The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was founded in 1920 and dissolved 25 years ago, in 1991. There was a time when the Communist Party was described by the establishment as the greatest menace that existed in Australian society.
An endless stream of leaflets, pamphlets, books, newspaper editorials and articles conjured up an Armageddon-like vision of the “Commo’s” only a few steps away from taking power. Liberal Prime Minister Menzies even attempted to have the party banned through a referendum.
In the late 1940s in the Sydney area alone there were 113 branches of the party. In Queensland the Communists had a member of parliament. At one point the party controlled 40% of the unions affiliated to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
It wasn’t just at a leadership level of the unions that the Communists were active, there was also a vast rank and file network. In the Chullora railway workshops alone there were five branches of the party.
Towards the end of its life however the party’s vast base within the trade unions had been reduced to a few positions within the union bureaucracy – the vast membership of ordinary workers had completely disappeared. To understand what happened, it is necessary to look at the party’s history.
The Communist Party was first formed in Sydney in 1920 by 26 people. It was formed under the impetus of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which inspired working class activists right throughout the world.
However it was not until the onset of the depression, some ten years later, that the Communists were able to make really big gains. This they were able to do through their work in the trade unions and amongst the rapidly growing number of unemployed. Their work resulted in a four-fold increase in their membership that year in 1930.
Yet in terms of policy this period was probably the most demented in all the party’s history. Because of the failure of the Russian revolution to spread internationally, the Soviet Union had become isolated and a period of reaction, personified by Stalin, set in.
All the other Bolshevik leaders were being eliminated. It is crucial to understand that the policy of the CPA (as with all Communist Parties throughout the world) was, for decades, decided in the Soviet Union. As the last party spokesperson Denis Freney said, the CPA “…dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ that came out of Moscow”. The party had become Stalinist.
With the onset of the depression Stalin declared that, in essence, every other party apart from the Communist Party was a fascist party! This applied particularly to the huge social democratic and Labor parties throughout the world.
Stalin decreed that they were even more dangerous than the capitalist parties, because “the workers had illusions in them”. Accordingly, following Stalin’s instructions, the local Communists declared the Australian Labor Party (ALP) to be a “social-fascist” (socialist in words, fascist in deeds) organisation.
This was to completely isolate them from the mass movement that developed around Labor Premier Jack Lang’s refusal to pay State debts to British banks, the biggest Australian struggle of the 1930s.
By 1932 roughly one in every three Australian workers was unemployed. CPA leader Lance Sharkey wrote, “The Party commenced to organise the unemployed in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM). The campaign of the unemployed was directed at an increase in the ‘dole’, a rent allowance, provision of work at Award rates, and against evictions etc.
“In every city and large industrial town there were unemployed meetings and demonstrations. Lang was now in office in NSW and, besides the Federal Labor government, there were also Labor administrations in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. These Labor governments commenced a reign of terror against the unemployed. Processions of the unemployed were everywhere batoned and anti-evictionists, who, barricaded themselves in the homes of threatened workers, were forcibly ejected by the police with batons and sometimes drawn revolvers… there were more workers in gaol for political offences at this period under Lang than ever before in NSW”.
Yet only two pages later, Sharkey went on to write, “Lang’s wordy protests against the Premier’s Plan, despite his brutality against the unemployed and open breaking of strikes, won for him a great mass following. The greatest demonstration, in size, yet witnessed in Sydney, marched under the slogan ‘Lang is right’.”
The Communist Party had a marvellous opportunity to intervene in this struggle, expose Lang’s demagoguery and reformism and win mass support. But because of their “social-fascist” line the opportunity was missed.
Despite their serious mistakes, the Communists still held an appeal for workers in the desperate conditions of the depression. During this time the ALP was doing nothing and the Trotskyists were too small to have an effect. Another factor in their growth was the Soviet Union. Despite the Stalinist leadership, it was felt that “at least people are eating there”, whereas in Australia people were going hungry.
The courage of the CPA members in eviction and “free-speech” fights won them enormous respect amongst ordinary people. Sharkey recalled, “on numerous occasions the Party had to defend its right to speak in public places. Scores of members have been gaoled or fined in the various “free-speech” fights. In 1935 more than 100 were summoned for selling literature or collecting money in the Sydney Domain alone”.
But perhaps even more important than its work among the unemployed was the party’s work in the trade unions. Towards the end of the 1920s, with the depression approaching, the unions suffered a number of severe defeats – particularly the warfies, the timber workers and the miners. In turn with each defeat the trade union officials became all the more reluctant to lead any kind of fight back.
At the behest of the ruling class a 10% wage cut was imposed on all workers by the Arbitration Commission in 1931. Still the union officials did nothing, and it was from this situation that the powerful presence of the CPA in the trade unions originated.
Rank and file opposition groups were formed inside the unions, as was an umbrella organisation which was known as the Minority Movement. By the second half of the 1930s, with the economy emerging from the depression, the base that the Communists had built began to transfer into victories in union elections, beginning in the Miners Federation.
