The Marxist-Leninist “party of the new type” is the most successful organisational vehicle invented for advancing the fundamental interests of the working class and for leading the struggle for socialism. The enduring and growing power of Marxist-Leninist parties internationally is proof of this, along with the unsurpassed track records of success found in every country across the world. This track record of success establishes the international communist movement as the most successful movement for change in history. These parties did not emerge in a vacuum but arose within a contested far-left political space and a contested working class. Communist parties in the western world have risen from a context of a plethora of small left organisations and groups to dominating and growing the entire “left” political space. In the process, a theory of action and method of work was invented that learned from the victory of the Great October socialist revolution that has deep implications for communists and working-class militants today. Numerous examples exist internationally of communist parties successfully adapting the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism to their local conditions and adopting forms of struggle that win the support of the people. Through a review of excerpts of organising texts used by the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the USA we can develop a concrete understanding of universally applicable organising principles that inevitably leads to growth and success of Marxist-Leninist organisations that practice them.
A century after the founding of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), we again find ourselves in circumstances comparable to those the founders of the party found themselves in. There is a need for an emergent strong Communist Party in Australia given the intense slide towards barbarism, rightwing politics and growing environmental disaster. To regain our position as the vanguard of the working class we need to learn from our past historical experience in solving the problems of being a small Marxist-Leninist organisation within a contested working-class space. Our party upon solving these problems through an effective praxis rose to dominate the left and enjoy a position of strong leadership of the working class in Australia for over 50 years. To do this again we need to also simultaneously reject the failed counter-productive practices of other socialist groups that we have an opportunity to avoid reproducing inside our party. This article aims to outline how the CPA and other communist parties broke through into the working class, grew in membership, organisational capacity, and political power. It aims to articulate a vision with corresponding action to quickly achieve this again with an organisational approach that clearly differentiates the party from the swamp of existing organisations on the far left and centres it in working class struggle with a coordinated mode of work that provides a real challenge to the rule of capital Australia wide. By doing this we can rapidly advance towards attaining a critical mass of membership, political influence, and organisational capacity by uniting closely with the working class.
How did the Communist Parties succeed in the past?
The International Communist movement is overall a product of the victory of the working-class led by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917. The great October socialist revolution reverberated throughout the entire world. For the first time in history, the working class in alliance with the peasantry and lead by the Bolsheviks seized state power and embarked upon the creation of a new socialist order, a task to be achieved within the shattered ruins of the Russian empire and during a raging inter-imperialist war. The October revolution was believed by the revolutionaries who led it to be the first shot in a world revolution that would overthrow capitalism and the enemies of the working class across the entire world. While this revolutionary wave in Europe was brutally crushed, the call of world revolution was heard and answered by militants across the world. The Third International was set up as a global body for waging world revolution. It disseminated the experiences and developments of the Russian revolution to communists and organisations that met the conditions for joining the Comintern worldwide. It ensured the adoption of a common approach to the task of making revolution across the world that would enable consistency in aim with flexibility in tactics, an approach that enabled revolutionaries to adapt to local prevailing conditions whilst adhering to a common set of tested principles. (Lenin, 2002).
In Left Wing Communism an infantile disorder Lenin sought to outline the preconditions necessary for the successful overthrow of Capitalism. “for revolution it is essential, first, that a majority of the workers (or at least a majority of the class-conscious, thinking, politically active workers) should fully understand the necessity for revolution and be ready to sacrifice their lives for it; secondly, that the ruling classes be in a state of governmental crisis which draws even the most backward masses into politics, weakens the government and makes it possible for the revolutionaries to overthrow it rapidly.” (Lenin, 1965) The first factor of winning a majority of workers to the revolutionary struggle is the principal task of all revolutionaries. This work prepares for moments of deep ruptural crisis within the capitalist system and within the capacity of the bourgeoisie to maintain its position of the ruling class in society to mount an overthrow of the existing system and its replacement with socialism. (Lenin, 1965)
This is followed by analysis of what is needed to ensure for this work to occur: “In order that the mass of a definite class may learn how to understand its own interests, its situation, may learn how to carry on its own policy, precisely for this an organisation of the advanced elements of the class is immediately necessary at any cost though at the beginning these elements may form a negligible section of the class.” (Lenin, 1965)
This organisation takes the form of the revolutionary political party of a new type. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) The concept of the “party of a new type” serves to demonstrate that this “new” type of party organisation that draws from and internationalises the experience of the Russian revolution breaks with previous forms of broad and loose party organisation adopted and used by Social Democrats internationally. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) The communist international disseminated the party of the new type internationally. The key attributes of the party of the new type developed in the period preceding the Russian revolution and confirmed by its victory are:
- Adherence to the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism and its use as the guide to action,
- A membership composition drawn from the most advanced sections of the working class,
- the organising principle of democratic centralism that establishes freedom of discussion, unity in action and the conscious observance of discipline as the basic norm of party life,
- A focus towards winning the position of the vanguard of the working class.
- The use of the party press and publication organs as an organising force for the party membership
- The use of the strategy of the united front to unite the working class and progressive forces in society around the party in the struggle for winning immediate struggles in the interest of the working class.
A praxis based upon proving in practice the superiority of the ideas of Marxism-Leninism to workers through the effective solutions communists can uniquely devise and organise to implement in their every-day life.
While the Communist International enabled the internationalising of the experiences and new theoretical and organisational developments of conducting socialist revolution, the member communist parties of the 3rd International had the crucial task of uniting the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism with the local realities of their own countries.
The means by which Communist Parties win the position of vanguard of the working class is the decisive political and organisational question affecting its capacity to implement its scientifically outlined program. To this end Lenin said while criticising the attitudes of early British Communists in 1920 that “If the minority is unable to lead the masses, to link up closely with them, then it is not a party and is of no value whatever, no matter whether it calls itself a party … .” (Kuusinen et al., 1964) Lenin also observed that “For it is not enough to call ourselves the ‘vanguard’, the advanced contingent, we must act in such a way that all the other contingents recognise and are obliged to admit that we are marching in the vanguard.” (Kuusinen et al., 1964) Lenin makes it clear here that ideological leadership is only demonstrated in practice with concrete results and not with hollow phrases, propagandistic activity divorced from the class struggle experienced by workers and activity that amounts to “spreading the good news.”
