Woman on top? by Cath Fletcher
The myth of Elizabeth is of the Virgin Queen ruling over an expanding empire, of thrilling explorations, of Drake’s voyage around the world and of finishing one’s game of bowls before sailing out for an afternoon’s battle with the Spanish Armada. Kapur’s film, which is a portrait of the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, sets out to recount how the image of the Virgin Queen was created by the Queen herself — rather in the style of Thatcher or Diana — for political ends. But the virgin image is not the only myth of Elizabeth’s reign that collapses under closer scrutiny. Much of the popular myth of adventure and imperial expansion — although this is largely beyond the scope of the film — falls too.
In fact, Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) provided, for 45 years, the relative stability which allowed the rapid development of capitalism — albeit still within the framework of a feudal state.
Huge political uncertainty had followed Henry VIII’s death in 1547. The accession of his daughter Mary to the throne led to the restoration of Roman Catholicism as the official faith, and the persecution of Protestant “heretics”. It was not until the Elizabethan “settlement” of 1559 — the passing of an Act of Supremacy (declaration that the Queen was Head of the Church) and an Act of Uniformity (the imposition of a Common Prayer Book) — that some religious stability was achieved. Both the hysteria of the Marian persecution — although even the extent of that is now disputed by historians — and the political victory for Elizabeth that was the Act of Uniformity are captured brilliantly in the film.
Until 1560, England remained at war with France, and in an uneasy alliance with Catholic Spain which had been made through the marriage of Queen Mary and King Philip of Spain. But the alliance collapsed and England and Spain were effectively at war from the 1570s through to the 1590s. Elizabeth’s foreign policy was based on careful diplomacy, playing off France and Spain — both significantly more powerful at the time than England.
There were a number of attempts backed by Rome and Spain to depose Elizabeth. A revolt of Northern feudal lords in 1570 (conflated into an earlier conspiracy in the film) — backed by a Papal Bull declaring Elizabeth had no right to the throne — was smashed, as was the Irish revolt of the 1590s, led by the Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O’Neill, with Spanish backing. O’Neill’s tribal territory of Ulster was handed over to English and Scottish landlords. England also offered support to those fighting the Spanish — notably the Protestant revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, to which military aid was sent in 1585.
Spain was the leading imperial power at the time, controlling much of South America. England did not have the resources to compete with Spain in terms of colonisation, which, in the bleak Virginian woods, was expensive and did not make for immediate high returns. Walter Raleigh’s attempt to colonise what he named “Virginia” in 1587 failed, and English colonisation did not really take off until the 1620s with the Puritan migration.
England’s overseas expansion was based on trade, and on piracy against the Spanish — which provided a quicker return than colonisation and was encouraged by the state as a useful boost to the war effort. In 1601 the East India Company was formally established, giving a group of merchants the monopoly over English trade with the East Indies.
The growing bourgeoisie had been boosted during the Reformation of 1536, when Henry VIII had expropriated the Church lands. These were given away or sold off at nominal prices to royal favourites or speculating farmers and citizens, which had the effect of creating a big new group of bourgeois landlords. The rise of the bourgeoisie was aided by the fact that the Wars of the Roses of 1455-85 had led to some of the biggest aristocratic dynasties effectively massacring each other.
The merchant class was growing rapidly. Social historian Trevelyan describes the City of London under Elizabeth: “Neither monarchy nor aristocracy had any strongholds within the City boundaries. The royal power lay outside in Whitehall and Westminster... and the Tower... The power and privilege of the Mayor and citizens, with their formidable militia, formed a State within the State — a society that was purely bourgeois, inside the larger England that was still monarchical and aristocratic.”
The growth of capitalist enterprise meant a rapid increase in the general standard of living. Chimneys were built in many more houses; pewter replaced wooden plates; pillows and sheets were no longer a luxury.
But the lives of peasants were by no means uniformly improved. The Reformation had led to the driving out of many hereditary sub-tenants from Church lands. Increasing specialisation in farming — with different regions producing particular crops — meant a move to private farms enclosed by hedges, through the grabbing of common land which had previously been used for subsistence farming. The increasing number of paupers forced the introduction for the first time, in 1601, of a Poor Law, which obliged parishes to levy a compulsory rate on local householders for the support of local paupers.
