By John Percy
September 27, 1995 — Seventy-five years ago, under the impact and inspiration of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist Party of Australia was founded. It was a modest beginning, but an historic event. The CPA formed in 1920 finally dissolved in 1991, but for most of its life it was the dominant party on the left in Australia and an important force in the workers movement.
There are many proud chapters in its history — the numerous trade union struggles led; organising the unemployed, women, Aborigines, young people; important civil liberties fights; and solidarity with international struggles, in Spain, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa and East Timor, to name a few.
The CPA’s founders had a vision of socialist revolution in Australia, and this was the goal of most of its rank-and-file members over the years. The party inspired dedication and commitment from thousands of men and women, and organised the most militant, idealistic, self-sacrificing section of the Australian working class.
But it was also a history of mistakes, of betrayals, of lost opportunities.
To mark this important anniversary, Green Left Weekly will be carrying a series of articles on the history of the CPA.
This series will briefly acquaint a new generation of young socialist activists with our past — some of the main struggles, the main players and the high and low points. Of course, this can only be a limited, selective history.
It will also draw some lessons — both the positive and negative experiences. It will try to better equip the coming generations of socialists to learn from our history and not repeat mistakes of the past. In what periods, and with what tactics, did the CPA grow and go forward as a Marxist party capable of leading militant workers? And what policies and mistakes led to the CPA’s defeats, decline and final dissolution?
The series will also provide a guide to some of the literature available on CPA and socialist history.
A revolutionary party?
The CPA was founded with hope and fire and dedication. Its founders, and most who joined later, wanted to build a revolutionary party.
However, it was a revolutionary party that lost its way. But when? Certainly by the time of its dissolution in 1991, only a small minority wanted to continue the struggle, and they were overruled. Others date its decline or degeneration from the time they were expelled or dropped out.
But it’s more complex than that. The CPA always had a dual nature. Even from the beginning in the ’20s, there were conflicting pressures, with the desire to build a revolutionary working-class party counterbalanced by the tradition of the earlier socialist groups trying to work through the ALP.
During most of its history it was a hardline Stalinist party, a term used not as an epithet but as a description of a social process and a political outlook. It had a fundamentally contradictory nature, torn between fighting for socialism and defending working-class interests, and following Stalin’s directives and defending the interests of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
During its last 25 years, as the CPA attempted to come to terms with both its past and with new political challenges, it was buffeted right and left. The party leadership tried to make a break with Stalinism, but without returning to Leninism, and so ended up with a purely liberal critique of Stalinism.
They responded energetically to the “new social movements”, but without integrating them into a Marxist class analysis. They encouraged new forms of workers’ struggles, on wider issues and with rank-and-file involvement, but were still unable to break from the dynamic of their bureaucratic positions in the unions, and their basic acceptance that the ALP was somehow the real workers party. So they ended up instigators and defenders of the ALP-ACTU Accord, one of the biggest disasters ever for the Australian working class.
Towards the end they were increasingly demoralised and uncertain about socialism, the possibility of revolution and the party’s role.
Most of the former CPA leaders who have written their memoirs in the last few decades conclude that the whole idea of building a revolutionary party in Australia was misguided.
Bernie Taft, the central CPA leader in Victoria from 1962 to 1984, is quite explicit: revolution is not on the agenda, so it would have been better not to use the word “revolution”. In his memoirs published in 1994, The Party’s Over, he writes, “It would have been wiser to dispense with a term which inaccurately described our position”. Taft and most of the Victorian CPA leadership jumped ship in 1984 to join the ALP, not even becoming part of the left, but the centre.
John Sendy, a former national president and associate of Taft, put a similar view in his Comrades Come Rally,published in 1978. He’d dropped out in 1974. In a pamphlet he put out in 1978, he wrote that while recognising the rapid growth of the CPA during the early 1930s, he’s very critical of this period because it “… alienated a great many people in the labor movement and permanently damaged relations with important organisations”. He claimed that the CPA was seen as “violent, foreign, un-Australian”. He advocated policies more in keeping with the Australian political realities: “The CPA did not appreciate that the Australian working people possessed few revolutionary traditions”.
That may be the case, but the task facing Marxists is to find the way to change that, not to accept the dominant ruling-class culture and values, nor acquiesce in the ALP tradition, a capitalist tradition. The logic of this position is capitulation to the ALP organisationally as well as politically — liquidation as a party, or joining it individually, which is what happened to his current.
Eric Aarons, a party functionary for many years, and joint national secretary 1976-82, in his memoirs, What’s Left?, published in 1993, suggests that the very word socialism might be wrong. He writes that socialism has “inherent problems” that arise from socialism itself. He thinks the goal of radical social change requires “a major redefinition and reformulation. Even the name may constitute a problem, indicating as it does the centrality of the socialisation of the means of production, with all that has entailed in elevating central planning and eliminating the market.”
But the problem is not the necessity or possibility of socialism, but mistakes that were made, internationally and in Australia, in the name of socialism. Fundamental political questions need addressing: why did the CPA fail, and what can we learn from its history? That’s the aim of this series.
It’s impossible to come to terms with the CPA’s errors and final demise without understanding the problem of Stalinism. No new revolutionary party in Australia will be built without this understanding.
Following Lenin’s death in 1924, and after the trials and deprivations of years of civil war and imperialist interventions against the young Soviet state, and the failure of the expected revolutionary upsurges in the West, the Russian working class progressively lost the direct exercise of political and economic power. Joseph Stalin assumed dictatorial control. His base was the consolidating bureaucracy, and the degeneration of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union away from revolutionary Marxism into an instrument of that bureaucracy.
In place of an internationalist revolutionary perspective, Stalin put forward the possibility of completing the construction of socialism in one country. Thus the prime task of Communist parties in other countries became defending the Soviet Union. In country after country, the revolutionary struggle was sacrificed to the diplomatic needs of Moscow.
The CPA’s major errors were the result of uncritically taking a lead from Moscow. It forced them to make many bizarre twists and turns on foreign and domestic policy. In spite of belated and inadequate attempts to come to terms with its past in the last few decades of its life and reassert its independence, the central leadership never overcame the political errors of its Stalinist heritage.
A central error was the distortion of the traditional Leninist position on the united front, clearly set down at the Third Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1921, and expounded in Lenin’s polemic Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. The tactic proposed united action to social democratic parties on issues, to win the support of the workers away from the reformist parties.
Stalin’s Popular Front, by contrast, was a cross-class alliance. It became the new orthodoxy after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, a justification for subordinating the working class and revolutionary struggle around the world to the narrow needs of Moscow. It reinforced the false views about the ALP common among socialists before the founding of the CPA, going along with the populist, nationalist tradition in the labour movement.
But while looking for alliances with right-wing forces, in and outside the ALP, the CPA was extremely factional towards others on the left. It dogmatically refused to collaborate with other leftists on issues of common agreement. Internal democracy was also lacking. To raise a difference with the leadership line meant expulsion.
In trying to break with its Stalinist past from the mid-’60s, the CPA leadership concentrated on the question of independence from Moscow, and building an Australian party based on Australian traditions and conditions, making its own decisions.
This is also often the concern of academic writings on the CPA. For example, it’s the central theme in Alastair Davidson’s history, The Communist Party of Australia, a useful factual resource written in 1967. In a 1970 article titled “Writing the History of a CP”, he wrote: “I came to the conclusion that the central theme in CPA history was the dialogue between local exigencies and central orders”.
The introduction to his book states: “The history of the CPA before 1950 can be understood better as a move away from Australian traditions into an alien tradition, which made the CPA inappropriate in Australia. After 1950 its history becomes a stumbling, groping, limping move back to Australian traditions …”
But “Australian traditions” confuses two concepts: firstly, the actual social, cultural and political conditions, which any Marxist party must take into account; secondly, the dominant capitalist ideology of the society, which must also be taken into account, but in order to overcome it.
And there are two types of “alien” influence that should be clearly differentiated.
Firstly, there’s foreign control, what we in shorthand often refer to as “Cominternism”, where orders, a general line, and even universal tactics are given to national parties from an international centre. The experience of this has certainly been harmful, both in Australian experience and in the experience of the international communist movement. In the case of the CPA, it was disastrous. From the beginning of the ’30s until the mid-’60s, Moscow dictated the policies, often to terrible effect, and was able to determine the leadership.
Secondly, there are foreign ideas. These have been helpful, even necessary. The very idea of socialism, as well as all the subsequent theoretical advances and practical experiences of the workers movement, have been essential imports for the Australian revolutionary movement. But it’s vitally important which ideas are imported — the national communism of Stalin or the revolutionary Marxism of the Bolsheviks in Lenin’s time.
