An interview between Takver and Jack Grancharoff, a Bulgarian anarchist who fled Stalinist repression and moved to Australia, talking about being an activist in Australia in the 1950s.
Jack Grancharoff emigrated to Australia after fleeing Stalinist repression in his native Bulgaria. After a period of rural isolation he began to make contact with a broad range of radicals, bohemians and immigrants along the east coast of Australia. As a newcomer and relative outsider he was able to transcend the boundaries that kept so many others isolated from each other. For many years he was associated with the Sydney Libertarian Push who dubbed him "Jack the Anarchist". Always eager to air his views and engage in debate he has been a life long public speaker and published Black and Red magazine for over 30 years. In the following interview he discusses his experiences of Australia in the 1950s.
How did you come to Australia?
It was a real fluke. I had no intention to emigrate to Australia. I turned to anarchism while a member of the Agrarian Party. As a member of the latter I participated in the Popular Front Government representing the youth section of the Party. As an antifascist I closely collaborated with the communists during the war but deep down I harboured certain suspicions of communism and never officially joined the Communist Party. Nonetheless, I was invited to the founding meeting of the Communist Youth organisation. I did not attend. I was reproved in the strongest possible language but to no avail. I wanted to wait and see the course of events.
Not long after that I went to a debating meeting between the Agrarian Party and the Communist Party. The representative of the Agrarian Party, a shepherd by profession, impressed me a lot. His arguments were those of the Social Revolutionaries: land to the peasants and factories to the workers. Not that the communists had not used these slogans but for them it was expediency. I was shocked to realise that the Agrarian Party could not form a Youth movement in my town because they needed two antifascists in the governing body. I volunteered and the group was formed. I was assigned the position of treasurer, secretary and group representative in the Regional Popular Front. The Stalinist manipulation within the Popular Front forced a split six months or more later. A Popular Front in opposition was formed without the communists. I joined the opposition and began agitating against the Official Popular Front and especially against the communists the main culprits in this case. For this action I was declared an enemy of the people, an agent of the Reaction and in service of Turkish conservatism. As a result I was expelled from the local branch of the Agrarian Party still a part of the official Popular Front due to strong communist pressure even if the majority of its members were supportive of me and later on joined the opposition too. The official Popular Front was a front of the Communist hegemony. It existed only in name.
In the end of 1947 the opposition was virtually eliminated, the newspaper banned and its leaders and active members either jailed or sent to concentration camps. I was sent to concentration camp in the beginning of 1947.
So what was life like there?
I was pretty lucky because coming from a communist family and having an anti-fascist past, perhaps , they considered me a misguided person and,therefore, my stay in the camp was of short duration. About seven months. The camp was named Camp of Re-education, which in fact was a torture chamber and slave labour. I was working in a mine. Every Wednesday night we were given lectures on Marxism. It was in the camp that I joined the anarchist group. I had been always an anarchist in thinking but I had never met anarchists.
So the anarchist movement was large in Bulgaria?
Yes it was pretty large and spread like a fire. Since most bookshops were under control of the Communists, to buy an anarchist newspaper one had to buy four other newspapers, including the communist (laughter). The anarchist publications were not displayed.
Were many killed in the camp?
It is difficult to say. Many of them died from overwork. torture, malnutrition etc. How many were killed one has no clue, but the strong oppression got quite a few victims.
So how did you get out?
Well, the political commissar called me and said: "There is a request from your town for your release. But you have to sign a declaration that you renege your fascist past." I told him I had no fascist past and, therefore, I was not going to sign it. I was sent back. I had a conversation with an old anarchist comrade nicknamed "Naroda". He said to me: "if you sign, your situation would be worse, because you'd incriminate yourself, if you have intention to escape from Bulgaria, that is a different matter." I chose the second option. Naroda then said: "It is up to you. I have been a political exile during fascism in France and I was treated like a shit. Collecting cigarette butts from the streets. If you want to go, go - but I will die here." Next day I signed and was told by the commissar that I would soon be back in the camp if I upheld anarchist ideas.
