Talk on the centenary of the Communist movement in Australia
Written by: Michael Williss on 27 October 2020
The following is the text of a talk given by CPA (M-L) supporter Michael Williss to a meeting held to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the original Communist Party of Australia. The meeting was jointly organised by the SA Labour History Society and the Search Foundation. Four of the six speakers were from the Search Foundation which had dissolved the old CPA in 1991. Bob Briton, former General Secretary of the current CPA, and now General Secretary of the newly formed Australian Communist Party also spoke.
Comrades and friends,
We are speaking today on a platform whose focus is The Communist Party of Australia, 1920 – 2020: Achievements celebrated – lessons for the future…
I want to address you as a representative of one of our three Communist parties – in my case, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).
My personal preference for the focus of our talk would have been The Centenary of the Communist Movement in Australia 1920 -2020.
The original Communist Party (CPA), founded on October 30 1920 did not see out its centenary. It was dissolved in 1991. It lasted 71 years.
The achievement we should be celebrating is not the dissolution of the original CPA, but the continuation of work in the name of Australian Communism by people whose commitment to Marxism-Leninism was stronger and more determined than those who walked away from it.
I am not making an exclusive claim on behalf of my own Party. The CPA (M-L), formed in 1964, is now 56 years old. The current CPA was created by a pro-Soviet group that left the CPA in 1971, originally naming themselves the Socialist Party of Australia and then renaming themselves the Communist Party of Australia in October 1996. In early 2019 a group of members left the current CPA and declared the foundation of the Australian Communist Party (ACP).
It should not matter whether a Communist party is fifty years old or five days old. If it expresses its commitment to a future Communist Australia in the name it carries, and makes a genuine effort to involve itself in the struggles of the Australian people, then it should be accorded an equal status with all others.
That is the position we have adopted towards both the current CPA and the new ACP. We have said that “Neither our Party, the CPA nor the ACP are the original Communist Party formed in 1920. No Party can claim that the centenary of the Communist movement in Australia and its inspiring history belongs to it alone.”
I can tell you that both the ACP and the CPA have agreed with us. Bob Briton is here and can confirm that for the ACP. In an email discussion with me earlier this year, CPA President Vinnie Molina said, “We do recognise and agree that our two parties were both grown out of the original Communist Party of Australia dissolved in 1991.”
We have also adopted the position towards both the CPA and ACP that we should acknowledge the ideological, political and organisational differences that exist between us. Each Party can reserve the right to express its own opinion on these. However, advanced workers and activists in the various progressive movements find it difficult to accept the reality of three separate Australian Communist parties. Advanced workers and the more militant sections of the trade union movement vigorously promote the slogan United we win, divided we fall.
It must be our responsibility as Communist parties to try and unite in the service of the Australian working class. We can reserve our differences whilst seeking common ground.
For example, after the initial hostility arising from the split in 1963-4, moves were slowly made towards reopening discussions with others in the Communist movement. At a conference on the History of Communism in Australia held in Melbourne in August 1980, our founding Chairperson, Comrade Ted Hill offered self-critical reflections on his own role in the divisions between Communists in this country. He concluded by saying: “We are concerned to develop in every possible way the unity and integrity of the Communist movement. There must be exchanges of views and the deepest possible study of Marxist-Leninist general principle in order to guide actual struggle in Australia.”
On 18 September 1982, at the suggestion of our Party, a discussion was held between representatives of the CPA (M-L) and the CPA. The latter was represented by Bernie Taft, Mark Taft and Rob Durbridge. It was agreed that Ted Hill, representing the Party that had proposed the talks, should make the opening remarks. At the end of a lengthy presentation, Hill concluded;
On what we regard as fundamental questions of Marxism we are perfectly happy to discuss them. They should not necessarily be put on one side and hidden as though they don’t exist. If discussion shows greater importance should be attached to agreement on given questions then differences can be placed in a subordinate position. Differences on many questions doubtless exist and their resolution or ultimate critical disagreement may be a fairly long process. The search in our opinion should be for common ground, the narrowing of differences and joint efforts in unity in the struggles and demands of the Australian people. Sooner or later the Australian people will insist upon one Communist Party that upholds in Australian conditions the fundamental principles of Marxism. Hence our proposal about this discussion. Every effort ought to be made at least in exploring the ground for agreement both for our two sides and others who avow adherence to Marxism.