The worst “Australian tradition” that must be overcome by Australian socialists is the ALP, an expression of the limited class-consciousness and the national outlook of the Australian labour officialdom for most of its history. Socialists need to be clear about the nature and role of the ALP — it’s an obstacle to the further development of working-class consciousness.
Lenin had it basically correct when he described the ALP as a liberal capitalist party. The ruling class calls on it to govern in times of crisis, or to implement structural changes in the interests of capitalism as a whole, which the openly capitalist parties would find difficult because of their ties to particular sections of the capitalist class. This role was clear during the world wars, and it’s been demonstrated very clearly during the last 12 1/2 years of Labor government.
The ALP’s policies were never socialist. It’s a vital part of Australian capitalism’s attempt to contain the political activity of workers and others struggling for social progress. The ALP attracts workers’ support partly because of its links to the trade union bureaucracy and partly because its liberal policies seem fairer, so it can posture as the party of the working class. But its leadership is always dominated by political agents of the capitalist class.
That, of course, doesn’t predetermine the tactics of a Marxist party in regard to the ALP at any time. Here, as elsewhere, you need maximum tactical flexibility. But for tactical success, you need maximum political clarity.
The CPA, and many of its left critics, was not clear about the nature and role of the ALP. Apart from the “Third Period” interlude in the early ’30s, when Comintern policy dictated a mad sectarianism to all social democratic or Labor parties, labelling them “social fascist”, for most of the time the CPA treated the ALP as though it were a workers party. For the CPA’s last 30-40 years, this meant tailing the Labor Party, and a framework of reform of the capitalist system, not fundamentally challenging it.
The CPA had many positive experiences in organising workers and leading them in struggle. In contrast to their lack of parliamentary success, CPA members were elected to leadership positions in many trade unions. Unemployed workers won to the CPA during the ’30s depression got jobs as the economy picked up, and provided the base for the CPA winning control of key industrial unions. Communist rank-and-file activity was extensive and well organised.
But other pressures also bore down on the party from the trade unionist milieu. These were less of a problem early on, and when positions at the top were backed up by strong Communist support in the ranks. But in the 1950s, the political climate plus dwindling CPA membership at the base often led the CPA union officials to adapt to the politics of their ALP counterparts. In later years the actions of Communist union officials were often indistinguishable from those of ALP trade union bureaucrats. So CPA work in the trade unions also had those two sides to it.
That false view of the ALP led to a fundamentally flawed analysis of CPA history by nearly all writers and historians with an orthodox CPA background.
This analysis has as its central thesis that “sectarianism” towards the ALP is the main cause of the decline of the CPA, and conversely, a “correct united front approach” to the ALP directly contributed to the growth of the CPA. Evidence presented in this series will dispute that view.
Early CPA official histories in the ’40s have this perspective, such as that (published in 1944) by Lance Sharkey, CPA national secretary for more than 30 years until 1965, and E.W. Campbell, director of the Marx School in the ’40s. The same approach is the central thesis of Bill Brown (of the Association for Communist Unity) in his 1986 book The Communist Movement and Australia. It’s one of the more distorted and inaccurate histories.
Other memoirs of former CPA leaders, such as Bernie Taft and John Sendy already mentioned, Ralph Gibson’sThe People Stand Up and The Fight Goes On, Edgar Ross’ Of Storm and Struggle, all have the same central thesis of the main danger of left sectarianism toward the ALP. (Although they suffer from the consequent political mistakes and historical distortions, they do provide some interesting first-hand reminiscences.)
Histories of the CPA and the Australian socialist movement that take a more balanced outlook have not been as numerous, but include Robin Gollan’s Revolutionaries and Reformists, Tom O’Lincoln’s Into the Mainstreamand Frank Farrell’s International Socialism and Australian Labour.
A major history of the CPA by Stuart MacIntyre and Andrew Wells is nearing completion. Although MacIntyre was at one time part of a left tendency in the CPA critical of the leadership position on the ALP, he later supported the leadership position, so this history is also likely to put forward the “sectarianism towards the ALP” thesis. Nevertheless, it’s likely to provide the most comprehensive factual record of CPA history yet. Part of that project, a resource bibliography compiled by Beverley Symons, was published in 1994, and is an extremely valuable aid to further research and writing.
Histories are not objective. They’re always written from a certain class viewpoint. Even stated intentions of objectivity are often attempts to conceal a bias, the acceptance of the status quo. Autobiographies and histories by participants of course have their own bias. They’re often attempts to justify present positions. And histories written by opponents of socialism, or those who have given up the struggle and want to interpret history to justify their adaptation to capitalism, have limited use.
What’s needed is a history from a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint, one true to the inspiration of the founders of the CPA, Lenin’s Bolshevik party. Such a history will enable us to understand the past, learn from it and help guide our struggles in the future. We hope this series is a small step in that direction.
Origins of the Communist Party of Australia
By John Percy
October 4, 1995 — On October 30, 1920, the Communist Party of Australia was founded at a meeting in Sydney attended by 26 men and women. They represented the most radical of the small socialist groups, militant trade union activists and officials and former members of the Industrial Workers of the World. Their direct inspiration was the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party, the first example of workers overthrowing capitalism, taking power in their own hands and setting out on the path of constructing socialism.
Although inspired by the revolution, they had limited understanding of the Bolsheviks’ strategy and the debates among Russian Marxists. Australian socialists had little contact with the European left or Lenin’s party, or access to their writings. But they aspired to emulate the Bolsheviks’ success. They saw a revolution as necessary and possible, and now they saw the model to follow.
Those at that first gathering, small as it was, together represented the best class-struggle traditions of the Australian working class.
The Industrial Workers of the World, for example, were probably the closest thing to a revolutionary organisation before the founding of the CPA. They played a strong role in the fight against conscription during World War I, an issue that mobilised large numbers of workers. Their newspaper Direct Action achieved an impressive circulation during the war, reaching a run of 15,000.
They were anarcho-syndicalists, and rejected political action as a way to achieve socialism. They believed it was necessary to build a mass industrial union movement, which would itself begin to “constitute the new society within the body of the old”. The sentiments for such a “One Big Union” were popular as the war ended.
The impetus to form the CPA also came from the strikes and working-class struggles of the previous three decades. The 1917 general strike, beginning in the railways in Sydney, gave stimulus to the One Big Union idea. This was taken up by the NSW Labour Council, which had emerged as an active and outspoken base for socialist ideas and organisation. There was a strong socialist and internationalist influence on the labour movement as a result of the experiences of the war years.
But other, countervailing, pressures also influenced those early members of the CPA. The reformist and populist tradition of the Australian labour movement was strong, itself an expression of the overriding conservative capitalist ideology.
There was a strong nationalist current in Australian culture, which found its expression in the ALP. This was a bourgeois cultural tradition, not a class-struggle tradition, and was an important factor in maintaining capitalist hegemony over the working class. This has always been a danger for Australian revolutionaries, but in the early years of the CPA it was certainly a tradition from which they found it hard to escape, and it led to some specific problems.
Even racism, in the form of support for a “white Australia”, was not absent from many of those early socialists. They also suffered from the political hangovers of the small groups they’d previously belonged to, each with its own organisational traditions, political shibboleths and tactical approaches. The early CPA was certainly not clear politically; neither was it well organised nor united.
There were several attempts by socialist groups to proclaim themselves the Communist Party as news of the Russian victory sank in. In August 1919 came an abortive attempt to unite, before the founding unity conference in 1920. The main groupings attending the conference were:
- A group of militant trade union officials, mainly based in Sydney. They were led by Jock Garden, the secretary of the NSW Labour Council, and were known as the “Trades Hall Reds”. They supported the OBU perspective, and had a policy of working in the ALP. Garden had briefly been in the Socialist Labour Party inspired by the American Daniel De Leon. This group included W.P. Earsman of the Sydney Labour College, who was the provisional secretary of the new party and a delegate to the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921. They saw the new form of Bolshevik organisation as a way of more successfully pursuing their existing perspectives for the OBU, and taking over the ALP.
- The Australian Socialist Party. They were formerly the Socialist Federation of Australia, and were made up of a range of currents. Their main emphasis was on Marxist propaganda. They mostly opposed participation in the ALP. Among their members at this meeting was their secretary, Arthur Reardon. They were supported by and had links with the radical Russian émigrés. Most prominent of these was Artem (Thomas Sergeiev), who returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution, becoming a member of the Central Committee. He was killed in the crash of an experimental train in 1921, together with Paul Freeman, one of the ASP delegates to the Third Congress of the Comintern. They were more numerous and better organised than the Trades Hall Reds, and had expected to dominate the new party.
