Comintern History. Australian Communist Party 1945

The Party As The Inheritor Of Socialist Trends In The Victorian Labor Movement

by E. F. Hill

Source: "Reason in Revolt", Source documents of Australian Radicalism;
First Published: in Communist Review, August 1945, pp. 580-582;
Transcribed: by Chris Clayton.

EUREKA, the struggle for the 8 hours’ day, the Maritime Strike, were all of first-rate importance in the political development of the Australian working class. The developing capitalist economy inevitably demonstrated to the nascent working class the limitations of lobbying with the existing bourgeois political parties, in an effort to secure working class demands. The use of this naked power of the capitalist state to suppress the 1890 strikers brought to a decisive head the previous hesitant considerations of the formation of a separate political party of the working class.

1890 marked a turning point in the history of Australian working class politics. But it was succeeded by a period of reformist domination — a period in which the Labor Party set itself out upon the historic road so vividly portrayed in 1918 by Lenin — the building of a strong central government.

An expanding capitalist economy provided the ideal conditions for reformism. Reformist ideas were dominant in the working class — time and conditions did not yet permit of any but the most farseeing sections understanding the limits of reformism.

In these conditions, the early struggles of those who could see beyond the limitations of reformism were bound to be difficult. But the development of capitalism, with its inexorable laws, provided the foundation upon which the ideas of socialism must survive, no matter how weakly nor what the setbacks in the early period.

In that general background, we find in Victoria, throughout the latter part of the 18th century, socialist ideas of varying kinds striving for expression. In 1887, there appeared in New South Wales the Australian Socialist League: In Victoria, a little later, the Social Democratic Federation.

Then quite early in Victoria’s socialist history appeared the Victorian Socialist League, in the foundations of which the nineties Ben Tillett — a colleague of Tom Mann in the London Dockers’ Strike — had played a prominent part. Reference should also be made to the anarchist movement and the well-known Melbourne identity J. W. (Chummy) Flemming, who, in 1889, launched the anarchist movement in Victoria. Although temporarily the anarchists attracted a large following, the movement never obtained a solid mass backing.

Associated with Victoria’s early socialist history is the great name of Tom Mann. In his work, the birth and early growth of the socialist movement is epitomised. After his arrival in Victoria, in 1903, his main activities were devoted to organising in the official Labor Party bodies; but in 1905, he set out to establish the socialist movement on a firmer basis.

In June, 1905, Mann found that socialist activities in Victoria were at a low ebb, with the Social Democratic Federation promoting the only socialist meetings. He commenced weekly lectures in the Bijou Theatre. Those lectures gave rise to the Social Questions Committee. The activities of the Social Questions Committee were not confined to propaganda but included the organisation of a mass canvass to expose the Government’s irresponsible attitude to the unemployed problem. In conditions of widespread unemployment, the Government was forced to take action and the Social Questions Committee attracted great attention.

A better basis for Socialist activity was achieved when, on September 1, 1905, the Victorian Socialist Party was formed and absorbed the existing socialist groups. Now, the best elements of the Social Democratic Federation and the Victorian Socialist League found a common ground. The new Victorian Socialist Party attracted a good deal of support. It was a considerable development on the narrow sectarian outlook of the early socialist groups, cut off, as they were, from the mass movement.

Amongst the aims of the Victorian Socialist Party was that of winning the Labor Party for socialism. Its history is thus inextricably woven with that of the Labor Party. For that reason, many men now in leading positions in the Labor Party served their early apprenticeship with the V.S.P. — John Curtin, present Prime Minister, John Caln, Leader of the Labor Party in the Victorian Parliament, Thomas Tunnecliffe, ex-Premier of Victoria — now discredited right-wing Labor politician.

Then in April, 1906, the Victorian Socialist Party established its newspaper — “The Socialist.” Tom Mann was its editor. “The Socialist” survived the 1914-1918 war and did not finally cease publication until 1922. Activities by the Victorian Socialist Party, based upon the earlier experience of the Social Questions Committee, included the running of a Socialist Sunday School, Yarra Bank rallies, Bijou Theatre rallies.

