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Issue #1481      17 November 2010

Australia and the Great October Revolution

At the beginning of November, 2007, I had the honour of representing the CPA at an international meeting of Communist and Workers’ parties in Minsk, capital of Belarus. The meeting was convened to celebrate the 90th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.

It was held in Minsk, because in 1896, Minsk in the then Russian province of Byelorussia (now Belarus) was the site of the founding conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Lenin’s party).

At the suggestion of our then General Secretary, Comrade Peter Symon, I made the substance of our contribution an account of how the news of the October Revolution was received in Australia, and the different ways Australian employers and workers reacted to it.

With only a couple of minor amendments, this is what I said in Minsk:-

On November 8, 1917, the day after the October Revolution had overthrown the pro-capitalist Provisional Government of Russia, the Melbourne Age reported (as did other leading Australian newspapers): “As a result of the conflict between the Russian Government and the Soviets’ Revolutionary Committee regarding the control of the Petrograd military headquarters it is reported that the Soviet Committee has proclaimed itself a new Provisional Government.”

Australia is a long way away from Petrograd but militant workers had no doubt that something epoch-making was taking place. They sensed that here were workers like themselves being installed as rulers of their country.

Across Australia, from the sugar cane-fields in the North of the continent to the timber mills in the South, came examples of workers downing tools and celebrating the great event for two days, uninterruptedly.

Militant trade unionism was strong within the Australian working class at the time as was opposition to being forced to fight in the imperialist world war then raging. Already one attempt by the reactionary Australian government to introduce conscription for the war had been defeated in a mass referendum.

The Australian government announced a second attempt to gain approval for conscription for the war on the same day that news was received that the Bolsheviks had won power in Russia. The Australian Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, promptly blamed the Soviet’s success on “the sinister, insidious and menacing German propaganda that... since the outbreak of the war has been unceasingly working in the territories of the Allies and has dealt a deadly blow to our cause”.

At first capitalist politicians and the capitalist media depicted the Bolsheviks as conspirators: German agents, concerned only to weaken the Allied front in the war.

But some parts of the truth could not be submerged: On November 10, Australian newspapers published in full the first decrees of the Soviet government, the decrees on “Peace”, “Bread” and “Land”.

Nevertheless, the Melbourne Age disparaged the new Soviet regime as “a comic opera government”, predicting that it would “fizzle out in a pandemonium of drink and vice”.

On November 13, another leading capitalist newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, under the headline “Kerensky Rallies”, announced the “Fall of the Bolsheviks”, going on to solemnly pronounce that “the liquidation of the Bolsheviks is only a matter of days”.

On the following day Australians were told rather gleefully that “the Bolsheviks are no longer masters of the situation”.

Two days after that the Herald somewhat prematurely declared that Kerensky’s troops had been “victorious in Petrograd and Moscow”. Only three days later readers learned from the same sources that “chaos prevails in Petrograd” and, somewhat more cautiously, that “it is impossible to forecast the future”. As the counter-revolution took shape, the Australian capitalist media happily reported that “a military dictatorship is expected hourly”.

At the beginning of December “Lenin’s Downfall” was again reported but at the end of the month he was still reportedly “preparing to flee from Petrograd”.

Many militant workers readily grasped the significance of the sharpening class struggle that followed the Bolsheviks’ taking power. Some intellectuals – in other ways friendly to socialism – began expounding theories that the new regime was only “transitory”.

However, confidence in the outcome remained the prevailing mood in the Australian labour movement. Optimism grew that the Revolution in Russia would usher in a series of socialist changes throughout the world.

H E Boote, editor of The Australian Worker, a trade union newspaper, wrote:

“Does anyone imagine that Russia is going to have a monopoly of revolution? The workers are questioning their rulers ... And they are putting capitalism through an examination that probes its pretensions to the very core”.

The Red Flag was flown from trade union halls and the Sydney Trade Union Council declared: “We rejoice in the revolution in Russia and congratulate the people of that country on their efforts to abolish despotic power and class privilege, and urge the workers of other lands where similar conditions exist to follow their example with the same magnificent courage and determination”.

A trade union newspaper, the Labor Call, published the early proclamations of the Soviet Government and an article praising Lenin as “a real statesman, premier of the world’s first industrial democracy, mighty Russia”.

