From the November-December 1949 issue of The Western Socialist
BILL CASEY – SOCIALIST PIONEER
Your many readers will regret to hear of the loss of a pioneer of the Socialist Movement in Australia. There have been many pioneers in the Socialist Movement and the Old World has been rich in them; but down her in Australia, we have not been so fortunate. On the 19th. Oct. last, Bill Casey died in the Brisbane General Hospital.
Bill Casey, who hailed from Manchester, arrived in Australia some years before World War I. Almost immediately he became involved in industrial activities and participated in some of the most historical disputes recorded in this country. Ever on the move, he spent much of his time in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. During the First War he played a leading part in Queensland industrial affairs and was active in the strikes on the Cane fields and the Meat Industry. On more than one occasion he had to run the gauntlet of Labor Party Police, who spurred on by Labor Governments, dealt ruthlessly with those who championed the workers cause.
Job conscious Union officials and Big Businessmen on one occasion urged his deportation from the local township because of his union activities. When war-time Labor Prime Minister, Wm, Morris Hughes, tried to enforce conscription in 1916, anyone who opposed the move was branded “traitor”, “Seditionist” or “I.W.W.” But the anti-conscription campaign grew and the Labor Party split on the issue. The chief opponents were the “Wobblies” (I.W.W.) and their supporters. Casey, who had experienced the persecution of the I.W.W. in America, threw himself into the fight and became one of the most active and enthusiastic members of the Anti-Conscription Army. When we point out that the anti-conscription campaign left an indelible mark on the history of Australia, it will be easier to understand the significance of our reference to in this obituary.
In those days, much of the I.W.W. propaganda took the form of parodying of popular songs. To the tunes I.W.W. rhymsters would fit words ridiculing and satirising their opponents. Most meetings opened up with “Doxology”
“Praise Boss when morning work-bells chime,Praise him for bits of over-time,Praise him whose wars we love to fight,Praise Him. Fat Leech and Parasite,Oh Hell”.
Meetings would be held up awaiting some subtle satire from Casey on the topic of the day. Couriers would run from the press, with literally red-hot jingles copies of which were passed round the audiences who lustily chorused the latest ditty, much to the discomfiture of “Law and Order”. So popular did they become that friend and foe alike eagerly awaited the latest lampoon. Politicians shrunk from his satire but ever many of them, years afterwards, openly boasted acquaintanceship with “Bill Casey.”
Back To Sea
Returning to sea, Casey played a big part in the Seaman’s strike of 1919. Just about this time he chummed up with Jack Temple who had recently arrived from Scotland after some years in Canada. Temple who had been active in the S. P. of Canada and had some connection with the S.P.G.B. played a big part in weaning Casey from the I.W.W. viewpoint. It may be pointed out that though Casey had leanings towards the “Wobblies” he was not a member although he was generally regarded as such.
Very soon Casey was expounding the S.P.G.B. position and as the Bolsheviks had just gained control in Russia, he lost no time in analysing the position. Probably aided by articles in the “S.S.”, he became a caustic critic of the “Neo-Communists.” He was delegate to represent the Seamen at an International T. U. Conference in Moscow. This, being one of the earliest “Missions to Moscow” was beset with difficulties all the way. Passports were forged; passages were “stowing away,” Dutch, German, Polish and Russian frontiers had to be “hopped.” Guides were often un-reliable; “go-betweens” were often in the pay of both sides; sometimes both had to be discarded until bona-fides were definitely established, a delicate job under the conditions then prevailing on the continent.
The ultimate arrival in Moscow, after much suffering, danger and perseverance, was hailed as a masterpiece of undercover work. Once at the gates of the Kremlin, most delegates became insufferable Bolshevik “Yes-men” whereas Casey and his co-delegate, Barney Kelly (another adherent of the S.P.G.B.) soberly tried to obtain a truthful estimate of the position. A few days sojourn in Moscow drew the following observations from Casey: “Production was in a straight-jacket, lethargy and indifference permeated the whole economy; the people were entirely lacking in a sense of time. Without the normal industrial development of production and some measure of buying and selling (war-communism was the order of the day) drift and indifference would gradually strangle the economy of the Soviet”. These observations were greeted with disgust and dismay by the other delegates.
However, before they left Moscow, Lenin introduced his “New Economic Policy” which, in essence, provided for the very things which Casey opined was needed to stabilize the Russian economy. In contrast to their hostile reception of Casey’s prognostications, the “yes-men” cheered and echoed Lenin’s belated pronouncements.
