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A life devoted to serving the Australian people
Dulcie Steffanou, a key figure in the Australian communist movement for over half a century, died peacefully in her sleep on December 10 1998, after a short final battle with illness. She was 82.
Dulcie lived a life utterly devoted to the liberation of humanity from poverty, oppression, exploitation and war. There is no finer cause.
She served the Australian people’s struggles for a better life from the 1930s right up until her illness finally prevented it only a few weeks ago.
Dulcie Steffanou made a gigantic contribution to the development of Australian revolutionary politics, ideology and organisation in all fields. In the last 35 years her outstanding work was carried out away from the public eye, collaborating with other more well-known giants of the communist movement such as the late Ted Hill and Ted Bull.
Dulcie had a very deep knowledge of Marxism, the science which lays bare the fundamental workings of society and development in general. She insisted that Marxism is not a dogma, but a guide to action which must be integrated with and applied to the unique conditions of Australia. She grasped the revolutionary essence of Marxism. It is insufficient tp merely interpret the world, the point is to change it. Marxism was Dulcie’s guide in every aspect of her life: her thinking, her work, her relationships with others in the communist movement and beyond it.
Dulcie was born in 1916 into a working class family and grew up in the Melbourne working class suburb of Richmond, in those days a desperately poor area. She left school at 14.
Like many of her generation, the terrible hardships of the Great Depression caused Dulcie to search for fundamental explanations of and solutions to the problems of the Australian people. She found them in Marxism. She joined first the Young Communist League and, later in the 1930s, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
Dulcie quickly made her mark as an outstanding and fearless organiser in the mass movement. She was heavily involved in struggles against war and fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. She learnt lasting lessons about the repressive nature of the capitalist state in the period when the CPA was declared illegal in the early 1940s.
Dulcie was a key Communist Party organiser during the McCarthyite Cold War years of the late 1940s to mid-1950s. In particular she played a leading organising role in the very big mass campaign which secured a “No” vote in the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party.
The struggle within the Communist Party in the late 1950s/early 1960s meant that communists had to choose between upholding the revolutionary essence of Marxism or deserting it to embrace revisionist ideas such as that capitalism would be peacefully transformed into socialism and that the predatory nature of the imperialist powers had changed. The struggle could not be resolved within the CPA as a majority of its leaders decisively embraced revisionism. Dulcie was one of those communists, led by E.F. (Ted) Hill who in 1964 took the important step of reconstituting the Party and founding the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) – the CPA (M-L). She was a founding member of the Central Committee.
Dulcie continued her deep involvement in the mass movement. Over the period since the CPA (M- L)’s foundation, she devoted herself to spreading revolutionary ideology, politics and organisation in struggles big and small – from the penal powers battles of the 1960s culminating in the freeing of gaoled union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 to today’s workers’ struggles; from local campaigns for schools and community services, to national struggles over civil liberties and the environment; from the peace movement to the Aboriginal people’s struggles for self-determination and land rights.
Without fuss and without pubic prominence, Dulcie Steffanou rendered exemplary service to the Australian people. She would say she only did what her revolutionary outlook determined needed to be done. But in fact she was a model and an inspiration.
The 1960s crisis in communist ranks caused those who formed the CPA (M-L) to review the experience of the communist movement in Australia and think afresh. The trail-blazer was Ted Hill, founding Chairman of the CPA (M-L) from 1964 until his retirement in 1984, remaining the party’s key ideological leader up to his death in 1988. Dulcie Steffanou became Hill’s most important collaborator in building the new party. They were truly a formidable combination who united around them a leading group of remarkable communists. After Hill died, Dulcie carried on his role and work, including nurturing as he had, a new generation of Australian communist leaders.
Dulcie thus played a key part in the new party’s decisive break with the CPA’s previous line and methods. The CPA (M-L) reached the conclusion that in Australia, direct socialist revolution was not in accord with Australian conditions. The intermediate phase of winning complete national independence from US and other foreign imperialism must first be gone through. Neither was revolution on the immediate agenda in Australia. It would come about when the necessary, objective economic and social conditions had matured. In the meantime communists needed to develop the revolutionary movement and accumulate forces. In Australian conditions, the previous practice of all communists publicly declaring their party membership assisted the ruling class in its efforts to isolate the party from the people and exposed all of its activities to scrutiny and future suppression by the repressive capitalist state machine. In a communist serving the people and being the best and most devoted activist in whatever immediate struggle, one’s Communist party membership often did not necessarily or naturally arise.
