Communism in Australia

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By Dave Holmes

[This talk was presented at the A Century of Struggle Laborism and the radical alternative: Lessons for today conference, held in Melbourne, Australia, on May 30, 2009. It was organised by Socialist Alliance and sponsored by Green Left Weekly, Australia’s leading socialist newspaper. To read other talks presented at the conference, click HERE.]

The original Communist Party of Australia ceased to exist in 1991*. So it is a long while gone. Many comrades here would have had no experience of it. Yet for most of its 70-year history the CPA was Australia’s major left party. At times the party had a significant impact on Australian politics — especially in the grim years of the Great Depression, during World War II and during the Cold War. Cynics used to make cracks about the “party” of ex-members of the CPA being the biggest political formation in the country but what is true is that over these seven decades probably scores of thousands of people saw the party as the vehicle with which to fight for a better world.

For decades the CPA was a strong militant force in the trade union movement. It played a key role in supporting various national liberation struggles (Indonesia in its independence struggle against the Dutch after World War II and much later East Timor in its fight); it fought hard for civil liberties (we can mention the Egon Kisch case in the 1930s and the fight against Menzies push to ban the party in the early 1950s). In the field of culture the CPA — through writers such as Jean Devanny, Frank Hardy, Dorothy Hewett and Katherine Susannah Prichard — developed a strong influence.

Resistance Books will shortly publish a new book, The Aboriginal Struggle and the Left, by Terry Townsend. It shows convincingly that each significant gain won by the Aboriginal rights movement has been achieved through an alliance between this country’s Indigenous people and the working-class and socialist movements — an alliance in which the CPA played a key role.

However, despite the many undeniably positive chapters in the CPA’s history there was another side. The CPA was created to fight for socialism and it recruited on that basis. But a gross contradiction developed. At the end of the 1920s the party became Stalinised. This meant that on all fundamental questions its politics were subordinated to those of the privileged conservative bureaucracy which had usurped power in the Soviet Union.

Thus in the 1930s, despite its dramatic growth, the Stalinist ``Third Period’’ sectarianism prevented it from building a really serious broad challenge to the whole system. During World War II the party acted as a super-patriotic booster of the war effort, deliberately heading off workers’ struggles for better wages and conditions. And ultimately, the CPA’s uncritical identification with the USSR severely compromised the struggle for socialism and ended up demoralising many of its militants.

Even when it broke with Moscow after the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, the CPA was unable to properly settle accounts with Stalinism. Rather than moving in a revolutionary direction, it moved to the right. It spent its last decade playing a pivotal role in selling the anti-worker, wage-freezing ALP-ACTU Accord which so devastated the trade union movement during the Hawke-Keating years.

I would commend the excellent 1995 series of Green Left Weekly articles by John Percy, a former longtime leader of the Democratic Socialist Perspective — in my opinion they provide the essential Marxist framework for understanding the CPA’s real strengths and real weaknesses.

Over the past year or so I’ve read quite a few books about the CPA, memoirs by former CPA members and biographies. It is profoundly moving to read accounts of the passion, commitment and courage of earlier generations of revolutionaries, especially when so often it all ended in disillusionment and loss of faith when finally confronted by the reality of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. I would have liked to be able to refer to some of these but there is simply no time.

Today, I can only indicate some of the critical issues and periods in the history of the CPA. The history of the Communist Party of Australia is a truly vast subject and I hope comrades will be encouraged to study the topic further. There is a parallel session today on the CPA and the left in the trade unions so I won’t go into that except in the most general way. I especially want to focus on the CPA’s policy towards the ALP at various times. This is a question of great interest to socialists today.


On October 30, 1920, 26 people met in Sydney to found the Communist Party of Australia. It adopted a statement of aims which said in part:

… By monopolising and holding by any and every means of skill, cunning, deceit and even terrorism, all the means of subsistence, a dominant class perpetuates the existing form of society, whilst the proletariat, deprived of everything, sometimes even of bare subsistence, is subject to degradation and most humiliating slavery. Thus does modern society present itself a system wherein one class provides all things, and owns nothing, whilst the other class own everything and produce nothing. The Communist Party recognising this contradiction sets itself to abolish the system, to overthrow this class monopoly and to abolish the private ownership of the means of production.1

The participants at this meeting came from four groupings:

1. The so-called “Trades Hall Reds”, a group of left-wing union officials around JockGarden, secretary of the NSW Labour Council. They were exponents of the One Big Union idea and of working within the Labor Party (“boring from within” what they saw as the “mass party” of the Australian working class). Also in this group was W.P. Earsman of the SydneyLaborCollege who became the provisional secretary of the new party. (Earsman was a delegate to the Third Congress of the Comintern in June-July 1921 where Trotsky helped ensure his credentials were fully recognised.)

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Jock Garden.

