The Lost World of Australian Communism

At its high point, the Communist Party of Australia united thousands of working-class militants in a struggle to transform the world around them. These everyday communists were brave, flawed, and sometimes heroic.

Marx House, the headquarters of the Australian Communist Party Central Committee on George Street, Sydney, circa 1950. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What did it mean to be a communist in the twentieth century? Thanks in large part to Hollywood movies, there are a few archetypal communist characters, including the uncompromising dogmatist, the conniving rabble-rouser, and the misled “useful idiot.” Whatever communists were, being a red placed you far away from what was considered mainstream.

Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists goes a long way to challenging this blinkered picture by collecting a hundred fascinating, interlinked short biographies of members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), accompanied by many more that are accessible online. Produced with support from the SEARCH Foundation, formed in 1990 by CPA members, Comrades! is also a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the CPA’s founding in October 1920.

The party’s historical arc is well established. After achieving prominence during the Great Depression, the CPA hit a high-water mark of popularity in the 1940s as a result of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazism. Then the onset of the Cold War saw the CPA begin a slow decline. After flirting with the New Left and Eurocommunism, the party finally allied with the center left of the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party before dissolving in 1991.

The editors of Comrades! have avoided producing another factionalized reading of the party’s history. Their humanizing approach helps us see CPA activists not simply as starry-eyed radicals but as people. Australian communists were deeply embedded in everyday life and the fight for a better world. They were basically normal — sometimes even painfully so.

A Party of Autodidacts

Comrades! isn’t the first work to focus on the individual, everyday lives of socialists. Kevin Morgan, Gideon Cohen, and Andrew Finn’s Communists and British Society, 1920–1991 offered the editors a useful model. It relied on some 4,500 individual biographies to ascertain

who [communists] were, where they came from, how their allegiances were forged and sustained, how communist identities were created and dissolved, [and] the diverse roles party members played in British society.

There has also been a plethora of memoirs from party members spanning the continuum from true believers to disgruntled and disillusioned cynics, all of whom offer rich, albeit slanted, perspectives. Comrades! walks a line between in-depth research, analysis, and memoir. A different writer — an activist, an academic, or more usually both — brings each communist portrayed to life.

This approach speaks to a key point about the CPA’s intellectual culture. As the book points out, autodidacts played a significant role in the party’s life. For example, Bill Earsman was a Scottish metalworker and instigator of the CPA’s founding meeting. He was also a “self-educated trades worker who by his own admission had studied very few of the Marxist classics,” and a strong advocate for working-class education, arguing that “if we want education, let us have it and manage it for ourselves.”

The Australian authorities denied Earsman reentry into the country after he attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, held in Petrograd and Moscow in 1922. Despite this, his efforts bore fruit: the CPA went on to establish its own independent proletarian educational infrastructure, centered around a building named Marx House, on George St, Sydney.

The CPA regarded the abilities to write, think, criticize, appreciate, and cultivate as crucial working-class virtues. Alongside political training, the party put significant resources into nurturing culture in a number of different mediums.

Ralph de Boissière was a member of the party’s Realist Writers Group, founded in 1952. His first book, Crown Jewel, was a fictionalized account of working-class struggle in his native Trinidad — and the first title in the CPA’s own publishing house, the Australasian Book Society. Crown Jewel sold well, supplementing De Boissière’s wage as an assembly-line worker in Melbourne’s General Motors factory.

The CPA Realist Writers Group was soon joined by a Realist Film Unit and the New Theatre. These institutions advanced the party’s goal of rekindling an authentic Australian culture — not just in theaters, but at work sites across the country. Socialist theater on your lunch break? Midcentury Australian communism really was another world.

Reforming Revolutionaries

Australia would not be the same today were it not for the communist activists that Comrades! portrays. With their eyes set on the revolutionary horizon, these militants also played often unacknowledged roles in the day-to-day fight for reforms we now take for granted.

In his 1939 work New Deal for the Aborigines, Tom Wright, a sheet metal union leader and prolific advocate for indigenous rights, outlined a remarkably modern vision of Aboriginal land rights. Shirley Andrews, a biochemist and folk dancer, energetically headed the broad-based Council for Aboriginal Rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Although most indigenous Australians maintained a cautious distance, a number did join the party, like Ray Peckham, a builders laborer.

CPA members’ efforts had most impact within Australia’s trade union movement. Laurie Carmichael, assistant national secretary of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union (AMWU) from 1972 to 1984, was emblematic of dozens of other high-ranking communist officials. Beginning as an apprentice boilermaker, he rose through the union’s militant ranks thanks to the leadership skills, careful analysis, and (relative) incorruptibility that the party instilled in its members.

Thanks to the efforts of Carmichael and other communists, many unions took an approach that can be summed up as “elect a commo to the union, and a Labor man to Canberra.” The CPA’s influence was not limited to blue-collar workers, either. It also spread to the white-collar unions that the party helped build among clerks, teachers, and public servants.

The party also had a close relationship with the women’s movement. Distrustful of “bourgeois” feminism, which it believed to favor elites, the Communist Party put forward its own brand of socialist feminism that sought to connect with women on the basis of everyday life. The CPA-backed New Housewives Association of the 1940s became the Union of Australian Women in 1950.

CPA member Eva Bacon was a founding member and went on to head the union’s Queensland branch from 1972 to 1980. She traversed the two “waves” of feminism with ease, fighting for “women’s right to work, equal pay and conditions” in the 1950s and ’60s, before supplementing these demands with the new cultural radicalism of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the 1970s.

According to Bacon, the WLM offered the “potential . . . to create new human beings” and “help women to gain a new world” — a project central to the communist vision.

The Party Isn’t Always Right

Was the CPA perfect? Of course not. The party replicated many of the practices that it abhorred theoretically. Despite the odes to women’s equality, Amirah Inglis remembers her time in the CPA as having been defined by “the hammer, the sickle and the washing up.” Similarly, although they were careful to support demands for Aboriginal sovereignty and rights, some members privately thought the party was doing too much for “the blacks.”

And while its authority in the trade union movement gave the CPA its biggest public impact, it also placed people like Carmichael in some incredibly compromising situations. The AMWU’s support was essential to implementing the 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord, introduced by Bob Hawke’s Labor government, which laid the foundation for Australian-style neoliberalism.

In retrospect, it is easy to focus on the big names of communism, the causes won and lost, and the ideals contested and betrayed. But what is most striking while reading Comrades! is just how normal Australia’s communists were. They were secretaries of local rugby league clubs, volunteer surf lifesavers, and domestic violence support workers. And they labored in countless other community organizations, big and small.

If communists really were conspiratorial, two-faced manipulators, they weren’t very good at it, especially when we consider the hours so many contributed to the party and the wider community with no hope of any personal gain.

Today, mass parties are no longer a fact of life, and the connections between workplaces, unions, and communities are more tenuous than ever. The need for radical change couldn’t be clearer, but history cannot give us a road map for the future. However, this isn’t what the compilers of Comrades! set out to do. The biographies they have assembled show us how several generations of communist militants made sense of an ever-changing world while fighting to change it.

In their introduction, the editors paraphrase one of Karl Marx’s better-known aphorisms: We make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing. Comrades! does more than remind us of Marx’s insight — it offers us a range of experiences, histories, and examples that can help us understand history as we make it.