For most of the twentieth century, left-wing politics in Australia was dominated by the Stalinist politics of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and its various offshoots. While never in a position to challenge the ALP as the leading force in the working-class movement, the CPA – which per head of population became the largest Communist party in the English-speaking world—built a powerful presence in the trade unions.
For decades, committed Communist activists played leading roles in innumerable workplace struggles and community campaigns. Consequently, the party built an influence that went well beyond the ranks of its formal membership.
It had enormous influence on the outlook of the Labor Party left. That influence was reflected in the fact that, when pro-Moscow loyalists split from the CPA in the early 1970s, the NSW Labor left split along similar lines. The party also had a powerful impact on intellectual, artistic and small-l liberal circles.
Though worker Communists played a positive role in many struggles, the overall impact of the CPA’s Stalinist politics on the workers’ movement was disastrous. The CPA’s championing of the murderous regimes in Russia, Eastern European and China as workers’ paradises discredited the very idea of socialism.
The Stalinist vision of “socialism” was a dull grey authoritarian dictatorship, in which working-class people had absolutely no control over their lives. This represented a total abandonment of Karl Marx’s vision of socialism as a society of genuine human freedom.
The CPA was turned into a rigid bureaucratic machine to serve the foreign policy goals of the Russian state. From the 1930s onwards, the CPA advocated a class-collaborationist approach, which sacrificed workers’ interests to the pursuit of alliances with the capitalist and middle-class forces that Russia’s rulers were seeking to cultivate as allies.
This approach culminated in the 1980s in the pivotal role prominent Communist union officials, such as Laurie Carmichael, played in drafting the Prices and Incomes Accord—a policy used by the Hawke/Keating Labor government to undermine rank and file union organisation and to impose the harshest wage cuts in Australian history.
This was far from the outlook of the worker militants who originally came together to found the CPA inspired by the Russian Revolution of October 1917. They stood for working-class self-emancipation and the end of capitalist tyranny.
Australian society underwent an intense class polarisation during World War I. The Anglo-Australian ruling class was determined to make workers pay the cost of the imperialist war effort, and unleashed hysterical mobs of middle-class patriots to crush dissent.
But the slaughter on the Western front, combined with savage attacks on living standards and democratic rights, provoked a profound working-class radicalisation. A tremendous upsurge in strikes rocked the country during the war and its immediate aftermath.
In 1917, a two-month general strike, led by rank-and file-workers, started in Sydney’s tramway and railway workshops and then swept the country. The general strike was savagely defeated, but in a renewed wave of strike action in 1919 and 1920, workers won stunning victories, including shorter working hours, in defiance of the legal arbitration system.
The government tried twice to impose conscription. Both attempts were defeated by mass mobilisations, which formed worker militias to repulse attacks on protesters by right-wing mobs.
The murderous repression by the British military of the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin and the subsequent war of Irish national liberation led to the development of widespread anti-imperialist sentiment amongst Irish Australians, who constituted more than a quarter of the working class.
The ALP was torn apart by the crisis. Formerly moderate union leaders, under pressure from an outraged rank and file and fearing they would be outflanked by genuinely revolutionary forces, expelled pro-conscriptionists from the ALP, including Prime Minister Billy Hughes and NSW Premier William Holman.
Various syndicalists and socialists played a prominent role in these upheavals and grew substantially. The revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the most prominent organisation, though in Victoria a leading role in the anti-conscription movement was played by the left-reformist Victorian Socialist Party.
The IWW as an organisation was smashed by harsh government repression, which jailed or deported the core of its leadership and hundreds of members. But repression could not put an end to the radicalisation. Under the inspiration of the successful Russian Revolution, radicals began to rethink their politics and regroup.
The foundation of the CPA is usually traced to a meeting of 26 leftists on Saturday, 30 October 1920, in the Australian Socialist Party’s hall in Liverpool Street, Sydney. But the reality was that, under the impact of the Bolshevik triumph in Russia and the subsequent formation of the Communist International (Comintern), various currents on the left had been organising for some time to bring about the formation of a Communist party.
An initial impetus came from radicals in the small Russian exile community such as Petr Simonov, who the Bolsheviks recognised as the Soviet consul. Simonov was supported by two revolutionary socialist MPs, Mick Considine and Percy Brookfield, from the militant mining centre of Broken Hill.
In Melbourne, Simonov linked up with the left wing of the Victorian Socialist Party and the syndicalists Guido Baracchi and Percy Laidler, then leaders of the International Industrial Workers, one of the fragments of the outlawed IWW. Baracchi and Laidler began to publish Proletarian Review, which had easily the clearest understanding of any Australian publication of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary Marxist politics.
But Sydney was the main game. It was where the IWW had had its main base, where the more left-wing socialist groups had their strongest presence and where the mass radicalisation had most severely ruptured the ALP.
A group of left-wing union officials had been defeated in their attempt to win the ALP to a socialist program. They split away from Labor in 1919 to form the short-lived Industrial Socialist Labor Party. Simonov worked closely with these “Trades Hall Reds”, who were led by the new secretary of the NSW Labor Council, the arch-manoeuvrer and bullshit artist Jock Garden. Simonov worked with these figures to form a secret underground Communist Party in 1919.
The Australian Socialist Party, the largest of the small left-wing socialist groups, had also declared its support for the Communist International and sought to turn itself into a Communist party. It was the ASP that took the initiative to call the conference on 20 October 1920, in an attempt to outflank its rivals, the Trade Hall Reds—who the ASP viewed as opportunist Johnny-come-latelies.