2. The other main group was from the Australian Socialist Party (ASP), led by its secretary Arthur Reardon. The ASP specialised in Marxist propaganda and opposed working in the Labor Party.

3. The third current was former members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW, also known as the ``Wobblies’’, had an heroic history. A sui generis form of syndicalism, the IWW had been severely hit by state repression during World War I. Tom Glynn, one of the 12 IWW members framed on charges of conspiring to burn down Sydney, attended the founding conference.

4. Finally there were various other socialists such as Guido Baracchi (the subject of Jeff Sparrow’s recent book, Communism: A Love Story), Adela Pankhurst (of the famous suffragette family) and J.B. Miles of the Queensland Communist Group.

The problem of the Labor Party

Within two months the new party split and the ASP left. The main political issue was what attitude to take to the ALP. The ASP saw the CPA as opportunist and the CPA regarded the ASP as sectarian. In August 1922 the Comintern recognised the CPA as its Australian section and by the end of the year most ASP members had moved over to the CPA.

But the problem of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) remained. Lenin got in right back in 1913 when he characterised the Australian Labor Party as a liberal capitalist party. The ruling class has turned to it at times of crisis (World War I, the Great Depression, World War II) or in order to carry out structural changes which would be difficult for the traditional capitalist parties because of their sectional interests. While its electoral base is in the working class it is certainly not a workers party or a two-class party as many have argued at various times (any more than is, say, the Democratic Party in the United States). In order reach the masses who look to the ALP our tactics can be extremely varied but the key thing here is political clarity on just what the ALP is.

In 1920 Lenin had written ‘Left-Wing’ Communism — An Infantile Disorder. It contained a section urging British communists to support the election of the British Labour Party against the Liberals and Tories — in order to get a sympathetic hearing from the British workers. Lenin was actually in favour of the British communists affiliating to the Labour Party — as long as they could retain full freedom of action and propaganda.

In 1921 the Comintern’s Third Congress adopted the united front line. This recognised that in Europe the postwar revolutionary wave had ebbed and the task now was to use intelligent united front tactics to make gains around issues of immediate concern to the masses, strengthen the communist parties, and put pressure on the social-democratic misleaders — either cooperate with the communists or stand exposed as accomplices of the bosses.

At first glance, this approach might have seemed to have vindicated Garden and the “boring from within” approach but this was not so. As Alastair Davidson explains in his 1969 history of the CPA:

[The CI’s united front policy] appeared to be similar to the policy already adopted by the CPA in accordance with Australian socialist tradition. Both advised party members to work through the trade unions and labor parties and emphasised the need to concentrate on piecemeal demands rather than extreme revolutionary attitudes. But there was one crucial difference … The Comintern’s advice to work with labor parties was not based on any belief that these parties were now acceptable. They were still just as untrustworthy, but they had the support of the workers. The object in uniting with them was not to refurbish them or to capture them but to steal their support and destroy them. All parties other than communist parties were considered outmoded political forms. This attitude differed from that of Garden or the VSP members who had chosen to work in the ALP, and it took the CPA some time to realize the difference.2

In line with Garden’s conceptions, all CPA members joined the ALP in 1922. At the June 1923 NSW ALP conference the CPA gained probationary affiliation to the Labor Party. The conference also adopted a socialisation objective. The CPA then went all out to win support for ratification of their affiliation at the next conference. But Lang and other right-wingers campaigned strongly against them and at the October 1923 conference, the affiliation decision was rescinded, albeit over strong opposition. The NSW ALP almost split over the decision. However, the ruling stood and soon CPA members were also banned from belonging to the federal or state Labor parties.

This new situation led to considerable debate in the CPA. Guido Baracchi proposed that the CPA dissolve itself into the ALP. When the December 1925 party conference rejected this proposal he resigned. Garden stood in the 1924 NSW elections and was shocked when he only received 317 votes. He flipped over and began collaborating with Lang, now leading a mildly reformist state government. He was expelled by the CPA late in 1926.

At the start, the CPA had from 750 to 1000 members; by the middle of the decade it was down to 280. Most of those who had left had joined the ALP. The main reason for these losses was the party’s opportunist interpretation of united front work (the other part was the difficulties created by the mild boom of the first part of the 1920s). A lot of party members were miseducated on the nature of the ALP and the tasks of the CPA in relation to it. (This assessment, I might stress, is not that given by Alastair Davidson: like many others he blames the Comintern’s “sectarian” united front policy.)


In 1925, Jack Kavanagh, an Irishman, came to Australia from Canada where he had been one of the central leaders of the Communist Party there. He joined the CPA and soon became its central figure. A lot of Stalinist myths surround Kavanagh but the truth is that he stopped the party’s decline and gave a much greater weight to Marxist education and propaganda. As Jack Blake, a longtime CPA leader, argues in a 1972 article:

It was at this stage that Kavanagh became prominent in the struggle against Garden and against his policy, which would have meant the liquidation of the Communist Party. Kavanagh emerged as the most effective leader of the struggle to defend the existence of the Communist Party and develop it into a revolutionary party along Leninist lines.3

At the December 1927 party conference he introduced a new constitution aimed at reorganising the CPA along democratic-centralist lines, replacing the old social-democratic forms that had applied hitherto.

