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Betty Little-O’Shea – working class communist

Written by: on 14 September 2020


Much loved communist, Betty Little-O’Shea, died on August 10. Up to the time of her death at the age of 97 Betty devoted a lifetime of service to working people and the struggle for an independent and socialist Australia.

No one exists in a vacuum, least of all communists whose internationalist title embodies the collective. 

In her eighties and nineties, still doing political work among the residents and staff at her aged care home, she asked what had become of Claudia Jones, a leading US communist later active in the UK, who Betty first became close to at an international conference. No wonder they impressed each other! Both fought the double oppression of women under capitalism. They had lived experience. Betty knew her friend Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad and Tobago, grew up in the USA, where she did four stints in prison for communist activity, undermining her health. Jones was deported to Britain in 1955.

Betty was never imprisoned, though the threat hung over communists here at times, but she did not have an easy life. She was born into a working class family and from an early age spent many years organising and supporting struggles in numerous workplaces and communities. All her life Betty immersed herself in mass work and the study of Marxism-Leninism.  

Strategic understanding that rejected dogmatism
Her working class roots gave her deep insight and respect for workers’ lives and struggles. For many years she worked as a machinist in clothing factories along Sydney Road, Brunswick, Melbourne, where she was deeply involved in struggles of clothing factory workers, many of them migrant women.  Betty organised strikes, go-slows and pickets outside the factory gates. Betty loved to see the workers gripped by their collective power and moved to action! 

“Speaking at so many meetings and on the Yarra Bank! It was the best thing about being in the party!” she said. It still inspired her in her nineties. 

Australian communists have often been portrayed as narrow and dogmatic, but Betty and her comrades were anything but. She was warm, deeply interested and cared for people. No matter how humble or grand the action, a strike meeting or grumbled complaints at morning tea, Betty developed the intelligence that comes only from direct involvement combined with study. 

Her tactical and strategic understanding moved only to action through immersion in the lives of her co-workers, her ears and mind open to their collective reality. It was never driven by a dogmatism that squeezed reality into a preconceived formula. By understanding the people she worked with, she was able to estimate relative strengths, the right times to accumulate strength, to attack or, requiring even more skill, to retreat and consolidate, learning from both defeat and victory. She was a true working class communist party woman of the people. 

The rights of women
She also needed all her wits about her when, out of regular work, she did stints as a barmaid. She respected her customers, but also well-managed the nonsense, especially at the six o’clock swill when all pubs closed and capitalism’s sexism, internalised by many Australian males, was often exhibited at its worst. 

After work and on weekends she sold the old Communist Party newspaper, Tribune, on street corners. Sometimes one of her three daughters was in tow. This was the scene painted by the communist social realist artist Ailsa O’Connor – a determined Betty and an equally determined child dragging her in the opposite direction. 

What male communist would have done his party duty with an understandably fractious child dragging at his trouser leg? The message was clear. Women needed free child care and men needed to equally share responsibility for children, to take their full role in a socialist society.  Men, including Australian communist men, deeply influenced by their higher status under capitalism, had to pull their weight. 

Betty’s husband had a significant role in caring for the children and was a great source of love for them. He took on a great burden of responsibility when Betty undertook local and international political work which she could not have done without him taking on much of family responsibilities. 

The painting was in exchange for clothes Betty made for Ailsa. After all, they were comrades. It remained on her wall until her death. The painting also implies the rights of children. Decades prior to the recent uncovering of the institutional sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, Betty repeatedly condemned the systematic violation of children practised, promoted and protected by groups of powerful men, closely connected to the ruling class, who paraded their sanctity and moral authority. 

Never submitting
Betty also understood the brutality of the British colonialist “mother country” towards First Peoples, in an era when those who fought back were still labelled “treacherous blacks”. 

And she saw Claudia Jones fighting triple oppression as a descendent of enslaved peoples. Both understood the history of resistance, led by Marcus Garvey against British imperialist slavery in the West Indies, and here by countless guerrilla fighters, whose names were treasured generation to generation by the survivors but long suppressed in the invaders’ glorification of settlement underpinned by undeclared war. It was no accident that the party bookshop where Betty later worked in Melbourne CBD for many years was named Kalkadoon in honour of First Peoples who had fiercely resisted British invasion. 

She warmly welcomed everyone into the bookshop with a big smile and a handshake. Betty never imposed herself or her politics on anyone, instead always wanting to listen, learn and guide.

