I was invited to join the Communist Party by Communist members of the Clerks’ Union and I did so.
I really didn’t know too much about Communism or the Communist Party. My ideas about it all have greatly developed since then. When people join the Communist Party they may be and almost always are only part Communists. Their development as Communists proceeds within the Party. The better and more devoted amongst them go on to become more fully developed Communists; some become enemies, some drop out through indifference, some discover that they joined under mistaken ideas, find out their mistake and depart. All this gets sorted out; but the Party grows. It is a perfectly natural thing. The Communist Party itself is a product of capitalism. Communism arose in the mid-nineteenth century when capitalism had developed to the stage where its social laws could be laid bare, where all history could be surveyed and the broad outline of the next social stage (socialism) could be seen.
The Party was extremely active in a whole range of affairs. Despite its shortcomings, it achieved a lot. It participated in and initiated many mass struggles. It propagated the ideas of Communism. It organised in the trade unions, for parliamentary elections, it worked among the unemployed. It ran Communist street meetings, hall meetings, factory gate meetings, meetings in houses, discussions of many kinds. It promoted friendship activities with the socialist Soviet Union. It published a newspaper and theoretical journal. It had a headquarters in every State and some local headquarters. Its branches were mainly organised on the basis of parliamentary or municipal electoral boundaries. Much of this we now take to have been wrong. But whether right or wrong, there was an immense enthusiasm, immense activity, immense devotion, deep integrity. I had and have no doubt that it is the very best human beings who join the Communist Party. Their Communism makes them better. They are selfless. They try to serve the people. Some of the things we did we now regard as wrong. Wrong policies and activities often provide very good teaching material for ultimate correct activities and policies. Their correction, trial and error, is an essential process. I have made many errors, striven to correct them, still make them and still strive to correct them.
Because of the conditions of economic crisis which really remained (though not in so acute a form as 1930-1933) until 1940, the Party paid a lot of attention to the study of Marxist political economy. This was aimed at understanding the crisis. Its members, particularly those in the trade unions, were encouraged to read Marxist political economy, to attend study classes. Quite a number of Communists of that time became more or less expert on Marxist political economy. May be they knew it to quite a degree in the abstract and not so much in terms of the truth of Australia itself. Yet our study of political economy stood us in extremely good stead. It also served to emphasise that people’s thinking is basically determined by the conditions of material life. Marx has shown the scientific basis which explained economic crisis. A book by Leontiev, Marxist Political Economy was widely studied. It summarised Marx’s ideas. Many of us tried to study as much as we could of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin (at that time, little was read of Mao Zedong). We read Marx’s Capital, or at least the first volume of the Kerr Edition, Marx’s Wage, Labour and Capital, Marx’s Wages, Price and Profit, then called Value, Price and Profit.
Our study of political economy enabled us more effectively to make the contrast between socialism and capitalism. Whereas in the capitalist world, unemployment rose to tremendous heights and production dropped to catastrophic levels, in the socialist society of Russia, a backward economy was being transformed into an advanced economy, unemployment was eliminated and production rose dramatically. This was actual fact. It was a tremendously important demonstration of the superiority of socialism over capitalism. We never ceased to popularise it. We avidly read everything we could get about the Soviet Union. We distributed the Soviet magazine USSR in Construction and various other Soviet publications. They became very popular. Stalin made effective use of the contrast in figures of unemployment and production levels of the Soviet Union and the capitalist world.
The capitalist world certainly seemed to be coming to an end. An English Communist named Dutt wrote a book entitled This Final Crisis. In this book he “proved” conclusively that capitalism would not survive this crisis. He overlooked Lenin’s warning that there is no situation for capitalism that is “hopeless”, capitalism must be knocked over; despite its increasing insoluble contradictions it will not fall of itself. In truth, capitalism has tenacity and resilience. Dutt’s reasoning was what we call politically subjective. He wanted it to be the final crisis and therefore in his mind it was the final crisis. His wish became his conclusion without proper investigation and appraisal of the facts.
Likewise with us. For my own part I too believed it was the final crisis of capitalism; most Communists did. As part of this we believed that socialism was just “round the corner”. This again was political subjectivism, political wishful thinking. We ardently worked for socialism, we could see the chaos and “collapse” of capitalism and the vast superiority of socialism and therefore to us socialism was just “round the corner”, We didn’t ask which corner, we didn’t investigate the resilience of capitalism, the capacity for “recovery”, the capacity for deception, particularly of the Labor Party, the force of the state apparatus (by state apparatus is meant the army, police, permanent public service, courts, gaols), the nature of imperialism, the comparative all-round weakness of the Communist Parties in the advanced capitalist world, the relation between the struggles in the colonies and other developed countries and the struggle in the metropolitan imperialist countries. We did not see with sufficient clarity that a critically important step was the defeat of fascist aggression nor keep distinct the struggle against fascism and the struggle for socialism.
