Gilbert Giles Roper, 1937

What is happening in the Communist Party?

Source: Workers Party of Australia leaflet, November 12, 1937; also printed in The Militant, Sydney, November 29, 1937
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Biographical note

The author of this statement first contacted the labour movement in 1920, at the age of 15, when the Russian Revolution had established itself and the IWW frame-up was a major issue. In 1925 he joined the Adelaide branch of the Socialist Labor Party, and became secretary. When it began to oppose the big strikes in 1929 he resigned and joined the newly formed branch of the Communist Party. He represented South Australia at the 1929 Congress of the CPA. In 1930 he became district secretary and a co-opted member of the central committee. As such he was leader of the party during the turbulent strikes and struggles of the crisis period. In 1932 he went to Mildura and was prominent in reorganising the party after the fascist attack. Later he worked in the Bendigo Section and became a member of the Number Two Section, Melbourne. In 1934 he was called to Sydney to operate printing machinery acquired by the central committee. By April 1937 he had become fully aware of the unscrupulous methods used by the political bureau in the party printery, and resigned from this work. This experience led the author to an investigation of the causes of bureaucratic degeneration in the party, from which point, while retaining his party membership he proceeded to a critical examination of its political basis.

The Third (Communist) International was founded in 1919 by Lenin “in opposition to the opportunist Second International of social democracy” — which had been, during the Great War; “the agency of imperialism in the ranks of the working class”. Its aim was twofold: 1) to replace the Second International, to combat reformism, and to develop struggles for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the capitalist section of the world; 2) to consolidated the basis of socialism in the Soviet Union.

Reformism has had a traditional grip on big sections of the Australian workers and for that reason the struggle against reformism has been a traditional feature of the revolutionary proletarian movement in Australia. It was a cardinal point with the early socialist and IWW groups, and on one occasion Lenin wrote an article on the special role of the Australian Labor Party as an agency of reformism.

During the 1929 federal election campaign a sharp struggle developed in the Communist Party concerning the line adopted by the central committee. At Christmas 1929 the party congress decided that the CC had been guilty of crass right opportunism. In brief, the line of the CC had been a rejection of the 10th plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, held in July 1929, which marked a zigzag by the Stalin leadership of the Comintern towards the new sectarian theory of “social fascism”. Two members of the central committee, Moxon and Sharkey, used the 10th plenum decisions as a lever to accomplish the removal of the Kavanagh-Ryan leadership, a task in which they had the support of the Comintern. The background of the 1929 congress can now be correctly assessed. It dovetailed in with the campaign being waged by Stalin in the USSR against the Left Opposition (Trotskyists), which involved the removal of many of the old leaders of the Comintern and their replacement by more pliable leaders.

What was the election policy and tactic of the old CC? First, they maintained that the masses were not becoming “radicalised” as asserted by the 10th plenum, and therefore would not vote in great numbers for the independent Communist candidates. Secondly, they said the party, in view of the above political situation, should support the Scullin Labor Party in the elections “as a rope supports a hanging man”.

The majority of the party membership swung behind Moxon and Sharkey, because they considered that the old CC had failed to make a sharp enough distinction between the reformist Labor Party and the revolutionary Communist Party at the elections.

If the line of the Kavanagh leadership was “crass right opportunism”, what must we say of the 1937 federal election policy and tactic of the Miles leadership?

Between 1929 and 1937 the party had increased numerically about 10 times. Despite this strengthened position, in the 1937 federal elections the present CC, under the leadership of Miles, jettisoned the 1929 decisions and reverted to the former “crass right opportunist” position.

The CC made overtures to the Labor Party for affiliation, for a united front against the Lyons government. Despite rejection of the CC offer, the party members were directed to lend full and unconditional support to the Labor politicians. In the electorate of Beasley, a bitter anti-communist, the party members even posted up a record number of posters supporting him! The DLG Fund was used to support the party’s enemies.After the defeat of the Labor Party at the elections, the party leaders then began to argue the need for a better Labor Party, one controlled by the Trades Hall “industrialists”. Miles and Sharkey thus began sowing the very same illusions about which they protested so loudly in 1929.

Why did Miles and Co jettison the 1929 decisions? Why was there no revolt of the party membership, as in 1929?

To begin with, it should be stated that Marxists cannot be dogmatic on the question of tactics. The tactics of the revolutionary workers must in all cases be determined by the selection of the most effective method of furthering the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. If we examine the attitude of Miles and Co we will grasp the enormity of the 1937 betrayal.

At certain times, on specific issues, is sometimes became necessary for the revolutionary movement to make a united front agreement with the reformists or with the party of some other class. In just such a way, for instance, did the IWW in Australia form a united front with heterogeneous elements on the conscription issue; so did Trotsky advocate a united front of Social Democrats and Communists against Hitler. Under no circumstances can the revolutionary movement agree to any so-called “unity” which involves a sacrifice of principle. Unity can be bought too dearly.

