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The Guardian 4 February, 2009
Celebration of a life
dedicated to peace and socialism
"As a life-long fighter for Koori rights in this country we recognise our friends very early. Peter was a friend of Aboriginal people from very early in his political life," said Redfern Koori activist Jenny Munro in her Welcome to Country at a celebration of the life and work of Peter Symon at the Cyprus Community Club in Stanmore, Sydney on January 25. Peter Symon was a life-long fighter in many struggles and the friend of many people and struggles in Australia and around the world.
Close to 300 people gathered to pay tribute the late Peter Symon. The range of speakers and the breadth of movements that were represented at the commemoration gave testimony to his dedication and commitment to making a better world. Peter held a Party card for 70 years and was General Secretary of a Communist Party for 37 years until his death on December 18, 2008.
"Peter supported the campaigns that fought for the recognition of the special rights of our people in our own land," Jenny told the gathering. "What I can give you today as a proud Wiradjuri woman from this soil without fear or favour is that your husband, your brother, your father, your son Peter, in the many manifestations he had in his contact with you, will rest easy in my country for ever.
"Eternity is a long time and the fruits of your labour in life give you peace or give you nightmares for eternity. You can know with conviction that Peter lived his life well and honestly for our people. It is all about country and connection to country and where you come from is what you are.
"To have the convictions this man had I cannot tell you how much I want to honour him. Because of this conviction … he rests peacefully, he’s done his job, his time came and he knew his work was complete and he knew that.
"If all of you in all your struggles around the world could understand what he understood … and what my people have suffered for 220 years on our own land, you understand the depth of his commitment and his life.
"A teacher for all, he will rest in peace," Jenny concluded.
After Welcome to Country, members of Peter’s family who had travelled from Adelaide for the celebration were invited to speak. Brian Symon and Jenny Elwin spoke of their father’s family life, his political commitment and how the family often had to come second. They also pointed to some of the benefits and traits they had picked up from their father:
"Peter continues to get me into trouble. The stories at home are: ‘Don’t you do anything but work’, or on holidays, ‘Why are you doing e-mails?’. For those of you who know and worked with him you know where these things have their origins," Brian said. "We as children were always encouraged to try, to strive, to succeed ... We were taught the pleasure of work, the honour of work and I’m grateful to this day that I feel totally comfortable following Peter’s example….
"Peter taught an unstated but an unambiguous humanity and I am a medical practitioner and I’m totally confident that the quality of my care has been improved by the sort of humanity that Peter demonstrated, that he espoused," Brian said.
Peter’s former wife and mother of Brian and Jenny, spoke of the early years they had together after the Second World War: "They were difficult years. Peter came back still carrying a burden of the illegal period when their home was raided twice and all the things that were suffered in those times. And then of course the Cold War, the struggles on the waterfront which made life very hard, in a way, but we knew we were doing the right thing and that was our joy."
Becoming a communist
"Peter lived and breathed the class struggle, never wavering, never swerving from his commitment or activity for peace and socialism. That was his life. What makes such a man, such a comrade? What sustains such commitment and dedication?" asked Anna Pha, a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and editor of The Guardian for 19 years. In striving to answer those questions Anna said:
"Peter joined the Communist Party at the age of 16, a decision he reached through his own experiences, his reading and thinking. He did not join because his father was a member. His family upbringing, his father’s experiences of the First World War and the impact of the Depression, all contributed to Peter’s social outlook and politicisation, but the defining issue that saw Peter join the Australian Communist Party was the Spanish Civil War. It was the first international, anti-fascist action. Communist parties around the world rallied to support the democratic forces defending the Republic," Anna said.
"His socialist outlook was further consolidated by his personal experiences during the Second World War, when he served in the Army and later in the Air Force. Australia and the Soviet Union were allies, their soldiers fighting together against fascism. This is when Peter’s love for the Soviet Union developed, as he recognised the tremendous sacrifices and courage of its people and the critical role this developing socialist nation played in the defeat of Nazi Germany."
Peter described the counter-revolutionary processes in the Soviet Union (and its break-up) and in Eastern Europe as "set-backs", not as the defeat of socialism. "The people actually wanted a ‘better socialism’," he said. "There was no popular uprising against socialism…."
"His global perspective and application of Marxism-Leninism gave him a positive outlook and confidence in the future. The most recent developments in China, Vietnam, Cuba and Latin America confirmed his optimism and confidence in the people to build a humane future without wars that meet the needs of all — socialism."
Rex Munn, President of the Maritime Union of Australia Veterans Association, Port Adelaide, worked on the waterfront with Peter for almost 20 years: "It’s difficult to speak of Peter’s important role in Port Adelaide without including Jim (Mitchell) as the development of the Port Adelaide branch [of the Communist Party] revolved around both of them — it was truly a collective and Peter would not have me say otherwise.
