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. – Alexander
What about the communist movement beyond Australia. What was the relationship there through your experience? You were after the split [with the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia] I guess.
Well that’s right I am after the split but there was still fraternal relations and the fraternal relations were still important for the struggle. Of course most comrades were concentrating on the local, the regional. But for those who were thinking more grandly, international relations with other parties were incredibly important. What you found was that, for instance, those who were being influenced by Eurocommunism were very keen with their relationship with the Italian Communist Party, the biggest communist party in Europe and very influential. Eurocommunism was very influential in the party.
Including down here?
Not as influential down here as within the national committee but yeah it was, it was very influential down here relatively. If you think about the history of Marxist-Leninist thought down here, then Eurocommunism had a major impact. Absolutely it did. You could see that when the Accord process happened because a lot of the Accord ideas were similar to Eurocommunist ideas. So for somebody like me who considered Eurocommunism really as a form of reformism, we would draw parallels with the rhetoric, the left reformism of Eurocommunism with the Accord process and the rapprochement with the Labor Party and the left of the Labor Party and stuff like that. So it was influential.
We were very keen on relations with the Vietnamese party. One of the reasons for that is that you had a whole layer of party members who had come to the party via the anti-Vietnam War movement so they were very keen on good relations with Vietnam, good relations with the Vietnamese party. At the time, the mid to late 70s, the Vietnam refugee crisis, so-called, was happening. There was a whole movement of anti-communist Vietnamese into this part of the world and so that became an important relationship as well, the relationship with the Vietnamese party. I can remember a number of events down here where we had Vietnamese party reps or government reps come where there would have to be organised a defence group to defend against attacks from the anti-communist Vietnamese and so forth. At the same time you had the Nazis trying to come in, the National Action starting to try and come into Wollongong to organise against Vietnamese refugees and the party having to organise defence of the Vietnamese refugees, often who were anti-communist, so that was an interesting time. The relationship with the Vietnamese party, especially for those who had come or been deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War. They were very important.
The other international relationship that had the biggest impact down here was East Timor. There was an East Timor support committee down here. FRETILIN would send people regularly. There was a lot of fundraising for FRETILIN, different ways of supporting FRETILIN, that involved the wharves down here and the party and so forth so that was very important. And then there was some relationships with other parties via people who had come from that part of the world so the Chileans, the Chilean party. There was a number of Chileans who had escaped the dictatorship so our relationship with Chile and the Chilean situation was important and there was solidarity for different Latin American and South American countries. They were important as well and the party was involved in those to a certain extent.
Britain was also important because obviously English-speaking. A number of the trade union officials down here were of British heritage and so—not so much with the party as with the trade union movement—the British experience had a major impact on the trade union, the industrial branch, the miners branch. Later on with the British miners’ strike and earlier before that, with the Lucas Aerospace transformation and things like that, had a major impact on the trade union part of the party in Wollongong.
‘The progressive social movements were part of the class’
What was the relationship between the party and social movements? The party and the trade unions?
The relationship was pretty good in the sense that there was a lot of solidarity. It wasn’t a coincidence that we had a branch for the wharves. And we had the industrial branch, and so forth. The point of these branches was to caucus outside of the union and then to go into the union with the party line and make sure that the party line got up. But of course the party line at the time was that the social movements, the progressive social movements were part of the class. It was a crucial difference between the party’s position and the right-wing Labor position and the conservative forces within the trade unions about supporting social movements. The party differentiated itself within these and took quite a strong stance in, you know, these are union issues, we should support these groups, these movements need our support and so forth. And that had been a long hard fought struggle for many years. There was a lot of support for social movements within the party industrial branches and within the trade unions. Well, it varies, that’s a generalisation. But generally I think that’s the case. All of the social movements, the main social movements that I was involved in, environmental, anti-nuclear, women’s movements.
What was the party’s role in the movement?
What would happen is if you were involved in a social movement. Say, I am a Wollongong branch member. The one I was most involved in, initially, was the anti-uranium and Hiroshima Day committee. Peace, peace movement. I would go to the meetings of say the Hiroshima Day Committee. I would report back to the party branch. We would discuss as a branch what we thought the Hiroshima Day Committee should be doing. We would discuss who was going to the meeting, we’d agree on who was going to the meeting. It didn’t mean that other people couldn’t go but we would come to a united position on the main questions that we knew were going to be brought up or were already being discussed. We would go along to those meetings and we would put forward the agreed line. We would try and get party people elected to positions, but we wouldn’t try and take it over. We’d discuss that. OK, well maybe this person is good for this position, that person is good for this position. Oh, if somebody wants to do that oh yeah we’ll support them we’ll vote for them etcetera, etcetera. We’d discuss all of that. We’d go along to the meetings and we would follow-through as closely as possible, or as closely as people could remember to do or whatever, what we’d already discussed. And then we’d come back to the next meeting go OK, well this is what happened at the last meeting, how can we make things better or what went wrong or why did you do this or whatever and on we’d go. As I say, we weren’t looking to control, in general, but certainly to influence, and as strongly as we could influence whatever organisation we were a part of.