In the course of discussions that lasted over quite a few hours, Durbridge suggested a joint statement and suggested the SPA be included. He said, “I feel it would be much more powerful if the whole Communist movement including the SPA, made a statement in a very general way on the current circumstances and working for the workers.”
Hill agreed, saying that “Perhaps publication of the material of the other” could be achieved, and suggested that the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyite organisation that had a certain following, and some of whose members Hill did not think “are so bad”, should be included.
The outcome was a four-page supplement to which each of the CPA, CPA (M-L), SPA, and SWP contributed a page. It was carried in each of the parties’ papers.
Further talks between the various left parties and organisations occurred in December 1984 and January 1985.
In 1983, the Hawke government, with the support of the ACTU, and leading members of the original CPA, had introduced the Accord. This attack on wages and conditions was the green light for employers to misuse sections of the Trade Practices Act against unions when they attempted to fight back. Robe River, Dollar Sweets, Mudginberri and SEQEB were all cut to a template and encouraged Communists and progressives to develop a fightback agenda. Comrades of ours in the ACT were instrumental in organizing the first National Fightback Conference in Canberra in 1986. The emphasis was on developing networks of activists across a range of organisations. I recall talking to Hill and Gallagher one moment, and Peter Symons and Jack McPhillips (SPA) the next.
Communication was open and respectful.
Participants left Canberra having agreed to establish state Fightback committees and to convene again in Melbourne the following Easter. The core of the continuing Fightback organizing were the four parties: CPA (M-L), CPA, SPA and SWP. However, differences arose between those who wanted to promote an agenda of rank and file militancy independent of the ALP, and those who sought to take advantage of the disillusion with the ALP to create a “more progressive” social-democratic party. A document in support of the latter, Towards a New party of the Left, was widely circulated, mainly by CPA members and those in a new breakaway from the SPA, Pat Clancy’s Association for Communist Unity (ACU).
Now I know I am speaking to an audience that I assume is largely supportive of a social-democratic alternative to capitalism, but I am also speaking as a Communist about a century of Communist movement in Australia.
Regrettably, the moves within the CPA to support a new social-democratic party saw the rot set in that would prevent the original CPA from ever seeing in its centenary. However, the Communist movement continued and still exists.
Despite the dissolution of the CPA in 1991, the discussions which had taken place between the parties had ongoing value.
One important practical outcome of the discussions between the parties was the relative ease with which the labourers’ union (largely under the influence of our Party) and the craft union (largely under the influence of the SPA and its rebadging as the CPA). In the late 1980s, the Builders Labourers’ Federation was deregistered by the Labor Government. In the early 1990s agreement was reached on an incorporation of the remnants of the BLF with the BWIU in a new union, the CFMEU. In Victoria this process was led by our comrade John Cummins who became the new union’s Federal President and was President of the Victorian branch until his death in 2006. In South Australia, a remarkably respectful and mutually supportive relationship between our comrade Martin O’Malley (BLF) and the SPA/CPA’s Bennie Carslake (BWIU) saw the CFMEU take its rightful place as the union for all construction workers.
Recognising the great significance of the defeat of Menzies’ referendum to ban the Communist Party, the CPA and ourselves jointly organised and sponsored a meeting to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its defeat. Veterans of the campaign from both parties spoke. That was on October 23, 2011.
More recently, on the occasion of the centenary of the October Socialist Revolution, our Party proposed, and the CPA agreed, to issue a joint statement on that momentous event. The same statement was carried by both parties.
