Red and black: How Australian communists fought for Indigenous liberation

On 1 May 1946 Aboriginal stock workers walked off stations across the Pilbara region in Western Australia. This was the beginning of one of the first great Aboriginal strikes that rocked post-war Australian society. In taking this action, the workers were not merely fighting for improved wages and conditions, but were challenging more than one hundred and fifty years of oppression and exploitation.

Support for the strike flowed in from workers’ organisations across the country. Don McLeod, the white Communist who helped organise the strike, had told the Aboriginal workers that they would have “power behind us”. He was quickly proven right. Nineteen unions in Western Australia, seven national unions, four trades and labour councils and innumerable local trade union branches supported the strike and sent money. In 1949 the Communist-led Seamen’s Union would bring the struggle to a climax with a boycott of wool shipping that broke the last resistance of the station owners.

This was no spontaneous expression of solidarity. The groundwork had been laid by almost two decades of work by Communist Party militants in trade unions and working-class communities across the country. This article is about how those foundations were laid, and the Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists who made it possible for the union movement to take such bold and widespread action in support of an Indigenous strike.

Most of the non-Indigenous activists involved in this work were working-class militants and members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Throughout the twentieth century, the CPA made an important contribution to the struggle for Indigenous rights. For decades, Communists stood against the grain of racism in Australian society, criticised the mainstream of the labour movement for its failure to take Indigenous rights seriously and condemned the Australian Labor Party for its role in enforcing oppression and racism at both a state and federal level. These weren’t just words; Communists sought to build solidarity with Indigenous struggles and promoted anti-racist ideas among the party’s predominantly working-class membership and audience. No other predominantly non-Indigenous organisation contributed as much to the Indigenous struggle in Australia as the CPA.

The CPA was ahead of the curve, even compared to other Communist parties in countries with minority Indigenous populations. Communists in New Zealand didn’t start to organise around Maori rights until 1935.[1] The Canadian CP didn’t adopt a program for Indigenous rights until 1937 (six years after the CPA, and its program was much more limited than the CPA’s 1931 Draft Programme) and didn’t begin to take up the question in a practical sense until after the Second World War. The contribution of the CPA to Indigenous struggles also significantly dwarfed that made by CP in America, where there are no examples of Communist-organised working-class support for Indigenous rights on the scale seen in Australia.[2]

The CPA’s contribution has often been obscured or downplayed by those for whom the natural white allies of Indigenous communities are middle-class humanitarians, university-trained intellectuals and liberal members of the clergy.[3] Recently, some historians have sought to correct this false narrative and draw attention to the contributions of the CPA and its working-class supporters.[4]

Yet much remains to be written. This article focuses on what might be called the pre-history of the more thoroughly documented examples of solidarity in the post-war period.[5] For it was in the turmoil of the Great Depression that Communist militants first began to integrate the struggle for Indigenous rights with working-class politics. At first, the contribution was mainly through propagandistic articles drawing attention to the terrible exploitation of Indigenous people and making arguments for why their struggle should be seen as a part of the movement for working-class self-emancipation. But as the Communist Party grew in influence throughout the 1930s they were in a position to turn the idea of solidarity into action, first in the unemployed movement, then the trade unions, and finally in broader political campaigns.

In the process, the CPA trained hundreds, if not thousands, of working-class activists to be sensitive to the oppression of Indigenous people and to be ready to show solidarity when Indigenous people fought back. Through the first half of the 1930s, the CPA conceived of the fight for Indigenous liberation as a potentially revolutionary and anti-capitalist struggle, situating it in the context of the rise of anti-colonial and anti-racist movements across the globe. They argued that the working class were natural allies of Indigenous people, much more so than the naive, vacillating and paternalistic middle classes and do-gooders. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the CPA believed that while Communists should strive to combat racism and promote Indigenous rights in day-to-day struggles, the ultimate liberation of Indigenous people would only be possible with the overthrow of Australian capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ state. This forthright position would be modified as the politics of the popular front took hold in the mid-1930s, a process that is also a part of the story presented here.

Indigenous oppression, the labour movement and the socialist left before 1920

Hitherto, the conditions of the aborigines have not been considered by workers in the revolutionary movement, and the rank and file organisation set up by the aborigines was allowed to be broken up by the A.P.B., the missionaries, and the police, but henceforth no struggle of the white workers must be permitted without demands for the aborigines being championed; no political campaigns without political programs applicable to our fellow exploited – the aborigines – being formulated.

– Communist Party of Australia’s 1931 Draft Programme of Struggle Against Slavery.[6]

The formation of the Communist Party of Australia is often presented as a radical break with the previous development of the socialist left and the labour movement in Australia. This is particularly the case in regard to the attitude of the left and the labour movement towards racism in general and Indigenous oppression in particular.

As Bob Boughton has argued:

Communists who took up the cause of Indigenous rights in the 1920s were clearly reflecting concerns more widely held in non-Aboriginal society, concerns stimulated by Indigenous peoples’ own struggles, but this does not explain why they adopted such “advanced” positions, nor why, alone among working class political organisations, the CPA consciously set out to become a major force in the movement for Indigenous rights. Australian communists were led to this position largely by the international movement of which they were members.[7]

There is an important element of truth in this argument. The CPA developed a more advanced program and a more effective relationship with Indigenous struggles than the left-wing organisations that came before them. A major factor pushing them to do so was undoubtedly the politics of the international Communist movement. However, a one-sided emphasis on this point can obscure previous tendencies towards solidarity, however underdeveloped.

So this section begins with a discussion of the relationship between the socialist left, the labour movement and Indigenous people prior to the formation of the CPA in 1920, before moving on to the early history of the Communist Party itself.

While forming a small minority of the overall workforce, Indigenous involvement in the labour movement goes back to the 1800s, with Aboriginal miners present at protest meetings in the lead-up to the Red Ribbon and Eureka rebellions on the Victorian goldfields.[8] It was in the shearing industry though that it seems the first substantial numbers of Aboriginal workers became involved in union campaigning, and where the issue of Aboriginal involvement in the union movement was first seriously discussed. Aboriginal shearers were involved in the shearers’ union movement from its very origins, and hundreds took part in the intense class battles of the 1890s. While exact numbers are hard to come by, a delegate at the 1891 Australasian Shearers Union (ASU) conference claimed that 60-70 Aboriginal shearers were members of the union in South Australia, while the Adelaide branch of the Australian Workers Union (AWU, into which the ASU had amalgamated) in 1913 had 5,000 members, of whom 400 were Aboriginal.[9]

While the shearers’ unions were not immune from paternalistic or racist ideas, many unionists did express sympathy for the plight of Aboriginal people and at least some understanding that their dispossession was morally wrong and placed them in a disadvantaged position that should be changed.

The socialist groups that emerged in the early twentieth century drew on this history, occasionally addressing the conditions of Indigenous people in strident terms. Many of these articles railed against “slavery” in Western Australia and the exploitation, abuse and murder of Aboriginal workers by station masters, the police and government officials.[10] Others were concerned with the hypocrisy of religious missions which were interested only in profits.[11] Most articles were similar to those that had been published in the shearers’ union newspapers. However, some did start to draw together the exploitation of Aboriginal workers, the nature of capitalism and the need for socialism. As an article in The People, the newspaper of the Australian Socialist League, put it:

[T]he real working-class movement knows neither race nor color and detests and opposes oppression and injustice everywhere. The cause of this poor maltreated halt-caste girl is the cause of every worker, and their cause is hers. Only when the Social Revolution shall have accomplished itself, and christian capitalist “civilisation” shall have been relegated to the rubbish destructor, will the rule of justice and equity, untrammelled by class interests and free from the sordid debasement of character germinated in the capitalist muck-heap, be possible.[12]

Some articles described pre-invasion Aboriginal society as a form of primitive communism.[13]

Though the issue was not a focus of their work, the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) took an anti-racist and internationalist stance and published a few short articles supporting Aboriginal rights.[14] At times individual IWW activists did fight against the discrimination against Aboriginal workers. In Darwin a Filipino IWW activist who was married to an Aboriginal woman fought against racist discrimination on the docks in 1912.[15] It is unclear how many Indigenous members the IWW was able to recruit, or if there are other examples of them participating in action against Indigenous discrimination, although at least one Aboriginal worker, Ted O’Reilly, was a prominent IWW orator, and Lucy Eatock joined while participating in the anti-conscription struggles during the First World War.[16]

Despite these not insignificant contributions, working-class consciousness about Indigenous oppression remained limited, and often intertwined with paternalistic or racist views. As the Indigenous population was quite small and marginalised in a profoundly racist society, their oppression did not present itself as a pressing strategic question for the workers’ movement, nothing like the issues of immigration, or African Americans in the US. Another factor is that many of the most important union conflicts of the early twentieth century were either urban-based or in tightly knit mining communities such as Broken Hill, whereas at that time the vast majority of Indigenous people lived in rural areas.

This began to shift after Federation, when Indigenous communities came under increased attack from governments. State parliaments passed a series of new laws giving sweeping powers to Aborigines Protection Boards, who then demanded even more powers to control Indigenous communities. Rural communities and state officials intensified pressure to break up Indigenous landholdings or reserves that had been established on valuable land, and segregation and exploitation were further entrenched. Indigenous communities resisted these attacks in various ways, laying the basis for the emergence of the Aboriginal activist organisations of the 1920s and 30s.

At the same time as these attacks were increasing, significant sections of the leadership of the labour movement were becoming more incorporated into the running of capitalism. The AWU, which had united Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers earlier in the century, became the backbone of many state Labor governments. While some Labor MPs from rural backgrounds, many specifically from the AWU, criticised aspects of the treatment of Aboriginal communities, the vast bulk of Labor politicians happily participated in the brutal oppression of Indigenous people. When the NSW Labor government debated giving the Aborigines Protection Board greater powers to control Aboriginal communities in 1915 only three politicians, all Labor, opposed the amendment, while a fourth agreed to withdraw his opposition as a show of cabinet solidarity.[17]

Thus the situation in the lead-up to the founding of the CPA in 1920 was an intensification of racist oppression, and strong proof that Labor governments were no solution. While some traditions of solidarity had been built in certain sections of the working class, and anti-racist politics were accepted on the left, these processes were in a preliminary phase. There was little practical solidarity between white and Indigenous workers, and even less theorisation of the role of Indigenous people in Australian capitalism.

