Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Nine: Applying Marxism to Australian conditions

Crisis within the Communist Party by no means ended Communism in Australia. Communism inexorably arises from capitalism in Australia as everywhere else. The correct Communist approach in Australia remained to be worked out.

The primary internal basis for a Communist Party in Australia was the increasing working class to which the development of industry gave rise. Just as Marx and Engels were the products of capitalism at a certain stage of its development and they could not have arisen before that development, so too was the attempt to give systematic form to Communism in Australia a product of the development of capitalism in Australia. Australian capitalism developed in an international environment marked by all-round capitalist development in the advanced countries, stirring of revolt in colonial and dependent countries, spread of revolutionary ideas. The course the Australian Communist Party was to take depended upon the internal developments in Australia in the given international situation and how the Communist Party responded. The extremely youthful 1920 Australian capitalism and the consequent youth of the working class were each bound to develop. The heavy influence in the working class movement of Liberal-Labor politics which emanated from English immigrants was bound to diminish.

Immaturity and diverse political influences reflected themselves in the Party’s actual birth and infancy. The October Revolution and its promise of the fulfilment of the dream of socialism had been the spark which lit the fire.

Scientific socialist laws as elucidated by Marx, Engels and Lenin required systematic investigation of Australia’s history, the internal situation in Australia in 1920 and its external environment and revelation of how the general propositions of the Marxist analysis worked out in the particular conditions of Australia. This certainly was given some attention by the Communist Party. Valuable Australian experience was accumulated despite all short-comings. While taking full advantage of all existing and past social analyses and solutions, it required an entirely new survey of those existing and past social analyses. A scientific socialist analysis was a thing entirely new to Australia. Such an analysis required the taking of Australia as it was with its existing social and economic situation. It required all that to be subject to an entirely new approach, free from enslavement to pre-conceived ideas and free from distortion by wishes, hopes and dogmas. It required recognition of the differing conditions from country to country. It required rejection of arbitrary ideas of socialism and of arbitrary imposition on Australian conditions of ideas or practices derived from foreign experience or acceptance without full consideration of foreign Communist pronouncements wherever they came from. Great help could be derived from examination of all foreign experience provided it was correctly assimilated and appropriated for Australian conditions. The starting point was Australia.

Scientific socialism has cardinal basic principles. They are generalisations, laws, derived from an examination of social and natural facts and are verified by those facts. Amongst them are the recognition that the basic (not the only) determinant in history is ultimately production and reproduction in real life (this may be put as the way in which man gets his living[1]): that classes arise, wage and resolve class struggle (except in primitive society); that capitalist society arises from feudalism as a product of changes in the way men get their living and the accompanying class struggle; that capitalism is a particular epoch of social development in which the means of production (factories, mines, etc.) are owned by a comparatively few capitalists and those capitalists employ workers who own only their capacity to labour; that in the use of the commodity, labour power, in the process of production the capitalist appropriates surplus value (see explanation previously made); that to maintain this system a state apparatus arises, the essential (but not the only) purpose of which is to keep the working class in subjection and tied to the means of production; that capitalism develops into monopoly capitalism and imperialism where a few major powers exploit and control the whole world; that the epoch which succeeds capitalism is socialism, the basis of which (socialism) is already present in capitalism; that in the achievement of socialism the socialised process of production which develops in the major means of production under capitalism and particularly under monopoly capitalism must be extended into socialised ownership; that for that to occur, there must be political revolution in which the state political power of the capitalists will be replaced by the state political power of the workers and other sections around them; that that change is highly likely to be accompanied by violence because it is unlikely that the capitalists will meekly surrender their exploitation and state machine through peaceful change, though peaceful change must be worked for and cannot and must not be excluded; that the workers and other sections around them will break up the old state and establish their own state, the form of which is not yet clear but in essence will be the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is, of the overwhelming majority of exploited over the tiny minority of exploiters and then build socialism; that from these general economic and social conditions under both capitalism and socialism, arise ideology and politics which give expression to the competing class interests and in turn, influence the economic bases; that society and nature show that everything is in a state of motion, coming into being and passing away; that this motion expresses itself fundamentally in the resolution of contradictions within the essence of things (dialectical materialism).[2]

