Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Five: The Depression, fascism and war

In the years immediately after 1929 in Australia, mass unemployment and bankruptcies gripped the nation. The seeming stability of the capitalist social system turned into the instability of which Stalin had spoken.

Radical social ideas now had a fertile field. Ideas of Communism spread rapidly. The economic analysis made by Marx came to be seen by many to be correct. It explained that the history of capitalism had been a history of boom and burst, with bursts roughly at ten year intervals. This was due to the mechanism of capitalist exploitation. The capitalists owned the factories, the mines, the big farms and they employed workers. The worker was paid the value of his labour power, that is, the cost of the things necessary to keep himself and his family “in frugal comfort”, as the Australian liberal-bourgeois Judge Higgins had put it. In return for that wage, the capitalist required the worker to work beyond the period needed to recoup the wage worker’s cost of production. Marx pointed out that the value of labour power and the value produced by that labour power in the labour process, were two entirely different magnitudes. The excess beyond the cost of the worker’s needs, was surplus value (the only source of profit). The surplus value belonged to the capitalist who owned the factory and had bought the labour power. The more wages were forced down to the barest minimum to keep the worker and his family alive, the more profit the capitalist made. That profit could only be made by sale of the commodities that the worker’s labour made By driving wages down, capitalism restricted part of the very market upon which the system depended to realise profit. In the upturn of capitalism, in the expansionist phase, profit could be made easily. However, capital rushed in where the highest profit was being made, an excess of commodities was soon produced, the capitalist was compelled to cut down production, factories slowed down, wages were cut, workers were dismissed, unemployment grew. In its turn, this affected all the intermediate sections of the population – smaller producers, shopkeepers, professional people. A deep depression developed. Stagnation prevailed until gradually commodities were disposed of. On a world scale this happened. It happened in Australia in its own economic right and also by virtue of its being enmeshed in financial dependence by England and the USA and therefore in their crises. Wheat and wool were overproduced. Their prices fell and they could not be disposed of. Hunger and poverty stalked the land.

All sorts of “experts” analysed the position. They talked of “economic blizzard”, even “act of God”. Various “remedies” were advanced. None worked. But amongst the unemployed and those left in work but with intensified exploitation, the Marxist explanation attained considerable popularity as did the solution of socialism. Socialism, the Marxists explained, was the natural way out of the crisis. The crisis arose because of the sharpening of the irreconcilable conflict of interest between the worker and capitalist. How to overcome this, was the question. The socialists now pointed more graphically to the analysis previously outlined that the process of production in the big factories was already largely socialised. The work of each worker was dependent upon the next worker. There was inter-dependence of workers throughout the whole process of production and profit depended upon the workers being paid a subsistence wage while the new value they created in the process of production was appropriated by the private capitalists, the owners of the means of production. The solution was to extend the socialised labour process into socialised ownership. The capitalists and their system were outmoded and in modern conditions were a restriction upon the productive process. This latter was not difficult to see because many of the overproduced commodities were simply destroyed, patents for more up-to-date production were suppressed and so on. However, there remained the critical question in Australian conditions of how to reach this ultimate socialist goal. Nonetheless this simplified notion of the socialist solution attained a popularity in Australia that it had never previously had. Economic conditions compelled the study at least of general principles.

The then socialist Soviet Union had greatly developed after the interventionary wars. It had embarked on its 5-year plans. Over the years of economic crisis when production fell catastrophically in the capitalist world, the plain fact was that production in the socialist Soviet Union rose dramatically. This pointed up the sharp contrast with capitalism.

The Australian parliamentary political parties were unable to offer any explanation or solution of economic crisis. Indeed their very nature precluded that. They were themselves products of capitalism and served it. It was the nature of that very system which was responsible for the chaos. Their first line of attack was to impose the burden of it all on the working people The Labor Party leaders and the then National Party (predecessor of the present Liberal Party) differed little on this fundamental question. The little difference that there was, showed that the Labor Party advocated a measure of state ownership and more liberal social services. The Labor Party continued to attract certain national sentiments. But on the critical social questions, its main right wing leaders obeyed the dictates of people like Sir Otto Niemeyer. Sections of its leaders favoured recourse to inflation of the currency as a solution to economic crisis. As a Party it offered no radical solution. Nonetheless a left wing section of the Labor Party existed. Its members were far closer to the workers. The very process of Labor government suppressing the workers led to far-reaching splits in the Labor Party with expulsion of right wing leaders. This was in line with the split in the Labor Party in World War I when Hughes and the NSW Labor Party leader Holman, supported conscription. Each split “saved” the Labor Party from isolation from the workers; at the same time, it assisted in the enlightenment of the workers.