"The branch grew to over 30 comrades and raised sufficient money to pay for one full-time functionary each week (not that they were overpaid). The Port Branch was a very active branch and was regularly involved in community activities; every weekend there would be canvasses for [the Party’s newspaper] the Tribune, collecting signatures for Ban the Bomb petitions as well as local current events...
"Peter launched Wharfie and we all contributed, leading to the setting up of the Job Delegates Association. That met monthly and brought such issues as asbestos to the attention of the Branch and from there to the Federal Council...
"I know past history can be boring to some but I would like to tell you about some of our ‘illegal’ activities… When the US were threatening to use atomic weapons in their various theatres of interest a ‘Ban the Bomb’ slogan was adopted by the left-wing movement and it gained world wide support.
"Peter joined us one night when we painted Ban the Bomb on the two sections of the Birkenhead Bridge so that when the bridge was opened up for shipping the sign was there in all its glory for everyone to see. The communists of the wharf branch got the blame and the credit — Peter did not however, approve of our next escapade..." This was the painting of a six-foot (almost two metres) Ban the Bomb sign on the sea-side of an Australian warship.
Central Committee member Steve Mavrantonis knew Peter well through his earlier years as a party functionary and Peter’s interest in the Greek community. He described Peter as an excellent dialectician with a deep knowledge and grasp of Marxist theory and as a great teacher who did not impose his opinions.
"One of Comrade Peter’s notable features was that he believed deeply that without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. He believed passionately in this principle. However theory for him was not something abstract, detached from real life and everyday struggles of the working class movement.
"Revolutionary theory for Peter was the sum-total of practical experience of the movement in a given situation, analysed thoroughly, compared carefully with similar situations, referred to in the works of the classics of the revolutionary movement, generalised as a result of this analysis, turned into a mighty guide for action and a solution to problems associated with the development of the workers’ movement and its direction and purpose," Steve noted.
"He always insisted that the party adopt a scientific approach to all questions. However, he never tried to impose his view on others. He would rather have the scientific approach come as a result of open, unrestricted discussion and agreement."
Fighter for peace
"Peter was committed to the struggle against war and for peace on every level from the ideological to the personal. He knew the price that working people pay in war and he knew that war and capitalism are interconnected," said Denis Doherty, Convenor of the CPA Central Committee Peace and Democratic Rights Committee.
"Our 2005 Congress resolution, which Comrade Peter drafted, puts it this way: ‘Wars waged for economic control by imperialism have caused untold suffering and cost exorbitant amounts of money which are met by the working people of the aggressor states and victims of aggression. An estimated US$1 trillion is spent every year globally on weapons. Australia, in 2005 is spending over $60 million every day on the military’.
"Peter encouraged Party members to build alliances and coalitions to create the most powerful opposition to war and promotion of peace. Peter encouraged Party members to focus on reducing Australia’s military spending and opposing Australian involvement in aggression.
"Peter promoted and encouraged Party support for many solidarity campaigns. One important one was support for socialist Cuba, to end the blockade and free the Cuban Five.
"I witnessed the special place in Peter’s heart that the struggle of Bougainville had," Denis said.
"Peter with his keen analysis and quiet encouragement needs to be recognised for the great contribution he made to the peace and social justice community of Australia."
There were tributes from representatives of local organisations and solidarity groups of overseas communist parties who paid tribute to the solidarity that he and the CPA have given their struggles over the years.
Kassim Abood, Secretary of the Australian Branch, Communist Party of Iraq, speaking on behalf of the Communist Party of Iraq and the Kurdistan Communist Party said: "As Iraqi communists we have lost an outstanding communist leader who dedicated his life to the cause of the working class, social progress and socialism in Australia and the whole world. We will remember with pride his stance in support and solidarity with our Iraqi people and the Iraqi Communist Party and democrats against dictatorship, war, occupation, and for freedom, peace and democracy."
Abdul Hijazi, Secretary of the Sydney Branch Communist Party of Lebanon spoke of when he visited the old CPA headquarters in the 1990: "I climbed a flight of stairs to meet him at his office. I was struck at first by a huge statue of Vladimir Illyich Lenin guarding the door to Peter’s office. This at the time when in the name of Gorbachev and perestroika, Lenin was under attack by his enemies and his statues being brought down in his homeland, but not in Campbell Street, Surry Hills.
"He was the man who stood for human rights and the working class, supporter of the freedom fighter, the man who was a close friend of Palestine.... We, the children of the Middle East, of Palestine, will miss you Peter, so much. Those days that criminal Zionists could not face the resistance in Gaza, they are cowardly killing the children and their mothers in Gaza, they are killing the elderly to destroy the memory of the unjust stolen land…. The people in Gaza are not terrorists. They are like in any other city in Palestine — fighters for liberation, for identity, for an independent Palestinian state with the capital in Jerusalem.
"We should support them."
