Between syndicalism and reformism: Founding the Communist Party of Australia

by Mick Armstrong • Published 15 February 2021

In October 1920, inspired by the successful workers’ revolution in Russia, a group of radicals with a history in a variety of socialist and syndicalist organisations came together to found the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The party was only tiny to begin with – perhaps 750 out of an Australian population of around 5 million at the time – but it had great hopes and expectations for a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.

Unfortunately it had been formed late, past the peak of the radical wave that had swept Australia during World War I and its immediate aftermath. Its initial years were difficult ones as it tried to come to grips with the revolutionary ideas of the Russian Bolsheviks and build a base in the working class. Indeed it was flat out even surviving the 1920s.

Nonetheless it was to go on in the 1930s and 1940s to build a powerful presence in the trade union movement. For decades committed rank and file Communist activists played leading roles in a vast array of workplace struggles, street protests, student politics and innumerable campaigns. Consequently the party built an influence that went well beyond the ranks of its formal membership. From the Popular Front years of the mid-1930s onwards, the party had a powerful impact on intellectual, artistic and broader small-l liberal circles, including even some Protestant religious groupings. While never in a position to seriously challenge the ALP as the leading force in the working-class movement, the CPA became per head of population the largest Communist party in the English-speaking world.[1]

The tragedy was that the politics that dominated the CPA from the 1930s onwards were those of Stalinism. The Stalinist vision of “socialism” was a dull grey authoritarian dictatorship in which working-class people had absolutely no control over their lives. This represented a total abandonment of Karl Marx’s vision of socialism as a society of genuine human freedom. Though rank-and-file worker Communists undoubtedly played a positive role in many struggles, the overall impact of the Stalinist politics of the CPA and its fellow parties around the world was disastrous. They condemned the working-class movement internationally to decade after decade of needless defeats. The fact that they championed the murderous regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe and China as workers’ paradises eventually served to help discredit the very idea of socialism among vast sections of the working class and the oppressed.

By the early 1930s the CPA had been turned into a rigid bureaucratic machine to serve the foreign policy goals of the Russian state. Then from the mid-1930s onwards the party advocated a class-collaborationist popular front approach which sacrificed workers’ interests to the pursuit of alliances with assorted capitalist and middle-class forces that Russia’s rulers were seeking to cultivate. For the next 50 years the Stalinist politics of the CPA and its various offshoots, such as the Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) and the pro-Moscow Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), dominated left-wing politics in Australia. It came to ideologically hegemonise the outlook of much of the ALP left: reflected in the fact that when the pro-Moscow loyalists of the SPA split from the CPA in the early 1970s the NSW Labor left split along similar lines. The CPA’s class-collaborationist approach ultimately culminated in the 1980s in the pivotal role prominent Communist union officials such as Laurie Carmichael, head of the then powerful Metalworkers Union, played in drafting the Prices and Incomes Accord used by the Hawke/Keating Labor government to undermine rank-and file union organisation and impose some of the harshest cuts in wages in Australian history.

But this Stalinist class collaborationism was far from being the outlook of the rank-and-file worker militants and socialist activists who assembled together one hundred years ago in Sydney to found the CPA. They stood for working-class self-emancipation and an end to capitalist tyranny.

The political background

The context of the formation of the CPA was an enormous rupture in Australian society brought on by World War I.[2] Australia suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any of the combatant nations. At the third battle of Ypres alone, there were 38,000 Australian casualties. These statistics are manifested in every tiny country town, with the long list of names on the local war memorial of those who died for “King and country”. These hypocritical memorials do not include the far greater numbers who suffered shattering injuries and lasting trauma (recognised today as PTSD) that destroyed their lives.

The Anglo-Australian ruling class was determined to make workers pay the cost of the imperialist war effort. They imposed the harsh War Precautions Act to crush dissent, and unleashed hysterical mobs of middle-class patriots and drunken soldiers to deal with “disloyalists” and leftists. Six thousand eight hundred and ninety people were interned in concentration camps. However the slaughter on the Western front, combined with savage attacks on living standards and democratic rights and the obscene profits of capitalist war profiteers, provoked a profound working-class radicalisation. A tremendous upsurge in strikes rocked the country during the war and its immediate aftermath.

The war provoked rebellions in country after country – two of which had major repercussions in Australia. First came the Easter 1916 Dublin rebellion. The murderous British reprisals against the rebel leaders and the subsequent war of Irish national liberation invoked enormous bitterness among Irish Australian workers, then about a quarter of the working class. These feelings were intensified by a wave of persecution of Irish Australians as traitors to the nation. This in turn entrenched anti-imperialist sentiments. Australian empire loyalists glorified the British Empire as the empire on which “the sun never set”, but for a large section of Irish Australian workers and left-wing workers more generally it was the empire on which “the blood never dried”. This polarisation led to a domination of ALP membership by Irish Australians which persisted for 50 years.

The October 1917 revolution in Russia was initially welcomed by virtually all wings of the labour movement. It was to have a transformative impact on the left as more information about the revolution gradually seeped through to far away Australia, whose isolation from international political developments had been compounded by harsh wartime censorship. By 1919 all the existing radical currents were being profoundly challenged ideologically. Among the broad masses the revolution inspired the hope of an alternative world in which working-class people called the shots. As one account put it: “Apocalypse was in the air in 1918 as workers, daily expecting peace, read ecstatic accounts of ‘Russia’s stupendous historic achievement’”.[3]

Up until late 1915 the federal Labor governments of Andrew Fisher and then Billy Hughes, in cohorts with pro-war union officials, had largely held the line against working-class dissent. But then the dam began to burst with a spectacular series of predominantly victorious rank and file-led strikes: waterside workers in Melbourne, miners in the radical centre of Broken Hill, shearers in Queensland and NSW, Newcastle BHP steelworkers, Queensland meatworkers and most importantly NSW coal miners. Army enlistments collapsed. In Queensland, one of the most turbulent states, they fell from 3,890 in January 1916 to only 280 in January 1918.[4]

The attempt by the Hughes Labor government to impose conscription brought all the tensions to a head. Up until this point any public display of “disloyalty” had been assaulted by right-wing mobs. Now the tables began to turn. A bitterly fought campaign of riotous public meetings, strikes and mass mobilisations, which saw the formation of worker militias to repulse attacks by right-wing mobs, led to the narrow defeat of conscription in the October 1916 referendum. The ALP was torn apart by the crisis. Formerly moderate union leaders, under pressure from an outraged rank and file, and fearing they would be outflanked by genuinely revolutionary forces, expelled pro-conscriptionists from the ALP, including Prime Minister Billy Hughes, NSW Premier William Holman and a host of other MPs. The tide was shifting sharply to the left.

On 2 August 1917 the Great Strike started in Sydney’s tramway and railway workshops. Though centred in Sydney, it rapidly swept much of the country, drawing in up to 100,000 workers and lasting in all for 82 days.[5] This was no bureaucratic, top-down affair. It was a mass rank-and-file upsurge, with most workers walking out either in direct defiance of their officials or without their support. However no democratically controlled leadership emerged to propel the Great Strike forward to victory. There was no central leadership body to organise key tasks such as mass picketing to bring out more workers, the formation of worker defence squads to combat attacks by police and armed strike breakers, to produce daily strike bulletins, and above all to politically cohere workers in this direct confrontation with state power.

The revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), who had grown significantly on the basis of opposition to the war, proved incapable of playing this role. This failure in part reflected the IWW’s inability to cope with harsh police repression. The more fundamental weakness, however, was that the IWW’s syndicalist approach meant it did not see its role as fighting for the political leadership of the working class in a direct challenge to the power of the capitalist state. That would have entailed politically, and not simply industrially, challenging the reformist ALP and union officials. Tragically, no sizeable socialist party had emerged to fill the breach and to galvanise opposition to the union leaders and provide political direction to the insurgent movement. This eventually enabled the officials, despite furious opposition from an outraged rank and file in numerous unions, to break the strike by forcing individual groups of workers back to work.[6]

So the greatest mass strike movement in Australian history went down to defeat, with widespread victimisations of militants. But this was far from the end of the story. Billy Hughes, installed after his expulsion from the ALP as the head of a conservative government, immediately attempted to take advantage of workers’ demoralisation with another attempt to introduce conscription. He badly miscalculated.

Peace sentiment was growing and the 1917 second conscription referendum was defeated even more decisively than the first. It was particularly bitterly contested in Victoria, where young women and men in Melbourne’s inner working-class suburbs repeatedly rioted and attacked ruling-class pro-conscription speakers. Meanwhile a huge crowd of 100,000 out of a total Melbourne population of 700,000 rallied at the old Richmond racecourse to cheer on defiant anti-conscription speakers.

Nineteen eighteen witnessed an industrial lull but in 1919 and 1920 workers won a series of stunning victories in a renewed surge of strike action. The Seamens Union, under new socialist leadership, openly defied the Arbitration Court with an illegal strike to win major gains in wages and conditions, despite the jailing of union secretary Tom Walsh, later a founding member of the CPA. In the radical centre of Broken Hill the 8,000 members of the syndicalist-led Amalgamated Miners Association (AMA) won an incredible victory, including a path-breaking 35-hour week for underground miners, after the 18-month-long “Big Strike” from May 1919 to November 1920.[7]

In Western Australia, after a bitter clash with armed police in May 1919, which saw one worker killed and seven badly wounded, Fremantle waterside workers backed by large crowds of working-class women succeeded in driving out the scabs brought in during the 1917 Great Strike. They went on to seize Fremantle and force the conservative Colebatch government to resign. “Within the year”, as historian Justina Williams writes,

a goldminers strike was being fought out bitterly with armed “specials”, and other strikes came thick and fast as mass discontent rose with unemployment, hunger and broken promises in the aftermath of the war. Transcontinental railway line workers, civil servants in Perth, miners at Collie, butchers, hotel and restaurant employees and many others were striking.[8]

In Townsville, an important centre of syndicalist strength and subsequently of the Communists, striking meatworkers in 1919 were fired on by police as they attempted to storm the police lock-up to free jailed strike leaders. In response, workers raided hardware stores to arm themselves and seized the city. In Charters Towers railworkers struck in solidarity to try to prevent police reinforcements sent by the state Labor government reaching Townsville.

Moderate and right-wing union officials were swept from office in union after union, including the powerful Waterside Workers’ and Seamens’ unions as well as the Ironworkers, Miscellaneous Workers and numerous smaller unions. Even the entrenched apparatus of the largest union in the country, the Australian Workers Union (AWU), faced a serious challenge with an IWW supporter polling surprisingly well in the 1916 AWU elections against the union founder WG Spence. Then in May 1918, the radical Jock Garden, a delegate from the tiny Sailmakers Union, was elected secretary of the then most important peak union body – the NSW Labour Council. Garden, described by historian Stuart Macintyre as “[c]ourageous, generous, a born fixer and utterly shameless in his opportunism”, grouped around himself a coterie of left-wing union officials – the Trades Hall reds – who went on to play a central role in the early CPA.[9]

Various syndicalist and socialist organisations were prominent in these upheavals and grew substantially. In Victoria a leading role in the anti-conscription movement was played by the left reformist Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) which grew to about 640 members in 1918. But the revolutionary syndicalists of the IWW were the most flamboyant and well known, growing rapidly during the early years of the war from only 199 members at the end of 1913 to a peak of about 2,000 (1,500 of whom were in Sydney).[10] Yet the IWW was smashed by savage government repression which saw the core of its leadership and hundreds of members jailed and/or deported. Repression, however, could not put an end to the broader radicalisation, and under the inspiration of the successful socialist revolution in Russia, radicals began to rethink their politics and regroup.

The tentative first steps

The CPA’s foundation is usually traced to a meeting of 26 leftists on Saturday 30 October 1920 in the Australian Socialist Party’s hall in Liverpool Street, Sydney. But the reality was that under the impact of the Bolshevik triumph in Russia and the subsequent formation of the Communist International (Comintern), various currents on the left had been organising for some time to bring about the formation of a Communist party in Australia. An initial impetus came from radicals in the small but highly politicised Russian exile community associated with the paper Knowledge and Unity, many of whom had fled to Australia after the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks installed one of their leaders, Petr Simonov, as the Soviet consul for Australia. Simonov was supported by the two radical socialist MPs from the militant mining centre of Broken Hill, Mick Considine and Percy Brookfield.

In Melbourne Simonov linked up with left-wing VSP members, such as Bill Earsman, and the syndicalists Guido Baracchi and Percy Laidler, then leaders of the International Industrial Workers (IIW), one of the fragments that had regrouped some former members of the outlawed IWW. Baracchi and Laidler embraced the Russian revolution, proclaiming:

The risen star of communist Russia is shining in the firmament, and not all the powers of darkness can dim its splendour. By its light we can see that the long vista of capitalism is nearly ended. Capitalism and Communism cannot continue to exist in the world together, and since Communism has come to stay, it is capitalism which must go.[11]

Baracchi and Laidler produced the Proletarian Review, which developed the clearest understanding of any Australian left-wing publication of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary Marxist politics. Proletarian Review played an important role in publicising the writings of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders who had previously been completely unknown in Australia.

But in these years Sydney was the main game. It was where the workers’ movement was strongest, where the mass radicalisation had most severely ruptured the ALP and where the Trades Hall reds controlled the most important labour council in the country. As well, the more left-wing socialist groups, like the Australian Socialist Party (ASP) and the De Leonite Socialist Labor Party (SLP), were led from Sydney.

Despite the smashing of the IWW, syndicalism in various forms easily remained the dominant current on the left. Syndicalism had developed a significant following among worker activists in the pre-war years, as industrial militancy slowly revived from the harsh defeats of the bitter class struggles of the 1890s and the long drawn out depression that followed. There was a wave of strikes between 1909 and 1912 that reached its high point in the Brisbane general strike of 1912 which brought the city to a virtual standstill. Syndicalism represented a healthy reaction against the failures of parliamentary reformism. Syndicalism, and above all the IWW version of it, was marked by a profound workerism, an irreverent defiance of the bosses and of all the institutions of capitalism and contempt for parliament and Labor politicians.[12]

Australia had the first social-democratic governments in the world. Before World War I Labor had already held office for prolonged periods federally and in most states (except Victoria) and had dismally failed to meet the expectations of militant activists. Syndicalism also grew as a reaction against the conservative bureaucratic approach of union officialdom and the sectional nature of the plethora of tiny craft-based unions. As early as 1909 the industrial unionist ideas of the US IWW were finding a resonance among militants in key sections of the workforce – coal miners, meat workers, shearers, railworkers and waterfront workers.

The IWW looked to organising all workers, whatever their trade, occupation, race, gender, religion or political allegiance, in industrial unions which would be linked up into the “One Big Union”. They stood for unrelenting class struggle with militant direct action on the job to advance workers’ immediate demands. They saw industrial unions as laying the basis of a new society of workers’ power within the shell of the old world of capitalism. Capitalism would be overcome and socialism installed when workers were fully organised. For some syndicalists, once workers were organised in industrial unions they would simply have to fold their arms in a general strike to inherit the earth.