- Former IWW members, such as Tom Glynn, one of the famous IWW 12, who were framed up on charges of plotting to burn down Sydney during World War I. Although largely defunct as an organisation, the IWW still had a building in Sussex Street, which became the office of the new Communist Party. Garden managed to get a bloc with them in the fledgling party, and outvoted the larger ASP group.
- There were also members and former members of smaller socialist parties. From Melbourne came C.W. Baker of the Victorian Socialist Party communists, and Guido Barrachi from the group around Andrade’s Bookshop. Representing another small communist group was the secretary of the Seamen’s Union, Tom Walsh, and his wife Adela Pankhurst. J.B. Miles represented the Queensland Communist Group.
The two main currents were Garden’s Trades Hall Reds and the ASP, and they represented two quite different political approaches, particularly in regard to the Australian Labor Party. The traditional approach of many Australian socialists such as Garden was to work in the ALP, to try to transform it from within, seeing it as “the mass party”, somehow a workers party.
Two months after its formation, the CPA split over its attitude to the ALP. The ASP hived off. Personality clashes were undoubtedly involved, as well as disputes over property, but the previously existing political differences had not been overcome. The ASP accused their opponents of opportunism towards the ALP; the CPA branded the ASP inflexible sectarians.
It was a time of ferment following the war, and not all socialists were regrouped in the newly formed and divided Communist Party. Radical sentiments were strong in the unions and in the Labor Party.
In June 1921 the ALP leadership called an All Australian Trades Union Conference in response to increased sentiments for socialism, in order to direct those sentiments into safe channels. This conference adopted a “socialisation of industry” objective.
The ASP denounced the conference, while Garden and the CPA enthusiastically participated and threw their weight behind its decisions.
But the delegates were not guided by the revolutionary perspectives elaborated by Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. They followed reformist views of Australian socialists such as R.S. Ross of the Victorian Socialist Party (who refused to join the CPA). Frank Farrell, in his book International Socialism and Australian Labour,describes Ross’ outlook:
“The task set for socialists in Australia was to forge a united working class behind the OBU and the ALP. This would be the easiest road to socialism, he argued, because it was precisely the labour movement’s championing of democratic rights and improved standards of life that had so altered the Australian environment as to make Bolshevism inapplicable.”
The October 1921 ALP federal conference considered the recommendations from the June conference, and watered down the socialist objective even further. The ALP was able to absorb the push to the left, and the divided communists were unable to take advantage.
In the early years following the Russian Revolution, socialists in Australia naturally looked to the Bolsheviks for guidance. The Communist International was established by the Bolsheviks in 1919 to help spread their ideas, develop Communist parties around the world and coordinate revolutionary activity. Many of the parties that affiliated to the Comintern and became sections resulted from splits in the previous social democratic parties, splits encouraged by the Bolsheviks. Often there were several groups in one country vying for recognition. In Australia the Comintern at first seemed to favour the ASP, but by 1921 it was urging groups to unite. The ASP resisted such calls for unity.
The Comintern Third Congress, held in June-July 1921, adopted the slogan “to the masses” and a tactic of proposing united fronts to the reformist parties. This seemed to favour the Garden line, much to the consternation of the ASP, which had polemicised against the dangers of boring from within, and the corruption resulting from association with reformists.
In August 1922 the Comintern recognised the CPA, while the ASP was still refusing a unity conference. So by the end of 1922, most ASP members had split off and joined the CPA.
Alastair Davidson writes in his The Communist Party of Australia that the united front policy adopted by the Comintern in 1921 “appeared to be similar to the policy already adopted by the CPA in accordance with Australian socialist tradition. Both advised party members to work through the trade unions and labor parties and emphasised the need to concentrate on piecemeal demands rather than extreme revolutionary attitudes. But there was one crucial difference … The Comintern’s advice to work with labor parties was not based on any belief that these parties were now acceptable. They were still just as untrustworthy, but they had the support of the workers. The object in uniting with them was not to refurbish them or to capture them but to steal their support and destroy them. All parties other than communist parties were considered outmoded political forms. This attitude differed from that of Garden or the VSP members who had chosen to work in the ALP, and it took the CPA some time to realize the difference.”
In 1922, following their particular interpretation of the united front line of the Comintern, all CPA members joined the ALP. Their formal affiliation was rejected in 1923, and the CPA was subsequently proscribed. The 1924 federal Labor Party conference confirmed the exclusion of communists from membership.
Debates ensued in the party — should they stay in the ALP? The party fell back on its independent activity, organising a rank-and-file trade union movement, and standing in the 1925 NSW elections. Garden, heading the CPA ticket, was shocked when he got only 317 votes. His immediate reaction was to go to the other extreme. He began his close collaboration with Jack Lang and the new Labor government that had been elected in 1925. He began to play down the need for a separate Communist Party.
Guido Barrachi, one of the founders and a leading intellectual, on the eve of the CPA’s December 1925 conference, proposed that the CPA dissolve itself into the ALP. When his proposal was rejected, he left the CPA.
Garden stayed in the ALP and moved increasingly away from CPA activities. Towards the end of 1926, Garden was expelled after refusing to deny press reports that he was no longer a Communist. Most of the trade union officials around him went with him.
It’s estimated the CPA had about 750-1000 members at the time of its formation, and might have grown to even 1500 members shortly after. The members were concentrated in the Sydney and Newcastle area, with strong support among trade unionists, with smaller forces in Melbourne and Brisbane. Branches were set up in Perth and Adelaide, but they folded, to be revived later in the ’20s.
The CPA’s interpretation of the united front policy in this period proved disastrous. By 1925, membership had dropped to 280.
The experience of the CPA’s early years certainly provides no backing for those arguing in later years that the party’s main problems were due to “sectarianism towards the ALP”, and that the party grew when it had a “positive, united-front” approach to the ALP. The majority of the initial membership were absorbed back into the mainstream of Laborism, relinquishing any revolutionary perspective.
The fight against liquidating the party into the ALP was led by Jack Kavanagh. Kavanagh had arrived in Australia in 1925 from Canada, where he had been a founder of the Communist Party there and its first chair. He was CPA chairperson in 1925-29. Tom Wright was secretary.
With the party much reduced in numbers, the new leadership recognised it was basically a propaganda group, and set about improving the educational work of the party. Classes in Marxism were instituted, Communist “Sunday Schools” for young people were established, and Trade Union Educational Leagues were set up with the aim of educating workers about socialism. (These later became the core of the Minority Movement, which helped organise CPA support in the unions.)
At the CPA Christmas conference in 1927, Kavanagh introduced constitutional amendments to try to reorganise the party along democratic centralist lines. Until then the party had operated on organisational principles largely inherited from the earlier socialist groups.
The working-class radicalisation following the war and the Russian Revolution had now receded. Boom conditions prevailed, and strike struggles were at a very low ebb.
The main international campaign for the CPA in this period was in defence of Sacco and Vanzetti, two framed US anarchists sentenced to death and subsequently executed. There were also solidarity campaigns with the British general strike of 1926, and a Hands Off China campaign in 1926-27 against the threat of imperialist intervention to put down China’s nationalist and socialist movement.
In 1927 CPA leader Jack Ryan was sent as a delegate from the recently established Australian Council of Trade Unions to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat conference in Hankow, and was elected to the Communist-dominated executive.
Although the CPA didn’t grow appreciably during the rest of the ’20s, the Kavanagh leadership halted its decline and reorganised the party. They established the political basis for the growth of the party in the early ’30s — building an independent Marxist party aiming to provide leadership in struggle for the working class and other oppressed.
But Kavanagh became a victim of factional struggles in the party, and the need for Moscow to have leaderships obedient to its bidding in Communist parties around the world. He was politically defeated in 1929-30 by the group that won control of the party, led by Lance Sharkey, H. Moxon, Jack Henry and J.B. Miles. Kavanagh’s lieutenant Jack Ryan was expelled from the party in 1930 and Kavanagh himself in 1931.
Kavanagh’s role was subsequently distorted by the victors in the inner-party struggle. The story given in all orthodox CPA accounts is that Kavanagh represented a “right opportunist” trend, a “grave right deviation”, and was soft on the Labor Party. (He was also attacked for sectarianism). With Comintern help, the new team was portrayed as having rescued the party, and being responsible for the successes resulting from the new line. The reality was more complex. For example, Kavanagh was already pursuing a line critical of the ALP.