On December 21, 1917, while the bourgeois media was predicting the imminent collapse of the Bolsheviks, the Australian labour movement celebrated the decisive defeat of the second attempt to impose military conscription for the imperialist war. However, as the working class took the offensive, the ruling class increasingly resorted to repression.

The flying or carrying of the Red Flag was banned, necessitating the Brisbane Tramways Trust to replace the red flags traditionally used as a danger signal in traffic operations with yellow ones!

Despite the heavy wartime censorship, Australians soon learned, to their anger, that their reactionary government had involved Australian armed forces in the wars of intervention, the attempt by 14 capitalist countries to remove the revolutionary government of Russia by force. Australian officers and soldiers fought against the Soviet forces near Archangel and elsewhere, and the Australian warship Swan was sent to the Sea of Azov to serve with a French force fighting on the side of the counter-revolutionaries.

The Australian labour movement began to mount a big campaign under the slogan “Hands off Russia!”. The members of the Australian Labor Party, Australia’s main social democratic party, had been strongly influenced by the success of the revolutionary workers in Russia, and the party’s Federal Conference carried a resolution “protesting strongly against the use of armed forces and against the Allied policy of starvation and blockade”.

The resolution proclaimed the right of the Russian people to work out their own destiny. A similar resolution was carried by the Trade Union Congress in Brisbane.

The Labor Council in Sydney issued a manifesto calling on the workers of Australia to strongly protest against Allied policy and to take steps to frustrate it. The manifesto identified the revolutionary Russian government as “the first genuine socialist government the world has ever seen” and denounced the blockade by Western governments as a “violation of all international law”.

The union manifesto declared that “the Australian working class will refuse to support these activities” and ended by congratulating “the Russian working class on its triumphant vindication of communist principles”.

Great meetings were held throughout the country and threats of industrial action were made if the Australian authorities attempted any extension of Australian involvement in the efforts to strangle revolutionary Russia.

At that time a Communist Party did not exist in Australia but Lenin’s way proved to be a powerful magnet for militant, revolutionary-minded workers and in 1920 the Communist Party of Australia was formed from among disparate socialist groups and militant trade unionists.

The great achievements of the Russian Revolution of 1917 are well-known to us all. The first five-year economic plans were formulated and carried through – an economic method unknown in any capitalist economy.

The land and enterprises became public property. Public housing was built, hospitals, universities, Palaces of Culture for young people sprang up, women won equal pay and social rights to those of men, a nationalities policy was implemented, a new unity of the peoples was achieved with the formation of the USSR.

A foreign policy of peaceful co-existence was adopted — the first application of these principles that have steadily gained ground around the world since then.

One of the great achievements of the 20th century was the smashing of the fascist regimes of Germany, Italy and Japan, mainly as a result of the power and leadership of the Soviet armed forces. It was a staggering defeat for world imperialism.

This in turn opened the way for the sweep of the national liberation movements against colonialism and the victory of revolutionary movements led by Communist Parties in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, the DPRK and, for the first time in the western hemisphere, in Cuba.

But the hatred of imperialism for socialism and for Communist Parties never abated. From the time of Winston Churchill’s attempt to “strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib” to today, the struggle between capitalism and socialism, the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class, remains intense and implacable.

In the 1920s it was waged by way of military intervention, sabotage, trade boycotts and so on – in the 1980s the imperialists succeeded in striking a severe blow to the Soviet Union and to our common cause by use of ideological subversion. The Soviet Union was torn apart from within.

Once again the bourgeois media was triumphant. “Communism is dead!” they shouted from the rooftops. They were wrong in the 1920s and are wrong again today.

Ours is the future and we can gain confidence and optimism from the revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist sweep of the people of South America, of the African continent, in the Middle East and Asia and even now, in the Island nations of the South Pacific.

Even before the Communist Parties were formed, our national poet Henry Lawson declared:

So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle! *
Long live the October Revolution! Long live Socialism!

* From Freedom on the Wallaby, 1891  

A poster from 1920 portraying the positive outcome of the October Revolution – in this case with an emphasis on the advantages for women.

Next article – Decision Points – A cynical attempt at self-justification

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