Communist Party of Australia

Communist Party of Australia
This article is about the historical Communist Party of Australia, dissolved in 1991. For the current party, see Communist Party of Australia (current)

The Communist Party of Australia was founded in 1920 and dissolved in 1991; it was succeeded by the Socialist Party of Australia, which then renamed itself, becoming the current Communist Party of Australia. The CPA achieved its greatest political strength in the 1940s and faced an attempted banning in 1951. Though it never presented a major challenge to the established order in Australia, it did have significant influence on the trade unions, social movements, and the national culture.



John Garden, Communist Party of Australia co-founder in 1920
Adela Pankhurst, Communist Party of Australia co-founder in 1920

The Communist Party was founded in Sydney in October 1920 by a group of socialists inspired by reports of the Russian Revolution. Among the party's founders were a prominent Sydney trade unionist, John Garden, Adela Pankhurst (daughter of the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst) and most of the then illegal Australian section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW rapidly left the Communist Party, with its original members, over disagreements with the direction of the Soviet Union and Bolshevism. In its early years, mainly through Garden's efforts, the party achieved some influence in the trade union movement in New South Wales, but by the mid 1920s it had dwindled to an insignificant sect.

In the later 1920s the party was rebuilt by Jack Kavanagh, an experienced Canadian Communist activist, and Esmonde Higgins, a talented Melbourne journalist who was the nephew of a High Court judge, H.B. Higgins. But in 1929 the party leadership fell into disfavour with the Comintern, which under orders from Joseph Stalin had taken a turn to extreme revolutionary rhetoric (the so-called "Third Period"), and an emissary, the American Communist Harry Wicks, was sent to correct the party's perceived errors. Kavanagh was expelled and Higgins resigned.

A new party leadership, consisting of J.B. (Jack) Miles, Lance Sharkey and Richard Dixon, was imposed on the party by the Comintern, and remained in control for the next 30 years. During the 1930s the party experienced some growth, particularly after 1935 when the Comintern changed its policy in favour of a "united front against fascism." The Movement Against War and Fascism was founded to bring together all opponents of fascism under a communist controlled umbrella organization. The movement instigated the events which led to the attempted exclusion of Egon Kisch from Australia in late 1934 and early 1935.

The Communist party began to win positions in trade unions such as the Miners Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation, although its parliamentary candidates nearly always polled poorly at elections.

In 1939 Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression Treaty and, despite foundational antipathies between the dictatorships, they became co-belligerents at the outbreak of World War II (Australia declared war on Nazi Germany for invading Poland, but the USSR promptly invaded and annexed East Poland as per an agreement with Adolf Hitler). Consequently the Communist Party of Australia opposed and sought to disrupt Australia's "imperialist" war effort against Nazism in the early stages of the War. Menzies banned the CPA after the fall of France in 1940, but by 1941 Stalin was forced to join the allied cause when Hitler reneged on the Pact and invaded the USSR. The USSR came to bear the brunt of the carnage of Hitler's war machine and the Communist Party in Australia lost its early war stigma as a result.[1] Its membership rose to 20,000, it won control of a number of important trade unions, and a Communist candidate, Fred Paterson, was elected to the Queensland parliament. But the party remained marginal to the Australian political mainstream. The Australian Labor Party remained the dominant party of the Australian working class, but it would split in the mid-50s over concerns among some members over Communist influence over certain Unions.

After 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, the party entered a steady decline. Following the new line from Moscow, and believing that a new "imperialist war" and a new depression were imminent, and that the CPA should immediately contest for leadership of the working class with the Australian Labor Party, the CPA launched an industrial offensive in 1947, culminating in a prolonged strike in the coalmines in 1949. The Chifley Labor government saw this as a Communist challenge to its position in the labour movement, and used the army and strikebreakers to break the strike. The Communist Party never again held such a strong position in the union movement, nevertheless the issue remained potent and in 1955 the Democratic Labor Party was formed by disaffected ALP members who were concerned over Communist influence in some Australian Unions.

Lance Sharkey going to trial for sedition in 1949

In 1949 the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb and Mao Zedong won power in China. A year later North Korea invaded South Korea and in 1951, during the Korean War, the Liberal government of Robert Menzies tried to ban the Communist Party of Australia, first by legislation that was declared invalid by the High Court, then by referendum to try to overcome the constitutional obstacles to that legislation, but the referendum was narrowly defeated. When Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev revealed his crimes in the Secret Speech, members began to leave. More left after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1961 the split between the Soviet Union and China was mirrored in Australia, with a small pro-China party being formed - the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).

By the 1960s the party's membership had fallen to around 5,000,[2] but it continued to hold positions in a number of trade unions, and it was also influential in the various protest movements of the period, especially the movement against the Vietnam War. In 1966, the party started their own magazine called Australian Left Review. But the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 triggered another crisis. Sharkey's successor as party leader, Laurie Aarons, denounced the invasion, causing a group of pro-Soviet hardliners to leave and form a new party, the Socialist Party of Australia.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the party continued to decline, despite adopting Eurocommunism and democratising its internal structures so that it became a looser radical party rather than a classic Marxist-Leninist one. By 1990 its membership had declined to less than a thousand.

In 1991 the Communist Party was dissolved and the New Left Party formed. The New Left Party was intended to be a broader party which would attract a wider range of members. This did not happen, and the New Left Party was disbanded in 1992. The Communist Party's assets were thereafter directed into a body called the SEARCH Foundation.

In 1996 the Socialist Party took up the now-unused name of Communist Party of Australia (see Communist Party of Australia (revived)). This party, along with a number of small Trotskyist groups, maintains the Communist tradition in Australia, but none of these groups is of any political significance.


Despite its usually peripheral role in Australian politics and its ultimate failure, the Communist Party had an influence far beyond its numbers. From 1935 to the 1960s it occupied leadership positions in a number of important trade unions, and was at centre of many major industrial conflicts. Many of its members played leading roles in Australian cultural life, such as the novelists Katharine Susannah Prichard, Judah Waten, Frank Hardy, Eric Lambert and Alan Marshall, the painter Noel Counihan and the poet David Martin.

In some ways the effects of negative reactions to the Communist Party were more important than anything the party itself did. Conservative politicians such as Stanley Bruce in the 1920s and Robert Menzies in the 1950s won elections, assisted by linking the Labor Party with Communism. In the early 1950s Catholics in the Labor Party were led by hatred of Communism to form "Industrial Groups" to combat Communist influence in the unions. This led in 1954 to a party split and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which used its power to influence voters' preferences at elections to keep the ALP out of power.

The Communist Party and its members campaigned for many years for causes such as improved conditions for industrial workers, opposition to fascist and other dictatorships, equal rights for women and civil rights for the Aboriginal people. It achieved some successes in these areas, and many of its positions were later taken up by the political mainstream. But the party never succeeded in garnering significant support for Communism. The party was an apologist for the Soviet Union for many years (although it became critical of the Soviet Union from the late 1960s). Disenchantment with the Soviet Union was a leading cause of the loss of membership.

Youth movement

The youth wing of CPA worked under several different names in different periods, such as Young Communists, Eureka Youth League, Young Socialist League and Young Communist Movement of Australia. The Eureka Youth League was a founding member of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a membership later taken over by the Young Communist Movement.

See also


Further reading

  • Stuart Macintyre, The Reds, 1998, Allen and Unwin. 1st volume of a major history covering foundation to 1941.
  • Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A short history, 1969. Covers foundation to the late 1960s.
  • Tom O'Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, January, 1985. ISBN 0-9590486-1-8.

External links

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