Frank Farrell
International Socialism and Australian Labour: The Left in Australia 1919-1939
Hale & Iremonger, 284pp., 1981.

Reviewed in Bowyang, number 6, 1981, pp. 41-43.

“No movement”, wrote Engels in 1887, “No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect. At such times, everything turns to sandalmongering”. Frank Farrell’s study of the Left in Australia between the wars shows how the Communist Party of Australia moved from the status of a sect to become, in the 1930s, “the only remaining significant internationalist influence in the labour movement”. The processes by which that change took place have been discussed in earlier books, but never before with Farrell’s quantity of primary research or with as much appreciation of the difficulties overcome by the participants. There is no doubt that Farrell has made a significant advance over previous commentators such as Alastair Davidson (1969) and Robin Gollan (1975). It is this advance which allows us to see that the whole truth lies beyond Farrell’s version which, for all its scholarship and subtlety, repeats the longstanding academic view that the crucial years from 1928 to 1933 were marked by a strategic mistake and by countless errors and crimes. Here is Farrell’s temperate conclusion:

For, adding to the problems of depression politics, were the Comintern’s third period policies which divided the labour left and made unity and concerted socialist initiatives impossible. In this process, the mainstream left lost the sense of purpose and working-class unity that it had attempted to sustain in the difficult years of the 1920s. The CPA fought with all means at its disposal to assert itself as the only voice of militancy and class-conscious internationalism in opposition to all other segments of labour. In so doing, it framed fighting policies which the unemployed could follow, and which the official union tended to overlook; but, at the same time, it succeeded not in moving the mass of workers forward, but only in hindering the wider growth of radicalism within the organised labour movement.

What one thinks of these policies will depend in part on what role one sees for a Communist Party.

In July 1928, the Sixth Conference of the Communist International rightly predicted a major economic collapse for capitalism and argued that this depression would provoke renewed revolutionary action, the third such period since 1917. Communists were ordered to ready themselves for this upsurge by distinguishing themselves from their erstwhile allies in other working-class organisations whose leaders, the Comintern said, would become openly counter-revolutionary. Hence, these alternative leaders were to be designated as “social fascists” – socialist in name but fascist in their actions. Communists had to build their own mass organisations by creating a united front from below.

The first thing that needs to be said about this policy is that it was not forced on unwilling local comrades. Plenty of communists here had learned from experience that ALP pollies could be as vicious as any outwardly capitalist politician. So the Comintern line was welcomed for Victoria and Queensland, but the then national leadership of Jack Cavanagh and Jack Ryan maintained an “exceptional” stance towards New South Wales where the Party continued to work through and around the Trades Hall Reds led by Jock Garden. In Farrell’s most significant discovery, he shows that Cavanagh’s “divergence” was tacitly endorsed by the Moscow-based Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern). Indeed, when the CPA expelled Jack Ryan in 1930, Moscow re-instated him.

Farell approves of the Communists when they continue the work of the Victorian Socialist Party and act as a ginger group upon the ALP – more or less like a far-left Fabian Society. Thus, he favours the attempts by Jock Garden and the Sydney Trades Hall Reds to influence Union officials and, through these contacts, the political labour movement, especially the ALP. One area of Communist success at this deep ideological influence was the painfully slow wearing down of the “White Australia” policy within the Labour movement. But Farrell’s position is awry if the Communists’ aim was to establish a distinct party of their own, one capable of leading a proletarian revolution.

To pose the choice in terms of reform or revolution is to risk playing with abstractions. The question needs to be placed in the precise historical context for a practical answer to be attempted. Farrell fails to provide this environment, first, because he underplays some issues to the point of omitting them and, secondly, because he has arranged his material in a narrative rather than in a thematic way. Drawing heavily upon the material that Farrell provides, this review now raises some of the issues by-passed in Farrell’s method.

To appreciate the impact of the “Third Period” it is essential to recognise that the Communist Party existed in name rather than in fact before the 1930s. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the Communist Party was founded in 1928-81 rather than in 1920-22. The organisation formed in the early 1920s either withered or, if it survived, it was a localised outgrowth from the mainstream labour movement. Guido Barrachi’s 1926 motion for liquidation of the CPA was a statement of fact as much as it was a proposal for the future: the CPA did not exist as a Leninist organisation. The IWW survived as the main extra-parliamentary opposition to the ALP, and the CPA’s membership in the late 1920s was an ill-disciplined few hundred. They were fewer without being better. The parallels with 1981 could hardly be clearer.

The next matter that needs consideration is whether or not the ALP leaders were in fact “socials fascists”. The evidence that Farrell provides demonstrates beyond doubt that many of them were social fascists, though he never asks this question. He quotes Chifley attacking the agitation to save the U S anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti; there were ceaseless ALP bans on united front actions; there was the wage-cutting treachery of the Federal government, whose leader, Scullin, was saved from ratting only by the fact a cabal of Melbourne businessmen bought his caucus colleague, Joe Lyons, and installed him as leader of the next-non-Labor party. If further proof were needed, Farrell reprints a January 1929 cartoon from The Worker, the journal of the AWU, which dominated the ALP. The cartoon pictured the CPA above the caption: “Here’s a stick mate. Use it good and solid every time he raises his head”. If that is not the voice of fascist violence, what is?