Kavanagh was readmitted but expelled again in 1934. He became a supporter of Leon Trotsky, and was a leader of the small Australian Trotskyist group until the late ’40s. Sharkey remained the central leader of the CPA for more than 30 years, presiding over the party while it was a hardline supporter of Stalinist policies .
Kavanagh’s role has been greatly clarified by a 1972 Labor History article by Jack Blake, Victorian state secretary in 1933-49 and a member of the CPA Central Committee 1935-55, himself a victim of leadership scapegoating in the early ’50s. Blake pointed out that Kavanagh became prominent in the struggle against Garden’s policy towards the ALP.
“Kavanagh emerged as the most effective leader of the struggle to defend the existence of the Communist Party and develop it into a revolutionary party along Leninist lines …
“In these circumstances it is understandable that Kavanagh reacted by taking an extreme position that was opposite to the one taken by Garden. Kavanagh, with Moxon as his chief backstop, saw the Labor Party as the main obstacle to the development of the Communist Party, and he campaigned vigorously to rally the communists to concentrate their main struggle against the ALP.
“Attempts to place Kavanagh in the category of a descendant of the Second International and an opponent of Comintern policies achieved an appearance of reality only by ignoring or playing down important facts.”
The CPA didn’t flourish in the ’20s. It suffered from the divisions that it inherited, but mainly from the disasters associated with incorrect policies and illusions in the ALP. But it survived and started to regroup, get its house in order and develop as an independent party, able to take advantage of the more favourable conditions for revolutionary activity during the Great Depression. The party grew tenfold in the first few years of the ’30s.
But this period also coincided with the consolidation of Joseph Stalin’s power in the Soviet Union, which represented the triumph of the bureaucracy and the ousting of the original Bolshevik leadership, and the replacement of revolutionary internationalist policies by narrow “national” interests. In Australia it meant the imposition on the CPA of tight control and policies in the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, rather than revolution in Australia.
These two separate processes — Stalinisation and CPA growth during the depression — overlapped. So this part of CPA history has been distorted, both by the new leadership for its own factional reasons, and by all opponents of the CPA, who had no interest in seeing the CPA develop as a revolutionary party.
How Stalinism was consolidated in the CPA
By John Percy
October 18, 1995 — Ten years after the Russian Revolution that was the inspiration for the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, much had changed in the Soviet Union. Bureaucratism was rampant, Lenin was dead, and Stalin was rapidly pushing aside many of the old Bolshevik leaders. The first workers state had survived, but at a cost.
The degeneration of the revolution and the Communist Party and the rise of Stalinism have been well documented and analysed, especially by Trotsky and writers from the Trotskyist tradition such as Isaac Deutscher. These events had a direct impact on the CPA.
Stalinism does not arise from Leninism or democratic centralism or revolution. It was the product of a social process rooted in the international defeat of the working class, in Germany especially, and the isolation of the first workers state. The inherited backwardness and scarcity, the devastation from years of civil war and imperialist intervention, were the basis on which the bureaucracy flourished and workers’ rights and democracy were snuffed out.
The bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had a contradictory character. On the one hand, it was forced to defend the workers state, on which its privileges depended. On the other, it wanted stability, not further revolutionary struggles — “socialism in one country”. Thus Stalinism was fundamentally a conservative, right-wing current.
In the factional struggles in the mid-1920s, Bukharin and Stalin were allied against the Left Opposition, which included Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. Bukharin and Stalin were for tolerating the growth of capitalist agriculture. The Left Opposition favoured a balanced policy of industrialisation, a planned economy and steep taxation on the kulaks, the wealthy peasants, to finance the state sector.
The opposition was hounded and smashed. The Stalin faction not only silenced any questioning or dissident voices within the party, but also began to suppress them physically. Meetings were broken up, party members beaten and imprisoned. Trotsky was expelled from the CPSU at the 15th Congress in December 1927, exiled to Alma Ata in central Asia in 1928 and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929.
Trotsky raised devastating criticisms of Stalin’s international line — on Comintern policy in China 1925-27, leading directly to terrible massacres by the Kuomintang; on policy during the British general strike of 1926; on the causes of the defeat of the 1923 German revolution. But his warnings were heard by only a few. In 1928 the kulaks began to resist the Soviet government by withholding grain. Stalin, panic-stricken, lurched wildly to the left. He declared war on the kulaks and appropriated many of the superficial features of the program of the Left Opposition. The Soviet government announced the first five year plan in 1928. The breakneck speed of Stalin’s forced collectivisation devastated Russian agriculture.
The brutal repression against opposition voices escalated. Millions of peasants were killed, directly or through starvation. It led in the 1930s to the purges, murders, frame-up trials, the destruction of nearly all of Lenin’s Central Committee and most of the old Bolsheviks, the forced deportation of whole nationalities.
Stalin’s left turn was proclaimed by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) in February 1928 and presented to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in July-September 1928. He outlined a schema of “three periods”: the first, from 1917 to 1923, was a time of sharp revolutionary crises; a second, from 1924 to 1928, was a period of capitalist stability; and a Third Period, supposedly now opening, in which the general crisis of capitalism would lead directly and inevitably to revolution. The “Third Period” line developed into a sharp and prolonged turn in the whole policy of the Comintern. Stalin’s line now characterised the social democrats as “social fascists”, the main prop of capitalism, rejecting any united front with them as a way to halt the advance of the fascists. The main fire was even to be directed against the left “social fascists”. This disastrous policy paved the way for Hitler’s triumph in Germany.
Following Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet party, subservient Communist parties were needed around the world. In many cases this required the ousting of the original leaderships, often leaders with long experience in the revolutionary movement. In some countries those ousted were unable to shift from the former rightist line.
But the CPA leadership in the latter part of the 1920s under Jack Kavanagh as president and Tom Wright as secretary was already pursuing a left line of building a party independent of the ALP. They branded the Labor leaders class enemies, in open coalition with the capitalist class, and advocated a more openly and actively hostile attitude to them.
The leadership of Lance Sharkey, J.B. Miles and Herbert Moxon, installed at the December 1929 CPA conference, subsequently manufactured their own myths about the takeover. Their official histories branded Kavanagh and the majority of the Central Committee a “right opportunist” trend, guilty of “departing from Marxism-Leninism” and “glossing over the role of reformism”.
There were certainly differences on tactics, as well as factional battles and personality clashes, involved in the change of leadership. But the main driving force was the desire of Stalin for a submissive leadership in all Communist parties. With the coming to power of the Sharkey-Miles leadership, the CPA became a Stalinist party, pliant and obedient to Moscow. The overturn was closely directed from Moscow.
Former CPA member Barbara Curthoys obtained access to the Comintern archives in Moscow after they were opened in 1989 and published the results of her research on this changeover in an article in Labour History 64, May 1993. The resolutions, conference minutes and actions of the CPA leadership in the three years before the December 1929 conference provide little evidence for the “right deviationist” charge. (Ironically, Sharkey himself, and Jack Ryan, Norman Jeffery and Esmonde Higgins [editor of the Workers Weekly] had been removed from the Central Executive Committee [CEC] as “rightists” at the December 1927 conference.)
The new leaders portrayed the Queensland resolution as a key document in their struggle against Kavanagh. It set out a hard line against the ALP and a perspective of standing CPA candidates in the state elections. But it was initially formulated by Kavanagh, before being discussed in Moscow with the ECCI in April 1928. The CPA leadership in September noted to the ECCI that the “time had come to emerge from the propaganda stage”. Higgins had attended the Comintern congress and reported back at the December 1928 CPA conference.
Curthoys writes that he “was the main speaker for a resolution entitled `The Struggle Against Labor Party Reformism’ which said that the ALP was increasingly identifying itself with the openly reactionary aims of the employers and that as the CPA was the only party of Australia `coming out as an independent revolutionary force we must energetically endeavour to capture the leadership of the Australian workers from the reformists.’ In elections the call was no longer `Vote Labor’ but `vote for the Revolutionary Workers’ candidates’ (CPA or left-wing candidates). “… left-wing ALP candidates were still included. Supporting the resolution, Wright added `that if left-wing organisations do come into existence, we ourselves shall be on good terms with them’ and `we must be careful not to isolate ourselves from them by ill-considered attacks’.”
Curthoys comments that although there were still differences as to whether the Queensland resolution should apply generally, a degree of unity was achieved in that Sharkey, Ryan, Higgins and Jeffery were elected once more to a 10-member CEC.
