Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Four: The “line” of the Comintern and Australia

The problems discussed in the last chapter did not go without attention from the Communist International and Soviet Union.

Within the Australian Party a group took shape which claimed that the Party leadership was right wing and that it failed to adhere to the line of the Communist International.

This calls for reference again to the powers of the International and its leading body – the Executive Committee of the Communist International (E.C.C.I.), composed effectively of the leaders of each Communist Party plus officials of the Comintern itself.

The way in which the relations between the various constituent parties, the central body of the International and the Soviet Party worked may be seen in Stalin’s speech to a meeting of the Soviet Party Central Committee in April 1929. The speech was entitled The Right Deviation in the CPSU(B).[1] Part III of this speech shows the virtual identity that had evolved between the Soviet Party and the Comintern. Stalin’s view of the International was that it was really subordinate to or an instrument of the Soviet Party. He rebuked, for example, the leader of the International (the Russian Communist, Bukharin) for omitting to submit for the approval of the CPSU the International’s analysis of capitalism and the tasks of Communists before submitting it to other delegates to the 1928 Sixth Comintern Congress. Because of this failure, said Stalin, the CPSU had been required to amend the analysis in the course of discussion within the Congress of the International. Stalin’s opinion was that the analysis submitted to the Congress of the International should have been that of the Soviet Party. The clear implication was that the correct procedure was for the CPSU to make the analysis and impose it on other delegations. The exercise of the power of the Comintern to direct its constituent bodies is to be seen in the references in this speech by Stalin to the internal affairs of the Communist Parties of Germany, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia. Each of these Parties, like the Communist Party of Australia, was a section of the Communist International. Stalin’s speech shows specific directions to other Parties by the International and the Comintern’s actual choice of the leaders and policies of constituent Parties. It amounted to legitimation for the Soviet Party to interfere in and direct internal matters in all Parties affiliated with the Comintern.

The political content of the speech was directed against the “right” deviation in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and consequently the right “deviation” in the Comintern. The ins and outs of the political considerations involved in each of the particular Parties referred to by Stalin are not matters for the present review. What is relevant is the light shed on the relationship of the Comintern to its particular Australian section.

Stalin’s proposition from which he said there was a right deviation in the international communist movement was expressed in these terms:

It would be ridiculous to think that the stabilisation of capitalism has remained unchanged. Still more ridiculous would it be to assert that the stabilisation is gaining in strength, that it is becoming secure. As a matter of fact, capitalist stabilisation is being undermined and shaken month by month and day by day. The intensification of the struggle for foreign markets and raw materials, the growth of armaments, the growing antagonism between America and Britain, the growth of socialism in the USSR, the swing to the left of the working class in the capitalist countries, the growing revolutionary movement in the colonies, including India, the growth of communism in all countries of the world – all these are facts which indicate beyond a doubt that the elements of a new revolutionary upsurge are accumulating in the capitalist countries.

Hence the task of intensifying the fight against Social-Democracy and, above all, against its “Left wing”, as being the social buttress of capitalism.

Hence the task of intensifying the fight in the Communist Parties against the Right elements, as being the agents of Social-Democratic influence.

Hence the task of intensifying the fight against conciliation towards the Right deviation, as being the refuge of opportunism in the Communist Parties.

Hence the slogan of purging the Communist Parties of Social-Democratic traditions.

Hence the so-called new tactics of communism in the trade unions.

Some comrades do not understand the significance and importance of these slogans. But a Marxist will always understand that, unless these slogans are put into effect, the preparation of the proletarian masses for new class battles is unthinkable, victory over Social-Democracy is unthinkable, and the selection of real leaders of the communist movement, capable of leading the working class into the fight against capitalism is impossible.

Such, comrades, are the class changes in the capitalist countries, on the basis of which the present slogans of our Party, both in its internal policy and in relation to the Comintern, have arisen.

Stalin characterised his proposition as the “line”. He characterised differences with it as a struggle between two lines one the line of the Soviet Party-Comintern and the other, the line of right deviation (departure) from that line. He repudiated any suggestion that there were merely “shades of difference” in the interpretation of his general line.

Because “line”, and its meaning, assume great importance in Australia and are subsequently discussed, it is necessary briefly to consider them here. Every Communist Party requires a correct political line to which the Party as a whole adheres. In the evolution and formulation of a correct political line, different opinions no doubt are expressed within the Party. Once it is formulated, there are naturally shades of difference as to its meaning and implementation. There is the world of difference between “shades of difference” and outright opposition. Whether or not Stalin was correct in the particular controversy is not the issue. The point is the emphasis he gave to the line and the struggle between two lines. The line was erected to a sacred and unassailable position.

