Beris Penrose is a historian who lives in Melbourne, and whose politics are in the International Socialist tradition. She has also written some extremely useful articles on occupational health and safety.
This article about the internal life of the Australian Communist Party after its initial Stalinisation and during the “third period” complements an article by Barbara Curthoys, which describes the initial Stalinisation of the the CPA, incorporating material from the Soviet archives.
This article has current relevance in light of the current upheaval in the Democratic Socialist Perspective, in which the DSP’s former leadership has been deposed and the new DSP majority has, in this case quite voluntarily, adopted a form of ultraleftism that is in some ways very similar to the ulttraleftism of the CPA’s “third period” between 1929 and 1935.
Herbert Moxon, a victim of the “Bolshevisation” of the Communist Party of Australia
Much has been written about the factional dispute within the Communist Party of Australia [CPA] during 1928-1929 that culminated in the removal of Jack Kavanagh and his supporters from positions of authority, and the installation of a new leadership under Herbert Moxon, Lance Sharkey and later J.B. Miles.1 However, much less has been written about the crucial first two years of Moxon and Sharkey’s control of the CPA even though these years represented a turning point for the party.
These two years were a period of intense machinations by the new leadership, first against Kavanagh and his supporters, and later against Moxon himself. But more importantly, in these two years the CPA underwent two major changes that would dramatically alter its character for decades to come. The first was the abandonment by the leadership of an independent assessment of the Australian political and economic situation. Instead the party implemented directives from the Communist International [Comintern] that bore little relevance to Australian conditions. The second was the restructuring of the CPA so that it resembled the Stalinised Communist Party of the Soviet Union [CPSU]. This entailed the establishment of a bureaucratic apparatus, which inhibited free debate inside the party and vilified, ostracised and expelled communist dissidents from its ranks.
This article seeks to examine why the post-Kavanagh leadership was dedicated to these changes, how the changes were accomplished so successfully in two years, and why the upheavals that followed the removal of Jack Kavanagh from leadership in 1929 were not repeated when Herbert Moxon was removed from leadership in 1932 in a similar fashion.
The international adoption of the “third period” theory
From July to September 1928 the Comintern held its sixth congress, at which it proclaimed that world capitalism was entering its “third period” — a new period of crises, wars and revolutions. The first period encompassed the years of revolutionary upheaval from 1917-1923, and the second the period of stabilisation and economic expansion from 1924-1928. But this new period was to be capitalism’s final phase. According to Russian leader Vyacheslav Molotov, there could be “no fourth period for the third ends in revolution”.2
With uprisings looming, western communists were warned against forming alliances with the leadership of the social democratic, or reformist, parties and trade unions, which would sabotage the revolutions to preserve capitalism. By protecting a disintegrating system, reformists paved the way for fascism — the bourgeoisie’s last futile attempt to preserve its power. Hence, the Comintern argued, reformism and fascism were twins and it labelled reformists as “social fascists”, the foremost enemies of the working class. The most sinister of all “social fascists” were the left-wing reformists. By professing opposition to the policies of their conservative colleagues, they delayed the disintegration of capitalism because they presented workers with an illusory “radical” alternative to communism. This ultimately served to protect capitalism from revolutionary upheavals. At the CPA’s tenth congress in April 1931 it was unanimously resolved that:
The various social democratic and labor parties throughout the world have become the worst enemies of the working class, the most effective weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie for crushing the working class [and] Lang and … the Left Social Fascists constitute the most dangerous enemies of the working class.
District committees were urged “to carry on the most relentless fight against the pseudo-lefts in the camp of Social Fascism as the worst enemies of the working class”.3
Although the Comintern parties enthusiastically embraced the third period theory, there was little empirical evidence of impending revolutions. In the four years prior to the congress, the influence of many international parties had actually declined. The most important event in the western labour movement prior to the congress, the British general strike of 1926, had ended in defeat and demoralisation. In its aftermath, membership of the British party fell from 10,730 in October 1926 to 3200 by March 1928. By 1927 trade union membership in Britain had fallen below five million for the first time since 1916 and the number of unions affiliated with the British Trade Union Council had plummeted.4
Likewise, the most significant struggle in the east, the revolutionary upheavals in China from 1925-1927, ended in disaster almost annihilating the communist party, trade unions and peasant associations.5 Nor did Australia appear a likely candidate for an imminent revolution. Since the Comintern’s fifth congress in 1924 party membership had progressively declined along with its influence in the labour movement.
It is more likely that the third period theory, rather than reflecting a radicalisation of the labour movements around the world, was a product of a factional struggle within the CPSU, which was triggered by the economic and political crisis gripping the USSR at the time. A combination of years of economic isolation from the west following the revolutions of February and October 1917, as well as the decline of the country’s industrial base during the subsequent civil war, and the failure to develop the USSR’s economy, precipitated the rural crisis of 1927-28.
When peasants refused to sell their desperately needed grain to the state, opinions within the CPSU leadership over how to respond became sharply divided. Nikolai Bukharin, head of the Comintern from 1926-28, advocated concessions to induce the peasants to sell their grain to the state. Joseph Stalin favoured seizing it by physical force, but his policy was extremely unpopular. The forced requisitions in the spring of 1928 provoked unrest in the countryside, which resulted in the secret police quelling 150 sporadic peasant rebellions in the first half of that year.6
Stalin could not risk Bukharin using his position in the Comintern to create a faction in the international parties that would be critical of the regime’s struggle against the peasantry. The campaign to break the rural crisis in Russia necessitated a campaign against Bukharin.7 Over a period of months before the sixth congress, Bukharin’s authority was systematically undermined within the party, state and Comintern. Previously, he had championed alliances between communist and reformist parties, believing that international revolutions were unlikely in the present period.
