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Rex Alfred Mortimer (1926–1979)

by T. H. Irving

This article was published:

Rex Alfred Mortimer (1926-1979), solicitor, communist and academic, was born on 11 February 1926 at Mordialloc, Melbourne, third of four children of Victorian-born parents Alfred Thomas Mortimer (d.1928), a horse-trainer who had served in the Australian Imperial Force, and his wife Marjorie Estella, née Reaby. Uncertain about his future at the racetrack, but certain that his wife would receive a pension, Alfred killed himself by driving his motorcar into the Yarra River. Rex remembered his childhood darkly. To live in the family home came his mother's parents and several relations, besides paying boarders. His mother's generosity was exploited. His grandfather, a businessman unemployed since being sacked for embezzlement, laid down the law to him. Rex reacted by being independent, studious and rebellious, leading the local church choir out on strike to obtain payment for rehearsals.

After attending Malvern State School, Mortimer won scholarships to Melbourne High School and to the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1947) where he joined the Freethought Society of Australia, the Melbourne University Labor Club and the Communist Party of Australia. His friends included Ian Turner, Ken Gott, Amirah Gust and Margaret Ince. In 1948 he was joint-editor of Melbourne University Magazine.

Mortimer was articled to Cedric Ralph, a solicitor whose firm he joined, and on 1 March 1949 was admitted to practise, both in accord with the C.P.A.'s wishes. For the next decade he worked alongside, and under the spell of, the communist barrister and official Edward (Ted) Hill: in 1949-50 before the royal commission of inquiry into the Communist Party in Victoria, in 1951 in a challenge to the Communist Party Dissolution Act in the High Court of Australia, in 1954-55 before the (Petrov) royal commission on espionage, and as a paid functionary (1952-54) of the party. At the registry office, Queen Street, Melbourne, on 30 October 1953 Mortimer married Margaret Doris Robertson, née Ince, a 30-year-old journalist and a divorcee; their marriage was to end in divorce. In 1957 Hill selected him to study in China; his wife was not permitted to accompany him.

Nine months in China made Mortimer aware of 'the benefits of a liberal education', as he recalled in Meanjin, in 1976. His adoption of China's freer approach to communism would at first propel him into the leadership of the party and, eventually, out of it altogether. Between 1960 and 1963 Mortimer was part of the group that ousted Hill and his followers (who identified with the new hard-line China in the Sino-Soviet dispute) from the party. As his share of the spoils, Mortimer gained the editorship of the Victorian communist weekly, the Guardian. In 1964 he was elected to the central committee of the C.P.A. He became spokesman for the Euro-communists or 'Italian liners' who sought a new revolutionary agent to replace the industrial working class. As a founder of Arena, a non-party journal of Marxist analysis, Mortimer re-established links with ex-communist critics of the C.P.A. and in 1965 publicly attacked Soviet anti-Semitism. He extended communist support to the student 'New Left', and, at the twenty-first congress of the C.P.A. in 1967, supported the 'Coalition of the Left' strategy. Always a persuasive speaker, he was by then a good listener, widely known in radical intellectual circles for his tolerance and good humour.

Increasingly repelled by the narrowness of the old guard in the communist movement, Mortimer resigned his editorship of the Guardian in 1965 to undertake full-time study at Monash University (Ph.D., 1971), working with Professor Herbert Feith. On 6 September 1967 at the registrar-general's office, Sydney, he married Mary Eleanor Johnston, a 23-year-old schoolteacher. While they were visiting Europe in 1968, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. In the following year he left the Communist Party and returned to Monash. His doctoral thesis on the Indonesian Communist Party drew on two visits to Indonesia in 1964. He became an acknowledged expert on communism in Australia and Indonesia; his break with the C.P.A. did not alter the fundamental line of his analysis, which proposed the peaceful route to power in both countries, but doubted its chances of success.

In the last decade of his life Mortimer had a successful academic career. Appointed in 1970 to the department of government and public administration at the University of Sydney, he was soon at the forefront of forces for reform in the department. He took leave in 1974-76 to fill the chair of politics and administrative studies at the University of Papua New Guinea. There, too, he was a force for change, associated with moves to harness expatriate idealism in the university for educational and social reform in the emerging nation. He returned to Sydney as associate-professor and became dean of the faculty of economics in 1979. Of his six books, the most important was Indonesian Communism under Sukarno (New York, 1974), which aroused controversy as much for its scepticism about the United States of America's Central Intelligence Agency's line on the 1965 uprising as for its sympathy with the Indonesian communists. Mortimer also broke new ground as co-author of Development and Dependency: the Political Economy of Papua New Guinea (Melbourne, 1979), which drew on underdevelopment theory. A posthumous collection, Stubborn Survivors (Melbourne, 1984), was edited by two of his colleagues. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died of cancer on New Year's Eve 1979 at Royal North Shore Hospital and was cremated. At the memorial gathering at Monash University, his friends recalled his 'cosmic pessimism and day to day good cheer'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford, California, US, 1969)
  • J. Sendy, Comrades Come Rally (Melb, 1978)
  • B. Taft, Crossing the Party Line (Newham, Vic, 1994)
  • A. Inglis, The Hammer & Sickle and the Washing Up (Melb, 1995)
  • Biography (Honolulu), vol 6, no 3, 1983
  • ASIO, A6119/78, items 1131-35 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Dept of Govt files, University of Sydney Archives
  • Mortimer papers (privately held).

Citation details

T. H. Irving, 'Mortimer, Rex Alfred (1926–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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