A century on, what is the legacy of the Communist Party of Australia?

The late Hal Alexander – electrician to the queen, communist militant, dope fiend, rugby league aficionado and all-round ratbag – once said that the Communist Party of Australia was the only such party in the world, past or present, that had a formal endorsement from its people to legally exist.

This Friday, 30 October 2020, it will be one hundred years since it was founded.

The CPA reached the height its power in the late 1940s. At this time it had more than 20,000 members, controlled strategic sections of the labour movement – notably the miners and the wharfies – and had in Fred Paterson Australia’s only communist parliamentarian, representing the ‘Red North’ Queensland seat of Bowen.

In the penumbra of the failed communist-led Miners’ Strike that the Chifley Labor Government broke using the military, Robert Menzies came to power in 1949 and tried to ban the CPA. As well as declaring the party illegal, his Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 confiscated its property and even made it an offence to espouse the ideas of Karl Marx – thought crime no less. It also banned communists or former communists from holding positions in unions or having employment in the public service. The Act was thrown out by the High Court with Labor’s then deputy leader, Bert ‘Doc’ Evatt, intervening on behalf of the communists. Menzies took it to a referendum.

On 22 September 1951, the Australian people rejected the Act by the slimmest of margins: 49.44 percent in favour, 50.56 percent against. Democracy prevailed.

By the mid-1940s, communists had shrugged off their earlier petty sectarian squabbles and were riding high on the prestige of the Red Army smashing Nazism. This was before the crushing of the Hungarian revolution and the Prague Spring, and before full knowledge of Stalin’s crimes had emerged. Kruschev’s secret speech condemning Stalin in 1956, followed by the Hungarian events, led to mass resignations. The party never really recovered.

While the CPA failed to become a successful electoral party in Australia, it controlled up to a third of the unions and, throughout the postwar period to the 1980s, it provided the intellectual basis for much of the Labor left’s politics. A handful of ALP MPs secretly carried Communist Party cards.

Soon after the founding of the CPA, and under pressure from the left, the Australian Labor Party adopted its ‘socialist objective’ for the ‘socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’. This objective remains, albeit amended with the proviso ‘to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.’

When in government, the Labor Party has never felt much compunction to enact this objective.

But the Communist Party was more than just the Labor Left’s brain in exile. Despite its early sectarian strangeness (1920-26), its Stalinisation (1926-1968) and subsequent slide into reformism and liquidation (1968-1991), for seventy-one years the CPA attracted the best working-class militants, trained them as activists and had a profound impact on Australian cultural, industrial, political and working-class life.

It was a living contradiction: deeply anti-democratic in its structures, it organised some of the best democratic activists in unions, in theatres, in community and cultural life – even in sporting organisations. It reflected the genuine militant and democratic aspirations of many Australian workers, while simultaneously adopting Stalinist methods and flip-flopping its policy ‘on orders from Moscow’. This was particularly notable during the ‘Third Period’, when the CPA was accused by the then Stalin-controlled Comintern of right deviationism for supporting the ALP in elections in the late 1920s and again when the CPA at first opposed the war against Germany (1939-41) only to support it after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

However, the CPA was also the first Australian political party to recognise the colonisation and genocide committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It rejected the White Australia policy. It fought for decolonisation of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It assisted Aboriginal activists in the 1920s and 30s and again in the 1950s and 60s, supporting the early Land Rights movement.

During the Great Depression and beyond, communists led the militant minority movement in the unions, organised unemployed workers, fought against evictions and helped destroy the humiliating bull system on the waterfront.

Communists led militant unions, supported progressive writers through the Australasian Book Society and helped launch the Green Bans to save urban heritage and working-class communities. They supported the fight against Apartheid, organised international solidarity, sent volunteers to fight in the International Brigades against Franco’s Spanish fascists. They were the backbone of the peace and anti-nuclear movements and in the 1970s largely supported the emerging second-wave feminist and sexual liberation movements.

When activists in the 1960s began to question and reject the Stalinist orthodoxies, there was no consistent democratic Marxist current of thought, domestically or globally, around which to organise. So, the Party, while holding onto Stalinist internal practice, adopted reformist New Left or (later) Eurocommunist politics and began its inevitable slide into liquidation. In 1963, the Maoists split away and in 1971 the Moscow-liners, or ‘Tankies’, formed the Socialist Party of Australia, which has now picked up the name CPA but none of its previous support.