If Bukharin was to be discredited, his theories had to be as well. Consequently, the Comintern replaced alliances between communists and reformists with uncompromising hostility between the two. It also declared that the period of capitalist stabilisation was over and the world had entered a new period of imminent revolutions. Helmut Gruber said of the third period theory:
More than any previous policy of the Comintern it was the outgrowth of the continuing power struggle among Russian leaders and factions, whose final outcome established the hegemony of Stalin in Russia and in the communist movement.8
The acceptance by western communists of the super-optimistic third period analysis of imminent revolution, despite the knowledge that many of their own labour movements were experiencing demoralisation, can be understood by a number of factors. The most important was that the stature of the Soviet leadership, already immense due to the events of 1917, became inflated with every setback experienced by western communists. Since the Russians had been the only ones to lead a successful revolution, an aura of infallibility began to surround the Soviet leadership.9 This was reinforced by the delegates’ total acceptance of the new theory of socialism in one country, itself an outgrowth of a previous struggle by Stalin against the CPSU’s left wing under Leon Trotsky. Because socialism was being built in the USSR under Stalin, the primary goal of international communists became the protection of the Soviet Union. As E.H. Carr explained, with the adoption of socialism in one country, world revolution “was no longer thought of as the primary condition of the survival of the Soviet regime. Socialism in one country had taken its place”.10
The political immaturity of the Comintern delegates reinforced the tendency for non-Soviet communists to defer to the CPSU leaders. Roughly half of the 500 delegates had never attended a Comintern congress before, and only four of the delegates had been to all six congresses.11 It was repeatedly impressed upon the delegates that unanimity amongst Soviet and foreign communists was imperative for the USSR’s survival. Because of this no disagreements were raised openly at the sixth Comintern congress and there was little real debate.12
CPA hesitates to adopt the third period analysis
Like the majority of communist leaders, Jack Kavanagh agreed with the Comintern’s third period analysis. Resolutions from the party’s eighth congress in December 1928 indicate that the leadership believed the labour movement was entering a decisive period. As the economic depression hit, employers would try to drive down wages and increase working hours, and reformist union officials would be too weak to resist. Therefore, communists resolved to challenge their domination of the unions through communist-led rank and file opposition groups affiliated to the revamped Militant Minority Movement [MMM].
The party’s analysis of the ALP also reflected the Comintern’s third period theory. It was claimed that Labor had “abandoned the class struggle and the defence of the class interests of the proletariat” and instead was protecting Australian capitalism. Labor had exhausted its program of social reform and could not offer the working class any relief in the coming period of political destabilisation. Consequently, workers would break their ties with the ALP and join the CPA.13
While the resolutions from the party congress embodied much of the theory of imminent revolution and reformist betrayal, the leadership under Kavanagh also made some modifications to the Comintern policy in an attempt to adapt the third period doctrine to the specific conditions facing the Australian labour movement at the time. Consequently, the eighth CPA congress did not demand a complete break with “social fascists”. On the contrary, it adopted a complex position on the issue of communist electoral support for the ALP.
It was believed that the majority of workers in Queensland and Victoria, having experienced Labor in office, were dissatisfied and were moving away from reformism. But in NSW workers still maintained their loyalty towards Labor. Reflecting this uneven development, the party resolved that in Queensland, communists should stand as candidates against the ALP in the May 1929 state election, while in the federal election and the NSW state election, due later in 1929, the CPA would call on workers to vote Labor. The experience of Labor in office was seen as an invaluable lesson for workers who, through their own “bitter experience, through repeated disillusionment”, would abandon reformism for the communist alternative.14 Nor was work with left wing union officials totally excluded. In fact, during the timber workers’ dispute in 1929 Kavanagh worked closely with the NSW Labor Council as chair of its disputes committee.
Intervention by the ECCI
Kavanagh and his supporters on the central executive committee [CEC], in applying the general outlines of third period analysis to specific circumstances of Australia, did not understand that the Comintern prohibited even qualified support for “social fascists”. Soon after the congress the party was consumed by bitter factionalism as a section of the leadership led by Herbert Moxon and Lance Sharkey demanded a thorough implementation of Comintern policy. The consequent political polarisation within the party has been well documented and its most noteworthy aspect was intervention of the Executive Committee of the Comintern [ECCI] on the side of Moxon and Sharkey. Twice in September 1929 it directed Kavanagh and the CEC to overturn the congress decisions.15
The CEC reasoned that the labour movement would suffer if the non-Labor parties were elected in NSW and federally. Already the conservatives who had won office in Queensland in May 1929 had begun cancelling workers’ awards and their federal counterparts were threatening to do the same if elected. The CEC explained:
Because of the great variation in the character and organisation of the various state branches of the Labor Party and the varying extent of the disillusionment with Labor governments experienced by the masses, it is obvious that the Communist Party cannot have one uniform tactic to be applied in elections throughout Australia.16
Further cables were urgently sent from Moxon and Sharkey to the ECCI, which again cautioned Kavanagh that “a victory for the Labor Party would strengthen illusions among the masses of workers and encourage liquidationist tendencies among Party members”.17 The CEC was directed by Moscow to stand candidates against Labor as they had done in Queensland. When Kavanagh refused to do this, the ECCI denounced his behaviour as a “glaring example of right deviation deserving the severest condemnation”.18 Such a pronouncement from Moscow signified Kavanagh’s political death, as it was asserted at the time that “right deviationism” was the principal internal danger facing communist parties around the world.
Debate over the relationship between the CPA and the ALP consumed the party for a year and in the lead up to its ninth congress in December 1929 Kavanagh brought the controversy into the pages of the Workers Weekly. This would be the last open debate in the party press.
