‘White Australia Policy’

‘The Far Left in Australia since 1945’ – forthcoming with Routledge

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Vietnam Moratorium march in Canberra, Sep. 1970 (via National Archives of Australia, NAA A9626/112)

We are pleased to announce that our forthcoming edited volume on the history of the Australian far left in the Cold War era has been put up on the Routledge website, with a Table of Contents. Unfortunately it is not available to pre-order just yet. We hope this is rectified soon!

You can check out the book and its TOC here: https://www.routledge.com/The-Far-Left-in-Australia-since-1945/Smith-Piccini-Worley/p/book/9781138043855

Meanwhile excerpts from the chapter written by myself and Jon Piccini on the Communist Party of Australia and the ‘White Australian Policy’ can be found here and here.

The Communist Party and the ‘White Australia Policy’, 1920-45

To celebrate the submission of the manuscript for our edited collection on the history of the Australian far left in the Cold War era, I am posting an excerpt from a chapter by Jon Piccini and I on the Communist Party of Australia and immigration restrictions, primarily the ‘White Australia Policy’. The following section looks at the period between the two wars, when the CPA was in the ascendancy…

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The Australian left has a long and conflicted history of engagement with the politics of whiteness, The Immigration Restriction Act, colloquially known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, was amongst the first acts of newly created Australian commonwealth in 1901. It was strongly argued for by the left of politics, particularly the Australian Labor Party (ALP), who saw it as a means of securing the union movement’s gains from cheap foreign labour. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) primarily opposed the policy and campaigned against explicit racial discrimination, but at the same time, supported some restrictions upon immigration and appeared sympathetic to the anti-immigrantism expressed by sections of the Australian labour movement. Throughout the inter-war period, the CPA was throughout its existence torn between a professed global solidarity and the realities of the Australia’s position as a bastion of white skin privilege. The Comintern criticised the CPA for this, and an uneasy compromise was made whereby the party extended a ‘friendly hand’ to migrant workers in Australia, but campaigned against ‘mass immigration’ from Europe at the same time.

The Communist Party of Australia and the Comintern in the 1920s

The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920 and immediately applied for membership to the Communist International (Comintern). From the inception of the Comintern in 1919, the international communist movement was imbued with an anti-colonial agenda and agitated against the ‘colour bar’ that operated in the colonial sphere and in the former settler colonies, including Australia – what Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have described as ‘white men’s countries’.[1] For example, the 1922 theses on the Eastern Question drafted at the Fourth Comintern Congress stated that ‘the international proletariat does not harbour any racial prejudice’ and any antagonisms between coloured and white workers served to fragment and weaken the unity of the workers’ movement.[2] In an issue of The Proletarian, one of the pre-existing journals that became an outlet of the newly formed CPA, Pearl Hanks criticised the Australian worker for ‘ignor[ing] the existence of the colored man while they can, and when that is no longer possible, to meet him with open hostility’.[3] Quoting the Indian member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Shapurji Saklatvala, Hanks reminded readers:

A dream of Communism for white races only is the height of folly, because… the industries in England cannot be taken over by the workers while the sources of raw material remain in the hands of the capitalists.[4]

This realisation, Hanks argued, forced the conclusion ‘that we must give up either our color prejudice or our hopes of Communism’, further stating, ‘there is no justification for the color bar, because a civilisation which excluded the colored races would benefit only a comparative handful of the world’s inhabitants’.[5]

Although anti-racist rhetoric was quickly incorporated into the Communist Party’s literature and the party platform, this did not necessarily transform into practical political activism, with the CPA continuing to campaign against ‘mass immigration’ and others in the party arguing that ‘race’ was not a significant issue for the CPA. For example, in 1922, Fred Wilkinson, in a report to the Comintern’s Anglo-American-Colonial Section, wrote that ‘employers want cheap coloured labour imported’, but wrote approvingly that the ‘trade unions are, of course, opposed to this’.[6] In December 1924, The Workers’ Weekly claimed that ‘the boss class finds in immigration a powerful weapon for the degradation of the condition of the Australian workers’ conditions’.[7] The paper seemed to lament the Australian labour movement was not strong enough ‘to control such dangers as immigration’ and argued that the strategy, for the time being, was to ensure that ‘immigrants were met at once and enrolled in unions’, with ‘an embargo imposed on all who refused’.[8] In another article from 1925 titled ‘Immigration Menace’ proclaimed that the Communist Party recognised ‘this present immigration campaign [by the Australian government and employers] is the biggest immediate problem before the Australian working class’.[9] To counter this, the CPA announced that preparing material in Italian to appeal to migrant workers ‘to stand firm alongside Australian trade unionists in the fight for the preservation of the conditions which have been won only by the hard fighting of Australia’s workers.’[10] To help build links with these Italian workers, the CPA called for ‘an abandonment of all irritation tactics against the fellow workers who have been shanghaied across from Europe.’[11] A few weeks later, the CPA conceded:

It is not immigration as such that troubles the working class in Australia. It is unemployment, and the cause of that is found in the anarchic character of the capitalist system.[12]

At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June 1924, Dora Montefiore, a veteran socialist and suffragist representing the CPA, admitted that the trade unions were opposed to non-white workers and acknowledged that ‘it would be pointless to ignore the question of coloured workers’.[13] Montefiore argued that the CPA weren’t calling for ‘bringing in cheap coolie coloured labour’, but, influenced by Marx’s ‘Proletarian of all lands unite!’, the position of the CPA was ‘we cannot accept any exploitation of coloured workers, because any such exploitation is bound to be followed by reduction of the wages of white workers’.[14]

