This is the extended part of a paper that I wrote with Padraic Gibson for the Eric Richards’ Symposium in British and Australian History, which was held at Flinders University last week. The abstract for our paper was as below:
Alongside the Communist Party of Australia’s (CPA) work for Aboriginal rights, the Party’s demands for independence for Papua New Guinea (PNG) arose in the late 1920s from a more complex understanding of the specific form of Australian imperialism. Originally the CPA made no differentiation between British imperialism and the settler colonialism that existed in Australia. This contributed towards an uncritical attitude to immigration restrictions and a silence on the colonial oppression experienced by Aboriginal people on this continent and Indigenous peoples in Australia’s ‘mandated territories’ in the South Pacific. In dialogue with the Comintern, from the late 1920s, the party developed a more nuanced theory of imperialism that highlighted the independent interests and initiative of the Australian bourgeoisie. In this context, the CPA started to campaign against Australian imperialism in New Guinea, highlighting the violent and exploitative rule by the Australians in the mandated territory. This provided an orientation that led to the development of important links between Communist Party members in northern Australia and the independence movement in the territories of New Guinea and Papua. In the lead up to the Second World War and during the early Cold War era, these links particularly worried the Australian authorities (including ASIO) as they thought that a successful anti-colonial movement in the territory would allow firstly the Japanese, then the Chinese or Indonesian communists to gain a base close to the Australian mainland. This paper will explore at this overlooked part of the history of the Australian Communist Party and the campaign against Australian imperialism in the Asia-Oceania region.
However the paper that we wrote was too long to confine into one conference paper, so I am posting the second half of the paper, on the post-1945 period, here. This is very much a work in progress piece, so any feedback is welcome.
The period after the Second World War looked to present the international communist and anti-colonial movements with an ‘interlude of hope’ as the forces of socialism and national liberation seemed to gather pace. Based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism, communists saw the collapse of the European colonial systems in Africa, Asia and the Americas as the catalyst for worldwide socialist revolution.
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 Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. A 1949 report on communism in Australia compiled by the CIA noted the support that the CPA had given to communists in Indonesia, Malaya and India, and stated, ‘It is one of the strongest Communist parties of the region and has extended assistance to various independence movements’. The same report claimed, via ‘unverified reports’, that the CPA has set up amateur radio station in Queensland to communicate with sister parties in South-East Asia, and also used ‘smugglers and seamen’ to help in communicating with the armed rebellions in Malaya and Indonesia.
As well as fighting British, Dutch and French imperialism in South-East Asia, the Communist Party revived the fight against Australian imperialism in the aftermath of the Second World War. During the Second World War, the CPA was relatively silent about New Guinea and self-determination for its people. Criticism of Australian imperialism was substituted for criticism of Japanese and German imperialism in the region and New Guinea was predominantly mentioned as a battleground against the Axis powers. Like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought the Japanese during the war, the Communist Party celebrated those Papuans who helped the Australian Army and saw this fight against fascism as the beginnings of a longer fight against imperialism and racism.
During the war, the security services that predated ASIO started to be interested in any inroads that the CPA were making amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in northern Australia. Of particular concern was the CPA’s activism with Indigenous people in the northern parts of Western Australia and in early 1944, inquiries were made out about possible communist activism in another frontline area – PNG. A memo from the Deputy Director of Security in Western Australia wrote to the Director of Security in Canberra, however, noted ‘[t]here is no evidence that the Communist Party in this State has show any interest in the future of the natives of New Guinea.’
In July 1944, the Party first announced its programme for the nation once the war ended, looking to prevent Australian capitalism filling the vacuum after the Japanese occupiers left. In Tribune, the Party stated:
Now that the Japanese are pushed back and the danger is over, New Guinea capitalists are clamouring to return to their plantations and business with complete freedom to exploit and enslave the natives as before.
Self-determination to the people of PNG was the ultimate goal, but the CPA also made several interim demands, particularly as the Communist Party argued that the people of PNG had ‘not developed to the point of setting up democratic organisations’. These interim demands included restrictions on ‘non-native private enterprise and commerce’, restrictions on exploitation of land and the assistance of ‘native agriculture’, the funding of health and education services, and the ‘abolition of the indenture system’. These interim measures, the Party claimed, were ‘aimed to assist [the] people of New Guinea to advance toward nationhood and to exercise their right to self-determination.’
This gradualism in the call for self-determination in New Guinea is very different from the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the CPA and its support for national liberation movements in South-East Asia that were emerging at the same time. In 1945, the Party called for the rights promised under the Atlantic Charter to be applied to the countries liberated from Japanese rule, including political independence, but by 1948, the Party demanded that ‘the labor movement as a whole must stand unswervingly for independence for the colonies’ as well as giving ‘fullest support to the great national revolutions proceeding in India, China, Indonesia, Viet-Nam, Malaya and Burma.’ In the same 1948 pamphlet, the Party warned that the ‘Australian imperialism is developing its own colonial empire’, but still insisted that the ‘natives’ in PNG, Fiji and other Pacific Islands needed ‘protection… against slavery to Australian capital’ and granting them ‘assistance… in the raising of their political and educational level’.
A 1964 report on the activism of the Communist Parties of Australia and New Zealand in the Oceania region outlined some of the ways in which the CPA promoted raising the ‘political and educational level’ of the people of New Guinea. One was the encouragement, via the Australian trade union movement, of the formation of a Papuan Workers’ Union. In Tribune, the Party argued:
Formation of such a union plus the establishment of co-operatives are two of the first steps in Papua towards realising UNO Charter aims of improving social, economic, educational and health standards of the peoples of the South West Pacific territories and assisting them to become in the shortest possible time fully independent self-governing communities.
