Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

E.F. Hill

Communism and Australia
Reflections and Reminiscences

Chapter Two: Formation of the Australian Communist Party

Throughout the whole world, the war caused a tremendous radicalisation of the working class and a great development of all progressive social thinking. It caused a definition of social issues far sharper than in the previous period. It put on trial capitalist ideology and the ideology of the various socialist and other trends in the working class. In several European countries in 1917-1920, there were situations pregnant with socialist revolution.

By no means was Australia up to that level nor did anything like revolutionary potential develop. This contrast between European and Australian situations had an important bearing on the development of Communism in Australia.

The Russian socialist revolution exerted a profound influence. Interventionary wars to suppress it were waged. Workers in many countries acted in opposition to those interventionary wars. Australian workers were among them. The Relief Campaign for the Russian famine was one example. Many workers throughout the world supported the Russian revolution. This was an instinctive attraction to that revolution – instinctive in the sense that generally speaking solidarity with the Soviet Union did not arise from full-blown consciousness of what had happened, but a feeling that workers who opted out of war and strove to establish their own state power were acting correctly.

The Russian revolutionary slogan – “Peace, Bread and Land” – had an enormous appeal in a war-torn and impoverished world. (It is worthy of note that in its mass appeal “Peace, Bread and Land” was not an acceptance of Communist doctrine but an appropriate slogan of struggle put forward by Russian Communists.) The importance of capitalism, its exploitation and oppression, the suffering from the war which it had imposed on the world, meant that the salvoes of the Russian revolution reverberated around the world and awakened many people. An alternative to capitalism had emerged. Those who had been influenced by Marx’s ideas saw the Russian revolution as translating into practice what hitherto (with the 1871 brief exception of the Paris Commune) had been theory.

The title of John Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook the World, graphically summed up the impact of the Russian revolution. The theoreticians of capitalism certainly understood or sensed some of its significance, namely the challenge to their whole system. They talked of strangling it in its cradle.

Socialism as an idea in Australia became much more popular than hitherto. Measure of this was the adoption by the Labor Party in 1921 of the socialist objective. Its inclusion in the Labor Party platform arose fundamentally because of mass demand among the workers and Labor Party adherents. It would have been inexpedient for the Labor leaders to fail to include it. “Socialism” meant different things to different people. This has been demonstrated by the very many “interpretations” through which the Labor Party “socialist” objective has subsequently gone, its imprecision and the metamorphoses it has undergone in the hands of various Labor leaders.

Out of the various factors of the time – the development of capitalism in Australia, the experience of the war by Australians, the existence and development of socialist groups and socialist ideas in Australia, the influence of the Russian revolution, the influence of the Communist International – the Communist Party of Australia was formed. The accepted date of its formation is October 30, 1920.

Communist analysis showed the evolution of society from primitive communism to slavery, from slavery to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism. Within each epoch the basis for the succeeding epoch was laid and force had been the midwife to every old society pregnant with the new. Russian capitalism had been pregnant with socialism; force had been the midwife of the birth of socialism, Russia provided a centre and focus for all socialists. For them, Moscow became what Mecca is to the Muslims. It brought interest in revolutionary socialist ideas to new millions. Its importance both to capitalists and workers, was qualitatively enormous. It represented a complete rupture from capitalism and capitalist ideas.

The Soviet Union and its Communist Party had taken the initiative in forming the Communist International (the Third International). Moscow became the seat of the Communist International. The Communist International proclaimed its adherence to Marxism and was a single international organisation, the members of which were Communist Parties, The Communist International must in fact be a single Communist Party of the entire world, said the statutes of the International adopted at its Second Congress. Its aim was to establish an international Soviet republic as a transitional stage to the complete abolition of the state.[1] The Parties were required to fulfil certain tests. Those tests in essence required complete adherence to decisions of the International. All the decisions of the congresses of the Communist International, as well as the decisions of its Executive Committee, were binding upon all Parties affiliated to the Communist International.[2] It set out to bring Communist ideas to the workers of the world and to organise those workers for the world-wide realisation of those ideas. It did tremendous work.[3]

