Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Three: Australian Communism in the 1920s

No political party, and therefore no Communist Party, exists in a vacuum. A Communist Party arises from social conditions which include the needs and hopes of the people. For the Australian Communist Party those needs and hopes arise from conditions within Australia. Conditions within Australia are influenced by world events and those events must also be heeded.

It has been seen that World War I had caused a great development of Australian industry and agriculture. Australia after World War I was an Australia more unified than at federation. Until the war, the States were the all-important aspect of Australian federation. Federation had been comparatively loose. The constitution gave the Commonwealth power to legislate on certain designated topics. On many of these, the States also had power but if there was conflict, Commonwealth law prevailed. The States retained all other power. The exigencies of war caused a far greater emphasis on the importance of the central power. It was under the central power that the war effort was organised, production of war materials was organised. The Australian armed forces were Australian and not those of separate States. In 1920, the High Court, legal interpreter of the Commonwealth constitution, in a decision which reflected these developments, dealt a blow to the old doctrines that protected certain State rights. Until the war, the High Court had construed the constitution according to implied prohibitions against the central power encroaching on State rights and according to immunities of States from the reach of the central power. The weakening of these doctrines meant a big step forward in the unification of Australia and development of single nationhood. Their weakening illustrated a universal principle – that ideas, including legal ideas, fundamentally arise from the economic base and in turn, influence the economic base.

The march to single nationhood was by no means straightforward. This legal decision in itself did not put an end to the strong State positions. Conflicting interests in the various States and in Australia as a whole meant that progress to a unitary nation was fraught with difficulty. The colonial heritage of separate colonies, carried into the separate States created by the constitution, was no mean thing. The problem of State conflict within Australia remained. It ebbed and flowed. State rivalries infected the working class.

The development of the economy, given great impetus by the war, continued. Population increased. Industry took proportionately a greater place against agriculture. Australia began to assume shape as an agricultural industrial country rather than a predominantly agricultural country. It remained in the grip of a substantial financial and diplomatic dependence on England. But the hold of England had been considerably weakened by England’s decline after World War I. The challenge of Germany expressed in the conflict of World War I gave way to the challenge of the USA after World War I. The USA emerged from World War I a stronger and advancing imperialist country. The US challenged the English capitalists all over the world. Australia was embraced within the challenge. Thus, after 1918, the USA extended its political and economic interest in Australia. The ties of Australia to England were weakened.

This process gathered way as the USA advanced economically and politically and England declined. Because of both English and US investments in Australia, plus native investment, the capitalist economy within Australia steadily developed. Australia still extended economic preference to England, born of Australia’s origin, further developed the White Australia policy and the idea of Australia as an outpost of the British Empire. At the same time, there was protection for Australian industry and encouragement of Australian exports. The Labor Party essentially followed this policy but attracted more positive Australian national sentiments. Because of its origin, its name and some aspects of its policy, it attracted working class support.

Growth of industry and population meant growth of the working class. Trade union membership and strength grew. By the mid-twenties (1927), the working class and trade unions had developed to the stage where a single all-Australian trade union centre emerged – the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). The Pan Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, inspired by the Communist International, formally established itself in 1927 in Shanghai. The ACTU affiliated with it. This secretariat was greatly influenced by Communist ideas. Disaffiliation of the ACTU occurred in 1930. Another important trade union influence in Australia was the Red International of Labour Unions formed in Moscow in 1920 on the proposal of the Communist International. Its aim was to free the unions from the opportunism of the socialist International Federation of Trade Unions. Some Australian unionists were quite closely connected with the R.I.L.U. Its creation and work left a legacy that exerted a significant influence in Australia.

In the acute depression of 1929-33, English economic interest was demonstrated by the 1930 visit to Australia of Sir Otto Niemeyer on behalf of the Bank of England. He had been preceded by other English bankers. On behalf of English investors in Australia, Sir Otto Niemeyer promoted and supervised severe economic measures directly especially against the working people.

With the development of industry and population, including the working class, the universities became a centre for the democratic and left ideas of an influential minority of students and academics. They gave expression to the democratic spirit that was evident in the 19th century struggles. Influences from Eureka, from the democratic rebellious spirit generated around the bushranger Ned Kelly (hanged in 1880), from the 1890s struggles, the formation of the ALP, the anti-conscription struggles of 1916-17, strengthened this democratic spirit within the working class and amongst the left of the “educated”.

The Labor Party had achieved government office from time to time within the Commonwealth and within the separate States. It had followed a policy more national than its rivals. It stood for a strong central government which it had administered during part of the war period. It rested heavily on the trade unions, seeing itself and being seen as the trade unions’ political party. Its aim continued to be parliamentary solution of the workers’ problems, that is, solution within capitalism. When not in government, the Labor Party constituted the parliamentary opposition to the Liberal Party (subsequently the Nationalist Party, United Australia Party and Liberal Party), a party much more openly in service to capitalism and more tied to the English investors than was the Labor Party. However, when the Labor Party leader had pledged his party to the last man and the last shilling in England’s war, he was demonstrating a still high degree of Australia’s dependence on England. It must be said that involved in the Labor Party’s position also was that England was the protector of Australia’s independent existence.

