Indigenous liberation and communism during the Great Depression
Indigenous liberation and communism during the Great Depression
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In September 1931, Bert Moxon, a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia, published Communist Party’s Fight for Aborigines: Draft Program of Struggle Against Slavery, a radical document connecting the struggle for Indigenous rights to a revolutionary fight against capitalism and imperialism. The product of Moxon’s semi-clandestine tour of Indigenous communities in western New South Wales, the tract was inspired by anti-colonial revolts and anti-racist struggles led by Communists in the United States.

Moxon drew on the experience of other party members, including Norman Jeffery, who had spent time with Aboriginal workers in rural NSW, and Tom Wright, who had worked alongside Aboriginal activists in the Unemployed Workers Movement in Glebe. He had also followed the rise and fall of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, founded by Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard in 1924. The program was motivated by his concern about the labour movement’s passive response to Maynard’s struggle against the Aborigines Protection Board:

“Hitherto, the conditions of the Aborigines have not been considered by workers in the revolutionary movement, and the rank-and-file organisation set up by the aborigines was allowed to be broken up by the APB, the missionaries, and the police, but henceforth no struggle of the white workers must be permitted without demands for the aborigines being championed; no political campaigns without political programs applicable to our fellow exploited—the aborigines—being formulated.”

The Draft Program demanded “full economic, social and political rights” for Indigenous people, the abolition of the Aboriginal Protection Board, the release of all Aboriginal people from prison and their retrial by Aboriginal juries, and even “the handing over to the Aborigines of large tracts of watered and fertile country, with towns, seaports, railways, roads, etc., to become one or more independent aboriginal states or republics”. These were immensely progressive demands in 1930s Australia.

And so began a long history of Communist support for Indigenous rights in Australia. For decades, Communists built solidarity with Indigenous struggles and promoted anti-racist ideas among their mostly working-class membership and audience.

During the turmoil of the Great Depression, Communist militants integrated the struggle for Indigenous rights with working-class politics. They started by publishing anti-racist articles that drew attention to the exploitation of Indigenous workers and argued that their struggle should be part of the wider workers’ movement. As the Communist Party grew throughout the 1930s, it brought these arguments into the struggles of the decade: the unemployed movement, the trade unions and broader political campaigns.

This first took place in Darwin. The labour movement had an antagonistic relationship to the non-white workers it was meant to represent. A sharp break from this was needed to seize the latent possibilities for multi-racial working-class solidarity. The basis for such a break emerged from two sources: a frustrated left-wing opposition within the North Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU), and a recently established branch of the Communist Party—the two of which quickly merged.

Lawrence James Mahoney and his comrade John Waldie, who were both in the NAWU opposition, brought the two together. They had been campaigning to unseat the conservative union leadership when the issue of Indigenous workers came to the fore. The union initiated a campaign to boycott pubs that employed Aboriginal workers. While some NAWU members argued for the boycott on the basis that the workers were being underpaid, the majority of unionists supported the boycott because they wanted to drive Aboriginal workers out of the industry.

Mahoney had played a prominent role during the boycott, demanding heavy penalties for workers who drank at the pubs, although the boycott increasingly sat uneasily with him, because he was friends with Aboriginal workers through his position as a referee at the local football club. As the boycott came to an end, he started to raise the issue of Indigenous exclusion. This came to a head in the aftermath of the boycott’s victory, when the NAWU leadership proposed that it be extended to Chinese merchants who employed Aboriginal workers.

Mahoney and Waldie raised a stink, pointing out the hypocrisy of the union: Aboriginal workers were excluded from membership of the NAWU, and NAWU members personally employed Aboriginal workers. Mahoney and Waldie pushed for a vote on allowing Aboriginal workers and some other non-white workers to join the union, although it was unsuccessful.

