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Date: Mon, 6 Nov 1995 20:10:19 -0500
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Subject: Origins of the CPA
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The origins of the CPA

By John Percy, Green Left News
6 November 1995

On October 30, 1920, the Communist Party of Australia was founded at a meeting in Sydney attended by 26 men and women. They represented the most radical of the small socialist groups, militant trade union activists and officials and former members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Their direct inspiration was the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by Lenin's Bolshevik party, the first example of workers overthrowing capitalism, taking power in their own hands and setting out on the path of constructing socialism.

Although inspired by the revolution, they had limited understanding of the Bolsheviks' strategy and the debates among Russian Marxists. Australian socialists had little contact with the European left or Lenin's party, or access to their writings. But they aspired to emulate the Bolsheviks' success. They saw a revolution as necessary and possible, and now they saw the model to follow.

Those at that first gathering, small as it was, together represented the best class-struggle traditions of the Australian working class.

The Industrial Workers of the World, for example, were probably the closest thing to a revolutionary organisation before the founding of the CPA. They played a strong role in the fight against conscription during World War I, an issue that mobilised large numbers of workers. Their newspaper Direct Action achieved an impressive circulation during the war, reaching a run of 15,000.

They were anarcho-syndicalists, and rejected political action as a way to achieve socialism. They believed it was necessary to build a mass industrial union movement, which would itself begin to "constitute the new society within the body of the old". The sentiments for such a "One Big Union" were popular as the war ended.

The impetus to form the CPA also came from the strikes and working-class struggles of the previous three decades. The 1917 general strike, beginning in the railways in Sydney, gave stimulus to the One Big Union idea. This was taken up by the NSW Labour Council, which had emerged as an active and outspoken base for socialist ideas and organisation. There was a strong socialist and internationalist influence on the labour movement as a result of the experiences of the war years.

But other, countervailing, pressures also influenced those early members of the CPA. The reformist and populist tradition of the Australian labour movement was strong, itself an expression of the overriding conservative capitalist ideology.

There was a strong nationalist current in Australian culture, which found its expression in the ALP. This was a bourgeois cultural tradition, not a class-struggle tradition, and was an important factor in maintaining capitalist hegemony over the working class. This has always been a danger for Australian revolutionaries, but in the early years of the CPA it was certainly a tradition from which they found it hard to escape, and it led to some specific problems.

Even racism, in the form of support for a "white Australia", was not absent from many of those early socialists. They also suffered from the political hangovers of the small groups they'd previously belonged to, each with its own organisational traditions, political shibboleths and tactical approaches. The early CPA was certainly not clear politically; neither was it well organised nor united.

There were several attempts by socialist groups to proclaim themselves the Communist Party as news of the Russian victory sank in. In August 1919 came an abortive attempt to unite, before the founding unity conference in 1920. The main groupings attending the conference were:

  • A group of militant trade union officials, mainly based in Sydney. They were led by Jock Garden, the secretary of the NSW Labour Council, and were known as the "Trades Hall Reds. They supported the OBU perspective, and had a policy of working in the ALP. Garden had briefly been in the Socialist Labour Party inspired by the American Daniel De Leon. This group included W.P. Earsman of the Sydney Labour College, who was the provisional secretary of the new party and a delegate to the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921. They saw the new form of Bolshevik organisation as a way of more successfully pursuing their existing perspectives for the OBU, and taking over the ALP.
  • The Australian Socialist Party. They were formerly the Socialist Federation of Australia, and were made up of a range of currents. Their main emphasis was on Marxist propaganda. They mostly opposed participation in the ALP. Among their members at this meeting was their secretary, Arthur Reardon. They were supported by and had links with the radical Russian emigres. Most prominent of these was Artem (Thomas Sergeiev), who returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution, becoming a member of the Central Committee. He was killed in the crash of an experimental train in 1921, together with Paul Freeman, one of the ASP delegates to the Third Congress of the Comintern. They were more numerous and better organised than the Trades Hall Reds, and had expected to dominate the new party.
  • Former IWW members, such as Tom Glynn, one of the famous IWW 12, who were framed up on charges of plotting to burn down Sydney during World War I. Although largely defunct as an organisation, the IWW still had a building in Sussex Street, which became the office of the new Communist Party. Garden managed to get a bloc with them in the fledgling party, and outvoted the larger ASP group.
  • There were also members and former members of smaller socialist parties. From Melbourne came C.W. Baker of the Victorian Socialist Party communists, and Guido Barrachi from the group around Andrade's Bookshop. Representing another small communist group was the secretary of the Seamen's Union, Tom Walsh, and his wife Adela Pankhurst. J.B. Miles represented the Queensland Communist Group.

The two main currents were Garden's Trades Hall Reds and the ASP, and they represented two quite different political approaches, particularly in regard to the Australian Labor Party. The traditional approach of many Australian socialists such as Garden was to work in the ALP, to try to transform it from within, seeing it as "the mass party", somehow a workers party.

