Inspiration for activists

Issue 

Anger and Love

By Justina Williams

Fremantle Arts Press. 280 pp. $16.95

Reviewed by Dave Riley

In answer to the question, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?", many supporters of the federal Labor government would have it nowadays that a reluctant yes was tantamount to admitting a grievous and stupid sin.

The largest political party in Australia is probably that of ex-Communists. John Halfpenny, Philip Adams, Dorothy Hewitt, Laurie Carmichael, Fred Hollows, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), Frank Hardy and thousands more can all lay claim to card carrying party membership for some time of their lives.

But the party that nurtured their social consciousness is most times rejected as irrelevant to the political realities of today.

Class struggle politics, Marxist theory and the socialist revolution are dismissed as attributes of quaint, bygone times. In a world returned to business as usual, the politics of the last decade have consciously fostered a historical amnesia where the letters CPA stand for nothing more in most people's minds than Chartered Practising Accountant.

Justina Williams disagrees. For activists like myself who belong to the '60s generation of radicals, it is important to recognise on whose shoulders we stand. Regardless of our criticisms, the continuity of green and left politics today unfolds within a background established by activists such as Justina Williams. Anger and Love is a personal story of a fulfilling life in radical politics.

"When the Party to which I was so loyal", she writes, "turned on me with needless cruelty for 'deviations', real and otherwise, I told comrades wrathfully, 'I'll still be battling when you've dropped your bundle'. These words were coming all too true as the ranks thinned. Going on because, once you have eaten of the tree of knowledge, how can you turn your back? Life was demonstrating for me the truth of Marxism, its theory as sustaining for the mind as bread for the body."

For over 30 years Williams was an member of the Communist Party in Perth, involved in all the major progressive campaigns that stretched from the Spanish Civil War to the 1970 Moratorium. The book ends with the victory of the movement against the Vietnam War.

Unlike many of the memoirs of Communists I have read, Williams is not intent on self-justification or reading her opinions into the party record. Nor is she writing about an odd and unique phase in her life recalled for purposes of nostalgia. Her story is too intimate for that. Generated by anger and sustained by love, Justina Williams passionately embraced what we are nowadays told is passe — commitment.

She offers a thoughtful lesson on the ability of party politics and scientific socialism to preserve human endeavour over the long haul. The hard years of the Cold War bore down on the members of the CPA and culled its ranks. The buoyancy of the 1940s was replaced by the bitter anti-communism that dominated Australian politics until the mass antiwar movement of the late '60s redefined Australian politics.

Unfortunately, the 20 years since are absent from Williams' narrative. I understand that in the dispute that split the Communist Party in the early '70s, she joined the Socialist Party of Australia.

Writing and publishing your recollections of membership of the Communist Party is an autobiographical genre notable for its persistence. Something of a cottage industry for many, the remembrances of party cadre may seem an acquired taste. Justina Williams' story is told much better than as a mere witness to history.

Anger and Love carries with it a warm sensitivity that transcends the written memoirs of most of her peers. In its ability to move the reader, this work is comparable to the neglected autobiography of Jean Devenney, Point of departure.

For readers interested in the history of the communist movement, the book is a mixed blessing. It seems to self-consciously skirt over the key positions of the CPA at certain points of its history. The Hitler-Stalin pact and the 1956 Hungarian uprising don't warrant a mention. Khrushchev's secret speech is dismissed in a paragraph. The 1961 split in the CPA over relations with China is not mentioned. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is treated as background information.

The book, therefore, is not a political history of the times. The many individual lives in the party, even with their frequent penchant to commit them to paper, serve us mainly as stories of either inspiration or caution. Justina Williams writes to inspire us. For activists today, Anger and Love's story of struggle and commitment challenges us to emulate it.