In retrospect, it can be seen that certain negative consequences in the development of the revolutionary movement in the various countries of the world arose from the way in which both the Russian revolution and the work of the Communist International were understood. The gap between the theory of scientific socialism and its practice was demonstrated. Within Russia itself there was great success in the struggle to establish socialism; there were also serious setbacks. As between the advanced Russian Communists and less advanced Communists in many other countries, there was a considerable difference. It had its own history and development. The Communists in Australia (and no doubt elsewhere) had shortcomings in that they did not see clearly Australia’s own distinctive history and development even though Lenin and “The Conditions of Affiliation to the Communist International” gave attention to differing conditions in different countries. Communists in Australia gave a disproportionate amount of their attention to Russia and the Communist International. They did not fully appreciate the need to get down to the job of finding the way to socialism in their own particular conditions nor did they fully appreciate that the arena of the struggle of their own working class was Australia.

They did not appreciate that while the Russian revolution occurred according to the general social laws revealed by Marxism and verified those laws, it was at the same time specifically Russian. It arose in a particular conjuncture of circumstances, namely, the collapse of the Russian Czars and Russian capitalism under the strain of war, the failure of the Russian bourgeoisie to cope with the situation and the comparatively sudden and initially not acutely difficult seizure of state power by the Russian workers and peasants under the leadership of the Russian Communists, these latter being well equipped with Marxist ideology and having a mass following. The theory of the Russian revolution had indeed been very carefully worked out. It followed general principles and just as important, it had its particular Russian content. That Russian content arose from the fact that for the Russian workers and peasants the arena of struggle was correctly seen by the Russian Communists to be Russia. It evolved from a background of innumerable struggles waged by the Russian peasants and workers both before and after the 1905 revolution. Lenin, particularly, had subjected all Russian experience to minute scrutiny and summing up. His ideas had been grasped by a significant number of Russian workers and other revolutionaries. They understood the general principles but they also understood Russian revolutionary theory, the conditions in Russia and practice in Russian revolutionary activity. Lenin understood that the Russian situation had features distinct from any other country and every other country had features distinct from Russia. Without this realisation there is little doubt that the Russian revolution would have either not occurred when it did or if it occurred, would have encountered difficulty much greater than it did. In enthusiasm for the socialist revolution in Russia, revolutionaries in other countries gave this side of the matter insufficient attention. This certainly applied in Australia. In that regard, Lenin himself warned of the shortcomings of a resolution of the Communist International carried at the Fourth Congress of that body in 1922. He spoke of a resolution that dealt with the organisational structure of the Communist Parties and on the methods and content of their activities. He said that the resolution was an excellent one but it also had the defect of being too Russian, being based entirely on Russian experience and being thoroughly permeated with Russian spirit, that foreigners to Russia would have difficulty in understanding it and if they did, they would be unable to carry it out because it derived from specific Russian experience.[4] In his book ’Left-wing’ Communism, an Infantile Disorder, 1920, circulated among Communist International delegates, Lenin emphasised the international significance of the Russian revolution. That significance, he said, lay in certain fundamental features of it but it would be a very great mistake to exaggerate this truth. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormous general importance of the Russian revolution, the universal conclusions drawn from it and its contribution to enriching the general principles of scientific socialism and its inspiration to the whole socialist cause. That includes its inspiration and influence in Australia. The general road of the October Revolution has universal features. It is wrong to exaggerate the direct applicability to other countries of details of Russian experience. Those details were vitally important in providing the raw material for the profoundly important enrichment of general social laws. They also illustrated those general social laws. Much can be learned from them. But the particular details were probably quite unique and applicable only in Russia in the then circumstances. Socialist revolution would necessarily take different courses in different countries. In turn, revolutions in other countries would have their own particular and unique features. Lenin’s book developed these ideas in particular regard to given countries. They were all European countries. He deprecated study which was confined to the general; his emphasis was that there must be study in the special sense of each country in order that the organisation, structure, method and content of revolutionary activity, could be understood. Because of shortcomings in understanding those fundamental principles, the Russian revolution was understood and taken as the model, not only in its fundamental significance but in its actual details. Thus some revolutionary workers made the error of taking the Russian revolution in all its details as the exclusive model to be followed everywhere. Likewise the error was made of taking the Russian Communist Party in all its details as the exclusive model. Some Communists did not see that neither Russian nor European experience could possibly be universally applicable in all their respective detail. Even the conjuncture of circumstances that arose in Russia was largely understood as the more or less exclusive way in which socialist revolution elsewhere would arise and develop. This type of misunderstanding exerted a negative influence on indigenous Communism in various countries, Australia included. Study and discussion of what was done and said in Russia tended to become a substitute for minute study of the particular conditions in given countries and the working out of the general social laws in the particular conditions of those countries. Lenin’s example in detailed study of his native Russia, and thereby finding its particular revolutionary road, was the example of study that required to be followed in other countries so that in turn the particular road in each country could be found. Precisely such a method of study of the particular background conditions of Australia, different indeed from Russia, was a vitally important aspect of the real lesson to be learned. Australian theory had to be derived from Australian practice and conditions and that theory was required to guide Australian practice. An immediate and very significant difference presents itself. The October Revolution was a direct socialist revolution and had a history of 1905 and February 1917 bourgeois democratic revolution which facilitated the development of Russian capitalism. Sober analysis would have shown that direct socialist revolution was not possible in Australia. Steps preliminary to that were required.

