Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Fourteen[1]: The ideological basis of Australian Communist errors

It is vitally important to understand the ideological philosophical basis for errors and for finding the correct path of social advance. Care has been taken so far to refrain from cluttering this text with quotations. A few quotations are now necessary. At all times the basic statements of Communism do require study. Quotations, provided they are viewed in their historical context and are not allowed to inhibit independent thought, are necessary, The classic theoreticians of Communism always analysed the underlying basis of errors and the fundamental way for their correction. For example, the great philosophical work of Lenin Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was concerned with this, as were Mao Zedong’s On Practice and On Contradiction. Both Lenin and Mao Zedong were faced with practical problems and incorrect trends in their respective revolutionary movements and struggle. They did not see the solution of those problems in confining the solution to this or that immediate error. The immediate issue was dealt with. These two great men dealt with the whole ideological basis of the problems. They respectively contributed enormously to Russian revolutionary theory and to Chinese revolutionary theory. They also enormously enriched the basic principles of Communist theory.

In Australia’s case, it is not sufficient simply to draw attention to this or that error in revolutionary history or to its immediate correction. What is at stake is the whole outlook and method of Communism. Great assistance can be obtained by studying the writings to which reference has just been made and to the whole Marxist exposition of materialist philosophy.

Common reference is made to “sectarianism” as a major error in Australian Communist history. Sectarianism is a product of incorrect thinking. “The sect” said Marx, “sees the justification for its existence and its ’point of honour’ – not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it” (the class).[2] Such a “point of honour” of Australian Communists was immediate socialist revolution where the movement of the Australian working class was well behind that Communist “point of honour” and capitalism was still very young. By insisting on the point of honour of “immediate socialism”, Australian Communists isolated themselves from the broad stream of the working class. Their insistence was sectarian. It was the product of subjectivism. In the political sense, subjectivism means giving way to wishes and failing to recognise the facts. The facts were that socialism was something for the future. Furthermore, sectarianism afflicted the First International itself. In a letter of 23 November 1871, Marx wrote “... the history of the International was a continual struggle on the part of the General Council against the sects and amateur experiments which attempted to assert themselves within the International itself against the genuine movement of the working class!”.[3]

Australian Communists insisted upon this immediate socialism at a time when the broad sweep of the Australian working class was within the influence of the Labor Party and the trade unions. It was necessary for Communists while participating actively and widely in the mass movement to wait the development of that movement, to bide time while capitalism and experience of it developed. Amongst themselves and the advanced workers, they required to strengthen their understanding and grip of Marxism and promote it appropriately. The understanding of Marxism showed the need to bide time and heed carefully the actual position of Labor Party and trade union development of the working class.

In speaking of mass movements among American workers last century, Engels in advising German socialists living in the USA, put it in this way: “It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than to learn by one’s own mistakes. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class: that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction and all who resist... will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own. Therefore I think also the Knights of Labour (an American mass workers’ movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries) a most important factor which ought not to be pooh-poohed from without but to be revolutionised from within; and I consider that many of the Germans there have made a grievous mistake when they tried, in face of a mighty and glorious movement not of their creation] to make of their imported and not always understood theory a kind of ’necessary to salvation’ dogma and to keep aloof from any movement which did not accept that dogma. Our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases!’[4] (Emphasis only partly that of Engels; “necessary for salvation” is the English translation of a German word used in a letter otherwise in English.) This statement reveals a situation extraordinarily parallel with that in the Australian working class movement. Engels continued: “To expect that the Americans will start with the full consciousness of the theory worked out in older industrial countries is to expect the impossible. What the Germans ought to do is to act up to their own theory – if they understand it, as we did in 1845 and 1848 – to go in for any real general working class movement, accept its ’actual’ starting points as such and work it gradually up to the theoretical level by pointing out how every mistake made, every reverse suffered, was a necessary consequence of mistaken theoretical views in the original programme; they ought in the words of The Communist Manifesto, to represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present. But above all give the movement time to consolidate, do not make the inevitable confusion of the first start worse confounded by forcing down people’s throats things which at present they cannot properly understand, but which soon they will learn. A million or two of workingmen’s votes next November for a bona fide workingmen’s party is worth infinitely more at present than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect platform. The very first attempt – soon to be made if the movement progresses – to consolidate the moving masses on a national basis will bring them all face to face, Georgites, K. of L., Trade Unionists, and all; and if our German friends by that time have learnt enough of the language of the country to go in for a discussion, then will be the time for them to criticise the views, of the others and thus, by showing up the inconsistencies of ’the various standpoints, to bring them gradually to understand their own actual position, the position made for them by the correlation of capital and wage labour. But anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the working-men’s party – no matter what platform – I should consider a great mistake, and therefore I do not think the time has arrived to speak out fully and exhaustively either with regard to H G or the K. of L.”