Back in Australia, he submitted his report to Tom Walsh (then a leading Communist and foundation member of the Australian Communist Party), General President of the Australian Seamen’s Union. Walsh rejected the report and refused to publish it on the ground that it criticized the Bolsheviks and the Russian system. After spending some time in Melbourne, Casey proceeded to Sydney where he again crossed swords with Walsh who, carrying out the policy of the C.P. was endeavouring to get the Seamen to affiliate with the A.L.P. (Australian Labor Party) from which body the Seamen had seceded because of the anti-working class role of Labor Governments and politicians during the Seamen’s strike of 1917 and 1919.
With Jacob Johnson (Assist. Sec’y. Sydney Branch of the Seamen’s Union) and a handful of supporters, Casey pursued the fight against affiliation with the Labor Party. This fight continued up to 1925 when an un-expected walk-out of British Seamen, who left their ships tied up on the Australian coast, over-shadowed the affiliation dispute. Incidental to the British Seamen’s strike, both Walsh and Johnson were arrested, brought before a tribunal set up under special legislation, and sentenced to deportation from Australia. We knew, at the time, that Walsh wanted to be deported and was to be given a job in England with Havelock Wilson. Casey worked unceasingly to prevent the deportation. Those who were associated with Casey believe that his activities on behalf of Johnson were the most brilliant of his career. An appeal was made to the High Court of Australia. He marshalled facts, ferreted information, countered the sabotage of Government henchmen, suggested successful points of law, and finally his subtle optimism triumphed. Dr. Evatt, one of Johnson’s counsel, (now Attorney General and ex-president of U.N.O.) unstintedly praised Casey’s remarkable accomplishments. Many barristers have openly acknowledged him to be “the cleverest lay-man they ever met.” The High Court held the Tribunal’s decision to deport to be ‘ultra vires’: Walsh and Johnson were released from the Naval prison on Garden Island where they had been held while awaiting deportation.
Following the release and the settlement of the British Seamen’s strike, the fight around affiliation with the Labor Party again assumed an important place in the Seamen’s Union. Finally Walsh’s move was defeated and he was deposed from his position as G. P. Later a high officer of the N.S.F.U. visited Australia and reported that Havelock Wilson had sent over £3,000 to help Walsh in the fight against Johnson and Casey. In justice to this official, let it be said that on hearing the facts of the case, he urged that no more money be sent from the English Seamen’s Union for this purpose.
During these periods, Casey consistently carried on Socialist propaganda. He debated almost every “leader” in the Communist Party. He represented the S.P. of A. in debates with the Henry George League, the Labor Party, the Communist Party, Currency Experts, and host of others. He trounced Individualist A.D. Kay who after losing his seat in Parliament and on the Meat Board, went to England to be given later, a job by Churchill during the last war. Casey conducted Speakers’ Classes, Economic classes, open air and indoor meetings for the S.P.A. Prior to the formation of the S.P.A., he, together with Moses Baritz struck terror into the hearts of the professional “revolutionaries” of the C. P.
The anecdotes about them would fill a book; Moses, bombastic, merciless, ruthlessly capable in expounding the Socialist position; Casey, puckish, simple, unsurpassed as a teacher of young fellows, flashing with satire and armed with a power of mental penetration that pierced the armor of the most hide-bound opponent of Socialism.
For many years he held official positions in the Seamen’s Union. He was Secretary of the Brisbane Branch when he died. For many years he found it difficult to get jobs on ships. Victimised, he battled around on scanty food, a few beers and a bit of tobacco. Long speels of unemployment meant more time for Socialist activities. He never went short while his friends had a few bob. His knowledge of philosophy, economics, political and industrial history was amazing and his uncanny ability to interpret industrial awards, surmount legal difficulties with regard to the Merchant Shipping Act, The Australian Navigation Act and the various Compensation Acts, redounded to the benefit of his ship-mates. He was known as the Seaman Philosopher. So much, and yet so little, of that side of his life.
Personally, Casey was the finest friend ever a man could wish for. His loyalty to friends and principles was universally acknowledged. A little, broad-shouldered fellow, quietly spoken, with impish grin, happy and humming some simple Old-country folk song. It was a pleasure to be in his company. Ever ready to quaff a pot. A lover of children, he was always the butt of their frolicking at some friend’s family gathering. He was popular in the truest sense of the word. His friendship never wavered.
Now Casey is gone and comrades, all over the world, will regret his passing. He died of cancer. The working class has lost a champion; the Socialist Party has lost a great pioneer in Australia. A fellow member of the S.P.A. gave the final address at his cremation; a sad task but a privileged one. Casey’s life was devoted to the life of establishing a new social order. For while the sands were running out, in a recent letter to the writer, after describing his suffering, he concluded thus:
“I wish nothing better to anybody than good health, except a better system in which to enjoy it”.
The memory of Bill Casey will sustain us in our future struggles.
W. J. C. (Sydney)