More than meets the eye – the CPA(ML) in NSW Part 2: Vietnam, state forces and an east wind
Written by: Louisa L on 27 October 2020
The Vietnam Moratoriums brought politics to the fore among workers and students. Though outnumbered, party members were involved in leadership through Worker Student Alliance. Despite ‘Maoist’ labels, WSA was regarded respectfully within the leadership. It went out of its way to leaflet factories and talk with workers as well as students. Students were the main, but not exclusive, targets for most other groups.
WSA emphasised the need to see the war as part of US imperialism’s attempts to broaden its empire especially in Asia, through a series of wars and coups. Unlike other groups, it organised and propagandised for independence.
Our members and supporters were deeply involved in the leadership of the Draft Resisters Union (DRU) here, especially in its later stages. One had already joined the list of those jailed around the time of the huge Moratoriums in 1970. Through till Whitlam’s election in December 1972, a coordinated plan by the growing band of those refusing to register for so-called National Service was rolled out. At every appearance by Liberal politicians, another resister would stand, give his name and address, and demand to be arrested.
This had a profound impact every time it happened. I still remember the collective intake of air as my quiet and serious friend Steve from school days, sitting next to me but without a word, suddenly stood to confront Attorney General Ivor Greenwood. He was not arrested, though secret police were very evident.
There were too many brave young men like him. Jails would overflow and suburban outrage with it.
Memories of times past are imbued with their spirit. And so it is with this article. It carries the marks of its birth.
Young university students are prone to adventurism. The party’s militancy drew in young supporters who, like this writer from 1975, often lacked working class discipline. The actions that grew from this are covered in numerous books and articles. NSW based pieces almost always come down one-sidedly condemning “Maoist” adventurism.
But would the same writers condemn the adventures of the DRU’s pirate radio station, illegally broadcasting at night, with balloons hoisting the antennae and careful watch kept for tracking police? All the while, many hundreds of resisters waited their turn, hid or had spectacular escapes.
During the Vietnam War and soon after, Worker Student Alliance worked with the Anti-Bases Action Coalition against the U.S. military bases that increasingly littered the continent, before the later merged into the Campaign Against Foreign Military Bases in Australia, CAFMBA. The party took the initiative in all three, but they had wider membership.
CAFMBA operated from the late 60s to mid-70s. This alphabetic mouthful, which was easier to pronounce than it looked, was small, and joined bigger things aimed at US imperialism, organised from Melbourne and Adelaide. Here, its members, some of them ex-draft resisters took part in the 1974 Long March, a bus and vehicle convoy to Northwest Cape in WA.
As the convoy arrived at towns across Australia, leaflets, megaphone diplomacy, street theatre and quiet conversations greeted locals. It was the first, but not the last time street theatre made an appearance in the work of our members and supporters through the 70s.
Things were heating up, on many fronts.
The State and Revolution
The Vietnam War and the Moratoriums educated many people about the ruthlessness of the state overseas, and locally where police removed identifying numbers before committing deliberate organised violence.
ydney police were also notoriously corrupt and brutal. In cahoots with major crooks they ran crime. Everything from illegal gambling, drugs and prostitution to who could hold stalls at Paddy’s Markets, then the major fruit and veg market. Murder was their game, so bashing a few protesters was an afternoon picnic.
For some like this writer, either you cried and hid, or decided to resist, because it was clear the police were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the people. There were instances which particularly shocked contemptuous police. Gay Liberation’s young men and women fought furiously as police tried to make arrests. This was not what Sydney coppers expected! They had bashed and murdered and blackmailed queers with impunity. Then an International Women’s Day march outside Bidura Girls’ “Home” in Glebe made sure those that police attempted to arrest were freed none too gently.
Several young blokes in or close to the party in Sydney were casually sexist and homophobic. They copped furious flak from a majority of young members and supporters, some of whom had been involved in the battles with police against the same attitudes. The so-called universal “he” in E.F. Hill’s writing was also criticised.
In April 1975 the Vietnam War ended. The world’s mightiest power had been defeated. The masses, with good leadership, had made history. People sensed this collective power. We were all asking big questions.
