When Australia’s Communists became cheerleaders for imperialist war

1 April 2024
Nick Everett

During World War Two, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was at the height of its influence. The party’s membership peaked at 23,000 in 1945. Communists dominated the leadership of the Miners’ Federation, the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Seamen’s Union, and were influential in numerous other trade unions.

When the party emerged in Australia in 1920, inspired by the Russian Revolution, there was widespread revulsion at the 20 million deaths and carnage of World War One. Communists won a wide hearing for the case that war was caused by capitalism and was used to turn workers of the imperialist nations against each other. The CPA argued that the working class should turn an imperialist war into a civil war, with soldiers turning their guns on their officers.

However, during World War Two, the CPA argued for a radically different position. The party offered unqualified support for the Australian war effort, led by Labor Prime Minister John Curtin in 1941-45. Communist union officials, who had in previous decades led strikes, now derailed them to maximise wartime production. Simultaneously, the party urged its members to enlist in the armed forces.

The CPA supported its own ruling class in waging war in defence of the imperial interests of its allies—Britain and the USA—because it had long ceased to be a revolutionary party. The party’s abandonment of its former revolutionary aims began in 1929, when the Communist International (the Comintern) imposed a new leadership on the party, destroying internal democracy and ensuring Moscow’s command over party policy.

During the Depression years, the CPA’s militant defence of workers’ rights echoed Moscow’s line that global capitalism was entering a deep and profound crisis. However, when that crisis led to a second world war between imperial powers, it was to Joseph Stalin’s men in Moscow that the party leadership turned. As a consequence, the CPA departed from the practice of revolutionary Marxism and pursued a policy of class collaboration, subordinating the interests of the Australian working class to Curtin’s imperialist war effort. The CPA’s cheerleading of the Curtin government was the third phase in a series of zigzags that echoed Stalin’s foreign policy in the lead up-to and during the war.

After the Nazis took power in Germany and destroyed the German Communist Party—the largest Communist party outside the USSR—Stalin abandoned the ultra-left Third Period line, which had branded Labor and social democratic parties as “social fascists”. Under a new “popular front” policy, the main enemy was now fascism, and all other questions became secondary. Comintern policy dictated that working-class interests were to be subordinated to the needs of “progressive” capitalists who opposed fascism.

Under the new logic of the popular front, Stalin began courting an alliance with Germany’s main imperial rivals, Britain and France, in the name of “collective security”. The USSR’s foreign policy lurched dramatically to the right. In 1934, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations, a club of the victorious powers of World War One, and in 1935 the Franco-Soviet pact was signed in Moscow. Simultaneously, the Comintern directed its affiliate Communist parties to pursue a united front of the labour movement from “above and below”. They were urged to pursue formal agreements with capitalist and working-class parties opposed to fascism and work with non-Communists to build front organisations.

In Europe, this approach led to Communists joining and defending capitalist governments led by social democratic parties, with disastrous consequences. In France, the Popular Front government collapsed, giving rise to the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany. In Spain, the Communist Party disarmed and repressed anti-fascist militias not under the control of the republican government, hastening the victory of Franco’s nationalist forces.

The CPA’s popular front turn meant an about-face in its orientation to the Australian Labor Party, with which it now sought to affiliate. Rebuffed by federal Labor, the CPA set about building popular front organisations such as the Movement Against War and Fascism, initiated by the CPA in 1933. Another was the Spanish Relief Fund, which rallied support for Spain’s Popular Front government between 1936 and 1939. However, the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s nationalist forces in January 1939 sealed not only the fate of the Republican government, but also attempts to build popular fronts from below.

Appeals for unity of the labour movement became increasingly overshadowed by Stalin’s determination to secure an alliance with Britain at all costs. The CPA played its part in rallying patriots behind the British flag. In 1937, the party campaigned for Labor, arguing that the conservative Lyons government was not doing enough to prepare the country for war. Labor should form a government in alliance with middle-class and capitalist parties, the party argued.

The CPA’s popular front policy resulted in a drift towards parliamentarism and support for a policy of national defence. In 1938, the party adopted a new constitution that buried any revolutionary pretensions. Lance Sharkey, the party’s Moscow-backed chair, now made clear that the CPA favoured a “parliamentary road to socialism”.

The party’s national paper Workers Weekly was rebranded Tribune, “the people’s paper”, shorn of its hammer and sickle. The change was not merely symbolic; the party’s propaganda became infused with a stridently nationalist tone. In a January 1939 Communist Review article, Tribune editor Harry Gould argued that workers were not only the most consistent “champions of democracy”, but also “the only consistent champions of patriotism”. Rejecting the Leninist policy of transforming the imperialist war into a civil war, Gould argued that an “armed struggle against an invasion by Japanese fascism, even if led by capitalists, would be a democratic struggle, one which workers would support”.

