Australian Marxist Review


Everyday experiences of a communist family

A poor family during the Depression at “Happy Valley,” Brighton-le-Sands, Sydney, 1930’s. Photo: Sam Hood – (No known copyright restrictions.)

Introduction: The following interview with a Party member was held in early January of 2023. Most of the interview concerns the everyday experiences of a communist family in the 1950s and 1960s. It is told from the perspective of one of the children of parents who were active members of the CPA, and is based on the vivid experiences that have been clearly remembered, on written autobiographical material from the father, and from ASIO files on the family that were obtained.

AMR: Comrade L, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It is for publication in the Australian Marxist Review, and the editors are keen to hear about experiences of older Party members about what it was like to be a member in the past, what it was like in a local branch, at home, and so on.

L: I was thinking that I would mainly like to talk about our family, and how we were all affected by being members of the CPA. Maybe I should give you a bit of background about the family.

AMR: Of course, readers will be very interested.

L: My dad was born in 1921, left school at the age of 14 and became an apprentice carpenter. Later, he was a soldier in the Second World War and ended up on the Kokoda Track in Papua-New Guinea. On his way up the track, he saw lots of dead Aussie diggers, lying on stretchers. They were skeletons, with their uniforms on and guns by their sides. He was only 21. For the living, the experience was mud, rain, hunger, and horrible things to see.

Have you heard about the “biscuit bombers”?

AMR: Yes, I have. The “biscuit bombers” used to drop the food to the soldiers.

L: There was a “biscuit bomber” that had dropped some rations down in a clearing. The diggers were always hungry, starving, cold, and wet. Some of the soldiers ran into the clearing to get the rations. As dad was running to the drop, he was machine gunned down from behind. The Japanese were waiting for them, but the Aussies didn’t know that.

AMR: Only 21, and gunned down!

L: Yes, he was shot in upper left leg, about half-way up his thigh. His muscle was mangled and his femur was shattered. His leg bent forward in front of him as he fell over the top of it.

AMR: How did you find about all this?

L: He told me all this on an ANZAC Day when I was a teenager. He’d never spoken about it before, but then he finally did.

AMR: What happened next after he was gunned down?

L: He told me that it was lucky he’d done a first-aid course not long before he went over. He said, “I knew I had to stop the bleeding.” He pulled his leg back and held the artery to stop the bleeding. And he lay there.

Do you need all this information?

AMR: Yes, please go on.

L: Dad had to pretend he was dead when the Japanese soldiers came along, because they would bayonet anyone they found alive. He was finally rescued 24 hours later. He was put on a stretcher and carried down the track until they were far enough away from the front line. He was handed over to the “Fuzzy Wuzzies,” who carried him to Port Moresby, and then he was flown back to Australia. The “Fuzzy Wuzzie angels” they called them. They were so gentle and kind to the Diggers.

AMR: What condition was he in by then?

L: He had gangrene in his leg, malaria, and he heard the doctors say that they didn’t think he was going to live. But he did. He was sent to Tamworth where he was operated on, his leg was amputated, and later he was sent to Baulkham Hills for rehab for about two years.

AMR: What about your mum?

L: Mum was working at a factory that made swimming costumes. The young women used to go up and see the soldiers, visit and take them gifts and generally socialise with them. That is how mum and dad met.

AMR: What did they do for work after his rehab and after they were married?

L: Dad went down to Wollongong to open up a carpentry business, and mum followed soon after with me (I was very small). The business lasted for about seven years, but because of all the post-war shortages he couldn’t get the materials he needed. He went bankrupt, so he had to close the business.

AMR: Pretty tough!

L: There’s more. Dad used to have nightmares, with screaming. Mum would try to wake him up and calm him. That affected me a lot. I was only little, but it was really frightening.

AMR: What did you do after the carpentry business was forced to close?

L: Soon after, we travelled up to visit mum’s sister on Mother’s Day in 1952, and on the way back we had a car accident. The car was a write-off. Dad broke the stump of his leg (he was using a prosthetic leg), mum went into the windscreen, and I had a fractured skull, broken nose, and concussion. The three of us ended up in hospital. Only my 3-year-old brother escaped injury.

AMR: (swearing).

L: By 1952 we were completely broke. Dad had a small disabled veterans’ pension, but it wasn’t enough to live on. Some time before, Dad had bought a block of land near Port Kembla steelworks. He’d been building a shed, for a workshop. But when all this happened, we ended up moving to the shed. It was just a concrete block with a tin roof on it. No lining, no ceiling, no electricity, and a cold water tap out in the yard. The westerly winds used to blow in under the eaves and our hair would blow around while we were in bed.

