Anti-communism across the Commonwealth

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It had long been argued by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) that the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 was inspired by the Apartheid regime in South Africa, in particular the Suppression of Communism Act 1950 introduced by the Malan Government. In 2004, Justice Michael Kirby gave a paper at the University of Chicago in which he argued:

In the United States,… the Supreme Court had held up as valid the Smith Act which was in some ways similar to the Australian anti-communist legislation. It, in turn, had borrowed elements from a South African law which subsequently became the model for “suppression of terrorism” laws in a number of British colonies.

The Menzies government went into the December 1949 elections with the promise to ban the Communist Party if elected. Menzies had used the Crimes Act 1914 to ban the CPA during the Second World War (while the CPA was in its ‘imperialist war’ phase), but this ban was overturned by Labor’s John Curtin when he became Prime Minister in 1942.

The National Party under Malan had been elected in 1948 and in the subsequent years, had pushed through several pieces of legislation creating the Apartheid regime that existed until the early 1990s. The National Party had been concerned about the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) particularly since a widespread 1946 strike and there had been efforts by the United Party government to put the leaders of the CPSA on trial for sedition.

We know from documents at the National Archives of Australia that both the Menzies and Malan governments were developing similar legislation at the same time in 1950 – the Australian bill was introduced to Parliament in April 1950, while the South African bill was passed in June of the same year. Letters from the Australian High Commission in Cape Town show that the Malan government passed on the draft legislation to the Menzies government before the Dissolution Bill was introduced in Australian Parliament. The letter, dated 3 March, 1950, says:

The Union Government has made available for your strictly confidential information, a copy of the draft bill to combat Communism, which I am sending by today’s airbag. It has yet to receive the final approval of Cabinet.

The Union Government state they would seek particulars of any Australian Government measures directed to the same object.

I am yet to look through the non-digitised files in Canberra relating to the Dissolution Bill to see whether this South African connection is expanded upon further, and I have found the website of the South African National Archives impossible to navigate.

But I did find an interesting Commonwealth link in the newspaper of the CPSA, The Guardian. In an article dated February 16, 1950, the newspaper claimed that the National government was busy drafting an anti-communist bill, based on Canadian legislation and that ‘[s]imilar legislation is contemplated by Australia and by Southern Rhodesia’. The article explained that the legislation was based on the former section 98 of the Canadian Criminal Code which was repealed in 1936, but was used to harass the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) , various Trotskyist groups and trade unions after the Winnipeg strike of 1919. The article claimed that the Canadian government was considering re-enacting the legislation against the Labour-Progressive Party of Canada (the name of the reconstituted CPC between 1943 and 1959).

Similar to the CPA, the CPC had been banned under wartime restrictions in 1940, but unlike the CPA, this ban remained enforced through the war and early Cold War period. The remnants of the CPC formed the LPPC in 1943 to capitalise on the Soviet Union entering the war, which gave a boost to Communist Parties across the Western world, including the CPA and the CPSA.

The Guardian article went onto claim that ‘anti-Communist measures are being co-ordinated throughout the Commonwealth’ by MI5. This is interesting as it suggests that there was a clear anti-communist programme across the Commonwealth to ensure that the decolonisation process did not lead to communist subversion within the former British Empire and that the Dominions were entrusted with particular responsibility to crack down on communists throughout the Anglosphere. There are several documents in the National Archives in London (here and here for instance) which bolster this argument.

All of this suggests that both communism and anti-communism politics found useful links within the imperial network of the British Commonwealth, which is great for my project (and possible forthcoming project if the ARC feeling like giving me a DECRA). However it also seems that my project may have to cast an eye on the Communist Party of Canada at some point, which means more work for me!

Do any readers have any suggestions for reading material on the CPC?

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