Throughout the mid-1920s, the CPA continued to campaign against ‘mass immigration’, particularly government sponsored immigration from the British Isles (seen as way of simply of British imperialism transferring its poor to another part of the empire)[15] and from southern Europe. The Party argued that ‘the wholesale importation of immigrant workers into Australia’, which was ‘a deliberate attempt on the part of the capitalists to flood the country with cheap labour’ and thus called upon Australian workers to ‘take every possible step to combat the dangers of large scale immigration’.[16] Labourers from Italy were specifically targeted by the Communist Party, with the party press identifying a particular ‘problem’ in Queensland where:

colonies of Italian workers have developed and their lack of knowledge of the English language and the hostility of certain unions… have forced these workers to become easy prey of the capitalist class and a menace to the conditions of the Australian workers.[17]

But an edition of The Workers’ Weekly from August 1927 warned its readers from being hostile towards Italian workers, reminding them:

The Italian workers did not drop from heaven, but, to the contrary, come from a country that experienced a working class revolution, with the Labor movement developed to a higher degree than in Australia. The Italian workers have been members of the Communist Party, Italian Labor Party and the trade union movement before their arrival out here and if given the opportunity they will demonstrate their trade union traditions equally with other workers that have done so here. [18]

This highlighted a contradiction in the CPA’s outlook towards immigration and the ‘White Australia Policy’. While stressing that the unions still needed to ‘protest against the State aided mass immigration of Labor’,[19] the Party also emphasised that they were internationalists and ‘welcome[d] workers from any land’.[20] The programme of the CPA during this period consisted of the following:

  • To agitate for the discontinuance of state aided immigration schemes and international post war agreements.
  • To impress upon their trades unions the necessity of recruiting into their ranks all immigrants on arrival.
  • To advise their trade union and labor councils to affiliate to the Red International of Labor Unions… with the definite object of securing the unity of the rival organisations into an all inclusive trade union international organisation.[21]

John Pepper, a Hungarian-American member of the Comintern’s Anglo-American Secretariat harshly criticised the Communist Party of Australia’s contradictory stance in 1926, in response to report by the CPA’s Edgar Ross on the ‘Australian question’. Pepper called the white working class in Australia ‘a proletariat with many privileges’, which was reinforced by the White Australia Policy.[22] For Pepper, the Party ‘did not fight energetically enough against the White Australia ideology of the workers’ and warned that if the CPA ‘does not want to become something similar to the official Labour [sic?] Party’, it had to combat the White Australia Policy’.[23] The following year, the CPA resolution declared:

In opposition the chauvinistic and racial policy of the A.L.P. as manifested in its White Australia Policy, the C.P. must put forward a policy of opposition to State aided immigration whilst insisting on the elimination of all racial barriers in the Immigration Laws; at the same time formulating a programme for receiving and organising immigrant workers into the working class movement of Australia.[24]

The conflicted agenda was agreed to by the Comintern as its own resolution on the ‘Australian Question’ put forward something similar, proposing that the Communist Party ‘must conduct an ideological fight against [the] social chauvinism’ of the Australian labour movement, by ‘championing an internationalist policy’, as well as ‘insisting upon… free admittance for the workers of all countries’.[25] But at the same time, the Comintern called for the CPA to criticise and condemn the ‘plans of the British and Australian governments for mass migration’.[26] Robert Bozinovski has described this approach as the Party’s ‘commendable opposition to White Australia in the face of virulent racism’, but also noted that the Comintern continued to complain that the CPA ‘was not sufficiently vocal in its opposition’.[27] Stuart Macintyre has suggested that this contradictory position was because of the social and political origins of the Communist Party and its attachment to the international communist movement. ‘The concern for the purity of the race was a persistent theme of the Australian labour movement’, Macintyre explained, and because the CPA was ‘a by-product of that movement’, as well as a ‘member of an internationalist organisation committed to the unity of the workers of the world’, the Party ‘found itself torn between old habits and new loyalties’.[28]

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From the Workers’ Weekly, Jan 1926

From the Third Period to the Second World War

Despite the sharpening of anti-colonial and anti-racist politics of the international communist movement during the ‘Third Period’ (between 1928 and 1934) and the greater focus on the Aboriginal struggle and Australian colonialism in New Guinea by the CPA, its position on the White Australia Policy largely stayed intact throughout the 1930s. As more southern European workers came to Australia fleeing the Great Depression and political upheaval in Europe, the Communist Party attempted to appeal to these workers. In an open letter in The Workers’ Weekly, the CPA announced:

The Communist Party of Australia, as the only internationalist party in this country, presents itself to you, the emigrant workers, Maltese, Italians, Greeks, Yugo-Slavs, and toilers of all other nationalities, as the only political party defending your interests and consistently carrying out a programme and policy leading to emancipation, to bread and work and freedom for all members of our class.[29]

But the Party still campaigned against state aided migration programmes, arguing that while the CPA ‘want[ed] to see Australia populated’ and ‘want[ed] to see great, growing and economically secure working-class population’, they insisted that ‘the State mass migration schemes must be resisted’.[30]

