The Communist International (Comintern) was intended by its founders to be the world party of socialist revolution. It was formed in 1919 and dissolved by Stalin in 1943. Its sections, the communist parties of many countries around the world, were authorised as “communist” by the Comintern, and in return for this recognition (the authority it bestowed upon them, and the subsidies from Moscow it usually entailed) they proclaimed their support for, and attempted to implement, the various decisions made by the Comintern’s congresses and Executive Committee.
The Comintern was both keenly aware of its “world-historical” role, and bureaucratic in its structure and habits. Consequently, it collected and filed extensive records. These were stored in an archive that by 1999 had come to be called the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI). In recent years, RGASPI has been co-operating with scholars, libraries and publishing houses around the world to disseminate much of this material. Among the major products of this initiative so far have been a number of volumes in the series “Annals of Communism”, published by Yale University Press, and the deposit of the very extensive archive of the Communist Party of the USA in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, which was opened to the public in 2000. The opening of the RGASPI archives has led to better-informed studies of the American Communist Party, the British Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s, and the relationship between Dimitrov, last Secretary of the Comintern, and Stalin.
The Comintern Archive at the Australian Defence Force Academy Library (CAAL) is part of this effort to make the Comintern archives accessible. It contains around 18,000 pages of documents on microfilm recording the official links between the Comintern and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) spanning the years 1920 to 1940, from which Dr Kevin Windle and I have selected for publication eighty-five documents in a forthcoming book entitled Our Unswerving Loyalty.
The Comintern’s archives are organised in a series of collections and stored in folders, with individual designations based on a triple classification of fond, opis, and delo. Many of the documents are in English, with Russian (and other) translations. Many deal with routine matters, or are drafts of documents finally (and sometimes publicly) proclaimed. Some documents are repeated. Some documents are designated “Secret”, “Most Secret”, or “Confidential”, though it is not easy to see in all cases why such a designation was made. The coverage can also be patchy. In general, records in CAAL from the earlier period (especially the 1920s) are fuller than those from the 1930s; towards the end of the 1930s the documentary record becomes scant. If this is the case with the materials dealing with Australia, it is also the case with the CPUSA archives in Washington. CAAL nevertheless provides a new avenue to explore the early history of the CPA (and not just its relations with Moscow, on which Our Unswerving Loyalty focuses).
During the 1920s and 1930s, Australian communist leaders went to Moscow to attend Comintern conferences and report on the prospects for revolution in Australia. The CPA submitted reports on its conferences and Central Committee meetings to the Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI) and the Anglo-American Secretariat. Local leadership disputes were referred to Moscow, and a great deal of advice and some “orders” came the other way. On all these matters CAAL has much to tell us. It reminds us, in particular, of the difficulties of communicating over such long distances in the days before faxes, e-mail and jumbo jets. Australians were stationed in Moscow for varying periods of time (often on their way to conferences or at the Lenin School), but because of the length of time away from Australia their usefulness in reporting on party matters, or helping Comintern leaders to resolve antipodean disputes that were put before them—sometimes by telegram—was limited. The Comintern, for its part, sent representatives to Australia to ensure that its orders were being followed.
The documents in CAAL encompass and supplement the archival material from the Comintern available, after permission from the SEARCH Foundation, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, and brought to Australia by Barbara Curthoys in the 1990s. They also provide a useful supplement to existing archival materials in the Normington-Rawling Collection held at the Australian National University, and other Australian collections. The additional material in CAAL includes directives from Moscow in 1926-27, materials on the internal situation of the party, Comintern resolutions on the “Australian question”, and early correspondence about the formation of the CPA.
Large though the CAAL collection may be, it is not complete; some documents, for example, refer to others that cannot be found, or to attachments that are missing. And given the limited material from local branch level in Australia, we are witness largely to a conversation between leaders and other “insiders”. How an ordinary CPA member would have experienced the party’s relationship with Moscow, from the material available here, can only be guessed at. Yet party members seem to have been remarkably compliant to changes in the “line” coming from Moscow; even the about-face in Soviet policy towards Nazi Germany, signalled by the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, did not see large numbers leaving the party, as it did in other countries.
Our selections are arranged into four chronological sections. The first, ending in 1924, covers the period of forging the CPA. The Comintern contribution was expressed as much in its authority and instructions, to which the squabbling groups of Australian communists appealed for recognition, as in its agents who liaised with them. Having finally united, the CPA in the period 1924–28, whence the second selection of documents is drawn, came close to collapse. Australian communists were disunited over policy (especially towards the Australian Labor Party), disorganised, and many were disheartened. The Comintern may not have saved the party, but it stiffened communists’ resolve to continue.
