"Socialism in Our Time":

Communists and the New South Wales Labor Party during the Great Depression.

By TERRY SYMONDS [email protected].

The Australian Labor Party today is at a turning point.

Spurred on by the success of Britain’s Tony Blair in "modernising" his own Labour Party, key figures in the Australian party now argue for a further move to the right, embracing the market and attacking welfare and state regulation. These moves have angered Labor members and supporters who would prefer to see the party go "back to its roots" and reverse its sell-outs on privatisation, enterprise bargaining and other issues.

This debate provides an opportunity for revolutionaries to not only expose the limits of Labor’s reformist strategy but also win an audience among disaffected Labor supporters. Thousands of workers vote Labor because they want a better world but their hopes are regularly dashed. Each time this occurs, they become open to a revolutionary strategy for change, provided the revolutionaries relate correctly to this opportunity.

The Great Depression in Australia represents an historical watershed in the history of Australian labour, because it was a tremendous opportunity for socialist organisations to benefit and grow from the clash between Labor and its own supporters.

In 1929 world crisis hit Australia and unemployment began to skyrocket. By the end of 1930, around a third of Australian workers were unemployed and their trade unions had suffered bitter and deep defeats. The traditional Labor argument that workers should place their hopes in gradual reform of capitalism by their elected representatives seemed an impossible dream. Instead of things getting slowly better, they were getting rapidly worse.

In response, workers inside and around Labor in New South Wales organised to promote a socialist strategy. They won a large audience among the disillusioned followers of Labor but were fought and crushed by the Labor leadership of Jack Lang, Premier at the time. The only self-titled revolutionary organisation at the time, the Communist Party of Australia, could have provided an alternative for these workers and grown considerably. Instead it failed completely.

If socialists today are to break out of their isolation and capitalise on the current crisis of Labor, it is essential that they learn the lessons of that time.

Economic crisis and Labor government

In 1929, a massive fall in the price of exports and a drying up of international credit made it difficult for Australian investors to repay the loans from overseas which had funded much of the expansion of the 1920s. Resulting massive lay-offs in state industry, such as railways, heralded the onset of the Great Depression.

Employers moved quickly to shift the cost of the credit crisis onto the workers of Australia. In 1928 and 1929, there were three key industrial disputes, each caused by attempts to reduce workers’ wages and conditions and each of them ending in defeat for the workers. In September 1928, waterside workers struck against their new award but were driven back to work by a new law, the Transport Workers Act, which required all waterside workers to carry a license (the "dog collar") which could be revoked if they refused to abide by their award.

Immediately following this defeat, timber workers struck against the lengthening of their working week from 44 to 48 hours. After a nine-month strike involving violence and arrests of strikers, the workers returned to work on the employers’ terms. In February 1929, New South Wales coal miners were locked out for refusing to accept cuts to their wages, but they too were starved back to work after one of the longest disputes in Australian history, notorious for the shooting death of a 28-year old miner. The defeat of these key sections of organised labour contributed to the general effect of high unemployment to produce a mood of defeat and demoralisation, but also bitterness and anger, among Australian workers.

In 1929, James Scullin was elected as Prime Minister on the highest Labor vote in Australia’s history. He had promised to end the lockout in the coal industry and to ease the burden of unemployment on Australian families. Expectations in his government were high. Although workers had been beaten industrially, their desperation and their commitment to a radical solution had increased. By January 1930, one Labor Senator spoke of "impending civil war" and a Canberra journalist later remembered that the government at the time "dreaded tidings of a major uprising… Ravenous unemployed threatened to march on Canberra…"

Scullin, however, accepted that profits and "investor confidence" would need to be restored if unemployment was to come down. He opposed bank nationalisation and argued to "maintain our equilibrium, play the game, meet our obligations and, when possible, evolve a better system." When British banker Sir Otto Niemeyer visited Australia with harsh demands designed to deflate the Australian economy and allow it to repay its loans to the British banks, Scullin obeyed.

After a three week conference of heads of the seven Australian governments in May and June 1931 it was agreed that all government expenditure should be cut by an average of 20 per cent. This would mean reductions in pensions and other welfare payments and in the salaries paid to public servants. The plan offered a few small sweeteners to its critics, such as a reduction on rents, and this was enough to persuade even reluctant Premiers such as New South Wales’ Jack Lang that he too should sign the agreement.

