Growing-up in a ‘Cold War’ communist family: Class Crimes, Law and Lore
Nick: Part 1 of 5
As we noted in our first post, we began this project to share stories from back in the day about our experiences in informal, criminal, and black economies, and to ask what we can learn about class, class struggle and class composition from these stories. After publishing the interview with Mark, we now turn to the interview with Nick.
This interview will also be posted in 5 sections, themed broadly as follows:
1 Growing-up in a ‘Cold War’ communist family: Class Crimes, Law and Lore
2 Being a communist: Unemployment, Poverty, and Crime
3 ‘For the Cause’: Unionism, Crime, and Work Refusal
4 Class Crimes, Power, Poverty, and Violence
5 Class Cultures, Moralities, and the Social Relations of Crime
Mark: As we prepared for this interview and writing project, you mentioned that your upbringing influenced and impacted the way you thought about crime and the way you thought about poverty and policing. So, what was it about your upbringing that you wanted to share and how did it impact the way you thought about crime, poverty, and policing?
Nick: I was listening to and thinking about the interview with you and that made me do my own trip down memory lane and reflect on how our lives growing-up were very different. I came from what would be considered a comfortable ‘middle-class’ family. But not a traditional middle-class family, in the sense that my parents were communists. My mum and dad had both grown-up in poverty, their parents had experienced even deeper poverty, long term poverty, in what were considered to be traditionally poor working class areas of Britain. So, they had that sort of heritage and upbringing, and I was connected to it through my grandparents and my parents. And, because my mum, dad, and grandmother were communists, they viewed poverty, crime, and policing in different ways to mainstream views. Their perspectives informed how I viewed the world and they tended to focus on the crimes of the rich and powerful. Those are the crimes they were concerned about and considered to be the worst and most important crimes and they tended to view pretty much everything the rich and powerful did as criminal and viewed a lot of what workers and poor people did, that were considered crimes, as not criminal.
I grew up with that understanding and from an early age a fairly clear distinction was made between what we might be able to consider bourgeois capitalist crimes and bourgeois capitalist law, reflecting the idea that we're being robbed by them, they’re swindling us, they’re attacking us, the bosses, governments, banks, etc., the idea that there’s ‘one law for them and then another one for us’, that the rich are actually committing most of the crimes, yet they don't pay for those crimes, they don't go to prison, their crimes are often why they are considered to be successful, and so forth. Then a communist or proletarian understanding of crime and lore rather than law, so class cultures, traditions, morals, and understandings of crime in different ways. This involved questions about what does the class consider crimes, which is obviously a complex concern, and what do we think is just, what is our lore?
So, if actions are about redistributing wealth and power, if they’re in favour of the class, then that's not considered a crime, that's part of our struggle. These understandings, that this is all about class struggle and our struggles for communism, for democracy, for peace, for love, for freedom, that those struggles which seek to disrupt or overthrow the social order, capitalism, for us is just, but for the powerful, for the system, for capital, they're crimes. That's how I grew up and while that’s traditional for communists, for communist families, it’s not traditional for people in general. Although, because I grew up in northern England, which was quite a militant labour movement influenced part of the world, anti-capitalist movements, radical social movements, those types of social struggles were quite powerful there, then this lore wasn't divorced from the culture of the place, it was part of the culture. But among many of my childhood friends and a lot of people I was around it was quite a different way of viewing the world.
I was born in a hospital that used to be a workhouse, an important place in the history of Walsall, a poor working class satellite town of Birmingham. The workhouse was a prison and a place of torture for punishing people who were considered undeserving poor. Combined with various ‘poor laws’ the idea was that the workhouse would force poor people to work harder for capital, to not disrupt, resist, or reject capital, to be compliant and eager labour power. The former workhouse was where my grandmother worked as an orderly and considering her poverty background she thought it was a decent job. But really it was hard work for which she didn't get much pay. Meanwhile, her own mother, my mother's grandmother, remained terrified of the workhouse and used to get my mum to promise her that she would never let them take her there, even though it was now a hospital. She and many other old locals remained scared of the workhouse and its discipline still permeated my family, with the fear that you could be imprisoned and severely punished for being poor remaining powerful.