Let me tell you this little bit. Prior to moving to Lake Heights near Port Kembla, we were renting an old decrepit house in Wollongong. After the car accident we were completely broke. Dad decided we would have to move out to the shed in Lake Heights because we couldn’t afford to pay the rent in Wollongong, so we scraped up enough money to pay a week’s rent. The night we were heading up to the shed, dad went in to see the landlady and told her we were leaving: “We have to leave, since we don’t have much money and can’t afford the rent.” The landlady said, “You’ve got to give me a month’s rent, since you have to give me notice you’re leaving.”

AMR: No!

L: We were so desperate. We were short of money, and still the landlady wanted that week’s rent and a month on top.

So that’s our background.

AMR: Did you live in the shed for a while?

L: Yes, we did. We lived pretty rough, as you can imagine. So I know what it’s like to be poor.

AMR: What about the Communist Party?

L: Dad had met people in the Communist Party of Australia while running his carpentry shop. He also met a workmate who was a Party member and who became a very good friend of mum and dad. Because of his mate’s influence, dad and mum joined the CPA, in 1952, while we were still in Wollongong.

AMR: Can you say a bit more about how some members of the CPA helped your dad and your family, since that seems to have influenced the decision to join?

L: I was only a kid, but I know they rallied around. They always helped. The CPA offered to lend mum and dad some money to tide them over but they declined the offer of the loan because they wouldn’t be able to repay the loan. The CPA always helped people. They helped in our move over to the place at Lake Heights. I don’t know whether they also helped directly with money, since we were pretty well broke, but they often raised money for hard-up Party members. Like I said, when we moved into the shed, we didn’t have any electricity connected, or plumbing, or water into the shed, although we had a water tap in the yard outside. We used to have a wash out of a bowl and would go to Party members’ places for showers and baths, since we didn’t have a bath tub or running water.

AMR: Yes, it’s those everyday, practical sorts of things that communists in the past have been known for – helping people who are hard up. It would not be the first time that one of the reasons someone joined the Party was because they’d been helped by communists.

L: So dad joined the CPA. Let me go back a bit. I was about 7 when I first heard about communism. I used to be friends with some people down the road with an Italian background. I used to play with their daughters. I was up at their place one day, and Mrs P., my friend’s mother, said to me: “Your father’s a communist.” And I went, “Oh?” I didn’t even know what it meant, but it felt like I was being accused of some terrible crime. I was just a little kid, but that is my first memory of communism.

AMR: What about your wider family?

L: Mum came from a strong Irish Catholic family, and when her family found out we were part of the CPA, we were basically excommunicated from the family. Mum had four sisters, but only one of them used to talk with us after that. That was very hurtful. I found out later on that there had been a “family conference,” where they wanted to excommunicate us. That’s how bad it got.

AMR: Did you also get sent to a Roman Catholic School?

L: Yes, since mum came from that background, religion had a strong hold. Even though she had joined the CPA, she couldn’t let go of the religion and she kept sending us to the Catholic School. That was terrible, since the priest was in the pulpit on a Sunday, ranting about communism and how bad it was and I would be sitting in the pew thinking that he was directing his vitriol at me.

I would like to talk about the school. The nuns were cruel: we got caned for everything. Missing mass on Sunday was a big deal and we would be caned if we missed going to mass. We were also were caned for spelling or maths mistakes. When I look back, I realise that the nuns were completely overwhelmed because we had a huge influx of migrants and refugees from the war. Our class sizes were large. My brother’s class had 93 kids and mine had 74. When I got to sixth class in the school, I wasn’t doing very well scholastically due to the overcrowding and poor teaching skills of the nuns. They concentrated more on religion and not enough on our basic education. I didn’t pass the sixth-class exams, which would have qualified me for high school. I was told I could either go and do domestic science or repeat sixth class. I didn’t want to do domestic science, so I repeated. But I went to the public school. Mum pulled both of us out of the Catholic school. The years in the public school were better and my grades improved. I came first in the class for English and did reasonably well in all the other subjects. I did well enough to go into the top class at high school. When mum pulled us out of the Catholic school, the priest (Irish Catholic as well) came around to our house … oh, my God! He was demanding that mum send us back to the Catholic school and they had a big argument on the doorstep. Dad told him to leave.

AMR: How did all this make you feel?