However, in August 1939, Stalin signed a “non-aggression” treaty with Adolph Hitler that enabled the pair to divide Poland. With Moscow now pursuing a tenuous pact with the Axis powers, a new line emerged. Whereas just months before, the party was championing a “people’s war against fascism”, the CPA now loudly denounced the “inter-imperialist war”. It vowed that Australian workers should not be sacrificed for Britain’s war ambitions. This tone undoubtedly struck a chord with a significant section of the Australian working class, especially those with memories of the brutality of World War One.

Once Britain declared war on Germany, on 3 September 1939, Menzies declared Australia also to be at war. However, his efforts to impose wartime discipline on the labour movement were not warmly received and, in some cases, faced stiff resistance. In March 1940, the NSW state Labor conference declared its support for an immediate end to hostilities. A similar resolution moved by union leader and Communist Ernie Thornton at the ACTU congress failed by just two votes.

The party’s strident support for the Stalin-Hitler pact provided Menzies with a pretext for a wartime ban on the party’s publications, and soon the party itself, on the grounds that it was “collaborating with the enemy”. In June 1940, federal police raided CPA offices and members’ homes, seizing allegedly seditious material and driving the leadership underground.

The party proved well prepared, continuing to organise through its underground and front organisations. In the September 1940 federal election, and the March 1941 Queensland state election, CPA candidates garnered thousands of votes. And when two Communists, Horace Ratliff and Max Thomas, were jailed for printing anti-war leaflets, 50,000 workers went on strike. Their cause tapped into a wider sentiment of opposition to Menzies’ attacks on civil liberties.

There was, however, nothing internationalist about the CPA’s newfound anti-imperialism. The party defended Stalin’s occupation of territory in Finland, Poland and Romania as a policy of “self-defence”. Some quit the party in disgust; others were expelled.

The CPA’s left turn lasted until June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Over the following four months, the Nazis overran Ukraine and reached the outskirts of Moscow. Desperate to slow the German onslaught, Stalin pleaded with Churchill to open a Western front, but to no avail.

Under Moscow’s orders, the CPA now did another giddying about-face. The war was no longer an “imperialist war”, but a “patriotic war” to defend the independence of oppressed peoples: a reversion back to the Popular Front line. As Sharkey put it, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR “changed the character of the war into a war of independence on the part of the democratic peoples against fascist imperialist aggression”.

The CPA enthusiastically campaigned for Curtin’s election and declared its wholehearted support for the new government’s war effort. In October 1941, Tribune welcomed Curtin’s victory, calling for “an ever increasing contribution by Australia in all spheres of endeavour to the Allied struggle for victory over Hitler”.

“Let us go to it, leading the enthusiasm for output, for recruiting, and for financial sacrifice”, Tribune declared.

Though there was disquiet within party ranks about the dramatic shift, CPA leaders were aided by Curtin’s former reputation as a radical. Curtin had been an anti-conscription activist in World War I and, unlike Menzies, was not tainted by fascist sympathies.

Secondly, Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, its rapid advance through South-East Asia and its bombing of northern Australian towns, assisted Curtin to stoke fear of an imminent Japanese invasion. In the context of White Australia, talk of the “yellow peril” connected with deeply entrenched racism.

The Allied war effort is often celebrated as a “good war”: a war for democracy, contrasted with the tragic waste of human life on the European battlefields of World War One. This myth asserts that national unity was needed to overcome the fascist and militarist threat of the Axis powers. However, the Allied powers showed little regard for democracy. Britain and France each ruled over vast colonial empires, denying their subjects the democratic right of self-determination. Immediately after the war, independence uprisings were brutally suppressed in countries such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

World War Two was therefore not a war to defeat fascism and save democracy. Rather, it resulted from rising tensions between imperialist powers, exacerbated by the Great Depression. With the collapse of world trade in the 1930s, the British and French ruling classes attempted to protect their weakened economies by raising trade barriers, prompting their competitors—Germany and Japan—to seize territory to gain access to raw materials and new markets.

The Australian ruling class, which had long tied its fortunes to the British Empire, had valuable colonial possessions of its own to protect in territories such as New Guinea, Nauru and Fiji. The Curtin government invoked fear of a Japanese invasion to justify its entry into the Pacific War even when intelligence reports provided evidence to the contrary. Curtin now pushed legislation through parliament to enable the conscription of Australian troops to serve overseas. General Douglas MacArthur was invited to establish a US military command headquarters on Australian soil.

The CPA now encouraged its members to enlist in the military. On the home front, Communists worked to drum up support, sending comfort parcels to the armed forces, selling war bonds and mobilising labour for fruit picking and canning. A January 1942 Victorian CPA state conference resolution summed up the new line: “The policy we are now pursuing is that ... the Communist Party becomes the leading and most active war party. In the prosecution of a just war, a people’s war ... it is obvious that the working class must become the leading force”.

Fifteen hundred CPA members heeded the call to enlist, and 2,500 more were recruited from the CPA’s work in the armed forces before the war’s end. CPA army cadre campaigned for increased pay, better facilities and equal pay for servicewomen, whose pay was just two-thirds that of servicemen. While these were obviously supportable demands, they were always framed in terms of boosting morale to aid the war effort.