Communists win positions of leadership within the working class and popular movements by struggling where the people are. In the Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism (1961) Lenin is quoted as saying that “To serve the mass and express its properly sensed interests, the advanced detachment, the organisation MUST conduct all its activities in the mass, drawing from it all – without exception – the best forces, checking at each step, thoroughly and lively, whether the ties with the mass are maintained, whether they are alive. In such, and only in such a way, does the advanced detachment educate and enlighten the mass, expressing its interests, teaching it organisation, guiding all the activity of the mass along the path of conscious class policy.” (Kuusinen et al., 1964) Lenin clearly calls for communist parties to prioritise mass work with the clear implication arising from this call being that this orientation to work is an integral component to genuine adherence to the revolutionary politics we now call Marxism-Leninism and that a rejection of it is revisionist.
Mass work is best understood as deliberate and systematic grassroots work to solve the immediate problems faced by the working class and to solve these problems in ways that expose people to the arguments and methods of work of communists, the necessity and desirability of the leadership of the Communist Party, and which also points to the final resolution of these problems under socialism. (Chen, 2001) Mass work builds the connections between the party and the working people. It draws the most advanced sections of the working class into the party, and it increases the credibility of the party such that it can realise its role as the vanguard of the working class. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) Through concrete struggles for resolving the immediate needs of working people Communists test their ideas and the political line of their organisation in practice, gain valuable practical experience and knowledge, and ultimately increase the credibility and respect of their organisation and political line. This process of engaging in mass work genuinely unites the party with the working class and thus promotes growth in the membership, influence, and capacity of the party.
This work is essential for the strategy of the united front to be fully realised. The program of the Communist Party of Australia says that “The united front of the working class means the establishment of unity in action by all sections of the working class in support of their economic and political interests.” (Communist Party of Australia, 2017) Drawing workers of differing political and ideological positions into a struggle for the defense of their immediate interests is always a crucial opportunity for communists to engage in the battle of ideas while organising the working class into a formation to win immediate improvements and reforms. United Front work ultimately seeks to organise the whole of society and the working class around the leadership and organisation of the Communist Party. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) The Communist Party is in the strongest possible position to direct and influence the united front and organise society around itself when strongly united with the working class through a strong praxis of mass work.
In the 1920s and 30s, Communist Parties across the world plunged headfirst into the real struggles of the working class and oppressed masses. They sought through their advanced organisation and arguments to achieve immediate wins whilst drawing the working class more deeply into the revolutionary struggle for socialism. Mass work targeting capacity in industrial interventions was a critical part of the strategies of Communist Parties across the world. Through this they grew and became powerful forces in their respective countries.
The experiences of the Communist Party of Australia and its relation to parallel international experiences of mass work
The Communist Party of Australia was founded on October 30 1920 at a congress containing trade union militants disillusioned with the ALP, members of existing socialist organisations particularly the Australian Socialist Party and former members of the Industrial Workers of the World. (Macintyre, 1998) The formation of the CPA occurred in a local context of a massive trade union campaign against conscription, an ALP government that had seen Prime Minister Billy Hughes defect to the conservatives in support of the war, jailing of conscientious objectors to the war, and a General Strike in 1917 that was defeated. (Sharkey, 1944)
The CPA struggled to take off after its foundation. However within a few years developments began to emerge that would be decisive in the growth and strengthening of the party. In 1925 the CPA developed its first industry branch in the Ironworks and train yard in Lithgow, where it experienced strong growth and came into conflict with moderate union leadership. (Macintyre, 1998) An Australian agricultural workers union was set up in North QLD to organise cane cutters ignored by the Australian Workers Union. This Agricultural Workers Union challenged and sought to replace the class-collaborationist AWU, and while the work done won workers to the party the effort to challenge the AWU was unsuccessful. (Macintyre, 1998) Initial efforts were made to build a rank-and-file network of union militants called the Militant-Minority movement that would struggle against class collaborationist union officials in 1926, although this needed to be relaunched in 1929. (Campbell, 1945) The Militant-Minority movement launched a newspaper, organised behind workers in struggle and enabled militants led by the Communist Party of Australia to bring the support of the community to industrial struggles, build and expand the intensity of the class struggle and facilitate the election of militant communists to the leadership of trade unions. (Campbell, 1945) The objectives of the Militant-Minority movement as set out in the Workers Weekly in March of 1928 were:
- to increase the power of organised labour by promoting class consciousness and stimulating activity in the unions on all matters of interest,
- to bring about increased unity in the organised working class, to assist workers in times of industrial crisis as a vanguard and expose the betrayers of the struggle,
- to develop self-confidence and self-reliance of workers in the power of the organised working class to win concessions from capital,
- to win the abolishment of contract, bonus and piece rate work systems of wage payment
- to organise for a shorter working week
- to bring into existence a centralised industrial movement linked to the Red International of Labour Unions (the union international that was linked to the 3rd International)
- to assist the development of the working-class movement towards the overthrow of capitalism and for socialism.
Unemployed workers were also organised into an Unemployed Workers Union that organised the masses of unemployed to resist evictions, fight for higher and improved unemployment benefits and for dignified living conditions. (Sharkey, 1944) This union of the unemployed played a key role in the Great Depression in supporting the mass of unemployed workers and played an essential role in winning large numbers of workers to the party. (Macintyre, 1998)
In 1930, the Communist International sent a representative of the Communist International to Australia to permanently resolve its internal problems and bolshevise the party. This representative Herbert Moore was part of the leadership of the CPUSA leadership before acting on behalf of the Comintern in Australia. (Macintyre, 1998) Part of this bolshevisation process included deep organisational reform of the party, and supporting efforts made by the party membership in an internal struggle to remove a previous leadership and members of the party who had made serious right-opportunist deviations from Marxism-Leninism. (Campbell, 1945) This led to the installation of a new leadership with Comrade General Secretary JB Miles and Comrade President Lance Sharkey as its core figures. These reforms officially instituted at the tenth congress held in April 1931 included the reorganisation of all levels of the party into 8 Districts (a 9th North QLD district was added in 1933) and the reorganisation of local party organisation into factory and street units. The role of these units will be later outlined during an analysis of “the CPUSA organising manual.” This leadership built upon existing successes while increasing the focus and organisation of the party to respond to the great depression and the deprivations this inflicted upon the working class. Between 1929 and 1940 the CPA exploded in size, growing from an estimated 300 members nationwide to over 5000 by 1932 and 10,000 by 1940. (Macintyre, 1998) What was the political and organisational strategy during this time?