L: My younger brother and I felt really guilty because we belonged to a family that was in the Communist Party. We were isolated from other people in our community. There were only a couple of friends, and all the rest used to make derogatory remarks, such as “you’re a commo,” or your “father is a commo,” and so on. I remember one day, mum and I were walking down the street. I was in my early teenage years. It had been raining and the road was dirt at that time. This fellow ,who lived in our community, deliberately drove into a puddle so that the mud splashed up all over us. We knew he was an anti-communist. That’s the sort of thing we had to put up with.

AMR: So your family, school, and even neighbours ostracised you?

L: Yes, we were excommunicated from the family, shunned by a lot of the community where we lived, and went to the Catholic school which was a horror.

AMR: Did all these experiences affect your communist convictions?

L: My brother and I felt guilty about being a communist family, but I still held to the Communist Party’s ideals. We were always terrified that people would find out that we were children of communists and that they would exclude us. All my life, I have felt like a satellite going around, on the outside. I have never fitted in. That was my legacy, I think, from all that.

AMR: Not an easy time.

L: It wasn’t an easy time. I would like to tell you about a couple of incidents that have stayed in my memory forever. The first incident was when my dad was very sick with rheumatic fever. He needed to be seen by the doctor but we didn’t have a car and we lived about 7 kilometres from the doctor. Dad was too sick to go by bus, so mum asked for a home visit. The problem was that we didn’t have enough money to pay the doctor, so he put it into the hands of the debt collector. I remember when the sheriff (I think that was what he was called) came to serve the paperwork. When he saw the conditions we were living in, he was very upset and he said to dad, “Gee mate, I feel terrible having to do this to a digger. This is terrible, but I have no choice.” The debt collector came around after that to arrange for the collection of the money. We paid 2/- (shillings) a fortnight. That would be equivalent to 20 cents.

The other incident was after the family discovered that mum and dad had joined the Communist Party. Our auntie (one of mum’s older sisters) arrived at our house when mum and dad were out. I think they were at a party meeting. The auntie started searching through the cupboards and wardrobes. My brother and I watched in horror when she found the Party literature in the wardrobe. We didn’t know what to do to or what to say. We were so scared. I would have been about 11 or 12 years of age; my brother is nearly 5 years younger than me but he also remembers this incident. I often wonder what the purpose of this action was. Was she asked to search this out or was she just curious? I never found out.

AMR: What do you remember about your dad’s involvement in the CPA?

L: Dad was a fighter. He started up the local Progress Association. He became the president and he used to help people in the community. The Progress Association also started up a Youth Club and tried to give the kids something to do. They had some gym equipment and they encouraged the young people to attend. I can’t remember how long the Association ran for. You can imagine in the post-war 1950s: there was a huge migration, and many refugees.

AMR: Yes, my parents came from the continental Europe to Australia in the mid-1950s. You don’t hear about it much, but there was a massive depression in Europe from the end of the Second World War until nearly the end of the 1950s. So, they came to Australia.

L: We weren’t the only ones living it rough in Lake Heights. There were people living in the foundations of houses or in shacks and humpies. I even heard of some people living in a chook-house. One of my childhood friends lived in a tent with her mother and older brother before they eventually got a Housing Commission house at Lake Heights. I met her when I started at the public school. She was 11 years old, I was 12. Some people had started to build, ran out of money, and so lived in the foundations. All around us there was a real working-class struggle.

AMR: A real struggle.

L: Funnily enough, our next-door neighbour was a Hungarian Nazi. Dad used to say, “I bet he has the horrors, because he moves out to Australia and ends up living next to communists!”

AMR: Ha ha ha!

L: This neighbour would get his family outside. He would have them standing in a line – his mother, his wife, and his three children. He would yell at them and they appeared frightened. He would click his heels and of course we didn’t know what he was saying.

AMR: Nazis in Australia?

L: Because dad started up the local Progress Association, and was helping all of the people, mostly migrants, a lot of them would tell dad who were Nazis or SS men, and that sort of thing. We knew who were Nazis in our community. There was a Polish SS man down our road as well. There were lots of Nazis who came out to Australia in that period.

AMR: So the USA and UK were not the only ones who helped Nazis “escape.”

L: Let me tell you this. When my friend and I were teenagers, maybe about 18, we used to go to the “German dances.” We were there one night, and I think they played the old German national anthem. As it played, about a third of the people stood up, clicked their heels, and gave the Hitler salute.

AMR: (swearing).

L: People don’t believe me: we were inundated with Nazis.

AMR: That reminds me: I had a “friend” in primary school, and the family had immigrated from Germany. One day he invited me to their place. He showed me a cupboard with a Nazi uniform, and all sorts of other Nazi things, and said: “My father says Hitler was a good man.” I didn’t realise what he meant at the time, I was about 7 or 8, but I do now.