For Moxon and his collaborators the dispute was not simply a disagreement over tactics. They sincerely believed that the fate of the impending revolution hinged on the outcome of the leadership struggle. They claimed that the Comintern “correctly estimated that until the Right danger is smashed and the parties of the Comintern adopt a single line throughout the world, ie, the independent role of the CP, the majority of the working class cannot be organised by and to the Communist Party”.19 In Australia, support for the ALP was the “most glaring recent example of the utter repudiation of the single world line of the revolutionary working class”. Given the magnitude of the world crisis and growing threats of a second imperialist war, Australian communists had to sever all ties with the ALP. Workers were breaking with Labor in Queensland and could only be won to communism if the party had “bold” policies. Procrastination by the CPA could lead to fascism.20
Kavanagh and his supporters, for their part, believed there was no evidence of a revolution developing in Australia. The new line, therefore, was more relevant to Europe. Kavanagh insisted it was necessary to analyse and understand the peculiarities of the class struggle in each country in order to assess the suitability of any Comintern line. To do otherwise was, he claimed, “not Leninism but romanticism”.21
Although the third period theory coincided with a series of colossal battles between labour and capital in Australia, these were defensive struggles as workers resisted attempts to push back established conditions. They resulted in devastating defeats for workers, including the sugar and railway workers in Queensland (1927), the waterside workers nationally (1928), the timber workers in NSW and Victoria (1929) and the coal miners in northern NSW (1929). Rather than spurring workers on to revolution, the defeats led to a dramatic decline in strike levels. Statistics for Queensland alone confirm that days lost in strike action fell from 428,135 in 1927 to a mere 3443 by 1929. Similarly, the number of workers involved in strike activity fell spectacularly from 30,234 in 1927 to 3628 by 1928, and continued to fall until, in 1930, only 1631 Queensland workers were involved in strikes.22
But the tide was against Kavanagh. A new breed of communist leaders, whose loyalty to Moscow was absolute, was being promoted by the Comintern. Well before the internal dispute in the CPA, leader of Russia’s left opposition, Leon Trotsky, had noted that the Comintern “removes, sweeps away, deforms, and tramples underfoot all that is independent, ideologically firm, and inflexible. It needs conformists. And it finds them without much difficulty, groups them together, and arms them”.23
Not surprisingly, Kavanagh and his supporters were removed from office at the ninth party congress in December 1929 and Moxon and Sharkey took control, with Moxon as general secretary. J.D. Blake later stated that without intervention from Moscow:
the outcome might have been a little different, in view of the forces involved. The internal conflict might have been more prolonged, and as a result the leadership might have embraced a wider spectrum of opinion than was actually the case. However, this is speculation; the Comintern intervention did at the time decide the issue.24
Kavanagh was characterised as an incurable “right deviationist”. His involvement in the timber workers’ strike, his support for the union officials during the NSW coal miners’ dispute and his call for a Labor vote in the federal and NSW elections were offered as proof. It was indicative though, that the new leadership ignored the fact that Kavanagh’s actions had been established Comintern policy prior to the adoption of the third period analysis. Hence, the “right deviationism” of Kavanagh had also been advocated by those who now condemned him.
In the lead-up to the Queensland state elections in 1929 J.B. Miles, who supported Moxon and Sharkey, advised workers: “Vote Labor at the Federal elections as a means of registering your protest against the nationalist Government legislation.”25 He also defended unity between communists and left wing reformists. Writing in the Workers Weekly in April 1929, Miles criticised those “who will not work with non-Party enemies of the capitalist class”. He maintained: “Communists who insist on pure Communist propaganda or organisation, may continue to use the term but they cannot continue in the Party of the Communist International, the Leninist Party”.26 Commenting on the political back-flip of the Comintern and the new CPA leadership with the adoption of the third period line, Kavanagh claimed that attempts to make him confess to the error of supporting Labor were “merely the saving of the face of the ECCI at our expense”.27
A number of authors have located the catalyst for the leadership struggle within the unique circumstances of the Australian party and the labour movement at the time.28 However, we should also see it as part of a broader trend within the international communist movement, which culminated in the emergence of new leaders in most parties during the third period. This process, referred to as the “Bolshevisation” of the communist parties, actually originated at the fifth congress of the Comintern in 1924 following a number of embarrassing mistakes by its Soviet leaders, particularly in Germany, and the factional dispute between Stalin and Trotsky after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924. Gruber noted that in the four years between the fifth and sixth congresses many international parties became marginalised in their labour movements and the “most promising national leaders had fallen into official disgrace, and their timid, trimming, and Bolshevised successors held the helm without a course and awaited new directions”.29 Notwithstanding this, “Bolshevisation” — the process of turning the international parties into mirror images of the stalinised CPSU — was rapidly accelerated after the sixth congress. Almost no international party was exempt, including the CPA.30
“Bolshevisation” of the CPA
One of the first acts of the Moxon leadership was to cable the Comintern “offering unswerving loyalty to the new line”.31 Its primary task was to establish its authority over the party as the internal dispute was not over. Kavanagh’s supporters were elected to the Sydney and NSW state committees of the party — the largest communist bodies in Australia. Indicative of the new executive’s insecurity was its action in cabling the Comintern in January 1930 claiming that the former central committee was “trying to usurp power”.32 Then began an unprecedented campaign of expulsions, ostracism and banishments.
Jack Ryan, Kavanagh’s political ally and friend was expelled. Leaders of the Militant Womens’ Group in Sydney who had personal and political ties with the former leadership were dispersed throughout the organisation. Personal attacks were also used to ostracise members. Tom Wright, another Kavanagh supporter at the time, was apparently “scorned” and “abused” by a fellow communist at a dance and another was warned against continuing her friendship with Kavanagh’s wife and party member, Edna.33
Supporters elected to Sydney’s district committee were either expelled or relocated to other cities and Kavanagh was sent to Adelaide against his wishes. He recorded in his diary on January 28, 1930, that on arriving in Sydney from the coalfields he found a letter “instructing me to go to Adelaide as Resident Organiser. Took letter into office and refused. His written appeals to Moxon were rejected and he reluctantly left for Adelaide on February 8, 1930, after being called before the central executive.34
Kavanagh noted that one of the principal leaders of the campaign against him was Herbert Moxon whose “dictatorial manner” offended him. Kavanagh accused Moxon of being behind the political bureau’s decision to suspend him from all positions within the party, of preventing him from addressing some public meetings and of finally announcing his expulsion from he party in 1930.35
Moxon had been a member of the party since 1922, when he played an important role in bringing the rump of the Australian Socialist Party into the CPA.36 Unlike other former members of the Socialist Party, Moxon remained in the CPA, becoming one of Queensland’s dynamic leaders. Throughout the 1920s he worked closely with Miles to consolidate and build party branches in Brisbane and north Queensland.37 He also helped recruit Ted Tripp, who was instrumental in establishing the Townsville branch in the mid-1920s.38
In the internal party struggle in 1924 between Jock Garden’s faction, which sought to dissolve the party into the ALP, and Kavanagh’s faction, which sought to maintain the independence of the small and beleaguered CPA, Moxon faithfully supported Kavanagh. In fact, he was described as Kavanagh’s “chief backstop”.39
In a subsequent internal party dispute over the relationship between Labor and the CPA, Moxon used undemocratic methods to ensure Kavanagh and his supporters prevailed. He went so far as to establish bogus Queensland branches giving Kavanagh authority at the 1927 CPA congress to remove Norman Jeffrey, Jack Ryan, Esmonde Higgins and Lance Sharkey from the central executive.40 The deposed leaders believed that communists should involve themselves in the factional dispute in the ALP between right-wing politicians and left-wing trade union officials, while Kavanagh argued that this approach was conservative.41
Moxon was also a central figure in establishing an electoral bloc of communist and left-wing militants against the ALP in the 1929 Queensland state election. He was appointed by the party to implement and co-ordinate this program in southern Queensland and Miles was appointed organiser for northern Queensland. One of the communist candidates was Tripp who left his position in the railways to stand in the Mundingburra electorate. Within little more than a decade Tripp would also fall from favour with the new leadership and be expelled from the party.