Back home I was followed by informers. Informers are usually close friends recruited by being tortured, by threats or otherwise. Two of my friends confessed to me and instead of they infoming about me, it was I who, through them, had been informing about myself. So things worked in my favour.
I and my father were ploughing the fields. One day coming from work I was told by Mum that the cops had been looking for me three times. "You better go to the police station straightaway". I had no choice. I was to be accompanied by my father who was to make sure that I would go to the police headquarters.
Since all given informations were in my favour and I knew more or less their contents I succeeded in convincing the detective in charge to let me go home for the night, on condition that I would report to the police next day. As soon as I was freed from the police clutches I met a friend of mine and told him that I had to leave the country immediately; that 1 would never again go to the police station alive. Better be shot than cripple for life. I knew my torturers prettty well, their sadism, their hate towards me, and it was they who gave the order for my arrest. In fact my thoughts then were how to die rather than runaway. My friend decided to come with me. In vain I tried to argue to the contrary. He knew the border pretty well and the army movements. Early next day I told Mum that I got up earlier to give a hand to a friend of mine. She, somehow, was suspicious and asked me: "What time will you be back?" Late tonight, was my cryptic answer, trying not to show my suppressed tears. With this lie I left my parents never again to see them. We crossed the border to Turkey. This was the beginning of my emigration journey.
So how was Turkey?
I spent two years in Turkey. First I was kept six months in police custody and then set free. I then registered with I.R.0. (International Refugees Organisation). I had no intention to stay in Turkey. It was not a heaven for leftists. I was arrested for putting the case of the eight hours day and the need for trade union movement. Workers were really exploited. What saved me was the factthat I discussedthe issue in Bulgarian and my Turkish was virtually non existent. There were informers among the mmigrants. There was even an attempt to be returned to Bulgaria. I was approached by a Bulgarian in service of the Turkish Security Section who tried to persuade me to accompany him to the Instanbul' Vilayet. I refused. This gave me time to contact my friends and tell them, that in case I disappeared, I would be either liquidated or sent back home, which was equally the same thing. Next time when the same person visited me and asked me to accompany him to the police headquarters I bluntly refused, to which he remarked that it is better to go voluntarily rather than be escorted by police. My reply was that my preferences were to be arrested by the police rather than be dealt with stealthily. This was the end of it. I never heard of it again. When I left for Italy I felt a change of air.
So how did you get to Australia?
I was staying in a refugee camp near Lesi (Italy). As an ex member of the Agrarian Party I was approached by ex agrarian party parliamentarians in exile who tried to convince me that anarchism was wrong and that there was no historical case of an agrarian turning to anarchism while the opposite had happened, in the context of Bulgarian political history. Happened or not had no bearing to me unless they provided a better argument against anarchism. They told me that unless I changed my views, the way to go to France would be blocked. Faced with this dilemma I decided to apply for Australia. But leftists were not welcome to Australia.
One Friday, thirty of us were on the list to appear before an Australian emigration officer. Since I spoke some Italian I was called first. I told the officer I was an agrarian worker and loved the bush. I also stated that 1 had an elementary education. I signed a contract for two years and he wished me good luck. He asked me if I would like to be an interpreter for the rest on Monday. He was anxious to go somehwere and postponed the interviews of the rest for Monday. The majority of them were upset. They knew that on Monday their chances would be nil because majority were leftists and the informers would inform on them. They were correct. I told some of them that I was accepted but they told me to keep my mouth shut. On the Monday I went as interpreter and none was accepted. It was that Monday that I was my introduction to coca-cola culture.
So you arrived in Australia in the early 1950s...
Yes. I arrived barefooted, in shorts and a singlet: all my belongings. From Newcastle we were taken to Greta camp. Not long after I was sent to work in the Forestry in the town of Imbil. The first year I did not learn English but SerboCroation and Polish. They were the official languages of communication. English, I learnt through them. It had had a disastrous effect on me. Even now, after so many years I am still a victim of it.
