And what was the general theme of Communist policy and work at this time? Internationally it centred on the struggle against war and fascism. The demand for collective security was right to the fore along with the demand for a united front and people’s front against fascism and war.
The struggle to prevent war and to defeat fascism was certainly the decisive issue of that time. There was not a revolutionary situation in which socialism could be established. Hence socialism was not immediately on the agenda. The great challenge to socialism, indeed to all progress, to democrats, religious people and patriots lay in fascism and its advance to war. The issue that transcended all other issues was the defeat of fascism and the prevention of war. The way to socialism lay through the defeat of fascism and war. Many other sections of the people were opposed to fascism and war. That was the basis for a great unity. The issue of socialism or capitalism would need to be postponed until after fascism was defeated. Thus there were two distinct but related stages – unity to defeat fascism and after that, the actual conditions of capitalism would enable the people to decide on socialism or capitalism. We did not see clearly enough the distinction and mixed the two up so that we often made socialism a virtual condition of our participating in the united front against fascism. In this way we narrowed the possibilities of unity. On the other hand, within our ranks we did not sufficiently differentiate the two so that we were clear both on the immediate anti-fascist tasks and the ultimate socialist task.
The General Secretary of the Communist International was the Bulgarian Communist George Dimitrov. Dimitrov was the hero of the German Reichstag trial. The Reichstag (German parliament) had been burned down by a provocateur named van der Lubbe, promoted by Hitler and Goering. The idea was to blame the Communists, specifically Dimitrov, and thereby attack the German working class in which Communist influence was great. Dimitrov’s defence in that trial is a classic of how a Communist should behave in the capitalist courts. Without legal representation, Dimitrov turned the trial from a prosecution against himself and the Communist Party into a prosecution of the German nazis. Widespread working class and democratic support in Germany and internationally, plus his own fearlessness and capacity, led to his acquittal. At the 7th World Congress of the Communist International he made a profound analysis of the nature of fascism. He characterised it as the open terrorist dictatorship of the monopoly capitalists and showed its relentless drive to war. Dimitrov systematically expounded the need for a united front of the working class and the people against the growing threat of fascism and war.
Dimitrov proposed “healing the ’split’ in the working class.” What he regarded as the split was the division between the Communists and the Social-Democrats. Social-democratic parties are largely the original socialist parties which in our view now serve capitalism but profess to serve the working class. Australia’s nearest approach to a social-democratic party is the Labor Party. Strictly it is not a social-democratic party. It is a party on to which some forms of social democracy have been grafted. Applied to Australia, Dimitrov’s idea meant that the Communist Party sought a formal united front agreement with the Labor Party on the issue of struggle against fascism and war. And this was a sound idea but it had its limitations. The Communist Party of Australia made more than one proposal for a united front with the ALP. In each case the proposal was rejected. Nonetheless the Communist Party persisted in fighting for a formal agreement between the two Parties for a united front. The Communist Party also paid some attention to uniting other sections of the people in the fight against fascism. The “Movement Against War and Fascism” of the ’thirties involved the working class and other sections of the people in the struggle against fascism. A great deal of work was done in exposing the pro-Hitler, pro-Japanese militarist, pro-Mussolini position of sections of the Australian ruling circles. Much literature, cartoons, etc. arose. Appeasement was condemned. Our hearts and souls were in the fight for collective security. In the Spanish Civil War, appeasement expressed itself in the “non-intervention” policy of Britain, France and the USA. Whereas Hitler and Mussolini openly supported Franco, supplied him with arms, and Germans and Italians participated, Britain and France remained aloof. They followed a policy of “non-intervention”. The only Great Power to assist the Spanish people was the socialist Soviet Union. The workers and working people and democrats and patriots from other walks of life all over the world formed the International Brigade which fought alongside the Spanish people. Quite a number of Australians served in Spain. But after Spain came Hitler’s occupation of Austria (February-March 1938), then the Sudetenland (Czechoslovakia), then the rest of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia had been part of this fascist aggression. In 1938 (September 30) in the Munich pact Britain and France recognised Hitler’s expansion. “Peace in our time” was how the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, characterised Munich. We Australian Communists said that it would lead to war and opposed it tooth and nail.
