Seminar paper – Communism in the British Commonwealth: The transmission of Marxist anti-colonialism between Britain, Australia and South Africa

This is the text of my seminar paper that I gave last month on my new research project, ‘Communism and Anti-Colonialism in the British Commonwealth’. It is my first foray into the history of the Communist Parties in Australia and South Africa, and the paper is as much about getting the history in order in my own head as it is for a wider audience. I’m still getting to grips with some areas of CPA/CPSA history, so I welcome any feedback, but please be kind!

free the colonies


In the wake of the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War, there was enthusiasm for socialist revolution and for colonial liberation, often intertwined. The Soviet Union established the Third International (Communist International) in 1919 to co-ordinate these dual revolutions. In 1920, Comintern called for establishment of Communist Parties across the globe (with allegiance to Comintern) and also established congress to unite anti-colonial activists across the former Russian Empire and other Asian nations.

In most Western nations, socialist and workers’ parties (many inspired by Marx and Engels) had existed since late 19th century, but the October Revolution and the subsequent formation of the Third International had prompted these parties in many countries to enter into talks about unity and support for the fledgling Soviet Union. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, a number of smaller parties all agreed to unite as Communist Parties in the period between 1919 and 1921. Unlike the mass Communist Parties that existed in mainland Europe at the time, the CPGB, the CPA and the CPSA were all numerically very small, in the shadow of a much larger (and electorally significant) Labour Party, but still managed to gain influence in the trade unions.

Particularly in the early 1920s, the Soviet Union, fighting in the Russian Civil War, placed its hopes in the revolution expanding beyond Russia, into Europe, but also across the colonies (especially those who belonged to the defeated imperial powers). The British Empire, while victorious in the war, had been firmly shaken by the war’s length and great stock was placed by the Russians in anti-colonial fervour to rise across the Empire. The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the party in the metropole of the largest existing empire, was tasked by the Soviets with co-ordinating and providing support for anti-colonial rebellions across the Empire. While smaller than the CPGB, the CPSA and CPA were also expected, by the Comintern and by the CPGB, to help foster revolution in their ‘spheres of influence’.

By the mid-1920s, the worldwide socialist revolution had not occurred and the Soviets had grown less ambitious in their outlook, with the internal dispute over the successor to Lenin allowing Stalin to promote the idea of ‘socialism in one country’. The corresponding position of the Comintern from 1922-23 to 1928-29 was for Communists to build ‘united fronts’ with other sections of the labour movement and to seek unity where possible, to ensure that the ideas of socialism are not entirely overlooked. This seemed straightforward in many of the Western nations, but in the colonies (and in the dominions of South Africa and Australia) this position was turned into co-operating with nationalist anti-colonial groups whenever possible, as well as developing Communist Parties where a critical mass of activists could be located, such as in India or China.

In the British case, Moscow encouraged the CPGB to send liaisons to develop anti-colonial links in the colonies, such as Benjamin Bradley in India and James Crossley in Egypt, as well as cooperating with the Comintern’s Colonial Bureau in Berlin, Paris and Moscow (principally the work of the Dutt brothers).[1] In Australia and South Africa, the Parties followed the same line as the European parties into ‘united front’ work, but at the same time, were encouraged to foster stronger links with the ‘natives’ and other migrant groups. In South Africa, the 1922 Rand Revolt, which pitted white and black workers against each other was used by the Comintern as a catalyst to castigate the CPSA for not challenging racial prejudice and to draft more black workers into the Party. By the late 1920s, the majority of the CPSA’s membership was black, but the leadership positions were mainly taken by white people.[2] In Australia, the Party was criticised for not opposing the ‘White Australia Policy’ strongly enough and to make more endeavours in making contacts with Aboriginal workers. While the overall direction of the international Communist movement was provided by the Comintern at this moment, with each party undergoing some level of ‘Bolshevisation’, in the Anglophone world, the Comintern delegated responsibility to the Communist Party of Great Britain and also to the Anglo-American Bureau/Secretariat.

The process of ‘Bolshevisation’ involved in many instances the purging of many members thought to be ‘disloyal’ to the ‘movement’ (and possible Trotskyists) and the leadership of the parties made up by (slightly) younger members with strong ties to the Soviet Union. The ‘Bolshevisation’ process takes place at the same time as the ‘Third Period’ commences, which is an about turn on the previous strategy of co-operating with the wider labour movement and any bourgeois or reformist groups denounced as ‘social fascists’. In some colonies, such as in India, the CPI refused to work with the National Congress, but in some settler colonies, the dismissal of links with bourgeois/reformist groups led to the ‘Native Republic’ thesis being put forward. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis was developed primarily in the United States and South Africa, but other settler colonies, such as those in Latin America, which proposed that the black population could, in principal, take their own road to self-determination and in South Africa, emphasised that the black peasantry did not have to align themselves to the demands of white workers and also could achieve self-determination without a black bourgeoisie. The ‘Native Republic’ thesis did flow to Australia, where the CPA proposed that rural Aboriginals could form their own republics in central, north and north-western Australia,[3] but Aboriginal workers based in the cities were to be incorporated into the labour movement, with demands of equal rights and equal pay between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers.[4]