What was it like doing your stint of enforced migrant labour when you first came here?
I liked the work in the forestry but most of the people were so anti-communist and hated the unions. Arguments with a lot were useless but I asserted my leftism trying even to tell them that The Labour Party was reformist and far far away from communism. The work itself was not hard. At the time the Australian society was much more egalitarian as far as wages were concerned. I worked with Polish, Yugoslav and Ukrainian nationals. My attitude to work was long established: no sweat for the bosses. On the other side I had a two year contract so if they sacked me thay had to find me another job.
Nonetheless since I had my own approach to work, I had a lot of trouble and I thought I would be sacked but the bosses put up with me. My worse enemies were the workers. Some of them wanted me sacked, because they envied my rebellious stand, but the decision did not belong to them. One day for some reason they sacked one of the best workers in my gang. Then I told the rest that if they worked hard there was a possibility for them to lose their jobs. Many, especially Poles, called me a Jew because I refused to work overtime while they worked some Saturdays and Sundays. The jew embodied everything that they hated in themselves. After eight months I arranged with an Italian anarchist to formally guarantee me a job so I could go north among comrades. So I left Imbil for Mareeba, North Queensland.
Once you left the camp what work did you next get into?
I got a job in dam construction laying down stones in front of the dam to prevent erosion. Somebody made a mistake with the level and we have to move the stones five inches up, a hard task. We would help each other. At one stage I had to move a really big stone -too large for one worker to move. l asked the rest to give me a hand. They refused because they saw the approaching of the big boss. The workers were new comers like me: mostly Italians and Poles. Their servility shocked me: "Hey boss mine is the best, mine is all right etc" as if it was their own property. I looked at them with amazement but said nothing. Then a big stone came and they tried to move it. The big shot turned to me and said with an authoritative voice:"Give them a hand!" I looked at him. "Who are you?" "I am in charge and I am telling you to give them a hand, I am the boss here!" -said he in a commanding voice. "Sorry mate, I have no boss and am not a slave either. No body can order me. You give them a hand!" And I lent him my crowbar. His face turned red and he said:"Go! You are sacked!" "Thanks" said I. (laughter) I went to the Employment Office and told them that 1 was sacked: "What about my contract?" "Bugger that" was the answer and so I was free and this was the end of my contract. It was meant to be for two years, but did not even last a year.
So you think it was because you were a troublemaker?
I don't know. I was just happy to get out of it. So then I went and worked on the tobacco, on farms in the North of Queensland.
Was there still a radical community up there?
Yes, there were:some Italians, Yugoslavs, Spanish. In Mareeba, where I stayed there was a small community. They had meetings, debates etc. For me it was an excellent intellectual intercourse that I had missed. The influx of new comers had an opposite effect. Their main interest was making money. Radicalism lost impetus and the collapse of fascism contributed to that even if the old people were quite outspoken radicals.
So what kind of activities were happening in the early 1950s?
Some anarchist meetings were still going. Then there was the pub where a lot of issues were debated such as religion, socialism, ideologies. My comrades told me that I had to learn the art of drinking since the main debates and actions were in the pub. (laughter).
Well the male action anyway?
(laughter). Well there were a few female anarchists. Regina Bertoldi (if the memeory does not betray me) was one. Later in her life she suffered from paranoia. Years after I paid her a visit but she shut the door in my face saying " I know nobody". Learning to drink beer was not a difficult task. (laughter). As I mentioned beforehand the pub was the center of most activity. You were not supposed to talk politics and religion in a pub but it was there where we did it. I left Mareeba, with some sadness, for Sydney. A friend of mine begged me to help them coming to Australia. They had the documents but not money for their tickets. People who had promised money reneged their promises. She wrote to me:"You are the only one who promised nothing and the only one who can do something". So I left for Sydney in search of money.
So what happened there?