Even though we may have had a theoretical adherence to the need for violent revolution, we did not really understand in practical terms the question of revolutionary violence. I often think that had there been mature Communist Parties in the capitalist countries and had the working class been united (and there are historical reasons, connected with the very strength and history of capitalism, why this was not so), the disintegration of capitalism was so great that its overthrow would have occurred. No one really thought about or studied the problem of arming the unemployed who were extremely rebellious or arming the workers and dispossessed farmers, nor about the contradictions among the capitalists themselves. Nor did anyone seriously study the armed revolutions that were going on in some of the colonies and dependent countries. Clear information on them was scanty. There was a material basis for a failure to seize the hour and for the workers not seizing state power. One must study this history closely so that the Communist Party is ready to rouse the workers and working people to revolution when the opportunity occurs and errors of the past are avoided as far as possible.
I took great satisfaction in being able to buy in 1938 my own copy of Marx’s Capital in three volumes in the Kerr Edition. This cost me two pounds eight shillings, a big sum for a person with very little income, four pounds a week at that time. I acquired the wherewithal through my fees of ten shillings and sixpence a week as a tutor in Industrial History with the Victorian Labor College which was a body composed of affiliated unions. It conducted lessons for unionists on political economy, industrial history, English and maybe other subjects. It was headed by a couple of Trotskyists with whom I fell foul when their attempts to win me to Trotskyism failed. Trotskyism is a form of “left” adaptation of Communism to capitalism. I was dismissed. The Communist Party made an unsuccessful attempt to “capture” the Labor College. Perhaps that too played a part in my demise as a tutor. Still I retain my now rather well thumbed copy of Capital.
I had become a member of the Moonee Ponds (Melbourne suburb) branch of the Communist Party. Soon I was to be its secretary. It was composed almost entirely of working people. They were wonderful people. They gave their all to the cause of Communism as they saw it. Whatever wrong ideas they had do not detract from the devoted enthusiasm and effort they put into it. Nor was it all wrong by any means. It cannot be wholly negated.
Our activities consisted of leaflet publication (done on a rather broken down duplicating machine) and distribution, holding street and hall meetings, work with the unemployed, participation in electoral campaigns, participation in our union activities, work in and towards the Labor Party, collection of money for the Communist Party, sales of the Party paper, bringing new members into the Party. In addition, some of us became members of a central panel of Party speakers particularly for street meetings. It was almost a condition of Party membership that one was prepared to speak on the street corner. The Moonee Ponds branch ran its own street meeting every Friday night (late shopping) in Holmes Road just west of the railway line. Every so often trains would thunder through but the speaker went on with his speech. After I spoke at the Melbourne Yarra Bank on May Day 1968, a young man who knows me well said to me; “I didn’t know you had such a big voice”. He no doubt knew me in conversation as a bit of a mumbler and whisperer, which I regret that I am. I replied: “So would you have a big voice if you had shouted down as many trams and trains as I have!’ I then explained to him how right throughout Melbourne we had spoken at street meetings. By no means the only hazards were trams and trains. Other hazards were the police who arrested people right and left for “obstruction”, interjectors with stereotyped howls of “Go back to Moscow”, physical violence by various anti-working class groups, many of the participants being simply misguided. I retained a specially warm spot for the late J. Donegan, ultimately Victorian Secretary of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, born of a Moonee Ponds street meeting. It was at a time when there was a rather violent anti-Communist hysteria. Our street meetings were being attacked by noisy thugs. On this occasion I was speaking from a precarious fruit box “platform”. I was subjected to a constant barrage of interjections and abuse. Then a group of the interjectors began to advance on the “platform”. All street speakers of that generation were trained never to stop speaking no matter what happened (and it’s not bad advice). True to the training, I continued to speak though I made a mental note I was about to get knocked over. Suddenly a big man, not known to me, detached himself from the wall against which he was leaning and instead of my going over, the gentleman who was leading the group against me went over. This was my introduction to J. Donegan; he was the man who detached himself from the wall. I can testify from subsequent experience that he was a powerful man in a physical brawl.
The Communist Party manned speaking pitches throughout Australia. I learned my way about Melbourne partly by knowing where the Party street meetings were and where the suburban courts were, the latter because I defended many political “criminals” in them. Red Square in South Melbourne was a well known spot. On one occasion we spoke there to a big audience, a sizeable component of which was plain-clothes and uniformed police, sent along to intimidate. In Peel Street, Collingwood a war of attrition took place between the Party and the police – allied to hoodlum gangs – as to whether the Party would continue to speak. The courage and determination of the Party members with the support of the working people, gave victory to the Party. All this had a background that went back to what we regarded as the biggest “free speech” fight of all, fought in the streets of Brunswick. It led to a so-called liberalisation of the “obstruction” laws. I may say this liberalisation did not stop the police. For years in the courts I defended scores of speakers on obstruction charges despite the “liberalised” laws. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost. Success or failure largely depended on the size of the mass movement of protest.
There is among Australian working people a very well justified hatred of the police force. We learned from bitter experience that the police enforced the reactionary policy of the monopoly capitalists. They were entirely ruthless. This was under the direction of the top police officers who were identified with the monopoly capitalists. At the drop of a hat, these top police officers as a result of their very positions as hired thugs of the capitalists, and aggravated by their own fear and nervousness, would order people to be batoned and knocked about and then tell the most brazen lies about it. Their lies would be accepted by the courts almost without question even though they were exposed as lies. All this was extremely valuable in understanding the repressive features of the state apparatus.
