More than meets the eye – the CPA(ML) in NSW Part 1 Bert and Syd

Written by: Louisa L on 26 October 2020

 

The breadth of the work of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) has never been readily apparent to those looking on. But there’s more than meets the eye. 

For several decades after its formation in 1964, the CPA (ML) worked in a hostile environment in Sydney where the old CPA, dissolved in 1991, was strongest.

Khrushchev’s poisonous “secret speech” to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 caused huge divisions in the Australian party (after initial but superficial condemnation) and in progressive forces across the world. Till then, the Comintern, the international organisation of communist parties run by the Soviet Party, had the final say in who ruled the roost in the Australian Party, even though communications had been very patchy in the early years. 

International relations between parties had not been understood in those years, when the Soviet Union was under constant and brutal attack from united capitalist forces. 

Much of these inter party relations are analysed in E.F. Hill’s work, particularly in the posthumously published ‘Communism in Australia, Reflections and Recollections’ which makes a much more dispassionate appraisal of events which had each side in Australia hurling insults and, in front-line industrial unions, even violence.

In Sydney, parties that followed Trotsky’s lead, miniscule before 1956, were growing by the 1960s. The old CPA, with its increasingly relaxed attitude to organisation and a New Left liberalism in the face of corporate power, was relatively large. Some struggled against liberalism within the CPA, but study of Marxism in Australian conditions was often superficial and its young members often existed in a block, with little direct contact with the wider community beyond those who called themselves left. 

The greatest strength of these parties was in Sydney.

Painting targets

In a recent book, “The Far Left in Australia since 1945”, the introduction to Chapter 2 on “Maoism” suggests the CPA (ML) and its followers were “arguably the most despised grouping within the Australian Far Left”. 

Let’s leave aside the wisdom of an avowedly left critique using the term “far left”, which certainly paints a target on any groups so named, especially when politicians and media talk of “extremists like Antifa”. 

Beyond that, the term of “despised” gives the idea of something below human condemnation, as if we should have been grouped with paedophiles and those in power who covered up their activities. 

This is despite the contending parties or groups still bearing the names “communist”, “socialist” or “left” having largely buried the hatchet in the 1980s at such events as the 1989 Fightback Conference in Melbourne, which saw presentations from almost all of those parties. In Sydney it led to direct cooperation against nationwide attacks on the working class. 

Bert 

Only a small part of our members have ever made their membership fully public. There were times in the old party when not revealing membership was also important. Witness Bert Chandler.

Bert had both acclamation from the people and attack from their enemies. Few now know his name.

Written records about Bert begin in 1932 when he was prominent in the ALP in country NSW. As Lithgow Mayor in 1937 Bert was ‘responsible for the most progressive works in the history of that municipality’. (Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advocate 1 June 1939)

The Advocate said he was deeply involved in cultural, political and welfare issues, as diverse as the Show Committee, hospital board, Horticultural Society and as an “active organiser for the relief of distress amongst the unemployed”. This foreshadowed the broad community connections of our later member.

By 1937 he was on NSW ALP’s Central Executive.  

He remained with the ALP when the Communist Party was illegal between June 1940 and late 1942, able to work and speak freely.

In May 1943, as General Secretary of the NSW Labor Party, he told the Wollongong May Day rally that “there must be a complete organisation of the people” in order to defeat fascism. (South Coast Times and Wollongong Argus Friday 7 May 1943)

In all likelihood he had been already a member of the CPA for some years, but in 1945 he publicly joined, moving straight on to the Central Committee. By 1947 he was CPA electoral Campaign Director.

Cold war, hot water

The Cold War poured heat on dissidents. In 1953 Bert was one of three men charged with sedition, under Section 24D of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, after raids on suburban homes and the Communist Party’s offices.

The Crown Prosecutor raged, quoting this sentence, “The monarchy is a useful weapon to protect the system, to stifle class-consciousness, foster class-collaboration, and paralyse working-class action for social change.” (Illawarra Daily Mercury Thursday 20 Aug 1953) Shock horror!