The Communist Party in Australia and on a wider scale, the Communist (3rd) International, served the ideological and political function of knowing the social laws in order to influence men to change themselves and to change the economic and social base. When man becomes conscious of the social and economic process, he becomes a powerful factor in the process of changing it. Recognition of the social laws leaves him free to change them within certain limits, limits determined by those very laws. No matter how clearly he recognises the general laws he can not, for example, arbitrarily impose on capitalism the change to socialism. Capitalism must develop to a certain stage and man’s ideas must develop to a certain stage, before the change becomes possible and then particular circumstances must arise for the change to be consummated. Thus for example, to the blind revolt of the Luddites against machines, or to the early consciousness involved in the forming of trade unions, scientific socialism brings the enlightenment of the historical evolution of capitalism and its historical destiny. It shows that the machines that the Luddites wanted to destroy to cure exploitation, had come to stay; they were an inexorable product of a change in the way of getting a living from feudal handicraft and agriculture to the beginning of large scale manufacture. To the consciousness that gave rise to trade unions, scientific socialism explains why the workers were compelled to organise and why trade union consciousness is not sufficient to end the struggle for better conditions; only socialism can do that. In that, the workers would play a decisive part. Man makes his own history, but within bounds prescribed by the level to which material and social development has progressed.

The effectiveness of man’s role and the Communist role in that social process depend on human beings. As previously demonstrated general principles of Marxism tell us nothing about the particular conditions in Australia. They are generalisations. Knowledge of them is critical. In the elucidation of them by people like Marx, Engels, Lenin, a great number of contemporary events in many countries were studied and commented upon. This had the purpose both of elucidating the general principles and also of giving immediate guidance to people then engaged in struggle. Many of these events were peculiar to given countries. The Paris Commune, for example, had a great deal of particular detail which historically has faded into the background; but experience of the Paris Commune enabled elaboration of general principles of the nature and form of the state in the transition from capitalism to socialism. The October Revolution in Russia must be regarded in a similar way. Experience of a socialist revolution and changes in the state machine, had to arise before general conclusions could be drawn. Those general conclusions could then be a general guide for others. They could not solve the problem for others. The new problem had its own particular character. The details from which the generalisation arose could not be expected to recur or be an exact guide on subsequent occasions. General principles are of fundamental guiding significance but individual conclusions on specific situations are only of relative significance. Still more, the general conclusions were in themselves not absolute; they required further elucidation and elaboration and if need be, correction in experience subsequent, for example, to the Paris Commune or subsequent to the Russian Revolution. Experience of the revolutions of 1917-1919 enabled further rounding and development of the general conclusions. As to detailed events in revolutions, the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, were not only not necessarily absolutely correct, but were also of limited significance. Indeed there were errors. Above all, general principles were a guide to specific action in entirely new circumstances. “Guide to action” is an oft-repeated phrase. Its significance has been very far from understood. Many Communists became slaves to the words of Communism, without seeing what was universally applicable and discarding what was only applicable in a passing fashion; they become slaves to numerous quotations from Marxist classics. What has been called the erroneous tendency of making Marxism a dogma and deifying Comintern resolutions and the experience of the Soviet Union certainly prevailed in the Communist Party of Australia.[3] Conscientious Communists studied all that men like Marx, Engels and Lenin wrote. Conscientious Communists studied and thought over the detailed events about which these great men wrote. That was a most important obligation. It must not be avoided. But there is a correct approach to it. In the approach to it, some became mesmerised by the words and detailed events. They worshipped not only the image of these men, but were enslaved and limited by the words and by their own or others’ interpretation of the words. Extensive quotations or paraphrases from the classical writers appeared in Communist publications. The effect of this in the minds of some was to turn these writings into eternal and immutable dogma in all their detail and applicable in all circumstances. They were thought to be open to imposition on the situation in Australia. Instead of examining new facts and new experience and differing circumstances, these followers of Marx, Engels and Lenin sought to make the facts obey the dogma – that is, obey their own understanding of the classics of Marxism. They failed to put the facts in the first place and find from the facts how the general laws expressed themselves in Australia. Marx himself deplored “Marxism” and “Marxists” of this character.