L: Yes, people nowadays have got no idea of what really happened. But we had first-hand knowledge, especially since dad was president of the Progress Association and was told all about these things.

AMR: What sorts of Party activities did you get involved in?

L: Dad used to get on the back of the truck and he would go up the main street of Port Kembla talking through a megaphone. We used to sell the Party paper, The Tribune. And we used to go out at night and stick communist posters on the telegraph poles. But we had to keep our eyes out for the police, since it was illegal. We all went out as a family.

AMR: A family event!

L: Yes, we would go around and stick these posters on the telegraph posts. We carried a pot of glue and a big paint brush. We used to put leaflets in letter boxes as well, if I remember rightly. We would go on the May Day marches. When I was 14 years old, my friend and I held a sit-in strike on the school bus because the bus company was raising the price of the weekly bus ticket from 2/- to 4/- (shillings). Some of the other kids participated, but not for long as the bus driver was not amused. So they gradually gave in and left the bus. My friend and I stayed longer, but eventually we had to get off the bus. I might add that they didn’t raise the bus fare, so we had a win.

AMR: What about Party branch meetings?

L: They used to have meetings at our place. I remember one time, my mother’s older sister came down to visit (another sister from the one who went through the cupboards while mum and dad were away). Dad and mum were in the middle of a Party meeting at our place, and that’s when mum’s family initially found out they were in the Communist Party.

AMR: Was your dad a branch secretary?

L: He could’ve been, not sure. Dad was always doing those sorts of things, but I don’t really know. We used to have meetings and all sorts of activities at our place, so he might have been.

AMR: What about branch meetings?

L: If you look at the minutes, you will see that they were concerned with people’s struggles, about getting into housing, and all sorts of things about social help.

AMR: Did your dad’s membership of the CPA affect his work?

L: Dad was black-banned from work. When we moved to Lake Heights, we were really, really doing it tough. Like I said, dad was on a veterans’ invalid pension, but it wasn’t a lot. Dad tried to work at his trade (carpentry) but he couldn’t do it since he had one leg. He worked for George Adams, who was a builder, but he was terribly anti-communist, so dad ended up getting sacked. Dad was involved in the union and all that so that didn’t help.

Dad’s written about all of this. Would you like to read it?

AMR: Definitely.

L: After that, dad did get a start on the switchboard at the BHP steelworks at Port Kembla. He got accepted, but somehow or other they found out he was a communist, so they told him not to come to work. He couldn’t get work anywhere. He was absolutely black-banned.

AMR: Pretty tough.

L: Yes, they were the tough years. The Communist Party had a talk with the South Coast Labour Council and they managed to get him a job at the PMG (Postmaster General). I’ve got his ASIO file, and in this file he is classified as a “Category A” risk.

AMR: Did you have to put in a special application for his ASIO file?

L: Yes, and funnily enough I’m mentioned in the file. I worked in the Communist Party rooms for a while, when I was about 17. Whoever the spy was, I would love to know. It was obviously someone I knew, because the spy was at the meetings and I had talked with him or her, and so on. The file says I was about 17 years old and that I was the daughter of R and L and it had our address. I actually have two entries in dad’s ASIO file. I might have an ASIO file too, I don’t know.

AMR: The old problem of spooks in the Party.

L: Absolutely. I’d love to know who they were. It’s so interesting reading the file. It says so-and-so was here and attended this meeting. So it was someone who was attending the meetings. Here’s another quote from the ASIO file about our move to Lake Heights: “It is reported that R and L are going to move shortly to their partly completed cottage at Lake Heights. They have a lot of personal troubles and appear to never have any chance of getting any money. They have borrowed money from the banks but had not borrowed enough to complete the house. The Party had offered to lend them money, but that was no good because they could see no way of repaying it. They claim that they were going to give the Party away for a while to give them time to work out their problems.” That was the 14th of December, 1954. But dad and mum didn’t give it away for very long, or at all, because we continued to have meetings at our place.

AMR: How did your dad finally find work?

L: As mentioned previously, he eventually got a job at the PMG (Postmaster General). That sent the authorities into a tailspin, because working at the PMG was like entering into the citadel of capitalism.

AMR: Ha ha, yes indeed!

L: Since dad had a “Category A” security risk, they tried to get dad’s boss, who lived in our local area, to sack dad. They said, “Why don’t you get rid of that commo bastard?” but the boss wouldn’t sack him. The boss said, “I don’t care what his politics are. He is my right-hand man and a good worker.” So the boss was the one who saved our bacon, since from then on dad had a permanent job and an income. Dad stayed at that job until he retired.

