Communist Party growth during the Great Depression
By John Percy
October 31, 1995
The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) experienced its most rapid growth in the years 1930-1934, going from 300 to 3000 members. The misery and desperation of the depression years, with up to one third of the work force unemployed, pushed many to look for radical solutions.
CPA members showed determination and sacrifice in fighting the depression's terrible impact. The CPA provided leadership and organisation for the unemployed, through the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), and could point to the Soviet Union as a socialist alternative to the horrors of capitalism in the midst of crisis. They put themselves forward as an independent alternative to the parties responsible for administering the mess, the ALP included.
As the depression started to ease many of the unemployed party members found work in industry. From this foundation the CPA started to win leadership positions in key industrial unions, and built a strong party with a significant working class base. The Unemployed Workers Movement The Unemployed Workers Movement was formed in April 1930, initiated by and under the leadership of the Communist Party. In around 18 months it had grown to 31,000 members and continued to grow until 1936. In 1934 it claimed around 68,000 members in the Eastern states.
In 1935 CPA president Lance Sharkey told the Comintern that the CPA, through its control of the UWM, had effective control of the unemployed in NSW and Victoria. The CPA recruited a large proportion of its new members through the UWM. As Ralph Gibson says in his book The People Stand Up, when he joined, the CPA "was largely a party of the unemployed. Its numbers were not just talking about poverty. They were among the multitude who were deep in it." There were other organisations of the unemployed created by the Labor Party and Trades Hall Councils. But the UWM, primarily due to the leadership of the CPA, outstripped these organisations, both in size and in activity. The UWM led struggles that contributed greatly to the militant tradition of the workers and the poor -- anti-eviction battles, fights to defend free speech, demonstrations, dole strikes and campaigns for relief works to provide jobs.
In NSW the CPA was involved in the hunger marches from the northern coalfields, Newcastle, the south coast and Lithgow to press the claims of the unemployed. In Melbourne they led the heroic dole strike of the unemployed in 1933. The government introduced "work for the dole" in 1932.
Ralph Gibson writes: "'Work for the Dole' was something different from the 'relief work' which at first consisted of two or three months' work for one of the Government departments and which, despite all its bad features, was paid in wages, and was partly an answer to the dire need of the unemployed for something in addition to food and groceries, -- clothing especially. 'Work for the Dole' was work for so many hours a week to 'earn' the weekly voucher. It was part of the Government's 'economy' drive (it could get work done for the dole for which it would otherwise have to pay wages), and it resulted also from a 'moral' campaign in church and other circles about the evils of getting sustenance without working." In June 1933, when the unemployed in the inner city area were issued a work for the dole call-up, the CPA decided to initiate a strike.
The UWM conducted an 8-week strike of the unemployed which forced an increase in dole payments from 12 shillings to 20 shillings weekly for a married man. Intense organising throughout the city to win support for the strikers and collect food and money for their families ensured success. A second dole strike in 1935 forced rates up a second time. During the depression, many unemployed workers chose jail as an alternative. At least they got a roof over their heads and a feed. But sometimes it was more organised, a tactic to keep the prisons full to embarrass the authorities.
Edgar Ross, in his book Of Storm and Struggle, recalls the use of this tactic in Broken Hill. "The tactic of 'Breaking into Gaol' was part of a sustained campaign directed at forcing the rescission of arduous restrictions on the dole imposed by the anti-Labor Bavin government in NSW."
The CPA was at the centre of many of the battles defending the unemployed against evictions. The Sydney Morning Herald described one such battle in Newtown, Sydney in June 1931. "The most sensational battle Sydney has ever known was fought between 40 policemen and 18 Communists ... All the defenders were injured, some seriously." Bullets flew, one man was hit. "Entrenched behind barbed wire and sandbags, the defenders rained stones weighing several pounds from the top floor of the building on to the heads of the attacking police, who were attempting to execute an eviction order. "A crowd hostile to the police, numbering many thousands ... threatened to become out of hand ... When constables emerged from the back of the building with their faces covered in blood, the crowd hooted and shouted insulting remarks."
Gibson writes that "Our propaganda for socialism met with considerable response. Events had made many people more receptive to socialist ideas. Witness the large audiences that would gather to hear any returned visitor from the Soviet Union, the record sales of the Dean of Canterbury's 'Socialist Sixth of the World' (later in the thirties), and some of the Communist Party election votes (O'Day's 2500 in the small electorate of Carlton in 1932) or my 4750 in a large outer suburban-cum-rural Federal electorate in 1934, for example). Particularly in the acute crisis of 1929-33 we talked a lot about capitalism and socialism and the contrast between the two.
