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The Communist movement in Australia - 100 years

Written by: Alice M. on 29/10/20


30th October 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Communist movement in Australia. 

The Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) pays tribute to the founders of the Communist Party in Australia and the generations of workers and comrades who dedicated themselves to building the communist movement in Australia.

Communism instils confidence in the power of the people led by the revolutionary working class, to end capitalism and build socialism - a society run by the working class for the people, and begin laying the foundations for the classless society of communism.

Communism is not romanticised utopia, a wishful ideal.  It’s a logical conclusion reached by Marx and Engels through their scientifically researched examination of the material conditions of capitalism and class struggle.  They concluded that the irreconcilable contradictions between labour and capital in the capitalist relations of production creates the necessary material conditions and tools that compel the socialist revolution and the seizure of power by the revolutionary working class. 

Marx and Engels’ findings were further developed by Lenin, Stalin and Mao through their revolutionary practice and working out their countries’ revolutionary road to socialism.  The general principles they developed in the course of their revolutionary practice have universal application, enriching the theory and practice of Communism.  But Lenin and Mao insisted that the Communist Parties of each country should not merely uphold and be guided by these general principles, but they must chart their own countries’ road to socialism in line with their local historical, economic, political and social conditions. International conditions play an important role in influencing internal events, but are not decisive. 

As with all living things, the growth of the Communist movement is constant, uneven and doesn’t flow in straight, uninterrupted lines. Communism grows out of material conditions.   In its turn, the Communist movement acts on and changes the material world. 

Capitalism and imperialism create fertile ground for the revolutionary seeds of socialism and communism.  The revolutionary working class and its organisation, the Communist Party, are vehicles of socialist revolution.  The Communist Party of the working class is entirely different from capitalist parliamentary parties which serve capital and keep the working class chained to capitalism and its institutions. 

Communism is not a dogma.  It’s a science in the service of the people.  In its 100 years the Communist movement has made a significant impact on the development of working class revolutionary consciousness and working class struggles in Australia.   The practice of communism in a world dominated by capitalism and surrounded by its bourgeois ideology is not without its shortcomings and setbacks.  Nevertheless, the Communist movement is constantly moving forward, at different paces depending on prevailing material conditions.  It’s a powerful force for change when connected to the real world of working class and people’s struggles.

Many rich lessons can be learned from the achievements and shortcomings in development of the Communist movement in Australia over the past 100 years.

The birth of Australia’s communist movement 
Class struggle in Australia began with the European colonisation and the brutal theft of the First People’s country by British colonial imperialism.  Throughout the 19th Century Australia’s working class grew in numbers and class consciousness.  Trade unions were formed and industrial action regularly broke out. 

Rebellion and resistance to capitalist exploitation expressed itself in the Eureka Stockade rebellion, the 8 hour day struggles, the shearers’ strikes of 1891 and many others.  Militant working class ideas of 19th Century Europe were brought to Australia.

Australia’s working class accumulated rich experiences of struggle in the period preceding, during and after the imperialist World War 1.  The 1917 October Revolution introduced the more scientific socialist consciousness into the spontaneous battles against conscription, imperialist war and relentless attacks on the working class.

The Communist movement and its party in Australia were born out of local Australian conditions and politically inspired by the 1917 October Russian revolution.  But the Communist Party of Australia and its ideas of socialism were still in the early stages of development.

Depression, Fascism and War
During the global economic Depression in late 1920s and throughout the 1930s communists in Australia fought side by side with the people in all struggles against the economic depression, poverty, homelessness, and unemployment.  Communists were activists in trade unions, workplaces, communities; they were organising with the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, the farmers, students and academics.  

Communist Party members diligently studied Marxism to understand the economic situation and the political tasks to change the world through class struggle.  They stood side by side with workers in factories, suburbs and rural communities fighting against poverty, unemployment, low wages, homelessness, and organising resistance to evictions. Many were unemployed, living in poverty themselves and evicted from their own homes.  They tirelessly explained how and why capitalism exploits workers and were instrumental in organising resistance by the working class shouldering the burden of the capitalist economic crisis. 

As people’s resistance to economic crisis grew, so did the state repression.  The Crimes Act was extended, declaring Communist Party activities unlawful; anti-trade union legislation and other laws suppressing people’s democratic rights to protest were rolled out.  The deepening state repression was met with more resistance and calls for greater democratic rights.