I grew up in post-war England, a place that was saturated with the impacts of World War Two. The major modern historical events of the place and many experiences of the present tended to pivot around war and the fight against fascism. The second world war had also changed the lives of all my family. Both of my grandfathers went off to fight, war robbed them of what should have been the best years of their life, and they came back traumatised and broken in many ways. The war also traumatised and scarred both of my grandmothers, one of whom committed suicide not long afterwards. My other grandmother had to look after my Grandad when he came back damaged. My father was haunted by the bombing raids on Birmingham, where he lived as a child.
While I was growing up, everything seemed to be centred on the heritages of the war, fighting fascism, the damages of war, the damage done to working class people and communities. But there was also a common understanding that that's what you fought against, you fought against fascism, that's what you should be willing to sacrifice for, that's what you should be willing to die for. So, when I would play in the woods on my own, I would often be playing fighting fascism. I’d dress up in an army uniform, get my plastic gun, practice and mentally prepare myself for fighting fascists. I was also part of the cub scouts where, again, we wore a khaki uniform and even though it wasn't overt a lot of the stuff we did, the training we did, was preparing us as a civil defence force, in the shadow of World War Two and the need to defend England from invasion.
My first trip overseas as a child, that I can remember, was to East Germany and while I was there it felt to me like the war wasn’t over. There were lots of troops around, there were supersonic jets overhead, breaking the sound barrier, ‘boom’ ‘boom’, military checkpoints in Berlin, and this had a big impact on me, because I was already being prepared for a world where the war wasn’t over, because of the Cold War, which was widely thought of as a world war against communism. But also, the idea that the enemy we had fought before was Germany and fascism. So, when I went to Germany and experienced what I saw there, I really got this sense that it could all kick-off again, at any time, because elsewhere in the world it was more tense and more militarised than in England.
Yet, this was also a time in England when you had to be very careful about leaving your bag on the bus and they'd be mesh in restaurant windows just in case the IRA carried out bombing attacks, and there were regular bomb threats during public events, so you did get the sense that England was still at war, just low intensity conflict rather than high intensity conflict. So, that had an impact on me as well and while this might not seem to be connected to policing, it coloured the way I thought about policing, as not just what police do, but as also involving troops. The way I learned about fascism and the Holocaust, the concentration camps and death camps, was that ‘first they came for the communists’ and ‘they’ could be troops, the police, the SS, or the military police, it was a policing function that targeted certain people, the sort of people that I was closest to and loved the most, communists.
Similarly, I remember playing games like ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and being conscious of the fact that my family and some of my other influences saw ‘the Indians’ as the goodies and the Cowboys as the baddies. The Cowboys stole the land, they massacred people, so when I played, I always wanted to be an ‘Indian’, where-as my friends wanted to be the Cowboys because they always won. So, I grew up in a different culture to a lot of people and the media, the music, and the morality tales that were popular among the people I was closest to while growing-up were things like Robin Hood, although he was generally popular as well, but there was a romanticisation and championing of similar class heroes within my family. We would go to visit the grave of Little John who was in Robin’s gang and I remember seeing the film ‘Oliver’ and being struck by the fact that our favourite people in the story were the pickpockets, the poor kids who were stealing off the rich. Or the music that I was listening to, so this is during the 1960s and the family were playing a lot of Pete Seeger records, who's singing about the policing of protests, he’s singing about political prisoners, about state murders, the attacks on native Americans, on black people fighting for their civil rights, about conflicts around the world, and this was closely connected to the struggles my parents were involved in, campaigns around people like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, where, again, we saw them as heroes. Whereas, at the time, they were wanted criminals and were generally portrayed and seen in a bad light.