The war sharpened the appeal of syndicalism and hostility to middle-class politicians as it was a federal Labor government that was imposing sacrifices on workers to aid the imperial war effort. In the aftermath of the defeat of the 1917 Great Strike, support for the idea of the One Big Union (OBU) as a means to take on the bosses surged among unionised workers. Australia had the highest rate of unionisation in the world in this period – 46 percent of the workforce nationally in 1920 and 56 percent in NSW, the most important state.[13] A clear majority of these organised workers, even in right wing-led unions like the AWU, embraced the idea of the OBU.

There were, however, competing conceptions about how the OBU would be organised and heated debates among the various syndicalist currents. The most important debate was over whether the OBU would be built in a highly democratic way from the bottom up and based on strong shop floor organisation, as the more radical syndicalists organised in groups such as the Workers International Industrial Union (WIIU) and the One Big Union Propaganda League (OBUPL) advocated, or a more top-down approach advocated by left union officials.

The most powerful OBU-supporting current was headed by the Sydney Trades Hall reds – union officials and their coterie of supporters who were in alliance with the head of the powerful miners’ union, AC Willis. The Trades Hall reds’ OBU scheme, the Workers Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA), was endorsed by representatives of 150 NSW unions in August 1918 and a similar gathering of Queensland unions in the same month and subsequently by a national gathering of unions in Melbourne in January 1919.

These left officials basically had a top-down approach but couched it in ultra-maximalist rhetoric. Reflecting the radical mood among the rank and file, miners’ leader Willis, who was in no sense the most left-wing of these officials, insisted at the national Trade Union Congress in June 1921 that it was impossible for workers to gain political power without resorting to violence: “[I]t is no good asking people to vote. Instead…we should be here discussing…the formation of a Red Army”.[14]

There was a wildly utopian element to the OBU schema. Jock Garden in his Secretary’s Report in December 1919 hailed the OBU:

Organised Labour, I am conscious, will welcome the new order, and will march united to enter the promised land – the land of Freedom, the land of Liberty. He will exclaim, “Eureka! Eureka! I have found it. Emancipation! Emancipation!”[15]

Somehow the bosses and their state were going to surrender their wealth and power simply because workers had come together in one big industrial union. There was no practical plan for their overthrow; no strategy for challenging the capitalist state or the hegemony of reformist political forces over workers.

The Trades Hall reds’ OBU scheme was initially backed by most socialist groups, including the ASP, VSP and even the arch-sectarian SLP. The overwhelming consensus of militant socialists at the end of the war was that the revolutionary tide sweeping Europe was unstoppable, that Australia too was on the brink of revolution and that the revolutionary force that would overthrow capitalism was the OBU. As VSP leader Bob Ross put it, the One Big Union was the “transition to revolution and the revolution itself”.[16] But virtually no one on the left – be they socialists or syndicalists – had a clear idea of what the revolution would actually consist of. There was no conception of workers taking power via workers’ councils or soviets, no clear understanding of the role of a revolutionary socialist party in a revolutionary upheaval, the strategic necessity of insurrection, and so on.

The actual program of the WIUA’s version of the OBU was almost identical to that of the SLP which was affiliated to the De Leonite SLP in the US. The De Leonites combined abstract propagandism with a large dollop of both syndicalism and electoralism. They held to the “sword and shield” concept of working-class emancipation: industrial action would supposedly wrest control of industry from the capitalists, while parliamentary political action, by neutralising the state apparatus, would defend the industrial action. The SLP initially hailed the Russian Revolution as confirming their version of syndicalism:

The Russian revolution has proved a thundering endorsement of the principles of Socialist Industrial Unionism… They [the Russian workers] are making realities of our theories.[17]

The SLP had no real understanding of the significance of what had been achieved in the Russian revolution or how it had been brought about.

An ill-planned split

The Trades Hall reds and their ALP supporters attempted to win the June 1919 NSW Labor conference to support their OBU schema for getting rid of capitalism and establishing socialism. They were only narrowly defeated. They immediately walked out and, in coalition with socialist groups already outside the ALP, tried to form a mass socialist party. This was a chaotic affair and not a well planned split. The left officials had not politically prepared the rank and file of the unions they led for the task of setting up a new socialist party to challenge the ALP.

The program of the Industrial Socialist Labor Party (ISLP) that eventually emerged was similar to that of the De Leonite SLP:

Inasmuch as industrial action produces its political reflex, the ISLP recognises the use of revolutionary political action…as distinct from the palliative-mongering parliamentarianism of non-revolutionary parties, to be essential to the complete overthrow of the capitalist system.[18]

After some initial signs of promise the ISLP quickly collapsed.[19] It was unable to cohere a mass membership on a sustained basis. The exception was Broken Hill, where the socialist MP Percy Brookfield, supported by the syndicalist-led miners union, took out the bulk of the large local ALP membership. The difference was not simply that Broken Hill miners were exceptionally militant. A group of socialist and syndicalist leaders had emerged who had won widespread respect and support among workers because of their dynamic role in leading industrial and political struggles. These socialist leaders in turn had waged a prolonged and politically clarifying fight for some years against the reformist local Labor MPs and their craft union supporters who had not campaigned wholeheartedly against conscription.

There were clear lessons from the experience of the failed ISLP split. Very broad layers of workers had come to support the OBU as a means to fight to improve their immediate living standards. They also viewed favourably the idea of challenging capitalism and ushering in a socialist society. That didn’t mean that they had developed a thorough critique of the ALP or saw Labor as totally unreformable, let alone a critique of reformism more generally. And it definitely did not mean that overnight they would abandon any lingering illusions in Labor merely on the say-so of their union officials, many of whom had long been active players in the ALP. There had to be a prolonged process of political and ideological clarification. The left officials could not simply summon a mass socialist party into existence by proclamation.

Turmoil on the left

In the period of profound ideological and organisational turmoil on the left between 1917 and 1921, numerous new socialist and syndicalist groups quickly blossomed and then disappeared seemingly overnight. Prominent activists might have passed through three or four different groups. Historian Ian Turner lists 13 different socialist and syndicalist groups in the period between July 1918 and 1920, and he undoubtedly overlooked a few.[20] Existing organisations underwent a process of splits and fusions. The Social Democratic League (SDL), for example, which split from the ASP in 1917 and joined the ALP, quickly grew to about 400 members in Sydney and 140 in Adelaide. By November 1918 the SDL was calling for socialist unity on the basis of Bolshevism, which it saw as superior to the outmoded syndicalist idea of the One Big Union. Some of its members then rejoined the ASP and by 1920 the SDL was defunct. The revolutionary syndicalists of the WIIU could sell 1,000 copies of their paper the One Big Union Herald every Saturday night in Melbourne’s Bourke St – but were unable to build a stable organisation.[21]

In the immediate aftermath of the abortive ISLP split, the highly pragmatic and non-theoretical Jock Garden and some of his Trades Hall reds supporters briefly joined the most dogmatic and sectarian of all the socialist groups, the De Leonite SLP. This was a group which very much saw itself as the one true faith and adopted a sneering, superior tone towards all other socialist currents.

