How the Communist Party of Australia Built a Mass Movement

Though little discussed today, Australian communism was a movement that changed the lives of its members — and the course of national history.

Communist Party of Australia members marching on May Day, 1944, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. (Constance Healy / Wikimedia Commons)

“Communism was a political movement like no other.” This is the opening line of The Party, the second volume of the late Stuart Macintyre’s history of Australian communism, which picks up in the late 1930s, where volume one, The Reds left off.

Macintyre’s observation is a fact all too easily forgotten today. For much of the twentieth century, communism was a global movement, with branches in almost every nation, that sought to do away with the present state of things. It demanded and inspired unswerving loyalty from its members, who built a counterculture embracing almost every aspect of their lives. In this way, communist parties were unlike typical bourgeois parties, who extend politics only to elections and stakeholder management.

Indeed, for most leftists today, Macintyre’s account will come as a revelation. For example, Macintyre quotes Hall Alexander, an electrician, who joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the 1940s and remained a member until the bitter end. As Alexander explains, he joined

because it gave us a rationale for the madness that was. Because it changed us from headbutting incompetents to some kind of thinking strategists. Because it gave us self-esteem. Because it educated us in the knowledge that WE were better than them.

From Illegality to a Mass Movement

The idea that communism was a “transformational life experience,” Macintyre explains, is one “seldom captured in Australian studies of the subject.” In his account, earlier histories failed to capture communism’s distinctiveness and how “it charged the lives of its adherents with significance” by claiming “jurisdiction over every dimension of activity.” Perhaps this historical purpose might today seem foolhardy. However, to paraphrase the great British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, communism made sense to its supporters because of their own experience.

The Party begins at the CPA’s most difficult moment. In late 1939, the party was both illegal and struggling to sell implausible rationalizations for Joseph Stalin’s pact with Adolph Hitler. Following Hitler’s invasion of Russia, however, the USSR entered World War II, and the CPA turned sharply toward supporting the war effort. In a few years, the CPA would reach the zenith of its popularity and influence, in large part due to the USSR’s role in defeating European fascism. Reflecting the spirit of the times, a 1945 edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly featured Uncle Joe on its front cover, “painted in a plain military jacket, pipe in mouth, gazing resolutely into the future.”

Overnight, communists went from pariahs to patriots as a wave of Russophilia swept Australia. In 1941, supporters founded the Russian Medical Aid Committee, which sold popular hammer-and-sickle earrings to fund the war effort. On November 7 of the same year, public buildings all over Australia flew the Soviet flag to mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

During the fight against Nazism, the party grew to an estimated 22,000 members, which helped it secure influential positions in unions that were key to the war effort, including those covering miners, builders, waterside workers, and heavy industry. These “fortress unions” would remain under communist leadership for decades, providing most of the party’s membership.

As Macintyre explains, the CPA became “the leading war party.” This saw it campaign for production increases in the name of anti-fascism while curtailing strike action in industries where its members were concentrated. This earned the party substantial influence within the John Curtin and Ben Chifley Labor governments that many assumed would be ongoing. CPA bigwig Ernie Thornton even went so far as to call for the party to become a ginger group within the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

The party’s rush of new members allowed it to acquire new premises, including Marx House in Sydney and Australia-Soviet House on Flinders Street in Melbourne. By 1945, the total sales of CPA publications had hit three million. Hundreds of suburban branches prepared detailed plans to transform their local areas in the “people’s peace” that they expected soon after the war.

The Cold War

In August 1945, the CPA threw a party outside of Marx House in Sydney to celebrate the end of the war, fueled by “a supply of pure alcohol, brought by some young scientists from the University of Sydney, mixed with lemon squash.”

No one was prepared, however, for how quickly the tide would turn against the CPA as World War II gave way to the Cold War. Following the mid-1940s, in which communism was almost mainstream, party members soon found themselves the targets of an ideological war that often spilled over into violence and intimidation. Between 1945 and 1948, party membership halved from its wartime high point.

The catastrophic coal miners’ strike of 1949 marked the beginning of an anti-communist witch hunt. This was followed by Liberal PM Robert Menzies’s near-successful attempt to ban the CPA, in 1950–51. Although his referendum to proscribe the party failed, in part thanks to solidarity from the ALP and trade unions, Menzies’s campaign resulted in the victimization and harassment of communists. In one instance, several men accosted a young woman wearing a hammer-and-sickle lapel and threatened to throw her on the tracks. Cases like these only furthered a sense of isolation and victimhood among party members.