We were also going to a lot of demos and political events that were often heavily policed. Here I got to see the police as an enemy, to experience the police as an enemy. As this was during the 1960s, the main focus of my parents, the people around them, the rest of my family, my uncle, my grandmother, and many other people of course, was the war in Vietnam. So, another reason war is so important to the way I think about crime is because that's the sort of stuff that hit me so hard when I was a child, seeing war atrocity photos and films. For example, my parents would take me along when they went to film nights about the war and there would be films featuring the atrocities American troops were committing against the Vietnamese people. Which meant when I was pretty young I learned that people in uniforms with guns would go into villages and they would torture people and they would murder people, including children, and this was obviously quite shocking to me. I actually got to see some of it, not just hear about it.
So, from an early age I connected what they were doing in Vietnam to the situation I was in. I’d hear on the news and elsewhere people talking about the Vietnam War as a war against communism, against communists, and what they were hunting for in those Vietnamese villages was communists and I knew people who were communists, and that that's what they were coming to get, hit me hard. For all these reasons, from an early age, I never felt safe. I sensed that you never knew when those with uniforms and guns, or truncheons and vans, were going to come and take people away, torture, or kill them. It was unclear to me when or how that might happen to us.
I experienced a great deal of policing of crowds, at the football every few weeks which fairly often involved violent clashes, but most importantly at demos. I remember the 1968 anti-war demo we went to in London where the police attacked and ran into the crowds beating people with truncheons. I remember my uncle’s stories of police violence against pickets, with people being seriously hurt, thrown through plate glass windows by the cops, and stuff like that. So, that sense that those people with power, the police, the military, could attack at any time and were vicious and violent and sometimes killed people, coloured my view of the world, my view of policing and made me consider what is a crime, what is criminal?
Then I suppose one of the key things that impacted me when I got a bit older, after we came to live in Wollongong, so during my early teens, was the fascist coup in Chile in 1974. Again, we went to meetings about what was happening there, we’d see films and hear speakers and reports and discussions about the roundups and the tortures and the murders. I got to meet people who had been tortured and I vividly remember meeting someone who had had their fingernails pulled out. Talking to them and finding out what had gone on, what was happening, also had a significant impact on me.
Then I remember in 1977 we went together as a family to Malaysia, and it was the first time I'd been in an Asian jungle like the ones I used to see in the Vietnam war images. So, it was already giving me flashbacks, triggering those traumatic memories, and while we were driving through the jungle in a taxi we were stopped by heavily armed US and Malay troops on patrol and that really kicked me off. When we were stopped and they were pointing their machine guns at us, the taxi driver turned round and tried to reassure us that despite the obvious tension it was okay because they were only looking for communists. This powerfully reminded me that all of that stuff was still there, and it brought it all back. So, when in your interview you were recounting your past, afterwards I was thinking about how these things stay with you and how our views of the world are impacted by how we experience crimes and policing, what we understand as crimes and policing, and how powerful that can be. Those are some of the things that came to mind, and I thought it would help to explain how and why I have developed certain perspectives on policing and crime and done some of the things I have done related to poverty.
Mark: You mentioned coming to Wollongong, so I thought maybe next we can check-in about how you moved here at a pretty significant time in your own life, in terms of your own biography, your age, and connections that you had to different places. You also arrived here not long before the area was hit by a series of political and economic crises and upheavals. So, can you speak about what Wollongong was like when you arrived, both for yourself and how you found the city itself.
Nick: Well, it was a bit of a shock. It was very different from Sheffield, where I came from, in many ways. However, the three main industries that our lives in both cities tended to revolve around were the same. We came to Wollongong because my father got a job at the newly created University of Wollongong after working at Sheffield University. It wasn't a big important university, but for Wollongong it was a significant development and quite a change for the city, which had been, and still was, dominated by the steel and coal industries, just like Sheffield was. But because of Wollongong's geography these industries were more obvious than in Sheffield, where different sections of the city were out of site from other sections. Whereas here in The Gong there was no getting away from it, the steelworks and coal were in your face all the time, the steelworks was a huge presence on the landscape and the pollution was a lot worse than it is now, you could smell it, you could taste it, you could see it, and coal trucks were all over the roads and there was coal dust everywhere 'cause the trucks weren't well-covered. So, it was a coal and steel town, with around 25,000 people working at the steelworks and more people in associated industries. While the coal mines had thousands of workers working there.
