Thе Communist Party of Australia

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Essay from theme:

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, and the strengthening of the independent Communist
Parties. Stalin, on the other hand, saw social-democrats as “social
fascists” a term first espoused and then dropped by Zinoviev in 1924.
Fascism, a fairly new phenomenon, was the name given to the organisation
and principles of Mussolini’s anti-semitic and anti-communist
nationalist party, founded in 1919 in Italy. Later, Nazism, under Hitler
was to adopt the same principles. Under the term “social fascist” social
democracy and fascism were described as “twins”. Bourgeois democracy,
according to Stalin, maintained its power only with the support of the
social-democrats, who aided the capitalist offensive against the workers
in periods of decline. According to Richard Dixon, a long-time president
of the CPA, Stalin virtually identified the bourgeois form of capitalist
class rule with fascism. Since social democracy was dependent on the
system of bourgeois democracy it had no role to play in the struggle
against fascism. Stalin’s policy meant that Communist Parties everywhere
were expected to refuse to work with social democrats, destroy reformist
influence, and thereby win the leadership of the working-class in the
struggle for revolution, seen as being on the immediate agenda. In
addition, and more ominously, Communist Parties should purge from their
ranks those “rightwing deviationists” who advocated working with social
democracy. In the new circumstances they were now the main danger

The Queensland Resolution

Prior to the ECCI discussions with the Australians in April 1928,
preliminary skirmishes between Stalin’s and Bukharin’s supporters had
already taken place at an ECCI meeting in February and at the Fourth
Congress of the Red International Labor Unions (RILU). On 20th April
when the ECCI met to discuss the Australian question, divisions as to
the general line would have existed (at least covertly). Bukharin was
present at the discussion. Likewise, both sides of the argument in the
CPA over its policy in relation to the ALP were represented. In addition
to H.W.R. Robson and Herbert Moxon, there were two of the four CPA
members who had been removed from the CEC as “rightists” at the 1927
annual conference. These were, jack Ryan, research officer of the Sydney
Labor Council, and Norman Jeffery former CPA organiser in Queensland.
Both Ryan and Jeffery were returning from the 4th Congress of RILU,
which they had attended as delegates of the NSW Labor Council.”

Prior to this meeting the protagonists had been given the opportunity to
present their views about the ALP in written form to the Anglo-American
Secretariat. Moxon, as representative of the CEC, detailed the
differences and attacked both Ryan and Jeffery on a number of issues but
chiefly with submerging the Party in their mass activity and as being
more concerned with working with the leadership of the ALP than with the
rank and file. He concluded, “The majority of the Australian Party is
looking to the ECCI to give a decisive ruling in connection with the
faction fight.”

Both Ryan and Jeffery had produced a comprehensive report explaining
their viewpoint in which they gave the history of the CPA’s attitude to
the united front since 1921 when “The CP under instructions from the CI
adopted the policy of “working from within’ [the ALP] with the object of
ousting the reformist leaders’. They dealt with 1924 when members of the
Communist Party were banned from membership in the ALP at Lang’s
instigation and the consequent campaign in 1925 to demand the right of
unions to delegate Communist Party members to ALP conferences if they so
chose. According to Ryan and Jeffery the fight in the ALP had now
(1927-28) changed its form. Instead of it being a clear cut issue
between the reactionary rightwing and the militant left wing, led by the
Communist Party and putting forward CP demands, it had developed into a
struggle for control between the reactionary right-wing politicians and
the trade-unions allied with some politicians. The second were as nearly
reactionary as the first’. They stated that this was where they
quarrelled with the majority of the executive of the Party. The CE C
decided not to support either side and they (Ryan and Jeffery) opposed
this stand, arguing that, ‘whether the trade-unions were to control the
ALP or not was a matter of concern to the working class, therefore we,
[the CPA] could not isolate ourselves from such a struggle.’ They
reminded the ECCI that the policy put forward by the minority at the
1927 CPA conference was strictly in conformity with the thesis from the
CI of organising the left wing in the Labor Party to challenge its
leadership on the basis of “a programme of immediate economic demands”
and was drawn up with Robson’s help.