Thus in Australia an arbitrary interpretation of the Russian revolution was, as it were, artificially imposed on very different Australian history and development. It was imposed rather than carefully digested, assimilated and subjected to a process of using what was applicable and discarding what was not applicable. Australian socialists themselves had in fact evolved in the particular Australian environment. Features of that environment were the youth and weakness of capitalism, an immature working class affected by notions of English superiority and Australia’s colonial inferiority, white racism and within working class activity, a comparatively widespread development of trade union consciousness with a distinct and considerable militancy but limited to economic demands and solution of the workers’ problems through parliament. This very immaturity made it in a way natural for Australian Communists to look to the more experienced Russian Communists. The main trends within the Australian working class were liberal-labour politics, trade unionism and parliamentarism. This is not at all to attack them. As previously indicated, the development of trade unions, of the Labor Party and representation in parliament were objectively progressive. They were dictated by Australia’s conditions and history. Some of those influenced by the IWW., the One Big Union movement and the socialists (albeit of many hues) understood something of the limitations of the ideology of trade unionism and parliamentarism. It was simply a consequence of the actual conditions in Australia that trade unionist and parliamentary ideology should express themselves strongly in the left movement and within the newborn Communist Party. Good knowledge of Marxism was limited. Thus the formation of the Communist Party, while tremendously important and significant for Australia, was the marriage of these trends with the not particularly well understood influence of the Russian revolution and a rather vague understanding of Marxism.

Early Communist Party leadership was heavily influenced by trade union officials. Members of the Communist Party freely belonged to the Labor Party. Trade union officials occupied important positions in both Parties. For a period the Communist Party was affiliated with the Labor Party. The ideology, politics and organisation of the Communist Party and the Labor Party and the trade unions were closely intertwined. In the then environment, association and friendship amongst them were perfectly natural. In itself, this was no bad thing. Properly understood, it was a very good thing because history determined that the Australian working class had to go through this experience. Clear lines of ideological, political and organisational relations were yet to be worked out. Independent ideology of Communism which required particular Australian revolutionary theory and movement was lacking. That revolutionary theory embraced good relations with the Labor Party and trade unions and scientific socialist understanding of those relations.

The idea that the October revolution was being imposed by Communists on Australia was energetically pushed by the capitalists. They saw in the birth of Communism in Australia (and elsewhere) a dangerous foreign doctrine. They condemned “Bolshevism” in a million different keys. They persisted in fostering and exploiting the suspicion of Australians of “foreign” doctrines. In the ’twenties, this outlook expressed itself in Australian legislation directed against foreign “agitators” and in attempts to deport them. In a seamen’s strike, the strike leaders who had been born outside Australia, were subjected to deportation proceedings (unsuccessful in the end because of mass opposition). Throughout the existence of the Communist Party, its “foreign” origin and “foreign” doctrine have been a major theme of attacks upon it.