To assist the new leadership under Moxon and Sharkey, and to oversee the party’s “Bolshevisation”, the Comintern dispatched an American communist, Herbert (Harry) Moore Wicks, who was in fact a police agent. Wicks was known to Australian communists as Herbert Moore. He arrived on April 8, 1930, and left in July 1931.42 Under his tutelage the leadership was shown “how to correctly deal with anyone in opposition”. Miles explained that Wicks’ method was to convince the party that the critic was “no longer fit” to be a member. “Then having undermined any basis they may have held in the Party, then the Comrade can be easily emptied out.” Sharkey praised Wicks, saying: “he did the best work any individual has done” in clearing up “the line and laying the basis for work in this Party”.43
Wicks’ authority went unchallenged in the CPA and party members were anxious to win his approval. One communist claimed in 1932 that: “All the rank and file of this organisation attempted to do was what Moore [Wicks] wanted them to do and say”.44 According to Kavanagh the new leadership was just as servile as the rank and file. Most members of the central committee plenum in June 1930, he claimed, “kowtowed to Wicks”.45
To enhance their power the leadership established the central control commission [CCC], which remained unaccountable to either the rank and file or any elected organ of the party. It thoroughly scrutinised all members’ political and personal activities and disciplined them accordingly. Tripp claimed that all critics of the leadership found themselves before this “special police organ”.46 Kavanagh, having been called up on a number of occasions in front of the CCC, which could “now sit in judgement upon elected bodies”, commented that its establishment reflected a growing bureaucratisation of the party.47
“Bolshevisation” was also embodied in the party’s new constitution drafted by Wicks. At the NSW conference in April 1930 a further controversy developed when Kavanagh questioned the relevance of Wicks’ manifesto to Australian conditions. Frank Farrell contends that “from then on Wicks took a leading part in a concerted campaign to destroy Kavanagh’s influence among CPA members”.48 It was alleged that the campaign to isolate Kavanagh even included proposals to physically assault him. Moxon claimed that Wicks “told us to beat up Kavanagh”, but Sharkey said privately to ignore this because: “That is not fighting politically. That is definitely personal reactions.”49
Although not physically assaulted, Kavanagh was the victim of a series of petty slights. He was sent to address meetings which had not been organised; no party members met him at the Melbourne railway station on his way to Adelaide; and, although he had to support his family financially, he often had difficulty getting his pay from the party.50 After eight weeks in Adelaide Kavanagh was brought back to Sydney because the new leadership feared his growing popularity in South Australia. On his return to the east, Kavanagh’s remaining authority and influence was further undermined by the Moxon-Sharkey leadership.51
Although the party had experienced disputes in the past in which the leaders of the losing faction were reviled, the persecution Kavanagh suffered was an entirely new and different phenomenon. It is worth noting that some members disapproved of these procedures. However, they remained silent for fear of receiving the same treatment. Kavanagh commented in his diary that Tripp was “not impressed with the procedure here”.52 But as he had already alienated the leadership and had been labelled a “right deviationist”, Tripp would not voice his concerns publicly. His “deviation” was committed at the Lenin School in Moscow. When the Americans there treated the idea of Wicks being an envoy “as a huge joke”, Tripp queried his credentials.53 This was a grave error and Tripp, having committed one mistake, was not prepared to make another by criticising Kavanagh’s treatment. Instead, he remained silent and worked diligently for the CPA in this period to avoid his own expulsion from the party. So strong was Tripp’s devotion to the CPA that he later confessed the “thought of separation … was unbearable”.54
The vendetta against Kavanagh culminated in his expulsion in 1930. Although he rejoined in 1931, he was expelled for a second time in 1934 for once again disagreeing with the leadership. From this he concluded:
We are indeed coming to a peculiar pass in the development of the revolutionary movement when it becomes a crime to think differently than the leadership. This surely brings us to the position of the concept of infallibility, which in turn leads to god. This is in total opposition to anything that Marx or Lenin ever enunciated.55 Fellow communist Jean Devanny whose personal life was criticised by the leadership, observed that “the sanctity of leaders was an obsession. The most commonplace individuals, on being elevated to leadership, were supposed to become magically invested with an immunity to mistakes and therefore to stand above criticism”.56
The “infallibility” of the leadership was reinforced by the mania for self-criticism. It was argued that self-criticism ensured that “party membership and the various organisations of the party from the highest to the lowest are the guardians of the line of the party”.57 What it actually meant was that blame for the failure of any policies could be shifted from the leadership to individual members. Self-criticism became so important that even the failure to engage in it to the satisfaction of the leadership brought punishment, as political bureau member J. Shelley discovered in 1931.
The central committee had decreed that communists must hold their own May Day rally on May 1, 1931, separate from the official ALP-trade union rally called for May 4. When Shelley and Charlie Nelson, a candidate for the political bureau, also attended the official rally they were accused of “right opportunist resistance”. Nelson had his endorsement for general secretary of the Miners Federation withdrawn by the CPA and Shelley was expelled from the party for acting “in an impermissible way when the political bureau called upon him for self-criticism”.58
The CCC made it clear that self-criticism did not mean unbridled criticism of the leadership. It warned:
if stupid individuals think that this means a license to slander the party leadership, to help the boss to weaken the party, then it will just be an unfortunate experience for them because they will be outside the party and exposed before the workers with the contempt which all enemies of the party are treated.59
With some insight Kavanagh surmised that self-criticism was “intended primarily for those who do not kowtow to the CEC”.60
The authority of the leadership remained unchallenged as internal democracy and genuine debate in the party press declined. And this process was augmented by the failure to hold regular party congresses.