Kavanagh was also strongly opposed to party members submerging themselves in the ALP. He insisted that all communists in the ALP and the trade unions declare their CPA membership, even at the risk of victimisation.

However, in 1929-30 Kavanagh and his supporters were defeated in the inner party struggle by the Lance Sharkey-J.B. Miles-Herbert Moxon group which had the backing of the Comintern, now solidly under Stalinist control. The fundamental process going on here was the Stalin leadership’s drive to destroy any independent-minded leaderships in the CPs and replace them with hand-raisers completely loyal to Moscow. The political issues were secondary.

But the Labor Party question did loom large in the struggle. First at issue was the position to be taken for the May 1929 Queensland state elections. The state ALP government had angered workers by its right-wing pro-boss policies. In the so-called “Queensland resolution”, drawn up by the ECCI with input from some CPA leaders, the CPA agreed to stand several CPA candidates, to support genuine left-wing ALP candidates, and elsewhere to put ALP candidates on the spot and urge a non-vote for them if they didn’t repudiate the actions of the government. I understand this to mean that the CPA did not urge a vote for Labor ahead of the Nationals — a serious tactical mistake. In the event, Labor was defeated but CPA candidates did reasonably well in relation to the ALP candidates.

With a federal election due in October 1929 the party had to decide on its policy. However, rather than follow the Queensland policy the party leadership decided to urge a vote for Labor against the hated Bruce Nationalist government while promoting an independent CPA campaign clearly distinguished from Labor. (The party felt it was too weak to stand its own candidates.) The CPA leadership argued that, looking at Queensland, it was clear that however bad the ALP government had been, the Nationalists in office were far worse. A similar argument applied federally. All this should sound very familiar to us.

The Open Letter

On October 13, 1929 the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI) sent an Open Letter to the CPA, for distribution to the membership. This Stalinist document said, among other things: “Even at its conference of December 1928, the party could not give a proper political estimate of the Labor Party or define its fundamentally social-fascist character [I’ll say more about this shortly], its aggressively counter-revolutionary role in the present situation … apparently the party regards itself as being merely a propagandist body and as a sort of adjunct to the Labor Party.” (This charge, of course, was ridiculous. Does the Socialist Alliance policy of putting the ALP ahead of the Coalition in elections mean we are an “adjunct” to the Labor Party?)

The Open Letter went on to emphasise the need for the CPA to “assert itself as the only true working-class party” and “to conduct open warfare against the party of class collaboration”.4 This is fine in general, but there are appropriate ways and inappropriate ways of exposing the ALP and its rotten capitalist politics.

Comintern intervention was decisive in swinging party opinion behind the Sharkey-Miles-Moxon grouping. At the Ninth Party Congress (December 26-31, 1929) Kavanagh and his supporters were defeated and removed from the central leadership. One of the first acts of the new leadership was to cable the ECCI “offering unswerving loyalty to the new line” (that is, the Third Period, “social-fascist” line). This leadership change marks the beginning of the Stalinisation of the CPA. It still had to complete the process but this was accomplished in relatively short order.

In 1930 the Comintern sent an emissary to Australia to oversee the thorough Stalinisation of the party. He was an American called Harry Wicks, known in Australia as Herbert Moore. (Much later he was exposed a longtime FBI agent.) He pushed through a new constitution and oversaw the expulsion of Kavanagh and his main supporters. Even Moxon got the chop leaving Miles and Sharkey as the two central figures — Miles as general-secretary and Sharkey as president.

The Third Period

The Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 had saddled the communist parties with the disastrous schema of the “Third Period”. According to the Comintern analysis, adopted at its Sixth Congress in 1928, after the crisis of World War I and the immediate turbulent aftermath, and then the stabilisation of the 1920s, world capitalism was now in its third period. This was one of decisive crisis, in which revolutionary situations were on the immediate agenda just about everywhere and the task of the moment was to organise for the socialist revolution. The problem with the “Third Period” line is that it confused real possibilities of development with the actual situation.

As we know, stormy struggles did occur in many countries and revolutionary possibilities did open up but these still had to be developed with a correct program of transitional demands to win leadership of the masses. The Third Period line pushed the CPs into all sorts of ultraleft mistakes, into substituting slogans and abuse for a correct policy.