The ‘Third Period’ was disastrous for most Communist Parties. In Britain, Australia and South Africa, membership collapsed. But this was undone by the popular Front strategy that was developed from 1933 onwards and officially announced at the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1934. This meant that Communist Parties were to ditch the sectarianism of the last five years and proceed to work with the bourgeoisie and other reformist elements to prevent the onslaught of fascism. In Britain, this meant working with the Labour Party, if not the National Government (who both favoured retaining the Empire), and many accused the CPGB of promoting anti-fascist alliances above the struggle against imperial exploitation. In South Africa, the ‘Native Republic’ thesis was recanted and an anti-fascist alliance was encouraged between white and black workers, but in its efforts to attract more Afrikaner workers towards the CPSA and away from Nazi-tinged racism, the black elements of the Party were often ignored (Allison Drew points to the title of the CPSA paper being changed from Umsebenzi to The South African Worker as evidence of this shift).[5] In Australia, the Party continued to work in the area of Aboriginal rights, but xenophobic attitudes towards the Japanese started to grow.[6]

The Popular Front boosted the fortunes of the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa, but the focus of these parties was on fighting fascism (both locally and internationally), which meant that all likely allies against fascism (including pro-imperialist sections of society) were embraced. The governments in each country were denounced more for their appeasing attitudes to Nazi Germany, their non-co-operation in the Spanish Civil War and the continued hostility towards the USSR, rather than the continued imperialism of the British Commonwealth (which the British Empire became in 1931). However the parties did not give up entirely on promoting anti-colonial politics. The CPGB pushed the notion that an independent India could become a bulwark against the ‘fascist’ expansionism of the Japanese, while in South Africa, black workers were seen as natural allies against fascism and racism.

At the end of the Second World War, it was fairly evident that Britain’s ability to hold onto its colonies had diminished greatly and there was a reluctant acceptance in some areas to allow independence for certain colonies, predominantly India and Pakistan. As the Cold War began in 1947, Britain (as well as the United States) was less likely to allow colonies to become independent if there was a chance of a communist (or pro-Soviet) takeover, such as in Malaya or Ghana. Thus decolonisation was a haphazard (and sometimes violent) affair in the British Commonwealth – an attempt to procure decolonisation on British terms that was somewhat orchestrated in foreign policy, but not in execution.[7] At the same time, the Soviet Union (under the auspices of the short-lived Cominform) promoted the idea that the world was being divided into two camps: the fascist/imperialist camp and the anti-fascist/anti-imperialist camp. The Soviet Union was, theoretically, to support all anti-colonial struggles and where possible, the local Communist Party was to help lead the rebellion. As the Cominform only incorporated the countries of the Eastern Bloc, plus the Communist Parties in France and Italy, the Communist Party of Great Britain was given the task of being a liaison between Moscow and the anti-colonial movements in the Commonwealth.

The CPGB embraced the networks established by the British Empire to act as the co-ordinating influence for Communist Parties and other anti-colonial movements across the Commonwealth under the assumption that this imperial network can be transformed into a ‘fraternal association’ between independent countries (although it found during the 1950s that it was not necessarily so that people in the former colonies wanted to maintain ties with its former imperial master). In 1947, it hosted a conference of the Communist Parties of the Empire which attempted to co–ordinate socialist and anti-colonial activism across the colonies and dominions, while many leaders of the Communist Parties in the Commonwealth visited London to liaise with the CPGB (often in conjunction with visits to Moscow).

In the early Cold War period, the absence of the Comintern as a directing hub for the international Communist movement meant that competing metropoles open up for the movement, particularly within the British Commonwealth. While Moscow was the main determinant of policy and strategy for the international Communist movement (although this was much more informal and internalised after the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943), the delegation of responsibilities to the British Party meant that Communist Parties in the colonies, ex-colonies and dominions could look to Moscow or London, sometimes with conflicting advice. In South Africa, the Cold War period saw the installation of the apartheid regime by the National Party and the banning of the CPSA, which meant that much of the CPSA leadership sought exile in London, Moscow or other parts of Africa (but Mostly London).[8] From 1950 onwards, the CPGB lent the remnants of the CPSA, now exiled in London, practical support on the administrative side, while the new South African Communist Party (established in 1960) and the African National Congress looked to Moscow for military support, starting in the early-to-mid-1960s.[9]

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia, the CPGB and Moscow was very different from that of the CPSA. In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World war, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Party of Malaya and the Chinese Party.