The Communist Party of Australia, the Comintern and Indigenous rights

The Communist Party took some time to go beyond the politics and practice of the left that preceded it. This is not particularly surprising given it spent much of the 1920s as a small and beleaguered organisation, numbering only in the hundreds, regularly wracked with internal crises, splits and a high turnover of both rank-and-file members and its political leadership. Despite these challenges, from 1923 the CPA’s paper Workers’ Weekly began publishing articles about Indigenous oppression. One article about the exploitation of Torres Strait Islanders on Badu Island ended by stating: “facts show that wherever the capitalist system plants itself the native population is subjected and ruthlessly exploited. Let us speed the day when the workers – black, white or brindle – will be free from the blighting influence of brutal Capitalism”.[18] An article in 1924 criticised the mainstream labour newspapers the Worker and the Labour Daily for whipping up a hysterical campaign “denouncing the blacks as treacherous murderers” in the Northern Territory. The author, C Arfeldt, while accepting the idea that Indigenous people were a “dying race”, also pointed to the benefits that capitalism had gained out of exploiting the Aboriginal population in the Northern Territory.[19]

From 1925 Workers’ Weekly regularly reported about the conditions of Aboriginal workers. Articles from 1925-27 criticised Labor state governments for not stopping the exploitation of Aboriginal domestic servants[20] and attacked the AWU for refusing to organise Aboriginal workers in Western Australia and the NT.[21] In January 1928 they published an interesting account of a conversation between a Communist Party member and some Aboriginal workers in Western Australia. According to the account, the Aboriginal workers said that they were “treated very harshly by some white people”. When the Communist replied that this would change when workers “woke up and ruled Australia”, the Aboriginal workers reportedly said “we wish they would hurry up and do it”. The Aboriginal workers also said they wanted control over their own land, to which the Communist replied that when the “white worker would control Australia…then they would have land and freedom too”.[22] Whether this account is accurate or embellished for propaganda purposes, it reflects that the party was starting to think about the issues. Unfortunately during this period their theoretical journal, The Communist, published a series of anthropological articles that approached the Indigenous question from a racist standpoint common in the academy at the time.[23]

From 1928 the CPA was thrown into disarray by a factional struggle, out of which a new leadership, backed by the Stalinised Communist International, came to power.[24] The victory of this new leadership spelt the end of the CPA as a revolutionary socialist organisation, and saw it transformed into a Stalinist organisation in line with Communist parties across the globe. This would have important consequences for how the party came to understand the question of Indigenous oppression.

The approach of the CPA to Indigenous oppression in the 1920s has often been criticised as being economistic, meaning that they had a narrow focus on the economic aspects of Indigenous exploitation rather than any consideration of broader political issues.[25] It is then argued that this shifted from 1928 onwards due to the influence of the Comintern, which pressured the Communist Party to take the issue of Indigenous oppression more seriously and to develop a political analysis of that oppression and strategies to combat it.

While there is some truth to this argument, most writers on the subject end up avoiding examining the broader context in which debates around colonialism, racism and anti-imperialism took place within the Comintern, in particular the impact that the rise of Stalinism had on the formulation of its policies towards colonially oppressed and Indigenous peoples.

Unlike the old Socialist International, which maintained ambiguous positions on colonialism, the Comintern was established on a clearly hostile basis. This was important because in the aftermath of the First World War a series of national independence movements had erupted across the globe. The Bolshevik Party in Russia and the leadership of the Comintern saw an alliance between the revolutionary workers’ movements of the advanced capitalist countries and the anti-colonial movements of the oppressed nationalities as a key strategic question.

At first the Comintern essentially split the world between the large imperialist powers like Britain, Germany, and the colonies that they oppressed and controlled. The colonial world was seen as relatively homogeneous, with only limited attempts to differentiate between different categories of oppressed nations.[26]

At the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 the Indian Communist MN Roy argued for a more sophisticated analysis of different colonial nations. Roy distinguished between three different “tiers” of colonial societies. First there were the “countries in which capitalism has reached a rather high level of development”, such as Australia and Canada. In these countries “industry has developed due to the inflow of capital from the great centres of capitalism”, and a “native capitalism has gained strength”. Second were those countries where capitalist development has occurred but “it is still at an elementary level” and “feudalism” was supposedly still economically dominant. Lastly there were countries where capitalist development had barely started at all, “primitive conditions still prevail, and the social order is dominated by patriarchal feudalism”.[27]

In this schema Australia’s position was still ambiguous. While it was seen as having a high level of capitalist development and a native capitalist class, it was still a colony of Britain and therefore the fight for Australian independence was presumably progressive. This was at any rate how leading members of both the CPA and Comintern officials in charge of Australian affairs chose to interpret Roy’s schema. For the CPA this fit conveniently with the strong current of Australian nationalism dominant in the socialist left and the wider labour movement.

It wasn’t until 1928 that the nature of Australian capitalism, and the place of Indigenous people within it, was further clarified. The Sixth Comintern Congress argued that it was

necessary to distinguish between those colonies of the capitalist countries which have served them as colonising regions for their surplus population, and which in this way have become a continuation of their capitalist system (Australia, Canada, etc.) and those colonies which are exploited by the imperialists primarily as markets for their commodities… The colonies of the first type, on the basis of their general development, became “Dominions”, that is, members of the given imperialist system with equal or nearly equal rights. In them, capitalist development reproduces among the immigrant white population the class structure of the metropolis, at the same time that the native population was, for the most part, exterminated.[28]

Australia was now understood not as a colony, but an independent capitalist power with “equal or nearly equal rights” with Britain, and a social structure that reproduced the main features of class society in the advanced capitalist world, albeit with the added feature of the Indigenous inhabitants. While this was an important development in the analysis of countries like Australia, the political strategies put forward for combating racism and imperialism were negatively influenced by the growing Stalinisation of the Comintern.

From 1925 the Comintern became dominated by the “right-centre” bloc of Stalin and Bukharin, with Bukharin in charge from 1926. He pursued a policy of alliances with national liberation movements on whatever basis possible. When criticised for this opportunism, he argued that Communists across the globe should subordinate themselves to anyone willing to ally with the USSR, whatever impact this might have on the development of class struggle within the country itself. This policy was pursued in the interests of the new Soviet bureaucracy, who were concerned about increasing pressure on the USSR from the Western powers. Even after Bukharin was driven out of the leadership, the Soviet bureaucracy largely maintained the policies on race and colonialism entrenched during Bukharin’s time.

What does this have to do with the CPA and the question of Indigenous oppression? At a meeting of the Comintern Information Department in 1926, CPA member Hector Ross was grilled over his attitude towards the Indigenous populations in Australia and New Zealand. The questions reflected little concern for combating racism, but were instead about clarifying whether the Indigenous populations in the two countries could generate national movements that the USSR could support in order to undermine British imperialism. Ross appears to have been confused by this line of questioning and vaguely replied that while the Maori were antagonistic to the British, “the Australian natives are not to be reckoned with at all”.[29]

The shift to seeing Indigenous Australians as a colonised national minority striving for national independence, and therefore a potential ally for the Communist movement, took place sometime between 1928 and 1931. This change was shaped by the broader shift in Comintern thinking in regard to various oppressed peoples across the globe. The origins of this shift appear to be in the intervention of the Comintern officials Nikolai Nasanov and Max Petrovsky, although it has been argued that it was directly influenced by Stalin himself and his writings on the national question.[30] In several countries with a history of colonialism or racism, Petrovsky and Nasanov proposed that the Communist parties adopt new demands to relate to these questions. For South Africa, Petrovsky and Nasanov developed the Native Republic thesis and for the US the Black Belt thesis. While both theses would shape the CPA’s response to Indigenous oppression, it is the Black Belt thesis that was drawn on most directly. This was a perspective which argued that African Americans concentrated in the South constituted an oppressed nation with tangible borders within the US, and that they should fight for their national right to self-determination, up to and including the right to secede from America.

For revolutionary anti-Stalinist critics, there were several points of concern with the Black Belt idea.[31] The first was that they believed the motivation behind it had little to do with developing serious concrete strategies for combating racism and strengthening Communist working-class forces. Instead what lay behind the thesis was a desire to propose demands that would allow Communist forces to relate to middle-class layers within oppressed groups. This criticism related to the broader shift in Comintern policy towards anti-colonial movements raised by Trotsky and others in the 1920s.

Secondly, the demand for a Black Belt was criticised as yet another example of the Comintern coming up with reasons to endlessly defer the socialist revolution. This approach was outlined at the Sixth Comintern Congress, where the world was divided between countries where proletarian revolution was on the agenda and countries where the immediate goal should be a so-called “democratic dictatorship of the workers and the peasantry” distinct from a revolutionary workers’ state. This was the beginning of the Stalinist revival of the Menshevik two-stage theory of socialist revolution. The US Trotskyist Max Shachtman in his book Communism and the Negro drew out how the Black Belt demand accepted the idea that there “is still room in the United States for a national-democratic revolution distinct from the proletarian revolution”. However for anti-Stalinists like Shachtman,

no other revolution, intervening between the present rule of finance capital and the final proletarian upheaval, is conceivable in the United States. A theory which does conceive of one is utopian and reactionary. Yet it is precisely such an “intermediate” revolution which is visualised by the new theory.[32]

While the Native Republic thesis did at least have the effect of pushing the South African Communist Party to orient more seriously towards the black working class, something previously resisted, it similarly envisaged the creation of a Native Republic rather than a socialist revolution. This republic was conceived of as “a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic with full rights for all races”, and saw the party develop a mostly uncritical alliance with the middle-class leadership of the African National Congress.[33]

The third problem with the Black Belt thesis is that it conceptualised African Americans as an oppressed nation engaged in a movement for national liberation. As the leading Black Communist Harry Haywood put it:

The Negros in the United States reveal amongst themselves all the characteristics of a nation… Therefore, the struggle of the Negro masses for liberation…must take the form of a movement for national liberation.[34]

For anti-Stalinists like Max Shachtman and CLR James, this argument did not stack up. While they did not rule out the possibility of African Americans developing a nationalist consciousness, they saw this as still explicable within the framework of understanding African Americans as an oppressed racial minority rather than a nationally oppressed group striving for national independence. The idea that African Americans constituted a “nation” was undermined by numerous factors, including their mass migration from the South to North, the diverse social and economic conditions in which they lived, and the lack of any precedent for a campaign to create a Black nation. But aside from its lack of sociological grounding, the theory had big political problems. It pushed against the idea of trying to unite Black and white workers together in militant struggle, something which would in fact take place throughout the 1930s and again later with the civil rights movement. It also went against the grain of early Comintern thinking on African Americans, which Shachtman acknowledges to be sometimes unclear and imprecise, definitively did not raise the demand for national self-determination nor consider them to be a nation. Thus for Shachtman and other Trotskyist critics, the theory was further proof of the Stalinist desire to seek alliances with middle-class layers in the Black community, and to move away from a class-based analysis of Black oppression towards a race- or nationalist-based one.

