Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Eleven: The trade unions and the Labor Party

Various references have been made to the trade unions and the Labor Party and the relationship of Communism in Australia to them. It has been pointed out that, over the years, a significant number of publicly identified Communists have been elected to leading trade union positions. Reference has been made to the early friendly relations between Communists, Labor Party and trade union officials. Because of the importance of these matters, a separate (even if repetitious) chapter is devoted to this matter.

The appraisal made of the competing views of the denounced 1929 “right wing”, “exceptionalist”, Australian Communist Party leadership on the one hand and those of the Comintern-Soviet Party on the other, bears on Communism in its dealing with the Labor Party and the trade unions.

The facts in Australia show that trade unions exercise tremendous influence in the working class as does the Labor Party. Arbitrarily rapid and subjective attempted imposition of Communist Party leadership on the working class as demanded by the Comintern is impossible of achievement. Communist leadership must be won. In the effort to win it, the facts within the working class and in the community at large must be taken into full account. Facts will always override intentions; intentions are effective only to the extent to which they correctly take the facts into account. In Australia, the facts include the substantial influence of the Labor Party in the working class and among the Australian people generally.

There has been a variety of misunderstandings within Australian Communist ranks on these questions. Many of these misunderstandings have persisted and have been contributed to after the crisis of the 1960s in Communist ranks. Some have already been referred to.

One error of the past was to regard the trade unions as being virtually the only field of struggle for socialism. The struggle for socialism covers a field far wider than the trade unions. It covers all working and patriotic people’s political (used in a broad sense) activity. On the other extreme is the view that the trade unions were of no importance or could or should be “smashed”.

There is confusion between what is called trade union politics (trade unionism) and trade unions as organisations. Trade union politics involve a conception of working class politics that confines the workers politically to the struggle by the trade unions for economic demands. The conception is that this is the exclusive and only field of struggle. Here the emphasis is on “confines the struggle to economic demands”. This is a whole ideology. Given that ideology, the workers can never rise above capitalism; they are confined within capitalism. It is an ideology of capitalism.

The trade unions emerged to defend the economic interests of the workers. They were an immense historical step forward from the individual struggles of workers. They brought great strength to the workers. They arose from a consciousness of the power of association. Their formation was bitterly resisted by the employers. Previous reference has been made to instances of this in Australian history. At a certain stage, the capitalists recognised that the formation of trade unions could no longer be successfully resisted. This can be seen in the evolution of legislation in England and Australia gradually recognising and regulating trade unions. Thus in Australia, a very elaborate system of registration and legislative control of trade unions has evolved. There is constant struggle by the trade unions against encroachment by the capitalists. Within the trade unions broadly speaking, is a struggle between those who submit to subordination to capitalism and those who resist it. That struggle expresses itself in various ways. In themselves neither of these competing trends rises above trade union politics. But they certainly exercise an influence on the development of struggle and of ultimate scientific socialist theory.

It is quite correct for the trade unions and the workers to fight to defend and improve the living conditions and other rights of the workers. That is the basic purpose of the trade unions. All Communists and Communist leaders of trade unions, participate in that fight. The Communists within their own ranks do not see that as the whole struggle for scientific socialism nor as an end in itself. They see the very fight arising from the conditions of capitalism and its final resolution as the abolition of capitalism. They do not see the economic struggle as an end in itself. Appropriately (not by arbitrary preaching) they seek to win the workers to the Communist cause. They believe the workers will come to realise that struggle around economic demands while vitally important, is not an end in itself. Australian Communists recognise that there cannot be artificially imposed on the trade unions or the workers the aim of socialism or Communism. Changes in society must go on before that aim becomes real. Phases in understanding must be gone through. Neither Communism or socialism nor for that matter anything else can be imposed or decreed on the workers or trade unions. This goes for the question of strikes. Strikes usually occur around economic demands. The strike is very important. But no strike can be imposed on workers against their will; the conditions for it must arise and the workers must desire to take the serious step of striking.