A rapid rise in the population (it doubled between 1550 and 1650) led to grain shortages and consequent price increases. An increase in the quantity of silver and gold on the world market — courtesy of Spanish plundering of South America — led to further price rises as the relative value of silver money fell.
The rise of the bourgeoisie had political consequences too, which had to be accommodated by the state. Although Elizabeth remained absolute ruler she was increasingly forced to rule with the consent of Parliament, which was constantly suspicious of proposed tax rises and requests for subsidies. In 1601 most of the monopolies which had been granted by the crown in return for cash were repealed under pressure from the Commons. Free trade — and the confidence of Parliament — expanded. The scene was set for the conflict between Crown and Parliament that would less than fifty years later lead to the declaration of a Republic and to the English Revolution.
Hall Greenland’s fascinating book tells us a lot about what manner of people made our movement in the hard days from the 1930s to the ‘60s. Hall was one of Nick’s closest comrades in his last 30 years, but has done a fine job both in combining appreciation with critical review of that time and in doing justice to Nick’s years as an “orthodox Trotskyist”, from age 26 to his late 50s1.
In May 1933 a group of communists, expelled or distanced from the official Communist Party, and active in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, formed the Workers’ Party of Australia, after seeing, by chance, a copy of US Trotskyist paper The Militant.
Nick had met the future Trotskyists when he came to Sydney, looking for work, in 1931-2. He joined the WP in 1934, and was active in the builders’ and ironworkers’ unions in his home town, Brisbane. In 1937 he moved back to Sydney. The first moving spirits of the Workers’ Party, Jack Sylvester and John Anderson, were dropping out.
“For the next 30 years,” as Hall recounts, “Nick was the chief of a small group of would-be revolutionaries. There were never more, and usually less, than 25 members in Sydney, 12 in Melbourne, and six in Brisbane.” There were short-lived splinters and rivals, but Nick’s was always the main Trotskyist group.
They were isolated, operating in a labour movement with no Marxist culture, where the left was dominated by a Stalinist party, always small numerically but sometimes very strong in the unions. Not until 1961 did a delegate from Australia attend an international Trotskyist gathering; not until 1976-7 did Nick himself travel overseas; no comrades with large experience from other countries arrived to help them. For instruction they relied on the US Trotskyist press, arriving by sea-mail or (in wartime) not at all. Nick read a lot. But, outside jobless spells around 1938 and 1959, he worked at hard manual jobs until 1971. Work and non-stop activism limited his reading to articles and pamphlets. He probably never read Marx’s Capital. The “student” of the group was another young worker, Laurie Short2.
Initially the Trotskyists’ activity centred round speaking in the Domain (Sydney’s Hyde Park) on Sundays. They did not join the Australian Labor Party until 1941, and then the main impulse was to find a channel for political activity safer from government persecution: their group had been declared illegal in June 1940, and three members had been jailed. In 1945, however, the Trotskyists, and Nick personally, showed their ability to mobilise workers and combine stubbornness on principle with tactical flexibility. The Stalinist leaders of the ironworkers’ union tried to disbar Nick as union delegate at Mort’s Dock. Not only Nick’s workmates, but also thousands of other workers in the shipyards of the Balmain peninsula (just across Darling Harbour from Sydney’s city centre) struck for six weeks against their union leaders for the right to elect their own representatives. They won.
Because the Australian CP, unlike most others, switched from their wartime anti-strike policy to support for working-class militancy immediately the war ended, the Australian Trotskyists did not have the same rapid growth in the mid-1940s as their comrades in other countries. There were still only 26 of them in 1946. They did, however, suffer the same isolation and political crisis as Trotskyists overseas when the Cold War developed from 1947-8. In late 1948 Laurie Short and the group’s other main writer on international issues, Jim McClelland, dropped out.