The political and organisational strategy was to make the party the organisation that was the principal agent of the working class in the class struggle with a focus on playing an irreplaceable role in industrial struggles. (Macintyre, 1998) The CPA was the party that grew the shop stewards’ networks, that brought large numbers of workers and their communities to picket lines, that made powerful interventions into industrial struggles to strengthen the fighting capacity of workers and to achieve real wins in these struggles. (Sharkey, 1943) It was the party which organised broader political interventions into the community and into Australian culture in support of this principal aim. The CPA’s organisation of the militant minority movement and the unemployed workers union played a crucial role in winning credibility for the party by being present at the most crucial moments affecting the lives of workers. (Macintyre, 1998) These organisations facilitated massive recruitment of workers and the later election of Communists to leadership positions in the trade union movement. (Sharkey, 1944)
The CPA was not nationally exceptional but was rather in the same vein as work conducted by Communist Parties Internationally at this time across varying national conditions. This similarity is due to the coordinating and leading role that the 3rd international had in disseminating the experiences of the revolution that formed the Soviet Union internationally. The similarity in work demonstrates universally true methods of Marxist-Leninist theories of action that can be applied in ways that are appropriate for our immediate conditions at the present. Through studying the orientation towards mass work and local party organisation by two communist parties that were highly successful in the 1930s, the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of the USA, as it appeared in selected official documents it is possible to understand the work done by other parties in this time including the Communist Party of Australia and understand the attitude that existed towards the work of these parties. These parties have set an important standard by which to compare work that currently occurs in the communist movement.
The Communist Party of China in the long civil war against the Nationalist Party and in the war against Japanese Imperialism demonstrated a deep capacity to innovate and develop methods of struggle appropriate to the prevailing local conditions of China. This included a specific praxis that prioritised the outreach and credibility building operations that characterise mass work. In the 1939 article “Mass work is the central task at the local level” published in The Communist, the journal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, central committee member and then head of the Communist Party of China organisation department Chen Yun (Vogel, 2005) outlined the critical importance of mass work to the work of the party at the grassroots and local level. (Chen, 2001)
Chen Yun’s argument about mass work consists of the following essential components. First, Communists seek to educate and organise the people into revolutionary struggle which requires an explicit recognition by Communists that the “Full mobilisation of the masses is the key to all our work”. It is not possible to realise the objectives within the party program without organising the people and non-communists behind the program. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) This revolutionary struggle while ultimately benefiting the working class requires sacrifices by the working people to achieve victory. The masses that communists seek to mobilise must have confidence in both their capacity to win and in the ideas and organisation of the party. The only way to give them this confidence is to draw them into the struggle where they learn that unity and organisation is the only way to improve their lives by achieving immediate wins in areas of immediate concern to them. (Chen, 2001) This also demonstrates that their interests are fully aligned with that of the communist movement and class struggle. Communists therefore need to explicitly recognise that “We can awaken the masses only by improving their welfare”. This work can only be done through the activity of local grassroots party organisations and requires that party members recognise that “Mass work is the central task at the local level.” (Chen, 2001)
Local organisations of the Communist Party whether it be branches or district committees that recognise these points as being the key element of their local work grow stronger, more capable, win credibility, and win recognition by the working class that the party is their primary fighting organisation. (Chen, 2001) They also fulfill more completely their obligations to higher party organisations. Those local organisations that do not recognise this are unable to unite with the people and grow weak, wither and die. Party organisations can ensure that they unite with the people and engage with the people by “always keeping the people’s vital interests on the agenda of every meeting.”
Chen Yun in diagnosing the cause of weaknesses in the organisations of the CPC in its work said that “Experience has proved that no Party organisation that is divorced from the masses is really solid. The weakest Party committees are the ones that have lost touch with the masses. The Party branches that are strong and serve as bastions among the people are those that maintain close ties with them and truly give them guidance. All the weaknesses of the Party, whether in its organisation or its work, can be traced to isolation from the masses.” (Chen, 2001) He refers to an example of a branch he encountered while visiting local party organisations of which its meetings did not extend beyond discussion around the paying of dues, vague political discussion and where its work focused on fulfilling its assigned tasks without attempting serious outreach efforts that sought to mobilise the people. “We must admit that many Party branch meetings have no clear-cut purpose. The comrades don’t know why they are meeting. Consequently, the gathering becomes a sort of publicity session.” (Chen, 2001) This demonstrated the weakness and lack of direction or purpose local party organisations acquire when they fail to be involved in the immediate struggle of the people, with his summary of this situation being “After a few meetings like that, I doubt that anyone would want to show up again.” (Chen, 2001) This is true of any party organisation or branch that fails to have a real life inside the community and which fails to have a real purpose or direction to its work which can be directly measured through wins, achievements and recruitment. We are undermining ourselves as communists, militants and as a party if we enable branches of the CPA to persist that chronically have the problems identified here by Chen Yun. Recent experience demonstrates that branches engaging in their area of work with consistent and impactful activity will recruit members to the party, while those that are inactive and passive in the class struggle go nowhere.
This is compared to branches in other areas that did prioritise mass work which achieved overwhelming success in fulfilling their assigned tasks, attracting recruits to the party and accelerating the class struggle in their local contexts. (Chen, 2001) In the example provided the branch mobilised a large proportion of the village into the struggle against Japanese aggression, displaced the feudal power elite with leadership of the village being properly elected by its constituents, ran a cooperative and a mutual aid office and successfully organised the peasantry to reduce both rents and taxes in their area. (Chen, 2001) Most of the branch’s meetings included discussion on how to immediately solve problems faced by the people in the area. This branch was also more capable of meeting the quotas mandated onto it by higher party bodies than others that did not have this approach.(Chen, 2001)
Chen Yun also outlines key principles in how communists can successfully embark upon developing mass work. He advocates the development of new local institutions saying “How can we expand the limited work we are doing now so as to involve the masses on a truly broad scale? The only way is to arouse the people and help them establish their own grass-roots organisations, under the Party’s leadership, to safeguard their own interests. That will sharpen the conflict between the interests of the masses and those of the local despots who control the township and village governments.” He also cautions communists to ensure that this work is done through the cooperation of party members and people saying “There are not, and cannot be, any fixed methods for solving the people’s problems; it all depends on the circumstances of a given time and place. But one thing is certain and applicable everywhere, and that is that any solution must be worked out by the people themselves.” (Chen, 2001)
What should the CPA draw specifically from this example for our contemporary work? There are clear implications for locality branches. Locality branches need to integrate themselves into the community and be responsive to their mood and ideas. The work of effective local branches will indisputably draw the community into struggle and will activate them as a powerful force for the implementation of the decisions of the party. This can only be achieved with sustained and consistent mass work that fights for winning immediate improvements in their immediate conditions. At key flash points of struggle we don’t just want the militants to show up. We need the P&C associations and the soccer clubs to show up too.
