Very often I have been asked what turned me to Communism. In my childhood there was no Communist influence. I spent my childhood in the early ’twenties in the Victorian western district town of Hamilton. I began primary school there. Hamilton was the centre of a very large farming district. Not much of social significance then entered my mind. I recall visiting shearing sheds, talking to shearers in this large wool growing area. Many children came from farming families. I recall also the prejudice engendered amongst white children against black people of whom there were a few survivors in the area. And I recall the patriotic fervour for Great Britain, the common reference to it as “home”, the promotion of the “superiority” of British goods. In fact, there were very few things of Australian manufacture, a great predominance of British goods and a preponderance of agricultural production for the “mother” country. All this I see now as socially very significant.
As my schoolteacher father moved from town to town, so the family moved. Until 1930, relative social quiet was the order of the day though I remember a Victorian police strike in 1923, the British seamen’s strike of the ’twenties, the execution in 1927 of the American radicals Sacco and Vanzetti on a trumped up charge and the world wide protest against it. But I knew nothing of Communism. No one is born a Communist. In the case of people like me, there were specific social conditions of which we had both direct and indirect experience that turned us to Communism. All people are influenced by their social experience. Our experience arose from the very conditions of material life in Australia in the early 1930s.
In the late 1920s there occurred a peak of economic boom. The claim was made that Henry Ford with his famous mass produced Model T cars was greater than Karl Marx. This claim was based on the theory that Ford’s methods had abolished the alternative “boom and bust” hitherto characteristic of capitalism. Was Ford greater than Marx? Ford “foresaw” an ever increasing expansion of production whereas Marx had said that the social laws inherent in capitalism determined that there would be alternate periods of economic crisis and economic boom. Marx showed that this had been so in the past, he showed why it was so and why it would continue to be so.
In the world wide economic crisis that set in in earnest in 1930 Henry Ford was rapidly proved wrong and Marx was proved correct. The crisis engulfed Australia. There was very large-scale unemployment – one in four was unemployed and in places, one in three. Hitherto prosperous country towns throughout Australia became ghost towns. Everywhere people were desperately searching for work and many others had to think of getting a job or taking up further study. My parents felt they could not afford the cost of university education (fees were payable in those days). I sought many jobs only to find many others in the same quest.
Though personally I did not suffer very great economic difficulty, many of my friends and schoolmates did. Every day saw the spectacle of people starving or desperately resorting to “crime”. Still the ranks of the unemployed grew. Food was destroyed while people were starving. The food could not be sold at a profit.
Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity was compelled to say to himself: “What is it all about, how can it be that in the midst of plenty, people are starving, what sort of set-up is it that gives rise to such a situation?” Many people did ask these questions. A good number of them looked for solutions. The economic conditions compelled people to think about the nature of society.
In my case I do not remember how, but at first I was impressed by the ideas of Henry George who believed that a single tax (on land) could solve the problems of capitalism; then by Major Douglas’s theory that what was wrong was a lack of credit – create credit and all would be well. Neither of these “theories” was really satisfying. Then someone gave me Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto. It satisfied me that it made a thoroughgoing and correct analysis of society and offered the correct solution, namely scientific socialism through revolution. Marx and Engels traced the evolution of society and showed that as the successive epochs of slavery, feudalism, capitalism had each emerged as the result of victorious class struggle by the oppressed class, so too would socialism arise from capitalism. They showed that already under capitalism the process of production was largely socialised, the labour of millions was involved in a cooperative socialised process to produce commodities. But the commodities produced in this socialised process of production were individually owned by a handful of capitalists. When commodities could be sold for a profit, there was uncontrolled production. Soon there was a surplus; the surplus could not be sold for a profit. Production was reduced or stopped. Workers were sacked. Farmers were ruined. Capitalists lesser than the very big ones were ruined. All society was engulfed. For example, Henry Ford produced so many Model Ts that they could not be sold for profit. That was the nature of capitalism. All around us in Australia this process was going on. In contrast with capitalism in Australia (or anywhere else), the system of socialism involved extending socialised production into socialised ownership. Planned production for use resulted, economic crisis was ended. Marx and Engels made an all-round analysis of capitalism and the state machine which served it and they also explained how to change it.
Marx’s ideas were assailed on all sides. There was a hymn of hate against him and his socialist ideas. It was all said to be heretical. Efforts were made to stop people reading Marx. But I recalled from childhood my father rather chiding someone who decried Marx and Engels. He said that they were two great men whose writings should be studied and their ideas weighed up. Even though he did not ever embrace their ideas in their entirety, his free thinking and preparedness to consider Marx and Engels, despite the hue and cry against them, served me in good stead. I studied The Communist Manifesto.
Unable to get a job, I remained at school until some time in 1932. Then I got a job paid at next to nothing, as a clerk in a solicitor’s office. A few months later I got a different job as a clerk in the solicitor’s office of W. Slater, a Victorian Labor parliamentarian.