The rise of fascism in Europe also shifted the Communist Party’s thinking about immigration and anti-racism. Since the 1920s, Italians had come to Australia to escape the Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini and after the Nazi’s ascension to power in 1933, a small number of Germans fled to Australia, followed by a small number of Jewish refugees in late 1930s (who were initially refused permission by the Australian government).[31] These refugees from fascism ignited sympathy amongst many Australian workers, with the Communist Party, trading on its anti-fascist credentials, pushing for a greater intake of refugees and criticising the Australian government for its racialism. In August 1937, the Party castigated the Lyons government and the mainstream press for using ‘the language of Hitler’ in referring to incoming migrants as ‘undesirable’ and ‘physically and mentally inferior’.[32] ‘This question of “superiority” and “inferiority” in races’, the Party editorialised, ‘is one of the vilest features of fascism and its ideology’, and was also, according to the CPA, ‘one of the most effective weapons in the hands of capitalism for splitting their ranks.’[33]

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, the CPA campaigned for a greater intake of refugees from Europe. For example, an editorial from February 1939 stated:

The great Australian labor movement must fight for the rescue of these [refugees], our brave fellow-workers. The working class must see that these destitute people of our own class are not allowed to starve or be returned to the fascist terror merely because they have no money…

The Lyons government must be compelled to assist financially working-class refugees from fascist barbarism.[34]

Although the Communist Party continued to argue against ‘mass immigration’, they characterised the arrival of these refugees as a ‘special problem’ that had been ‘created with the rise of fascism’.[35] The Party thus claimed that the Australian working class ‘can be nothing but sympathetic to the victims of fascist terror and anxious to assist in securing sanctuary for them.’[36]

The Party built a small cadre of migrant members amongst the Italian, Greek and Jewish communities, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, and became increasingly involved in mobilising the Jewish community towards anti-fascism and support for the war effort. Unlike the British and American Communist Parties,[37] which had built significant Jewish membership in the 1930s due to their militant anti-fascism, the Australian party had to make significant concrete efforts to welcome Jewish members into the Party and combat anti-semitism amongst its members (and the wider labour movement). A 1943 document, intercepted by the security services, outlined the important responsibility of the Australian Communist Party in this field:

  1. To mobilise the labour movement and people generally to understand the nature of anti-semitism, to stamp it out and expose the fascist plans of its purveyors.
  2. To win the Jewish people for the National Front for active participation in the fight against fascism for all progressive activities of the Australian people and for active steps to combat anti-semetism [sic].
  3. To support every step which has as its aim the saving of as many Jewish people as possible from Nazi controlled Europe, to fight for the reconstruction of Jewish life after the war with full rights for all Jews. To participate in carrying out these tasks is the special duty of all Jewish Communists irrespective of what their particular Party activity or responsibility may be, where they may work or amongst whom they may mix.[38]

By war’s end, the Australian far left was in a buoyant mood – the Soviet Union was held in high esteem, European colonies around the world were declaring independence, and with some 23,000 members in 1944 and an ability to exert control over at least 40 per cent of Australia’s unions, the previously marginal CPA had become a force to be reckoned with. At the height of this momentary euphoria, the Party’s Assistant Secretary Richard ‘Dick’ Dixon wrote a short pamphlet entitled Immigration and the White Australia Policy, which captured the Party’s partial awakening to the issues of race and migration—openly attacking the White Australia policy for the first time. Yet, Dixon’s pamphlet straddled a difficult course – challenging the labour movement’s long history of opposing coloured immigration, while arguing to retain the wages and conditions that ‘white Australia’ maintained.[39]

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[1] Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008)pp. 6-7.

[2] ‘Theses on the Eastern Question’,in John Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011) p. 1181.

[3] Pearl Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, The Proletarian, 7 December, 1920, pp. 11-12.

[4] Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, p. 13.

[5] Hanks, ‘The Color Problem’, p. 13.

[6] Minutes of meeting of the Anglo-American-Colonial Section of the Executive of the Comintern, 6 April, 1922, p.5, 495/72/2 RGASPI, Moscow.

[7] ‘How to Deal with Immigrants’, The Workers’ Weekly, 12 December, 1924, p. 1.

[8] ‘How to Deal with Immigrants’, p. 1.

[9] ‘Immigration Menace’, The Workers’ Weekly, 5 June, 1925, p. 4.

[10] ‘Immigration Menace’, p. 4.

[11] ‘Immigration Menace’, p. 4.

[12] ‘The Immigration Menace’, The Workers’ Weekly, 17 July, 1925, p. 2.

[13] Dora Montefiore, ‘Speech at the 5th Congress of the Comintern Moscow, 25th June 1924’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/montefiore/1924/labour.htm (accessed 4 April, 2017).

[14] Montefiore, ‘Speech at the 5th Congress of the Comintern Moscow, 25th June 1924’.

[15] The Empire Settlement Act 1922 saw the introduction of a programme by the British government to send large number of people, especially returned soldiers and their families, to the settler colonies, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and southern Africa. See: John A. Schultz, ‘Finding Homes Fit for Heroes: The Great War and Empire Settlement’, Canadian Journal of History, 18/1 (1983) pp. 99-111.

[16] ‘Immigration Policy’, The Workers’ Weekly, 15 January, 1926, p. 2.

[17] ‘Immigration Policy’, p. 2.

[18] Chas Nelson, ‘Miners and Italians’, The Workers’ Weekly, 12 August, 1927, p. 2.

[19] Nelson, ‘Miners and Italians’, p. 2.

[20] W.E.P., ‘Foreign Workers in Australia’, The Workers’ Weekly, 19 August, 1927, p. 4.

[21] ‘Immigration Policy’, p. 2.

[22] John Pepper, ‘Meeting of the Secretariat (British)’, 22 April, 1926, p. 2, RGASPI, 495/72/14.