But it was the ASP that was to lose out, in part due to its own sectarianism, to a heterogeneous coalition of the Trades Hall Reds, syndicalists, ex-members of the Victorian Socialist Party and independent radicals such as former militant suffragist Adela Pankhurst. Having only a minority in the new party’s structures, the ASP withdrew and founded its own CP.
For over 18 months, there were two Communist parties, both expending much of their energy competing for recognition from the Comintern, which consistently argued for them to unite. In June 1922, an increasingly exasperated Comintern Presidium wrote to the two Australian parties:
“Those who for any reason do anything to prevent unity ... bear a heavy responsibility not only before the Communist International, to which they claim affiliation, but also before the mass of the working class.
“The existence of two small groups, amidst a seething current of world shaking events, engaged almost entirely in airing their petty differences, instead of unitedly plunging into the current and mastering it, is not only a ridiculous and shameful spectacle, but also a crime committed against the working class.”
The ASP-aligned CP formally had clearer revolutionary politics than the Jock Garden-led party. But when it refused to accept a very fair and democratic proposal for unity, a majority of its Sydney rank-and-file members defected to its rival, which then received formal recognition as the Australian section of the Communist International.
The new party, however, remained extremely unclear politically. The main current on the Australian left at the time was syndicalism: the idea that capitalism can be overthrown by organising workers in industrial unions, without needing a revolutionary socialist party.
Following the crushing of the IWW, mass support for syndicalism coalesced in the movement for the One Big Union (OBU) to bring all the workers together to challenge capitalism. In the radicalism following World War I, the OBU idea was supported by a majority of organised workers, even in conservative unions such as the Australian Workers Union (AWU).
The committed syndicalists were sincere working-class fighters, with many great strengths compared to the opportunist Labor MPs and trade union bureaucrats. But the defeat of the 1917 general strike, when contrasted to the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, sharply highlighted the need for a revolutionary party to lead workers to victory.
Some syndicalist activists had begun to draw these lessons by the early 1920s, but they had little real understanding of what a genuine revolutionary party would look like. In particular, they had no serious strategy for winning over workers influenced by the ALP, other than ritual denunciations of the myriad betrayals of the Labor leaders.
The Comintern argued for a united front approach: working alongside reformist organisations in struggles around concrete demands to improve workers’ lives, while attempting in the course of the struggle to win workers away from their vacillating reformist leaders. But in Australia in the early 1920s, almost nobody on the left agreed with, understood or was capable of flexibly implementing this approach in a principled manner.
Many syndicalists and sectarian socialists refused to join the CPA, because they rejected the united front approach as a capitulation to reformism. On the other hand, the Garden-led Trades Hall Reds, desperate to regain influence in the ALP, interpreted the united front in a thoroughly opportunist fashion.
The Comintern leadership’s lack of in-depth understanding of the political situation in Australia did not help. They were too easily taken in by Garden’s bluster about how much influence the young CPA had over the mass of workers.
On top of that, the Comintern recommended the tactic of Communists joining the Labor Party. This may have been appropriate for the newly formed, loosely organised British Labour Party. But the Comintern transposed the tactic to the very different Australian circumstances. By the 1920s, the ALP was a long-established, deeply entrenched bureaucratic party with a vast cohort of duplicitous MPs. It had been in government at a state and federal level on numerous occasions, and loyally served the interests of the capitalist class.
The idea that the small, politically confused CPA could have any hope of making substantial inroads into the ALP, let alone capturing control of it as the Comintern proposed, was a totally overblown orientation. It only helped to provide a cover for Garden’s wretched deal making with the corrupt, right-wing AWU officials in order to gain CPA affiliation to the NSW ALP.
By 1925, most of the union bureaucrats associated with the Trades Hall Reds had decamped for the greener pastures of the ALP. (One of them—Robert Heffron—ended up as NSW premier.) Garden soon followed suit. More importantly, many good rank-and-file worker members of the party had been absorbed into the ALP.
By the mid-1920s, the CPA was in utter disarray. It took concerted effort by the recently arrived Irish-Canadian Marxist Jack Kavanagh to begin to turn things around. Kavanagh waged a spirited attack on Garden’s opportunist politics and sought to raise the political level of the membership. He turned the party away from manoeuvrings at Trades Hall and in the ALP to a focus on building a base in the workplaces.
He did this by open democratic debate, not bureaucratic fiat. But unfortunately, the space for a further healthy development of the CPA along genuine revolutionary lines was soon closed off.
The CPA had been less impacted by the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern than many of the larger Communist parties because of Australia’s geographical isolation and the party’s relative insignificance. But by the end of the 1920s, Stalin was determined to mould all the far-flung Communist parties into obedient servants of the interests of the Russian state rather than of the local working class movements.
That meant purging the parties of dedicated and honest revolutionaries like Kavanagh. By the early 1930s, Kavanagh and his supporters had been expelled and a hardened team of Moscow-trained bureaucrats loyal to Stalin installed to run the CPA for decades to come.
That was the end of the CPA as a progressive force in the working-class movement. A new party genuinely dedicated to the task of working-class liberation had to be built. But that is another story.
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“Should Fascism achieve power it will ride over your skulls and spines like a frightful tank”, wrote Leon Trotksy in a letter to a German communist in December 1931. “Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only unity in struggle with the social democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-communists, you have very little time left.”