From him I learned a great deal about the nature of the Australian Labor Party, the nature of Labor Party parliamentarians and the nature of parliament itself. One need not reflect on him personally to say that he taught me to have not the slightest faith in parliament nor the slightest faith in most parliamentarians. These latter promise people the world, but not only never have the slightest intention of carrying out their promises unless these are matters of more or less trivial importance, but even if they intended to, couldn’t do anything outside extremely narrow limits.
These were years of developing my social ideas. My reading increasingly embraced Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. I mixed with people with similar ideas. Workers rebelled. Great demonstrations of unemployed occurred. Experience with the Labor politicians confirmed the accuracy of the analysis made by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin about parliament and about parties such as the Australian Labor Party. For the behaviour of these people arose not so much because they were bad in themselves (some were), but because of the nature of parliament and its parties. From personal experience I learned that parliament was indeed a “talking shop”, and universal suffrage the chance once every three years to choose which members of the ruling class would misrepresent the people in parliament. Parties like the Labor Party simply serve capitalism. In the name of the working class and working people, these parties are parties of capitalism. The other parties do not pretend to be much else.
In a lawyer’s office I began to experience the coercive character of the courts and the law and the repressive nature of the police.
This was the period after what is called the Premiers’ Plan. The Premiers’ Plan was a plan evolved under the supervision of the British banker Sir Otto Niemeyer. Its aim was to solve the difficulties of the economic crisis. It imposed an all-round 10 percent cut in wages. Actually it systematically imposed the burden of the economic crisis on the working people. It was supported and implemented by Labor governments. It led to splits in the Labor Party. There were those in the leadership of that Party who considered it was tactically unwise for the Labor Party to be mixed up in it because it would lead to too much discrediting of the Labor Party among the workers. In that way the Labor Party would be in danger of losing its political capital, namely its capacity for deception of the workers and working people. If this happened, it would be unable to function effectively as a party of capitalism. There were those in the Labor Party who genuinely opposed it; particularly were the rank and file opposed to it. But the Labor government as such and the Labor Party as an organisation supported it. In the end, mass opposition led to a revolt within the Labor Party. Numbers of Labor leaders were expelled from the Party for supporting the Premiers’ Plan. Those who remained behaved as all other parliamentarians; they searched for “solutions” to economic crisis entirely within the bounds of capitalism.
Quite a number of these gentlemen said to me: “Yes, when I was your age I had radical ideas, you will grow out of them just as I did. Look at me now, a great success”. This had an effect on me opposite to that which was intended for it helped to confirm my adherence to the principles of scientific socialism as I had learned them from the Communist Manifesto.
A particular acquaintance was Maurice Blackburn, a “left” Labor politician. Maurice Blackburn was the author of the Blackburn interpretation of the Labor Party’s socialist objective, which had been adopted in 1921 under the influence of the October Revolution for socialism in Russia. It served the twofold purpose of satisfying the genuine socialists in the Labor Party and so far as the decisive leaders were concerned, misleading the workers into the belief those leaders believed in socialism. The Blackburn interpretation “explained” socialism away. The Labor Party has continued to explain it away. But by retaining the word “socialism”, even though only giving lip service to it, the Labor Party to a degree misleads those who have genuine socialist sentiments.
Maurice Blackburn and I commonly travelled together to work by train from the Melbourne suburb of Essendon where we both lived. One piece of advice he did give me, and which I never forgot, was: “Always remember that the ruling class (the capitalists) never gives up the struggle to win back one of its sons who has deserted it.” Whether or not he regarded me as one of those sons I do not know. I had a petty bourgeois intellectual background, both my father and mother having been school teachers. Insofar as I was regarded as a son of the ruling class, I can vouch from much personal experience that the ruling class certainly never does give up the struggle to win back a deserting son. I regard the process as more extensive then simply winning back an erring son. The ruling class really wants to make everyone including the workers in its own ideological image. In this venture, everyone should accept the “great benefits of capitalism”; the “community” is capitalism. It does all this by the methods of the carrot and the stick. The carrot is bribery, flattery, good positions, crumbs from the rich man’s table, etc.; the stick is threats, gaol, fines, etc.
Once I asked Maurice Blackburn how a speech he had made the previous evening at a public meeting had gone. He said that he couldn’t say, because a man is not a good judge of his own speeches or writings although a lot think they are. He was largely correct. I mention this because so many parliamentary politicians present themselves as perfection itself.
In association with these Labor politicians I got to know a good deal of the intimate relations between them and the kings of industry. The Victorian Labor parliamentary leaders Tunnecliffe and Jack Cain, as was Slater, were on the best of terms with the great monopoly capitalists. (Also they were close to Jack Wren, notorious Australian millionaire racketeer and fixer.) The Labor leaders stood aside from all mass activity. When in government office, they broke up demonstrations, persecuted the unemployed and when in parliamentary opposition, made endless promises of what they would do when in office again. “Return a Labor government”, they said, “and all will be well”. All this served to confirm in my mind the accuracy of the analysis of the Marxists.
