Browderism

Sydney, London, Moscow, Beijing: Schisms in the international communist movement, 1947-61

The following forms part of a forthcoming book chapter on the relationship between the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa. It builds on previous posts (here and here) and will also be worked into the manuscript that I am currently developing from my postdoctoral research. As per usual, any feedback is most welcome!

mao-pollitt-sharkey

Mao Zedong meets Harry Pollitt, Nelson Clarke and L.L. Sharkey.

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Moscow started to deviate in the post-war period. 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’. As David Lockwood has argued, after 1949:

an informal ‘division of labour’ within the world movement seems to have been agreed upon between the Soviet and Chinese parties in which communists in the colonies, ‘semi-colonies’ and ex-colonies would receive their advice from Beijing.[1]

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. This support also caused friction between the Australian and British parties, particularly over the level of support that the British party gave to the national liberation movements in the British colonies.

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’, based on the argument made by former CPUSA leader Earl Browder that separate Communist Parties were no longer necessary in the global West. The Australian party further accused the British party of substituting 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.

In particular, the Australian Communist Party, strongly influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (and for a time, the Tito regime in Yugoslavia), accused the British Communist Party of not fully committing the struggle against colonialism.[2] This began in 1947 with Sharkey’s heavy criticisms in the newspaper Tribune of the new pamphlet by CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt, Looking Ahead for ‘mislead[ing] the British working-class’ and evading the logic of Marxism-Leninism.[3]

The CPA had close ties to the Communist Party of Malaya (based in Singapore), who were debating whether to launch an armed insurrection against the British colonial government. Part of the CPA’s critique of the CPGB was that as the British party supported the Labour Government under Clement Atlee, they were unwilling to fully support anti-colonial rebellions in the British Commonwealth as this would upset any prospective ‘Labour-Communist’ alliance. On the other hand, the CPA was very supportive of communist anti-colonialism in the South-East Asia region (on the doorstep of Australia). With its enthusiasm for the Malayan Communist Party, the CPA could highlight the contrast between its agenda and the ‘reformism’ of the CPGB and also depict itself as a supporter of the emerging anti-colonial movements in Asia.

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A letter from the Central Committee of the CPGB to Sharkey in July 1948 accused him of ‘uncomradely and un-Communist’ behaviour for using the theoretical journal of the Malayan Communist Party to attack the CPGB.[4] The CPGB described Sharkey’s article, titled ‘The International Situation and Opportunism’, as ‘an entirely false presentation of the policy of our Party’ and pronounced:

Such methods as you have seen fit to adopt have nothing in common with international practice among Communist Parties and between Communist Party leaders.[5]

In a further exchange of letters between the two parties, published in the CPGB’s World News and Views, Sharkey further criticised the British party over its anti-colonial work, accusing it of

insufficient struggle on behalf of the independence of the colonies; and worse still, the example of the British comrades which led to opportunism and confusion in a number of the colonial Communist Parties.[6]

Although Sharkey did not elaborate on this accusation, it is true that some national liberation movements and Communist Parties in the colonial sphere, such as those in India, believed that the resolve of the CPGB on anti-colonial issues had waned in the 1940s.[7] The CPGB believed that the Australian party was possibly ‘pro-Tito’ (and thus willing to criticise the British party) because Sharkey had spent time in Calcutta with a Yugoslav delegate in 1948 as the only two non-Asian communist representatives at the congress of the Communist Party of India.[8]

In further private correspondence between Sharkey and Pollitt, the Australian Communist leader wrote, ‘you have an incorrect understanding of the present day maneuvers of British imperialism in relation to the colonial revolutions’.[9] However the CPGB maintained that anti-colonial politics was central to its programme and that ‘as the Party in the ruling centre of the Empire’, it held ‘the greatest responsibility… to combat the vicious and harmful policies of imperialism’.[10] And despite these fractures, the Communist Party of Australia still sent delegates to the CPGB’s Communist Parties of the British Empire conferences in 1947, 1954 and 1958, while several leading CPGB members, such as Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, toured Australia in the 1950s.

Throughout the 1950s, the CPA looked increasingly to the Chinese Communist Party for direction and as Mark Aarons has written, ‘[t]he CPA was the first Australian political party to understand that Australia is geographically located in Asia.’[11] Although Australia was a settler colonial power, rather than a colony, it seemed to make sense, geographically, for the CPA to build closer ties with China, rather than simply looking to the Kremlin and the CPGB in London, with whom ties had been loosened throughout the late 1940s.