In 1991 the Communist Party liquidated to form the New Left Party, which lasted barely eighteen months, an embarrassing epilogue to a once militant working-class party.

It was a century ago on 30 October, that twenty-six women and men representing a few hundred socialists, women’s activists, anarcho-syndicalists, trade unionists and Labor Party members met at Trades Hall in Sydney to found the Communist Party of Australia. Inspiration from the 1917 Russian Revolution – and it has later been discovered, the direct intervention of Communist International organisers – brought squabbling groups together in unity. The largest of them, the Australian Socialist Party, had to be convinced by Comintern to unite with others, especially the anarchists and left-wing ALP unionists.

For two years after its foundation, the party remained essentially divided over attitudes to the ALP, with those from the Australian Socialist Party believing the trade union militants were too close to the Labor Party. This was finally resolved after the Moscow-based Communist International insisted the factions bury differences and unite. The CPA received admission to the Comintern in August 1922.

The CPA’s life, 1920 to 1991, mirrored what the Hungarian historian Ivan Berend called the Short Twentieth Century, a phrase later made well-known by British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

What is significant about the CPA’s founding was that various threads of socialist thought and activity were united into a single organisation that worked across society: in the unions, in the Labor Party, in cultural and community organisations. The central aims of working-class democracy, internationalism and socialism were lifted above that of sectarian shibboleth. A party of the working class was formed.

Today, such a feat seems beyond the Australian left, to the extent there is one. The Labor Left has lost its brain and no longer even pretends to be an activist organisation for socialism. The organised non-ALP left is shattered into tiny fragments of Trotksyite and Stalinite irrelevancy, the lessons of the Short Twentieth Century unlearned or ignored in pointless meetings, paper sales and obscurantist debates.

There are strands in the trade unions, social movements and among young activists seeking a new orthodoxy among the debris of the left’s failure to challenge neoliberalism. As economic realities leave Hayek and Friedman behind, it is the democratic activism of unions like the SEIU in the United States, new ways of organising for climate justice, the stirrings of militancy in the Black Lives Matter movement and the social-democratic populism of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders that have provided something by way of new inspiration and hope. But this is not yet taking lasting organisational forms or deepening much theoretical understanding of class politics in the new age, let alone leading to unity around a clear democratic platform for radical change.

Some former communists joined the Green Party, which is a largely middle-class party of social-democratic reformist politics. In the current Australian political climate, this is seen as dangerously radical, and much atomised left sentiment flows on support for action on climate change and anti-racism. These aren’t bad things in themselves, of course. However, without a coherent political alternative, many remain focused on the forms of oppression rather than its causes and how it manifests more broadly, deeply and structurally.

After the New Left Party, the inheritors of the millions left over at the liquidation of the CPA seem to put more effort into arguing about property and investment than they do about reaching new politics. Despite efforts to educate and train young activists in socialist history and theory, SEARCH exists largely as a dwindling fund and ginger group to segments of the Green Party, the ALP and unions. It has no power and, worse, seems to have no aspirations for collective working-class power.

Back in 1920, founding CPA delegates included representatives of the ‘Trades Hall Reds’ led by Jock Garden, secretary of the NSW Labor Council; Adela Pankhurst, of the famous suffragette family; Jack Miles from the Queensland Communist Group; the inspiring Guido Barrachi from Melbourne; and Tom Glynn from the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 allowed their differences to be subordinated to the needs of unity and the hope of leading radical change in Australia as part of a world movement.

Who knows what those founders of the CPA would think of today’s left? The hopes and dreams of working-class militants who joined communist ranks over the decades were profoundly aspirational. They were fighting for a global society of peace, internationalism and prosperity. They wanted to storm the heavens, as Marx described the Parisian Communards of 1871.

Such aspiration remains not only worthwhile but is deeply necessary as the world faces ecological catastrophe, inequality beyond comprehension, continued violent racism and sexist violence, and the creeping threat of war as much of humanity remains mired in nationalism.


Image: Communist Party of Australia, May Day march, corner of Albert and Queen Streets, Brisbane, 1977

Martin Greenfield

Martin Greenfield is a Sydney labour movement activist.

