A revolutionary socialist, a leader, a towering and razor-sharp theoretician, a dear and loyal friend, a comrade in the struggle, just a few words that start to encompass Tom and his life.
Tom grew up in a world of Cold War fearmongering and threat in the heart of western imperialism, the US. As Tom wrote in his memoir, The Highway is for Gamblers, “[The school] was a place to hear exhilarating tales about satellite launches (except when they blew up) and a stage for paranoid war games”. It was a world encapsulated by Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues. As the challenges to western imperialism exploded around the world, he experienced the hope of the late 1960s and 1970s when revolution was truly in the air. The times of Paris 1968 through to the Portuguese revolution of 1974, Tom was in the thick of many of the struggles, helping build a revolutionary organisation that saw neither Stalinism nor Maoism, but the self-emancipation of the working class as the way to socialism.
Revolutions and major political changes during the late 1980s and 1990s were a major test of left-wing politics around the world. The rebellion of the Eastern bloc states and Russia itself highlighted the ongoing debate on what socialism really was. Was it best illustrated, as some argued, by the Stalinist Soviet empire or China or were these countries really just another form of capitalism—state capitalism—where workers had no more say than those in the west? In 1989, as Russia was facing increasing political crises and Poland, where the mass union Solidarnosc was a continuing challenge to the regime, Tom and I sought out revolutionaries, militant workers and other dissidents, getting first-hand knowledge of what was happening. Just a month or so before the complete collapse of the Soviet empire, we saw mass public meetings where dissident Andrei Sakharov spoke and talked to a key Solidarnosc worker militant in Wroclaw, as well as a feminist in Moscow who exposed the so-called equality of women under Stalinism.
Tom and I were in the Philippines shortly after President Marcos’ corrupt rule was overthrown by the People’s Power revolution. We marched along with thousands and thousands of workers through Manila streets on May Day. In South Korea the repressive regime meant more clandestine contacts with activists, though we did get to a strike at the Westpac bank in Seoul where we raised fists with the mostly female workforce. Now a Korean translation of Tom’s analysis of state capitalism is a key resource for socialists there.
Tom’s commitment to understanding the Asian region—including writing about Australia’s imperialist role in the region—led to a number of visits to Indonesia where he met with activists who were attempting to build a left-wing group. He maintained a long-term contact with people in Indonesia, including putting out a regular e-newsletter Suara Socialis with translations of key revolutionary texts.
At home during the Accord years, the revolutionary left, amongst few others, stood on the side of the working class against the class collaboration of the Labor Party and ACTU. We fought in the public sector union and supported unions under attack, like the BLF, the workers at Robe River, SEQEB or the Food Preservers Union, basically wherever workers were challenging the Accord. In our publication at the time, Socialist Action, Tom, in particular, navigated the fraught terrain of support for the militant BLF and its leader Norm Gallagher. Our work in activist support group, Defend the Unions, Defend the BLF, led to life-long friendships, but also was an example of a revolutionary commitment to working class struggle.
Tom wrote seven books, co-editing two others, Class and Class Struggle in Australia with Rick Kuhn and Rebel Women with Sandra Bloodworth, along with hundreds of articles and talks. One of his most incisive—and valuable books in these days of rising imperialist tensions—was The Neighbour From Hell, which demolishes the idea of Australia as a ‘lap dog’ of US imperialism, describing the country’s own imperialist ambitions in the Pacific. Tom had a magisterial grasp of Marx’s Capital which underpinned his commitment to working class revolution and socialism.
He wrote a particularly insightful study Marxism and Trade Union Theory: Three Essays. From Marx and Engels’ fundamental understanding of the working class’s early attempts at organising to Lenin and Trotsky and the primacy of politics; then on to Luxemburg and Gramsci and their revolutionary take on western trade unionism. He followed this with a detailed study of the 1930s Australian Minority Movement, the highs and lows of Communist Party organising, later incorporated into his history of the CPA, Into the Mainstream. Then an overview of rank and file organising during the 1970s and early 1980s, an invaluable history of those times when the IS had key activists, himself included, in a number of unions.
Writing wasn’t an academic exercise for Tom, its fundamental use was to help build and lead the revolutionary organisations that he devoted his life to, the International Socialists, Socialist Action and Socialist Alternative. Not just behind the desk, you would find him in the streets protesting, delivering riveting and enlightening talks, a union activist, the organising force behind revolutionary publications, building international links in his overseas travel and always building the revolutionary left wherever he was.
