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R.S. Ross- Iconoclast of the Left

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.

Harassment of radical magazines and writers has long been an element of the Australian literary landscape. Long before the 1998 Rabelais "Shoplifting" trial and indeed even before the Thorunka and Oz trials, Australian newspapers that stepped out of line with official morality faced an arsenal of legal and political attacks. One case that illustrates the hardships of rebel publishing is that of Ross's Magazine of Protest, Personality and Progress whose editor underwent much harassment from the authorities during and after World War 1.

R.S. Ross was an iconoclastic figure on the Australian socialist and rationalist scene of the early twentieth century. The Secretary of Tom Mann's Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) until forced to stand aside through ill health in 1919, Ross campaigned against colonialism, war and capitalism and for socialism, atheism and peace. Open minded on many subjects Ross was unfortunately also an active supporter of the White Australian Policy and a blind critic of anti authoritarian movements.

Primarily involved in journalistic and publishing activities, Ross, like many of the time was a strong believer in the self education of working class people. Before launching his own magazine he edited The Barrier Truth and Maoriland Worker as well as other papers in Queensland, New South Wales and New Zealand. He also authored a number of books on strikes, the Russian Revolution and revolutionary theory as well as running a publishing and book distribution service. At various times he made boots and other basic consumer items available at affordable prices through his magazine.

Ross's Magazine of Protest, Personality and Progress was launched in 1915 "being published purposely for propaganda and... primarily for working class Agitation, Organisation and Education." It declared that it would be "The champion of the bottom dog against the top dog, with the intention at the same time of being the executioner of both." Ross was a veteran of radical struggles and knew that any successful political publication had to be both informative and entertaining. The magazine unlike many of the time (and today) was extremely witty and included much humour in its attacks on the powerful.

Many of the contributors wrote under pseudonyms including The Eye, Ame Perdue, Jack Cade and The Dogmatist. Columns included "In The Enemy Camp" which chronicled Christian weirdness through the faithful's own words. Articles reflected Ross's myriad of interests and indicative of the times moved beyond narrow political boundaries into philosophy, literature, popular science, health and sexology. Writers included Amelia Pankhurst and Ernie Lane (brother of William) among other notable activists of the time. The paper also included fiction in the form of short stories, poetry and serialisations of famous writers such as Jack London, with whom Ross corresponded and spent time with. Beginning with a print run of 10,000 Ross's was intended to make a big splash on the political scene.

Ross was never one to run from a fight and from the magazine's inception had declared "It will have to run risks. It's head will ever be bloody, but unbowed." Launching a magazine prided on its anti-militarist, anti clerical and anti capitalist stance in the midst of World War One was bound to attract attention. Trouble was not long coming. The Post Office employed its usual tactic against political newspapers by refusing to classify it as such thereby increasing postage costs. Their next move was, with the support of Labour Party Post Master General, to claim that the magazine was seditious. Under Article 43 of the Postal Act the Post Office had the power to destroy any "postal article on the outside of which there is anything blasphemous". Under this pretext they refused to handle it and impounded the 808 copies in their possession. As a result Gordon and Gotch dropped the title leaving Ross and company to the arduous task of self distribution.

Ross challenged the Post Office successfully in the High Court on the grounds that the magazine had nothing of a blasphemous nature on its outside wrapper and that by opening the magazine to read its contents they had illegally tampered with his mail. The Post Office attempted unsuccessfully to justify its actions on the grounds that Section 41 of the Postal Act allowed for them not to handle seditious and blasphemous material in general. But it was too late as this had not been the basis of their original actions. Despite the victory Ross was to report months later that the Post Office was still refusing to carry the magazine since the court case had only forced them to return the impounded copies and not to resume postal services. In the meantime Ross's instead relied on a fighting fund and the help of trade unions, Labour Leagues and other supporters to get the magazine around.

By August 1916 the magazine was once again widely available. Under pressure from a variety of fronts the Postal Authorities made it known that if the magazine changed its name (to allow them a minor victory) then it could be registered as a newspaper and postal distribution would resume. And so Ross's Magazine of Protest, Personality and Progress became Ross's Monthly.

Meanwhile Ross's also came under attack from the New Zealand Postal Service. Having been involved in New Zealand radical circles and having co-authored "The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike" Ross was naturally keen to see the magazine read there. However the New Zealand Post Office and authorities chose to ban the magazine due to its anti-war and atheist nature. The ban was to last the lifetime of the magazine and possession of it led to the imprisonment of at least one reader.

The Australian and New Zealand postal services were not the only ones trying to snuff out the incipient radical newspaper. In 1915 Ross's offices were harassed by police and Ross was arrested for importing 10,000 copies of an anti-war tract. Using the War Precautions Act the police raided a number of homes belonging to VSP members with the Ross home becoming a popular target. Flying the Red Flag had also been banned under the Act and Ross was one of the first to be arrested for breaking that particular law. Further arrests were to mount related to his other campaigns against conscription.

