Bob Boughton, Danny Blackman, Mike Donaldson, Carmel Shute and Beverley Symons (eds), Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists

(Sydney: SEARCH Foundation in association with ASSLH: Sydney, 2021)

Reviewed by Janet Sutherland

Comrades! is a very unusual book. While a cursory look suggests it is an itemised chronology of dates and regurgitation of events seen through rose-coloured (or should I say ‘deep red’) glasses, in fact it is a very significant reflection of human endeavour. Through exploring the diverse range of personalities who feature in these stories, we are shown, as the preface explains; “a window into…lives”.

Our world is rife with generalisations (usually negative) about communists. We accept now that communists don’t eat babies or hide under people’s beds, but is there an element of truth in the notion that they were/are humourless fanatics? In varied and entertaining ways, the answer to this and other ‘fake news’ assertions is spelled out clearly in every one of the stories in Comrades!

Amongst story after story reflecting the whimsy, lateral thinking and success of the comrades’ strategies, examples that stand out include:

  • Judy Gillett-Ferguson’s response in 1969, when told women teachers must not wear pants suits to school; she proposed a compromise: that women would not wear pants if men didn’t!
  • Another from 1951 is the story from Jean Bailey (my mum) of how Newcastle women took bottles of sewerage water to Parliament so the members might better understand the sullage pit problems at a local Housing Commission area.
  • Again, when Alan and Joan Finger’s Adelaide home was raided during the Menzies anti-communist ban in 1940, the political pamphlets were not discovered because they were hiding under baby John’s dirty nappies!
  • And going back to the early days, Nelle Rickie’s story reveals why the topic of a 1924 mass meeting in Newcastle was renamed “Astronomy Should Be Encouraged”.

Comrades! also demonstrates the learning process of activists over the century. In particular it traces a move from a well-intentioned but patronising “we know what’s best for you” attitude to a more respectful “how can we help” attitude to Indigenous Rights campaigning. Similarly, the fluidity, regressions and advances in attitudes to ‘the women problem’ in all its extremes are reflected through the book.

This is not just a book of happy outcomes. On a personal level, what were the consequences of a staff manager standing on Topsy Small’s legs in 1943 during an industrial dispute? Similarly, on an ideological level, we can find in some stories the deep dogmatism and intransigence of some comrades. For example, in 1942, some CPA leaders were expelled for advocating a government of national unity to defeat fascism by supporting Labor under Curtin.

The conflict between personal and public progress is considered in many different ways throughout the book. In 1924, why did the Walshes refuse an invitation to live comfortably in the Soviet Union? Why did some people who fought lifelong for a better society join the CPA while other equally staunch activists relinquished their membership? Where is their commonality? Where did Engel’s definition of equality sit with 1970s feminism? What was/is the significance (personal and political) of the sometimes diametrically opposed responses of different Australian communists to the 1956 and 1968 actions/invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia?

Comrades! reflects the contradictions that are essential to human behaviour and so is both an accurate and an inaccurate record of activism. Herein lies its strength. It is a collection of the honest and human viewpoints of both subject and storyteller with their varied assessments of the times being recorded. Because of this honesty, it well reflects the diversity and contradictions of the times.

Researchers will find Comrades! a fount of information about the twentieth century. When you read this book, the saying “history is written by the victors” springs to mind. We still don’t know the names or stories of the people who built the Egyptian pyramids, or Westminster Abbey or the Great Wall of China, but we now know the names and many pertinent details of some of the ‘builders’ of twentieth century Australia. Comrades! does not promote the pompous glory of ‘big names’; rather, it celebrates constructive actions by very human people.

As well as the provision of details of the SEARCH Foundation website, where additional biographies can be enjoyed, a number of useful addendums and appendices are included to facilitate individual recollections and reminiscences as well as historical research. Notes on all contributors help the reader understand the perspectives of the writers. The very comprehensive indices, giving page references for subjects and organisations considered in the essays, confirm the breadth and depth of activities recorded. The nine pages of names and eight pages of places listed confirm the balance and representative nature of the collection.

As Bob Boughton says in his introduction:

To make our selection [of stories], we applied several criteria. … We wanted to represent … every decade … from 1921-91 … every state and territory … as many social (including artistic and cultural) movements as possible … from the migrant workers’ movements and … from the Indigenous rights movement … equal number of women and men … Lastly … to include lesser-known activists …

In 1789, as England entered ‘those dark satanic years’ of the Industrial Revolution, William Blake reflected in Songs of Innocence:

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face
And Love, the human form divine
And Peace, the human dress.

And then considered further:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor:
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we…

William Blake would have appreciated Comrades!

Janet Sutherland as for many years Country Vice President of the NSW Teachers’ Federation and was also on the federal union executive. She was active, both as a teacher and a parent, in combatting sexist stereotypes in the school environment. As Newcastle Trades Hall Council Vice President in the early 1990s, she was active in the long but ultimately successful community campaign against privatisation of Wallsend Hospital; she became President of the NTHC in 1999. A child of known communists, Janet experienced the nastiness extended to communist families in the Menzies Cold War period and has tried to pass on to her children and grandchildren her parents’ wise words that “we are no better and no worse than anyone else”.