To confine the workers to the struggle for economic demands is sometimes spoken of as economism. Again, economism is an ideology of capitalism. It accepts the permanence of capitalism but demands improved conditions for the workers under capitalism. It is an ideology inconsistent with Communist ideology which has as its ultimate aim the ending of capitalism. Communist ideology sees the struggle for economic demands as embraced within the overall struggle for socialism. There is a vast difference between “economism” as an ideology and the struggle of the workers for economic improvement within capitalism. As was pointed out a moment ago, the Communists support and actively participate in the economic struggles of the workers. Just as with the ideology of trade unionism, related to economism as it is, the Communists recognise its limitations as an ideology. It cannot be abolished by some wave of a wand. Its abolition is a long term struggle between the two different ideologies.

Another misconception arose from a famous statement by Lenin that no politics in the trade unions meant bourgeois politics in the trade unions. This statement is correct because the all-pervading ideology under capitalism is bourgeois ideology. If there is no other ideology then naturally that bourgeois ideology prevails whether in the trade unions or elsewhere. But Lenin’s statement was interpreted to mean immediate acceptance within the trade unions of the whole of Communism. Lenin’s statement does not mean that Communist participation in the struggle for better living conditions is conditional on acceptance by the workers of the whole case for Communism. The task of the Communist is assuredly to struggle to win the workers to a Communist position. That is a process which requires appropriate, careful and painstaking work and includes participation in the struggle for better economic conditions.

Trade union politics and economism and the idea that trade unions were the vehicles for scientific socialist change, assumed a strong hold on some Communists and Communist leaders. Some methods of combating this led to a failure to see the great importance of the trade unions as the most important mass organisations of the workers. Ideas that the trade unions were revolutionary vehicles led at times to attempted manipulation of trade unions by the Communist Party. This applied particularly to trade unions in which Communist leaders had emerged. Thus the ideology of trade unionism pressed the Communist Party to the political right, while the incorrect countering of this pressed the Communist Party to the political left. The unsolved problem was the correct way to handle the matter as part of the whole of the social struggle. Underlying the problem was inadequacy in understanding Australia itself.

Emergence of Communist leadership in the trade unions in the ’thirties and ’forties and its persistence are of far-reaching importance in the Australian working class movement. It has an important positive side. It has also contained errors. A correct estimation of its significance is equally of far-reaching importance.

The election of avowed Communists to leading positions in the trade unions could easily give rise to misunderstandings. One such misunderstanding was that the workers within the trade unions where this had happened had turned to Communism as an overall ideology. This was simply not so except amongst the advanced workers who were comparatively few in numbers. It was correct for Communists within the unions and within the leadership, to work amongst the trade unionists to win them for Communism but it was incorrect to try to impose on the unions far-reaching Communist views and demands which exceeded the workers’ own development or even interests. It was even less correct to try to manipulate the trade unions for what were understood to be Communist purposes. The incorrectness of the left line which prevailed after 1929 exercised an adverse influence here because it was based on wrong ideas of rapid capitalist “collapse” and rapid revolutionary change within the working class. It was influenced by incorrect ideas of “no politics in the trade unions means bourgeois politics in the trade unions”. It involved failure to examine closely the factors involved in the winning by Communists of leading positions in the trade unions. Amongst those factors were the inept and sometimes corrupt leadership of the old-line trade union leaders, the devoted participation of Communists in struggle for improved economic conditions for the workers, Communist demonstration of capacity to lead the trade unions, the degree of radicalisation of the working class, influences from the socialist Soviet Union, the underlying sensing by the workers of the superiority of socialism, their experience of the exploitation and oppression of capitalism. Thus there were many factors. The main factor was not adherence of Australian workers as a whole or in majority to Communism as a complete ideology nor was it acceptance of ideas of rapid collapse of capitalism.