The National Party was quite unable to offer any solution. Demonstrations were suppressed, free speech interfered with, censorship of books which were in any way thought to be radical imposed. Under National governments, further repressive legislation was enacted including a far-reaching extension in 1932 of the political provisions of the Crimes Act. Under these provisions, proceedings to declare the Communist Party and the Friends of the Soviet Union unlawful were taken. They foundered on the rock of people’s opposition. In addition to the administration of existing laws in a way discriminatory against all social rebels, far-reaching anti-trade union laws were passed. Street speakers of the time, a characteristic activity of the Communists, were persecuted for causing an “obstruction”. Many other laws were pressed into service along similar lines. “Injustice within the law” rose to new heights in the ’thirties. The real crime was protest against starvation, unemployment and bankruptcy; the nominal “crimes” were obstruction, offensive behaviour, hindering police in the execution of their duty, using insulting words, etc.

As depression deepened, so did repression. As repression deepened, so did rebellion against it. A prosecution under the Crimes Act’s political provisions in 1932 also foundered on the rock of public opposition. The Immigration Act, with a dictation test, the aim of which was to maintain White Australia, was invoked in an attempt to exclude from Australia a visiting anti-fascist peace activist, Egon Kisch. Again, mass protest influenced the High Court in rejecting the particular test given to Kisch in the Gaelic language, the fear of the authorities being that Kisch was so multilingual that he would pass almost any dictation test. As a result too, of a big 1928 strike of wharf labourers plus the depression, a licensing system was imposed on wharf labourers. They were required to be licensed (and thereby acceptable to the authorities) before they could get work. Then they were selected by a “bull” system which ensured that the fittest and strongest got the jobs in preference to the less endowed.

With the depression and as a product of it, went the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. In Japan a strident military expansionism arose. Fascism was described as the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, monopoly capitalists. Its characteristic was ruthless suppression of all from Communists to Jewish people, from churches which breathed a word of discontent to liberal intellectuals, from trade unionists to social democrats. The logic of capitalism, said the Communists, was to develop and refine the state apparatus (permanent public service, army, police, courts, gaols) in its repressive functions. In essence, every state is a machine for the suppression of one class by another. Fascism was a vivid ruthless example of this principle Sections of the Australian capitalists sympathised with Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists. Their leader, Menzies, for example, said: “I thought myself it was a great thing for Germany to have arms” (Sydney Daily Telegraph, December 12, 1938) and: “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!’ (Quoted in Hansard, April 22, 1940.)

In Australia, already noted to be increasingly developing from a predominantly agricultural economy to a much larger industrial economy and increasing urbanisation, afflicted with depression, the problems were acute.

The Communist Party identified the cause of the economic crisis. It paid great attention both to the unemployed people and to the employed. It brought forward explanation of the social economic laws that govern capitalism and it propagated the ideas of socialism. It attained considerable influence. Its numbers grew greatly. Its members were active in the trade unions, amongst the unemployed, in the countryside, amongst students and academics. It conducted widespread meetings in halls, on street corners, in vacant allotments, in houses. Its newspapers, journals and pamphlets attained significant circulation. Its members earnestly studied the theories of Marxist political economy. They conducted themselves in the courts in such a way as to reveal their “crime” as being a “crime” of protest against the injustices of the social system. Many dramatic exposures of the nature of this “justice” resulted. The Party warned of the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese militarism and of the danger of war which emanated from them. It fought against repressive legislation and persecution of the unemployed. It fought against the eviction of tenants from their premises for non-payment of rent, their meagre wages or dole being quite insufficient to cover such expenses. It mobilised workers and those out of work in action for better conditions. It exposed and fought book censorship and other inroads on democratic liberty.

It condemned the Labor Party leaders for failing, in its view, to fight for the interests of the working people and indeed for subscribing to Niemeyer’s prescriptions and the Premiers’ Plan (1931) for imposing new hardships on the people In conditions of economic and political crisis, radical democratic traditions in Australia within the Labor Party had been seriously mauled in the hands of the Labor leaders. Many Labor supporters turned to the left, some to the Communist Party.

