Remembering Dick Morrison, Marxist and gay liberation pioneer

Posted: March 9, 2015 by Admin in At the coalface, Community organising, Democracy movements, Labour Party NZ, LGBT, Limits of capitalism, New Zealand history, New Zealand politics
Dick Morrison at gay liberation conference, early 1970s

Dick Morrison at gay liberation conference, early 1970s

by Philip Ferguson

Last month saw the death of Dick Morrison, one of the founders of the gay liberation movement in this country and a Marxist activist.

These days when the ‘gay community’ has long since replaced the gay liberation movement and capitalist liberalism rules supreme in that community, the fact that the original liberation movement was a radical left-wing movement and its founders and activists were anti-capitalists has been largely submerged.

Dick played a pivotal role in Auckland Gay Liberation and was, perhaps, its chief theoretician.  Along with a number of key activists in that group, Dick joined the Socialist Action League in the early 1970s. Other prominent activists in Auckland Gay Liberation involved in the SAL and/or its youth group, the Young Socialists, included Janet Roth, Malcolm McAllister and Nigel Baumber.

Gay oppression in NZ society

Dick was an organiser of the first national gay liberation conference and the first nationwide marches for gay liberation.  During his speech at the conference, Dick outlined the position of gay men in this country at that time, a world away from today.

“The cops have broken in on gay couples at two in the morning – they have to if an anti-gay neighbour complains. And then, if they won’t admit to the ‘crime’ of being homosexual, they must submit to a degrading physical examination. Cops also threaten gays with arrest under indecency laws.”

The illegality of gay male sex meant it was extremely difficult to have gay venues where men could meet and hook up.  There was no internet and on-line dating, and newspapers refused to carry ads for gay political or social meetings.  As Dick pointed out in his speech, this left gay men with few options other than places like public toilets. Gay men, he noted, were continually harassed by the cops, subject to blackmail and assaults.  Some gay men even committed suicide after being arrested.  Gays in this country, as well as overseas, were also ritually subjected to electric shock ‘therapy’ in order to ‘cure’ them, as recently movingly (and horrendously) depicted in the Australian drama series A Place to Call Home.

Dick put forward the Marxist idea that the heterosexual nuclear family unit was the necessary base social unit of capitalism and anyone who didn’t fit into that faced persecution.  It was capital’s need for that unit, the mechanism through which labour-power was reproduced, which was the chief reason for anti-gay laws.(1)   The existence of those laws, he said, then reinforced prejudice against homosexuals.

Dick believed strongly that while the anti-gay laws had to be repealed, and this was a reform worth fighting for, the ultimate target had to be capitalism, the system based on exploitation, oppression and alienation of people’s humanity.  A system which continually reproduced and regenerated all kinds of bigotry.

It was no surprise that Dick and other gay activists joined the SAL.  The organisation was primarily the result of the student/youth radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so its members tended to be in rebellion against older, conservative social norms; we didn’t share the anti-homosexual prejudices of our parents’ generation but welcomed the formation of new movements of the most oppressed and pariah sections of society such as gay women and men.

The SAL and gay liberation

However, despite being initially immersed in the same wider youth culture as the activists who founded the gay liberation movement, the SAL’s relationship with that movement, and with developing Marxist politics in relation to it, was problematic.  The chief complicating factor was the SAL’s submissive relationship with the American SWP.  The Trotskyist SWP had a rather mixed record on homosexuality and actually banned homosexuals from membership in their organisation until 1970, the year after the Stonewall riots.

The chief architects of the ban were not the old core of working class activists recruited back in the 1930s but, ironically, the younger leaders of the SWP, folks in their early 30s, most particularly the ruling triumvirate of Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters and Barry Sheppard.  After conducting a “probe” into the gay liberation movement, a memorandum written by Sheppard was adopted.  While it advocated support for an end to discrimination against homosexuals, it stated that SWP members were not to play any kind of significant role in the new movement for gay liberation.  This position was opposed by a layer of gay and straight members, including activists who had joined the SWP from the gay Marxist group Red Butterfly.(2)

The ban on gay members in the US SWP created problems for SAL members like Dick, as did the SAL’s drawing away from the emerging battles around gay rights.  In 1973, an SAL leadership document, mimicking the Sheppard memorandum, downplayed the significance of ‘the gay question’, arguing that gays lacked the ‘social weight’ of women and Maori in NZ society and therefore the organisation would not prioritise the gay struggle.  Given the intensity of gay oppression and the potential for the fight for liberation to shake up the capitalist system, this was a sorry political retreat.  Later, however, the negative impact of the US SWP was to worsen.

