From a bygone era, CLA’s Keith McEwan tells a story of how both lecturer and students learned when the Army decided its officers should know something about the motivations and culture of Communists in Australia. Perhaps it’s time Defence asked similar questions about its own internal culture today?
Chinese-taught Communist and the Army do some learning together
By Keith McEwan*
In August 1976 a vehicle driven by a female soldier called at my recently-opened real estate office in Williamstown. From there I was driven to the Australian Army Staff College at Fort Queenscliff, in Victoria, to address the students.
This most unlikely event occurred because noted Monash University historian Professor Ian Turner, like me an ex-Communist , was unavailable to give the lecture on Communism in Australia and he nominated me to take his place. Despite feeling inadequate to perform this serious task , I closed the door of my office and sat in the car to enjoy the drive.
From the material I had been sent by the Staff College, I realised that my lecture would be part of a Strategic Studies syllabus and Communism was to be the only “ism” studied. I was informed that, while the students had been encouraged to read selected books on the topic, most would have only a limited knowledge of the outline of Communist ideology by the time I spoke to them.
On the journey I pondered ideas I had prepared and wondered if any of the students had read my book, “Once a Jolly Comrade” , written 10 years earlier as a critique of Communism and my personal experience as a member of the Communist Party of Australia for 17 years. I also reflected on the Vietnam War and the sad memories of the death of my nephew, who was one of the last Australian soldiers killed in that bitter, divisive conflict. Moreover, long before this war, painful memories of my father`s suffering as a soldier in World War 1 with its horrendous loss of life on a massive scale, had instilled in me an aversion to military matters.
As well, I wondered how I would be received by the many officer students, who had been engaged in fighting Communists during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Throw some light
Twelve years had passed since I had left a discredited Communist Party, split into three warring factions; while its demise was no longer of interest to me, I felt the need to respond to the Army/Turner request and, by doing so, throw some light on Communism in Australia at the time I knew it.
I also felt I could handle the task as I had in 1969, along with Rex Mortimer, another former CPA member, attended a conference initiated by the Institute of International Studies of the University of South Carolina on the subject of “A Half Century of Training Communist Cadres”.
This US conference, which I attended in September 1969 (as well as submitting a detailed essay), required that a waiver had to be put on my US visa by the American Consul in Melbourne as the US was denying access to even ex-Communists at the time.
While in America, I had ample opportunity to explain to the eager, all white students why people joined the Communist Party and what were the aims and objectives of Communists in Australia. So I thought that I would use a similar approach when talking to the Army students that day.
Before travelling to the picturesque town of Queenscliff’s Fort, I had read that it was built in 1882 following Russian ventures into southern Australian waters. With cannons pointing out to sea, the landward defences of Fort Queenscliff included a moat, a wall with loopholes, a keep and a drawbridge. The Fort, classified by the National Trust, is to be preserved at all costs.
Upon arriving, while still anxiously thinking about the unsettling subjects of War and Communism, I was formally escorted by an Army officer through the well-preserved, elaborate buildings of the Fort and was given a brief history of this fascinating place.
Then it was down to business. Addressing an audience of about 50-60 middle rank officers of the Australian Army, along with some military personal from other countries, I set out to explain why I had joined the Communist Party in 1947 when party members were leaving and the Cold War was starting. I related how I was drawn to the Communist Party because of the activities of the Communists in the Australian trade unions who were outstanding in their efforts to assist the workers achieve better working conditions, including health and safety provisions as well as reasonable rates of pay.
As requested, I explained that I had, along with 12 other Communists from Australia, attended a Communist training school in China for overseas students from 1951 to 1954. Fellow students came from Japan, Indonesia, Burma, India and other countries in the region. This special school – established just two years after the Communists came to power – was the forerunner of other such schools for the education of foreign Communists in China. All this had been detailed in my book.
While I am unable now, 35 years later, to find a copy of my precise words, I most likely would have told the attentive students how I was inspired to learn of the heroic actions of the soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army, many of whom had spent decades fighting to free their country from foreign rule and to bring an end to extreme poverty and unrewarding toil in their country. I recall trying to explain how I, along with other members of our group, wanted to be “good Communists” like the Chinese comrades.
Further, I would have explained that we did not go to China to learn about armed struggle because, unlike some of our fellow students from other countries in the region who were denied human rights and had no peaceful opportunities to oppose their rulers, that was not an issue for us.
We were there to learn how the Communists carried out their policy of “serving the people” and, by doing so, earning the people`s respect and support. Topics such as “criticism and self-criticism” and “ideological remoulding” inside the Party were of special interest to us. While the RSL was portraying our study group as being engaged in subversive activities, we were in fact there to learn about Marxist theories and the experiences of the Communist parties in the Soviet Union and in China.
In my talk I did not attempt to catalogue the crimes of Stalin and the brutal, autocratic rule of Communists in power in other countries in which democratic rights were denied to the people, as I felt this was now generally well known. Also, the talk was limited to an hour on a topic which one could spend hours.
Approached by students
After my formal talk was over, I was approached by students eager to learn more about Communism at home and abroad. Many said that they wanted to read my book, which was by then out of print. I left the Fort that day thinking that my journey had been worthwhile.
A few days later I received a letter from Brigadier I.G.C. Gilmore, thanking me for my lecture to the staff and students at the Australian Staff College and stating that my presentation had given them a first-hand insight of the Australian Communist Party `s philosophical and ideological problems.
In reply, I wrote that I had received a courteous reception by the staff and students at the Fort and I was very impressed by the officers who spoke to me after the lecture, adding that the visit confirmed my opinion that the Australian Army reflects and upholds the democratic tradition of our country. I did not add that I hoped that, if ever any of these fine men I had met were called on to fight in a war, it would be a just war.
And so ended my brief interlude with the Australian Army at historical Fort Queenscliff. It was now back to earning an income in the real estate world, which seemed an unlikely environment from which I could satisfy my continuing urge to right wrongs.
But, as I was to learn in time, with issues like affordable housing for low income earners, special accommodation for disadvantaged people, the need for women`s refuges and public housing, as well as the need to campaign for world peace and Aboriginal rights, I would not be idle.
Now, at an age when one has time to sit quietly and reflect on past events, that one day I visited Fort Queenscliff , 35 years ago, is recalled with the comforting thought that there is often common ground among all people…if only we seek to find it.
Keith McEwan has always sought to right wrongs, in the workplace, as a Communist Party of Australia official, and as a citizen of the world. He continues to do so now aged 85 in many ways, including through being a member of CLA
CLA Civil Liberties Australia Inc, A04043
Box 7438 FISHER ACT 2611 Australia