The third section covers the period from 1929 to 1937, when the party underwent a major leadership change (in 1929) with the support of Moscow, was reorganised by an agent Moscow sent to Australia, and began to ape the “line” from Moscow. This approach culminates in the documents of the fourth section, covering 1938–40, when subservience to Moscow’s orders overshadowed every other consideration. It led to communist defeatism at the start of the war against Hitler, and consequently to the CPA’s outlawing by the Australian government in 1940.
The story of the formation of the CPA is (as it was in many other countries) a story of rival groups vying for the authorisation of Moscow to become the Australian section of the Comintern. In the process, old loyalties were discarded and new leaders emerged, but some personalities with strong Russian connections in the Australian socialist movement, especially Paul Freeman, Alexander Zuzenko, and Petr Simonov, also played key roles.
Simonov was jailed in Australia for addressing public meetings in support of the Bolshevik Revolution, but was released in July 1919. Failing to be accredited as the Russian consul in Australia, he left in September 1921. Freeman was deported as an alien in January 1919; he seemed to have come to the attention of authorities for his labour radicalism and for his unknown (but possibly German) origins. He returned from Moscow to Australia to organise delegates to the Third Comintern Congress, and was killed with Artem—a Russian Bolshevik with Australian connections—in the crash of an experimental train near Moscow in July 1921.
Zuzenko, who holds particular interest, was deported from Australia in April 1919 for his political activities, but returned on a Comintern mission in 1922. The priority of the period from around the time of the inaugural conference of Australian communists in 1920 to the time when the CPA emerged as the Australian section of the Comintern in late 1923, was organisational unity. As the ECCI wrote to the feuding Australian communists in June 1922:
“The existence of two small groups, amidst a seething current of world shaking events, engaged almost entirely in airing their petty differences, instead of unitedly plunging into the current and mastering it, is not only a ridiculous and shameful spectacle, but also a crime committed against the working class movement.”
Unity was achieved one month later. Zuzenko claimed to have brought the at first wary—and later squabbling—currents of former Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), former Australian Socialist Party members, and worker radicals together. That a communist party emerged from this turmoil may indeed be due to the intervention of this Comintern agent, as the CAAL documents suggest.
From 1924 to 1928, the CPA seemed to wallow in disappointment as it confronted the scale and difficulties of its task. This was reflected in the resignations of a number of leaders, and in the bitterness of in-fighting, particularly over an appropriate political stance toward the ALP. The organisational side of the CPA had come under particular Comintern scrutiny from the moment the party was recognised as a national section. In 1924, the ECCI complained:
“We have no up-to-date knowledge of the condition of the Party, or whether its membership and influence is increasing or decreasing. We receive no indication as to whether the policy being operated by the Party is correct, and whether it produced results. So long as this silence on your part is maintained, we can never hope to build an effective section of the Communist Party in Australia.”
In August 1927 the Organizational Department of ECCI wrote to criticise the CPA for defective organisational work. This weakness was confirmed by Robert Robson, an English communist who had attended the December 1927 conference of the CPA on behalf of the Comintern, and who reported to ECCI in April 1928 that “Politically and organisationally the Party was and remains extremely weak and inexperienced”.
In 1929 there began an important shift in the relations between the CPA and the Comintern for two main reasons. First, because the Comintern became a direct player in the leadership struggles within the party (the main catalyst for which was the CPA’s long-troubled approach to the ALP). And second, because it sent an organiser to Australia to “Bolshevise” the Party in 1930-31. A new generation of leaders emerged, owing their positions to Moscow’s patronage, and thus fully compliant with the policies and wishes of Moscow. The Sixth Congress in 1928 had stated clearly the requirements of the national sections: a “strict party discipline and prompt and precise execution of the decisions of the Communist International, of its agencies and of the leading Party committees”.
Although the Comintern declared in the “Theses” of its Sixth Congress that the so-called Third Period would inevitably give rise to a “fresh series of imperialist wars … and to gigantic class battles”, communist parties became absorbed by internal struggles, looking for class enemies within their ranks, engaging in “self-criticism”, and changing their leaders. Whenever they looked outside, they attacked not the capitalists but what they saw as their proxies, the reformist leaders of social-democratic parties and trade unions. In Australia, Bert Moxon led a Comintern-backed challenge against the CPA leadership of Jack Kavanagh at the party’s Ninth Conference. This leadership change is recognised as a turning point in the CPA’s thus-far brief history. While the Comintern may have been exasperated by the intermittent communications from Australia (and vice versa), the tone of the relationship in 1929 reveals a major change in the way that business would henceforth be conducted. Whatever notions communists might previously have entertained about their parties as forums for discussion, these were now replaced by analogies with armies following their leaders into battle. The new Australian leadership knew what was expected of them: Moscow was always right. Political differences and debate were henceforth reduced to simplistic labelling.
