Communist Party of Australia

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This article is about the historical Communist Party of Australia, dissolved in 1991. For the current party, see Communist Party of Australia (current)
Communist Party of Australia
Founded October 1920
Dissolved 1991
Succeeded by New Left Party
Headquarters Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW
Newspaper The Tribune
Youth wing Eureka Youth League
Membership  (1947) 23,000
Ideology Communism
Political position Far left
International affiliation Comintern
Colours Red

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was founded in 1920 and dissolved in 1991. The CPA achieved its greatest political strength in the 1940s and faced an attempted ban in 1951. Though it never presented a major challenge to the established order in Australia, it did have significant influence on the trade unions, social movements, and the national culture.

History[edit]

Jock Garden, Communist Party of Australia co-founder in 1920
Adela Pankhurst, Communist Party of Australia co-founder in 1920

The Communist Party of Australia was founded in Sydney in October 1920 by a group of socialists inspired by reports of the Russian Revolution. Among the party's founders were a prominent Sydney trade unionist, Jock Garden, Adela Pankhurst (daughter of the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst) and most of the then illegal Australian section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW soon left the Communist Party, with its original members, over disagreements with the direction of the Soviet Union and Bolshevism. In its early years, mainly through Garden's efforts, the party achieved some influence in the trade union movement in New South Wales, but by the mid-1920s it had dwindled to an insignificant sect. Garden and other communists were expelled from the Labor Party in 1924. The CPA ran candidates including Garden at the 1925 NSW state election in working-class seats against the ALP, but was decisively defeated, and prompting Garden to leave the party in 1926 and returned to the Labor Party.

The leadership of the party went to Jack Kavanagh, an experienced Canadian communist activist who had moved to Australia in 1925, and Esmonde Higgins, a talented Melbourne journalist who was the nephew of a High Court judge, H.B. Higgins. But in 1929 the party leadership fell into disfavour with the Comintern, which under orders from Joseph Stalin had taken a turn to extreme revolutionary rhetoric (the so-called "Third Period"), and an emissary, the American Communist Harry Wicks, was sent to correct the party's perceived errors. Kavanagh was expelled in 1930 and Higgins resigned.

A new party leadership, consisting of J.B. (Jack) Miles, Lance Sharkey and Richard Dixon, was imposed on the party by the Comintern, and remained in control for the next 30 years. During the 1930s the party experienced some growth, particularly after 1935 when the Comintern changed its policy in favour of a "united front against fascism." The Movement Against War and Fascism was founded to bring together all opponents of fascism under a communist controlled umbrella organization. The movement instigated the events which led to the attempted exclusion of Egon Kisch from Australia in late 1934 and early 1935.

The Communist Party began to win positions in trade unions such as the Miners Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation, although its parliamentary candidates nearly always polled poorly at elections.

In 1939 Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression Treaty and, despite foundational antipathies between the dictatorships, and after failed diplomatic attempts at preventing Nazi aggression vis-a-vis the West, the USSR agreed not to engage in hostilities against Germany at the outbreak of World War II (Australia declared war on Nazi Germany for invading Poland). A secret protocol of the Non-Aggression Treaty stipulated that the USSR may invade and annex East Poland. Consequently the Communist Party of Australia opposed and sought to disrupt Australia's "imperialist" war effort against Nazism in the early stages of the War under orders of the Commintern, which sought to buy time for the USSR to increase its military capability in the context of an expected Nazi invasion. Menzies banned the CPA after the fall of France in 1940, but by 1941 Stalin was forced to join the allied cause when Hitler reneged on the Pact and invaded the USSR. The USSR came to bear the brunt of the carnage of Hitler's war machine and the Communist Party in Australia lost its early war stigma as a result.[1] Its membership rose to 20,000, it won control of a number of important trade unions, and a Communist candidate, Fred Paterson, was elected to the Queensland parliament. But the party remained marginal to the Australian political mainstream. The Australian Labor Party remained the dominant party of the Australian working class.

After 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, the party entered a steady decline. Following the new line from Moscow, and believing that a new "imperialist war" and a new depression were imminent, and that the CPA should immediately contest for leadership of the working class with the Australian Labor Party, the CPA launched an industrial offensive in 1947, culminating in a prolonged strike in the coalmines in 1949. The Chifley Labor government saw this as a communist challenge to its position in the labour movement, and used the army and strikebreakers to break the strike. The Communist Party never again held such a strong position in the union movement.

Lance Sharkey going to trial for sedition in 1949

In 1949 the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb and Mao Zedong won power in China. A year later North Korea invaded South Korea and in 1951, during the Korean War, the Liberal government of Robert Menzies tried to ban the Communist Party of Australia, first by legislation[2] that was declared invalid by the High Court,[3] then by referendum to try to overcome the constitutional obstacles to that legislation. The 1951 referendum was opposed by the Communist Party as well as the Australian Labor Party, and was narrowly defeated. The issue of communist influence in the unions remained potent and led to the Australian Labor Party split of 1955 and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party comprising disaffected ALP members who were concerned over communist influence in Australian unions.