As the danger of war increased, so did our activities against it increase. The Soviet Union stood absolutely firm for collective security between itself, France and Britain, against the fascist powers. When in negotiations with Britain and France and Poland it sought agreement for passage of its troops through Poland to meet a possible German attack, the British and French obstructed it. After long but fruitless negotiations, the Soviet leaders headed by Stalin, realised that the British and French ruling circles had no intention of containing Hitler. What they were concerned to do was to turn Hitler’s expansion towards the Soviet Union. These ruling circles wanted to leave the Soviet Union to be Hitler’s victim so that they could step in on the exhaustion of the two and reap the harvest. Stalin therefore signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Immediately the very people who had been instigating Hitler against the Soviet Union set up a tremendous hue and cry about the “treachery” of the Soviet Union. Their anti-Communism knew no bounds. It was expressed in Australia in violent attacks upon Communists and Communism, in breaking up meetings, physical attacks on Communist Party headquarters and so on.
In September 1939 the Nazis commenced their attack on the west by bombing Warsaw. On the very day it occurred we had a street meeting scheduled in Moonee Ponds. The speaker was a prominent Communist (since deserted). At my parents’ house in Essendon I got a telephone call in the evening to ask me to speak at the street meeting. But I said that so and so was due to speak, what was wrong with him? I was told he had laryngitis. I said: “Well he didn’t have it when I saw him during the day”. I agreed to speak and did speak. Although physical violence was expected against us, it didn’t occur. There were interjections, shouts of “traitors”, etc. but still a lot of people were very interested. Within a couple of days, Britain declared war against Germany. Menzies made a radio broadcast to the effect that as Britain was at war, it followed that Australia was also at war.
At first the Communist Party supported the war on the basis that it was directed against Hitler and his allies. A phoney war set in. The Western Powers made no real attempt to stop Hitler and at the same time he made no real attack on the West. The Soviet army occupied Poland to prevent the further advance of Hitler. It also negotiated with Finland to secure the Soviet-Finnish border. When that was obstructed, the Soviet-Finnish war broke out. We Communists were assailed on all these questions. Our reply was that the Western governments, particularly those of Britain and France, were attempting to come to terms with Hitler in order to sell out the people of the world and particularly to get him to attack the Soviet Union. When Hitler’s deputy Hess was parachuted into Scotland to contact the pro-Hitler sections of the British ruling class it was apparent that a deal was afoot.
Dimitrov wrote a pamphlet which denounced the war as an imperialist war. But on June 22, 1941 Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Soon after, Britain, now under the Prime Ministership of Churchill, declared its support for the Soviet Union. The policy of appeasement had ended in the fiasco that Stalin had foretold when he said at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1939: “Far be it from me to moralise on the policy of non-intervention, to talk of treason, treachery and so on. It would be naive to preach morality to people who recognise no human morality. Politics is politics, as the old, case hardened bourgeois diplomats say. It must be remarked however, that the big and dangerous game started by the supporters of the policy of nonintervention may end in a serious fiasco for them”. However, when Churchill declared British support for the Soviet Union, collective security had come into being in the fire of war.
But let me review the united front. It may have been Dimitrov’s error or it may be that wrong interpretations were put upon his speech, but in the minds of some Communists “healing the split in the working class” in Australia came to mean an attempted reconciliation of the ideas of Communism with the ideas of the Labor Party. Other Communists saw the united front with the Labor Party as conditional on the Labor Party’s accepting Communism. But the Labor Party was and is a party of capitalism. Despite its occasional use of the term “socialist”, it is not a socialist party. Hence when the Communists in Australia sought Communist Party reconciliation with the Labor Party they were seeking reconciliation between a party of the working class and a party of the capitalists. This opened the way for a flood of bourgeois ideology into the Communist Party and into the minds of the Communists. On the other hand, demands that the Labor Party accept Communism would never be accepted and went well beyond limited agreement involved in the struggle against fascism. Illustrative of the former viewpoint, I was approached by Labor officials in the late ’thirties to stand as parliamentary candidate for a safe Labor seat, it being said that the idea was I would be groomed as a Labor Party leader. When I objected that I wasn’t even a member of the Labor Party and had no wish to be, the answer was that any difficulties about membership could be overcome. I think at that time one had to have two years membership of the ALP before becoming a candidate, Communists were banned from ALP membership and Communist organisations were proscribed and as to my not wanting to, then they would see the Communist Party leaders. They did see the Communist Party leaders. These leaders told me about it. They said I could please myself. In other words I, as a well known Communist, could join a party of the bourgeoisie and identify myself with it. This was a wrong idea of united front. In any event I declined because, although my ideas about the character of the Labor Party were confused, I felt it offered no solution to the great social problems that existed.
