Inside Story

Caught out: Edna and Jack Ryan and the 1951 referendum

Expelled from the Communist Party for not toeing the line, Lyndall Ryan's parents were faced with a dilemma when Robert Menzies’s government tried to ban the party

Lyndall Ryan 13 October 2014 4110 words

Cold War contradictions: Jack Ryan (left) in 1950. Lyndall Ryan

As an eight-year-old in 1951 I was often in bed by seven o’clock and usually the first to rise each morning. The day after the 22 September referendum to ban the Communist Party of Australia, or CPA, was no exception. At 6 am I went into the dining room and saw the note my older sister Julia had left on the table late the night before. It read, “The Nos won.” I knew exactly what that meant. But I was puzzled that my parents, Jack and Edna Ryan, would need to be told. In the previous three elections – the federal election of 1949, the NSW state election of 1950 and the double dissolution federal election of 1951 – they had waited up for the result. But on this occasion they appeared to have gone to bed early.

We were living in a two-bedroom brick cottage in View Street, Woollahra, which was then a lower middle-class area in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. My brother Patrick, aged twenty-one, was overseas in the merchant navy; my sister Julia, aged fourteen, attended Dover Heights Home Science High School; and I was at Woollahra public school. Julia and I basked in the middle-class security arising from my parents’ long struggle, since their expulsion from the CPA in the early 1930s, to establish a successful butcher’s business.

After seventeen years in the shop, which they had always hated, they had finally leased out the business to explore new careers. Jack, now aged forty-nine, revelled in his recent appointment as organiser with the Workers’ Education Association in Sydney and expected that he would soon succeed David Stewart, who was nearing retirement, as general secretary. Edna, at forty-seven, was preparing to pursue a parliamentary career.

They enjoyed the company of a wide array of friends in the labour movement and had formed a coterie with ex-communist comrades including Laurie Short, Lloyd Ross, and Esmond (“Hig”) and Joy Higgins (née Barrington) who were now members of the Labor Party. The group regularly attended weekend schools on trade unions and political theory organised by Jack at the association’s conference centre at Newport, then an outer bushland suburb on Sydney’s Pittwater peninsula, enjoying the campfire evenings where they told jokes and sang songs from their revolutionary pasts. The fruits of their discussions became articles on trade unions and the Labor Party in the association’s journal, Australian Highway.

But I was unaware of how important my parents’ revolutionary past had been. From my perspective, they seemed to be more anti-American than anti-communist. (They were convinced, for example, that American comics would divert Australian children from reading “proper books” such as children’s adventure stories.)

Jack was widely known as the first Australian to have been expelled from the CPA, in February 1930, for his apparent refusal to endorse the party’s New Line. Until that cataclysmic moment, he had enjoyed a meteoric career in the CPA. As the butchers’ union delegate to the NSW Trades and Labor Council in 1926 he appears to have been invited to join the party by Jack Kavanagh, who had recently replaced Jock Garden as chair of the party’s central committee executive. Garden, the secretary of the Trades and Labor Council, had been forced to resign from the CPA after the Labor Party ruled that he could not be a member of both.

Garden continued to promote bright young CPA members. In 1927, he installed Jack as the de facto editor of Labor Monthly, the newly established journal of the council’s Labor Research Bureau. Then aged twenty-five, Jack blossomed as a communist theorist and journalist, and in the following year Garden sent him to Shanghai to represent the Trades and Labor Council at a meeting of the Communist International’s Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat. Now a professional revolutionary, he was appointed de facto editor of the secretariat’s journal, the Pan-Pacific Worker.

Jack proceeded to Moscow for the Fourth Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions. There, he and his co-delegate, Norman Jeffery, prepared a comprehensive report for the executive committee of the Communist International on the CPA’s record of “working from within” to transform the Labor Party and oust its reformist leaders. But another CPA member also in Moscow, Bert Moxon, believed the Labor Party was becoming more reactionary rather than more radical, particularly in Queensland, and argued that it was time for the CPA to desist from this strategy and strike out on its own.