In March 1937, Miles announced the election tactic of the CC for the coming federal elections. Opposition soon developed, the extent of which is not known; but it is clear that some Communists in Queensland particularly, realised the damaging effect of supporting Labor Party candidates. This realisation must have grown as Forgan Smith used the state forces against the brewery strikes. However, Miles brusquely warned the opposition, and deferred criticism of the line until “after polling day”. (See Communist Review, June 1937)

After Beasley’s speech at Randwick, there was further opposition expressed to the policy of unconditional support for the Labor Party, and in one branch a majority opposed the CC line.

It would be incorrect to see the positions of Kavanagh in 1929 and Miles in 1937 as exact historical parallels. In 1929 the line of the CC represented a failure to catch up with the latest zigzag of the Comintern; but in 1937 the CC line approximated to that of the seventh world congress and subsequent events in the international. The former expressed a lag by a single section of the Comintern; the latter symbolised the complete reformist degeneration of the International.

In 1929, too, it was possible for the party membership to organise in a campaign to remove the CC, which they considered had “right-wing” liquidationist tendencies. Today a similar campaign would be impossible. The party is organised on a rigid system of bureaucratic centralism, like a spider web. At the centre is the general secretary, surrounded by the political bureau, a group of eight party functionaries and trade union officials. The PB has not been changed materially for about six years; it is a rump “inner group” with absolute control over party finance (no balance sheets are shown to the membership), party publications and the first and last say in the selection, suspension and removal of party functionaries, the dissolution of intractable party bodies, and the isolation of individual members who display “Trotskyist” or other anti-leadership sentiments. In a circle round the PB are a number of district committees and a further circle of selection committees. These committees are completely dominated by groups of functionaries, who can hold their positions and continue to draw their sustenance only so long as they agree with the line of the PB on all major and minor political and organisational issues. The balance of the party membership is split up into hundreds of microscopic branches, devoid of means of intercommunication.

The same bureaucratic centralism holds true of the Communist International, with the difference that it is the Mileses who are in a circle around Stalin, whose every word is law. Is it any wonder that the party is ideologically dead; that there are no longer any polemics — only directives?

How did this position arise?

The ebb of the post-war revolutionary movement coincided with the death of Lenin and the beginning of the dominance of Stalin in the government of the Soviet Union. The masses in the Soviet Union, weary of war, revolution, civil war and famine, disappointed with the temporary failure of the world proletarian revolution, were ready for a long period of internal and external peace. Stalin’s new theory of socialism in one country fell on fertile soil. It helped him to uproot the old guard of the revolution, headed by Trotsky, and to discredit them. In 1927 the mistakes of Stalinism caused the terrible defeat of the Chinese revolution. After the sixth world congress of the Comintern, Stalin led the international on an erratic course. The inaugural plenum of the CPA in June 1930 formally introduced the party to the latest Stalinist theories of the Third Period, “radicalisation” and social fascism. Every trade union bureaucrat or Labor politician was a social fascist. Lang, Garden, Kilburn, and most of the Sydney “industrialists” with whom Miles and Co have lately formed a bloc, were dangerous “left social fascists”. This was the period of “head-on collision” with the reformist leaders — on a world scale.

The cumulative effect of the theories of social fascism and socialism in one country constituted a major factor in the defeat of the German workers by Hitler. As late as the 12th plenum of the ECCI, Piatnitsky said that the “united front must be directed against the Social Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy”, while the London Daily Worker (Communist Party organ) said on May 26, 1932: “It is significant that Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between the Communist and Social Democratic parties against fascism. No more disruptive and counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at a time like the present.”

Too late did the CI effect a change. The main bulwark of the Soviet Union against imperialist aggression — the mighty German labour movement — was smashed, surrendered “without drawing a sword or firing a shot”. The flight from Marxism continued. Not world revolution but alliances with the bourgeois states, membership in the League of Nations, would defend the Soviet Union.

The sections of the CI fell into line with the new turn of the Soviet foreign office. World revolution, “soviet power” (once — how recently! — the main slogan) were struck off the agenda. The struggle was no longer for “socialism against capitalism”, but for “democracy against fascism” — the very same bourgeois democracy against which Lenin and the Bolsheviks had thundered in 1917. All sorts of bourgeois Philistines and other “queer people” — pacifists, reformers, Christians — had to be attracted to the party. The “social fascists” became “progressives”.