In line with the Party's focus on developing and embracing Australian people's revolution, Kalkadoon strongly promoted progressive Australian content in the bookshop - Australian progressive and revolutionary literature, people's history, music, culture, arts, etc.  The success of Kalkadoon, which breathed the Australian people's progressive culture, literature and politics was largely due to Betty.

No longer were we Britain’s Pacific outpost, we were striving for independence on a range of levels, economic, political and cultural. It helped draw many peoples of diverse backgrounds – who saw their stories in Kalkadoon for the first time – towards the party. The party blossomed, especially with young people.

Challenging accepted views
Betty expressed the strongest feelings of international solidarity and friendship with the struggles of oppressed peoples and nations across the world and was a spirited defender of the Chinese Revolution and the contribution of Mao Zedong. For many years she was a leading figure in the Australia China Friendship Society, and helped to break down the ruling class propaganda barriers, leading to the opening of extensive trade links and Australian government diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China.

International friendship societies were promoted by the late premier of the PRC Zhou Enlai to foster people -to-people contacts.  Betty repeatedly explained that the ACFS was involved in promoting people- to- people friendship.  As with her other areas of work, Betty practised her political beliefs and commitments of listening and guiding in her role in the ACFS.  She met Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1965. 

This warm and responsive leadership explains another artwork on her wall, a watercolour of Chinese peasants, brought back for her by young comrades returning from a visit to China. Amid the hothouse environment of travel (new people and places, of learning and excitement) they had remembered Betty’s inspiration. 

The fact that both Claudia Jones and Betty met Mao Zedong whom they both so greatly admired was another reason for their comradeship. The 1956 betrayal of socialism in the USSR led by Nikita Khrushchev, began to bring to the fore Mao’s political analysis that the working class of each country must lead its own revolution suited to its own circumstances

It challenged often expressed views, that communist leadership of trade unions plus Soviet example and instructions would be enough to bring about revolution in Australia and in not-so-great-Britain. Into the mix came rejection of so-called peaceful transition to socialism through parliament, no matter how much communists might desire such a gentle handover. 

This in turn reasserted deeper study of Lenin’s analysis of the state and of imperialism. It questioned adherence to the Labor Party as a “two-class” (working class and ruling class) organisation, stating clearly that although workers supported the ALP at that time, and that must be taken into account, that the party was part of the ruling class deceptive apparatus. 

All this sowed the seeds for the formation of the CPA (M-L) in 1964. Within this ferment and questioning, independence from US imperialism gradually became understood as the key link in the revolutionary overthrow of imperialism. This had no shred of racism. It benefited all peoples of the world, including the everyday people of the US. Betty both understood and helped bring about this change in understanding in our party.

No egotism or individualism
Betty's other outstanding feature was her ability to work with, and show respect for people from many different walks of life and political backgrounds without concealing her communist politics. Had there been no Marxist-Leninist party here to work with collectively, no doubt Betty would have been much better known as an individual, as Claudia was. Circumstances and dedication would have ensured such a staunch communist as Betty would have dedicated herself to struggle for capitalism’s overthrow and the amelioration of its worst aspects. 

Many people she worked with in various struggles, though by no means all of them, knew Betty was a staunch communist. Yet her tenacity, humility and respect for people, in the many years when the overwhelming majority of Australians (including progressive ones) saw communism as a failed system, meant she was always highly respected in return. She didn’t flaunt her membership of the party or her position as one of 3 Vice-Chairpersons. She cared nothing for self-promotion. Knowing wider public disclosure of her politics could be used by enemies of the people to discredit the causes she championed and divide her from the masses, she never put her name in print as a communist. She remained a fish in a sea of people.

Betty’s close connections to the people, her experience in struggle and her dedication to the great cause of an anti-imperialist socialist revolution placed her on the Central Committee for many years, where she consistently made important ideological and political contributions.  

She had no regard for individualism or ego. Betty was a Vice-Chairperson of the CPA (M-L) and yet wrote articles anonymously for Vanguard on workers’ lives and struggles for decades. Although her leading position was not disclosed publicly, she was one of many outstanding women in the Party, including Dulcie Steffanou, who provided all-round organisational, political and ideological leadership. Betty was highly valued and respected by all she came in contact with in the party and in the people’s mass movements.

Anyone working with Betty knew her love and dedication to serving the people. But like all of us she was not without her shortcomings, which she readily acknowledged.

Betty was proud of her family, her daughters and grandchildren who admired and supported Betty in her work. As the last of the founding members of our party, she has left us big shoes to fill. 


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