There isn’t direct evidence of the Comintern developing a comparable strategy for the CPA. Instead it seems that they developed their policy on Indigenous issues through internal discussion, although their approach was obviously shaped by the Native Republic and Black Belt theses. You can see this in the first major writing by the CPA on the Indigenous question, Communist Party’s Fight for Aborigines: Draft Programme of Struggle Against Slavery, published by CPA leader Bert Moxon in September 1931.[35] The Draft Programme contains a systematic overview and denunciation of the exploitation and oppression of Aboriginal people. It then presents a long list of demands for “full economic, social and political rights”, the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Boards, the release of all Aboriginal people from prison and their trial by Aboriginal juries and other quite advanced and radical slogans.

The Draft Programme was strongly shaped by local conditions. A number of its demands were very similar to those put forward by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) founded by Aboriginal activist Fred Maynard in 1924, and the Programme itself positively references the existence of the AAPA.

Moxon would also have been influenced by his own direct experience and those of other CPA leaders. In 1931 he went on a semi-clandestine tour of Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia. The tour was not announced publicly in the Communist press, presumably because of their fear of alerting authorities to his project. However, it came to the attention of the public anyway when South Australian CPA secretary and future Trotskyist Giles Roper was arrested at a public meeting in the Botanical Gardens at which Roper reported on the findings of Moxon’s tour, in particular the abuses of station owners and police. Roper was found guilty of offensive behaviour for criticising police attacks on Aboriginal communities and fined.[36] After the tour, Moxon wrote an article about his experiences for the Communist press.[37] Norman Jeffery, a leading Communist who showed a particular interest in Indigenous issues, was reportedly influenced by his time working alongside unionised Aboriginal workers in rural NSW.[38] Similarly, Tom Wright had some experience with Aboriginal working-class activists in the Unemployed Workers Movement in Glebe – in particular the irrepressible Eatock family. EA Knight, Sydney district secretary of the CPA-led Militant Minority Movement during the 1930s, similarly noted that his views on Aboriginal oppression were shaped by “personal experiences in my youth”.[39]

However, the Draft Programme also raised a demand directly influenced by broader Comintern thinking:

The handing over to the aborigines of large tracts of watered and fertile country, with towns, seaports, railways, roads, etc., to become one or more independent aboriginal states or republics. The handing back to the aborigines of all Central, Northern, and North West Australia to enable the aborigines to develop their native pursuits. These aboriginal republics to be independent of Australian or other foreign powers. To have the right to make treaties with foreign powers, including Australia, establish their own army, governments, industries, and in every way be independent of imperialism.[40]

The Aboriginal republics section of the Draft Programme has often been dismissed as a kooky idea that, while misconceived, had no negative impact upon the CPA’s practical approach to Indigenous issues. Some have even celebrated it as evidence that they were starting to take the question seriously.[41] Other writers see the demand as confused but expressing a commitment to a demand for Indigenous self-determination that foreshadowed the struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

But to what extent are the criticisms of the Black Belt thesis applicable to the CPA’s 1931 Draft Programme? The problem of relating to a middle-class Indigenous leadership was not a concern, as during this period it was basically non-existent. Nor does the CPA’s demand for Aboriginal republics seem to have been conceptualised as part of a two-stage theory of revolution. The CPA insisted that the establishment of Aboriginal republics would only come after the socialist revolution and the creation of a workers’ state.[42]

The main problem with the Draft Programme’s Aboriginal republics demand was that it was not based on a serious analysis of Australian conditions, but represented a mechanical adoption of a cynical slogan created by the Comintern bureaucracy. The adoption of the demand created a series of confusions and ambiguities regarding the Indigenous question which would make it difficult for them to understand the changing dynamics of Indigenous struggle.

Like the Black Belt thesis, it conceptualised Indigenous people as a national minority, striving for national independence. But this threw up some difficult questions for the CPA. After all, most of the Aboriginal population did not live in the Northern Territory or Western Australia. Some had become integrated, to varying degrees and not without significant racist discrimination, into Australian society. The 1931 Draft Programme dodged this dilemma by arguing that the “fifty thousand aborigines in the Federal territories, the few hundred in each State, and the tens of thousands of half-caste workers in each State and the territory must be mobilised” around all the demands in the Draft Programme: for civil rights and Aboriginal republics.

Compare this for instance to the actual development of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA). The AAPA was influenced by the black nationalist ideas of Marcus Garvey, which had filtered through to Aboriginal people via African American sailors landing in Sydney. Unlike Indigenous activist organisations in the 1930s, the AAPA did not narrowly advocate the ending of discriminatory laws in order for Aboriginal people to assimilate into white society. Though it did campaign against racist discrimination and called for the abolition of the Aborigines Protection Boards, the AAPA also argued for the protection of Aboriginal cultural independence, the right to plots of land for Aboriginal families due to their prior ownership before invasion and strongly rejected the idea that Aboriginal culture was inferior. As Maynard wrote in his 1927 letter to NSW premier Jack Lang:

I wish to make it perfectly clear, on behalf of our people, that we accept no condition of inferiority as compared with the European people. Two distinct civilisations are represented by respective races. On one hand we have the civilisation of necessity and on the other the civilisation co-incident with courteous supply of all the requirements of the human race. That the European people by the arts of war destroyed our more ancient civilisation is freely admitted, and that by their vices and diseases our people have been decimated is also patent, but neither of these facts are evidence of superiority. Quite the contrary is the case. The members of [the AAPA] have also noted the strenuous efforts of the Trade Union leaders to attain the conditions which existed in our country at the time of invasion by Europeans – the men only worked when necessary – we called no man “Master” and we had no king.[43]

Maynard’s letter goes on to explain that while Aboriginal people have “accepted the modern system of government which has taken the place of our prehistoric methods” this did not mean the AAPA had any intention of abandoning either Aboriginal culture or a distinct Aboriginal identity.

This assertion of Aboriginal identity was not connected to a demand for national separation. In fact, when white sympathisers proposed to campaign for a “Model Aboriginal State” in the Northern Territory the AAPA explicitly rejected the idea, twice. As the Indigenous historian John Maynard explains, the “AAPA’s fight was not for a separate and segregated Aboriginal state but for the provision of enough land for each and every Aboriginal family in Australia”.[44] Of particular concern to members of the AAPA was the fear that if such a state was created the entire Indigenous population would be forcibly resettled there, setting up a segregationist state. So while the AAPA saw itself as connected to the worldwide struggle against racism and colonialism, it was able to do so without mechanically applying demands from other countries and different contexts.

This raises a number of problems with the CPA’s Draft Programme and other writings. The leadership of the AAPA, and many of its hundreds of members, had some European heritage. Many engaged in work alongside white workers. They wanted both an end to discrimination and a positive affirmation of their identity and culture. On the other side of the equation, in the pastoral industry in north-western Australia and the cattle industry in the Northern Territory, hundreds of Indigenous workers were employed by capitalist landowners. Though the conditions Indigenous workers faced were uniquely terrible, they were nevertheless participating in a capitalist labour process. At the same time, they were able to keep alive more of their cultural traditions, including their connection to country, than Indigenous people in the eastern states. The example of the AAPA also didn’t fit with the 1931 Draft Programme’s conception of Aboriginal people as a national minority striving for the establishment of Aboriginal republics.

Throughout this period, the CPA attitude towards Indigenous struggle went through important changes, with substantial shifts of substance and emphasis. However, despite the various changes, for most of the 1930s the CPA strongly associated the struggle for Indigenous rights with a revolutionary working-class struggle against capitalism. The Draft Programme was an extremely radical and intransigent document. It connected the struggle for Indigenous rights to a revolutionary fight against capitalism and imperialism, while also raising several politically advanced demands that had not been raised widely, or in some cases at all, in Australia beforehand. It was reprinted in the Comintern publication The Negro Worker in 1932 as part of an overview of revolutionary movements against imperialism and colonialism across the globe.[45] The CPA would bring this militant spirit into the class battles of the Great Depression.

The Unemployed Workers’ Movement

It was in northern Australia that the CPA first systematically organised around Indigenous rights. In doing so, they were forced to challenge the approach of the established labour movement in Darwin. The union movement in the NT, centralised under the leadership of the Northern Australian Workers’ Union (NAWU) often had an antagonistic attitude towards the multiracial working class that it was supposed to represent.[46] Chinese labourers were an early and persistent target of the NAWU, which successfully lobbied to restrict their employment from 1911 onwards. During the 1920s, the NAWU leadership was also often dismissive of Indigenous workers. Even when the NAWU argued that they should be covered by union agreements, this was usually in the hope that this would lead them to be replaced by white workers.

Seizing the latent possibilities for multiracial working class solidarity would thus take a sharp break in the development of the Darwin labour movement. Two things made this possible: the existence of an increasingly frustrated left-wing opposition within the NAWU, and the establishment of a small CPA branch, the two of which quickly merged.

A key role in bringing the two together was played by Lawrence James Mahoney and his friend and comrade John Waldie. Mahoney and Waldie had been a part of a growing left-wing opposition within the NAWU, trying to unseat the conservative NAWU leadership of Robert Toupein. The issue of Indigenous workers came to the fore during a union boycott campaign of local pubs over the employment of Aboriginal workers. While some NAWU members argued for the boycott on the basis that the workers were being underpaid, the majority of the union supported the boycott, more or less explicitly, with the goal of driving the Aboriginal workers out of the industry and replacing them with white workers. As the boycott went on the tensions over this started to come to the fore.

Mahoney had played a prominent role during the boycott, demanding heavy penalties for workers who drank at the pubs against the moderation of the NAWU leadership. This support for the boycott though sat uneasily with Mahoney who was friends with Aboriginal workers through his position as a referee at the local football club.[47] As the boycott came to an end he started to raise the issue of Indigenous exclusion. This came to a head in the aftermath of the boycott’s victory, when the NAWU leadership proposed that it be extended to Chinese merchants who employed Aboriginal workers. Mahoney and his friend Waldie raised a stink, pointing out that it was hypocritical of the union to do this when Aboriginal workers were excluded from NAWU membership and when NAWU members personally employed Aboriginal workers. Mahoney and Waldie pushed for a vote on allowing Aboriginal workers and some other “coloured” workers to join the union, although it was unsuccessful.[48] Mahoney also organised union support for a strike of Malay pearlers and protested against racist discrimination in the football league.