In 1933 while working as an articled clerk (really an apprentice to a qualified lawyer), I began to do the law subjects at the University of Melbourne, not so much by choice but because it seemed then the only way of keeping a job. I was never a full time university student. As a part time student I saw something of the university.
At that time there was great political ferment amongst students. The left attracted many. It was very strong. The right had a solid core of supporters. Most notable was B. A. Santamaria who was ideologically and politically committed to Mussolini’s corporate state, Hitler’s fascism and was sympathetic to Japanese imperialism. These were days of fascist expansion and calls by the then socialist Soviet Union and all progressive people to combat fascism and war. Hitler established a Berlin-Rome-Tokyo alliance under cover of which he menaced the peace of the world.
I came into contact with the Communist Party and Communists. As time went on, all serious people were even more earnestly searching for solutions to social problems.
There were various anti-fascist organisations and activities such as “The Movement Against War and Fascism” and Spanish Relief Committees (in support of the republicans in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939). A mighty “Boycott Japanese Goods” campaign developed against the threat of Japanese imperialist expansion. Progressive activities were directed to building up collective security of the peoples and nations against the fascist powers Germany, Italy, Japan in order to quarantine them. This collective security was to embrace the Soviet Union, Britain, France, the United States. However, the monopoly capitalists of the non-fascist countries were deeply divided on their attitude to Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. There were those who stood for appeasement, that is, give Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo what they wanted so that they could expand against the socialist Soviet Union and carry out their Anti-Comintern Pact. Such people often had investments in Germany, Italy or Japan or they served German, Italian and Japanese investments in their own countries. They saw Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo as great bulwarks against the working class. Other monopoly capitalists regarded Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo as imperialist competitors who had to be destroyed. The classic illustration of the process was Britain where Chamberlain represented the appeasers and Churchill the non-appeasers. In Australia, all this expressed itself. Menzies revealed the mind of the appeasing monopoly capitalists when he said: “I thought myself it was a great thing for Germany to have arms” (Sydney Daily Telegraph December 12, 1938) and again: “I have a great admiration for the Nazi organisation of Germany. There is a case for Germany against Czechoslovakia. We must not destroy Hitlerism, or talk about shooting Hitler!’
In keeping with the appeasement line of the monopoly capitalists and of the effort to put the burden of economic crisis on the working people, police violence was used to smash unemployed demonstrations, to try to smash “Boycott Japanese Goods” activities, to smash any anti-fascist activity. Book censorship against anything politically radical was rigidly enforced. There was a list of banned books. Anything that exposed capitalism in any sort of thoroughgoing way was on the banned list. Peace activities were harassed. Street and factory meetings, a very popular political activity, were fertile fields for police suppression. The open anti-Communist political provisions of the Commonwealth Crimes Act which had been inserted in 1926 were used to persecute any activities even remotely connected with “Communism”. These provisions which have been strengthened over the years made Communism a crime To those who administered the state, anything that challenged any aspect of the social system was “Communist”. “Communist” became in this “reasoning” synonymous with criminal and was treated accordingly.
In participating in unemployed activities, in anti-fascist and antiwar demonstrations (I recall well hot kerosene dripping on to us during a torchlight procession in Melbourne streets in the ’thirties in support of the Czech anti-fascist, anti-war activist Egon Kisch, whom the monopoly capitalists tried to keep out of Australia), I learned at first hand the power of the people, and on the other hand the fear, panic and weakness of the monopoly capitalists. I learned the brutal character of the police force People by the score were fined, gaoled, bashed.
In legal experience, all this was driven home because my employer had Labor affiliations, many working people turned to him in the expectation that he would strike a blow for them. In his own way, he tried to. But it all resulted in quite orthodox pleading in the courts or parliamentary representations.
Economic and social conditions led to still more people’s rebellion. The more repression was attempted, the more rebellion it provoked. The wharfies struggled against the export of scrap iron to Japan. Penalties and a licensing system were imposed on them under the Transport Workers’ Act (the “dog-collar” Act). Still they struggled. Wide sections of the people supported them. Similarly the “Boycott Japanese Goods” movement assumed mass proportions despite all persecution.
The invasion of Abyssinia by fascist Italy in 1935 had caused a new upsurge of anti-fascist activity.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 we recognised as another step in fascist aggression and a new step in resistance to fascist suppression. A radical (by no means socialist or communist) government had been elected in Spain. General Franco led a revolt against it. For three years the heroic Spanish people fought a bloody war against Franco. The war crystallised the world forces. The fascists (fascism is the open terrorist use of force against the people by the monopoly capitalists) were arrayed against the people of the world.