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Miles, John Bramwell (Jack) (1888–1969)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Bramwell (Jack) Miles (1888-1969), stonemason and communist leader, was born on 5 September 1888 at Wilton, Roxburghshire, Scotland, son of William Miles, journeyman mason, and his wife Louisa, née Wiggins. Jack attended an elementary school in Edinburgh before being apprenticed to a stonemason in the north of England. He found a job, first at Newcastle, and next at Consett, County Durham, where he joined the Independent Labour Party. At the register office, Lanchester, on 9 October 1911 he married Elizabeth Jane Black.

They emigrated to Queensland, reaching Brisbane on 31 March 1913 in the Orama. Miles worked at his trade, but admitted that he had remained 'stuck in the mud politically' until R. S. Ross recruited him to the Queensland Socialist League in 1918. He then helped to conduct the Workers' School of Social Sciences, established in 1919. When the Communist Party of Australia was formed in Sydney at the end of 1920, he joined its Brisbane branch. Employed (1920-23) in a meatworks, he represented the Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Union and subsequently the United Operative Stonemasons' Society of Queensland on the Trades and Labor Council. He became increasingly influential in the Communist Party, though only residents of Sydney were eligible for senior positions.

In the late 1920s Miles emerged as a critic of the national leadership of the Australian Labor Party and an advocate of unyielding opposition to its 'social fascist' politicians. With Bert Moxon and Lance Sharkey, he won control of the C.P.A. at the conference in December 1929. He moved to Sydney early in 1931 as national secretary and exercised absolute control of a party that had been thoroughly 'bolshevised'. The central committee determined policy, enforced its implementation and expelled any who resisted. Especially critical of middle-class converts to communism, Miles censured F. W. Paterson and castigated his fellow Scot, Professor John Anderson. The threat to the legality of the party compounded Miles's preoccupation with security; he operated mostly in a semi-clandestine manner as a vigilant, driving administrator.

Following his visit (1934-35) to the Soviet Union, and with the turn to the united and popular fronts in 1935, Miles was required to play a new role, that of a model proletarian leader. At the end of that year he embarked on a national tour designed to promote him as a far-sighted patriot of unbending rectitude. The transformation was not easy. Miles was a slight man with a pronounced Scottish burr. During the early 1930s he had formed an illicit relationship with the writer Jean Devanny. Her encomium—'To hear him analysing a situation, stripping every unessential from it, laying bare its core, is an experience a Communist can never forget'—had an unfortunate ambiguity. Noel Counihan's cartoon in the party press softened Miles's legendary harshness. A profile (1937) claimed that he worked a twelve-hour day, but relaxed at the cinema, where he preferred Joe Brown to Clark Gable and Popeye to Hollywood he-men. He also enjoyed light fiction, claiming 'It's a big jump from Lenin to Edgar Wallace, but I do it, easily'.

The C.P.A. was banned in 1940 for its anti-war policy. Miles again went underground, and issued fierce polemics under the pseudonym, 'A. Mason'. After the Soviet Union entered the war he emerged to rehabilitate the party, but was increasingly overshadowed by Sharkey, who replaced him as general secretary in 1948. Miles continued to work for the C.P.A. and frequently toured outlying branches to rebuke members for their inadequacies. Often known as 'J.B.M.', he had unsuccessfully contested five State and Commonwealth parliamentary seats between 1929 and 1952. An Australian Security Intelligence Organization officer reported in 1953 that the 'Grand Old Man of Australian Communism', Jack Miles, had 'developed into a kindly little man, aging and whimsical . . . [but] still holds the fire of battle in his eyes. They are sharp, brilliant and magnetic, a strange contrast to the light, grey hair and wrinkled, puckish face'.

In contrast, a visiting Comintern official told Devanny, 'He's got exceptional capacities, but he's too hard on the comrades. He hurts too often and too much'. She found him tense, volatile, cutting, with a powerfully intuitive intelligence. Yet the characteristics that best served his cause were probably the frugality and methodical persistence that sustained an organization where such qualities were sorely needed. None of the later revelations about the Stalinist régime shook his dogmatism. Survived by his daughter and four of his five sons, Miles died on 17 May 1969 at Naremburn and was cremated without a religious service.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Ferrier (ed), Point of Departure (Brisb, 1986)
  • S. Macintyre, The Reds (Syd, 1998)
  • Communist Review, Feb 1937, p 6
  • Workers' Weekly, 26 Apr 1929
  • ASIO files, A6119/79, items 884-886 (National Archives of Australia)
  • R. Coates, J. B. Miles (taped interview, held by author)
  • J. N. Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Miles, John Bramwell (Jack) (1888–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miles-john-bramwell-jack-11120/text19801, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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