Mahoney and Waldie’s arguments dovetailed with those being made by the CPA. Workers’ Weekly had criticised the boycott campaign from the beginning, and the broader hostility of the NAWU towards Aboriginal workers which underpinned it.[49] In theses passed at a CPA Central Committee meeting in June 1930, it was proclaimed that in “such places as Darwin, where there are masses of coloured workers, our Party must become the leader of these masses and bring them into political struggle against their capitalist exploiters”. The theses noted the strikes by Indigenous workers in the pearling industry and went so far as to argue that:

The majority of our Party members in such districts should be coloured. Let the contemptible scoundrels of social fascism scornfully sneer at us as a “coloured party” in such districts. We will accept it as a tribute to our revolutionary determination to unite the working class for the destruction of capitalism.[50]

The CPA would never achieve this goal in Darwin, but it would fight admirably for an anti-racist working-class culture in the city. It is unclear exactly when Mahoney and Waldie joined the CPA. By November 1929 they had resigned from the Darwin ALP,[51] though they had already been active in various Communist-led organisations and campaigns. As Mahoney and Waldie started attacking the NAWU leadership more stridently around a range of issues, including its racism, the NAWU moved to punish them by pushing them out of delegate and organiser positions.

Having been essentially isolated from the centre of the union movement in Darwin, Mahoney, Waldie and their supporters instead focused their attention on unemployed struggles, where they would find an easier audience both for their militant tactics and their arguments about racism. They established an Unemployed Workers’ Movement branch and engaged in a number of high profile and militant actions. The most famous saw Mahoney climb onto the roof of a local government building occupied by the unemployed and fly the red flag.

Mahoney and the Darwin Communists also brought the CPA’s support for Indigenous rights into the unemployed struggle. In July 1929, the local Communists promoted a mass meeting at Police Paddock, an area where much of the local Aboriginal and non-white community lived. The meeting demanded that the government give ownership of the area over to the local community, end racist discrimination and grant them full citizenship rights.[52] When Police Paddock was raided by the police the Communists organised an open-air meeting denouncing the repression.

Many Aboriginal workers were involved and arrested at the militant unemployed protests. Photos show several Aboriginal and Asian workers participating in the infamous unemployed occupation of government offices in January 1931. One of these Aboriginal workers was Joe McGinness, the future national president of the Federal Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement.[53] At a meeting of the Darwin UWM in 1931, a motion was adopted supporting the “complete emancipation” of Aboriginal people from economic and political oppression.[54] Mahoney would regularly write letters to the Northern Standard about Aboriginal oppression.[55]

While Mahoney and Waldie had some success building anti-racist sentiment among the unemployed, the mainstream labour movement remained mostly hostile. They had some success getting the NAWU to protest at the banning of “half-caste” workers from drinking at Darwin pubs.[56] However, at the NAWU annual conference in 1930, their motion to end all racial discrimination in union membership was ruled out of order.

Over time opposition from the NAWU leadership and police repression began to take their toll on Mahoney and Waldie. The NAWU whipped up a slanderous campaign accusing them of plotting to replace the white workforce with their “coloured” allies.[57] They both spent considerable time in jail over various offences related to the unemployment protests. The NAWU leaders effectively abandoned them and manoeuvred to limit their support within the Darwin workers’ movement, with some success. The repression reached its farcical climax when Mahoney was arrested while waving goodbye to a friend on an outgoing ship. His crime? Standing on the wrong side of the wharf.[58]

In January 1933 Mahoney left Darwin, and Waldie followed suit shortly afterwards. They would both remain active in Communist politics in Sydney,[59] but clearly felt defeated in Darwin and that their efforts to build an anti-racist working class movement had been in vain. But within a few years a new generation of Darwin Communists inspired by Mahoney and Waldie would continue their fight for militant unionism and anti-racism.[60]

It wasn’t just in Darwin that Communists took up the issue of Indigenous oppression within the unemployed struggle. At the beginning of the Depression, the CPA membership was primarily concentrated in the capital cities, particularly Sydney, plus a handful of mining communities. But as the Depression forced hundreds of thousands of people out of work, the unemployed struggle opened up opportunities for the Communists to spread into new areas.

One of these was country NSW. Most readers are probably inclined to think about rural NSW – then and now – as an undifferentiated reactionary mass. After all, it was in the country towns that the fascistic Old Guard drilled its militias in preparation for the overthrow of the Lang Labor government. Rural newspapers were filled with dire warnings about the Communist hordes gathering in the industrial cities, and some advocated for rural regions to separate from NSW in protest. When the rural elite heard that Communists were attempting to build a base in country towns they hit back with a wave of attacks on Communist activists, culminating in an estimated 3,000-strong protest in Dubbo that surrounded the home of local Communists and demanded their immediate expulsion from the town limits.[61]

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, there was also a wave of racist agitation against Aboriginal communities, with a number of country towns pushing for greater levels of segregation in schools, cinemas and public spaces, as well as the further removal of Aboriginal missions. As the Depression set in, the NSW government issued instructions that unemployed Aboriginal workers should receive rations instead of the dole.

Aboriginal people didn’t accept these attacks without a fight. In 1931 Aboriginal unemployed workers protested in Wellington, NSW, demanding the dole instead of rations.[62] The Yass Tribune-Courier reported that the change was “much resented by the colored people”, and that strikes were being advocated by Aboriginal communities and petitions organised to be sent to Jack Lang.[63] According to historian Heather Goodall, these actions culminated in a wave of “stop-works, protest and strikes at Wallaga Lake, Menindee, Burnt Bridge, Brewarrina and Purfleet from 1936 to 1938”.[64]

In the face of these attacks, Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class activists started to draw together in some places, with a key role often being played by Communists. In June 1931 a meeting was organised in Dubbo by a small group of Communist activists to launch a local Unemployed Workers’ Movement branch. It was immediately controversial with the conservative Dubbo establishment, who condemned it as a Communist front.[65] Criticism also came from the local ALP leadership who attempted to stop Communist activists from dominating the movement, and when that failed, set up a rival unemployed organisation. The mayor repeatedly refused to give the UWM permission to hold public rallies.

As the unemployed struggle in Dubbo took off it intersected with the local Aboriginal community. Aboriginal activists Tom Peckham and Ted Taylor both got involved in the unemployed protests. They then spoke to the white unemployed about the discrimination of the Aborigines Protection Board and asked them to take up Aboriginal issues.[66] The Peckham family would be involved in trade union and socialist politics for many decades.

Their appeal had an impact. At a mass meeting in 1932, the unemployed movement carried a motion demanding full rations for Aboriginal workers and urged the labour movement to take up the issue more generally.[67] During the 1932 municipal elections, the Dubbo CPA branch platform included the demand for the “enfranchisement of aboriginals and foreign workers of all races”, and the “right of all aboriginals to own property and participate in municipal affairs”.[68] There was also a small Communist group in the nearby town of Wellington (the CP got only nine votes in the town during the 1934 election), which supported unemployed Aboriginal workers through the local UWM branch.

At a meeting of western NSW unemployed organisations and unions in Orange in 1936, the Wellington and Dubbo UWM branches initiated a discussion about the treatment of Aboriginal people which led to the conference deciding that “a definite campaign be launched throughout all areas to demand equal treatment for all classes and colors”.[69]

This activity wasn’t confined to western NSW. The Waratah-Mayfield UWM branch in Newcastle repeatedly discussed the issue of Aboriginal rights. In February 1932 it sent a letter to the local branch of the Australasian Society of Patriots drawing their attention to the abuses of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.[70] In March of the same year, it sent a protest to the Queensland government over reports of attacks on Aboriginal communities, and in July it protested against the different dole rates for unemployed Aboriginal workers. At a meeting of the Kempsey Unemployed League in 1932 a Mr Stevens, who was at the very least a close supporter if not a member of the CPA, argued in favour of equal rights for the Aboriginal unemployed workers – and won the debate.[71] In 1932 Communists tried to organise a joint protest of Aboriginal fisherman and wharf labourers at Port Kembla after they were all kicked off the dole.[72]

This support for unemployed Aboriginal workers spread further still, with the Innisfail, Queensland branches of the UWM, the Australian Railways Union, the Waterside Workers Federation and the Mourilyan Mill Workers demanding at a meeting in May 1933 that “aboriginals and other colored workers be placed on the same footing as other unemployed as regards rations and relief work”. The meeting also protested “against the police intimidatory methods which are used with these workers”.[73] The motion was moved by CPA member Pat Clancy. By 1938 even the Tasmanian unemployed movement was passing motions about Aboriginal rights.[74]

What Darwin, Dubbo, the working-class suburbs of Newcastle, and Innisfail had in common is that the CPA had built up a base of support among working-class activists through the unemployed struggle and in some cases trade union activity that then opened up the space for them to pursue anti-racist arguments and activity.

Evolving Communist theory on Indigenous oppression

The Communist contribution to the struggle for Indigenous rights in the first half of the 1930s wasn’t confined to practical activity. There was also a wide-ranging discussion in the Communist press about the origins and nature of Indigenous oppression. As has already been noted, in the 1920s this discussion had been mainly of an anthropological nature, often with strong paternalistic or racist undertones due to the influence of the academic framework around these issues. However, during the 1930s Communist writers pushed past this to a more serious examination of the relationship between Indigenous oppression and Australian capitalism.

Communists were well placed to reject the founding myths of Australian capitalism. While the shearer unionists, socialists and some liberals had in the past acknowledged that the establishment of the colonial government had rested on a morally unjustifiable invasion that resulted in death and misery for Indigenous people, Communists took this further.

The 1931 Draft Programme had laid out the general arguments, but these were now expanded upon in numerous articles. One of the most advanced statements on Indigenous issues came from a 1934 article in Proletariat,[75] a publication of the Melbourne University Labor Club run by CPA members. The article begins by noting that “there has been a great awakening of interest in Australian Aborigines over the last two or three years”. However while noting the growing interest in the conditions of Aboriginal people shown by humanitarian, religious and scientific organisations – and more cynically by the “smug bourgeois” – the article argues for a specifically Communist approach to the question of Indigenous oppression.

The Proletariat article argues forthrightly that Indigenous oppression is embedded in the capitalist system. Due to the integration of Indigenous workers into certain sectors of the economy such as the pastoral industry, Indigenous exploitation was “now part of the economic life of the country”. The exploitation of Indigenous peoples, much like those in Australia-controlled New Guinea, was the ground from which “the colonial super-profits of the Australian bourgeoisie” arose. The article also argued that Indigenous oppression is not just economic but political in nature, explaining that “the aborigines, like the million masses of Asia and Africa, suffering from European and Japanese imperialism, are robbed of all political rights”, as they had no political representation, constitutional recognition or legal control over their own land.

