When I was a fifteen-year-old student at Melbourne High School, I tried to join the Communist Party of Australia. One afternoon after school in June 1959, outside the Bryant & May match factory in Richmond, I met a CPA organiser, who I later found out was a leading operative, Rex Mortimer. Before our meeting, I’d had a few beers at the local pub.
After listening for a couple of minutes, Mortimer stopped me and said: ‘I think you can do better elsewhere, son.’ But I wasn’t turned down for ideological reasons. No matter how desperate the party was for members in the late 1950s, they didn’t need a young piss pot gumming up the works.
As it happens, in the year of my birth, 1944, the Communist party was at the peak of its powers.
In the mid-1940s, the CPA not only offered workers comradeship and the lure of a better life, but communist-led trade unions organised strikes that paralysed our nation. It also exercised considerable political influence, especially in the left-wing labour movement and radical sections of the Australian Labor party.
The late Stuart Macintyre’s most recent book, The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning, is lengthy, lucid, well-researched, and (unsurprisingly) distinctly partisan.
It follows The Reds, his history of the first two decades of the CPA from its foundation in 1920 until the second world war, which appeared in 1998. As that book made clear, the Russian Revolution of 1917, orchestrated by Vladimir Lenin, was both the inspiration for communists everywhere and a model for all countries, including Australia. Lenin had shrewdly called his followers ‘Bolsheviks’, which means majority.
In this second volume, Macintyre explains how some of the party’s original sources of strength caused its unravelling over the following two decades. He argues that the erosion of public support for the CPA was primarily caused by a series of ill-judged coal strikes during the late 1940s. This erosion especially applied to the last and most costly of these industrial confrontations, the failed coal strike of 1949, which also led to vehement hostility from most elements of the ALP and the conservative Liberal–Country party coalition. As well, the increased surveillance of party members and crypto-communists by heavily funded state and federal Australian security services helped hasten its reckoning.
Macintyre explains that as the horrors of the Stalinist Terror were revealed, support for the Soviet model fractured in the 1950s and 1960s, both within the CPA and among other militant left-wing groups. This was aided by the split between Moscow and Beijing, which led to the emergence of Maoists in Australia. As Macintyre writes, the crushing victory of CPA leaders over pro-Soviet opposition forces in 1970 meant that ‘alone and unaided, the Communist Party of Australia set off on its new path.’
Macintyre highlights the fact that in Queensland’s one-house parliament, from 1944 to 1950, Frederick (‘Fred’) Woolnough Paterson was the CPA member for Bowen. In the history of the communist movement, Paterson is extremely important because he was (and remains) the only Communist party representative in Australia to be elected to any state or federal parliament. Before being a Queensland MP, Paterson had been elected an alderman for the Townsville City Council in 1939, becoming the first member of the Communist party to win such an office in Australia. For decades, Paterson was a radical barrister who battled tirelessly in support of the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed, especially throughout North Queensland.
Macintyre reproduces a fine photograph of the CPA’s five candidates for the NSW parliamentary elections of May 1944. They are standing with Paterson, who had been elected to Queensland’s parliament, earlier that month. Another photo, taken in Brisbane on St Patrick’s Day 1948, features Paterson, who was a legal observer of a protest march against the authoritarian state ALP government of E.M. (‘Ned’) Hanlon. This was shortly before the Communist MP was deliberately bashed from behind by a plain-clothed Brisbane policeman. The assault caused Paterson permanent brain damage. In 1950, Paterson’s seat of Bowen was abolished.
Macintyre also reproduces a photo of Rex Mortimer, who he terms ‘a long-serving cadre’, together with prominent communist journalist, Rupert Lockwood, in the early 1960s. By the decade’s end, both influential members had left the party.
Fittingly, Macintyre finishes this intriguing book in 1970, the year he became a member of the Communist Party of Australia. In his epilogue, Macintyre explains that, after 1970, there were ‘two more decades of activity to follow until (the CPA) was wound up in 1991.’ However, he concedes that the members who then remained were ‘a tiny fraction of those who held a party card.’ But those who had joined the party in the 1940s, he writes, ‘could still recall the mass rallies during the war against fascism, the spectacle of national congresses that filled Sydney Town Hall…the meaning and purpose they found in carrying out their duties.’ This especially applies, Macintyre argues, to their work supporting the struggles of Aboriginal and Islander peoples.
After 1970, not only did most card-carrying members leave the party, but ‘it was no longer possible to take inspiration from any of the existing (communist) regimes or imagine they offered a model to be followed in Australia.’ Yet ever an optimist and a scholar, Macintyre concludes: ‘The task was to rescue what remained valid and inspiring from the wreckage of a movement that had betrayed its ideals. That took communists into new policies and practices that require their own history.’
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Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books are the Grafton Everest adventures The Dizzying Heights & The Lowest Depths, co-authored with Ian McFadyen, and a memoir Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, both published by Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne.
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