The SLP’s key leader, Ernie Judd, was a prominent Trades Hall delegate and had played a leading role in the defence campaign for the IWW prisoners and in the OBU movement. Unbeknownst to Judd, however, the arch manoeuvrer Garden, while still formally an SLP member, began to work with the Soviet consul Simonov, various ex-Wobblies and other assorted syndicalists and radicals, including the grouping around Guido Baracchi and Percy Laidler in Melbourne, to form a secret underground Communist party. A major ideological force behind these developments appears to have been ex-VSP member and ex-syndicalist Bill Earsman, who had moved to Sydney in December 1919 to develop a Labor College in close association with Trades Hall. Earsman, who quickly became a strong influence on Garden, was to become the first CPA secretary.

When Judd found out about these manoeuvrings in late 1920, he expelled Garden and his supporters. This did not prevent the SLP subsequently losing branches to the CPA once it had been openly declared. The SLP’s sectarian aloofness made it incapable of holding the line among its own rank-and-file members against the enormous appeal for the founding of a Communist party that united all revolutionary socialists. The SLP lost most of its women members and its main bases in the NSW coal towns of West Wallsend, Corrimal, Lithgow and Cessnock, its most active branch.

Sussex St or Liverpool St?

By August or September 1920 word of the underground CP’s existence was beginning to seep out. Specifically it came to the attention of the ASP, the largest of the small left-wing socialist groups, which had become more critical of the limitations of the OBU movement and was seeking to turn itself into a Communist party. Previously, in August 1919, the ASP had organised an abortive conference for socialist unity on the basis of support for Bolshevism, in which it had hoped to involve the SLP and other forces. Subsequently the ASP’s December 1919 conference declared its support for the Communist International.[22] It was the ASP that took the initiative to call the unity conference on 20 October 1920 in an attempt to outflank its Trade Hall red rivals, whom the ASP viewed, not totally wrongly, as opportunist.

However the ASP turned out to be in a distinct minority among those who attended the 20 October 1920 conference, which included a heterogeneous collection of Trades Hall reds, syndicalists, ex-VSP members such as former militant British suffragette Adela Pankhurst, ex-SLP members and independent socialists. The ASP abandoned ship just weeks later, provoked by Earsman’s and Garden’s manoeuvrings. The ASP formed its own Communist Party, dubbed the Liverpool St CPA as opposed to the Trades Hall reds’ Sussex St CPA. Then for over 18 months there were two CPAs expending much of their energy in a highly sectarian battle on both sides for recognition from the Comintern, which consistently argued for them to unite.

So, a disastrous start. Members ebbed away, alienated by the sectarian infighting. Recruitment dried up. Momentum was lost and the opportunity to build on the enthusiasm for the Russian revolution wasted. The high point of working-class struggle and political radicalisation had passed by the end of 1922. The economy began to pick up and Australian capitalism temporarily stabilised.

The ASP had high hopes of winning out in the battle for Comintern recognition, in part because of its better connections in Moscow. Fedor Sergeev (Artem), a former ASP member, had been elected to the Bolshevik Central Committee. He and Paul Freeman, another former ASP supporter who had been briefly sent from Moscow as a Comintern agent to Australia, were active in Moscow pleading the ASP’s case. Tragically both Sergeev and Freeman were killed in a train crash in July 1921. The ASP was also a more cohered force in 1921, with an established organisation in Sydney, though it had been somewhat weakened by earlier splits. It had lost its Adelaide and Melbourne branches, which continued to adhere to syndicalism after the ASP moved sharply away from it at its December 1918 conference. It was soon to lose more of its members outside Sydney, including its Brisbane and Newcastle branches, to the Sussex St party.

In June 1922 an increasingly exasperated Comintern Presidium wrote to the two Australian CPs demanding that they unite before 1 September 1922:

Those who for any reason do anything to prevent unity…bear a heavy responsibility not only before the Communist International, to which they claim affiliation, but also before the mass of the working class.

The existence of two small groups, amidst a seething current of world shaking events, engaged almost entirely in airing their petty differences, instead of unitedly plunging into the current and mastering it, is not only a ridiculous and shameful spectacle, but also a crime committed against the working class.[23]

In a formal sense the ASP-aligned CPA had somewhat clearer revolutionary politics than the Sussex St party. For example it criticised Jock Garden’s deals with the right-wing AWU to gain support for the OBU. Garden had gone as far as not opposing the AWU’s racist exclusion clause banning Asians from membership. He had also offered to guarantee that the officials of unions that joined the OBU would still hold onto their full-time positions for three years. Add to all that Garden was manoeuvring to form a bloc with the AWU in order to obtain CPA affiliation to the ALP.

However the ASP’s refusal to countenance unity on virtually any terms left it increasingly isolated. It began to suffer internal dissent and defections. Eventually the ASP leadership’s rejection of a fair and democratic Comintern-backed proposal for unity led a majority of its Sydney rank-and-file members to split away and unite with the Sussex St CPA in July 1922. The “united” party then received formal recognition as the Australian section of the Communist International.

Fighting for clarity

The new party, however, remained extremely unclear politically. As previously stated, the main current on the Australian left at the time was syndicalism, which deprecated the need for a revolutionary party. The committed syndicalists were sincere working-class fighters with many great strengths compared to the opportunist Labor MPs and union bureaucrats. However the defeat of the 1917 Great Strike and the collapse of the IWW, when contrasted to the success of the Bolshevik revolution, sharply highlighted the need for a revolutionary party to lead workers to victory. Some syndicalist activists, such as those around Baracchi and Laidler in the IIW in Melbourne, had begun to draw some of these lessons by 1920. However, most of them still had little real understanding of the process of the Russian revolution, the role of soviets (workers’ councils) or what a genuine revolutionary party would look like.

Take the case of former IWW leader Tom Glynn, who on his release after nearly four years in prison, worked with the Trades Hall reds to form the CPA and briefly became the first editor of its paper, Australian Communist. In 1920 he wrote a foreword to the Australian edition of the pamphlet To the IWW: A Special Message from the Communist International by leading Bolshevik Zinoviev:

[T]he Russian experience would indicate the necessity of something more than the industrial weapon for combatting the internal and external machinations of the capitalist class…but the view that the Industrial Union should ultimately be the unit of administration in the communist state remains unchallenged.[24]

Glynn’s continuing adherence to the central role of industrial unions soon led him to fall out with the CPA. The differences were accentuated as the CPA came to an understanding that the One Big Union was not going to be an adequate vehicle for the overthrow of capitalism, and indeed that the movement for the OBU had by late 1921 clearly failed. Rejecting this, Glynn went on to form the Industrial Union Propaganda League with other ex-Wobblies, including JB King, Norman Rancie and George Washington, and left the CPA in November 1921. A brief rapprochement was patched together, but the final straw for Glynn and co came in March 1922 with the confirmation of the CPA’s decision to give tactical but critical support to the ALP in the upcoming NSW elections.

