The history of the Communist Party in Australia is inseparable from the history of Australia’s development. In this booklet, some of the background of Australia’s development appears as foundation material for developments in the Communist Party. The Communist Party was founded in Australia in 1920. By that time, Australia had a long history of thousands of years of its black people and 132 years of the dispossession of the black people by British white settlement. The booklet does not deal with the details of this historical background.
Conventional history tends to present an accumulation of raw facts and devotes much attention to historical personages without investigating all sides of the social process that produced the facts and personages. This booklet will attempt to make its starting point the proposition that it is social being that explains social consciousness.
Therefore this introductory chapter will attempt to summarise something of Australian history, and present material which explains some of the assumptions upon which much of what follows is based.
The Australian black people lived in the state of society known as primitive communism and were at the stone age level. Their primitive communal life arose from the very primitive methods they had of eking out an existence. They were compelled by the difficulties of nature to band together in tribes, each person being essentially dependent upon his or her fellow tribesmen.
They were the only inhabitants and they roamed their tribal grounds unchallenged. They developed primitive tools, primitive art. They knew no written language. But still they were the unchallenged occupiers of Australia.
It was they who were dispossessed from their tribal lands at the time Britain occupied Australia as a penal colony in 1788. Subsequently the legal status accorded Australia was that of an uninhabited colony acquired by settlement. As white settlement developed, so did the dispossession of the black people. Thus the black people were the very first to fight against British imperial encroachment on Australia. The fact that groups of them fought heroically against the British authorities and against the seizure of their land is suppressed by almost all historians. It remains a fact. The black people have a splendid tradition of resistance to the British seizure of their land. But it was at that time an unequal fight. In consequence, the black population estimated or rather guessed at as being something between 100,000 and 300,000 at the time of white settlement, was gravely reduced. In Tasmania, the black people were completely exterminated. Throughout the history of Australia the black people in one way or another have maintained their resistance to the British authorities and their successors. Despite vicious discrimination, vicious use of the law against them, police discrimination, job discrimination, seizure of their lands, they have maintained struggle. The evidence of their position is provided by the most solemn Australian legal document, namely its constitution. The infamous Section 127 of the Constitution, which said: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted” stood in the Constitution till 1967. Its existence only expressed in a legal way the utter degradation inflicted on the black people. Reality was and is worse than this legal form. The repeal of this section occurred as a result of a referendum of Australian white people; the black people had no say whatever. Voting rights were confined to white people. However, it represented an advance in the struggle of the black people that even this had to be done. It was a measure of the strength of black people. It has not altered the vicious reality but the black people are carrying forward their struggle. They are an important component of the whole struggle for independence of Australia from imperialism.
From the very inception of the Australian colony, conflict arose with the British authorities. That conflict went through many forms. It assumed more definite anti-British shape as capitalism itself in Australia took shape and the number of free settlers grew.
The existence and development of capitalism demands a “free” working class. Workers must be available. Convicts did not provide that free working class. The export of convicts to Australia by Britain in the end became a barrier to the development of a “free” working class, the labour of which could be bought. The abolition of convictism became one of the demands of the local capitalists, landowners and free citizens. By the late eighteen thirties, the demand became so insistent that within a few years transportation was ended.
The thread that runs right through Australia’s history from white settlement to the present time is the struggle for independence from imperialism.
The first representative institution in 1823 and the first supreme court in 1823, were the product of struggle by the embryonic Australian bourgeoisie for some say in their own affairs rather than those affairs being directed by the British imperial authorities 12,000 miles away. Representative institutions were extended throughout the 19th century. So-called responsible government was established in most of the Australian colonies in the 1850’s. This followed the influence of Chartism, the influence of the 1848 European revolutions, the struggles that culminated in the Eureka Stockade in 1854. The embryonic capitalist class and embryonic working class joined in these struggles. They had a common interest in wresting self government from the British imperialists.
Class struggle persisted in Australia but the common enemy was British imperialism. By the end of the century, the growth of struggle in Australia dictated the need for British imperialism to make big concessions. The concession of the British Imperial Act of Parliament entitled: “The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act” assented to by Queen Victoria on July 9, 1900, was made. The struggle to obtain it was largely led by the Australian local capitalist class. It represented a compromise which maintained substantial British hold in Australia while making big formal concessions to Australia’s independence.
The struggle for national independence certainly did not end with the Commonwealth Constitution of 1900. Even in the formal legal field the British Imperial Parliament and authorities retained considerable hold in Australia. Their real hold lay in the tremendous investment by British imperialism in Australia.
As the result of the independence struggle of various British colonies, the British Imperial Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. This statute authorised “Dominion” governments legally to go further still on the path to independence. It involved curtailing still further the authority of the British parliament over the dominions including Australia. It was not to operate in its most important respects until it was adopted by the parliaments of the dominions. In fact, Australia adopted it by an Act which came into force on October 9, 1942. But in Australia there are still (1973) ties to the British authorities such as the Crown, the flag, the anthem, various reserve powers, and the Constitution itself remains an Act of the British parliament. In the several states, the ties to the Crown are even greater. Again this all reflects British imperialist hold on Australia.