Dulcie Steffanou loved the Australian working class. She was of the working class and she embodied its great class characteristics – courage, decisiveness, down-to-earthness, intelligence, wisdom, intolerance of sham and of talk which doesn’t lead to action, a marvellous sense of humour, true humility.
She insisted that the working class was the leading force for progressive change in Australian society. She emphasised the need for the workers to unite the great majority of the people in the struggle for Australian independence and then socialism. She maintained that within the broad mass movement of struggle, the working class and its Communist Party had to maintain and fight for its independent class position.
Dulcie was always restless – thinking over, questioning and challenging previous conclusions. She was imbued with the fundamental idea of Marxist dialectics which holds that everything in nature and society is in a process of coming into being and passing away. She embraced change with relish. She paid special attention to young people. They in turn were attracted by her vitality, openness and warmth.
Dulcie firmly believed in strengthening the work of the Communist Party and communists through criticism and self-criticism, through the process of unity, struggle, unity, and through democratic collective consultation, followed by diligent carrying out of decisions. She advocated great flexibility in tactics while never compromising fundamental Marxist principles. She could be sharp or gentle according to what she judged was necessary. Always, her goal was to strengthen the revolutionary movement.
Dulcie never tired of pointing out that contradiction is universal – everything and every person have a positive and a negative side. She would have said that she herself could be no exception. But whatever shortcomings there must have been in her work, they pale into insignificance next to her enormous contribution to the development of Australian revolutionary ideology, politics and organisation.
Dulcie’s family were an indispensable support, aid and contributor to her work. Her late husband Basil, who dies eleven years ago, was himself a lifetime member of the Communist Party, revered for his leading work in the Greek-Australian community. Dulcie’s daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter were utterly devoted to her and she to them. The CPA (M-L) extends our sincere condolences at this difficult time.
Dulcie’s approach to her terminal illness exemplified her character. She faced death scientifically and with equanimity. She wanted no fuss and insisted that knowledge of what she was going through be restricted to only what was absolutely necessary to make appropriate arrangements. She made it clear that she died confident in the capacity of the party and its leaders to develop to the full the Australian revolutionary movement.
It was Dulcie’s wish that there be no funeral and a private cremation.
Dulcie Steffanou was a great Australian Marxist. Her death is a blow to the Communist Party and a loss to the Australian people’s movement. But the memory and example of her outstanding work will continue to inspire Australian revolutionaries long, long into the future.
Part Two (from Vanguard 10 March 1999)
Memorial for Dulcie Steffanou a great success
About 80 friends and comrades attended the memorial meeting for Dulcie Steffanou, which was held on February 28. They came to honour and appreciated that this outstanding person has left behind a wonderful legacy which will continue to be felt for a very long time.
Both the Chinese Ambassador and Consul sent flowers and a letter of apology for not being able to attend. Dulcie had worked closely with the Chinese comrades in the early years of the People’s Republic.
In opening the memorial meeting, chair Marcus Clayton quoted Mel Mooney, a comrade who worked closely with Dulcie in the 1930s and is also no longer with us. He had said, “That Dulcie, she can do any bloody thing: give an inspiring speech, write a great article, organise, explain things. She’s a marvel”.
These comments sum up the feeling of all those who knew her.
The memorial meeting was imbued with the spirit of Dulcie’s comradely warmth.
Others spoke of her constant striving to master Marxism-Leninism and extend its relevance to the situation here in Australia. They spoke of the strength and encouragement which she gave to all she came in contact with. They spoke of her deep love and passion for the people and her constant emphasis on the need to build organisation around people, of her legacy of life-long commitment to the revolutionary movement and since its founding, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).
Dulcie touched many lives and made a real difference.
She remains a role model for anyone taking up the worthwhile life of serving the people.
Part Three (from Vanguard 10 March 1999)
Learn from outstanding Australian Communist
(Speech by CPA (M-L) Chairperson Bruce Cornwall to the memorial meeting for Comrade Dulcie Steffanou.)
Dulcie Steffanou was a great Australian, a great working class leader and a great Australian Communist.
She was outstanding among a generation that produced some of the most magnificent Australian Communist leaders, including her great comrade and friend, Ted Hill.