These political parties operated within the Commonwealth parliament created by the 1900 constitution and within the State parliaments created by the 19th century constitutions for the colonies in Australia. All these legislative bodies had two houses – a lower house elected originally on limited male franchise and later, on universal franchise and in the States, an upper house elected by a limited franchise determined by property and education (in Queensland, the upper house was abolished in the early ’twenties). In the Commonwealth, the upper house (Senate) was composed of representatives of States where each State as a whole constituted one electorate The Senate’s assigned job was to protect the interests of the States.

The High Court was the interpreter of the constitution and within Australia, the final court of appeal. This continued to be subject to a general right of appeal to the imperial Privy Council except that on a question that involved the limits inter se (between themselves) of the powers of the States and Commonwealth, an appeal to the Privy Council could be made only if the High Court gave its certificate that the matter was of such importance that an appeal to the Privy Council was warranted. Appeal to the Privy Council lay from State superior courts. These legal restrictions also expressed Australia’s continuing formal independence but substantial dependence, financially and diplomatically, on England.

The ’twenties were a period of tentative growth and uncertain groping to greater independence for Australia.

That was the general environment in which the fledgling Communist Party worked. It should have taken full account of the fact that the trend of development in Australian capitalism was towards a unified nation and towards a greater independence from England. Australia was not unified nor was it actually independent. That trend would inexorably develop. None of the political parties consciously saw that nor consciously sought to develop it. The trend revealed itself as Australian capitalism developed yet continued to come into conflict with this or that English barrier. England had a powerful economic motive to maintain Australia as a wool and primary producing country and as a market for her own finished products, not to mention as an outpost of the “British Empire”. Australia had a powerful motive to develop independence. Each flowed basically from economic necessity.

Increasing tendencies arose for Australian industry to come into conflict with England (and other manufacturing countries) and at the same time, to be an agricultural exporter with its eyes on the best markets and thus to be independent of compulsory market ties to England. But a system of imperial trade preferences lingered on – still another indication of imperial and colonial influences.

The Communists showed the hesitancy and uncertainty of other political parties. They did not sufficiently develop a clear perspective of the way ahead for Australia. In addition, they were dogged by internal wrangling, dispute about affiliation to the Communist International and when that was settled, ties with that body based in Moscow, ties which gave rise to the misunderstandings to which reference has been made.

Experience bore out the analysis that the formation of the Communist Party had in effect been a marriage between the mildly radical trade unionism and parliamentarism born of 19th century Australia and a rather vague Australian socialism influenced by the October Russian revolution and ideas of rapid development of world socialist revolution. The idea of rapid socialism was certainly not borne out in the development and practice of Australia. Nor could it have been. Facts simply did not permit it.

The decade was marked in Australia by continuing denunciation and persecution of the Communists. Their early affiliation to the Labor Party and close relations of the leaders of the Communist Party with the trade unions continued the trade union and parliamentary emphasis in the Communist position. Again this was no bad thing if properly analysed and understood. The Communists avowed revolution to achieve socialism. They did not define what they meant by socialism and the steps necessary to get there. A scientific overall view of Australia and socialism was lacking. They did not see the decisive need to wrench Australia from financial and diplomatic dependence on England. They did not see that on national independence and various reforms there was a degree of affinity with the Labor Party. Nor did they give sufficient account to the predominant hold of the Labor Party on the workers and on other sections of the population.

In the course of the ’twenties, the Labor Party and the Communist Party separated. Their closer relations expressed in early affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labor Party had always been tenuous.

Provisions which attacked Communism were inserted into various Acts of the Commonwealth. They were systematised in political provisions of the Crimes Act in 1926 to make Communism a crime. This kept pace with the world-wide alarm of the capitalists at the Russian revolution and revolutionary upheavals in Europe The capitalists were losing confidence in their own system. The Crimes Act included provisions about the deportation of foreign-born Communists. The Communists continued to extol the progress of the Soviet Union without defining the relation of this to overall solution of Australian problems.

Communism in Australia thus had a difficult birth and a confused and confusing history. In the mid-twenties, serious doubts arose as to whether or not efforts to build a Communist Party should be persisted with. This too is understandable when regard is had to the early intermingling of Labor Party and Communist Party and the threats and intimidation visited on the Communists. But the effort to build the Party was continued. It was impossible to extinguish the aspirations for socialism amongst the workers and working people The Communist Party gave the most consistent expression to these aspirations.

The political situation outside the Communist Party was in its turn confusing. Australia was isolated geographically from the Western world. It had very few interests or ties in Asia or in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Its strongest ties were with England plus the beginnings of ties with the USA. It was an environment that made native indigenous development difficult. It led to a certain pragmatism in all political parties – the solution of immediate problems in what seemed the most immediate practical way without seeing an ultimate goal.

Within the ALP and the Communist Party, and in the working class as a whole, were a range of differing ideas of socialism. Vague notions of socialism prevailed. Thus various strands came together without the emergence of a single cohesive theory and line of advance There was a degree of immaturity in the world Communist movement and, of course, in Australia.

In his remarks in 1922 on five years of the Russian Revolution, Lenin recognised that there was an ebb in the revolutionary tide and urged the taking advantage of every moment to study, to start learning from the beginning. But by study was not meant primarily the study of books. What was meant was the study of actual conditions in the light of the general principles revealed in the Marxist books. To the Australian Communists however, the Russian revolution and the Communist International became a type of talisman which magically solved all problems despite Lenin’s warnings against this sort of approach.