Outrage among Labor supporters everywhere followed. The long discussions which preceded the deal that became known as the Premiers Plan provoked a wide debate both inside the Labor Party and among those workers who had voted for it, about how a Labor government should deal with a capitalist crisis. Half of Scullin’s parliamentary party voted against the plan to cut pensions and two of Scullin’s own Ministers resigned over the proposal. Future Prime Minister John Curtin remarked at the time that the Premiers Plan would "bring about the demoralisation of the movement… I believe that the faith that (the Labor Party) has built up in the minds of its supporters will be destroyed."

By November 1931, the Labor Party "had not only torn itself apart, but also had disenchanted the bulk of its supporters." According to one writer, the party "clung together in its outward form… but the force, the vitality, the alertness, the belief in the future has gone. The party then was beaten and broken."

Lang the leader

The Labor Party, like all social democratic parties, has always embodied a contradiction between its working class base and a reformist leadership. We have seen how the Depression provoked a split between these two elements but that split also caused further splits inside Labor’s leading bodies. A key figure in this internal battle over how Labor should deal with the Depression, and with its increasingly radical base of support, was New South Wales Premier Jack Lang.

Lang was not on the left of the party, either before or after the Depression. He once declared that "as a loyal subject and servant of the King, you will find me free from all traces of Bolshevism and Communism… There is none of that rubbish about the Labor Party". His career before becoming Premier included positions as a real estate agent, a city mayor and government treasurer during the early 1920’s. Lang had previously served a term as Premier during the boom years of 1925 to 1927 and had introduced a range of key reforms, including the first 44 hour week for all workers, child endowment schemes, the widow’s pension, low-cost housing and large scale public works such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

During the 20’s, he had done a deal with left-wing sections of the trade union movement, including unionists who had formerly been members of the Communist Party, for support in the Labor Party. From that time he built an uneasy alliance with the left, which assisted him in acquiring a radical reputation that he did not deserve.

Lang was elected Premier of NSW for the second time in November 1930, in the wake of Niemeyer’s’ visit to Australia.

As Scullin’s stocks collapsed among voters, Lang faced a choice. He could repeat the Federal Government’s open capitulation of government to employers and risk the same hostile reaction from members in New South Wales or he could attempt to negotiate a temporary compromise, maintaining working class support for as long as possible by radical posturing. By February 1931, "a broad left campaign gathered momentum; such momentum, indeed, that… (Lang) felt compelled to place himself at its head. How else to keep it under control?"

After his election, Lang began to attack the Federal Labor government for its capitulation to foreign bondholders and in February of 1931, Lang raised his own plan for dealing with the crisis. This plan included the suspension of interest payments on overseas loans, lower domestic interest rates and abandoning the gold standard for measuring currency. His rhetoric was not socialist but populist, drawing on established Australian nationalist traditions of opposition to foreign banks and "unproductive" finance capital.

He promoted these ideas as the Lang Plan and that plan quickly won the support of the executive, most branches and the majority of the party structure in NSW.

Knowing that the ruling class would never allow Lang’s strategy to proceed, Scullin’s response was both quick and decisive. He convinced the Federal Conference to expel Lang and the NSW executive from the Labor Party, thereby creating two Labor parties, one in NSW called Lang Labor and the other remaining as the Australian Labor Party. The NSW Members of the Federal Parliament supported Lang against Scullin and were subsequently expelled from the government caucus. This meant that Scullin no longer had a majority in the House of Representatives and relied for government upon Lang Labor MPs, a weakness which would eventually bring about Scullin’s own downfall.

In the context of growing disillusionment with the Federal Labor government, Lang’s expulsion from the Labor Party did nothing to harm his popularity. Soon after, he addressed a rapturous crowd of 100,000 in central Sydney, demonstrating that the expulsion had given him a greater profile and a clearer platform from which to build his own support base. In the 1931 Federal election, Lang’s new party won more than twice the vote of the Labor Party in New South Wales. It did not mean, however, that Lang had broken from reformist strategies to renovate the economy – after grandstanding over his own Plan, Lang signed Scullin’s Premiers’ Plan and agreed to its program of cuts.

Socialisation and Labor

As we have seen, the Depression sparked an explosion of left wing sentiment among workers and Labor supporters. In April 1930, a union conference was held at Sydney Trades Hall. Three hundred delegates heard from Trades Hall Secretary Jock Garden that "the present conspiracy of the capitalist class and its politicians is aimed at the rationalisation of industry, thereby creating a huge army of unemployed and starving workers…". The delegates demanded that the unemployed be excused from paying rent and that landlords be discouraged from evicting them.