In the Christchurch branch of the SAL, meanwhile, an opposition developed to this position.  There were no openly gay members in Christchurch, but a majority of the branch, including myself, produced and argued for a counter-document, stressing the political importance of the fight for gay liberation.  We also felt that the leadership document reflected homophobia – not so much SAL leadership homophobia as the homophobia of the American SWP leadership, a cabal which the SAL leadership blindly, indeed mindlessly, followed and which effectively strangled the political and organisational development of the League.

Part of the fall-out of the US SWP memorandum was that at least one, perhaps two, gay members left the organisation.  Dick and others like Janet and Malcolm, however, stayed on.  Indeed, they always seemed to have a somewhat ambivalent position – for instance, I don’t recall them supporting our Christchurch document.  They tended to be quite loyal to the leadership.  Also, the Auckland branch, where the gay members were concentrated, tended to be very close on a social as well as political level and perhaps this played a role in keeping them in.

Dick in the turn to industry

In the later 1970s the SAL made a ‘turn to industry’, with most members going into the freezing works, car plants, electrical assembly plants and other blue-collar jobs.  Dick and his partner at the time, Mike, who was also a member of the SAL and a leader of the Young Socialists, got jobs at the Otahuhu Railway Workshops.  The workshops were a militant workplace, with a strong and progressive union, led by a former longtime Communist Party activist with whom Dick and Mike quickly established a good relationship.

One of the weapons of the management at the workshops was divide-and-rule and once they realised that Dick and Mike were communists, of the Trotskyist variety, they began a whispering campaign against the two “homos”.  They hoped that this would put other workers off Dick and Mike, especially Pacific Island workers who tended to be religious and belong to conservative churches.  Management’s grubby little anti-gay campaign backfired, however.  Indeed, Mike and Dick were informed of it by other workers who told them they were not bothered by their homosexuality.  And the very Pacific Island workers that management hoped would be most appalled by the “homos” were notably supportive of Dick and Mike.

As well as indicating that anti-gay prejudice was nowhere near as widespread in the working class as liberal middle class people imagine, it was also a tribute to Dick and Mike.  They had thoroughly integrated themselves in the workplace, were good workers and had established political and personal credibility among their co-workers.

I remember in July 1979, the SAL in Auckland organised a celebration of the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.  The celebration took place in the heart of working class south Auckland.  About 230 people attended, overwhelmingly workers from the meat works, the railway workshops, car plants and other blue-collar workplaces.  Dick and Mike were able to bring a rake of their workmates to this impressive event.  Some time before this, Dick’s sister Mervyl had also joined the organisation.  She was a lot quieter than Dick, but a very hardworking activist.

The single most important arena for ‘the turn’ was the meat works, and Dick also participated in this aspect of the turn, getting a job at the Petone works where, again, he established good relations with his co-workers and with leading shopfloor militants.

Over the next few years, the SAL made important progress in recruiting blue-collar workers, including a whole layer of Maori and Pacific workers and some blue-collar gay members.  Dick played an important part in that process.  However, the golden weather was not to last long.

The problems of the SAL

In the early 1980s I parted company politically with the SAL and duly was declared a ‘non-person’.  I had written a letter to the national leadership chronicling what I saw as a series of political mistakes and also several instances of outright thuggery by leaders which should have been totally unacceptable in a serious Marxist cadre organisation.  (In particular, the national secretary was a thug who delighted in bullying ne of the other leaders and in making sexist and homophobic comments and ‘jokes’ – anyone who objected would be treated by him as if they were ‘petty-bourgeois’; this person is now a university lecturer!)  The leadership never responded to my letter; they simply passed a motion banning all members from having any contact with me.  One particularly close friend in the organisation was able to get a dispensation each Xmas to send me a Xmas card, but he wasn’t allowed to write anything on the card other than Happy Xmas!

