Remembering and Reflecting: 1956

Elaine Bryant

One morning in July 1956 I picked up the paper, actually thinking it was the Courier Mail. But it was a recent New York Times which George – my husband George Petersen – very occasionally bought. I was reading Khrushchev’s Report to a Closed Session of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, given 24/25th February 1956. I didn’t doubt its authenticity; I believed it, I was also sure that no other Brisbane comrade would believe it, and when George knew I believed it, he would leave me. So I said nothing when he came home that night, nor the next day. Finally, on the evening of the third day, I said “George, have you read K’s report?”, “Yes”, he replied. “Well, I believe it”, I said. “So do I. I’ve always had some doubts”. We went straight into a discussion about what must be done: a thorough discussion by all comrades; a full admission to the workers and others of the truth; and apologies for all our lies and cover-ups, promising to clean up our party. George and I didn’t doubt that this could only result in a strong party with wide popular support, not just from some members of militant unions as was the present situation.

At our next fortnightly branch meeting we raised the issue of Khrushchev’s report: “Oh no, comrades, it’s probably a forgery – we can’t discuss it until we get [the word, from … (above)]”

Brisbane CP local branches were grouped geographically into sections. Our section had a meeting already scheduled for a Sunday in August, at the home of Mr and Mrs Julius [check spelling], senior, at Clayfield [check]. George and I were there, our Evie [check], 3 years old off to play with other kids, Ricky, 3 months old asleep in his moses basket inside the house where Mrs Julius could keep an eye on him. On the lawn outside we all say – let’s say 30 of us – on collapsible chairs – the chairman and secretary at a little table. Nothing about Khrushchev’s report on the agenda, but at the first suitable spot I stood and moved that we discuss Khrushchev’s report to the 20th Congress, which George seconded. A voice called out “move the motion be put”, which was seconded. When the chairman asked all those in favour ‘that the motion be put’, 28 hands went straight up. Only George and I against. On voting for my motion, 2 in favour (George and I), 28 against and the motion was defeated. George tried twice again to have the motion passed. Both times, we were defeated 28 to 2. George and I took out our party membership cards, took 2 or 3 steps across the grass, laid our cards on the table and off we went – without a murmur from anyone. Three month old Ricky was on short rations for 24 hours. My normally copious flow of breast milk – he was 9lb at birth and 18lb at 16 weeks, on my milk alone – only briefly affected.

George and I turned up at the next meeting of our local branch. ‘Oh, but you resigned’ they said. ‘No we haven’t’ came our response. ‘But you threw your cards in’, ‘We didn’t say we were resigning. We haven’t written letters of resignation. We’re financial members’; ‘Well we’ll have to see about that. You can’t stay tonight. We’ll get in touch with you’. Three weeks later came a phone call; ‘We’ve managed to get you back into the party’. And life went on. A bit chilly at times. Our close friends treated us much the same. But a distinct lessening of spontaneity here and there. One close comrade told me that a rumour was circulating that George and I were US State Department agents.

George and I were ‘searching for meaning’. We thought about that ‘monster Trotsky’, written out of Soviet history, his face air-brushed out of group photos of the leaders of the new Soviet Union, and the last of those leaders to be murdered by Stalin. And so we read Isaac Deutscher’s [check spelling] trilogy on Trotsky – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and
The Prophet in Exile.

In November 1956 for George’s annual leave, we took the kids to Sydney, we stayed at my dear comrade and friend Eric’s place in North Sydney. Eric was as one with use re the report, and said there were others like us in Sydney. Our mob came to be dubbed ‘reformists’ by the CP, and it was used with the same condemnatory forces as ‘paedophile’.

Our friend Eric put us in touch with Jimmy Staples – George and I met him in Ashfield. What an impressive, lovable stable bloke – in his mid 20’s. Jimmy always read the New York Times, and when he read Khrushchev’s report in early July 1956 issue, he recognised it as genuine and that it should be discussed. So later he had stencils cut and himself ran off 500 copies on a Gestetner owned by the Deckhand’s Union and he distributed copies in Sydney and Melbourne. After the Budapest revolt, Jimmy Staples, who had survived till then as a CP member, was immediately summoned to a meeting in Campsie by the Sydney District Committee and to Jim’s great surprise, expelled forthwith. Just days before George and I met him and Jimmy put us on to another reformist, Bob Walshe, and George and I visited Bob and Pat Walshe and a small number of reformists they’d invited there to meet us. I was so delighted to see Clare and Haroldagain two old Tech College comrades from my years in Tech branch (1944-46).

Back in Brisbane life went on. My husband George worked as a Special Magistrate at the Commonwealth Department of Social Services. In early July 1957 he was transferred to the Wollongong Office. There was a house available for us to rent in the Commonwealth Cottages at Unanderra, about 8 miles south of Wollongong. We immediately put our transfer with the Party to our new address, sold out house, bought 61/2 years previously, on a War Service Homes Loan, at the same price we paid then. No farewell to us of any sort was organised, not even by Brisbane New Theatre. My dearest woman friend in Brisbane gave us a book The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, and of course, this was Shirley’s personal gesture alone.