And the tactical prescription which flowed from it was disastrous. The Comintern argued that not only were the pro-capitalist social-democratic leaders holding back the masses and preparing the ground for reaction and fascism — which was absolutely true — but that they were a variety of fascism — “social-fascism” — which was absolutely ridiculous. Their rank-and-file followers, whom the CPs were striving to win over, were also “social-fascists” — which was even crazier. Left social-democrats — “left social-fascists” in the Stalinist categorisation — were even worse because they could more readily mislead the masses.

When the Great Depression came and capitalism did enter a period of tremendous dislocation and political turbulence, the Comintern’s ultra-sectarian “Third Period” line prevented the communist parties from being able to correctly relate to the situation and win leadership of the masses.

For example, in Germany in the later 1920s and early thirties, this sectarian line prevented the potentially formidable labour movement from uniting its forces to check Hitler’s rise to power. Instead, the working class remained divided between social-democracy and communism. As Trotsky tirelessly stressed, whatever their differences it was necessary for the workers’ movement to unite for self-defence against the growing fascist menace. If it did not do this it would suffer a catastrophic defeat. Trotsky also pointed out that a successful campaign against the Hitlerite threat would open the way to a socialist revolution in Germany. The social-democratic leaders certainly didn’t want to fight but the sectarian CP line made it easy for them to avoid the struggle. How different would world history have been had the Marxist-Leninist policy advocated by Trotsky been followed …

CPA sectarianism and the Great Depression

In Australia, the Third Period schema meant a crazy sectarianism toward the ALP and its mass base. At a time when the faith in the system of large numbers of workers was being shaken as never before, when they were groping for a way out of their misery, the CPA line made it so much harder for them to cross over to the revolutionary camp.

Of course, the ALP leadership was loyal to the capitalist system, just as it is today. But the most fruitful way to expose the Labor misleaders in the eyes of its followers was not just through general propaganda but by constantly trying to achieve unity in action in fighting for the interests of the masses. Only in the struggle will large numbers of people lose their illusions. Criticism is certainly not excluded but it must be relevant to the issues at hand and formulated in relation to the struggle as it unfolds.

In Australia the Third Period line meant that the ALP leadership was simply denounced. The abusive “social-fascist” tag was also applied to the Labor membership, repelling them at the precise moment when many of them were having serious doubts about capitalism and the parliamentary approach. As Jack Blake recounts:

We believed we had to fight both the openly capitalist parties and the Labor Party, the main blows to be struck against the Labor Party which was considered to be the first barrier to the development of revolutionary struggle. It was thought that as the Labor governments had revealed themselves as supporters of capitalism, all that was needed to win the workers away from the influence of the Labor Party and bring them under the leadership of the Communist Party was the use on a wide enough scale of strongly worded agitation and propaganda. This was the ground on which members of Labor governments, Labor Party and trade union leaders were described as “social-fascists”. When left trends emerged in the Labor Party and trade unions in various states these were branded as “left social fascists” who were more dangerous to the working class than open right-wingers like Scullin and [Victorian ALP Premier Ned] Hogan.5

Here is an example of the CPA’s abusive style of polemic taken from a 1930 article in the Workers Weekly:

The advancements made recently in the organisation of the unemployed movement have so alarmed the filthy crew of social-fascists that they are engaging in a frenzied campaign of sabotage and treacherous intrigue in an endeavour to break up the UWM and place the unemployed once more at the mercy of Hogan’s gang of professional starvers of the unemployed. In this foul conspiracy the usual bunch are playing a leading role — Duffy, Monk and Cameron. The prostitute socialists are gathering all the opportunists, degenerate stool pigeons and scum that infest the ALP and placing in their hands the agencies for the distribution of state food stuffs …6

This absurd and destructive line was applied in NSW both to the movement headed by Lang and to the Socialisation Units. Common sense would seem to dictate that the CPA should have attempted to form the closest links in the struggle with the units and their mass base. When Lang was dismissed by Governor Game in 1932, an enormous crowd assembled in Sydney’s MoorePark in a very radical mood, with a section calling for arms. The CPA had cut itself off from influencing this development and, with Lang heading off to his country farm until everything blew over, it went nowhere. It could have been very different.

It is true that the CPA grew from about 250 members at the end of 1929 to over 3000 in 1935 (only 200 of whom were women). The CPA grew despite its deeply sectarian line because the crisis was very deep and disillusionment with the ALP was widespread; it was heavily involved in leading the immediate struggles of the desperate masses; and because it was identified with the Soviet union which was engaged in a massive industrialisation while the capitalist world was in crisis.

However, far bigger opportunities were wasted because of the CPA’s Stalinist sectarianism towards the ALP and its mass base.

