Thе Communist Party of Australia

One of the main issues discussed by those who have dealt with this period has been the significance of the

Thе Communist Party of Australia


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The Communist Party of Australia

It has been generally accepted that the events at the ninth annual conference of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1929, resulting in a change of leadership and the ousting of the “right-wing deviationists”, were a turning point in its history. The incidents which surrounded the 1929 conference, the characterisation of the leading players, the role of the Communist International (Comintern), and the estimation of its outcome have been variously interpreted but none doubt its significance. The period has been covered by a number of writers but the material recently made available by the Comintern Archives in Moscow may serve to illuminate the story further.

One of the main issues discussed by those who have dealt with this period has been the significance of the intervention by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (hereafter known as the ECCI) prior to and on the eve of the ninth conference. Opinions on this matter may be coloured by hindsight and one's own leanings. J.D. Blake has made the point that it is easy to use documented evidence to prove a certain case and filter out (albeit unconsciously) evidence which does not fit the pattern. In making judgments on the role of the Comintern and on its effect on the policies of the CPA this is particularly evident. The Comintern has been perceived as an alien organisation subversively interfering with Australian politics by some, and as an embodiment of working class international solidarity transcending national barriers by others. Present day knowledge of Stalin's domination of the Comintern from 1929 can also distort our perceptions of the way it was seen then. In writing a history of the Communist Party, the position taken by Lance Sharkey, one of the central figures in opposition to the Kavanagh leadership, is that the ECCI intervention was vitally necessary in order to overcome what he considered to be the right-wing opportunism of the Central Committee Executive (CEC) if the CPA was to develop as an independent force. In this he is supported by Ernie Campbell in his analysis of the period. Jack Blake judges the differences between the antagonists as "not so fundamental as they were later made to appear" but sees the intervention by the ECCI as the factor which turned the scale in favour of the opposition “at least at the top”. Alastair Davidson's view is that the opposition gained the ascendancy over the leadership as a result of support gained by appeals to both the ECCI and the rank and file resulting in the defeat of the leadership at the ninth conference. Tom O'Lincoln asserts that with Soviet backing the opposition's victory was assured, while Peter Morrison rejects the view that the CPA was a tool of the Comintern. He states that the defeat of the Kavanagh leadership at the conference was a direct result of the experience of the CPA in Australia with the Sydney-based national leadership finding itself out of step with its state constituents. The ECCI was merely “a pawn” in the game.

In reviewing the role played by the ECCI in the 1929 events it is also important to note that the nature of the relationship between the Comintern and the CPA changed over time. Following the recognition of the CPA in August 1922 as the affiliate of the Communist International (Cl), contact was for several years via the colonial department of the British section, and by 1928 through the secretariat of the CI's Anglo-American Section. These early years were difficult ones for the new party. After the poor showing in the 1925 NSW state elections Guido Baracchi, editor of The Communist, had (unsuccessfully) proposed the liquidation of the CPA. In 1926 Jock Garden, secretary of the NSW Labor Council, left the party also believing the CPA had no future. Both Barrachi and Garden were formally expelled by the CPA at its sixth annual conference in December 1926. Garden and his supporters in the trade unions moved away from the CPA and began to work with the Lang-led Labor Party in New South Wales. With the Party membership depleted, Tom Wright, general secretary of the CPA since 1924, made several pleas in the mid-1920s to the ECCI for assistance.

One consequence was that in 1926 Hector Ross, CPA executive member, went to the USSR for discussion with the Comintern, and in the following year Wright himself was able to spend the months from August to October in Moscow, where, through the agency of the British section, he had extended meetings with other members of the ECCI, including Bukharin (general-secretary of the Communist International). Among the main issues discussed were Australia's development towards an independent capitalist country, mass immigration; the “White Australia Policy”; and also the relationship between the CPA and the ALP, a subject which was to present difficulties for the CPA during its entire existence.

These meetings resulted in what became known as the October resolution which clearly stated that, “If time is not yet ripe for revolutionary mass actions ... [then] ... revolutionary propaganda and agitation must be made the centre of gravity for the Communist Party.” The aim of the propaganda was to popularise “this platform among as many left labor organisations as possible”. It concluded that “the coming years will show whether it's possible to create such a real Labor Party through coming years with the struggle and victory of a Left opposition into the ranks of the present Labor Party, or whether it will be necessary for the Left unions to found a new Party for this purpose. Obviously the Communist Party at that time, with the ECCI's agreement, still hoped to transform the Labor Party by working with its left-wing and the resolution, while stressing its independent role, represented the CPA as an outside pressure group rather than as a mass revolutionary party.

As a result of Wright's visit in 1927, an Englishman stationed in Moscow as part of the British section, H.W.R. Robson, visited Australia under the pseudonym Murray, and attended one of the sessions of the seventh annual conference in December 1927, a conference which was divided on its attitude to the Labor Party. As a result of the divisions, four members of the Central Executive Committee (CEC) Jack Ryan, Norman Jeffery, Esmonde Higgins, (Editor of Tbe Workers' Weekly) and Lance Sharkey had been removed as “rightists” by those who supported Jack Kavanagh, chairman of the CPA since 1925. Robson, concerned about the issue, returned to Moscow several months later accompanied by Herbert Moxon, Queensland organiser, member of the executive of the CPA's Central Committee, and at this time, a strong supporter of Jack Kavanagh. Moxon's Queensland base is important; the relations between the CPA and the ALP in Queensland were to be central to the issues to be discussed at the ECCI meetings in 1928.

In Queensland there was increasing dissatisfaction amongst workers with William McCormack, the Labor Premier. In 1927 he had supported the use of “scab” labour during the South Johnstone Mill and Cane sugar-cane industry strike, which lasted from May to September, and during the ensuing lock-out of the railway workers who refused to handle “black” sugar. With the Labor Party in Queensland so right-wing, there was a strong likelihood of a left-wing ALP breakaway, a proposal already made by the Australian Railways Union. The CPA had won a great deal of approval for its militant stand in both the sugar and railway disputes, and saw that this was the time to oppose the right-wing Labor candidates in the coming state elections. By standing candidates the CPA hoped to be seen as a real alternative, not merely a pressure group. As this was a sharp shift away from previous approaches to the ALP, and as divisions already existed about how to approach the ALP in general, the CPA welcomed the opportunity to discuss the question with the ECCI.

It is necessary to study the international background against which Wright's efforts to achieve closer contact with the ECCI were showing results. The improved communication took place in the period when Stalin, general-secretary of the CPSU, had turned his attention to wresting the leadership of the Communist International from Bukharin, who was now his main threat within the CPSU leadership. There was a fierce struggle for theoretical ascendancy being waged between the two.

The battle centred around the nature of the “third period” as classified by the Comintern. The first had been the period of the revolutionary crisis of capitalism between 1917 and 1923, followed by the second, “the period of temporary stabilisation of capitalism” and the development of united front policies with social-democrats. The “third period”, proclaimed by the ECCI in February 1928 dealt with the issue of the stability or instability of capitalism. Bukharin considered that western capitalism would stabilise itself on a higher technological and organisational level and that revolutionary upheavals would come in the west from “external contradictions” such as imperialist war rather than from internal crises. Stalin's supporters, on the other hand, proclaimed that, as S.F. Cohen puts it “advanced capitalist societies, from Germany to the United States were on the eve of profound internal crises and revolutionary upheavals”.

These two different analyses led to two different approaches to social democracy. Bukharin advocated a united front between social-democracy and the revolutionary movement; he urged a united front from below, less unity at top levels, an

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