The “line” of the international Communist movement as pronounced by Stalin in the passage above had considerable repercussions in the Australian Party. Probably this can best be understood by considering a letter from the Communist International to its Australian section in the latter part of 1929. Extracts from this letter are set out in Sharkey’s An Outline of Party History (pp.22-23):

Consequently, the decision of the majority of your C.C. to support the Labor Party in the last election is a glaring example of grave Right deviation deserving the severest condemnation. The whole policy of the Party finds its crowning expression in the following statement of the Workers’ Weekly (August 2, 1929):

“In this country there will be no strike on August 1. Not that Australian workers have less need than our fellow workers in Europe to demonstrate against imperialist war and the warmongers, but that in this country the lines of the struggle have not yet become so clear and the working class is only beginning to realise that its enemy is capitalism and the capitalist State.

“The task of Militants in this country is not yet to lead the working class in a direct challenge to capitalism, but to popularise the basic ideas of the class struggle amongst the workers, their wives and children!’

To this we would add the following passage from the resolution passed at your last Party Conference in December 1928:

“We must not lose sight of the fact that the way to the CP. leads through this Left wing ... not because we want it to transfer these masses directly from the path of reformism and Labor Party illusions to our own revolutionary ideology and action, but because these masses still hesitate to do so.

“This transformation is not effected through political miracles, nor will we accomplish it through isolation of the CP. from the masses, but it is a long and difficult process whose various phases we must help in speeding up!’

It must be said that such statements border on liquidatorism (sic). They are a denial of the elementary principles of the role and functions of the Communist Party as laid down by the Communist International.

In the light of these statements the decided Right deviation of the Communist Party of Australia becomes comprehensible. It also explains why the Party still has such poor organisational contacts with the masses and why it has made no headway on the road towards becoming a Mass Party of the working class.

Apparently, the Party regards itself as being merely a propaganda body and as a sort of adjunct to the Left Wing of the Labor Party, whereas our conception of the role and functions of the Communist Party is that it should be the leader of the working class and the principal driving force in its political and economic struggles.

Instead of this the Communist Party of Australia is content to trail behind the working class and to preach to ’the workers, their wives and children’. The Party grossly underestimates the intensity of the class struggle in Australia and fails to appreciate its role in this struggle.

Clearly, as long as this state of affairs continues, it is hopeless to expect the Communist Party of Australia to be anything more than a relative handful of propagandists ... however ardent ... isolated from the masses.

We earnestly urge you, and the whole of the Party Membership, to submit your policy and tactics to a thorough overhauling, and we are convinced that, if you really have the cause of Communism at heart, you will radically alter your course and henceforth pursue the line of the Communist International.

At the same time, a Comintern official was sent to Australia to implement the line of the Comintern. The leadership which in the eyes of the Comintern had been guilty of right wing deviation from the Comintern line was overthrown. A leadership which upheld the line of the Comintern was installed.

Several comments may be made about this situation. The main participants in the argument are dead. The documents are scanty. In 1929 the passages quoted from the alleged right wing leaders of the Australian Party as offending the line of the Comintern were a reasonably accurate analysis of Australia at the time. It was still a young country. Just 15 years earlier Lenin had said that Australia was “a young British colony”,[2] that capitalism in Australia was still quite youthful and that the country was only just taking shape as an independent state. The working class was “only beginning to realise that its enemy (was) capitalism and the capitalist state” (emphasis added). It would seem correct also that the task of militants was then not yet to lead the working class in a direct challenge to capitalism but to popularise the basic ideas of the class struggle amongst “the workers, their wives and children”.

Stalin was correct about the instability of capitalism. Capitalism is inherently unstable. It was then on the eve of the deepest crisis in its history. The revolutionary situations that Stalin envisaged in his speech did not eventuate or if they did, they did not result in revolution. To impose this advanced revolutionary line with its conception of direct revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and establishment of socialism in Australia was subjective indeed; in truth, it was quite inappropriate. It was far ahead of the Australian objective situation, far ahead of Australia’s development as a capitalist nation.

The analysis criticised by the Comintern may have been limited in its details but it recognised the immaturity of capitalism and of the working class in Australia from a revolutionary standpoint, recognised by implication that the stage of revolution in Australia was not the direct overthrow of capitalism and establishment of socialism, recognised the hold on the Australian working class by the Labor Party, the non-existence of political miracles, the danger of “virtuous isolation” involved in attempting to impose on a non-revolutionary situation a revolutionary solution, and recognised the “long and difficult process” involved in winning the workers to Communism. The quotations from the Australian “right wing” did not make a detailed analysis of Australia nor the development of Australian capitalism nor the exact level of development of the working class nor the phases to be gone through on the way to Australian socialism. But the general analysis in the short passages quoted has been proved to be far more accurate for Australia than the Comintern-Stalin analysis. The Comintern analysis of Australia was basically incorrect. It revealed the danger of pronouncing a line (the line) from afar off. It showed that a single centre, all powerful at that, for the international Communist movement was inappropriate.

The effect of the Comintern direction, with its change of leadership in the Australian Communist Party and intervention of a Comintern functionary, was to impose on its Australian constituent body a “line” far more to the left than the Australian situation permitted. That line was invested with the rigidity conferred on it by Stalin. It imposed the line in Australia of direct transition from capitalism to socialism in the immediate overthrow of capitalism in a country where capitalism was young, its working class immature and the Party small and also immature. It failed to make an analysis of Australia and the complicated tasks that faced revolutionaries. It strengthened ideas of pitting the Communist Party on its own against the whole of capitalism and of the Labor Party.

