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History in the early hours

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Nick G.

Overnight radio is perhaps one of the last places you might expect to hear a discussion of the centenary of the Great October Socialist Revolution and the role of the Communist Party of Australia,. ABC Radio’s Rod Quinn devoted an hour to the topic at 4am this morning.

The content was typically anti-Communist and not worth detailing here.  However, at about 30 seconds before the 5am news slot, a woman called to say that her uncle and another man had been gaoled by Menzies for printing an illegal Communist paper, and that a campaign to free the men had been instrumental in Menzies being voted out.
Quinn, to give him the benefit of the doubt, had just been talking about the attempt by Menzies,  after the war, to ban the Communist Party. With the news approaching, he quickly closed down the conversation saying “Oh that never happened – Menzies wasn’t voted out”. The caller had no opportunity for further comment.

In fact, she was right and Quinn was wrong.  Menzies lost government in 1941 and the campaign to free two interned Communists was a major factor.
The period prior to WW2 was one of struggle between supporters and appeasers of Hitlerite fascism on one hand, and opponents of war and fascism on the other hand. Menzies had visited Germany and professed his support for Hitler and his methods. That was why he found it such a “melancholy duty” to announce, as Prime Minister of the United Australia Party, that Germany had attacked Poland and that as a consequence of Britain declaring war on Germany, Australia too was at war.
The Communist Party had initially declared the war to be an imperialist war and they opposed proposals for conscription.  Their track record of opposition to fascism could not be faulted and the first stage of the war, from September 1939 to May 1940, was widely regarded as a “phoney war” with Britain and France still hoping that Hitler would strike east against the Soviet Union. To their surprise, he turned on France after invading Poland and did not attack the USSR until 22 June 1941, nearly two years after the start of the war.
With the attack on the USSR, the Communist Party devoted all its efforts to building unity against the Axis and in support of the war effort. 
During and immediately after the “phoney war” period, Menzies and his Cabinet were unrelenting in their attacks on the Communist Party, seeing their anti-conscription campaign and any Communist-led industrial action as sabotage of the war effort. He adopted anti-democratic fascist measures to suppress the Party.
On February 7 1940, “Guardian”, the newspaper of the Victorian branch of the CPA was placed under censorship. In April, special censorship was applied to all Communist publications. Censored articles were sometimes replaced with Biblical tracts or left blank as a protest. “Soviets Today” was banned. On May 24, censorship was replaced with a total ban on all Communist publications.
On June 15, at 9.30 on a Saturday night, the Menzies Government declared the Communist Party an illegal body. The police, secretly mobilised beforehand, were sent out in swift cars to carry out raids on the homes of reputed Communists.  Books, papers, documents were seized, Communist offices and printing plants were occupied.
E.F. Hill, founding Chairperson of our Party, was active in the leadership of the Victorian branch at the time.  He later wrote: “Illegality is a hazard that all Communist parties face. This has been historical experience. Illegality of the Communist Party follows from the logic of capitalism, with its state machine used as it is for the suppression of opponents of capitalism.”  The lessons of this period helped shape the organisational form that the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) took at its inception in 1964.
From July 1940, Communist papers appeared illegally. Arthur James was sent to gaol for 6 months in Brisbane on September 24, 1940 for having been found with a Party leaflet on the night of June 15.  On June 21, a 23-year old woman, Phyllis Johnson, was arrested for making a speech against conscription and for having in her possession documents alleged to have been published by the Workers’ Educational association that did not have the required name and address of the printer. She denied being a member of the Communist Party (it was illegal), but said she believed in Communism and was speaking for the Central No-Conscription Committee established by the NSW Trades and Labour Council and the ALP. The police evidence against her included her having said “Mr Menzies admires Hitler, he is doing the very same things Hitler is doing in Germany.” When the magistrate asked whether she remembered saying this, she replied “Yes, and I believe it. I believe Mr Menzies is afraid of the anti-Fascists. I am sincerely anti-Fascist”.  She was fined £30 for her speech and £5 for possession of the leaflets. When she refused to enter into a bond to comply with the National Security Regulations, she was gaoled for one month. Johnson had one prior conviction for taking part in a raid on a bookshop run by Nazis. When the Party’s legality was restored, Johnson declared her membership and by 1943 was touring the country as a member of the Central Committee, urging support for the war effort.
Others to be persecuted during the Party’s illegality included Tom Garland, of Adelaide, fined £50 on October 21, 1940 for comparing Menzies to Petain, Chief of State of the German collaborative Vichy French Government; Horace Ratcliff and Max Thomas, caught printing Communist papers; A.F. Cant, President of the Perth branch of the Australian Society of Engineers, sent to gaol for one month for having a copy of the “Workers’ Star” in his possession; and Edward Crowe, a 65-year old man caught on the Melbourne waterfront with a copy of the “Guardian” and “Communist Review” and gaoled for six months.