We regarded election campaigns as particularly important. The Party stood parliamentary candidates, conducted vigorous election campaigns, handed out how to vote tickets, provided scrutineers and all the claptrap associated with elections. Much of this was fundamentally wrong. But I participated in all this although I always evaded being a candidate. I was “campaign director” for one prominent person in the Party. As a youth in the early ’thirties I had listened enthralled to his speeches. When I was his campaign director, it was part of my job to go with him to all meetings. He might make several speeches a day in main streets, back streets, halls, factories, anywhere at all. I found that he made the same speech word perfect wherever he spoke. When it got to question time, a very important period, he was almost hopeless. If anyone asked him a question, even a little off the beaten track of his speech, and it was well beaten by the time he had repeated it perhaps 50 times, he floundered. There came an occasion on which I travelled to a country centre with this same person. All the way he was muttering to himself. Finally it got too much for me. I said: “What on earth are you doing?” He replied: “I am learning my speech”. It is not necessarily wrong to recite a speech from memory but it is wrong not to have an independent grasp of the subject matter so that you can answer questions and participate in the give and take of conversation on it.
In a particular election campaign a well known Party member Dr. Gerald O’Day was a candidate. The electorate covered a vast area. This included the then small town of Gisborne some forty miles from Melbourne. Two of us were assigned to speak at a street meeting in Gisborne. We were given a driver with a car. Came the appointed day. We left Melbourne about 6 p.m. for a 7.20 p.m. meeting. It was raining cats and dogs. The rain got worse as we neared Gisborne. The car was an old Vauxhall single seater with fabric side curtains.
It leaked like a sieve. We got wet through in double quick time. But we pressed on to Gisborne. Not a single solitary soul was about. Nonetheless one of us, I can’t remember which, became the chairman of our meeting under a big tree in the street. He declared the meeting open. Not a soul about. He said a few words and introduced the speaker. Still not a soul about. It was dark as pitch and the rain pelted down. The tree gave no shelter. The speaker spoke for the allotted 20-30 minutes. Not a soul about (except our driver). The chairman called for questions and called more than once. “No questions, all right, declare the meeting closed.” We went on our way, happy in a job well done. Although it was misconceived and misguided, it demonstrated the genuineness of spirit of the Communists.
Canvassing was another activity in elections, and also of the Party press. Many a door did we knock on. I view with some sympathy the religious people who knock on doors. I recall how encouraging it was to receive a friendly reception and not just be wiped off. And there were an encouraging number of friendly receptions. In the not so distant past I listened patiently to a couple of canvassers from some odd religious sect and took the literature they offered me. The result was they came back to my place frequently, told my wife they had converted me and left literature for me. On other occasions, I took literature from such people when I struck them in my own canvassing and gave them Communist literature in exchange. It was an odd exchange.
I was canvassing with a comrade who was extremely hard of hearing. We went to a house, knocked on the front door, got no answer so went around to the back. There was a man there, who as soon as I explained our mission said: “Get out”. My comrade could not hear and I did not feel like retreating too quickly. But the householder made it very clear that he really wanted us to get out. Still my comrade could not hear. Finally the man produced a revolver and repeated his “get out”. Though my comrade no doubt didn’t hear, he understood the gun. We got out and retired for fortification.
It was all very good experience, both positive and negative.
In the Sharpley Commission in 1949 I was cross-examined for something over four days. Amongst the questions was my participation in “illegal” activities like obstructive street meetings, writing on footpaths, walls, pasting up posters. I replied I had served my time at them. And certainly we all did. The ingenuity in putting slogans and posters up and in writing on strategic places was almost endless. In one case a person was held by his feet, head dangling down to get a stencil in a good place on a bridge. He always pointed with pride at his handiwork. Good slogans in good places lasted for years. There are those who talk about defacing. But consider the really magnificent patriotic slogans of the ’thirties: “No scrap iron for Japan”, “Boycott Japanese Goods”, “Support Spanish Democracy”, later slogans against the aggression against Vietnam, today against Soviet aggression. Did they not help to arouse the Australian people? Did they not help and does not the history of them still help, Australian people to see who were the patriots and who were the traitors; traitors, for example, who compelled with “legal” coercion the sending of scrap iron to Japan? Do not such slogans stand in contrast with the debasement of sex, the use of drinking, smoking and other filth in the advertising hoardings displayed all over the place by big business? Such are the values of capitalism!
Certainly I did my share of all this. I commend its appropriate use to this day. In my first venture I had as a partner a very good proletarian. When he said we would put up a poster in a particularly high place I said to him: “How are we going to get there?” He said simply enough: “You’re going to stand on my shoulders” And that’s just how it got to the appointed place. It was a bit precarious. His shoulders were broad and strong in more ways than one. Together we covered a lot of territory in our time. He also had an unerring instinct for the presence of police in the vicinity. He had studied police shifts and the habits of the local police. He understood well the need to devise methods to avoid police detection and police reprisals. A couple of men with a pot of paint and a brush were a sitting shot.