Comrades! The fascinating life stories of Australian communists

November 19, 2020
Artist Ailsa O'Connor. Image:

Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists
Edited by Bob Boughton, Danny Blackman, Mike Donaldson,
Carmel Shute and Beverley Symons,
SEARCH Foundation and the Australian Society for the
Study of Labour History, 2020, 440pp

Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists brings together 100 short biographies of members of the original Communist Party of Australia (CPA), active between the party's founding in October 1920 and its dissolution in 1991.

The stories, outlining the lives of communist women and men, reveal their commitment to creating a socialist world, and their critical role in a variety of working-class organisations and movements for progressive social change over the party's 70-year existence.

They worked on the wharves, building sites, railways and factories and in mines, shops and hospitals. Others were novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and lawyers. Many were union officials.

One, Fred Paterson, was Australia’s only Communist Member of Parliament, for Bowen in Queensland. Some were scarred by wars, the Great Depression, or the Cold War. Others were inspired by the social movements of the 1960s and '70s and the struggles for peace, women’s liberation, LGBTI rights and the environment.

What drew them together was their passion for a world without war, without divisions of race and class, for a society based on cooperation and shared wealth. They believed that ordinary people working together could change the world.

The CPA was the first party to oppose the White Australia policy, to stand up against fascism, and to fight for Aboriginal rights. It was the first Communist party in the world to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

These rank-and-file and more prominent Communists helped build hundreds of social movement organisations through which people fought to have their say in the future. Their books, plays, films, art and songs helped develop Australia's progressive cultural life.

Many were subjected to surveillance and repression by the Australian Security and Intelligence Orgaisation and other security agencies, discrimination at work, and constant public attacks. Few were ever acknowledged in history books or the media.

Fred Paterson is one of the early lives celebrated in the book. From working-class origins in Gladstone, he rose to become a leading barrister, who defended the unemployed and evictees during the 1930s Great Depression, later a Townsville councillor for the CPA, and finally the Communist state MP for Bowen from 1944–50, during the famous "Red North" period of the 1930s and '40s in Queensland.

As biographer Ross Fitzgerald notes: "An outstanding public speaker, Fred Paterson addressed hundreds of public meetings. He was often faced with legal bans.

"As a way of circumventing these restrictions, he spoke on a number of occasions below the high-water mark on the beach! Once, in Cairns, he stood on a table in the water!"

Paterson was brutally bashed by police while observing a march of striking railway workers in Brisbane in 1948. His long-term health suffered, and he was finally defeated in the 1952 state election through a gerrymander introduced by the Queensland Labor state government.

Noreen Hewett was a life-long activist for social justice, who particularly championed the causes of peace, and women's and pensioners' rights. She co-founded the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in 1950, and was a CPA member from 1941 until the party's final congress in 1991.

"From her teens, she was determined to make the world a better place. Her political activism began at the age of 21 when she was buying [the CPA paper] Tribune from a young man and he suggested she could join the Communist Party for an extra two shillings. After a healthy political exchange, she joined on the spot and remained an active member until its dissolution," Rex Hewett writes.

Sonny Myles, a union activist and former CPA organiser in Queensland, born in 1925, told Pat Hovey: "You should learn to live with those things you can't change, but learn to help change those things that you shouldn't be asked to live with — wars, poverty, pollution, injustice."

Artist and Communist activist Ailsa O'Connor was a pioneer, first of the social-realist art movement of the 1930s and '40s, and then of the women's art movement of the '70s. Julie Copeland writes: "Her strong belief that art and artists can't be separated from questions of society and politics, meant that all her life she was committed to struggles against social injustice in Australia and abroad, and particularly when it came to women's rights."

Ray Peckham, born in 1929, is a Wiradjuri activist who organised for better conditions in Aboriginal communities all over NSW. He was a member of the former Builders' Labourers Federation and joined the CPA in 1952.

In 1952, Ray and Faith Bandler were asked to attend the Youth Festival of World Culture in East Berlin. When their delegation's ship was due to leave Melbourne, they were refused passports by the government. "The Waterside Workers Federation and other unions quickly resolved the issue," writes Mike Donaldson.

"They said, 'Peckham doesn't go on this ship, and this ship doesn't leave this harbour. And we'll tie up every ship that's important around the shores of Australia.' Down comes the passports four hours later."

Arriving from Greece as a migrant in 1950, aged 19, George Zangalis quickly joined the CPA youth wing, the Eureka Youth League, and then the Communist Party, and began a life of political activism in the trade union movement and in ethnic communities. "Since then, he has been relentlessly committed to fighting what he calls the 'painstaking yet rewarding struggle' for migrant and working-class rights in the workplace and the broader Australian community," Jock Collins writes.

Zangalis was a full-time CPA organiser, a leading official of the Australian Railways Union, and an executive member of the Victorian Trades Hall Council. George was elected the first president of the ACTU Migrant Workers Committee, and is currently vice-president of the Fair Go for Pensioners Coalition.

These are just a few insights into the fascinating, and revealing, life-stories of the Communist militants who dedicated themselves to the fight for socialism in the often challenging conditions of Australia.

This is not the place to analyse the ups and downs, achievements and failures, of the CPA itself as an organisation. Suffice it to say that it is a historical tragedy that the Communist Party, after all the sacrifices and gains won by these stalwart class fighters, eventually lost its way and closed up shop, just as capitalism's crisis was reaching a disastrous stage.

The heroic lives of these 100 Communist militants should be honoured and the lessons of their struggles learnt from by today's resurgent movement for fundamental progressive change.

Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists shows that, whatever the setbacks and challenges, ordinary people can make meaningful change if they work and organise effectively together for an ecologically sustainable, socialist world.

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