Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

The Communist Party of Australia

53. In response to the founding of the Third (Communist) International in 1919, workers around the world, including in Australia, began to build communist parties. Three tendencies came together to found the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) on October 30, 1920: the Australian Socialist Party, members of the IWW, and a group of militant trade union officials who had come into leadership positions in NSW during the recent industrial upsurge.

54. The founding of the party represented an important step forward in the struggle for socialist internationalism. But it was only a beginning. The pressures of the national milieu continued to exert themselves, reflected in the syndicalist and organisational conceptions that predominated. In conditions of the upsurge of the working class of 1916–1920, the building of the party was conceived in terms of capturing the leadership of the existing trade unions and the Labor Party, rather than developing socialist consciousness in the working class through a fight against the prevailing forms of national opportunism and politically exposing the ALP and Laborism. The Manifesto to the Workers of Australia, issued by the CPA on December 24, 1920 conceived the socialist revolution almost entirely in organisational terms. The capitalist class held power through forms of organisation that suppressed the masses, consequently the working class had to develop more powerful organisations to carry out the socialist revolution. The manifesto declared that the CPA was forming groups of workers in every factory, mill and workshop so that it would be in a position to direct and control every industrial dispute and disturbance of the workers “keeping in mind the same end—social revolution—and trying to utilise every spontaneous action of the workers for that one end.” The CPA was also seeking to replace existing craft unions with “more up-to-date efficient industrial unions” that would be “more advantageous for social revolutionary mass activity.”[1]

55. Notwithstanding the weaknesses of the early CPA, the Labor Party, reflecting the deepest interests of the bourgeoisie, was acutely conscious of the potential threat that it posed. As anti-capitalist and revolutionary sentiments increased among broad sections of the working class, the Labor leaders feared the break-up of their party unless they adopted a “socialist objective”. In June 1921 a national conference of trade union delegates, convened through the initiative of the federal executive of the Labor Party, resolved that “the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange be the objective of the Labor Party.” A federal ALP conference in October adopted the new objective, but then proceeded to bury it. So far as the Labor leadership was concerned, the purpose of the policy was not to overthrow capitalism but to prevent such an occurrence at all costs. In the words of Victorian delegate and future Labor prime minister James Scullin: “All over the world the capitalist system is breaking down. If something is not done, chaos will eventuate, bringing about that revolution by force which we are trying to avoid”. The conference resolved that the socialist objective should not be the platform on which the party actually fought, but would remain simply an “objective”. The racist 1905 objective would remain the fighting platform.[2]

56. For the first two years of its existence, the CPA was split between two rival factions, both seeking recognition from the Communist International. Following a resolution from the Comintern in 1921, which concluded that there were no differences in “program, principle or tactics” between the two groups and that they should unite, a united Communist Party was established. The CPA received recognition from the Communist International as its Australian section in August 1922.

57. In November 1922, the Fourth Congress of the Communist International addressed two questions of fundamental importance for the orientation of the CPA and its struggle in the Australian working class: the need to unify the workers of the Pacific region and to develop tactics that would expose the Labor Party and break class-conscious workers from it.

58. Addressing the tasks of the proletariat in the Pacific, a congress resolution pointed to growing inter-imperialist rivalries and the danger of a new world war, “this time in the Pacific, unless international revolution forestalls it.” This war, it warned, would be even more destructive than the war of 1914–1918. “In view of the coming danger,” the resolution continued, “the Communist Parties of the imperialist countries—America, Japan, Britain, Australia and Canada—must not merely issue propaganda against the war, but must do everything possible to eliminate the factors that disorganise the workers’ movement in their countries and make it easier for the capitalists to exploit national and racial antagonisms. These factors are the immigration question and the question of cheap coloured labour. Most of the coloured workers brought from China and India to work on the sugar plantations in the southern part of the Pacific are still recruited under the system of indentured labour. This fact has led to workers in the imperialist countries demanding the introduction of laws against immigration and coloured labour, both in America and Australia. These restrictive laws deepen the antagonism between coloured and white workers, which divides and weakens the unity of the workers’ movement. The Communist Parties of America, Canada and Australia must conduct a vigorous campaign against restrictive immigration laws and must explain to the proletarian masses in these countries that such laws, by inflaming racial hatred, will rebound on them in the long run. The capitalists are against restrictive laws in the interests of the free importation of cheap coloured labour and with it the lowering of the wages of white workers. The capitalists’ intention to take the offensive can be properly dealt with in only one way—the immigrant workers must join the ranks of the existing trade unions of white workers. Simultaneously, the demand must be raised that the coloured workers’ pay should be brought up to the same level as the white workers’ pay. Such a move on the part of the Communist Parties will expose the intentions of the capitalists and at the same time graphically demonstrate to the coloured workers that the international proletariat has no racial prejudice.” It was necessary, the resolution continued, for the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat to meet and work out the best organisational methods for “securing the real unification of the proletariat of all races in the Pacific.”[3]

