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Issue #1478      27 October 2010

90 years of the Communist movement in Australia

Proud past, bright future

Saturday October 30 will be the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist movement in Australia. On that day in 1920 a disparate group of militant socialists came together in Sydney to form a party of a new type, the Communist Party, the Australian section of the Communist International. The new party got off to a shaky start and it has suffered from a number of splits, official harassment and other attacks over the decades. But for all of those setbacks it can be said that there is hardly an aspect of the political, social and cultural life of the country that has not been influenced – and influenced greatly for the better – by the Communist movement.

It is well worth celebrating this occasion and looking forward to the resurgence of the Communist movement in Australia. The fortunes of the labour movement in the country have risen and fallen with those of the Party. Over those 90 years, in the proudest episodes of resistance to exploitation by Australian workers – on the waterfront, in the mines, on the railways and elsewhere – Communists have shown the way.

At times of confusion and setback, such as occurred with the introduction of the Prices and Incomes Accords in the 1980s, there was not a clear lead from all sections of the Communist movement. This was in spite of strong warnings by the Socialist Party of Australia, which since 1996 has resumed the name Communist Party of Australia. The “Accord” years damaged the trade union movement and set back workers’ interests.

Setbacks in the battle of ideas

The relative decline in influence of the Communist movement in recent decades has left the labour movement vulnerable to the capitalist economic offensive and disarmed it in the battle of ideas. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Australian Labor Party where the privatising, pro-corporate, anti-union agenda holds sway against limited opposition. The labour movement in the main snapped its own ideological moorings in this period and ceased to recognise the irreconcilable class interests at work in the economy and society.

The consequences of this have been grave. Labor governments have been under little pressure so far to deliver on the demands of the Australian people. Currently, their wishes for a better industrial relations environment are being frustrated. So are their calls for appropriate action on climate change, stronger public health and education systems. A solid majority want Australian troops out of Afghanistan but they remain stuck in that expanding war to shore up US geopolitical interests.

Looking back, the wealth divide in Australia has blown out to a degree unimaginable just a few decades ago. Corporate welfare has been on the rise with taxpayers contributing billions for infrastructure used to produce private profit. Workers have compulsorily provided another pot of money for private investment with their foregone wages locked up in superannuation funds. Tertiary students now pay dearly for the education that used to be provided for free.

The cost of housing has skyrocketed; public housing has dwindled. Public utilities and enterprises have been gifted to the private sector. Aboriginal people have been robbed of their national voice, ATSIC. Australia has joined one US military adventure after another and squandered billions of dollars on weapons. The list of negative developments flowing from the ideological retreat of the labour movement is a very long one.

Elsewhere in the world, the fortunes of Communist parties have varied. Where they form the government, as in China and Cuba, the people of those countries are cementing their independence and developing their economies. Notable for us is that where there is a strong and influential Communist Party in a capitalist country, as in Greece, there is stiff opposition to the attacks on workers’ living standards being imposed by neo-liberal governments as they response to the global capitalist crisis.

Building the CPA – urgent task

The job of building a strong Communist Party of Australia is an urgent one. We have suffered a grab back by employers of workers’ gains during the current economic crisis. While the Australian economy has been sheltered to some extent by strong demand for resources – mainly from China – the outlook for the global capitalist economy is bleak. Australia will not be spared. More privatisation is being planned, particularly in the area of health and education. The overarching objective of neo-liberal governments to shed their social obligations is being worked out in Australia, too.

A shift to the left is not the only possible outcome of economic crisis. A turn to the far right is also possible. Fascism grew out of the suffering of the Great Depression and it appears the right is on the march in the US at this very moment. The Gillard government is accommodating this xenophobia rather than leading and educating the community.

The other major crisis facing the whole of humanity is climate change. The Gillard government may be under more pressure to take steps in response as a result of the increased representation of Greens in the federal parliament. But it is not enough. The measures will most likely be grounded in the same “market economy” thinking that got the planet to this perilous point in the first place. Unless socialist ideas come to the fore in the debate about how we should live and work in the future, the possibility of a sustainable Australia in a sustainable world economy will be remote.

It used to be said that the Communist Party was the conscience of the labour movement in Australia. The existence of a strong party working for a fundamental change in social relations and the economy undoubtedly put a brake on right-leaning tendencies in the ALP and other sections of the organised labour movement. But if the working people are to overcome the challenges facing us right now and head off looming social and environmental disasters, the Party will have to become more than the “conscience” of the movement. The 90th anniversary of the founding of the original CPA is an appropriate occasion to recommit to the task of building the Party into a powerful force for change or to consider joining that effort.  

Next article – Editorial – Move by Amnesty in support of the Cuban Five

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