Rod Quinn’s caller was the niece of either Ratcliff or Thomas. Both were union members.  On December 17, 1940, they were convicted and fined for having in their possession papers which did not show the printer’s name and address. A few days later they were charged at the same court with possession of illegal literature under the National Security Regulations and sentenced to 6 month’s imprisonment. They served their sentences.  Then some days before a broadcast speech by Menzies on June 17, threatening to intern offending trade union officials and others, Ratcliff and Thomas were secretly arrested and interned on the same charges.  The authority for the arrests was signed by the Minister for the Army, Mr Percy Spender.
Ratcliffe, 46, had served for four years during WW1 and had been at Gallipoli. He told the court that he had no apology to make for his opposition to imperialist war. Recalling the slaughter of his battalion at Gallipoli, he stated that he had spent all his time since fighting for socialism and against war. Thomas, 29, was gaoled with Ratcliff. Both men then began a hunger strike. After the first four days of their refusal to take food, Hughes, the Attorney-General, said that as far as he was concerned, they would not get out of goal one day earlier because of their hunger strike.  “A man who goes without food in a country like Australia, is a fool”, he said. “These tactics make no difference to me”.
Menzies had by this time established a War Council consisting of Government and Opposition politicians.  Dr H.V. Evatt (ALP) was a member. Both men lived in his electorate.  On July 10, he said that he would raise their case with the War Council and seek their release. Representations were also made by the Sydney Trades and Labour Council. Hughes and Ratcliff issued a statement declaring that they would continue their hunger strike until an appeal was heard by a committee under the National Security Regulations. Demands for their release grew.  A mass meeting of engineers at Leichardt Stadium demanded their release, as did the management committee of the Waterside Workers Federation, the Australian Railways Union, and their own union, the Printing Industry Employees Union.
On August 14, South Coast NSW unionists held a two-hour rally.  They sang “Solidarity Forever” and the “Internationale”.  Thomas’s brother said that although the men were weak, having lost about a stone (6.5 kilos), they were aware of the support and determined to stay on hunger strike. However, the following day, Ratcliff was taken to hospital in view of his worsening condition.
On July 17 it was announced that the War Council had refused to take any action over the internment despite strong representations that Australian citizens had a right to a public trial, and should not be punished twice for the same offence.  Menzies declared their hunger strike “irrelevant”. Now that Russia was in the fight against the Nazis there was no reason to release them, he said. “It is wrong to assume that subversive activities and propaganda have ceased to matter just because Russia is in the war,” he declared.
On 18 July the Ironworkers Union said that 10,000 South Coast workers would stop work for a day to secure the release of the two men and to “compel the Government to cease fire against the working class people of the country.”
That day, a 3-person tribunal began hearing the men’s appeal.  Both were now in hospital in the 16th day of their hunger strike and were carried in their beds to the hearing.  Protests now spread interstate with mass meetings on the Yarra Bank in Melbourne, while Newcastle miners called for a NSW-wide one-day strike. Wonthaggi miners called for a one-day strike on July 28, followed by a national general strike by all affiliated unions.  When Menzies refused to release the men on a bond, more unions decided to join the strike. 
The campaign against Menzies for the release of the two men, together with unpopularity within and without his own party fuelled by his support for appeasement, his admiration of Hitler and the ridicule he endured as “Pig Iron Bob” due to the actions he took against Pt Kembla wharfies in the Dalfram Dispute of 1938 made his political leadership of the country untenable. He resigned on 27 August 1941.
Ratcliff and Thomas were released, but not until October 21, 1941 and then on conditions that continued their deprival of elementary rights. The ban on the Communist Party was finally lifted on December 18, 1942.  Even then, the reactionaries of the UAP were unreconciled to their defeat.  On Sunday August 8, 1943, Opposition leader Arthur Fadden gave a foretaste of what was to come under the second, post-war Menzies government when he told a crowded meeting at Parkes that the Opposition parties would reimpose the ban on the Communist Party. At an earlier meeting that day at West Wyalong he said, “We put Thomas and Ratcliff in an internment camp, and the Curtin Government took them out. We imposed a ban on the Communist Party and the Curtin Government lifted it.”
Of course, Curtin acted because the Communist Party by now had hundreds of thousands of supporters, and Communists were playing an important part in the total war effort on both the home front and the front lines.
Phyllis Johnson’s brother Corporal Don Mather was pictured in the Party’s paper “Tribune” on 23 September 1943 in action in the jungle of New Guinea. He was depicted as a “Communist Hero” having joined the CPA in 1937 and the army in 1939.  He had fought in Libya and been mentioned in dispatches for bravery.
He was a far cry from Menzies who had resigned his commission during WW1 to avoid an overseas posting.
We should never forget this moment in the history of our movement in Australia.  It reflects the wisdom of the founders of our Party in modelling it on the iceberg principle – letting a little bit be seen above the class line but keeping the rest hidden from the Titanic of reaction, crisis and war.


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