Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 54September 2011

The Communist Party — historic milestone

by Edgar Ross*

“Your editorials are as good as any we write,” Lance Sharkey, Editor of The Workers’ Weekly told me in one of the strangest interviews I have had in a lifetime of journalism.

It took place in the dingy headquarters of the Communist Party in Sydney, in the early 1930s. The furniture consisted of a table, a couple of chairs, a bookshelf, and form seats encircling the room.

Sharkey was not only the paper’s editor, but also its sub-editor, reporter and copy boy.

A Broken Hill comrade had announced, and that is the appropriate word, “Lance Sharkey would like to see you some time when you are in Sydney.” It was a sort of summons to enter the Great Presence.

Sharkey, a heavy, rather uncouth looking man, lumbered over to the form on which I was seated and seemed incredibly unsure of himself as he groped for words between embarrassingly long silences. He simply conveyed to me, over and over again, that my articles in the Barrier Daily Truth were comparable with those written by communists, including his own. Nothing more! At length I was dismissed with, “Well, that’s all!” The obvious question, “Why don’t you join the party?” was left as a mere unspoken inference.

I was to learn that Sharkey’s seeming uncouthness hid a wealth of human warmth and his apparent slowness in thinking an out­standing capacity for exercising judgements that seldom erred.

The way in which the key question was left in suspense was not untypical of the approach in the early days of the party. At all events, in my case as in so many others, the mere inference that I should be a member was inadequate. For I, and the party had a “past” to live down.

Sectarianism, blight of the communist movement! How much membership growth has it prevented, how much isolation caused, for how many setbacks has it been responsible?

Only a short time before Lance Sharkey had praised my editorials for their Marxist-Leninist content I had been publicly branded by the local comrades as a “social fascist,” a term which carried the savage implication of aiding and abetting the triumph of the organised terror of the worst brand of capitalism.

And my crime? As President of the Broken Hill Branch of the Militant Minority Movement (MMM) I had spoken on May Day from the official platform of the Barrier Industrial Council instead of the Communist Party’s rival meeting in Broken Hill’s Central Reserve.

It mattered not that the resolution I had moved was as revolutionary as that presented at the party’s meeting or that the workers were in attendance en masse at the official platform, with only the party members and a few close supporters at the party’s meeting. I had “confronted” the party!

The Broken Hill Branch of the party had been reformed in 1928 (an earlier branch had petered out) by Norman Jeffrey, its members being hand-picked from the MMM. I was deliberately excluded on the plea that it could jeopardise my position on Barrier Daily Truth. But I believe I was suspect as an intellectual, and was sneered at because of my activities in the Workers’ Educational Association of which I occupied the positions of president and secretary. I was referred to as “WEA” Ross.

Be that as it may, the party branch set out with the arrogance of a chosen race to establish its identity in a frontal attack upon all who dared disagree with its ideas.

Members of the branch gave evidence of their communist bona fides by living as a commune in a local boarding house, which soon got an unsavoury reputation for immoral permissiveness.

Those were the days when it was considered in communist circles of the Barrier (and elsewhere, too!) to be corrupting to speak from the same platform as the hated reformists or to recognise official trade union bodies if led by reactionaries. In those days the formation of breakaway, “pure” militant unions was publicly advocated and, in some cases, actually brought into existence, e.g., the Pastoral Workers’ Union.

The Communist Party carried within it, inevitably, the negatives as well as the positives of its origin. It was born partly as a response to the betrayal by the leaders of Social Democracy in the First World War, the experience of the fatal limitations of anarcho-syndicalism, and the vindication of the Leninist development of Marxism in the triumphant Russian Revolution.

The communists saw as an overwhelming priority the need to demonstrate how different they were from the leaders of Social Democracy, who had betrayed the revolutionary cause in rallying to the aid of flag-waving capitalism; how more realistic they were compared with the utopian socialists; how closely they resembled the victorious Bolsheviks.