After the returned to Australia Jack was sent to India in late 1928 to represent the Trades and Labor Council at a meeting of the Indian trade union movement in Meerut. By then he was well known in the international communist movement and Smith’s Weekly had tipped he would soon become a major force in the CPA. But his overseas ventures had been funded not by the CPA but the Trades and Labor Council, and as de facto editor of its journal he exerted considerable independence in his assessment of the communist leaders in Moscow. He was unimpressed by many of them, including by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin; in his view, only Nikolai Bukharin, the secretary of the executive committee of the Communist International, appeared to meet the ideal of a communist revolutionary.

Returning to Sydney from India in January 1929, Jack met Edna Nelson, a starry-eyed young communist who was making a name for herself as an activist in the timber workers’ strike. They soon became a revolutionary couple and by July, Edna was pregnant with their son, Patrick. But in late September their world was turned upside down when Communist International executive sent a directive insisting that the CPA stand candidates against the Labor Party in the forthcoming federal election; in the absence of a communist candidate, CPA members were to vote informal. This not only signalled Bukharin’s fall from power, Stalin’s rise, and the confirmation of the New Line; it also placed Jack, who had opposed the change in direction, in a vulnerable position.

But he was encouraged when the central committee executive, led by chairman Jack Kavanagh, rejected the directive on the grounds that the Nationalist Party, which was then in power federally and in several Australian states, was far worse than the Labor Party in its attitude towards the working class. Kavanagh recommended that the CPA branches in each Australian state decide whether to support or oppose individual Labor Party candidates on their merits. In response, the Communist International executive sent the Australians an open letter for discussion at the forthcoming ninth CPA conference. The CPA, the letter said, must recognise the Labor Party’s fundamentally social fascist character, “assert itself as the only true working class party” and “conduct open warfare against the party of class collaboration.”

The conference was a turning point in CPA history. Kavanagh and his followers, including Jack Ryan, lost support, and a group led by Moxon, which proclaimed “unswerving loyalty to the new line,” was voted to the central executive. From that point on, according to Barbara Curthoys, “there was one correct line and to depart from it unless one indulged in self-criticism meant ostracism and possible expulsion.”

The new chair of the executive, Bert Moxon, appears to have been particularly wary of my father. They had already clashed in Moscow, and he may also have been threatened by Jack’s international connections, which offered him a degree of independence. Moxon was anxious that Jack should declare his loyalty to the New Line by admitting that he had taken an incorrect position in Moscow in 1928. Although Norman Jeffery was quick to recant, Jack refused to do so. Then, in February 1930, to everyone’s astonishment, the executive summarily expelled my father from the CPA, possibly to serve as a lesson to others in Kavanagh’s faction who may have intended to stand firm. Most of them fell into line over the following year.

After three attempts to gain readmission to the CPA, Jack realised by the end of 1932 that his career as a communist revolutionary was over. His employment with the Labor Research Bureau had evaporated as a result of the Depression and he now joined the ranks of the unemployed. Edna was also expelled at about this time. With a young family to support, Jack returned to his original profession, butchering, which he hated, and towards the end of 1933, my parents leased a shop on Edgecliff Road, Woollahra. He never recovered from the expulsion. The disappointment and loss gradually undermined his health, and by 1940 he was battling increasing deafness, insomnia and problems with his heart and kidneys.

But Jack was by no means finished. In 1935 he had joined the Waverley branch of the Labor Party to become part of the campaign organised by Bob Heffron, a future state premier, and Clarrie Martin to remove Jack Lang from his demagogic leadership of the parliamentary party in New South Wales. Perhaps Jack considered that Lang was the Australian manifestation of Joseph Stalin. When Lang was expelled by Labor in 1939, Jack organised Clarrie Martin’s successful campaign to win the seat of Waverley in the state Legislative Assembly. With the Labor Party forming government in New South Wales a year later and Martin appointed attorney-general, it seemed only a matter of time before Jack would also join him in parliament. But even though he was a very good public speaker, an outstanding organiser, a terrific journalist and of personable appearance, he did not gain preselection. His acerbic wit did not endear him to Labor Party members and his Communist Party past seemed to haunt him.