In the 1958 resolution on New Guinea published in Communist Review, the CPA announced that it ‘welcome[d] the ACTU decision directed towards the extension of trade union protection and rights to these workers.’
In the early 1960s, ASIO noted, the Party also suggested an end to individual leases by ‘native occupiers’ on communal land, with farming co-operatives to be set up as alternatives to the capitalist exploitation of the farming population of Papua and New Guinea. This system, Jim Cooper wrote in Communist Review, ‘would not be a violent change from the present communal lands, or the social set up’, but would ‘mean smooth transition by the New Guinea people [from the] commercial exploitation of their land’. It would, Cooper argued, ‘guarantee the New Guinea people’s lands to them, and make for a prosperous and contented people as our near neighbours.’
After increasing episodes on unrest in Papua and New Guinea in the early-to-mid-1960s, the Party more frequently featured the territory in the party press, particularly Communist Review, the monthly journal of the CPA. These episodes of unrest coincided with attempts by the Australian and British governments to establish some form of self-government in the territory of Papua and New Guinea, with a report by Sir Hugh Foot proposing in 1962 the election of a 100 member local parliament by 1964. The CPA saw these attempts at establishing a self-government by the Australian government to be an attempt to ‘hang on and develop a fully fledged capitalist economy’ in Papua and New Guniea. The Party supported the reforms suggested by the Foot report, but argued that these proposals ‘would not mean independence’, and instead maintained:
The only policy for the Australian working class is the principle of independence for the people of Papua and New Guinea. Assistance to help the people develop their country would come from socialist and neutral countries and even Australia itself with no strings attached.
This push for immediate independence was a shift away from the view that the Party had in the late 1940s that the people of New Guinea were not ready for self-determination. Laurie Aarons, the General Secretary of the CPA since the mid-1950s, wrote in Communist Review in 1963 that both the trade union and national movements were growing in size and that the ‘past few years [had] seen many important struggles on a very broad front’, including ‘class struggles for wages and conditions’, ‘struggles to defend the land from alienation’ and ‘struggles against oppression and for democratic rights’. Like other statements from the mid-1960s, Aarons stressed the importance of independence for Papua and New Guinea, but also proposed that the Australian labour movement had ‘to learn from the New Guinea people what their aims are and what help they require from our working class.’
In the late 1960s, the Papuan independence movement became more militant and the CPA saw it in a similar vein to the other anti-imperialist and national liberation movements happening across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. In 1971, Alec Robertson, the editor of the CPA newspaper Tribune, called PNG ‘the last domino’ in Australian Left Review, writing:
PNG – a country very well suited to guerrilla warfare – is approaching a state of crisis already seen in SE Asia and is a potential theatre of large-scale counter-revolutionary war by Australia’s rulers. Each step in that direction should be opposed strenuously by the Australian anti-war movement, for it is essentially the same issue as Vietnam.
From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, ASIO were seemingly more worried about international intervention in PNG, particularly Indonesia, China and the Soviet Union, but there was also a concern about the role that the CPA was playing in the Papuan independence movement. Files at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra reveal that in the early-to-mid-1950s, ASIO closely monitored CPA members and fellow travellers who visited PNG, often from Queensland. Rhys Crawley has suggested that while ‘ASIO expected the CPA to continue its vocal criticism of Australian colonial rule in TPNG’ during the 1960s, it found that ‘there was no organised CPA or communist front activity’ in the territory. It seems as though the role that the Communist Party of Australia played in the campaign for independence for Papua New Guinea was primarily a propaganda role in increasing awareness amongst the Australian labour movement.
 Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.
 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Peking; Foreign Languages Press, 1975).
 CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, 11 April, 1949, p. 3, CIA-RDP78-01617A00300070002-5, CIA Online Library, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp78-01617a003400070002-5.
 CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, p. 3.
 Letter from Deputy Director of Security for WA to Director General of Security, Canberra, 4 May, 1944, A6122 357, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.
 ‘Party Asks for New Deal for NG Natives’, Tribune, 6 July, 1944, p. 8.
 CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress: Draft Resolution for 14th National Congress of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 5.
 CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 20.
 CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party, p. 20.
 CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress, p. 5.
 CPA, The Way Forward (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1948) p. 17.
 CPA, The Way Forward, p. 17.
 ASIO, ‘Oceania – Communism’s Last Target’, 1964, p. 3, A12839 A30 Part 5, National Archives of Australia.
 ‘New Deal for Papua is Urgently Needed’, Tribune, 31 January, 1947, p. 5.
 ‘New Guinea’, Communist Review, May 1958, p. 228.
 ASIO, ‘Oceania’, p. 9.
 Jim Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, Communist Review, January/February 1965, p. 12.
 Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, p. 12.
 Harry Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, Communist Review, January 1963, p. 30.
 Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, p. 30.
 Laurie Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, Communist Review, June 1963, p. 183.
 Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, p. 184.
 Alec Robertson, ‘The Last Domino’, Australian Left Review, 29, March 1971, p. 43.
 David Horner, The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO 1949-1963 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014) p. 159; Rhys Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline: ASIO in Papua New Guinea, 1962-1975’, in John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 289-299.
 See: A6122 357, NAA.
 Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline’, p. 299.