59. Earlier, in June 1921, as the immediate post-war revolutionary upsurge receded, the Third Congress of the Communist International had advanced the tactic of the “united front”. In order to broaden their support and win workers to a revolutionary perspective, the Communist Parties would propose a joint struggle with the social democratic parties in defence of the working class. Lenin and Trotsky explained that the united front tactic was aimed at exposing the role of the social democratic leaders and advancing the struggle of the working class against them. The tactic was further developed at the Fourth Congress, to take account of the peculiar situation in Britain and Australia, where the Labour parties allowed other organisations to affiliate to them. A letter from the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) set out how, in those cases, the united front tactic could be employed: “The Australian Labour Party is even more outspokenly a trade union party than its British counterpart, with an equally petty-bourgeois, reformist set of leaders. Nevertheless, the masses in their bulk continue to cling to the Labour Party. Does this mean to say that if the working masses are to be won for Communism, we should work within this mass party? The Communist International answers the question in the affirmative. The joining of the Labour Party opens wide perspectives for the development of the Communist Party, and provides a possibility for Communist sympathisers in the Labour Party to find practical application for their revolutionary desires. It further gives the Communist Party the possibility to unmask the opportunist leaders of the Labour Party before the masses of their followers in the best and most direct way, demonstrating to the rank and file of the Labour Party, that such leaders will never fight for the serious demands of the proletariat. On the other hand the masses will at the same time have the opportunity to convince themselves that the Communist Party is not only the forward-driving element of the class struggle, but that it is also the only Party that takes a hand in all the fights of the masses, shares unreservedly all their sufferings and misery. Only in this manner will it be possible to win the confidence of the workers, to isolate the opportunist leaders and to separate them from the masses.” At the same time the letter emphasised: “The United Front is not a peace treaty. It is merely a manoeuvre in the proletarian struggle. It is not an end in itself, but a tool for the acceleration of the revolutionising process of the masses.”[4]

60. The Fourth Congress was the last at which there could be open discussion of the tasks confronting the Communist International and its sections. In October 1923 the defeat of the German revolution brought to a close the post-war revolutionary upsurge in Europe, and led to the immediate strengthening of conservative and nationalist tendencies, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, in the Soviet Union and in the CPSU. This was expressed in an attack launched by Stalin and his supporters on Trotsky and the Theory of Permanent Revolution, an attack that reflected the political outlook of a rising bureaucracy, politically hostile to the internationalism embodied in the October Revolution. Trotsky and his followers formed the Left Opposition to fight for inner-party democracy against the growing bureaucratisation of the CPSU and the state, and to change the policies being implemented under Stalin’s direction in the Soviet Union and the Comintern. Discussion within the Comintern became constricted; every issue was increasingly viewed from the standpoint of the struggle against “Trotskyism”.

61. For at least a year after the defeat of the German revolution, the Comintern maintained a false perspective on the situation there and internationally, insisting that revolutionary struggles lay ahead. In reality, the failure of the German revolution ushered in a period of relative capitalist stabilisation. But to acknowledge this would have meant thoroughly examining the role of the leadership of both the Comintern and the German Communist Party in 1923, especially during the crucial days of October. Instead, in 1924 the Stalinists launched a furious attack against Trotsky over his publication of Lessons of October, which critically reviewed the experiences of both the Russian Revolution and the German debacle.

