100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Australia

Updated 3/11/2020

One hundred years ago, on 30 October 1920, a small number of members of existing Australian socialist groups met in Sydney to form the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) (known as the Australian Communist Party between 1944 and 1951).[1] Enthusiasm for the ideals of the Russian revolution prompted the attempt to unify these groups—although it appears that, at this early stage, they were not well informed about the concrete doctrines of Leninism. Disputes immediately arose within the newly formed CPA, leading to the existence of two communist parties until a further ‘unity conference’ in mid-1922 led to a reunification.[2] The CPA was then recognised by and granted affiliation with the Communist International (Comintern), an association of national communist parties based in Moscow, in August 1922. The following statement of the objectives of the CPA was included in an early version of its constitution:

The Communist Party of Australia is the organization of the vanguard of the class-conscious workers. Its purpose is the education and organization of the workers for the overthrow of the capitalist state, establishment of Dictatorship of the Proletariat, abolition of the capitalist system and the development of a Communist society.

The CPA initially sought affiliation with the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and was briefly successful in achieving this in New South Wales. However, in October 1923 the New South Wales ALP reversed its decision to allow affiliation with the CPA, and in October 1924 the federal ALP conference also opposed affiliation with the CPA, declaring ‘ineligible for membership avowed communists’.[3] Following this formal break with the ALP, the CPA sought to establish itself within the union movement, particularly the mining and waterfront unions, and its strength eventually lay there, rather than in parliamentary politics. Fred Paterson was the only CPA member to serve in an Australian parliament. He was twice elected by the Queensland state electorate of Bowen, and served in the Queensland Legislative Assembly from 1944 to 1950.

The CPA’s close alignment with Russian policy positions, via the Comintern, was demonstrated by its rapid changes in position on the Second World War. The CPA initially supported the British and Australian war effort, in line with its existing anti-fascist position, then opposed the war during the operation of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, and then supported the war effort again following Germany’s invasion of Russia. Nevertheless, the CPA’s membership reached its high point during the Second World War at approximately 20,000 members. While this figure had declined by the end of the war, the CPA remained sufficiently influential in the union movement to lead a campaign of industrial action between 1947 and 1949. This campaign ended when the Chifley government broke a seven-week coal strike in June-August 1949 by passing the National Emergency (Coal Strike) Act 1949, which prohibited unions from financially assisting strikers, and by calling in troops to mine coal.

The CPA’s revolutionary objectives and alignment with Russian policy led successive governments to attempt to suppress the party or individual communists using various means, including deportation, prosecutions for sedition, and legislative change. On a number of occasions, these attempts were defeated following appeals to the High Court.

The Menzies Government moved to dissolve the CPA on 15 June 1940 under the National Security (Subversive Associations) Regulations 1940, and had three weeks earlier banned nine communist publications. However, the CPA had anticipated the ban and party activities did not seem to be greatly disrupted, with meetings continuing under other guises, communists retaining union offices, and CPA members standing as independents or socialists in the 1940 elections. Dr H. V. Evatt, Attorney-General in the subsequent Curtin-led ALP Government (and former High Court Justice), lifted the ban on publications and the party on 18 December 1942 on the condition that the CPA support the war effort.

Menzies returned to government at the December 1949 election having promised to ban the CPA. He secured the enactment of the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 on 20 October 1950. In summary, the Act declared the CPA an ‘unlawful association’ and provided for its dissolution and the appointment of a receiver to deal with its property. It also empowered the government to, in certain circumstances, declare unlawful other bodies affiliated with the CPA and to declare persons to be communists, making them ineligible to be employed by the Commonwealth (including in the Defence Force) or to hold office in certain unions. The validity of the Act was immediately and successfully challenged by several unions in the High Court, with Dr Evatt, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition, appearing for the Waterside Workers Federation. Menzies then put a proposal to amend the Constitution to grant Parliament the power to ban the CPA to a referendum on 22 September 1951. The proposal was narrowly defeated.

The CPA’s membership declined in subsequent decades, such that it had only around 5,000 members by the early 1960s. The CPA suffered a split in 1964 following the breakdown in relations between Russia and China over doctrinal matters, leading to the formation of the pro-China Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). By 1990, CPA membership had fallen below 1,000 and the party was finally dissolved in 1991, with the final edition of its newspaper, the Tribune, published in April 1991.

[1] A Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1969, pp. 98, 112.
[2] Ibid., p. 10.
[3] Ibid., p. 30.


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