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Issue #1478      27 October 2010

Celebrating the past – looking to the future

For communists across Australia, the end of October is a time of celebration: it signals 90 years that the Communist movement has been organising, campaigning and leading the struggle for the liberation of the working class in this country.

It is a struggle against huge odds, for the ruling class in Australia, the capitalist class, has always controlled the mass media, and shamelessly peddles lies, subtle and unsubtle as the occasion demands, to keep the people misled and above all compliant.

The class consciousness of the workers in this country has been relentlessly under attack for 200 years. The ruling class has been very successful in taking advantage of the objective conditions in Australia to cloud the minds of workers with reformist cant.

Even at the height of the Communist Party’s popularity and prestige, when it had some 20,000 members, it could not get a single candidate elected to Federal Parliament, and only one to a State parliament (in Queensland).

However, if ruling class propaganda was intent on ensuring that the people did not see the Communists as a potential government, the capitalists themselves knew better. They missed no opportunity to provoke violence against Communists, with the twin aims of terrorising the Reds into silence and inactivity and of associating Communists with violence in the public mind.

Groups of rednecks and small shopkeepers in rural areas, of returned servicemen and migrants who had fled socialism were induced to attack Communist gatherings whenever the opportunity presented itself.

CPA offices in Woolloomooloo Sydney vandalised in the 1950s.

Refugees who had fled with the Nazis from the advancing Red Army in WW2 were encouraged to attack the Sydney May Day March one year. Another time, former supporters of the US puppet dictatorship in South Vietnam besieged the Trades Hall where a function organised by the Party’s youth wing was in progress.

The phones of Communist Party members were tapped, meetings and premises bugged, copious files accumulated on the political, social and intellectual activities of thousands of Australians exercising their democratic rights.

And ASIO did not just collect information. They also made a point of going to a Communist’s employer and asking (as they did in my aunt’s case) “did he know that he was employing a leading Communist?” An innocent-sounding question, redolent with threat.

Official anti-Communist bodies like ASIO and the state police special branches, who were constantly infiltrating people into the ranks of the Party to uncover “plots against the government” or against employers which was apparently deemed just as bad, were assisted by reactionary non-government organisations like the New Guard or later Catholic Action.

These were incipient fascist organisations, filled with hatred for Reds and ever ready to resort to violence. So much so that the Party in the 1930s had to develop its own Workers’ Defence League.

The Communist movement in Australia, as opposed to the socialist movement, began when the first Communist Party of Australia was formally established 90 years ago, at a meeting in the Sydney Trades Hall on October 30, 1920.

Prior to that date, there had been a variety of socialist groups pursuing a wide variety of concepts of socialism, all to varying degrees utopian, none of them scientific. This collection included opportunists and sectarians of both the left and right variety.

There were anarcho-syndicalists, Roussauvians, Fabians and more than a few who were just small-l liberals or bourgeois democrats, browned off by the horrors (and obscene profit-making) of the recent WW1.

The stimulus that brought these varied socialists together to form a new party was the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. Its world significance was instantly obvious to a great many people and governments.

Britain, and 13 other capitalist powers, joined together, as Churchill so delicately put it, “to strangle the socialist baby in its crib”. Such a charming image!

A May Day march in 1966.

Australia’s government, under the Labor champion of conscription Billy Hughes (he had been elected as a Labor candidate, but ratted on the ALP and went over to the Conservatives once in government), enthusiastically supported the international campaign against the new Soviet state, sending troops and a warship to help defeat the Reds.

Australian workers on the other hand had welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Several Trades and Labor Councils ran up the Red flag in celebration and passed extravagant resolutions of approval and support.

All the previous talk about how and under what circumstances capitalism would or could collapse had become redundant: it had happened, the workers and peasants of one of the Great Powers, Russia, the largest country on Earth, had brought it about by themselves. They had not only overthrown the rule of capital but – with the support of workers around the world – had beaten back the attacks of 14 capitalist states including France, Britain, Germany, the USA and Japan.

It was a breathtaking achievement that shone a beacon of hope into every hovel, every factory floor, every workers’ slum, every line of unemployed, across the entire globe.

In Australia, it so enthused the members of the two main socialist organisations – the Victorian Socialist Party and (in NSW) the Australian Socialist Party – as well as socialist-minded members of the ALP and radical unionists like the “Wobblies” (the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World), that they became determined to set up the same kind of party as the Bolsheviks here in Australia.

The Communist Party they established on October 30, 1920 was meant to be that Leninist party, but they came from a variety of ideological backgrounds and their idea of scientific socialism was pretty woolly. It would take the better part of that decade and the intervention of the Comintern (the Communist International), before, with a new leadership, the Party finally found its feet. In the process, the new Party had at least one split and struggles with both factionalism from the IWW and liquidationism from demoralised early recruits who had come from the Labor Party expecting capitalism to imminently collapse.