62. The political degeneration within the Soviet Union was, in the final analysis, a product of the pressures exerted by world imperialism on the young workers’ state—above all, its isolation following the defeat in Germany and the failure of other revolutionary struggles in Europe. The impact of the growing Stalinist bureaucratic caste was disastrous for the Comintern and for the young communist parties around the world, including the CPA. They were now working without a correct understanding of the world situation. The struggle to train and educate a Marxist cadre was being stifled before it had barely got underway.

63. In Australia, the ALP responded to the shift in the international situation—the subsiding of the post-war upsurge—with a sharp turn to the right. Implementing the united front initiative, the CPA, under the leadership of Jock Garden, had secured affiliation to the NSW Labor Party at its 1923 state conference. Later that year, the CPA lost the support of a key union, and the right-wing Labor parliamentary leadership seized the opportunity to attack, ousting Communist Party members from the state executive. The ALP state conference of 1924 backed the parliamentary leadership and Communist Party members were purged from ALP branches. The CPA made no gains from the experience. This was because its leadership conceived affiliation, not as part of a campaign to educate the working class about the class nature of the Labor leadership, but as an organisational manoeuvre. The post-war political restabilisation led to a decline in membership, and communications with the Communist International became infrequent. No Australian delegate attended the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in 1924 and in 1925 the party’s stocks continued to decline. After it recorded a low vote in the 1925 NSW state election, the editor of the CPA’s theoretical journal proposed that the party be liquidated. In December 1926, its most prominent leader, Jock Garden, was expelled after refusing to deny a newspaper report that he was no longer a member. Garden went on to join the Labor Party, where he became the right-hand man of its right-wing leader, Jack Lang. At the end of 1926, six years after it has been founded, there were virtually no founding members still in the CPA.

64. In April 1926, the parlous state of the CPA was the subject of a discussion in the Communist International. A statement on the Australian situation pointed to some of the difficulties the party confronted. The Australian working class, the statement noted, was “almost completely cut off from the proletariat of other continents” and this isolation helped maintain the grip of the “petty-bourgeois-minded, craft-narrowed elements” who controlled the Labor Party. “The slogan of ‘White Australia’,” it continued, “serves as the rallying cry of all the reactionary elements in the labour movement who are steeped in nationalist ideology, and who seek to isolate themselves in aristocratic arrogance from the coloured workers and in general from foreign proletarians.” The Labor and National parties continually invoked White Australia in election campaigns, competing with each other to establish which party was its best defender. While the CPA formally opposed the racist policy, it was reluctant to make a clear differentiation. It denounced “the importation to Australia of large numbers of coloured workers” while adding the qualification that the threat to wages and employment from cheap labour was “colour blind”.[5]

65. The Sixth Congress of the Comintern took the campaign against “Trotskyism” to a new level, explicitly repudiating the internationalist perspective on which the Third International had been founded nine years before. The Stalinist doctrine of “socialism in one country”, first advanced in 1924, was now adopted as official policy. In February 1928, the ECCI announced the opening of a “Third Period.” The first was the crisis of capitalism between 1917 and 1923, the second was the temporary restabilisation that followed. Now a Third Period had begun, characterised by an ever-deepening crisis of capitalism and a continuous radicalisation of the masses. All the complex problems of tactics and strategy associated with winning the working class from the social democratic and labour parties were simply replaced with the shouting of radical-sounding slogans. The policy was to lead directly to the greatest defeat ever inflicted on the working class—the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany. In Australia, it led to the complete abandonment by the CPA of the struggle to break the working class from the Labor Party, under conditions of the deep-going economic and political crisis unleashed by the Great Depression.


Communist Party of Australia, ‘Manifesto to the Workers of Australia’, December 24, 1920, viewed February 15, 2010.


Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, Australian National University, Canberra, 1965, p. 224.


‘Theses on the Eastern Question’, Fourth Congress of the Communist International, December 5, 1922, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, London, 1980, pp. 417–418.


‘Letter from the ECCI to the CPA’, Our Unswerving LoyaltyA documentary survey of relations between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920–1940, David Lowell & Kevin Windle (eds), ANU E Press, Canberra, 2008, pp. 153–158.


‘The Australian Question’, Resolution of the ECCI, Our Unswerving Loyalty, op. cit., pp. 217–220.