Tom was a leader. Not in the authoritarian, autocratic way capitalism breeds so-called leaders. He led in the times when leadership was called for, but he also wanted to lead alongside others and would give his time freely to talk, to try to convince, to lead by example and ultimately to train others around him to be leaders for socialism.
Right to the end, whenever I visited him, he wanted to discuss the current political situation, the Voice and as always, he had something relevant and insightful to say.
Socialist Alternative, with its 500 members, stands as a fitting legacy of Tom’s political life. Organising together to bring about a socialist world, a world without war, a world of equality, a world for the many not the few. In these times of genocide, the rise of the right, the recent racist rejection of the Voice, the spinelessness of the reformists, we need the intellectual clarity, the commitment to working class revolution, a preparedness to do everything necessary—even the smallest tasks like raising the red flag at demos, mailing out Red Flag—to build a revolutionary socialist group here in Australia. Everything that Tom did and was in his life, a life dedicated to socialism.
– Liz Ross
A spartan ground-floor flat in Sydney’s inner-western suburb of Summer Hill is where I first encountered Tom O’Lincoln, in 1976. It was a meeting of the tiny Sydney branch of the International Socialists, set up by a handful of intrepid colonists from Melbourne who had set out to conquer Australia’s largest city for revolutionary socialism. My friend Bruce Lanahan had been invited to talk about the struggle over political economy courses at Sydney University, in which we were both involved, and I tagged along.
We weren’t impressed, not so much by the other people present or their politics, about which we learnt little, as by the size of the gathering. But the following year, after more sustained contact with the IS’s Canberra branch and closer acquaintance with the organisation’s politics, I joined and soon got to know Tom better, to admire his abilities and value his friendship.
For periods, Tom was a full-time revolutionary; at different times he worked as a school teacher, a public servant and, briefly, in the metal trades industry and so had direct experience of being a wage labourer. That was only one element that defined him as an organic intellectual of the working class, in Antonio Gramsci’s sense. At least as important was his practical commitment to advancing workers’ interests in immediate struggles, in the cause of increasing the working class’s capacity to overthrow capitalism.
Tom wrote innovative and pioneering studies of different aspects of Australian history. But his achievements were not only on the level of ideas. While engaging in the group’s routine activities like other members, his development and popularisation of Marxist theory and practical perspectives were decisive for the survival and growth of organised revolutionary Marxism in Australia, as embodied in Socialist Alternative today. The 1976 programmatic pamphlet, The Fight for Workers’ Power, written by Tom, was an accessible account of Marxist politics and an absolutely crucial tool in our efforts to build an effective, activist revolutionary organisation on the basis of common theory and perspectives.
In hundreds of news, analytical and theoretical articles for the Battler, Socialist Action, The Socialist, Socialist Alternative and Red Flag newspapers, as well as Front Line, International Socialist and Marxist Left Review journals, Tom pursued the same goal. Some of the more substantial essays are in his collection ‘The Expropriators are Expropriated’. His writings for these and other publications, about big political issues, and in the internal documents of Socialist Alternative and its predecessors are very clear and logical. As an editor and collaborator, he helped me and others to write concisely and intelligibly, avoiding socialist and academic jargon.
The editorial Tom wrote for the first issue of the Socialist Workers Action Group’s Front Line, in 1974, expressed a vital and distinctive characteristic of his own politics and those of SWAG and its descendant, (through the International Socialists, Socialist Action and the International Socialist Organisation to) Socialist Alternative: “Our magazine, like our organisation, is still modest in scope. But it will possess the first requirement for revolutionaries: to look reality in the face”.
That means being aware of both the opportunities that the current situation presents and your organisation’s capacity to take advantage of them, and learning from experience. An experiment that Tom advocated illustrates the point. Although the level of class struggle had subsided from earlier in the decade, compared to the present the mid-1970s was a period of rampant working-class militancy. Like other organisations in Australia and elsewhere, Tom and the International Socialists believed that industrialisation—encouraging current or former students or white-collar workers to take blue-collar jobs—was a route to greater influence in the working class. After trying the tactic out for a while, they quite quickly gave it away as a bad idea.