The sort of carry-on I experienced when I raised serious issues indicated the degenerative rot that was well set in at the top of the organisation.  Since I was living abroad at the time and was fairly confident the rot would kill the organisation, such tinpot despotism on their part didn’t overly bother me.  Of course, after my departure, I never had any contact with Dick again and know little of his subsequent life, except that he too left the organisation a few years later.  (Mike lasted a bit longer, not leaving until well into the 1990s, but I assume him and Dick had split up well before then; Mike, a very nice guy who I occasionally run into, subsequently went straight and is a happily married heterosexual these days.)

The effective death of the SAL, and Dick’s departure from it, actually came earlier than I expected. I intend to go into the organisation’s perspectives in relation to the Labour Party in another article in a short series about them(3), so I’ll only touch on the subject here insofar as it is relevant to the departure of Dick and most of the other members in the later 1980s.

From its beginning in 1969-70 the SAL had a faulty understanding of the Labour Party and an entire political perspective, in fact dogma, based on this faulty analysis and, really, a lack of Marxist analysis of this society and economy.  The SAL saw Labour as a workers’ party, albeit a degenerated one – a “bourgeois workers party”.  They believed that a working class radicalisation would inevitably go through the Labour Party, supposedly the mass political organisation of the class.  Radicalising workers would turn to the unions and make them more radical and would try to convert the Labour Party to more radical class-struggle politics.  The old Labour leadership would resist and the result would be a huge split, producing a mass class-struggle left-wing which the SAL would merge with and thereby create a mass revolutionary workers party.  It was a sort of Trotskyist version of the old ‘two-stage revolution’ promoted by the Mensheviks in Russia in the early 1900s and later by Stalin and pro-Moscow parties.  (These days I’m often quite bemused by the Stalinophobia of a variety of Trotskyist groups, because they often bear a lot of political and organisational resemblance to the Stalinists they love to hate.  Now if only they were as hostile to the capitalist Labour Party!)

The SAL’s dogma about Labour meant they never saw the fourth Labour government coming.  They had no understanding just how anti-working class that government would be and were, as a result, politically blindsided.  Nor could they really explain it while it was happening – to do that would’ve undermined their dogma.  Moreover, the SAL had little if any culture of robust internal discussion and political disagreement.  They simply lacked the tools to be able to deal with the scale of their mistakes in relation to Labour and their dogma about working class radicalisation being reflected in the Labour Party.

They thought radicalised unions would radicalise the Labour Party and didn’t understand that reality was the other way around: the capitalist Labour politicians dominated the political perspectives of the unions, the union-Labour links were a transmission belt for pro-capitalist politics from the party to the unions.  The vast majority of  union leaders would always retreat in the face of Labour’s sweeping capitalist offensive against the working class.  The union-Labour links were part of the problem not part of the solution.  This should have been ABC for Marxists, but was simply not at all understood in the SAL.  (Here too, the domination of the SAL by the US SWP leadership cabal was malignant, office leaders in New York seeing themselves as the experts on ‘the Labour Party question’ in countries like NZ, Australia and Britain, and favouring the creation of a Labour Party in the United States!)

From sect to cult: the decline of the SAL and the departure of the membership

The experience of the fourth Labour government was hugely demoralising for many members of the SAL and the drop-out rate was immense, Dick being one of the people who left.  By 1992, the SAL had only about two dozen members left – by this stage it had changed its name to the Communist League – and had abandoned its own newspaper, which less than a decade earlier had a fortnightly readership of several thousand workers from Ocean Beach meat works at the bottom of the South Island to the top of the North Island.  Indeed, in some of the timber villages of the central North Island, half the houses had subscriptions to Socialist Action in the early 1980s.

In the end, the SAL was a cadre-crushing machine.  Dick was one of those people who deserved a better organisation than the one he spent a dozen or more years trying to build as a very busy and committed activist and leader.  He was a talented Marxist with the ability to think for himself, but he was caught in a machinery that stifled that and, ultimately, ground him and many others down.

