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Dulcie Steffanou: A communist life devoted to serving working people

Written by: Shirley Winton on 23 March 2020


This year marks the 56th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in March 1964.  We commemorate the anniversary with a tribute to one of the leading founding members, Dulcie Steffanou, a Marxist-Leninist and a courageous daughter of the working class.

We reproduce a talk by CPA (M-L) activist Shirley Winton dedicated to Dulcie’s work and her comrades, given at a public meeting organised in Melbourne by the Australian Communist Party: Militant Women – A history of class struggle in Australia.


I acknowledge this meeting is taking place on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulan Nation – never ceded, always was and always will be Aboriginal land.  We stand in solidarity with the First People in their continues fight for self-determination and sovereignty.

Dulcie Steffanou was much more than a militant working class woman fighter.  She was a communist, a Marxist-Leninist, who believed that fundamental change can only be brought about by aroused and organised masses of the people, led by the working class, to end the exploitation and oppression of the entire working class – women and men. That the liberation of working women cannot be achieved without complete abolition of capitalism and winning socialism as the first step towards the classless society of communism. Dulcie had enormous love and respect for ordinary working people and an unshakeable confidence in their potential capacity to change the world when armed with the science of Marxism.

Dulcie made an enormous contribution to Australia’s working class revolutionary politics, ideology and organisation.  An inspiration and a mentor to many working class women and men activists looking for fundamental change to make the world a better place for working people.

Throughout her life she was involved in numerous battles and mass campaigns with working people.  They were big and small workers’ and community struggles, local health centres, environmental struggles, kindergartens, schools, small farming communities.  For Dulcie, no struggle of the people was too small and unimportant. 

A life of revolutionary struggle, study and changing the world

Dulcie was born in 1916 into a working class family and grew up in the poor working class suburb of Richmond, Melbourne.  She had to leave school at 14 years of age to support her family.  She worked in shoe making and clothing factories around Richmond and Brunswick, and like many young feisty working class women at that time straight away became involved in working class struggles.  She joined the Young Communist League in early 1930s and then the Communist Party in mid 1930s where she, along with other young communists, threw themselves into studying Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. She was immersed in the daily working class struggles in her workplace, unions, in community blockades against home evictions, against poverty, war, repression and supporting rights and sovereignty of Australia’s First People. 

Her deep practical grass roots experiences as a working class woman and her lifelong insatiable thirst for the study of scientific Marxism (throughout her life she continuously and systematically read and studied Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao,) convinced Dulcie that working women’s oppression was inseparably linked to the capitalist class exploitation of the working class as a whole.  That as long as the means of production and profit were privately owned by a tiny handful of monopolies who extracted, and kept, the profits made from exploitation of the working class, working women will continue to be exploited and oppressed. 

Her direct experiences in class exploitation and struggle, and through the study of Marxism, made it easy for Dulcie to understand the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. That, and her close observations of the enormous strides made by working women in the Socialist Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, and later in the People’s Republic of China, convinced Dulcie that socialism creates the necessary conditions for the liberation of women.

In late 1930s Dulcie, along with other communist women and men, vigorously campaigned against the rise of Fascism in Australia and Europe and against the Nazi war. She was part of the big campaign opposing slanderous attacks on the Soviet Union by imperialist powers.

She was one of leading Communist women organising the enormous and broad mass campaign to stop the Menzies government banning the Communist Party in 1951-1952, aimed at crushing resistance and struggle by workers and unions.   In this struggle she had direct political experience of the united front work that brought together and united ordinary people, workers, unionists, peace activists, democratic rights lawyers, and even some politicians from the ALP. 
For many years she was heavily involved in the momentous 1969 Penal Powers struggles with her fellow CPA (Marxist-Leninist) Party comrades, led by Clarrie O’Shea and including Ted Bull, Betty Oke, Norm Gallagher and Betty Little, who at different times were all Vice-Chairpersons of the CPA (M-L), immersed in mass struggles and the public face of the party.

Combining practice with theory

Dulcie epitomises the revolutionary working class women deeply involved in class struggles and immersed in the revolutionary class politics.  Dulcie’s activism in workers’ struggles and the Communist movement was guided by her deep knowledge and practice of Marxism and dialectical materialism.  Not only was she imbued with the theory of Marxism, she knew how to use it in different times and circumstances, in the service to the working class. She combined her extensive practical experiences in class struggle with the science of Marxism in Australia’s unique conditions.  It is the combination of theory and practice in Australian conditions that placed Dulcie and other members of the CPA (M-L) in the leadership of the communist movement and in people’s mass struggles in Australia.