The syndicalists had no serious strategy for winning over workers influenced by the ALP – other than virulent denunciations of the myriad betrayals of the Labor leaders. Indeed some syndicalists retreated even further into a sectarian “anti-political” standpoint. The Betsy Matthias-led Industrial Labor Party, which grouped around it a number of former IWW members, declared:

The IWW in Australia was a non-political organization. The Industrial Labor Party is an anti-political organization. An aggressive fight is necessary against all misleading Labor fakirs… One of the misfortunes of the IWW in Australia and the tragic experience resulting and the new needs dictated by new conditions, the ILP proceeds on more scientific lines in construction and propaganda.[25]

In a major step forward, the Comintern argued instead for a united front approach of working alongside reformist organisations in struggles around concrete demands to improve workers’ lives. The breakthrough was understanding that winning masses of workers away from their reformist leaders would happen more easily in the heat of the struggle. The united front approach did not entail any political concessions to the reformist leaders. It was not a non-aggression pact. The revolutionaries needed to maintain their own independent organisations and not blunt their criticisms of the reformists. The approach was summed up in the slogan “March separately but strike together!” But in Australia in the early 1920s almost nobody on the left agreed with, understood or was capable of flexibly implementing a united front approach in a principled manner.[26]

Many syndicalists and sectarian socialists either refused to join or left the CPA in the 1920s as they decried the united front approach to social-democratic parties such as the ALP as a capitulation to reformism. Indeed, so wildly sectarian was the approach of some fragments from the old IWW that they were only attracted to the CPA at the height of the ultra-sectarian Third Period policy of the 1930s, when the party was denouncing the ALP as “social fascist” and left-wing ALP members as “left socialist fascists”. The fact that the CPA was by then increasingly Stalinised and authoritarian did not deter the relatively strong Adelaide IWW group joining the CPA en bloc in February 1931.[27] IWW supporters also joined the CPA in Perth and other cities in this period, including former jailed Wobbly leader JB King. They were enamoured of Stalinist Russia precisely at the time that the few remaining gains of the revolution were being wiped out as Stalin unleashed a horrific wave of repression against workers and peasants. Tragically King, one of the Wobbly heroes, after rejoining the CPA in 1930, then went to Russia, where he spent years forcing workers to speed up production and do hours of unpaid overtime as part of Stalin’s Stakhanovite operation.

Those who rightly rejected the sectarian dismissal of the ALP tried instead to permeate Labor to push it to the left or even to win it to socialism. That was the approach of numerous individual socialists and – with various fits and starts – of the Victorian Socialist Party. The CPA was initially much weaker in Victoria, where the VSP had long been the dominant force on the left. After appointing former British suffragette Adela Pankhurst as its paid organiser, the VSP put on a very militant face. In late 1917 Pankhurst led thousands of working-class women in cost of living protests which were marked by large scale rioting in the streets of Melbourne. Out of this activity the VSP recruited a substantial number of women and by 1918 women made up half of their membership, which was very unusual for any socialist organisation in this period.

The VSP, however, was increasingly divided over its attitude to Labor, with the left of the party in 1917 calling for running VSP candidates against Labor, while the mainstream leadership around Bob Ross maintained its attachment to Labor. The internal fight accelerated in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, which put wind in the sails of the radicals. The VSP left, which previously had a largely syndicalist outlook, now strongly identified with the Bolsheviks and called for the reorganisation of the VSP into a Communist Party and affiliation to the Comintern. The reformist leadership around Ross, who by 1919/1920 was moving further to the right, beat off the left challenge, but at great cost. Splits, resignations and expulsions reduced the VSP to only 85 members by 1921. It lost members both to its left and right with many simply dropping out of politics. The more revolutionary-inclined of its ex-members helped form the initially small Victorian CPA branch, while others on the more conservative wing retreated into the ALP. Why be active in a small reformist party when a much larger one existed? After 1922 the remaining rump of the VSP became a tiny and vitriolic anti-communist sect and by 1931 it had disbanded.

In Sydney the Garden-led Trades Hall reds adopted yet another mistaken third approach to the reformists. Desperate to regain influence in the ALP, they interpreted the united front in a thoroughly opportunist fashion. The Comintern leadership’s lack of in-depth understanding of the Australian political situation did not help matters. At the Fourth Comintern Congress in November-December 1922 they were too easily taken in by Garden’s bluster about how much influence the CPA had over the mass of workers, when in fact by then party membership had probably declined to no more than 250.[28] Garden’s wild claims that the CPA had won the leadership over 400,000 workers and established Communist cells in virtually every union do not seem to have been challenged by the Comintern executive. Indeed, incredibly they even elected him to the executive! Meanwhile back in Australia an embarrassed CPA executive disowned Garden’s report.[29]

The question of affiliation to the ALP

Lenin proposed that the small British CP attempt to affiliate to the newly formed British Labour Party. The idea was an extension of the united front approach; he hoped that it would give the Communists better access to Labour’s mass working-class base and make it easier to win workers to revolutionary politics. Lenin was probably over optimistic. He seems to have underestimated the political weight and resilience of reformism in the West. Nonetheless Lenin was clear that the Communists still needed to maintain their own independent organisation and make no political concession to the reformist Labour leaders.

Whether the affiliation tactic was appropriate in Britain in the early 1920s is arguable. But there were dangers in transposing the tactic to the very different Australian circumstances. By the 1920s the ALP was a long established, deeply entrenched bureaucratic party with a vast cohort of duplicitous MPs. It had been in government at a state and federal level on numerous occasions and loyally served the interests of the capitalist class. Moreover by the early 1920s the ALP leadership was moving decisively back to the right. It had put behind it the more radical phase in which, under pressure from the anti-conscription movement and the mass industrial upsurge, the party had been forced to move left and adopt the Socialisation Objective.

In December 1922, immediately after the Fourth Comintern Congress, the Comintern Executive wrote to the CPA arguing: “We should rather fight within the Labor Party and capture it by waging the fight against the social traitors in the mass party”.[30] However the idea that the small, politically confused CPA could have any hope of making substantial inroads into the ALP – let alone taking control – was a totally overblown orientation. As Ross Edmonds writes:

While the CPA’s short lived alliance with left wingers in the ALP succeeded in having numerous resolutions carried in favour of nationalisation of industry, little came of it. Many communists dropped their CPA membership preferring to stay in the ALP when faced with having to decide between the two. The policy also had the effect of submerging the identity of the CPA and lowering its public profile.[31]

The Comintern’s approach unfortunately helped provide cover for Garden’s wretched deal-making with the corrupt, right-wing AWU officials in order to gain CPA affiliation to the NSW ALP.

Opposition to affiliation to the ALP came from both the ASP Liverpool St CP and various members of Garden’s own Sussex St CP. In mid-1921 the Sussex St party executive rejected Garden’s proposal to join the ALP. At the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 CPA Secretary Bill Earsman argued vigorously against the Comintern’s Anglo-American Bureau’s decision to instruct the Australian party to immediately apply for ALP membership. Even the December 1922 conference of the united party formed between the Sussex St CP and the group of members who had broken away from the ASP CP voted that “as the policy of the Communist International was for party affiliation to and membership in the Labor party, the conference was bound to accept same and work for its realisation”.[32] Not exactly a ringing endorsement!

Reflecting the CPA’s lack of understanding of the nature of reformist parties like the ALP, The Communist’s report of the conference declared: “The Labor Party is the Political expression of the working class”.[33] But this is simply not the case at all. As I have argued elsewhere:

[T]he Labor Party is a “capitalist workers’ party”. It defends the interests of capitalism (particularly when in government) but relies for support on the votes of workers. The leadership of the ALP is thoroughly committed to running capitalism in the interests of the bosses and if that means attacking workers’ rights and living standards, so be it.[34]

Far from expressing the interests of the working class, reformist parties like the ALP are the expression of the pro-capitalist interests of the parliamentarians, union officials and party apparatchiks that dominate and control them. The social interests of this labour bureaucracy are ultimately opposed to those of the working class. Indeed the labour bureaucrats act as the agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement.