Another important example of historic success of a Communist Party in a deep application of mass work can also be found in the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) of the 1930s. The CPUSA was founded after the 1st Red scare in 1919 in the USA. It followed a similar yet grander trajectory to our own party in the 1930s. During the Great Depression it is credited with rebuilding the labour movement, setting up pioneering movements against racism and segregation and establishing potent mass organisations such as the workers’ insurance and mutual aid organisation the “International Workers Order.” (Peters, 1935) The CPUSA in this time experienced explosive growth and gained sufficient power to force the ruling class of the USA to implement policies to alleviate the depression. The US ruling class made these concessions with the aim of reducing the appeal of the CPUSA particularly and of “revolutionary“ organisations and ideas threatening American capitalism in general. The actions and strategy behind the success of the CPUSA were typical of anglophone Communist parties throughout the 1930s and parallel to the experience of the Communist Party of Australia.
The CPUSA clearly documented the strategy and organising model that it used to develop these initiatives that it published, organised study sessions around and implemented at all levels. In 1935 the CPUSA through Workers Library Publishers NYC published the CPUSA: a Manual on Organisation which distills and makes available the forms of organisation and struggle prioritised by the CPUSA at this time.(Peters, 1935)
The strategic analysis of the CPUSA derived from an analysis of the preconditions for revolution in Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism – an infantile disorder that have been previously explored. It then explores a key political and organisational question: “How will the Communist Party convince the majority of the working class that a revolution is necessary? The Communist Party can do this by becoming the trusted vanguard, the beloved organiser and leader of the struggle of the working class. Agitation and propaganda alone are insufficient. Something more is needed to convince the masses of the proletariat of the necessity for the overthrow of the old order.”
The CPUSA then determined that the means of convincing the working class to support the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is through a formulation of “learn through struggle; convince through leadership.” In the struggle for improvements in industrial, cultural and social conditions, workers learn who their true enemies are and the reality lying behind the deceptive façade of capitalism. (Peters, 1935) Simultaneously, workers fully meet the Communist Party upon being drawn into struggle and experiencing the contribution that its superior ideas and organisation makes to their struggle, contributions which win the confidence of the working class. “While the Communist Party knows that hunger and misery cannot be finally abolished under the capitalist system, it leads and organises the fight of the masses for better conditions now because the interests of the workers are its interests, and because it knows these day-to-day struggles develop the workers for their final task-the overthrow of capitalism.” (Peters, 1935)
The CPUSA based its local organisation upon seeking to unite deeply with the working class in ways which are meaningful to the ordinary lives of workers. Its analysis prioritised areas of work in specific and concrete ways. The CPUSA attached direct importance to party members organising inside mass workplaces and “pinch-point” industries, corporate farms, in unions covering workers in these industries and inside cultural and sporting organisations of the working class. (Peters, 1935) The local level organisation of the CPUSA directly reflected this analysis and was geared towards applying this praxis. Local branches were organised principally into factory units (more familiar to CPA members as workplace or industry branches) that were directly supported by street/town units (most familiar to CPA members as local area branches). This is a type of organisation identical to that adopted by the CPA following the previously mentioned intervention into our party by the Comintern in 1930. (Sharkey, 1944)
Workplace focused organisation of the party is a critical part of the work of an effective communist party. (Kuusinen et al., 1964) The CPUSA and other Communist parties across the world assigned greater emphasis and political significance to workplace organisations of the party over that of local area organisations in this time. There are numerous advantages to building the party inside the workplace. It directly connects the party to the locations where workers spend the dominant proportion of their time and energy. The workplace is the location where the interests of the contending classes are expressed and clashed. Working class interests can be more easily and related to inside work, and successful struggle here brings both workers into struggle with their class enemy and wins immediate improvements to their livelihoods. (Peters, 1935) This is an environment where party members can win through their actions and arguments the respect and trust of their fellow workers in the struggle against the boss. Party members winning their fellow workers to acceptance of the positions of the party and trust in its organisation nationwide brings the majority of the working class under the direct influence of the Communist Party, and propels these leading members into winning positions of leadership inside the Trade Unions which are the key mass organisation of the working class.
The CPUSA organising manual laid particular emphasis on organising within large workplaces, as these workplaces concentrate large numbers of workers, act as economic and organisational nodes of society and set the standards and conditions of the overall industry. In this way building organisations of the party within the workplace that bring the campaigns and political line of the party onto the shop floor is the most direct means of connecting the party with the working class and deeply integrating it into the everyday lives of workers. (Peters, 1935)
Workplace cells were supported by “street units” of the party, which were the local area organisations of the party active in the local communities of the working class. These units comprised all members of the party that were not able to be a member through a workplace cell. It was clearly articulated that “The basic task of the Street Unit is to win over the majority of the working class in the neighbourhood to the fight for the active support of the revolutionary struggles, and to make them conscious followers of the Communist Party.” (Peters, 1935) This was to be through involvement in organising and leading mass struggles of immediate interest to the working class. At the time of publication this was chiefly unemployment relief and social insurance. Patient and consistent work focusing on areas of concern to the working class need to be responded to with an effort to achieve material wins that improve the conditions of the working class, win confidence in and support to the party and ultimately increased numbers of new recruits. “The Unit which knows these problems, which quickly reacts to all these issues and brings forward the proper slogans for action, will succeed in gathering around itself the working masses in the neighbourhood.” (Peters, 1935) This is a clear direction for local party organisations to have continual deep engagement in mass work.
