- by Graham Holton
- The Guardian
- Issue #1998
Lawrence (Lance) L Sharkey (1898-1967) joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1922 and was later elected to the executive of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union of Australia. In 1929 he was the editor of the Workers’ Weekly. The Menzies’ government declared the Communist Party illegal in June 1940, forcing Sharkey to work underground with other leading members. In 1948 Sharkey encouraged the Malayan Communist Party to conduct an insurgency against the British government. In March 1949, he told a journalist that if “Soviet Forces in pursuit of aggressors entered Australia, Australian workers would welcome them.” He was found guilty of uttering seditious words by the Central Criminal Court. The High Court of Australia upheld the conviction, and he was sentenced to three years imprisonment, later reduced to thirteen months.
Lance Sharkey’s History of the Australian Communist Party is important to all comrades because eighty years later we can still learn from him how to surmount problems we face today. From the beginning, educational classes have been mandated by the Central Committee (CC) as the tool to retain new members by speedily giving them political training and Party consciousness. Special elementary booklets gave new members a correct understanding of the Trade Unions, the ALP, and the Comrade’s task in relation to the labour movement and reformist leaders. Special schools helped raise the mass level of genuine Marxist theoretical understanding, dialectics, higher economics and history of the Party. Additionally, classes on more practical subjects and current Party policy raised the more advanced cadres’ Marxist-Leninist education to a higher theoretical level. Above all, the education of comrades stressed the need to build the Party in the factories and the workplaces. For these reasons, the Brisbane Branch used Sharkey in its first education class for the year.
Australians forget how poor the working class was before the 1970s. Poverty had taught the workers that the capitalist system had failed them. They liked how communists behaved in the unions and workplaces, making them receptive to their ideas and actions. The Party took up the struggles of the working class, and Comrades understood first hand and appreciated the role of Marxism-Leninism in the Class Struggle.
The first major win for Australian trade unions was the eight-hour day, which by 1858, had been won by all building trades workers in the Eastern colonies. Ten years later, Marx included this demand in the Program of the First International, recognising its power of attraction for unorganised workers. By the 1890s, the labour movement was not yet closely tied to Socialism, and Lenin saw that thus: “Isolated from socialism the labour movement becomes petty, and inevitably becomes bourgeois.” The workers had not yet learnt, wrote Engels, that: “The struggle for high wages and short hours, etc., is not an end in itself, but a means, a very necessary and effective means, but only one of several means towards a higher end: the abolition of the wages system altogether.” The unions had not realised, nor understood, that there must be “a political organisation of the working class as a whole.”
The workers were not organised politically, as the unions were led by people who had no understanding of scientific socialism. Nor had big industry taken root in colonial Australia. Socialism had become isolated from the mass movement, which weakened the formation of a mass Labor Party. Instead of developing a Socialist Workers’ Party, the ALP became a liberal bourgeois party. Lenin writes: “The Labor Party has to concern itself with developing and strengthening the country and with creating a Central Government.” The ALP, instead of improving the class struggle, pushed for Compulsory Arbitration, the function of which, writes Sharkey in The Trade Unions:
“is to prevent strike struggles and to enforce the acceptance, by law, of a low standard of living. It will at once be seen that Arbitration is detrimental to the development of the class struggle and class consciousness […] necessary to the revolutionary struggle for socialism.”
Strikes, properly led, conducted and timed, are a revolutionary weapon. Strikes develop the labour movement, organise and unite workers and win the intermediate social strata to the side of revolution. As Lenin writes in his In Australia (1913):
“The Labor Party does not even claim to be a socialist party. Naturally, when Australia is finally developed as an independent capitalist state, the conditions of the workers will change, as will the liberal Labor Party, which will make way for a socialist labor Party.”
This failed to develop because of the strong opposition of the Right in Australia.