On the eve of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, the CPA’s leadership used the situation in Malaya to attack the CPGB for its reformist tendencies. In the initial post-war period, the CPGB supported the Labour Government, who despite endorsing colonial independence in some instances, harshly put down anti-colonial movements which had communist links, such as in Malaya. The CPA saw the CPGB’s support for Labour as ‘Browderist’ and substituted the struggle for socialism with the acceptance of bourgeois democracy. The CPA believed that the CPGB had lost its way and it would rather look towards Moscow (and Beijing) for direction. (See this post)

The drift towards the Chinese continued throughout the 1950s and exacerbated by the events of 1956. Between 1956 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China seemed to heading towards a major split in the international communist movement and it was up to each individual country or Communist Party to decide where their support lay. Right up until 1960, the CPA seemed to take the side of the Chinese in the dispute, but pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow,[10] as well as re-establishing closer ties with the CPGB.



This is what I am really interested in – the complex relationships that exist within the international Communist movement and within the Communist Parties of the British Commonwealth. Firstly, the fact that Moscow (and then Beijing) act as directing centres for the international communist movement, with other parties deferring to these two metropoles for policy and strategy, reflects a hierarchy in the international communist movement that runs opposite to the movement’s anti-colonialist tendencies. Secondly, that these hierarchies are repeated within the British Empire/Commonwealth, relying on the colonial networks established under British imperialism.

There are two aspects to this second point. One is that there seemed to be a delegation of responsibility on anti-colonial issues from Moscow to London to Johannesburg or Sydney, where the CPSA was responsible for supporting anti-colonial and workers groups in the rest of Southern Africa and before the success of the Chinese, the CPA has considerable responsibilities in maintaining links with anti-colonial and communist groups in South East Asia and Oceania (New Zealand’s Communist Party was, for a while, an outpost of the CPA). Another is that the CPGB struggled with the notion that movements and groups in the colonies did not necessarily want to take instructions or maintain ‘fraternal relations’ with their former imperial masters in any form.

An illustration of this is the slow build of resistance in the Party’s International Department to the CPGB’s policy on decolonisation from the late 1940s until it was changed in 1957 at the 25th Special Congress. Rajani Palme Dutt, a leading figure of the CPGB and dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist, was also the Party’s chief anti-colonial theoretician and led a rebellion against the rest of the Party leadership to change the wording regarding the Party’s attitude towards decolonisation. From the mid-1930s onwards and enshrined in the Party’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism, was the resolution that the former colonies would become self-governed entities within a reformed Commonwealth, which would rely on a notion of mutual assistance to ensure that Britain retained its supply of goods and raw materials from these former colonies. As the Party increased its membership of people from the former colonies, primarily from the Caribbean, West Africa and India, in the 1950s, there was an internal debate over whether the Party was truly committed to national liberation. At the 1957 Congress, there was a push from these newer recruits for the Party to recognise that national liberation of the colonies would mean that these countries were free to choose their own diplomatic relationships, and would not be automatically tied to the Commonwealth (nor a Soviet-aligned bloc either). This rebellion by the colonial migrant members of the Party demanded that the CPGB leadership pay more attention to the desires of those seeking independence from Britain and respect the agency of the colonial citizens in the decolonisation process. Eventually supported by Dutt, the 1958 edition of the Party programme included a much stronger commitment to anti-colonialism and should be remembered as a rare victory of rank-and-file CPGB members in changing Party policy from the grassroots level.

I am particularly interested in the period from the end of the Comintern in 1943 to the early 1960s, when decolonisation in the British Commonwealth is almost complete. The dissolution of the Comintern throws up this idea of the competing metropoles and coincides with the greatest level of decolonisation.


There are three main archives that I need to visit for this project. In February this year, I visited the Communist Party of Great Britain archive at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, with additional research at the Hull History Centre (where the papers of the British wing of the League Against Imperialism are kept), the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and the National Archives at Kew. At the CPGB archives, I was primarily interested in the papers of the Party’s International Department, which co-ordinated the Party’s anti-colonial work, published the Colonial Information Bulletin and the Africa Newsletter and organised the two Communist Parties of the Empire conferences in 1947 and 1954. The other important section of the CPGB papers was those belonging to the Party’s correspondence, which had many documents relating to the correspondence between the CPGB and the Parties in Australia and South Africa. One of the interesting things that arrived from the correspondence papers is the level of travel of members between the three parties. While only a small number of people had dual membership, the Parties often sent representatives to foster stronger connections between them. Leading figures of the CPGB often travelled to Australia (usually on tours of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent), while the CPSA and the CPA sent rank-and-file members, as well as leadership figures, to Britain. Once the CPSA is threatened under the Apartheid regime in the late 1940s and banned in the 1950s, there is an exodus of leading CPSA personnel to London.