"Percy Laidler, close friend of the party, was constantly giving two lantern lectures at meetings called by suburban and country branches of the Unemployed Workers' Movement. Both lectures dealt with capitalism in a fundamental way and from a Marxist standpoint. They were entitled 'Cold and Hungry' and 'Poverty and Plenty'."
Numerous free speech fights took place. The CPA challenged the bans on meetings. In Brunswick, Melbourne in 1933, dozens of CPA members were jailed, including Ralph Gibson. (John Sendy, Ralph Gibson, An Extraordinary Communist.) CPA member and artist Noel Counihan addressed a crowd from a cage on top a truck. Police had to cut him out, to the jeers of the crowd, as he continued speaking.
There were clashes with the New Guard in NSW, a semi-fascist outfit patterned on the storm-troopers of Europe, that was set up to smash communist, socialist and workers' meetings and demonstrations. It was led by Colonel Eric Campbell, and initially made up of middle class empire loyalists demanding subservience to "King and Country". In 1931-32 it became more menacing as its membership swelled to 50-100,000. Similar organisations sprung up in other states. The CPA set up its own defence guard to defend meetings and demonstrations.
The success of the CPA in this period can be gauged by their membership figures. At the start of 1930, they had 300 members. By May 1931 they'd grown to perhaps 1200 members, and then to a boasted 2329 later that year. And they'd grown to nearly 3000 members by 1934 (some say by 1932). There was a high turnover, but those who stayed were trained as disciplined activists. The CPA paper The Workers' Weekly had sales of about 2000 in 1928, but by 1931 this had risen to 10,000, then went higher.
Through the leadership change in 1929-30, and the substantial growth during the Depression, the CPA was remade. Some even describe it as a "re-founding." But it was now a loyal Stalinist party, taking its lead from Moscow, and brooking no dissent. There was much less discussion and independent thinking from its members, but an enthusiasm for the first workers' state in Russia and dedication to the revolutionary struggle in Australia. Few of the founders from 1920 were left. Many of the leaders, members of the CPA central committee in the '20s, had been forced out or expelled. Many of them ended up in the ALP, such as Jock Garden and other "Trades Hall Reds". Dinny Lovegrove, the CPA Victorian state secretary expelled in 1933 along with most of the state committee, became a supporter of Bukharin for a while, and later the deputy state leader of the ALP.
The early Trotskyist movement
Although quite a few CPA leaders eventually ended up in the Trotskyist milieu, a Trotskyist group was not organised in Australia until several years after groups were formed or splits in CPs took place in Europe or North America. In the USA, a Trotskyist party was formed in 1928 after CP leaders James P Cannon, Martin Abern and Max Schactman were expelled. Cannon was a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, and together with a Canadian delegate, Maurice Spector, accidentally received a copy of Trotsky's criticism of the draft program. They were convinced by the arguments and smuggled the document back to America. They convinced a number of other CP members, and set up a Trotskyist party on a clear basis after they were expelled.
In Sydney, the founder of the small Trotskyist group and its most prominent figure in the early 1930s was Jack Sylvester. Sylvester stood as the Communist candidate for Balmain in the 1930 state elections, and founded the Balmain branch of the UWM. By the end of 1931 he was national secretary of the UWM, and a member of the CPA Central Committee. From January 1932, he published a weekly newspaper for the unemployed, The Tocsin. In late 1932 he was denounced by the CPA for Trotskyism and expelled.
Joey Boxhall, a leader of the Glebe Unemployed Committee, was also expelled from the CPA and became a founder of the Trotskyist group. He and his supporters continued to retain the support of the Glebe unemployed, and controlled the office in the face of CPA attacks.
John Anderson, Challis professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, was a prominent CPA intellectual in the late 1920s and early '30s. In 1932 he broke with the CPA and linked up with Sylvester and Boxhall, and was a member of the Trotskyist group from 1933 until 1937. (See A. J. Baker, Anderson's Social Philosophy -- The Social Thought and Political Life of Professor John Anderson.) He was critical of reformism and the Labor Party, so had no problem with that aspect of the new Comintern line of the CPA. But he rejected the clamping down of discussion. He was extremely critical of illiberal communism, any sign of bureaucracy.
Another early member of the Trotskyist group was Laurie Short (well known from 1950 as the very right-wing leader of the Ironworkers Union). In 1932, at the age of 16, he was expelled from the Young Communist League on the charge of disruption. The early Trotskyist movement of the 1930s is described by Susanna Short in the biography of her father, Laurie Short -- A political life. These CPA dissidents got hold of a copy of the Militant, the paper of the US Trotskyist group, brought by a visiting US seafarer, and became convinced of Trotskyism.
