One Hundred Years of the CPA

Stuart Macintyre

The following article is the text of the author’s keynote address at the online celebration of the centenary of the foundation of the Communist Party of Australia on Friday 30 October 2020.

The creation of a communist party in Australia was inspired by the Russian Revolution, though inspired might be too grand a term to describe the meeting of 26 persons who gathered one hundred years ago in a dingy upstairs hall in Liverpool Street, Sydney.

The overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917 (February in the Russian calendar) had been widely greeted by the Australian labour movement, and many welcomed the Bolsheviks’ overthrow of the weak and ineffective Provisional Government eight months later. The Bolshevik Party led by Lenin seized its opportunity and took power through a national congress of soviets (councils of workers, soldiers and peasants). It did so in the knowledge that the capitalist powers would not accept the change – and it was right as they intervened in the Civil War to try and crush it. These Bolsheviks (they renamed their party the Communist Party in 1918) calculated that their chances of survival relied on their example triggering similar uprisings elsewhere and to this end created a Communist International made up of the communist parties formed countries all round the world.

There were repeated calls to form a communist party here, but it did not happen until four unlikely collaborators came together. One was Petr Simonov, who styled himself consul-general for the new Soviet regime. Another was Bill Earsman, a Scots immigrant and member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers who travelled from Melbourne to set up a labour college. The third was his partner, Christian Jollie-Smith, who joined him in Sydney and helped draft the party’s constitution. And the fourth was Jock Garden, another Scot and secretary of the New South Wales Labor Council. The three men were regarded with suspicion by the existing socialist groups, and with good reason, for all three were chancers. Even so, their claim to have Moscow’s recognition proved decisive.

Simonov and Earsman soon departed Australia, and Garden abandoned the party once he had exhausted its possibilities, while Jollie-Smith concentrated on her legal practice. There were never more than a few hundred members throughout the first decade but this tiny party survived. Its inability to grow and less than faithful understanding of communist policy and tactics raised the concern of the Communist International, but it was not until the end of the decade that Moscow despatched a cadre to pull Australia into line.

By then a dissident faction, more doctrinaire and uncompromising, had seized power, and soon J.B. Miles and Lance Sharkey were installed as leaders, remaining so until 1948 in the case of Miles and 1965 in the case of Sharkey. With them came a rigid application of democratic centralism and an iron discipline that stamped on any dissent.

The new leadership took its bearings from the onset of the Depression and the declaration by Stalin that capitalism was entering a period of decisive crisis in which the task of communists was to unmask the traitorous reformists as agents of capitalism. The dismal performance of Labor governments during the Depression gave that argument some legs and the party grew, but its work among the unemployed was most successful.

A generation of young activists was recruited who would find work later in the 1930s and provide leadership as the unions slowly recovered the ground lost in the Depression. Then, in the mid-1930s, came Stalin’s belated realisation of the threat posed by Hitler, which brought a united front of workers and soon a people’s front to defend freedom and democracy from fascism and war. The CPA’s Movement Against Fascism and War contrasted with the divided and irresolute Labor Party. And as the party grew, its activity extended to campaigns against racism and gender discrimination, and it produced a remarkable range of art, literature and theatre.

This is the story I told in my history The Reds. I have now almost completed its sequel – about time I hear you say – that takes the history up to 1970. It is to be called The Party, a title I chose to emphasise its unique character and the demands it made on adherents.

One such demand came in 1939 with the treaty of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which divided Poland between them, and Stalin’s declaration that the Allies’ war against Germany was an imperialist war that all communists must oppose. This extraordinary U-turn caught the Australian party by surprise, but it accepted the new line and its anti-war activity brought closure of the communist press and a declaration of illegality in mid-1940. There is a rich oral history of the police raids on homes and the prosecutions that followed.

There were indeed communists who served terms in prison for selling, or even possessing, communist literature, but this was a remarkably light form of repression. The Queenslander Eva Bacon, who came to Australia having worked in the Viennese underground, said the CPA’s illegality was an ‘absolute joke’. For a start, it did not apply to communist union officials since to raid, let along prosecute them, would have paralysed industry.

But with Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Soviet Union became an ally and communists everywhere worked for victory against fascism. The popular support for the Soviet Union in Australia at this time was remarkable. In 1942 the Newcastle Jockey Club held a Racing for Russia turf meeting to raise funds for the USSR, with the Stalin Flying Welter the feature event

Even more remarkable was the assistance the Labor government that took office in 1941 gave the party. Upon restoring the party to legality, it provided communist newspapers with a generous paper allowance ­– newsprint being strictly rationed – to the fury of the major proprietors. When the party held its next congress, all interstate delegates were provided with travel permits (which were then as rare as hen’s teeth). Union leaders such as Jim Healy and Ernie Thornton had ready access to leading federal ministers.

The reason for this favoured treatment is not hard to find. With Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, communists everywhere worked unreservedly for an Allied victory. The Australian party had an industrial influence much greater than its British or American counterparts: the unions that covered maritime and rail transport, mining, smelting, manufacturing and munitions industries all had communist leaders. Furthermore, an acute shortage of labour along with wage controls, overtime and consumer rationing meant that only these union leaders could keep their members working. Describing itself as the ‘Win the War’ party, communist party membership rose from 4,000 in 1939 to over 20,000 by 1944.

This co-operation extended into the early post-war years since the Chifley government flatly rejected the anti-communist position adopted by the US and UK. Nor did it support them in their attempts to restore colonial rule in the region, Chifley in particular winking at the communist-led campaign to prevent the Dutch using this country as a base to put down Indonesia’s fight for independence.