By the end of the second world, along with Laurie Short, Lloyd Ross and Esmond and Joy Higgins, my parents had become militant anti-communists. But they had each reached this position in different ways. According to his biographer, Laurie Short first met my parents in 1934 after his expulsion from the CPA at the age of seventeen or eighteen. My parents’ butcher’s shop was the first port of call for many newly expelled comrades and Jack lent Laurie many publications from the International Communist Opposition (the name given to the increasingly large group of expelled comrades across the world). Along with a vast array of Trotskyist publications, they offered a left critique of the Communist International’s increasingly contradictory stance on key issues like the rise of fascism, the Moscow show trials, the Spanish civil war and the Hitler–Stalin pact of 1939.

When the CPA was banned in wartime 1940, Jack burned many of these publications but retained the manuscript of his novel, A Professional Revolutionary, which was largely an autobiographical account of his career in the CPA. It failed to find a publisher. Julia says that she saw a copy of it in Jack’s papers in the early 1950s and that he later turned it into a film script. I never saw it, and it is possible that Edna destroyed it after his death in 1958.

During the war, Laurie Short had engaged in a fruitless campaign with another former communist, now a Trotskyist, Nick Origlass, to oppose the communist controlled Federated Ironworkers’ Association at the Cockatoo Island Dockyards in Sydney. Like many Trotskyists in this period he believed that Stalinism would eventually be overturned and that the CPA would return to its pre-1929 position. But at the end of the war, along with my parents, he realised that this belief was an illusion and that the CPA was now a dangerous force that was preparing to turn Australia into a totalitarian state. In 1948 he joined the Labor Party and soon, as a member of one of its industrial groups, he was arguing that special laws were required to contain the CPA.

Lloyd Ross, on the other hand, was a university-educated second-generation socialist from Melbourne, and a brilliant scholar of the labour movement. He appeared undisturbed by the fact that his brother, Edgar, was a communist and secretary of the miners’ federation that had virtually destroyed the Chifley Labor government during the national coal strike in 1949. Lloyd was a member of the CPA between 1935 and 1940, when he was secretary of the Australian Railways Union, but after the CPA was banned in 1940 he quit and then rose to fame as director of public relations in the Commonwealth Department of Post-war Reconstruction.

According to his biographer, Lloyd met my parents in 1946 at a Workers Education Association study group and was instantly attracted to their coterie. But Lloyd “eschewed” a “narrowly anti-communist outlook” and evoked the name of philosopher John Stuart Mill to oppose the referendum campaign while “insisting that the ALP should not come too close to the Communist Party in the referendum campaign” and that unions “should free themselves from Communist control through their own internal processes.”

Hig’s journey to anti-communism differed again. University-educated at Melbourne and Oxford, his disenchantment with elitism led him to join the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 and later the CPA. He was a brilliant teacher of Marxism and Edna became one of his star pupils when they were members of the CPA in the late 1920s and Joy and Edna were feisty young women in the CPA’s Militant Women’s Group. Hig and Joy became an item at about the same time as Edna and Jack, and after the Higgins’ expulsion from the CPA in 1935 Hig sought refuge in the Workers’ Education Association, first in Launceston, then in Auckland and Newcastle, and during this period maintained a vital correspondence with Edna and Jack about his own journey from left opposition to anti-communism and finally to Fabianism. He returned to Sydney with Joy in 1944, joined the Labor Party and became mentor to my parents’ coterie. Like Lloyd Ross, as a university educated liberal, he had no qualms about voting “no” in the referendum.