Full implementation of the third period theory — “left sectarianism” under Moxon and Sharkey
With the “right deviationists” defeated, general secretary Moxon was eager to thoroughly implement the third period line. Believing that the coming period would be one of revolution, the leadership speculated that even small strikes and lockouts could develop into mass political struggles. The “social fascist” union officials, incapable of leading any dispute to the benefit of workers, would be swept aside, their leadership usurped by rank and file militants under communist MMM control.
On the northern NSW coal fields, in the closing months of the 1929 miners’ strike, the party’s new central committee, while believing a general strike in the coal industry was necessary, also issued a bulletin calling on miners to arm themselves. The leadership instructed Esmonde Higgins, who was sent to direct CPA work on the coalfields seven weeks before the strike collapsed, to prevent the miners’ union leaders from addressing the mass meeting where it was expected they would call for a return to work. The central committee, under Moxon, demanded “that any means, including violence, was to be used” to ensure the officials did not speak.61 William Orr, elected president of the miners’ union in 1934, claimed that Moxon “played a leading part in working out tactics” in the coalfields and he even proposed seizing the coal mining town of Cessnock.62
Such extreme measures increased once the Comintern agent and police informant Wicks arrived in Australia in April 1930. In Broken Hill the party prepared for what Moxon later called a putsch. According to E. Docker who, with Moxon, Wicks and Walker, constituted the party secretariat in 1930:
A communication came through from the centre, pointing out that we should broaden the struggle, seize the police station, the railway station, and all strategic positions in Broken Hill, and take complete control of the town. I perfectly agreed with the directions in the letter sent across; (sic) The only thing that had me worried was that I could see terrible difficulties in carrying it out.63
Docker also admitted that communists in Adelaide “tried to put the town in darkness in order to stop every shop in Port Adelaide”,64 and Tripp claimed Wicks proposed blowing up a bridge there.65 Many leaders, including Tripp and Nelson attributed these “amazing proposals” to Wicks.66 In fact, Nelson claimed Wicks was so confident that a general strike was imminent he believed “it would be possible to stop the tramways, powerhouses, etc, to take the Labor Daily printery and publish a paper”.67
In hindsight these activities seem absurd, yet they merely reflected the enormous faith the leadership had in the radical pronouncements emanating from Moscow. In 1929 Molotov, who had replaced Bukharin as head of the Comintern, claimed that only a “dull opportunist” or a “sorry liberal” would deny that “tremendous revolutionary events of international significance” were developing in both the west and east. It was also asserted in 1929 that there was a “deepening of the processes of the leftward turn and radicalisation of the masses, which presently is growing into the beginning of a revolutionary upsurge”.68
In 1930 Lance Sharkey and William Orr arrived in Moscow for the fifth congress of the Red International of Trade Unions [Profintern or RILU] to be held in August. They believed they would be commended for removing the “right deviationists”, for “Bolshevising” the party and implementing the third period line under the guidance of Wicks. Sharkey reported: “we got over there and presented our reports to Moscow and in detail gave them all of these episodes, romantic things we had been engaged in the firm believe (sic) that we were worthy of praise”.69
This was not to be. Events in the German Communist Party had forced a moderation of the Comintern line. When in February 1930 some of its leadership publicly predicted revolutionary upheavals Stalin became alarmed, afraid that these pronouncements might jeopardise the fragile trading relations between the USSR and Germany. Within the Comintern a “new note of caution” developed along with “a reluctance to embark on action which might lead to clashes with German authorities, and exacerbate Soviet-German relations at a critical moment”. At an enlarged plenum of the ECCI from February 8-28, 1930, communists were warned to guard against “opportunism … concealed in revolutionary phrases”. The next month Stalin advocated “a struggle on two fronts — both against those who lag behind and against those who rush ahead”. By the 16th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in June 1930 the international parties were being advised against “left-sectarianism” which, E.H. Carr noted, “evidently consisted in an undue eagerness to translate revolutionary words into revolutionary action”.70
Two months later, when Sharkey and Orr arrived at the Profintern congress, they discovered they were “entirely out of line” with Comintern thought. Its Soviet leadership ridiculed the CPA’s activities during the NSW miners strike, especially the party’s call for workers to arm themselves. Orr recalled:
in relation to the Defence Army when it was discussed, we stated that there were over 2000 in the Northern coalfields, and that they were in a position to arm most of them. Vassiloff? (sic) just laughed and said what do you think they were going to do with them … We were thrashed very severly (sic) on these questions …71
Initially Sharkey defended the extreme actions of the party, arguing that “in England they could have peaceful demonstrations and so on, but if we participated in a strike or demonstration in Australia, we were batoned and even shot”. Although police had used weapons against waterside workers, miners and unemployed, Moscow dismissed these rationalisations and reprimanded the CPA.72
On returning to Australia Sharkey discussed the situation with Wicks and the secretariat. In a central committee document, which has been censored by an unidentified source, Moxon stated:
At the time I was under instructions to procure [censored] and Sharkey told me and I agreed with him, that it was wrong. I did not want to get these [censored] — I squibbed it. It was not that I was frightened personally — I was just to give the orders and others would do the job, but I did not think procuring of [censored] would assist the working class.73
While it was unanimously decided to abandon the more extreme plans, conflict arose over the leadership’s attitude to Wicks. It was recognised that he had certain “left sectarian” tendencies although, when informed of the Profintern’s criticisms, Wicks claimed to have reached similar conclusions independently. The majority of the secretariat agreed that the best way to handle Wicks’ inclination in “favour of too drastic steps” was to simply oppose any extreme suggestions he made.