The policy criticised by the Comintern was branded as right wing and as “a theory of exceptionalism”. A campaign was waged throughout the Party to damn this theory of exceptionalism. In truth, each country is in a sense, an exception. There is a general ideology embraced in Marxism but that very ideology demands particular (exceptional) consideration for each separate country. The economic and political situation differs from country to country. The Comintern’s understanding of it could only be derived from books and imagination and subjective reports. Even though the Comintern may have regarded Australia as within the European context, still, even in that context, differing countries required differing considerations. Different considerations were required for Australia as an ex-colonial country just emerged from colonialism and heavily burdened by colonial relics.

The overall line of the International sought to be imposed on Australia was based essentially on the advanced, mature, capitalist countries of Europe and, even there, proved to be inaccurate as to revolutionary upheavals. There were upheavals – strikes, unemployed demonstrations, violent suppression and so on. This included Australia. But that is a far cry from socialist revolutionary upheaval. It is impossible to impose on a given working class and people “the role and functions of the Communist Party” in “that it should be the leader of the working class and the principal driving force in its political and economic struggles!” These things had to be won and depended not on arbitrary subjective factors (desires, wishes and hopes of Communists) but on objective factors such as the development of capitalism and the working class in Australia (which include the predominant influence of the Labor Party amongst the workers) plus the subjective leadership of skilled Communists. It required a careful analysis of the character of the revolution in Australia.

The “theory of exceptionalism” which was condemned proceeded from the fundamentally correct basis that Australian conditions required their own considerations guided by general Marxist principle. No doubt it is true that the subjective Communist factor (their knowledge of Communism) in the “exceptionalists” was weak and analysis of capitalism in Australia weak; so too definition of tasks.

The condemnation of this “exceptionalism” as right wing, and later as Trotskyism, hammered home the leftism involved in the Stalin-Comintern line. Moreover, this Comintern line was invested with a rigidity from which it became very difficult to depart. Expulsion from the Party was the penalty for questioning “the line”. The authority of Australian Party leaders who implemented this line carried the whole weight and authority of the Comintern. Australian Party leaders functioned as members of the E.C.C.I. There arose a sort of unquestioning acceptance of Stalin and all leaders of the Comintern, and within the Parties, acceptance of the Party leadership. Leaders were simply required to adhere to Stalin and the Comintern. They held office on that condition. Provided they fulfilled the conditions, they were there for life. Thus there developed a left line within the Communist Party of Australia which carried Comintern-Soviet Party-Stalin authority and underwrote Comintern-selected leaders for the Australian Communist Party, and operated a distortion of organisational principle, namely a one-sided use of democratic centralism (the centralist side) to enforce this line.

The condemnation by Stalin of social-democracy and its left wing may have a certain correctness in its generality. But in its peculiarity, at least in Australia, it was not correct. In the first place, the Labor Party was and is not an old line social-democratic party. The critical factor which the alleged Australian exceptionalists recognised was that in Australia, the Labor Party, and particularly its left wing, did command the support of the workers. The problem certainly could not be solved by a decree or direction from anyone or any body, whoever or whatever that person or body might be. Objective development in Australia was involved. Each of the problems remains today, decades later. The fact of working class adherence to the Labor Party and its left wing remains. So too the problem of the workers passing to a revolutionary position lies in solving the problem of unity of the working class. Necessarily involved in this is the solution of the problem of relations between Communists and Labor Party adherents.

The outcome of this Party struggle laid the foundation of a very bad style of Party work to aspects of which attention has been given. To other aspects further attention will be given.

Along with it went a type of declamatory denunciation of Communists who were “off the line” and “deviationists”, as “exceptionalists”, “Trotskyists”. The loose putting of labels on people became entrenched. Instead of careful consideration and discussion, a label “disposed” of the question.

There are certainly defectors from Communism and traitors do emerge from time to time. But the elevation of “shades of difference” of opinion to the level of a conflict with the line and the loose and indiscriminate putting of labels on “deviators” from the line were not calculated to lead to the proper democratic discussion that was required to develop a correct line. In working out a correct political line, shades of difference were bound to emerge. The test of whether one subscribed to that line or one did not was quite wrong. If one did not, that was “off the line”. An atmosphere of semi-intimidation developed within the Party.

Involved in this “line” was the demand of absolute loyalty to the Soviet Union-Comintern-Stalin with adherence to a single world centre of Communism. The words of Stalin became sacrosanct and he himself beyond question. Within the Party this could not help but divert a lot of attention from the solution of particular Australian problems to the questions of the Soviet Union.

That Stalin made a great positive contribution in his leadership within the Soviet Union and that he contributed to the theory of Marxism are undeniable. There was a great deal that was positive in his work. The negative requires consideration because of its effect within Australia.


[1] See Stalin: “Leninism”, Collected Works, Vol.12, p.240.

[2] Lenin, “In Australia”, Collected Works, Vol. 19, p.216.