Communists organised and led mass movements against war and the rise of fascism; against the racist White Australia Policy and the Immigration Act used not only against the Asian and non-British European people, but also against communists.  They opposed the rise of Hitler and defended the Soviet Union.  They worked closely with and supported the First People’s campaigns and struggles against discrimination, for justice and equality.  Many were artists, writers, performers and musicians who became deeply involved in many of the people’s struggles.  Australian Communists joined the International Brigades to fight against the fascist Franco regime in Spain.

In 1937 Port Kembla wharfies refused to load pig iron on the ship Dalfram for export to imperial Japan.  The relentless and desperate anti-communist propaganda, vilification and demonising of communists and the Communist Party only strengthened their conviction and confidence in the power of the working class and socialism.

In the early years of World War 2 the Communist Party was briefly banned.  But this did not deter Communists and supporters from continuing to work underground, switching to different methods of work to protect the party’s mass work, the members, sympathisers and activists.  They opposed the traitorous “Brisbane Line”, and even organised guerrilla units to harass any Japanese invasion.

Many leaders of the long 1949 miners’ strike were members of the Communist Party.  The Labor Chifley government sent the army to smash the miners’ strike.

1950-1951 Communist Party Dissolution Bill 
In 1950 the Menzies government introduced the Communist Party Dissolution Bill to ban the Communist Party.  The target of the attack was not only the Communist Party but the strong and well organised working class movement, militant unions and the democratic and progressive organisations in Australia. 

The legislation would give power to the Menzies government to declare individuals and organisations as Communists or sympathisers and ban their activities.  Rank and file union activists, union officials, peace and social justice activists, could be sacked from their jobs.  Workers campaigning for higher wages, equal pay for women, world peace, could be caught in the net, declared communists and face 5 years’ imprisonment.  The Menzies government was preparing to set up concentration camps capable of holding 1000 communists and their families.

On 22 September 1951 in a nationwide Referendum on the Communist Party Dissolution Bill a majority of Australian people rejected the reactionary Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Party and crush the working class and progressive movements.  The defeat of the Referendum was the result of the 18 months of colossal united front mass work led by the Communist Party of Australia and D. H. Evatt (then Opposition Leader of the Labor Party).  Across the country, unions, peace and democratic rights and civil rights organisations, people from many different walks of life and political backgrounds, in cities and rural communities, were actively organising against the ban on the Communist Party.  The Australian people’s defeat of the anti-Communist Bill stands alongside the mass struggles at the Eureka Stockade, the World War 1 anti-conscription struggles, the 1969 mass battle against the penal powers, the 1966-1971 mass mobilisations against the Vietnam War, the 1998 MUA dispute, the opposition to 2003 Iraq war, and Your Rights at Work mobilisations in 2005-2007.

1956 - Differences in the movement 
In 1956 a major rift developed in the international communist movement precipitated by the change of direction in the Soviet leadership led by Khrushchev after the death of Stalin.  Khrushchev rejected the principles of Marxism, scientific socialism and the enormous achievements of the Soviet people under the leadership of Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party. This impacted on the entire international communist movement dependent on political and ideological leadership from the Soviet Union.  It led to some abandoning Marxism-Leninism and scientific socialism.  

Within the CPA the differences were not solely centred on Khrushchev’s rejection of communism and slandering Stalin’s contribution to the communist movement.  Even before the 1956 major split in the international communist movement over the Soviet Union, political differences were growing within the CPA over the course of socialist revolution in Australia.  The change of direction in the Soviet Union and disagreements in the international communist movement crystalised the existing political differences within the CPA.  Differences were emerging over the communist party’s approach to parliamentarism, trade unionism, the bourgeois state, communist organisation in the period of bourgeois dictatorship and communist methods of work.   Dependency on the Soviet Union for guidance and direction was a major shortcoming in the CPA from its inception in 1920. In many ways this was inevitable, but it held back the will and ability of the Communist movement in Australia to investigate and work out independently the political situation in Australia. By 1964 there was still little willingness amongst some in the leadership of the old CPA to correct this major error and develop its own class analysis of Australia and our road to socialism.  It reflected the historically colonial origins of European Australia and looking for overseas guidance.  

Differences over the course of Australia’s socialist revolution and the abandonment of Marxism by the new Soviet leadership continued, leading to the formation of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1964.