My parents were in a different position. They were not university educated; rather, they were autodidacts and found it difficult to place themselves at an intellectual distance from the political events unfolding around them. During the second world war they had openly supported the Russian people in the defence of their country against the Nazi invasion. But by 1948, when the Soviet Union had occupied Eastern Europe and disposed of the social democratic government in Czechoslovakia, they read about Stalin’s forced labour camps in Siberia and realised that they no longer believed that the revolutionary ends justified the means. It was not a clearly held position, however. On one occasion, Jack told my sister Julia that he supported the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 on the grounds that it was a genuine revolutionary state. Nor was he prepared to publicly name CPA members. In taking this stance he differed from the well-known ex-CPA member Cecil Sharpley in Victoria.

But like Laurie Short, my father was in no doubt about the threat posed to the Labor Party by the CPA in their leadership of key trade unions, and so he readily joined in Laurie’s campaign to defeat the communists in the FIA. He now held the CPA in contempt and considered that some of its officials, such as Lance Sharkey and Ernie Thornton, were simply thugs. He was deeply angered by the communist-led miners’ strike of winter 1949 and considered that it not only provided the Liberal Party leader, Robert Menzies, with the ammunition to defeat the Chifley government in the federal election later that year but also led to the emergence of a dangerous anti-communist group in the Labor Party, the Catholic Social Studies Movement.

Caught between the excesses of the communists and the “Movement,” Jack believed that the Labor Party’s future was under threat. Four years earlier he had joined one of the industrial groups formed by the NSW branch of the Labor Party to combat communism in the unions, but he was later rejected on the grounds that he had neither publicly recanted his past beliefs nor publicly outed his former comrades. In 1951, when Menzies’s Liberal–Country Party government announced the referendum to determine whether the CPA would be banned in Australia, my father was still haunted by his Communist Party past.

This was not the case for my mother. By 1951 she was planning to become a Labor member of parliament. After her expulsion from the CPA, she had flirted with Trotskyism but become dispirited by its endless factionalism. Having nowhere to go politically, she decided instead to have another child, and my sister Julia was born in 1937. Edna had different socialist roots from Jack. While he came from a lower middle-class Catholic family in Melbourne and only became a revolutionary after he ran away from home in 1917, she grew up in a large close-knit socialist working-class family in inner Sydney and began her revolutionary activism as a schoolgirl during the 1917 General Strike. One of her older sisters was married to Billy McKay, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist group the Industrial Workers of the World, and through his influence she became an ardent opponent of conscription and of war. When she joined the CPA in 1927 at the age of twenty-two, she believed that the revolution was “just around the corner” and revelled in the opportunity to learn how to make it happen.

Unlike Jack, Hig and Lloyd Ross, Edna’s claim to fame in the CPA was based on her superb skills as an organiser of the wives of the timber workers during their long strike in 1929. In February of that year she led about fifty women into the public gallery of the Sydney Town Hall where they disrupted a closed meeting of employers and union leaders who were trying to resolve the strike. Edna yelled down at the union delegates that, rather than “fraternising with bosses, workers’ delegates should be outside helping the timber workers in their present struggle.”

Edna never lost her anti-war beliefs. She opposed the introduction of conscription in 1942 by Labor prime minister John Curtin and later told Julia that rather than engage in war work, she decided to bear another child, and I was born in 1943. She eventually joined the Labor Party in 1944, at the behest of Hig and Joy, and cut her electioneering teeth working on Jessie Street’s campaign in the federal seat of Wentworth in the 1946 election. By the late 1940s she was part of an energetic group of Labor Party women in New South Wales, including Gertrude Melville, Evelyn Barron, Nell Spencer, Eileen Powell and Edna Roper, who were preparing for parliamentary careers. But they were ahead of their time. Apart from Gertrude Melville’s appointment to the NSW Legislative Council in 1952 and Edna Roper in 1958, the Labor Party offered no other openings for women in the state parliament.

