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How Stalinism was consolidated in the CPA

By John Percy, 18 October 1995

[John Percy is the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party (Australia)]

Ten years after the Russian Revolution that was the inspiration for the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, much had changed in the Soviet Union. Bureaucratism was rampant, Lenin was dead, and Stalin was rapidly pushing aside many of the old Bolshevik leaders. The first workers state had survived, but at a cost. 

The degeneration of the revolution and the Communist Party and the rise of Stalinism have been well documented and analysed, especially by Trotsky and writers from the Trotskyist tradition such as Isaac Deutscher. These events had a direct impact on the CPA. 

Stalinism does not arise from Leninism or democratic centralism or revolution. It was the product of a social process rooted in the international defeat of the working class, in Germany especially, and the isolation of the first workers state. The inherited backwardness and scarcity, the devastation from years of civil war and imperialist intervention, were the basis on which the bureaucracy flourished and workers' rights and democracy were snuffed out. 

The bureaucracy in the Soviet Union had a contradictory character. On the one hand, it was forced to defend the workers state, on which its privileges depended. On the other, it wanted stability, not further revolutionary struggles  -  "socialism in one country". Thus Stalinism was fundamentally a conservative, right-wing current. 

In the factional struggles in the mid-1920s, Bukharin and Stalin were allied against the Left Opposition, which included Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. Bukharin and Stalin were for tolerating the growth of capitalist agriculture. The Left Opposition favoured a balanced policy of industrialisation, a planned economy and steep taxation on the kulaks, the wealthy peasants, to finance the state sector. 

The opposition was hounded and smashed. The Stalin faction not only silenced any questioning or dissident voices within the party, but also began to suppress them physically. Meetings were broken up, party members beaten and imprisoned. Trotsky was expelled from the CPSU at the 15th Congress in December 1927, exiled to Alma Ata in central Asia in 1928 and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929. 

Trotsky raised devastating criticisms of Stalin's international line  -  on Comintern policy in China 1925-27, leading directly to terrible massacres by the Kuomintang; on policy during the British general strike of 1926; on the causes of the defeat of the 1923 German revolution. But his warnings were heard by only a few. 

In 1928 the kulaks began to resist the Soviet government by withholding grain. Stalin, panic-stricken, lurched wildly to the left. He declared war on the kulaks and appropriated many of the superficial features of the program of the Left Opposition. The Soviet government announced the first five year plan in 1928. 

The breakneck speed of Stalin's forced collectivisation devastated Russian agriculture. The brutal repression against opposition voices escalated. Millions of peasants were killed, directly or through starvation. It led in the 1930s to the purges, murders, frame-up trials, the destruction of nearly all of Lenin's Central Committee and most of the old Bolsheviks, the forced deportation of whole nationalities. 

Stalin's left turn was proclaimed by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) in February 1928 and presented to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in July-September 1928. He outlined a schema of " three periods": the first, from 1917 to 1923, was a time of sharp revolutionary crises; a second, from 1924 to 1928, was a period of capitalist stability; and a Third Period, supposedly now opening, in which the general crisis of capitalism would lead directly and inevitably to revolution. 

The "Third Period" line developed into a sharp and prolonged turn in the whole policy of the Comintern. 

Stalin's line now characterised the social democrats as "social fascists", the main prop of capitalism, rejecting any united front with them as a way to halt the advance of the fascists. The main fire was even to be directed against the left "social fascists". This disastrous policy paved the way for Hitler's triumph in Germany.. 

Comintern intervenes

Following Stalin's takeover of the Soviet party, subservient Communist parties were needed around the world. In many cases this required the ousting of the original leaderships, often leaders with long experience in the revolutionary movement. 

In some countries those ousted were unable to shift from the former rightist line. But the CPA leadership in the latter part of the 1920s under Jack Kavanagh as president and Tom Wright as secretary was already pursuing a left line of building a party independent of the ALP. They branded the Labor leaders class enemies, in open coalition with the capitalist class, and advocated a more openly and actively hostile attitude to them. 

