The Guardian September 19, 2001

A great democratic rights victory

by Peter Symon

The defeat of the attempts of the Menzies Government to illegalise the 
Communist Party of Australia (CPA) just 50 years ago 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 

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 

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 

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 

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 

"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 that of Peter Reith  
again, far more repressive than anything previously experienced in 

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.

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