The development of the socialist movement did not go unchallenged in the capitalist class. Street meetings were banned and many speakers were prosecuted and convicted. Tom Mann went to gaol as one of 10 socialists convicted of street speaking. Mass campaigning succeeded in breaking down the series of prosecutions. A victory for free speech had been won; it had not been in vain that Tom Mann had picked oakum in Pentridge gaol.

The new Socialist bodies were going through intense birth agonies — sectarianism, personal rivalries and petty jealousies all played a part. Their welding together against the common class enemy was urgently needed. In July, 1907, there was convened in Melbourne a conference of Australian socialist bodies by which it was aimed to bring about a united socialist front. To that conference came representatives of 2000 socialists. Included amongst them were the Victorian Labor Party (represented by Tom Mann) and the Socialist Labor Party (including the Victorian section of the Socialist Labor Party). On a motion to establish the Socialist Federation of Australia (later known as the Australian Socialist Party), the Socialist Labor Party withdrew. But the conference was a historic one in giving birth to the Socialist Federation of Australia.

(Early in 1907, a Victorian section of the Socialist Labor Party (the Australian Socialist League of 1887 had become the Socialist Labor Party) had been established. After the withdrawal of the Socialist Labor Party from the unity conference of 1907, all sections of that body, including the Victorian, pursued their lonely sectarian existence Obstinately refusing to have anything to do with the mass movement or day to day demands, it degenerated into a group of unprincipled charlatans. Today, it constitutes one of the semi-Trotskyite reserves of the most reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie.)

After the 1907 unity conference, the Victorian Socialist Party functioned within the Socialist Federation of Australia. Co-operative ideas revealed themselves in the establishment (and continuance for some years) of co-operative bakery and grocery stores. In the Federation the Victorian Socialist Party advanced the idea of support of the Labor Party in elections. But at the 1903 conference of the Federation, a decision was made that no Socialist could be a member of a non-Socialist political party which, of course, included the Labor Party. As a consequence of this decision, two socialist candidates stood in the elections of 1908, Percy Laidler polling 85 at Collingwood, and Angus McDonell 82 at West Melbourne.

An idea of the Party’s policy is provided by Mann’s 1909 pamphlet “Industrial Unionism.” “Wage Boards,” said Mann, speaking of industrial trouble in the Tramways, “are at least semi-capitalistic in character, and working class emancipation can never be obtained through such an agency. The men should organise as part of the Working Class, and if the delegates who claimed to represent the 95 Unions having 40,000 members, who waited upon Mr Murray, M.L.A., the other week, were to make common cause, even for two days, with these tram men and gas works employees, and organise them openly and fearlessly in the face of the world, this would at once and for ever wipe out the arrogance of the dominant companies with their feudalistic dictatorial rules and their slave-making system of discipline.”. “And,” he urged, “don’t forget the goal — the Abolition of Poverty by the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth.”

Nor did the Victorian Socialist Party confine itself to this form of agitation and propaganda. At this period of its history, Mann’s understanding of the mass struggle was a strong influence. With this influence, and the growth of the working class itself, the socialist movement grew. Its relative strength, even at this early stage, was demonstrated by the fact that despite an official Labor Party boycott, a successful May Day demonstration was held in 1910.

In 1910, the Socialist Federation of Australia (of which the Victorian Socialist Party was a branch) determined upon the creation of an Independent Socialist Party. Substantially, the V.S.P, although it had stood independent Parliamentary candidates, had remained a left wing in the Labor Party. The V.S.P, unwilling to sacrifice its Labor Party connection, opposed the decision to form an Independent Socialist Party. When, in 1912, the Socialist Federation of Australia became the Australian Socialist Party, the Victorian Socialist Party refused to abide by the decision. The V.S.P. remained as the left wing of the Labor Party.

The better elements in the V.S.P. then broke away and led by J. Wilson established the Victorian branch of the Australian Socialist Party. The formation of the A.S.P. in Victoria expressed the determination of leading socialists to break with the class collaboration of the A.L.P and to set up a genuine socialist party — a role which the V.S.P could no longer fulfil. Faced with the choice, the V.S.P. had taken the path of conciliation and attempted to unite the left and the right.

So that, when the war began in 1914, the two main socialist trends in Victoria were the V.S.P and the Victorian branch of the A.S.P. The V.S.P. opposed the war in a hesitant and vacillating fashion. The pages of the “Victorian Socialist” contained a strange assortment of pacifist views on the war. On the other hand, the “International Socialist,” organ of the A.S.P., maintained a position of consistent (if sectarian) opposition.

The anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917 provided fresh soil for the V.S.P., in particular, to attract to 12 further pacifist and opportunist elements, and it was precisely during this period that it reached its greatest membership. The more uncompromising A.S.P., on the other hand, did not constitute the same attraction for these unstable elements but attracted more of the stable elements. On the other side of the picture, the sectarianism of the A.S.P. repelled numbers of good supporters.

The A.S.P., too, carried on valuable work in exposing the role of the A.L.P, including the V.S.P. As for the latter, the march of events was bound to render impossible its attempts to reconcile the right-wing policy of the A.L.P. with the left-wing socialist movement. It suffered the fate of all conciliators, and, as a force for socialism, its importance rapidly declined although it maintained a skeleton existence until 1931.

Because of the very consistency of its stand, and the vindication in experience of many of its principles the A.S.P. emerged at the end of the war as the dominant socialist trend. Its exposure of corruption in the V.S.P., coupled with that body’s rejection, in 1919, of anything to do with the 3rd International, further strengthened it. The post-war developments, its stand in support of the Russian Revolution and the consistency of the “International Socialist” further enhanced its prestige and indeed constituted an attraction for the better elements in the V.S.P.

Let us briefly review the position of these socialist trends. A manifesto issued on May Day, 1907, by the V.S.P., considering the time in which it was written, revealed quite good promise. It stated: “Socialism is a theory of a system of human society, based on the common ownership of the means of production and the carrying on of the work of production by all for the benefit of all. In other words, Socialism means that the land, the railways, the shipping, the mines, the factories, and all such things as are necessary for the production of the necessaries and comforts of life should be public property, just as our public roads, our public parks and our public libraries are public property today, so that all these things should be used by the whole people to produce the goods that the whole of the people require.” However, on the question of how this is to be attained, the key question of state power. the Manifesto is comparatively silent.

Then, the early conception of the V.S.P. to transform the Labor Party into its own image, to get the adoption by the Labor Party of the V.S.P.’s idea of socialism and a co-operative Commonwealth, revealed a failure to appreciate the essentially bourgeois character of the Labor Party. Such a conception flowed from the petty-bourgeois character of the V.S.P. and contained the seeds of its own destruction as an independent force for socialism.

The history of its struggle in the A.S.F. indicates this same trend — it was caught between this conception on the one hand, and, on the other, the need to create a socialist party, independent of the bourgeoisie. Time and circumstances permitted it to vacillate between these two positions until, in 1912, the A.S.P. in Victoria finally proclaimed its independence as a Socialist Party. The different path chosen by the V.S.P. was imposed upon it by the dominance of petty-bourgeois opportunist elements.

But it would be wrong to conclude that because of its shortcomings the V.S.P. had no positive value. The very introduction of the ideas of socialism, particularly in a period of developing capitalism, its widespread propaganda and agitational activities had their importance. Particularly was this so in the period 1906-1912. With the parting of the ways in 1912, the best traditions of socialism were taken over by the Victorian branch of the A.S.P.

The development of the V.S.P., subsequent to 1912, showed clearly the degenerative process that had set in. Its propaganda demonstrated once more and more clearly the petty-bourgeois vacillations of its leadership. Throughout the war, there was no consistent call by the V.S.P. for struggle to end the war — no real conception of the revolutionary tasks of the working class.

These best traditions of the V.S.P., taken over, in 1912, by the Victorian branch of the A.S.P., provided a striking contrast to the compromising policy of the V.S.P. The “International Socialist” brought to the fore a stand that approached a genuine working class stand on the war and later on maintained vigorous support for the Russian Revolution. It criticised the A.L.P. for its betrayals of the workers; its statement that “The Labor Party does not clearly and unambiguously avow Socialism, nor does it teach it; it is unlike any other working class creation in the world in that it builds no Socialist movement, issues no Socialist books, debates no Socialist problems. It is not international; it is not anti-militarist; it is not Marxian. In politics and practice it is liberalism under a new name: in utterance and ideal it is bourgeois. The coming conflict in Australia is to be between Laborism and Socialist” (1910) provided material upon which Lenin based his 1913 statement.

