Edgar Argent Ross (1904-2001)

John Shields

Edgar Ross, one of the central personalities in the history of Australian communism, died in Brisbane in December 200 I, aged 97. The son of socialist journalist, S. R. (Bob) Ross, and younger brother of union leader, Lloyd Ross, Edgar Argent Ross was born in Brisbane on 20 October, 1904.

Edgar attended University High School, Melbourne in the years immediately following World War I and in 1922 became a cadet journalist at the Melbourne
Argus, where he joined the Australian journalists’ Association. After writing for Stead’s Review he embarked upon a life-long career as a labour movement journalist, writing books and reviews for The Socialist (Melbourne) and serving as sporting editor for the Geelong Industrial Advocate, both of which were edited by his father. In 1924 he worked for the labour weekly Webb’s Reporter (Footscray) and served briefly on the staff of William Smith, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Railways Union.

In 1925 he followed the path previously travelled by his father and took a job as sub-editor of the Barrier Daily Truth, published by the principal mining union in Broken Hill, the Workers Industrial Union of Australia. There he joined both the union and the Labor Party and formed a close though not entirely comfortable working relationship with the
Truth’s editor, Ern Wetherell. During his ten years in Broken Hill, Ross, like his father before him, assumed an active and controversial role in local labour movement affairs. In the late I 920s, he joined Wetherell and WIUA leader Dick Quintrell in a bitter struggle to stave off a take-over of the union by racial exclusionists led by agent provocateur Richard Gully. Ross subsequently became active in the local Militant Minority Movement, serving as president in 1929, and leading a determined but ultimately unsuccessful campaign by local communists to take control of the local Unemployed Workers Movement. In 1933, Ross finally joined the Communist Party and, a little later, assumed an active role in the Movement Against War and Fascism. In Broken Hill, too, he met and married his life-long companion, Patricia Josephine McLauchlan.

In late 1935, he accepted an invitation from the newly elected communist leadership of the Miners’ Federation to edit the Federation journal, Common Cause, following its revival as an independent weekly paper, retaining the post until his retirement in 1966. As editor of Common Cause, Ross supported the leadership of Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson, and the Federation’s successful campaign for a 40-hour week. He served as mining group representative on the New South Wales Labo, Council Executive from 1936 until 1966 and was lead writer for the Labor Daily/Daily News in 1939-40, following the defeat of the Langite faction.

A member of the executive of the breakaway State Labor Party from 1940 until 1944; he conducted a radio session called ‘The Voice of Progress’ on station 2UE and wrote editorials for SLP newspaper Progress. Following the SLP’s amalgamation with the CPA in 1944, Run was confirmed as member of CPA Central Committee, to which he had been first elected in 1939. After 1941 he gave strong editorial support to increased coal production for war effort and in 1947 was appointed coordinator of the campaign for improved pit and town amenities on the coalfields.

It was during the later 1940s, though, that Ross assumed public notoriety. In September 1948 he participated in a public on communism with Dr. P.J. Ryan of the Catholic Social Studies Movement; an encounter which attracted an audience of 30,000 to Sydney Stadium. During the 1949 coal strike he publicised the miners’ case and with Lance Sharkey was summonsed to answer questions concernign CPA support for miners. Ross headed the CPA Senate during the 1951 Federal election. In 1954 he presided at the foundation meeting of the Sydney Realist Writers’ Group and in 1955 visited the USSR and China, returning to the USSR 1961 in a CPA delegation to the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He led a CPA delegation to the USSR in 1966, and was also a fraternal delegate to the Congress of Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In 1970 he rejected the reform program drafted by the CPA as ‘a hotch-potch of reformism, anarchosyndicalism, Trotskyism and liberalism’, and was instrumental in formulating an alternative program. This led to his expulsion from the CPA and the emergence of the break-away Socialist Party of Australia, in which he assumed a prominent role, becoming Moscow correspondent for the SPA newspaper Socialist.

As well as being a gifted journalist, Ross was also an accomplished (if unashamedly partisan) labour historian. Amongst much else, he researched and wrote: The Russian Revolution – Its Impact on Australia (1967);
A History of the Miners’ Federation of Australia (1970); Of Storm and Struggle (1982); and These Things Shall Be! Bob Ross. Socialist Pioneer – His Life and Times (1988).

Ross was undoubtedly a controversial figure in the history of the Twentieth-century Australian labour movement. Yet, as those who have read his remarkably detailed history of the Miners’ Federation, or his moving portrait of his father and mentor, will readily acknowledge, his understanding of Australian labour history was simply prodigious-and, in that sense, we are all his beneficiaries.