In the Queensland elections in May 1929, the five CPA-supported candidates polled a lot better than in the 1925 NSW state election. Ted Tripp, a well-known militant in the Australian Railways Union, later a Trotskyist and secretary of the Victorian Labour College, received 1137 votes as a Communist candidate against 4995 for the ALP. Fred Paterson, elected in 1944 as the only CPA member of parliament, standing as a left-wing candidate, received 1418 against the ALP’s 3518.
Differences on the attitude to the ALP came to a head on in September 1929, over the federal elections called for October 12. Curthoys writes that the CEC “decided to support the Labor Party to oust Bruce [National Party prime minister], while promoting an independent Party policy. The CEC policy was at first agreed to by Sharkey, an executive member, who had disagreed with Moxon’s view that if there were no Communist candidates the electors should be asked to vote `informal’, but almost immediately Sharkey withdrew his support for the resolution. With Moxon he sent a cable to the Anglo-American Bureau, ECCI on 18 September criticising the CEC decision.” Cables went back and forth between Sydney and Moscow. The Comintern sent an Open Letter, written on October 13, critical of the December 1928 conference, strongly asserting the social fascist, Third Period line, and critical of the leadership and backing Sharkey. The Scullin Labor government was elected on October 12.
A few weeks later Wall Street crashed. The lockout of miners on the northern NSW coalfields continued, and on December 16 a miner was killed and others wounded by police attacks at Rothbury. Throughout this period the debate raged within the party and with Moscow. The different positions were presented in the Workers Weeklyand debated. A final cable arrived from the ECCI just before the December 1929 conference, to be read out at the conference, denouncing the “opportunist attitude” of the present policy and supporting the opposition. Kavanagh, chairing the conference, reiterated his own position that “the central task of the party is to assert its claim to independent leadership of the working class against capitalism and its reformist allies”.
But conference fell in behind the ECCI and Sharkey. All those on the old CEC who had supported Kavanagh were voted out of office. Curthoys concludes that “in examining the material from the Comintern Archives together with evidence from Australian sources it is apparent that … the Comintern had been the deciding factor in defeating the former leadership”. But it was not just because the Comintern supported the political perspective put forward by the Sharkey-Miles faction challenging the leadership. It was because this faction showed every indication of being blindly obedient to Moscow, whatever the line.
Curthoys points out that “One of the first acts of the new leadership was to cable the ECCI on 30 December 1929, `offering unswerving loyalty to the new line’.” Stalin needed obedient CP leaderships around the world, not necessarily left leaderships, and certainly not leaderships that were independent thinkers with their own base of support. A Comintern representative, Harry Wicks, a former CPUSA official, arrived in Australia in April 1930 to ensure the implementation of the Third Period line. He was known in Australia as Herbert Moore.
Kavanagh still had support in the ranks. Even after his removal from the Central Committee, he and his supporters were re-elected to the leadership bodies in Sydney and NSW. Ryan was expelled on dubious charges. Kavanagh was sent off to Adelaide. But he developed popular support there, so had to be brought back to Sydney and expelled in 1931. Soon after, Higgins, his sole supporter on the CC, was removed from office. Then Wicks had Moxon removed from his position as party secretary, replacing him with J.B. Miles. Wicks sent several members of the Sharkey-Miles group to Moscow for training at the Lenin School, including Richard Dixon and Jack Blake.
The new leadership replaced democratic centralism with leadership methods modelled on those of the Soviet bureaucracy. It replaced discussion and education and persuasion with commands. The party secretariat was the top body, through which the Comintern exercised control. A “bolshevisation” campaign replaced branches with a cell structure. It emphasised the duties of members, rather than rights of discussion, unquestioning submission to the apparatus and orders from the top rather than collective decision-making. Dissent was outlawed, a contrast to the lively discussions in the party up to then, and even public debates between Kavanagh and his critics in the party press in 1929.
As Edna Ryan put it in a letter written in 1980, in the 1920s “it didn’t occur to us at the time that we were enjoying liberty of thought and expression, but there was no hushing and stifling, no fear of being accused if one proposed a tactic or an idea”. Nearly all the founders of the CPA and the early leaders, who had had experience in the class struggles of the period before 1920, were pushed aside or had dropped out by the end of the ’20s.
Events were already pushing the CPA to the left even before the change of line and leadership imposed by Moscow. Depression was on the horizon, and strikes on the rise. Three major industrial disputes took place in 1928-29 as workers resisted attacks on their conditions, rights and wages: in the coal mines, on the waterfront and in the timber industry. The traditional union leaders proved incapable of defending members’ conditions.
The Wall Street crash of October 1929 threw millions out of work. At the height of the crisis, one in three workers in Australia were unemployed. People were looking for radical solutions. Labor governments were initially called on to manage capitalism at the onset of the depression. The Scullin ALP federal government was totally ill equipped to deal with the crisis. It had no inclination to implement radical or socialist solutions, so ended up with measures no different from the conservatives’ — austerity and wage cuts. All Labor governments were totally discredited, with the exception of that of Jack Lang in NSW.
Lang’s first government in 1925-27 had introduced extensive reforms and social service measures. He was elected premier of NSW again in October 1930. Many of the former CPA members who left in the mid-’20s were now with Lang. He was a demagogue, strong on radical rhetoric, but had mass working-class support.
In August 1930 Sir Otto Niemeyer, head of the Bank of England, visited Australia on behalf of the British banks to advise the governments. The result was the “Premiers’ Plan”, austerity measures to make workers pay the costs of capitalism’s failure. Governments were to cut expenditure, balance their budgets and reduce the standard of living of workers. Lang at first supported the plan. Then in February 1931 he introduced his own “Lang Plan”, which involved the suspension of interest payments to the London bankers for three years. His protests against the Premiers Plan won him a huge following.
In 1932, when Lang attempted to prevent garnishee orders on state funds being implemented after he refused to pay state debts, NSW Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed him from office. Workers were incensed. A huge demonstration in Moore Park — estimates in the press varied from 100,000 to 250,000 — demanded a militant response.
The CPA stood aside, persisting in its sectarian attack on Lang as a “social fascist”. It maintained that Lang’s actions and his dismissal were of “no concern” to workers. This was a terrible political mistake. It was not necessarily a mistake being outside the ALP. The CPA built itself among the unemployed with its independent stance. But it was a mistake not making a tactical orientation to Lang as soon as he defied the British banks. Of course he was going to back down. He didn’t even urge his supporters to “maintain your rage”, but retreated to his farm when workers were calling for more militant action. He put his hopes in the election, and lost. But the CPA could have reached the masses of the ALP supporters through a policy of critical support. The social-fascism line from Stalin prevented this.
Another indication of the radicalisation amongst ALP supporters was the Socialisation Units that developed in the NSW ALP. These were set up after the 1930 annual conference appointed a committee to propagate the socialist objective of the Labor Party. They quickly expanded into a significant challenge to the Inner Group leadership of Lang, Garden and Co.
The proposals might have been naive, hoping to introduce socialism through a three-year plan voted in by parliament, but their supporters were genuinely radical, moving left in response to the depression. (See Robert Cooksey, Lang and Socialism, A study of the Great Depression.) They were denounced by Lang in 1932 as in league with the Communists, and disbanded in 1933. Again, the CPA attacked the units as “left social fascists”. Probably some CPA members were assigned to do some work in them, trying to break them away from the ALP, but the Third Period policies wasted another opportunity to reach radicalising workers.
Period of growth
Yet the early ’30s was one of the most rapid periods of growth in the CPA’s history. The CPA’s energetic work in the depression laid the foundations for establishing the CPA as a force to be reckoned with in the Australian labour movement. In spite of the tactical errors and sectarian abuse, the CPA did grow, by organising the working class and unemployed in struggle, by developing an independent leadership of the working class and posing itself as an alternative to the ALP.
The fundamental thrust of CPA strategy was successful. Without the “social fascist” lunacy, there would have been even greater gains, but from 1930 to 1933 the CPA went from about 300 to 3000 members. But two approaches overlapped, which have been confused and condensed by historians of the CPA, including former CPA leaders themselves.
First, there was the analysis of the ALP as fundamentally a capitalist party, a roadblock to socialism and misleader of the working class, and a strategy for building an independent working-class party and engaging in militant struggle to try to win the leadership of workers, the unemployed and other oppressed. That’s not “sectarian”. That’s fundamental and necessary for a revolutionary party. This had been the approach of the early Comintern, of Lenin’s party. And it had been the approach of the Kavanagh leadership.
