Towards a history of the Communist Party of Australia
By John Percy
[These five articles were first published in Green Left Weekly in 1995 to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Australia. At the time Percy was national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party. He is now national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]
September 27, 1995
Seventy-five years ago, under the impact and inspiration of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist Party of Australia was founded. It was a modest beginning, but an historic event. The CPA formed in 1920 finally dissolved in 1991, but for most of its life it was the dominant party on the left in Australia and an important force in the workers movement.
There are many proud chapters in its history -- the numerous trade union struggles led; organising the unemployed, women, Aborigines, young people; important civil liberties fights; and solidarity with international struggles, in Spain, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa and East Timor, to name a few.
The CPA's founders had a vision of socialist revolution in Australia, and this was the goal of most of its rank-and-file members over the years. The party inspired dedication and commitment from thousands of men and women, and organised the most militant, idealistic, self-sacrificing section of the Australian working class.
But it was also a history of mistakes, of betrayals, of lost opportunities.
To mark this important anniversary, Green Left Weekly will be carrying a series of articles on the history of the CPA.
This series will briefly acquaint a new generation of young socialist activists with our past -- some of the main struggles, the main players and the high and low points. Of course, this can only be a limited, selective history.
It will also draw some lessons -- both the positive and negative experiences. It will try to better equip the coming generations of socialists to learn from our history and not repeat mistakes of the past. In what periods, and with what tactics, did the CPA grow and go forward as a Marxist party capable of leading militant workers? And what policies and mistakes led to the CPA's defeats, decline and final dissolution?
The series will also provide a guide to some of the literature available on CPA and socialist history.
A revolutionary party?
The CPA was founded with hope and fire and dedication. Its founders, and most who joined later, wanted to build a revolutionary party.
Hoever, it was a revolutionary party that lost its way. But when? Certainly by the time of its dissolution in 1991, only a small minority wanted to continue the struggle, and they were overruled. Others date its decline or degeneration from the time they were expelled or dropped out.
But it's more complex than that. The CPA always had a dual nature. Even from the beginning in the '20s, there were conflicting pressures, with the desire to build a revolutionary working-class party counterbalanced by the tradition of the earlier socialist groups trying to work through the ALP.
During most of its history it was a hardline Stalinist party, a term used not as an epithet but as a description of a social process and a political outlook. It had a fundamentally contradictory nature, torn between fighting for socialism and defending working-class interests, and following Stalin's directives and defending the interests of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union.
During its last 25 years, as the CPA attempted to come to terms with both its past and with new political challenges, it was buffeted right and left. The party leadership tried to make a break with Stalinism, but without returning to Leninism, and so ended up with a purely liberal critique of Stalinism.
They responded energetically to the "new social movements", but without integrating them into a Marxist class analysis. They encouraged new forms of workers' struggles, on wider issues and with rank-and-file involvement, but were still unable to break from the dynamic of their bureaucratic positions in the unions, and their basic acceptance that the ALP was somehow the real workers party. So they ended up instigators and defenders of the ALP-ACTU Accord, one of the biggest disasters ever for the Australian working class.
Towards the end they were increasingly demoralised and uncertain about socialism, the possibility of revolution and the party's role.
Most of the former CPA leaders who have written their memoirs in the last few decades conclude that the whole idea of building a revolutionary party in Australia was misguided.
Bernie Taft, the central CPA leader in Victoria from 1962 to 1984, is quite explicit: revolution is not on the agenda, so it would have been better not to use the word "revolution". In his memoirs published in 1994, The Party's Over, he writes, "It would have been wiser to dispense with a term which inaccurately described our position". Taft and most of the Victorian CPA leadership jumped ship in 1984 to join the ALP, not even becoming part of the left, but the centre.
John Sendy, a former national president and associate of Taft, put a similar view in his Comrades Come Rally, published in 1978. He'd dropped out in 1974. In a pamphlet he put out in 1978, he wrote that while recognising the rapid growth of the CPA during the early 1930s, he's very critical of this period because it "... alienated a great many people in the labor movement and permanently damaged relations with important organisations". He claimed that the CPA was seen as "violent, foreign, un-Australian". He advocated policies more in keeping with the Australian political realities: "The CPA did not appreciate that the Australian working people possessed few revolutionary traditions".
That may be the case, but the task facing Marxists is to find the way to change that, not to accept the dominant ruling-class culture and values, nor acquiesce in the ALP tradition, a capitalist tradition. The logic of this position is capitulation to the ALP organisationally as well as politically -- liquidation as a party, or joining it individually, which is what happened to his current.
