In 1948, virulent anti-communism was reappearing in Western countries following the defeat of Nazism in World War II. Dr Ryan, Director of Catholic Social Services, was one of those who were travelling the country giving anti-communist lectures. He was challenged to a public debate and eventually agreed. A representative of the Catholic hierarchy worked out the conditions of the debate together with a representative of the Communist Party. A huge audience attended and the debate was broadcast at the time. As far as is known, the contributions by Edgar Ross and Dr Ryan were never published. Following the debate the specific anti-communist campaign which Dr Ryan had conducted was abandoned and he was transferred to Ireland.
The following is the opening speech by Edgar Ross, member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia, in debate with Dr Ryan at Rushcutters Bay Stadium in Sydney on September 23, 1948 on the proposition: “That communism is in the best interests of the Australian people”. Edgar Ross had to shorten his contribution for reasons of time but in this text his deletions have been included. The omitted lines are shown in italics.
More than 50 years ago, Pope Leo XIII, appalled at the conditions created by modern capitalism, cried out: “Some remedy must be found, and found quickly, for the misery and wretchedness pressing so heavily and unjustly at this moment on the vast majority of the working classes.”
Fifty years ago! And today we see a world in which 80 per cent of the people cannot get enough to eat, in which members of the working classes are literally perishing in the streets for lack of food, millions are steeped in the misery and wretchedness of inhuman living standards and the vast majority of the working classes live in constant fear of the effects of a new threatened world economic crisis.
Add to that the threat of a third World War, to be waged with atomic bombs, death-dealing germs, and poisonous gases, and you have a picture of the perspectives of today.
There is one basic answer to this prevailing and increasing misery and wretchedness, this threat of worse through economic crisis and atomic war, just as there is one basic cause of it.
It is St Ambrose (340-397 AD) who said: “Nature furnishes its wealth to all men in common. God beneficiently has created all things that their enjoyment be common to all living beings, and that the earth become the common possession of all. It is nature itself that has given birth to the right of the community, while it is only unjust usurpation that has created the right of private property.”
The right of private property, the right of a few to own and control the means by which all must live, the right of the owners of the means of production to utilise it to exploit the rest of the community in the interest of their personal profit, the right to determine what shall be produced and how, regardless of the misery and wretchedness of those who produce it.
In the wake of that principle, that so-called right, came slavery, in which the multitude toiled in chains that a few masters might live in luxury; feudalism, when a handful of nobles feasted and wallowed in idleness on the enforced labour of others; then capitalism, when the masses were herded into factories, to get the wherewithal to live, while the product of their labour was appropriated by the new lords of capital.
The right to private property, the right to exploit, the right to rob, the right to over-produce and cause crises, the right to compete, and cause wars.
The basic cause of capitalist ills, and the basic answer?
The abolition of the right of private property, and instead the common ownership of the means of production, so that all may enjoy the fruit of their labour, and consume it, thus eliminating the crises of over-production, and the crises of military wars.
The socialist answer, the case for communism.
You are surprised, perhaps, that I have quoted from religious sources, for I confess I have no religious belief; but many statements have been made, and many deeds done, in the cause of socialism by people with religious belief, and much opposition to socialism expressed by some people without, as some with it, such as my opponent in this debate tonight.
My thesis is that the case of communism is unanswerable. In logic - hence the incredible stock-in-trade of misrepresentation concerning it. It is as simple as this - a choice between two worlds, a world of exploitation, social injustice, chronic insecurity, economic crisis, and recurring wars ... and a world of proper economic planning, progressively increasing living standards, prosperity and a durable peace.
But, you say, “communism!” There is fierce opposition to it being expressed in every quarter of the globe. We are told this communism is a wicked thing, that it means depriving people of their personal possessions, and other rubbish.