At the National Archives, various files of the security services have been opened that disclose the monitoring of the CPGB and other Communist Parties within the Commonwealth, with a particular focus on individuals suspected of being communist agents travelling to the colonies. These files are exceptions to the 30 year rule and are being opened on an ad hoc basis. Since my visit in February, more relevant files have been opened and I plan to return to the UK sometime in 2014.

Due to the federal nature of the Communist Party of Australia, there are several different archives to visit. I am travelling to the Mitchell Library next week to start work on the CPA’s National papers and the papers of the NSW branch. To view the CPA’s records, permission had to be granted by the SEARCH Foundation, the successor organisation of the CPA when it wound up in 1991. In November, I will be travelling to the University of Melbourne to look at the papers of the CPA’s Victorian Branch, as well as the papers of CPGB/CPA member Mary Docherty. I hope to also go to Brisbane sometime to look at the Queensland branch’s papers located at the University of Queensland.

The National Library of Australia has the personal papers of several CPA members from inter-war period that I hope to examine too. One of those is Esmonde Higgins, one of the few people to have dual membership to the CPGB and the CPA. Other personal papers of those involved in the CPA can be found at the Noel Butlin Archives at ANU, which I also hope to visit next year. The National Archives of Australia also hold numerous records on the Communist Party of Australia and thankfully a lot of those are digitised.

I am looking to travel to South Africa in the first half of next year to visit the various archives of the CPSA. The main archival sources are at the University of Cape Town, but there are several others, such as those at the University of the Western Cape and the University of Witwaterstand. I have been in touch with scholars who have conducted research on the CPSA and some scholars located in South Africa have offered to help me find the necessary resources.

CPA pamphlet dixon


There are two main problems for this project. One is that the records of the Comintern are difficult to access. They are held in a Russian archive and to access the necessary documents, it will take an extended period of time and will be a significant cost. There is an online archive of Comintern records, but no library in Australia has access to it (and it is prohibitively expensive). I am hoping to overcome this problem by using the Comintern documents found in the various CPGB, CPSA and CPA archives, but the situation is also helped that there was an edited collection which compiled a significant amount of the correspondence between the CPA and Moscow that was published in 2008,[11] and a similar two-volume collection published in 2003 relating to the CPSA and Moscow.[12] If I have time and money after my trips to the UK and South Africa, I will have to see whether it is possible to visit the Russian archives.

The second problem relates also relates to the difficulty of sources. A number of Communist International publications are hard to locate, such as The International and The Negro Worker, so I need to be diligent on my next research trip to the UK. The British Library holds some of these documents, but some are also held at the Marx Memorial Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


One of the ways around accessing the Comintern records in Moscow is to shift my project’s timeframe. As my research progresses, I am becoming more interested in the period after 1943, when the Comintern is dissolved as this throws up the question of Communist parties being ‘loyal’ to Moscow and whether it was necessary to follow the line of the Soviet Union. The immediate period after the Second World War is perhaps the most interesting period of all as the decolonisation process really gets underway and the success of the Communist Party in China means that Beijing increasingly becomes a focal point for communists and anti-colonialists in the Australasia region. This may be the way forward for my research, although more will become clear after my research trips to Sydney, Melbourne and South Africa.

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Communist and the Colonies: Anti-Imperialism Between the Wars’, in Geoff Andrews, Nina Fishman & Kevin Morgan, Opening the Books: Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party (London: Pluto Press, 1995) pp. 8-9.

[2] Allison Drew, Discordant Comrades: Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000) p. 94.

[3] Douglas Jordan, Conflict in the Unions: The Communist Party of Australia, Politics and the Trade Union Movement, 1945-60 (Sydney: Resistance Books, 2013) p. 185.

[4] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegallity (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 265.

[5] Drew, Discordant Comrades, p. 182.

[6] Tom O’Lincoln, into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained wattle Press, 1985) p. 49.

[7] See: Benjamin Fitz-Gibbon, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) pp. 1-3.

[8] Mark Israel, South African Political Exile in the United Kingdom (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1999) pp. 25-30.

[9] See: Vladimir Shubin, ANC: A View From Moscow (University of the Western Cape: Mayibuye Books, 1999).

[10] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc.: 2010) pp. 172-185.

[11] David W. Lovell & Kevin Windle (eds), Our Unswerving Loyalty: A Documentary Survey of Relations Between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920-1940 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2008)

[12] Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 1: Socialist Pilgrims to Bolshevik Footsoldiers, 1919-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2003); Apollon B. Davidson, et. al. (eds), South Africa and the Communist International, vol. 2: Bolshevik Footsoldiers to Victims of Bolshevisation, 1931-1939 (London: Frank Cass,2003).


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