One may characterise Australia’s history as the struggle for national democratic revolution for independence and freedom from imperialism. In the first place, the central target of this struggle was British imperialism. Because capitalism develops unevenly, the world domination of Britain gave way to that of the U.S.A. In turn, the world domination of U.S. imperialism is challenged by new rivals. So far as Australia is concerned, these include Japanese imperialism with Soviet revisionist imperialism a much later competitor. Thus the enemy changes and may change still more but the stream of the national democratic revolution goes on. It will go on until Australia is completely independent and ruled by its own people, all imperialists having been expelled.
This national democratic revolution underlies all Australian history from 1788. It embraced black and white people. It involved many strata of people. It gathered way as the imperialists were compelled to build up capitalism in Australia, giving rise to a working class and a capitalist class. The national democratic revolution of necessity developed from small beginnings and is a revolution by stages. It reached a high stage in the 1850’s witnessed by armed rebellion at Eureka, still another stage by the end of the century, still another stage as the aftermath of World War I, and by World War II and the post World War II period, still another stage. Now it is part of the strivings of many countries for independence and revolution. Today countries want independence, nations want liberation and the people are demanding revolutionary changes. This has become an irresistible trend of history.
The position of the main classes in Australian society historically has undergone change. In the national democratic revolution, two classes particularly have a deep interest. These are the local capitalists and the workers. The main leaders of the national democratic revolution up to 1900 were the capitalists. But the development of the working class is inexorable. As capitalism develops inexorably, the working class assumes greater and greater importance. Before the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Australian national democratic revolution was led by the bourgeoisie. But the October Revolution and its history made it clear that the bourgeoisie could no longer lead national democratic revolutions. Nor was there any room in the world for new capitalist states; they simply could not arise or survive in the imperialist world. One or other imperialism ate them up and established its dominance. Only the working class had no motive and no reason for compromise with imperialism. Only the working class could lead the people to thoroughgoing anti-imperialist independence. Though the Australian working class was young and immature, its historical mission was leadership of the national democratic revolution and carrying it through to socialism. Hence after 1917 the national democratic Australian revolution entered the world stream of proletarian socialist revolution.
Perhaps for a moment we will comment on this question. We speak of the leading role of the working class.
In the Communist Manifesto (published in 1848) Marx and Engels said: “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.” (Emphasis ours). In the world, there has been colossal development of modern industry since Marx and Engels made this statement in 1848. In Australia, modern industry is the decisive feature of the lives of the Australian people; an industry true, that is largely the creation of imperialism. The Australian workers are directly attached to modern industry, to the most advanced means of production. They live right at the centre of exploitation. They increase in numbers and in cohesion. The Australian working class is thus the most disciplined, the most exploited class in Australia. It has only its own labour power to sell and nothing (in the way of property) to lose. It has nothing to lose but its chains, in Marx and Engels’ words. It is the very class with the greatest interest in overthrowing the imperialist exploiters of Australia and in establishing a state in which it is the leading class and which state will put an end to imperialist exploitation. The Australian working class is the greatest class in the history of Australia. It is the most powerful revolutionary class ideologically, politically and in struggle. It can and must unite the overwhelming majority of people around itself so as to isolate the handful of enemies to the maximum and attack them. The Australian workers are in fact already engaged in socialised labour. This is a very important truth. They are employed in big factories, mainly owned by foreign imperialists, I.C.I., Courtaulds, G.M., Fords, Chryslers, International Harvester, etc. No single worker ever makes the finished product. On the contrary, his labour is dependent on the labour of many others in the factory and indeed even outside the factory (e.g. in the processing of the raw materials in motor vehicle manufacture). The great basic contradiction in Australia is that the products of I.C.I., Courtaulds, G.M., Fords, Chryslers, International Harvester are socially produced but individually owned by a handful of imperialist owners. It is the resolution of that contradiction, the solution of that problem that constitutes the basis of the independence struggle in Australia and demonstrates the leading position of the Australian working class in it.
This fact is constantly obscured and covered up by the imperialists and their local agents in a thousand ways. They put it about that the workers are dull and stupid, will never advance, are like sheep, will get nowhere without imported technical know how, that Australia can only be developed by foreign investment.
Or it is put about that the universities are the leading force in the progress of Australia. Or that all the people are workers because technology has abolished the “old” notion that the proletariat exists, it has lifted up the proletariat to the technological level and that the technologists are now the leading force and that Marx was wrong. Or it takes the form of saying or implying that students are the most revolutionary force and the workers are slow, backward and ignorant. There are many, many variations on this theme. They come from the open enemies of the workers and from within the working class and even some who speak of the leading role of the working class and sincerely think they believe it, But their actions and writings really deny it. Hence we are dealing with a very important question indeed.
Even if the Australian working class were numerically the smallest class it would still be the leading revolutionary class. However, Australian reality is that not only is the working class the leading class but it is the biggest single class by far and the main force in revolutionary struggle. It can be said in general that the Australian workers consist of the advanced, the intermediate and the backward. There is nothing surprising or unique in this. The advanced workers represent the real interests and aspirations of all the workers. Hence when we speak of the workers we are commonly speaking of the advanced workers.