1964 – A new direction 
In 1964 the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) was formed, setting itself the task of scientifically investigating and examining Australian conditions through the study of Marxism. The founding members of the CPA (M-L) and its Chairman Ted Hill set themselves the task to uphold the revolutionary integrity of the Communist movement in Australia founded in 1920. The founders of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1964 began the task of rectifying the mistakes and shortcomings in the old Communist Party to strengthen the work of CPA (M-L) members and supporters in serving the working class and the socialist movement. 

The first 40 years of the Communist Party were examined.  Shortcomings and weaknesses were identified and the CPA (M-L) set about correcting ideological and political mistakes in the CPA’s approach to bourgeois parliament, trade unionism, the bourgeois state and revolutionary organisation, and the left blocism that separated communists from the people.  The CPA (M-L) condemned the vilification of Stalin and the rise of revisionism under Khrushchev’s leadership.

Australian conditions
Analysis of classes in Australia revealed Australia as an economic, political and military dependency, controlled first by the British, and after World War 2, replaced by US imperialism.  It recognised the anti-imperialist character of Australia’s socialist revolution, exposing imperialism and the local comprador bourgeoisie as the dominant class, with small farmers, small businesses as potential allies of the working class. The two main classes standing against each other are the imperialist class (mainly foreign capital and some local monopolies) and the working class, with the small to medium businesses between the two main classes.

Trade Unions
The CPA (M-L) views trade unions under capitalism as having two sides.  They are important working class organisations in resisting capital’s relentless grinding down and intensifying the exploitation of workers.  They are important schools of class struggle. The other side of trade unions under capitalism is their inherent bourgeois ideology which ties workers to capitalism and diverts struggle away from ending capitalist exploitation of the working class and the fight for socialism.

The old CPA’s main aim for Communists working in trade unions was to simply capture official leadership positions.  Trade unions were seen as vehicles for change to socialism.  This political view denied an aspect of trade unions’ role in maintaining the dominance of capital and co-opting workers to capitalism.  The main emphasis had been on communists capturing leading official positions in unions, abandoning the essential mass work of protracted struggle and political education.  

This practice led to communists deserting working class independence from the ALP and capital.  The switch to social democracy by these “communist” leaders reached its peak during the 1983 Hawke and Keating’s ALP Accord with the ACTU.  Some leading CPA members, also in leading positions of peak trade unions, including the ACTU, strongly pushed the Accord on workers, much to the disgust of many rank and file members and organisers. It was inevitable that some of these leaders took the next logical step of leaving the CPA to join the ALP and seeking preselection for parliamentary seats. Ultimately, this and the abandonment of Marxism led to the CPA becoming irrelevant, and it was only a matter of time before the remaining members dismantled it in 1991. The same so-called communists had supported the deregistration of the BLF by the Hawke government in 1980s.

An important area of political difference was the attitude to parliament and parliamentary elections. For many years the CPA stood candidates for election, with little result or influence. There was virtually no analysis or criticism raised that parliament was a bourgeois institution; on the one hand it was formed by democratic election, and on the other hand it relied on the two-party competition (Liberal – Labor) promoted by the bourgeois media and the wealthy capitalist patrons of the main parties. The illusion that democracy was the right to vote every three years for a parliamentary party was assumed to be the only real democracy that would reflect the needs and desires of the masses. The CPA accepted and strengthened this illusion, and encouraged the further deception that socialism could be achieved through this bourgeois institution. 

The CPA (M-L) has never rejected the idea of standing members for parliamentary election.  However, in our view parliament can be used to advance the revolutionary objectives of the working class in the right timing and conditions, but importantly as a reflection of working class support, rather than a means of getting that support. Furthermore, it would be mainly as a platform to promote the revolutionary position of the Party and support the revolutionary struggle of the people, in times when this was legal. The great distinction of the CPA (M-L) position was - and continues to be - the emphasis on mass work among the people in workplaces, communities, trade unions and progressive organisations.

In 1970 a group of CPA members loyal to the new revisionist leadership of the Soviet Union after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia and unhappy with growing “New Left” tendencies, split from the CPA, forming the Socialist Party of Australia.  In 1994, not long after the old CPA dismantled itself the SPA took the name CPA.

Methods of work – mass work
The CPA (M-L) identified errors in the old party’s methods of work. Left-blocism and a self-satisfied left bubble of likeminded people became a problem in the Communist Party of 1950s.  It wasn’t easy to be a communist and belong to the Communist Party in the Cold War period of 1950s.  It was easier to socialise and seek comfort from politically like minded people and congregate in Party headquarters.  This led to the isolation of many communists from the people.  
Party membership was publicly known with members and sympathisers under constant surveillance by the state, exposing activists and workers.

