On the weekend of October 30–31, 1920, twenty-six socialists from all over Australia met in Sydney. They resolved to establish the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), an organization whose contribution to the workers’ movement echoes to this day.
The CPA grew rapidly in the 1920s and ’30s, claiming over twenty thousand members by the late 1940s. Although the party enjoyed a brief upsurge during the 1960s and 70s, the anti-communist atmosphere of the Cold War eventually tipped it into slow decline. In 1991, delegates at the final CPA congress voted to dissolve the party.
Today, a hundred years after that founding meeting, we need to preserve the memories of Australia’s communist militants, unionists, and organizers — and to make their experience relevant to a new generation of leftists.
In March this year, the SEARCH Foundation, an organization established by the CPA before its dissolution, put out a call to ex-members, their descendants, and a range of labor historians. Instead of producing a formal history of the CPA, SEARCH asked for stories about the lives of Australian communists.
The response was overwhelming. Within a few months, respondents nominated over two hundred potential subjects. The new book Comrades! Lives of Australian Communists is the result; it collects one hundred biographies. SEARCH plans to publish at least another fifty online — and more as they come to hand.
Victorian Communists and Sydney Trades Hall Reds
Bill Earsman and Christian Jollie Smith were two of Australia’s first communists. In 1919, while Australia was in the throes of the Spanish flu pandemic, they made their way north to Sydney. They had planned to establish a new labor college modeled on the one they ran for Melbourne workers, housed in the Victorian Railways Union building.
Earsman was a metal worker, an immigrant from Scotland and a champion of independent working-class education. After arriving in Melbourne in 1912, he rose quickly through the ranks of the Amalgamated Engineering Union to become its Victorian secretary.
He was also a member of the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP) and, like the VSP’s most renowned leader, Tom Mann, he was strongly influenced by the syndicalism of the Wobblies, as the Industrial Workers of the World were colloquially known.
Dressed nattily in “tan shoes, leather gaiters and a Baden-Powell hat,” Earsman was a familiar figure at Andrade’s Bookshop, a center for socialist and syndicalist discussion in Melbourne. His pamphlet, The Proletariat and Education: The Necessity of Labor Colleges, was published by Andrade’s in 1920. In it, Earsman argued that it was necessary to
…point out the dead-end to which the present educational system is leading, viewed from the point of view of the working class … we found it necessary to have independent unions and an independent Labor political party, (so) why not an independent educational institution?”
Christian Jollie Smith, Earsman’s comrade and partner, came from a conservative, middle-class Melbourne family and was one of the first women in Australia to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor. The movement against conscription during World War I radicalized Jollie Smith, as did her close friendship with socialist intellectuals Guido Baracchi, Nettie Palmer, and Katharine Susannah Prichard.
In 1917, she became an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik revolution. This attracted the attention of the security service, who saw to it that she was sacked from the Crown Law Office, under suspicion of having leaked information to comrades who faced deportation for their radical political beliefs. To support herself, Jollie Smith assumed the pseudonym Pamela Brown and became Melbourne’s first female taxi driver.
After arriving in Sydney, Earsman and Jollie Smith set up house in a terrace just up the road from Circular Quay, where they recruited Jock Garden, leader of the so-called Sydney Trades Hall Reds, to their labor college project.
When they met Peter Simonoff, a Russian émigré and the Bolshevik representative in Australia, they set a more ambitious goal. Working out of Simonoff’s office, the comrades formed an uneasy coalition with leaders of the Sydney-based Australian Socialist Party (ASP). Together, they called the October 30–31 meeting at the ASP hall. They invited delegates from across Australia to discuss the formation of an Australian Communist Party.
As it happened, only twenty-six people turned up, of whom three were women. Despite their small number, this eclectic assembly resolved to form a communist party, electing an interim executive committee, with Earsman as secretary.
Jollie Smith also joined the committee, helping to draft the party’s first constitution. As its first goal, the CPA set out to obtain recognition as the Australian section of the Comintern, the international communist organization set up by Lenin to coordinate world revolution.
An Australian Communist in Moscow
After two years, many internal debates and several visits by delegates to Moscow, the Communist Party of Australian was accepted into the Comintern. Earsman played a crucial part in this, working on the ships that took him from Australia to Moscow, where the Comintern convened, to secure his passage.
While in the young Soviet Union, Earsman met many of the twentieth century’s most famous communist leaders, including Leon Trotsky, and was inducted into the Red Army as an honorary member. He was appointed to represent the Comintern in Australia and tasked with carrying propaganda material and instructions into Germany on his way home.