When Stalin died, and Nikita Khrushchev revealed Stalin's crimes in the Secret Speech, members began to leave the party. More left after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1961 the split between the Soviet Union and China was mirrored in Australia, with the formation of the small pro-China Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). That party was described as a Stalinist party.

By the 1960s the party's membership had fallen to around 5,000,[4] but it continued to hold positions in a number of trade unions, and it was also influential in the various protest movements of the period, especially the movement against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the party started their own magazine called Australian Left Review. But the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 triggered another crisis. Sharkey's successor as party leader, Laurie Aarons, denounced the invasion, and a group of pro-Soviet hardliners left in 1971 to form a new party, the Socialist Party of Australia.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the party continued to decline, despite adopting Eurocommunism and democratising its internal structures so that it became a looser radical party rather than a classic Marxist-Leninist one. By 1990 its membership had declined to less than a thousand.

In 1991, the Communist Party was dissolved and the New Left Party formed. The New Left Party was intended to be a broader party which would attract a wider range of members, which did not happen, and the New Left Party disbanded in 1992. The assets of the Communist Party were thereafter directed into the SEARCH Foundation,[5] a not-for-profit company set up in 1990 "to preserve and draw on the resources of the Communist Party of Australia and its archives."[6] The archives of the party are now held at the State Library of NSW[7] and can be accessed with the written permission of the SEARCH Foundation.

In 1996, the Socialist Party took up the now-unused name of Communist Party of Australia (see Communist Party of Australia (current)). This party, along with a number of small Trotskyist groups, maintains the communist tradition in Australia, but none of these groups is of any political significance.

Legacy[edit]

Despite its peripheral role in Australian politics and its ultimate failure, the Communist Party had an influence far beyond its numbers. From 1935 to the 1960s it occupied leadership positions in a number of important trade unions, and was at centre of many major industrial conflicts. Many of its members played leading roles in Australian cultural life, such as the novelists Katharine Susannah Prichard, Judah Waten, Frank Hardy, Eric Lambert and Alan Marshall, the painter Noel Counihan and the poet David Martin.

In some ways, the negative reactions to the Communist Party were more important than anything the party itself did. Conservative politicians such as Stanley Bruce in the 1920s and Robert Menzies in the 1950s won elections partly by linking the Australian Labor Party with communism. In the early 1950s Catholics in the Labor Party were led by anti-communism to form "Industrial Groups" to combat communist influence in the unions. This led to the Australian Labor Party split of 1955 and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which used its power to influence voters' preferences at elections to keep the ALP out of power.

The Communist Party and its members campaigned for many years for causes such as improved conditions for industrial workers, opposition to fascist and other dictatorships, equal rights for women and civil rights for the Aboriginal people. It achieved some successes in these areas, and many of its positions were later taken up by the political mainstream. But the party never succeeded in garnering significant support for communism. The party was an apologist for the Soviet Union for many years (although it became critical of the Soviet Union from the late 1960s). Disenchantment with the Soviet Union was a leading cause of the loss of membership.

Youth movement[edit]

The youth wing of CPA worked under several different names in different periods, such as Young Communists, Eureka Youth League, Young Socialist League and Young Communist Movement of Australia. The Eureka Youth League was a founding member of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a membership later taken over by the Young Communist Movement.

Election results[edit]

Australian Senate[edit]

Senate[8]
Election year # of
overall votes
 % of
overall vote
Swing %
1931 29,443 0.94 0.00
1934 73,506 2.24 Increase 1.30
1949 87,958 2.10 Steady 0.00
1951 93,561 2.11 Increase 0.02
1953 140,073 3.05 Increase 0.94
1955 161,869 3.64 Increase 0.59
1958 134,263 2.91 Decrease 0.73
1961 78,188 1.62 Decrease 1.29

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Beaumont, Joan (1996). Australia's war 1939-1945. Allen & Unwin. pp. 94–95. 
  2. ^ Communist Party Dissolution Bill 1950.
  3. ^ Australian Communist Party v The Commonwealth
  4. ^ Benjamin, Roger W.; Kautsky, John H.. Communism and Economic Development, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 62, No. 1. (Mar., 1968), pp. 122.
  5. ^ "SEARCH Foundation". SEARCH Foundation. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  6. ^ Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
  7. ^ "Communist Party of Australia collection, ca. 1917-1992". State Library of New South Wales. Retrieved 26 March 2014. 
  8. ^ "Communist Party". Australian Politics and Elections Database. University of Western Australia. October 2001. Retrieved 17 February 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]