One of the good guys

I have no idea what Dick did after he left the SAL.  Many comrades simply vanished into ‘civilian life’ and maybe he was one of those.  I very much hope he enjoyed life after his years in the stultifying and mind-controlling sect, as he certainly deserved to.  I remember him fondly, as a nice person, a big flirt – quite a few men in the organisation had at least one experience of Dick making advances (he was a very ’60s guy) – a pioneer of an important liberation movement and a committed anti-capitalist all rolled into one.

When the working class finally creates the movement it needs to emancipate itself, Dick will hopefully be one of those pioneers of human liberation who gets the recognition he deserves.

Footnotes
1. While this certainly appeared to be the case at the time, capitalism has turned out to be rather more flexible than many of us on the left imagined back in the early 1970s. Capital today doesn’t really care which configuration of people create and raise each new generation of workers; it can be a heterosexual family unit or a homosexual family unit, a hippy commune or aliens from outer space. Capital only cares that the working class is physically reproduced and maintained through domestic toil that it (capital) doesn’t have to pay for.
In the 1970s, capital still paid in the sense that the male/husband/father’s wage – the monetary equivalent of the value of his labour-power – was sufficient to raise a family. The long postwar economic boom ended in the early 1970s and capital now often only pays for the value of an individual worker’s labour-power, so both parents in working class families are forced to work. This is one of the reasons why capitalist ideology dumped the older notion that women’s place was in the home and embraced women in the workforce and, indeed, now coerces women with small children into rejoining the paid labour force as early as possible. In each case, women haven’t had a choice.
2. For a view of the debates within the US SWP on gay liberation, see the documents at: https://www.marxists.org/subject/lgbtq/index.htm. The US SWP’s central leadership were an odd bunch. For a start they looked and dressed like Mormons, which made them appear quite strange at the height of the youth revolt and counter-culture. For another, they supported slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and “Sisterhood is Powerful” but were horrified by the slogan “Gay is Good” and wrote material arguing against it. This absurd position was agreed by the SAL leadership, albeit somewhat hesitantly.
3. The opening piece was The Socialist Action League: introduction to an autopsy; future pieces will look at the SAL’s perspectives in relation to the Labour Party; the SAL and the new social movements; and the SAL’s subordinate relationship with the US SWP. All were factors in its subsequent ‘development’ from sect to cult and its self-destruction.

Further reading: Marxism and gay liberation on Redline

 

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Comments
  1. Don Franks says:

    I recall Dick from the ’70’s.
    Because he was a political rival I never had any sort of conversation with him, I just recall a big bloke full of vitality and enthusiasm for promoting Socialist Action in the meatplant where he worked when I knew him.

    This is a very interesting article. The Socialist Action League was in advance of other left groups on the issue of Gay Liberation. The Workers Communist League took longer to support GL and the Communist Party of New Zealand a bit longer still. I had no idea of the different currents inside the SAL, they make Dick Morrison’s contribution all the more signifigant, because Dick was always emphatically out there, when it wasn’t trendy and was often risky in almost every part of life.

  2. soundhill1 says:

    “I remember him fondly, as a nice person, a big flirt – quite a few men in the organisation had at least one experience of Dick making advances (he was a very ’60s guy)”

    Sort of thing which Roger Sutton’s saga is about, but with the ladies?

  3. Phil F says:

    I doubt whether any men in the organisation minded Dick’s flirting with them. We were a pretty hardy bunch and quite capable of saying ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.

    I only mentioned it because I wanted to give a picture of him as a flesh-and-blood person. His flirting was quite endearing. He was a real person, not an automaton, which was what most people became if they stayed in that group for years.

    I’m glad Dick didn’t stay and waste more years in what by the late 1980s was essentially a cult.

    Phil

  4. Admin says:

    Brian, can you stick to the subject? If you want to comment on the piece on Dick Morrison, feel free to do so. But this is not a place for you to post up youtube videos of Georgian musical artists!!! Let alone to use up our bandwidth with your favourite musical videos!!!

    Your music videos have therefore been removed from the comments section of this article as they bear zero relevance to it.

    Perhaps you should think about starting up your own blog; you can then have free range for your idiosyncracies.

  5. Phil F says:

    This morning I slightly altered the article, as several ex-SWPers pointed out to me that I had got the dates of the ban on gay members wrong; the ban was ended in 1970. I think it had become a bit of a scandal by that stage.

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