Challenges From Below, Death From Above
When the 1931 NSW Labor conference took place, the units had grown rapidly so that they came close to securing majority support. Delegates loyal to the units were able to push through a provocative motion insisting that the ALP commit itself to the socialization of Australian industry “within three years.”
Such militancy revealed a willingness to confront the ALP’s top-down, conservative leadership structures. It makes for a stark contrast with today’s highly bureaucratized Socialist Left faction inside the ALP, renowned for collaborating with the Labor Right.
The NSW Labor leadership did not approve. The Socialization Units were soon locked into a bitter rivalry with Jack Lang’s Inner Group, an alliance of union officials also known as the “Trades Hall Reds.” Although the Inner Group often supported militancy, they regarded the Socialization Units as a direct political rival and a threat to their hegemony over the labor movement.
Clarrie Martin, a Labor parliamentarian who helped establish the units, was frustrated by the conflict. Following a poor election result, he criticized Lang at a meeting of the units:
My experience in parliament has consolidated my socialist beliefs and made me realize more fully than ever [the] need for spreading socialist thought … in my opinion Lang, though a good fighter, knew very little about socialism.
Crucially, the units did not involve themselves directly in unions, isolating themselves from many politically active unionists. Although they did later turn toward organized labor, by that time it was too late.
This gave the Inner Group a free hand to use the political resources of the party machine to attack the Socialization Units, outvoting them with sizeable union-based voting blocs at ALP conferences, and publishing hit pieces in the widely circulated official party newspaper, Labor Daily. This magnified a built-in weakness of the Socialization Units. Their attempt to democratize the Labor Party relied on using party resources. When the party machine turned on the units, this made them vulnerable.
Perhaps the most dramatic phase of this rank-and-file revolt was its rapid disorganization and demise, led by Jack Lang himself, who passed a motion at the NSW ALP’s 1933 conference, severing the Socialization Units from the party. Just two years after their breakthrough victory at the 1931 ALP state conference, the units found themselves isolated.