At first I worked on the railways' extra gangs. The workers really lacked workers consciousness or whatever it is. They were working like mad to prove their machoism and to please the bosses. I isolated myself from the rest and was working alone. I repeatedly told them that by working hard they were driving down the conditions. One day two Italians came to me and one said: "You are not an anarchist by any chance, are you?" "Why " I answered. "The way you talk and behave". I said: "I am an anarchist"! Then he said to the other Italian: "See, I told you" and they told me that they were from Rome's Libertarian movement. Later on our gang moved to Michelago. I was always hustled by the second boss. Once he kept watching me and we were alone. He said: "You work but nothing comes out of it". To which I answered: "And if you keep watching me I will not finish it today. Get out of here! Sack me but don't watch me! And be aware that a stone may fly by chance and hit you on the head and you'll be sent in a coffin as a present to your wife. There is nobody to witness!" Since I constantly quarrelled with the bosses they referred to me as "mad bulgaro", because italians called me bulgaro.
One year before leaving for Xmas holidays we had a party with a keg of beer. Two workers started fighting. I and the first boss tried to stop the fight. One of the workers said to the boss: "Look Tom you better sack Mario because he is a lazy bastard and I work hard. Or you sack Mario or I will transfer to another gang." I was furious and I said to John: "You don't pay Mario's wages! Mario is a worker like you and you should be ashamed of yourself. Tom is your class enemy, and you, John, you are licking the Boss' arse instead of defending your fellow worker." Tom said to John: "Look John some work more, some work less but, nevertheless, everbody works as much as one can do". The fight stopped and we went back to drinking. Later on the first boss, Tom, approached me and said to me:"Listen Jack you don't mind me asking you a question?" I answered: "No, but I would not answer it if I don't like to". "May I ask you what party do you belong to?" Without much thinking I said IWW. I already knew about IWW even if I was not a member and basically I agreed with their preamble. To which Tom answered: "Well I was a member of the IWW and you are the best worker in the gang. You stand for your rights. You fight for workers' conditions. You are a good fighter but you are wasting your time here. Go somewhere else where you will be useful". "But everywhere the situation is the same " I retorted. Then I knew why I was not sacked (laughter). I left the country for the big smoke. It would have been 1954-5.
So how was it there?
I was working for the Railways again, and again I was faced with the same problems. One boss called me a bludger and I told him he was a bludger because he watched workers and got pay for doing nothing. He said that he worked forthe Railways and he still could work better than me. I challenged him to remove a sleeper as quickly as me. He tried, but to no avail because I had put a nail in the sleeper. (laughter). Soon after I had an argument with him, I threw my thongs and shovel at him and left. The first boss said :"You are not sacked" "But Frank sacked me". "Frank is not in charge I am in charge." Nonetheless I left. The first boss said to me:"You are a good chap but from the time you become a communist you changed". "What are you talking about I never joined the Communist Party." Ten years later I applied for a job with Railways again and got it. They asked me if I had ever worked for Railways. Unguarded, I said yes. They told me to come back in the afternoon, which 1 did to be told that there was no job for me. I realised they had me down.
Do you think people's lack of fight on the job was because it was easy to leave and find work elsewhere at that time?
It was true that it was easy to find jobs but, nonetheless, they accepted the conditions as they were. But one has to consider the fact that many migrants, especially those of the Eastern Block, were anti-communists and they identified the struggle for improvement as a communist tactic and the unions as communist. Also many migrants bought properties as a security and they were afraid of losing their employment. There was action and reaction. While the communists were pretty active, their insistence on the virtue of the Soviet Union weakened their case. Internecine struggles among the union did not help the radical case either. Strikes for improvement of workers' conditions were rare. Later on I worked on the busses.
What were your political activities in Sydney at that time?