Two months after its formation, the CPA split over its attitude to the ALP. The ASP hived off. Personality clashes were undoubtedly involved, as well as disputes over property, but the previously existing political differences had not been overcome. The ASP accused their opponents of opportunism towards the ALP; the CPA branded the ASP inflexible sectarians.

It was a time of ferment following the war, and not all socialists were regrouped in the newly formed and divided Communist Party. Radical sentiments were strong in the unions and in the Labor Party.

In June 1921 the ALP leadership called an All Australian Trades Union Conference in response to increased sentiments for socialism, in order to direct those sentiments into safe channels. This conference adopted a "socialisation of industry" objective.

The ASP denounced the conference, while Garden and the CPA enthusiastically participated and threw their weight behind its decisions.

But the delegates were not guided by the revolutionary perspectives elaborated by Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. They followed reformist views of Australian socialists such as R.S. Ross of the Victorian Socialist Party (who refused to join the CPA). Frank Farrell, in his book International Socialism and Australian Labour, describes Ross' outlook:

"The task set for socialists in Australia was to forge a united working class behind the OBU and the ALP. This would be the easiest road to socialism, he argued, because it was precisely the labour movement's championing of democratic rights and improved standards of life that had so altered the Australian environment as to make Bolshevism inapplicable."

The October 1921 ALP federal conference considered the recommendations from the June conference, and watered down the socialist objective even further. The ALP was able to absorb the push to the left, and the divided communists were unable to take advantage.

In the early years following the Russian Revolution, socialists in Australia naturally looked to the Bolsheviks for guidance. The Communist International was established by the Bolsheviks in 1919 to help spread their ideas, develop Communist parties around the world and coordinate revolutionary activity. Many of the parties that affiliated to the Comintern and became sections resulted from splits in the previous social democratic parties, splits encouraged by the Bolsheviks. Often there were several groups in one country vying for recognition. In Australia the Comintern at first seemed to favour the ASP, but by 1921 it was urging groups to unite.

The ASP resisted such calls for unity.

The Comintern Third Congress, held in June-July 1921, adopted the slogan "to the masses" and a tactic of proposing united fronts to the reformist parties. This seemed to favour the Garden line, much to the consternation of the ASP, which had polemicised against the dangers of boring from within, and the corruption resulting from association with reformists.

In August 1922 the Comintern recognised the CPA, while the ASP was still refusing a unity conference. So by the end of 1922, most ASP members had split off and joined the CPA.

Alastair Davidson writes in his The Communist Party of Australia that the united front policy adopted by the Comintern in 1921 "appeared to be similar to the policy already adopted by the CPA in accordance with Australian socialist tradition. Both advised party members to work through the trade unions and labor parties and emphasised the need to concentrate on piecemeal demands rather than extreme revolutionary attitudes. But there was one crucial difference ... The Comintern's advice to work with labor parties was not based on any belief that these parties were now acceptable. They were still just as untrustworthy, but they had the support of the workers. The object in uniting with them was not to refurbish them or to capture them but to steal their support and destroy them. All parties other than communist parties were considered outmoded political forms. This attitude differed from that of Garden or the VSP members who had chosen to work in the ALP, and it took the CPA some time to realize the difference."

In 1922, following their particular interpretation of the united front line of the Comintern, all CPA members joined the ALP. Their formal affiliation was rejected in 1923, and the CPA was subsequently proscribed. The 1924 federal Labor Party conference confirmed the exclusion of communists from membership.

Debates ensued in the party - should they stay in the ALP? The party fell back on its independent activity, organising a rank-and-file trade union movement, and standing in the 1925 NSW elections. Garden, heading the CPA ticket, was shocked when he got only 317 votes. His immediate reaction was to go to the other extreme. He began his close collaboration with Jack Lang and the new Labor government that had been elected in 1925. He began to play down the need for a separate Communist Party.

Guido Barrachi, one of the founders and a leading intellectual, on the eve of the CPA's December 1925 conference, proposed that the CPA dissolve itself into the ALP. When his proposal was rejected, he left the CPA.

Garden stayed in the ALP and moved increasingly away from CPA activities. Towards the end of 1926, Garden was expelled after refusing to deny press reports that he was no longer a Communist. Most of the trade union officials around him went with him.

It's estimated the CPA had about 750-1000 members at the time of its formation, and might have grown to even 1500 members shortly after. The members were concentrated in the Sydney and Newcastle area, with strong support among trade unionists, with smaller forces in Melbourne and Brisbane. Branches were set up in Perth and Adelaide, but they folded, to be revived later in the '20s.

The CPA's interpretation of the united front policy in this period proved disastrous. By 1925, membership had dropped to 280.

The experience of the CPA's early years certainly provides no backing for those arguing in later years that the party's main problems were due to "sectarianism towards the ALP", and that the party grew when it had a "positive, united-front" approach to the ALP. The majority of the initial membership were absorbed back into the mainstream of Laborism, relinquishing any revolutionary perspective.