Inside the Labor Party, the political climate swung sharply to the left. Although the Labor Party had been hostile to revolution since its inception, socialist ideas had continued to enjoy a currency in the Party for several decades, resulting in the adoption by the Party of a "socialist objective" in the late 1920’s. Now these ideas were given new life by the anger of ordinary party members and their desperate search for a solution to the crisis.

At the NSW Labor Party conference in Easter 1930, a motion was carried to "set up a committee based upon the socialism in our time movement inside the party". The leadership of the party did not oppose the socialisation motion, since "the setting up of a committee was the usual way of containing discussion considered to be potentially electorally damaging" and because the proposed work of the committee appeared quite innocuous. The Times, however, was careful to point out that "Mr Lang, who has often courted the extremists in the past, is understood to be ‘putting a stopper on the wild men’".

The purpose of the new socialisation units was "to carry the message of a saner, better and more efficient social system through socialisation to those hundreds of thousands of misguided victims of capitalism." The people who proposed these new units saw five parts to their strategy:

"1. By addressing public meetings either open air or indoor.
2. By distributing leaflets on Socialisation which the Committee hopes to publish.
3. By organising units or groups for the above purposes.
4. By donations to the printing or propaganda fund which the Committee hopes to establish.
5. By any other means…"

These parts made up a clear strategy for propagandising for socialism. Later that year, the Socialisation Committee appealed to Labor branches and trade unions to set up "Socialisation Propaganda Units" whose members would take on the work of "distributing leaflets, arranging meetings, lectures and debates and contributing to and collecting for the propaganda fund". By the next Conference, 97 such units had been formed,and there were even reports of similar organisations being established in other states.

The membership of the units was centred upon Labor Party branches. By the time that they were wound up, 178 of the 250 Labor Party branches around Sydney contained active Socialisation Units operating out of them as virtual sub-committees, although in some cases the sub-committees were actually bigger than the original branches themselves.

There was a debate which continued for the life of the units about who should be entitled to be a member, and this debate reflected some of the political debates about strategy which surrounded the units.

Originally, membership was open to non-Labor Party members who could be associate members of the Units and there was a very broad idea of membership. This position was reversed a year later so that only members of the Labor Party could be members of the Units, but compromised yet again by allowing people outside of the Party to join, provided that they were not members of either the Communist Party or organisations supported by the Communist Party, such as the Unemployed Workers Movement or the Minority Movement. This provoked still further debate about which broad left-wing organisations were Communist fronts and which were not.

The debate over membership ebbed and flowed over time, according to the balance of forces between Lang’s supporters, who argued for a stricter membership, and the activists and left-wing members of the Units, who argued for a broad definition of membership.

In any case, most members of the Units were also members of the Labor Party. There were many examples of people joining the Party only so that they could be fully qualified and undisputed members of the Units.

Although accurate figures are impossible to obtain, it is clear that thousands of workers were active either as members of the Socialisation Units or attended various functions as supporters. The crisis had thrown up a huge new audience for socialist ideas and a section of that audience in New South Wales joined the Socialisation Units and the Labor Party. These new members soon overwhelmed the relatively small numbers of long-time socialists within the Labor Party and gave the Units an energy and urgency which matched the time.

However it was defined, the membership of the Units was not simply a passive voting base for Labor, or the fundraising machines which some Labor branches today appear to be. Volunteers, according to the Units, "must be able to realise that their job is to be one of the worthiest in the party, one full of honour and responsibility, and that only active, convinced enthusiasts need apply".

Commencing in April 1931, they produced a lively newspaper entitled the Socialisation Call, a paper devoted to the issue of socialisation. Every Saturday’s edition of the Labor Daily, the newspaper controlled by the NSW Executive, contained a supplement devoted to socialisation. These publications reprinted articles from overseas socialist papers, socialist classics and commentaries on current events.

Members of the Units doorknocked with both papers around their local suburb. They attended lectures, study circles and reading groups on socialism and socialisation. In 1932, there were five central Sydney educational classes and there were twenty-five suburban classes, on topics such as history, economics and so on. There was a socialisation orchestra, a socialisation drama group and while such activities were not typical, they give us some idea of the enthusiasm which ordinary members must have contributed to the movement. According to Robert Cooksey, the chief historian of the Units, "never before or since have so many rank-and-file branch members been activists – or socialists."

