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The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality
By Stuart Macintyre
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1998 Stuart Macintyre
All rights reserved.
No one could agree as to just who did turn up. Those who were there remembered the spring sunshine that sparkled on Darling Harbour as they made their way through the waterside streets to their dingy meeting place. They recalled the ardour of the participants and the rancour of their disagreements. One who travelled up from Melbourne had keen memories of the incessant cough of his companion which had kept him from sleep the night before, as well as the prodigious Sydney cockroaches that swarmed over their hotel bedroom. But the men and women who gathered on this Saturday morning were too habituated to such assemblies to be able to distinguish the names and the faces at this meeting from those who had met before and would meet again.
Some 60 invitations to participate in the creation of the Communist Party of Australia were issued:
In an endeavour to bring about the unified action of all who stand for the emancipation of the working class by revolutionary action, we have decided to arrange a conference to be held on Saturday, 30th October, 1920, in the ASP Hall, Liverpool Street, City. We have much pleasure in inviting you to appoint a delegate to attend same.
Twenty-six persons answered the call. Afterwards, as memories grew vague and the role of the founders took on a hallowed significance, lists circulated in an effort to fix precisely who they were. The Investigation Branch of the Attorney-General's Department had followed the preparations keenly but its zeal so far outran its intelligence as to associate almost every dissident in Australia with the occasion. Even the minutes secretary was deficient in historical foresight: he counted the heads but omitted to record the names of those present.
The invitations were issued in the name of the host organisation, the Australian Socialist Party, and six of its members were present. There was Arthur Reardon, ASP secretary. Originally from the English midlands, he worked at the Clyde Engineering Works as a skilled blacksmith in charge of the apprentices. Emphatic in opinion, a self-taught worker-intellectual with interests that ran from metallurgy to English literature, he was as definite and exacting in his socialist rectitude as he was in the practise of his craft. At his right hand on this Saturday, as always, was Ray Everitt, the theoretician of the party and editor of its weekly newspaper, the International Socialist. And making up the 'Holy Trinity' of the ASP was Arthur's wife Marcia, a forceful speaker and writer, who popularised that theory with homilies on the miseries of capitalism and the great happiness that was to come. Then there was Bob Brodney, a more recent recruit. Born Arthur Tennyson Brodzky in 1896, the son of a muckraking Melbourne journalist, he had moved with his family to San Francisco, London and New York before working his way back to Australia in 1918. Brodney had no sooner joined the ASP in 1919 than he began working as an organiser. Gifted, restless, lean and saturnine, the young newcomer had a precocious capacity to divine new possibilities where more habituated dogmatists saw only confirmation of their established convictions. His enthusiasm for this meeting overcame the caution of his comrades.
The Australian Socialist Party was one of many points in a constantly shifting constellation of agitation, education and revolutionary rhetoric on the fringes of the labour movement. Such organisations formed and collapsed, merged and split around their diagnoses of the present discontents and their schemes for building on the ruins of capitalism a new social order that would replace oppression and exploitation with freedom and equality. With memberships of a few hundred at most, they sustained a demanding round of activities: production and sale of a weekly newspaper; study of socialist texts; open-air meetings; dances and socials, usually on Saturday evening; lectures and classes on Sunday. Much of their energy was spent in fierce polemics against the futility of reform, the perfidy of Labor politicians, the inadequacy of existing trade unions that only served to gild the chains of wage slavery, and above all, the errors of their socialist rivals. Since each group distinguished itself from the others by marking out its own version of socialist doctrine and socialist strategy, the promulgation of which was both its primary purpose and ultimate consolation, heresy hunting was endemic. Ritual exhortations to unity broke on the unyielding rock of doctrinal rectitude. As the ASP executive explained after a previous effort to bring the various socialist organisations together proved fruitless, 'The ASP stands for revolution. Nothing less. Revolutionists don't compromise.'
That the ASP was prepared to host a unity conference in October 1920 suggested some relaxation of this obduracy. The recent experience of common resistance to wartime repression was one new factor predisposing the socialist sects to suspend their differences. For while the Australian left was uncompromising on points of dogma, gladiatorial in style and vilificatory in tone, it was also capable of closing ranks against an external threat. The recent Great War had strengthened that capacity. Just as the Australian government drew no distinction between the anti-war actions of socialists, syndicalists and feminists, all of whom it subjected to censorship, surveillance, prosecution, deportation and imprisonment, so the committees that formed to assist the victims were able to set aside doctrinal differences in the defence of political freedom. Even as they met, the participants were working for the release of jailed comrades.