That being said, we should note that its work in this period laid the basis for the later very significant growth of CPA influence in the trade unions. Most of its later leading cadre came out of the unemployed movement. As Ralph Gibson explains:

… The highly democratic grass-roots organisation of the unemployed [in the early 1930s] threw up many talented new leaders. Many of these moved into industry as the depression began to lift and more jobs became available. This was a period when new militant personnel was badly needed in the unions. Many of the union officials at this time were not only right-wing, but incompetent, and it was urgent to fill their places. Leaders of the unemployed, largely Communist Party members, commended themselves to their fellow unionists as people who could do the job required. Thus Ernie Thornton, of Collingwood Unemployed, became state, and then federal secretary of the Ironworkers’ Union. George Frank, of Richmond unemployed, finished as federal secretary of the Carpenters’ Union (later Building Workers Industrial Union). Jim Munro, of North Melbourne Unemployed, became an organiser of the Timber Workers’ Union. TomHills, who led the unemployed in Port Melbourne was prominent in Waterside Workers’ Federation activity. Brand, leader of the Brunswick Unemployed Single Men’s Group, became president of the Victorian Branch of the Ironworkers’ Union when Thornton transferred to the national office in Sydney. And so one could continue. Looking round the Trades Hall Council chamber any Thursday evening in the 1930s, one would see a great many faces familiar from the days of the unemployed battles, mainly much younger faces than the Trades Hall average.7

Switch to ‘Popular Front'

The Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 junked the Third Period line and adopted the so-called “Popular Front”. Fascism was the biggest danger to world peace and the main enemy of the working class. The task of the day was the search for “collective security” and anti-fascist fronts embracing the broadest forces. The reason for this backflip was that Stalin had become seriously alarmed by Hitler’s victory in Germany and had no faith in working-class revolution. Hence the Soviet Union’s main aim was to secure an alliance with the imperialist democracies, above all Britain and France.

The 1936-39 Spanish civil war showed just how counter-revolutionary this line was. Stalin did want to defeat Franco but not by revolution which would have alienated Britain and France. The Stalinists strangled the Spanish Revolution and demoralised the republican masses. (This is shown very well in Ken Loach’s powerful film Land and Freedom.) The defeat of the revolution in Spain made World War II a certainty — the imperialists could safely go to war without having to fear working-class revolution. Had it gone the other way in Spain, World War II could not have happened — something else would have been on the agenda.

In Australia, at its 11th Congress in December 1935, the CPA committed itself to try to achieve an alliance with the ALP against the menace of fascism and war. While the ALP steadfastly rejected any idea of affiliation, the CPA completely tailed the ALP.

CPA activist Gil Roper left the party in 1937 and joined the Trotskyists. He made a scathing public assessment of the CPA’s intervention in the federal elections that year:

… All Leninist principles were scrapped. The party leaders refused to nominate independent candidates (with two exceptions), called loudly for unconditional support of the Labor politicians, and unblushingly sowed the most dangerous reformist illusions about electing a “fighting Labor government”, which would legitimise “a better life” for the people. Miles falsified history: “Is it a gross error”, he said, “to see the Labor governments as administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed the workers.” What contemptible deception! Shades of Andrew Fisher, Hill, Hogan, Scullin, Lang, Forgan Smith and the rest. Is it not, rather, the truth to say that Labor governments have been merely the reflection of the level of the class struggle, that any reforms legislated have been forced by extraparliamentary activity of the masses? Is it not also irrefutable that at all critical junctures Labor governments in Australia have allied themselves with the capitalist state against the workers — whether in 1914 or in the latest brewery strike in Brisbane? …

As the campaign developed, the party leaders and press sank to the most vulgar deception and parliamentarism. All the ancient stock-in-trade of the reformists was displayed once again by the party leaders. The number three party election leaflet touches zero: “British policy … endangers the empire … The Lyons government supports this perilous policy … Stand by the League of Nations.” And the party members collected thousands of pounds … to pay for this rubbish.8

As John Percy explains in his Green Left Weekly series, this episode illustrates the basic reality that the fundamental impact of Stalinism on the CPA was a right-wing one. The Third Period madness was an exception — Stalin was still consolidating his power and the “left” turn internationally was part of this process.

Imperialist war

On August 22, 1939 the Hitler-Stalin pact was announced. Shortly afterwards Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany and World War II was underway.

Like communist parties everywhere, the CPA was thrown into turmoil by the Hitler-Stalin pact. After years of strenuous anti-fascist propaganda and activity, the pact was a bitter pill for Australian communists to swallow. But the party did accept it (although it lost some members who couldn’t stomach the new line).

In this period the CPs downplayed their opposition to Germany and played up the imperialist nature of Britain and France. (As Trotsky said in this regard, half-truths are the worst kind of lies.) The CPA opposed the war as an imperialist conflict. In June 1940 the CPA was declared illegal by the Menzies government. However, the party had prepared for this eventuality and coped quite well with its new underground existence. Printing presses were hidden under floor boards in houses; money was secreted away; public meetings would be held in the names of individuals; and by using the press of front organisations and trade unions the party was partly able to compensate for the ban on the party’s publications.

