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Homegrown Communism - recollections of the Young Communist League in 1930s Brisbane

By Ron Brown

The Communist Party of Australia for some time during its formative years was small in numbers, often sectarian, and rent by ideological struggle. It was some years after the C.P.A.'s formation in 1920 before even a small Young Communist League was developed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

In Queensland, the Young Communist League, which I joined in early 1933, had about 40 members at best; added to those would have been the 30 or so close contacts and a group of 20 to 30 Young Pioneers under 14 years of age. We had our own rooms when we could raise the rent. At other times we roomed with the Party in George Street, Brisbane. Most Y.C.L'ers were sons and daughters of Party members or sympathisers. There was usually about as many girls as boys; sometimes there would be more girls than boys on the leading committee. In those years there was an age limit on joining the Party, 18 years of age I think in 1939.

The Brisbane Young Communist League held together until the outbreak of war in 1939. It was prescribed when the C.P.A. was declared illegal in 1940: it provided a number of the youth who were to establish the old Eureka Youth League, which nationally became a significant working class youth organisation, particularly in the 1940's and 1950's.

Self acting, the Y.C.L. had its own officers. There was no interference by the C.P.A. in its affairs, but we did proudly proclaim ourselves as Young Communists or Young Pioneers.

For the most part the 1930's were years of hunger for many blighted lives, large scale unemployment reaching 50% of the workforce in some areas, a number of wars (Abyssinia, Spain, Paraguay-Bolivia, the Japanese attack on Manchuria) and rising fascism soon to plunge the world into the greatest holocaust in history.

Some Y.C.L'ers collected foodstuffs and books for the often huge camps of unemployed around Brisbane and helped also in the anti-war and anti-fascism movement, A few - those working joined trade unions at a time when the Party trade union leader was as scarce as hens' teeth.

In the 1930's the extreme right wing A.W.U., covering as it did the State’s pastoral, sugar, mining, local authority and in the North, liquor and transport workers, had more than half the State's unionists. That was an important reason why the A.W.U. had such influence in the Labor Party, a party the A.W.U. believed it owned. Unions like the Carpenters (now B.W.I.U.) and Builders' Labourers had a full time Secretary only, and at times unemployment among members was up to 60%. Only the A.R.U. (Australian Railways Union) carried through a programme of working class education. A Marxist, Gordon Crane, M.A. headed such activity.

The Metal Industry was small scale and building construction was mainly housing and an occasional school, hospital, church or shop. Some of the events and campaigns highlighting those years were:-

Tiger Wilson, a figure in the Y.C.L. in Brisbane rode a push bike from Far North Qld. to Melbourne to publicise the 1934 anti-war Congress, which Egon Kisch and Gerald Griffin had been banned from attending, but who spoke never the less. Wilson "borrowed" a number of bikes along the way.

The Brisbane Y.C.L. helped organise several picnics, attended in large numbers at Seventeen Mile Rocks, at which we not only had Griffin but also other prominent anti-war activists. Numerous picnics were held in those years by the Peace Committee, the Friends of the Soviet Union and other progressive bodies.

The Y.C.L. collected money and empty bottles, which we sold to bottle yards, to send milk to the Children of Spain.

Brisbane shops were plastered repeatedly with stickers calling for a boycott of Japanese goods following the "Scrap Iron" affair and of course Y.C.L'ers fully supported the heroic Port Kembla Wharfies who had pulled on the Federal Government. Night after night we would bike to various tram termini, slip out and stick our posters over the tram's rear end poster frame. If the glue "brew" was a good one the poster would sometimes stay up for days and cross Brisbane innumerable times:

Y.C.L'ers took part in the often big demos against the outright ban on street marches and often street corner meetings. There would be some arrests, but younger people mainly copped a thumping.

The old Domain on the river bank was a MUST for Y.C.L'ers on Sunday afternoon, not only to help protect the Party stump, but to get some much needed practice at public speaking, but without the aid of amplification you either learned to breathe properly when speaking or you just lost your voice.

Later during the 1940's the Domain, scene of some magnificent speeches from Fred Paterson and others, was stolen from the people by the then Labor Government and used for so called development.

