The Guardian • Issue #1989

Rob Gowland: a life of quiet, committed struggle

CPA 12th National Congress held on the weekend of October 4-7, 2013.

Robert Leslie Gowland, or Rob as friends and comrades call him, used to say he was born into the Party. His father, George Gowland, was a Communist Party of Australia (CPA) organiser and his mother, Olga Gowland, was secretary of the Party’s biggest branch. Rob was born on the 15th of June 1940, the day the Menzies Government declared the CPA illegal. Because of the ban, the Gowland residence was raided by police. The family had removed material evidence of communist activity or sympathies, but a police officer asked George about a picture of Karl Marx in the living room. George replied it was his grandfather! The officer respectfully left the picture alone, and Rob’s parents narrowly avoided arrest and possible imprisonment.

During the War, Rob accompanied his father walking around the base of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was sandbagged and guarded by sentries. His father said the bridge was mined with explosives and that if necessary, the army would destroy or disable the bridge to impede invading enemy forces. These dramatic experiences undoubtedly contributed to Rob’s intense interest in the global struggle against fascism and imperialism and his encyclopaedic knowledge about the Second World War.

Rob was educated at Sydney Boys High School. He studied history at Sydney University and joined the Sydney University Film Group where he met his future wife Pat Ferguson. He failed his first-year exams after vigorously disputing the faculty’s interpretation of history. He never returned to university, but was president of the University Film Group as well as the Federation of Film Societies for many years.

He worked for an insurance company, for a film processing company, and then for legal publishers Butterworths. He later became a founding member of the National Film Theatre and was its first director for nine years. He married Pat in 1965, and their sons Brent (Max), Rohan, and Evan were born in 1970, 1971, and 1975 respectively.

In 1975, Rob commenced work with actor and film distributor Edmund (Eddie) Allison, whose company, Quality Films, distributed foreign cinematic masterpieces, including many from socialist countries, which Australia’s Hollywood-oriented cinema chains refused to show. The company showed many films at the old Mandolin cinema in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Known as the “Day of Mourning Venue,” Aboriginal people gathered there on “Australia Day” 1938 for the first formal ceremony to mourn the 1788 invasion of their land.

In the late 1960s, the CPA leadership was subverted by revisionist ideology, and in 1972 comrades led by Peter Symon formed the Socialist Party of Australia. Rob joined the old CPA in the 1970s but soon left it and joined the SPA, which in the 1990s reclaimed the name “Communist Party of Australia.”

Rob was a Central Committee member until he died and was secretary of the Sydney Central branch until 2020. He organised branch participation in marches, demonstrations, and annual celebrations, including May Day, International Women’s Day, Hiroshima Day, Palm Sunday, and on one occasion, Bastille Day. In branch classes and meetings, discussion ranged over political economy, dialectical and historical materialism, politically significant events, (including the 9/11 attacks) and the political aspects of architecture and art. He also organised walking tours regarding the political significance of historic locations, including the Rocks and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. His annual reports were highly effective, politically wide-ranging, and memorable digital presentations.

Rob emphasised the importance of compassion, imagination, and culture in Party work. In 1994 he wrote:

“The human animal […] developed communications skills beyond compare and […] a capacity for imagination and compassion. The capacity to feel compassion is surely one meaning of the word humanity. Are not the communists totally concerned with humanity? With ending inhumanity? With freeing humanity to develop to the full – physically, intellectually and culturally?

“[…] The revolution we want has a cultural dimension. […] Art does not exist in isolation from society or in isolation from reality. Art reflects, interprets, and comments on reality. […] [I]t is part of the struggle of ideas. […] We should look for ways to develop and utilise not just singing but recitations, agitational playlets and skits, dance and of course creative writing.

“Short stories, anecdotes, reminiscences, poems and sketches (both written and drawn varieties) are needed for the Guardian. They used to be a feature of the working class press and should be again. […] Remember, the arts are a means of expression and a source of pleasure. They deal with ideas and – if used correctly – can be a powerful weapon in the armoury of the working class.”

Rob was quiet by nature but could give a rousing political speech. One comrade recently referred to his “piercing dry wit,” describing him as “clear and unwavering about the necessity of revolutionary change,” and “a generous and patient mentor […] for the young comrades and the Young Socialist League.”

He detested hypocrisy and political opportunism, as demonstrated by his very biting review of the film We of the Never Never, which was based on Aeneas Gunn’s novel of the same name. The first published version of the book referred quite candidly to the horrific so-called “n-ger hunts” during which Aboriginal people accused of crimes against outback graziers were slaughtered. However, the film and later editions of the book made no reference whatsoever to the murders. Rob remarked caustically:

“This tidying up of a true story may keep the shine on Mrs Gunn’s image, but the film portrays a false picture of both the author and her times […] beautiful scenery, safe period atmosphere, bland relationships and – to satisfy modern attitudes – a heroine whose perception of Aboriginal culture was suddenly very ahead of its time.”

Rob wrote articles for the Party press until 2020; his regular column “Culture and Life” and his film reviews were highly popular. Other Marxist-Leninist parties often reprinted his articles, including the Morning Star, the UK’s socialist newspaper.

In later life, illness prevented Rob from attending marches or branch meetings. But the flame of commitment still burnt brightly, and until a few months ago, he would write articles on his laptop, propped up in his hospital bed while receiving treatment. Six days before he died, on the 13th of November, Rob was handed a Party card confirming his party membership, which he received with astonishment and delight. He was a communist throughout his adult life, a life characterised by commitment, determination, creativity, and compassion for working people. His insightful articles and his analysis of culture in politics are an invaluable legacy for the Party, and he holds a special place in its history.

Rob was devoted to his family. He is survived by his wife Pat, his sons Max, Rohan and Evan, his daughter-in-law Magarly (Maggie) and granddaughter Grace (Gigi). His comrades loved him, mourn his passing, and will never forget him.

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