A biography of Australian advocate of workers' control, Richard Curlewis.
Could an avowed anarchist be a member of the Communist Party of Australia? The life of Richard or Dick Curlewis shows that communism is not a monolithic philosophy, but has many currents: some authoritarian; others radically democratic. Richard Curlewis dedicated his life to the rights of working people and their communities, and democracy in the workplace by workers' control.
Richard Jeffries Burnham Curlewis was born on 9 November 1917, 2 days after the Russian Revolution, and spent his first few years living in the Perth Observatory. His mother was Janet Tassie. His father was Harold Burnham Curlewis, acting astronomer and meteorologist in Western Australia 1912-1920 and Government Astronomer 1920-1940. At one stage his father kept the Perth Observatory open in the face of Government opposition.
His parents separated when Richard was 4 years old and he moved with his mother and siblings to Darlington. This separation did leave quite a mark on him, as he did not see his father again until he was in his 40's, and his father was blind and in his 90's. His daughter, Megan, remembers his anxiety about his parents separating:
"He was up until recently still trying to understand how this separation happened. Although he was living in a single parent family, his mother's father was quite wealthy, and he had a reasonably middle class upbringing. I remember him telling me that he had never been aware that the Depression was happening."
After school, he was sent to Kalgoolie to study metallurgy. It was there that the people he was boarding with 'converted' him to communism, much to his family's horror. He moved to Melbourne, sometime early in the War.
Due to his poor vision, Curlewis was not able to be conscripted and worked in the munitions factory in Footscray during the war. He was a member of the Communist Party then, and stayed with the party until the bitter end, in 1990. Richard Curlewis attended Eureka Youth League events at Camp Eureka, the young communists countryside venue, where he met Joan Reynolds, whom he married in 1946. They lived in Middle Park then North Bayswater. After Joan died in 1982 Curlewis was desperately lonely, and turned his attention to politics and community activism.
Richard worked as a print proof-reader for the Herald for twenty years. He was a Secretary of the Federation of Scientific & Technical Workers which was later amalgamated into other unions, and later did archiving work at the Printing & Kindred Industry Union office in the City.
Although Curlewis was a member of the Communist Party, he read up on the development of the revolutionary syndicalist international and the origins in the "split" in the First International, and also the works of Antonio Gramsci and the council communists. He became interested in the German political economists Rudolph Hilferding and Karl Korsch.
He had first found out about Anarchism by travelling to France and Italy with his wife and saw the example of other ways to organise. He knew Jim Dawson from the Southern Advocates for Workers Councils and other locals who similarly looked beyond the Stalinist Communist Party and Trotskyist "alternatives"; to worker's control.
This focus on "worker's control" was the main driving force of Richard's interest in social movements in the community and industry for more than 40 years. To advance worker's control Richard Curlewis was involved in The Link, a rank & file metal workers network and paper. This was a small format news-sheet, which could be carried in pockets and read at work. It compiled and contrasted local economic data and reported on industrial disputes which allowed Metalworkers to compare their wages and conditions. Members of Croydon Workers Student Alliance & Secondary Students Union activists helped finance and produce the paper.
Shop stewards wrote locally of factory campaigns and an "Eastern Log Of Claims" was recognised by Metal Industry Employers. Richard Curlewis was involved in initiating a Northern (Suburbs) Link. The Metal Workers Union Officials initially encouraged stewards to write for and distribute this magazine, then banned it after an article was published critical of an official, probably Laurie Carmichael , for not respecting Croydon stewards efforts…The union officials would not tolerate an alternative centre of power.
Curlewis joined the Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation in 1989 and wrote articles for the ASF paper Rebel Worker. From 1995 Richard, together with Jeremy Dixon, were the Melbourne contacts for the post-split Anarcho-Syndicalist Network(see Rebel Worker and Accountability). After meeting with workers from the Brunswick and other Tram Depots during the work-in, occupation and lock-out in 1990, Curlewis wrote for and distributed the final series of Sparks - a rank and file transport workers paper, and was active in the Keep Conductors campaign. A pamphlet on the 1990 tram dispute by Richard Curlewis was published by the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network in Sydney. (Anarcho-syndicalism in Practice: Melbourne Tram Dispute and Lockout January-February 1990).