David Shah from the Communist Party of Iran, another country that has experienced war and dictatorships: "Losing a great comrade like Peter can be called a tragic event. We have lost hundreds of our comrades and even some of our Central Committee members under torture or by execution …. We understand what you feel and we believe that losing a comrade can be a disaster. But communism does not die because we draw life from the ideas we believe in."
Eduardo Figueroa from the Communist Party of Chile also paid a tribute to Peter and praised his support in the struggle of Chilean people against the Pinochet dictatorship. "Peter is not easy to emulate, we cannot be like him but we can today take his example and make our work better for the Party".
Through the "Tough times"
Lee Rhiannon is a Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council and well known activist who knew Peter for many years.
"Peter dedicated his life to making the world a fairer, more peaceful and more just society. His work as a wharfie and later as the leader of the Socialist Party of Australia and the Communist Party of Australia involved Peter in many critical struggles of our times; campaigns to improve wages and on-the-job conditions for working people and bringing an end to the South African apartheid era, support for movements around the world struggling against colonial powers, and for an end to the arms race.
"Since the end of the Second World War and through the Cold War decades and beyond it was not easy for left and socialist parties in Australia, particularly not easy for full-time communist party workers. The break up of the Soviet Union, internal left divisions and the onslaught of neo-liberalism was a lot to contend with. But Peter met each of these new challenges.
"Peter is one of those comrades whose public activities for social justice in the 1940s and 1950s saw him labelled as ‘a known communist’... It was a term from the Menzies era to blacklist people from finding work and generally create divisions and antagonisms in communities. These were tough times when the authorities attempted to isolate people who stood up for the courage of their convictions. The legacy of these times and these comrades is immense. Peter is one of the people in this country who has kept the flame of the economic and social justice and the flame of peace and socialism alive."
Peter always had time to discuss politics, as NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union Secretary Simon Flynn testified in a personal contribution. "I first met Peter when I was looking for some political advice. I have been actively involved in protests, rallies and activism around Sydney and Australia.... I went around to offices of the Communist Party in Surry Hills and who should answer the door but Peter Symon. I did not know who Peter Symon was at the time. I asked him if there was anybody I could have a chat with.
"From that point my relationship with Peter Symon absolutely blossomed. Right up until two days ago I had no idea how important and profound and strategic character Peter Symon was until I read the back cover of the latest edition of The Guardian [January 21, 2009].
"He is really a stand-out character in Australian left politics. Peter would come around to my house every Sunday morning, sit down and talk politics. I was absolutely stunned by the depth and breadth of the intellect that Peter Symon had. Peter convinced me that what was going on with WorkChoices and the John Howard-Bush assault on working people was so serious and so dramatic.
"I was aware that Peter was engaged with the Communist Party but it was only after a while that it occurred to me that he was the General Secretary.
"I know that with Peter’s passing it is not the end ... I know that the people Peter touched — the people that Peter smiled at — and he had a beautiful smile — are deeply affected and way back deep in their minds is ticking over a little of dialectical analysis that one day, in the right circumstances and with the right contribution from other people, will result in the resurgence and re-growth of the broad left in Australia."
It was befitting that the final tribute of the day was on the theme of unity in action: "I am sure that you have all heard people complaining about divisions in the movement and calling for unity. Everyone wants unity — but it is very difficult to achieve," said CPA President Dr Hannah Middleton.
"In this area, as in so many others, Comrade Peter, our General Secretary, turned his powerful intellect and his dialectical materialist approach to help us understand why unity is important, what forms it can take, and the principles which can help us build and sustain it. Unity is indispensable.
"If the power of vested interests which lie behind the injustice and inequality in our society is to be challenged and eventually defeated, an alternative political force which commands substantial public support must be created, a force which can mobilise thousands and tens of thousands of workers and members of oppressed and marginalised social groups," Hannah said.
"Comrade Peter wrote and spoke a great deal about this task of uniting all the left and progressive organisations and individuals committed to a new direction for Australia, about the need to create a coalition strong enough to challenge the big business controllers of economic and political power."
Hannah spoke of the need to link the many separate campaigns "into a broad democratic and powerful coalition with agreed policies. This will require left and progressive parties, trade unions, community groups, people’s organisations and progressive individuals to co-operate to achieve their common program, working together consistently over a long period of time."
Hannah outlined principles for the basis of such unity that had been developed by Peter Symon. Peter wrote a pamphlet on this question in which he laid out the principles on which unity should and can be built and some of the CPA’s recent work in this area. The CPA has joined with other communist organisations to establish the Communist Alliance, a registered electoral alliance which will stand candidates in Federal elections in different parts of Australia.
"And to commemorate Comrade Peter Symon we must also promise that we will work harder for his vision — for the rights of working men and women, for the oppressed and the suffering, for peace, democracy, justice and for socialism."
The success of the commemoration was added to by a number of live musical items from Greek, Kurdish, Latin American and Philippine musicians and singers and a conclusion to formalities with Rex Munn, in fine voice, leading the singing of the Internationale.
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