Recruiting to the party — the Port Adelaide experience
by Michael Perth and Bob Briton
We are very pleased to see that comrades are making use of the pages of the AMR to put forward ideas about the party and its work in the branches. This type of discussion — about what works and what doesn’t — usually gets neglected in the blur of day-to-day activity. It is not a subject that recommends itself to consideration in The Guardian, either. This situation — where the vital questions of how to build the party in practical terms are not dealt with — is not due to the carelessness of any individual or group; it has evolved over time. Thanks should go to the branches which kicked off the discussion of the relationship between working in the community, building alliances and building the party itself, in articles in previous AMRs.
By way of background the Port Adelaide Branch is a long-established branch of the CPA with a number of natural advantages. It is a locality branch in a very working class district. Struggles on the waterfront by large numbers of workers may not be a reality here any longer but we live with the legacy of those days. It is still a relatively close-knit community and a hardship posting for Liberal candidates.
Our branch has had experience going back many years of work on local council. Comrades Jim Mitchell and later Ron Connolly and Benny Carslake were elected to the Woodville Council a number of decades ago and left a mark which survives to this day. It is now considered normal to charge businesses higher rates than households but this was a breakthrough made by communists on council. Branch member Peter Nicholls is a long-serving councillor on the Port Adelaide Enfield Council to this day.
We have a number of comrades active in their building union. A few hold positions and one a very senior position in the CFMEU. However, our administrative meetings are usually so packed with items that we don’t take the time to get reports on their work in the union. It is the same with the work being done on council. This is a great shame. The branch members miss out on the benefit of those comrades’ experience and collectively, we fail to help these workers in the educational process of becoming “trade unionists plus” or “councillors plus”, to borrow a phrase from the late Gus Hall. We must correct this shortcoming.
So here are examples where the relationship between building the party and strengthening the broader movement is not what it should be; and it could be said of a number of other areas of our comrades’ work. We have people active in the Australia Cuba Friendship Society, the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network and the Western Workers Fightback Committee, which is a local group supporting the Your Rights at Work Campaign. As an aside, more members must be encouraged to become involved in the current struggle over industrial relations. This is precisely the sort of broad front work that should be a whole-branch commitment and not just the work around parliamentary elections.
We have a history of involvement in Aboriginal issues going back to the time of late member Ruby Hammond. We currently play an active role in the Lartelare Glanville Land Action Group which is supporting a claim for land justice for the Kaurna people on the site of the old CSR sugar refinery. We should do much more in the defence of the rights of Aboriginal people which are under savage attack at the moment.
Our branch members are among the main organisers of one of Adelaide’s May Day traditions — the dedication at the Workers Memorial at Black Diamond Corner in Port Adelaide and the gathering that follows. We are a very visible presence at the annual rally and march. We have had representatives on the May Day Committee (with some breaks) for many years, also.
We have also had comrades working to keep Cheltenham Racecourse out of the hands of developers.
Still, it must be said that through all this activity our record of recruiting to the party as a result of work in mass organisations is poor. No doubt we advance those causes, we build the influence of the party and earn the respect due to us by our work but in terms of recruits, which we can quantify, our work in the organised labour movement and community organisations has not been fruitful.
We have worked with the local Greens and Socialist Alliance candidates with their most recent State election campaigns. We co-sponsored an all-too-short series of joint forums at the Semaphore Workers Club. Even this more direct alliance building work has yet to produce a growth in numbers for our branch.
We conduct propaganda work in the name of our party in the area. We have twice run a candidate in Federal elections for the seat of Port Adelaide with modest but noticeable results in terms of votes. A couple of people joined as a result of these campaigns. We have a stall from which we sell The Guardian nearly every Saturday on the shopping strip at Semaphore.
Our branch has very generous access to the facilities of the Semaphore Workers Club. The club is a gathering point for progressive people and organisations in the district. In fact, it is known in the area as the “Commo Club”. They have very successful regular music events at the club. One of these, the “Be Early Blues Pageant” is a major fundraiser for the CPA. All this activity takes place in rooms decked out with trade union memorabilia and portraits of Lenin, Marx, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. However, relatively few inquiries about party membership have arisen from contact with the club.
By far the greatest number of recruits to our branch has come from the following up of internet and, to a lesser extent, telephone inquiries. We follow these up meticulously. A couple of comrades will meet the person for coffee somewhere handy to the potential recruit, give them copies of our main policy documents and meet them again to discuss what they thought about our political position. Those still interested are invited to a meeting and we take it from there.
This is very traditional, but when it is done conscientiously it reaps results. Our branch has almost doubled in size in the last few years by paying close attention to this approach.
A conclusion that flows from all of this is that it appears that people come to the party as a result of their own reading and life experiences rather than contact with us in the community or the labour movement. They appear to make communists of themselves before ever having contact with the CPA. Of course, recruits are often pretty green at the start — truly effective and developed communists are made and not born, as the saying goes.
Of course, our purpose for in getting involved in trade unions and community organisations is to advance the interests of the working class and other oppressed sections of society. The preamble to the Communist Party’s Constitution is quite clear on this point of the motive for involvement in the mass movements by the party:
It is a working class party based on the concept that the working class is the only force capable engaging in and leading other social forces in the necessary actions to wrest political power from the capitalist ruling class, establishing the power of the working class and achieving the revolutionary changes necessary to build a socialist society. The party has no aims separate from those of the working class and all exploited people.
That is our view, but there are groups around who pretty transparently move from one area of mass work to another, putting their mark on everything that moves in order recruit. Advancing the interests of a party separated from the interests of the class is the essence of sectarianism.
Clearly we don’t want to head down this road but it is reasonable to ask: how can our work in the union movement and community organisations also result in recruitment to our party, to building the numbers of capable people we need to give leadership of a socialist character? If a main feature of our work is building alliances that will ultimately lead to a government of a new type, how can this work have a benefit to the party in terms of increased numbers of already active members? I believe ways must be developed to maintain an awareness in comrades that mass work is not a private commitment only, but party work.
Certainly, we need to re-establish on a consistent basis the practice of comrades regularly reporting to the branch meeting about their activity in mass organisations, of discussing this activity as a collective with the aim of helping the comrades involved with difficulties they may be facing. This should not be seen as party “interference” or “meddling” in the work of the branch members or an attempt to impose party attitudes on the mass organisation. If we truly believe that “the party has no aims separate from those of the working class and all exploited people” and behave accordingly, this will not be a danger.
Branches also need to give guidance in setting the priorities of the work of members. When members join the party, they are usually (but not always) asked about what area of work outside the party they are particularly adapted to or interested in. This is considered against the priorities set down by higher party bodies and it is sometimes suggested to the recruit that she/he should take up activity in a particular organisation needing support and leadership. This work is not done systematically enough in the case of new recruits. It is even rarer for the priorities of the work of comrades of longer standing to be examined. If these matters were taken up in a constructive and comradely way, I believe that they would yield considerable results.
Again, thank you to the comrades from other branches for opening this discussion. I hope that others can provide answers to these questions from their own experience. These are urgent questions and, given the grim times we live in, we must find answers quickly.