In the worst of the Depression years, 1931-1935, lock-ups especially in country areas, were always full of unemployed, forced to move from town to town to get rations and then be "pissed off". If you didn't move on, in you went.

Railway coppers pulled unemployed workers ("jumping the rattler") off the goods trains in their scores and didn't care where they threw them. Labour Department Inspectors policing the State Unemployment Insurance Fund (to which previously employed workers would have paid in each week) hounded fund recipients to make sure they weren't picking up a shilling or two here and there.

I saw the courageous Communist, Albert Hulme, dragged down by Police from a statue, then outside the Brisbane Trades Hall, during a May Day March in the middle thirties, which had been declared illegal. Albert sustained a broken leg as a result of that. Some time later, when appearing in court to answer an assault charge he had his busted leg (he was on crutches) kicked savagely by a policeman on his way to the dock, adding insult to injury. Albert also got a few months in the "Peter"

Years later in 1948, during the great Rail Strike, and after the police bashing of Fred Paterson, the late Jim Healy (Wharfies' General Secretary), addressed in the city square what has been claimed as the largest meeting ever held in Brisbane. It stretched from the City square to the front of the Trades Hall. Jim addressed that meeting from the same statue(which had been removed to the square) which Albert Hulme had been bashed down from. No Copper dared touch Jim Healy that day.

During a short-lived demonstration about that time, I and other young people, who were opposite the old Y.M.C.A. building in Edward Street, almost had our heads broken when several mounted police smashed into the crowd and deliberately caused their horses to rear and bring their hooves down only inches from our noses. I got my first taste of what the State, as distinct from the State of Queensland, meant that day.

When taking leaflets to Factories and jobs, I often saw or had pointed out to me -- The lack of doors on toilets for men and women in the larger clothing factories around Brisbane; that, so no one would be off the machines for long. Sweat shops we called them and sweat shops they were. -Signs on jobs saying "No smokers need apply" - not for health reasons, but so the boss would get uninterrupted production. One boss I quizzed told me the average smoker cost him about 90 minutes production a day. Thirty times three minutes was his formula, roll-your own cheap tobacco being the "in" thing then.

Overtime or tea money was rarely paid when working overtime; only the well organised dared contest that practice.

I personally saw thousands of gallons of milk dumped into the Brisbane River near the old Victoria Bridge to keep the price up. While writing this, a large Brisbane chain store is dumping chocolate, thousands of cartons, but where no one can get at it, once again to keep the price up on the new lines coming in.

The Preference to Unionists Clause had been removed from the Qld Arbitration Acts by the viciously anti-working class Moore Government in 1929. It was not restored in some awards for many years.

In 1934, when 18 years of age, I joined the Clerks Union, which then had only a fraction of today's more than 23,000 membership in Qld., and had found myself the only Clerks Union member among about 15 non-unionists, with the added disadvantage that the Chief Clerk, who ran the office where I worked, was organising to set up a "Company Union" among the several hundred Insurance clerks in Queensland.

That situation was a good initiation to unionism. It made me find out quick smart what unionism was all about. Somehow I got most of the staff into the union and a little later three into the Party. And kept my job also! Ironically the Federated Clerks Union, in my early years, led by well intentioned Labour Party "moderates" and later nationally by Communists and militants, fell during the "cold war" years to the infamous National Civic Council and the A.L.P. Industrial Groups, while the Insurance Staff Federation, established at least in Queensland as a "Company Union" became a fairly progressive body.

A vital need of the infant C.P.A. and even more infant Y.C.L. was to understand Marxist theory and the translation of such theory into practice, that in circumstances under social democracy (A.L.P. variety) trade union politics, syndicalism and anarchism had such a hold. Other terms like dogmatism and sectarianism were tossed about.

I remember asking one of the Party leaders at the time (about 1934) the difference between dogmatism and sectarianism. He replied "The dogmatist says 'Come here you mugs, I want to talk to you', the sectarianist says "Go away you mugs, I want to talk to myself". That sorted me out for a while.