[23] Pepper, ‘Meeting of the Secretariat (British)’, p. 5.

[24] ‘Australia in the Scheme of Empire’, The Communist, 1 March, 1928, p. 9.

[25] ‘Resolution on the Australian Question’, 31 October, 1927, p. 12, RGASPI, 495/3/30.

[26] ‘Resolution on the Australian Question’, p. 12.

[27] Robert Bozinvoski, ‘The Communist Party of Australia and Proletarian Internationalism, 1928-1945’ (Victoria University: Unpublished PhD thesis, 2008) p. 70.

[28] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia From Origins to Illegality (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 126.

[29] ‘Communist Party’s Appeal to All Foreign-Born Workers’, The Workers’ Weekly, 10 August, 1934, p. 3.

[30] ‘Against State-Aided Migration’, The Workers’ Weekly, 24 January, 1936, p. 3.

[31] Gianfranco Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945 (Canberra: ANU Press, 1980); Klaus Neumann, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees – A History (Collingwood, VIC: Black Inc, 2015) p.; Andrew Markus, ‘Jewish Migration to Australia, 1938-49’, Journal of Australian Studies, 7/13 (1983) pp. 18-31.

[32] ‘“Undesirable” Aliens and Desirable Parasites’, The Workers’ Weekly, 24 August, 1937, p. 2.

[33] ‘“Undesirable” Aliens and Desirable Parasites’, p. 2.

[34] ‘No Worker Need Apply – Lyons and the Refugees’, The Workers’ Weekly, 28 February, 1939, p. 2.

[35] Tom Wright, ‘Trade Unions and Migration: Aid Political Refugees’, The Workers’ Weekly, 26 August, 1938, p. 2.

[36] Wright, ‘Trade Unions and Migration’, p. 2.

[37] Henry Srebrnik, London Jews and British Communism, 1935-1945 (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1995); Jason Heppell, ‘A Rebel, Not A Rabbi: Jewish Membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 15/1 (2004) pp. 28-50; Bat-Ami Zucker, ‘American Jewish Communists and Jewish Culture in the 1930s’, Modern Judaism, 14/2 (May 1994) pp. 175-185; Jacob A. Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929 (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015) pp. 172-186.

[38] ‘The Tasks of Jewish Communists in the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism and for the Rights of the Jewish People’, 1943, A6122 444, National Archives of Australia.

[39] R. Dixon, Immigration and the ‘White Australia Policy’ (Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1945), available at https://www.marxists.org/history/australia/comintern/sections/australia/1945/white-australia.htm

The Communist Party of Australia and Anti-Colonial Activism in Papua New Guinea

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.

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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.[1] Based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism,[2] 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’.[3] 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.[4]

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.’[5]

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.[6]

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’.[7] 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’.[8] 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.’[9]

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,[10] 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.’[11] 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’.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.’[15]

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.[16] 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’.[17] 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.’[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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’.[21] 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.’[22]

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.[23]

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,[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.

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[1] Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists: Communism & the Australian Labour Movement 1920-1950 (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 143.

[2] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Peking; Foreign Languages Press, 1975).

[3] 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.

[4] CIA, The Communist Influence in Australia, p. 3.

[5] Letter from Deputy Director of Security for WA to Director General of Security, Canberra, 4 May, 1944, A6122 357, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[6] ‘Party Asks for New Deal for NG Natives’, Tribune, 6 July, 1944, p. 8.

[7] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress: Draft Resolution for 14th National Congress of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 5.

[8] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1945) p. 20.

[9] CPA, Programme of the Australian Communist Party, p. 20.

[10] CPA, Jobs Freedom Progress, p. 5.

[11] CPA, The Way Forward (Sydney: CPA pamphlet, 1948) p. 17.

[12] CPA, The Way Forward, p. 17.

[13] ASIO, ‘Oceania – Communism’s Last Target’, 1964, p. 3, A12839 A30 Part 5, National Archives of Australia.

[14] ‘New Deal for Papua is Urgently Needed’, Tribune, 31 January, 1947, p. 5.

[15] ‘New Guinea’, Communist Review, May 1958, p. 228.

[16] ASIO, ‘Oceania’, p. 9.

[17] Jim Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, Communist Review, January/February 1965, p. 12.

[18] Cooper, ‘New Ordinance and New Guinea Land Rights’, p. 12.

[19] Harry Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, Communist Review, January 1963, p. 30.

[20] Stein, ‘Decline of Imperialism in Papua New Guinea’, p. 30.

[21] Laurie Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, Communist Review, June 1963, p. 183.

[22] Aarons, ‘On New Guinea’, p. 184.

[23] Alec Robertson, ‘The Last Domino’, Australian Left Review, 29, March 1971, p. 43.

[24] 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.

[25] See: A6122 357, NAA.

[26] Crawley, ‘Australia’s Cold War Frontline’, p. 299.

Forming the National Front of Australia: ASIO and the fledgling far right group

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On Saturday June 2, 1978, a group of nine people gathered in a room of the Southern Cross Hotel in the Melbourne CBD to launch the National Front of Australia (NFA). According to the ASIO informant, nine people attended the meeting, including several well-known far right activists, a 16 year old schoolboy and an undercover reporter for the newspaper The Age. Seven out of the nine listed were already known to the authorities in some regard. The meeting was led by a 23 year old law student and army reservist, Rosemary Sisson, who had travelled to the UK in 1977 to seek permission from the National Front’s John Tyndall to establish an NF in Australia. According to ASIO, Tyndall had appointed Sisson to be Chairwoman of the NFA until a directing body was created. In a report on Sisson by the Victorian Police’s Special Branch, Sisson was described in these terms:

She appears to be intensely sincere in her beliefs but politically naïve and immature. I do not believe that she has the ability to form a political party on her own volition and would most likely be used by other persons taking advantage of her enthusiasm, while maintaining their anonymity.