The seventh world congress of the Comintern — meeting after a lapse of seven years — legalised the latest somersault. Dimitrov, the new “helmsman” of the Comintern, reached into the garbage can of history and plucked forth the theories of Bernstein, Kerensky and the “lesser evil” of the German Iron Front; they emerged as the “People’s Front”. From Kautsky and Ramsay MacDonald was borrowed the theory of “the chief instigators of war”; a truce was called with the “peaceful” British, French, Italian and US imperialists — only Germany and Japan were “aggressors”.

The results of the seventh congress somersault were soon apparent. Under a smokescreen of talk about “unity against war and fascism”, the Comintern discarded the last vestiges of Leninism. In China the Stalinists discovered that they had nothing “personal” against Chiang Kai-shek, the bourgeois dictator and butcher of the workers; the Chinese Red Army and soviet districts were liquidated and combined with the Nanking national front. In France, the CP swung into a permanent bloc with Blum and the petty bourgeois Radical Socialists; the mighty strike movements of the French workers were shunted on to the track of bourgeois parliamentarism. Reformism secured a new lease of life. Worse still, in Italy the CP clamoured for unity with the Fascists.

Against this background, the Australian Stalinists evolved their 1937 federal election policy and tactic. All Leninist principles were scrapped. The party leaders refused to nominate independent candidates (with two exceptions), called loudly for unconditional support of the Labor politicians, and unblushingly sowed he most dangerous reformist illusions about electing a “fighting Labor government”, which would legitimise “a better life” for the people. Miles falsified history: “Is it a gross error,” he said, “to see the Labor governments as administrations which never benefited the workers or always betrayed the workers”. What contemptible deception! Shades of Andrew Fisher, Hill, Hogan, Scullin, Lang, Forgan Smith and the rest. Is it not, rather, the truth to say that Labor governments have been merely the reflection of the level of the class struggle that any reforms legislated have been forced by extraparliamentary activity of the masses? Is it not also irrefutable that at all critical junctures Labor governments in Australia have allied themselves with the capitalist state against the workers — whether in 1914 or in the latest brewery strike in Brisbane?

If the Communists are, as Marx said, that section of the working class which clearly understands the line of march of the proletariat — that sees ahead — what shallow theoreticians we have in the Central Committee. In the federal elections they failed badly in their estimate of the mood of the masses. They assessed incorrectly the results of the Gwydir poll; they failed to attach sufficient importance to Lyons’s defence policy as a vote winner; they overlooked the effect on the petty bourgeoisie of the upward trend of Australian economy; they anticipated the sweeping away of Lyons. Dixon, in reply to Beasley, on September 24 suggested that there would be a “landslide to Labor”. Exaggerated as was this estimate, and others, it can be matched by the wretched prediction of Miles (Communist Review, July 1937): “the masses are not moving consciously to us. It is questionable if in the elections we could generally increase our vote.” (Actually, Paterson trebled his vote — not, of course all Communists).

As the campaign developed, the party leaders and press sank to the most vulgar deception and parliamentarism. All the ancient stock-in-trade of the reformists was displayed once again by the party leaders. The number three party election leaflet touches zero: “British policy … endangers the empire … The Lyons government supports this perilous policy … Stand by the League of Nations.” And the party members collected thousands of pounds for the DLG fund to pay for this rubbish.

Nor is there any hope of a change. Dixon warned his audience (Darlinghurst, October 24), that the Communists were going to “clean out the ALP stables”, making a start with Lang, ultimately restoring the faded glory(!) of the ALP by combining the workers, farmers and middle class of Australia into a single party — a non-Marxist concept which even Stalin in 1927 considered to be “impossible”. (Leninism, Vol II, p 85)

This statement was almost ready for the printers when news came in the press of a new and even greater purge of anti-Stalinist elements in the Soviet Union. This time there are more framed-up charges against old Bolsheviks (Bubnov, etc). The new purge underscores the dangerous international position of the working class. The war danger grows; fascism continues to expand; the strategic position of the Soviet Union grows weaker; today it must rely on the shifting sands of the Franco-Soviet Pact, or on Litvinov’s manoeuvres in the thieves’ kitchen at Geneva.

The internal position of the USSR gives ground for alarm. There is abundant proof of inequality, the existence of a huge bureaucracy and the rebirth of bourgeois-minded elements. Andre Gide says of the Soviet masses: “They are more than ever bowed down.”

Those workers who revolt against the sickening flattery of Stalin, the bureaucracy of the party, and the tailing after reformism, should begin a study of the recently published works of Trotsky — The Third International After Lenin, The Stalin School of Falsification, and The Revolution Betrayed. In these works is preserved the spirit and teaching of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The Third International died as a revolutionary force in the year that Hitler came to power; the defeat of the German workers revealed at one time the bankruptcy of both the Stalin and the reformist leaderships. In the capitalist world the remnants of the Comintern now pursue a reactionary line, supporting their national reformists and applauding the provocations and frame-ups against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.