In his farewell letter, Laurie Short meticulously demolished the idea that the USSR was still a workers’ state3. He had read Max Shachtman and other dissident Trotskyists in the USA — no-one else in Australia had, except perhaps McClelland — but was influenced more by Eugene Lyons and Max Eastman than by Shachtman4. He became not a Third Camp revolutionary but one of Australia’s foremost right-wing union leaders, ousting the Stalinists from the Ironworkers. McClelland became a famous lawyer, then a Labor government minister.
Nick defended the faith. Searching for answers, and perhaps troubled by signals of uncertainty in the press of the US Trotskyists — whose leader, James P Cannon, was reluctant to accept the growing “orthodox Trotskyist” consensus that the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe were “deformed workers’ states” — he turned to the writings of Michel Pablo, which had now started to arrive from France.
Nick knew no French, so he got a French dictionary and translated the documents word by word. Pablo argued that the expansion of Stalinism was a contradictory expression of an underlying logic of world socialist revolution. The Trotskyists must embed themselves in “the process” by “deep entry” into Labour or Stalinist parties, where history would soon impel the creation of big revolutionary-tending left wings. In this millenarian vision Nick found a framework for his own fierce determination to stay active in the cause of working-class liberation.
His group immersed itself deeper in the Labor Party. In the 1953 division of the world “orthodox Trotskyist” movement between Cannon and Pablo, and in the ’63-5 realignment where Pablo was pushed out with a small minority, they sided with Pablo.
However, their hope that ripples from Third World revolution would reach Australia and push along a big Labor left proved false. Worse, Nick’s group so developed that when many more people did start looking towards Trotskyist ideas, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, it could not organise them. The Cannonite “Resistance”, from ’67; the Healyite SLL, from ’71; and the IS, from ’72, were all led by young new activists. Not a single one of the old Trotskyists “carried over” into the new generation.
According to Bob Gould, who joined Nick’s group in 1957, “it wasn’t really a group.” It was a collection of people, each with his or her own activity in the ALP or elsewhere, who gathered occasionally to hear Nick hold forth. In 1958 Nick became a local Labor councillor. He “was soon hooked. Local government catered for three of his key addictions: it made him ‘somebody’; it provided a constant forum for political argument; and a base for democratic rebellion against ‘higher’ authority.” He would remain on the council until 1995, with a break in 1980-4. He stood for Labor until 1968 (when the ALP expelled him for breaking the whip), a disaffiliated local “Balmain-Leichhardt Labor Party” from 1968-70, and as an independent thereafter. He joined the Greens in 1984. On the council he fought for democracy (council and committee meetings open for all residents to speak) and against noxious industrial and high-rise development (using mass “works inspections”).
After 1960 Nick’s group included some sympathisers of non-Pablo Trotskyism. But no progressive dialogue resulted. When Nick declared for Pablo in the split of 1965, the group split, “the younger members complaining that Nick dominated meetings, making it impossible to introduce and hold new recruits, who quickly became bored by his interminable lectures” — and the anti-Pabloites scattered. Nick was still full of ideas, but less able to organise a Marxist group. After about 1968, following Pablo, he preached “self-management”, and became critical of Bolshevism as “substitutionist”, though he remained an admirer of the 1917 Revolution and Lenin. In the 1970s he came to believe that the USSR was not a workers’ state but bureaucratic collectivist; in this he was influenced not only by Pablo, but also Moshe Lewin and Rudolf Bahro. His political group became more and more a tail of his activity as a councillor. By about 1977 it had petered out, though into the ‘80s Nick continued to translate and circulate articles by Pablo.
When the young Trotskyists of the late 1960s and early ’70s came to ask his advice and seek his support, he would lecture them about his council work and advise them to do similar or fall prey to “substitutionism.” Nick’s steamroller personality had combined with the vision of secret revolutionary logics within unpromising Stalinism or municipal reform to create an unbridgeable communication gap.
It is very hard for an individual to remain embattled against a world of greater culture without being dogmatic. Our job is to create a collective which can combine steadfastness with open thought.
Red Hot: the Life and Times of Nick Origlass, by Hall Greenland. Wellington Lane Press, Sydney, 1998. $25.00. Available in UK from W. Greenland, 11 Temple Fortune Lane, London NW11. £10, incl. p&p.
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