The CPA (M-L) moved away from this left echo chamber organisation.  Instead members were urged to integrate with ordinary people in workplaces and communities, working and learning from the people how to connect the goals of socialism with the day to day struggles of the people, without abandoning the integrity of communism and succumbing to the all-pervasive pressures of capitalist ideology and culture surrounding us.  It required a change in practice and attitude by communists towards ordinary people as the teachers of communists, instead of communists being arrogant know-alls.  

Organised and systematic study of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao were now closely linked to the revolutionary practice and development of Marxist theory in Australian conditions. Communists must be anchored to the people in workplaces, communities, in anti-war and peace campaigns, in people’s environmental struggles.  We don’t seek the lime light, the spectacular and the self-importance of capitalist individualism.  

Revolutionary Organisation
In the view of Marxist-Leninists, Communist Party organisation must serve the politics and ideology of the revolutionary working class.  A Communist Party operating in the hostile environment of capitalism and the bourgeois state obviously must protect its organisation, members and supporters.  The years of reactionary anti-communist propaganda, outright lies and distortions has planted distrust and suspicion about communists and communist parties.  We continually strive to overcome the obstacles standing between communists and the people.

The CPA (M-L) organisation and work are best characterised as the Iceberg principle.  Only the top tip of the iceberg is visible to the state.  The exposed tip is a small number of public people.  Party members are the fish swimming in the sea of the people.  They don’t hide their communism from the people they work with, but nor do they go out of their way to proclaim themselves to the bourgeois state.  

Revolutionary service to the people
Amongst some of the publicly known founding members of the CPA (M-L), who were also former members of the CPA, were union leaders.  In Victoria they included Paddy Malone, Victorian State Secretary of the Builders' Labourers' Federation; Norm Wallace, Assistant State Secretary; and Norm Gallagher later National Secretary of the Builders’ Labourers' Federation.  Ted Bull, Victorian State Secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation, Harry Bouquet and Peter Close along with other wharfies and seafarers; Clarrie O’Shea, the Tramways Union Secretary who led the 1969 Penal Powers struggle;  Mel Mooney; Ted Hill Chairman of CPA (M-L), Dulcie Steffanou, Betty Oke, Betty Little-O’Shea, Fortis Antipas, and many others.  In South Australia they included Charlie McCaffrey (ex-Ironworkers Federation and State Secretary of the CPA), Dr David Caust, Marjorie Johnston, and Roy and Muriel Baynes.  In NSW they included Bert Chandler, Syd Clare and Jim Dabron.  In Queensland they included Jim Sharp and Don Wilson.  And there were many other exemplary working class Communists across the country steeled in the hard lives and fierce battles of the Great Depression, WW2 and the Cold War.  More information about some can be found at    

But these and other publicly known leaders are only the tip of the much larger CPA (M-L) organisation and members working with the people.  The political influence of the CPA (M-L) and its members is much wider and deeper, than the public appearances.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s young activists and militant workers were joining the CPA-ML.  Fresh from national anti-Vietnam war protests and the Clarrie O’Shea Penal Powers battles they were schooled in the experiences of mass struggle and inspired by the working class leadership of the CPA (M-L).  Political study, discussions and learning from the CPA (M-L) veterans gave them profound understanding of the necessity for protracted and patient mass work and deep connections to the people.   Independently of the CPA (M-L) they formed the Worker Student Alliance that spread across 5 states.

Many became leaders in the struggles of the people in workplaces, unions and communities.  Most were publicly unknown. John Cummins, the former State President of the CFMEU, was one of these many young working class activists.  John left the university, got a job as a builders’ labourer, joined the union and became one of the working class’ long time courageous leading sons.   John always upheld Marxism-Leninism, studying and applying Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao in his union work as a militant and revolutionary worker serving the working class.  He was a leading member of the CPA (M-L) collective leadership.

Mass work
The CPA (M-L) approach to mass work and the communist party organisation operating under the capitalist state meant most of the party and its members involved in the struggles with the people are not publicly known.  This enables communists to work and learn from the people in the day to day struggles, all the time developing the theoretical and political course of Australia’s road to socialism. Communism is not rammed down workers' throats.  Communists listen, respect and learn from the people, introducing socialist politics according to the level of consciousness and conditions. Not as an abstract utopia, but connected to people’s real lives and experiences, without needing to prove themselves by constantly waving red flags.  