Undaunted, Edna told the Sunday Herald in 1950 that she intended to campaign for preselection on a feminist platform which included the representation of women on juries; amending the Married Women’s Property Act to give wives the legal right to the benefits of their earnings during the marriage partnership; and promoting “the equality of the sexes in industry” which was then the term for equal pay. Unlike Jack, Edna’s parliamentary aspirations do not appear to have been thwarted by her previous membership of the CPA, rather it was her gender that was in the way. It is perhaps for this reason that she reluctantly decided to oppose the referendum proposal to ban the CPA, albeit at a low-key level.

Jack was placed in a far more difficult position. Unable to shake off his CPA past, he appeared unable to adopt Hig and Lloyd Ross’s position of opposition to the proposed ban, which relied on the liberal theory of J.S. Mill. Even so, he must have been horrified by the provisions in Menzies’s legislation to outlaw the Communist Party, which placed the onus of proof on the accused. Fifteen years earlier, Joseph Stalin had invoked the same provisions to destroy his hero, Bukharin, in the Moscow Show Trials.

When I accompanied my father into the polling booth to record his vote, I was shocked to see him write “X” in each of the two voting squares rather than “2” and “1” according to Labor’s how-to-vote card. At the time I thought that he had made a genuine mistake and insisted that he seek a new ballot paper, which he did. I can attest that he filled out the squares according to the Labor card and thus recorded a ‘”no” vote. I realise now that he had intended to record an informal vote.

Hig’s wife Joy appears to have held a similar view to Jack. My sister Julia overheard her tell Edna that she had intended to vote “yes” in the referendum, but when she arrived at the polling booth, she could not bring herself to do it. In the toxic political environment of the cold war, it seems that Jack was not alone among former comrades who were not convinced that liberal democracy alone could defeat the spectre of totalitarian communism.

There is another key factor to consider in understanding my father’s dilemma about the referendum. He was not an admirer of the Labor leader, Bert Evatt, who led the “no” campaign. He not only found Evatt brusque and arrogant on a personal level but he also believed that he lacked the necessary political judgement to grapple with cold war politics. As a committed anti-communist, Jack was very annoyed when Evatt accepted the brief by the communist-controlled Waterside Workers’ Federation to contest Menzies’s legislation in the High Court to ban the Communist Party. He firmly believed that Evatt, as Labor’s deputy leader, had exposed the party to media accusations of being pro-communist. He also believed that Evatt was more interested in demonstrating his prowess as a constitutional lawyer than in fulfilling his obligations as deputy leader of the Labor Party. Even though Evatt won the case, Jack considered that Menzies had then politically outwitted him by calling a double dissolution election in April 1951 when Labor leader Ben Chifley was desperately ill. Jack blamed Evatt for the Labor Party’s poor result, which placed it at the lowest ebb since the mid-1930s.

Rather than considering the referendum campaign a gladiatorial contest between Evatt and Menzies over the big issue of civil rights, Jack considered that Evatt had fallen for Menzies’s political ploy to expose the Labor Party as a pawn of the CPA. Caught out by what he believed was Evatt’s political naivety in misunderstanding the CPA’s totalitarian agenda, it is not surprising that he decided to vote informal.

The 1951 referendum to ban the CPA exposed my parents to the contradictions of the Cold War. They did campaign for a “no” vote but with less commitment and obviously less conviction than in the previous three elections. Perhaps this is what my sister means when she says that during the campaign they were “quiet and sad.” Julia and I certainly assisted Edna in letterboxing the local area with Labor Party leaflets outlining the “no” case. But there is no evidence that she addressed street-corner meetings as she did in the double dissolution federal election held a few months earlier. Jack, as president of the Waverley Branch of the Labor Party, also appears to have chaired the last public meeting held by Dr Evatt on the Thursday evening before polling day, but there is no record that he made a speech as he had in previous election campaigns.

I can attest however, that my father did hand out Labor how-to-vote cards at the Holy Cross church hall in Adelaide Street, Bondi Junction, on referendum day, 22 September 1951, because I was there with him. Had I not accompanied him inside the polling booth, he would have recorded an informal vote. Now that I know that my parents were divided about the referendum, I am no longer puzzled that they went to bed early that night rather than waiting up to hear the result. •