Mahoney and Waldie’s arguments dovetailed with those being made by the Communist Party. The party’s newspaper, Workers’ Weekly, had criticised the boycott campaign from the very beginning, as well as the broader hostility of the NAWU towards Aboriginal workers. By November 1929, Mahoney and Waldie had resigned from the ALP and were active in various Communist-led organisations and campaigns in Darwin. They were soon removed from their union delegate and organiser roles by the NAWU leadership.

Mahoney, Waldie and their supporters began to focus their attention on the struggles of the unemployed, where they found an audience for their militant tactics and arguments about racism. They established a local branch of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM) and engaged in high profile, militant actions—the most famous being when Mahoney climbed on to the roof of a local government building occupied by the unemployed and flew the red flag.

In July 1929, the local Communists supported a mass meeting at Police Paddock, where much of the local Aboriginal and non-white community lived. The meeting demanded that the government give ownership of the area to the local community, end racist discrimination and grant them full citizenship rights. When Police Paddock was raided by the police, the Communists organised an open-air meeting denouncing the repression.

Many Aboriginal workers were involved and arrested at the militant unemployed protests. Photos show several Aboriginal and Asian workers participating in the famous unemployed occupation of government offices in January 1931, including Joe McGinness, the future national president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement. A meeting of the Darwin UWM in 1931 adopted a motion supporting the “complete emancipation” of Aboriginal people from economic and political oppression.

While Mahoney and Waldie had some success in building anti-racist sentiment among unemployed workers, the mainstream labour movement was still mostly hostile. They convinced NAWU to oppose the banning of “half-caste” workers from Darwin pubs. However, at the annual NAWU conference in 1930, their motion to end all racial discrimination in union membership was ruled out of order by the chair.

Opposition from the NAWU leadership and police repression began to take a toll on Mahoney and Waldie. The union launched a campaign accusing them of plotting to replace the white workforce with their “coloured” allies, and they spent considerable time in jail over various offences related to the unemployment protests and unpaid fines. The repression reached a ridiculous point when Mahoney was arrested for standing on the wrong part of a wharf while waving goodbye to a friend on an outgoing ship.

In January 1933, Mahoney left Darwin; Waldie followed shortly after. They remained active in Communist politics in Sydney but felt that their efforts to build an anti-racist working-class movement had been in vain. Until his death, Mahoney asserted that he had been “deported” from the north of Australia. But their work sowed the seeds for the future. Within a few years, a new generation of Darwin Communists continued their fight for militant unionism and anti-racism.

The Communist Party’s anti-racist struggle spread beyond Darwin. Mass unemployment during the Depression presented a new audience for the Communists outside of their traditional city base.

One of these was country New South Wales. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a wave of racist agitation against Aboriginal communities in country towns demanded greater levels of segregation in schools, cinemas and public spaces, as well as the removal of Aboriginal missions. As the Depression set in, the state government announced that unemployed Aboriginal workers would receive rations instead of the dole.

In 1931, unemployed Indigenous workers protested in Wellington, demanding the dole. The Yass Tribune-Courier reported that the change to rations was “much resented by the coloured people”, and that Aboriginal communities were organising strikes and petitions. These actions culminated in a wave of “stop-works, protest and strikes at Wallaga Lake, Menindee, Burnt Bridge, Brewarrina and Purfleet from 1936 to 1938”, according to historian Heather Goodall in her book Invasion to Embassy.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class activists started to unite in some places, with Communists often playing a key role.

In June 1931, a small group of Communist activists organised a meeting in Dubbo to launch a local branch of the UWM. The conservative Dubbo establishment immediately condemned it as a Communist front. Criticism also came from local Labor Party leaders, who attempted to stop Communists from dominating the movement, and when that failed, set up their own unemployed organisation in opposition to the UWM local branch. The mayor repeatedly refused to give the UWM Dubbo branch permission to hold public rallies.

