Sheila Fitzpatrick

Ya ya ya, your father’s a Communist! The girls at my school in Melbourne in the late 1940s liked to taunt the oddballs in their midst; other targets were orphans (Ya ya ya, your father died in the war!) and Jews. My father was not in fact a Communist, he was an independent, a maverick who ran the Australian Council for Civil Liberties as a front organisation for himself, I thought, though others said for the Communists. It might have been easier for us if he had been a Party member, since that would have provided ready-made comrades and perhaps even an income, which in my father’s unemployed state was notably lacking. I asked him early on (though without getting a serious answer) why we didn’t move to Russia, if, as he seemed to think, things were better there.

My father described himself as a socialist, but I could never find out exactly what socialism meant. On the basis of my school experience, not to mention my experience at home, the idea that people could live happily and co-operatively together under socialism, or under any circumstances, seemed absurd: people either enjoyed causing each other pain, as at school, or couldn’t help it, as at home. Still, for all my scepticism about socialism, I felt bound to join the struggle, if only to preserve personal honour, so I challenged my tormenters to serial single combat at playtime in a distant corner of the hockey field. I was small so I probably lost, though this is not part of the memory. It was hard to decide just what I was fighting for. According to my father’s rules, there was no shame in being a Communist, though he happened not to be. What was shameful was to deny being a Communist, even if you weren’t one, in order to get off the hook. This, at any rate, was my deduction from our Australian equivalent of the McCarthy hearings, the Royal Commission on Espionage of 1954, at which my father naturally testified. But at school, denial wouldn’t have got you off the hook anyway.

As well as being a socialist, my father was a democrat, an allegiance he proclaimed in the title of his newsletter, the Australian Democrat. But he warned me early on about democracy. ‘The majority is always wrong’ was one of his maxims for a growing child; and I could see that it must be true, as we were always in the minority. Unless we were wrong ourselves, of course. This was a possibility my father alerted me to with another of his sayings: ‘Daddy is always right, except when he is wrong.’ My father was a witty man, especially when sober, a skilled writer of satirical light verse, and a raconteur, whose stories I would sometimes spoil as a child by asking, after the punchline: ‘And then what happened?’ I thought of him as a Shavian iconoclast and was surprised, when I went to university, to hear him described as a Marxist. The red-bound volumes of Shaw’s Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant, with their breezy polemical introductions, were great favourites of his and mine, along with The Way of All Flesh and other satirical classics; we were also very fond of G.K. Chesterton. Lenin’s Works, bound in orange, were on our shelves, chosen by my father as a university prize to cock a snook at the prize committee, but I never saw him consult them.

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