Second, there was the Third Period line imposed by Stalin, consisting of slanderous attacks on the ALP as “social fascists” and ultra-sectarian action, leading to isolation from leftward moving workers with illusions in the ALP leadership, especially Lang. This line led to disaster in Germany, and the smashing of the German working class. In countries like Australia, although the stakes might not have been so high, nor the consequences so bloody, it also severely harmed the development of the Communist Party and meant many missed opportunities.
Communist Party growth during the Great Depression
By John Percy
October 31, 1995 — The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) experienced its most rapid growth in the years 1930-1934, going from 300 to 3000 members. The misery and desperation of the depression years, with up to one third of the work force unemployed, pushed many to look for radical solutions.
CPA members showed determination and sacrifice in fighting the depression’s terrible impact. The CPA provided leadership and organisation for the unemployed, through the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), and could point to the Soviet Union as a socialist alternative to the horrors of capitalism in the midst of crisis. They put themselves forward as an independent alternative to the parties responsible for administering the mess, the ALP included.
As the depression started to ease many of the unemployed party members found work in industry. From this foundation the CPA started to win leadership positions in key industrial unions, and built a strong party with a significant working class base. The Unemployed Workers Movement The Unemployed Workers Movement was formed in April 1930, initiated by and under the leadership of the Communist Party. In around 18 months it had grown to 31,000 members and continued to grow until 1936. In 1934 it claimed around 68,000 members in the Eastern states.
In 1935 CPA president Lance Sharkey told the Comintern that the CPA, through its control of the UWM, had effective control of the unemployed in NSW and Victoria. The CPA recruited a large proportion of its new members through the UWM. As Ralph Gibson says in his book The People Stand Up, when he joined, the CPA “was largely a party of the unemployed. Its numbers were not just talking about poverty. They were among the multitude who were deep in it.” There were other organisations of the unemployed created by the Labor Party and Trades Hall Councils. But the UWM, primarily due to the leadership of the CPA, outstripped these organisations, both in size and in activity. The UWM led struggles that contributed greatly to the militant tradition of the workers and the poor — anti-eviction battles, fights to defend free speech, demonstrations, dole strikes and campaigns for relief works to provide jobs.
In NSW the CPA was involved in the hunger marches from the northern coalfields, Newcastle, the south coast and Lithgow to press the claims of the unemployed. In Melbourne they led the heroic dole strike of the unemployed in 1933. The government introduced “work for the dole” in 1932.
Ralph Gibson writes: “`Work for the Dole’ was something different from the `relief work’ which at first consisted of two or three months’ work for one of the Government departments and which, despite all its bad features, was paid in wages, and was partly an answer to the dire need of the unemployed for something in addition to food and groceries, — clothing especially. `Work for the Dole’ was work for so many hours a week to `earn’ the weekly voucher. It was part of the Government’s `economy’ drive (it could get work done for the dole for which it would otherwise have to pay wages), and it resulted also from a `moral’ campaign in church and other circles about the evils of getting sustenance without working.” In June 1933, when the unemployed in the inner city area were issued a work for the dole call-up, the CPA decided to initiate a strike.
The UWM conducted an 8-week strike of the unemployed which forced an increase in dole payments from 12 shillings to 20 shillings weekly for a married man. Intense organising throughout the city to win support for the strikers and collect food and money for their families ensured success. A second dole strike in 1935 forced rates up a second time. During the depression, many unemployed workers chose jail as an alternative. At least they got a roof over their heads and a feed. But sometimes it was more organised, a tactic to keep the prisons full to embarrass the authorities.
Edgar Ross, in his book Of Storm and Struggle, recalls the use of this tactic in Broken Hill. “The tactic of `Breaking into Gaol’ was part of a sustained campaign directed at forcing the rescission of arduous restrictions on the dole imposed by the anti-Labor Bavin government in NSW.”
The CPA was at the centre of many of the battles defending the unemployed against evictions. The Sydney Morning Herald described one such battle in Newtown, Sydney in June 1931. “The most sensational battle Sydney has ever known was fought between 40 policemen and 18 Communists … All the defenders were injured, some seriously.” Bullets flew, one man was hit. “Entrenched behind barbed wire and sandbags, the defenders rained stones weighing several pounds from the top floor of the building on to the heads of the attacking police, who were attempting to execute an eviction order. “A crowd hostile to the police, numbering many thousands … threatened to become out of hand … When constables emerged from the back of the building with their faces covered in blood, the crowd hooted and shouted insulting remarks.”
Gibson writes that “Our propaganda for socialism met with considerable response. Events had made many people more receptive to socialist ideas. Witness the large audiences that would gather to hear any returned visitor from the Soviet Union, the record sales of the Dean of Canterbury’s `Socialist Sixth of the World’ (later in the thirties), and some of the Communist Party election votes (O’Day’s 2500 in the small electorate of Carlton in 1932) or my 4750 in a large outer suburban-cum-rural Federal electorate in 1934, for example). Particularly in the acute crisis of 1929-33 we talked a lot about capitalism and socialism and the contrast between the two.
“Percy Laidler, close friend of the party, was constantly giving two lantern lectures at meetings called by suburban and country branches of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Both lectures dealt with capitalism in a fundamental way and from a Marxist standpoint. They were entitled `Cold and Hungry’ and `Poverty and Plenty’.”
Numerous free speech fights took place. The CPA challenged the bans on meetings. In Brunswick, Melbourne in 1933, dozens of CPA members were jailed, including Ralph Gibson. (John Sendy, Ralph Gibson, An Extraordinary Communist.) CPA member and artist Noel Counihan addressed a crowd from a cage on top a truck. Police had to cut him out, to the jeers of the crowd, as he continued speaking.
There were clashes with the New Guard in NSW, a semi-fascist outfit patterned on the storm-troopers of Europe, that was set up to smash communist, socialist and workers’ meetings and demonstrations. It was led by Colonel Eric Campbell, and initially made up of middle class empire loyalists demanding subservience to “King and Country”. In 1931-32 it became more menacing as its membership swelled to 50-100,000. Similar organisations sprung up in other states. The CPA set up its own defence guard to defend meetings and demonstrations.
The success of the CPA in this period can be gauged by their membership figures. At the start of 1930, they had 300 members. By May 1931 they’d grown to perhaps 1200 members, and then to a boasted 2329 later that year. And they’d grown to nearly 3000 members by 1934 (some say by 1932). There was a high turnover, but those who stayed were trained as disciplined activists. The CPA paper The Workers’ Weekly had sales of about 2000 in 1928, but by 1931 this had risen to 10,000, then went higher.
Through the leadership change in 1929-30, and the substantial growth during the Depression, the CPA was remade. Some even describe it as a “re-founding.” But it was now a loyal Stalinist party, taking its lead from Moscow, and brooking no dissent. There was much less discussion and independent thinking from its members, but an enthusiasm for the first workers’ state in Russia and dedication to the revolutionary struggle in Australia. Few of the founders from 1920 were left. Many of the leaders, members of the CPA central committee in the ’20s, had been forced out or expelled. Many of them ended up in the ALP, such as Jock Garden and other “Trades Hall Reds”. Dinny Lovegrove, the CPA Victorian state secretary expelled in 1933 along with most of the state committee, became a supporter of Bukharin for a while, and later the deputy state leader of the ALP.
The early Trotskyist movement
Although quite a few CPA leaders eventually ended up in the Trotskyist milieu, a Trotskyist group was not organised in Australia until several years after groups were formed or splits in CPs took place in Europe or North America. In the USA, a Trotskyist party was formed in 1928 after CP leaders James P Cannon, Martin Abern and Max Schactman were expelled. Cannon was a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, and together with a Canadian delegate, Maurice Spector, accidentally received a copy of Trotsky’s criticism of the draft program. They were convinced by the arguments and smuggled the document back to America. They convinced a number of other CP members, and set up a Trotskyist party on a clear basis after they were expelled.
In Sydney, the founder of the small Trotskyist group and its most prominent figure in the early 1930s was Jack Sylvester. Sylvester stood as the Communist candidate for Balmain in the 1930 state elections, and founded the Balmain branch of the UWM. By the end of 1931 he was national secretary of the UWM, and a member of the CPA Central Committee. From January 1932, he published a weekly newspaper for the unemployed, The Tocsin. In late 1932 he was denounced by the CPA for Trotskyism and expelled.
Joey Boxhall, a leader of the Glebe Unemployed Committee, was also expelled from the CPA and became a founder of the Trotskyist group. He and his supporters continued to retain the support of the Glebe unemployed, and controlled the office in the face of CPA attacks.