Of interest is the emphasis given for the integration of area-based organisations and workplace organisations. Street units were tasked to support workplace and factory cells. Examples of this support could include systematic selling of the party newspaper outside of the workplace and open agitational work in the surrounding area, to direct intensive support of industrial struggles and strikes when they occurred. A successfully organised street unit would be able to organise the neighbourhood to support workers in their struggles. (Peters, 1935) It was also a clear requirement of street units to support and guide their employed members to establish new workplace units in their area of work. It is worth highlighting here that the selling of party papers outside the factory occurred in a context where workers were working alongside communists who were organised at work through workplace branches, and where they knew and were becoming accustomed to the politics and methods of work of the party. This is not random cold calling but active reinforcing of comrades and their party work inside the workplace.
These excerpts from the CPC and the CPUSA provide a cross-section of activity that was broadly universal in the International Communist movement in the 1930s, and which informed the strategy that had been adopted by the CPA for winning the working class to its politics and organisation. This work occurred in a time where the level of class struggle in society was escalating and where the communist movement was undergoing explosive growth in membership and political power. Some of this growth can be attributed to the severe crisis of capitalism in the 1930s and the buoyant optimism that the Soviet Union broadly evoked at the time. (Macintyre, 1998) If the communist movement had not closely focused on the real lived conditions of workers and directed its organisation around campaigns and plans of action seeking to make a material difference to these conditions, the Communist movement would never have won the leadership and respect from the working class that it did. This work should both inspire communists today and be used to analyse means of working to build working class power, channel it into struggle and transform our party in the here and now. It is where our movement has been before and where it will be again if we do the work required to make our party a genuine threat to capitalism.
This position of leadership that communists won in the working class took decades of Cold-War fear mongering and McCarthyite repression, splits in the International Communist movement and an abandonment of mass work and workplace focused organising for the Capitalist class to fully wrest away from the Communist parties. (Chengguo, 2015) While this paper does not have the scope to fully outline why the communist movement largely abandoned methods of work that had been hugely successful in engaging the working class and building up class power, there is scope to critique the methods of work that have been adopted by the left in Australia since the end of the Cold-War. The object of such a critique is to suggest a path forward towards ensuring that the CPA can differentiate itself to the Australian working class in such a way to ensure that it achieves critical mass and grows into the much-needed vanguard of the working class.
What does the Australian “left” do today?
As the Communist Party of Australia grows and moves from survival-praxis into an expansive-praxis it is important to have a clear principled critique of the political and organisational strategies of other left organisations. This is essential in order to avoid replicating methods of work that are fruitless and have undoubtedly weakened the working-class movement through the deliberate parody of proven successful organising principles and through the wholesale abandonment of the working class.
Following the counter-revolutionary overthrow of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold-War the majority of political space in the far-left has been occupied by Trotskyist sects of differing flavours. Groups maintaining an analysis derived from the British Trotskyist Tony Cliff, such as the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) (today “Solidarity”) and Socialist Alternative having been the most well organised and successful through this time in Australia, although the largest body Socialist Alternative sits around the 500-member mark. These groups have been the largest explicitly socialist organisations in Australia since 1991. This coincides with a period where the conditions of the working class in Australia have seen steep declines through stagnant wages growth, declining union density, prolonged decline of the manufacturing industry, growing job-insecurity and growth in far-right organisations. (Humphrys, 2015) This coinciding of relative (but not absolute) strength of Trotskyist ideas in the left and decline in the working-class movement demonstrates a deep and comprehensive failure of these organisations to have an impact on the condition of the Australian working class, let alone win a position of leadership. After having had decades to test their political line in practice with few real competitors, the result of their political orientation has been seen in deep setbacks experienced by the working class. This failure needs to be understood in terms of the failures of the analysis and organisation of these sects in their following of a strategy that in real terms abandons the working class.
Cliffite organisations adopt an analysis and strategy that with variations between groups largely dominates socialist organisations in Australia. The analysis that is most clearly presented and can be used as the archetype of this strategy can be found in the Socialist Alternative publication “From little things big things grow.” (Armstrong, 2008) It can be paraphrased as the following:
“Since the 1980s the level of class struggle in Australia has undergone deep decline and is not able to support the existence of a Vanguard working-class revolutionary party that contests elections and has deep support of rank-and-file workers. The only form of organisation possible is a propaganda organisation that agitates for revolutionary change and recruits a dedicated cadre to do the campaign and newspaper work needed to disseminate its radical ideas. Workers do not have the time to attend campaign meetings, rallies, sell the paper and build the organisation and a small isolated Socialist organisation has nothing to offer ‘more practically orientated’ workers. The group of people with the remaining time and capacity are University students, which are a group that has played an explosive role in historical mass struggles and who have legitimate struggles that socialists can orient towards. Students are also prepared to accept an organisation only offering radical ideas in a way that workers are not. Therefore, the organisation must orient itself towards the recruitment and training of students into a highly disciplined organisation. As a future increase in the level of class struggle is inevitable due to the internal contradictions of capitalism, the role of the propaganda organisation is to build itself so that it can assume the leadership of future movements in a manner akin to ‘cutting the head off the snake’ and inserting themselves as the new head of the movement.”
Other groups like a Socialist Alliance claim a principle focus on social movements and self-describe as a party as opposed to a ‘propaganda organisation.’ ” (Courtice, 2007) These self-descriptions only produce insignificant real differences in their organisational strategy and behaviour.
This analysis leads to a strategy best described as “sell the paper; build the party.” This form of organisation is repeated stereotypically across the left by a diverse range of competing (most-often Trotskyist) socialist organisations. Organisations that follow this strategy consciously organise their activity to maximise narrow aims of newspaper selling and student recruitment. By far the most successful organisation that follows this model is Socialist Alternative, which is the only organisation whose newspaper turns a profit, though as we shall see, this comes with an enormous opportunity and political cost. This model relies upon intensive voluntary labour of non-working members assessed to have lots of free time, particularly of students and to a lesser extent the retired. These members intensively attend rallies, meetings, campaign committees and forums to achieve these aims. (Armstrong, 2008) This leads to a fixation on universities and student activism as being the locus of political work.