At the time this oppression was often justified with the idea that the British invasion was beneficial for the Indigenous population, and that at any rate, they were a “dying race”. The Proletariat article took issue with both of these arguments, further revealing the distance between Communists and middle-class humanitarians. On the question of the supposed benefits that British imperialism gave to Indigenous people, the article is very clear. According to the article, British capitalism came to Australia already, in the words of Marx, “dripping from head to foot…in blood and dirt”.[76] The Indigenous experience of British colonisation was one of massacres and exploitation in which “the aborigines have been brought very close to total annihilation at the hands of the imperialists”. However this annihilation was not total and the article argues that it wouldn’t be if working-class forces threw themselves into the anti-racist struggle. “We must decisively reject the bourgeois theory that aborigines are doomed to extinction. Even without Socialism, they may be saved from extinction” by concerted political action.

The involvement of the working class, and the CPA, in particular, was seen as vital for the advancement of Indigenous rights. The capitalists were “not concerned with the emancipation of the aborigines”. Bourgeois academics, while feigning concern about Indigenous people, were content “to see they depart in peace”. The work of religious missionaries had been a total failure in regard to protecting the Indigenous population, and while sympathetic anthropologists might help to gather scientific evidence of the exploitation of Indigenous people, the reality was that “we already possess sufficient information… What is wanted… [is] political action to prevent further oppression”.

Despite this quite brilliant polemic, when it came to solutions Proletariat was still trapped in the framework provided by the Draft Programme. It envisioned the establishment of an “autonomous aboriginal republic under the leadership of the working class” as the only fundamental means of achieving emancipation. This “aboriginal republic” however was not seen as an achievable goal under capitalism, but rather its success was “contingent on the formation of a Soviet Australia”. As evidence for the viability of this strategy, the article pointed to the experience of the national minorities during the 1917 Russian Revolution which showed that “where the working class succeeds in emancipating itself from capitalism it simultaneously emancipates all oppressed peoples within its territories”.

Solidarity and struggle

As the CPA drew young militants towards it through its work in the unemployed workers’ movement, it also began to rebuild a left-wing current within the unions. A key role in this was played by the Militant Minority Movement, modelled on overseas examples of rank-and-file initiatives. As they rebuilt a class struggle wing within the labour movement the CPA also sought to integrate their support for Indigenous rights into trade union battles.

Red Leader, the publication of the Minority Movement, published extensively on Indigenous oppression.[77] While other Communist publications focused more on developing a platform for Indigenous rights, Red Leader articles were more agitational, highlighting particular examples of exploitation and oppression. These articles were important in popularising support for Indigenous rights among a layer of left-wing militants, alongside the more local publications of the CPA. As Communist influence increased within the union movement, they were then able to take practical steps in solidarity with Indigenous struggles on a number of fronts.

In 1932 the Communist Party’s “Agit-Prop” committee proposed pro-Aboriginal slogans for that year’s May Day.[78] The CPA also organised for Anna Morgan, an Aboriginal activist, to speak at a meeting of the International Women’s Day Committee and at the Women’s Anti-War Conference in 1935, and published one of her articles in the CPA’s publication Working Women.[79] When Aboriginal shearers were refused award wages by an employer in Mukinbudin, Western Australia, the CPA took up the issue with the state government. Norman Jeffery, the Communist organiser of the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union, used his time visiting rural workers committees to urge workers to support Indigenous rights and investigate conditions at local Aboriginal missions. Another member of the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union wrote a report to Red Leader detailing multiple examples of the exploitation of Aboriginal workers in Queensland, and the North Queensland Guardian reported on the arrest of an Aboriginal man called “Rupert” who had been deported to Palm Island for agitating among Aboriginal workers.[80] Communists in Northern Queensland also built support for the 1936 strike by Torres Strait Islanders in the pearling industry, and after the Second World War a CPA organiser and writer Gerald Peel wrote the book Isles of the Torres Straits: an Australian responsibility, which exposed the conditions of the Islanders and advocated for a radical break with government policy.[81]

The CPA had the greatest impact through its intervention into two of the most significant and sustained union-backed Indigenous campaigns of the time, the Caledon Bay campaign of 1932-34 and the Day of Mourning and Protest in 1938.

The Caledon Bay campaign

In September 1932 five Japanese fishermen were killed near Caledon Bay in the Northern Territory. Suspicion fell on the local Yolngu Indigenous community. One of the police officers dispatched to investigate also turned up dead. In Darwin establishment opinion demanded that a significant police expedition be sent to arrest those accused. The Melbourne Herald captured the mood:

The Administrator…and the Superintendent of Police…consider that unless prompt action is taken to punish the natives, it will be unsafe for any white man or trepangers [fishermen] to call at any part of the north-eastern portion of Arnhem Land.[82]

In August 1933 a committee was set up in Darwin to campaign against the police expedition to arrest the accused Aboriginal men due to fears it could lead to a massacre.[83] The CPA immediately campaigned across the country to build opposition to the police expedition. In September a large meeting of waterside workers in Sydney voted to condemn the expedition.[84] While the committee’s action managed to stop a police attack, Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda and three other Aboriginal men were brought back to Darwin by a group of missionaries, and a trial began.

The campaign continued right through the trial and into 1934. In June 2,000 attended a rally at the Sydney Domain organised by the International Labor Defense (ILD) to demand a retrial after Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda was sentenced to death and the three other Aboriginal men to 20 years’ hard labour.[85] Throughout the year the campaign received support from unemployed organisations in Brisbane, Punchbowl, Redfern and Bankstown, from branches of the Australian Railways Union and other unions, and a further two rallies of thousands were organised in Sydney during August.[86] The Aboriginal men were eventually released due to the pressure of the campaign. But Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda disappeared soon after he was released from Fannie Bay jail, possibly murdered by the police.

The work that the CPA did around this campaign brought it into greater contact with Indigenous people. A report on the work of the party in Western Australia in June 1934 noted that due to the campaign “aborigines are in contact with the D.C. [District Committee] – they write to the party and party members go down to where they are preparing facts to present to the Royal Commission when it meets”.[87] The widespread opposition to the police in Darwin over the incident was a turning point. For a long time after 1932 governments would no longer feel confident of having the public support or indifference necessary to launch large-scale police expeditions into Indigenous communities.

The anti-Sesquicentenary and the 1938 Day of Mourning and Protest

The Sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet was intended by the bourgeoisie to be a celebration of Australian nationalism, conservatism and loyalty to the British empire. It immediately came under criticism from the workers’ movement, the socialist left and sections of the progressive middle class. After all, what version of Australian history was going to be celebrated in 1938? The struggles of the Eureka Stockade, the 1890s strikes and the anti-conscription campaign? Or the ties to British empire, the values of colonialism and the Australian ruling class?

The CPA initially supported the day’s festivities, arguing that the history of working-class and democratic struggle should be the focus. In this vein they argued that Aboriginal people should be included in the official celebration as an acknowledgement of their continued existence.[88] This shameful outlook was shaped by the CPA’s turn to what became known as the Popular Front, a shift that pushed the CPA to abandon its former hostility to all forms of Australian and British nationalism, and instead to frame the Communist movement as a continuation of a progressive Australian national tradition.

The CPA was forced to change its perspective on the day as it became clear that Indigenous activists were organising to demonstrate against the celebrations. On 30 November 1937 Workers’ Weekly reported that Aboriginal activists were planning to hold a day of protest and argued: “The Australian people should make it a day for heaping coals of fire on their own heads and at the same time a day of determining that white chauvinist beastliness be relegated to the past”.[89]

One of the Aboriginal activists who played a key role in organising the Day of Mourning and Protest was William Ferguson. In 1937 Ferguson founded the Aborigines’ Progressive Association (APA) at a meeting in Dubbo. Ferguson had a long history in union and Labor Party activism. He had been a delegate for the AWU, a member of the ALP during the anti-conscription campaign and involved in union committees across rural NSW.[90]

The CPA had welcomed the creation of the APA and promoted its activities in Workers’ Weekly.[91] In October 1937 Ferguson spoke at a public meeting in Sydney organised by the CPA.[92] Afterwards Ferguson was invited by Tom Wright, the Communist leader of the Sheet-Metal Workers’ Union, to a meeting of the Sydney Labour Council to talk about Indigenous oppression. The Labour Council then voted to endorse a list of progressive demands around Indigenous issues proposed by Wright. Alongside Wright, a number of Communist union leaders played an important role in getting the Labour Council to endorse this position, including Lloyd Ross, state secretary of the NSW Australian Railways Union and Bill Orr, the CPA leader of the Miners Federation.[93]

In the lead-up to the Sesquicentenary, a meeting of the Labour Council passed a resolution moved by Ross that condemned the celebration and urged the labour movement to organise its own pro-working class, anti-Sesquicentenary events. The resolution noted the slap in the face to Indigenous people embedded within the official celebrations:

We seize the opportunity to draw the attention of the Government and the people to the tragic position of the aboriginals, and declare that immediate attention must be given to their needs. We demand that the perversion of history in the celebrations should cease and a correct view be given of the treatment of the aboriginals, the place of the convict, and the role of the masses. We appeal to the Trade Unions to feature working-class history and analysis in their journals and meetings.[94]

Coverage of the Day of Mourning and Protest itself was front page news for Workers’ Weekly, and the various meetings and events held over the week by Indigenous activists were reported on as historic events. However several articles pointed to tensions which had arisen between the CPA and the APA.

On 25 January Workers’ Weekly published a reply to media reports that Ferguson was accusing the CPA of refusing to hand over money raised at one of the meetings he spoke at. The CPA argued that this had arisen over a misunderstanding; however it was a foreshadowing of future debates.[95] The Day of Mourning was organised by the APA with the support of the Australian Aborigines’ League, based in Victoria. Its organising meetings were open to Aboriginal people only, and while white supporters were encouraged to attend a meeting afterwards, the Day of Mourning and Protest itself was also to be an Aboriginal-only event.

The CPA was very critical of this approach. While they positively covered the Day of Mourning and Protest in detail, they also published articles criticising the “separatist” politics of the organisers. One article laid out the general argument:

It is most admirable that a movement should take place among the aborigines on their own behalf, but that movement must not be limited or confined in any way. All progressive and democratic people must be rallied to their cause. Their struggle is ours as well as theirs. While praising the aborigines for taking up the fight, we, the whites, must help them, fight for them, use all means in our power to see that they get justice. Representatives of the trade unions, of all progressive bodies, should be present on their platforms, present in the Australia Hall with them on their Day of Mourning. Whoever tries to limit their movement is foe, not friend, of this fine and terribly maltreated people.[96]

These debates have been seen by some as a precursor to arguments over autonomous organising and black nationalism in the second half of the twentieth century. While concern about white influence over the movement by Indigenous activists probably played some role, there were other factors at work as well.