In 1916 the Commonwealth Anti Espionage Bureau raided his publishing house searching for materials about the I.W.W.. Although critical of the I.W.W.'s more anarchical elements Ross and the VSP (of which he was still a member) were nonetheless strong supporters of the group. This and other anti-war sentiments meant that whenever the magazine was run past the War Censor it rarely came through unscathed. When Ross's and other anti-war magazines began including large black blocks to indicate deleted text the censors declared such practices illegal. The true extent of wartime censorship was thus kept from the public.

One of Ross's most prolific writers was W.J. Carroll who wrote under the pseudonyms "Ve Suvius", "Latinus" and "Ame Perdue" (French for lost soul). An intensely active and creative man Carroll worked for the radical printing house where Ross's was produced. He contributed poetry to the first issue of the magazine and worked on almost every issue thereafter including the odd stint as editor. Carroll's work was highly satirical of the war, egotistical writers and religion and he delighted in attempting to confound censors with a variety of humorous metaphors. As a result he copped more flak than any writer at Ross's with regular deletions and the threat of arrest. A number of his pieces including "Cripples" and "Another Prayer Offensive" could not be published until after the war. Turning his back on a career in mainstream journalism Carroll was to follow his time at Ross's with stints as a magician, silent film advertiser and self publisher. He never lost his independent streak and in 1952 encouraged others to print their own books stating "There is no need for anyone to be stifled if they can make a machine like this."

Whilst low level police and postal harassment were to continue for Ross's throughout the war it was not until 1919 that its publisher once again appeared in court. In January he had published a satirical piece by "Woodicus" entitled "Bolshevism Has Broken Out In Heaven- God Abdicates- from a recent issue of The Daily Liar." An enthusiastic, though critical supporter of the Russian Revolution, Ross had published the piece as a parody of the wild accusations mainstream papers were making against the Bolsheviks. The story had the communists ransacking heaven, torturing the angels and smoking cigarettes rolled up with pages from the Book of Judgement. The magazine was seized by postal authorities who having learnt past mistakes only charged him with sending blasphemous material through the post (and left out any reference to its wrapper). Ross was also charged by the police with "Intent to asperse and vilify Almighty God and bring the Holy Scriptures and Christian religion in contempt among the people."

Those whom Ross had satirised and challenged for so long now seized their chance to punish him. The charges relating to blasphemy were made under Common laws dating from 1676. Due to their archaic nature and the fact that blasphemy cases had ceased in the UK by 1919 the authorities eventually dropped them preferring to use only the postal acts. Rather than viewing the article as a piece of divine comedy the courts instead declared it a "vile and indecent attack on Christian Religion" and sentenced Ross to six months hard labour.

Protests were quickly forthcoming. A petition for Ross's release was printed in numerous magazines and eventually attracted 1000s of signatures. The Prime Minister and Parliament naturally rejected the petition, but the case had sparked an interest in rationalism that could not be suppressed. Support came from Australian and overseas rationalists and a defence fund received hundreds of donations. Pressure on the courts forced them to free Ross on appeal reducing the sentence to a heavy fine of 50 pounds. Shortly after his release he embarked on a successful speaking tour that was only cut short when many of the halls were closed due to the 1919 influenza outbreak.

Although heavily stung by the fine Ross was not bankrupted and continued to produce issues that reached an audience of over 2000. Things were on a downward slide however and by 1922 the magazines regularity and size were greatly diminished. In 1924 he began producing The Union Voice, a paper that incorporated all of his publishing endeavours including Ross's Monthly, The Socialist and The Clothing Trades Gazette.

As time went on Ross became increasingly oriented toward the Labor Party. He had drifted in and out of the party since its inception and by the mid 1920s had come to espouse the view that socialism would be achieved in Australia through the nationalisation of industry by an elected Labour Government. He was however painfully aware of the tendency of once fiery radicals to backslide, and so was also a strong believer in the need for One Big Union to unite all workers. With such a union using the tactics of direct action he believed that the Labor Party would be forced into creating socialism. Following such a line of thinking Ross campaigned for the Labor Party to adopt socialisation as one of its objectives and also served on the first ACTU executive in 1928.

Time was to show him though that the electoral road was in fact a dead end. By 1930 he was severely disillusioned in a party which had forced policies of "industrial peace" on the workers in the late 1920s and which was patently failing them in the depression. The VSP had by now been swallowed up by the Labor Party and his ill health had forced him to give up publishing. He continued to fight on however supporting campaigns against fascism and for the right of Australians to read banned left wing books by James Joyce, Norman Lindsay and Jean Devanney. In 1931 he died at the age of 58. Despite the orientation toward parliamentary politics in his latter years Ross should not be forgotten as a pioneering force for socialism and a fighter for peace and freedom.


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