Appreciation of reality is not only a matter of accurately assessing the broad political situation, but also the kind of organisational environment that can sustain revolutionary activists. In the mid-1980s, the IS lost touch with both. It turned inward, disdaining admittedly declining but therefore particularly important opportunities to develop the organisation’s political effectiveness by engaging with industrial and social struggles, and adopted a hyper-disciplined approach to members’ activity and behaviour. Tom was a leader of the group that split away to form Socialist Action to prevent members of the faction which disagreed with that turn from dropping out of revolutionary politics. When in 1989 Socialist Action fused with the IS, which had experienced a crisis and reassessed its practice, he became a member of the leadership of the new International Socialist Organisation.
Socialist Action founders, Balmain, Sydney, 1985.
Tom drew on earlier experiences of our political current to identify the perennial appeal and danger of political impatience for socialist organisations: get-rich-quick-schemes that combined mis-assessments of the nature of the period with overestimations of what their forces could achieve. The ISO succumbed to this appeal in the 1990s. Although he disagreed with the expulsion of the members who dissented, he joined Socialist Alternative, which they had set up, only later, once its vitality and realistic perspectives were obvious.
Throughout these, to the outsider obscure, organisational tribulations, Tom’s practical activity and writing continued to promote Marxist politics and working-class interests, not only in newspaper and journal articles but also in an impressive series of book-length studies, in which he addressed key issues for Australian socialists.
The first of these is Into the Mainstream, a history of the last major revolutionary organisation in Australia, the Communist Party, and its degeneration. Then there is his masterful and definitive history of class relations and struggles from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Years of Rage, republished in a third edition this year. With Sandra Bloodworth, he edited and contributed to the collection Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History. He and I put together a collective primer on contemporary Australian capitalism Class and Class Conflict in Australia, which was succeeded by Class and Struggle in Australia, whose chapters are available online. Tom’s chapter developed ideas about Australia’s place in world capitalism that he had first expressed around 1980. In a short book, with the same title—The Neighbour from Hell: Two Centuries of Australian Imperialism—he explored the same issue at greater length. Other volumes by Tom are a detailed examination of a controversial episode in the evolution of Australian imperialism, Australia’s Pacific War: Challenging a National Myth, and United We Stand: Class Struggle in Colonial Australia.
Tom’s richly illustrated political memoir, The Highway is for Gamblers, provides fascinating insights into the life of this dedicated and highly effective revolutionary.
– Rick Kuhn
Tom O’Lincoln spent his life fighting for socialism from below. For him there were no terms under which he would make peace with capitalism; the whole system needed to be overthrown and replaced with the collective, democratic rule of the working class. And this state of affairs could be brought about only through a mass working-class revolution.
From when he moved to Australia and helped to found the Socialist Workers Action Group in 1971, through to his later years in Socialist Alternative, Tom always understood that fighting for this kind of world means building revolutionary organisation.
This is what Tom committed his life to, what he saw as the most worthwhile outlet for his intellect and talents. Whether it was writing books and articles, speaking in meetings or patiently educating members at the pub, Tom wanted to build the ranks of the revolutionary left.
When I joined Socialist Alternative in 2008, I was lucky enough to be in a branch with Tom. He would regularly intervene in a discussion with “I just want to make three points”, which was sure enough followed by three pithy nuggets each more illuminating than the last. He was never one for jargon or esoterica. He had a knack for packaging theoretical concepts and the historical lessons of our movement in a way that would simultaneously make you think “that is so profound” and “that is so obvious”. He was also never one for repeating orthodoxy without question; for instance, at a Marxism conference in recent years I remember him asking a series of cutting questions that cast doubts about the economic aspects of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. This was always his way.
Tom was knowledgeable on many topics. He helped to educate many of us about Australian history, Stalinism, imperialism and nationalism. And he had many other areas of expertise. I was surprised one day to open Socialist Alternative’s magazine to a piece outlining Tom’s thoughts on German band Rammstein. One day at Monash I met an international student from Indonesia, who explained to me that Tom had helped him become a socialist by translating John Molyneaux’s The Real Marxist Tradition, which Luki had somehow managed to get a copy of. Tom was an internationalist with connections to socialists all over the world, and it touched him that he and Luki then found themselves in the same organisation.
When I visited Tom at his care facility earlier this year, I talked to him about the uprising going on in Iran. He asked me about the state of working-class organisation, whether the workers committees were serious and whether any section of the revolutionary left was growing. Despite the obvious impact of the cruel disease that took him, his capacity for clear thinking and seizing on the key points was deeply inspiring.
Tom was one of the world’s most precious resources: a lifelong, organised revolutionary socialist. His memory and his contributions will live on in our hearts and in our movement.
– Sarah Garnham