Date: Mon, 6 Nov 1995 20:10:19 -0500
Sender: Progressive News & Views List <PNEWS-L@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU>
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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