Work inside the ALP

One feature of the CPA’s policy toward the ALP in the Popular Front period was the work the party did inside the Labor Party, particularly in NSW. As new members joined the CPA they were advised to keep their membership secret and join (or remain in) the Labor Party.

In 1936 the NSW ALP, still controlled by former premier Jack Lang, had reconciled with the federal Labor Party, thus bringing to an end a four-year split. However, in 1937, state Labor MP Robert Heffron and left forces opposed to the Lang machine broke away and formed the Industrial Labor Party — often called the “Heffron Labor Party”. The CPA supported the Heffron party and CP-led unions affiliated to it. Jack Hughes, president of the Labour Council, assistant state secretary of the Federated Clerks Union, and a prominent figure in the ILP, was sympathetic to CPA policies. A unity conference between the ILP and the ALP in August 1939 saw the Heffron forces win control of the united party from the Lang machine. The new state ALP leadership was thus strongly influenced by the CPA and many members of its executive were secret (or not so secret) CPA members or at least sympathisers.

A clash with the federal Labor leadership developed from around the March 1940 state ALP conference. The conference adopted an antiwar resolution. As well as opposing the war now underway, the resolution included a “hands off Russia” section:

Conference makes it clear that while being opposed to Australian participation in overseas conflicts, we are also opposed to any effort of the anti-Labour government to change the direction of the present war by an aggressive act against any other country, with which we are not at war, including Soviet Russia.9

Lang and his supporters left the party, the federal ALP executive repudiated the resolution and state executive retreated and rescinded it. Hughes and the state secretary, Evans, were expelled. They and their supporters then formed the Australian Labor Party (State of New South Wales). This party was effectively controlled by the CPA.

The Hughes-Evans Labor Party (or State Labor Party) initially polled a respectable vote in various electoral contests (over 6% in the September 1940 federal elections) but this declined over time. During the period of the CPA’s illegality, the State Labor Party was a useful vehicle for getting out CPA propaganda. In January 1944 it amalgamated with the CPA to form the Australian Communist Party. The electoral base of the State Labor Party drifted back to the official ALP.

Everything for the war effort

On June 22, 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The party now made a complete about face on the nature of the war. As a later CPA document argued:

[The attack on the USSR] changed the character of the war into a war of independence on the part of democratic peoples against fascist imperialist aggression, and it plainly revealed the aims of the fascists to conquer the whole of the world and to enslave all of the independent nations.10

In truth, however, World War II combined five different types of conflicts: the imperialist war for redivision of the globe, the struggle of Soviet Union for its survival, the resistance of the masses to Nazi occupation, the liberation struggles of the colonial peoples (against “democratic” Britain, France and Holland), and the struggle of semi-colonial China against the Japanese imperialist aggression. The first war could not be supported, the other four wars were just and deserved the support of socialists.

The falseness of the CPA characterisation can easily be seen by considering the main result of World War II: namely, the emergence of the “democratic” USA as the number one global superpower whose tentacles would gather the whole “free world” in their bloodsucking, crushing, counter-revolutionary embrace. Hitler Germany’s aims and means were modest by comparison to those of the United States with its drive for global domination.

After June 1941, although it remained illegal, the party functioned more and more openly. The Curtin government took office in October 1941. It lifted the ban on the CPA at the end of 1942.

The party grew rapidly during the war. By September 1943 it had 20,000 members and a year later it reached its peak of 23,000. Its primary appeal to prospective members, of course, was its identification with the heroic and widely admired resistance of the Soviet Union to the Nazi invasion. At its height some 4000 communists were serving in the armed forces.

The CPA became an all-out supporter of the war effort — it became the “leading war party”. Its message was that workers should defer any settling of accounts with the bosses because fascism was the main enemy. The party opposed strikes and supported speed-ups. CPA-led unions even disciplined members who caused strikes or took too many sickies! The mines were a particular flashpoint and the CPA leadership of the union struggled to avoid stoppages and keep coal production up.

Prominent CPA trade union leaders, like Ironworkers leader Ernie Thornton and Jim Healy of the Watersiders, were put on various government industry boards to ensure operations proceeded smoothly without disruption.

As the CPA tailed the Labor Party, all serious criticism of the ALP was dropped. As Craig Johnston explains:

After June 1941 this emphasis on the bourgeois aspect of the “two­class” nature of the ALP was dropped in favour of emphasis on its progressive aspects. Welcoming the ALP as the predominant force in Australian politics, the CPA saw its policies as progressive in the existing political situation and in comparison with the conservative parties. A broad people’s movement could support the Labor government, even though it was not a people’s government, because it gave greater continuity to production and assured munitions to the armed forces. The united front “from above” was possible again. The growth of communism and of the working class were seen in a deterministic way as guarantees that the ALP would develop in a progressive direction, giving way to a people’s government paving the way for socialism.11


While CPA membership fell away from its wartime peak figure, the party still had some 12,000-13,000 members in 1946. In the trade unions, according to Alastair Davidson, from 25-40% of workers supported CPA industrial policies.