Something else that was also similar to Sheffield and was important for my family and myself was the union and labour movements here, which were powerful and militant and constantly involved in struggles with the main employer, BHP, which owned the steelworks and many of the pits. Who ran the place was contested. BHP was incredibly powerful but not beyond the labour movement exerting a great deal of class power, so that was really important. The centrality of the steel and coal industries meant that Wollongong was focused on blue collar male work. There were very few women in the steel industry and no women in the mines. However, the union movement and other areas of work, like the clothing factories, involved women’s struggles and the labour and the social movements, we're talking about the movements of the early 1970s and those coming out of the 1960s, so various social movements, were also important, like the women's movement, the peace movement and a range of other movements.
The local MPs were mostly from the left of the Labor Party and those MPs supported the Labor Party’s ‘socialist objective’, whatever we might think of that, and then there was the Communist Party, which my parents joined soon after arriving here. I've explained elsewhere that the Party became like a family for us, since we'd left our extended family behind when we moved to the other side of the world. There was over one hundred local Party members, which made it a significant district for the CPA. There were a lot of trade union officials, the secretary of the South Coast Labour Council the area’s peak union body, some of the most influential people in the social movements, aged care, women's, indigenous, peace, environmental, pensioner movements, were Party members. A whole range of different groups and people from different backgrounds were involved in the CPA, so the Party was, again, very important to us, and to the city.
Then, as you said, during the latter part of the 1970s we saw the emergence of what became known as neoliberalism and a set of ideas and practices that accompanied growing economic crisis. How that crisis manifested in Wollongong was initially they ‘closed the books’ at the steelworks and the pits, so they were no longer taking-on new employees, which had been where most young men would go after they left school. Once the books were closed, youth unemployment went up. There were also closures of clothing factories and then towards the latter part of the 70s we started to see mass sackings and these would intensify in the steel and coal industries in the early 80s. Unemployment started to rise dramatically and with it poverty and related social issues. At the same time, we had what is commonly called ‘the crisis of the welfare state’. We had a restructuring of welfare, we had cuts in welfare, the so-called ‘safety net’ was shrinking and more people were taking a double hit of losing waged work and having less support when they were without waged work.
So, Wollongong was increasingly and rapidly being restructured and, importantly, part of that was a decomposition of the class. So, what were traditionally the strongholds of class struggle, the bases of class power, were being destabilised, were being undermined, there was a targeting of militant workers and union delegates at the pits and the steelworks as part of the sackings process. Along with this there was an ideological push to accept these losses, to compromise with the bosses, and even to embrace defeat in the interests of increasing corporate profitability for economic growth. But, at the same time, there was also a recomposition of the class under these new circumstances. The class couldn’t struggle on the same basis as the past, due to the restructuring by capital, but as that was happening there were new bases on which to fight. With growing mass unemployment and the continuing threats of losing more jobs, there was a commonality of facing joblessness which the class could recognise as a common concern and something people needed to struggle around.
So, because the class was still powerful in this region, due the legacies and ongoing practices of militant struggle, we saw this once again manifested in many ways. We saw mass meetings of steelworkers and miners, including joint meetings of these workers, we saw mass protests, the Kemira sit-in strike, the storming of Federal Parliament by local workers, the Right to Work March from Wollongong to Sydney, all these amazing things happening, all of this important class struggle, and growing solidarity between those with jobs, those who were facing losing them, and those without them. Then the increasing organisation of unemployed people as an important element in ongoing class struggles, acting in their own collective interests, receiving solidarity from those with jobs, and offering solidarity in return to defend workers jobs, wages, and conditions. So, it was a really interesting and important time.