Robson, in presenting the report at the meeting on April 20th, was
critical of the poor organisation of the CPA. He did point out, though,
that the membership, only 250 when Tom Wright was in Moscow in 1927, had
doubled in less than six months due to the role played by CPA members in
the sugar strike in South Johnstone. His view was that the Party’s
weakness stemmed from divisions in the Central Executive of the CPA on
how to deal with the anti-communist attitude of the ALP leaders, and
argued that the ALP move to the right called for sharper criticism from
the CPA. This applied particularly to Queensland (where an election was
due) with the open desertion of the workers by the Labor Government.

After the presentation of Robson’s report, the ECCI placed Willie
Gallagher (Communist Party of Great Britain representative) in charge of
a committee, which included members of the Political Secretariat of the
ECCI, together with Robson, Moxon, Jeffery and Ryan, to recommend a
policy for the CPA. At the insistence of Petrovsky (CPSU representative
on the ECCI) the resolution took up the question of the Labor Party.
Within days, the committee put its resolution to the Comintern’s
Political Secretariat and it was endorsed by the ECCI on 27th April,
1928. While referring to the earlier October 1927 resolution which had
envisaged the possibility of having to support a left opposition within
the Labor Party the new resolution dealt particularly with the McCormack
Labor Government. The Communist Party was to take the lead in the
forthcoming Queensland state elections drawing in the masses by adopting
the following procedure:

1. In some constituencies left-wing ALP candidates were to stand and
would have specially created workers’ electoral committees to support

2. In all other constituencies a clear campaign against the McCormack
Labor Party was to be conducted. Labor Party candidates were to be
pressed to repudiate their past policy and to support working class
demands. If they refused, workers were to be asked not to vote for them
but to make their reason for withdrawing support quite clear. Opposition
was to be against persons not the Labor Party itself.

3. Three or four Communist candidates were to stand in carefully
selected constituencies.

This document, to be known as the Queensland resolution, did not yet
embody Stalin’s ‘social fascist’ line. It was a composite of the 1927
October resolution, the CPA’s militant approach to the ALP Queensland
Government in Queensland and the new line which was emerging
internationally. The resolution was brought back to Australia by
Jeffery, was endorsed unanimously by the CEC on 12 July 192 8, except
for section 25 which stated that the creation of the left-wing inside
the Labor Party should be carried out organisationally along the same
lines as used in the formation of the left-wing inside the trade-unions,
a proposal already contained in the l927 October resolution. The reason
given, and accepted by the Anglo-American Secretariat, was that the
Party was ‘too weak to make this work’. The campaign for the coming
state election in Queensland was then initiated accordingly. The
discussions with the ECCI in 192 8 were not seen in Australia as
‘interference’, but were welcomed by most as an indication that the CPA
was indeed an integral part of the Communist International. Wright, as
general-secretary, regarded the discussions around the Queensland
resolution as the ECCI’s first serious consideration of the Australian

The great distance between the Moscow headquarters of the ECCI and
Sydney, the home of the CPA’s Central Committee, exacerbated by the
“artificially imposed tyranny of distance” caused by the political
censorship of the Bruce/Page Government which banned material arriving
from the USSR meant that, as Margaret Sampson puts it, “the Party was
largely ignorant of the battles being fought within the Comintern and
the CPSU over Stalinisation”. Those who were in Moscow at the time of
the April discussion may have had some knowledge of the divisions. Jack
Ryan was not impressed with some of the Comintern personnel he worked
with while in Moscow and according to Edna Ryan was beginning to have
some doubts about the way it functioned. Esmonde Higgins, editor of The
Workers’ Weekly and CPA delegate to the VIth Comintern Congress in
August 1928, had some idea of the CI conflicts. Though he arrived in
Moscow too late to participate in decision making at the Congress, he
must have been aware of the situation between Stalin and Bukharin as it
had been widely discussed among delegates. Compromises had been exacted
from Bukharin at the Congress. He had conceded that social democracy had
‘social fascist tendencies’ but added ‘it would be foolish to lump
social democracy together with fascism.’ He had also conceded that ‘the
right deviation now represents the central danger.’ Stalin had won the
debate over the ‘third period’ though it was to be another year before
the significance of this victory was to penetrate through to the
sections of the Comintern. Even the resolutions passed after
‘hard-fought compromises’ still reflected Bukharin’s policies.