The other side of this publicly unseen work is that achievements in people’s struggles are often not credited to the Party and its members.  Inevitably, mistakes are made and learned from.  It’s not the making of mistakes in themselves that is the problem, it’s the inability to recognise and correct mistakes.

During the 56 years members have always been active across many workplaces, unions and communities - amongst the manufacturing workers, construction workers, electricians, plumbers, railway workers, tramway workers, nurses, teachers, car factory workers, rubber workers, factory workers in multinational food processing corporations, cleaners, rural workers, in services and hospitality industries, public servants, bank workers, Council workers, postal workers, retail workers, students, doctors, lawyers, scientists, accountants, academics, and many others. Amongst migrants in factories and ethnic communities. But as much as most of their day to day political involvement with the people is protracted, unspectacular and not publicised they are often known and respected by the people with whom they work.

We’re involved in child care centres and kindergartens, community health centres, school communities, parents’ groups, local environment, in working class suburbs fighting against freeways, multinational corporations and oil refineries for protection of local communities and the environment, fighting for public education.

The 1969 Clarrie O’Shea Penal Powers struggle is a testament of the CPA-ML Party’s political work serving the people.

In national moratoriums leading opposition to US imperialism, against conscription and supporting the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. In the late 1960s and early 1970s during the powerful national Moratorium mass movements against the Vietnam War, CPA (M-L) activists and supporters were calling out US imperialism as the main enemy in the war against the Vietnamese people and Australia’s master.   The national movements for Australia’s independence grew out of these struggles.

CPA (M-L) members were at the centre of struggles against the CIA engineered dismissal of the Whitlam government, the fight to defend Medibank, against the ID Card, against apartheid in South Africa; in solidarity with the independence movements by the people of Timor Leste, West Papua and Bougainville.   

In 1974 members and supporters initiated and led campaigns against US military bases, organised the Long March to North West Cape, demanded the closure of Pine Gap and all US military bases in Australia.

CPA (M-L) members are always involved in the many battles of Australia’s working class in workplaces and communities.  There’s not enough space in this long article to acknowledge all of them.

CPA (M-L) members were among the rank and file workers in the manufacturing and metals Union (now AMWU) vigorously opposing the Accord concocted by the ACTU and Hawke.  A rank and file metals union group and its newspaper were viciously attacked and members vilified by the Union leadership and threatened to blacklist them across the industry.  Homes of rank and file outdoor Council workers battling the ALP sell outs controlling their union were shot at in the middle of the night.  Much is already known about the history of the BLF under sustained attack by the capitalist state with the help of Labor governments. 

In mid 1980s the CPA-ML was warning about imperialism devouring Australia’s manufacturing, de-industrialising and restructuring Australia’s industries and tightening imperialist domination.  CPA (M-L) members and party literature warned that imperialist policies of “globalisation” were undermining and destroying the foreign dominated car industry, steel manufacturing, the tools industry and promoting the privatisation of public utilities. The Party was warning that the capitalist and imperialist restructuring is creating two tiers of workers – a small core of permanent workers and a large periphery of casual low paid workers with few rights and conditions.

 In the 1970s and 1980s ongoing big battles in the giant multinational car factories in South Australia and Victoria communists and their supporters were with car workers battling not only against the multinational car company owners, but also against the union official leadership who played more of a role of controlling workers rather than leading and supporting them in winning their demands.  Party members were active in car workers’ rank and file organisations and strongly supported by the majority of workers.  Over time, both rank and file organisation members and the majority of car workers were supporting action over broader industry issues such as nationalisation of the car industry and broad political issues.  The bosses, in collusion with the ALP aligned union leadership, tried to crush car workers’ militancy and their rank and file organisation. Representatives of the rank and file organisation were sacked.  But this did not end the militancy of car workers.

In Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, home to the state’s power stations, Party members and supporters stood up to Hawke and led the long strikes for wages and conditions.  They led the massive struggle against privatisation of the state’s power generating stations in the LaTrobe Valley.  

The popular theoretical section called Marxism Today, which was featured in every issue of the Party paper Vanguard for many years, and continues today online on the website, was originally started and maintained by a group of young railway workers. As well as this, they distributed Party material, and held union positions in their work depots and on state committees for many years. At all times they kept up their close links with fellow workers and supported and guided many struggles. None of this could have happened had there not been regular contact, encouragement and suggestions from the Party leadership.   

The tide to socialism and communism is unstoppable. It demands a united communist movement finding common ground to work together in the revolutionary service to the people.


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