Australian workers are proud of their position as workers. They have every right to be. In their hands lies the destiny of Australia. They are the leading force that unites around itself all other sections of the population except a tiny handful of enemies. By asserting pride in their position as workers, there is no reflection at all on other struggling sections of the population. In struggle, the rural workers, semi-workers, small and not so big farmers, public servants (other than the top ranks) insurance and bank clerks, small shopkeepers and some sections of the capitalists unite with the workers. But there is constant struggle as to which is to lead. One can see that struggle in Australia today. People emerge and trends emerge from the local Australian capitalists to take the leadership in the struggle for independence. That does not mean they are necessarily bad people but it does mean awareness of the fact of struggle and the need to understand thoroughly that only the working class for entirely objective reasons can consistently lead the struggle against imperialism to the end.
Historically the Australian workers have a very fine tradition. From the very beginnings of capitalism in Australia the workers organised in their own defence. Repressive legislation to suppress them was passed by the colonial authorities. Australian workers struggled against it. It was the embryonic workers (not yet a working class in the true sense) who constituted the shock troops in the great and historic Eureka rebellion in 1854. Throughout the 19th century there was constant struggle – sometimes open, sometimes concealed. The Maritime Strike of the 1890’s is another jewel in the crown of working class struggle. The struggle against the imperialist war of 1914-18 was led by Australian workers. The No Vote in the referendums of 1916 and 1917 as to whether or not there should be conscription for overseas service was a case of the workers uniting around themselves other sections of the people. The general strike of 1917 in New South Wales was still another example. They all had an anti-imperialist direction. Tremendous struggles occurred in the twenties; the Australian workers were the leaders of them; they united other sections of the population around them. In the anti-Crimes Act, anti-Japanese imperialist struggles of the thirties, the most significant action was taken by Australian workers.
(Few do not know of the wharfies’ struggle against loading scrap iron for Japan). In the whole antifascist struggle and against repression in Australia, the working class was the decisive force. In the forties the workers led the struggle for improved living conditions and for democracy. The great strikes of 1946-7-8-9 have written an indelible page in Australian history. The big coal mine strike of 1949 is rich indeed in its lessons. In the fifties, the outstanding struggle against the general repression of the workers and all democratic rights expressed in the Communist Party Dissolution Act and its referendum, was led by the workers. The defeat of several provocations culminating in the Petrov provocation (where the desertion of a Soviet embassy official was used as a pretext for a general attack upon the workers and all democrats) was engineered and led by the workers. In the sixties many great struggles occurred culminating in the big struggle against the penal powers, weapon of the imperialists. Again the engineer and leading force was the working class. In the struggle against U.S. domination and Australian participation in the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam, the Australian workers were the leading force. Today in carrying through the struggle for independence it is the Australian workers who are the leading force.
None of this is to minimise for a minute the part played by others in all these struggles. Nor is it to deny that in some cases the initiative lay with people other than the working class. This is to the credit of those people. Many outstanding students and other leading people arose. Still the most stable and decisive force was the working class. Though sometimes seemingly slow to act, Australian workers have acted decisively on the main issues in Australia’s struggle for independence. They have been the sheet anchor of struggle. It is their historical destiny that they will continue to be the sheet anchor of struggle.
There is indeed a rich tradition of struggle. Its history has been neglected or handed over to the bourgeois historians who even try to turn events like Eureka to their own advantage.
To destroy the leading position of the working class the bourgeoisie employs many methods. It uses agents like the “left” labor leaders, “left” trade union leaders, revisionist “Communists” who are far more dangerous than petty deserters like Petrov. The bourgeoisie never loses sight of the leading role of the working class. It is the working class which has always been and is the main target of attack. This in itself is sufficient to call into play the well known quotation “what the enemy opposes we support; what the enemy supports, we oppose”.
Pride in the workers is an essential feature of Communism. Today the main trend in the world is to revolution. It may be that revolution is not so obvious in Australia but irresistible forces are working to revolution. This is an objective fact. The Australian workers are the chief upholders of the banners of independence and democracy. Let us paraphrase Marx and Engels: The question is not what this or that Australian proletarian or even the whole of the Australian proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the Australian proletariat is, and what consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is irrevocably and obviously demonstrated in its own life situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today. (The Holy Family).
One other comment. Communism in Australia had a history extending back some decades before 1920. As early as 1872 there is evidence of some Australian connection with the 1st International founded by Marx in 1864 and which was coming to an end by 1872. (It finally broke up in 1874.) Both before and after that there is Australian interest in Communism. This represented the striving of the advanced workers for a scientific solution of social problems. The history of Communism in Australia gets richer and richer leading up to the Communist Party founding in 1920. It would be historical distortion to fail to draw attention to the struggle to form a Communist Party in Australia.
This introduction traverses some of the material that follows. For that we apologise. It seemed wise to have an overall picture into which a more detailed picture could be fitted. The historical mission of the Communist Party is to lead the Australian working class at the head of other strata of society in the struggle for independence and to carry that through to the end and ultimately through socialism to communism.