Instead, reformism and revolutionary syndicalism condemned the labour movement to bourgeois domination. The Labor Government even introduced the Crimes Act and the War Precautions Act, which became the basis of later anti-working class coercive legislation. Labor thereby hamstrung the class struggle by getting strikers to return to work. What was needed, wrote Lenin, was to unite workers into “a large, strong organisation, capable of functioning well under all circumstances, imbued with the spirit of class struggle.”
This came about with the formation of the Communist Party in 1920. This was “one of the decisive revolutionary acts of the Australian working class,” wrote Sharkey. Its formation represented the victory of Marxism-Leninism over “socialist” theories. Many problems still lay ahead. By 1923 the Communist Party tactically responded to the peculiar circumstances they were facing and affiliated with the NSW Labor Party. Even though the Rightist forces expelled the Party within the ALP, it was a decision taken during a particular extraordinary period in an attempt to gain influence within the Labor Party. Thereafter Communists were prevented entry by the anti-Communist pledge from attending ALP conferences as union delegates. This pledge is still being used today.
From 1926, General Secretary Jack Kavanagh drew the Party away from the mass movement, as he would have nothing to do with the ALP. Communists could only take office in a union when the majority of union members accepted communism and then must return to work after two years. This action meant that the Party isolated itself from the workers.
The approach taken by this CC was laid out in the Workers’ Weekly (2nd August, 1929):
“The task of militants in this country is not yet to lead the working class in a direct challenge to capitalism, but to popularise the basic ideas of the class struggle amongst the workers, their wives and children.”
Such a statement bordered on liquidationism. It was a denial, writes Sharkey, “of the elementary principles of the role and functions of the Communist Party as laid down by the Communist International.” The Party had become a propaganda body, an adjunct of the left wing of the Labor Party, rather than the leader of the working class and the major driving force of the country’s political and economic struggles. Five months later, the right wing of the CPA was expelled, and a new Central Committee elected.
Following this action, the Party became a growing influence in the trade union movement, a major achievement in the class struggle. “The strength of our position,” writes Sharkey, “arises from the fearlessness of the Party’s leadership in the important struggles of the trade union movement, the correctness of the policies it has promulgated, and the capacity of our leading Party trade unionists. The trade unions are the most important mass organisation of the working class and Communists must always strive to develop the good work in relation to the unions, which is already becoming something of a tradition with our Party.”
In the following years, the Party gained considerable experience in applying united front tactics. In certain periods, if it aided the working class, the Party supported the right wing of the ALP to build unity and achieve the immediate objectives of the labour movement. In its fight for unity, the Party continued to expose reformism, with its policy of class-collaboration and alliance with the bourgeoisie, through its ideological struggle of teaching Marxism-Leninism to the workers. The united front tactic allowed the workers to be brought into the struggle against the capitalist class. By working for the unity of workers, by cooperating with the leaders of reformism, if the conditions and aims allowed it, made it one of the most important weapons available to the working class under the leadership of the Communist Party. “The United Front,” wrote Lenin, “facilitates and makes easier the process of the passing over of the majority of the working class to the side of Communism.”
In 1940, the Party and several fraternal organisations were proclaimed unlawful under the National Security Regulations. Two communists, Ratliff and Thomas, served a sentence in a concentration camp for Party activities. The Comrades commenced a hunger strike, drawing public attention that produced a one-day stoppage in protest. They were only released after the defeat of the Menzies government and the election of Curtin ALP government. Despite the ban on the leftist press, the Party continued to publish and distribute the Tribune, and the Communist Review. Lenin had emphasised the need during illegal periods to make use of whatever legal opportunities were available to further the Party’s work, i.e., to combine legal and illegal forms of activity.
Karl Marx regarded the role and functions of trade unions with particular importance because they represented the first steps in organising workers as a class. Yet without a consistent application of Marxism-Leninism and revolutionary theory to the problems faced, the trade union movement is doomed to failure. The trade union is the most important mass organisation, for as Lenin writes: “Without the trade union a revolution is impossible.” Therefore, Socialism in Australia can only triumph when the banner of the trade unions is the banner of communism.