The politics of socialisation

It is difficult to identify a particular set of ideas which defined the socialisation units, because it was never fully resolved and remained a topic of heated and constant debate.

Five points were broadly agreed:

  1. The contradictions of capitalism would lead to the eventual collapse of capitalism itself. As the Depression deepened, it became obvious to members of the Units that this was the final crisis of capitalism.
  2. Class conflict was central to capitalism and could not be abolished within the system.
  3. The ruling class ruled through both ideology (convincing workers of capitalist beliefs through schools, churches, the media and so on) and through control of the state apparatus (which is why Scullin and even Lang would find it difficult to impose socialism through the existing state).
  4. Socialism - the social ownership of the major means of production - was the only solution to the Depression and capitalist crisis. This would eventually progress to a stateless society.
  5. Socialism could be achieved "in our time" but only by the Labor Party and only when workers had been convinced of the need for it to happen.

For the Units, socialist ideas would develop not through struggle but through speakers, study classes, newspapers, flyers and so on. This process of gradual enlightenment was sometimes seen as being inevitable - capitalist crisis would drive people toward socialist ideas and all that socialists had to do was to publicise them so that workers would know where to turn.

This strategy has a lot in common with Chris Harman’s definition of the social democratic relationship of party and class, as he described it in the Second International before the First World War, during the period when reformist ideas and organisations were first being formed.

"The development of a mass working class party is seen as being an inevitable corollary of the tendencies of capitalist development. Forever greater grows the number of proletarians, more gigantic the army of labourers and sharper the opposition between exploiters and exploited. Crises naturally occur on an increasing scale, the majority of people sink ever deeper into want and misery, ... in the long run such activities must lead to the organisation of the working class and to a situation where the socialist party has the majority and will form the government."

In short, economic development leads inevitably to socialism.

According to Cooksey, the Units "simultaneously held that (socialism) would be spontaneous, due to increasing misery, and that it would be produced rationally by propaganda in a campaign sanctioned by the party."

The Units’ theoretical basis reflects the reformist division between politics and economics. The units saw their job as being "political", to propagandise about socialism, while struggle (around "economic" issues) was either unnecessary, impossible (the number of strike days lost had indeed fallen to a tiny fraction of its pre-Depression level) or was the job of other organisations, such as the trade unions (run at this time mostly by supporters of Lang and more moderate sections of the Labor Party). This division between politics and economics was not only an accommodation to the collapse of class struggle during the Depression - it reflected an outlook which the Socialisation Units shared with the Labor Party as a whole and which has been mirrored on both the left and right of reformist parties throughout their history.

It is a different view of the relationship of politics and economics argued by Lenin and espoused by the International Socialist Organisation and revolutionary socialist parties in our tradition.

This view holds that in the real world, politics and economics are intrinsically linked. Capitalism rules through the illusion that despite economic inequality between bosses and workers, members of all classes have equal political rights because in elections each individual has only one vote. The state is apparently neutral, open to influence from any class, and therefore political struggle should focus upon elections and parliament.

The state, however, is not neutral and is used by the capitalist class in a variety of ways to maintain their economic rule. They are also able to use their control of production to influence governments in ways far more powerful than simply exercising their vote. For this reason, workers cannot simply "lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes". Instead, it must be smashed and replaced by a new state based on workers own organisations, organised where they have their real industrial power – at work.

In the course of struggle, workers may quickly see through the mythical division between economics and politics. They learn that the state which sends police to break their strike or arrest their leaders is not neutral and they learn that the parliament which they voted in does not serve their interests.

Revolutionary parties see their role in this process as not simply to make propaganda about socialism, but to be actively involved in the struggles of workers over wages, conditions and the right to form unions, always attempting to lead by linking the two.

According to Lenin, the revolutionary party can play this role only if it is united behind this strategy. The Labor Party claims to represent all sections of workers and their views, but this always means that the most left wing workers are held back by the most right wing. A revolutionary party, on the other hand, can lead only if it contains just that minority who agree with this view and are capable of arguing it to their fellow workers in the course of struggle.

The Socialisation Units, despite occasional revolutionary rhetoric, were based upon a reformist strategy and a reformist theory of the party. One leader, J Kilburn, believed that Labor would be elected to government and introduce socialism through legislation. His colleague, W MacNamara, was a syndicalist and former member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies as they were known). MacNamara held that socialism would be brought about by a general strike which would shut down production and force capitalists to hand over control to a Labor government. Differences such as that between these two positions were never really resolved in the Units, yet they have in common a rather benign view of the state and its role in the struggle for socialism.