The leadership of Lance Sharkey, J.B. Miles and Herbert Moxon, installed at the December 1929 CPA conference, subsequently manufactured their own myths about the takeover. Their official histories branded Kavanagh and the majority of the Central Committee a "right opportunist" trend, guilty of "departing from Marxism-Leninism" and "glossing over the role of reformism". 

There were certainly differences on tactics, as well as factional battles and personality clashes, involved in the change of leadership. But the main driving force was the desire of Stalin for a submissive leadership in all Communist parties. With the coming to power of the Sharkey-Miles leadership, the CPA became a Stalinist party, pliant and obedient to Moscow. 

The overturn was closely directed from Moscow. Former CPA member Barbara Curthoys obtained access to the Comintern archives in Moscow after they were opened in 1989 and published the results of her research on this changeover in an article in Labour History 64, May 1993. 

The resolutions, conference minutes and actions of the CPA leadership in the three years before the December 1929 conference provide little evidence for the "right deviationist" charge. (Ironically, Sharkey himself, and Jack Ryan, Norman Jeffery and Esmonde Higgins [editor of the Workers Weekly] had been removed from the Central Executive Committee [CEC] as " rightists" at the December 1927 conference.) 

The new leaders portrayed the Queensland resolution as a key document in their struggle against Kavanagh. It set out a hard line against the ALP and a perspective of standing CPA candidates in the state elections. But it was initially formulated by Kavanagh, before being discussed in Moscow with the ECCI in April 1928. The CPA leadership in September noted to the ECCI that the "time had come to emerge from the propaganda stage". 

Higgins had attended the Comintern congress and reported back at the December 1928 CPA conference. Curthoys writes that he "was the main speaker for a resolution entitled `The Struggle Against Labor Party Reformism' which said that the ALP was increasingly identifying itself with the openly reactionary aims of the employers and that as the CPA was the only party of Australia `coming out as an independent revolutionary force we must energetically endeavour to capture the leadership of the Australian workers from the reformists.' In elections the call was no longer `Vote Labor' but `vote for the Revolutionary Workers' candidates' ( CPA or left-wing candidates). 

"... left-wing ALP candidates were still included. Supporting the resolution, Wright added `that if left-wing organisations do come into existence, we ourselves shall be on good terms with them' and `we must be careful not to isolate ourselves from them by ill-considered attacks'." 

Curthoys comments that although there were still differences as to whether the Queensland resolution should apply generally, a degree of unity was achieved in that Sharkey, Ryan, Higgins and Jeffery were elected once more to a 10-member CEC. 

In the Queensland elections in May 1929, the five CPA-supported candidates polled a lot better than in the 1925 NSW state election. Ted Tripp, a well- known militant in the Australian Railways Union, later a Trotskyist and secretary of the Victorian Labour College, received 1137 votes as a Communist candidate against 4995 for the ALP. Fred Paterson, elected in 1944 as the only CPA member of parliament, standing as a left-wing candidate, received 1418 against the ALP's 3518. 

Differences on the attitude to the ALP came to a head on in September 1929, over the federal elections called for October 12. Curthoys writes that the CEC "decided to support the Labor Party to oust Bruce [National Party prime minister], while promoting an independent Party policy. The CEC policy was at first agreed to by Sharkey, an executive member, who had disagreed with Moxon's view that if there were no Communist candidates the electors should be asked to vote `informal', but almost immediately Sharkey withdrew his support for the resolution. With Moxon he sent a cable to the Anglo-American Bureau, ECCI on 18 September criticising the CEC decision." 

Cables went back and forth between Sydney and Moscow. The Comintern sent an Open Letter, written on October 13, critical of the December 1928 conference, strongly asserting the social fascist, Third Period line, and critical of the leadership and backing Sharkey. 