Y.C.L.'ers with most having left school at 14 years or earlier, cut their eye teeth on the pamphlets - Value Price and Profit, Wage Labor and Capital and The State; also Lenin's State and Revolution, The Communist Manifesto and such parts of The Origin of The Family as they could understand. So the Party in many ways was a school of higher learning, for, even if one could get there, Brisbane had only one State Secondary School, with the several other secondary schools being church run, very restrictive and expensive. As for University education, the building of the St.Lucia State University was a depression job, which took many years to complete.

After reading the pamphlets on wage exploitation (Value Price and Profit etc.) and the little pamphlet on The State, also a splendid little booklet called Parable of the Water Tank, I gave away good concepts like wage justice. It saddens me today to hear some people, who should know better, speak of Wage Justice and Justice generally in abstract terms. I agreed then and now with what I had read by Tolstoy: "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all possible means, except of course by getting off his back".

Jack Shatanoff, a Russian who had left his country before the Russian Revolution, used to tell us this story in his fractured English: "There was an old draft horse, who every morning at sunrise, would go out in the fields and toil all day until sunset. On his rump all day would be a horsefly who, as the draft horse returned to his stall would say - 'My, we did a good day's work didn't we?".

Apart from the heavy stuff (to us), we also had the exposure novels of Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, Oil and Brass Check) and the writings of Jack London (The Iron Heel), Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy), the works of the young Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath), Hemingway (For Whom the Bells Toll), Maxim Gorki, Henri Barbusse (Under Fire) and Andre Malraux who wrote of Spain and China. I read Tressall's Ragged Trousered Philanthropist about four times.

From the middle 1930's the Gollanz Publishing House, in an unprecedented publishing venture, brought out Left Book Club editions, which gave us, among other books, The Handbook of Marxism (still one of the best collections of Marxist thought), the Text Book of Marxist Philosophy (prepared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy) and a series of works against Fascism and for Marxian economics. John Stracheys Nature of Capitalist Crises, Palme Dutts' Fascism and Social Revolution, Leo Huberman's Man's Worldly Goods were outstanding books of that period. A favourite book of mine was John Reed's 10 days That Shook The World, arguably the most truthful account of the Russian Revolution, and banned by Stalin for many years. We also battled with the few Marxist works available on youth, notably pamphlets by Lenin, but some found there wasn't much in that area.

Adult Communists helped unstintingly in class work, which often embraced public speaking, bookkeeping and several times the English language. I remember with particular affection dear Jess Grant, then a school teacher, who did more to keep us on the right trail than anybody. Bert Hurworth, a self educated Marxist and Meatworker, Mick Ryan and later Ted Bacon, Eva (Julius) Robinson, Geordie Burns and others all helped more than they will ever know.

Bert Hurworth had chained himself to his chair at a Trades & Labour Council meeting one night and had been heaved out chair and all by police called to the meeting by the then dominant right wing leadership. Mick Ryan, who had some years later missed out on the Labour Council general Secretaryship by only one vote, had the "biggest" voice I have ever heard. On a clear night and without benefit of microphone, he could be heard up to half a mile away when talking at street corner meetings. The same Mick Ryan was described once in a leaflet full of misprints as "Brisbane's best Squeaker".

Y.C.L'ers, although not always C.P.A. members, assisted with party branch activity, especially with social gatherings (these were numerous and popular): cottage lectures (these being held nearly every Sunday night at Ted Englart's Cooparoo home); selling the Workers' Weekly, Red Leader (a paper for trade union militants); Soviets Today (publicising the Socialist achievements of the U.S.S.R.); and other less regular papers and journals. These were enjoyable tasks with a number of us, trained by Ted Englart, having a weekly paper round.

We would often run off a sheet or leaflet for young workers in factories that we could get them in to, on an old flat-bed duplicator. Audacity was often the name of the game in getting the finished product into the factory. Such activity paid off for late in the 1930's those Y.C.L'ers who were also in the Party, succeeded in setting up a Party branch in Hancock & Gore's Sawmill and Joinery, much of the contact being made initially at the gate with the midnight shift. That branch played a big part in the struggle against the A.W.U. bureaucracy.