In an International Women’s Day event in Melbourne last March organised by the ACP, CPA (M-L) activist Shirley Winton was an invited speaker.
No doubt there will continue to be opportunities for the three parties to seek common ground whilst acknowledging and reserving differences.
One of those differences is the question of organisation. The original CPA was an open organisation largely built around suburban branches. When we reestablished ourselves as the CPA (M-L) we decided that membership should in general not be disclosed, and that it should where possible be workplace based.
Workplace based organisation concentrated the Party’s efforts on workers at the point of production and deliberately steered our focus away from organizing around local, state or federal elections.
Non-disclosure of membership had three objectives: to minimize surveillance of our members by state organisations; to give them some protection from individual harassment and intimidation by fascist street thugs; and to prevent the barriers to their political work that can be erected by people who have swallowed the all-pervasive anti-Communism embedded in our education, our culture and our political system.
An early study of our Party by ASIO conceded some success with the first of those – making state surveillance difficult.
The ASIO report, 101 pages long and written in 1968, four years into the life of our Party, stated:
“…many of the Party’s characteristics do not conform with those usually attributed to a Communist Party. Whilst it is possible to establish, by means of membership cards, the size and complexion of the C.P.A., to describe the Party’s organisational structure from its National Executive, through State, District and Section Committees to Locality Branches, to clearly delineate policy and policy changes in the C.P.A. and to observe its activities in many fields, ranging from the “cultural” to the industrial, it has not been possible to do these things with regard to the C.P.A. (M/L).”
In effect, our Party organises as an iceberg, with a relatively few public spokespeople and most members engaging in mass work in their workplaces and community organisations, but often without attribution to the Party of the gains and advances that they achieve in mass work.
So, what are the lessons for the future?
Communist organisation is still needed in Australia, as indeed it is in every capitalist and socialist society. In our view it needs to take seriously the application of Marxism-Leninism to the struggles of the people, and to its creative development in the light of changing circumstances.
Australian Communists have maintained their ideological, political and organisational structures despite the attempt to destroy them by Menzies, and the success, to a certain extent, of their destruction at the hands of those who did achieve Menzies’ goals in 1991.
We do not need an international socialist motherland or fatherland. We have grown up and left the home of the Comintern. Khrushchevite revisionism saw the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union long before the formal dismantling of left-over socialist institutions by Gorbachev and Co.
Likewise, the Deng-era reforms have taken China from the socialist road to the capitalist road, and even to the highway of social-imperialism.
Some are tempted to see the restorations of capitalism in such strong bastions of socialism as an indication of the failure of socialism. The Chinese Marxist Pao Yu-ching has argued strongly that these restorations were not failures, but defeats. If they were failures inherent in socialism, we would be justified in abandoning the effort to establish it here. If, however, they are defeats then we are justified in maintaining our commitment to a socialist future, ever more confident that we can overcome the forces opposing us.
We were often called, in our early days, the “Maoists”. It was intended to be a disparaging label and we did not use it ourselves. However, we continue to draw inspiration from the somewhat clumsily translated term Mao Zedong Thought. We are determined to continue our study of the classics of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong, as well as those of our founding Chairperson, Ted Hill, not to be know-alls, not to take solace in an out-of-date dogma, but to know the teachings in order to use the method, as Stalin-era President of the USSR Mikhail Kalinin said “daily, hourly, in the most diverse, peculiar, unprecedented circumstances.”
The centenary of our movement is a living, continuing process and not an exercise in nostalgia for a Party that was dissolved in its 71st year.
Despite our relatively low public profile, we continue to recruit great young people who are doing fantastic, effective mass work in their workplaces, their communities and around questions of the defence of democratic rights, defence of the unemployed and precariously employed, and for an independent and peaceful Australia freed from the grip of imperialism and its drive to war.
Long live the Communist movement in Australia!
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