Higgins gave a glowing report of the Comintern’s Fourth Congress at the
CPA’s eighth annual conference in Sydney, December 1928 remarking that
‘We glory in the fact that we are an International Party … Decisions
are arrived at the instance of representations of these parties and
always with their advice.’ During the conference, Higgins was the main
speaker for a resolution entitled, “The Struggle Against Labor Party
Reformism” which said that the ALP was increasingly identifying itself
with the openly reactionary aims of the employers and that as the CPA
was the only party of Australia ‘coming out as an independent
revolutionary force we must energetically endeavour to capture the
leadership of the Australian workers from the reformists. ‘In elections
the call was no longer ‘Vote Labor but Vote for the Revolutionary
Workers’ candidates’ (CPA or left-wing candidates).”

It is interesting to note that left-wing ALP candidates were still
included. Supporting the resolution, Wright added “that if left-wing
organisations do come into existence, that we ourselves shall be on good
terms with them” and “we must be careful not to isolate ourselves from
them by ill-considered attacks”. J.B. Miles, representing Queensland,
agreed with this to some extent but he considered that ‘lf it is going
to be necessary to have left-wing electoral committees let us have them,
but we must realise that after the elections these committees must go
out of existence, or otherwise we are going to build up a second
reformist party.’ Lance Sharkey, who had been voted out as a rightist’
at the 1927 annual conference, in supporting the resolution emphasised
that it was a new policy and further that “Although a lot of people are
in the habit of declaiming that Australia is a different country from
others … the development of the ALP here is similar to development of
Social Democratic Parties in other countries.”

This resolution was much more general in its criticism of the ALP than
had been the Queensland resolution and aroused Jeffery’s suspicions.
Having attended the Comintern discussions he stated, “lt is apparent to
me that the Committee [which drew up the resolution] intends the
Queensland tactic to be applied to the whole of Australia” and that he
did not think this was correct. Higgins replied that there was no reason
to make an absolute distinction between Queensland and the rest of
Australia and said it was “time we adopted a new line”.

Jack Kavanagh, leader of the CPA since his arrival from Canada in 1925,
and the centre of the coming storm, was now a candidate member of the
ECCI as a result of Higgins recommendations on his behalf while at the
Cl Congress. In addition the CEC had been asked to send a formal request
to the ECCI that Kavanagh be invited to Moscow for a period as an
official representative on the Comintern Executive. It has been
suggested by several writers that Kavanagh was either reluctant to go to
Moscow or that he tended to disregard Comintern policies. On the
contrary, David Akers records that in 1921, while a member of the
Socialist Party of Canada (SPC), Kavanagh had argued the case for
affiliation to the Comintern, and had led a left-wing faction out of the
SPC into the Workers’ Party of Canada, (WPC) which was the legal face of
the underground Communist Party of Canada (CPC), already affiliated with
the Communist International. He supported the Comintern but it was his
interpretation of the united front which caused difficulties for him
with both the ECCI and the CPC on several occasions. Kavanagh accused
the Canadian party of interpreting the united front as working with the
trade-union bureaucracy in 1922 and questioned the affiliation of the
CPC with the Canadian Labor Party in 1924 for fear it meant submerging
the communist party. Kavanagh considered CPC independence was essential
and that the united front meant working with the rank and file of the
Labor Party to strengthen its policies the united front from below a
view similar to that taken by Bukharin in the “third period” debate. At
this time, and on this issue, he stood to the left of Canadian party

Therefore it appears that Kavanagh was not opposed to the Comintern as
has been suggested but did not consider that ECCI directives were to be
accepted without question. In addition, he had always insisted, as
explained by Sampson, that the differences between Australia and the
rest of the world were as important as their similarities in determining
strategy, which inevitably led him into disagreement with the
Comintern’s Third Period policy. A close friend of the Kavanaghs, Edna
Ryan, insists that he wanted to go to Moscow for discussion with the
ECCI but was never issued an invitation, the reason for which was never
explained. Clearly, lack of personal contact with the ECCI would have
contributed to his failure to understand that the Comintern was becoming
more authoritative in its relationships with affiliated parties and that
its policies had taken a sharp turn to the left.