There was sufficient historical material on a world scale to conclude with confidence that the general principles were scientifically valid and universally applicable and would be found in all facts. Without examination of the particular facts, how the general laws worked out would remain a mystery. In The State and Revolution, for example, Lenin did quote extensively from Marx. He did this because “Marxists” had emasculated and suppressed Marxist writings. Extensive quotation was in order to restore the principles of Marxism. But the type of quotation and talisman-like attitude to Marx, Engels and Lenin and later Stalin that subsequently developed in Australia, substituted quotation and dropping of names of classic writers for independent analysis and thinking. He was a “good” theoretician and Marxist “investigator” of Australia who quoted most extensively and dropped names as many times as possible. In addition, the selection of quotations and understanding of classics was blighted by preconceived ideas. Communists saw in the quotations and classics what they wanted to see, namely, support for their own particular arbitrary wishes and hopes. (Subjectivism.)

There are a series of questions involved, (1) understanding of the general principles, (2) separating the general principles from the detailed events from which they were distilled; understanding both the relevance and irrelevance of the particular events, (3) understanding those detailed events so that the particular working out of the general laws was not confused with particular events, (4) limitations in understanding both the general and particular.

The capacity of the Communist mind to reflect reality accurately is critical in reaching correct conclusions. The physical scientist must approach the atom free from pre-conceived ideas; he must see the atom as it is. His wishes or hopes that it will conform to some preconceived ideas will avail nothing; the atom will not obey them just because the scientist wishes it and even if the textbooks say it should. In science, a good scientist will meticulously study all the facts about the atom; if in his mind he reflects the facts accurately, he will be able to experiment with the atom in such a way as to secure results which his observations have shown can be achieved. Meticulous study of the atom led, for example, to understanding and developing of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. If however, a scientist had simply dreamed of nuclear fission or fusion, or wished for it, unsupported by meticulous investigation, he could not impose fission or fusion on the atom.

Essentially similar is social science. Scientific socialism is a science. It is not a science exactly like nuclear physics. On the assumption that the 1920 Communists accepted and understood the general principles of scientific socialism, that did not mean that Australia would change to socialism. Wishes, no matter how ardent, that very soon there would be Australian socialism, could not achieve that socialism. Nor could it be expected that conditions would simply obey the wishes of a few Communists, however devoted and ardent they were in their desire for socialism. Neither the general principles nor foreign experience could be arbitrarily imposed on Australian conditions. Australian conditions would not obey some Marxist classic or do what some textbook or foreign organisation said Australian conditions should do. Those conditions had their own inner life and laws. “Theory” could not be imposed on them; theory required to be found from those conditions. The Communist International letter quoted in Chapter 4 shows an attempted imposition on Australian conditions of a view infected with lack of knowledge of Australia – it was imaginary, subjective.

The general principles of scientific socialism remain correct. But the people and Parties who strive to act in accordance with them are imperfect and often incorrect or not wholly correct. They have shortcomings in their understanding and in their capacity to reflect reality accurately and in their power to use general principles as a correct guide to action. Thus scientific socialism as a body of principle is one thing; people and Parties to use that body of principle are another thing. While the latter have all manner of shortcomings, they also have enormous capacity, as have the Australian people amongst whom they work. They have overcome great difficulties and they will triumph. They are required to strive to understand both general principles and the particular conditions in Australia. One without the other is barren. Without correctly working out Australian revolutionary theory from the facts, there is bound to be great difficulty in developing an adequate revolutionary movement. Although social laws determine that sooner or later socialism will emerge from capitalism, the way to the change from capitalism to socialism must be searched for and found. In the search, experience accumulates. No one can say with absolute accuracy what precise course the future will follow. It can only be said in general.

