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

The origins of Trotskyism in Australia

82. The political struggle waged by Trotsky and the Left Opposition from 1923 against Stalinism began to reach an international audience after James P. Cannon, the American revolutionary, smuggled Trotsky’s critique of the Sixth Congress documents of the Comintern out of the Soviet Union and founded the Trotskyist movement, the Communist League of America (CLA), in the United States. This initiative was to play a decisive role in the development of the international Trotskyist movement. By 1932, the CLA’s newspaper, The Militant, was circulating in Australia, where it found its way into the hands of a layer of ex-CPA militants who had come into conflict with the party’s Stalinist leadership.

83. Trotsky’s critique provided a principled political foundation for the struggle against Stalinism. Significant opposition had emerged within the CPA to the bureaucratic, anti-democratic character of the party regime, but it remained at the level of national-based, organisational differences. Trotsky’s analysis clarified the political basis of the bureaucracy and its suppression of inner-party democracy, which lay in the theory of “socialism in one country”. Drawing out the implications for every section of the Communist International, Trotsky wrote: “The new doctrine proclaims that socialism can be built on the basis of a national state if only there is no intervention. From this there can and must follow (notwithstanding all pompous declarations in the draft program) a collaborationist policy towards the foreign bourgeoisie with the object of averting intervention, as this will guarantee the construction of socialism, that is to say, will solve the main historical question. The task of the parties in the Comintern assumes, therefore, an auxiliary character; their mission is to protect the USSR from intervention and not to fight for the conquest of power. It is, of course, not a question of the subjective intentions but of the objective logic of political thought.”[1] To fight the bureaucracy, Trotsky and the International Left Opposition insisted, it was necessary to oppose to its reactionary nationalist political program the perspective of world socialist revolution.

84. In January 1933, the victory of Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany confirmed Trotsky’s repeated warnings about the consequences of Stalin’s “Third Period” line. The German working class—the most powerful in the world—had suffered a catastrophic defeat without a single shot being fired. On April 1, 1933 the Comintern declared: “Having heard the report of Comrade Heckert on the situation in Germany, the presidium of the ECCI declares that the political line and organisational policy pursued by the CC of the Communist Party, led by Comrade Thaelmann, before and at the time of the Hitler coup was quite correct.”[2] Not one communist party in the world criticised either the Comintern or the policies that had led to the German disaster. This response proved that the Communist International was dead for the purposes of revolution.

85. In July 1933, Trotsky issued the call for the founding of the Fourth International: “The Moscow leadership has not only proclaimed as infallible the policy which guaranteed victory to Hitler, but has also prohibited all discussion of what had occurred. And this shameful interdiction was not violated, nor overthrown. No national congresses; no international congresses; no discussions at party meetings; no discussion in the press! An organisation which was not roused by the thunder of fascism and which submits docilely to such outrageous acts of bureaucracy demonstrates thereby that it is dead and that nothing can ever revive it.”[3]

86. Laying the necessary political and theoretical groundwork for the new International was a difficult and protracted process. For five years, from 1933 until its founding in September 1938, Trotsky led a patient but determined political struggle to differentiate the program and perspective of proletarian internationalism from the outlook of various centrist political tendencies which, while claiming agreement with Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalinism, opposed the founding of a new International and sought a middle ground between reformist and revolutionary politics. The centrists’ opposition to the formation of the Fourth International flowed from their rejection of Trotsky’s analysis of the counter-revolutionary role of the Stalinist regime and its affiliated Communist Parties, and their fundamentally nationalist orientation.