Dulcie Steffanou was born in 1916.
She grew up in Melbourne’s working class suburb of Richmond. Her formative years among working people were those of the great crisis of the Depression. Dulcie shared hardships with her contemporaries.
By the time Dulcie hit 25, the Great Depression had lasted more than a decade. Political and economic battles became bound up with the struggle against war and fascism as World War II began. Dulcie had by then joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party.
Dulcie Steffanou’s commitment to Marxism lasted through her life, continuously enriched by her broad experience, deep understanding, a lifetime of study, hard work and wide connections among and a dep love of ordinary people.
For the last 60 years and more, every aspect of Dulcie Steffanou’s life reflected these great attributes – particularly her deep, thorough and firm grasp of Marxism. It made Dulcie a leader of great stature among Australian Marxist leaders.
Her response to everything came from a point of view that was full of vitality, looking for the roots of developments, understanding their source and the way they affect other things around them.
She always had a good idea of what to do to help change things for the better. Dulcie constantly mulled over all experience she saw, heard and read about in the light of her convictions, enriching her understanding of Marxism and the world. She was restless with searching for truth and understanding of the world around her.
There was nothing superior about Dulcie. She understood that history is made by the people - that they build our cities, they move mountains and dam rivers, that they overthrow oppressive rulers - that they change the world.
Her life showed how strongly she believed in people, how her experience of huge, earth-shaking events over decades – periods of struggles, wars, economic and political crises and periods of construction and development – all saturated her thinking with the power of the people, the magnificence of people and their capacity to change the world.
Dulcie had no airs and graces. She mixed with labourers, industrialists and academics with equal ease.
This working class girl from Richmond, who left school at 14, shared with great pleasure, throughout her life, a laugh and serious political discussions with workers who had machine oil or excavation dust staining their clothing. A number are here to pay their respects to her. Dulcie found easy rapport with lawyers and academics too.
Dulcie could see the value of everyone among the oppressed and progressive and the place the vast majority has in history. She ceaselessly sought to lift the political understanding and activity of all she came across, with the aim of enabling them to take their place in changing Australia.
Dulcie was intolerant of arrogance in others. She could be scathing about it.
I’ve spoken about some early influences in Dulcie’s life. Dulcie had more than 80 years of experience. Her experience was deeply reflected on from a revolutionary outlook. She acted on it within the Communist Party and in political and social struggles across Australian society.
As a result, Dulcie encompassed an enormous depth of Australian working class experience, of revolutionary experience, and of ideological, political and organisational development. Dulcie took on a key leading role and responsibilities in the Communist Party, the workers’ movement and the struggle for national independence in Australia for nearly half a century.
She was deply involved in the struggles against capitalist economic and political crisis in the 1930s and was a Communist activist in the struggles against fascism and war in the 1930s and ‘40s. By the end of the 1940s, Dulcie had become a key Communist Party organiser in the fight for democratic rights against McCarthyism. She played a leading role in the struggle to defeat the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party.
In the 1960s most leading figures in the Communist Party of Australia embraced the revisionist ideas emanating from the United States and from leaders of the Russian Communist Party. They were ideas that imperialism was changing into a peaceful beast, that capitalism would evolve peacefully into socialism in a passage through monopoly to social ownership, that as national markets merged into a global economic system, military conflict between imperialist powers would disappear n a unified world. Such ideas are being broadcast again.
Dulcie had seen too much in the factories and life generally, as well as too much of the violence of war by imperialist powers, to swallow that nonsense. Rule relied on violent force. Oppressive rule relied on violence against the oppressed. Liberation of humanity relied on political struggle to win support and action from the majority. But, to prevail, the vast majority had to be prepared to overcome oppressive violence, to meet force with force.
Dulcie rejected efforts to revise Marxism, to rip out its revolutionary heart and make it a wimpy imitation of thinking which buttressed capitalism, restricted to struggles for reforms within existing exploitation and oppressive economic, social and political relations.
Dulcie Steffanou was one of the Communists who reconstituted the Communist Party in 1964 and founded the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). Befitting her status among her peers, her deep grasp of Marxism, her extensive links across society and her status among working people, Dulcie was a founding member of the Party’s Central Committee.
Dulcie continued her involvement in mass struggles over the following 34 years.
She played a crucial role in the development and organisation of the reconstituted Communist Party.