In a further comment, Engels said: “The movement in America, just at this moment, is I believe best seen from across the ocean. On the spot personal bickerings and local disputes must obscure most of the grandeur of it. And the only thing that could really delay its march would be a consolidation of these differences into established acts. To some extent that will be unavoidable, but the less of it the better. And the Germans have most to guard against this. Our theory is a theory of evolution, not a dogma to be learned by heart and to be repeated mechanically. The less it is drilled into the Americans from outside and the more they test it with their own experience – with the help of the Germans – the deeper it will pass into their flesh and blood. When we returned to Germany, in spring 1858, we joined the Democratic Party as the only possible means of getting the ear of the working class; we were the most advanced wing of that party, but still a wing of it. When Marx founded the International, he drew up the General Rules in such a way that all working class socialists of that period could join in – Proudhonists, Pierre Lerouxists and even the more advanced section of the English Trade Unions; and it was only through this latitude that the International became what it was, the means of gradually dissolving and absorbing all these minor sects, with the exception of the Anarchists, whose sudden appearance in various countries was but the effect of the violent bourgeois reaction after the Commune and could therefore safely be left by us to die out of itself, as it did. Had we from 1864 to 1873 insisted on working together only with those who openly adopted our platform, where should we be today? I think that all our practice has shown that it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation, and I am afraid that if the German Americans choose a different line they will commit a general mistake!’

In summarising Marx’s views of tactics in working class struggles, Lenin said: “At each stage of development, at each moment, the tactics of the proletariat must take account of this objectively inevitable dialectics of human history, on the one hand utilising the periods of political stagnation or of sluggish, so-called ’peaceful’ development in order to develop the class consciousness, strength and fighting capacity of the advanced class and, on the other hand, conducting all this work of utilisation towards the ’final aim’ of the movement of this class and towards the creation in it of the ability to accomplish the practical solution of great tasks in the great days in which ’twenty years are embodied’”.[5]

Sectarianism in this connection involves the attempted imposition of minority views on a mass of people without taking account of the phases through which those people must go before coming to an understanding of advanced views. It is a product of political subjectivism, in Australian Communists the wish that despite the facts showing the impossibility of immediate socialism, there should be immediate socialism and making that immediate socialism a condition of Communist participation in the mass movement. In this way the Communist Party of Australia in its advanced ideas became a sect. While it correctly participated in many mass movements, its participation was marred by this subjectivism and sectarianism.

Political subjectivism is a deadly enemy of Communism. Truth must be sought from facts and action must be based on the truth so revealed. This is so no matter how much those facts may depart from what one wishes them to be. Wishes will not alter the facts. Failure to see the facts caused Australian Communists to commit serious political errors. However, by committing such errors and by also at times correctly seeing the facts, Communists learned rich lessons. All experience must be comprehensively summed up. Political subjectivism and its organisational expression in sectarianism need to be thoroughly eradicated. In On Practice written for a position essentially concerned with political subjectivism and dogmatism, Mao Zedong said: “We are also opposed to ’Left’ phrase-mongering. The thinking of ’Leftists’ outstrips a given stage of development of the objective process; some regard their fantasies as truth, while others strain to realise in the present an ideal which can only be realised in the future. They alienate themselves from the current practice of the majority of the people and from the realities of the day, and show themselves adventurist in their actions”.

