The CPA's campaigning history

Issue 

By Audrey Johnson SYDNEY — A week-long exhibition of Communist Party history was held mid-November at the Tom Nelson Hall to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the party in Australia. From a collection of CP memorabilia, the exhibition attempted to present to a younger generation the events, campaigns and causes associated with the CP from 1920 to 1991. Photographs and leaflets from the early days showed Jock Garden and the "Trades Hall Reds" figuring most prominently, while gentle intellectual Guido Baracchi contributed his translations of Marxist theoretical works. A more effective union of theory and practice was made under the leadership of Irish-Canadian Jack Kavanagh who, though maligned in later CP history, was responsible for introducing Marxist study classes, and was partly responsible for the Party's good working relations with left Labor and the Labor Council. Interesting exhibits included issues of the Communist and Workers Weekly which featured articles by Professor John Anderson, then an adherent of "scientific socialism", published under a pseudonym in the Party's theoretical journal; a summons against Kavanagh and party secretary Tom Wright for "encouraging a strike" — the Waterside strike of 1928 — and copies of the Picket Line, bulletin of the timber workers in the lockout of 1929. Documents and pictures of the early 1930s illustrated CP and fraternal organisations' activities around unemployment, evictions and union militancy. It was a period of ultra-leftism; ALP members, stigmatised as "social fascists", were not eager to join with Communists a few years later when their cooperation was sought in a united front. Where unity was achieved in the mid '30s, it led to the establishment of influential organisations like the Movement Against War and Fascism, united action in the Egon Kisch case, and lasting cooperation and eventual unity with the state Labor Party, all of which figured in the exhibition. CP pamphlets with their changes of policy in the early war years would mystify if the circumstances of the time were not taken into account. The twists were partly due to the isolated Australian CP trying to identify itself with Soviet policy, but also largely to the situation created by the West's sustained hostility to the USSR since the 1917 Revolution — the war of intervention, blockade, and refusal to join in collective action against Fascism as suggested by the Soviet Union. There was also a well-founded fear, in the early stages, that powerful forces in Britain and France would succeed in "switching the war" allowing Germany to dismember the Soviet Union. The great years of CP pamphleteering took place in the post-war period. These included comprehensive plans for post-war society; women and children; Aboriginal people (who had always been championed in CP publications); the neglected citizens of country towns and their environs; and the unionists who had eschewed strikes for higher pay and conditions to aid the war effort. These pamphlets accompanied the CP's greatest successes in broader layers of society — the election of candidates to numerous councils and even a CP majority on the shire council of coal mining Kearsley; an MP, Fred Paterson, in the Queensland state parliament; a strengthened left leadership in a number of unions; and the ACTU's affiliation to the World Federation of Trade Unions. Pictures and leaflets in the exhibition reveal this as a time of optimism and hope, and a flourishing of the arts; the CP actively supported painters and writers, and unions encouraged working class theatre and film-making. But the Cold War reaction soon came and, as in the 1890s, the force of the state was brought in to defeat the miners' strike of 1949, with the freezing of union funds and the jailing of union leaders. CP secretary Lance Sharkey had already been prosecuted for "treason" and sentenced to jail under the illiberal provisions of the Crimes Act. There followed the Communist Party dissolution bill and the referendum which had the same aim. The "Movement" was organised through sections of the Catholic Church to defeat Communism, and it spawned the Industrial Groups in the ALP. A ray of light was the election of two Communist aldermen to the city council under new proportional representation rules at the end of 1953, a few months before the Queen was to make her first visit to Australia. The newspapers were alarmed at the prospect of her majesty having to meet such men, but the exhibition's photograph shows the meeting passing off calmly enough: the two men were respectable union leaders. By the late 1960s the CP seemed to have retreated from its former activism. Its place was taken by the unions and the peace movement, in which Communists played their part, but "the face of the Party" was no longer in evidence.

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