The meeting, which lasted between two and four hours, commenced with the playing of God Save the Queen and passed several motions relating to the outlook of the NFA, the composition of the National Directorate, membership fees and a statement of ambition regarding the contesting of elections in the near future. The ‘highlight’ of the meeting was listening to a tape recording of Tyndall. The ASIO informant described Tyndall’s speech as such:

Tyndal’s [sic] speech included greetings to the newly formed NFA and congratulations and it is encouraging to him that the National Front had extended to Australia… He pointed out that the National Front had been established for almost 12 year and during this time there had been clashes with the authorities, Police Special Branch and most left-wing groups. In spite of all this, they had conducted massive demonstrations and never instigated violence but violence was forced upon them… The speech continued with the usual self praises and self congratulations for the National Front.

Tyndall also mentioned in his speech that National Fronts had been established in several other countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia. After Tyndall’s speech, a letter of congratulations from the leader of the New Zealand National Front, David Crawford, was read out. Sisson saw the connection to the British NF as very important and most of the policies outlined at the meeting centred around maintaining Australia’s links with Britain, the Commonwealth and the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ race. These included the establishment of the Commonwealth National Front (CNF) as a (theoretical) co-ordinating body of the various NFs across the globe and the call for the reconfigurement of the British Commonwealth as ‘an exclusive closely-knit association of White states’, where there was either a large white population or ruling white elite. This led to the calling for the re-entry of Rhodesia and South Africa into the Commonwealth and support for white rule in both countries. As evidenced by the singing of the old national anthem, loyalty to the British Crown was paramount to the NFA.

The Age journalist that attended the meeting was David Wilson who wrote about the establishment of the NFA in the newspaper the following week. Wilson described the secret meeting of nine people as:

the culmination of 12 months’ work: trips by England by two of the nine, talks with the head of the English movement, Mr John Tyndall, letters to the chairman of the New Zealand division, Mr David Crawford, and weeks of long hours carefully selecting the initial members of the Australian movement, printing, letter writing and telephone calls.

According to ASIO intelligence reports, a Birmingham based NF organiser, Jeremy May (who had previously lived in Australia), had travelled in early 1978 to assist Sisson in setting up the NFA, while Sisson also communicated with Tyndall in writing. In an intercepted letter between Sisson and Tyndall, written in late November 1977, she concurred that the NFA would supposedly operate differently than the British NF, writing:

We agree with your suggestion that an Australian NF body should aim to function – at least initially – as a pressure group concentrating on basic political technique and party organisation, rather than attempting to achieve mass popular appeal and publicity.

This letter was written in the wake of the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977 when the British NF attempted to march through a borough of south-east London with a large African-Caribbean community. The clashes between anti-fascist protestors and the police, as well as with some NF members, brought the NF to attention of many Australians as the scenes were broadcast on the news. The NF had shifted in their strategy from attempting to gain influence amongst ex-Conservative Party voters and building its membership base to a strategy of ‘owning the streets’ and gaining as much as publicity as possible from these street battles, whilst simultaneously contesting elections and trying to siphon off disaffected Labour voters. It seemed from Sisson’s letter that the NFA were not expecting to mimic the British NF’s approach just yet – with only a handful of interested people, occupying the streets was too tall an order for them.

The 'Battle of Lewisham', August 1977

The ‘Battle of Lewisham’, August 1977

The month before the establishment of the NFA, May wrote an article in Tyndall’s journal (aligned to the NF at the point in time) Spearhead, titled ‘Towards a National Front of Australia’. Like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, the NF saw Australia as ‘a vast and fascinating country with tremendous social and economic potential’ and while the country was ‘almost completely self-sufficient in economic resources’, it was perceived that Australia was at the mercy of foreign investment and international liberalism. May pointed to the ending of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as a particular symbol of Australia’s despair, lamenting the ‘invading hordes’ from southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Furthermore, May focused on Australia’s ‘complete absence of protection for almost the entire length of the country’s vast coastline’ as another example of the country’s weakness, with the naval defences, described as a ‘bathtub floatilla’, unable to prevent ‘Chinese drug racketeers, Pacific Islanders and, most recently, Vietnamese refugees’ from reaching its shores. Despite this, Australia was still seen as a bastion of the old white Commonwealth at a time when South Africa and Rhodesia seemed on the verge of collapse. May warned Spearhead’s readers:

Let us be clear on one point. Should South Africa ever fall to the forces which threaten to engulf Western civilisation, we can be sure that Australia will be next on the list. Liberalism is a luxury which Australia simply cannot afford, if only for geographical reasons. No protection money will ever be sufficient to dissuade the teeming Asiatic billions from erupting into the island continent once they get their chance.

May declared that the only way to ‘safeguard the nation from this fate’ was the creation of the NFA, which he described as ‘an urgent and imperative necessity’. ‘Native Australians’, by which May meant white Australians with an Anglo background, ‘are a proud, strong-minded and independent people’, who also maintained their links to British. And it was up to the NFA to ‘ensure that this distinctive national identity… is encouraged, enforced and politically activated.’