In the mid-1930s, the ALP was divided between the supporters of Franco and Mussolini on the one hand, and those who kept quiet, or even opposed Collective Security so as not to antagonise their fraternal pro-fascists in the ALP. In addition, there is the matter of the ALP’s outright corruption as leader after leader was caught with his hand in the public till, in ballot boxes, or in John Wren’s pocket. Farrell does not pay enough attention to this corruption as a factor encouraging the CPA to treat the ALP leaders as “social fascist”. For these reasons, Farrell is misleading when he criticises “the policy of ‘social fascism” (as) … a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

On the experience of building the “united front from below”, Farrell does not investigate at this ground level and so cannot tell us very much. He reports conferences but does not follow through rank-and-file activities. A more complex situation emerges from Nadia Wheatley’s M.A. thesis on the resistance shown by the unemployed. Farrell is right about the Third-Period CPA when he sees it as a party of the jobless. He should have underlined this fact and spelt out its significance for the sometimes reckless militancy within the CPA at a time when to be employed could be seen as a form of scabbing. Farrell acknowledges the existence of violence within the Labor movement and sees it as an inevitable consequence of the conditions of life. Unlike some current Left historians, Farrell does not suppose that working-class discourse apes the tearooms at Cambridge.

The internal life of the CPA is not followed through in Farrell’s study which needs to be supplemented by the wealth of information in Peter’s Morrison’s Ph.D. thesis (Adelaide) on the CPA between the wars. What Farrell can tell us is well worth knowing. Despite his criticism of the Third Period he accepts that:

By May 1931 (the CPA) had reached perhaps 12000, the highest figure for a decade, and party members continued to grow to a boasted 2329 later the same year.

To sum up this consideration of Farrell’s account of the Third Period: his conclusions are unsatisfactory because they fail to marshall a number of issues such as the true nature of the ALP leadership; the internal workings of the CPA; and the activities of the CPA in united fronts from below. Until all these factors are assembled, the basis for a judgement of the Third Period will not exist.

Nonetheless, certain consequences of those five years are clear. The CPA emerged thoroughly revitalised and organised as a disciplined fighting body along Leninist lines from April 1931. Farrell argues that this new era was centralised and undemocratic:

Democratic centralism was made to work by controls and restrictions on party links at the lower level. Cells were instructed not to communicate, thus facilitating almost total control by the CPA bureaucracy. Party control was even more closely centralised by the election through the Political Bureau of a mini-secretariat in charge of communications between the Central Committee and the ECCI. By being place in key positions in the Moscow-linked Secretariat, the Political Bureau, and the Central Control Commission, the new leaders of the CPA were secure and impossible to remove so long as they stayed friendly with Moscow. Opposition could be easily isolated and dealt with by the leadership at any level. So long as the Secretariat correctly interpreted whatever was the current Moscow line it was immune from change.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of parties will know that these evil practices did take place and that they are still present albeit under new guises – often behind the mask of ultra-democracy by which no decisions are taken so that the self-perpetuating leadership can make all the decisions. When Farrell descries the 1930s scene at the leadership level as “grubby”, the 1981 reader has more than enough reason to fear that nothing has change. If intra-party disputes in Australia have not resulted in physical liquidations of opponents, the only reason for this reserve is that the Party has lacked the state power to get away with judicial murder. In its justifiable efforts to guard against spies and agent provocateurs, the Communist parties here have been tempted towards what another writer has labelled the “police conception of history”. The problem remains one of distinguishing security from secretiveness and discipline from dictatorship.

In the fifty years since the Communist Party was Leninised, its leaders have proven themselves capable of both planning victories in new situations and of turning instant somersaults whenever the leadership of the “socialist motherlands” overseas changed its line. It would be dangerous to discuss the one without admitting the other. Historians can more easily criticise party leaders than Communist can carry out their daily tasks, with the result that the successes that have been won are too readily forgotten by writers who want to demonstrate their own purity by labelling as “Stalinist” everything that went wrong. Trotskyism today is a sociological manifestation, not a political movement, and is drawn from the intelligentsia who want to bathe in the glory of all the good things that have been done in the name of socialism but who angrily refuse to accept any responsibility for the mistakes and crimes. This Trotskyite division of labour is politically terrifying because it places all blame outside one’s own ranks and thus leaves the way open for a repeat of the same excess. If such disasters are to be minimised, Australian revolutionaries have to begin by accepting Stalinism as part of our inheritance instead of using Stalin as a devil theory with which to get rid of all they things they dislike.

Elsewhere in this issue the matter of Wilfred Burchett is raised. Like lots of leading Australian Leftists, Burchett became radicalised during the anti-fascist period and for the next thirty years he supported progressive nationalist causes throughout the world, displaying creativity and courage far beyond the ordinary. Now he is an apologist for Soviet imperialism. While remembering his positive past and exposing his current position, it is also necessary to ask “Why did he go wrong?” It is a question which needs to be asked about leaders in many political organisations. Past good work cannot hide current errors, though old ways of work can help to explain why leaders fall behind the new circumstances to become content with stock phrases whereas they for so long had thundered with the appreciation of new things.

As the movement for Australian independence faces the 1980s, it again needs to deal with many of the problems that arose in the 1930s. Does it go for parliamentary and trade union action, or for mass organisation? Are we on the slide into yet another major depression and world war? No political work is purposeful unless such issues are decided. And those decisions still require taking up an attitude towards the Communist Party. Despite its many and often serious weaknesses, Farrell’s book can help us to make these decisions. It is not a matter of being wise after the event and thereby misapplying lessons from the past to a transformed present. What has to be done is to recognise the living survivals of those past practices in today’s Left. There is no point in recognising that in the past the CPA came to be seen as Soviet agency if we do not use that knowledge to ask why the CPA (M-L) got itself into the same predicament over China.

The one over-riding lesson that Bowyang draws from all these experiences is that Australian revolutionaries owe our allegiance to our own people and not to Russia, China or El Salvador. The fight for national independence must include a battle against the colonised mentalities that encourage the Left to live off other people’s revolutions. To contribute to internationalism is to secure the Australian nation against all foreign takeovers, ideological as well as economic.