In the lead-up to the Day of Mourning considerable conservative pressure was building on Indigenous activists. David Unaipon, a prominent Aboriginal figure, pulled out of the protest a few days before it was to start on the basis that the Lyons government had contacted him to assure him that changes were to be made to Aboriginal policy. The Lyons government also accepted a proposal to meet with a delegation from the protest, provided that it only included Aboriginal people. This was motivated by a desire to exclude representatives from the socialist left and the unions. Some white people did attend the meeting, but they were handpicked by the government.[97]

There were other conservatising pressures on the Indigenous activists. While establishing the APA, Ferguson and another Aboriginal activist, Jack Patten, had come into contact with the publisher William Miles and the writer PR Stephensen. Stephensen had once been a CPA member but had drifted away. Both were now part of a tradition of nationalist politics that had some sympathy for Indigenous people, such as John J Moloney, editor of the nationalist newspaper The Voice of the North, who had supported the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association.[98] Later Miles and Stephensen would found the proto-fascist Australia First Movement.

While Ferguson had initially been friendly to Miles and Stephensen, he became increasingly suspicious of their motives.[99] This was heightened when they arranged the funds to have a newspaper called Abo Call published with Jack Patten as the editor. Divisions started to open up within the APA between Ferguson, who was closer to the union movement and the socialist left, and Patten, who looked to nationalist allies. Patten used Abo Call to publish articles attacking Ferguson,[100] and sent a letter to Workers’ Weekly explaining that the APA would no longer be accepting “unsolicited” donations. There was also pressure on Ferguson by ALP members like Albert Thompson to put limits on his relationship with the Communists.[101]

Despite arguments between the CPA and the APA, they continued to work with each other after the Day of Mourning. On May Day four months after the protest, the APA accepted an invitation from Communist union leaders to march in the parade, and Tom Wright spoke alongside Ferguson at a massive meeting on the Domain at the end of the march. The CPA also worked with the APA in establishing a new group, the Campaign for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, which included CPA member Jean Devanny, Ferguson from the APA, and Mark Davidson and Albert Thompson representing the ALP state executive.[102]

The political divisions within the APA would also shape, and unfortunately ultimately undermine, the important struggle at Cummerajunga in southern NSW. Cummerajunga had long been a site of Aboriginal resistance and unrest, with tensions coming to a head in February of 1939 when Jack Patten was arrested while agitating amongst the Aboriginal people at the station. Several hundred Aboriginal people living at Cummerajunga then staged a walk-off in protest and crossed over the Murray River to Victoria.

The walk-off was highly controversial in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous activist circles. The issues involved were muddled due to the tensions between Patten and other Indigenous leaders, and Patten’s relationship with the far-right nationalists in Sydney. William Ferguson opposed the walk-off and made it known to those involved in Aboriginal campaigning that he believed Patten had stirred up trouble for his own purposes. The Campaign for Aboriginal Citizen Rights which had brought together Ferguson, the CPA and the ALP left in Sydney “claimed that Patten represented no known Aboriginal organisation and disassociated itself from his methods”.[103]

In Victoria however the situation was somewhat different. PR Stephensen’s Australia First organisation seems to have collapsed shortly before the walk-off began, and with the Sydney left quite hostile, the walk-off found support among the socialist left and the workers’ movement in Melbourne. William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines’ League in Melbourne were more supportive of the walk-off. In March the League brought the issue to the attention of the ACTU, which passed a motion calling on the NSW government to hold an inquiry into the conditions that led to the walk-off. The Victorian CPA branch started to run a series of articles about the walk-off and protest meetings were held at the Yarra Bank with socialist, CPA and Aboriginal speakers. A new organisation, the Aborigines’ Assistance Committee, was formed with a number of Aboriginal representatives as well as socialists like JF Chapple, general secretary of the Australian Railways Union. Young Aboriginal members of the Committee such as Margaret Tucker “were keen to accept the support of socialists and communists”.[104]

However after nine months the walk-off eventually ended in defeat. The NSW government rejected any demands for a public inquiry and successfully convinced the Victorian government to refuse to give aid to the protesters who had crossed the state border.

The Popular Front and “New Deal for the Aborigines”

From 1934 onwards a significant shift in the politics of the international Communist movement and therefore the CPA was underway. This was the turn to what became known as the “Popular Front”. For the first half of the 1930s, the Comintern had argued for a policy of “class versus class”, emphasising the immediacy of proletarian revolution and denouncing the reformist left as “social fascists”. This was a period of extreme sectarianism that in some cases led to important defeats for the workers’ movement, such as the rise of Hitler in Germany, and placed limits on the growth of Communist parties elsewhere, including during the radicalisation in NSW under the Lang government. At the same time, it saw the CPA lead hundreds and then thousands of working-class fighters in battles on the streets and in the workplace.

The turn towards the Popular Front involved a shift away from this perspective, but it was a shift even further away from revolutionary Marxist politics. The emphasis was now on winning over sections of the progressive middle class and even the capitalists to a common struggle against fascism. Within the workers’ movement, this involved a toning down of criticisms of the ALP and “left” trade union leaders, which led ultimately to the adoption of a reformist and left-nationalist ideology.

A growing orientation towards the middle class was already present in the latter half of the Caledon Bay campaign and the 1938 Day of Mourning protest. Compared to the Third Period’s insistence on a sharp distinction between middle-class and working-class approaches, there was a greater emphasis on winning over anthropologists, scientists, religious leaders and middle-class humanitarians. This is not an inherently negative approach, but it did open up the CPA to be more influenced by the politics of the liberal middle classes. The CPA began to adapt to the assimilationist currents growing in these layers. This was particularly notable in Tom Wright’s 1939 pamphlet New Deal for the Aborigines.

The 1939 pamphlet marked a shift in CPA policy towards a much stricter separation between Indigenous people still living on the fringes of Australian society and “half-castes” who had become more integrated. The CPA now adopted essentially two different strategies for Indigenous people:

It would be an important step towards a better understanding of the aborigines question if it were clearly recognised that there are two separate problems.

The most urgent problem is that of the Aborigines proper, the full-blooded natives, thousands of whom still live under tribal or semi-tribal conditions, and who could be saved from extinction if appropriate measures were adopted immediately by the Australian people. It is this problem, the real aborigines problem, that is the subject of this pamphlet.

A second problem, often wrongly referred to as the aborigines problem, is that of the half-castes and others of mixed blood. Most half-castes and their descendants are denied social equality with other Australian citizens, and are subjected to social indignities that are a disgrace to our community. This second question has only passing reference in this pamphlet. It is a separate problem, not the aborigine problem, and requires a different and separate treatment.[105]

Wright doubled down on this distinction in a 1947 report to the CPA Central Committee:

One of the demands of the party is that the terms “Aborigine”, “Aboriginal” and “native”, used in the various acts and ordinances, should not apply to persons of mixed blood. However, we find people of mixed blood, particularly in NSW and Victoria, who think it is necessary and correct to represent themselves as Aborigines in conducting a campaign for full civic rights. These persons of mixed blood confuse the right of the Aborigines with their own problems, which is not the Aborigine fight.[106]

Wright’s distinction was an attempt to respond to the divergent experiences of Indigenous people in Australian capitalism at the time, however this rigid distinction between sections of the Indigenous population created new problems. It will be obvious to contemporary readers that it is mistaken to deny the Aboriginality of those with mixed ancestry or those who live in urban settings. This is not simply because doing so means uncritically accepting a reified, capitalist understanding of race and racial identity. Politically speaking, it also produces a schematic understanding of Indigenous oppression and excludes the possibility of urban and regional communities being inspired by each others’ struggles and grievances.

It also dovetailed with assimilationist ideas being promoted by middle-class sympathisers with Indigenous suffering at the time. While assimilation wouldn’t become official government policy until 1951, from the late 1930s onwards there was a growing assimilationist wing within academic and government circles, particularly the Australian National Research Council that funded most anthropological research into Indigenous communities.

In April 1937 a conference of Commonwealth and state Aboriginal authorities was organised which made a recommendation that so called “half-caste” Indigenous people should be assimilated into Australian society by abandoning any connection to their Indigenous heritage. The rest of the Indigenous community was divided between “detribalised”, “semi-civilised” and “uncivilised.” So called “detribalised” Indigenous people would also be assimilated into Australian society under this recommendation, while the “semi-civilised” and “uncivilised” would be segregated from the rest of society, with strict limits on contact with both whites and assimilated Indigenous people.[107]

These recommendations were endorsed by figures such as anthropology professor AP Elkin, who had spoken on platforms alongside Communists during the campaigns of the mid to late 1930s.[108] Wright was particularly influenced by the outlook of two dissident anthropologists: Donald Thomson and Olive Pink.[109] Thomson, who had become friends with Tom Wright during the 1930s, was more on the outer of the academic establishment than Elkin. However their proposals for government policy on the Indigenous question were both marked by paternalism. Thomson’s main difference with mainstream assimilationist thought was that he placed a much greater emphasis on the need to rigorously segregate the still “tribalised” Indigenous communities from the rest of society, in order, in his view, to prevent the total destruction of the last remains of true Indigenous pre-invasion culture and society.[110]

This acceptance of middle-class prejudices towards Indigenous people was not the only problem with Wright’s writings. The 1931 Draft Programme, despite some of its problems, had been a radical document emphasising the revolutionary nature of anti-racist solidarity, the role of the working class and the need for a socialist revolution to destroy the roots of Indigenous oppression in the capitalist imperialist system.

New Deal for the Aborigines and its various reprints however made not a single reference to class struggle or socialism, capitalism or imperialism. It also makes not a single reference to the role that unions or the working class can play in the struggle for Indigenous rights. As Hannah Middleton has argued:

CPA policy was weakened by the introduction of bourgeois, reformist ideas. The anti-imperialist essence of the struggle for Aboriginal rights, the recognition of Aborigines as members of the working class and the key importance of land rights were replaced by New Deal for the Aborigines… The pamphlet offered not radical changes but measures to alleviate the conditions of the Aborigines. It viewed their position as static rather than a process of change and development and did not consider the active role that the Aborigines themselves were playing and would have to play in their own struggle.[111]

For the so-called “half-caste” Indigenous population Wright proposed a civil rights campaign with no class content whatsoever. Wright’s main criticism was that the government had failed to follow through on its promise to assimilating them into white society:

The Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities held in April 1937 resolved that, in regard to people of mixed aboriginal and white blood, they must aim at their “ultimate absorption by the people of the commonwealth”. No explanation is given for delay in acting on the resolution, and conceding full social equality.[112]

At the same time, Wright also downplayed the working-class character of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In the 1947 report to the CPA Central Committee Wright positively notes the Aboriginal strikes in the Pilbara and Darwin but goes on to argue that they have no particular working-class content.[113]

While the idea of Aboriginal republics had its problems, Wright redefined the strategy for Indigenous people in the NT and Western Australia in a much more conservative direction that was deeply influenced by mainstream liberal academics. He took up the idea proposed by Thomson that Indigenous groups that had not yet been “detribalised” should be completely segregated on reserves not just from white people but also from the influence of “half-caste” Aboriginal people as the only way to preserve what remained of their traditional way of life.

