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Issue #1395      January 21, 2009

“A man of the working class”

As told by a family member, a veteran comrade and a trade union leader who knew him well

Peter’s early years

Peter was brought up in very adverse circumstances. His father, Eric Symon, had been badly gassed in France in World War I and really was never a healthy man thereafter. Despite this, he and his wife and other relatives migrated to South Australia, where they eventually took up a soldier’s settlement block near Loxton. The men built their own home, but the dry Mallee with all its difficulties, proved too much. It was a time of prolonged drought and economic depression. If the crops were good, prices were low.

Eventually they were bankrupted and left for Adelaide. Eric, like so many others, had returned from WW1 a convinced communist and was one of the foundation members of the Australian Communist Party in South Australia. He set up the People’s Bookshop in Hindley St, Adelaide.

Because of the family situation, both Peter and his elder brother David had to leave school at an early age. The fact that both have played such important world-wide roles, David as a prominent botanist and Peter in political affairs, is proof of their academic excellence.

Peter joined the Party at the age of 16 and was at once elected branch secretary – a decision for which the branch members were roundly criticised by general secretary J B Miles when he visited South Australia.

The early years of the Menzies government saw the attempt to outlaw the Party – the Symon home was raided twice by police looking for communist literature and books were taken. Not an experience to be laughed off easily, even if one of the suspect books happened to be a knitting book. Peter’s late mother May kept the police at bay outside here daughter’s bedroom armed with her laundry iron. Helen was bed-ridden after polio.

In World War II Peter served in the army at Darwin and as a teacher to soldiers brought up in the bush with no chance of schooling. He then transferred to the Air Force and by the war’s end held the rank of Flying Officer Navigator, employed in ferrying planes from the Victorian factory to New Guinea.

Home again, Peter took over the management of the People’s bookshop and subsequently became a Party organiser. In 1950 came the Menzie Government’s Communist Dissolution Bill Referendum. Had this been passed by the Australian people, plans were in hand, we learned later, for the arrest of all leading Party members.

Well can I remember the tension as we listened to the results being broadcast on the radio that Saturday night and the relief as we realised there would be no need for anyone to “go into smoke”. The Cold War was underway. Party membership was falling and the rule, “last on, first off” was applied to party organisers and so Peter, ignoring the availability of a free university education for all ex-servicemen, resolved to enter the workforce.

The avowed intention of the Menzies government was to ensure that known communists were not able to obtain employment. If employment was obtained and an ASIO agent existed in one’s family, then the job was promptly lost. The only possible secure employment for Peter was on the waterfront, for there the union selected their own workforce and there nothing that Menzies or ASIO could do about that.

This was in the days before mechanisation when bags of wheat weighing over 120 pounds [55 kilos] were lumped on men’s backs; when shoulders were worn raw with soda ash burns; when accidents, sometimes fatal were all too frequent. Here it was that Peter, who, sadly, has outlived nearly all his workmates in Port Adelaide, contracted the lung conditions which no doubt shortened his life.

He was elected to the executive committee and served also in assisting the Waterside Workers Women’s Committee as their auditor.

Life was incredibly busy. Party meetings, election campaigns, paper and leaflet distributions, writing of articles, organising of party schools, trips to Sydney for Central Committee meetings. Then there was the Vietnam Moratorium Movement. That committee came undone in South Australia and had to be rebuilt, and so on.

Unfortunately, when in any walk of life, a member of the family is so devoted to a cause, no matter how supportive the other members may be, the family, as a unit, suffers. However great the cultural benefits of knowing the world scene, of meeting people like Paul Robeson or Linus Pauling, there is just not enough of that precious commodity, time, to do justice to both the cause and the family.

It was Peter’s quiet inner nobility that first drew me to him. As my late father, Ern Osmond declared: “He is the Lenin of that lot” and later, “He is a perfect gentleman.”

Phyllis Schneider
Peter’s first wife from 1950 to 1973

A fellow veteran

I met Peter Symon in 1968 when as a wharfie he transferred to Fremantle with a team of South Australians when there was a slump in their employment and we were short of labour. We found we were both critical of the revisionist line of the Communist Party under L Aarons and agreed that our task in the Party was to stay there and try to bring it back to a Marxist-Leninist position.

When Peter, Jim Mitchell and another South Australian member were able to get a critical article into a Party publication, I supported them and maintained connection. When I transferred to Sydney wharf in 1969, I was in contact with those in opposition to the Aarons line, including the Brown group, Alf Watt and Jack Henry; I was able to keep in contact with Peter.

I was at the inaugural meeting of the Socialist Party of Australia when he was elected general secretary. He told me he got the position because the groups led by Bill Brown and Jack McPhillips were opposed to one another and would have opposed nominations from either group.

Peter set out to build unity in the Party that began in disunity. We were not recognised by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but when we endorsed the whole resolution from the 1969 International Conference, when the CPA endorsed only part of he resolution, and when we supported the Warsaw Pact forces that moved in to prevent a US takeover of Czechoslovakia, the Socialist Party of Australia came towards recognition by the CPSU. Peter played a major part in our recognition by the CPSU and other communist parties.

In the face of all the difficulties of divisions within the Party, without international recognition, with his own family problems, it took Peter’s profound conviction of Marxism-Leninism to work to build the Party unity. As a foundation member of the Central Committee I saw all his difficulties and supported him in all ways I could.

Looking at the record of Peter Symon, we see a leader with a profound knowledge of Marxist theory, with courage, persistence and humanity who carried the burden for many long years.

We can only honour him by further building a united and fighting Party to face the enormous task ahead with the ultimate crisis of the capitalist world.

Vic Willams
92-year-old veteran Communist, well known for his poetry and still an active member of his CPA Branch.

Party members at the 90th anniversary May Day march in Sydney, 1981. Left to right – Alan Miller, Peter Symon, Ina Heidtman, Jack McPhillips.

MUA national office

Peter’s contribution to the working class of Australia and internationally has been a work in progress throughout his long, decent and distinguished life. He has fought tenaciously against injustice and institutionalised elitism in its many forms while being a passionate, articulate and structured advocate for a morally superior, sustainable and equitable society based on genuine democracy and empowerment of all human beings.

Shaped by the atrocities and cynicism of war he was a relentless and powerful advocate for peace as an essential precondition for human progress. He brought to the communist, socialist and labour movements a highly intelligent and structured engagement on class struggle and the policies and actions that promote it. That insight was founded in direct engagement in the world and workplace, including as a Waterside Worker in Adelaide, an experience that sustained his support and involvement in our union over the next six decades.

At a time of deep division in the socialist movement and the subsequent backwash into trade union politics he was synonymous to building unity around principled engagement and provided his essential commitment in maintaining the strong ongoing foundation of progressive leadership now required to mobilise and agitate for that fairer and sustainable society. A society that can provide for and nurture the material, artistic and emotional needs of the many and not just the few, at a time when greed and violence characterise the world’s political and economic landscape more pervasively than perhaps any other time in modern industrial history.

A man of the quiet word, ironic joke and soft encouragement he was above all representative of the inherent decency and moral fibre of all true communists, and will be greatly missed personally although his political and industrial legacy will continue to sustain the many of us that remain.

Well met and now Vale Comrade Symon, a man of the working class

Sincerely and in Unity

Paddy Crumlin
National Secretary

Next article – Peter Symon - A life-long revolutionary

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