These organisations structure and plan their work around key dates in the university semester. As an example as to what this mapping looks like, these groups plan orientation weeks and days for intensively holding stalls, where contact details are collected on petitions focusing on the current popular issue and new recruits invited to general introductory forums on socialism and invited to student rallies planned a few weeks after the orientation week that is on a current hot topic issue ranging from education cuts, the environment, and refugee rights, among others. The recruits that stick to the organisation attend Marxist reading groups and are given training, more intense responsibilities to attend stalls, campaign meetings and are the ones who sell the paper. This is continued with lulls in exam periods and with conferences crammed into mid-semester breaks and public holidays. Some of these groups utilise alienating methods of social pressure on inadequately convinced new members as has been reported in student newspaper articles such as “My Salty Summer” that appeared in Honi Soit in 2016. (Donohue, 2016) In this university setting multiple socialist organisations with minor ideological but major political differences compete for recruits and influence within student activist spaces and immediately adjacent campaign groups. The dynamic this establishes is sufficiently stereotypical and well-known for a board game titled “trot-wars” to have been produced that satirises the dynamic of the same name. (BoardGameGeek, 2016)
The intensive focus on the university cycle diverts attention away from building capacity to intervene in workers struggles, building up the capacity in the industry and connecting to the working class. The absence of any focus on outreach to the working class and the disconnect from the working class that occurs in these student environments means Marxist political education classes occur within a vacuum and that educational outcomes are rigid and narrow. It means that their membership is not reviewing their praxis and its relationship to their ultimate political aims of being the class vanguard leading the working class to victory.
What is produced is a student dominated sect that values its members being able to spit out a word soup of Marxist terminology on demand, rather than developing cadres who can gain victories for the working class in the community sphere and industrially. These organisations pour all their energy into endless stalls and rallies that end up having little enduring impact to show for all of their effort. They end up spoiling all their hard-won influence on recruiting people to short term memberships that offer little to (the few long-term) members after they leave university and fully enter the working class.
There is plenty for revolutionaries to admire and learn from a disciplined, focused and determined orientation towards recruitment, education, and political activity by any socialist organisation. Nor should we downplay the importance of the newspaper which is vital as an organiser and disseminator of information for the party, or of the practices of running stalls and organising rallies inside the context of a deliberate and result oriented campaign.
However, this strategy of “sell the paper; build the party” cannot be described as a strategy for genuinely building a revolutionary organisation that has no interests separate from the working class. It is instead a strategy that directly leads to a sectarian, narrow and stagnant political “unlife” that repels many more workers and students than it attracts. It is a strategy that cannot seriously fight and win campaigns in the workplace and in the community. It produces “undead” organisations permanently stuck in stagnation that ultimately cripples the ability of these groups to make a serious political impact on society. The characteristic sectarianism and unpalatability of these organisations arises from their irresponsibility in their orientation towards the class struggle and their incapacity to point to real achievements as to why it is better for a potential recruit to be in their organisation as opposed to a competitor’s organisation. Any serious internal attempt within these organisations to make a correction based on praxis would certainly shatter its internal unity and result in a destructive split. Indeed, an attempt by the membership of the International Socialist Organisation in the USA to resolve problems resulting from a comparable style of work led to its collapse and liquidation into the Democratic Party in 2019. (Le Blanc, 2019) It is noteworthy that the work of most existing socialist organisations today bears no resemblance to the work done by Communist Parties across the world in the times immediately before and while they were rapidly growing during the 1920s and 1930s.
What are we to do?
What should the Communist Party of Australia consider from this analysis? As the working class has been abandoned by much of the organised left who compete and feud with each other inside universities we should seek to unite with the working class using focused methods of work that have been proven to work throughout the history of our movement. To do this we must adopt a whole-of-party orientation to our work that consciously differentiates ourselves from these other left organisations and centres the party inside the working class. It means that we must also consciously reject both theoretically and practically the “sell the paper; build the party” model that produces nothing of benefit to the working class.
At this point we should look to ourselves. Our party suffered following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Important contributions have been made since the end of the Cold War by our comrades in ensuring the survival of the Communist Party of Australia as a Marxist-Leninist organisation during a hostile and demoralising period. Our party has been able to maintain a nationwide presence and its weekly newspaper The Guardian. It has been able to retain and reproduce involvement and leadership inside militant unions of which the Maritime Union of Australia is the key example through the CPA Maritime Industry branch in Sydney. This comes with extremely strong links to the trade union movement and a capability to influence the organised working class that no other socialist organisation in Australia has. It has a permanent headquarters in Sydney and control of social venues in Adelaide. Despite this, the party remains a very small organisation trying to modernise, strengthen and build itself. (Chengguo, 2015) Its external perception has for a long time been of an aged, stagnant and largely inactive organisation. Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, there has been a significant popular rehabilitation of socialist ideas in response to cascading failures of the capitalist system to provide a high quality of life. This rehabilitation includes a growing positive reassessment of the legacy of the Soviet Union and of figures like Comrade Stalin by younger generations. (Priestland, 2017) The worst possible thing that we could do as a party is to miss this opportunity to modernise and transform by reproducing the failed dead-end organising strategies of the other socialist organisations. The window that is presently open will not stay open for long.
If other organisations are simply focused on “spreading radical ideas” then we must be the party that leads winning industrial campaigns, achieves material wins for the working class and has the unity, energy and power to do this. What will be of interest to workers is not just the existence of the communist party but the capacity of the party to make interventions into flashpoint disputes in the class struggle and constructive interventions into the narrative in the working class. This is what a strong communist party really means to the people. In this space exists a vacuum. The party must reorganise to occupy it. This is the most essential task for our members in current conditions. Failing to organise ourselves this way is a failure by ourselves to the working class and the party. It would be an abdication of our historical role.
It needs to be obvious to Marxist-Leninists, and to our party members, that communist political activity is not evangelising the good news of Marx and explaining the evils of exploitation, although we must explain and effectively argue our political positions. It is not formulating the correct “proletarian position” on an issue without simultaneously making a concrete intervention into worker’s struggle. It is not cold calling the public with a newspaper/stall on the street or turning up to rallies with the key aim of selling the paper without also attempting a substantive political intervention, although we must support our newspaper and grow a committed readership in all our communities and workplaces.