As the unemployed struggle in Dubbo took off, it forged links with the local Aboriginal community. Tom Peckham, who lived in Dubbo, and Ted Taylor, who lived at the Talbragar Reserve, were both involved in the unemployed protests. Jack Booth, a white railway worker and Communist activist, explained in an interview that Peckham and Taylor talked to the white unemployed about the discrimination of the Aborigines Protection Board and asked them to take up Aboriginal issues.

The unemployed movement moved a motion demanding full rations for Aboriginal workers at a mass meeting in Dubbo in 1932 and urged the labour movement to take up the cause. During the 1932 municipal elections, the Communist Party’s platform included a demand for the “enfranchisement of Aboriginals and foreign workers of all races” and the “right of all Aboriginals to own property and participate in municipal affairs”.

At a 1936 meeting of western NSW unemployed organisations and trade unions in Orange, the Wellington and Dubbo branches of the UWM initiated a discussion about the treatment of Aboriginal people, which led to the conference moving that “a definite campaign be launched throughout all areas to demand equal treatment for all classes and colors”.

This activity wasn’t confined to western New South Wales. The Waratah-Mayfield UWM branch in Newcastle repeatedly discussed the issue of Aboriginal rights. In 1932, it sent letters to the local branch of the Australasian Society of Patriots drawing attention to the abuses of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and to the Queensland government over reported attacks on Aboriginal communities. It also protested the different dole rates for unemployed Aboriginal workers.

At a meeting of the Kempsey Unemployed League, a Mr Stevens (a close supporter, if not member, of the Communist Party) argued in favour of equal rights for Aboriginal workers—and won the debate. Communists organised a joint protest of Aboriginal fisherman and wharf labourers at Port Kembla, Wollongong, after they were all kicked off the dole.

Support for unemployed Aboriginal workers reached further north. A 1933 meeting of the Innisfail, Queensland, branches of the UWM, the Australian Railway Union, the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Mourilyan Mill Workers’ Union demanded that “Aboriginals and other coloured workers be placed on the same footing as other unemployed as regards rations and relief work”. The meeting also protested “against the police intimidatory methods which are used with these workers” via a motion moved by Communist Party member Pat Clancy. By 1938, even the Tasmanian unemployed movement was passing motions about Aboriginal rights.

As the Communist Party recruited young militants from the UWM, it also began to rebuild a left-wing current within the trade unions. A key role in this was played by the Militant Minority Movement, modelled on overseas examples of rank-and-file initiatives. Red Leader, the publication of the Militant Minority, published articles on Indigenous oppression, popularising support for Indigenous rights among a layer of working-class militants.

In 1932, the Communist Party’s agitation and propaganda committee proposed pro-Aboriginal slogans for that year’s May Day. They organised for Anna Morgan, an Aboriginal activist, to speak at a meeting of the International Women’s Day Committee and at the Women’s Anti-War Conference in 1935 and published an article by Morgan in the Communist Party publication Working Women.

Norman Jeffery, the Communist organiser of the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union, used his time visiting rural workers’ committees to urge workers to support Indigenous rights and investigate conditions at local Aboriginal missions. When Aboriginal shearers were refused award wages by an employer in Mukinbudin, Western Australia, the Communist Party Perth branch took up the issue with the state government.

William Ferguson, Aboriginal activist and trade unionist, was invited to a meeting of the NSW Trades and Labor Council in 1937, which later passed a motion including demands from Moxon’s 1931 Draft Program. Key to winning union support for the motion was the role played by Communist trade union leaders like Tom Wright, leader of the Sheet-Metal Workers’ Union, Lloyd Ross, secretary of the NSW Australian Railways Union, and Bill Orr, the leader of the Miners’ Federation. In 1938, the Council supported the Day of Mourning protest, organised by Ferguson and other Indigenous activists as a protest against the official celebration of invasion.

Throughout the 1930s, Communist militants rebuilt a fighting labour movement that had been all but destroyed by the initial impact of the Great Depression. As they rebuilt it, they infused the regenerated workers’ movement with a deeper appreciation of the nature of Indigenous oppression, and a commitment to fighting it.

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