My activities were to search for an arena to express my views. This I found in the Domain. I also was selling the English anarchist paper Freedom there. Being a Bulgarian I hung out with Bulgarian anarchists but a lot of them were not my cup of tea. The Bulgarians tried to organise among Bulgarians and one may say that we had a group of twenty or so members. I also published a small anarchist magazine in cyclostyle but there was a lack of dynamics, the situation remained static. There were some Russian and Ukrainian anarchists but by the displacement of people on job projects we lost contacts. I managed to keep contacts with Italian anarchists in Melbourne and a few in Sydney. They even established an Italian club in Melbourne but I do not think it lasted for long.
Was there much disagreement amongst the different anarchist factions or did people stick together because of the times?
Well, I was a member of the then Sydney Anarchist Group which included three women and four men, not including myself. But I left it because they would not try to work together with the Sydney Libertarians, a kind of pessimist anarchists, who considered anarchism as an ideoology if not a utopia. They insisted on Libertarian aspects of Marxism, involved in Reichian and Freudian psychology.
I thought the Bulgarian anarchists should establish contact as much as possible with Australians because we were settling down here. And then there were not many Bulgarians in Australia. To think that Bulgaria were to be liberated tomorrow was an illusion and the more importanttask was to establish contacts with the locals. This was the reason behind my interest in libertarianism. But even the Sydney Group, where Bulgarians were a minorty, was opposed to Sydney Libertarians.
I remember you saying that other than the Sydney libertarians and a few others you found a lot of fear and paranoia amongst Australians in the 1950s?
Selling Freedom at the Domain I was faced with the question:" Aren't you scared of being arrested?" Many would buy Freedom and put it straight in their pockets as if they were pinching something from the shops. The Domain was a very good place. A lot of activities on Sundays. I was speaking from the Rationalist platform. Questioning the communists was one of the greatest fun. I was called a traitor, a fascist and quite often they would call the police and a few times I was removed from the Domain. For the communists anyone who left Eastern Europe was a fascist. Nonetheless I had established a friendship, not without arguments, with a communist, Harry Read, who was expelled from the party because of his criticism of its handling of the Hungarian affairs in 1956. He left for Cuba in 1959 if I am not mistaken. Many of the communists, like Aaron's faction, were Stalinists.
When did you meet the Sydney Libertarians (aka The Sydney Push)?
I think around 1956. I asked a Trotskyite about them and he told me where they drank. But he warned me about them as being libidinarians rather than libertarians. They used to give papers in the philosophy room No 1 at the University and later on down town. They were open minded and anything could be debated with them. I used to go to a lot of their parties and to some exent became a part of them. They held the view that personal and sexual liberation were the same as social liberation to which I was not in agreement. Being promiscuous doesn't mean that one is socially liberated. There was also an Italian socialist club in the 1950,s in George Street close to Central Railway Station. Later the Sydney Anarchist Group rented a room adjacent to it referred to as "Liberty Hall". Purpose: papers and discussions.
So there was a lot going on at that time?
Yes. One may argue the society was pretty conservative, but is it different today? People prefer security to freedom, T.V. to thinking, ideological correctness to critical examination. There are courses on communication but the art of communication is rather rare. At that time the Domain was a real place of debates and people took notice of it. Surely a lot of people were not at ease with freedom of speech, secret services were not dormant.
In Melbourne you said the Libertarian scene of the 1950s was more artistic?
Yes, they had contact with the Sydney Push but on individualistic bases.
So you met IWW people in the 1950s?
Yes, one of them was a member of the Sydney Anarchist Group. Armstrong was another regular Domain speaker till his death. Others were members of the unions etc. This was a generation of old timers and they were disappearing. There were no young people to take over their work.
At various points you were active in the Unions. Did you become a delegate at any point?
No. A few times the opportunity crossed my road, but I refused to be seduced. I had seen many changes in those who joined union bureaucracies. To be one of them is easy, to be one of us, that is, on the side of the workers is much more difficult. One has to have in mind that union -parties structures were very rigid, and many delegates were to project into the struggle party's policy ratherthan exigencies of the workers qua workers. This certainly is a simplistic overview. Unionism where workes were not directly involved was not for me. I had always been in favour of solidarity strikes but this went against the grain of official unions. The exception here and there proved the rule. They were masters of division and not much interest was shown in rank and file issues.