Undoubtedly the upsurge of Communist leadership in the unions in the ’thirties and during World War II (and after) did contribute to the consciousness of the workers about Communism. On the other hand, because of Communist misunderstandings and errors, it also not only created confusion but contributed to factional struggle, division, attempted counter-manipulation. The emergence of the Movement (sponsored by the extreme right of the Roman Catholic Church) can be traced to misconceptions about the rise of Communism in the Australian working class and trade unions. The founders of the Movement, which initiated the Industrial Groups, saw Communist leadership of the unions as decisive for Australian Communism. Backed by almost every reactionary force, they organised to overthrow the Communist trade union leaders. They achieved certain success. Likewise within the Labor Party they saw the left wing as equivalent to Communism. Again they had initial success. As with similar bodies with a semi-fascist outlook, they extended their attack to embrace almost all progressives. They tried to manipulate the unions and the Labor Party for very reactionary ends. It resulted in the isolation of the Movement and Industrial Groups.

There is a difference too between militant trade unionism and Communism. Militant trade unionism involves the vigorous prosecution of struggle for the winning of economic concessions for the workers. Communists are in favour of it and have been closely identified with it. But militant trade unionism is not Communism. Communism is an ideology that is far wider than this. Its politics do embrace militant trade union struggle but embrace all other social events.

All experience requires summing up. The Communist Party should not interfere in the internal affairs of the trade unions. The trade unions belong to the trade unionists. Manipulation by any outside body is wrong.[1] Communists do certainly work within the trade unions and among the trade unionists. Moreover Australia has one of the highest proportions of trade unionists in the capitalist world.

One very important feature of the passage of the Australian workers to an adherence to scientific socialism is through their experience in the trade unions. The errors referred to above have been failures to see this in the correct way. The correct way is a many-sided process. Understanding of the correct way is itself a process. It involves understanding above all the strong mass hold the trade unions have on the working class. It involves a correct estimate of the political understanding of the workers from advanced through middle to backward. It involves the Communists certainly working correctly at all levels of the workers. It recognises the need, where appropriate, for Communists being in the leadership of trade unions. It involves all Communists in the trade unions or elsewhere, having the highest possible degree of Communist understanding so that they can correctly work in the trade unions (and everywhere else).

Bound up with the question of the trade unions is the Labor Party. The trade union role in the genesis of the ALP has already been commented on. The ALP has always commanded strong electoral adherence among the working class. Even in times of acute electoral difficulties for the Labor Party huge numbers of workers have voted for it. It is a fact of Australian politics that this occurs. The fact simply cannot be ignored.

Within the Labor Party there has been constant conflict. In the broad sense, conflict has occurred between left and right. This expresses trends similar to those in the trade unions. In the anti-conscription struggles of the World War I period, the right split away from the Labor Party. In the depression period of the ’thirties, the right again split away. In the postwar ALP struggle of the ’fifties, which involved the fight against the Industrial Groups, again the right split away; the split of the Industrial Groups marked repudiation by the ALP of Cold War politics. These were the high points in the never-ceasing conflict and struggle within the Labor Party.

When there was unity between the Labor Party, or decisive sections of it, and the Communist Party, the working class and other sections of the people showed their immense power. In the anti-conscription struggles of 1916-1917, the embryonic socialist (Communist) groups joined with the decisive sections of the Labor Party. A great victory was won. In the early ’twenties, harmonious relations between the Labor Party and Communist Party enhanced the strength of the workers. These relations occurred when socialism was ill-defined. It was when the Communists attempted arbitrarily to impose their doctrinaire understanding of socialism (and then ahead of its time) that division occurred. Had unity been sought on a more limited objective such as independence, the tale may well have been different. Nor is this to exculpate Labor leaders from responsibility for their contribution to splitting the working class movement. However, the present study is of the Communist Party. In World War II, despite Labor proscriptions on Communists, united action between the Labor Party and Communist Party inspired Australian people to very great heights. A further example was that of the campaign against the Communist Party Dissolution Act and the resounding democratic victory in the anti-Communist referendum of 1951 (September 22). In the latter part of the US aggression in Vietnam there was unity between the Labor Party or decisive sections of it and Communists. Great heights were reached in this. These examples prove that given the correct common issue and correct approach, the working class and wide sections of the people, can be united. Formal and informal relations, tangible and intangible relations are involved. But given attempted doctrinaire imposition by Communists of very advanced positions, divisions arise. A present-day issue which precedes the achieving of socialism is that of Australia’s sovereignty and independence. It is not only Communists who subscribe to sovereignty and independence. It should be a common denominator for wide unity.