But it wasn't all politics. The Y.C.L. held its own regular socials, river outings picnics, dances and the like. We had several tennis teams and were helped greatly by Ted Englart and the late Frank Weigel, who had built courts to which we were always welcome, thus enabling us to play competitive tennis and so meet other young people. We got a few recruits that way as we did from entering Qld Debating Union activities. I got to the all Queensland finals on two occasions, but forfeited both times, because I wouldn't take an anti-Soviet stand in the debate.

Ted, a greatly loved comrade, who never became down-hearted, always used to tell us when the going got tough that the revolution was just around the corner. On being questioned, he would never say which corner, but instead would reply - "You will know it when you get there". Like Ted's home, the homes of many comrades (the Surplus's. Burns', Arlott's, Hill's (two families), Griffith's, Brown's and others) were always open to young comrades for a feed, social evening or to borrow from the libraries they usually contained.

The Cooparoo, Brisbane branch of the C.P.A. to which myself and some other YCL'ers belonged (as well as having our independence in the Y.C.L.) became a big party branch with a spin off being the establishment of several industrial branches (including one in the Railways)and later branches in surrounding suburbs. Close friendly personal and social contact with A.L.P. members in the area had been a strength of Ted and my old man, Harry Brown, a well travelled, well read rail worker.

So it wasn't surprising that about 1936, the Cooparoo Communists, with the best intentions in the world and imbued with Dimitrov's report on the United Front, decided that a group should move into the quite large Camp Hill A.L.P. branch, where branch members had many contacts. Matters went well for some months - the A.L.P. branch whizzed along taking up questions affecting the people and constructively criticising Labour Government inactivity, especially about the unemployed. I was minute secretary and made sure that every letter written to the Qld Central Committee of the A.L.P. went in full into the minutes, also that we were getting few, if any replies.

Then one night we did get a letter, one telling us we had been disfranchised for criticising in particular the A.W.U.'s attitude to relief workers, who couldn't afford to pay full Union fees and in general our criticism of the Labour Premier, Forgan Smith and others of his ilk. The result of that expulsion was that a number of A.L.P. members joined the party branch. Others became regular supporters of the Press and social functions.

Of course we would often hear the term Social Fascist used - it and similar terms being tossed about like confetti. On asking a tutor what a Social Fascist meant, I was told "a person, socialist in words and fascist in deeds". I never quite understood that definition for the A.L.P. people with whom we were friends were decent battlers, whilst the A.L.P. leaders, or most of them, far from being socialist in outlook, were downright crooks.

But we did understand what Dimitrov meant, when his booklet on the United Front became a type of bible, when it reached here after the 1934 meeting of the Communist International.

Y.C.L'ers had their moments in other directions as well. In one of our many enforced shifts, we packed all of our Y.C.L. belongings into a black painted three ply coffin, which we had used in several demonstrations against the death of democracy in Qld. We were up in George Street at the time. Four of us, two on each side, took the black coffin, which had a red flag draped over it, down George Street and then Queen Street on our way to our new office at Petrie Bight. The few cops about did not quite know what to do and reluctantly let us be. Many people on the footpath took their hats off and we got the best bit of respect we had had for a long time.

On one occasion in the middle 1930's, we decided that a very hard working, but dour young comrade, should get married to get some of the kinks out of him. He did. Went off with his bride and most of us never laid eyes on him again.

Then there was Curly, a good activist, who was a nephew of the depression period Prime Minister. He was alternatively embarrassed by and finding useful, his real name which we would use on occasions.

We had a local Y.C.L'er, an unemployed activist, whose fare and sustenance for three months we scraped up somehow to send to Sydney to a Party School. He came back in due course and addressed, for about five hours straight, a specially convened Y.C.L. Conference in the old South Brisbane Skating Rink. He laid out the political situation in the greatest detail, and in his summing up, late at night, told us we now had all the answers. He then went West, literally and figuratively.

For those who went through them, our several years in the Y.C.L. were good years, in which we struggled hard in attempts to answer the question "How come things are what they are?" . We had started to learn that Marxism was not an exercise to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but rather the means to change history.

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