Note, however, from where mainly it comes, this opposition ... the daily newspapers, and the radio stations, and who pray, are they? The mouthpieces of the big capitalist monopolies – the BHP, Colonial Sugar Refineries, Felt and Textiles, the banks, the Liberal Party, those who love fascism, who sent pig iron to Japan and licked the boots of the Nazi spy, Von Luckner
Leading the opposition are the mouthpieces and parties of big business, who would have sacrificed Australia at the Brisbane Line, who hate the trade unions, hate the Labor Party, who hate, indeed, all that is progressive in the community. They are the chief enemies of communism.
It was ever thus ... with the early socialists, the pioneers of the trade union movement, the IWW, the Labor Party, with the first rebel, indeed, Jesus Christ, the agitator, who cast the money changers from the temple.
We communists are proud of being the main target of the enemies of the labour movement.
It is clear why we occupy that position – since the manifesto of Marx, 100 years ago, we have disdained to hide our aims. We want to see society changed. We want to see it transformed from a thing of wars and depressions, to a real brotherhood of man; but powerful, wealthy people don’t want it changed, because they have a vested interest in it, and the closer the inevitable change comes, the more desperate they become, and the more vicious their attacks on the most active in the labour movement which is going to change it.
So, slate the communists! As observed by the London Economist: ”Communists are safer game than high prices.”
And let me emphasise right here, communism is not socialism plus bloodshed, as some propaganda would have it, nor is socialism just something a degree more violent than socialisation.
Communists are not out to create a bloody revolution. Communists work for the improvement of the conditions of the people. Their understanding of social science teaches them that in the long run, such is capitalist development, that improvement can only be attained by changing basic social relations, by a shift in ownership and control from the few to the many – so we call for nationalisation, which in its all-embracing form is socialisation, and when the whole of society is changed by the elimination of the private ownership of the entire means of production, socialism.
The degree of violence accompanying the change will be determined not by us, who hate it, and want it not, but by the extent of the resistance by the few to the will of the people for it.
The development to socialism is inevitable – what is in question is how much more of the ills caused by capitalism, from wage servitude to atomic war, we have to go through, and that depends upon all of us, upon you. Socialism is inevitable because just as feudalism replaced slavery, and capitalism feudalism – all based upon the right of private property – so capitalism, having enormously developed the productive processes on a social basis, has reached the stage when, because of the private ownership of those processes, the system has become a fetter on production itself. So the organised destruction of surplus goods, goods that starving people need, the waste of human labour, the sabotaging of new inventions, the tipping of potatoes into the sea, the feeding of wheat to pigs – the whole productive system jammed, a way out sought in destruction, in war.
Capitalism produces its own grave-diggers, the masses of the wage workers and they reach a point where it is no longer possible to live, they see the limitations of the trade union struggle in the persistence of insecurity ... private ownership must go, social ownership must take its place, socialism.
Then, as described by Pope Pious XII: “The small and middle producers lose their value in human society, and are compelled to take part in an increasingly bitter struggle for existence, without hope of success”.
Until the stage is reached, described in the latest social justice document of the Australian Catholic Bishops: “The tiny few who control the vast bulk of the means of production, and the many who own nothing”, society dominated by the big trusts and combines.
“Due” (to quote the Bishops’ document) “to their legal, social and political advantages”, to which I would add, advantages arising directly from their private ownership of the means of production. To what else?
The tiny few rulers, the vast bulk of dispossessed.
It is as the communist Karl Marx wrote, the class set-up, the struggle for existence without hope, that is, without hope under capitalism – and how futile to look longingly backward to the past, which cannot be regained, as do the Catholic Bishops – when the future is full of hope, with, under socialism, the small men, the propertyless millions, about whom they express concern, coming into their own, with the destruction of the trusts now depriving them of their rights, their rights to property, the ending of monopoly capitalism.
In our own generation, we have already known two big economic crises and two world wars, and now hovering on the brink of more of them. Why? Because the monopolists of the world seek to hack their way back to the old capitalist order, which, shaken to its very foundations by its own contradictions and the result of them, has been sentenced by history to die.