But who were these pioneer socialists in Australia? What was their ideology, their policy, their practice?

The Communist Party of Australia was born as the issue of a marriage between sectarian socialists and militant industrial workers. The progeny of the socialists who had formed their groups in the last years of the 19th Century when “the times were out of joint” and, in their frustration, degenerated into sects isolated from the mass labour movement.

And militant industrial workers who in their new found relative strength saw the new order coming solely by smashing the old order on the union battlefield.

They carried the stamp of the rapid growth of trade unionism in Australia, the great class battles that had marked that growth, the winning of parliamentary majorities by the Australian Labor Party without any fundamental social change and the attempts at capitalist overthrow through general strikes. All the theories and activities had failed. There must be another answer!

It was revealed by the Russian Revolution which opened up new perspectives, new concepts, new ways, and impacted thinking and activity throughout the Australian labour movement.

The issue of the future orientation of the socialist movement was resolved with the formation of the Communist Party at a conference in Sydney on October 30, 1920, of left wing industrial and socialist groups called by the Australian Socialist Party.

In An Outline History of the Australian Communist Party, L. Sharkey who was then President of the CPA wrote in 1944: “The formation of the Communist Party was one of the decisive revolutionary acts of the Australian working class … At last the Australian workers started to find the true path to their emancipation, i.e., along the lines of the theory of Marxism-Leninism, embodied in the Communist Party. The formation of the Communist Party was therefore one of the historical milestones on the road of the Australian working class towards its liberation.”

But it was to be two years before the new organisation was consolidated. Personal rivalries and ideological conflicts began to assert themselves as soon as the party was formed. Significantly, Australian Socialist Party officials were charged with not being interested in uniting with other groups but merely with constituting itself the Communist Party. The ASP delegates withdrew from the provisional executive almost as soon as it was set up.

The first Secretary of the Communist Party was W. P. Earsman, prominent in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, generally regarded as the founder of a Labour College at the Sydney Trades Hall, which taught, among other subjects Marxist political economy. He attended the Third International and the Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in 1922.

Other members of the provisional executive were Tom Glynn, one of the twelve members of the IWW framed and gaoled in 1917; J. S. Garden, widely known as Secretary of the NSW Labor Council; Thomas Walsh, General Secretary of the Seamen’s Union and his wife Adela Pankhurst Walsh, both of whom were to become collaborators with fascism; S. Zanders, a member of the Russian Workers’ Association; C. Jollie-Smith, socialist lawyer who was destined to play a prominent part in many important political cases; Carl Baker, who hailed from America and had been a member of the Victorian Socialist Party; C. Hook, a member of the Executive of the NSW Labor Council; Arthur Thomas, a member of the State Council of the Australian Railways Union; and R. Webster, an official of the Miscellaneous Workers Union. On December 24, 1920 their newspaper The Australian Communist appeared. The Secretary of the Australian Socialist Party was Arthur Reardon, who came from England and did much to popularise Marxism.

Early branches of the party were formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Western Australia. In Brisbane, too, there was early activity, associated particularly with J.B. Miles to whom Sharkey referred at his 50th birthday celebration in 1938 as “the chief founder of the Communist Party of Australia.”

The consolidated united party took a leap out of its sectarian past with a bid for working class unity. Communist and Labor Party officials were represented at a united front conference which called upon the ALP to change its rules to allow for affiliation of other working class parties.

At the Annual Conference of the Labor Party in New South Wales in 1923 the Chairman, A.C. Willis, General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation, delivered his casting vote in favour of Communist Party affiliation.

In a manifesto addressed to the rank and file of the Labor Party, The Workers’ Weekly wrote, in its first issue on June 22, 1923:

The objective of our party is the same as the Labor Party, the Socialisation of Industry. The main difference between the men you have chosen as your leaders and ourselves is that they believe the Socialisation of Industry will be an easy matter, while we believe that it will be the most difficult task that the workers ever had to perform. We believe that only the workers themselves can accomplish this task. Your leaders believe that they can do it for you. But whatever differences we may have today can only be settled in the future, while on the other hand we are in agreement upon the things that matter now.

