On Saturday, November 10th 1917, Australians opened their papers to news of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Provisional Government had fallen, and the democratic worker’s councils – ‘soviets’ – had been declared the legitimate power. For the first time in history, the working class was in control of society.
The revolution sent shockwaves around the world. In Australia there was an intense demand for information about Russia, and about the Bolsheviks – the revolutionary socialist political party who were now leading the revolution.
Revolutions are never isolated to a single country. The problems of capitalism are global. In 1916 and 1917, the First World War saw the Australian labour movement fighting successful campaigns against forced conscription. In August 1917, the Great Strike broke out across the east coast of Australia, and another strike wave came in 1919. Similar upheavals happened in all the warring countries.
The meaning of the revolution was not lost on Australians. Marxist ideas were common from the beginning of the 1900s; the journalist Mary Gilmore said about the 1890s, “I often used to see working men on the trams reading Marx or Engels and carrying a dictionary to help them out… There had never been such a universal spread of reading for the sake of understanding.” Most of the labour movement called itself socialist, and the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – the ‘Wobblies’ – were a household name.
Australia also had a population of Russian immigrants. Many of them were political, fleeing the oppression suffered under the Tsar, the Russian ruler. Persecution followed them – the Tsar’s ambassador asked the Australian government to deny citizenship to Russians aged 18-50. A ‘Union of Russian Workers’ was set up. Bolshevik exiles like Artem Sergeiev worked to make this group political. These Russian émigrés were seen by Australians as dedicated unionists.
In March 1917, the overthrow of the Tsar made Russia the focus of attention. Russians held “jubilant” weekend meetings, and Australians were eager for information. On the 23rd March, the paper of the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) carried an interview with a Russian member about the meaning of the revolution and the socialist movement in Russia. Next week, they reported that this edition had completely sold out!
The March events were seen by the labour movement as only the beginning of the revolution. In June the paper of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) carried an editorial arguing that the struggle in Russia “is between the capitalists and the workers … the latter are fighting for the establishment of a Socialist Republic.” The democratic soviets were seen as the genuine organs of revolution, but they weren’t yet in control.
The October Revolution
This changed on the 7th November (in the modern calendar used outside Russia). The news hit Australia by telegraph from London on the 9th, and was in the papers the next morning. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks called for the end of the war – for “a democratic and just peace.”
Mass meetings happened to mark the event. Various Labor Councils passed resolutions in support of the Russian workers, and the red flag was flown around the country.
The capitalist media was instantly hostile. The Australian papers insinuated that Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the revolution, were being helped by Germany, who the ‘Allies’ including Australia and Russia were fighting. The Argus, the major right-wing newspaper, described Lenin as an “honest fanatic of questionable mental stability”, while Trotsky was “extraordinarily clever but quite unscrupulous”.
The Sydney Morning Herald described Russian workers as “mad, senseless barbarians”, accusing them of every atrocity imaginable. They hoped for a military dictatorship, and cheered on the right-wing ‘White’ generals; General Kaledin was described as “the man of the hour.”
The press has a powerful influence, but for many the newspapers had already exposed themselves as mouthpieces of war, so a lot of people saw right through them. Woman Voter, a paper edited by feminist Vida Goldstein, said: “Russia is for all practical purposes out of the war, the authorities tell, so, for the first time, we hear of ‘Russian atrocities’”.
The VSP published the words of a French socialist group: “Thousands of militant Russian Socialists for the last twenty years have known Lenin to be of an incorruptible character”. One letter-writer to their paper described meeting Trotsky in 1905, signing themselves as “An admirer.”
In November, the Great Strike had only just been defeated – many unionists were imprisoned, some were still out on strike. The worker’s organisations were gearing up for a second conscription referendum after having defeated the first one a year earlier. The movement was soaked with a hatred of capitalism – agitators called for “conscription of wealth before conscription of men.” By the end of 1917, conscription was defeated by a greater margin than in 1916.
The Australian government used the War Precautions Act to ban the red flag and censor the radical press – the Russian émigré papers were singled out. The government prosecuted people for ‘sedition’, and there were right-wing vigilante attacks against the left and the Russian community, sometimes by returned troops. Activists were routinely thrown in jail for speaking out. All these measures show the deep fear the ruling class had of working people.
Thousands of workers would assemble on the Yarra Bank in Melbourne and at the Sydney Domain to listen to speeches about the way forward for the working class. Weekend political meetings were often packed out. Russia became a central item of discussion. Books and pamphlets about the revolution were immensely popular. Speeches and articles by Lenin were circulated.
The government did all it could to minimise contact between Australia and Russia. Socialists organised delegations to Petrograd, but their delegates were often denied passports. The government also refused to recognise the Bolsheviks’ new ambassador.
This was Peter Simonov, an immigrant manual labourer living between Queensland and New South Wales. He had become convinced of socialism while in Australia. For the Bolsheviks, his job was fundamentally political. Simonov gave speeches to large audiences and wrote articles and a book discussing the revolution. The government was terrified of his activity, and banned him from speaking at political meetings – he did this anyway, and went to jail for it.
In 1920, Simonov helped establish the Communist Party of Australia. Some of the most famous socialists here saw Australian socialism as coming gradually through a capitalist parliament, but many rank-and-file militants in the IWW and the unions were instead won to the need for a real workers’ democracy. Simonov turned to them, and worked to found a party tied intimately to the workers movement.
“Hands Off Russia!”
The ruling class hoped for the collapse of the new soviet government, the swift victory of the White generals, and the return of Russia into the war. These hopes were in vain. In June 1918, the Allies launched an invasion of Russia by 14 capitalist nations. The purpose was to support the Whites in brutally destroying the first worker’s state.
The Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) were not officially involved. The AIF arranged for Australian volunteers in Russia to be discharged and re-enlisted in the British army. This shows how unpopular the intervention was. When the acting prime minister was asked if Australians were fighting in Russia, he claimed “I do not know”!
Only 100-120 volunteered. Some acted as advisors to pump up morale in the British army. Australian troops were also used against mutineers. Mutinies were breaking out among both the Allied and the White troops.
Back home, there was a wave of opposition to intervention. Workers papers reported on the atrocities of the White generals. Australians followed the British labour movement in launching a “Hands Off Russia!” campaign. In May 1919, the AWU’s paper wrote that the British government were “out to break the Socialist Republic and restore the old order of Capitalism and Autocracy.”
The victories of the Red Army, endless mutinies, and the opposition of the global labour movement brought an end to intervention. But the years of war left Russia broken and isolated. Many of the young revolutionary workers were killed in the fighting.
The Revolution Betrayed
With famine, war and poverty, the workers democracy in Russia could not function. This laid the basis for the rise of Stalin and the bureaucracy. To consolidate his rule, Stalin had to murder the old Bolsheviks and genuine socialists and falsify the history of the revolution. While the Communist Party has played a central role in Australia’s history since then, it was taken over by Stalinism and uncritically toed the Moscow line.
Australians saw that Russia’s enormous obstacles were caused by the backwardness of Tsarism and the isolation of the revolution. Socialists put their hope in revolution in the advanced world to come to their aid. However, only Russia had a Bolshevik party. Australia had a powerful mood for change, but it lacked a revolutionary leadership.
Australia’s reaction to the Bolsheviks has mostly been ignored in history books, and the revolution buried in slander. A century ago, capitalism marched 18 million people to their death in Europe. Opposing the slaughter, working people sought control of their lives and an end to war and poverty. In 2017, capitalism has failed to deliver the future people hoped for. We are entering a new period of global unrest as working people come to terms with this failure, and the ideas of socialism are as relevant as ever.
By David Elliott