Mark: I remember, as an anecdote, in the ‘Jobs for Women’ campaign documentary and they’re speaking to the women involved in that campaign, and an eastern European woman was asked how she found Wollongong when she arrived here and she said ‘It’s really poor and the houses are cold’, these sort of things. Having described Sheffield and England as you did, just in terms of the aesthetic of Wollongong, did you have a similar sense of what the wealth of the city was like, did you find that as well? Or was it consistent with where you’d come from?
Nick: My parents were in the Communist Party of Great Britain, so even though our family was financially comfortable in England, we spent a lot of time with poorer people. I had friends who were poor, my grandparents lived on a crappy housing estate in a poor area, and so we spent quite a bit of time with poor people. So, my sense, when we came to Wollongong, and certainly my family became richer by coming here, my sense of the situation for workers here was that people were poorer in Sheffield, that workers here had a better standard of living. Afterall, that’s why many people from England had moved to Wollongong.
The fact is that workers in Wollongong had higher wages and better conditions than most Australian workers at that time due to the power of the class here. None-the-less, there was still a lot of poverty and I became friends with schoolmates who came from single parent and jobless homes. So, it’s hard to tell. Yet, there was a lot of poverty in England and when we left the country it was still reeling from a major crisis which involved a ‘Three-Day Work Order’ and a range of austerity measures. Throughout that winter, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off work and many others had to work in unheated factories and offices. And when we went back to the U.K. in 1977 for a visit, economic crisis was more advanced there than it was here.
Mark: So how did you find yourself in conditions of unemployment and poverty and how common was unemployment and poverty for your friends and other youth at that time?
Nick: Officially, I was at school until I was almost 16, but I didn't really spend much of my last year at school. I was sick of it and didn't want to go, but also I was going through a mental breakdown, which was connected to being sick of school and continually fighting with my school. I'd rejected school and what I wanted to do was leave to become a revolutionary. So, I stopped going to school, first of all just wagging it, and then when I officially left school I immediately went to work for the Communist Party. I was allowed to join the Party when I turned 16, which was pretty young, but I was already involved in Party activities. I wanted to be an organiser for the Party. I remember the school had sent me to a careers guidance counsellor and they asked ‘what do you want to do?’ and I told them ‘I want to be a revolutionary’ and they said ‘well nobody's going to pay you to do that’ to which I replied ‘yeah, I know’ and the interview didn't get very far after that. But I did need money as I was getting more and more estranged from my family, and they weren't happy, especially my father, to support me. My dad wanted me to go to university and wasn't willing to support my decision to leave school and become unemployed.
So, I needed to go on the dole, which you could do back then when you were 16, so that was good, and get thirty six bucks a week. However, the problem with going on the dole was that, even though there wasn't the sort of ‘activities test’ there is now, there was a ‘work test’ and they did put pressure on you to look for work and I didn't want to look for work and I didn't have time to piss-about with whatever bullshit they wanted to come up with as part of the ‘work test’. They had training schemes and all sorts of rubbish ‘make work’ and policing processes. Not as sophisticated as today, but I still needed to avoid that. Luckily the social worker at the Social Security department was in the Communist Party and I would go to see her, and she would tell the department to leave me alone 'cause I was having mental health problems or whatever. So, they left me alone, which was fantastic, because she knew that I was busy working for the Party.
I was also able to do that work because I had a lot of support from my partners and I had a lot of friends and we supported each other, tried to live fairly communally, and then there was the Party comrades who were always trying to look after me, and my family were not totally unsupportive. While I was working for the Party and at other times, I did some cash in hand work in different ways. Obviously, for others who were unemployed, and more and more of my friends and young people in general were unemployed and living in poverty, it was more difficult. It was during these times that I became involved in making more connections with people involved in the black economy and people engaged in various crimes.
The next post will continue on the theme of ‘Being a communist: Unemployment, Poverty, and Crime’