The Great War of 1914–18 — as it was known by contemporaries, who could not foresee the second round of hostilities to come within a quarter of a century — drew old adversaries into common causes. It also split the Labor Party, radicalised the unions and fostered a far greater international awareness in the Australian labour movement. More than this, the war strained the established world order to breaking point. None of the principal European combatants emerged from their prolonged ordeal without crippling losses. Monarchies were overthrown, boundaries redrawn, colonial possessions reallocated, but neither the victors nor the vanquished re-established the structures of authority that had provided security and prosperity over the past century. Institutions, habits and values that once ordered society lost their force. A nationalist uprising in Ireland against the imperial overlord, put down with brutal excess during the Easter of 1916, presaged the new disorder: 'All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born'.
Above all, the war brought the Russian Revolution, an event that was at once specific in its causes and forms and universal in its impact. It is difficult now, in the aftermath of communism, to appreciate the enthusiasm with which onlookers responded to the news from Russia during 1917: the overthrow of the Tsar in March, the formation of 'soviets', or councils of workers, peasants and soldiers, to liberate the Russian people from a notoriously backward and despotic order, and then, in October, the Bolsheviks' use of the soviets to seize power from the national assembly, followed by Russia's unilateral withdrawal from the war. A series of aftershocks followed. There were shortlived communist republics in the former Austro–Hungarian empire, a failed uprising in Germany, further reverberations in Italy, France, Spain and beyond. New revolutionary movements emerged in China, India, Latin America. If few of the tobacco workers who formed their own soviets in Cuba knew even where Russia was, their adoption of the term demonstrated the reach of the Russian Revolution.
Before 1917 Marxism had provided just one strand of theory that informed the strategy of socialists, who in turn were but one of a constellation of oppositional movements — anarchism, syndicalism, populism, vitalism — that formed in response to the transition to capitalist modernity. After 1917 the methods of the Communist Party (the title adopted by the Bolsheviks after 1917) and the doctrines of communism (a term popularised by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848) absorbed or displaced alternative traditions of social protest. Communism lit a beacon that beckoned to the oppressed and subject peoples around the world. It called on them to rise up in order to replace capitalism and imperialism by force. It constituted a party of a new type, a disciplined army of human emancipation. It created a new model of historical progress, universal in application, dogmatic in its certainty, that put knowledge at the service of power. Millions would die for communism, millions would die by it, and the reckoning of its effects would preoccupy the generations who lived under it. As the ideals of the French Revolution shaped history after 1789, so the ideas of the Russian Revolution have shaped the twentieth century.
* * *
The call by the Russian communists for the working class of all countries to follow their lead and make their own revolutions was answered by the ASP at the end of 1919, when it declared allegiance to the new Communist International. Had that been all that was involved in the establishment of a communist party of Australia, it would hardly have been necessary to convene the gathering at the ASP hall ten months later. The additional socialists it gathered in were few enough — one from the small ASP branch in Brisbane, an official from the defunct Social Democratic League of New South Wales, a dissident branch of the rigidly impossibilist Socialist Labor Party, and some former members of the Victorian Socialist Party, which had recently rejected the Bolshevik model.
These were mere embellishments of a more ambitious alliance. For also present at the conference was the secretary of the New South Wales Labor Council, Jock Garden, along with a group of his lieutenants known as the 'Trades Hall Reds'. Despite their name, they represented the very trade union officialdom that socialists denounced, and John Smith Garden himself was an unlikely revolutionary. From Lossiemouth, on the north-east coast of Scotland, he had come to Australia as a preacher in 1904 and only gravitated to Labor politics during the war, after he was dismissed for fraudulent conversion from a job in the Defence Department. Garden brought to socialism the same fiery enthusiasm he had applied to his other schemes of redemption by faith and by works, and like that other celebrated 'Lossiemouth loon', Ramsay MacDonald, he could carry sympathisers away on flights of rhetoric; the sceptics he sought to reassure with a broad wink. From his base in the Sydney Trades Hall he threw in his lot with the scheme for One Big Union in order to unify and strengthen the industrial wing of the labour movement in a crusade to overthrow capitalism. Simultaneously he worked with Albert Willis, the coalminers' leader, to impose the same objectives on the Labor Party. Defeated at the 1919 state conference and expelled from the Labor Party, Garden and Willis had little success with their Industrial Socialist Labor Party. Courageous, generous, a born fixer and utterly shameless in his opportunism, Garden needed a new political base to continue the intense factional conflict that characterised the New South Wales labour movement; but if his intrigues threatened to enmesh the new Communist Party in some embarrassing alliances, he also offered invaluable institutional support. Among the Trades Hall Reds he brought with him were Jack Howie, the recent president of the Labor Council, Jack Kilburn of the Bricklayers, Arthur Rutherford of the Saddlers, Bob Webster of the Miscellaneous Workers and Chris Hook of the Municipal Workers.