One example. In the 1960s when I worked for the Water Board there was a general meeting of the Water Board Union in Trades Hall. Instead of trying to establish a common premise of action various sections were fighting for wage increases. The issues the union preferred. I was fed up with these internal useless squabbles and decided to tackle the issue from a different angle. While I was marching towards the loud speaker the workers were screaming at me " You fucken beatnik what do you know about work. You hippy shit". What I said was as follows: "I am a shitty hippy because, like you, l work a shitty job but, unlike you, I know it is a shitty job and I don't ask for six pence increase or six pence decrease. Let us not be divided by union policy of six pence for some or a dollar for others We have to stand together as a body of workers defending our common interests. These people who sit here" pointing to the bunch of union bureaucrats "are part and parcel of the Water Board. They defend the interests of the Water Board not your interests. Do not succumb to their manipulation. Did you elect any of them? I didn't! They are your enemies." There were wild aplauses "Goodonyou Beatnik. You'r right." All ire turned to the bureaucrats. "Who voted for you? Who elected you? On which side you are on" etc. Any questions? Hundreds of hands wanted to ask questions but the bureaucrats closed the meeting by saying: "No questions, the meeting is closed."
Did you have trouble with police in these years?
Not really. Many times when appoached I gave them any name and address that first came into my head. I used to sell anarchist papers, talk at the Domain and elsewhere but I never had a lot of trouble. Surely security police always used to take notes on what I was sayng but I was never in real trouble except that I was refused naturalisation and therefore , could not travel or leave the country. I had a dossier.
What were the peace issues like in the 1950s -mainly communist fronts?
They were pathetic. To assume that the Soviet Union was for peace and the USA for war was to continue the dualistic theory of good and evil instead of critically examining the issue. The USA used the same appoach to dismantle not only state communism but to destroy all the achievements of the workers. Surely the Vietnam war was one of the best unifying factors, but after that the wave of protest subsided.
Given the laws that were in place until 1967 did you meet many aboriginal people?
From my arrival I was interested in aboriginal people. Where I lived in Mareeba I contacted quite a few. Visited some in corrugated iron dwellings. But one had to be very careful because any serious contact was not welcome from authority's point of view and could lead to imprisonment for both aboriginal and me. I was shocked to see the plight of these people, the misery of their existence. I was warned by a black woman who said to me: "Son, don't do this and that or you will go to 6 month jail and so will I." Their movement was pretty limited while I thought that in a democratic country they woud be free to move around. Shit these people were really down.
Was there much you felt you could do about this?
I tried to talk to people who knew their plight but there was not much interest, even if people disagreed with the way they were treated by the law. The injustice was there but to crystalise it was not an easy task. And prejudices were pretty strong. In Inisfile I took an aboriginal girl to a cafe and they were reluctant to serve her. It reminded me so much of apartheid in South Africa.
In the early 1960s did things start to open up?
I remember an elder aboriginal told me in the 50s. "Son thanks to people like you and influx of migrants our situation will change. Go down there and spread the message". But things started changing generally. The communists began to lose their grip on people. The trade union movement started to go to pieces. The idea of Trades Hall as an unitary idea of the workers gave way to the atomisation of the movement. The radicals of the 50s were displaced and many changed their tune to accommodate themselves to changing conditions. In the 1970s many of the old guard were by passed. The new space that came from the crack of the old ethos was exciting, but evaporated soon after under the pressure of ideological correctness and beligerent concerted attacks of military, economic and political corporate world. Freedom retreated allowing inserting into the political arena of refurbished authoritarian dogmas suitable to the comodification of every day life. Instead of critical thought, mono thought is spreading, strangling and marginalzing any independence. Time and again society continue to function within hierarchical and authoritarian paradigms. The future is not promising.
Interview corrected by Jack Grancharoff. Taken from http://www.takver.com/history/sydney/grancharoff.htm