In May 1999 Curlewis joined the Industrial Workers of the World and spoke about Wobs he had met and heard of from the first and second wave of organising. He had a partial collection of the first series of Direct Action (published during the First World War Period) and other related material. These papers he brought along when "life member" of the IWW Pat Mackie launched his book Mt Isa, the Story of a Dispute in Melbourne in 1990.
Richard Curlewis knew and was respected by many labour movement people, which assisted in his voluntary work as an active member of the Victorian Labour History Group doing interviews as part of an ongoing oral history project. He presented a paper on the Nurses Strike of 1986 to the Labour History Group, based on interviews he did with Nurses. Richard was very impressed by the inter-union and community support for the Nurses and encouraged the makers of "Running Out Of Patients", a film on that battle. He also interviewed the Airline Pilots who struck and were locked out in 1989 by the Hawke Labor Government, and tram workers who occupied their depots in 1990.
Curlewis was involved with the Union Support Committee (along with Ted Bull from the Waterside Workers Federation and Joan Doyle from the Postal Workers) to support the Williamstown shipyard workers, the Builders Labourers and other workers in struggle. They provided a caravan and other resources as well as publicising disputes. Curlewis spoke highly of John Loh from the Builders Labourers Federation now Construction division of the CFMEU. John Loh wrote a short piece for the Workers Control conference bulletin in 1972 which Richard used to refer to.
As a community activist he was involved in:
· the Save the Upfield Line Campaign from 1989,
· the Brunswick Unemployed Group from 1991. Here he discussed & distributed his notes on privatisation and the tram dispute and argued for thinking globally about finance capital and acting locally in support groups for workers in dispute.
· Organising speakers and events such as Jim Munro on the unemployed workers movement in Brunswick at an anarchist owned resource space.
Towards the end of his active life Curlewis compiled & distributed information on the role of the IMF, World Bank, WTO on privatisation and domination of the political economy of the world at the end of the 20th Century. Just as many younger people attended the Crown Casino blockade on September 11th 2000, Richard was there in spirit and certainly followed the events closely on the radio broadcasts and asked nursing home workers & visitors many questions on this 'new' movement.
Alas Richard’s "grumpy" disposition alienated a lot of people over the years and he was so isolated at his flat in the end that he was apparently scammed by some drug addicts who befriended him to rip him off. Hopefully reader you will not end your final days in such a situation.
Curlewis did some genealogical research and found an ancestor he was very proud of: Edward Smith Hall. It could also be said that he was proudly continuing in the radical tradition of Edward Smith Hall, (1786-1860), a pioneer journalist and political reformer in early Sydney who, through his newspaper the Monitor, strongly opposed all forms of political oppression and corruption, and who was one of the earliest advocates of trial by jury, popular legislature and freedom of the press. His achievements included:
· founding the second newspaper in Australia.
· the first juror & the founder of the Benevolent Society of NSW.
· helped found the Bank of NSW (now Westpac,) & was mentioned in a recent history of the bank.
· being an activist championing the cause of the underprivileged, the aborigines and the convicts.
· a role in bringing the perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre of aboriginals to justice and bringing about the recall of Governor Darling to England.
· When the first parliament of Australia was opened, in NSW in the early 1850's, speeches were read attributing to ES Hall representative government; trial by jury and freedom of the press in Australia.
Richard was a member of the Dickens Society and enjoyed social justice literature, classical music & light opera such as Gilbert & Sullivan. Peter Riley remembers visiting Richard Curlewis during his final years of life, when he was unable to get out much:
"When he became ill I visited him at his flat in West Brunswick then in the various hospitals and finally the Brunswick Nursing Home. Often we talked about current affairs, listened to the radio, especially 3CR or the news on Radio National. Newspapers, magazines and books were also read with and later aloud to him when he lost his sight. When he became tired I usually put on some classical music for him and left him to sleep. In the last weeks he was too tired to be read to preferring to sleep.."
Richard Jeffries Burnham Curlewis died on Saturday March 16th 2002 at the Brunswick Nursing Home in West Brunswick. He is survived by son David and daughter Megan, and grandsons, Jim, Julian and Richard, and fondly remembered by many comrades.