Lessons from the Red Flag Riots

A sketch depicts armed police blocking the path of a loyalist mob during the Red Flag Riot in Brisbane in 1919.

One hundred years after the Red flag Riots, it is timely to look at the polarisation after World War I, in which far-right aggression was incited by governments and “respectable” political forces.

In 1918-19, an anti-Communist, far-right mob attacked a pro-Bolshevik community of emigre Russians in Brisbane.

The Red Flag Riots, as they became known, took place in a period in which anti-war sentiment was strong enough to defeat Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ conscription referenda, and the impact of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was pronounced.    

However, left-wing radicalisation in Australia at the end of the war was matched by anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by conservative politicians and corporate media fearing the outbreak of a Communist revolution.

A unique element had also been introduced: a community of about 4000 Russian exiles lived in Queensland, the majority of whom were congregated in the boarding houses of South Brisbane.

In contrast to the Russian migrant community in later years, most of these emigres were pro-Bolshevik. They had settled in Queensland almost by default: it was a Western outpost at the end of a tortuous escape route for political exiles under the Tsar, after the 1905 revolution.

The exiles’ Union of Russian Workers (URW) played a major role in the events of March-April 1919. As political tensions grew, the Australian government banned the flying of the red flag in September 1918 (joining a ban on the Irish Sinn Fein flag), as the supposed emblem of “an enemy country”.

Queensland became divided into two camps, “loyal” and “disloyal”, according to conservative leaders and media. “Loyalists” began to arm themselves, led by the reactionary officers’ cabal that headed the newly-formed Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA, predecessor of the RSL).

In January 1919, a red flag march of 1500 Russians and progressive workers carried banners such as “Down with the Allied intervention in Russia” and “Down with the War Precautions Act(WPA)”.

Military intelligence raided and wrecked the premises of the URW in South Brisbane, as well as the homes of Russian leaders. In an angry response, the URW reconstituted itself as “a fully fledged Soviet committee — the Southern Soviet of Russian Workers”.

Crunch came in March. On March 23, the URW, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other militants organised a march to continue the campaign against the WPA and to protest the repression.

Outraged by this display of defiance, loyalist mobs, organised by officers from the RSSILA, attacked an IWW meeting and then rushed towards the “Bolshevik Headquarters” in South Brisbane.

When the mob came close to the Russian Hall, several Russian militants, led by “Tom” Sergeev (alias Artem), emerged and fired several shots over their heads, scattering them in panic.

The following day, a huge mob of some 7000-8000 loyalists (mostly ex-servicemen) gathered in North Quay and then surged across the Brisbane River to attack the Russian headquarters. Armed police, ordered in by the state Labor government, blocked the road, with bayonets fixed.

In the ensuing melee, gunshots were fired. Many police and attackers were injured and some were wounded by bullets.

While the Russian headquarters was destroyed, Russian militants were in hiding elsewhere against what they described as “a pogrom” (similar to the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Black Hundreds in Tsarist Russia).

State and federal governments then colluded to suppress the radical movement. Show trials were held for the “crime” of carrying a red flag, 15 people were jailed for terms of six months or more, and Russians were arrested in preparation for deportation.

The existence of many returned soldiers led by reactionary officers frustrated and disillusioned by post-war unemployment and economic hardship, represented a potential base for fascism.

In fact, the first of Australia’s secret right-wing armies, the Army to Fight Bolshevism (AFB), was launched as an outcome of the Red Flag Riots. Later, others such as the White Guard and the New Guard of NSW were set up.

These organisations became dangerous, far-right militias in following years, as the international fascist and Nazi menace grew.

The left movement began to revive again after the repression from late 1919-20 onwards. The Red Flag Prisoners wrote in a letter in May 1919: “We know that in the near future, the red flag of freedom … will once again float from the flagstaff and the homes of the proletariat … Get wise. Unite.”

After a solidarity campaign combined with the impact of hunger strikes and political organising inside Brisbane’s Boggo Road Jail, all the Red Flag Prisoners were released by September 1919.

Many red flag organisers and supporters became founding members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which was formed in August 1920.

The Red Flag struggle played a significant role in laying the foundation for the later historic growth of the CPA in northern Queensland in the 1930s and 1940s, known as the “Red North”.

The lessons of the Red Flag Riots include the need for vigilance against the rise of right-wing extremism, whether it be “anti-communist” or “anti-socialist”, or in the form of racism, Islamophobia or xenophobia.

Moreover, to defeat a resurgent right it is essential that progressive forces and the labour movement seek the maximum unity in action.

[Material for this account is based on Raymond Evans’ The Red Flag Riots: A Study of Intolerance, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1988. Jim McIlroy is the author of The Red North: Queensland’s History of Struggle, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2001.]

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