Moxon disagreed and wanted to inform Moscow of Wicks’ extremism. But Sharkey objected, believing that “the difficulty could be got over without disturbing the party”. In fact, he continued to defend Wicks long after he had left Australia, saying in 1932: “I … pay tribute to Comrade Moore [Wicks] for the work he did in this country, he did the best work any individual has done in … laying the basis for work in this Party”.74
Sharkey judged that the source of “left sectarianism” lay in the youth and inexperience of the leadership, which was “taking responsibility in the Party practically for the first time”.75 However, the leadership’s strong belief in the approaching revolution led it inexorably to radical activities. Although there was abundant discussion of “left sectarianism” within the leadership, no-one questioned the underlying assumptions of the third period, which had led them to these conclusions. For example, in January 1931 Tripp claimed that “in the very near future we will have sufficient strength to win the streets despite the Police force and the assistance they obtain from the Trade Union leaders.76 Four months later, leaders of NSW’s district 1 stressed that “the world situation was sharpening so rapidly that the question of power may face the Australian working class in the course of the next period”.77
Conflict between Moxon and Wicks
Shortly after the secretariat’s discussion of the Profintern’s criticisms, constant disagreements arose between Wicks and Moxon. From this time, Moxon asserted, Wicks initiated a campaign to undermine his credibility with the membership and criticisms of Moxon began to be raised within the leadership. Then, early in 1931 Moxon was accused of “right deviationism”.78
While in Melbourne he alienated much of the membership with his heavyhanded approach — Sharkey alleged that Moxon wanted to expel half the branch.79 When the CPA called a general strike for February 9, 1931 — a “fake general strike” according to Moxon — he alleged that the leadership of the Unemployed Workers Movement [UWM], without his authorisation, formed an alliance with a trades hall-backed organisation. The groups were involved in a further joint demonstration on March 6. Because Moxon decided not to dissolve the alliance until after March 6, he was accused of being a “conscious distorter of the CI [Comintern] line”.80 In the Workers Weekly the secretariat accused him of tying “the Melbourne unemployed to the social fascist machine headed by Don Cameron and Monk”.81
Wicks was sent to Melbourne by the leadership to encourage Moxon to participate in self-criticism and Moxon was temporarily replaced as general secretary by Docker, until the party congress. Admitting his error, Moxon stated:
The basis of my mistake is Right opportunism based on an overestimation of the present period — the preparedness of the bourgeoisie … and an underestimation of the radicalisation and preparedness of the masses to follow our independent leaders.82
It was the Melbourne events that, Docker claimed, “really started the breach between the P.B. and Comrade Moxon”.83
After arriving back in Sydney prior to the tenth party congress in April 1931, Moxon was called before the political bureau, where he and Wicks had another altercation. At the congress Moxon was elected to the political bureau and the organisational bureau and was made organiser for district 1. Despite his election to leadership bodies, Wicks had already begun the process of convincing the party that Moxon was no longer fit to be a member as a prelude to “easily emptying him out”. When criticisms were raised against Moxon he did not defend himself. As he explained to a friend and fellow communist, he did this in the interests of party unity: “I poor fish accepted this in silence thinking it was for ‘unity’ (… believe me there are some crimes committed in the name of Unity).”84
While organiser for district 1, a series of censure motions over trivial issues were passed against him. Moxon asserted that Wicks and the political bureau “continually flogged me until I became silent”.85 According to Moxon he was one of the few leading members of the party who were sceptical of Wicks’ extreme proposals regarding anti-eviction struggles. From censored central committee documents it appears that in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown in June 1931 communists prepared for an armed confrontation with the police to prevent the eviction of a returned soldier who was behind in his rent.
Communist militants involved in the dispute were assured that 1000 returned soldiers in the neighbourhood “were so incensed that they were prepared to offer [censored] resistance”. It was reported that they had access to “electrified barbed wire, and sandbags and so on” to fortify the house against a police assault and were “prepared to back up the eviction fighters in an open struggle against the police”. The CPA leadership was excited by the prospect and Orr claimed that the involvement of the returned soldiers would accelerate the struggle in Bankstown “even to [censored] clash with the police”. He explained:
In this period we had been carrying on and mobilising large numbers of workers against these eviction fights, and these evictions were being carried on by the social fascist Lang Labor government. We were concerned about chrystallising (sic) and dramatising the situation in such a way as to draw the attention of all workers to the anti-working-class action of the Lang government.86
It transpired, however, that the local support was grossly overestimated. Instead of the 1000 men expected, only 16 attempted to defend the house. The smallness of their numbers sparked a dispute over what tactics to use, prompting some to see the futility of any armed confrontation. The weapon/weapons were removed from the house without the leadership’s sanction and Moxon claimed that Wicks demanded to know who had given this order, threatening to “immediately move their expulsion”. However, as it was “never discovered who ordered [censored] to be taken out of the house at Bankstown … nobody was expelled”. Defending Wicks, Orr said it “was not a question of expulsion for removing [censored] but expulsion for a deliberate breach on the question of the P.B. decision.”87
Eventually a large squad of armed police forced their way into the house, shooting two occupants in the process. After searching the 16 anti-eviction fighters for weapons and burning their possessions, the police arrested them.88
The following month a similar anti-eviction struggle developed at Guilford. Moxon claimed that “all kinds of instructions were sent out, people were sent down the South Coast to get [censored] and so on”.
Then the matter came up on the District Committee … it was raised that such tactics would bring about a reign of white terror. Comrade Mountjoy came from District (South Coast) where [censored] had come from, and he raised the question. I raised the matter also; for raising it I was censured.It was discovered that the same line to Bankstown was being carried out — a few men in the house and a few on the outside if possible. They were to use [censored] only if they had a good getaway, an underground tunnel or something.89
While it was apparent that there were problems with this approach, no-one on the leadership would criticise Wicks. On the contrary, leaders later praised him extensively. Docker claimed he “did wonderful work while he was out here” and Nelson declared he had “done a considerable amount for this Party, both politically and organisationally”.90 While not criticising Wicks, the Workers Weekly in July 1931 did state that in anti-eviction struggles “it is wrong to assume that every house must be turned into a fortress”. The urgent task for communists was instead to develop a mass campaign against evictions.91
The consequences of “Bolshevisation” — Moxon scapegoated
The CPA leadership must have found itself in somewhat of a dilemma. The Comintern had instructed a cessessation of “left sectarianism”, yet its own envoy in Australia was the most ardent advocate of such actions. Wicks’ departure from Australia in July 1931 ended this dilemma: the actions could cease and a ready excuse was available that would leave the Comintern, its envoy and most of the leadership unblemished. Since Moxon was already under a cloud for his clashes with Wicks (ironically for questioning Wicks’ “left sectarianism”), after his departure from Australia the campaign against Moxon intensified to such an extent that he appealed for Comintern intervention on his behalf in September 1931. However, unlike 1929, this did not happen. Rather, his communication with Moscow precipitated moves in Australia to take him off the leadership.