After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. Inside the British Communist Party, dissidents, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Phillip Deery and Rachel Calkin have shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA.[12] Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. In Britain, the Communist Party lost over 8,000 members between February 1956 and February 1958,[13] leading to the creation of the first New Left that attempted to negotiate a path between Western capitalism and Stalinism.[14] In Australia, Communist Party membership ‘slumped from about 8000 to less than 6000’,[15] which was followed by further divisions inside the CPA over the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

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, with Nick Knight claiming that during the late 1950s, ‘virtually the entire National Secretariat of the CPA was ideologically and psychologically in favour of the Chinese position’.[16] However Sharkey, despite visiting China in 1959 and 1961, pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow when attending the 81 Communist and Workers Parties conference in Moscow in November 1961.[17] ASIO noted that the Sino-Soviet split also had a major impact upon the CPA’s relationship with the Communist Party of New Zealand (the only Western Communist Party to side with China in the split).[18] While Mark Aarons suggests that Sharkey was partially swayed by some large cash payments by Moscow, Tom O’Lincoln suggests that the rank-and-file membership had little appetite for the extreme rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, while Knight argues that it was Sharkey’s probable realisation that the CPA ‘would become isolated from the fraternity of the international communist parties should its support for the Chinese position continue’.[19]

After the realignment of the CPA towards Moscow, a pro-Chinese faction broke away and formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1963, led by Ted Hill. In Britain, the CPGB experienced similar breakaways from anti-revisionists. In the same year that the CPA (M-L) was formed, Michael McCreery formed the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Community Unity and led a small number of party members disgruntled with the ‘revisionism’ of The British Road to Socialism.[20] A larger group left in early 1968 when AEU leader Reg Birch formed the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).[21]

By the 1960s, the international communist movement had fractured, caused partly by the events of 1956, partly by the Sino-Soviet split and partly by the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, which presented an alternative to both Stalinism or Maoism for the new decolonised nations across the global South. This was very different from the situation in 1945 when communists the world over looked the newly triumphant Soviet Union, the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe and the Chinese Communist Party on the verge of winning a decades long civil war. As the Cold War got underway, coinciding with the era of decolonisation, Communist Parties in the West shifted to the left and embraced this enthusiasm for socialism and anti-imperialism, including the Communist Party of Australia. The Communist Party of Great Britain, although taking a more conciliatory approach to domestic politics, was charged by Moscow with assisting anti-colonial struggles within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The CPA quarrelled with the CPGB over its reformism and alleged that this political shift had left the CPGB unable to assist its comrades in the colonial sphere. This tumultuous relationship was not repaired until the 1950s, when important figures such as Harry Pollitt visited Australia, and grew closer after L.L. Sharkey was replaced as Party leader in the mid-1960s. However the enthusiasm for Stalinism and Maoism, which had characterised the outlook of the Party in the 1940s and 1950s had given way to a proto-Eurocommunism by the late 1960s.

CPA pamphlet

[1] David Lockwood, The Communist Party of India and the Indian Emergency (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016) pp. 10-11.

For further discussion of this division of labour, see: John Herouvim, ‘Australian Communists and Peking: New Light on an Elusive Source’, Politics, 20/1 (1985) pp. 127-129.

[2] See: ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, World News and Views, 31 July, 1948, pp. 332-339.

[3] L.L. Sharkey, ‘Critical Comment on Harry Pollitt’s Book’, Tribune, 25 October, 1947, p. 7.

[4] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey, 16 July, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[5] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey.

[6] ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, p. 334.

[7] Smith, ‘National Liberation for Whom?’, p. 289.

[8] Letter from Brian Pearce to CPGB Executive Committee, 7 August, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[9] Copy of letter from L.L. Sharkey to Harry Pollitt, 22 October, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[10] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Political Report to the Conference of the Communist Parties of the British Empire’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 24.

[11] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc, 2010) p. 172.

[12] Phillip Deery & Rachel Calkin, ’”We All Make Mistakes”: The Communist Party of Australia and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956’, Australia Journal of Politics and History, 54/1, pp. 69-69-84.

[13] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218.

[14] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995); Wade Matthews, The New Left, National Identity and the Break-Up of Britain (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2013) pp. 1-26.

[15] Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained Wattle Press, 1985) p. 98.

[16] Nick Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 28/2, 1998, p. 236.

[17] Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010) pp. 172-185.

[18] ASIO, ‘Oceania: Communism’s Last Target ’, A 12388, 81 PART 2, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[19] O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream, p. 102; Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Aarons, The Family File, p. 192.

[20] Parker, The Kick Inside, pp. 45-50.

[21] Will Podmore, Reg Birch: Engineer, Trade Unionist, Communist (London: Bellman Books, 2004).