About 200 people joined the online launch of the SEARCH Foundation’s new book Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists on October 30. The book, which commemorated the lives of 100 members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), was published to mark the centenary of the founding of the CPA, on October 30,1920.
Brian Aarons, SEARCH Foundation committee member, explained that the 100 short biographies of CPA members celebrated the lives of activists "who were all fighters, who did not accept inequality and oppression. They advocated for workers and others suffering under the class system.
"They made mistakes, but they were part of a wider international movement and influenced Australian politics much more than their numbers suggest. In the 1960s and 1970s, they embraced the new social movements around Aboriginal rights, women's liberation, gay liberation and the environment.
"They made democratic socialism a major part of their practice and represent the lives of thousands of other CPA members who took up leadership roles in the union movement and other sectors of society."
Historian Dr Stuart Macintyre, author of The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia, from origins to illegality, said: "The creation of the CPA was inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the founding of Communist parties around the world.
"A mere 26 people met in Sydney in 1920 to establish the CPA, but internal disputes meant it was some years before the party was recognised by the Communist International as the Australian section of the Communist movement. It wasn't until the early 1930s that the CPA grew from a few hundred members to thousands.
"Stalin's seizure of power in the Soviet Union resulted in sudden turns in the international Communist line, from the Third Period to the Popular Front policies. This affected the development of the CPA in Australia.
"However, it is true that the Australian CP had a greater influence in the trade union movement here than the CPs in either Britain or the USA. The remarkable support for the Soviet Union among the Australian people once it entered the war against Nazi Germany contributed to the growth of the CPA to a maximum of 22,000 in 1944.
"In the late 1940s, with the launch of the Cold War, the party was pushed onto the back foot, under attack from the right wing. Nevertheless, one victory was the narrow defeat of the anti-Communist referendum promoted by the Robert Menzies Liberal government in 1951.
"After Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956, a new period faced the CPA. Divisions among senior party members and others led to the split with Ted Hill and the creation of the pro-Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in the early 1960s.
"In the 1960s, the CPA opened up and supported the new social movements. It also opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which eventually led to the further split, with a pro-Moscow wing forming the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971.
"I joined the CPA in 1971, and found the overwhelming majority of the party members to be humble and dedicated to the socialist cause. The discipline of the party was largely self-imposed, and this consciousness runs right through the 100 Communist lives included in the book," Macintyre concluded.
Meredith Burgmann, former Labor president of the NSW Legislative Council, officially launched the book. As a non-member of the CPA, but a self-described "close fellow traveller" of the party, Burgmann stressed her political "coming of age in the 1960s, working with Communists in the anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements”.
"The CPA was in the midst of the process of de-Stalinisation, and increasingly involved itself in united fronts and coalitions. I was also aware of the impact of McCarthyism, under which ASIO intervened to destroy the lives of many CPA members," she said.
Burgmann praised the book for including the lives of 50 men and 50 women CP members. "All the chapters are excellent, and some are particularly poignant," she said.
Commenting on the controversial decision to dissolve the CPA in 1991, Burgmann recounted statements by a number of former members she knew, who said: "I didn't leave the party; the party left me".
Bob Boughton, co-editor of "Comrades!", thanked the authors of the book, saying the project had only been conceived in early 2020. "The project engaged about 150 people in its process of preparation," he said.
"We need to get radical history into the hands of current activists. The successes and mistakes of the CPA can still teach us many important lessons for today."
On the following day, October 31, a second event was held, entitled The Party! Snapshots of Communists in Australian History. Co-hosted by the SEARCH Foundation and the State Library of NSW, it focused on the contributions of Communists to Australian political and cultural movements.
The six online sessions included panels on the topics: On Stolen Lands: First Nations struggles for rights and justice; There is no Planet B: Movements to protect and save the environment; The class struggle: unions and workers’ movements; Art and culture: writing, songs of struggle, theatre, art; “Red Matildas”: The long struggle for women’s rights and equality; and “From all the lands on Earth we come”: Migrants and multiculturalism.
To order a copy of the book, contact the New International Bookshop.