The ALP right wing is opposed to Communism. Its maintenance of bans on Communists is indeed divisive. It serves capitalism. The essential nature of the Labor Party as an organisation is that of a party of capitalism. But its mass adherence is in the working class. This is inherently productive of crisis and conflict within it. In periods of crisis for capitalism, the Labor Party has historically come to office in Australia. Thus soon after World War I began, a Labor government took office only to split subsequently on the anti-conscription issue; in the economic crisis of the ’thirties, the Labor Party was brought to office only to split over the anti-people measures it carried out as a government; in the crisis of World War II, the Labor Party was brought to office only to be defeated in 1949 over anti-working class measures followed by a major split in 1955. Other factors operated in the splitting that occurred. The capitalist class used the Labor Party in each critical period because the Labor Party did command the political allegiance of the majority of workers. When it had served the purpose in the ’thirties of introducing anti-working class measures and pavign the way for more anti-working class measures, the capitalists had no further use for it. The two wars showed a process similar to this. The 1972 accession of the Labor Party to government office followed the crisis of the Vietnam War, great changes in the international situation and a then gathering of economic difficulties. In 1975 the Labor government was dismissed by Governor-General Kerr by using the colonial reserve powers of the Crown at the instigation of the US – an affront to Australia’s sovereignty and independence.

Because of its service to capitalism, but historical profound influence in the working class, the Labor Party has a built-in tendency to vacillate on important questions. The left tends to express the real position of the workers who seek radical reforms and socialism (even though ideas of socialism may be confused) while the right more explicitly and directly serves capitalism. Vacillation and capitalist measures alienate a section of workers while the left alienates the capitalist class. The capitalist class fears the left and fears the forces, that the left within the Labor Party may unleash. Even though it makes use of the Labor Party, it nonetheless is uneasy about it. Aspects of this enter into the hostility visited on all Labor Party leaders except in the most intense periods of crisis and the particular hostility visited on Dr. Evatt, suspected at times of being the most left of all Labor leaders. This also explains the preference of the capitalists for the more open and “reliable” parties of capitalism, namely the Liberal-National Party (to treat it as one).

Another factor of importance is what has been referred to as the greater national outlook of the Labor Party. As a Party it is freer of sectional influences than the Liberal-National Party. It is not nearly as much committed to foreign penetration as the Liberal-National Party. It has always been more far-sighted than the Liberal-National Party in international affairs and in the development of Australia as one nation. The price of Curtin’s turning to the US in World War II proved to be high but the point that it involved a degree of Australian outlook needs to be made again. The dismissal of Whitlam by the US-backed Governor-General Kerr, undoubtedly contained as one factor US objection to the Whitlam government’s independent national Australian stand, weak though it may have been. It goes too as another factor in the vilification heaped on Dr. Evatt who in the international sphere laid the foundation for what independence there is in Australia’s foreign relations. Labor leaders Curtin, Calwell, Evatt and Whitlam as a matter of objective fact did on critical issues represent Australia as a whole and did contribute to unity of the left.