We were very keen on having good relations with the other left forces, whether they were non-aligned or aligned with the Labor Party or whatever. So we would try and create a cooperative and collaborative situation in these movements. But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t fight and argue and debate and whatever and try and hold the party line as much as possible and bring the influence of the Communist Party to bear as much as possible. We would often talk about things like, well in the Wollongong branch, say, there would be other people who weren’t involved who would say, oh well why don’t you get the committee to do this. Contact my union or come to the university or do this and do that. And then we we’d go back and we’d go, we’ve been talking to somebody who says we should do this and that. In general, that sort of discussion would facilitate and strengthen the movement because we had these contacts that we knew we could trust and who would deliver, usually. And that was well understood generally within the movements. It wasn’t like oh you communists are doing all this. It’s like, the party is generally respected, it’s going to help. It will help. The secretary of the labour council is a communist. The secretary of this union is a communist. The person involved in this university thing is a communist. We know they can help and that can make everything easy.[
[Caption: Merv Nixon, Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council and member of the Communist Party of Australia. Taken outside the doors of the Trade Union Centre]
‘It was like a history of the communist movement all put together’[
[Caption: Nick Southall at the beginning of the Right to Work March, 1982. Photo by Sharon Pusell]
Something occurred to me when you started talking about love and family and that sort of relationship. What, if any, were the contradictions between that loving family and the fact that it was still a hierarchical organisation and one with a somewhat dogmatic outlook on the world. How did that contradiction manifest itself?
Well, I suppose much like a family, and I did talk about Sally as a matriarch and other comrades as patriarchs, and they were. Yet, amongst what I experienced—and other people experienced it differently—as I experienced it, as a supportive, nurturing, caring, group of people, that patriarchal and matriarchal role was much like in a good, loving, caring family. They were trying to look after you. Sure they’d keep things from you, but they thought they were doing it for your own good. That dogmatism was something they had railed against. The older comrades, the patriarchs the matriarchs, had railed against, had fought against, against the SPA splitters. The new layer, the younger layer of cadre or more active comrades had come in from the Vietnam war movement. These were the 60s generation so they were not dogmatic in the old sense, they were still dogmatic, but not dogmatic in the old sense. We used to joke about letting a thousand flowers bloom and so forth. The variety of positions and perspectives on what communism was, or the world, and the nature of class struggle was vast. There was all sorts. Some comrades in the party were anarchists, they were. They were Eurocommunists, Stalinists, bloody drugged-out hippies, you name it, Trotskyists. I mean they were from everywhere, all over the joint. Old comrades who had been formed in the cauldron of certain struggles. You had everything. It was like a history of the communist movement all put together and they all knew that they didn’t agree on lots of, quite often very important things, but they managed to find the common. Again, one of those common things was looking after each other, just being caring and trying to make the world a better place. And most of those people most of the time, that’s what they were doing. There were contradictions. There were some serious problems amongst all those people: alcoholism, the impact of the usual things that you find in any extended family. You had abusive relationships. You had domestic violence. You had a hierarchical party, so you had people who were power tripping and authoritarian. You had Stalinists who wanted to kill ‘the enemy’, you had all sorts of things going on as well. They, to me, were, well, certainly less important than in many other organisations or times I have been involved in things. But again, I think I was lucky compared to some people, my experiences were different to other people’s. Certainly there was a lot of sad and bad things that went on as well and some people came out of those experiences severely hurt and disturbed and so forth. Some of that was deliberate. We know, apparently, that there was bloody ASIO spies and who knows what involved. Some of the comrades were authoritarian and abused their power and abused people and treated people like crap and often these were people who were very sensitive, caring people who trusted that a communist would act like a communist and didn’t realise that sometimes communists acted like communists who were basically just shit.
There were plenty of contradictions but I look back at that period more fondly than many will I think because for me what I got out of it was much more of the nurturing, supporting, educating. Just this living history of the communist movement that any comrade I could talk to or be involved with or work with or encounter would just add this richness to my life, even if often they were arseholes, that I just found so rewarding and helpful and made my life better.