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Communist Party of Australia

The Communist Party of Australia was founded in Sydney on 30 October 1920 by a group of socialists inspired by reports of the Russian Revolution. Among the party's founders were a prominent Sydney trade unionist, Jock Garden, and Adela Pankhurst, daughter of the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. In its early years, mainly through Garden's efforts, the party achieved some influence in the trade union movement in New South Wales, but by the mid 1920s it had dwindled to an insignificant sect.

In the later 1920s the party was rebuilt by Jack Kavanagh, a experienced Canadian Communist activist, and Esmonde Higgins, a talented Melbourne journalist who was the nephew of a High Court judge, H B Higgins. But in 1929 the party leadership fell into disfavour with the Comintern, which under orders from Stalin had taken a turn to extreme revolutionary rhetoric (the so-called "Third Period"), and an emissary, the American Communist Harry Wicks, was sent to sort the party out. Kavanagh was expelled and Higgins resigned.

A new party leadership, consisting of J B (Jack) Miles, Lance Sharkey and Richard Dixon, was imposed on the party by the Comintern, and remained in control for the next 30 years. During the 1930s the party experienced some growth, particularly after 1935 when the Comintern changed its policy in favour of a "united front against fascism." The party began to win positions in trade unions such as the Miners Federation and the Waterside Workers Federation, although its parliamentary candidates nearly always polled poorly at elections.

During the early stages of World War II the party was banned, but after the Soviet Union entered the war the party had a brief period of popularity. Its membership rose to 20,000, it won control of a number of important trade unions, and a Communist candidate, Fred Paterson, was elected to the Queensland parliament. But the party remained marginal to the Australian political mainstream. The Australian Labor Party remained the dominant party of the Australian working class, and always refused to enter alliances with the Communists.

After 1945 and the onset of the Cold War, the party entered a steady decline. On instructions from Moscow, the party lauched an industrial offensive in 1947, culminating in a prolonged strike in the coalmines in 1949. The Chifley Labor government saw this as a Communist challenge to its position in the labour movement, and used the army to break the strike. The Communist Party never again held such a strong position in the union movement.

In 1951 the Menzies conservative government tried to ban the party, but a referendum to alter the Constitution to permit this was narrowly defeated. When Stalin died and Khrushchev revealed his crimes in the Secret Speech, members began to leave. More left after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. In 1961 the split between the Soviet Union and China was mirrored in Australia, with a small pro-China party being formed.

By the 1960s the party's membership had fallen to around 5,000, but it continued to hold positions in a number of trade unions, and it was also influential in the various protest movements of the period, especially the movement against the Vietnam War. But the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 triggered another crisis. Sharkey's successor as party leader, Laurie Aarons, denounced the invasion, causing a group of pro-Soviet hardliners to leave and form a new party, the Socialist Party of Australia.

Through the 1970s and '80s the party continued to decline, despite adopting the rhetoric of Eurocommunism and democratising its internal structures so that it became a looser radical party rather than a classic Marxist-Leninist one. By 1990 its membership had declined to less than a thousand, and in 1991 it was wound up. The Socialist Party then changed its name to the Communist Party, and continues a shadowy existence, as do a number of ephemeral Trotskyist groups, but Communism in Australia is for practical purposes extinct.

Despite its usually peripheral role in Australian politics and its ultimate failure, the Communist Party had an influence far beyond its numbers. From 1935 to the 1960s it occupied leadership positions in a number of important trade unions, and was at centre of many major industrial conflicts. Many of its members played leading roles in Australian cultural life, such as the novelists Katharine Pritchard, Judah Waten and Alan Marshall, the painter Noel Counihan and the poet David Martin.

In some ways the negative influence of the Communist Party was more important then anything the party itself did. Conservative politicians such as Stanley Bruce in the 1920s and Robert Menzies in the 1950s won elections by linking the Labor Party with Communism. In the early 1950s Catholics in the Labor Party were led by hatred of Communism to form "Industrial Groups" to combat Communist influence in the unions. This led in 1954 to a party split and the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, which used its second preferences at elections to keep Labor out of power.

The Communist Party and its members campaigned for many years for causes such as improved conditions for industrial workers, opposition to fascist and other dictatorships, equal rights for women and civil rights for the Aboriginal people. It achieved some successes in these areas, many of its positions were later taken up by the political mainstream, although the party never succeeded in persuading many people that Communism was the answer to these problems. Against these achievements must be set the party's long history as an apologist for Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union. It was revulsion against this which led most of the party's best members to leave sooner or later.

See also: Communist Party

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