In the course of the war – the war to halt the worst, most reactionary, most violent, most desperate capitalist group, the Axis bloc – the Allies promised the eradication of fascism from the earth, guaranteed the four freedoms, co-operation to safeguard peace and security, the destruction of the colonial system.
But alas! What were the things that the governments were promising? In the final analysis, nothing less than the destruction of capitalism and a new order, and among the governments were capitalist governments, backed by the big trusts and monopolists, with a vested interest in the old order. No new order for them!
Others, however, were determined to get that new order, an order that could only be in terms of the antithesis of capitalism, socialist principles.
In Eastern Europe, however, the old feudal lords and capitalist monopolists and absolute monarchs who had collaborated with the fascists had gone from the historic stage, and quite naturally the leaders of the resistance movements became the new leaders of their countries and, in place of the old reactionary regimes there grew up the new peoples’ democracies of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania.
Following a clear pattern, not the pattern of alleged communist totalitarianism, but the pattern of the useful people, the workers and the farmers, participating in government and setting out to destroy the remnants of the old bankrupt order, nationalising the key industries to enable production to be properly planned, giving the people land, establishing co-operative societies – emphasised in the plan of the Catholic Bishops – cutting prices and raising wages to improve living standards, the little people, the small producers coming into their own, as the big land owners and monopolists pass from the stage.
And prominent in the new leadership, the communists, grown, thanks to their correct policy, their prestige and popularity, from the hundreds of pre-war days, to millions, and working side by side with them in the new leadership other parties of the people, including Catholics.
The new world, taking the way out of capitalist instability, insecurity and crises.
And now let us turn to the old world. Its spearhead, capitalist America, where oncoming economic crisis has already thrown three million out of work, with eight million partially unemployed, a country, as pointed out in the Bishops’ statement, dominated by the big trusts and combines, breaking all profit records; America, where productivity has increased, but soaring prices at home - 70 per cent higher than before the war - and poverty abroad, prevent the goods being consumed; America, land of lynch law, race discrimination, political persecution, large scale respectable prostitution, the apex of capitalist development.
Here’s the story: capitalist America, with its mass production, its handful of billionaires, getting more and more wealth, wants to sell, must sell, but not to buy, to sell to the world which has no money and is in debt to the seller.
The Wall Street billionaires must lend dollars to the rest of the world to buy their surplus products, to interfere in other countries to ensure that the rest of the world adjusts its economy to Wall Street, namely, that it takes the surplus goods of America, and does not produce itself goods to compete with America. To do that, the US must intervene in the internal affairs of all other countries, to ensure that their policies are adapted to Wall Street’s interests.
The ultimate position is that of Wall Street imperialism dominating the markets of the world against all competitors – a drastic set-up, impossible to realise without war. And so, with the Marshall Aid plan, goes the Truman doctrine, the drive for rearmament, atomic bombs, for military bases, for other countries to be the military tools, as well as the economic appendages of America, not, I hasten to add, because Americans as such are evil, but because capitalist contradictions force their monopolists relentlessly on and on, and even President Truman warns of the approach to the abyss.
Unlike the eastern states of Europe, the old capitalist rulers remain in the west, seek desperately to find a way out of their capitalist problems by more doses of the drug that produced them, leading to rising food prices, in some instances meaning a condition of actual starvation for masses of the people, despite the fact that production is higher, profits are higher, conditions of impoverishment for the many directly due to the fact that the few wealthy monopolists must get their pound of flesh, and particularly those of Wall Street.
So, in the colonial world, the colonial peoples are in revolt against imperialism. While the people of liberated Peoples’ China, with their new-found freedom, their vast industrial co-operatives, thrive, with thousands of farmers who worked for landlords for 20 years now their own working proprietors in the principle of the Australian Bishops’ plan.
The peoples of Siam, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia seek, too, release from colonial slavery, under conditions in which their staple foodstuffs have increased five times in price, and their economies are tied to the needs of imperialism; but the old pukka sahibs resist change, as they have resisted all through history, and the tin and rubber monopolists fear for their 20 million pounds of investments ... and there is bloodshed.
