Thirty-six years after I first joined the Eureka Youth League, I still retain warm memories of an enjoyable and fruitful experience, which helped to change my life’s direction into the left movement. In the few years I was in the League – from 1959 till about the mid-sixties – I got to know many great people, had a lot of fun and good times at the camps and social functions, and was introduced to what seemed to me then to be the exciting and fascinating world of left politics and in particular the communist movement. (Being now somewhat older and jaded, the excitement of politics has worn rather thin and the movement itself has gone, but much of the fascination remains).
In my memories, I credit Max Ogden with ‘joining me up’ into the EYL as when I met him in the corridors of Melbourne’s Trades Hall where I was working, he invited me to a function or meeting in the League’s hall. Actually I suspect that my motives at the time might have had more to do with the several nice young men I met in the EYL, rather than with its politics, but within a short time I was well and truly involved. I cannot now remember much about the kinds of political activities in which I participated in that early period of membership in Melbourne, apart from the League’s active support for the week-long A & NZ Peace Congress held in October 1959. One of my most memorable experiences was the few months I worked as a secretary in the Congress office assisting the organiser, Sam Goldbloom and other staff, including Dorothy Gibson, a marvellous peace activist and communist. Becoming involved in both the EYL and the peace movement during the same year – without much initial political motivation on my part, I should add – meant entering a whole new and exciting world and becoming a different person in the process, and I have always been grateful that those opportunities were opened up tome.
No doubt I did get involved in some organising or political activities in the League in Melbourne – but mostly I remember the social life and fun of the dances and other functions and particularly the enjoyment of participation in EYL camps at Yarra Junction. There was the friendship and camaraderie of sharing a campsite with a group of other young likeminded men and women and learning so much from talks by visiting speakers and in discussion groups about Australian political events, as well as, of course, the ideas of socialism and the great achievements of the Soviet Union, which was seen by us then as our model for building a socialist future here. Then there were the bush walks, the volleyball games and other sporting activities, the music and singing around the campfire at night, the meal rosters for tasks in the kitchen and dining-room and the work teams for a range of maintenance jobs on the buildings and grounds. And best of all, the laughter and fun at the camp concert on our last night, which uncovered all sorts of artistic talents – including, I should mention, those of Barrie Blears as the chief wisecracker, story-teller and general master-of-ceremonies, who tried to cajole everyone into doing something at the concert. Even people like me who had no talent whatsoever and hated having to get up in front of everybody, couldn’t escape Barrie’s enthusiasm – although I think I managed to remain in the back row of a choir. Another memory is that we didn’t drink alcohol as the camps were officially ‘dry’ (actually, I suspect that the ‘leaders’, as distinct from the masses may have had the odd can stashed away in their tents). And as for sex – again officially, it was not supposed to be allowed in the camp, but no doubt some liaisons did occur after ‘lights-out’, even though I seem to recall that ‘vigilante’ groups used to walk around flashing their torches among the lines of tents which, needless to say, were strictly segregated. The League had a strict, even moralistic, attitude at the time about what it deemed anti-social behaviour among its young members which might cause concern to their parents or bring the organisation. into disrepute, and everyone at the camps was certainly expected to stick to the rules. But of course, romances did blossom within the EYL, and many marriages occurred between members, including my own. I don’t recall anyone just living together – in those days it was the expected norm to get married, and despite our left radicalism, our social patterns were probably fairly conventional.
In adding these few recollections of my time in the EYL to Barrie’s historic record, I know that many other former members would undoubtedly have much more vivid memories of the political education and activities they experienced – particularly during the turbulent war years of the 1940s and the Cold War years of the ’50s. My major memory is one of gratitude for the warm welcome I experienced on joining, the friendship and camaraderie, the sense of belonging not only to an organisation but a worldwide movement of like-minded people who were attempting to build a socialist future. We were of course, young and idealistic and had not yet experienced the disillusionment and disappointments that were to come for the communist movement. With hindsight I can now see that by the early 1960s when I was involved, the best days of the Youth League were past and that the writing was on the wall for its demise around 1968. It was nevertheless, for many young people then, a great way to be introduced to the ideas and ethos of the socialist left movement, and in that sense it was undoubtedly a success. And, incidentally, it was a great ‘training ground’ for many young women, like myself, who learnt confidence as well as some organising and political skills, from the example set by the large numbers of women who were prominent in the leadership and among the membership. Audrey Blake has paid tribute to many of the women who were prominent leaders in the EYL in the 1940S;1 in my time, the national secretary, Mavis Robertson, was an extremely competent organiser and role-model.
A former EYL member in Melbourne Bruce Armstrong, has prepared a photographic history of the Eureka Youth League (Victoria) including some mention of the League of Young Democrats, as well as materials on the Workers’ Sports Federation. When completed around June-July 1995, the exhibition will be housed in the University of Melbourne Archives. It includes some 160 photographs of EYL activities, together with explanatory legends for each photo, arranged in themes – sport, education, political activities, recreation camps etc. There are also some pamphlets, posters and other ephemera. For further information about the collection, contact Ms. Sue Fairbanks, Labour Archivist, University of Melbourne Archives, 119 Barry Street, Carlton, 3053 Ph. (03) 9344 6848/9.
- Audrey Blake, ‘The Eureka Youth League: A Participant’s Report’, Labour History, no. 42, May 1982, pp. 94-105; republished in her autobiography, A Proletarian Life. Malmsbury: Kibble Books, 1984.