The prosecution failed. For Bert, who ran the party’s publishing business (making money by sales of the racing paper ‘Trot Guide’) they tried again. Bert was hauled before the 1954-55 Royal Commission on Espionage, nicknamed the ‘Sharpley Commission’ after a communist renegade or spy, Cecil Sharpley.

Bert was undeterred. In 1964 he took a leading role in the new party led by Hill. With him he brought his wide connections with everyday people and communists across the state, his organisational skills and his courage. By then he was working at the state-owned Small Arms Factory.

A comrade who worked closely with him when he managed Sydney’s East Wind Bookshop from the late 1960s said, “He was single-minded in his struggle to make socialism a reality in Australia. He never veered from his course. But no one is perfect. He could be too demanding.” Remarking that was hardly surprising given the hard times he lived through, the comrade said he was a “wonderful man. I loved him. He made history in Australia”. 

To this writer, he was kind, gentle and ethical, a communist measured in his words and actions. He was the meeting point of a web of people across the state. 

Syd 

During the anti-Japanese war, the party developed close links and members among the Sydney Chinese. These links were cemented during the1938 Dalfram struggle at Port Kembla, when then Attorney General and later Prime Minister Bob Menzies earned the nickname “Pig Iron Bob” for trying to force waterside workers to load pig iron bound for Japan. 

It followed the 1938 massacre of up to 300,000 thousand Chinese people by invading Japanese troops in Nanjing. Workers also warned our pig iron could return as bombs.

The Chinese community was galvanized, and their staunchest allies were the communists. When wharfies led by Ted Roach refused to load pig iron bound for Japan onto the Dalfram, the Sydney Chinese community largely supplied them with food, straight from the markets. (Rupert Lockwood War on the Waterfront)

Syd Clare was an active member of the Waterside Workers Federation in Sydney. The dispute influenced him, as it did all waterside workers in Australia. 

Syd appeared in the WWF film The Hungry Mile leading striking workers off a ship. He joined the CPA (M-L) at its foundation in 1964. He was not the only WWF or Seaman’s Union member to join, including in Port Kembla. But they were definitely in the minority. 

The old party which controlled the union, worked to box in members of the CPA (ML). The public membership of the old party meant they were all well known, both to the bosses and the union officials. At times there were immediate physical threats. This is not to sling mud, as the split was bitterly felt on both sides, but just a statement of fact.

Some of our WWF members and supporters were of Chinese and Aboriginal heritage, and worked more freely in the Australia-China Friendship Society, where Sid was NSW Branch President for many years, or in the Chinese Youth League. A frequent visitor to China, Syd and the Society were devoted to the Gung Ho Industrial Cooperatives movement (the International Committee for the Promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives) and raised considerable funds in support of their work. 

Towards the future

A larger group operated, under similar conditions to the waterfront, in the building industry, especially in the Builders Labourers Federation. They formed the bulk of the group that supported the takeover of the NSW BLF by the Federal organisation, with support from every state organisation. 

Full time union officials can remain true to the people, but in a soup of numbers’ games and jockeying for position, faced daily with compromises with capitalism, it’s much harder. Unions are part of capitalism. Our party members in the building industry and elsewhere learned to focus both on the big issues and on quiet work, behind the scenes, with no flags flying. 

Leadership comes from the masses to the masses, in a never-ending cycle. Those who separate themselves from everyday people, those with egos, motivated by individualism, can never fully serve the people. (Mao Zedong, “Some questions concerning methods of leadership”) 

When he became NSW BLF President in 1974 Johnny McNamara remained a rank and filer. Others also remained on the job. Their leadership came from listening to and learning from their workmates. 

The state played on divisions which saw the BLF deregistered and destroyed in NSW. 

The key NSW BLF leader overestimated his own capacity and the union’s strength, acting as if it were a revolutionary party capable of taking on the whole state apparatus.   

Through the 80s and early 90s, as organisers were arrested day after day, the Building Workers Industrial union, dominated by the Socialist Party of Australia, poached BLF members.

Everything exists in particular contexts, from the past, within the present and into the future. 

There was and is much more for the party and its members to learn.

 

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