And, standing out sharply against the confusion and chaos of the old capitalist world, with its rising prices, food riots, increased profits and civil strife, stands strong, secure, stable and prosperous, the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union which, to quote Mr Churchill, “tore the guts” out of the German Army, the Soviet Union, latterly our ally, now slandered and vilified for the same reasons as are the communists of other lands – they represent the new, socialist society.
Be it again placed on record, under the leadership of the communists, Russia was transformed in the short space of a few years from a backward, bankrupt, decadent, illiterate country to a modern state, industrially comparable with any other in the world, leading the world in agriculture, science, education.
Think of this - and then your own experiences here in Australia. While repairing damage wrought by the war, far greater than all other Allied countries put together, the Soviet Union has rehoused nine million people since the end of the war, production has steadily increased 30 per cent since the abolition of rationing in December, prices steadily go down, meaning an increase of 51 per cent in real wages since the end of the war. Rents are the lowest in the world, all war taxation has been abolished. Today, the people are buying 72 per cent more bread, 20 per cent more butter, 44 per cent more textiles, three times as much sugar as at the end of the war. Four times this year, the Soviet co-operatives, backbone of Soviet economic enterprise, have cut prices.
Are these the achievements of a totalitarian tyranny, a barbaric leadership?
I welcome the challenge of the Bishops’ pamphlet, with its tests of a social order.
1. Are the institutions of marriage and the family strong?
One of the first laws introduced after the revolution of 1917 was that relating to marriage and the family, and ever since laws have been formulated to ensure its stability and well-being, with the emphasis on sex equality and the special care of children. The family is the bulwark of Soviet society, its welfare the responsibility of the nation, as advocated by Catholic church leaders. And here’s the greatest testimony of all – the birthrate increases, year after year. Can any capitalist country tell such a story?
2. Are material goods equitably divided between the different classes, granted the function which each of them performs?
There is no country in the world where goods are more equitably distributed, in accordance with functions performed, work done. That is the very principle which regulates income in the Soviet Union. In Russia there are no exploiting billionaires on the one hand and starving people on the other. And, as expressly stated in the Soviet Constitution, the people of Russia own more private property in the sense of needed personal possessions, not machinery with which to exploit, than any other in the world.
3. Is the human person free and secure in the enjoyment of his inviolable rights?
There is no country in the world where human rights are so explicitly acknowledged, and recognised.
Ah, but what about the other question, you ask? Is religion a strong and vital force? Many leaders of religion have recently claimed so. Some, it is true, declaring that that religious vitality is in spite of and not because of government policy. Others, seeing religion as a matter of moral principles, rather than Church organisation.
As to government policy, let me say this. What attacks were made on religious leaders in the period following the socialist revolution were because of their active association with the old, corrupt, tyrannical Czarist regime, and in attempts by reactionaries to destroy the socialist order – for that, not for their religion, were they punished. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church suffered most, because of their consistent support for reaction.
The Catholic Church has never been numerically strong in Russia, but today enjoys complete freedom of activity with, of course, as in the case of other churches, no actual state support, the philosophy of communism being quite admittedly a materialistic one which believes that religion must stand on its own feet, on the strength of its own claimed inner moral and spiritual quality. But no communist has ever called for the persecution of people because of their religion. It is significant that religions of the evangelical type have grown tremendously since the revolution.
Finally, I give you this thought of Professor John MacMurray, eminent churchman, expressed also by many high church leaders: “No structure of society the world has yet known has come closer to embodying the social principles of Christianity, than has Soviet Russia.”
Today, with the elimination of capitalist hangovers in new generations and increasing productivity, Russia develops steadily towards the next phase, communist society, when the state will disappear and the principle will operate of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
I now turn to Australia, with first this disclaimer in anticipation: the Communist Party did not come from Moscow, but grew in the course of Australian labour development, out of the early socialist leagues, trade unions, with recruits from time to time from the Labor Party and other organisations, as the limitations of the purely trade union struggle were realised and unsuccessful attempts made to get the Labor Party to live up to its socialist objective.