The Communist Party maintained and strengthened its adherence to the Communist International and to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These latter were now even more artificially and mechanically superimposed on Australian conditions and on the Communists themselves. Given correct presentation in Australia, each had definite positive features, but the negative feature was that it diverted the Australian Communists from deepgoing analysis of Australia and its problems. That was still required. It resulted in sloganising and repetition of the generalities of socialism and the achievements of the Soviet Union. The words of Marxist classics, Soviet statements and writings tended to enslave, to circumscribe Communist activity. Australian Communists developed a sort of stereotyped thought. Communists appeared to continue to attempt to impose these words and statements and writings on the people. They made it a virtual condition of Communist participation in people’s activity that those people accept this. This made it easier for the campaign against foreign agitators and “foreign doctrine” to gain greater foothold. It contributed to difficulties between the Communist Party and the growing left in the Labor Party. In this respect the Australian Party carried out the incorrect line (at least in Australia) of the Comintern to attack the Labor Party and its “left wing”.

In this significant period of mass growth of Communist influence, there was still insufficient study of the perspectives for Australia or the character of the Labor Party and correct friendly relations with Labor Party members. While the Communist Party’s mass influence grew greatly it was not accepted as the mass radical alternative. Within the Party, the old easy assumption of collapse of capitalism and victory of socialism had great influence and drew strength from the Comintern intervention. These assumptions were strengthened by the mess in which the capitalists found themselves. So the conception that socialism in Australia was just round the corner was a prevalent Communist belief. The difficulty was that no one paused sufficiently to ask which corner, nor sought the correct way to the corner. The job of thoroughly “Australianising” Communism remained little understood. Holding of Party branch meetings based on parliamentary electorates, collection of finance for the Party, circulation of the Communist newspapers and other publications, recruiting new members, great emphasis on trade unionism, supporting the Soviet Union, became a way of rather self-satisfied Communist life.

An enormous amount of exceedingly good work was done by the Party in the day-to-day problems of the people. Because of weakness in grip of general principles and specific Australian conditions, a certain romantic adventurism continued. “Hot-house” methods, as it were, of converting people to socialism, and the assumption that people would be convinced by a few quotations (sometimes quite inappropriate), a few meetings or even a lot of meetings, a few newspapers and other publications or even a lot of them, money to finance it all, predominated. In truth, people learn mainly from their own experience. The hardships imposed by economic crisis were causing Australians to seek alternatives to what experience showed them was the failure of the conventional parliamentary political parties and the failure of the conventional trade unions to offer solutions. Involved in this was insufficient appreciation of the left tendencies in the Labor Party and trade unions. The workers retained faith in the Labor Party but sought a more radical Labor Party.

Within the trade unions, the ideas from which the Red International of Labour Unions sprang, led to the building up of comparatively narrow groups of militants inspired by the Communists. They waged unremitting struggle against the often corrupt and inept trade union leaders. This was the work of the Communist-inspired Militant Minority Movement. Their conception was to “capture” in the name of militants and avowed Communists, the leadership of the trade unions and administer those unions in a “Communist” way. Thus trade unionism, an ideology of acceptance of capitalism, was given a “Communist” twist. (The term “trade unionism” is used here to describe ideology and not the organisation of trade unions.) The trade unions were seen by the Communists as the vehicles by which Communist ideas of revolution and socialism would be achieved. Thus there was imposed on the trade unions a conception of immediate socialism. This also was an impossible marriage destined to result in divorce or compromise and confusion. A particular Communist leader of the time took the view that if all the major trade union official positions were held by avowed Communists, then by this fact alone, the problems of socialist revolution in Australia would be virtually solved. This reflected anarcho-syndicalist influences from the IWW – the conception that the trade unions should run society in the interests of the workers. The general Communist approach to the trade unions established at this time developed a trend which existed in the 1920 Party foundation. It was a misunderstanding of both Communism and the trade unions and an attempt to impose Communism from without on the trade unions. It was based on wrong ideas of the evolution and nature of trade unions in Australia (and wrong ideas of Communism). The trade unions in Australia evolved as organisations of workers primarily concerned with winning better working conditions. They operated within the framework of capitalism, were registered within the system of registration under Australian arbitration legislation and were closely associated with the Labor Party, the chief concern of which was to win parliamentary office. The great majority of trade unions were affiliated to the Labor Party and personnel of Labor Party and trade union leadership were largely interchangeable. The trade union and Labor Party background in the origin of the Communist Party led to further development within the Communist Party of what were essentially left wing Labor concepts relating to trade unions and the Labor Party. The emergence of left trends in the Labor Party and the trade unions was in itself vitally important. Proper understanding of it demanded a close analysis of correct Communist work throughout the whole range of social problems and organisations, including as two very important components, but only as components and not as things in themselves, the trade unions and parliament. That would have shown that direct socialist revolution was impossible. The idea that Communists should aim to lead the workers not only in struggle for better terms in their living conditions but also for finding the correct way to the abolition of the social system that gives rise to the need for that struggle, was understood in only a piecemeal way. The Communist Party had the job of working in an all-round way among the people on every facet of social repression including economic, and of finding the correct way to make its members one with the people. Essential to this was full understanding of the Labor Party and trade unions and the recognition that because of the way Australia had developed, many workers needed to have the experience of the Labor Party before they turned to Communism. The co-existence of Labor Party, trade unions and Communist Party was a fact. The terms of the coexistence were confused by the Communists. Instead of recognising the phases through which the socialist revolutionary movement required to pass and biding their time while patiently awaiting maturing conditions and particularly, necessary mass experience of the Labor Party, the Communists continued with their confused “socialism”. Given the correct approach, the Communists would be in a position to arouse the people correctly to an understanding of capitalism and what to do about “reforms” and finding the way to ending it.