If the Units believed that the state could be captured by Labor, it followed that their job was to promote and channel support for socialism into this party (through propaganda) until they had a majority and could proceed with socialism.

This propagandism was something which Lang could turn to his advantage, since it allowed him to bear almost no responsibility for socialisation until workers had been "convinced". In a speech he made to the Labor Party conference in 1931, he said that "this conference is full of references to socialisation but you the members of the labour movement must do your work before we can do ours. You must get out among the people, you must point out to them the benefit of socialisation, you must make them ready to receive it. Nobody is keener on our objective than I am but how can we do it in parliament when the greatest obstruction is met in our own ranks?"

Here we can see how the strategy of the Units did not challenge Lang’ s view of his own role. It allowed him to excuse himself from doing a great deal about their so-called common goal, on the grounds that the key problem was one of education, not of struggle or leadership. Lang’s tactician, Harold McCauley, summed up this tactic by advising Lang to "ride the socialist tiger until it drops from sheer exhaustion".

Labor versus socialism

The units were not completely uncritical of the Labor Party leadership. Increasingly, their own propaganda was directed inside their own party, at Labor voters and members, and their energy was directed (out of the need for self-preservation as much as anything else) at winning conference votes and swaying internal structures.

Their battle for socialism inside the party was, unfortunately, doomed to fail.

The reason is that the Labor Party has always been based upon a layer of trade union officials, that stratum of the working class who have been removed from the conditions of their own class and who develop a vested interest in negotiating a settlement between capital and labour within the system. The central role played by the trade union bureaucracy inside the Labor Party has always determined the Labor Party’s reformist nature and so obstructed the efforts of socialists such as those within the socialisation units.

The units’ fuzziness on socialist strategy could only ever be temporary, because they straddled a contradiction between Labor’s appeal to its working class base and its reformist leadership. That clash would inevitably lead to a strategic battle within the units and fed a constant argument within the units over how to bring about socialism.

In 1931, the Premier’s Plan was being drawn up and unemployment affected one third of trade unionists. A new urgency gripped the Units and at the ALP Conference that year, MacNamara successfully moved a motion calling for socialism within three years. This was to be the first and only time that the Labor Party committed itself to "socialism in our time". The Labor leadership was apoplectic, having been completely surprised by the motion and now realising the way in which it would be used by the left wing within the party. They counter-attacked cleverly, using Marxist rhetoric to label the movers of the motion "utopian socialists". They lobbied intensely and the following day succeeded in having the motion rescinded (although not before it was noted in the New York Times!).

That motion was perhaps the first real warning to Lang and his leadership that the units would not simply play the role of "patient educators" but could eventually become a threat to Lang himself. With that realisation came the beginning of the real battle between Lang and the Units.

A sub-committee of the units was set up following the 1931 conference with the brief to report and make recommendations on strategies for socialism. The Committee produced a report, titled the Payne Report after its principal author, Tom Payne.

Payne had been a founding member of the Communist Party, later joining the Labor Party and helping to cohere a left wing of the Party. He was expelled by Lang in 1924 but later rejoined to haunt Lang as an organiser of the Socialisation Units.

The Payne Report was a bombshell within the units and within the party. It called for "social revolution, which means… complete destruction of the capitalist state apparatus… a dictatorship of the working class" following a "revolutionary conflict between the classes". If it remained vague on key points, it was nonetheless the clearest statement ever produced by the socialisation units of a revolutionary strategy for socialism and quite enough to compel Jack Lang and his closest supporters to action against it.

The essential argument contained in the Payne Report was a response to the question which had always faced the units: would propaganda (and relying upon the inevitable victory of Labor in parliament) be enough to deliver a new social system?

The Payne Report indicated that it would not and that it was time to begin organising for some kind of insurrection or confrontation in the future. By stating that success would require the conscious intervention of an organised minority of socialists and would require preparation for an insurrection, it was the first and last step made by the leaders of the Units toward a revolutionary strategy for action. The Payne Report seemed to say that it was time to "stop talking about what the class as a whole can achieve and start talking about what we, as part of its development, are going to act". That report was recommended to the party and discussed and debated at branch and unit meetings across New South Wales.