Failure to take account of the reality of Australia’s immaturity as a capitalist country, its colonial and dependent background when added to the assumption that it was akin to the highly developed European capitalism, meant that the Communist Party largely assumed the character of a preacher of immediate socialism in a country where socialism was not immediately attainable. This alienated the Communist Party from the mass of the people who instinctively sensed the unreality of the Party’s position. Unreality was exploited by the enemies of socialism who never ceased their anti-socialist campaign. It also made it easier to pass reactionary repressive legislation which put emphasis on the revolutionary (particularly by violence) objectives of the Party. All this was compounded by the Party’s placing in the forefront of its propaganda, programme and activity, adherence to the Communist International and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the “line” imposed by those organisations on the Australian Communist movement.

The effect of overemphasis on the immediacy of socialism, the overt leadership of the Communist Party, the breakdown of capitalism, worship of the foreign, actually contributed to easing the inroads of English capitalism and later US capitalism in Australia. Had the Communist Party put its immediate objective and effort into organising the people for protecting and extending independence, the way of these imperialisms would have been harder. It was that independence that was the key link in the chain of struggle. Had it been firmly and consistently grasped, then the cause of Australia’s independence would have been further advanced. In their work, the Communists did refer to independence; the shortcoming was in not consistently and firmly grasping the main link of independence.

A word must be said about the foreign. The very fact that the Australian Communists did not evolve a cohesive and overall theory of revolution in Australia meant that the “vacuum” was the more easily filled by the foreign. Australian Communists should most certainly have studied Communist International decisions, should have studied Soviet socialist progress and the documents and actions of the Soviet Party. There was nothing incorrect in doing that. All experience should have been examined. The error lay in making that far too much of a condition of the existence of the Party and its membership in Australia and accepting that as solving Australian problems.

Because of divorce from reality, the Party and its members tended to be drawn in on themselves so that much Party activity was an incestuous meeting of the same people revolving in a circle and publicly propagating an abstract socialism. Sometimes the circle expanded as during the economic crisis of 1929-33 and during the second part of World War II and sometimes it contracted as in the period after the economic crisis and again after World War II. Misunderstanding of democratic centralism increased the difficulty. At all times, however, the Party and individual Communists devoted themselves to the service of the people. Its members were splendid people. Indeed it says a great deal for the calibre of many Communists that in spite of wrong views of what constituted correct Communist work, they enjoyed considerable respect among ordinary people. It also says much for the appeal of Communism to the ordinary people even though in words those people may have said: “What a shame he is a Communist”.

In periods of mass upsurge of Communist influence, the Party insufficiently accumulated its own strength for the future. It misinterpreted those upsurges as upsurges for direct socialism whereas they had large elements of spontaneous reaction to the particular stimuli – in the depression days, to hardship which turned the people to rebellion and in the days of anti-fascist war, sentiments of anti-fascism and pro-Sovietism. Socialist propaganda certainly had some effect. Some good Communists were developed. Much mass work on given issues, tainted with subjectivism, sectarianism and empiricism though it may have been, was not wasted.


[1] Engels puts it: “According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc. – forms of law – and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants: political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further development into systems of dogma – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements, in which, amidst all the endless host of accidents (i.e. of things and events whose inner connection is so remote or so impossible to prove that we regard it as absent and can neglect it), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary”. (Letter from F. Engels to J. Bloch – 21 September 1890.)

[2] See also appendix for Lenin’s summary of Communist principles. (The appendix, which consisted of Lenin’s essay “Karl Marx”, is not reproduced in this second edition – Ed.)

[3] See Chapter 4 and other references; see too Resolution on Communist Party of China History 1949-81 p.57.