After the advent of fascism in Germany, the Communist International called on the Communists to mobilise all who could be mobilised in struggle against the aggressive war plans of the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militarist Japan). The Communist International never wavered from its identification of the danger of war and the responsibility of the Axis powers. Particularly at its Seventh World Congress in 1935, it called for the maximum unity directed against the Axis powers and directed against fascism. Within the various countries such a conception required working out in accordance with the traditions and practices of that country. This was acknowledged by the Comintern. Australian Communists were exceedingly active in promoting struggle against war and fascism. They conducted all-round vigorous activities against the threat of war and against the tendencies to fascism within Australia, particularly the curtailment of democratic liberty. Australian Communist approach was still muddled by pre-occupation with the internal affairs of the Soviet Party and the policy of the Soviet Union. There was an emphasis on those things, disproportionate to the emphasis on Australian affairs. Left influences from the 1929 Comintern intervention in the Australian Party persisted.

The Communists were active in promoting their ideas of struggle against war and fascism in trade unions and other mass organisations. Commonly their ideas were the carrying of resolutions which literally expressed the line of the Soviet Union and the Communist International. Often those resolutions were inappropriate for the given organisation. Thus divisions were created where divisions could have been avoided. A fairly crude classification of people into “left” and “right”, “progressive” and “reactionary”, developed. He who was “left” could do no wrong; he who was “right” could do nothing that was correct. It was a type of name-calling rather than seeking the correct way to win people to the anti-fascist, anti-war position. The general principle was quite capable of correct integration in Australian life.

“Mass” organisations were set up in accordance with Australian Communist understanding of Communist International instructions. Thus “Friends of the Soviet Union”, “Movement Against War and Fascism” and many others came into being as united front organisations. It was correct to take the initiative in such bodies and correct to form them. This correctness was sometimes marred in that these organisations tended to be organisations of Communists to whom were added a few prominent personalities. Sometimes an organisation at Communist instigation changed its name to overcome what was thought to be the “narrowness” of a previous name. In some cases it amounted to the same people emerging under another name There was a certain Communist Party manipulation without real attention to the questions posed by the need for a mass following and response to and promotion of mass activity. Where influential positions had been obtained in the trade unions, manipulation of the trade union apparatus commonly occurred to “implement” Australian Communist interpretation of the International’s directions about the united front. Thus an unnatural element intruded on what could have been a perfectly normal co-operation among wide sections of the people.

Much of Communist work brought lasting and good results. The Movement Against War and Fascism developed considerable mass influence However the Party also perpetuated a certain isolation from the people and a certain foreign flavour. Some of its work had elements of the form of united front activity but not enough of the substance of painstaking systematic activity among the people. That was expressed in the one-sided concentration on “big” events – the big demonstration, the big meeting, the spectacular protest, a rather heavy reliance on meetings and publications rather than emphasis on the Communists working appropriately side by side with the people. Among the workers in the factories, much was done The Party’s emphasis was on serving the Communist conception of work in the trade unions and seeing the trade unions in themselves as the solution to all problems.