Australia has developed from a country based exclusively on land, to one more and more highly industrialised, its capital more and more concentrated, a classic capitalist structure, with slums, insecurity, social disease. Australia has already reached the state feared by the Catholic Bishops, a capitalist society dominated by huge combines and trusts, with 80 men in NSW and Victoria and an inner circle of 20, organised around Australia’s Wall Street, Collins House, controlling 200 million pounds of property. Today, making profits 38 per cent higher than pre-war.
We, in Australia too, have known what capitalist crisis means and war, if we have escaped the devastation of other countries, and are at the moment in the relatively favourable position of being able to take advantage of scarcities elsewhere and so to still expand, with production already 50 per cent higher than pre-war.
But here, as elsewhere, the writing is clearly on the wall. Already Mr Chifley’s dream of a “golden age” has faded and in its place come warnings of recessions ahead as world crisis develops with dollar shortages, rising prices – already 80 per cent above 1938 and. with the relaxing of controls, now threatening to soar even higher – while wages are but 37 per cent above pre-war ... these and other factors tempering the relative prosperity of the boom, the boom that in capitalist history is always followed by a bust.
You remember the last bust, when one and a quarter million breadwinners were unemployed or in receipt of less than a pound a week? The next bust, obedient to capitalist development, will be worse with mass unemployment, small farmers driven off the land, small business people swept into the dole queues.
Obedient to trends throughout the world, in this country we saw at the war’s end the capitalists driving to turn their record profits and accumulated shareholders’ funds to the production of more profits. We saw them get in first with an attack on the trade unions, which had also become stronger in the course of the war – no guesswork, but a fundamental fact, this class conflict.
The capitalist offensive failed and the workers pressed forward successfully to get the new deal promised them, in the shape of rising living standards and better conditions. Now there is another turn as the big monopolists, with an eye on the advancing crisis, seek to force the workers on to the defensive, to bring about a lengthening of hours, worsened conditions, while prices continue to rise, and it becomes more and more difficult for the little people to make ends meet.
And, towering over it all, is the fight to retain Australia’s independence in the face of the Wall Street threat, and the struggle against war, with Australia menaced not by the Soviet Union – which already has territory to “burn” as the saying goes, quite apart from other vital factors – or the colonial people fighting for their independence but, if from anywhere, from fascist, militarist Japan, now being built up again as part of deliberate American imperialist policy.
And what have we communists to say of our position in all this? Now, as always, we seek to organise the people for the defence of their living standards and democratic rights, for Australian independence, against crisis and war, and to resist the drive of reaction to suppress political freedom and trade union liberties, a drive now reaching a crescendo against the communists, but a drive which, as the lessons of history show, will not stop there but will, if not checked, proceed from point to point until the whole labour movement is suppressed and every progressive voice in the community silenced. Catholics, too, are included in that threat.
We are proud of our leadership in the campaigns and struggles in Australia which ended wage pegging and brought wage increases to the workers. We are proud of our leadership today in opposition to rising prices, and for a higher basic wage. We see these campaigns as in the best traditions of the Australian labour movement, traditions which have always been anti-capitalist and pro-socialist, for Australian independence and against imperialism.
We support the socialist objective of the labour movement, expressed in the decisions of the Labor Party, the ACTU and the movement in general, for it is our objective. But we call for sincere, bold steps to implement it with, immediately, the nationalisation of key industries, to make possible planning of production against the effects of coming crisis while insisting that only socialism can bring lasting security for the people ... and believing that, sooner or later, because of the relentless laws of capitalist development which make inevitable the impoverishment of the people, crisis and war, the people will face up to that alternative and support it.