However, as we now know, Earsman’s movements were closely monitored by the British intelligence services, who ensured that he was eventually refused reentry into Australia as a risk to national security. He went back to Moscow where he worked for a while as a teacher in the Red Army Academy, before returning to his native Edinburgh to become an active union leader and a member of the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, by 1922, CPA membership had grown to several hundred, with branches in every mainland capital and several regional centers. Although the Australian Labor Party (ALP) opposed the CPA and banned its members from joining, working-class support for communism grew.
By the 1930s, this made it possible for the communists to build militant rank-and-file organizations in many unions. They complemented these efforts by organizing the unemployed to resist evictions and building a mass popular movement against war and fascism.
Several CPA members, women and men, traveled overseas to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s fascist armies in Spain. All the while, CPA members were subject to constant surveillance by security agencies and harassed through the courts. After serving briefly as the party’s general secretary in Earsman’s absence, Jollie Smith returned to her legal practice where she defended communists and the organizations they led in the courts for several more decades.
During World War II, the authorities briefly made the CPA illegal. However, following the Soviet Union’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies in 1941, the party experienced a surge in popularity. By the war’s end, communists held senior leadership positions in many of the country’s most important working-class organizations and progressive social movements. It was the high watermark of the Australian communist movement.
As Jodi Dean has written, the term “comrade,” as it developed in the international communist movement, carries a wealth of meaning that has been endangered by the individualism endemic to neoliberal capitalism and identity politics. The short biographies of Australia’s communists collected in Comrades! push back against this, while also bringing to life Dean’s more abstract and theoretically sophisticated account.
As individuals, the communists who were members of the CPA were an extremely mixed bag — a monument to diversity long before that word became ubiquitous on the Left. Poets, novelists, actors, writers, academics, and artists worked with and met in the same branches as cleaners, wharf laborers, hotel and health workers, teachers, seamen, and metal workers.
Some comrades spent their whole life as members, while others left after only a few years. Following splits, some joined alternative groupings — for example, many became critics of Stalinism from the 1930s onward. The ranks of anti-Stalinist communists were further bolstered following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Others became supporters of the Chinese Communist Party after the Sino-Soviet split, forming the CPA(M-L) in 1963.
Another group split to form the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971. This followed the CPA’s criticism of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, a move that led the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to revoke the support it had extended to the CPA since 1922.
Communists were as active in smaller cities, regional towns, and the outback as they were in the major party centers of Sydney and Melbourne. Over the decades, Australian communists created networks of rank-and-file organization in workplaces all over Australia, a tradition that often owed as much to the party’s syndicalist roots as it did to the Comintern.
Solidarity and Internationalism
Above all, the communists proved their worth by building successful and powerful mass movements, against war and fascism, against British and US imperialism, against nuclear arms and uranium mining, and in support of the rights of indigenous and colonized peoples in Australia and its overseas territory in Papua New Guinea. The CPA was the first party in Australia to include the demand for rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in its program, in 1931.
From then on, CPA activists played key roles supporting struggles against the repressive native welfare legislation, for equal wages, and for land rights. Don McLeod, a white contractor, helped the Pilbara Aboriginal stock workers wage Australia’s longest-ever industrial battle. In the 1940s, he joined the party to help build support. The party’s 1950s program for Torres Strait Islander independence and self-determination was published in five Torres Strait languages.
The communists’ international solidarity work was exemplary, building local support for independence and national-liberation struggles across the Asia Pacific region, in the Middle East, and in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In the 1970s and ’80s, for example, Brian Manning, a Darwin wharfie and communist maintained an illegal radio operation in Darwin. Assisted by his comrades, he kept open lines of communication with East Timor’s FRETILIN guerrilla force as they resisted the 1975 Indonesian invasion of their country.
CPA members undertook this work in the face of sustained and systematic harassment and surveillance by a succession of security agencies that were developed with anti-communism as one of their primary tasks. Ironically, however, files maintained by those agencies have provided the primary source material needed for much of this hidden history — in particular, those of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and its predecessor, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch.
A World to Win
In 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described communists as those who “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class,” while also taking care “of the future of that movement.”
As comrades ourselves, then, we owe a twofold debt: to previous generations of communists who inspired and taught us, and even more importantly, to the comrades of future generations, who will continue the struggle. Of course, there’s no point pretending that the communists of the past have all the answers to today’s questions. But the CPA’s history does hold precious experience. Its successes and mistakes may yet furnish us with important lessons.
Most importantly, as Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally, two comrades from New Zealand and South Africa put it, “we cannot afford the costs of historical and social amnesia for contemporary and future struggles.” This isn’t only because forgetting is costly: we should value these histories because, thanks to our comrades, we’ve still got a world to win.