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Rawling, James Normington (1898–1966)

by John Pomeroy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

James Normington Rawling (1898-1966), political activist and writer, was born on 27 July 1898 at Plattsburg, near Newcastle, New South Wales, eighth of nine children of English-born parents James Rawling, coalminer, and his wife Annie Elizabeth, née Normington. Educated at Newcastle High School, Jim enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 7 August 1916. He served on the Western Front from October 1917, first with the 36th Battalion and then with the 35th. In a letter from the trenches he told his mother, 'what is known as the glory of war is non-existant [sic]. One sees everywhere one's fellow men lying dead around one and . . . takes no more notice than . . . of a dead dog'. His abomination of war was to be a driving force in his life.

After the Armistice, Rawling gave lectures for the A.I.F. Education Service. He returned to Australia in June 1919 and was discharged from the army on 7 August. In 1920 he entered the University of Sydney (B.A., 1929; M.A., 1946) and in 1921-22 trained as a teacher. At the Saints Church, Rozelle, on 18 February 1922 he married Mary Stewart with Mormon forms. Next year he taught at Crown Street Public School and began tutoring for the Trade Union Educational League. Following three years (1924-27) at Newcastle as an ironworker's assistant, he returned to Sydney where he taught at private schools and colleges.

Rawling lost his religious faith. He joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1925. An active campaigner and publicist for the party and its 'fraternal' organizations, he spoke and wrote about past events and contemporary issues. In 1932-34 he edited World Survey, the magazine of the League Against Imperialism, and in 1934-39 War! What For? (later World Peace), the organ of the Australian Movement Against War and Fascism (later Australian League for Peace and Democracy) of which he was secretary. His pamphlet, Who Owns Australia? (1937), enjoyed four editions. The C.P.A. commissioned him to write The Story of the Australian People (1938-39), an unfinished series of booklets which sold for one shilling each. Suddenly expelled from the party in December 1939 for expressing unorthodox views, he justified his stance in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 March 1940: 'The Hitler-Stalin pact of last August pulled me up with a jerk . . . the ''spear-head of peace'' and the spear-head of aggression had coalesced . . . the brutal invasion of Finland was the final determining blow'.

For the next five years Rawling worked as a temporary clerk with the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board, and studied Australian literary history. He then resumed teaching, mostly in private schools. The university awarded him second-class honours for his thesis on Daniel Deniehy; his left-wing perspective allegedly found little favour in (Sir) Stephen Roberts's conservative history department. When Rawling was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship in 1947 to write a biography of Charles Harpur, Opposition politicians attacked the Federal government for supporting a former communist. Two years later he appeared as a principal witness before the Victorian royal commission on communism. He told the commission that 'socialism had not been established in Russia', and that international communism as directed by the Kremlin was 'a bigger danger to culture and democracy and freedom than even Hitler and the Nazis'.

J. Normington-Rawling (as he styled himself for a time) finally published Charles Harpur, an Australian in 1962. The book expressed his 'commitment to nurturing Australia's cultural traditions' and received generally favourable reviews. In 1962-63, as a visiting fellow at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, he worked on his history of the C.P.A. His manuscript, and his large collection of sources for Australian radical politics between 1869 and 1945, are held by the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, A.N.U.

A loner, a radical pacifist and an ideologue, Rawling had been attracted to communism by intellectual persuasion and by moral outrage at capitalist and imperialist exploitation. His contemporaries saw him as opinionated, stubborn and impractical, and as one who was better at writing propaganda than at public speaking or organization. Following his break with the C.P.A., he was frustrated by his failure to find permanent employment as a schoolteacher or an academic, and believed that he was being punished unfairly for his past associations. In the classroom, he was patient, kindly and tolerant, but determined that his students should understand that art, literature and politics deserved greater prominence in the curriculum, for their own sake and as a means of advancing the wider cause of peace. Survived by his wife and three daughters, he died of a coronary occlusion on 7 March 1966 in Sydney Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Macintyre, The Reds (Syd, 1999)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 22, no 1, 1963, p 69
  • Notes and Furphies, Oct 1979, p 1, Apr 1980, p 2
  • Quadrant, Dec 1989, p 60, Sept 1998, p 34
  • J. Pomeroy, 'The Apostasy of James Normington Rawling', Australian Journal of Politics and History, 37, no 1, 1991, p 21
  • Rawling papers MSS 1326 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Pomeroy, 'Rawling, James Normington (1898–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rawling-james-normington-11492/text20495, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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