In the view of Communists, the Labor Party will not adversely affect the fundamentals of capitalism in Australia. It has historically served capitalism and the strengthening of capitalism. Insofar as the Labor Party has introduced reforms, built up government enterprises, resisted foreign encroachments, developed Australia as a nation, created a more liberal democratic atmosphere, it has served Australia’s development. Its weaknesses and vacillation flow from its capitalist nature, the weakness of the national bourgeoisie whom it also strives to serve and its instability because of capitalist and working class conflicting interests within it.

Its politics on Australia as one nation coincide with those of the Communists even though the Labor Party falls very far short of an overall Communist position. Even on limited aspects where there is a certain coincidence of aims, there are also great differences. Overall the Labor Party as an organisation is avowedly anti-Communist. But its membership and sections of its leadership are not. There is no doubt that on many social issues, Labor Party members and Communists struggle side by side amongst the people Insofar as the Labor Party stands for socialism, it is not socialism as that word is understood by Communists. For example, nationalised industries such as the railways, post office, electricity authorities, etc are not socialist. Sometimes they are claimed by Labor Party spokesmen to be socialist. They are simply enterprises run by the state for capitalism as a whole. They exist in most cases where the capital investment required is so great that they cannot be handled profitably by private capitalists and yet are necessary for capitalism as a whole. Communists see such undertakings as preferable to privately-run monopolies but do not see them as socialist.

The Labor Party sees its operations as pre-eminently in parliament. It is a parliamentary party. Its whole organisation and objective are to win parliamentary office in order to introduce the reforms for which it stands. It has introduced reforms. In times of crisis it has administered capitalism ruthlessly against the workers. Thus both in its limited reforms and action against the workers it demonstrates its capitalist character.

Most of the adherents of the Labor Party, and they comprise the majority of the working class, retain the belief that the Labor Party will legislate for reforms and even in some cases for “socialism”. Despite much experience to the contrary, and despite considerable cynicism about it all, working class loyalty to the Labor Party persists. Communists respect the confidence that the workers have in the Labor Party and have the view that the Labor Party must be tested in practice. When the Labor Party is in government office, its right wing tends to expose itself as capitalist and incurs the anger of the workers. The conduct of the right wing causes an accession of strength and influence of the left wing among the working class. Thus among significant numbers of workers the idea develops that the solution of the problem is to develop the left wing and combat the right wing. Again Communists recognise this fact and respect the views of the workers. Hence the emergence at various times in the history of the Labor Party of socialist groups, of socialist educational groups, of the Socialist Left and other expressions of left sentiments. This is a continuing process. Parliament in the Communist view is part of the deception of democracy. It has an importance and should be used by the working class. It can be used positively. Communists hold that it is highly improbable there will be legislation for socialism. Still parliamentary struggle is part of overall struggle. It involves Communist respect for the belief in parliament held by Labor Party members.

