‘The Party Was Like Our Family’: An Interview With Nick Southall (Part 1)

On Thursday 24 March 2016 I interviewed my friend and comrade Nick Southall about some of his experiences as a young activist in the Communist Party of Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the interview we touch on a number of themes including Nick’s early involvement in the Young Communist Movement, his years as a full-time party cadre, tensions within the party between the national leadership and the South Coast District and the party’s relationship with international communist and resistance movements and domestic social movements. Where many histories of the CPA focus on machinations at the national level, Nick’s story reveals a living organisation with deep roots in the Wollongong labour movement and community that functioned as a family, if at times a dysfunctional one.

I have edited the transcript for clarity and length with Nick’s approval.

 

The Young Communist Movement

Alexander

When did you join the Communist Party of Australia?

Nick

I joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1978. My recollection is that certainly when I applied I was 15. There was some concern about whether I could actually join as a 15-year-old because I don’t think a 15-year-old had joined before; so I think they might have waited until I turned 16 to allow me to become a member. That was November 1978. That’s my recollection.

Alexander

Why did you want to join the party?

Nick

Well, I had been in the Young Communist Movement before that, so I considered myself a communist as a member of the Young Communist Movement. Both of my parents were in the Communist Party of Great Britain when we lived in England and had joined the Communist Party of Australia when we came to Australia. My grandmother, my favourite person in the family, was a communist in Britain so, really, even before becoming active in the Young Communist Movement, I started to consider myself a communist. Not quite born a communist but certainly nurtured as a communist and so to me it just seemed like the thing to do. At the age of 15 I was already done with school. I was still there, but I wasn’t really participating in it. I was over with school and school to me seemed like a part of a capitalist society that I didn’t really want to be part of. I didn’t want to be involved in school and I didn’t want to be involved in the sort of society school was preparing me to be part of. I was thinking about becoming a full-time communist cadre and hoped to do that by leaving school, joining the party and becoming an activist, an active member of the Communist Party and working for the party in whatever way the party thought I could be the most useful.

Alexander

Was it the Young Communist League?

Nick

Movement, by this time it was called Movement. Eureka Youth League, was what it used to be called, but now it was, or certainly down here [in Wollongong], it was the Young Communist Movement. I think it was a sort of a reinvigoration of what had been the Eureka Youth League and sort of fallen into inactivity, or for some reason they had decided to change its name. I don’t think we were the only Young Communist Movement branch around, although we didn’t call ourselves a branch really. I think there was a few others around, but we certainly weren’t in contact with them.

How many of us were there? There was I suppose about eight, ten, ten of us, something like that, who were active. People would come in and go out but there was probably about eight to ten of us who were in it for a year or two.

Alexander

And that was in Wollongong?

Nick

That was in Wollongong, absolutely, yeah, Greater Wollongong. Me and my brother were in it from this part, Mt. Keira. Most of the other young people were from further down south. And they were kids of party members but also there was three, I think, three young people who were children of left Labor Party members whose parents wanted them to get a communist education in the movement rather than become active in a Young Labor branch or anything like that.

It started with a reading group, reading the Communist Manifesto. What would happen was that a group of us, and it was probably only half a dozen of us at the time, I think there was me and [my brother] Richard and Marlene, who was the daughter of the secretary of the wharfies. There was a couple of Labor Party people’s daughters and one son and there was the metalworkers [organiser] Steve’s daughter, so maybe seven. Those are the ones I remember definitely turning up pretty much every week. And the party organiser, Pete, would read a part of the Manifestoand then he would explain what the hell he was talking about. This may mean going, bourgeoisie, OK bourgeoisie, blah blah blah, or he may read a paragraph and then explain the paragraph. Up until not that long ago I actually still had the cassette because he recorded it so you could take the cassette home if you were interested, which I was, and re-listen to that. It was supposed to be a discussion but, you know, most of the time it was Pete talking. There was some discussion and there was some, OK you’ve explained bourgeoise and proletariat, but what about this? So that was the first thing we did.

Then we would also have weekend camps at Minto where we would talk about all sorts of things and just have a good time, you know. So, we would socialise and go swimming and play games, and get friendly with each other as it turned out. I ended up going out with Fiona, the metalworkers’ organiser’s daughter, and we would occasionally have a drink or whatever. So, those were educational weekends, and there was education going on, as well as just socialising and becoming a group. And then, after a while, we started to decide on which issue we thought was the most important issue that we could organise around and we decided that was uranium mining. So we all agreed that that was the issue we thought was the most important at the time, that we actually were the most motivated to do something about and so we set up a Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining branch in Wollongong. We were the members initially, so it was a Communist Party front [laughter]—I think we might have talked about it in those terms at some stage—but that wasn’t our intent. We didn’t see it as a recruiting exercise, we saw it as an exercise in learning how to organise and getting other young people involved in politics around an issue that we knew young people were interested in and we were motivated to do stuff around. So that was our main activity, apart from educational stuff. Our main activity was organising Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining.