Just as he had done earlier in the Canadian situation, Kavanagh had
taken a strong stand against the submergence of CPA members within the
Labor Party in 1926 and 1927 and had insisted that all communists in the
ALP and in trade-unions declare their communist membership, even though
there was the possibility of victimisation in some cases. He was an
organiser for the NSW Labour Council and widely recognised as communist.
In the present situation he considered that each situation should be
examined separately and that the Queensland resolution did not
necessarily apply to the whole of Australia. He regarded himself as a
“Leninist” and would have scorned the term “rightist” as applying in his

The resolution on the ALP at the 1928 eighth annual conference of the
CPA was passed with few delegates understanding its wider significance
as part of a common trend within the communist parties affiliated to the
Comintern, to strengthen their organisations in preparation for coming
revolutions and to regard reformist parties as enemies. In fact the
general political resolution, passed at the eighth conference,
specifically stated that, “But while in principle there cannot be, and
the CP does not allow, any two interpretations of the nature and role of
the ALP… it would indeed be a mistake, and unforgivable, for the CP to
apply mechanically and blindly the same tactics in the various states”.
The differences of opinion on whether or not the Queensland resolution
should apply generally was not resolved. A degree of unity was achieved
at the 1928 conference in that Sharkey, Ryan, Higgins and Jeffery were
elected once more to a 10 member CEC.

After the conference, the campaign around the Queensland elections,
supported by all CEC, members, was renewed with vigour with J.B. Miles
and E.C. Tripp standing as communist candidates in the electorates of
Brisbane and Mundingburra, respectively. Left-wing candidates stood in
Townsville, Fortitude Valley and in Paddington. The elections were held
on 11 May 1929 and with only 40 per cent of the vote, Labor lost office
after 14 years. The communist and left-wing team polled 3194 votes with
E.C. Tripp, who was well-known as a militant in the Australian Railways
Union in northern Queensland, polling 1137 votes against the Labor Party
candidate’s 4995 in Mundingburra. Fred Paterson, a left-wing candidate,
who had organised actively for the locked-out railways workers, polled
1418 and the Labor candidate, 3518. In both these electorates only two
candidates stood and the informal vote was high, 492 (Mundingburra) and
539 (Paddington), indicating a disinclination for either candidate. Even
so, the result was seen as a great improvement on the 1925 NSW state
elections where all six Communist candidates lost their deposits, the
highest result being for Jock Garden with 317 votes. It was concluded
that where communists and left-wingers were in the forefront of actions
taken to defend the situation for the working class their votes would

The situation had worsened for Australian workers. The economy had
entered a deep depression and unemployment was increasing. The defeat of
the waterside workers in 1929 was followed by the timber workers strike
against judge Lukin’s award in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court, which
abolished the 44 hour week for that industry. The strike widened, with
members of the Militant Minority Movement (a communist initiative)
taking an active part. The strike was finally defeated in October. By
then the furore over the owners’ lock-out of miners in the northern
coalfields was at its height. When the prosecution of mine-owner John
Brown was withdrawn (because of his refusal to negotiate if it wasn’t),
the resultant outcry ended with the Commonwealth Arbitration Court being
discredited. The Maritime Industries Bill, introduced by Prime Minister
Bruce, in order to hand back the responsibility for arbitration to the
States, was defeated and a new federal election was called. The date set
for the election was October 12th.

During 1929 debate continued on the question of relations with the ALP.
As the argument proceeded and increased in intensity, lines hardened and
the debate polarised. Allegiances had changed since 1927. Supporting the
application of the line adopted in Queensland to the ALP as a whole were
Sharkey, Moxon and Miles (who was not at that time on the CEC). Opposing
it were Kavanagh (CPA chairman), Wright (CPA secretary), Ross, Ryan and
Jeffery. Esmonde Higgins wavered, not sure of his position.