Historically the Communist Party’s attitude on these matters has been confused. Ideas of “pure” Communism with a direct challenge to the Labor Party for supremacy in the working class as against the idea of Communists working with the Labor Party and within the trade unions existed at the very genesis of the Communist Party. For a time, a section of the Communist Party argued for friendly relations with the Labor Party. They were correct even though they may not have fully understood the matter. Misconceptions that the lessons of the October Revolution were directly applicable to Australia plus an over-estimation of revolutionary development in the working class plus failure to analyse the stage to which capitalism in Australia had developed or Australia as a nation had developed, fed the tendency to pit the Communist Party against capitalism and thereby against the Labor Party. In 1929, the Comintern demand for direct socialism, its demand for direct challenge to the Labor Party and denunciation by Stalin of social democracy and particularly its “left wing” as the main social buttress of capitalism, stepped over phases of the development through which Australia would have to go as the basis for ultimate socialist revolution. Likewise this stepped above the level of understanding of the working class. The Comintern line compounded the error of the separation underlying the “pure” trade unions envisaged in the Red International of Labour Unions with its legacy of Militant Minority Movement and to a degree, the Pan Pacific Secretariat. Whereas the nationalism in the Labor Party and particularly in its left wing, provided a natural coincidence of interests with the Communist Party, an atmosphere of deep suspicion had been developed on each side. The Communist Party tended to demand of the Labor Party, Labor Party adherence to all of Communism. In turn the Labor Party right wing rejected the Communist Party and its left wing found difficulty in understanding the need for a Communist Party. In the ’thirties, the Communist Party sought affiliation with the Labor Party in order to strengthen the struggle against fascism and war. The Comintern’s position in calling for united struggle against fascism and war was correct. The unity formally sought by the Communist Party is sometimes spoken of as “unity on top” as contrasted with “unity from below”. This is rather artificial. The essential question was struggle for unity in action at all levels. Given correct Communist work, then the objective coincidence of aims to develop Australia as a nation and defend and strive for more independence, provided a natural basis for united action on the issues of combating war and fascism. War and fascism threatened Australia’s independence and sovereignty. This in itself was a good basis for resistance to threats from the fascist powers. It was all confused by Communist failure to understand the essential long-term nature of the perspectives for Communism in Australia and never really freeing itself from the very left position (far ahead of the development of capitalism in Australia) confirmed in 1929. At the same time, splitting activities by Labor leaders were a fundamental factor in dividing and confusing the people.

Because the question was not fully understood, it also led to right tendencies among some Communists – to submerge everything under the ALP. Objective coincidence of certain aims is one thing. It is very important. But how to bring about the development, gradual though it may have been, of the working class towards ultimate socialism is another thing. So long as there was confusion on central ideological political questions, real progress was hindered.

It is necessary to re-emphasise that the Labor Party must be seen not as a monolithic whole. There is a great division between the leaders and the rank and file, division among the leaders and division among the rank and file. The main differentiation is between the right wing leaders and the rank and file – the former going with capitalism and the latter towards socialism in some cases more rapidly than others. Indeed this process has accelerated. The right wing Labor leaders tend to isolate themselves from the rank and file as capitalist crisis more and more brings those right wing leaders to closer identity with the open parties of reaction. But from 1929 the Communist Party programmatically was bound to regard as vital the struggle against the left wing of the ALP as being the social buttress of capitalism and as a greater enemy than the right wing.[2] This is scarcely reconcilable with the fact that both the Labor Party as a whole and its left wing commanded the majority support of the Australian working class. That support could not be commanded away by anyone. The way to socialist conviction in the working class lay in recognition of this influence and taking it into full account and not in denunciation of it. The process of enlightenment was certain to be comparatively slow. Moreover the Labor Party as previously indicated was not a social-democratic party of the character of which the Comintern-Stalin was speaking: it was a bourgeois-liberal party having the objective of developing Australia as a nation and in fact did a good deal in the struggle to realise that objective Onto this party there were grafted certain social-democratic features. Its left wing represented the grasping of the working class after socialism as indeed was the Communist Party.

It can be concluded that lack of clarity about Australia and its development, about the course of socialism in Australia, led to insufficient correct attention being given to the fact of adherence of the workers to the Labor Party, trade unions and parliament and taking that fact into full account in the development of Communist Party programme, strategy and tactics. Correct Communist attention to this matter is a vital component of the critically important job of developing the progressive forces, winning over the middle forces and isolating the most reactionary.

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(The attention of readers is drawn to the article “Labor in Office? – a Matter of Working Class Tactics” which is published at pages 179-192 of the present volume. Written in 1987, this article reflects further developments in the author’s analysis of the Labor Party – Ed.)


[1] This same principle of Party non-interference holds good for all mass organisations in which Communists individually work. Of course, these Communists as Communists accept the conscious discipline of the Party and supervision by leading Party bodies. They accept Party guidance as to resolution of contradictions that may arise among them in their work, whether in mass organisations or elsewhere.

[2] See Stalin: “The Right Deviation in the CPSU”, Collected Works, Vol.12 p.18.