Tom O’Lincoln: a political life

17 October 2023
Mick Armstrong

Tom O’Lincoln, one of the key founders of the revolutionary socialist current from which Socialist Alternative originated, has sadly died in Melbourne after a long illness.

I first met Tom in 1974 when I joined the Socialist Workers Action Group (SWAG). Tom was the leading political figure in the group—doing everything from public speaking to running internal educationals, writing scores of articles for our soon-to-be re-launched paper, The Battler, and drawing up perspective documents. In a small group like SWAG, which only had 16 or 18 members when I joined, leaders like Tom had to be a jack-of-all-trades, combining political tasks with more “hum drum” ones, such as typing up newsletters and spending hour after hour, in the pre-photocopier age, running off interminable leaflets and documents on a Gestetner machine that was prone to repeatedly breaking down. Tom combined all this incredible activity with his work as a school teacher, through which he was a prominent activist in the militant rank-and-file group in the secondary teachers’ union at the time.

Tom had developed his Marxist politics in the US International Socialists (IS). The IS had a distinctive political orientation compared to the many other socialist groups that existed in the early 1970s. While resolutely hostile to Western capitalism, the IS also opposed the Stalinist tyrannies that paraded as socialist in countries like Russia and China. Its slogan was: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.

The IS stood for workers’ power and the overthrow of the bosses and ruling bureaucrats in every country. It based itself on the core principle of Marxism: that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself.

There were going to be no liberators from on high, whether Labor politicians, union bureaucrats, Russian tanks or guerrilla bands; workers had to liberate themselves. Reflecting that perspective, the IS championed industrial militancy and direct action, the formation of rank-and-file groups in workplaces, and the building of a revolutionary party to challenge the reformist political leaders.

After moving to Australia in 1971 with Janey Stone, who had also been active in the IS (US), Tom joined the small Marxist Workers Group (MWG), a loose group whose politics were evolving. Over the following two years, Tom and Janey played a key role in winning the MWG to explicitly IS politics.

They also successfully argued that the MWG had to become a more coherent and disciplined Leninist organisation with a more interventionist and activist orientation. Reflecting this shift, the MWG changed its name to the Socialist Workers Action Group (SWAG) and put out the first edition of its paper, The Battler, for the December 1972 elections that brought the Whitlam Labor government to office.

Over the next few years, SWAG began to grow despite some setbacks. Then, in the wake of the mass working class revolt provoked by the Kerr Coup of 11 November 1975, SWAG set itself the task of breaking out of Melbourne and building a national revolutionary organisation.

Tom and a small group of comrades, including myself, moved to Sydney to establish a branch there. The group had been renamed the International Socialists following a regroupment conference at which we united with a small revolutionary group in Hobart and made stronger connections with a group of comrades in Canberra, who were soon to join.

As part of an attempt to break into the working class, Tom argued for a perspective of industrialisation—student members taking blue-collar factory jobs. He led by example, taking a job in the metal trades, the key centre of industrial militancy in those years.

With various shifts in orientation, the IS continued to grow in the course of the 1970s. Branches were established in Brisbane, where we played a leading role in the civil liberties campaign against the right-wing Bjelke Petersen government’s ban on street marches, as well as in Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney in addition to Melbourne.

In late 1979, Tom, Janey and I visited Lebanon and stayed with members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Tom could speak a wide variety of languages, including German, Franch, Russian and, later, Indonesian. We relied on his French to communicate with our hosts. Tom was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, and in Lebanon and Syria we saw the realities of life in refugee camps for Palestinian refugees and we also visited occupied Palestine and met up with revolutionary opponents of the Zionist regime.

Tom O'Lincoln (right) on a visit to Lebanon in 1979
Tom O'Lincoln (right) and Mick Armstrong (left) with Palestinian activists on a visit to the Middle East in 1979

The 1980s were a much more difficult period for the revolutionary left. There was a sharp downturn in industrial militancy, a shift to the right in broader society, and an abandonment of revolutionary politics by large sections of those radicalised during the mass struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A number of socialist groups collapsed.

This led to sharp debates and an eventual split in the IS, in which Tom and I were on opposite sides. However, by the end of the 1980s we had re-united as the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), in which Tom and I both served on the national leadership.

The ISO grew substantially in the early 1990s, but then went off the rails. Reflecting the ISO’s degeneration, a number of comrades in Melbourne were expelled in 1995 and went on to form Socialist Alternative. Tom took a principled stance opposing those expulsions but did not initially leave the ISO. He still hoped the organisation could be reformed. But despite writing some insightful documents, Tom was unable to convince the ISO leadership to change course. Impressed by the consolidation and growth of Socialist Alternative, he joined us more than 15 years ago.

He remained an active member of Socialist Alternative, until the deterioration of his illness made that impossible. Right up to the end he remained a committed revolutionary and a Socialist Alternative member and followed, to the best that he still could, developments in the organisation.

Tom leaves an important legacy in his writings, as well as numerous articles and pamphlets, and a series of important books. His books include Into the Mainstream, an important critique of the Stalinist politics and decline of the Communist Party of Australia; Years of Rage, an analysis of the social conflicts and debates on the left during the Fraser years; two studies of Australian imperialism The Neighbour from Hell and Australia’s Pacific War; a study of the early Australian working class movement, United We Stand; and a collection of his writings, The Expropriators are Expropriated. And as part of his contribution to developing socialist ideas about women’s liberation, he co-edited Rebel Women with Sandra Bloodworth.

Tom’s life and commitment is an inspiration for all of us fighting to overcome the horrors of capitalism. Without comrades like Tom Socialist Alternative would not have become the organisation it is today – with over 500 members the largest revolutionary socialist group in Australia since the 1920s with an active, committed and growing young membership.

His patience, insightfulness and generosity will be keenly missed. Tom never tired of helping people to learn about Marxist politics, and always encouraged others to speak and write.

It is our task to build on his legacy by putting all our energy into the vital task of establishing a socialist movement that is capable of tearing down the existing order and building a new society of genuine freedom in its place. Tom would have endorsed the famous words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organise”.

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