In May 1933 they initiated a meeting in Rozelle of about 20-30 people, mainly unemployed, to form the Workers Party of Australia (Left Opposition). The first secretary of the group was Joey Boxhall. In October 1933 the group started a monthly newspaper the Militant. Izzie Wyner, who also lived in Balmain, and had recently been expelled from the YCL, was another early member. Nick Origlass and Ted Tripp also joined in 1934, after expulsion from the CPA. Tripp had been the first Australian to attend the Lenin School in Moscow in the late '20s, and on his return he served on the Political Bureau of the CPA Central Committee, and was the first national secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union.
Origlass was the central figure in the Trotskyist group during the '40s and '50s. Other former CPA leaders who were in or around the Trotskyist movement at one time included Jack Kavanagh, president of the CPA from 1925-29, Esmonde Higgins, and Jack and Edna Ryan. Kavanagh was expelled from the CPA for a second time in 1934, joined the Trotskyists in 1940 and stood as a candidate for a Trotskyist group in the seat of Sydney in 1946. Gilbert Roper, a former member of the Central Committee who had assisted Moxon and Sharkey to take control of the party in 1929, had joined by 1937, and played an important role. J. N. Rawlings, who had been prominent in the Movement Against War and Fascism, joined the Trotskyists after the Stalin-Hitler pact, as did Guido Baracchi, present at the founding meeting of the Communist Party in October 1920, and a former Central Committee member.
Despite a small base among the unemployed in Glebe and Balmain in the '30s, despite some successful union work in Balmain during the war, and despite winning over quite a few of the former leaders of the CPA, the Trotskyist group remained small. The Australian Trotskyists never numbered more than 50 members before 1965. Around the world many who joined the small Trotskyist groups had been central leaders of the communist parties. But here as elsewhere, the Trotskyists were organisationally defeated by the supporters of Stalin, and their mass support and groups remained tiny compared to the official communist parties.
In the Soviet Union, the old Bolsheviks, in fact anyone opposing Stalin, were getting herded off to labour camps, sent into exile, shot. Trotsky was hounded from exile in Alma Ata, to Prinkipo in Turkey, to Norway, finally finding refuge in Mexico until he was murdered in 1940 by an agent of Stalin. Trotsky's criticism of the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party proved tragically correct.
The bureaucratisation of the party and state didn't have its final outcome until the total collapse of the Soviet Union 60 years later. But in nearly every communist party around the world the opponents of Stalin, any dissenters, were persecuted, driven out, isolated. The Trotskyists were a small voice in the wilderness. Why the communist parties grew.
Why did the CPs grow?
Why did the CPs grow, while their opponents, often the former leaderships, with policies closer to those of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, and with an explanation for the contradictions and bureaucratisation of the Soviet Union, remain tiny groups? Workers valued unity, and saw any criticism of the Soviet Union as disrupting that unity. They still had illusions in the Stalin leadership. They looked to the Soviet Union as the first workers' state, and were loyal to that first victory. They saw the gains, and rejected the stories of repression as capitalist propaganda. The Stalinist propaganda and fabrications, despite the rebuttals by Trotsky and others, held sway. The prestige of the Russian Revolution and the first socialist state reflected on the local communist parties. They even benefited from some material assistance.
Did the Trotskyists make mistakes that otherwise could have altered the balance of forces? In those early years they must have made many. They suffered from all the problems of a small group -- the isolation, the in-fighting, the inevitable sectarianism. They underwent many splits. In later years, the Trotskyist movement institutionalised many errors. For example, they converted into a permanent principle the tactic of entry into the ALP, submerging themselves into it to try to win members or the party as a whole to a Marxist perspective. They suffered from the misconception that in spite of the ALP's political program and record of commitment to the preservation of capitalism and its institutions, it was somehow still the workers' party.
This permanently shackled the Trotskyists. But there were also positive things that the CPA did, apart from the advantage of identification with the Russian Revolution, and starting with the existing organisation, its strength and resources. During the crisis years of the Depression, their line was to organise the oppressed in struggle and energetically build a political alternative.
Independence from the capitalist parties running the system was crucial, and their critical stance to the ALP was key. The Communists also won support through their efficient organisation. Their members were trained through the struggles of the unemployed, and on the industrial front later on. And most importantly, the commitment and dedication of the CPA ranks achieved many successes in the mass movements and in building the party, and won them authority among militant workers.
Lance Sharkey, speaking of the early 1930s in his speech to the CPA's 12th Congress in November 1938, observed that "there was a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, and it would not be all a bad thing if we were able to recapture some of the energy and enthusiasm, perhaps 'fanaticism' of that period." That energy and enthusiasm certainly needs to be remembered, and recaptured for the building of a strong socialist movement in the future.