It found its feet just in time, for as the new leadership of Miles and Sharkey took over, global capitalism fell in a heap. The Great Depression began in 1929 with the collapse of the Rope Trust on Wall Street, and galloped across the globe, leaving long queues of unemployed everywhere in its wake except in the Soviet Union. There, 1929 was the year they achieved full employment and closed their last employment exchange (at least until the advent of Gorbachev and the overthrow of socialism).

In Australia, the new Party leadership set out to build the party in workplaces. Branches were set up in factories, mines and other workplaces. Wherever they could, Communists took jobs in industry (large or small) with the express purpose of organising the workers in that enterprise and building a Party branch there.

I worked with a Comrade who, on the instructions of the Party, had taken a job in an industrial laundry solely for organising purposes. The hungry thirties were a time of grim industrial struggles and glorious organising victories.

Jim Healy led the tough but ultimately successful struggle to organise the waterside workers. Communists led organising campaigns among seamen, teachers, metal workers, waitresses, tramway and postal workers, coal miners, building workers, nurses and many more. Even Actors Equity was set up on Communist initiative.

Because of their hard work and obvious dedication to the cause of the workers, by the end of the decade, Communists had been elected to leadership positions in many of the most important trade unions in the country.

At the same time, they had not been unmindful of their internationalist responsibilities. Members and supporters of the Communist Party went to Spain to defend the Republic from the clerical fascist Franco and his Italian and German allies.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no monument in this country to the young Australians who died in Spain fighting fascism “before it became fashionable to do so”, as Pete Seegher said.

When the Second World War began, the Chamberlain government in Britain, that had pursued a policy of “appeasement” towards Hitler, hoping to turn his aggression towards the USSR, continued this policy via the so-called “phoney war”. Chamberlain’s policy derailed any chance of an anti-Hitler coalition in 1939-40, and doomed Britain and the rest of the world to a Second World War.

The Australian government supported British policy, but the Communist Party (as well as some far-sighted imperialists like Winston Churchill) opposed the phoney war, calling instead for measures to preserve peace.

Reactionaries like Robert Menzies who had spent the ‘30s as an apologist for Hitler and for Japanese imperialism’s war in China, tried to arouse public opinion against the Communists once the War began. As Attorney General he banned the Party on June 15, 1940.

Police raided Communists’ homes and places like New Theatre, seizing books, pictures, magazines, leaflets – anything that could be construed to be “enemy propaganda”. When the home of Stan Moran, a prominent Party speaker at the Domain, was raided, a copper pointed to the picture of Karl Marx hanging on his wall and asked “Who’s that?” to which Stan replied “That’s my grandfather.” He was allowed to keep the picture.

Others were not so lucky. At my parents’ house the police slashed open all the pillows and cushions, looking for “hidden documents”.

The period of the ban on the Party, the period known as “Illegality”, during which members could be arrested for possessing “Communist” literature or for holding a meeting to discuss working class issues, would last until well after the exploits of the Soviet army had rendered such a ban embarrassing to all but the most hard-line anti-communists.

By the time the Curtin government lifted the ban, the Communist Party was the most enthusiastic supporter of the War effort, campaigning strenuously against the divisive tactics of the Trotskyists, who were constantly trying to stir up trouble in the war industries.

By the War’s end, Communist union leaders like Jim Healy were attending Cabinet meetings, and Communists were being invited to share the platform at public meetings with leaders of the RSL.

During the early part of the War, the State Labor Party, which had split from the ALP in NSW earlier, merged with the CPA to form the Australian Communist Party. This move increased the size of the Party considerably and combined with the tremendous boost provided by military successes and prestige of the Soviet Union led to the spectacular growth in membership that saw branches attain a size of 200 or more.

With some 20,000 members in all, the Party held leading positions in many large unions and had branches in numerous workplaces. For many Party members, there was a feeling that the Revolution was “just around the corner”.

In fact, what was around the corner was a counter attack by reaction called the Cold War. Launched by Churchill, the Cold War was a determined attempt by imperialism to overturn every positive aspect of the wartime anti-fascist alliance that still survived. A climate of fear was deemed necessary to permit a new arms race, especially a nuclear one.

Building a people’s movement to prevent a nuclear war became a paramount aim of the Party in Australia as in most other countries. Meanwhile, capitalism sought to “roll back communism” in Western Europe and Asia, interfering in elections, waging war against national liberation movements, funding reaction everywhere.

In Australia, the post-war Labor government was brought down and the fiercely anti-Communist Menzies elected on a lying campaign that represented bank nationalisation as an attempt to steal people’s money.

Post-war Australia entered a period of economic boom that combined with orchestrated bouts of hysteria about “the Red menace” – helped by wars in Korea and Malaya – to keep Menzies in office for over two decades.

By the 1950s however, the Party was in trouble. It new leadership, the Aarons brothers, had come back from training in China, convinced that the working class was no longer the leading force for social change.

They set out to pursue “new” forces, and in the process closed down the Party’s existing industrial structures, the key to its strength. Trotskyism was legitimised and a leading Trotskyist put into the Party’s leading body.