The Scullin Labor government was elected on October 12. A few weeks later Wall Street crashed. The lockout of miners on the northern NSW coalfields continued, and on December 16 a miner was killed and others wounded by police attacks at Rothbury. 

Throughout this period the debate raged within the party and with Moscow. The different positions were presented in the Workers Weekly and debated. 

A final cable arrived from the ECCI just before the December 1929 conference, to be read out at the conference, denouncing the "opportunist attitude" of the present policy and supporting the opposition. 

Kavanagh, chairing the conference, reiterated his own position that "the central task of the party is to assert its claim to independent leadership of the working class against capitalism and its reformist allies". But conference fell in behind the ECCI and Sharkey. All those on the old CEC who had supported Kavanagh were voted out of office. 

Curthoys concludes that "in examining the material from the Comintern Archives together with evidence from Australian sources it is apparent that ... the Comintern had been the deciding factor in defeating the former leadership". 

But it was not just because the Comintern supported the political perspective put forward by the Sharkey-Miles faction challenging the leadership. It was because this faction showed every indication of being blindly obedient to Moscow, whatever the line. Curthoys points out that " One of the first acts of the new leadership was to cable the ECCI on 30 December 1929, `offering unswerving loyalty to the new line'." 

Stalin needed obedient CP leaderships around the world, not necessarily left leaderships, and certainly not leaderships that were independent thinkers with their own base of support. 

A Comintern representative, Harry Wicks, a former CPUSA official, arrived in Australia in April 1930 to ensure the implementation of the Third Period line. He was known in Australia as Herbert Moore. 

Kavanagh still had support in the ranks. Even after his removal from the Central Committee, he and his supporters were re-elected to the leadership bodies in Sydney and NSW. Ryan was expelled on dubious charges. Kavanagh was sent off to Adelaide. But he developed popular support there, so had to be brought back to Sydney and expelled in 1931. Soon after, Higgins, his sole supporter on the CC, was removed from office. 

Then Wicks had Moxon removed from his position as party secretary, replacing him with J.B. Miles. Wicks sent several members of the Sharkey- Miles group to Moscow for training at the Lenin School, including Richard Dixon and Jack Blake. 

The new leadership replaced democratic centralism with leadership methods modelled on those of the Soviet bureaucracy. It replaced discussion and education and persuasion with commands. The party secretariat was the top body, through which the Comintern exercised control. 

A "bolshevisation" campaign replaced branches with a cell structure. It emphasised the duties of members, rather than rights of discussion, unquestioning submission to the apparatus and orders from the top rather than collective decision-making. Dissent was outlawed, a contrast to the lively discussions in the party up to then, and even public debates between Kavanagh and his critics in the party press in 1929. 

As Edna Ryan put it in a letter written in 1980, in the 1920s "it didn't occur to us at the time that we were enjoying liberty of thought and expression, but there was no hushing and stifling, no fear of being accused if one proposed a tactic or an idea". 

Nearly all the founders of the CPA and the early leaders, who had had experience in the class struggles of the period before 1920, were pushed aside or had dropped out by the end of the '20s. 

Sectarian mistakes

Events were already pushing the CPA to the left even before the change of line and leadership imposed by Moscow. Depression was on the horizon, and strikes on the rise. 

Three major industrial disputes took place in 1928-29 as workers resisted attacks on their conditions, rights and wages: in the coal mines, on the waterfront and in the timber industry. The traditional union leaders proved incapable of defending members' conditions. 

The Wall Street crash of October 1929 threw millions out of work. At the height of the crisis, one in three workers in Australia were unemployed. People were looking for radical solutions. 

Labor governments were initially called on to manage capitalism at the onset of the depression. The Scullin ALP federal government was totally ill equipped to deal with the crisis. It had no inclination to implement radical or socialist solutions, so ended up with measures no different from the conservatives'  -  austerity and wage cuts. 