Our best arguments will always be our actions and the results that arise from them. Communist political activity is about demonstrating that the leadership of the party is the organisational and political force of the working class. It is about being consciously disciplined to show up and bring to bear the infrastructure and experience of the party at crucial flashpoints of struggle. It is about building to be the mechanism that brings insurmountable community support to these flashpoints of struggle. It is about taking the initiative to organise the people to jointly struggle to resolve immediate pressing problems in the community and at work. It is being a good union worker at work and being trusted and supported by your fellow workers through industrial and safety spheres. It is independently using the structures of the party to organise across workspaces, industries, and the union movement, to weaponise and strengthen official union structures to win battles in the class struggle, intensify the class struggle, win militant positions in the union movement and broad acceptance of the party program. It is using the newspaper effectively during sustained mass work as the print media where the people we unite with see themselves and their issues covered in the newspaper and where the newspaper is used via automatically renewing subscriptions for them to retain continual contact with the politics and activity of the party, as well as be informed of pressing issues affecting the working class. Over the course of our work when our political line and organisational structure is correct, and the battles are won we win the trust, credibility and respect needed to win active supporters in the community and new members to our party. It is extremely important that our party be acknowledged as this leader by Industrial militants, workers, and students through the experience of the campaigns, politics and organisation of our party. There are no shortcuts to achieving the position of vanguard of the working class. It can only come through a universal commitment by all members to planned struggle and proving in practice the correctness of our ideas through systematically doing the work.
The time and energy we spend adhering to practices that do not work is time that could be spent on activity and campaigns that could bear increased growth and credibility for the party. Time spent by our members on activities that do not adhere to a systematic approach that builds this growth and credibility and are a sideshow to the priorities set by congress dulls enthusiasm and grows pessimism, demoralisation and other negative subjective forces that corrodes unity, discipline and activity. For our party to retain members and be attractive for the working class to join it needs to win results just as much as those we struggle alongside need to win improvements in their immediate conditions.
Our party needs a clear focus on the work to be done in the here and now by its basic organisations. Luckily, we are not trying to do this for the first time. Our Party and the International Communist Movement has a rich tradition filled with experiences and successful methods of work disseminated by the Comintern that have already been outlined. A key task is to re-apply the universally true aspects of past struggles and forms of organisation to our present conditions and circumstances.
The focus on Trade Unions that has been advocated by this article is consistent with the Congress priorities set at the 13th congress and the historic present weakness of the trade union movement reflects the current state of the working class in Australia. Our party must focus its work to visibly strengthen the trade unions as trade unions are the principal mass organisations of the working class although the rates of trade union membership and strikes in Australia are at historic lows. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020) Moderates within the movement that have occupied Union leaderships for decades have demonstrated a complete incapacity to turn this situation around. They have arguably hastened the decline of the union movement as a force in Australian society through support for the Accord of the 1980s, acceptance of the Fair Work act and complete servitude to the neoliberal Australian Labour Party. (Humphrys, 2012) This leaves open an opportunity for effective leadership to be practically demonstrated and won by the party in rebuilding a weaponised trade union movement able to support workers to fight their bosses and win. The inability of moderate union leaderships to respond to complications that undermine traditional organising tactics such as the shrinking of workplaces and the growth in numbers of insecure types of employment (Bowden, 2017) leaves open space for communists to provide solutions to these problems. The eradication of previous forms of highly insecure work analogous to casual labour such as the “bull-pen” system that used to exist in the Maritime industry by communist-led struggle is the kind of precedent we need to look towards in formulating strategies to lead the reconstruction of the union movement. Strikes by “gig economy” workers of Uber are a demonstration of the spontaneous working class activity taking place under some of the most difficult and insecure contemporary conditions. (Morelli, 2018) Where are the communists in this struggle taking it to the next level through building a powerful enduring organisation led by the party? Any arguments that a focus on winning the leadership of the organised working class and leading the rebuilding of the union movement is too hard or not the job of Communists both misreads present conditions and condemns the party to wander in a swamp of endless irrelevance. The fortunes of our party and its ability to shape society are directly tied to the organisation, militancy and self-consciousness of the working class as expressed through the strength of the trade union movement in struggle. The CPA today cannot abstain from this struggle.
The starting point needs to be that every party organisation must be concretely orientated towards the working-class struggle. Branches need to have a clear connection to a plan of campaign responsibilities that relates to their principal area of work in this system. The fraction system also needs to be further emphasised and built by district and state committees to connect branches through these leadership committees to jointly conduct work that advances the industrial, outreach and electoral objectives of the party that involves members from all local level organisations. We foster siloing if we talk about branches going off and doing their own thing independently to the rest of the party as a result of self-declared areas of work. This is a negative phenomenon which allows branches to exist where members can hide from their concrete responsibilities to higher party bodies and their instructions, which is a source of serious dysfunction in the party. What is needed is a party-wide view and a position from congress that entrenches an orientation towards mass work, community unionism and planned campaigning that arises directly out of the priorities set at congress. This ensures the party distinguishes itself in the eyes of workers from the “left soup” that all Australian socialist organisations currently fall into. Mass work in the Australian context should be guided by a strategic goal of building the CPA into the party that:
- leads the community through sustained real engagement into flashpoints of industrial struggle to ensure these industrial struggles are won,
- grows through the recruitment of militant workers into the ranks of the party,
- builds and buttresses the trade union movement,
- makes militant trade unions out of weak unions by emboldening them and winning the leadership of the working class,
- indisputably takes the mantle of being vanguard of the working class.
To do this our focus needs to be drawn towards the active construction of new industry and workplace branches and by building a synergy between industry/workplace organising and locality-based organisation. Every branch must have a clear area of work that is regularly checked upon and where there are clear expectations of demonstrable activity with demonstrable results. Branches should be able to substantiate to the Central Committee their work in carrying out the decisions and campaigns of the party arising from congress priorities, as well as tailoring these campaigns to ensure that they land and have impacts in their workplaces and communities.
The principal work responsibility of an industry or workplace branch is to organise within unions and to play the leading role organising the working class to confront the boss and win. It is historically demonstrated that relying on workplace orientated forms of local party organisation is the only way for the party to fully unite itself with the working class. Industry branches should be constructed first to unite members in an industry, and later when multiple party members are working in large workplaces should workplace branches be constructed. All members that can be part of an industry or workplace organisation need to be part of one. These branches must run an industry bulletin that speaks to problems at work and is used as a campaigning tool by the branch inside the workplace to frame and set demands made by the workers on their bosses. Industry and workplace branches must build up extensive experience in fighting the boss and should play through relevant fractions a leading role in accelerating the class struggle and organising the party structures and media around major industrial disputes. These branches should set an example in industrial struggles and together with locality branches bring out numbers to pickets, play a principled role in these pickets and ensure there is a constant presence by the party and community. They need to support campaigning by locality branches when capacity allows. Successful work by industrial branches will be demonstrated through the recruitment of militant workers in the industry, the formation of workplace branches, strong circulation of industry bulletins and sales of Guardian subscriptions and increased influence and leadership within trade unions.