Alexander

So what year is this roughly that you are talking about?

Nick

We are talking about ‘76/77 mainly.

Alexander

So you started around ‘76

Nick

Yeah, around ‘76.

Alexander

You said Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining ‘branch’, was that an existing organisation?

Nick

There was other Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining branches or groups–I’m not sure, I can’t remember exactly the term we used–around the country. Not a lot, but there was some. There was a Movement Against Uranium Mining, which was the sort of umbrella organisation for all of the groups taking action around uranium mining and many anti-nuclear groups. They’d encouraged the setting up of these groups of Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining and that had caught on elsewhere and so we could actually access badges and various merch and stuff, information materials and so forth from elsewhere. I think we got it straight from the Movement Against Uranium Mining. They sent it to us and we could then distribute it through schools and that’s what we did. You see, this way, we were school kids, yeah. I think even Richard, who was probably our youngest, were all in high school by then, or certainly he was just about to become a high school student. So we’d take the stuff to school, badges and so forth, you’d sell the badges and give the information out. Have stickers, try and sneak them up in the toilets and whatever, that sort of thing. That’s where we spent most of our time at school.

Image 1
Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining badge from Nick’s collection

Alexander

So, at a broader level, was that movement associated with the Communist Party or was it just your local group that was particularly close to the Young Communist Movement or party organisations?

Nick

Look, I’m not aware. We weren’t really in contact with other Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining groups. We were sort of concentrating on doing grassroots stuff here in Wollongong. We didn’t get out and about that much as young people. Pete may have known more about it than we did, as the party organiser. But certainly it’s likely that there was some other branches or groups of Secondary Students Against Uranium Mining that were supported by the party. I don’t know that the Young Communist Movement was that involved elsewhere, but it’s quite possible they were. But there weren’t that many Young Communist Movement people anyway so, it’s likely that it also wasn’t the case or they were doing other things. You get a group of young people together and maybe there was something else going on in their region or in their lives that they thought was more important that they were involved in.

Alexander

You just mentioned that Pete was the Young Communist Movement organiser, was he also the …?

Nick

He was the party organiser. So he wasn’t, you know officially, the Young Communist Movement organiser, there was no Young Communist Movement organiser, there was just the Young Communist Movement group and he was a part of that as the party organiser. If Pete hadn’t taken it upon himself to establish the group, there would be no group. So it wasn’t like we were resentful that there was some old bloke there. We didn’t really consider him—he was in his twenties at the time so he wasn’t that old—and we liked him and we knew that without him there was nothing happening. It wasn’t like ‘oh they’ve imposed this on us’ or ‘he’s running the group or controlling us’ or whatever. We didn’t really know how to organise, we weren’t that motivated that we would have done it on our own and we were basically following what the party wanted because that was what we had grown up to expect to do. He was involved all the time, but he was pretty good with letting us do what we wanted to do, and encouraging us to do what we wanted to do. But obviously he was also supposed to be keeping an eye on us and making sure we were doing the right thing. Which sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t.

Alexander

Why did you want to go to the reading group in the first place? Why would you have decided to be involved? How did you find out about it?

Nick

Well, my parents were in the Party, and I was already going to party events. The party would hold things, film nights those sorts of things. They were public events and anybody could go and I would go, and I’d talk to Pete or I’d talk to other comrades and they knew that I was interested. I think I wasn’t the only one and they realised, Pete being an organiser and a pretty good organiser, realised, we’ve got these young people who are interested, well let’s do something here and let’s start with the basics, which is sort of where I was at anyway. I had read the Communist Manifesto before we had that group but, it’s like I’d read it but what the hell!? You get the gist, but you want to know more than the gist. So that’s why I wanted to go because Pete could explain things that I didn’t understand and I could ask him questions about things I didn’t understand and I wanted to know.

Alexander

So those other people who were part of it. Would most of them have had a similar sort of trajectory do you think?

Nick

I think you sort of had fifty-fifty. I think fifty per cent was the same sort of thing and fifty per cent their parents had basically sent them. It was difficult for some of the Labor Party people because at the time, being close to the [Communist] party as a Labor Party member could lead to suspension or expulsion. It was a precarious situation for them. So how publicly they aligned themselves or involved themselves with party events and so forth could be difficult for them, especially since the two families I can think of the most had fairly senior positions within the local Labor Party. It wasn’t like they were just rank and file members. They had more to lose and the right-wing were more on their case and paying more attention to them. I think those young people hadn’t been in contact with the party. I hadn’t seen them around really as much, although you would see them at demonstrations and so forth and clearly there was friendship connections and social connections. I don’t know what was going on in their lives because I hadn’t come across them before but their families would have known comrades in the party and they would have socialised together and that sort of thing. I think basically their parents went, ‘we want you to go to this to learn’, so it was a form of schooling, rather than them being motivated to do it themselves.

Alexander

But in both cases they had a family connection to either the labour movement or the party in particular. They weren’t total rank outsiders to the culture of the Party and the movement.

