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Gibson, Ralph Siward (1906–1989)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Ralph Siward Gibson (1906-1989), communist organiser and writer, was born on 19 February 1906 at Hampstead, London, third of five sons of William Ralph Boyce Gibson, philosopher, and his wife Lucy Judge, née Peacock. Alexander Boyce Gibson was his brother. After Ralph’s father was appointed (1911) to the chair of philosophy at the University of Melbourne, the family lived at Toorak, moving to Mont Albert in 1918. Ralph was educated at Glamorgan Preparatory and Melbourne Church of England Grammar schools, and at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1927), where he studied history and politics.

In 1925 Gibson joined Brian Fitzpatrick, William Macmahon Ball Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Lloyd Ross in founding the university Labor Club; he also became active in the Labor Guild of Youth. In 1927 he sailed for England. At the University of Manchester (MA, 1930), he wrote a thesis on unemployment insurance. Gibson represented the university’s Socialist Society at a University Labour Federation conference and served as an organiser for the Labour Party in the 1929 British general election. While inheriting the family’s high-minded philosophical idealism, and sharing his mother’s interest in the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, Gibson inclined to secular schemes of socialist fellowship. His encounter with poverty in Britain’s industrial heartlands was formative; he expected much of the working-class governments elected on the eve of the Depression in Britain and Australia.

Returning to Australia, Gibson took a job in 1931 as an extension lecturer for the Workers’ Educational Association on the north coast of Tasmania. His lectures were increasingly critical of the Scullin government’s failure to stem mass unemployment. At the end of the year he rejected the offer of a lectureship at the University of Western Australia. In January 1932 he joined the Communist Party of Australia.

For nearly forty years (apart from three years working for the Forests Commission of Victoria during World War II) Gibson was a full-time party organiser. He never complained about meagre payment, readily accepted long hours, ran between meetings and bounded up stairs. Notoriously careless of his appearance, he looked the part: below medium height, spare in build, fair in appearance, untidy, urgent. His writing and speech betrayed his class origins: although he adopted the Comintern lexicon and his voice became roughened by constant open-air speaking, his syntax and accent remained those of a bourgeois intellectual.

In 1933 Gibson was jailed for three weeks for addressing an illegal street meeting—one of several such convictions; later that year he made the first of many attempts to enter State and Federal parliament as a CPA candidate. He married Dorothy Alexander, a divorcee, at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, on 16 March 1937, after he returned from the World Peace Congress in Brussels. They had met through the peace movement. Her warmth complemented his intensity; with common interests in literature, art and music, and without children, they dedicated themselves to the same cause. Living in Oakleigh, Melbourne, they also spent much time at his mother’s cottage at Olinda, in the Dandenong Ranges.

Celebrated for his fidelity to the party, Gibson went wherever he was sent, carrying out all tasks with a brisk efficiency. He served as State secretary, as State president, as a long-standing member of the central (national from 1967) committee, and as editor (1943-48) of the Guardian. Yet he would never exercise leadership of an insistently proletarian movement. He saw his role as justifying and propagating communist policy with a single-minded loyalty. As the principal witness before the Lowe royal commission (1949-50) into communism in Victoria, he gave a sustained and cogent justification of its activity while also offering a chilling definition of communist morality: whatever advanced the cause was good; whatever hindered it was bad. Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations of Stalin’s crimes made little impression on him. In the early 1960s he tried to avert the split with the pro-Chinese faction of the CPA; a decade later he sympathised with a breakaway pro-Soviet faction, but still stood firm with the party.

Following Dorothy’s death in 1978, Gibson travelled and embarked on literary projects. He had written many pamphlets, among them an anticipation of Socialist Melbourne (1937) that was repeatedly reissued. In 1966 he published My Years in the Communist Party; a memoir of Dorothy, One Woman’s Life, appeared in 1980; then came two massive, detailed accounts of communist activity in Australia and the world, The People Stand Up (1983) and The Fight Goes On (1987). These studies combined autobiography, almost impersonal in its modesty, with generous reminiscences of contemporaries and historical analysis that was trapped within the political faith he had never abandoned. Ralph Gibson died on 16 May 1989 at East Malvern, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sendy, Ralph Gibson (1988)
  • S. Macintyre, The Reds (1998)
  • R. and D. Gibson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Gibson papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Gibson, Ralph Siward (1906–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-ralph-siward-12535/text22559, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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