The Communist further argued:

Politically the working class in Australia finds its fullest expression in the Labor Party. The aims, ideals, leadership of the Labor Party remain anti-revolutionary because the workers themselves lack class-consciousness, and, so far as large sections are concerned, are still dominated by middle class prejudices and ideology.[35]

This approach wrongly blames the pro-capitalist politics of the ALP and its leaders on the working class. It reflects the classic elitist arguments of left-wing union bureaucrats who blame the “backwardness” of workers for their own opportunist sins. According to this mechanical logic, if the mass of workers became revolutionary the ALP and its leadership would follow. And flowing from this it would be possible to transform the ALP into a revolutionary party. But the MPs and union bureaucrats in control of the ALP were, and still are, totally committed to pro-capitalist reformist politics irrespective of the opinions of the mass of workers. There was no way that they were going to abandon their loyalty to capitalism. They would use all the power and bureaucratic levers they possessed, including calling in the courts, the police and all the forces of the state, to ensure any rank-and-file insurgency was contained or crushed.

By 1923 Garden was clearly the dominant figure in the CPA. The party’s continuing confusion about the nature of reformism was reflected at its December 1923 Congress, which after calling for “the intensification of the fight for affiliation to the ALP”, declared that “[t]he attitude of the Communist Party to the Labor Party is identical with its attitude towards the trade unions”.[36]

But there is a vital distinction between the union movement and the ALP. Unions are the basic defence organisation of the working class. To be effective they need to organise all the workers in any specific industry irrespective of their politics, whether they be reformists, conservatives, syndicalists or revolutionaries. In sharp distinction membership of the ALP involves a political selection – support for a parliamentary-oriented reformist party. Consequently there is much greater space for revolutionary activity in the unions than there is in a clear cut reformist party like the ALP.

At the June 1923 NSW Labor conference a motion agreeing in principle to CPA affiliation to the ALP was carried (after a tied vote of 122 for and 122 against) on the casting vote of the chair, Miners Union secretary AC Willis. Two Communists, Jock Garden and Jack Howie, present as union delegates, were elected to the ALP state executive. This galvanised the Labor right, who unleashed all their bureaucratic tricks to reverse the decision. In October 1923 the ALP executive purged Garden and Howie from the executive and expelled all known Communists. The ALP federal executive extended the ban nationally.

The CPA initiated a concerted campaign to reverse the expulsions, in the course of which it downplayed its differences with the ALP, claiming both parties desired socialism. However the Easter 1924 NSW ALP conference voted 159 to 110 to reject CPA affiliation – though the leading Stalinist historian EW Campbell claims it was a rigged vote and that “[t]he number of members represented by the supporters of the Executive was only 31,300, while the number represented by those in favour of unity was 113,000”.[37] The affiliation campaign, however, did nothing to strengthen the CPA whose financial membership only averaged 75 in 1924.[38] Rank-and-file CPers were gradually being purged from the ALP, or worse still, giving up on the CPA and accommodating to the ALP.

In the immediate aftermath of the ALP ban on CPA membership, Garden argued that CPA comrades who were still in the ALP should keep their communist affiliations secret. He defended this approach at the December 1924 CPA congress. But by then Garden’s influence was waning and the majority of the leadership opposed him as his approach flew in the face of the Comintern’s insistence that the CPA maintain its own independent political existence and standpoint. Instead the leadership called on secret CPA members of the ALP to openly declare their party membership and defy the ALP bureaucrats to expel them. The leadership repeated this instruction a year later but found that many of the secret members refused to do so.[39] The shift in approach came way too late. The rot ran deep. A layer of rank-and-file members had been needlessly lost to reformism because of the opportunist approach championed by Garden and his supporters and left unchallenged by the Comintern.

Indeed in December 1924 Garden himself acknowledged the problem that he had done much to create via his incessant manoeuvring:

In some cases the interpretation of the United Front has led to the subordination of the party – to the point of elimination. The Labor Party has been more to the party members than the party itself, many subordinating themselves completely to the tactics and ideology of the Labor Party… The tactics of the party must be to swing the workers into action, and at the same time to keep the identity of the Communist Party unimpaired.[40]

By 1925 most of the union bureaucrats associated with the Trades Hall reds had decamped for the greener pastures of the ALP. Robert Heffron ended up NSW premier, Jack Beasley became a Curtin government cabinet minister, JJ Graves became NSW ALP secretary and Jack Kilburn became NSW ALP vice-president and a member of the executive of both the ACTU and federal Labor. Garden followed them in 1926. According to historian Irwin Young, in 1925 or 1926 Garden, desperate to be allowed back into the ALP, had quietly come to an arrangement with Labor’s parliamentary leader Jack Lang. In return for Trades Hall backing Lang, who was under challenge from rivals in caucus, Garden would be allowed to rejoin the ALP.[41]

The departure of Garden and the coterie of left officials was no loss. They had made it impossible for the party to orient correctly on a range of fronts. The tragedy was that many good rank-and-file worker members, who had been the hope for the future of the party, had also been lost. As well, an enormous amount of party time and resources had been spent pursuing a fruitless campaign for ALP affiliation rather than pursuing other channels for building the party.

It could be argued by supporters of the affiliation tactic that Garden’s unprincipled approach meant that it was never properly tested in the 1920s; that if a principled revolutionary approach had been adopted the CPA could have made substantial gains from entrism into the ALP. We can’t rerun the film of history so we can never definitely know either way. However entrism by revolutionaries into a reformist party is never easy. There is an enormous pressure to accommodate and tone down your revolutionary politics to what is acceptable to the party mainstream and to avoid expulsion. The idea that the poorly cohered and ideologically weak CPA of the 1920s, even without the burden of Garden’s opportunist presence, could have successfully withstood the pressure from an entrenched, rightward moving Labor apparatus and made substantial gains from entrism, seems to me highly fanciful.

A brief stabilisation before final Stalinisation

By 1925 the CPA was in utter disarray. Membership had shrunk substantially to a claimed 280, but with an activist core of just a few dozen, turnover was rapid, party education was weak and finances were in dire straits. One of the original party founders, Guido Baracchi, called for dissolving the party into the ALP. It took a concerted effort by the Irish Marxist Jack Kavanagh, who had been a leader of the Canadian CP, to turn things around. Quickly after arriving in Australia on May Day 1925, Kavanagh began to play a prominent role in the CPA and waged a spirited attack on Garden’s opportunism in the union movement and the ALP. He did this through open democratic debate, not bureaucratic fiat. Kavanagh conducted a lengthy public debate with Garden in the party paper Workers Weekly, something that would have been unthinkable later in the authoritarian Stalinised CPA of the 1930s.

Though he still supported the tactic of voting for the ALP in elections Kavanagh declared: “In no circumstances can the ALP be converted into the party that can lead the workers into emancipation”.[42] The December 1925 CPA National Conference, at which Kavanagh was elected party secretary, declared:

The social composition of the ALP branches and the undemocratic method of the election of its officials makes it a ready weapon in the hands of middle class politicians. With the CP in a numerically weak state much valuable time was undoubtedly wasted which might have been profitably employed in building up a strong Communist Party.[43]

Kavanagh initiated a serious education program to raise the political level of the membership. He turned the party away from manoeuvrings at Trades Hall and in the ALP to a focus on building a base in the workplaces.[44] As Phil Griffiths put it, under Kavanagh’s leadership,

everything about the party became more serious and systematic. In this period, the Communist Party undertook a wide range of campaigns for women’s rights – a level of activity that belies the party’s small female membership. The party established the Militant Women’s Group (MWG) in 1926, and then began to organise women’s study circles and train speakers and organised Australia’s first International Women’s Day in 1928.[45]

Kavanagh faced objective difficulties in rebuilding the party, but it slowly revived in 1926 and 1927. By the end of 1928 the CPA under Kavanagh’s leadership had grown to about 300 members. But the combination of its own small size and the less favourable objective situation meant the party was unable to sink deep roots in the working class outside a few restricted areas. Capitalism had temporarily stabilised before another great crash at the end of the 1920s. Yet there were still opportunities for Communist intervention and growth. Though living standards rose for some workers in the twenties, unemployment never fell below 8 percent. And while strike action declined markedly from the 1919/1920 high point, strikes were still much more prolific in the mid-twenties than they are today. There continued to be tumultuous events such as the 1923 police strike that provoked wide-scale rioting in Melbourne.[46]

The CPA threw itself into the industrial arena, playing an important role in the 1927 Queensland sugar workers’ strike and the accompanying state-wide railway lockout. As spokesperson for the NSW Labour Council’s Disputes Committee, Kavanagh also played a significant role in the nine-month timber workers’ strike in 1929. By 1928 the CPA-initiated Militant Minority Movement had groups in the major mining centres. In 1929 its call for a total shutdown of the NSW coal industry won support among rank and file miners as the lockout in the Northern District dragged on.

