One hundred years ago, anti-communist fearmongering reached fever pitch in the Red Flag riots of 1919. A community of Russian émigrés centred in Brisbane, mainly left-wing refugees who had fled Tsarist Russia, became the target of racist persecution.
Whipped into a xenophobic frenzy by the establishment, an enraged mob of 7000-8000 people – chiefly returned soldiers – attempted to storm the Russian Hall in South Brisbane. A violent standoff ensued when they were met with 40-60 mounted police.
This ugly episode was not an inevitable “ethnic” clash. It was the product of tensions deliberately stoked by the Australian capitalist class, who were rightly terrified that workers and soldiers returning from the First World War would seek to emulate the Russian Revolution and end the profit system that was causing so much misery.
Australian politics had become sharply polarised in the years leading up to this incident. The horrors of World War One provoked a backlash. In response to falling army recruitment, the Hughes Labor government tried to implement forced conscription, but lost in two separate plebiscites.
Governments at both federal and state level reacted with escalating repression and nationalist propaganda. Anyone who opposed the war or took part in industrial action was branded “cowardly”, “disloyal” and accused of “letting our troops down”. Under the 1914 War Precautions Act, anti-war activists were jailed, subversive newspapers were raided and shut down, and 7,000 “enemy aliens”, primarily of German background, were sent to internment camps.
The overthrow of the Tsar in Russia was part of a global radicalisation that manifested in major strikes in Australia. In June 1917, the “Great Strike” saw 100,000 workers walk off the job for two months. 1918 and 1919 were both years of record strike activity, and there was hugely increased interest in socialist ideas.
The capitalist press turned its attention to demonising the Bolsheviks, the leaders of the Russian Revolution. The new Soviet government had made peace with Germany by signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, ending Russian involvement in the war. They were denounced as traitors to the war effort, and Russians living in Australia were treated as such.
A red scare was in full swing. Anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik cartoons and stereotypes were rolled out, echoing modern far-right conspiracy theories about “Cultural Marxism”. Queensland newspaper The Sun cried of the need “to rid the community of the parasitical Bolshevists”.
While this was happening, veterans returned home to a stagnant economy – unemployment in Brisbane reached 14%. Many disillusioned ex-servicemen were drawn into right-wing loyalist groups and carried out attacks on the maturing workers’ movement.
It was in this climate that the War Precautions Act was extended to prohibit the flying of the red flag. The Union of Russian Workers, representing the pro-Bolshevik émigrés, organised a 1,500 strong protest in Brisbane against this attack on civil liberties in January 1919. A subsequent rally held on March 23 was attended by only 400; however, marchers openly defied the ban, unveiling three large red flags and singing “Solidarity Forever”.
This outraged the loyalists and tensions boiled over. 2,000 ex-soldiers were mobilised that evening to attack the group, badly stabbing one of the Russians and attempting to throw others into the Brisbane River. When the soldiers tried to assail the nearby Russian Hall, it took warning shots from the Russians to make them disperse.
Goaded by the media, a crowd of between 7000-8000 reactionary loyalists marched on the Russian Hall the next night. Many of them bore arms. In the violent police confrontation that followed, 19 people were hospitalised with many more unreported injuries.
The riots were a setback for working class unity. The government clamped down on left-wing resistance, jailing 16 people for six months or more. In the following weeks hundreds of Russian workers lost their jobs and many faced deportation.
Some of the staunchest opponents of the government’s draconian measures went on to help found the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. If an organisation like this existed in the years prior, it could have played an influential role in cutting off support to the far-right. A program of jobs, homes and services for all would have been capable of winning support from many of the war veterans.
These events are a reminder of the dangerous consequences of the divide-and-rule strategy that the ruling class employs to defend its interests. Socialists must actively work to cut across this, and link anti-racist solidarity to the need for major investment in working class communities.
By Jeremy Trott