You believe in higher wages and shorter hours, so do we, and our party takes the lead in fighting for these conditions. You believe in educating the workers to an understanding of the working class position, we carry out that educational work. You believe that someone must take the lead in the fight in the every­day struggle, this we are prepared to do. Our party formulates a fighting policy for the everyday struggle and organises workers to carry on the fight.

The initiative for unity, if with certain overtones of sectarian arrogance, held out great promise for future development. But, the move was sabotaged by the Labor Party right-wing and in its disappointment, the Communist Party reverted to crass sectarianism, while in its own ranks it battled opportunists seeking liquidation who argued that “the time is not yet ripe.”

At the beginning of 1925 the Workers’ Weekly was joined by the theoretical journal, The Communist, edited by Guido Baracchi, who was to have a chequered “in and out” career in the party. The front page of its second issue was devoted to a cartoon showing the leader of the Labor Party, J.T. Lang, being hanged on the gallows, with the caption, “Leninist electoral advice — Support Lang and Co as the rope supports the hanged man” … hardly calculated to strengthen the united front!

Determined to provide an emphatic answer to the opportunists and demonstrate that it was a power to be reckoned with, the Communist Party decided to contest every seat in the NSW elections. But such an approach had its difficulties in the period of the party’s infancy.

Forces were spread so thinly across the state, I recall, that nearly every member of the Broken Hill party branch was allocated a seat to contest. The chosen candidate was called upon to introduce himself to “his” electorate, in some instances visiting it for the first time in his life, raise his deposit of £25, organise a committee and proceed to conduct his campaign.

If this approach spoke loudly of the party’s immaturity it also said a good deal about the dedication of its members that, although one or two ignored the instruction, in most instances the Broken Hill comrades faithfully carried out their commitment. The small number of votes received, of course, strengthened the hand of those seeking to liquidate the party.

A story that became legendary was told by colourful raconteur Paddy Drew, activist of the Sheetmetal Workers’ Union, who countered ridicule for his poll in 1924 of 12 votes by saying “Well, Jesus Christ started off with a few supporters and look how many he finished up with!” Paddy was a foundation member of the party.

As the rumblings of the great economic crisis of the ’thirties began to be heard it appeared that the party’s time had really come, for surely capitalism would not be able to survive its difficulties. The revolution was “just around the corner,” or so it was thought.

If the conditions tended to breed illusions they also dealt hammer blows at sectarianism. The Red International of Labour Unions now condemned moves being made to form new “red” breakaway unions and called for a reorientation in the direction of uniting the workers in existing unions to oppose reactionary leaders. The communists turned their attention to mobilising the workers for resistance to capitalist attacks around positive demands for higher wages, shorter hours and improved conditions generally.

Activities by communists in the depression struggles, coupled with the complete failure of the Labor Party, politically and industrially, to provide any answer to the problems set the seal on my own political future.

The contrasting ideological positions occupied by the Labor and Communist parties were sharply expressed in the outlook of personal associates. On the one hand, there was communist pioneer Paddy Lamb, who directed my reading towards the works of Marx and Engels. I was particularly impressed, too, by writers like Palme Dutt, Editor of the British Labour Monthly, author of Socialism and the Living Wage and, later, Fascism and the Social Revolution.

On the other hand there was my boss, or, more correctly, senior associate Ernest Wetherell. He was the classical reformist, both ideologically and in his opportunist practice. As he waited for the opportune moment to get into parliament he unfolded for me his rationalisations that passed for theory.