Kavanagh was subsequently criticised as being overly propagandist, too conservative, soft on Trades Hall and not aggressive enough in seizing opportunities. However in 1927 Kavanagh was definitely on the left of the party. He continued to resist Comintern demands that the CPA campaign for ALP affiliation. In contrast Lance Sharkey, who later – following the Stalinised Comintern’s orders – denounced the ALP as “social fascist”, was in August 1927 on the right of the party, arguing for a stepped up campaign for ALP membership.

Unfortunately the space for further development of the CPA along revolutionary lines was soon closed off. The CPA had been less impacted by the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern than many larger Communist parties because of Australia’s geographical isolation and the CPA’s relative insignificance. One reflection of this was the lack of any vociferous campaign in the pages of Workers Weekly in the mid- to late twenties against Leon Trotsky or the Left Opposition in the Russian CP. Indeed drawings of Lenin and Trotsky appeared together on the front page of Workers Weekly’s Russian Revolution anniversary issue of 6 November 1925. As late as 26 November 1926 Workers Weekly ran a favourable article on Trotsky’s book Towards Socialism or Capitalism. In 1927 and 1928 a few articles were run attacking Trotsky, but it is significant how few appear.

By the end of the 1920s Stalin was determined to mould all the far flung Communist parties into obedient servants of the interests of the Russian state rather than of the local working-class movements. From 1926 onwards the Comintern began to pay more attention to the CPA and there began to be a more regular flow of members to Moscow for training. They were subsequently to return, by and large, as hard-core Stalinists. The first task of these apparatchiks was to purge the communist movement of dedicated and honest revolutionaries like Kavanagh.

The Third Period “left” turn – proclaimed at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928 – ushered in a dramatic shift. Supporters of the new line in Australia, led by Lance Sharkey, Bert Moxon and JB Miles, began to demand the party aggressively oppose the ALP both in propaganda and electorally. Although Kavanagh was sympathetic to the Comintern’s new perspective, he sought to moderate its application in view of local circumstances, for which he was attacked as adhering to “Australian exceptionalism”.

The dispute came to a head in late 1929 when the Opposition appealed to the Comintern Executive for support. The Comintern obliged, sending a lengthy letter denouncing Kavanagh’s leadership. It described the central executive’s opposition to running CPA candidates at the October federal election as “a glaring example of right deviation deserving the severest condemnation”.[47] Under pressure from both the Comintern and the internal opposition, Kavanagh and his supporters began to lose ground, and at the Ninth CPA Conference in December 1929, Sharkey, Moxon and Miles defeated Kavanagh and his allies. On the conclusion of the conference, the new leaders sent a telegram to Moscow reading: “Annual conference greets Comintern. Declares unswerving loyalty new line”.[48]

The new leadership quickly sought to crush Kavanagh and his supporters who continued to dominate the Sydney district, the party’s largest. In April 1930, Comintern emissary (later revealed as an FBI agent) Herbert Moore arrived from the US and took control, transforming the CPA leadership, program and constitution.[49] Moore initiated the “social fascist” line with gusto. Kavanagh was forced out of the party. He was readmitted in 1931 and then expelled again three years later for Trotskyist sympathies.[50] Moore then turned on Moxon. Moxon had suited Moscow’s needs in deposing Kavanagh but, as someone with some independence of mind, the Comintern regarded him as unsuitable for their purposes. Stalin was not looking for leftists as such, only those who would unquestioningly do his bidding. By 1932 a hardened team of cynical bureaucrats had been installed who were to run the CPA for decades to come.

After the Tenth Party Congress in 1931, only two more were held in the rest of the decade; stage-managed exercises with no genuine debate allowed. In the name of “democratic centralism”, the CPA established a new monolithism. Moore introduced the practice of “self-criticism”, which required critics of the leadership to abase themselves in order to win the forgiveness of their comrades. This became standard practice for anyone who dared to dissent, chilling the space for critical thinking.[51] The result, Stuart Macintyre writes, was that “an organisation that had once allowed vigorous debate and open discussion of differences was reconstituted as a conventicle of rigid conformity”.[52] That was the end of the CPA as a revolutionary force in the workers’ movement. A new party genuinely dedicated to the task of working-class liberation was going to have to be rebuilt.


The mass radicalisation that rocked Australia in the last years of World War I and its aftermath opened up tremendous opportunities for the revolutionary left. The problem was the disjuncture between the fighting spirit of the workers involved in these battles and the flawed politics of existing left organisations. Syndicalism, the dominant current on the left, failed to measure up to the challenge. Simply bringing workers together into the One Big Union could not overcome the hold of Laborite reformism, let alone defeat the power of the capitalist state. The other major current on the left – reflected in organisations such as the VSP – that sought to push the ALP to the left, proved an even worse dead end.

The revolutionary ideas of the Bolsheviks and the newly created Communist International offered a way out of this impasse. One of the great strengths of Bolshevism was that it overcame the dichotomy that plagued the Australian socialist movement – the separation between “industrial” and “political”. A revolutionary party had to be built on similar lines to the Bolsheviks that organised the vanguard of the working class for a combined fight on both fronts. As well the Russian workers had created, as an alternative to redundant bourgeois parliaments, a new institution for democratic working class rule – the soviet or workers’ council.

Because of Australia’s isolation it was not until 1919 that some partial understanding of the Russian revolutionary experience began to seep through. But as Jeff Sparrow writes: “As local radicals became aware of the profound originality of Russian Marxism, the existing Left groups all slid into crisis”.[53] The most advanced elements from a range of socialist and syndicalist currents had by 1920 embraced the idea of forming a Communist party.

By then, however, the peak of the radical wave had passed. A major opportunity to build a mass Communist party had been missed. The task now for revolutionaries was to build up their forces to the extent that they could in the new situation and prepare for the next great period of class confrontation and capitalist crisis, which as it turned out was not very far away at all. The capitalist boom of the 1920s was short lived. By 1928 the Australian economy had already begun to slide into the Great Depression.

The young CPA was greatly impeded from making the most of the opportunities that did exist by its continuing lack of political clarity. Sectarian differences prevented Communists from uniting into one party for almost two years. It took time to make a full break with syndicalism and with Garden’s blatant opportunism. The strategy of the united front was poorly understood and badly applied. Moreover it has to be said that some of the advice coming from the Comintern, even in its genuinely revolutionary years, was not particularly helpful, especially in relation to the ALP and the union bureaucracy.

Whatever its errors in the 1920s, the CPA had sought to build a base for socialist ideas in the working class and to take the class struggle forward. The tragedy was that the party was not given the opportunity to test itself as a revolutionary force in the new period opening up in the tumultuous 1930s. The Stalinisation of the party decisively ended any such prospect.