The CEC decision on the federal elections brought matters to a head.
Despite the strong conviction by many that the policy which had been so
successful in Queensland should also apply federally, the CEC on 15th
September 1929 decided to support the Labor Party to oust Bruce, while
promoting an independent Party policy. The CEC policy was at first
agreed to by Sharkey, an executive member, who had disagreed with
Moxon’s view that if there were no Communist candidates the electors
should be asked to vote informal but almost immediately Sharkey withdrew
his support for the resolution. With Moxon he sent a cable to the
Anglo-American Bureau, ECCI, on 18 September, criticising the CEC

On receipt of the cable, a Comintern Commission was established in
Moscow on 20 September to examine the Australian question. Its first
task was to cable the CEC, insisting they stand candidates in line with
Comintern policy.

Clayton (almost certainly a pseudonym for E.C. Tripp), was in Moscow to
attend a Lenin school and was invited to participate in several of the
meetings. He argued for the Moxon/Sharkey position, explaining to the
Commission that because Australia was divided into five States with a
Federal body a tendency existed to see the Labor Party as six different
parties. The Queensland resolution drawn up when the Australian
representative was in Moscow last time was intended for the CPA in
Queensland. Now conditions had changed, with the Labor Party joining
with the capitalist class in attacking waterside workers around
Australia to lower their conditions. He explained further, that the
CEC’s case was based on the argument that the CPA would appear as
splitting the working class vote, and secondly, that the party was too
weak to stand candidates.

The ECCI cable was received on 26 September and a CEC meeting was held
the same evening which reaffirmed its original decision defeating a
Moxon/Sharkey resolution to stand candidates in selected electorates.
Wright cabled the ECCI, “Rush elections October l2 – organisational
difficulties prevent Party candidates – consider informal vote
inapplicable – advancing same policy Federal elections November last
with independent platform”. The ECCI sent a reply on September 29
insisting on policy contained in its previous cable.

On receiving this, Wright sent a written report on October 2 in which he
complained bitterly about the factionalism of Moxon and Sharkey. This
letter explained that the CPA’s policy was to run an independent
campaign disassociating the CPA from Labor Party policies, but also to
support the Labor Party in the elections in order to defeat the
Nationals. He cited the fact that the Nationalist Government now in
power in Queensland had cancelled all awards for rural workers, with the
implication that conditions, while bad when McCormack was Premier, were
worse under the new government and further, he said, “the Nationalist
government is preparing to follow the same example”. Wright explained
that, “Because of the great variation in the character and organisation
of the various state branches of the Labor Party and the varying extent
of the disillusionment with Labor governments experienced by the masses,
it is obvious that the Communist Party cannot have one uniform tactic to
be applied in elections throughout Australia.” Enclosed with the report
were the two letters addressed to the CEC and the ECCI written by Moxon
and Sharkey on 22nd September, criticising the executive policy at

While this correspondence was still on its way, Moxon and Sharkey sent
yet another telegram on 8 October: “Our motion that Comintern
instructions be operated on received no support Central Committee”,
which prompted the ECCI to cable Wright “Awaiting confirmation our
telegram.” The general-secretary replied “Acknowledge cablegrams, report
dispatched.” On October 21, the CEC was to censure Moxon and Sharkey for
their factionalism, which involved circulating Cl documents and cables
before CC members had seen them. The ECCI had followed their brief cable
with another worded on October 18 at a meeting when Clayton (Tripp) was
again present, stating, “that a victory for the Labor Party would
strengthen illusions among the masses of workers and encourage
liquidationist tendencies among Party members” and affirming once again
that it was the duty of the Party to stand independent candidates. The
same cable reported that an Open Letter from the Cl to the CPA was being
sent, and it should be distributed for discussion before the ninth
annual conference to be held in December. After delay, the cable was
shown to the Central Committee and circularised among the Party groups.

The Open Letter

The Open Letter, written 13 October 1929, began “This is not the first
time that the Communist International occupies itself with the
Australian Question” and mentioned the 1927 visit of Robson and the 1928
“so-called Queensland Resolution”. It continued, “This time the
immediate cause for consideration … was the decision to support the
Labor Party in the Federal elections.” The Letter proceeded to deal with
the “third period”, the radicalisation of the working class and the
“Right Deviation”, stating: “The question as to whether Australian
capitalism will succeed in its plans to subjugate the working class or
whether the working class will assume the counter-offensive and develop
its revolutionary struggle against capitalism will depend on the ability
and determination of the CP to organise and lead the counter-offensive
… This has not been the case until now. The Party has been slow in
learning from the experience of the British, German, and French working
class and from events in Australia proper. The important decisions of
the Sixth World Congress and the Tenth Plenum of the Cl as well as the
decisions of the Fourth RILU Congress seem to have been neglected by the