With this mission in mind, the establishment of the NFA was preceded attempts to gauge public opinion through the secret distribution of literature across Melbourne. As David Wilson wrote in The Age, ‘The only indication of the secret spread of the movement was through the carefully circulated newsletter, The Australian Nationalist.’

The Australian Nationalist had started appearing from January 1978 and was a mimeographed publication written by Sisson. The first issue called for a united Australian nationalist party and bemoaned that the nationalist movement at that time was ‘almost hopelessly and irretrievably fragmented into mutually suspicious, competitive, and absurdly idiosyncratic, exclusive little groups.’ But Sisson declared:

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT WE REGROUP AND UNITE! Only though unity and the strength this gives us can we begin to tap and realise the incalculable political potential of national patriotism within this country.

Sisson pointed the British NF as the example ‘forever before our eyes’ of the unification of several different far right groups (in 1967, the NF had formed from the remnants of the League of Empire Loyalists, the British National Party, the National Democratic Party, the Greater Britain Movement and the Racial Preservation Society). The Australian Nationalist expressed a pro-British Commonwealth nationalism and its influences were very much drawn from the British fascist movement, rather than the American far right. Similar to May’s article, Australia was portrayed as the bastion of the white British civilisation on the periphery of Asia and Sisson argued that this meant that a strong nationalist movement was needed to maintain this position. The fear of invasion by Asians was long-standing in Australia and Sisson evoked this in a January 1978 article:

The geographical situation of Australia, with its close proximity to some of the most populous of Asiatic nations, impels us to be very much on our guard against nationally destructive propaganda…

In the editorial to the April 1978 edition of the newsletter, Sisson further championed Australia’s links to Britain and the importance of their ‘proper ethnic pride’. She argued:

Australia owes almost everything it has to Great Britain. The conquering and pioneering spirit of our forefathers was British. This can never be denied. If anything, we should seek closer links not only with white Europe, but to a greater extent with our mother country. Even though we are no longer a cluster of colonies, but are fully self-governing and independent, there is no reason why we should forsake our history and clamour for a republic.

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The first leaflet produced by the NFA

In June 1978, The Australian Nationalist became Frontline: Magazine of the National Fronts of Australia and New Zealand, with the debut issue dedicated to the formation of the NFA. Unlike the descriptions by ASIO and by David Wilson in The Age, the June meeting of the nine people to form the NFA was described in Frontline in grandiose terms. Quoting the opening address by Sisson, meeting supposed ‘mark[ed] an important event in the political history of Australia’ by forming a new political party that ‘represents the future of the Australian people’ and ‘revive national pride’. The magazine also carried the text of Tyndall’s speech heard at the meeting, in which Tyndall described Australia as a terra nullius transformed by British settlers into a bulwark of white civilisation on the edges of the British Empire:

Australia was not so very long ago a wilderness inhabited by a few savages, and it took some very hardy determined, self-reliant and tough pioneers to carve a great country and a great civilization out of that wilderness…

Tyndall enthused about the formation of the Commonwealth National Front, remarking that the ‘realisation of the National Front spanning the whole British Commonwealth has always been a dream to me’ and with the establishment of the NFA, ‘the sight of this dream being fulfilled is enormous encouragement to me’. Tyndall asserted that the NFA was not subordinate to the British NF and there was to be ‘equal partnerships’ between the NF in the UK and those in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In an article in Frontline, the CNF was to co-ordinate activities amongst the various NFs across the Commonwealth, but allowed discretion to each NF to function as it desired. The article explained:

Subject to their adherence to a common set of basic principles and objectives, National Front organisations in various countries are free to determine their own rules of association, to make their own executive decisions and to determine themselves all policies relating to their own countries’ domestic political affairs.

The above will include the right to determine whether the National Front in a particular country will function as a fully fledged political party, seeking power in its own right by the ballot box, or whether it will function merely as a pressure group or society for the furtherance of National Front ideals.

The magazine also carried the letter of congratulations from the NFNZ’s leader David Crawford, which described the NF as ‘the vanguard of the most impelling force ever to strike your country in the last 100 years’. Crawford mentioned that National Fronts now existed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. The journal Patterns of Prejudice noted the announcement of the Commonwealth National Front in mid-1978, but stated that the only NF that had been set up by that time was in New Zealand – although by March, 1979, ASIO believed that the NFNZ was ‘almost finished’. Patterns of Prejudice that NFs in Canada and South Africa were still in development.

The 16 year old schoolboy that attended the inaugural meeting of the NFA was David Greason. In his autobiography, I was a Teenage Fascist, Greason described the meeting as a ramshackle and ill-organised affair, with him moving a motion for the formation of the NFA, even though he had not seen the motion previously. Greason described that in the days following the meeting and the publicity given to the NFA in the mainstream media, several different far right identities, usually linked to the now defunct national Socialist Party of Australia claimed to part of the NFA’s leadership. This is borne out in the ASIO files, which catalogue that various people in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all claimed to represent the National Front in Australia. According to Greason and ASIO, the NFA seemed to be limited to Victoria and Queensland, where the Queensland Immigration Control Association (run by John C.A. Dique) had significant influence. The rival to the NFA in Sydney was the National Alliance, which eschewed the pro-Britishness of the National Front and leaned more towards the white supremacism coming out of the United States, influenced by the infamous newspaper National Vanguard. According to Greason, National Alliance tried to foster a uniquely Australian nationalism, appropriating the symbolism of the Eureka Flag and promoted the idea of an Australian republic. The leading figure of the National Alliance was Jim Saleam, who had been a member of the NSPA and went onto form groups such as National Action and the Australia First Party.

