movement, the ALP and the Communist Party alike, seemed to be weakening in their influence over radicals. Students from the campuses were turning to direct action, and many had drawn political conclusions hostile to the grip of Stalinism on the left. A supplementary account of this moment appears in Mick Armstrong’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?: the Australian student movement from its origins to the 1970s. The upsurge of class struggle meant that Marxists who said the working class was a force to change the world had theoretical sway. They won a group of students who had been involved in the Monash occupation of 1974, led by members of SWAG.
Recruiting students to revolutionary socialist ideas was and remains significant for the left in this country, which makes this a critical section of the book. ‘It is easier for a small group to recruit students, as they can be convinced on the basis of ideas. Dissatisfaction with existing parties made it easier to argue for building a new type of political organisation,’ Tom writes. A small organisation cannot secure lasting gains for workers imprisoned in the daily toil of exploitation, but they can rebuild a political imaginary and set down a theoretical framework that can win a core of activists drawn from social layers open to radical ideas (like students). When and if the class struggle moves again, in whatever new form it takes, the residues of this effort will undoubtedly matter. And where the radical left goes backward among students – unable to inspire – it goes backwards as a whole. Tom’s discussion complements the arguments made in Armstrong’s From Little Things Big Things Grow (2008) and a recent publication of Interventions, Tom Freeman’s Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism (2017) introduced by Sandra Bloodworth. The spirit of each of these works is simple: if it is possible to fight for Marxist ideas, intervene and do so. This is a precious lesson from Tom’s life and writing, with a literary audacity that is generally absent in the landscape of the Australian left.
The history Tom tells of the IST is dominated by a political argument against what he calls ‘the politics of impatience’. The phrase comes from his experiences of two splits he was involved in during the 1980s and 1990s. The politics of impatience is a sustained attempt to force the pace of events that bases political judgment on the fanciful desires of a sect rather than on a concrete assessment of what is possible – hence it loses touch with reality and risks spelling its own demise. ‘I have tried to analyse [the politics of impatience] as the culmination of a trend in the organisation for which I bear some responsibility myself … This is one of the two trends [impatience and flair] that stand out in the history of the International Socialists in Australia,’ he writes. Of course Tom’s Marxism is interventionist – building a Marxist organisation that can fight for workers’ revolution is the guiding thread of Tom’s political activity. But there should be a distinction between the politics of impatience (whose logical outcome leads its subjects to fling themselves into hopeless and inevitable martyrdom) and interventionist flair.
A critique of the former is always relevant. ‘The greatest damage done to us,’ Tom warns, ‘and I mean the revolutionary left as a whole in the West, where we operate legally and without much state harassment, is often self-inflicted.’
Honesty, truth, politics and ethics are woven into this argument. Looking reality in the face and being honest about the potentials for action is the only way to reach truth about a situation. This is a democratic process, because ‘recognising what is possible is a collective effort’. Without the clearest view of a situation, political actors can lose a foothold in reality. Bad faith, cynicism, resignation – all are short steps that can lead to what is ultimately an unethical ‘revolutionary’ politics. Tom’s radically democratic vision of working-class self-emancipation is antithetical to such an unethical politics. Ethical political practice – and by this I don’t mean banal moral individualism – is immanent to working-class struggle and arises from democratic deliberation within the forces of the left. This vision is one reason why Tom continues to inspire a younger generation of activists today.
Tom’s political experience was not confined to Australia, either. His tales of Portugal – a veritable laboratory for revolutionary strategy and thought for radicals all over the globe – and the Nicaraguan Revolutions are thrilling, but they also have intelligent judgments regarding the obstacles and failures of each of these moments. What is intriguing about The Highway Is for Gamblers is that wherever change was on the move, whether in continental and Easter Europe, Asia or Central and Latin America, Tom was somebody who wanted to pack his bags and find it. He’d speak the language and translate where he could (German, Spanish, French, Russian, Bahasa Indonesia), so as to get a better sense of the movement. This led him to figures like José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian Marxist theoretician who had a major impact on the Latin American left, and dissidents in the Eastern bloc like Yuri Afansiev, who were coming to terms with the nature of the Stalinist regime. Most notable, though, were Tom’s links and connections with activists from Indonesia then operating in the People’s Democratic Party. A standout theoretical contribution to the Indonesian left was his translation – alongside Setiabudi – of John Molyneux’s What Is the Real Marxist Tradition.