There was another unexpected face, that of Tom Glynn, still marked by the pallor of nearly four years in gaol. He was one of the twelve Sydney 'martyrs' of the Industrial Workers of the World convicted in 1916 of seditious conspiracy for their campaign of direct action against the war. More commonly known as the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World had initiated the idea of One Big Union. Unlike Garden and the Trades Hall Reds, however, they scorned the constraints of trade union officialdom for organisation and action on the job in a heroic vision of participatory industrial democracy that knew no divisions of leader and led. And unlike the socialists, the Australian Wobblies, who took their lead from the Chicago-based IWW, were vehemently anti-political. Parliament was for the bosses. The workers should simply bypass it and create the structure of the new order within the shell of the old. In keeping with such an heroic project, the Wobblies were distinguished by their reckless effrontery as the guerillas of the class war in the years leading up to and into the Great War. They cultivated a style of reckless defiance of order and respectability, a style commonly described as 'bummery' after their iconoclastic boast, 'Hallelujah! I'm a bum!' In such effrontery no one exceeded Tom Glynn. An Irishman, who was a trooper in the Boer War and a Transvaal policeman after it, Glynn had plunged into industrial agitation in South Africa. As the secretary of the Sydney branch of the IWW and one of the most articulate strategists of its antiwar agitation, he was a prime target when the Australian government suppressed the organisation late in 1916. Released from prison in August 1920 by the new Labor government of New South Wales in response to a popular campaign, he quickly set about reviving the Wobbly cause. In September he contributed a foreword to the Communist International's appeal to the IWW in which he accepted that 'something more than the industrial weapon' was needed to combat the 'machinations of the capitalist class during the transition period towards a Communist social order'. Industrial unionism was still an urgent necessity, but so rapidly was capitalism approaching its collapse that the 'old idea' of building a new society within the shell of the old 'can no longer be maintained'.
Two other celebrated rebels were there, Tom Walsh and Adela Pankhurst Walsh. He was the secretary of the Seamen's Union, an Irish rebel, who as 'Sinbad the Sailor' contributed broadsides to Wobbly publications. She was the daughter of the famous English suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, and younger sister of the equally formidable Christabel and Sylvia — the younger sister who came to Australia in 1914 in the hope that she might establish her own identity, only to play out her sisters' roles. Emmeline and Christabel turned to feminist patriotism in the war against the bestial Hun; Adela and Sylvia, who saw womanhood degraded by capitalism and militarism, turned instead to revolutionary internationalism. Like her mother before the war and Sylvia during it, Adela became a martyr to her cause. On the platform of the Women's Peace Army and later the Victorian Socialist Party, she courted notoriety. Imprisoned for antiwar activity, she averted deportation by her marriage, while on remand, to Walsh. She embraced imprisonment, only to write from Pentridge Prison to implore her husband, whom she had appointed as guardian of her political conscience, to let her come home: 'I am afraid I can't stand any more of it.' He was put away himself in the following year for organising a seamen's strike. Now reunited in Sydney, they took their infant daughter Sylvia to the foundation meeting of the Communist Party and Adela had to leave the hall when the baby started crying.
The Walshes had resigned from the Victorian Socialist Party when they shifted up to Sydney for Tom to take up his union position. Another leading member of the VSP, Carl Baker, was expelled for his part in the formation of the Communist Party. He was an optometrist and a rationalist, an American — he had abandoned his Christian names, Clarence Wilbur, along with his Christianity — with the gift of the gab who spruiked his cause on the Yarra Bank. With him on the trip up from Melbourne was Guido Baracchi, the knight errant of Australian radicalism. The son of the Victorian government astronomer, educated at Melbourne Grammar and the University of Melbourne, he had spent some years in English socialist circles before he took up legal studies back in Melbourne in 1914. There his antiwar activities brought him a drenching in the university lake, expulsion from the university and a spell in Pentridge. A man of considerable wealth and emotional spontaneity, utterly without guile or worldly ambition, of luminous innocence and limitless self-centredness — his marital and romantic arrangements were in a constant muddle — he edited the Melbourne Wobbly paper, Industrial Solidarity, and was a founder of the Victorian Labor College.
Excerpted from The Reds by Stuart Macintyre. Copyright © 1998 Stuart Macintyre. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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