The needs of the toilers, the defence of the Soviet Union, demand a return to the program of world revolution, to the teachings of Marx and Lenin. These teachings are being developed in a new party and the rising Fourth International — commonly known as “Trotskyists”. That is the direction in which the workers will march.


Twelve members of the IWW were arrested on September 23, 1916, and charged with arson and treason, the latter charge under the archaic Treason Felony Act of 1848. At the time, Prime Minister William Morris Hughes was campaigning to introduce conscription for World War I and the IWW was central to the oppositon to conscription. Seven of the 12 (John Hamilton, William Beattie, Joseph Fagin, Donald Grant, William Teen, Tom Glynn and Donald McPherson) were sentenced to 15 years in prison; four (Thomas Moore, Bob Besant, Peter Larkin and Charles Reeve) were sentenced to 10 years; and Benjamin King was sentenced to five years. The 12 were jailed until the Labor government of Premier John Storey was elected on March 20, 1920. It appointed Judge N.K. Ewing to inquire into the trial and sentencing, and 10 of the 12 were released in August 1920.

Fascist attack. For a description of this incident, see Trotskyism in Australia: Notes from a talk with Ted Tripp, 1976 by Peter Beilharz.

Herbert Moxon, who deposed Jack Kavanagh as CPA general secretary at Christmas 1929, expelled in 1931 after being displaced from the top post by Comintern representative Harry Wicks. Lance Sharkey, an ally of Moxon in 1929, became general secretary in the late 1940s.

Jack Kavanagh (1879-1964) was born in Ireland and fought for the British in the Boer War before emigrating to Canada in 1907, where he joined the Socialist Party of Canada. In 1918 he was President of British Columbia Federation of Labour, and a One Big Union organiser. Expelled from SP in 1919, by 1922 he was an executive committee member of the Communist Party and editor of its newspaper. He emigrated to Australia in 1925, and became a leader of the Communist Party of Australia, which was at a low ebb. Kavanagh preferred the old-style socialist leadership to the new democratic centralism demanded by the Comintern, and as general secretary he resisted attempts in the late 1920s to declare the NSW Labour Council and the Australian Labor Party “social fascist”. He allowed relatively open discussion in the pages of Workers Weekly, including publication of a statement by prominent trade union leader Jock Garden when he and his supporters left the CPA in 1926. Herbert Moxon and Lance Sharkey received Comintern support to oust Kavanagh as general secretary, which they did in 1929. Kavanagh was expelled in 1934 and later joined the Trotskyists. Jack Ryan was an official of the NSW Labour Council and a close collaborator with Kavanagh, he was expelled from the CPA in 1930.

James Scullin, Prime Minister in a federal Labor government from 1929-31, and leader of the federal Labor Party until 1935.

J.B. Miles, general secretary of the CPA from 1931 to the late 1940s.

Joseph Lyons, elected to federal parliament for the Labor Party, split from Labor in 1931 and formed the right-wing United Australia Party, for which he was prime minister from 1932-39.

Jack Beasley was a member of the House of Representatives 1928–46 for West Sydney, most of that time for the Labor Party, except in 1931–36 when he was a member of the Lang Labor Party and 1940–41 when he was a member of the Anti-Communist Labor Party.

Defeat the Lyons Government Fund.

The Trades Hall industrialists were a group of union leaders who at this stage were left opponents of Lang in the NSW Labor Party, and formes a loose bloc with the Communist Party.

William Forgan Smith, Labor premier of Queensland, 1932-42.

Jack Lang, NSW Labor premier from 1925–27 and 1930–32 and an independent member of the federal House of Representatives from 1946-49. He led a generally left-wing breakaway from the Labor Party in the 1930s, often referred to as Lang Labor. Jock Garden was a leader of the Trades Hall Reds, a group of unionists central in the formation of the Communist Party. He and his supported drifted away from the CPA around 1926, and joined the Labor Party. Garden later became a central adviser to Jack Lang. Jock Kilburn was a long-time left-wing unionist who was prominent in the Socialisation Units that arose in the Labor Party during the depression.

Ossip Piatnitsky, a central figure in the Comintern.

Giorgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian Communist unsuccessfully prosecuted in 1933 by the German Nazis over the Reichstag fire, general secretary of the Comintern 1935-43, president of Bulgaria after World War II.

Richard Dixon, CPA central committee member.

Fred Paterson in 1944 became the only CPA candidate elected to an Australian parliament, the Queensland parliament, representing the seat of Bowen.

Andrei Bubnov, old Bolshevik, made a leader of the Red Army by Stalin in 1924, removed from his position in 1934, arrested in 1937 and died in prison in 1940.

Maxim Litvinov, an old Bolshevik who was made Commissar for Foreign Affairs in 1930 and was later an ambassador to the US.