How mistaken he was in his forecast of events. While in the 1920s Paddy Lamb and his circle of Marxist students hammered away at the Marxist concept of the inevitability of capitalist crisis, my friend, Ernie, ridiculed the very idea. As fascism began to take its massive strides through the countries of Europe towards world war, Mr Wetherell confidently assured me that the Great Powers would “never let it happen.”

Then, of course, there was Lance Sharkey. He had told me clearly enough, if not actually spelling it out, that my whole approach suggested the only logical step for me was membership of the Communist Party. Here I was, persisting in a sort of separation between the work of the Militant Minority Movement, to which I had unreservedly dedicated myself, and that of the Communist Party which had actually brought it into being.

I had also taken part in campaigns initiated by the party, such as that for the release of Tom Mooney, framed on a charge of setting off a bomb during a patriotic parade in California in 1916 while being miles from the scene and kept in gaol until 1930; the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, Chicago anarchists similarly framed and legally murdered on a charge of murdering a company official in 1927 and only recently posthumously rehabilitated; the case of the Scottsboro boys sentenced to death twice for allegedly raping two white girls on a train in March 1931 and eventually freed following another world-wide agitation.

Even before I joined the party I was giving lectures in Broken Hill to such bodies as the YMCA on “The Case for Communism.”

True, I had been categorised as a social-fascist by the Broken Hill comrades, and that rankled. Together with another MMM colleague and IWW-ite, Harry Kelly who was similarly labelled, I sent a protest to the Workers’ Weekly. In a full page article Sharkey chastised the local party members for the incorrect use of the term, revealing, with that impressive simplicity which was always a feature of his writing, the social basis of fascism and those, who by default or treachery, facilitated its development. I could not be put in such a category, he emphasised. But he issued a warning to me to cease my attacks on the party.

I had really done little attacking, but a fair amount of sneering at the Broken Hill Branch’s sectarian conduct. I, at length, realised that that was not the way to deal with it and sincerity demanded entrance to the party whose ideological position I had in fact long accepted.

As to the sectarianism, it was dealt a further massive blow with the report on the United Front Against Fascism by the great Dimitrov at the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in 1935. The Dimitrov report was the central feature of the debate at the Australian Party’s 11th Congress in 1935 which I attended, having shifted from Broken Hill to Sydney to take up a position as Editor of the Miners’ Federation’s journal Common Cause.

The party was then in the aftermath of its internecine struggle against right opportunism when there had been calls for the liquidation of the organisation. J.B. Miles was General Secretary. He had been transferred from Brisbane to Sydney in 1931 to pull the party together. At the congress the Central Committee was virtually hand-picked, “J.B.” presenting a ticket from the chair for endorsement by the delegates. The emphasis was on the introduction of new young people, among them, Jack Henry, Len Donald and Steve Purdy. The list was subject to some challenge by the congress, and I recall vociferous opposition to the inclu­sion of Norman Jeffrey. However, his nomination was endorsed.

I had what I suppose could be called a rapid rise in the party. There was some irony in the fact that I transferred from the party in Broken Hill using the under cover name of Baldwin (which was the practice of the period) and the national leaders did not even hear of it until I was well established in their co-opted circle. I became Branch Chairman, Vice-Chairman of the Sydney District Committee, and in 1939 a member of the party’s Central Com­mittee, a position I held until the fateful congress of 1970.

* This article is Chapter 7 of Edgar Ross’s book, Of Storm And Struggle, Pages From Labour History.

Reprinted with kind permission of New Age Publishers Pty Ltd.

Edgar Ross (1904­2001) was a communist, an historian and a writer. From 1939 until 1970 he was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia. He was one of the most eloquent speakers in the working class movement, a great debater and an accomplished writer. For many years he was the Editor of Common Cause, the miners’ union newspaper and prior to that was a sub-editor of the Broken Hill miners’ paper. He wrote a history of the Miners’ Federation which is considered an important landmark in the writing of Australian labour history. Edgar Ross was one of the first to become highly critical of the direction being taken by the CPA in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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