Sections of Australian workers were afflicted with racial prejudice It derived no doubt, from the imperialism of England with its propagation of English white supremacy. Australia was its outpost in the Pacific. “White Australia” ideas had been deeply imprinted on the Australian community. Amongst sections of the workers was a suspicion of anything foreign. The import of black people from the Pacific Islands to work at low wages, fed this prejudice Hence capitalist denunciation of Communism as foreign and denunciation of foreign agitators, fell on soil already prepared by the ideology which supported “White Australia”. Exploitation of this was mirrored by the persistence of the cry “Go back to Moscow” as the conventional way of denouncing Communists.

The Communist Party of Australia affiliated with the Communist International in 1921. Before affiliating, there had been haphazard connections with the International. One effect of affiliation with the Communist International was further inhibition of independent Australian Communist investigation into Australia. Though the International did pay attention to local conditions, local Communists suffered from a somewhat unquestioning worship of the International and looked to it for guidance to a degree beyond its capacity. As a section of the Communist International, the Australian Communist Party was bound by decisions of the International and bound to accept assistance from organisers from the International. It was part of the single International. This added to Australian misunderstanding that decisions about struggle for socialism in Australia were in the hands of the International and Russian Communist Party and those bodies were all-wise. Events have made clear that it is simply impossible for people outside a given country to understand that country in its social conditions, intimate traditions and social nuances. It is hard enough for the locally-born. In conditions where the foreign organisation had power to make binding decisions on the Australian Party and where the Australian Party misunderstood its own role, difficulties were bound to occur. Australian delegates who went to Congresses or other deliberations of the International almost necessarily could give to the International only a onesided understanding of the local situation. This was the more so when the great problems of communication and travel, derived from Australia’s geographical isolation, were taken into account. The local Communists who received the approval of the Communist International attained, by that fact alone, a prestige that their local Australian position may well not have warranted. Their grasp of Marxism was not good. Leadership in the working class movement cannot be conferred by any outside body. It can only be earned and won by local struggle on correct lines. The Communist International could not create nor impose an Australian Communist leader acceptable to Australian people. Nor could it create and impose a Communist Party that commanded the respect and support of Australian workers and radicals. Yet the idea that the International could do this infected Australian Communists. Australian people alone could experience and test the qualities of various parties and leaders and accept the leadership of those who proved themselves capable in Australian conditions. The Communists confused what they themselves accepted within their own circle with what the people at large and outside that circle accepted.

Amongst the enormous amount of capitalist comment on the Soviet Union, rarely was a favourable thing said. This had a dual effect. It sowed prejudice against the Soviet Union and socialism amongst the working class and other people; but it aroused a degree of interest in the Soviet Union and socialism. It helped Australian people to appraise socialism and the Soviet Union. Because the Soviet Union was socialist, the Communists certainly popularised its achievements as one of their important activities. This was correct. But it too was exploited to imprint the brand of the “foreign” on the Communist Party.

As the work of the Australian Communist Party, the Communist International and the Soviet Union unfolded, the Soviet leaders acted in some ways as though the. Communist International and Communist Parties were instruments of Soviet policy. Again, this had a negative effect in creating conditions in which the “foreign” character of the Communist Party in Australia could be exploited. Within the Australian Communist Party, there was not sufficient grip of the Australian milieu and tasks to put the necessary popularisation and defence of the Soviet Union in its proper perspective for Australia. In short, the pre-eminence of Australian problems and Australian solutions failed to get the emphasis needed. As the Soviet Union was regarded as the last word and the final authority on Communism, the situation arose where it was difficult to rise above the atmosphere of the acceptance of the supposed all-embracing wisdom of the Soviet Party and Soviet Union.

Still another factor in it was that the Communist leaders in Australia and the Soviet Union tended to see that the mere socialist example of the Soviet Union would in itself cause the end of capitalism in Australia and elsewhere. The popularisation and defence of the Soviet Union were directed to the end that it live in peace, build up its socialism and such would be its shining example that in some unexplained way, socialism would come to pass in Australia. This also tended to obscure preliminary phases through which Australia had to pass before socialism could be achieved. In short, the objective in every Communist mind was socialism of the Russian style.