All Labor governments were totally discredited, with the exception of that of Jack Lang in NSW. Lang's first government in 1925-27 had introduced extensive reforms and social service measures. He was elected premier of NSW again in October 1930. Many of the former CPA members who left in the mid-'20s were now with Lang. He was a demagogue, strong on radical rhetoric, but had mass working-class support. 

In August 1930 Sir Otto Niemeyer, head of the Bank of England, visited Australia on behalf of the British banks to advise the governments. The result was the "Premiers' Plan", austerity measures to make workers pay the costs of capitalism's failure. Governments were to cut expenditure, balance their budgets and reduce the standard of living of workers. 

Lang at first supported the plan. Then in February 1931 he introduced his own "Lang Plan", which involved the suspension of interest payments to the London bankers for three years. 

His protests against the Premiers Plan won him a huge following. In 1932, when Lang attempted to prevent garnishee orders on state funds being implemented after he refused to pay state debts, NSW Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed him from office. Workers were incensed. A huge demonstration in Moore Park  -  estimates in the press varied from 100,000 to 250,000  -  demanded a militant response. 

The CPA stood aside, persisting in its sectarian attack on Lang as a " social fascist". It maintained that Lang's actions and his dismissal were of "no concern" to workers. 

This was a terrible political mistake. It was not necessarily a mistake being outside the ALP. The CPA built itself among the unemployed with its independent stance. But it was a mistake not making a tactical orientation to Lang as soon as he defied the British banks. 

Of course he was going to back down. He didn't even urge his supporters to " maintain your rage", but retreated to his farm when workers were calling for more militant action. He put his hopes in the election, and lost. But the CPA could have reached the masses of the ALP supporters through a policy of critical support. The social-fascism line from Stalin prevented this. 

Another indication of the radicalisation amongst ALP supporters was the Socialisation Units that developed in the NSW ALP. These were set up after the 1930 annual conference appointed a committee to propagate the socialist objective of the Labor Party. They quickly expanded into a significant challenge to the Inner Group leadership of Lang, Garden and Co. 

The proposals might have been naive, hoping to introduce socialism through a three-year plan voted in by parliament, but their supporters were genuinely radical, moving left in response to the depression. (See Robert Cooksey, Lang and Socialism, A study of the Great Depression.) They were denounced by Lang in 1932 as in league with the Communists, and disbanded in 1933. 

Again, the CPA attacked the units as "left social fascists". Probably some CPA members were assigned to do some work in them, trying to break them away from the ALP, but the Third Period policies wasted another opportunity to reach radicalising workers. 

Period of growth 

Yet the early '30s was one of the most rapid periods of growth in the CPA's history. The CPA's energetic work in the depression laid the foundations for establishing the CPA as a force to be reckoned with in the Australian labour movement. 

In spite of the tactical errors and sectarian abuse, the CPA did grow, by organising the working class and unemployed in struggle, by developing an independent leadership of the working class and posing itself as an alternative to the ALP. The fundamental thrust of CPA strategy was successful. Without the "social fascist" lunacy, there would have been even greater gains, but from 1930 to 1933 the CPA went from about 300 to 3000 members. 

But two approaches overlapped, which have been confused and condensed by historians of the CPA, including former CPA leaders themselves. 

First, there was the analysis of the ALP as fundamentally a capitalist party, a roadblock to socialism and misleader of the working class, and a strategy for building an independent working-class party and engaging in militant struggle to try to win the leadership of workers, the unemployed and other oppressed. That's not "sectarian". That's fundamental and necessary for a revolutionary party. This had been the approach of the early Comintern, of Lenin's party. And it had been the approach of the Kavanagh leadership. 

Second, there was the Third Period line imposed by Stalin, consisting of slanderous attacks on the ALP as "social fascists" and ultra-sectarian action, leading to isolation from leftward moving workers with illusions in the ALP leadership, especially Lang. This line led to disaster in Germany, and the smashing of the German working class. In countries like Australia, although the stakes might not have been so high, nor the consequences so bloody, it also severely harmed the development of the Communist Party and meant many missed opportunities. 

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