Theoretical and historical writings
The small size of the radical left in Australia did not (and should not) preclude the creative elaboration of radical writing and the fight for ideas. One can usually gauge the health of a left-wing group by their attitude to ideas: do they cultivate the widest possible intellectual universe, or do they leave ideas to rot? Do they develop and innovate theory, or retreat into fossilised traditions imported from elsewhere? Do they fight for the fundamentals of Marxist theory in light of challenging political developments? Does their Marxism resemble a restricted and sectarian scholasticism rather than an intellectual endeavour that takes nothing for granted?
Tom’s writings deal with a number of themes, as he tries to apply Marxist theory to the modern world we inhabit. Outside of articles, educative talks and organisational documents, he has primarily written on imperialism, class conflicts and the left in Australian history, and questions of gender and racial oppression. On imperialism he wrote Australia’s Pacific War and The Neighbour from Hell (here is a link to a deconstruction of Anzac Day), and speaks often of help from Overland’s former editor Jeff Sparrow on these projects; on the history of the colonial state and class confrontations in Australian history, Tom’s oeuvre includes United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia, Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era, Into The Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism and the co-edited Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History (with Sandra Bloodworth) and Class and Class Conflict in Australia (with Rick Kuhn).
Marxist ideas for human liberation are tied to the notion of working-class self-emancipation. Without such a non-negotiable footing, ideas can drift easily about without anchor. In the spirit of self-emancipation, Hal Draper (a leader of the IS at Berkeley whom Tom personally knew) would refer to ‘socialism from below’ (such as in his pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism) – this means that workers themselves need to overthrow the chains of oppression, that this is the only way genuine freedom can be won.
This premise is Tom’s theoretical and political wager. At his book launch at Hilltop aged-care facility, it was, he explained, the paths opened by his wager for human freedom that gave a coherent meaning to his life and the collective passions he has been involved in. These ideas are present in the experiences mentioned above and elaborated on in chapters on Marx, Hegel and ‘Writing Books’.
It was into the theoretical lens of the British IS that Tom grew to learn from Marx (though in latter years he saw the growing limitation of the British dominated IST orthodoxy). Nigel Harris, author of Beliefs in Society and Of Bread and Guns, had a great impact on Tom. His sense of the dynamic character of capitalism was fresh. Such an attitude fed into Tom’s reading of Marx in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Capital is ‘the greatest argument ever written to fight for a better world [it is about] getting down to the bottom of the cesspool, finding the mechanisms that make it happen.’
Reading Marx’s work was enriching on two counts, Tom argues. It refined thinking about capital and the method of thought often called dialectics. The purpose of Marx’s theory was to interpret the world in order to change it; it’s a method of analysis that has to be built upon by subsequent generations.
A more thoroughgoing discussion of Capital, and other of Marx’s ideas, can be found in Tom’s book The Expropriators are Expropriated (published by Interventions, 2016), a collection of essays he had written over his years of political engagement. The book has a great pedagogic character, without losing its theoretical edge.
According to Tom, Marx’s Capital is relevant because capitalism is a system in which ‘our subjugation to the wealth we’ve made is, in a sense, slavery to our own past’. This ‘slavery’ has an inbuilt destructive tendency that leads the system into ever-greater crisis. Capitalism is a vampiric system, which lives only by sucking the labour of the living. Exploitation of living labour is predicated upon a state of alienation – the wealth that a minority accumulates into their hands is the fruit of the majority’s toil. Against the inhumanity of alienation, freedom is the emancipation of living labour, of those who work to earn their way.
It is hard to summarise Tom’s memoirs further. As always, a life goes beyond the written script, and this first-person account makes it difficult to gauge how much of an impact Tom has had on others, how he has generously trained up countless activists in various ways. Patiently working with writers struggling with form, intervening into political meetings (on countless occasions, in his sparing style, he has provided the room with its eureka moment of clarity when discussing a historical or conceptual problem), the general sharing of historical knowledge – all this is an engagement that Tom wilfully undertakes with anybody that wants to see a better world. Tom O’Lincoln has made the gamble to change the world all the more worthwhile. Read his book(s).
*For readers looking for Tom’s books, the best place to start would be the New International Bookshop at Trades Hall, Melbourne.