The CPA was rewarded for its enthusiastic pro-war stance with legalisation. The Menzies government’s wartime ban was lifted in December 1942, but only after the CPA signed an undertaking with Attorney-General Bert Evatt promising to “do its utmost to promote harmony in industry, to minimise absenteeism, stoppages, strikes or other hold-ups”.

Wherever CPA trade union officials had influence—in factories, mines and on the waterfront—they exhorted workers to increase wartime production. For example, the Miners’ Federation accepted cancellation of holidays, suspension of compulsory retirement, and overtime to boost production. The shop committees the CPA had built in the 1930s to lead industrial struggles now suppressed such struggles.

Labour Minister Eddie Ward appointed CPA union officials to the Commonwealth Coal Commission, the Stevedoring Industry Commission and the Maritime Industry Commission. In each case, their task was to oversee increases in wartime production and suppress strike action. In May 1942, the coal owners and the Curtin government provided the Miners’ Federation with legal sanction to expel striking members. Militants who persisted in striking could be prosecuted, fined and even drafted into military service.

In 1943, the Communist Waterside Workers’ Federation leadership rode roughshod over rank-and-file opposition in Sydney to the introduction of a rotary gang system, which they feared would result in speed-ups and longer hours. Officials Jim Healy and Tom Nelson worked with the Curtin government to break a sixteen-day strike.

Workers had many grievances around which to fight. While household incomes had increased, they came at the cost of long hours of overtime and shift work. Increased taxes ate away at workers’ pay packets, and wartime rationing limited the availability of essential goods. Women workers, who were conscripted into the workforce to aid wartime production, took industrial action to demand equal pay.

Amid the upturn in struggle, the CPA was obliged to bend to the mood of workers, especially in the coal mines. From mid-1943, industrial disputes in the coal industry began to rise as militant coal miners defied their leaders’ attempts to stop strikes. To remain implacably opposed to all industrial action would have seriously weakened the party’s influence among industrial workers. However, the CPA also acted to suppress rank and file revolt, most notably within the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA), where it faced a determined opposition from renegade union branches at Mort’s Dock, in Balmain, and nearby Cockatoo Island. Led by a small group of Trotskyists, they fiercely resisted the FIA leadership’s attempts to encroach on branch authority.

The CPA’s size and influence reached a high point in the final year of the war. Membership rose from 4,000 in 1940, when the party was declared illegal, to 16,000 in 1942 and 23,000 in January 1945, according to CPA historian Alistair Davidson. Hundreds of thousands of workers were now in unions led or influenced by the Communists.

The party also achieved impressive electoral results. In 1944, CPA candidate Fred Paterson won the Queensland state seat of Bowen with strong support from sugar workers and coal miners in the state’s north. In the same year, sixteen CPA candidates were elected to New South Wales local councils. In the Hunter Valley coalfields town of Kearsley, Communists won a council majority.

Three factors shaped the party’s growth during this period. First, despite the brutality of the Moscow trials and gulags, the Soviet Union enjoyed substantial support among Australian workers. It was perceived as representing a departure from the ills of capitalism, a product of the 1917 Russian Revolution. And its ultimate defeat of German fascism was praised as an example of self-sacrifice.

Second, the early wartime ban on the CPA, not lifted until late 1942, engendered significant support for the party, whose members continued to organise defiantly underground. The party was able to trade on the authority it had won in the preceding years when its members had organised the unemployed and led significant strikes. Finally, the CPA’s popular front policy provided the party with a degree of mainstream acceptability.

Whereas most of the party’s recruits in the early years of the war were industrial workers, in the latter years middle-class recruits began to flood in. The party’s enthusiastic support for the war effort attracted professionals such as journalists, teachers and scientists, as well as university students and intellectuals. Communist Ralph Gibson recalled that these new youthful recruits joined the party “on the crest of a great wave of advanced democratic sentiments” espousing a “liberal-democratic rather than revolutionary outlook”.

However, the CPA’s period of spectacular growth proved short-lived. In the postwar years, especially after Chifley’s defeat of the 1949 miners’ strike and the onset of the Cold War, the CPA once again found itself on the margins. From its peak in early 1945, CPA membership fell by nearly half to 12,000 in 1947 and halved again by 1952, according to former CPA member and historian Robin Gollan. It never really recovered.

The party’s decline had much to do with postwar exposure of the Soviet Union’s authoritarianism. Khrushchev’s1956 speech confirmed what many already knew: Stalin’s reign of terror had resulted in hundreds of thousands—including many former leaders of the revolution—being rounded up in gulags. Moscow’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution the same year showed that the Stalinist bureaucracy was not about to change its spots.

However, workers also left the party because of its domestic wartime policy. They had every reason to feel betrayed. The CPA’s pro-war stance amounted to a complete departure from the internationalist tradition advocated by Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks at the time of World War One. Moreover, the idea that World War Two was a “good war” could be evoked by subsequent Australian governments to justify Cold War military interventions in alliance with the United States, such as the invasions of Korea and Vietnam.

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