A tribute to the positive side of all this work was the great hostility visited upon it by the various governments. But within it, a disproportionate number of Communists and left people were easily identified by the authorities who were bent on crushing Communism. When identified, they were subject to carrot and stick treatment. Recourse was had to flattery and “promotion”. Where that failed, persecution and intimidation were substituted. By inappropriately proclaiming Communism, some Communists isolated themselves and the Party from the ordinary people.

Among students, left wing influences spread greatly. Students attracted particular attention from the authorities, no doubt on the theory that European experience showed that Lenin and other Communist leaders were products of universities.

International events had impelled large numbers of Australians into an interest in struggle against war and fascism. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) where Franco’s coup against a mildly radical republican government led to civil war, was one such event. Franco was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Spain was used as a military testing ground. Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and finally total occupation of Czechoslovakia, followed. The overall struggle for collective security (alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers, and the gathering of war clouds, caused many sections of Australian people to think of ways to prevent war. With the particular threat to Australia of Japanese expansion, this was accentuated. Magnificent examples of people’s activity were the campaign to boycott Japanese goods, to prevent the export of pig and scrap iron to Japan, the stopping of the ship Dalfram from sailing to Japan from Port Kembla with a load of pig iron. At the same time, leaders of the United Australia Party (a new name for the National Party) and right wing leaders of the Labor Party, largely went along with the appeasement of the Axis Powers espoused by Chamberlain in England and Daladier in France The anti-Communism of this policy was aimed at diverting the Axis Powers from the West so that they would fight the Soviet Union. Anti-Communism was used as a weapon to divide the people. It remained a marked feature of the activities of the Australian authorities throughout the ’thirties.

Labor leaders proscribed “Communist” organisations including what were branded as Communist fronts. Individual Communists were forbidden membership of the Labor Party and Labor Party members were forbidden to speak on political platforms with Communists. Left groups and tendencies within the Labor Party struggled against this line Moreover the official proscriptions had as one of their origins the failure of the Communist Party to work out correct relations with the Labor Party, particularly by failing to take into account its mass following within the working class. Actually the Labor Party’s influence was in accord with the level of development of capitalism in Australia.

Thus the Communists faced a systematic campaign of isolation – isolation fed by anti-Communist agitation day in and day out, in newspapers and other mass news services, legal persecution, campaigning by some Labor leaders and anti-Communist measures within the Labor Party. The anti-Communist campaign by the authorities and the self-imposed exclusiveness of the Communists, tended to strengthen each other. The close identification of the Communist Party of Australia with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, contributed substantially to Communist isolation from the people in Australia. This was accentuated by necessary measures such as the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact and the Finnish war taken by the Soviet leaders to prevent the Soviet Union from being exposed alone to Hitler’s attack.

The overall world socialist cause was best served in the native development of correct people’s policy in Australia (or other countries). In the growing complications of international affairs and internal affairs in the countries, a central directing international body such as the Communist International could not in the nature of things be expected to know the actual situation in the various countries in such a way that a correct policy could be formulated by a single international centre Events continued to emphasise the importance of the internal position in Australia (or that other country). Correct policy turned on the overall economic and political situation in the given country, in this case, Australia. Thus in the Australia of those times, the defence and extension of sovereignty and independence, development of nationhood, even development of capitalism, were components in the struggle against fascism and war. Those extremely important traditions, subtle nuances and a wealth of features particular for Australia become more, and not less important in struggle as time goes on. While events confirm and verify the general laws of social development, their particular working out in Australia becomes more and more obviously a matter that must be solved in Australia. But what is obvious in retrospect was not then so obvious. The difficulty of an international body, far from Australia, doing it, was compounded by Australian Communist over-reliance upon that very body. Once again this is not at all to deny the immense work done by the Communist International and the Soviet Union to popularise ideas of Communism, to promote organisation of the working class, to promote the struggle against war and fascism nor to deny important positive aspects of Communist work in Australia. Moreover in the early ’twenties and in the struggle against fascism and war, the Comintern did very good work. To fail to give proper emphasis to that would be as serious an error as to fail to draw attention to shortcomings. Shortcomings require emphasis and analysis so that they can be avoided.