Australia and the rise of fascism
by Drew Cottle
Fascism arose in Europe in the wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. Post-war economic conditions and a political crisis led the Italian ruling class to seek a fascist solution. Mussolini’s squadrons brought order and stability to Italy as workers and peasants who demanded radical change were killed, terrorised, imprisoned or driven into exile. In the first years of the Great Depression, as Germany was shaken by economic and social crisis, the Nazis were brought to power by the dominant sectors of capital.
Fascism attempted to control the anarchy of capitalism through barbarism. European fascism became a mass political phenomenon which represented the atavistic responses of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie threatened by the deepening class struggle, recession, mass unrest, revolutionary Russia and the organised working class and socialist parties. Nevertheless, there were substantial differences between the fascist solutions of Italy and Germany and Japan. In the Far East, Japan turned to militarism as its solution to economic depression. Each of these regimes faced fundamental class contradictions which were resolved by force and terror to ensure capital’s existence.
Throughout the capitalist world the strong regimes of Italy, Germany and Japan were admired and later feared. Their efforts at territorial expansion were tolerated as long as they did not threaten the interests of the leading capitalist nations. Nazi Germany was acceded European ‘living space’, Italy invaded Libya and Abyssinia, while the Japanese secured Manchuria before seizing much of coastal China. The appeasement of fascism allowed Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists to consolidate their power and deepen their ambitions. Moreover, fascism bludgeoned the working class and, upholding the interests of capital, became the enemy of communism. During the inter-war period, Australian capitalism was not immune or isolated from these overseas developments.
While Australian economic ties to Britain were more pronounced in the 1920s and 1930s, a growing trade with Japan in metals, wool and wheat made Australian appeasement both profitable and a necessity. As long as British interests in China were not threatened by Japanese aggression, Australian trade with Japan could not be questioned.
If fascism won many admirers within the ruling circles of Britain, continental Europe and the United States, members of the Australian establishment saw it as the panacea for their problems. Frustrated by parliamentary democracy, a militant labour movement and a worsening economic depression, Eric Campbell and other right-wing empire loyalists formed the New Guard in New South Wales. In Victoria and South Australia, similar organisations were established by concerned middle-class citizens.
They represented a turn to fascist solutions to end the crisis of capitalism. They attacked working class organisations. They prepared to seize political power if there was a breakdown of the social order. As state repression of the unemployed masses intensified, the infant Communist Party of Australia attempted to counteract these fascist trends with demonstrations, rallies and occupations. Nevertheless, the burden of the Depression was forced onto the working class as capitalism found its resilience in factory closures, wage cuts, extended working hours, bankruptcies, takeovers, overproduction and sustained levels of high unemployment.
Although the rise of fascism in Europe and Japanese militarism in North Asia did not directly affect the class struggle within Australia, events during the 1930s drew Australian workers into the anti-fascist struggle. Soon after the Nazis came to power in Germany there arose throughout the capitalist nations and the colonised world, organised opposition to fascism. Within Australia, the Movement Against War and Fascism saw the fascist drive to war was a war on the working class and toilers worldwide.
In 1936 the Spanish democratic republic was threatened by the military rebellion of General Franco. The forces of Spanish reaction saw Franco as their fascist saviour. Mussolini and Hitler sent arms, equipment and limited troop numbers to the Francoist cause. Britain, France and the United States appeased fascism by their failure to support republican Spain. A number of Australians travelled to Spain to join the fight against fascism. Only the Soviet Union provided any military aid to anti-fascist Spain. Along with comrades from the United States, Britain, Europe and China, they attempted to hold back the march of fascism whilst the bourgeoisie internationally remained willing to appease it. Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War emboldened the fascist states in their plan to redraw the imperialist world under an Axis design.
During Australia’s sesqui-centenary celebrations of 1938, the Czech Communist journalist, Egon Kisch, was invited to Australia to speak about the dangers of fascism. The conservative Lyons-led coalition government attempted to prevent Kisch from landing in Australia. Neither a broken leg nor a dictation test in Scots Gaelic stopped Comrade Kisch addressing public meetings about fascism and its class and racial consequences. Australia was alerted to the dangers of fascism even as its rulers continued to appease it.
By 1939, Hitler’s demand for German expansion could not be sated through the subjugation of Czechoslovakia. Mussolini dreamt of building a new Roman Empire in Africa. In Asia, with much of China’s coast under its control, Japan was poised to build through invasion and occupation its ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity’ Sphere which embraced French Indo-China, the American Philippines, British India, British Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies and Australia and New Zealand.
As the failures of European appeasement grew more apparent, international fascism accelerated its drive to war. In Australia the perils of appeasing fascism were made plain by the Port Kembla waterside workers’ refusal to load pig iron onto a steamer bound for Yokohama. The wharfies believed that the shipment of metal fuelled the fires of war. It would be used to kill Chinese peasants in the Japanese invasion of China. The Lyons Government saw the pig iron strike not only as a denial of trade but also as a challenge to the policy of appeasement. In the government’s efforts to starve the wharfies into submission, sections of the labour movement and other Australians rallied in support of the wharf labourers’ anti-fascist stand. Chinese market gardeners and shopkeepers sent lorry loads of vegetables and fruit to the striking workers. Chinese seamen ashore in Australian ports gave money to the wharfies’ strike fund.
It was these acts of international solidarity by Communists and the Australian working class which should be remembered just as the silent appeasement of the Australian ruling class must be thoroughly exposed. Eventually, Australia under Menzies went reluctantly to war against fascism in Europe. A large number of the Australian soldiers who formed the Sixth Division, which sailed to the Middle East to defend British oil interests and the Suez Canal from Nazi attack, had been the unwanted jobless in Australia for more than three years. Now they were expected to fight and die for Australia in the war against fascism. Appeasement only gave strength to a fascism which could never be appeased. Once again capitalism resolved its contradictions in war. Fascism, the force which was to discipline the working class and eradicate communism drew the competing capitalist powers into global conflict.
Fascism and its defeat are too often seen as past historical events. Fascism is also a political ideology and project which can arise in moments of capitalist crisis. In contemporary Australia, ruling class responses criminalise refugees, militant workers, Arabic and Muslim Australians, environmentalists and anti-war activists. A Federal government brings into force an industrial relations system devised by the Business Council of Australia. The police are given the power to lock down suburbs. New sedition laws strip away fundamental civil liberties. Dissent is stifled. An illegal, immoral war of occupation is waged in Afghanistan and Iraq and the spirit of Anzac mythologised.
Is this the long, slow drift to an Australian form of fascism?