Lang and his supporters launched an offensive against the document. Lang said "There have been those in our midst who have advocated the armed revolution as the only means of our emancipation but the revolution has come, it is being fought now and it will continue a little into the future. It will come without our streets being barricaded, without the accompaniment of firearms, but in the way the labour movement has always said it would come, by act of parliament." Lang saw his own plan as the revolution. By now, Lang’s "Inner Group" of advisers had probably decided that "if it could not manage the Socialisation Units, it would, when the time was ripe, try to wipe them out".

The new "revolutionary" wing of the socialisation units was seriously undermined by Lang’s campaign against them precisely because they had done so little to criticise his politics and strategy. As one historian explained:

"For ALP socialisation militants to compete with Lang for labour’s loyalty and for the public ear would have been a tricky, but far from impossible, business. In order to project a widely acceptable counter-image of the ALP left, socialisation militants had to appear to be logically developing Langism from within the framework of Langism."

They had never seriously questioned Lang’s own credentials and as a result were disarmed by his attacks upon them.

The leadership of the Labor Party now turned upon Payne and his followers with renewed vigour and a new series of counter-attacks. The way in which they did this was to once more attempt to proscribe membership of the units, so as to exclude not only members of the Communist Party but also members of various front groups, such as the Unemployed Workers Movement, the Minority Movement and the Friends Of the Soviet Union.

This new move provoked outrage among members of the units, who saw it as a clear attempt to gut the units of any potential threat to the authority of Lang. The move was successful at a formal level, carried at a conference but was never really carried out through expulsions. Nevertheless, it spelled political defeat for the units and especially their left wing.

The final crisis

Tom Payne resigned from the Units and rejoined the Communist Party. He published a long self-criticism in the Workers Weekly, urging other socialists to "come to their senses" and follow him out of the Units and into the Communist Party. Aside from his closest supporters, he did not succeed in taking many members with him yet his resignation heralded, at the end of 1931, the coming of the end for the Units.

Late in 1931, Lang’s Federal MPs crossed the floor to vote with Joe Lyons and his United Australia Party (later reincarnated as the Liberal Party) to bring down the Scullin government. At the subsequent election, Lyons was returned and was to govern for some time.

Lyons returned the favour by launching a campaign to prosecute Lang and the NSW government for their failure to make loan repayments to overseas bondholders. The Lyons government had paid debts owed by NSW and now began court action to recover the monies from Lang. In May 1932, in a striking precedent for the dismissal of Gough Whitlam forty years later in 1975, the Governor of NSW, Sir Philip Game, used the court action to sack Lang and the parliament. An election was called for a month later.

This move provoked mass outrage among workers across New South Wales. Just weeks earlier, a meeting of seven hundred members of the Timberworkers’ Union had pledged "unreservedly to place their services at the disposal of the Premier". The Labor Council prepared for trouble, announcing "procedures for the para-military mobilisation of unionists, asking shop delegates to specify those members who were returned soldiers" and causing the New York Times to break the news that the Trades Hall and Labor Council was organising a "Red Army"!

The right wing opponents of Lang took the opportunity of his dismissal to launch a new counter offensive, although they had been mobilising for months. In February, the leader of the National Party in New South Wales accused Lang of supporting "revolution", and his UAP colleague later warned of "civil war" if Lang was re-elected.

Such anti-communist hysteria had been growing in rural areas for some time, and it provided an audience for the New Guard, a small but well organised fascist organisation led by businessman Colonel Eric Campbell, and other groups like it. The New Guard is reported to have prepared an army of 80,000 men to stage a military coup in the event of Lang’s re-election. Although the prospects of fascism in Australia may have been slim, the influence of far right groups at the time was considerable and testifies to the scale of the crisis surrounding Lang and his government.

Earle Page, federal leader of the Australian Country Party warned ominously that "the countrymen will be forced to take the lead themselves by creating governments which will… protect the people… and defy the rebel elements in the community… It is not only the Lang Government which must be destroyed, but the system which perpetually puts it back into office."

The election campaign was a focus for intense mobilisation on both sides of the class divide. Lang addressed rallies of up to a quarter of a million workers, determined to defend their elected government. Although Lang recognised that arrayed against him were "all the newspapers of Australia, all the other governments of Australia, corrupt courts that were prepared at all times to twist the law", he refused to mobilise his massive support against the threat from the right and he did nothing to fight his own dismissal. He later justified this by stating that:

"While I was satisfied in my own mind that there hundreds of thousands of people in the state who would rally to the defence of their elected government, I was not prepared to risk the creation of a situation resulting in bloodshed, particularly as the Commonwealth would have its forces fully committed".