John Anderson, Challis professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, was a prominent CPA intellectual in the late 1920s and early ’30s. In 1932 he broke with the CPA and linked up with Sylvester and Boxhall, and was a member of the Trotskyist group from 1933 until 1937. (See A. J. Baker, Anderson’s Social Philosophy — The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson.) He was critical of reformism and the Labor Party, so had no problem with that aspect of the new Comintern line of the CPA. But he rejected the clamping down of discussion. He was extremely critical of illiberal communism, any sign of bureaucracy.
Another early member of the Trotskyist group was Laurie Short (well known from 1950 as the very right-wing leader of the Ironworkers Union). In 1932, at the age of 16, he was expelled from the Young Communist League on the charge of disruption. The early Trotskyist movement of the 1930s is described by Susanna Short in the biography of her father, Laurie Short — A political life. These CPA dissidents got hold of a copy of theMilitant, the paper of the US Trotskyist group, brought by a visiting US seafarer, and became convinced of Trotskyism.
In May 1933 they initiated a meeting in Rozelle of about 20-30 people, mainly unemployed, to form the Workers Party of Australia (Left Opposition). The first secretary of the group was Joey Boxhall. In October 1933 the group started a monthly newspaper the Militant. Izzie Wyner, who also lived in Balmain, and had recently been expelled from the YCL, was another early member. Nick Origlass and Ted Tripp also joined in 1934, after expulsion from the CPA. Tripp had been the first Australian to attend the Lenin School in Moscow in the late ’20s, and on his return he served on the Political Bureau of the CPA Central Committee, and was the first national secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union.
Origlass was the central figure in the Trotskyist group during the ’40s and ’50s. Other former CPA leaders who were in or around the Trotskyist movement at one time included Jack Kavanagh, president of the CPA from 1925-29, Esmonde Higgins, and Jack and Edna Ryan. Kavanagh was expelled from the CPA for a second time in 1934, joined the Trotskyists in 1940 and stood as a candidate for a Trotskyist group in the seat of Sydney in 1946. Gilbert Roper, a former member of the Central Committee who had assisted Moxon and Sharkey to take control of the party in 1929, had joined by 1937, and played an important role. J. N. Rawlings, who had been prominent in the Movement Against War and Fascism, joined the Trotskyists after the Stalin-Hitler pact, as did Guido Baracchi, present at the founding meeting of the Communist Party in October 1920, and a former Central Committee member.
Despite a small base among the unemployed in Glebe and Balmain in the ’30s, despite some successful union work in Balmain during the war, and despite winning over quite a few of the former leaders of the CPA, the Trotskyist group remained small. The Australian Trotskyists never numbered more than 50 members before 1965. Around the world many who joined the small Trotskyist groups had been central leaders of the communist parties. But here as elsewhere, the Trotskyists were organisationally defeated by the supporters of Stalin, and their mass support and groups remained tiny compared to the official communist parties.
In the Soviet Union, the old Bolsheviks, in fact anyone opposing Stalin, were getting herded off to labour camps, sent into exile, shot. Trotsky was hounded from exile in Alma Ata, to Prinkipo in Turkey, to Norway, finally finding refuge in Mexico until he was murdered in 1940 by an agent of Stalin. Trotsky’s criticism of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party proved tragically correct.
The bureaucratisation of the party and state didn’t have its final outcome until the total collapse of the Soviet Union 60 years later. But in nearly every communist party around the world the opponents of Stalin, any dissenters, were persecuted, driven out, isolated. The Trotskyists were a small voice in the wilderness. Why the communist parties grew.
Why did the CPs grow?
Why did the CPs grow, while their opponents, often the former leaderships, with policies closer to those of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, and with an explanation for the contradictions and bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union, remain tiny groups? Workers valued unity, and saw any criticism of the Soviet Union as disrupting that unity. They still had illusions in the Stalin leadership. They looked to the Soviet Union as the first workers’ state, and were loyal to that first victory. They saw the gains, and rejected the stories of repression as capitalist propaganda. The Stalinist propaganda and fabrications, despite the rebuttals by Trotsky and others, held sway. The prestige of the Russian Revolution and the first socialist state reflected on the local communist parties. They even benefited from some material assistance.
Did the Trotskyists make mistakes that otherwise could have altered the balance of forces? In those early years they must have made many. They suffered from all the problems of a small group — the isolation, the in-fighting, the inevitable sectarianism. They underwent many splits. In later years, the Trotskyist movement institutionalised many errors. For example, they converted into a permanent principle the tactic of entry into the ALP, submerging themselves into it to try to win members or the party as a whole to a Marxist perspective. They suffered from the misconception that in spite of the ALP’s political program and record of commitment to the preservation of capitalism and its institutions, it was somehow still the workers’ party.
This permanently shackled the Trotskyists. But there were also positive things that the CPA did, apart from the advantage of identification with the Russian Revolution, and starting with the existing organisation, its strength and resources. During the crisis years of the Depression, their line was to organise the oppressed in struggle and energetically build a political alternative.
Independence from the capitalist parties running the system was crucial, and their critical stance to the ALP was key. The Communists also won support through their efficient organisation. Their members were trained through the struggles of the unemployed, and on the industrial front later on. And most importantly, the commitment and dedication of the CPA ranks achieved many successes in the mass movements and in building the party, and won them authority among militant workers.
Lance Sharkey, speaking of the early 1930s in his speech to the CPA’s 12th Congress in November 1938, observed that “there was a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and it would not be all a bad thing if we were able to recapture some of the energy and enthusiasm, perhaps `fanaticism’ of that period.” That energy and enthusiasm certainly needs to be remembered, and recaptured for the building of a strong socialist movement in the future.
The CPA and the unions
By John Percy
November 14, 1995 — The Communist Party of Australia developed a strong base in important industrial unions during the 1930s. As the depression eased, CPA members recruited from the unemployed and trained in action through the struggles of the Depression, had got jobs in industry. This working class base, which became the core of the CPA, grew and was consolidated during the 1940s.
The work of party members in unions was well organised. CPA union leaders became astute tacticians, learning how to organise union struggles, and how to win strikes. They developed strong working class support and respect as workers’ leaders. The CPA’s trade union work in the ’30s and ’40s holds many useful lessons for socialists today and for the future. At its formation the CPA also had a union base, but its strength was greater in the labor councils than in the unions themselves. Jock Garden was secretary of the NSW Labor Council, and most of his executive joined the CPA. In 1921 the council had 30 communist union delegates. The secretaries of Newcastle and Brisbane labour councils were also CPA members. Fifteen per cent of the delegates at the 1921 trade union conference which recommended that the ALP adopt a socialisation objective were communists.
But Garden’s boasting at the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 that the CPA “had control of 347,000 trade unionists” was not based on real communist support in the working class. As Alastair Davidson wrote in his history of the CPA, “The CPA policy of concentrating activity in the labor councils resulted in its neglect of rank and file activity in the unions and its failure to attempt to capture positions on union executives”. After a few years the CPA lost its initially quite good position among workers. This was partly because of the ebb of the post-war revolutionary sentiment, but it was also a result of the mistakes of the Garden leadership. There was a tendency to substitute revolutionary phrase-mongering and sloganeering for the building of a rank-and-file base. For example, the party made a stupid intervention in the 1923 coal lock-out calling for a general strike against the wishes of the miners and the Miners’ Federation leadership. With the departure from the party in the mid-’20s of Garden and many of the trade union and labor council officials, the CPA’s connections with the union movement were greatly reduced.
The Militant Minority Movement
The foundations for the very impressive gains made by the CPA in the trade unions in the 1930s were laid by its work amongst the unemployed, and in the Militant Minority Movement (MMM).
As Australia entered the Depression the old union leaders proved incapable of adequately defending the workers they were supposed to represent. Trade unionism, on its own, proved totally inadequate to even fend off the bosses’ attacks. But as the economy slowly improved, militancy was stepped up and fighting leaderships were elected in some powerful unions. A number of these militants were members of the MMM.
The MMM, the movement of rank and file trade unionists formed by the CPA in 1928, was based on the British MMM model. In 1930, the CPA started paying more attention to organising through the MMM. It aimed to win a hearing for revolutionary views, to recruit to the party, to organise the ranks and sometimes the community, and to eventually replace the old, incompetent leaderships of unions with communist union officials and organisers.
The membership of the MMM often overlapped with that of the Unemployed Workers Movement according to Bob Gollan in Revolutionaries and Reformists. “One reaction of unionists and their officials was to avoid the unemployed like the plague — they constituted a threat to their own jobs. By contrast, the UWM and the MMM stated a class position: that all workers had common interests which could be protected only by united action.” MMM members participated in anti-eviction battles, free speech fights and community self-help projects. Thus “individual communists emerged as popular leaders, experienced in political struggle, who later moved into positions of authority in the labour movement, in particular in the unions”.