The other viable form of party organisation are locality branches. The primary task of a local area branch is to elect communists to local government and for elected representatives to act as tribunes of the people. To do this constituency building through deep engagement and embedment within the local community is essential. Locality branches should be composed of members unable to be part of an industry or workplace branch. They can include members attached to it from outside of the area, but these members should be supported by the branch and next highest party organisation to establish a branch either in their industry, workplace or locality. It is simultaneously crucial for locality branches to work to draw members of the community into industrial struggles that the party is playing a leadership role in and to provide information to members of the community about how to be involved in these industrial disputes.
Locality branches must systematically map out mass workplaces, key issues, organisations around key issues and potential areas of struggle in their locality. This mapping is essential for branches to build their local branch plan around. This mapping needs to be detailed; locality branches need to know where the homeless shelter, refuges and other institutions of interest to the people are. They need to develop an analysis of the means by which the branch can have the greatest possible real impact on the lives of the people. They should with the support of higher party bodies campaign around areas of particular concern to the working class in their locality. This is where it is important that “local party organisations must keep the vital interests of the people on the agenda of every meeting.” Branches should form relationships and long-term associations with differing community groups that aim to be able to assist those in these groups to solve problems at work and draw them into direct confrontation with the boss. The work done must aim to systematically build up familiarity between the party and people in a given area. The branch must be ready to respond to key political flashpoints that inspire activity in the community. At the same time the branch must be building support able to draw the community into flashpoints of industrial struggle and bring insurmountable working-class power to these disputes. Locality branches must also develop their own community institutions that the branch controls such as a community bulletin, a regular “politics in the pub” style educational forum and mutual aid associations. Permanent social spaces that are used as cultural spaces and fundraising venues, community union structures, and drop in contact points for people to meet the party should be a key medium-term objective of any locality branch to establish. Successful work by locality branches will be reflected in recruitment from the community, the regular holding of public forums and fundraising events, the establishment of party-controlled community institutions, high circulation of a locality bulletin, increased subscriptions to the Guardian and ultimately the winning of local government seats by members of these branches.
Localities with branches that can consistently elect communists to local government positions are base areas for the party where electoral campaigns can be run that will win respectable numbers of votes from the community. These base areas are where it becomes possible to conceivably elect a communist to parliament. Elections are demonstrations of support that already exist in communities for an organisation or issue. They cannot be effectively used to convince people who do not already support socialist politics or communism to suddenly support our party outside the context of sustained intense and protracted mass work in the community. To engage effectively in elections to parliaments in Australia there is extensive work needed to prove to our constituents, the working class, that our party absolutely has the credibility and answers to the bread-and-butter problems that exist in every-day life and that the ultimate answer for these problems is always the party and working-class solidarity, militancy, organisation, and socialism.
If we are serious about building a strong communist party and being the vanguard of the working class there are no alternatives or shortcuts other than deeply engaging in the lives of working class people. This means deeply engaging with communities and deeply engaging at work and tailoring our organisational structures to facilitate this. There are no alternatives to adhering to a systematic work plan to achieve this. There are no alternatives to maintaining and enforcing the discipline of the party where we ensure that our members are active, conducting the work assigned to them, not being distracted by sideshows, and are practicing “unity in action.” There are no alternatives to extensive modernisation of our structures, processes, and organs to ensure that the presentation of our message facilitates its reception by the community. Our previous congress slogan “take the party to the people” reflects a recognition that our party has been separated from the working-class struggle and that corrective action must be taken to fix this problem. It’s time to further build upon the work that has been done to correct this so far by prioritising fully uniting with the working class supported through organisational reform and clear focused prioritisation. By rising to the challenge and fully uniting with the working class we can differentiate our party from the left soup, achieve critical mass, rapidly grow in numbers and in political power, and again become the vanguard of the working class. This is what it really means to be “the party of a new type” in Australia today. Let’s rapidly attain critical mass by uniting with the working class.
Appendix 1: the 19 conditions for organisations joining the Communist International (paraphrased):
- To ensure agitation and propaganda to have a genuine communist character that exposes the ruling class and their lackeys and does not shy away from advocacy of revolution
- To dismiss reformists from all positions of leadership in working class organisations under the control of applicant parties
- To combine legal and illegal work and to place no trust in ‘bourgeois legality’
- To systematically carry out agitation and propaganda within the armed forces
- To carry out regular and systematic work in the countryside
- To expose and repudiate social-patriotism and social-pacifism
- To break with and repudiate reformism
- For parties in imperialist countries possessing colonies to have a definite policy in relation to colonies and oppressed nations, and to seek the liberation of colonised and oppressed nations from imperialist domination
- To conduct systematic and incessant work in working class mass organisations, particularly the trade unions or cooperative societies
- To oppose the Yellow Amsterdam “International Federation of Trade Unions” and support the international federation of red trade unions
- To ensure all parliamentary representatives of applicant parties are fully subordinated to the Central Committee of their party
- For all official publications and publishing press of applicant parties to be subordinated to their party central committee and to not pursue any policies not in accord with the policies of the party.
- For applicant parties to be fully organised according to the principles of democratic centralism
- For applicant and member parties to carry out regular membership purges or re-registrations of the membership with the aim of systematically ridding it of petty-bourgeois elements
- To defend the Soviet Union and any soviet republic, and to assist them in their struggle against counter-revolution
- For existing parties retaining a social-democratic program to draw up a new communist program as expediently as possible, and for this program to be submitted to the Executive Committee of the Communist International for approval
- For affiliated parties of the Communist International to accept as binding all decisions of the Communist International congress and executive committee.
- For parties seeking to join the Communist International to change their names to or adopt as their name the communist party of the country in question
- For applicant parties to rapidly convene following the second congress of the communist international an extraordinary congress to officially accept the conditions and obligations of membership of the communist international.
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