One of the key demands at that time was for the restoration of real wages to pre-depression levels. And perhaps nothing more graphically illustrated the later political decay of the Communist Party than their attitude to the very basic question of workers wages in the late 1980s.
It was in fact a leading member of the Communist Party, Laurie Carmichael, who helped draft the Accord with the Hawke government in the early 1980s. And it was the Accord, consistently supported by the Communist Party that led to the greatest decline in real wages since the 1930s!
While their attitude to wages in the 1930s helped the party go from strength to strength, their attitude in the 1980s helped the party disappear off the face of the earth!
Sharkey wrote, “… the Party grew steadily in the period 1935-40 although not so quickly as it had done during the depression years… (it) grew rapidly in Victoria where it had been weak in the first ten years, and also in Queensland…”
By 1943 Sharkey was claiming, “… there are now several factory branches with memberships of more than one hundred and others close to the hundred mark and a wide network of such branches now exists throughout the industrial cities.” Until that time recruits to the party had been overwhelmingly workers but from that point a growing number of middle class people also began to join. To explain the development it’s once again necessary to consider the international situation.
Because Stalin had now back-flipped and made an alliance with the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ of the West in the mid-1930s, all the Communist Parties of the world, including Australia’s, followed suit. It was the era of Popular Frontism. The idea that the CP should unite with all forces including ‘democratic’ bourgeois parties to isolate and defeat fascism.
Of course to do this, the party had to water down its socialist policies so as to not ‘scare off’ the middle class. (The basic theoretical position of the party, give or take a couple of left turns in the late 1940s and 1970s, remained the same from that point until its demise). In fact so ‘acceptable’ did the Communists become during the war that in May 1945 Stalin even appeared on the cover of Women’s Weekly!
In membership terms it was during the war years when the CPA reached its peak of 23,000 members. However in the industrial upsurge that followed the war, those that were won to the party on the basis of class collaboration – bosses and workers getting together – just as quickly disappeared.
By 1947 the CPA had a membership of 12,000 but their rank and file position in the unions was as strong as it had ever been.
Victory after victory was being won by the unions with Communists in prominent positions. The turning point however came with the 1949 coal miners strike. The Chifley Labor government, in one of the most disgraceful actions ever perpetrated in the labour movement, sent in troops to work the mines and the strike was beaten.
From then on the CPA was solidly in retreat. In the mid 1950s the Hungarian workers staged a revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy. The movement was crushed by Soviet tanks. At around the same time the Soviet leader Kruschev revealed some of the barbarities that occurred under the previous ruler, Stalin (as the Trotskyists had been pointing out for over 20 years). Australian Communists were shocked. Party membership dropped from 8000 to 6000.
Then in the early 1960s a further split occurred in the CPA with a pro-Chinese element based in Victoria leaving the party. Perhaps the two most prominent adherents to this faction were Clarrie O’Shea the Tramways union leader and Norm Gallagher of the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF).
The NSW branch of the BLF provided a bright spot for the CPA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the union undertaking ‘green bans’ to stop the development of homes and historic sites. But this was an isolated example against the general stream of developments.
In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia a rabidly pro-Moscow element also split from the party. The CPA was now in terminal crisis. The pole of attraction that the Soviet Union had been in the 1930s had now turned into its opposite because of its Stalinist deformations.
The class character of the party was changing as well, becoming more and more a middle class outfit, which in turn was becoming reflected in the politics of the party. The kiss of death was delivered by the collapse of Stalinism from 1989-91.
The last flickering remnants of the CPA joined a handful of other individuals in an outfit called the New Left Party. The New Left Party was a still-born organisation – the ghosts of the past simply moved from one house to another.
While for a brief time they had a certain amount of influence in the labour movement their political ideas were completely indistinguishable from the soft left in the ALP. Indeed the decay and collapse of the Communist Party has in turn been partially responsible for the political collapse of Labor’s left wing. Though they would never admit it, the Labor left looked to the CPA as a sort of ideological reference point. With that ballast gone the ALP left is now indistinguishable from the right.
But in looking at the Communist Party it would be totally wrong not to acknowledge the other side of the coin – the innumerable struggles for better pay, working conditions and general improvements in working class life that the Communists led.
There is no question that over several decades the Communist Party recruited to its ranks the cream of the working class in Australia. Scattered through every industrial town in the nation were people who devoted years of struggle and personal sacrifice to the cause of what they genuinely believed was the creation of a better society – the struggle for socialism.
That fight continues to this day. Economic crisis, unemployment, poverty and low pay – all these horrors will create a new generation of workers and young people who will look to genuine socialist ideas as a solution to their problems. By learning the lessons of the past, we can build a force for socialism that will do what the CPA failed to do, create a socialist Australia and world.
This article was written by Paul True. A version of it was originally published in The Militant (predecessor of The Socialist) during the 1990s.