Wright had reframed the struggle for Indigenous rights as an essentially liberal one and simply one piece of the general advance of the broad front of democratic progressive forces against fascism and the power of monopolies. While this could serve as a guide for CPA members in campaigning for equal rights for some Indigenous people in day-to-day struggles, it could not lead to developing a revolutionary Marxist perspective on Indigenous struggle.

You can see the impact of this more liberal orientation in how Communist activists organised around Indigenous issues in the lead-up to the 1946 Pilbara strike.

The ALP was in power in WA from 1933 until 1947, and outside the brief period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the CPA believed that it was in a united front with the ALP from the late 1930s until 1947. This impacted how they understood the relationship between the ALP and Indigenous rights. For instance, in 1935 the CPA’s Western Australian paper The Red Star had ruthlessly criticised the failures of the WA Labor government on Indigenous issues.[114] Yet by 1939 Workers’ Weekly welcomed the inclusion of Bob Coverly and Emil Nulsen into the Labor cabinet as they were apparently strong supporters of Aboriginal rights.[115] In fact, Coverly was a consistent mouthpiece for the white station owners who exploited Aboriginal people in the Pilbara. At the Moseley Commission in 1934 Coverly had voiced his opposition to any government regulations on the exploitation of Indigenous workers, criticising what he called the “stupid system of protecting the aborigines to the detriment of the settlers as a whole”.[116] He would be one of the most hostile politicians to the 1946 Pilbara strike, and contrary to the CPA’s article, was only a critic of the Commissioner of Native Affairs in so far as Coverly believed he was organisationally and financially ineffective and not doing enough to protect the rights of the station owners.

The white Communist Don McLeod played a key role in preparing Aboriginal workers for the 1946 strike. However in 1945, despite Aboriginal workers being seemingly ready and willing to go on strike, McLeod convinced them to delay it by a year in order not to undermine the “progressive” war effort.[117] In the initial aftermath of the war McLeod found new reasons to oppose an immediate strike. He argued that the Aboriginal workers would be defeated without access to resources, and instead must focus on winning control over some areas of land from the government.

This attitude was shaped by the extremely optimistic perspective of post-war Australia promoted by the CPA, heavily informed by its Popular Front politics. They saw huge opportunities for social and economic advancement under a post-war federal Labor government and emphasised that this would be possible through an alliance of middle-class, working-class and even “progressive” capitalist forces. As Ken Mansell has argued, the CPA “entered the post-war period with a positive attitude towards reconstruction and its own version of the peoples’ anti-monopoly democratic revolution based on a gradualist perspective”.[118]

Influenced by this framework, McLeod believed that in the Pilbara the large station owners were detested by the majority of the population. He envisaged uniting together the small business owners and small farmers, the rural workers and urban business interests around a program for economic development in the Pilbara. Such a program would benefit all except the larger station owners, and would include provisions for greater autonomy for the local Indigenous population.[119] McLeod thus focused his efforts on winning over the North-West and Kimberley Advancement Association.[120]

Unsurprisingly, the organisation – which was the representative of small and large business interests in the region – was not receptive to McLeod’s ideas. At the first convention of the Association, Harry Greene, the owner of Talga Talga Station and a strong opponent of McLeod, was elected chairman and the meeting endorsed the interests of the pastoralists. McLeod then tried to set up a more sympathetic branch of the Association in Marble Bar which had a broader social basis. However at the first meeting of this branch a motion was moved to effectively censor McLeod. The motion passed overwhelmingly. In the aftermath of the meeting, Department of Native Affairs Inspector Lawrence O’Neill wrote that McLeod had “no standing in the community but…a small following among poor class whites”.[121] The North-West and Kimberley Advancement Association would go on to vigorously oppose the 1946 strike and advocate for the segregation of Indigenous children in schools. The WA CPA branch endorsed McLeod’s orientation towards the North-West and Kimberley Advancement Association and published his program in the Workers’ Star newspaper.[122]

McLeod’s Popular Front-inspired program crashed up against the realities of capitalism in the region. While small business owners and farmers might not particularly like the large station owners, they were utterly dependent upon them. Nor did they have any particular interest in campaigning against the racist controls on Indigenous people. After being rejected by Pilbara polite society, McLeod soon refocused his efforts back on planning for the 1946 Pilbara strike. This was helped by the revival of class struggle with the end of the Second World War and the growing rift this produced between the CPA and the ALP federal government.

Wright’s pamphlet quickly replaced the half forgotten 1931 Draft Programme as the guide to the Aboriginal question for Communists. Many of the positions in New Deal for the Aborigines would be challenged by important developments in Indigenous struggle during the post-war era, leading to further changes in CPA policy. In particular Wright’s insistence on a strict separation between different Indigenous peoples would be progressively abandoned by the CPA through the 1950s and early 60s.

Conclusion

Throughout the 1930s Communist militants across the country rebuilt a fighting labour movement that had been all but destroyed by the initial impact of the Great Depression. As they did so they infused militants with a deeper appreciation of the nature of Indigenous oppression.

No one can discount the positive contribution that the CPA made to popularising support for Indigenous justice among a significant layer of working-class activists across the country. But the CPA’s Stalinist politics undermined its attempts to develop a Marxist perspective on Indigenous struggle that both accurately understood the nature of Indigenous oppression and clearly linked this struggle to the broader fight for socialism. This reinforces the argument that anti-Stalinist revolutionaries have always made. Stalinism not only tied Communist parties across the world to an authoritarian dictatorship masquerading as socialism, it also deformed socialist attitudes on a range of important political questions. For revolutionaries in Australia today then, the history of the CPA’s involvement in Indigenous struggle leaves us with a dual legacy to be grappled with.

References

Thanks to Bob Boughton for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Attwood, Bain 2021, William Cooper: An Aboriginal Life, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2006, “Aboriginal rights & trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s”, Marxist Interventions. https://sa.org.au/interventions/kooris_unions.htm

Boughton, Bob 2001, “The Communist Party of Australia’s involvement in the struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Rights 1920-1970”, Labour and Community: Historical Essays, University of Wollongong Press. https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com.au/&httpsredir=1&article=1012&context=labour1999

Boughton, Bob 2005, “Assimilationism and anti-communism. A Reflection on Gerald Peel’s ‘Isles of the Torres Strait’”, Contesting Assimilation: Histories of Colonial and Indigenous Initiatives, Perth: API-Network. https://www.academia.edu/15758192/Assimilationism_and_anti_communism_A_Reflection_on_Gerald_Peels_Isles_of_the_Torres_Strait

Brian, Bernie 2001, The Northern Territory’s One Big Union. The Rise and Fall of the North Australian Workers’ Union, 1911-1972, PhD thesis, Northern Territory University. https://ris.cdu.edu.au/ws/portalfiles/portal/22706059/Thesis_CDU_6353_Brian_B.pdf

Clark, Ian 2005, Another Side of Eureka the Aboriginal presence on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854 – Were Aboriginal people involved in the Eureka rebellion?, Working Paper, University of Ballarat Business School, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.693.6129&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Commonwealth of Australia, 1937, Aboriginal Welfare: Initial conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities. https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-52771316/view?partId=nla.obj-88456768#page/n0/mode/1up

Communist Party of Australia 1930, Australia’s Part in the World Revolution: Theses of the Central Committee Plenum, Communist Party of Australia, June 28th and 29th. https://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/objects/pdf/d0885.pdf

Docker, Comrade 1934, “Work in Districts 5 & 6”, Communist Review, Vol. 1, No. 3, June. https://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/objects/pdf/d0170.pdf

Drachewych, Oleksa 2017, The Comintern and the Communist Parties of South Africa, Canada, and Australia on the questions of Imperialism, Nationality and Race, 1919-1943, PhD thesis, McMasters University. https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/22007/2/drachewych_oleksa_m_2017september_PhD.pdf

Drachewych, Oleksa 2019, “Settler Colonialism and the Communist International”, The Palgrave Encyclopaedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, second edition, Palgrave MacMillan.

Goodall, Heather 2008, Invasion to embassy: land in Aboriginal politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972, Sydney University Press.

Gray, Geoffrey 2007, A Cautious Silence: The Politics of Australian Anthropology, Aboriginal Studies Press.

Holt, Stephen 1988, A Veritable Dynamo: Lloyd Ross, the Australian Railways Union and left-wing politics in inter-war Australia, PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Horner, Jack 1974, Vote for Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography, Australia and New Zealand Book Co.

Howitt, William 2011 [1855], Land, Labour and Gold: Two Years in Victoria: with Visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, Cambridge University Press.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021, “Aboriginal unionists in the 1890s shearers’ strikes: a forgotten history”, Marxist Left Review, 22, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/aboriginal-unionists-in-the-1890s-shearers-strikes-a-forgotten-history/

James, CLR 2018, C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James 1939-1949, Haymarket Books.

Jordan, Douglas 2011, Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics and the Trade Union Movement, 1945-1960, PhD thesis, Victoria University. https://vuir.vu.edu.au/16065/1/Douglas_Jordan_PhD.pdf

Macintyre, Stuart 1998, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from origins to illegality, Allen & Unwin.

Mansell, Ken 1980, The Marxism and Strategic Concepts of the Communist Party of Australia 1963-1972, honours thesis, La Trobe University. https://labourhistorymelbourne.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/cpa-thesis-ken-mansell.pdf

Martínez, Julia 1999, Plural Australia: Aboriginal and Asian labour in tropical white Australia, Darwin, 1911-1940, PhD thesis, University of Wollongong.

Marx, Karl 1887, Capital, Vol. 1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm

Maynard, John 2007, Fight for liberty and freedom: the origins of Australian Aboriginal activism, Aboriginal Studies Press.