There was no fuss about her. She went about her work without any great public declaration of how important she was and she was very important.
Dulcie was the closest collaborator of the chairman of the CPA (M-L), Ted Hill, for more than 20 years. Hill was the key ideological and political leader of Australian Communists until his death in 1988. Dulcie carried the responsibility of organisational work and contributed to ideological and political leadership as ted Hill’s closest collaborator. After Hill died in 1988, Dulcie carried on the work, nurturing a new generation of Australian Communist leaders.
Dulcie stressed that actual conditions have to be the starting point of any examination of Australia and of action on one’s conclusions. It all has to be directed at the people en masse. Crucial to any examination is the viewpoint from which it is carried out. Marxism, a revolutionary outlook, is vital. She built confidence out of the role of the people and inspired those with whom she mixed with her irrepressible optimism.
Along with Ted Hill, Dulcie was at the forefront of the close examination of Australia’s history by Marxist-Leninists which came to the conclusion that socialism here would result from struggle through the stage of national independence from foreign imperialist domination. The struggle for national independence is the current stage of the revolutionary process that will lead on to socialism and communism in the future.
Such ideas were pooh-poohed when they were raised in the mid-1960s but they immediately captured the attention of many workers and young people from various classes who grasped the sense within them. Many of us took the revolutionary path as a result.
Having been a part of the leadership which laid out the basic strategic direction for Australian revolution, Dulcie set about playing a huge role in the efforts of the CPA (M-L) to handle a long period when revolution is not on the immediate agenda.
Dulcie was one of those most involved in the Communist Party’s efforts to develop and accumulate strength in the struggle for national independence and socialism through periods of relative stability.
It is a remarkable legacy. The CPA (M-L) has been able to continue its efforts to master Marxism in a situation where many other valiant efforts across the globe fell away in the course of twists and turns in the international Communist movement.
Following the example of Dulcie Steffanou and Ted Hill of concentrating on conditions in Australia as the starting point, Australian communists strive to master Marxism, to contribute to the communist movement internationally and to advance the situation of the Australian people.
Dulcie Steffanou played a vital role in the Communist movement for well over half a century. Throughout, she firmly held to the ideal of liberating humanity, not in any fancy moralistic way, but in a very down-to-earth practical way. She was constantly guided by her outstanding understanding of society and Australia, of what was required of a revolutionary in both rebellious and settled times.
At the core of Dulcie Steffanou was her view of the world, a Marxist viewpoint, full of vitality, attuned to the huge changes she witnessed through a long life. Dulcie tried to nurture all the seeds of a revolutionary outlook in all she came in contact with.
Dulcie Steffanou devoted her life to the liberation of humanity from exploitation and oppression.
Dulcie was a wonderful woman, a lifelong fighter for the people, a great daughter of the Australian working class and an outstanding communist.
An article by Dulcie Steffanou
Part 4 (from Australian Communist Nov/Dec 1978)
Fundamental question is detailed mass work
In his splendid article “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party” Chairman Mao Zedong said: Some comrades, disregarding the subjective and objective conditions, suffer from the malady of revolutionary impetuosity; they will not take pains to do minute and detailed work among the masses, but riddled with illusions, want only to do big things.” (Emphasis ours)
In our ranks are wonderful comrades who have taken great pains to do minute and detailed work among the masses. They have not suffered from the malady of wanting to only do big things or if they have suffered from this malady they have combated it. This is a very great encouragement in the correct building of the Party. Because of the very fact that such comrades are doing detailed and minute work among the masses, it is not possible to publicise them. It can be said that in the factories of the multinationals, in the rural areas, devoted Communists have refrained from succumbing to the temptation to do only big things, and to thrust themselves into the limelight. They continue to do patient and minute work. This is a hallmark of service to the people, devotion to the revolution.
In the social conditions of Australia, such minute and detailed work among the masses is at the very foundation of building the Communist Party and developing revolutionary consciousness in the working class and among other sections of the people.
Why do we say this is fundamental in the social conditions of Australia? The social conditions of Australia have created all sorts of illusions among the people. They have created an atmosphere of legalism – you may shout out and proclaim any and all sorts of political views, you are “free”. These social conditions give “democracy”, “elected” parliament, “freedom” of trade unions etc. They produce a revolutionary Communist Party and two revisionist “Communist” Parties and various splinter groups. The comparative “stability” of capitalism before the present economic crisis lulls certain sections of the workers into a sense that everything is all right. Comparatively high wages are paid to particular sections of the workers who act as a brake on struggle. A barrage of anti-working class material comes over every day, All sorts of diversions are exploited.