It went on. “Even at its conference of December 1928, the Party could
not give a proper political estimate of the Labor Party or define its
fundamentally social-fascist character, its aggressively
counter-revolutionary role in the present situation” and further,
“apparently the Party regards itself as being merely a propagandist body
and as a sort of adjunct to the Labor Party”. The Open Letter then
emphasised the need for a Communist Party to “assert itself as the only
true working class Party” and “to conduct open warfare against the Party
of class collaboration”.

There was much agitation to have the Letter published in the CPA’s
newspaper, The Workers’ Weekly, where it finally appeared on 6 December.
The CEC took the opportunity to write again to the Comintern Executive
on 16 December, replying in detail to the Open Letter, maintaining that
the leadership “accepts without reservation the need to intensify and
clarify the struggle against reformism” and this issue will be “the
concern of our ninth conference”. In making criticisms of the Open
Letter, the CEC, via Tom Wright, made the point that the present
situation was seen as much sharper but not ripe for revolution. Wright
pointed out that notes had been left with the Comintern by Higgins in
September 1928 to the effect that the “time had come to emerge from the
propaganda stage” as suggested in discussions with the ECCI in April but
that no reply had been received. Further, he referred back to the
resolution on the Labor Party adopted at the December 1928 conference,
“no word of criticism came from you, and, even in the Open Letter, apart
from reference to one passage in the conference resolution you express
no opinion on the decisions of a year ago”. He concluded that if the CPA
leadership had made mistakes, so had the ECCI because it had not raised
any criticism at the time.

Very few in the CPA realised how fundamental were the changes in the
policies emanating from the Comintern. With the defeat of Bukharin,
Stalin had succeeded in redefining Third Period policies to mean that
capitalist stabilisation was at an end and that revolutionary situations
were now certain in Western capitalist countries. Social fascists were
now the main enemy. Not understanding what had happened, most of the CPA
leadership were bewildered at the advice they were now being given. They
were also angry, and simply disagreed. They saw it as important to have
the ALP, not the Nationalist Party in power. Indeed, the Labor Party
under James Scullin, had succeeded in the October 1929 federal elections
in defeating the Nationalist Country Party Coalition. Those, on the
other hand, who were impatient with what they perceived as the CEC’s
slowness in developing an independent CPA campaign, were reinforced by
the new Comintern line. The relative inexperience of the Australian
communists, the inherent leftism of many of its members, and the feeling
that they had been betrayed by the Labor Party, made the Comintern’s new
appraisal of social democrats as “social fascists” an attractive
alternative to the old united front policies. The belief that revolution
was already on the agenda was a huge incentive to those who believed in
the socialist goal.

The new Comintern line appeared to be correct not only within the
Australian context but world-wide. The Wall Street crash in October 1929
did indeed seem to herald the complete collapse of capitalism. As
Friedrich I. Firsov, Doctor of Science of History, put it to me in
Moscow in November, 1990: “It appeared as if Stalin was right and that
capitalism wouldn’t develop any further, but events took a different
direction. It was a deep crisis but not one that would bring about the
end of capitalism. It was one of many crises – but still just one. The
crisis was solved in other ways than by proletarian revolution. In
Germany it was solved by the totalitarian regime of Hitler. Other
capitalist countries took different paths, for example, the welfare
state and in the USA by Roosevelt’s New Deal.”

Peter Morrison gives as one of the reasons for the differences which
developed so strongly in 1929, the different experiences of the Labor
Party in different states. The Commonwealth at this time was only 28
years old, and a great deal of power lay with the states. There was a
continuing possibility of state breakaways within the Labor Party, and
state ALP branches were not always obedient to the national body when
developing policy. Federally, the Labor Party had not been in power
since 1916, and so had no record on national issues by which it could be
judged by the working class, a point made by Tom Wright in his defence
of CEC policies in The Workers’ Weekly on 1 November 1929. Now that
Scullin was Prime Minister there would be opportunity to do so.