McNeill, Dougal 2015, “Maori and Communism in the 1930s”, ISO Aotearoa. https://iso.org.nz/2015/07/09/maori-and-communism-in-the-1930s/

Middleton, Hannah 2008, “Reflections on the Aboriginal Movement”, Australian Marxist Review, 47, January. https://archive.cpa.org.au/amr/47/amr47-04-reflections-on-the-aboriginal-movement-middleton.html

O’Lincoln, Tom 1985, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press. https://www.marxists.org/subject/stalinism/into-mainstream/index.htm

Peel, Gerald 1947, Isles of the Torres Straits: an Australian responsibility, Current Book Distributors.

Reynolds, Henry 1998, This whispering in our hearts, Allen & Unwin.

Scrimgeour, Anne 2020, On Red Earth Walking: The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike, Western Australia 1946-49, Monash University Publishing.

Shachtman, Max 2003, Race and Revolution, Verso Books.

South African Communist Party 1928, The South African Question, resolution adopted by the Executive Committee of the Communist International following the Sixth Comintern congress. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/sacp/1928/comintern.htm

Sustar, Lee 2012, “Self-Determination and the ‘Black Belt’”, Socialist Worker (US). https://socialistworker.org/2012/06/15/self-determination-and-the-black-belt

Townsend, Terry 2009, The Aboriginal Struggle & the Left, Resistance Books.

Trotsky, Leon 1994, Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Pathfinder Press.

Wilson, Deborah 2013, Different White People: Communists, Unionists and Aboriginal Rights 1936-1972, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

Wright, Tom 1944 [1939], New Deal for the Aborigines, Current Book Distributors, Sydney. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/australia/1944/19440531.htm

Wright, Tom 1947, “Fight for Aborigines”, Communist Review, April. https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/australia/1947/19470214.htm

Zumoff, Jacob 2014, The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929, Haymarket Books.

[1] McNeill 2015.

[2] Drachewych 2017.

[3] See Henry Reynolds’ discussion of the Caledon Bay campaign during the early 1930s, in which he doesn’t even mention the fact that Communist Party trade unionists played a leading role in the campaign both in Darwin and across the country. Instead he prefers to narrowly discuss the role of religious and middle-class figures. Reynolds 1998.

[4] In particular Boughton 2001, Townsend 2009, Bloodworth 2006, Wilson 2013 and Jordan 2011.

[5] For the post-war history of solidarity see Wilson 2013 and Scrimgeour 2020.

[6] Workers’ Weekly, 25 September 1931, p.2.

[7] Boughton 2001.

[8] Howitt 2011, p.406 and Clark 2005.

[9] Humphreys 2021.

[10] The People, 10 August 1901, p.4.

[11] The International Socialist, 25 March 1911, p.3 and The People, 20 August 1910, p.2.

[12] The People, 28 August 1909, p.3.

[13] The People, 3 January 1918, p.3.

[14] Direct Action, 25 December 1915, p.3, 7 April 1917, p.2.

[15] Townsend 2009, p.9.

[16] Townsend 2009, p.15.

[17] Horner 1974, p.10.

[18] Workers’ Weekly, 23 November 1923, p.1.

[19] Workers’ Weekly, 7 November 1924, p.3.

[20] Workers’ Weekly, 20 February 1925, p.2.

[21] Workers’ Weekly, 20 July 1926, p.3.

[22] Workers’ Weekly, 27 January 1928, p.2.

[23] See articles in The Communist, September-October 1925, November-December 1925, January-February 1926 and March 1926.

[24] The general analysis of the CPA in this article comes from O’Lincoln 1985.

[25] Townsend 2009, p.7.

[26] The following is largely drawn from Drachewych 2019.

[27] Riddell (ed.) 2012, p.687.

[28] Quoted in Drachewych 2019.

[29] Quoted in Drachewych 2017, pp.226-7.

[30] See Zumoff 2014, pp.342-52 for a detailed discussion about the origins of the Black Belt thesis.

[31] For a more modern critique of the Black Belt see Sustar 2012. For anti-Stalinist critiques from the time see Shachtman 2003, Trotsky 1994 and James 2018.

[32] Shachtman 2003, p.86.

[33] South African Communist Party 1928. Also see Zumoff 2014, pp.345-6 for a discussion about the relationship between the Black Belt thesis and the Native Republic slogan in South Africa.

[34] As quoted in Shachtman 2003, pp.68-9.

[35] Workers’ Weekly, 25 September 1931, p.2.

[36] The Advertiser, 18 December 1931, p.26, Workers’ Weekly, 27 November 1931, p.3, and Workers’ Weekly, 25 December 1931, p.3.

[37] Workers’ Weekly, 11 September 1931, p.1. This was also republished in two parts in Red Leader, 11 September 1931, p.4 and 25 September 1931, p.2.

[38] Macintyre 1998, p.266.

[39] Workers’ Weekly, 7 April 1939, p.2.

[40] Workers’ Weekly, 25 September 1931, p.2.

[41] Townsend 2009, p.13.

[42] See for instance Workers’ Weekly, 6 May 1932, p.3 and Proletariat, August 1934, p.14.

[43] Maynard 2007, pp.104-5.

[44] Maynard 2007, p.83.

[45] The Negro Worker, April 1932, Vol. II, No. 4, pp.10-12.

[46] The two best accounts of Indigenous workers and the Darwin labour movement are Martínez 1999 and Brian 2001.

[47] See Northern Standard, 20 December 1928, p.1. Mahoney was also arrested in Jan 1928 for drunkenness and obscene behaviour while driving with Aboriginal footballers Fred Saunders and Robert Shepard after a game: Northern Standard, 24 January 1928, p.4.

[48] Northern Standard, 28 August 1928, p.5 and 1 March 1929, p.5.

[49] Workers’ Weekly, 13 April 1928, p.4. It is worth comparing the arguments in Workers’ Weekly in 1928 to those made by NAWU leader Robert Toupein in The Pan-Pacific Worker in 1929. While Toupein acknowledged that Aboriginal people were “one of the most oppressed and intensely exploited people on the face of the earth”, he puts forward no actual demands for them other than stating that governments need to end the “competitive menace to white workers”. The Pan-Pacific Worker, 1 September 1929.

[50] Communist Party of Australia 1930, p.39.

[51] Northern Standard, 6 November 1929, p.1. This is unclear because the CPA still had some members in the ALP in the late 1920s.

[52] Northern Standard, 16 July 1929, p.3.

[53] Brian 2001, p.125.

[54] Workers’ Weekly, 6 Nov 1931, p.4.

[55] See Northern Standard, 1 July 1932, p.4.

[56] Northern Standard, 1 September 1931, p.2.

[57] Workers’ Weekly 30 May 1930, p.2 has a reply to these accusations.

[58] Northern Standard, 13 September 1932, p.4.

[59] Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1934, p.5.

[60] Northern Standard, 13 May 1941, p.4 notes that “names such as Waldie and Mahoney are still spoken with respect by workers here”.

[61] Wellington Times, 23 November 1931, p.3.

[62] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 23 September 1931, p.6 and The Northern Miner, 3 October 1931, p.2.

[63] Yass Tribune-Courier, 15 June 1931, p.2.

[64] Goodall 2008, p.218.

[65] The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 21 November 1931, p.6 and Dubbo Dispatch and Wellington Independent, 20 November 1931, p.1.

[66] Goodall 2008, p.218-19.

[67] Workers’ Weekly, 1 July 1932, p.4.

[68] Dubbo Dispatch and Wellington Independent, 8 January 1932, p.2.

[69] Wellington Times, 27 February 1936, p.3.

[70] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 23 February 1932, p.4.

[71] The Macleay Chronicle, 14 September 1932, p.6.

[72] Workers’ Weekly, 3 February 1932, p.3.

[73] Cairns Post, 26 May 1933, p.12.

[74] The Mercury, 13 August 1938, p.13.

[75] Proletariat, August 1934, p.12-14. All quotes in this section are from this article.

[76] Marx 1887, Chapter 31.

[77] For example Red Leader, 11 September 1931, p.4, 25 September 1931, p.2, 9 October 1931, p.2.

[78] Workers’ Weekly, 1 April 1932, p.2.

[79] Workers’ Weekly, 15 February 1935, p.6, 22 February 1935, p.2, 21 June 1935, p.3.

[80] Red Leader, 9 October 1931, p.2, North Queensland Guardian, 8 May 1937, pp.1-2.

[81] See Boughton 2005 and Peel 1947.

[82] Quoted in Gray 2007, p.115.

[83] Workers’ Weekly, 19 August 1933, p.3.

[84] Workers’ Weekly, 15 September 1933, p.2.

[85] Workers’ Weekly, 8 June 1934, p.6.

[86] Workers’ Weekly, 10 August 1934, p.1, 7 September 1934, p.5.

[87] Docker 1934, p.17.

[88] Workers’ Weekly, 10 December 1937, p.3.

[89] Workers’ Weekly, 30 November 1937, p.3.

[90] Horner 1974, pp.1-26.

[91] Workers’ Weekly, 23 July 1937, p.3.

[92] Workers’ Weekly, 8 October 1937, p.4 and 15 October 1937, p.4.

[93] Holt 1988, p.299.

[94] Holt 1988, p.301.

[95] Workers’ Weekly, 25 January 1938, p.4.

[96] Workers’ Weekly, 25 January 1938, p.1. Also discussed in Workers’ Weekly, 1 February 1938, p.2.

[97] Workers’ Weekly, 4 February 1938, p.2.

[98] Maynard 2007, pp.39-40.

[99] See Horner 1974, pp.68-80 for an overview of the dispute between Ferguson and Patten.

[100] For instance The Australian Abo Call, 1 June 1938, p.2 and 1 May 1938, p.1.

[101] Horner 1974, p.71.

[102] Workers’ Weekly, 22 April 1938, p.4.

[103] Attwood 2021, p.187.

[104] For left-wing support for the walk-off see Attwood 2021, pp.187-94.

[105] Wright 1944 [1939].

[106] Wright 1947.

[107] Commonwealth of Australia 1937.

[108] Workers’ Weekly, 10 August 1934, p.1.

[109] Macintyre 1998, p.266.

[110] For the views of Thomson, Pink and Elkin see Gray 2007, pp.115-71.

[111] Middleton 2008.

[112] Wright 1944 [1939].

[113] Wright 1947.

[114] The Red Star, 8 March 1935, p.2.

[115] Workers’ Weekly, 11 April 1939, p.3.

[116] Scrimgeour 2020, p.20.

[117] Scrimgeour 2020, p.86.

[118] Mansell 1980, p.23.

[119] Scrimgeour 2020, pp.86-9.

[120] The following account is based on Scrimgeour 2020, pp.87-9.

[121] Scrimgeour 2020, p.89.

[122] Workers’ Star, 1 June 1945, p.5, 8 February 1946, p.6 and 5 April 1946, p.4.

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