The fight against liquidating the party into the ALP was led by Jack Kavanagh. Kavanagh had arrived in Australia in 1925 from Canada, where he had been a founder of the Communist Party there and its first chair. He was CPA chairperson in 1925-29. Tom Wright was secretary.

With the party much reduced in numbers, the new leadership recognised it was basically a propaganda group, and set about improving the educational work of the party. Classes in Marxism were instituted, Communist "Sunday Schools" for young people were established, and Trade Union Educational Leagues were set up with the aim of educating workers about socialism. (These later became the core of the Minority Movement, which helped organise CPA support in the unions.)

At the CPA Christmas conference in 1927, Kavanagh introduced constitutional amendments to try to reorganise the party along democratic centralist lines. Until then the party had operated on organisational principles largely inherited from the earlier socialist groups.

The working-class radicalisation following the war and the Russian Revolution had now receded. Boom conditions prevailed, and strike struggles were at a very low ebb.

The main international campaign for the CPA in this period was in defence of Sacco and Vanzetti, two framed US anarchists sentenced to death and subsequently executed. There were also solidarity campaigns with the British general strike of 1926, and a Hands Off China campaign in 1926-27 against the threat of imperialist intervention to put down China's nationalist and socialist movement.

In 1927 CPA leader Jack Ryan was sent as a delegate from the recently established Australian Council of Trade Unions to the Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat conference in Hankow, and was elected to the Communist-dominated executive.

Although the CPA didn't grow appreciably during the rest of the '20s, the Kavanagh leadership halted its decline and reorganised the party. They established the political basis for the growth of the party in the early '30s - building an independent Marxist party aiming to provide leadership in struggle for the working class and other oppressed.

But Kavanagh became a victim of factional struggles in the party, and the need for Moscow to have leaderships obedient to its bidding in Communist parties around the world. He was politically defeated in 1929-30 by the group that won control of the party, led by Lance Sharkey, H. Moxon, Jack Henry and J.B. Miles. Kavanagh's lieutenant Jack Ryan was expelled from the party in 1930 and Kavanagh himself in 1931.

Kavanagh's role was subsequently distorted by the victors in the inner-party struggle. The story given in all orthodox CPA accounts is that Kavanagh represented a "right opportunist" trend, a "grave right deviation", and was soft on the Labor Party. (He was also attacked for sectarianism). With Comintern help, the new team was portrayed as having rescued the party, and being responsible for the successes resulting from the new line. The reality was more complex. For example, Kavanagh was already pursuing a line critical of the ALP.

Kavanagh was readmitted but expelled again in 1934. He became a supporter of Leon Trotsky, and was a leader of the small Australian Trotskyist group until the late '40s. Sharkey remained the central leader of the CPA for more than 30 years, presiding over the party while it was a hardline supporter of Stalinist policies .

Kavanagh's role has been greatly clarified by a 1972 Labor History article by Jack Blake, Victorian state secretary in 1933-49 and a member of the CPA Central Committee 1935-55, himself a victim of leadership scapegoating in the early '50s. Blake pointed out that Kavanagh became prominent in the struggle against Garden's policy towards the ALP.

"Kavanagh emerged as the most effective leader of the struggle to defend the existence of the Communist Party and develop it into a revolutionary party along Leninist lines ...

"In these circumstances it is understandable that Kavanagh reacted by taking an extreme position that was opposite to the one taken by Garden. Kavanagh, with Moxon as his chief backstop, saw the Labor Party as the main obstacle to the development of the Communist Party, and he campaigned vigorously to rally the communists to concentrate their main struggle against the ALP.

"Attempts to place Kavanagh in the category of a descendant of the Second International and an opponent of Comintern policies achieved an appearance of reality only by ignoring or playing down important facts."

The CPA didn't flourish in the '20s. It suffered from the divisions that it inherited, but mainly from the disasters associated with incorrect policies and illusions in the ALP. But it survived and started to regroup, get its house in order and develop as an independent party, able to take advantage of the more favourable conditions for revolutionary activity during the Great Depression. The party grew tenfold in the first few years of the '30s.

But this period also coincided with the consolidation of Joseph Stalin's power in the Soviet Union, which represented the triumph of the bureaucracy and the ousting of the original Bolshevik leadership, and the replacement of revolutionary internationalist policies by narrow "national" interests. In Australia it meant the imposition on the CPA of tight control and policies in the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, rather than revolution in Australia.

These two separate processes - Stalinisation and CPA growth during the depression - overlapped. So this part of CPA history has been distorted, both by the new leadership for its own factional reasons, and by all opponents of the CPA, who had no interest in seeing the CPA develop as a revolutionary party.

First posted on the Pegasus conference greenleft.news by Green Left Weekly. Correspondence and hard copy subsciption inquiries: greenleft@peg.apc.org

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