Eric Aarons, a party functionary for many years, and joint national secretary 1976-82, in his memoirs, What's Left?, published in 1993, suggests that the very word socialism might be wrong. He writes that socialism has "inherent problems" that arise from socialism itself. He thinks the goal of radical social change requires "a major redefinition and reformulation. Even the name may constitute a problem, indicating as it does the centrality of the socialisation of the means of production, with all that has entailed in elevating central planning and eliminating the market."
But the problem is not the necessity or possibility of socialism, but mistakes that were made, internationally and in Australia, in the name of socialism. Fundamental political questions need addressing: why did the CPA fail, and what can we learn from its history? That's the aim of this series.
It's impossible to come to terms with the CPA's errors and final demise without understanding the problem of Stalinism. No new revolutionary party in Australia will be built without this understanding.
Following Lenin's death in 1924, and after the trials and deprivations of years of civil war and imperialist interventions against the young Soviet state, and the failure of the expected revolutionary upsurges in the West, the Russian working class progressively lost the direct exercise of political and economic power. Joseph Stalin assumed dictatorial control. His base was the consolidating bureaucracy, and the degeneration of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union away from revolutionary Marxism into an instrument of that bureaucracy.
In place of an internationalist revolutionary perspective, Stalin put forward the possibility of completing the construction of socialism in one country. Thus the prime task of Communist parties in other countries became defending the Soviet Union. In country after country, the revolutionary struggle was sacrificed to the diplomatic needs of Moscow.
The CPA's major errors were the result of uncritically taking a lead from Moscow. It forced them to make many bizarre twists and turns on foreign and domestic policy. In spite of belated and inadequate attempts to come to terms with its past in the last few decades of its life and reassert its independence, the central leadership never overcame the political errors of its Stalinist heritage.
A central error was the distortion of the traditional Leninist position on the united front, clearly set down at the Third Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1921, and expounded in Lenin's polemic Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. The tactic proposed united action to social democratic parties on issues, to win the support of the workers away from the reformist parties.
Stalin's Popular Front, by contrast, was a cross-class alliance. It became the new orthodoxy after the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, a justification for subordinating the working class and revolutionary struggle around the world to the narrow needs of Moscow. It reinforced the false views about the ALP common among socialists before the founding of the CPA, going along with the populist, nationalist tradition in the labour movement.
But while looking for alliances with right-wing forces, in and outside the ALP, the CPA was extremely factional towards others on the left. It dogmatically refused to collaborate with other leftists on issues of common agreement. Internal democracy was also lacking. To raise a difference with the leadership line meant expulsion.
In trying to break with its Stalinist past from the mid-'60s, the CPA leadership concentrated on the question of independence from Moscow, and building an Australian party based on Australian traditions and conditions, making its own decisions.
This is also often the concern of academic writings on the CPA. For example, it's the central theme in Alastair Davidson's history, The Communist Party of Australia, a useful factual resource written in 1967. In a 1970 article titled "Writing the History of a CP", he wrote: "I came to the conclusion that the central theme in CPA history was the dialogue between local exigencies and central orders".
The introduction to his book states: "The history of the CPA before 1950 can be understood better as a move away from Australian traditions into an alien tradition, which made the CPA inappropriate in Australia. After 1950 its history becomes a stumbling, groping, limping move back to Australian traditions ..."
But "Australian traditions" confuses two concepts: firstly, the actual social, cultural and political conditions, which any Marxist party must take into account; secondly, the dominant capitalist ideology of the society, which must also be taken into account, but in order to overcome it.
And there are two types of "alien" influence that should be clearly differentiated.
Firstly, there's foreign control, what we in shorthand often refer to as "Cominternism", where orders, a general line, and even universal tactics are given to national parties from an international centre. The experience of this has certainly been harmful, both in Australian experience and in the experience of the international communist movement. In the case of the CPA, it was disastrous. From the beginning of the '30s until the mid-'60s, Moscow dictated the policies, often to terrible effect, and was able to determine the leadership.
Secondly, there are foreign ideas. These have been helpful, even necessary. The very idea of socialism, as well as all the subsequent theoretical advances and practical experiences of the workers movement, have been essential imports for the Australian revolutionary movement. But it's vitally important which ideas are imported -- the national communism of Stalin or the revolutionary Marxism of the Bolsheviks in Lenin's time.
The worst "Australian tradition" that must be overcome by Australian socialists is the ALP, an expression of the limited class-consciousness and the national outlook of the Australian labour officialdom for most of its history. Socialists need to be clear about the nature and role of the ALP -- it's an obstacle to the further development of working-class consciousness.