Having being accused of “right deviationism” in Melbourne at the beginning of 1931, Moxon was also charged with “left sectarianism” while engaged as organiser for district 1. The CCC, accused him of “breathing brimstone and fire at one moment, then swinging to the opposite extreme of complete capitulation before danger”. They warned that such behaviour from a leading member was “a menace to the well-being of the party”.92
It was claimed that Moxon failed to consolidate the growing membership of district 1 and also failed to take seriously the MMM, renamed the Minority Movement [MM] in 1931. At the district conference on November 21-27, 1931, it was noted that there had been an extraordinary growth in the names on the party roll from a mere 215 in 1930 to 1550 by November 1931. Despite these impressive statistics, the district committee admitted that “692 have never been brought into the Party”. As well, less than 19 per cent of the membership were employed, yet “some 65-70 per cent of the workers are still in industry, and our figures should show somewhere around the same proportion” of party members. It was considered crucially important that the district organise factory nuclei as the outcome of anticipated upheavals hinged on this. It was stated that without them:
all our slogans, such as “Turning imperialist war into civil war”, “The defence of the Soviet Union”, “The counter-offensive against capitalism’s attack”, become mere empty words without any serious possibility of turning them into actuality.93
Orr, national secretary of the MM, claimed Moxon’s lack of interest in this body was reflected in the small number of party members who were workers and in the disorder of the existing factory cells.94
Despite the central committee’s criticisms of Moxon, the problems they outlined were not unique to district 1. During this period the CPA found it easier to recruit members than to hold them. It was admitted in January 1932 that while around 900 people joined the CPA between June and July 1931, most “were no sooner won than lost for the Party”. Other districts also featured worker-members in a minority. In Queensland only 28 per cent of members were employed in January 1932.95 At the national MM conference in January 1932, Orr complained of the fragility of the organisation in all districts. He maintained that members’ inexperience led to the isolation of the MM and “prevented us coming to the fore as leaders in the struggles and demonstrations of the workers”.96 Clearly, the problems facing the MM could not be the result of poor performance of one member in district 1.
Nonetheless, on January 2, 1932, Moxon was put on “trial” by the central committee. Accused of being a poor organiser, of creating a financial mess for the party to sort out, of “cowardice” for criticising Wicks, of not engaging in self-criticism constructively and of “treachery” for writing to Moscow, he was expelled from the central committee. Docker, who had been in the secretariat with Moxon in 1930, stated: “We have reached a period that in order that the Party should go ahead, it is well that you were removed. It would be a calamity if you were ever restored to your former position.”97
Moxon was blamed for instigating many of the “left sectarian” activities the party had been involved in up to the time of Wicks’ departure. It was stated that Moxon was the “prime mover in surrounding Cessnock, months before Comrade Moore [Wicks] came to this country. We were going to seize Cessnock”.98 While Moxon’s part in these episodes cannot be denied, he was nonetheless part of a leadership which, to a person, believed these tactics to be correct at the time. Yet at the central committee meeting in January 1932 one former colleague after another blamed him for many of the activities organised and directed by the whole leadership. On the Bankstown anti-eviction struggle Moxon claimed:
Only I opposed line … and characterised them as romanticism, got severely condemned as coward etc. Well eventually correctness of my opposition shown — then instead of a bit of self-criticism on part of romanticists I was blamed … I opposed the idea of barbed wire etc and 16 men fighting the State and as mentioned above got “coward” thrown at me. I loyally and intelligently carried out instructions EVEN THO (sic) I KNEW THEY WERE WRONG.99
Although the “Bolshevisation” of the party gave exaggerated authority and prestige to the leadership, it contained within it a contradiction. The “infallibility” of the leadership was being promoted precisely at a time when the party had embraced the very fallible Comintern theory of imminent revolution and the conversion of the union bureaucracy and the labour parties to “social fascism”. Because the theory’s underlying assumptions were inaccurate, the leadership’s predictions and expectations of both party members and also the working class, could not be realised. This then placed the leadership in a predicament. They could not admit that their strategies had been incorrect otherwise their “infallibility” would be in jeopardy. They therefore sought to resolve this dilemma by blaming their mistakes, errors or miscalcualtions — even though they arose directly from the Comintern theory — on individual leaders or party members.
Hence Moxon, after championing the “Bolshevisation” of the party, became its victim. He concluded from his experience of being “tried” in 1932 by his former colleagues on the central committee, that: “any errors committed, always someone else is blamed for them — never the collective leadership.”100
Consequences of “Bolshevisation”
Of most interest in the events surrounding Moxon’s removal from the central committee was the extent to which communists had come to believe that democratic debate within the party was destructive. Moxon would not discuss the charges against him with the rank and file or even with elected bodies, other than the secretariat. When resigning as organiser for district 1 in October 1931, he told the district committee that economic reasons compelled his resignation. In a more candid letter to the secretariat he admitted that “members of the PB [political bureau] know that there is much more behind the matter than could possibly be stated to the DC”.101 Moxon also stated that he would defend himself against the charges, but that he would not take the dispute to the rank and file and would “not raise it anywhere else but here on the PB and with Moscow”.102
The central leadership, however, had ordered him not to involve the Russians. When he defied this ban in September 1931, Miles and Sharkey accused him of treachery and even Moxon admitted he had “committed an awful crime” by doing this. Sharkey, who owed his position to intervention from Moscow, protested that Moxon’s actions indicated he:
wants the crockery smashed, busted up, wants fights and brawls and faction wars carried on in the Party … I say he acted from his own point of view stupidly, and from the point of view of the Communist Party, acted in an absolutely impermissible manner.