Nick

Absolutely not. No, nobody was, no. And it never expanded beyond that. I don’t think there was ever any intention to. It was not a recruitment thing. We weren’t looking to recruit people to the Young Communist Movement. It was really seen as an educational thing for those who were already in the milieu and part of the culture and the party’s networks and so forth.

‘We are a communist family’

Alexander

That’s interesting because it implies that there was a real sort of family and cultural continuity or something like that with the way the party operated in Wollongong. Could you talk about that.

Nick

We often said, and often say, the party was like our family. It was very much, in Wollongong certainly, built around those sorts of familiar social connections and it was small enough to operate in that way. We are talking a hundred and something people, I think, as party members during these years we are talking about, the late 70s and early 80s. You can see that as a large but extended family. I remember Marlene, who was in the Young Communist Movement with me, she was at one stage wanting to write a book about being a communist child and how that works and we were talking about we could write it together because it is a very similar experience for children of communist party members. It was like, OK, we are a communist family. With active party members, that was your life. Being a communist was part of your life and so to be part of a communist family was to be a communist in many ways. Then the party, in a place like Wollongong, was an extension of that family so as you grew up you became more connected to that extended family. You can see that even with a fairly transient population, which Wollongong’s had over the last say hundred years or so, you can see the names, the family names, reappear, as you can in the party more generally, and party members’ children very often became party members and so forth. We thought of the party as a family. It wasn’t just that sort of hereditary handing down from generation to generation the communist legacy and the communist view of the world. It was also that for a family like ours and many families were the same, who’d come from elsewhere in the world, who had broken their ties with their extended families, this was a replacement. And so the family [sic] very much operated as that sort of support network that your traditional normal family would offer you. So, Sally Bowen was like my grandmother. I’d left my grandmother behind. Sally Bowen, as the matriarch of the party, was our grandmother. Dave Bowen, her partner, was our grandfather. Pete wasn’t exactly a dad because he wasn’t quite old enough but there was those sorts of father figures and they would play that role. Not just was this about organising political struggle, but these were relationships of care. That was crucial to why I wanted to be more involved with the party, but also why the party worked so well in a place like Wollongong and why it was so powerful and influential. Because care was really crucial to the way we related to each other and the way we related to the class in general.

Image 2
Sally Bowen, former South Coast President of the CPA]

Alexander

Why do you think that worked so well in Wollongong?

Nick

Look, there’s all sorts of intangibles with Wollongong and the more I think about it the more I’m not sure. I think it does have something to do with the fact that a lot of people came here from elsewhere. That in many ways it doesn’t have that long history and people came from all over the world and didn’t have those support networks and those caring relationships any more, that those had been broken and they tried to establish them in a different way. For me, communism is love and if you care about the class, you care about other people and suffering and so forth then when you are coming to a political realisation of the sort of society we live in and you are organising around communist ideas, however varied and diverse they are, somewhere there it has got to be about care and really it should be about love. Wollongong being a place where people came from all over the world, it is a hugely multicultural city, I can’t remember, I’ve seen different numbers at different times, but people have come from all over the place. The people who were attracted to the party, it wasn’t that they came here and they suddenly became communists. They were bringing communist traditions from all over the place. ‘The common’ of the communist traditions was caring and having those sorts of relationships.

But, I think there is also the fact that Wollongong, if you look back at the history of the party in Wollongong, you are looking back to the 1920s, you are looking back to the Unemployed Workers Movement and the Unemployed Workers Movement for me is the key movement in the development of the Communist Party. In Wollongong, the Unemployed Workers Movement was incredibly important, much more important than in many parts of Australia. As somebody who has been active in unemployed people’s movements, I am aware of the crucial role of caring, supportive cooperative, collaborative relationships to survive day to day. Not just as some sort of political project but as a social project, about social relations of care and supporting each other, and that was crucial to the party’s formation in Wollongong and crucial to the history of the party’s culture. For me that was true, it’s true in other places, but in Wollongong compared with other places in Australia and elsewhere it was much more important. There was still people around when I was in the party who were involved in the Unemployed Workers Movement. They were still there and often they were the most respected matriarch or patriarch or whatever, if you are thinking of it as a family, the most respected long-term comrades. They had learned the basics of how to struggle and how to win, how to survive, their politics, via the Unemployed Workers Movement, and the impact of the Unemployed Workers Movement, and it was built around those sort of day-to-day caring relationships. Looking after each other. Having to rely on each other and the importance of how you treated other people. The Depression was the pivotal moment in that generation’s lives. It had a major impact on anybody who lived through that period and the Unemployed Workers Movement was the most important social movement at the time. Anybody really from that generation had internalised, if you like, that sort of survival strategy. A survival strategy which was about being really bloody nice and actually giving a shit about other people. For me they were the sort of people I wanted to become. I wanted to be like those people. As soon as you met them, you appreciated that they were different to most people that you met.

(To be continued)

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