It is perfectly true that the A.S.P. in Melbourne, no less than other places, was guilty of sectarianism, but its robust declarations on the most important working class questions of the day are a refreshing antidote to the compromise of the A.L.P. and the somewhat aimless wanderings and vacillations of the V.S.P. Furthermore, the A.S.P. pointed to the process of drift afoot in the V.S.P. and appealed to the socialists in it to join the A.S.P. Its great weakness was its deepseated sectarianism which amounted to a disease.

Mention must be made here of the formation in Melbourne, in 1913, of the I.W.W. But even at the point of its highest development in Victoria, it has been estimated that the I.W.W. secured only about 150 members. As a force in the anti-war and anti-conscription struggles, its influence extended far beyond its 150 members, but its collapse came quickly after the Government declared it illegal.

We may say then, that the characteristic features of the early pre-Communist Socialist trends were their lack of theoretical clarity and their isolation from the mass organisation of the working class.

The spirit of radicalism abroad at the end of the war led to the springing up of numerous militant groups in the Trade Unions. The better elements in the V.S.P. were seeking more stable forms of organisation. The A.S.P. stood firmly in support of the Russian Revolution.

And so, when on October 30, 1920, the Australian working class, in the words of L. L. Sharkey, performed one of its decisive revolutionary acts and established the Communist Party of Australia, the new party centred around the A.S.P. drew to itself the best elements of the V.S.P., I.W.W. and individual socialists.

The inaugural meeting in Victoria of the Communist Party of Australia is said to have taken place in Parer’s Hotel in November, 1920. With the dying away of the revolutionary upsurge, difficulties were experienced in organisation and for the first tend years of its existence the party in Victoria was very weak. Moreover, it inherited the weaknesses of its predecessors. But even within that period it played quite an important part in support of the British Seamen’s Strike in 1925: it condemned the liquidationism of Barrachi in 1926 and gradually found its feet.

Despite internal bickerings and petty bourgeois squabbles, the Party in Victoria played a role of first rate importance in the years of the great economic crisis — 1930-31-32. It secured a mass basis and courageously led many struggles of the unemployed, anti-eviction campaigns and later a renewed fight for free speech.

The expulsion from the Party in 1933 of Lovegrove (alias Jackson — and under the name of Lovegrove now the most notorious right-winger and red-baiter in the Victorian section of the A.L.P.) removed one of the great obstacles to the progress of the Party. Since his expulsion, the Party has continued to thrive and develop.

Throughout the whole period of its development, the steady growth of industry in Victoria provided the basis for the strengthening of the Party. The outbreak of the war in 1939 found it with a membership of about 1,000. During the period of illegality (1940-1941), its organisation was maintained and strengthened. It quickly succeeded in establishing a widespread network of organisation in the factories, metropolitan localities and rural areas. Firm connections with the Trade Unions have been established and maintained.

During the period of the people’s struggle against fascism, membership has grown. Just as the impact of the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a great radicalisation of the masses, so the inspiring efforts of Socialist Soviet Russia have led to a great accession of strength to the Party in Victoria, as elsewhere throughout the world. Today, the Victorian section of the Party plays its part in the Australian Party organisation in exercising an influential say in Australian affairs.

In the Victorian political field, it has led the campaign against the reactionary Dunstan government and Dunstan’s handful of extreme right-wing Labor collaborators. It has posed for the Victorian people, a policy that cannot be gainsaid. With a stable leadership and stable party organisation, the Victorian section of the party has truly inherited all that was [...] a socialist movement.

The great name of Tom Mann is inseparably linked with the history of socialism in Victoria. There is no doubt that, with the best elements of the V.S.P. which he founded, Tom Mann would have entered the Communist Party of Australia. Tom Mann was a foundation member of the British Communist Party: Tom Mann died a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The first hesitant socialist steps taken in Victoria followed into the Communist Party, the path taken by Tom Mann — the path of Marxism-Leninism. That has meant that the characteristic features of the Communist Party in its development have been deep theoretical firmness and the establishment of strong ties with the mass organisations of the working class, especially the trade unions.

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(I am indebted to L. Barnes for assistance with factual matter for this article and with access to original documents.]