By mid-1979, Patterns of Prejudice was reporting that the NFA had between 100 and 300 members, but had been subject to in-fighting, particularly as Sisson made trips to the UK to meet with Alan Birtley, a NF member jailed for weapons and explosives offences. The ASIO file carries significant correspondence between Sisson and a NF member named Margaret Swan, whom Sisson discusses her links to Birtley extensively.

In the UK general election in May 1979, the British NF contested more than 300 seats and were wiped out at the polls, receiving barely more than 1 per cent of the vote on average. Similar electoral contests by the NFA in 1979 and 1980 led to the same results. Greason outlines that by 1980, there had been several defections from the NFA to the National Alliance, but the National Alliance was unable to make any more headway than their rivals. The media also focused less on the National Alliance, which did not have the same name recognition of the ‘National Front’, which was infamous across the English-speaking world.

The Commonwealth National Front did not last long into the 1980s. The NFA emerged to a completely hostile media and fared very poorly in its electoral pursuits, but was also not popular enough to take up the strategy of ‘occupying the streets’. Besides the production of Frontline, Sisson’s organisation dwindled and eventually over taken by rival groups, namely National Action. Patterns of Prejudice also reported in 1978 that the National Front of South Africa was in talks of merging with another small racist group and that the Chairman, Jack Noble, had resigned. The NFSA’s other major figure, Ray Hill, also left South Africa in 1980, before returning to the UK to join the British Movement as an undercover anti-fascist mole for Searchlight magazine. The British NF, which was seen as the beacon of the CNF, also collapsed after the 1979 election into warring factions. Tyndall formed the New National Front in 1980 and in 1982, transformed this into the British National Party. The remnants of the NF in the 1980s became known as the Official National Front and the NF Flag Group, which competed with the BM and the BNP for support amongst football hooligans and skinheads in the Thatcher years.

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

John Tyndall, leader of the NF and the BNP

In his PhD thesis (acquired through the University of Sydney), Jim Saleam suggests that it was the authorities, particularly ASIO, that stifled the development of the NFA, writing ‘two facts were demonstrated: some Extreme-Rightists had strategies, and the para-State intended they not blossom.’ However while ASIO had infiltrated the NFA from its very inception and monitored it closely, the hostility it faced from the Australian public and its inability to gain any sort of traction politically was more to do with the NFA’s ideology and its membership.

As John Blaxland has acknowledged in his volume on the official history of ASIO, the security services had monitored the far right in Australia since the inception of the NSPA in the early 1960s and continued to monitor the far right throughout the 1970s, even though the various far right groups did not seem to present a danger to the parliamentary system and the ‘poor quality’ of its small membership. Troy Whitford has shown that when National Action was formed in 1982, both ASIO and the NSW Special Branch took measures to monitor and infiltrate the organisation, especially in the late 1980s when NA became increasingly involved in racist and political violence (as noted in the 1991 national inquiry into racist violence in Australia).

These three large files of ASIO’s surveillance of the National Front of Australia make for very interesting reading and show how the NFA attempted to seize the initiative presented by the British NF, creating an antipodean version of the UK organisation. The NFA had a particular pro-British outlook and saw a white-dominated British Commonwealth as its goal, but like many white supremacists and far right activists in the 1970s and 1980s saw South Africa and Rhodesia as symbols of white ‘civilisation’ being attacked by non-white and communist forces. Solidarity with these former settler colonies was paramount to the NFA’s worldview. The files show that the internal structures of the NFA (with the disputes over the leadership and direction of the party), as well as the media’s spotlight on the fledgling group and its inability to gain a widespread following, all led to the demise of the NFA by the early 1980s. However, as National Action, the Australia First Party and nowadays, the United Patriots Front demonstrate, the far right in Australia may change and shift, but not necessarily go away.

Public engagement ftw!

Exeter

Two guest posts by yours truly have been published in the last two days. The first is on my research into the UK perspective on the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975 and has been published by The Conversation. The second is on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their view of Australia as a ‘proto-fascist’ settler colony. This post has been published by the wonderful Imperial and Global Forum run by the University of Exeter.

I did a radio interview about the Whitlam controversy with Dom Knight on ABC Radio Sydney last night. I think the episode is available for reply for the next week.

 

New article on Australian Border Force for Salvage mag

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This is just a quick post to let people know that the new left-wing magazine from the UK, Salvage (established by ex-SWPers China Miéville and Richard Seymour, amongst others) has just published an online article by me on the failure of Operation Fortitude and the Australian Border Force controversy. You can find the article here.

This follows on from a tweet of mine about the failed Operation making it into a report from the Sydney Morning Herald that day. You can see my *hilarious* tweet here.

Communism, anti-racism and the ‘imperialist war’ phase in South Africa, USA and Australia, 1939-41

With the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week, this post is an extract from a paper that I am writing on the Communist Parties in South Africa, the United States and Australia and their agitation for black soldiers to join the war effort after the Soviet Union joined the Allies in June 1941. This part of the paper actually looks at the ‘imperialist’ war phase, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the international communist movement rejected the war as an inter-imperialist battle.