Lenin had it basically correct when he described the ALP as a liberal capitalist party. The ruling class calls on it to govern in times of crisis, or to implement structural changes in the interests of capitalism as a whole, which the openly capitalist parties would find difficult because of their ties to particular sections of the capitalist class. This role was clear during the world wars, and it's been demonstrated very clearly during the last 12 1/2 years of Labor government.
The ALP's policies were never socialist. It's a vital part of Australian capitalism's attempt to contain the political activity of workers and others struggling for social progress. The ALP attracts workers' support partly because of its links to the trade union bureaucracy and partly because its liberal policies seem fairer, so it can posture as the party of the working class. But its leadership is always dominated by political agents of the capitalist class.
That, of course, doesn't predetermine the tactics of a Marxist party in regard to the ALP at any time. Here, as elsewhere, you need maximum tactical flexibility. But for tactical success, you need maximum political clarity.
The CPA, and many of its left critics, was not clear about the nature and role of the ALP. Apart from the "Third Period" interlude in the early '30s, when Comintern policy dictated a mad sectarianism to all social democratic or Labor parties, labelling them "social fascist", for most of the time the CPA treated the ALP as though it were a workers party. For the CPA's last 30-40 years, this meant tailing the Labor Party, and a framework of reform of the capitalist system, not fundamentally challenging it.
The CPA had many positive experiences in organising workers and leading them in struggle. In contrast to their lack of parliamentary success, CPA members were elected to leadership positions in many trade unions. Unemployed workers won to the CPA during the '30s depression got jobs as the economy picked up, and provided the base for the CPA winning control of key industrial unions. Communist rank-and-file activity was extensive and well organised.
But other pressures also bore down on the party from the trade unionist milieu. These were less of a problem early on, and when positions at the top were backed up by strong Communist support in the ranks. But in the 1950s, the political climate plus dwindling CPA membership at the base often led the CPA union officials to adapt to the politics of their ALP counterparts. In later years the actions of Communist union officials were often indistinguishable from those of ALP trade union bureaucrats. So CPA work in the trade unions also had those two sides to it.
That false view of the ALP led to a fundamentally flawed analysis of CPA history by nearly all writers and historians with an orthodox CPA background.
This analysis has as its central thesis that "sectarianism" towards the ALP is the main cause of the decline of the CPA, and conversely, a "correct united front approach" to the ALP directly contributed to the growth of the CPA. Evidence presented in this series will dispute that view.
Early CPA official histories in the '40s have this perspective, such as that (published in 1944) by Lance Sharkey, CPA national secretary for more than 30 years until 1965, and E.W. Campbell, director of the Marx School in the '40s. The same approach is the central thesis of Bill Brown (of the Association for Communist Unity) in his 1986 book The Communist Movement and Australia. It's one of the more distorted and inaccurate histories.
Other memoirs of former CPA leaders, such as Bernie Taft and John Sendy already mentioned, Ralph Gibson's The People Stand Up and The Fight Goes On, Edgar Ross' Of Storm and Struggle, all have the same central thesis of the main danger of left sectarianism toward the ALP. (Although they suffer from the consequent political mistakes and historical distortions, they do provide some interesting first-hand reminiscences.
Histories of the CPA and the Australian socialist movement that take a more balanced outlook have not been as numerous, but include Robin Gollan's Revolutionaries and Reformists, Tom O'Lincoln's Into the Mainstream and Frank Farrell's International Socialism and Australian Labour.
A major history of the CPA by Stuart MacIntyre and Andrew Wells is nearing completion. Although MacIntyre was at one time part of a left tendency in the CPA critical of the leadership position on the ALP, he later supported the leadership position, so this history is also likely to put forward the "sectarianism towards the ALP" thesis. Nevertheless, it's likely to provide the most comprehensive factual record of CPA history yet. Part of that project, a resource bibliography compiled by Beverley Symons, was published in 1994, and is an extremely valuable aid to further research and writing.
Histories are not objective. They're always written from a certain class viewpoint. Even stated intentions of objectivity are often attempts to conceal a bias, the acceptance of the status quo. Autobiographies and histories by participants of course have their own bias. They're often attempts to justify present positions. And histories written by opponents of socialism, or those who have given up the struggle and want to interpret history to justify their adaptation to capitalism, have limited use.
What's needed is a history from a revolutionary Marxist viewpoint, one true to the inspiration of the founders of the CPA, Lenin's Bolshevik party. Such a history will enable us to understand the past, learn from it and help guide our struggles in the future. We hope this series is a small step in that direction.