It is possible and permissible for the Communist Party to reach an agreement with a political party of the bourgeoisie on certain limited issues of common concern. There can be agreement on fighting a joint campaign. But there can never be reconciliation of ideologies. The two are incompatible. In any agreement, the Communist Party must maintain its independence and initiative, because as a matter of objective reality the working class is diametrically opposed to the capitalist class. There can be no fundamental reconciliation in that class struggle but there can be agreement on such an issue as the anti-fascist struggle. Confusion in our minds in the ’thirties failed to keep distinct limited aims and fundamental aims and did not comprehend that in the then conjuncture of circumstances socialism as an objective was postponed till after the defeat of fascism.
The particular conception of united front was schematic and artificial. Really the united front idea involves uniting all who can be united in a given struggle irrespective of party. Party agreements may arise. But inter-Party agreement was not the be all and end all of the united front. We tended to see formal agreement between the ALP and Communist Party as the be all and end all of the united front. This was despite the fact that the Labor Party leadership outlawed the Communist Party and Communist Party “fronts” and forbade its members from participating in them on pain of expulsion. In fact Maurice Blackburn, although an ideological adherent of the Labor Party and an ideological opponent of Communism, was expelled from the Labor Party for just such associations.
Dimitrov’s report also failed to take sufficient account of armed struggle against fascism and war, that is, an armed united front. (Neither did it assess the correct role of armed struggle in the ultimate socialist revolution.) At that time, for example, China already had much experience of revolutionary war and the united front. Insufficient attention was given to that type of experience. Dimitrov’s emphasis was on agreement and joint peaceful activity between the Communists and Social Democrats. Perhaps the proof of the pudding was in the eating.
The Chinese Communists, who strove to unite and succeeded in uniting in armed struggle all Chinese people who could be united and also maintained the Party’s independence and initiative in the united front, went on to lead the Chinese people to free themselves from foreign imperialism and set out to build socialism.
In the ’thirties we knew only a little about the Chinese revolution. A few bits and pieces of information got through. The names of Mao Zedong, Chou En-lai and Chu Teh were known to us. Gradually we came to know more of these great men. Later still we came to know much more of their work.
What of the character of the war? This became the subject of great debate. There are just wars and unjust wars. Just wars are those that serve the liberation of the people; unjust wars, those that serve the oppression of the people. They must be distinguished. World War I was an unjust war. It was simply an imperialist war to determine which big Power was to be the bigger robber. World War II was a more complicated matter – it became a just anti-fascist war in defence of national independence. For the German, Italian and Japanese workers, it was an unjust war of fascism and aggression. At first we had characterised World War II as anti-fascist. Then when Dimitrov characterised it as imperialist, we characterised it as imperialist.
In the period of the “phoney” war (1939-May 1940), in a way the war was neither fish nor fowl. The Communists in order to combat the aggression of the fascist powers were undoubtedly correct in working to end governments like that of Chamberlain and the pro-appeasement government in Australia. The anti-fascist character of the war was gradually asserting itself, contrary to the efforts of people like Chamberlain and Menzies to come to terms with Hitler, militarist Japan and fascist Italy so that these countries would wage war on the Soviet Union. The sections of the ruling class represented by Churchill in England and the Labor Party in Australia gradually got on top so as to combat fascist expansion. Their motives were imperialist against rival imperialisms. But they had aims which resulted in actions common with those of the anti-fascist peoples namely, opposition to fascist expansion. After June 22, 1941 and the alliance of Britain and the Soviet Union, the anti-fascist character of the war was clear. The people of the world rallied to the antifascist cause. It was a just war. A people’s world wide front, composed of many sections with different motives, came into being to fight fascism. The single great uniting issue was struggle for victory over fascism. Dividing issues were for the time being left on one side.
There are rich lessons to be learned from those pre-World War II events and the events of World War II.