Notwithstanding all that, the most significant feature of the situation is the development of working class and people’s struggle on an ever-expanding scale. The struggle arises in response to particular attacks upon living conditions or son some particular demand. As has been pointed out many times, the origin of repressive action ultimately lies in the multinational domination of Australia; in the present circumstances, an overwhelming factor is superpower contention and struggle. The objective direction of struggle is towards independence and socialism. Although the slogan of independence has spread with great rapidity and gripped many new people, still the aims of independence and socialism grip only a comparatively small minority. This is not to deny in any way that the trend is very strongly to independence and socialism. It is necessary to affirm this time and again. There is no room whatever for pessimism but room only for supreme optimism. That involves infinite confidence in the masses.
The question is how to accelerate the trend, how to realise the full possibilities. If the Communists confine themselves to the advanced, if they suffer from the malady of revolutionary impetuosity, then they will want to do only “big things”. They will isolate themselves from the masses, will disregard the subjective and objective conditions. On the other and, if they do minute and detailed work among the as yet unawakened masses, then certainly they will participate consciously, subjectively, in pushing along the objective trend. Subjective will be in accord with objective.
We should certainly learn from those who have gone into the factories of the multinationals and into rural areas, precisely to do painstaking work among the masses, precisely to awaken the hitherto unawakened. They have persisted in seemingly unrewarding work day in and day out, never sought recognition, praise or being in the limelight.
All this must be expanded. Devotion to the revolutionary cause demands work of diverse kinds, particularly and fundamentally, detailed and painstaking work among the masses. The main thing is that a sound basis for it all has been established.
We can learn from some negative examples. The old Communist Party operated in breach of all this. In many ways, it disregarded the subjective and objective conditions. Its members were, in the main, all in the limelight. Some of them deliberately sought it. They basked in what they saw as their own importance. It was a style of work, a bad style. It has left its legacy, even in our ranks. A few continually thrust themselves forward, resent being “left out”, “passed by” etc. It is not a question of being “left out” or “passed by’. This is sheer personal individualism. It has no place in a genuine Communist Party or Communist. The fundamental question is not self-importance but mass work and if need by (and the need is great) taking pains to do minute and detailed work among the masses.
In days gone by the Waterside Workers’ Federation and Ironworkers’ Union were under Communist leadership. Numbers of Communists rushed into jobs in industries covered by these unions. They did so because it was considered the done thing, to support the union, to do “Communist” work. In each case the union ceased to be under “Communist” leadership. This sort of thing still manifests itself. Some people rush to join a union said to have Communist leadership. The same people could equally go into the textile industry or the motor vehicle industry or some other industry. Why don’t they do that? It is because of a hangover of the past, a hangover of trade union politics, a refusal to do minute and detailed work among the masses. Generally speaking, when Communists did go into these industries the Communist organisation and consciousness among the masses were not developed. This was because insufficient study of the subjective and objective conditions was made. Moreover, such Communists collected together, readily identifiable so that it was an easy task for the bosses to pick them off. We should learn from historical experience.
Again, it must be confirmed that the main thing is that the majority of Communists have learned. Another feature of this error both in the past and the present is that an excessive number of these Communists were sucked into the union apparatus. Because of the particular type of union apparatus, such sucking in tends to isolate the given Communists even more from the masses. This is not to say there is not an appropriate way to handle the matter.
The need for minute and detailed work among the masses extends over the whole of the Australian people. Its aim is to unite all who can be united for independence and socialism. It demands work at every degree of consciousness. It demands minute and detailed work among the masses.
Those who continually seek the limelight should think over what Zhou Enlai said to the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of China: “… a genuine Communist must be ready to accept a higher or a lower post and be able to stand the test of going up or stepping down many times. All cadres, veteran and new alike, must maintain close ties with the masses, be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and impetuosity, go to any post as required by the Party and the people and firmly carry out Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line and policies under every circumstance”.
Those few who do continually seek the limelight will certainly make self-analysis and self-criticism. They will see it as an expression of bourgeois individualism, a mistaken idea in the Party. They will overcome it and learn to serve the people better.
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