Vale Dave Riley — socialist, satirist and chef

Dave Riley
Dave Riley.

Dave Riley, long-time socialist, artist, satirist and chef, died on October 4 in Brisbane from a aortic aneurysm.

Dave suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for many years, which limited his activism — something he had pursued for much of his early and middle life.

Dave came from a conservative Catholic family in Melbourne and initially joined Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria’s right-wing National Civic Council (NCC) youth group.

However, under the impact of the youth radicalisation of the 1960s, he moved to the progressive side. Later that decade, he joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and in the early 1970s joined the Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA).

“Radicalisation only truly visited me during 1969, and then I gave myself up to it with abandon,” Dave wrote in an autobiographical piece in 1999.

He said that as he moved away from the NCC: “It wasn’t the war that then dominated my thinking, but social injustice.

“I became part of a cross-campus movement which we called Social Involvement. Initially under the auspices of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, students volunteered their labour to off-campus community projects which could utilise their skills.

“I coordinated student involvement in the nearby mental hospital. We would run discussions and tutor in English. We later established a choir and a weekly coffee shop.

“These successes encouraged further experimentation, so by the end of the year I was directing revues and cabarets put on, and mainly written, by the patients themselves.”

Dave was keen on progressive theatre and, influenced by Marxist playwrights Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weiss, he formed the activist troupe Boxiganga in 1970.

“I tried to envisage a theatre that was relevant to the times,” he wrote. He maintained a strong interest in theatre and the arts throughout his life.

After a short stint in a bank, “through whose windows I could watch the student marches that were becoming more frequent against the war,” Dave joined the building industry as a labourer.

He said he attended one meeting of the local branch of the Young Labor Association, but that “its activities seemed more social than socialist”.

He left the CPA after a split in the anti-war movement over the best tactics to build it.

He picked up a copy of Direct Action, produced by SYA, which, he said, offered readers “the opportunity to build a new political formation that was neither Stalinist nor dismissive of the traditions of the Marxist movement”.

“I thought: ‘This is the outfit for me’, and I joined the Socialist Youth Alliance in January 1971.”

Dave helped form the Socialist Workers League (SWL), which later became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and then the Democratic Socialist Party.

He wrote: “In hindsight, the period of mass mobilisations against the Vietnam War possessed a wonderful logic. Huge social and economic forces were involved in the conflict, but once you decided which side you were on — and did something about it — your life changed dramatically.”

Dave was elected to the national leadership of the SWL in 1972 and took up assignments in Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane.

He left it in 1974 and rejoined in 1981 in Melbourne. He worked as an organiser in Newcastle, in the SWP national office and again as an organiser in Melbourne and Brisbane, before ill health thwarted his activism.

He was the author of Life of Riley, a regular satirical column for Green Left.

Dave was a leading member of the DSP during the 1990s and early 2000s when we both lived in Brisbane. He helped form Socialist Alliance (SA) in 2001.

I fondly remember dinners hosted by Dave, along with his partner Helen, daughter Anais and son Keir, in their house in suburban Northgate. The family later moved to a property north of the city, near Bribie Island.

Dave was an enthusiastic cook and, later, gardener. Around 1990 or so, he decided we should establish a socialist cafe in the New Farm. It was a nice idea, but probably not entirely practical. Nevertheless, it was an example of Dave’s enthusiasm to try out new ventures to broaden the socialist project.

As Helen wrote in a message to friends after his passing: “Dave had an extensive network of friends and contacts across many of his great interests and hobbies. He always approached life with such humour and passion and was a reminder to us all to live life to the fullest.”

Despite being forced by illness to slow down in later life, Dave maintained his membership of SA and remained politically engaged.

His humour and zest for enjoyment in life could be seen in his satirical blogsite, Ratbag Media, which most recently included humourous send-ups of the monarchy and the establishment media’s homage to Elizabeth II.

Dave will be deeply missed by his many friends and comrades.

[A celebration of Dave’s life will be held at the Beachmere Hub on October 27 from 10am.]