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Issue #1519      21 September 2011

A great democratic rights victory

This article appeared in The Guardian in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the Menzies’ government attempt to ban the Communist Party of Australia.

The defeat of the attempts of the Menzies Government to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) must rank as one of the great democratic rights victories in Australia.

Menzies had introduced legislation called the Communist Party Dissolution Bill. It had been passed by parliament with the support of the Labor Party leaders of that time. But when challenged in the High Court it had been declared illegal and contrary to the Australian Constitution.

To get over this legal hurdle, Menzies attempted to have the Australian Constitution altered by way of a referendum. This would have allowed the Government to proceed with its plan to outlaw the Party.

As in all referenda, the question posed is a simple one – and one either votes “Yes” or “No” to a question determined by the government of the day. The Menzies government sought powers to deal with Communists and Communism.

Lance Sharkey, who was the General Secretary of the CPA at the time, said that the Menzies government was “out to fascise the country and to embark on a staggering armament program.

“The Referendum,” he said, “is intended to hoax the Australian people, to get them to vote away their liberties ... by means of the ‘red bogey’, non-existent ‘communist plots’ and the equally mythical threats of ‘communist aggression’ from abroad.”

The referendum was intended to give the government powers to deal with “communism”, meaning by that the ideology of communism. It was not just an organisational question of banning the Party and dissolving its organisations.

It is worthwhile recalling the first words of the “Communist Manifesto” published just 100 years earlier – “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre, Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

At that time there were no Communist Parties but the genie of Marxist ideas was out of the bottle and desperate attempts have been made ever since by the protagonists of the old, desperately sick and anti-people capitalist system, to imprison Marxist ideas or to impale them on the point of a bayonet.

Despite their countless repressions and the murder of communists (such as the massacre in Indonesia) the ideas of Marx and Engels have spread worldwide and now inspire millions of people enrolled in or supporting communist parties.

Menzies in his assault was attempting to not only dissolve the Communist Party of Australia but also to exorcise “communism” as such.

At that time, in 1950-51 Churchill and Truman had launched the Cold War at a meeting in the US – the infamous Fulton speech by Churchill.

The US still had a monopoly of atomic weapons and Churchill urged the Americans to use them against the cities of the Soviet Union. He was still out to stifle “Bolshevism” as he had attempted in the 1920s’ Wars of Intervention.

The Soviet Union had emerged from the war against Nazism as a great power with immense political prestige and a rapidly restored and growing economy.

In 1949 the Chinese revolutionaries had won power and established the People’s Republic of China.

The Dutch colonialists had been thrown out of Indonesia and although the French had returned to Vietnam and other emerging states of the region, their occupation was being challenged by the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian people.

The Vietnamese Communist Party had been formed and was leading the Vietnamese people in their struggle for liberation.

Various communist-led governments had been formed in a number of East European states.

Menzies was pedalling the line that the “yellow hordes” were about to sweep down from the north and occupy Australia.

War had erupted on the Korean peninsular and was, in fact, a counter-revolutionary military aggression directed at the People’s Republic of China.

These events provided the backdrop on which Menzies attempted to dissolve the Communist Party and carry on his campaign to exorcise communism.

But this attempt of the Menzies government with the support of worldwide reaction was defeated.

Richard Dixon, who was the President of the Party at the time, said the Referendum “resulted in a great and glorious victory for the working people of Australia, which will have a profound influence upon further developments throughout the country.”

The Australia people “saw through the fraudulent arguments and understood that what was involved in the Referendum was an attack upon the traditional freedoms of the Australian people”, he said.

Given the overall intense anti-communism of the times the strength of the “NO” vote and the defeat of the Referendum is even more remarkable.

It is not without its significance that the three main industrialised states of NSW, Victoria and South Australia all registered solid “NO” majorities and there was an overall majority for “NO”.

Whereas the ALP had voted for the initial Dissolution Bill in parliament, when it came to the Referendum the Labor Party leadership was split. Keon and Mullins supported a “Yes” vote, while Dr Evatt, Arthur Calwell and Eddie Ward who were the main Labor Party leaders at the time, supported a “NO” vote.

Ministers of religion, university staff, business-people and many other social groups also advocated a “NO” vote.

This provided the possibility of a very broad movement against the Referendum. “Workers, farmers and middle class people joined forces to defeat the Referendum,” said Richard Dixon.

He said, “In the course of the campaign there took place a considerable shifting of classes ... a people’s movement appeared in the course of the Referendum.

“We also saw the beginnings of a united front between members of the Labor Party and the Communist Party. This was basic to the victory. This unity and the fact that the trade union movement swung solidly for a ‘NO’ vote were the determining factors in securing a majority vote for ‘NO’.”

Dixon also said, “The Communist Party played a decisive part. In the greatest mobilisation of forces and the biggest and best campaign ever waged, the Communist Party drew thousands of working people who stood for freedom into action and stimulated the Labor Party rank and file and the trade unions to mass activity.”

So, there we have it. These were the ingredients of the victory and they retain their relevance to this day.

There is one more comment of Dixon’s that has to be mentioned. He said, “During the Referendum campaign there were instances of sectarianism on the part of some Communists who sought to thrust our whole program down the necks of ‘NO’ supporters, who regarded as enemies any who did not accept our views on all major questions. In the main, however, the Party members worked on broad, non-sectarian lines, side by side with people who did not share all our views ...”

There are those who still remember this campaign. The remarkable united front, the Vote “NO” committees that sprang up across the country, the mountains of leaflets distributed and meetings held.

The campaign became almost tangible in the political atmosphere. From a position where none would have given the “NO” vote a chance, one could feel the swing taking place in popular opinion.

And so it was. Australia became, as far as I know, the only country where the legality of a Communist Party has been upheld in a national referendum.

But this victory is only one struggle in what is turning out to be a centuries long conflict of ideology, politics, class power and even military action. The struggle for liberation and real freedom continues with revolution and counter-revolution contending in an extremely complicated pattern and on a worldwide scale.

The Cold War did not end, the class struggle between corporate power and working class power was not resolved; colonialism has and is attempting to reassert itself in new forms. The defeat of the attempt by the Nazis to impose world domination made way for a new pretender – far more dangerous and far better armed than the Nazis ever were.

The attacks on the conditions and rights of the working class did not end.

Another great victory of the period was the defeat of the industrial legislation – the “pains and penalties” legislation as Ben Chifley described them. The Australian trade union movement came out on strike in support of Clarrie O’Shea, a communist trade union leader who was jailed because of his refusal to accept the dictates of the anti-union legislation of that time.

But although that legislation was defeated and anti-trade union legislation was relegated for years, it has been replaced by the Howard government’s repressive anti-union laws, more extreme than anything previously experienced in Australia.

While the attempt of Menzies to exorcise communism was defeated world reaction did not give up and they achieved their own victory in the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

On this occasion the conservatives, the representatives of the corporations, proclaimed the “end of communism” but once again this has proven to be false.

The spectre of communism continues to haunt the boardrooms of the corporations and the think-tanks of their political mentors.

Why? Because communism is on the side of the oppressed, it stands for a real people’s democracy, for friendship between peoples and nations, for multiculturalism as against racism, for mutual benefit in all the relations between the people of the world and for peace.

The question of war and peace is an issue that is again before us now in all its grim reality.  

Next article – Culture & Life – The vote that stopped Menzies

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