AMR: That’s an interesting one. So the boss was under pressure to sack a communist, but the boss says, “No, his politics don’t matter. He’s a good worker and very reliable.” Can I ask, what about you? When did you join the Party, after all those experiences as a kid?

L: I joined in 1962. Then I started nursing in 1964, and that put an end to a lot of it because it was in-hospital training in those days. So you worked full-time and then you did your lectures in extra time. Then I got married in 1966 and had a child in 1970, so I was quite occupied. When I could, I attended the marches, such as the May Day marches and the anti-Vietnam War rallies, or peace marches as we used to call them. After I was married, I dragged my husband along to the peace marches as well.

AMR: What about later events?

L: When the Soviet Union fell apart, it was terrible. I don’t know how to explain it. It was like a blow to your whole being. I think I had swapped Catholicism for communism, that was my belief system, it was so devastating. Dad was disheartened. It was like a punch in the guts. And then there was the “big split,” between the Soviet Union and China, and we also had struggles between the two factions in the Party, the Maoists and the others. That was awful.

AMR: And events in Australia?

L: I remember when Gough Whitlam got in, and there was a big change in our society. They were heady days; we were all so very excited. We got involved in the elections, and manned the election booth for the local candidate. Not long after, Gough started asking questions about Pine Gap and what was going on there, and then trying to bypass the WEF and get money from another source. That was the suicidal act. Then we had the dismissal, another devastating blow. I couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t believe that the Australian people didn’t fight for Gough.

AMR: The US imperialists got their way back then.

L: Yes, they control absolutely everything. Actually, I did in desperation join the Labor Party a few years ago. I had hardly entered the place and the next minute I was the president of the branch. I did that for a couple of years and then said, “No, it’s not for me.” It’s not addressing the issues, and that’s when I started looking around for the Communist Party, making inquiries once again, and I re-joined a couple of years ago.

AMR: Why did you re-join the Communist Party?

L: I was frustrated, because there is no-one I can talk with. I came from an industrial area in NSW, where it was very unionised and then I came up to country Queensland, where it is completely the opposite. My friends up here are farmers, and they haven’t lived. They don’t know what it is like and they are all LNP voters so you can’t talk with them. So I felt frustrated, because I’m on my own and I can’t talk with anyone about anything political. In desperation, I started looking on the internet and found the CPA, and put in my application to join.

AMR: Are there other Party members in your area?

L: There’s one other young fellow, but otherwise the rest of the Party is far away. I’ve got plans to tackle homelessness in our area, but I’ve had a terrible year health-wise and I’m only just starting to feel better now.

AMR: How do you feel about telling people you’re a communist these days?

L: I won’t tell anyone up here I am a communist. I live on my own most of the time and I need some friends and I am afraid that if I tell them my political views I won’t have any friends. We used to be afraid before that people would find out. But in recent years I’ve made contact again with some of my cousins. We’ve always had some sort of contact, but they came up recently to visit. We were sitting around in the hotel home, and one of them said, “Your father was in the Communist Party, wasn’t he?” I was absolutely stunned, because I’ve never told anyone. I thought, what am I going to say? And then I thought, bugger it, I’m sick and tired of keeping this secret. So I said, “yes, he was.” From then on, it came out into the open and that was a bit of a relief.

AMR: What do you do about talking with people that have the same communist worldview?

L: I get a bit frustrated, because there’s not many people to talk with, about politics, current events. You feel a bit isolated and it would be great to meet more.

AMR: Is there any other material you think is relevant?

L: Yes, there is. I got dad to write his story before he died. I’ll go over that again.

AMR: Do you think there’s any chance to publish that in the AMR, after you go over it?

L: I think it could be, but I’ll need to go over it again. I’d also like to write our family’s story, but then I don’t know if anyone would be interested.

AMR: I would encourage you to do that very, very much. There would be plenty of people interested in your family’s story, Party members, and plenty of others. So if you’ve got the energy, definitely do it. It’s a really important task, for yourself, for your family, and for the Party.

L: It’s all made me very strong. My family has had lots of adversity, lots of isolation. But you get knocked over, and you come back up. You get knocked over, and you come back up. My childhood experiences have made me: frightened of being poor, I get very anxious if I don’t have any money in the bank. Also, I do not rely on anyone and have become as self-sufficient as possible, so if the chips are down I will be able to survive. Further, I have become something of a “prepper.” That’s why I have worked all my life and only stopped working in 2022 due to health issues. I feel very insecure if I am not working. Finally, I became very empathetic, even at a young age, and I try to help people in need. I often say I am cursed with the empathetic gene and worry about people.