In the subsequent election, Lang’s Labor Party was decimated, its seats being reduced by more than half in number, from 55 to 24.

Although the Units played no part in either Lang’s dismissal or election defeat, those events triggered what was to be the final crisis for the socialisation units. They attempted to make a last minute turn to the unions by setting up union committees, something which they had not seriously attempted before. They did this not because they had reconsidered their views on workers and class struggle but because they now saw the unions’ massive voting bloc at conference as being their only chance at survival.

They began to increasingly criticise the executive for failing to back socialisation. Lang and the executive in turn cut off resources from the units. In January 1933, Lang delivered a final warning to the left: "In recent months the misery among the people has impelled many workers in our Movement to endeavour to hasten towards our objective. As often happens, when undirected zeal exhibits itself, confusion follows. Labor people should keep in mind that there are no gradations in Labor membership… You are either Labor men and women, or you are not." At the following Conference in April 1933, (where Trades Hall Secretary Jock Garden famously proclaimed Lang to be "greater than Lenin") the Units were severed from the party and they withered and died not long after that.

Even in defeat, the leaders of the Units did not repudiate their faith in Labor. In 1933, at the last substantial meeting of delegates, the leadership committee declared that the Party had clearly not understood the value of their work, but:

"…this lack of understanding must give way under the pressure of a rapidly increasing mass of enlightened party members, and before the hard facts of the developing situation, to a positive understanding of the necessity for all our Party’s efforts to be directed towards nothing less than the Party’s full objective…".

Most active Units dissolved after this last hurrah, and the Socialisation movement inside the Labor Party did not survive that year. Most of the people who had joined the Party in order to support the units resigned and apparently disappeared from political activity altogether. A tiny number went on to join the Communist Party of Australia but for the most part the units had disappeared without a trace.

The Communists and socialisation

In his book Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin had laid down a clear framework for socialists in the West attempting to relate to social democratic or reformist parties like the Australian Labor Party. He strenuously argued that socialists could not afford to ignore the support that these parties had among workers, and instead had to work patiently with reformist workers who followed such parties. Until they had won reformist workers over in large numbers to revolutionary politics, this would remain their main task.

The Comintern supported this view the following year when it adopted the policy of the United Front. Leon Trotsky, architect of this strategy, explained:

"The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them. Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organisations and join us."

He therefore proposes that revolutionary parties unite with reformist parties around a fight for specific, immediate demands.

"The Communists… must not oppose such actions but on the contrary must assume the initiative for them, precisely for the reason that the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self-confidence rises… And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalise it and creates much more favourable conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party… We are… interested in dragging the reformists from their asylums and placing them alongside ourselves before the eyes of the struggling masses."

Unfortunately, by the late twenties and the period in which the Australian Communist Party began to grow significantly, Lenin and Trotsky had been replaced in the Soviet Union by a new class of bureaucrats around Joseph Stalin, who presided over Russia in their own interests.

As part of Stalin’s drive for power, he isolated potential competitors among his fellow Communist Party leaders and distorted theoretical debates to do this. During his campaign in 1928 against Nikolai Bukharin, a long-time Bolshevik who now argued for relaxing state controls and allowing capitalist investment to occur, Stalin devised a perspective called the Third Period.

The Third Period was endorsed at the 1928 Comintern congress and argued that the world had now entered a new period of wars and revolutions, that capitalist stability was at an end, and that the key task of communist parties around the world was to go on the offensive. Reformist social democratic parties, according to this view, were worse than irrelevant, acting to hold back workers struggles and betray them to the capitalists. Because they pretended to be allies, these social democrats were more insidious than fascists and given the new title of "social fascists". Instead of a "united front" with reformist parties in order to expose them, these parties and their supporters were now to be subjected to intense and unremitting hostility.

Unfortunately, it was this perspective which was carried through to the letter in Australia by a new leadership, elected at the Ninth Congress of the party in 1929. To them, the Labor Party in Australia (whether under Lang or Scullin), was now indistinguishable from the bourgeois state apparatus. In June 1930, in the Theses of the Central Committee Plenum, they defined the socialisation units as "social fascist", acting only to divert workers while Labor carried out their attacks.