Real change comes through people’s mass struggle, not orthodox trade union and parliamentary politics

From the mid-1950s to early 1960s she was one of growing numbers of CPA members who were becoming deeply concerned with the political direction of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin in 1952; and followed by the Communist Party of Australia.  These differences were also evident in the international communist movement.  Dulcie’s knowledge of Marxism (not as a dogma) and long experience in class struggles led her and others to found the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1964. 

Today, 15 March, is the 56th Anniversary of the founding of CPA (M-L).  56 years of uninterrupted revolutionary work.

The differences centred on the CPA’s shifting political position to embracing peaceful transition to socialism through parliament and social democratic reforms, left blocism versus mass work, capturing top union official positions instead of mass work with workers and unions, peaceful co-existence between imperialism and socialism; and organisational principles of the revolutionary communist party of the working class operating under bourgeois class dictatorship.

Dulcie and others warned against the CPA policy and practice of working in unions for the sole purpose of capturing official union positions –as a substitute for real mass work.  Together with Ted Hill, the founding Chairman, and other working class leaders in the CPA (M-L) she pointed out that there are two sides to trade unions under capitalism.  On the one hand they are important mass organisations of workers in which communists must work with the rank and file members.  The other side is trade unions are institutions of capitalism maintaining and enforcing exploitation of the working class.  Communists and militant workers in trade unions must never forget this side of bourgeois trade unions.   She insisted that communists must join and work in trade unions, do political mass work amongst the rank and file workers, raising revolutionary class consciousness, listening and learning from workers. 

In contrast, the CPA’s policy and practice in unions was to capture top union official positions, embrace social democracy and work to reconcile labour and capital.  Dulcie and others in the CPA (M-L) maintained that official trade union hierarchy was tied by millions of threads to bosses’ courts, the ALP and capitalism.

A small number of union leaders in the old CPA confined themselves to the upper echelons of trade unions, ultimately selling out workers (the Accord).  They became captives of bourgeois trade union politics and bourgeois parliament and isolated from rank and file workers.

Another area of differences that led Dulcie and others to the formation of the CPA (M-L) in 1964 was their insistence that the main arena for Australian communists’ work is in the development of revolutionary working class party and movement in Australia’s conditions. 

Dulcie had enormous confidence in the capacity of Australia’s working class to bring about fundamental change.  She didn’t look overseas for blue prints in building communist movement in Australia.  Naturally, the momentous socialist revolutions in the Soviet Union and China inspired her greatly, but she deeply understood that Communists in Australia have to develop our own revolutionary strategies based in Australia’s reality and class struggle. That communists must have deep and thorough knowledge of Australia’s specific conditions and contradictions.

There are universal Marxist-Leninist principles and general truths but each communist party must chart its own road to socialism in line with that country’s conditions.   Based on that knowledge led Dulcie and other comrades in the CPA (M-L) to turn their attention to deep investigation of Australian conditions and classes. 

Dulcie’s legacy

Dulcie strongly encouraged proper integration of communists with the people.  This required the party to organise in a way as to enable the deepest integration and keep most communists away from the eyes of the state.  To that end she and others in the CPA (M-L) advocated for only a very small number of publicly recognised party members, whilst the great majority of party members deeply involved in struggles of the people are unknown to the state.  The party works like an iceberg, the small tip visible above water, with 90% submerged and not visible. Most non-public work is not visible, spectacular or grandstanding, but essential for building the revolutionary movement.

Dulcie’s legacy of mass work, constant and deep study of Marxism and its application to Australia’s conditions, and organisational principles for revolutionary working class Communist party operating under the dictatorship of the capitalist class, are still with us today.

She had enormous revolutionary ideological, political and organisational influence on many members of the CPA (M-L), including the public leadership of working class comrades Betty Oke, John Cummins, Norm Gallagher, Clarrie O’Shea, Betty Little, Paddy Malone, and many others in the revolutionary movement.

For Dulcie, her involvement in militant working class and revolutionary struggle was never about her self-importance.  She never sought adulation and limelight or pushed herself forward. For her it was always mass work and learning from the working class masses.  She despised bourgeois individualism, self-promotion and the know-all arrogance of some.   She was humble and only saw herself as serving the working class in the anti-imperialist struggle for an independent and socialist Australia. 


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