At the same time, Cold War persecution hardened the commitment of those cadres who stayed, unlike those “fair-weather comrades” who departed. In 1956, however, two historic events shook even the most loyal CPA stalwarts. These were Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech, in which he denounced Stalinism, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which followed only months later. Despite the risk of being labeled bourgeois revisionists, party members covertly circulated Khrushchev’s address amongst themselves, with many finding that it struck a chord with long-held, often suppressed doubts.

The fallout from 1956 reduced the party’s membership by a further estimated 25 percent. For those who remained, the goal of CPA membership shifted from changing Australia to changing the party itself. According to historian Pavel Kolar, the CPA compensated for dashed hopes for revolutionary transformation by becoming a “New Utopia.”

The difficulties encountered by the CPA should not dissuade readers of The Party from persevering, however. Macintyre also captures the distinct sense of humor that helped communists endure. For example, during the period of illegality, the police threatened one group found handing out leaflets emblazoned with “CPSU.” The communists, however, avoided prison by convincing police that “CPSU” stood for “Commonwealth Public Sector Union” and not “Communist Party of the Soviet Union.” In another instance from the 1950s, communists dodged restrictions on public speaking by hiring a boat and floating it off the Fremantle esplanade.

The CPA’s slow decline gave rise to introspection and two more splits. The first came in 1963, when a pro-China faction separated to found the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) [CPA(ML)]. This split was followed by another eight years later, when another group departed in protest at the party leadership’s moves toward “socialism with Australian characteristics” and their condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. These Stalinist hard-liners went on to form the Moscow-aligned Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

The CPA was also home to a fair number of members, including some of the most disciplined apparatchiks, who viewed these developments with a characteristically Australian irreverence. For example, when party official Claude Jones saw the Great Leap Forward firsthand, he noted his lack of enthusiasm for Mao Zedong’s plan “to put steel furnaces in everyone’s dunny.”

Macintyre’s willingness to give individual communists a “fair shake” is not limitless, however. For example, he reserves particular scorn for Ted Hill, a Melbourne barrister and head of the breakaway CPA(ML), whose humorless Stalinism was matched only by his conspiratorial worldview.

Making History

In retrospect, it is easy to dismiss Australian communism as a failure. However, as Macintyre knew better than most, history is not a zero-sum game. Communists made Australian history, even if not in the way they might have chosen, or as the party’s official doctrine envisaged.

The CPA’s work in the trade unions won substantial improvements, convincing workers that solidarity and militancy could improve their lot even under capitalism. The party’s auxiliaries and front organizations can also be credited with substantial wins. Zelda D’Aprano stood at the forefront of the fight for equal wages for women. Shirley Andrews was instrumental to founding the Council for Aboriginal Rights, the result of her decades’ long commitment to indigenous rights, a cause she took up on party assignment.

Frank Hardy, one of Australia’s most renowned literary authors, was perhaps also the CPA’s most famous member. His 1968 classic, The Unlucky Australians, told the story of the Gurindji strike in which Aboriginal stockmen walked off Wave Hill station demanding fair pay and land rights. Hardy’s book was crucial to helping the strikers tell their story, and it changed the way many Australians — including Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam — viewed the issue of Aboriginal land rights. Indeed, Whitlam is said to have burst into tears upon seeing Hardy’s body lying in state at his 1994 funeral.

As Stuart notes, after leaving the party, many ex-members also went on to make substantial contributions. Peter Cundall, for example, stood as the party’s Senate candidate for Tasmania in 1961 before later earning fame as the host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) much-loved program Gardening Australia.

Macintyre’s narrative in The Party ends in 1971, with the split that led to the formation of the SPA. Although organizationally depleted once again, the CPA was hardly out for the count. Unencumbered by dogmatic Stalinism or Maoism, the party’s communists set out on new, more independent path.

1971 is also the year that Macintyre himself joined the party as a student. Given his declining health — as well as his own personal involvement — he was unable to complete a full history of the CPA until its dissolution in 1991. This is a task that remains for leftist historians today, and it can only be strengthened by a spirit of fidelity to Macintyre’s approach to history. The Party treats communism not as a failure, but as a movement that charged the lives of its many thousands of adherents with purpose. And, at the same time, Macintyre’s shrewd and critical approach to history writing means that his last book contains a wealth of lessons that will help us find our own way toward a better world today.