Within the CPA too there was state rivalry. This was mainly between
Queensland and NSW, Victoria and the other states being less important
at that time. These two States had quite different experiences with the
Labor Party. The improved vote for the CPA in Queensland, which had a
right-wing Labor Government for 14 years, no doubt convinced the party
members of that state that the new policy was correct. The lack of
similar experience in NSW, which had had a Nationalist Party government
since the defeat of Lang in 1927 probably affected the opinion of NSW
Party members. These different perceptions of the ALP produced
Kavanagh’s more cautious view, now branded as “exceptionalism”, that
each state should be considered separately.

By December, discontent with CEC policies had reached a peak. After the
Open Letter was finally published inThe Workers’ Weekly on 6 December,
open debate on the contentious issues was encouraged in its columns. As
this debate continued, the lock-out in the Northern coalfields was
reaching a dangerous climax. The NSW state government had sent in
non-union labour, and a confrontation between the police and the
locked-out miners led to the death of a miner on 16 December. The
combined effect of this event, The Workers’ Weekly debate, and the CI’s
Open Letter was a situation where rank and file support was swinging in
favour of the minority on the CEC. To add to all this, another telegram
had arrived on 16 December from the ECCI to be read at the ninth
conference denouncing the “opportunist attitude” of the present policy
and supporting the opposition’s attitude as “perfectly sound and
necessary”. Clayton (Tripp) and Walters (who had recently arrived to
attend the Lenin school) were both at the meeting in Moscow where the
contents of the telegram were decided. It was signed by Colon, Thaelman,
Semard, Kuusinen and Pollitt.

The cable added fuel to the fire and it was in a mood for confrontation
that the delegates began the ninth annual conference on 26 December. The
struggle within the CPA until this point had been sharp, but it is very
doubtful whether without the requested Comintern intervention, and the
importance placed on the Comintern judgment by the Australian
communists, it would have been conducted with so much intolerance and
bitterness. Allegiance to the Comintern meant that those who disagreed
with the “new line” were stigmatised as traitors to the working class.
This process of stigmatisation in itself was not foreign to socialist
politics. What was new was the belief that there was one path and one
path only, and the situation where open disagreement could result in
permanent ostracism. Thus it was the opposition’s own attitude to the
Comintern that created what Higgins described as “the poisonous
atmosphere” within which the ninth annual conference took place.

The Ninth Annual Conference of the CPA

The discussion at the ninth conference (26-31 December 1929), the
decisions it made, and the change in leadership were a turning point in
CPA history. Both sides presented their case. Kavanagh, in the chair,
referred to the sharp differences of opinion in his opening address,
declaring these needed to be “thrashed out at this conference”. The
decisions would be binding. He also reiterated that his own position was
that “the central task of the Party is to assert its claim to
independent leadership of the working class against capitalism and its
reformist allies”. Tom Wright followed, giving the Central Committee
report, outlining its policy on the Federal elections; he included
acceptance of the fact that the majority opposed the CEC’s policy on the
Federal elections, and that this view was confirmed by the CI.

Herbert Moxon led the attack with a minority report on the second day of
the Conference, dealing with the timber strike and the failure to get
party groups into activity, the tardiness about the coal lockout, and
the policy for the federal elections, charging the CC leadership with
“right deviation” and “new guardism”. He gave details of the exchanges
between the ECCI and the CPA and called for the conference to lift the
censure on Moxon and Sharkey, which had been imposed in October, endorse
the Open Letter of the CI, and realise it in practice. Kavanagh objected
to this report indicating it was full of inaccuracies and should be
placed before the delegates for discussion, but apparently this was not
agreed to.

In the third session of the conference on Friday 28 December,
immediately after the cable from the ECCI was read, Hector Ross weighed
into the debate. He claimed that there had been “a whole mass of
misrepresentations and exaggerations” and the debate on both sides had
been waged “on a very low level indeed” but he supported the CEC
position on the elections. In his analysis of the ninth conference,
Morrison found that only the Sydney delegates, excluding Hetty Weitzel
(representing the Women’s Section) and Anne Isaacs, (YCL
representative), supported Kavanagh, while all the states and both
northern and southern districts of NSW were opposed to him. In a
relatively small conference, Moxon, with nine representatives from
Queensland, was able to control the final result.

