The Eureka Youth League: Some Personal Memories

Barrie Blears

Sydney Branch members were recently treated to reminiscences of the Eureka Youth League during the 1960s from Barrie Blears, Alan Anderson and Paula Rix. Barrie subsequently provided us with the text of his memories, as did another EYL stalwart and Sydney Branch member, Beverley Symons. Hummer thanks you both and invites other branch members to add their recollections for future issues. Ed.

Around 1980 I decided to commence writing a historical account of the development of the radical youth movements associated with the Communist Party of Australia from the early 1900’s till 1970. In the last couple of years I haven’t added a great deal to the original manuscript but I was asked to write a ‘short history’ for The Hummer. Here it is.

The earlier period of the radical youth movement in Australia has been !lurd to research but as an organisation it was spasmodic and rather IIIt’I’lcct ive. It showed some signs of development in the late 1920’s and even more so as the depression of the ’30’s took a hold and the International communist movement started to place more emphasis on the social and political organisation of young people.

Various groups of the Young Communist League were established from 1923 onwards with the Young Comrades Club being set up in Sydney around 1927. In the middle 20’s the Melbourne University Labour Club was formed and out of this the Labor Guild of Youth with a paper called ‘Revolt’ emerged in that city.

In 1931 a paper called ‘The Young Worker’ appeared in Sydney and for some years was the voice of the YCL. A number of people involved in the movement of the time have remarked that it tended to be somewhat sectarian, narrow and not particularly successful yet managed to’ grab some headlines over various issues. Two that spring to mind are the arrest of Laurie Aarons and Les Jury for defYing dress regulations on Bronte beach. The other was a speech made by Noel Counihan from a metal cage on a cart in Sydney Road, Brunswick in Melbourne in 1933, leading to his arrest as part of a ‘Free Speech’ campaign to allow political speakers the right to air their views. It was from the machinations of the Young Communist International in 1935 that the Communist Parties were directed to build ‘mass based’ youth organisations. The Australian situation was politically advanced, in that a number of women were soon elected to the leadership, including Pat Devanny and later Audrey Blake.

A lot of emphasis was placed on work, housing and social issues that were part of the current problems of the depression and also opposition to the rise of Hitler in Germany. In 1937 Ken Miller launched a document called ‘A New Deal for Youth’ in Melbourne at a gathering of some I5OO people in the Majestic Theatre. This was modelled on similar themes in America and it was decided at this gathering to change the name of the YCL to the League of Young Democrats. By 1940 a Victorian Youth Parliament had been organised, soon to be eclipsed by the outbreak of World War 2. However the work continued on this project, culminating in a National Youth Parliament in Sydney at Easter, 1941. The same year the L YD was banned by the Menzies government but almost immediately the Eureka Youth League was formed in December and a paper called Rally emerged to whip up support to fight the war and defeat fascism.

Within a year the EYL’s membership had risen to about 1000 with connections to various trade union youth committees, armed services groups, Victory Councils, etc. The actual recruitment figures were lower than planned. Quite early the emphasis went on the opening of the Second Front in Europe, a call to support the efforts of the Soviet Union, then locked in a bloody conflict with the German armed forces.

The war period proved to be a most fruitful time for the EYL and, in particular, its slogan of ‘anti-fascism’ had wide support and there was general admiration for the Russian war effort. In an effort to increase war production the EYL and the CPA led ‘work brigades’ and ‘shock worker’ movements in the factories, based on the emphasis movement in the USSR. The pre-war call for better working conditions was shelved in the bid to increase war production. They also organized Friends of the Servicemen, or FOS committees that worked closely with the armed forces.

The EYL’s membership started to decline towards the end of the war. This was put down to people who had joined in the flush of the struggle against Germany and Japan and who were now starting to think of post war reconstruction. This decline continued right into the 1960’s, when the membership, while small, did revive somewhat.

Even before the war ended the League prepared for a peacetime agenda and once again the New Deal for Youth was re-introduced with a lot of emphasis placed on industrial youth. .

From 1945 till the 1950’s the Cold War and Anti-Communism slowly and relentlessly ate into the gains of the left and the EYL. Australian politics, as in the USA and some other countries, weren’t in the position of the left in France and Italy where the left were seen as patriots, while here they could be labelled as “agents of a foreign power”. Notwithstanding this, the period held many highlights. The campaign for daylight Technical training began and there were some industrial gains. The down side was the cessation of support from the Graeme Bell Jazz Band away from the l.l~lIglie. the loss of government grants and the removal of the EYL from Illl’ Associlltcd Youth Committees in various States. The latter move was all the more bizarre, given that these Committees were originally set up on the initiative of the League.

During this period the Federal Labor Government was defeated by Mcnzies, not long after the communist led coal miners strike was defeated by the Chifley government, severely setting back the CPA’s credibility. Lance Sharkey, the CPA General Secretary was jailed for sedition while Cecil Sharpley, a leading CPA member, defected from the Victorian branch with masses of anti CPA invective filling the daily press.

The early 1950’s brought the Korean war and the EYL assisted in the development of the peace movement with the Peace Congress held in Melbourne. By 1952 the Youth Carnival was organised in Sydney with virtually total opposition from the press. State and Federal governments proscribed the event and applied pressure to local councils to do the same. Despite all this some 30,000 people attended and the carnival remained a morale booster for the forces fighting the Cold War for quite some time.

The ’50’s also witnessed the introduction of National Service Training, with Prime Minister Menzies making noises about committing troops to Malaya and other “guerilla” wars in the Asian region. Again the EYL spearheaded opposition to all these moves and industrially continued to call for better apprenticeship conditions and training.

By the 1960’s the league had helped support the ACTUs Youth Weeks and had gone on to develop better relations with church youth and others in the peace movement.

One of the main activities of the EYL during its existence was the operation of youth camps in all states. North Queensland had facilities. on Magnetic Island while the Seaman’s Union allowed the League to use a site at Springwood in the Blue Mountains. South Australia had a camp at Second Valley and Victoria had the largest and most long running site at Yarra Junction. Thousands of young people attended these over the years but by the 1960’s increasing mobility of young people led to less interest in camping.

The Vietnam war was underway and the EYL was one of the first groups to protest in the streets on this issue. Strangely, the broadening of the anti-Vietnam war protests led to the EYL coming under increased criticism, now often called the ‘old’ left as other groups attempted to take over the radical agenda. Consequently the EYL found itself in some confusion as to its relevance to society in general.

Without going into too much detail the demise of the EYL occurred shortly after 1968 when it changed its name to the Young Socialist League. Apart from a section that was kept alive in South Australia by Socialist Party influence, the main organisation fell apart in NSW, Victoria and Queensland and many of its records, documents and equipment were stolen or acquired by various grouplets that were around at the time.

Thus ended fifty years of an organisation of young people that both benefited and suffered from its connections with the Communist Party of Australia.