The Communist Party in the Inter-War Years
Conservative politics prevailed throughout the 1920s and communist candidates failed to achieve success at the ballot box. Having failed in his attempt to win the seat of Sydney in the 1925 NSW State Election (the latest in a series of political losses), CPA leader Jock Garden left the Party to return to the ALP. Leadership of the CPA was given to trade unionist and political activist Jack Kavanagh and publicist and journalist Esmonde Higgins.
The Party struggled to reconcile its level of involvement with the ALP and the lengths to which it would follow the directives of Russia’s Communist International (Comintern). Despite this, the CPA was a threat to the Australian ruling classes and the Party was invigorated with stronger membership during the Depression years and a new leadership following the expulsion of Jack Kavanagh and resignation of Esmonde Higgins, both of whom fell afoul of the Comintern. This new leadership, which included J.B. (Jack) Miles, Lance Sharkey, Bert Moxon and Richard Dixon, was in place with the support of the Comintern, and held control of the party for the next 30 years.
During the 1930s the CPA embarked on a program of large-scale industrial organising and sought to strengthen its position within the trade union movement. Party membership expanded rapidly as the CPA’s work advocating for the working classes made them an attractive proposition to those who were disillusioned with the ALP. Communists were elected to leadership positions within many trade unions and CPA membership grew from the ranks of trade unions representing the unemployed, coal miners, wharfies, iron workers, seamen, railway workers, firefighters, and many more. Some of the Party’s key figures, including Tom Wright, Ernie Thornton and Eliot V. Elliott, were giant figures in the trade union movement.
Many communists became active in the Militant Minority Movement and Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Their experiences in these organisations assisted in them achieving leadership positions in trade unions. The Party was particularly active in advocating for the unemployed, and “fought for a dole for the unemployed and defended many families against evictions enforced by landlords and the police” (P Symon 2011).
During the 1930s and into the 1940s, the Party also seemed to find its way in relation to a unified message; that of a fight against war, fascism and Nazi aggression. It was during this time that the Party saw an enormous growth in membership, which peaked at approximately 23,000 during the early 1940s. It was at this time that the Party also attracted many intellectuals.
Davidson, A 1969, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California
Macintyre, S 1998, The Reds, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, Sydney
Gollan, R 1975, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1955, Australian National University Press, Canberra
Sharkey, L.L. 1944, An Outline History of the Australian Communist Party, A Marx School Publication, Australian Communist Party Newsletter Printery, Forest Lodge, Sydney
Armstrong, M 2020, 100 Years Since the Founding of Australia's Communist Party, Red Flag, accessed <https://redflag.org.au/index.php/node/7428>
Symon, P 2011, When the Party was Strong and Active, Australian Communist Review, issue 54, accessed <https://www.cpa.org.au/amr/54/amr54-02-when-the-party-was-strong-and-active.html>