At the September 1947 ACTU congress, most of the policies supported by the communists were adopted. CPA leader Tom Wright was defeated for the presidency by only 176 votes to 138.

While the CPA anticipated dominating the next congress, it turned out that 1947 represented the peak of their influence in the trade union movement. At the 1949 gathering the CPA and the left had the same strength as in 1947 but the strength of the right had greatly increased giving it a decisive majority.

‘Black armada’

After the end of the war Australian unions — with the wharfies playing the key role — rendered important assistance to the Indonesian nationalist movement struggling to free their country from Dutch colonialism. Robin Gollan calls this “the most decisive act of international solidarity ever performed by Australian trade unions”.12 In August 1945, two days after the Japanese surrender, Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed the Indonesian republic. Over the next four years Australian unions imposed various bans on Dutch shipping going to Indonesia. The CPA-led Waterside Workers Federation’s (WWF) stand attracted considerable support. The story of this struggle is told in Rupert Lockwood’s book Black Armada.

Cold War

The wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the capitalist Allies didn’t long survive the war. Churchill’s March 1946 “iron curtain” speech in the US marked the beginning of the Cold War. The US undertook to rebuild war-ravaged capitalism in Western Europe and to consolidate the imperialist camp (the “free world”). In the US itself a witch-hunt was launched to tame the labour and radical movement. Concessions were also made: the postwar “welfare state” social reforms in the leading western countries were the combined result of working-class pressure and the need of the imperialists to secure domestic peace in the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union. Two defining events in this conflict were the Berlin airlift (June 1948-May 1949) and the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953).

The Comintern had been dissolved by Stalin in 1943 as a gesture to his wartime allies. In September 1947 the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) was founded as a replacement for the Comintern, to coordinate the action of the communist parties in the new situation. In eastern Europe capitalism was overturned and bureaucratically deformed workers states established. Internationally, the CPs made a sharp turn to the left.

Growing anticommunism

In Australia the completely unreal wartime hope that socialism could be quickly and peacefully ushered in quickly faded as anticommunism grew.

In 1945, the ALP started to establish Industrial Groups in the trade unions. The groups’ formal aim was to rally support for ALP candidates against the communists and they fought the CPA tooth and nail in the union movement. The clandestine Catholic Social Studies Movement — the “Movement” of B.A. Santamaria — provided the mass base and leadership of the groups. Eventually their activities would provoke the 1956 split in the ALP.

The Returned Services League (RSL) barred communists from membership and called for banning the party. This became the policy of the Menzies-led opposition.

In June 1949 CPA leader Lance Sharkey was jailed for 18 months. His crime? A journalist had asked him what would be his attitude if the Red Army invaded Australia — an event not exactly on the cards! — and Sharkey had given an answer (actually, not a bad answer).

The seven-week coal strike took place in June-August 1949. The coal miners had many legitimate industrial demands. But the CP, which led the Miners Federation, unwisely escalated the struggle into a contest with the Chifley ALP government. It is clear that the CPA saw the strike as a struggle against the ALP for hegemony in the labour movement — an utterly fantastic notion. Chifley put troops into the mines. The NSW government used its emergency powers to jail CPA officials of the Miners Federation, the WWF and the Federated Ironworkers Association when they refused to hand over union funds (they got 6-12 months). Eventually the miners voted to return to work without satisfaction of their demands and the CPA’s leadership of the union was badly damaged.

The strike was a big factor in the defeat of the Chifley government in the December 1949 federal election which ushered in over two decades of Coalition rule in Canberra.

Attempt to ban the Communist Party

In April 1950 Menzies introduced a bill to “outlaw and dissolve the Australian Communist Party”. The Korean War began in June and Menzies committed Australia to send troops to help the US. The ALP supported the government. Menzies started talking about preparing for a third world war within three years.

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The CPA dissolution bill became law in October 1950. The CPA and ten unions appealed to the High Court. In March 1951 the act was declared unconstitutional. In the May 1951 elections Menzies was returned in both houses. He set a referendum for September that year to give parliament the power to outlaw the Communist Party.

The ALP decided to campaign for a “No” vote. Evatt (now the ALP leader following Chifley’s death) waged a vigorous campaign. (The anticommunist Grouper element in the ALP ran dead on the issue.) The Communist Party waged an all-out drive for a “No” vote. In the event the referendum was narrowly defeated (by some 50,000 votes, with three states recording a majority against). Despite the narrow margin, this was a significant victory. Had the vote gone the other way Australia would have taken a major step along the road to a police state.

Three years later the CPA had to endure the Petrov affair, staged by Menzies to damage the ALP. Following the sensational defection of Petrov and his wife from the Soviet embassy in April 1954, a royal commission was established, ostensibly to investigate Soviet espionage in Australia. It held hearings from May 1954 to March 1955. While no prosecutions resulted, people were hauled before it and, with the help of the media, reputations were trashed and job prospects damaged.