The MMM published the Red Leader, a weekly newspaper, of which more than 9000 copies were being sold each week by 1934. At its peak it had over 30,000 readers. The MMM was initially strongest in the traditionally militant unions; it was strong on the NSW coalfields and at Wonthaggi in Victoria, and also on the waterfront and in the railways. In the early ’30s it was able to win positions at a local and state level, for example in the Victorian Tramways Union, and the Victorian Federated Engine Drivers’ and Firemen’s Association. Discussing the work of the MMM during the long miners’ strike at Wonthaggi in 1934, Richard Dixon, CP assistant secretary and later party president, wrote that 400 of the local miners were members of the MMM. A retired miner who participated in the events claimed that 700 Wonthaggi miners eventually belonged to the MMM.
Trade union base
Communists Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson were elected as federal secretary and president of the Miners’ Federation in 1933 and 1934. This first significant communist union election victory was a direct result of the strength of the MMM. Ralph Gibson writes in The People Stand Up that the unemployed of the early ’30s provided from among their leaders “many who later filled important trade union positions. The highly democratic grassroots organisation of the unemployed threw up many talented new leaders.
Many of these moved into industry as the depression began to lift and more jobs became available. This was a period when new militant personnel were badly needed in the unions. Many of the union officials at this time were not only right wing, but incompetent, and it was urgent to fill their places. Leaders of the unemployed, largely Communist Party members, commended themselves to their fellow unionists as people who could do the job required.”
Thus Ernie Thornton of Collingwood Unemployed, became the state, and then federal secretary of the Ironworkers’ Union in 1936. George Frank, of Richmond Unemployed, finished as federal secretary of the Carpenters’ Union (later called the Building Workers Industrial Union). Jim Munro, of North Melbourne Unemployed, became an organiser of the Timber Workers’ Union. Tom Hills, who led the unemployed in Port Melbourne, was prominent in Waterside Workers’ Federation activity. Brand, leader of the Brunswick Unemployed Single Men’s Group, became president of the Victorian Branch of the Ironworkers’ Union when Thornton transferred to the national office in Sydney.
“Looking round the Trades Hall Council chamber any Thursday evening in the 1930s”, Gibson commented, “one would see a great many faces familiar from the days of the unemployed battles, mainly much younger faces than the Trades Hall average.” Dixon, writing in 1970 about the party’s industrial work in the 1930s, estimated that, “By the beginning of 1937 there were more than 20 Communist trade union officials and upwards of 1000 Communists holding executive or local union positions throughout Australia”.
Tom Wright, CPA secretary in the late ’20s, was elected NSW secretary of the Sheetmetal Workers’ Union in 1935. In 1937 Jim Healy was elected secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. In 1938 Don Thompson was elected secretary of the Building Trades Federation in Victoria. Between 1939 and 1942, Elliott V. Elliott became federal secretary of the Seamen’s Union, a left leadership won control of the NSW Clerks Union, and J.J. Brown was elected Victorian state secretary of the ARU. By 1942 Communists led by Sam Lewis more or less controlled the Teachers’ Federation.
The workers’ movement was significantly reorganised and strengthened by the Communist Party’s successes. The unions with new Communist leaderships were winning some gains in the second half of the ’30s, trying to restore what had been lost by workers during the Depression.
Ralph Gibson states in his book The Fight Goes On, there were two great infusions of members into the CPA: “First came the Party members who organised the unemployed in the depression. Many of these later became a leading force in the trade unions as they entered industry with the partial revival of employment … “Then there was the infusion in the war years 1941 to 1945 — a double infusion of factory workers influenced by the changed political climate and of members of the armed forces.”
The Popular Front
Well, what happened between these two infusions? The CPA gained more influence in the trade unions, as outlined above. It built and consolidated its organisation in all states. The party press was better established by 1939: Tribune‘s circulation was 20,000; the Victorian Guardian, 10,000; and the North Queensland Guardianand the People’s Star of South Australia, 5000 each. Many successful campaigns were organised such as the Movement Against War and Fascism and the Friends of the Soviet Union.
But most CPA historians agree that the party grew only slowly between 1935 and the outbreak of war. At the party’s Twelfth congress in November 1938, it was claimed that membership was 3000 in 1932, but had only risen to 5000 by 1938. However, a major political somersault — the popular front — had been ordered by Stalin. Dimitrov launched the new line at the Seventh (and last) Congress of the Comintern in 1935. Stalin had started to change tack in 1934 following the disasters which resulted from the application of his third period or “social fascism” line — the smashing of the German working class and the coming to power of Hitler.
But in trying, belatedly, to counter the monster that had been unleashed, Stalin introduced a major revision in Communist theory. The new line went far beyond a united front of workers’ parties to fight fascism, which Stalin had rejected for Germany. It not only proposed the inclusion of capitalist parties in the popular front, it went even further and sanctioned the participation of Communist parties in capitalist governments. The basis for this line was Stalin’s determination to subordinate everything to the diplomatic needs of the Soviet Union even though this did not achieve the desired result. It did not provide the best defence for the Soviet Union and it also meant that the needs of the revolutionary struggles in other countries were put way down the list of priorities.
The immediate results of these policies, in the strategic countries for which they were intended, were disastrous; the working class in France and Spain suffered major defeats. In countries on the periphery of world politics, such as Australia, the same popular front line was adopted. CPA propaganda increasingly adopted a vulgar nationalist character. An election leaflet in 1937 warned of the danger to the British Empire. Some CPA anti-Japanese literature even took on a racist character. The CPA tailed behind the ALP. In the 1937 elections the party talked about electing a “fighting Labor government” which would legislate “a better life” for he people. “It is a gross error”, party secretary J.B. Miles said, “to see the Labor Governments as administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed the workers”.
In addition to the pressure of the Australian labour movement bearing down on the CPA — its tendency to adapt to the ALP, to cave in to what were seen as “Australian traditions” or “the Australian reality” and to support the ALP for other than tactical reasons — a second factor came into play and was formalised with the popular front line. From then on this became the new orthodoxy in the Communist movement, and it conflicted with the traditional Leninist views on the state and the class struggle dynamics of the revolutionary process. In many Communist parties such as the CPA, both positions could coexist side by side, sometimes even in the same document.
But in the CPA for the next 30 years the norm in practice was the popular front line rather than the class struggle line. This was the fundamental impact of Stalinism on the CPA; it was a right-wing influence, not an ultra-left impact, as some writers have tried to maintain. The third period line was an exception. For example, John Sendy in Comrades Come Rally goes even further than most and identifies the party’s supposed errors as Leninist. “The attitude of the CPA towards the ALP, while marked by chops and changes, has been immature and impatient and heavily influenced by the tactics adopted by the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks.” But the lack of any significant immediate results stemming from the application of the new line in Australia is a bit awkward for orthodox CP historians. The party didn’t grow much! Bill Brown, in his The Communist Movement and Australia, puts forward the excuse that “sectarian tendencies were not adequately eradicated in the immediate years” after the Seventh Comintern Congress.
CPA writers sometimes point to the growing number of positions won in the unions. But it’s clear these victories were the fruits of the previous period, from the successes in the UWM and the MMM and the strength the CPA developed in the ranks of the unions. They weren’t the result of the rightward turn, the popular front line instituted from 1935, or from using the code words — “a correct united front approach to the ALP” — adopted by the CPA. There’s an important lesson here which is ignored by most of the fake left union officials from the ’50s on — the need for unity in struggle, rather than unity in inaction with the ALP leadership.
Lessons for today
We can learn many lessons about practical trade union work from the CPA’ experiences in the ’30s: how to organise the militant unionists on the job, city-wide and nation-wide; the importance of politicising workers’ struggles, of injecting class politics into union activities; the value of industrial rather than craft unionism; the need for shop committees, uniting workers in the factory irrespective of the craft union they belonged to.
But the key lesson is the need for independent leadership, independent of the reformist misleaders of the trade unions, and independent of the ALP. Reflecting on this period and the CPA’s “independent leadership” policy, Dixon later wrote: “We saw in this the possibility of a whole new mass movement and of leadership in the anti-capitalist struggle. We were out to build unity on the factory floor, at the gate, and locally in unemployment committees. We were for workers electing leaders from their own ranks and keeping control of struggles in their own hands. This policy, despite its shortcomings, brought positive and lasting results for the workers. Attacks were made on them such as had never been known before but we rallied large sections of working people into the struggle.”