87. In response to both the cataclysmic events in Germany and the analysis of the International Left Opposition, the Workers Party was founded in Australia in May 1933. Its founding document declared: “The crushing of the German working class organisations under the heel of Fascism, brought about by the criminal failure of the Communist International to give a decisive lead to the German Party…add[s] further proof to the contention that the teachings of Lenin have been distorted by the present Stalinist bureaucracy into a utopian theory of establishing Socialism in one country, with a consequent sacrifice of international revolutionary struggle.”[4]

88. In December 1933 the Workers Party’s monthly journal, The Militant, supported Trotsky’s call for the founding of a new International. Under the headline “To the Fourth International”, it explained that “the decision to form a new party in Australia, although considered premature in some working class circles, has received ample endorsement in view of the events of world importance now taking place in the international revolutionary movement. Following on the German debacle and the emphatic refusal of the Stalinist bureaucracy to correct the mistakes developed by them in the European arena, or even to admit those mistakes, the various sections of the International Left Opposition have come to a definite decision regarding the whole situation … the Left Opposition has taken the decisive step of calling for the building of a new party and a new International.”[5]

89. The Moscow Trials, which began in August 1936 and continued to March 1938, were the most public expression of a wave of counter-revolutionary violence organised by the Stalinist bureaucracy, resulting in the deaths of almost one million people. Hundreds of thousands of Marxists, socialists and intellectuals—the highest representatives of an intellectual and political culture stretching back decades—were murdered, dealing the Soviet and international working class a blow of incalculable proportions. At the three public trials virtually all the leaders of the October Revolution were forced to denounce themselves as “counter-revolutionaries.” Throughout the bloody purges, the CPA regurgitated all the lies and slander emanating from Moscow. Despite its lack of resources, the Workers Party launched a campaign against the Moscow Trials, organising public meetings in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle, and exposing the frame-up through the circulation of The Militant and other printed material.

90. While the Workers Party courageously fought the ongoing and violent attacks of the Stalinists and the state, it was plagued with unclarified political problems and internal feuds, stemming largely from its isolation and the difficulty of overcoming the powerful pressures of the national milieu. While it published and distributed several works by Trotsky, along with The Militant and regular leaflets, it tended, like the early CPA, to overemphasise national economic struggles at the expense of political and theoretical clarity, and to underestimate the political importance of a thorough review and assimilation of the lessons of the strategic experiences of the international working class during the preceding years. Only on such a basis could the struggle for socialist internationalism in the Australian working class be developed.

91. In 1937, the Workers Party carried out an important intervention into the October federal election, seeking to define the attitude that class conscious workers should take to the Labor Party. By now the CPA, in line with the decisions of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935, had abandoned its “social fascist” line and, in yet another 180-degree about-turn, was now seeking to forge an alliance with the Labor Party and so-called “progressive” sections of the capitalist class. In the name of establishing a “united front” against the threat of fascism, the Stalinist Popular Front was aimed at defending the bourgeois state against social revolution by tying the working class to social democracy and through it, to the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, CPA secretary, J.B. Miles declared that it would be a “gross error” to claim that Labor governments had always betrayed the workers. In reply, the Workers Party election manifesto insisted: “[T]he struggle to expose the fallacy and treachery of ALP policy must begin again. … The task of revolutionists is to point out and drive home the lessons of this experience. This consists in an uncompromising struggle against the Australian Labor Party and Stalinist reformism in every field, and above all, in the trade unions. We must unmask their pseudo-leftism, their passive resistance strike policy, their class collaboration, counterposing the methods of Leninism of the revolutionary class struggle. … [W]e urge all genuine militants who recognise the futility of parliamentary reformism to join us in staying with the workers to the extent of voting Labor at this election. Such a vote by a worker who sees the truth of our contentions in this manifesto is in no way an endorsement of ALP policy, but is a tactic by which sincere revolutionists can ensure a bigger possibility for getting a hearing from the workers.”[6]


The Third International after Lenin, New Park, London, 1974, p. 47.


The Communist International-Documents, vol. III, 1929–1943, Jane Degras (ed.), Routledge, 1971, p. 257.


‘It is Necessary to Build Communist Parties and an International Anew’, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Penguin, Hammondsworth, 1971, p. 431.


Workers Party policy statement, http://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/pdf/d0070.pdf, viewed February 15, 2010.


'To the Fourth International', The Militant, no. 3, December 1, 1933, pp. 1–2.


'Workers Party Election Manifesto', The Militant, vol.4, no.11, Sydney, October 18, 1937, pp. 1–2.