‘Don’t miss the biggest party in town!’, advised the publicity brochure for the Commemorative Dinner to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Australia on October 30, 1920. And about 520 people made sure they didn’t miss it.
It was certainly a night to remember. As the crowd packed into the Trocadero Reception Centre in Marrickville, there was an air of excitement and nostalgia, as many ‘old comms’ and assorted lefties, including several labour historians, met up again with comrades they hadn’t seen for quite a while. It was in March 1991 that the final CPA National Congress decided to wind up the party that for seven decades had made a significant contribution to Australia’s political and social history. The 75th anniversary of its founding was an appropriate opportunity for many of its former members and ‘fellow travellers’ to celebrate its achievements in fine style.
The dinner was organised by the SEARCH (Social Education & Research Concerning Humanity) Foundation, a body established by the former CPA to continue managing its assets and to assist in promoting educational-type activities concerning social justice and progressive issues. In the last week before the dinner, the organising committee was a bit overwhelmed by the response. Although we had expected it to be successful, we didn’t anticipate so many bookings and unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to come could be fitted into the venue.
But for those who were there, it was a great gathering of the left. The hundreds of former members included many who were actively involved from the 1930s and ‘ 40s, through to those who joined from the 1970s. One of the latter, Pat Ranald, was one of four speakers who gave brief’vignettes’ of some of their experiences in the Party. She was attracted to the CPA in 1971, she said, particularly because of its support for feminist ideas and practices, and for the other social movements then developing, as well as its more independent and open politics since ending its allegiance to the Soviet Union in 1968. Other memorable reminiscences were given by former general secretary, Laurie Aarons, long-time local government and community campaigner in Liverpool, Dom Syme, and well-known local activist in the Sutherland area, Pat Elphinston. The main pre-dinner speakers were Judy Gillett, a former National Committee member from Adelaide, who joined the Party in 1957; and Tom McDonald, former Building Workers’ Union leader, who was in the CPA from the mid 1940s until 1971, when along with a group of others, he left to form the Socialist Party of Australia.
As can be imagined, when over 500 people (especially left politicos) had been sitting relatively quietly listening to speakers for 45 minutes, a period of some pandemonium ensued as the dinner was being served, with crowds of people milling around and old friends finding each other for a chat. For the harassed waiters, though, who were trying to bear loaded plates through the throngs and for the organisers trying to keep the aisles free, it was a bit hectic for a while. But perhaps it wasn’t all that much different from many a political conference or rally where various groups are trying to speak at once and the chairperson has temporarily lost control!
After everyone had been settled down and well fed, they welcomed the guest speaker, Stuart Macintyre, Professor of History at Melbourne University who, with Andrew Wells, is currently researching and writing a history of the CPA. Stuart, one of the few fortunate academics who speaks as lucidly as he writes, gave an entertaining, but also serious, survey of the Party’s contribution to several areas of Australian society and paid tribute to the large numbers of communists over the 75 years whose efforts had not been in vain. The Party, he said, was a ‘vision of something better, a crusade that inspired heroism, service, courage, self-sacrifice. It was brought down by its enemies but it was also rejected by its adherents. We do not have to ignore its flaws and deformations to lament its passing. 2
The highlights of the evening were not yet over. We were all thrilled to hear a beautiful and moving song honouring past communists, presented especially for the dinner by the gifted singer, Jeannie Lewis. And to top off the night, the Solidarity Choir performed some great union and left songs, finishing, of course, with a stirring rendition of ‘The Internationale’. The next couple of hours passed on a high and as everyone was leaving, various people urged the organisers to hold an annual dinner. That’s a thought worth considering, but maybe what is needed more than enjoyable get-togethers commemorating a political movement that is now history, are reflective occasions where left activists could not only learn lessons from that past, but try to map out some realistic paths for advancing future coordination and activity around the many problems that we now confront.
- Beverley is a Board member of the SEARCH Foundation and a Committee member of the Sydney Branch, ASSLH.
- Tony Stephens, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 1995.