The ideological level of the bulk of CPA members had never been high: it was described as “a movement without books” and there was a prevalence for leaving theory to the leadership to take care of. Kruschev’s attack on Stalin in 1956, a strategic move on Krushchev’s part to defeat his opponents within the leading organs of the CPSU who were identified with Stalin’s leadership, shook many Party members severely.

The Chinese Party rejected Krushchev’s criticisms and a group of CPA members lead by Ted Hill split from the CPA to form a new pro-Chinese party here. Many other members, utterly demoralised by Krushchev’s attack, accepted the bourgeoisie’s version of events and abandoned Marxism-Leninism in favour of social democracy. Some of those who remained sought to defend themselves by denouncing signs of “Stalinism” whenever and wherever they detected them.

Despite the resultant destabilisation, and the huge boost Krushchev had given to anti-Communist propagandists, the Party continued to work and to campaign on behalf of the working people.

Imperialism’s efforts to “roll back Communism” never ceased, however, and in 1968 focussed on Czechoslovakia where a right-opportunist Party leadership was trying to court popularity by giving socialism “a human face” (as though it had never had one).

When the Dubcek government’s actions began to threaten the continued existence of socialism in Czechoslovakia, the governments of the other European socialist states had to intervene. The Aarons leadership of the CPA leapt to condemn the intervention, siding with the counterrevolutionaries as “forces for democracy”.

This provoked a serious split in the ranks of the CPA.

May Day march in Sydney, 1981. Left to right – Allan Miller, Peter Symon, Ina Heidtman, Jack McPhillips.

Meanwhile, Australia was inexorably being drawn into the USA’s attempts to develop a war with China, using the long drawn out national liberation struggle in Indo-China as its pretext.

The US-led war in Indo-China was extremely unpopular, and the CPA should have been at the forefront of organising against it. But while sections of the Party’s membership were certainly active, as a whole the Party was bogged down in its internal battles as the Aarons leadership sought to eliminate or silence the opposition to its line.

This left a vacuum which the Trotskyists were quick to exploit and fill. The inner-party struggle at this time was strenuous and widespread. By the beginning of the 1970s, so many had left, or been forced out, that a new party, reaffirming Marxism-Leninism, seemed the only logical step.

As with the formation of the original party in 1920, the new one, called the Socialist Party of Australia, comprised a number of separate groups. Although they were all former or existing members of the CPA, they were made up of distinct groupings within the wreckage of the former party.

Some were centred in particular unions (building, waterside workers, seamen), some in particular mass organisations (peace and friendship societies). Compared to the CPA in its heyday, the SPA was tiny.

It was fortunate in its choice of a General Secretary, however. Former wharfie Peter Symon had played a significant role in developing the new party from the ruins of the old, and he would play an extraordinary part in steering it through the ideological struggles that lay ahead.

From its initial beginnings in a tiny office in Sydney, Comrade Peter’s careful stewardship of the SPA, always husbanding its resources and above all guarding the Party’s unity, the SPA steadily grew.

Comrade Peter early saw through the right opportunism of Mikhail Gorbachev and led the Party in rejecting it, not without opposition and some loss of members, but in the main the unity of the Party was successfully maintained.

Over time, precious union positions were won back and the Party was able to regain recognition among the left.

The CPA meanwhile had succumbed completely to right opportunism, liquidating itself but retaining the Party’s assets. It is now nothing more than a ginger group within the ALP left.

In 1995, five years after the old CPA liquidated itself, the Congress of the SPA voted unanimously to change the Party’s name to the Communist Party of Australia. There are still huge hurdles to be overcome, and the Party’s membership is not nearly large enough for the tasks that lie before it every day, but under its “new” name the Party has found an increased level of acceptance and recognition.

At the Party Congress in 2009, it was resolved that all Party organisations would endeavour to contest elections, asserting and affirming that the Communists were once again a part of the Australian political landscape, campaigning on behalf of working people, their allies and their dependants.

In 2010, election campaigns in South Australia and NSW confirmed the wisdom of that decision, raising awareness of the Party, bringing it new members and supporters, and giving the Party’s activists an enhanced cohesiveness, sense of purpose and strengthened morale.

As in the past, Communist Party members today are active in struggles on the job, in campaigns in defence of public property and assets, for public education and health care, for peace, for protection of our environment and the future of our small farmers, and many other struggles that have at their core the recognition that, for the future and happiness of human race, the needs of the working class must always come first.

Bob Briton holding the flag – Adelaide June 2004 "No War Rally".

The last 90 years have been tumultuous for the Communist movement, in Australia and globally. There is no reason to believe that the next 90 will be any less tumultuous. But the Communists of Australia are looking forward to them.

Looking at developments across the globe, the international meeting of Communist and Workers’ parties that met in Minsk on the centenary of the establishment of Lenin’s party the RSDLP in Russia was able to confidently assert “The world is turning to the Left”.

Life itself will prove us correct. Our job is to help make it happen.  

Next article – The chances of a war with China are rising

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