Following Ross, speaker after speaker supported the minority position.
These included Lance Sharkey, Jack Miles, Ted Docker, Bill Orr, Andy
Barras, Len Varty and Jack Simpson, Mick Loughran and Richard Walker.
Those under attack responded, several making the point that the
differences of opinion were merely a pretext f or other motives.
Kavanagh stated that the mainspring of the opposition was based on “an
opportunist desire for control of the Communist Party”. Jack Ryan
replied to the accusation of “right deviation”. Over the year, he said,
many had been seen as suffering from it; Sharkey himself “was bumped off
the CEC in 1927” as a right winger. The opposition was “utilising a
certain situation on the CEC to capitalise in order to get control of
the organisation”. Mocking their extremism he said, “I am a treacherous
betrayer of the working class because I supported the policy of the CEC
in the federal elections.”

Higgins and Jeffery had both changed their minds. Higgins recognised
that the line adopted had been a mistake while Jeffery accepted the
criticism that the CEC suffered from a right deviation and that “not one
member of the whole CC should stand for the CE … I stand behind CI
discipline”. Joe Shelley was in a “quandary”; he argued that had it not
been for the definite instructions of the CI the logical target of
criticism would have been the decision made by the eighth conference in
1928 where the majority of delegates had made it clear that the
Queensland resolution was not to apply generally. However, he said,
“there was no excuse for the CC to adopt the attitude it did”. After the
debate on the second day of the conference the result was a foregone
conclusion. All those on the old CEC who had supported Kavanagh, except
Esmonde Higgins whose stand had been equivocal, were voted out of
office. The Moxon/Sharkey faction had won.

State and personal rivalries no doubt fuelled the fire, but in examining
the material from the Comintern Archives together with evidence from
Australian sources it is apparent that, rather than being a mere “pawn”
in the game, the Comintern had been the deciding factor in defeating the
former leadership. The ECCI had not issued directives from afar of its
own volition, but had been very willing to intervene when it was
requested to do so. Notwithstanding the bitter antagonism of Moxon
towards the majority of the old CEC, it was not chiefly for narrow
political gain that he and Sharkey had taken this action. The overriding
concern was commitment to ideological unanimity with the Comintern. One
of the first acts of the new leadership was to cable the ECCI on 30
December 1929, “offering unswerving loyalty to the new line”.

When all the tumult and the shouting had died away the CPA was
profoundly changed. Some consider that the changes were necessary and
beneficial, opening the way for the changes in policy and methods of
work which led to an impressive growth for the CPA in the period of the
great mass movements of the thirties. These gains were made, according
to those who hold this view, in spite of the negative effect of the
“social fascist” line in the years immediately following the conference.
It is doubtful that the gains outweighed the losses. It is possible, as
suggested by Blake, that without the sharp polarisation of viewpoint,
aggravated by the ECCI intervention, a different and more representative
CEC may have been elected. That is conjecture only, but what stands out
clearly is that after the 1929 ninth annual conference something
precious had disappeared. This was the atmosphere described by Edna Ryan
when she referred to the CPA premises of the 1920s as “an open academy”
– “it didn’t occur to us at the time that we were enjoying liberty of
thought and expression, but there was no hushing and stifling, no fear
of being accused if one proposed a tactic or an idea”. Though the new
leadership set out with courage and vigour to win support for the new
line the free-ranging debate and discussion of the twenties under
Kavanagh’s leadership was gone. Now there was one correct line and to
depart from it unless one indulged in self-criticism meant ostracism and
possible expulsion.


I would like to thank the staffs of the Comintern Archives of the
Institute of Marxism-Leninism attached to the CC CPSU; the ANU Archives
of Business and Labour, Canberra; and the Mitchell Library, Sydney, for
their assistance to me in my research. I am particularly grateful to
Edna Ryan, Mary Wright, Hector Kavanagh, Steve Cooper and Ross Edmunds
for their freely given comments about the events and personalities
involved in these events. Finally I would like to thank Ann, Jean and
Geoff Curthoys for encouraging me to accept the invitation to visit the
Archives in Moscow and special thanks to Ann for her assistance with the
first draft.

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