Sharkey insisted: “Individuals cannot communicate with individuals anywhere outside of Australia, to Moscow or anywhere else except through official organs”. But as Moxon explained, apart from involving Moscow his only other option was “to convince the PB, and I could not do that”.103
At his “trial” in January 1932 it was unanimously resolved to expel Moxon from the central committee. After being a leading and active member of the party almost from its foundation, Moxon was declared incompetent. Former colleagues accused him of being “one of the most irresponsible individuals that I have met in my life”; “absolutely incapable of consistent effort for any given time”; and declared unfit “to be an organiser of the Communist Party — an organiser for the revolution, he lacks hard, persistent effort …”.104
In 1934 Ted Tripp, who had voted in favour of Moxon’s expulsion, was by then himself out of the party. He believed that the changes which the CPA had undergone through its “Bolshevisation” — the development of an “infallible” leadership, the demise of democratic debate and the expulsion of opponents — had profoundly altered the nature of the party. Tripp commented that the “party leadership looks upon the party as a machine whose sinlessness is to be defended by measures of repression and expulsion, instead of a complicated organism which, like all living things, develops in contradictions”.105
Being removed from the central committee, however, did not end Moxon’s difficulties with the leadership. The CCC printed a report on his party activities in May 1932 claiming he had not attended several meetings. It stated that Moxon had therefore “carried on a systematic campaign of sabotage inside the party by leaving his posts at a most critical period”.106 A subsequent article by the CCC in July announced his expulsion from the party. The catalyst for this decision was Moxon’s unapproved trip to north Queensland.
His expulsion may not have come as a surprise to Moxon as he indicated as early as September 1931 that he expected such a fate. To a friend he said: “I write now … while I can still do so as a CPer”.107 The CCC stated that when a person such as Moxon begins to deviate from the Comintern line “it must inevitably end in the person so doing being excluded from the party, and he just as inevitably, must go the way of all enemies of the party into the camp of the enemy”.108
This prediction, like the Conmintern’s one of imminent revolution, remained unfulfilled. In fact, only a month after his expulsion Queensland police reported that Moxon was “endeavouring to collect funds for the purpose of obtaining legal assistance for John McCormack, Badden Bennett and James Hill.109 These men were being defended by the CPA for their part in resisting the eviction of unemployed workers from Parramatta Park in Cairns. The party had even sent their barrister-member Fred Paterson to north Queensland to defend them in court. After the party abandoned the third period theory Edgar Ross attempted unsuccessfully to recruit Moxon back into the party.110
CPA moderation of third period theory
Following Moxon’s removal, the Miles-Sharkey leadership began to steer the party on a more moderate course. Kavanagh noted in December 1931 that the mood of the meetings had changed. “The tone was much improved as compared with previous similar meetings. The Moxon style … is no longer in order”. In April 1932 he again noted that “the tone of the discussion was by far the best of any of the Party conferences. The attitude is a complete removal of the Moxon-Moore (Wicks) policy now recognised as erroneous”.111 However, even if the tone of the meetings had changed, the underlying problems of dictatorial rule from the centre, the “infallibility” of the leadership and absolute loyalty to Moscow, remained.
When the Comintern held its seventh and final congress in mid-1935 it abandoned the third period theory. Pronouncements that there could be no fourth period because the third would end in revolution, were forgotten. Rather than the third period being one of proletarian revolutions, it was a period which saw the rise and consolidation of fascism and militarism. The Comintern’s new theory, the popular front, demanded alliances between communist and reformist parties in the struggle against fascism. This must have come as a surprise to German communists, many of whom were now in Nazi gaols. During the third period the Comintern had repeatedly warned them against any alliance with the reformists and had insisted that the German communists “concentrate fire on the Social-Fascists” rather than the fascists.112
The CPA adopted the popular front at its eleventh congress in 1935, and implemented it as eagerly as it had the third period theory. During the 1937 federal elections, despite constant rebuffs from the ALP, the party published an astonishing number of leaflets and pasted up thousands of posters calling for support for Labor.113 Gil Roper, a party leader until 1937, claimed that “members were directed to lend full and unconditional support to the Labor politicians. In the electorate of J.A. Beasley, a bitter anti-Communist, the Party members even posted up a record number of posters supporting him!” Roper then asked if the “line of the Kavanagh leadership was ‘crass right oppmtmism’, what must we say of the 1937 Federal Election policy and tactic of the Miles leadership?”114 The fact that the leadership could perform such astonishing political somersaults without provoking any major internal dissent from the rank and file indicated the extent to which the party had become thoroughly “Bolshevised”.
Moxon and Sharkey owed their victory to intervention by the Comintern and their authority over the party was further secured under the guidance of its its envoy Harry Wicks. The leadership’s control over members was strengthened, particularly with the establishment of the Central Control Commission, which supervised and disciplined members, ensuring absolute loyalty to the leadership’s policies.
Open discussion in the press and at party meetings was curtailed. No genuine debate was tolerated and critics of the leadership were either expelled, discredited or disciplined. In 1935 Ted Tripp, claimed:
Instead of the party policy being hammered out through the conflict of ideas, as in the past, the thinking is now done by the secretarial hierarchy. Not only is one not allowed to present a difference of opinion … but the holding of any such difference of opinion is branded as heretical, and the individual concerned is designated as a “counter-revolutionary” a “disruptor” — and is expelled!115
Party congresses, which had been annual events, were held less frequently. After the new leadership took control at the CPA’s ninth congress in December 1929, another was not held until April 1931 when Herbert Moxon was replaced as general secretary. Then no more were called until the dramatic change in the party’s theory and practice with the adoption of the popular front in 1935.
The first two years of the Moxon-Sharkey leadership significantly altered the internal dynamics of the party, turning it into an organisation that obediently adopted the policies of the Comintern no matter how inappropriate or contradictory they may have been. The changes were not unique to the CPA, but were part of a broader trend within the international communist movement in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which saw the demise of its more critically thinking leaders and their replacement with people prepared to be subservient to Moscow.
1. J.D. Blake, The Australian Communist Party and the Comintern in the early 1930s, Labour History, no.23 (November 1972); Barbara Curthoys, The Communist Party and the Communist International (1927-29), Labour History, no. 64 (May 1993); Stuart Macintyre, Dealing with Moscow: The Comintern and the early history of the Communist Party of Australia, Labour History, no.67 (November 1994).
41. Curthoys, Communist Party and the Communist International, 57-58
114. Gil Roper, What is Happening In the Communist Party?
From Labour History, No. 70, May 1996