In its early days, the Communist International proceeded on the footing that there would be a very rapid maturing of socialist revolution in the capitalist countries. The then contemporary speeches and writings of Lenin himself reflect this. It is not difficult to understand the enthusiasm that arose. The assumption of easy and rapid revolution was not calculated to cause the Communist Parties to work hard in subjecting their own countries to the minute analysis that was required and thus to define the revolutionary tasks. Moreover the assumption turned out to be incorrect. (In 1922, it was noted by Lenin to be wrong.) Lenin himself has said of Marx and Engels’ estimate of immediacy of European revolution in 1848, “Yes, Marx and Engels erred much and erred often in determining the closeness of the revolution but he repudiated any idea that this was the main thing; he said Marx and Engels were titans of revolutionary thought!’[5]

The Comintern (Communist International) functionaries who were sent to the various countries, carried with them the authority of the international body. The Australian Communist Party had little say in the selection of the functionaries sent to Australia. Those functionaries drew their authority not necessarily from any local acceptance, nor from having earned prestige in local work, but from what to Australian workers and Australian Communists was a foreign body, the Communist International. This system added to the difficulties. Even if the functionaries were persons of great ability, the task for them was to win leadership for the Communists in a foreign country. The Communist International was largely a European organisation. Its predominant attention was to Europe. Its main leaders were European. The Communist International tended to reflect the advanced capitalist conception of the world, the centre of which was in Europe. This meant that the study of problems in the colonial and ex-colonial world did not proceed in the same degree as study of Europe. Australia was remote from Europe but embraced within its influence. This meant an undue influence of things European on Australia.

All this is in retrospect. It does not detract from the tremendous value of the Communist International’s analysis of capitalism, its general analysis of revolution, its popularisation of the ideas of Communism and its work in preparing the ground for Communist organisation throughout the world. Responsibility for the shortcomings in Australia lay fundamentally with Australian Communists. This was by far the most important single fact. In turn, those shortcomings reflected the immaturity of capitalism in Australia.

Capitalism in Australia (just as capitalism everywhere else) was building up its own working class. It was laying the foundation for socialising the process of production and calling into being large factories where the whole labour process was co-operative, that is, each worker’s labour was dependent upon his fellow worker’s labour right throughout the process of production. The products produced in that way were appropriated by a handful of people, the factory owners. In 1920 in Australia however, the process was yet young. Australia was still heavily dependent upon Britain which was the biggest investor, the biggest market for Australia and the biggest exporter to Australia. Australia was still a British “Dominion” within the British Empire; it was formally independent but deeply enmeshed in financial and diplomatic dependence on England.

Ideas of independence from England had jumped ahead after 1900 but still fell short of consistent demands for complete independence That was in keeping with the then heavy degree of economic and diplomatic dependence on Britain.

The Communist Party attempted to apply mechanically its understanding of very advanced revolutionary ideas which came from a predominantly European centre where capitalism was far more developed and the working class more revolutionary. Those ideas were ahead of Australia’s development. Their correctness as generalities was not the point but the way to their realisation in Australia was an entirely different question. A degree of romanticism afflicted Australian Communists. There was a subjectivism which burned with the wish for socialism without considering the real (factual) situation. That real situation was not mature for socialism.

The Australian Communists were not yet up to coping with the job of making a prudent assessment of the whole situation and patiently setting themselves the task of working it all out for Australia. Rather, they were limited by the comparatively (as against Marxism) backward ideology of trade unionism and parliamentarism. Very advanced conceptions of revolution based on the Russian experience were mixed with these more backward ideologies.

The Communist Party in Australia therefore faced the problem of realising the deficiencies in its birth and of growing to adulthood through a process of trial and error. The creation of the Communist Party was the first step in the process. Despite all shortcomings, those who took it honestly set out to serve the Australian people. They set in train the struggle for the victory of scientific socialism in Australia. That struggle has never been abandoned. Heroic people have always stepped forward to carry it on.


[1] R. P. Dutt, The Internationale.

[2] From Condition 17 of “The Conditions of Affiliation to the Communist International”, Lenin, Selected Works, 12 Volume Edition, Vol.10, p.205.

[3] Lenin: “The Third International and its Place in History”, Selected Works, 12 Volume Edition, Vol.10, p.29; Collected Works, Vol.29, p.305.

[4] 𔄢Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution” – 1922.

[5] See W. Z. Foster, History of The Three Internationals p.129.