Ensconced by late July 1957 in our Commonwealth Cottage, we waited for our CP membership transfer to coe through. Before our transfer did come through we met many fine lefties. George soon met Bob Gould in Sydney, and Bob came down to spend the weekend at our place on several occasions. I particularly remember his first visit. How the 3 of us talked and talked. George and I sought out the Sydney Trotskyists, in the Sydney Branch of the 4th International and met Nick Origlass, Issy Wyner, Helen and Alan Roberts and several others. I attended 2 – perhaps 3 – meetings. Impressed by all whom I met there. It was some months later before Trotskyist Denis Freney returned to Australia. Denis had been overseas for a while working with Pablo, the world leader of the 4th International. Denis came down to Unanderra to spend some days staying with us and I liked him a lot. George and I were reading the English journal The New Reasoner, published by British ‘reformists’. Our own Helen Palmer started Outlook a fortnightly Socialist review, in 1957 – she’d been expelled from the CP in late 1956. She edited this fine journal up till some time in 1970 when she decided its job had been done. Lindsay Bryant, my second husband, and I had started to live together in March 1970 in Ashfield, and it was only a few months later that we were at Grace Bardsley’s with 1 or 2 others rolling up the final issue of Outlook for posting to subscribers.

Back in 1957 George and I met many ‘reformists’ and other kindred spirits at packed informal gatherings in Helen Palmer’s flat in Kirribilli. There I first met Audrey and Jack Blake who’d moved up from Melbourne. Jack had been expelled from the CP Central Committee for reformist tendencies and was now cleaning railway carriages, not a physically robust 50 plus year old man.

Late December 1957 nearly 6 months after our request for transfers to a new local CP branch, a knock came on our front door and we invited in a stony faced pair – woman and man – who sat gingerly in our living room, they’d come to effect our transfer. We were quick to state our thoughts on Khrushchev’s report. They argued the line: perhaps not a genuine speech … there’d been some errors during the Cult of the Individual … etc. After 5 minutes George said firmly (and I of course paraphrase), ‘This is pointless. We know no comrades down here. You’re obviously forewarned and antagonistic against us. You don’t know our Party history – mine of 15 years, Elaine’s of 14, we’ll call it a day.’ They scurried out, greatly relieved.

A day or so later we contacted the ALP and were told Fig Tree would be our branch. On the Saturday morning we called in informally with our 2 kids at the Secretary’s house, to tell her we had left the CP only days ago. What a warm welcome! Literal arms around me by the secretary. She cuddled Evie and Rocky. Home made Xmas cake – drinks for the kids. Cups of tea. We attended only a few Fig Tree branch meetings before George decided we’d have a branch at Unanderra. At least 7 of us gathered together at the local municipal hall just along from the Cottages. Our children happy in the Children’s section of the Unanderra branch of the Wollongong City Library, under the kind eye of Mrs Filipek, as they always were during our ALP branch meetings for the next 10 years before we moved – the children and I – to Ashfield at the end of 1968. At our inaugural meeting in 1958 of the ALP Unanderra Branch George was elected secretary and I assistant secretary and I too was very active until resuming full time work, in 1961 and my interrupted studies in Librarianship, when I was less active. Once in Sydney, in 1969, I let my ALP membership lapse.

I don’t think that Stalinism died a quick death in the Communist Party of Australia. The only New Theatre member who corresponded with me after our move to Unanderra in July 1957 was a quite non-party person, Patricia O’Rourke. Her last letter to me, of 3 letters, arrived in October 1957. Patricia was distressed and puzzled. She’d run into Max Julius in the street and happily told him she’d just had a letter from Elaine Petersen. Max had drawn himself up and said ‘Don’t talk to me about that ‘reformist’.’ I regret I was at a loss how to explain to someone who knew none of this. I didn’t reply to Pat. Another example relates to Linsday (my second husband). A member of the CP since 1942 when it was still an illegal organisation, he knew nothing of Khrushchev’s report when he and his wife and 2 kids left early 1957 for a year overseas. Returning at the end of 1957, a neighbour gave him one of Jimmy Staples copies of the report – Lindsay immediately asked the Sydney District Committee to send someone to discuss it with their local branch. He came, he lectured them, he answered no questions, and allowed little discussion, before shooting thru. Thoroughly frustrated, Lindsay, his wife Joan and 2 others just dropped out and were not seen at Party meetings again.

At Christma 1958 George’s brother Jim Petersen a BWIU organiser in Brisbane holidaying with his family down at Shellharbour visited one day. Jim’s purpose seemed to be to accuse us of abandoning the CP. Within minutes we 3 were shouting – a real slanging match. Our children awestruck and a little frightened. They’d never seen their parents shouting and quarrelling like that. We had to calm down, and the kids never saw us in a shouting match again.

In 1962, or perhaps as late as 1963 an old comrade Bob called in at the Wollongong Library to see me. He was down from Sydney on a job. Bob and I were in kindergarten, through to 4th class together and I’d found him in Tech Branch when I joined in 1944. It was he who called out ‘Toutie’! (I was Elaine Tout until 1947.) And Toutie I remained to my Tech comrades, University comrades and the few CSIR comrades I met and the name carried over with one or two when I transferred to a local branch , Ashfield in 1946 and met Eric Aarons. Bob came to dinner to meet George who was in bed with flu that night so didn’t join us at the dinner table. Once the kids left, Bob and I talked politics. Very soon, the disapproving look appeared on his face, his head rolling from side to side ‘Oh, Toutie’ he intoned, ‘I thought you’d be the last person to lose your faith.’

These days when demonstrating or marching – we no longer march as we used to, we walk – I always search for the banner of The Socialist Alternative to walk with them. Impossible to find on the 16th February, 2003 amid 400,000 protesters against the looming war in Iraq but I did magically meet up with some after the march and spent a – for me – ecstatic 2 hours with some of them in a couple of pubs, down George Street. And I’m with them – heart and mind.