 

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After the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in late August 1939, the Soviet Union shifted from its prominent anti-fascist stance that it had taken since the beginning of the Popular Front period. When Britain and France declared war on Germany, the Soviets declared that the war was an ‘imperialist’ war to maintain British and French colonial possessions.[1] Individual Communist Parties followed the Soviet lead and by October/November 1939, denounced the war as an imperialist war and pushed for ‘peace’ between the European powers. Australia and South Africa soon joined the British war effort (which was at first welcomed, then criticised by the respective Communist Parties), but the United States remained out of the war until December 1941. In the USA, the Communist Party’s main slogan was, according to Harry Haywood, ‘Keep America out of the imperialist war!’[2]

This opposition to the war reframed the anti-racist activism of the Communist Parties in all three countries, but predominantly in South Africa and the United States (partially owing to the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was banned from June 1940 to December 1942). The argument of the Communist Parties became that for non-white people, there was little difference between fascism and the imperialism of Britain and France, or particularly the discrimination faced by black people in the US or South Africa. The CPSA asked rhetorically in their Party organ in June 1940, ‘What is the difference to the Non-Europeans between the Nazi regime in Europe and the Union Government in South Africa?’, which was followed by ‘How can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?’[3] The Communist Party argued that it was hypocritical of white South Africans to ask their non-white countrymen to fight for the Union (and the wider British Empire) when they did not enjoy the rights of their white contemporaries. A 1940 flyer produced by the Party stated:

It is an insult to the intelligence of the African, Coloured and Indian people to ask them to fight against a system of Nazi tyranny when they themselves suffer under terrible oppression and injustice.[4]

In February 1940, General Secretary of the CPSA, Moses Kotane, argued in Freedom that for Africans, there was ‘no enthusiasm among them for the war’,[5] while a pamphlet produced by the Johannesburg District Committee alleged that ‘the Coloured and African peoples are generally in a hostile frame of mind’, compared with the indifference of the Afrikaner population.[6]

However this hostility towards the war effort did not mean that Africans did not join the South African armed forces after the Union narrowly voted to go to war in October 1939. Despite the discrimination and segregation faced by Africans in the armed forces, David Killingray and Martin Plaut have calculated that more than 70,000 Africans enlisted into the Native Military Corps.[7] Although the CPSA was opposed to the war, they still campaigned for those non-Europeans who entered the armed forces to be treated as equals with white soldiers. Recognising that the armed forces offered a way out of unemployment for non-Europeans, the Party declared, ‘If the Government wants the non-Europeans to fight for it, let it give them the same rates of pay and chances of promotion as the Europeans.’[8]

Although the United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, during the ‘imperialist war’ phase, the CPUSA warned of the ‘so-called liberal bourgeoisie’ who were seeking to ‘enlist the Negro’s support for American imperialism in this reactionary war’.[9] The CPUSA reminded its readers that African-American soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary Wars, the American Civil War and the First World War and had gained little from it, so while the ‘Negro masses [were] ever ready to fight for liberty, for real democracy’, they were not ready ‘to die again for the benefit of the swollen coffers of imperialist hangmen’.[10] This reflected broader trends in the attitudes of African-Americans towards the US armed forces in the lead up to America’s involvement in the conflict. As Daniel Kryder has noted, recruitment of African-Americans into (and retention within) the armed forces prior to Pearl Harbour was poor, with ‘widespread discontent’, so that by 1943, only one-fifth of black males eligible for service were successfully recruited (compared with one-third amongst eligible white males).[11]

Much more than the natives of South Africa and African-Americans, there was an initial enthusiasm amongst indigenous Australians (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) to join the armed forces, although they were predominantly recruited to be support labour, rather than actual soldiers. When Australia entered the war in 1939, Noah Riseman reminds us that ‘[t]he Defence Act had no restrictions against enlistment of Aboriginal people’, although they were ‘exempt from call-up and from compulsory training’.[12] The Army had no little interest in actively recruiting indigenous people or the formation of indigenous units, but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did join up (approximately 3000 and 850 personnel respectively), with some seeing it as a way on encouraging the Australian Government to give its indigenous population citizenship rights.[13] Explaining the position of the influential Australian Aborigines’ League, Robert A. Hall summarised, ‘If Australia were to take seriously its fight against fascism,… then it had to take steps to end repression of Aborigines at home.’[14] However this recruitment was short-lived and in 1940, the government ‘explicitly prohibited the enlistment of all nonwhite persons into the army and navy’, although this was reassessed the following year as the threat of the Japanese loomed bigger.[15] By this time, the Soviet Union had entered the war and the position of the Communists in Australia, as well as everywhere else, had changed.

————————————————————————

[1] V. Molotov, Soviet Peace Policy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941) p. 30.

[2] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978) p. 496.

[3] ‘The War and Segregation’, Freedom, June 1940, p. 7. Italics are in the original text.

[4] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’ (Cape Town: CPSA flyer, 1940) BC 1081/O18.10, Ray and Jack Simons Collection, University of Cape Town Library.

[5] Moses Kotane, ‘The Africans and the War’, Freedom, February 1940, p. 7.

[6] J. Morkel, The War and South Africa, (Johannesburg: CPSA pamphlet, 1940) p. 5.

[7] David KIllingray with Martin Plaut, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currie, 2010) p. 72.

[8] ‘Non-Europeans and the War’.

[9] Theodore R. Bassett & A.W. Berry, ‘The Negro People and the Struggle for Peace’, The Communist (April 1940) p. 326.

[10] Bassett & Berry, ‘The Negro People…’, p. 326.

[11] Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War

[12] Noah Riseman, Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) p. 10.

[13] Robert A. Hall, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997) pp. 9-12; Riseman, Defending Whose Country? p. 10.

[14] Hall, The Black Diggers, p. 11.

[15] Riseman, Defending Whose Country? pp. 10-11. Italics are in the original text.