An East Wind
From the early 1960s, the East Wind Bookshop was managed by Bert Chandler in Pitt Street, Sydney, then part of Chinatown. It was the party’s public face. Paperback editions of communist classics for a dollar or less brought legions young people to the shop, including this writer who as a schoolgirl bought ‘The Communist Manifesto’, little thinking how important it would be in her life.
Bobby Da Fong, not of Chinese heritage was nicknamed for his summer and winter thongs, made a reluctant living as a tattooist, often persuading potential customers against getting one. His heart was with the revolution and hour upon hour he slogged in the East Wind Bookshop, with another comrade who gave up PhD study (pre fee-free university courses, a rare event for the son of Jewish refugees) to devote himself to the movement against war in Vietnam. Both set up openly Marxist-Leninist stalls, as well as supporting WSA and the Moratoriums outside factories and at universities.
Wharfie Jimmy Dabron joined them at East Wind most afternoons after lugging cargo all day, to lug boxes and bags of books. Because the turnover was so high, there was plenty to do. Jim was kind, tough, calm, generous and a deep political listener and thinker with long years of working class experience. He had lots to teach, but was always learning.
This was unlike many of us young people, focused on a revolution or coup round the corner, studying the Marxist classics and Australia, but also caught up with frenetic activity, too often thinking we knew it all.
By the mid-1970s the bookshop increasingly held Australian political economy and history books, including a groundbreaking but largely forgotten book, “The Black Resistance”, which used the sources of British colonial invaders, to expose not only massacres but a continent-wide guerilla war holding hostage the invader’s desire for safety and total control, for around a decade or even longer in each area it attempted to occupy. Authors Barry York and Fergus Robinson saw it as “An introduction to the history of the Aborigine’s struggle against British Colonialism” and dedicated it to “those brave men and women who died defending their country.”
In the acknowledgements, they wrote, “A special debt is owed to the political inspiration provided in ‘Australia’s Revolution’ by E.F. Hill.”
ASIO & Co
Of course, the East Wind (and later Australian Independence Bookshop) was bugged by ASIO. This contributor remembers well a comment on the outcome of a series of medical tests she’d made there being repeated by “a member of the public” as she handed out leaflets for the July 4 protest of 1975. It was meant as a threat. We know you and what you are doing. There were many other examples. People with no political involvement were followed, simply because they visited what were “known houses” of communist activity. This could be based on just one suspected communist living in a big university share house with numerous visitors.
In the 70s, a number of the political Special Branch of NSW Police specifically targeted activists associated with the party. Attempts to arrest some were accompanied by “Gotcha!” which proved premature, as our supporters never went without a struggle! Even family members had their home phones tapped, on the off chance that some commo skullduggery might occur in residences not lived in for years by said Maoist baddies. (This well before the scandals were uncovered that saw Premier Bob Carr disband Special Branch and promise its files would be available to all those featured in them. But not it seems to at least one party member whose partner applied with her signature as a surprise birthday present.) By the 80s, Special Branch members would regularly visit the shop and trawl its shelves. We knew them. They knew us.
Nazis and their mates preferred to visit when only an old and frail Bert or, in later years a youngish female, were alone. Bravery is not their strong suite. They had a particular hatred for “Maoists” who, when they gathered to jeer at one May Day parade (unlike those on the ALP-dominated podium) quietly made sure they never had the gall to turn up again.
(Like Covid, capitalist conditions eventually suited them. The first leaflet distributed, in 1976, by National Action, now Australia First, declared it wanted “the sound of Maoists ripping off their Eureka bumper stickers to be deafening”. We immediately knew we were on a winner.)
Eventually the shop’s name changed to the Australian Independence Bookshop. By then it held Sydney’s largest collection of First Peoples’ books outside Black Books, run by Aboriginal cooperative college Tranby. The Australian Independence Bookshop, had a regular flow of First Peoples, workers and students through it.
Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have”, combined with the effect on Australian people’s reflection after the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union, the temporary preeminence of the USA and the shutting down of the remnants of the old Communist Party of Australia, saw the bookshop move from Haymarket and eventually close. This was not long after the Socialist Party of Australia’s bookshop, five doors down also closed.
We had long since buried our hatchets, if not our quite different ideologies and ways of organising.
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