The Cold War came late to Australia, partly as a the result of pressure from the US and UK following discovery of Wally Clayton’s spy ring, partly because the Soviet Union turned to confrontation from 1947 when it declared the world was divided into two camps, the one imperialist, anti-democratic and bellicose, the other anti-imperialist, democratic and pacific. This brought the party into confrontation with the Labor government, which used draconian powers to defeat the miners’ strike of 1949, followed by the efforts of the newly elected Menzies to impose a ban on the CPA, this time one with teeth that would have gaoled anyone the government named as a communist. A referendum to give him this power was narrowly defeated in 1951. By the early 1950s the Communist Party was on the defensive, defeated by the right in a number of unions, preoccupied internally with allocating the blame for its disastrous left adventurism.

The principal initiative was to establish the peace movement, lent respectability by the peace parsons who served as the principal office-holders but directed by the communists who were its full-time organisers, so that it failed to condemn the communist countries for their part in the Korean War. This lopsided campaign hampered the peace movement from the outset. And the proceedings of a royal commission on espionage, established in 1954 to exploit the defection of the Petrovs, added to the anti-communist feeling. A party that had contributed to the military defeat of fascism, that led industrial campaigns to improve wages and conditions, that had been so active in community life and in a host of cultural activities, was by this time much reduced and isolated. Yet this shrinkage brought no reconsideration of its structure and principles.

In his 1956 address to a Congress of the Soviet communist party, Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s dictatorship and the crimes he had committed. His detailed, if incomplete, account of these crimes implicated not just members of the Soviet Politbureau but the leaders of every other communist party who had extolled the Socialist Sixth of the World and denied Stalin’s Terror. At first the Australian leaders also denied Khrushchev’s speech; then they gave the most grudging admission that Stalin had erred, and refused to allow discussion of those errors.

A substantial number of members rebelled, of whom Helen Palmer was in my view outstanding. Contrary to popular belief, she did not abandon the party: on the contrary, she fought for change. Nor did she and other dissidents abandon their communist beliefs, for they thought this was an opportunity to return the party to more democratic practices and rid it of the stigma attached to its subservience to a regime that most Australians thought repugnant. Some were expelled in the course of this rebellion and some resigned, but 1956 revealed a breakdown in communist discipline. Many dissidents who were asked to resign refused – back in the past, resignation was not an option: you were expelled. Moreover, many of the senior party members who were required to enforce discipline harboured their own revisionist misgivings.

As a consequence, the growing rift between Khrushchev and Mao Tse Tung was mirrored here in disputes between communists who clung to the old dogmas and those who saw the need for change. The Australian party had links with China –that was where our cadres had gone for training since the early 1950s  – and initially sympathised with the Chinese criticisms of the Soviet revisionists. In the end they rejected the threat to unity and backed the Russians, leading to the defection of Ted Hill and his supporters.

This in turn strengthened the hand of those arguing for change. Lance Sharkey finally made way for Laurie Aarons as general secretary in 1965. Laurie initiated a series of long overdue reforms in an attempt to give the party credibility, but these led to yet another split following the CPA’s denunciation of the Soviet suppression of Dubcek’s reforms in Czechoslovakia. Those clinging to Soviet allegiance broke away in 1971 to form the Socialist Party of Australia.

With each wave of expulsions or resignations, there were claims the party would be stronger, more unified and at last able to realise its socialist goal. That hope of regeneration was not fulfilled, though the party that emerged by 1970 was undeniably different, no longer claiming a monopoly of wisdom, opening itself to movements of liberation with the Green Bans, women’s liberation and gay rights. In the past the party had supported victims of oppression (Indigenous and ethnic, the outcast and the homeless) but always with an insistence on the class struggle. That no longer defined communists from the 1970s. I won’t attempt to tell of the subsequent events, for many of you tonight will recall them vividly.

Instead I want to close on a note of reflection. The book I am about to complete explores the consequences and arguments that arose from adopting a model of political action devised by Lenin to deal with Russian circumstances: an overwhelmingly rural society in which peasants far outnumbered industrial workers, an autocracy that denied political liberty.

The demands of the Civil War that followed the communist seizure of power only reinforced his model of a vanguard party exercising absolute control over its members. But there was no proletariat by the end of the Civil War because the war had destroyed the country’s heavy industry. As a result the party substituted itself for the working class. The dictatorship of the proletariat meant the suppression of other parties and the use of terror against opponents during the Civil War sowed the seeds for its use as a device of communist rule.

There was little awareness of this among the Australians attracted to the Soviet model, and of course no possibility of imposing communist discipline by force. Here the discipline was self-imposed, part of a way of life. Communists were dedicated but they were also rebels, attracted to the party because it channelled their rebellious instincts. This combination of characteristics seems to me run through the communist lives that are gathered together in the centenary volume Comrades. The biographical sketches give a vivid reminder of the impulses that inspired these men and women to make the sacrifices they did, and the qualities that enabled them to achieve so much.

I came in at the tail end of the events that I explore in my new book, and became familiar with so many of its principal figures as well as lesser known ones. Some, I have to confess, seemed to me authoritarian and unattractive – and doubtless they found me callow and cocksure. But I recall the majority, who dedicated their lives to human betterment, with intense admiration.

Dr Stuart Macintyre is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and author of The Reds: the Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality (Sydney, Allen and Unwin,1998). The sequel, The Party: Communism in Australia, Heyday and Reckoning, 1940–1970, will be published byAllen & Unwin in 2021). Stuart is Federal President of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.