Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 54September 2011

When the party was strong and active

Peter Symon

The following piece was written by former CPA General Secretary Peter Symon, for the 75th anniversary of the Communist Party of Australia and published in The Guardian on October 25, 1995.

The formation of the Communist Party of Australia on October 30, 1920 was not a chance event. There was a long journey of struggle by the working people leading up to its founding.

The Eureka Stockade in 1854 laid an important foundation stone of Australian democracy. There were the early trade union struggles which brought about the eight-hour working day.

Women’s franchise had been won as a result of the agitation of the suffragettes of England and their counterparts in Australia in the 1890s.

A number of organisations which proclaimed the socialist objective came into existence towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

The Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) was formed in 1906 and had a peak membership of 1,500. It published a newspaper called The Socialist (price 1 penny) which declared itself to be “an exponent of international socialism”.

The Manifesto of the VSP stated: “Socialism is a theory of human society based upon the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange … what is to be done to achieve it? The first thing necessary is to organise the workers into a class conscious party.”

There is little evidence that the Australian socialists at that time knew much of the writings of Marx and Engels although an edition of the Communist Manifesto had been published in Australia before the turn of the century. In 1901 a visiting French researcher published a book on Australia entitled Socialism without Doctrine.

In a forward to an English translation of the book published in 1977, Professor of Politics at Macquarie University, Don Aitkin, comments: “Australia’s trade unions and workers are still almost completely uninterested in questions of theory. They pursue their material goals, higher wages, better working conditions, greater protection against illness, accident and old age … [and] care not that the day of revolution … is still indefinitely far away.”

CP brought Marxism

It was the Communist Party which finally brought Marxism to the Australian working class in a big way.

In the early part of this century the Industrial Workers of the World es­tablished organisations in Australia and brought a new wave of militant, class conscious concepts to Australian workers.

It proclaimed:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people … Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political as well as the industrial field … ”1

Then came the 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia which acted as a catalyst to socialist-minded men and women around the world.

The Russian Revolution showed that it was possible for the working class to win power and throw out the capitalists. It had a considerable impact and influence in Australia as in many other countries. Public meetings were held in a number of Australian cities to hear the news and the Red Flag was run up on the flag­pole of the Trades Hall in Sydney.


All of these strands led inevitably to the Sydney Trades Hall and the conference held on October 30, 1920 which decided to form the Communist Party of Australia.

Its formation coincided with the establishment of an industrial working class in Australia. In March 1915 BHP steel works had started production. Other secondary industries were developing while timber workers, wharf labourers, shearers, railway workers and others remained militant sections of the working class.

From the day of its formation, until its liquidation in 1991 tens of thousands of Australians passed through its ranks. Many made a memorable contribution to the betterment of Australian society and to the life of the working people in particular.

Before the year 1920 had run its course, the newly founded party began publication of a newspaper. The first was called The Communist, followed later by The Workers’ Weekly and then the Tribune which ran until April 1991.

At first the party grew slowly and faced many problems including squabbles about policy and between aspiring leaders. It began to grow more rapidly during the Great Depression of the 1930s when the Communist Party played a very active role in the organisations of unemployed workers. They fought for a dole for the unemployed and defended many families against evictions enforced by landlords and the police.

It was at this time that the young party issued the call — “To the masses” and started to increase party influence among the employed working class as well as unemployed workers. The first trade union breakthrough came when communists were elected to leading positions in the Miners’ Federation.

Movement against war and fascism

Party members were very active in the movement against war and fascism after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and began to prepare for war and declare his objective of world domination. The party, always an international party, organised solidarity with the Spanish Republicans during the civil war. About 70 Australian men and nurses volunteered to fight against the fascist rebellion in Spain. Many of these volunteers were members or supporters of the Communist Party.

There was great support for and solidarity with the young Soviet Union, the only socialist country at that time. So fearful of socialism were the ruling classes of the capitalist countries that they conducted a ceaseless propaganda barrage directed against the Soviet Union and communists.

There were great democratic rights struggles in the 1930s to win the right to hold meetings on street corners and in parks. Although these are, more or less, taken for granted today, such rights did not always exist and had to be fought for. Many communist speakers suffered physical attack and jail in this struggle.

During WW2, the communists helped to mobilise the people both in industry and in the armed forces in the war against fascism. Over 4,000 communists were members of the armed forces and others played a great part in industry.

The membership of the Communist Party grew rapidly in the war years and reached a peak of about 23,000. Communists were elected to leading positions in many trade unions and also in the Labour Councils of a number of cities.

Following WW2 a new situation arose. In addition to the Soviet Union, a number of socialist countries arose in Eastern Europe. In China and Vietnam liberation movements came to power, first to end the colonial enslavement of their countries and then to start to build socialist societies.

The Cold War

The response of the capitalist countries was to impose the Cold War and commence an attack on the rights and conditions of workers and on the communist parties. In Australia, the Menzies Government attempted to declare the CPA illegal so as to snuff out its great influence among the workers of Australia.

This resulted in what became probably the greatest campaign for democratic rights ever seen in Australia. In a referendum on September 22, 1951, the attempt of the Menzies Government to illegalise the party was defeated. Australia is perhaps the only country in the world in which the legality of a communist party has been upheld by a popular vote of all the people. It was a great victory.

There followed years of hard class struggle — on the waterfront and the ships, in the mines, in the metal and building industries and among white collar workers. There were relentless efforts by conservative governments and the extreme right-wing industrial groups to remove communists from leading positions in trade unions. Using vicious anti-communism they had some successes and slowly the strength of the communists was whittled away.

One area of outstanding Com­munist Party activity was in the fields of the arts and culture. Reflecting the democratic traditions of the Australian people, the communists did much to encourage progressive artists, cultural workers, writers and scientists.

It was in this period that the ever popular musical Reedy River was first produced. The Australian Book Society was formed and encouraged many a writer by publishing books which might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

The Cold War saw sharp confrontation between the western powers led by the US and the socialist and non-aligned powers, chief among whom was the Soviet Union.

The existence of nuclear weapons brought a new threat to humanity and a world-wide peace movement came into existence to demand an end to nuclear weapon tests and for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Countless campaigns

There were countless campaigns and struggles in which the members and supporters of the Communist Party played a creative and foremost part. It is these achievements which the present commemorative functions marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Australia are meant to recall and honour.

Of course, these years were not trouble-free or error-free and some of these eventually led to the self-liquidation of the party.

However, the causes for which party members self-sacrificingly gave their thoughts, energy and time remain as yet unfulfilled. The basic reasons which brought together a small band of people in October 1920 still apply.

Monopolies have grown into transnational corporations. There is a great campaign of “take-back” being conducted by these corporate giants. Democratic rights are under ceaseless attack. It is a period of transnational corporation dictatorship.

It is necessary for all who remain committed to a peaceful and secure world, who want real freedom for ourselves and for the people of all countries, who want a socialist future to find the will and the strength to get the necessary “second wind”.

Despite the current difficulties and setbacks nothing that has happened makes socialism or the need for a communist party irrelevant. In fact, the reverse is the case.

The best achievements were chalked up by the working people when the Communist Party was strong and active. That, perhaps, is the main conclusion to be drawn from looking back on the 75 years since the CPA was born.

  1. See These Things Shall Be! Bob Ross — Socialist Pioneer — His Life and Times by Edgar Ross.

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