This deals with the main error that has characterised Australian working class history. It appeared in sharp and explicit form in the 1928-29-30 changes in the Party and the interference of the Communist International. That left a very deep imprint from which the Communist movement has striven to free itself. The tendencies to the error existed before 1928-29-30 in less explicit form. They crystallised in 1928-29. The ’twenties were a period of groping and stumbling with Communist theory and practice in Australia, Throughout it all, there were periods of correct relations between the Communist Party and the Labor Party and trade unions. The scientific basis for this may have been unclear to the Communists; still, roughly correct relations of co-existence, co-operation and friendship existed. These were broken in 1929. Even the “liquidationism” of the mid-twenties, although incorrect, was an instinctive reaction against subjectivism and sectarianism. It is not difficult to understand that the breach between the ALP and the Communist Party resulted largely (not wholly) from the attempt by the Communists to realise aims that could not be realised, namely the rapid revolutionisation of the Australian working class. Communist attempts to ram “pure” Communist theory down the throats of others resulted in isolation of those who tried to do the ramming. Revolutionisation of Australian workers has not yet been realised. The phases through which the movement must go include good relations amongst all political parties and groups that have connections with the working class and good relations among the members of the respective parties.

Failure to be prepared for changes in society is an error also of a grave character. Mao Zedong wrote: “It often happens, however, that thinking lags behind reality; this is because man’s cognition is limited by numerous social conditions. We are opposed to diehards in the revolutionary ranks whose thinking fails to advance with changing objective circumstances and has manifested itself historically as Right opportunism. These people fail to see that the struggle of opposites has already pushed the objective process forward while their knowledge has stopped at the old stage. This is characteristic of the thinking of all die-hards. Their thinking is divorced from social practice, and they cannot march ahead to guide the chariot of society, they simply trail behind, grumbling that it goes too fast and trying to drag it back or turn it in the opposite direction.”[6]

At all stages the Communist Party maintains its own existence, strengthens and builds itself while taking due account of the phases through which Australian workers and people must develop, lb follow Engels’ wording, it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position and even organisation. Engels could indeed have been speaking of the Australian Communist Party.

In Australia, the Communists confused two different matters. The first concerned the fundamental theory, outlook, ideology, politics and organisation of Communism. On that it is imperative to have a Communist Party which is clear and unwavering. Its internal life must be such that there is the greatest possible grasp of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The second concerned the stage to which Australia had developed as a capitalist country, the stage to which the working class had developed, the mass organisations which had arisen and particularly those which had working class connections (such as the ALP and the trade unions). The work of the Communist Party was required to proceed on a very careful analysis of this. It flowed from correctness on the first matter but the first matter could not be imposed on the second, nor should the second water down the independence of the first. The Communist Party must strengthen itself ideologically, politically and organisationally in order to work correctly in the broad working class and people’s spheres. There is a line of demarcation between the Communist Party and ALP. They have quite different fundamental purposes. Co-operation between them does not compromise the Marxist outlook of the Communist Party.

The correction of these errors is critical to the building of the Communist Party in Australia. The relation between the two matters referred to must be studied and understood. The phases of understanding of Communism in a mass sense involve a highly organised Communist Party which works tirelessly and patiently while the working class and other sections of people get the experience which turns them towards Communism. This leaves for consideration the type of Communist Party required in Australia.


[1] Chapter 13 of the first edition consisted of a reprint of a 1981 pamphlet written by another author. It is not reproduced in this second edition – Ed.

[2] Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868.

[3] Marx-Engels Correspondence, Lawrence and Wishart, p.316.

[4] Letter to Wischnewetsky, Marx-Engels Correspondence, p.453.

[5] Lenin: “Karl Marx”, Collected Works, Vol 21, p.75.

[6] On Practice.