The NSW Labor Party was now "the left wing of the fascists". CP publications pointed out that workers’ illusions in Labor were a "form of disease, encouraged by various so-called working class orators", Communist publications warned that "Lang favours fascism" and that "the Labor leaders… have aided the capitalists to organise, arm and train their Fascist armies".

Union officials whether left or right and regardless of whether they were even sympathetic to the Communists, came under heavy fire. Arthur Rae, prominent member of the units (and who had defended the Communist Party’s presence inside the units) was labelled a "social fascist". Jock Garden, leader of Trades Hall, Lang supporter and former communist, was "depraved" and "akin to that foul creature the octopus". Garden, according to the Minority Movement’s paper, the Red Leader, was a good example of a "social fascist; that is, a man who mouths revolutionary phrases to deceive the militancy of the workers and at the same time gives the employing class… all the support in his power to crush his own class." Jack Ryan, also a former member of the Communist Party, was now a "traitor". There were reports of physical harassment by communists of Labor Party and Trades Hall meetings.

The Communist Party initially opposed the formation of the Units. It would not be fair to say that they never worked with them, since there were at least a few members of the CP inside the units and there would have been considerable contact between members of the two organisations in unions and campaign committees such as the Unemployed Workers Movement. Where they did have contact, however, the Communist Party’s tactic was to call for a "united front from below", a demand which amounted to an ultimatum placed upon rank and file members of the Labor Party or of the Socialisation Units.

This "united front" demanded that reformist workers renounce their leaders before engaging in joint action, the exact opposite of Trotsky’s original proposals for a true united front. As Trotsky pointed out, "if we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations… that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form." The Communist Party tried to "skip over" the issue of mass working class support for the Labor Party and fell down badly.

Amid the Depression and the massive social dislocation which it caused, the Communist Party’s propaganda about the final crisis of capitalism and the urgent need for a revolution (which had been drafted in Russia before the onset of Depression) did not entirely miss its mark. By the time the Australian economy began to recover in 1934, the Communist Party’s membership had grown from hundreds to thousands. The Party’s new base among workers helped to shift it in practice away from the worst excesses of Third Period ultra-leftism, but an historic opportunity had already been lost.


The Australian Labor Party today has long since dropped even the veneer of radical populism that it displayed under the leadership of Jack Lang. It’s working class membership today is a fraction of what it was sixty years ago and those members who remain are largely inactive and demoralised. Although the ALP still commands the loyalty of a majority of workers in elections, many of those workers have become disillusioned with Labor.

Every policy shift to the right by Labor confirms that the economic crisis has undermined the material basis for reformism – the capacity to deliver reforms for workers. Where in boom times Labor was able to promise rising living standards and a defence of the welfare state, today its spokespeople mouth Liberal slogans about "mutual obligation". Post-war calls to nationalise the banks have been replaced by privatisation and deregulation. Today’s rising Labor stars call on workers to embrace globalisation and get used to high unemployment.

In such a situation, socialists are presented with an opportunity to pull those workers, even if only in small numbers at first, toward revolutionary politics. The experience of the Socialisation Units shows us that Labor’s audience can move quickly to the left when its leaders are unable to deliver.

As we have seen, however, that is not the whole story.

A crisis for Labor does not mean that its hold on workers has been broken. The attachment of the leaders of the Socialisation Units to a parliamentary road to socialism allowed their members to be attacked and defeated by Lang. That defeat did not drive workers even further to the left – it drove them out of politics. The party which claimed to be the sole representative of revolutionary tradition in Australia could not provide an alternative for these disillusioned socialists, because it had gravely mistaken the nature of the period. The Communist Party mistook Labor’s crisis for its impending death (at least as a party of workers) and so failed to relate to Labor’s supporters in a way that could have drawn them into its periphery.

Socialists today can afford even less to ignore the contradictory nature of the Labor Party. While it’s leaders adopt capitalist policies and attack their own supporters, those supporters are not forced inevitably into the revolutionary camp. For that to happen requires a twin approach from revolutionary socialists.

On the one hand, they must be the staunchest critics of Labor’s sell-outs and its refusal to fight. They must always seek to point out the limitations of "working within the system" and argue the necessity of a revolution to overthrow capitalism and begin to build a new socialist system. On the other, they must seek to win the support of Labor supporters by joining with them in every struggle they can and proving in practise that the tradition of Marx and Lenin is the best guide to fighting capitalism today.

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