More than anything else today, the workers’ interests demand unity, unity around that labour program I have enunciated, and hence we cannot but feel profound disquiet at the threat to that unity implicit in the attitude of the leaders of the Catholic Church towards the fundamental objective of the labour movement which has already reached the point of public advocacy, of the formation of another party with the expressly stated anti-socialisation campaigning purpose of splitting Labor votes and so defeating Labor governments, a proposal clearly in the interests of the parties of monopoly capitalism whose press cannot conceal its joy at the development.
The Bishops will have none of socialisation, but grudgingly concede the justice and wisdom of nationalisation, if needed for the public good. Well, that test will do us, because there can be no possible doubt that every capitalist enterprise, being what it is, contains within it the seeds of that dominating power, waste and inefficiency to which the Bishops object and that the public good demands that each be taken from its private bands and vested in the people.
If it can be adjudged necessary and moral to nationalise the banks, transport and the steel industry – as the Bishops’ statement concedes – then how much more necessary and moral to take from private hands such grossly mismanaged and chronically unstable industries as coal mining, and those upon which the people’s food, clothing and shelter and hence their very existence depend and which today, in private hands, are utilised merely for record profit making, on the basis of record prices - and how necessary and moral to pass from that stage which, as the Bishops recognise, leaves the workers still in a proletarian condition, to the stage of socialism and ultimately communism.
In fact, it is necessary, just and moral to end the very system under which “a tiny number of men” exercise domination over the lives of the people, as in every capitalist country in the world today. To end that state of affairs is just because the exploitation of human labour is unjust. It is moral, because nothing could be more immoral than waxing wealthy at the expense of the people.
It is necessary because unless it is done, we face the worst consequences in economic crisis and war and are threatened by the political expression of desperate capitalist monopoly in fascism.
Our policy is the policy of the labour movement. Our right to recognition can be readily established by our record. When still in its swaddling clothes, in the 20s, the Communist Party in Australia nevertheless was almost alone in warning of the coming crisis, alone during it in showing an alternative to the official policy of forcing the burdens upon the backs of the people, led the fight against fascism and war, during the war gave second place to none in its support, and today seeks to prepare the people to tread the progressive path to a durable peace.
In this, we are in harmony with the progressive movement throughout the world.
Followers of the Catholic faith have ever been prominent in the progressive movements of the common people often, as in Irish history, in the teeth of opposition from less enlightened leaders of the Church. Who can forget the mighty achievements under such conditions of Catholic fighters for humanity like John Wheatley of England and James Connolly and Daniel O’Connell of Ireland?
Today, Catholics are building the new socialist order, together with others, including communists, in the new people’s democratic societies of Europe, are battling against the reaction in unity with other progressives in Italy and France, taking their religion from the Church leaders but not necessarily their politics. And so, in this country, the majority of them workers and trade unionists, Catholics have played their part in the building of the great Australian labour movement and its many struggles.
Is it surprising that workers can see no difference between the leaders of monopoly capitalism, irrespective of their religious affiliations and, in sooth, knowing no religion save that of Mammon? The workers know that they are exploited equally by Christian and atheist employers, they know that the atheist J G Latham and the Catholic T C McTiernan arrived at the same conclusion in opposition to bank nationalisation. These workers see their own basic unity in their common interests, regardless of religious faith, and will safeguard that unity in furtherance of the socialist object of the movement of which they are a part, come what may.
For there is no other way. It is capitalism, fascism, crisis and war – or socialism, freedom, economic planning and peace.
I believe those workers today will be resentful of the attempts being made by all sorts of groups of all sorts of religious belief and none, who are rallying to the needs of dying capitalism.
I conclude with the words of that devout son of the Roman Catholic Church, James Connolly, the socialist, words that would be subscribed to by the Catholics who have played a prominent part in the Australian working class movement like Tim Moroney of the Railways Union and others.
Said Connolly: “The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. And in the work of abolishing it, the Catholic and the Freethinker,the Catholic and the Protestant, the Catholic and the Jew ... will co-operate together, knowing no rivalry but the rivalry of endeavour towards an end beneficial to all. We, of the socialist working class”, he said, “realise that as we suffer together, we must work together, that we may enjoy together.”