Commemorative Exhibition of Communist Party History

Audrey Johnson

Earlier this year a group of interested people met to plan a commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Communist party of Australia, set up on 30 October 1920 by an invited group of people with various leftist political leanings. In that respect the 1995 group had a certain similarity to its predecessor.

The CPA went out of existence in 1991 but was, and remains, an important influence in industrial affairs. A number of functions were soon being planned in commemoration – a reunion lunch, a day-long forum and discussion, and an historical exhibition of CP memorabilia. It was with this last that I was chiefly concerned. It was decided at the outset that the various off-shoots from the CPA would not be considered within the scope of the exhibition, although in the event, reference was made to issues which were associated with the breakaways.

Beginning with people close to the original committee, word of mouth publicity and an ever-expanding mailing list led to assembling of photographs, circulars, posters and pamphlets which went back to the 1920s; many of those recalled the years of the donors’ youthful activity, or that of their parents. A number of old communists had given their collections of memorabilia to archives or libraries, but sometimes photocopies were available. Some long-forgotten campaigns and policies had to be researched to establish dates and outcomes, and explanatory notes written.

As well as early issues of the Communist; the earliest CP paper, and Workers Weekly, there were interesting surprises like the pamphlet which reported on the first Moscow meeting of the Red International of Labor Unions by NSW Labor Council delegate Jack Howie, and the articles written by Professor John Anderson and published under a pseudonym in the CP theoretical journal in 1927-28. There were personal mementoes like New Theatre programs, songbooks, and the scarlet sash of honour awarded to a champion Tribune seller in the 1950s. There were pictures and cartoons from the politically-minded Studio of Realist Art, and journals of the Realist Writers group, autographed by some notable members. Also on display was a precious first edition of The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel, which won an English publisher’s prize in 1915, as well as publications by other Communist authors.

The exhibition, which ran for a week in the Waterside Workers’ Tom Nelson Hall in Sussex Street, began with an opening which resembled a family reunion. There were no heavy speeches, but four old comrades had five minutes each to speak of their own political experience. Della Elliott, once an official of the Clerks’ Union and an ACTU delegate, widow of the late great E. V. Elliott of the Seaman’s Union, told of past years in the Young Communist League and the Council of Action for Equal Pay; a veteran couple, playwright Mona Brand and artist, poet and journalist Len Fox, recalled forty years of political life in Melbourne, London, Sydney and Hanoi; and writer Vera Deacon talked of her childhood in unemployed camps round Newcastle, and Ute commitment she shared with the other speakers to true democracy through a socialist society.

Attendance at the exhibition was swelled by young political activists interested in the history of the movement they had only heard about; students of an inner suburban high school urged to attend by their art teacher; and casual passers-by attracted by the exhibition’s scarlet poster. But most of those who thronged the hall were old communists whose excited exclamations told of recognition of old comrades pictured in photographs, of campaigns once forgotten and here recalled. “They were great years”, said an old worker, near tears.

While the exhibition celebrated the triumphs of past years – the influential Militant Minority Movement; the United Front of the 1930s; the stand against Fascism; the championing of Aboriginal rights; the struggle against the Communist Party Dissolution Bill; and the sustained campaign for peace – it did not ignore the issues which damaged or divided the Party – the ultra-left period in the early thirties when ALP members were labelled ‘social fascists’; the confused policies of the early war years; and the stifling of dissent following Kruschev’s ‘secret speech’; among others.

It is a matter for regret that many people who would have been interested in the exhibition heard about it only after it was over; but it is a matter for satisfaction that a register is being compiled containing details of the exhibits and other such collections in the hope that one day they may be housed in a labour history museum in Sydney.