Issy Wyner (1916-2008)

By John Percy

Issy Wyner, one of the pioneers of revolutionary socialism in Australia, died in Sydney in August, aged 92. Issy was an early member of the Workers Party, the first Trotskyist group in Australia, formed in May 1933. Those early Trotskyists were mostly former members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), maintaining their original support for the communist ideal as exemplified in the Bolshevik Revolution, and rebelling against the political degeneration of the Communist Party taken over by Joseph Stalin, and the subsequent political and organisational degeneration of communist parties around the world.

Prominent among them were Jack Sylvester, CPA central committee member, and national secretary of the Unemployed Workers Movement, who had been expelled in 1932; Laurie Short and Issy Wyner who had been expelled from the Young Communist League; Professor John Anderson of Sydney University, who transferred his allegiance from the CPA to the Workers Party; Ted Tripp, another CPA central committee and political bureau member who was expelled in 1934. Joe Boxhall was the first secretary of the Workers Party. They had a base among the unemployed movement in Glebe in Sydney, and later among dock workers in Balmain, and in October 1933 started publishing their paper, Militant.

In 1934 Nick Origlass joined the Trotskyist group, also after coming up against the degenerating politics and undemocratic practices of the CPA as it succumbed to the influence of Stalinism. Origlass was the backbone of the small Trotskyist group for the next three decades, and Issy Wyner became his closest supporter. “Nick ’n Issy” became a shorthand way to describe their group.

Wyner’s father was a founding member of the CPA, and Wyner was a radical and rebel from childhood. Against the stream in the ’30s, against the repression from the much larger CPA and from the state, they tried to build a party adhering to the ideals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They attracted many talented individuals, but never grew beyond 50 members.

Perhaps the highpoint of their struggle was the battle during World War II led by Nick Origlass and his comrades in the ironworkers, union in Balmain. Origlass had taken work as an ironworker at Mort’s Dock, and Wyner was also working in the industry. They won mass support for maintaining a principled industrial struggle even during the war, and against attempts by the CPA — who led the rest of the ironworkers’ union — to remove the Trotskyists from their leadership positions.

This story of the Balmain Trotskyists – Origlass and Wyner, and others like Jack Sponberg in the Boilermakers’ Union – is well told in Hall Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot. It’s one of the most exciting and inspiring struggles in the history of the Australian labour movement. The small Trotskyist group was still fighting against the stream during the war and after, and some of their members sold out to the right. Origlass and Wyner never sold out. They continued to struggle, although undoubtedly made many mistakes in their efforts to build a party. During the ’50s their group adopted the tactic of entry into the ALP, but it ossified into a permanent strategy.

In January 1968 Origlass and Wyner were expelled from the ALP for breaking a municipal caucus decision. They were councillors on Balmain Council, Origlass having been first elected in 1958. The ALP machine was supporting the establishment of a chemical tank facility on the Balmain peninsula. Origlass and Wyner had the support of their local ALP branch, and the local residents, and ran as Balmain Labor in the early state election called for February 1968.

Origlass and Wyner were elected to Leichhardt Council as the Balmain Leichhardt Labor Party in December 1968, and then as independents. Origlass became mayor of Leichhardt in 1971-73, Wyner in 1989. They were able to implement their ideas for an “open council”, encouraging resident participation, and contributed to many local conservation victories.

For most of the ’50s Trotskyism in Australia was represented by this small circle around Origlass and Wyner, who were loyal followers of Michel Pablo, the secretary of the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), winning a few supporters from the CPA following the 1956 Khrushchev secret speech denouncing Stalin and the Hungarian revolution. The Trotskyists experienced some modest growth in the first half of the ’60s, recruiting some youth and students through activity in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, solidarity with Cuba and anti-apartheid work. When Pablo’s supporters left the FI in 1965, the pro-Pablo supporters had a narrow majority in the Australian group.

After the World War II Issy Wyner had became a painter and docker at Cockatoo Island and for 30 years was a full-time official of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. He was elected as full-time vigilance officer or NSW secretary of the union, elected every year for 30 years. In 1983, Issy Wyner published With Banner Unfurled, tracing the union’s early history from the 19th century. A second volume, My Union Right Or Wrong, published by the State Library in 2001, took the history to World War II.

Nick Origlass died in 1996. Issy Wyner delivered the main address at his funeral. Wyner concluded: “Nick Origlass believed, with a boundless fervour and dedication, in the eventual triumph of the people over the evils accumulated and distilled over past centuries into what we now regard as modern capitalism; in the certainty that humanity will overcome the barbarians, the mass destroyers, the wreckers of the potential for advancement, whether fascist or Stalinist; to the eventual end of a social system which can tolerate what Maxim Gorky described as ‘mountains of gold out of seas of human blood’; and in the certainty that the people would soon set their feet firmly and unswervingly on the road to a society that knows no bounds in human endeavour and achievement.” These words applied also to Issy Wyner himself – a revolutionary socialist who didn’t give up on his original ideals, and had a proud history fighting in the interests of the working class.

[John Percy is national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and was one of the first recruits to the Trotskyist movement from the generation radicalised by the campaign against the war in Vietnam.]