More by Martin Greenfield ›

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  1. I was speaking recently with the 80-something son of the former CPA stalwart Edgar Ross. He showed me some of Edgar’s personal journals and said that in the late 1940s (or maybe early 50s) 30,000 people attended a debate in Sydney between Edgar and a Catholic bishop. I was staggered. But reading Edgar’s stuff I was also surprised by how long the Stalinist line persevered in Australia. Edgar – and presumably others – thought the Prague Spring was a capitalist plot to destroy the Revolution etc.

  2. I recall the vilification of the then CPA in my formative years ,the stigma and the shaming ! It was very tough on we the children . We were the commie kids!
    I now feel proud of our fearless parents and my children are also very proud of their grandparents .

    Thanks for posting .

  3. I can recall the Communist Bookshop in Market Street, Fremantle. Whiled away quite a bit of early evening time there, even purchased a few tomes on Marx. Won’t see the likes of that again, in my days at least.

  4. “This was particularly notable during the ‘Third Period’, when the CPA was accused by the then Stalin-controlled Comintern of right deviationism for supporting the ALP in elections in the late 1920s and again when the CPA at first opposed the war against Germany (1939-41) only to support it after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.” seems wrong? The Comintern line was to oppose WW2 until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, so the CPGB leadership were purged for supporting WW2 only to be reinstated.

  5. Great article. Although could also mention the role of ASIO in infiltrating and exacerbating every friction point from ’49 onwards. As much as the left failed in its own squabbles, the state started, funded, and fed them to ensure disunity and ultimately demise.

  6. From the ‘stalinist irrelevancy’ (SI): Some years ago, a person complaining about what was happening to his municipal pool refused help from myself and others on the grounds of Stalin. What had Stalin to do with a municipal pool 50/60 years after his death? The persistence of this nonsense is truly stupid, and Michael Greenfield resurrects it with gusto again. The persistence of the notion that the present Communist Party of Australia is as the Michael Greenfield slur indicates a ‘Stalinist irrelevancy’ is again very unhelpful.
    Your last paragraph somewhat redeems your sniffy article from a false sense of superiority to something approaching what we in the SI are doing. ‘as the world faces ecological catastrophe, inequality beyond comprehension, continued violent racism and sexist violence, and the creeping threat of war as much of humanity remains mired in nationalism.’
    Michael if you got your nose out of the air you would see that the CPA (SI) as you call them are kicking goals in workers’ rights, in social housing, we are prominent in the Black Lives Matters to such an extent that Andrew Bolt gave a breathless condemnatory account of our work. As for the peace movement you cannot move in the peace movement in NSW, Vic, or WA without bumping into a SI member. In Sydney and other states there are SI’s who hold a vigil for Cuba, and another who hold a monthly vigil to stop Australian arms companies supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia and Israel. We are the only mob who are concerned about the Yemen War, the non-labour left knows it and cooperate with us in unity. We have been gearing up to be more on the street regarding climate change and our documents reflect that. We terrible people in the CPA (SI) are working for unity with all people in Australia of goodwill across a broad range of issues, so why bring up past hurts and fractions? Please remember Stalin died in 1953 -67 years ago.
    We need unity across a broad range of groups, and we need to work at it not to descend into name calling of ourselves and others. We would like bigger numbers in our organisation for sure and bigger numbers on the street, we are not giving up the task.

  7. The great watershed was the war in Vietnam, which created the Counterculture, still with us today in 1,000 + 1 ways. But the enormous antiwar movement did not result in much growth of the CPA, thanks to its entrenched Stalinist tradition.
    The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) with its Leninist ‘democratic centralism’ had taken control of the USSR, and similar developments took place in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba: the only countries to have had genuine Marxist-led revolutions. Unfortunately, those who lead such revolutions feel obliged to introduce draconian, top-down rule in order to stay in power. They know that their lives depend on it, because they make enemies by the trainload in the course of making the revolution. The first casualties are inevitably liberalism and democracy, which the enemy propaganda machine is not slow to capitalise on.
    Even the English Revolution of the 1640s went through this process, and it is still a work in progress.

  8. A grave error that the opportunist Laurie Aarons’ leadership led to the demise of such a strong movement through its adoption of Eurocommunism. Look at the state of the working class even then and let alone now and try to justify their decisions now.

  9. Fifty years ago, they were the Janus party. Internationally, they looked backwards to the illusions of Soviet perfection that any sensible Leftist had rejected. Nationally, they were at the forefront, way “ahead of their time” in the fight for Indigenous rights (Frank Hardy!), women’s rights, and saving the environment.

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