1956 and after

In February 1956 the 20th Congress of the CPSU took place. It was here that Khrushchev made his famous “secret speech” denouncing some of the crimes of Stalin. (While extremely important, the speech avoided any discussion of why all this had happened, sheeting it home instead to “the cult of personality” — an “explanation” which explains absolutely nothing.)

The speech was soon published abroad (the New York Times ran it in full). It had a shattering effect on many of the CPs. The CPA leadership hunkered down, attempted to suppress the speech and denied its authenticity. The Hungarian anti-bureaucratic revolt and the bloody Soviet intervention against it in October of that year compounded the crisis in the CPA.

Several hundred people left the CPA or were expelled. They included many of the party’s intellectuals (Ian Turner, Stephen Murray-Smith, Helen Palmer, Bob Gollan, Miriam Dixson, George Petersen, and so on). The CPA managed to survive this crisis (compare this with Britain where it had a much greater impact).

An event which had a greater impact on the party was the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s. This led to a split in the CPA in 1963 when the pro-Chinese elements led by Ted Hill broke away to form the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). This struggle was centred in Victoria. It was in this period that Laurie Aarons rose to prominence in the central leadership and it was he who led the fight against Hill.

1968 saw the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia and the push for “socialism with a human face”. In August the Soviet Union invaded to crush it. This time the CPA decisively condemned the intervention and broke with Moscow over it. This led, over the next three years, to a split by a section of pro-Moscow trade union officials who went on to form the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971.

Final decade

While the CPA made some moves to attract new radical forces into the party in the late 1960s and in the seventies, the main move was to the right.

Whitlam was sacked by the Governor-General John Kerr in 1975 and subsequently defeated in the following election by Liberal Party-National Party Coalition of Malcolm Fraser. Labor came in under Bob Hawke in 1983. Its big selling point to the bosses was the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord. The CPA was instrumental in devising this wage-freezing social contract and selling it to the union movement.

The CPA’s key operative was Laurie Carmichael, the assistant secretary of the metalworkers union. The Accord, maintained through the Hawke-Keating years, had a devastating effect on the labour movement: union organisation on the job atrophied, union coverage shrank dramatically and workers’ relative wages declined.

In the mid-later 1980s the CPA backed away from the Accord for a period and the Socialist Workers Party (today the Democratic Socialist Perspective, to which I belong) became involved in its New Left Party project (we would have preferred direct discussions but this was what they insisted on). A section of the CPA’s membership was very enthusiastic about our collaboration but the central CPA leadership got frightened by the whole thing and it went nowhere.

In 1991 the CPA dissolved, leaving its assets in the Search Foundation (which is ongoing).


A number of former members of the Communist Party are very well disposed to the Green left Weekly project and to the Socialist Alliance. I think this is extremely gratifying and we value it highly; it has great symbolic importance.

I think this development also points to the task facing the socialist movement: not to agree on interpretations of history (interesting as that will always be to serious political people) but to regroup, to attract the scattered forces of discontent, to unite all those who want to fight against capitalism and for the socialist alternative. At this point we do not need an ideological party — in today’s conditions that approach will get nowhere — but rather a party that can unite the maximum forces in struggle. We can build and develop this party and its program as we proceed together in the fight.

The achievement of world socialism remains the task of our time. As never before in human history, the choice is simple: socialism or extinction. Those who take up this challenge in this country stand on the shoulders of the Communist Party and all those socialists who preceded us. We should study their experience and take from it everything which is positive.


* The present CPA is the renamed Socialist Party of Australia, the result of a pro-Moscow split from the old CPA in 1971.

1. Quoted in Socialist Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, May 1972.

2. Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History (Hoover Institution Press; Stanford, 1969), p. 25.

3. Jack Blake, “The Australian Communist Party and the Comintern in the Early 1930s”, Labour History, No. 23, November 1972.

4. The full text of the Open Letter can be found at

5. Jack Blake, “The Early Thirties”, Arena, No. 25, 1971.

6. Quoted in Charlie Fox, Fighting Back: The Politics of the Unemployed in Victoria in the Great Depression (MUP: Melbourne, 2000), p. 52.

7. Ralph Gibson, The People Stand Up (Red Rooster Press: Ascot Vale, 1983), pp. 40-41.

8. Gil Roper, “What Is Happening in the Communist Party?”, The Militant [Sydney], November 29, 1937, reproduced at

9. Quoted in Craig Johnston, “The Communist Party and Labor Unity, 1939-1945”, Labour History, No. 40, May 1981, p. 88.

10. Quoted in Davidson, p. 82.

11. Johnston, op.cit., p. 86.

12. Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (George Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 1975), p. 183.