So the great hopes and aspirations of those revolutionaries who fought to found the CPA were crushed by the early 1930s. That does not mean that their efforts were simply wasted or that there are not important lessons that today’s socialists can learn from their experience to help clarify our political approach to the challenges we continue to face.

The issue of how revolutionaries effectively combat reformist forces is just as much a live issue today on the international left as it was for the young CPA in the 1920s. Implementing a united front approach in a principled, yet flexible, manner is no straightforward task. But just as tailing behind the ALP in the early 1920s proved a disaster for the CPA, tailing behind the Sanders and Corbyns of this world has had an equally negative impact on much of today’s socialist left. Revolutionaries have to be able to chart an independent course that enables them to work with and against reformist forces in an attempt to win away sections of their working-class supporters. There is nothing in the least sectarian about such an approach.

Similarly, a clear understanding of the nature and role of the union bureaucracy and of the limitations of syndicalism and narrow trade unionism is vital if revolutionaries are to build a base in the working class. Any revival of working-class struggle can well see the emergence of a new layer of militants fed up with the conservatism of union officials and hostile to Labor politicians but inclined to an anti-political militancy. But industrial militancy alone, as the experience of the syndicalists of the One Big Union movement graphically confirms, is never going to be sufficient to challenge the entrenched power of the capitalist state and break the hold of political reformism over large sections of the working class. A revolutionary political strategy is necessary. That in turn underlines the vital necessity of cohering and educating a layer of revolutionaries that can forge a party that can confidently confront the challenges posed by an increasingly crisis-torn world capitalist system.


Adams, Paul Robert 2013, “The Annihilation of the ILP: The Third Industrial Labor Party and the Sturt Vacancy”, Labour History, 105, November.

Armstrong, Mick 2006, The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Socialist Alternative.

Armstrong, Mick and Tom Bramble, 2007, The Labor Party. A Marxist analysis, Socialist Alternative.

Armstrong, Mick 2013, “Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era”, Marxist Left Review, 6, Winter.

Armstrong, Mick 2014, “Riotous behaviour in Australian history”, Red Flag, 21 March.

Armstrong, Mick 2015, “How World War I led to class war”, Marxist Left Review, 9, Summer.

Australian Socialist Party 1919, Australia and the World Revolution Manifesto of the Australian Socialist party. A statement of Communist principles, Marxian Printing Works.

Bollard, Robert 2013, In the shadow of Gallipoli. The hidden history of Australia in World War I, NewSouth.

Burgmann, Verity 1995, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism. The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press.

Campbell, EW 1945, History of the Australian labor movement. A Marxist interpretation, Current Book Distributors.

Curthoys, Barbara 1993, “The Comintern, the CPA and the Impact of Harry Wicks”, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, 39 (1).

Davidson, Alastair 1969, The Communist Party of Australia. A short history, Hoover Institution Press.

Edmonds, Ross 1991, In Storm and Struggle. A History of the Communist Party in Newcastle, 1920-1940, self-published.

Griffiths, Phil 1998, Women and the Communist Party of Australia 1920-1945,

Kennedy, Brian 1978, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale. A Social History of Broken Hill 1883-1921, Melbourne University Press.

Kuhn, Rick 2011, “Revolutionary tactics, the united front and what we do today”, Marxist Left Review, 3, Spring.

Lovell, David W and Kevin Windle (eds) 2008, Our unswerving loyalty. A documentary survey of relations between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920-1940, ANU press.

Macintyre, Stuart 1998, The Reds, Allen & Unwin.

Markey, Raymond 1994, In case of oppression. The life and times of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Pluto Press.

Morrison, Peter 1977, The Communist Party of Australia and the Australian radical-socialist tradition, 1920-1939, PhD thesis, University of Adelaide.

Moss, Jim 1983, Representatives of Discontent. History of the Communist Party in South Australia 1921-1981, Communist and Labour Movement History Group.

O’Lincoln, Tom 1985, Into the mainstream. The decline of Australian communism, Stained Wattle Press.

Penrose, Beris 1993, The Communist Party and trade union work in the Third Period 1928-1935, PhD thesis, University of Queensland.

Penrose, Beris 1996, “Herbert Moxon, a Victim of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Communist Party”, Labour History, 70, May.

Sparrow, Jeff 2007, Communism. A Love Story, Melbourne University Press.

Turner, Ian 1965, Industrial Labour and Politics. The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921, Australian National University.

Walker, Bertha 1972, Solidarity Forever!, The National Press.

Williams, Justina 1976, The First Furrow, Lone Hand Press.

Young, Irwin 1971, Theodore, His Life & Times, Alpha Books.

[1] For an overview of the history of the CPA see O’Lincoln 1985.

[2] For an overview see Armstrong 2015.

[3] Kennedy 1978, p155.

[4] Penrose 1993.

[5] See Bollard 2013.

[6] Armstrong 2015, pp104-106.

[7] For the Broken Hill “Great Strike” see Kennedy 1978.

[8] Williams 1976, p69.

[9] Macintyre 1998, p17.

[10] Burgmann 1995, p126.

[11] Industrial Solidarity No 6, 22 November 1919.

[12] See Armstrong 2006.

[13] Markey 1994, p20.

[14] Penrose 1993.

[15] Morrison 1977, p190.

[16] Morrison 1977, p147

[17] Morrison 1977, p145.

[18] Morrison 1977, p136.

[19] For the history of the ISLP see Adams 2013.

[20] Turner 1965, p233.

[21] Walker 1972, p162.

[22] Australian Socialist Party 1919.

[23] Lovell and Windle 2008, pp134-135.

[24] Morrison 1977, p146.

[25] Burgmann 1995, p236.

[26] For an outline of the united front strategy see Kuhn 2011.

[27] Moss 1983, pp20-22.

[28] Macintyre 1998, p84.

[29] The Communist, 16 February 1923.

[30] Lovell and Windle 2008, pp154-155.

[31] Edmonds 1991, p10.

[32] The Communist, 5 January 1923.

[33] The Communist, 5 January 1923.

[34] Armstrong and Bramble 2007, p2.

[35] The Communist, 5 January 1923.

[36] Workers Weekly, 11 January 1924.

[37] Campbell 1945, p117.

[38] Macintyre 1998, p94.

[39] Davidson 1969, pp33-34.

[40] Workers Weekly, 19 December 1924.

[41] Young 1971, p70.

[42] Workers Weekly, 24 September 1926.

[43] Workers Weekly, 8 January 1926.

[44] For the debate over the early CPA’s trade union policy see Armstrong 2013.

[45] Griffiths 1998, p6.

[46] Armstrong 2014.

[47] Lovell and Windle 2008, pp283-287.

[48] Lovell and Windle 2008, p290.

[49] Moore was also known as Harry Wicks. Curthoys 1993, pp23-36.

[50] Kavanagh went on to join the tiny Trotskyist organisation, the Communist League of Australia, in the 1940s.

[51] Penrose 1996, p102.

[52] Macintyre 1998, p175.

[53] Sparrow 2007, p103.

Australia 1917: From world war to class war

Mick Armstrong looks at the impact of World War I on the class struggle in Australia.

Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era

In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Communist International  attempted to develop a revolutionary approach to union work in the West. Mick Armstrong looks at the application of that strategy in Australia and Britain.

The NSW BLF: The battle to tame the concrete jungle

Mick Armstrong recounts the rise and fall of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation, and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the radical left that turned the union into one of the most impressive examples of socialist unionism in history.