“Bolshevisation” of the CPA appeared, amongst other things, in the guise of Herbert Moore, pseudonym of Harry Wicks, American communist and Comintern agent. Moore’s arrival in April 1930 was neither unexpected nor unwelcome. In the following year he laid the organisational basis for a party where the centre dominated. Moore’s changes meant greater centralisation and less questioning of central authorities. The Central Control Commission was strengthened and used to stop dissent. After the Tenth Annual Congress in April 1931, he abolished the annual meetings, and advised that a Congress would be held if and when there was a change, which would be signalled by the Comintern: “We prepare congresses under the direction and advice of the CI.” The next congress was not called until 1935, after the Seventh Comintern Congress.
Communists and communist parties faced the ultimate test of their support for the Soviet Union in 1939. The Non-Aggression Pact signed by the foreign ministers of Soviet Russia and Germany on August 23, 1939, came as a profound shock to all of them. It ended six years of communist vilification of Hitler, and forced many to ask how such a treaty could have been made with someone described for so long as a criminal and enemy of the workers’ state. Communists had difficulty in interpreting the change, for which they had been given no warning.
The Pact was at first described by the Australian communist newspaper, Tribune, as Hitler being “forced to seek terms” with the Russians (August 25, 1939). A week later, Britain declared war on Germany when it did not cease its invasion of Poland, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced in his memorable radio broadcast that Australia was also at war. On September 5, 1939, without the authorisation of Moscow, Tribune declared “For the defeat of Hitler”. The CPA was very soon informed, via a Soviet cable on “peace”, that the war was an imperialist war and that genuine communists could not take sides in it. Churchill was as bad as Hitler. This change was first reported in Tribune’s issue of October 6, and through November 1939 the paper gave significant space to statements by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs: “Molotov flays war makers”, and Soviet Russia “Remains Neutral”.
Soviet actions in making a pact with Hitler may have sent the CPA into confusion (and thus “error”), but Moscow had only to transmit the “correct” line for it to be adopted. Indeed, the only error in the communist movement had become disagreement with Moscow. In 1944, party leader Lance Sharkey conceded that there had been a “brief moment” when the party had made an “incorrect appraisal of the character of the war”. Relief was quickly at hand, as the Comintern sent out its directives and rectifications, and “the Party quickly oriented itself on a correct Leninist estimation and policy”.
The main lines of the CPA’s early history are known to scholars, but the CAAL documents demonstrate that the Comintern exercised a very important, and at many points decisive, sway over the party. In particular, the documents suggest three major propositions. First, that the Comintern was crucial in the formation of the CPA, via its agents, instructions and authority. Second, that the Comintern played a major role in directing the policies of the party in domestic matters (not to mention in international matters, where the Comintern’s decisions were unchallengeable). And third, that the leadership of the CPA was, from 1929 onwards, shaped, trained and authorised by the Comintern. There are two claims that the documents available in CAAL do not sustain, though they do not remove them: first, that Comintern money played a major role in the life of the CPA from 1920 to 1940; and second, that the CPA maintained an illegal or underground secretariat. Both claims have been suspected of most communist parties, and conclusively documented in the case of the CPUSA.
Moscow funded most, if not all, communist parties to some extent. In the early years of the Comintern, the amounts seem to have been considerable, totalling millions of roubles. The CAAL documents suggest that funding of the CPA from Moscow took place, though its extent is impossible to quantify. Sums of money—so-called “Moscow gold”—were given to the Australian communists. The only substantial history of the CPA, The Reds by Stuart Macintyre, suggests that this began in about 1923, but CAAL demonstrates that Zuzenko and Freeman planned to bring a substantial amount in 1921-22; how much they delivered in the end is not clear.
There is no evidence of regular payments, but occasional glimpses are nevertheless given of individual requests. On March 29, 1936, for example, Mason (the CPA’s representative to the Comintern) asked the ECCI for a grant of £5000: “My fare took most of the cash.” He explained that if more students and delegates came to Moscow, more cash would be needed. It may reasonably be assumed that when Australian communists went to the Soviet Union for congresses or study tours, their in-country expenses were paid by their hosts. Australian military intelligence agents in the 1930s seemed to believe that the party received £500 per year from Moscow, though this was only a small proportion of its operating costs. Indeed, the CPA was constantly in need of money, and could not properly fund the small number of full-time party workers it had on its staff.
One important aspect of communist activity in capitalist states was clandestine activity. Communist parties were directed to establish an “underground” organisation as well as a legal one. The third of the twenty-one conditions for affiliation to the Comintern, promulgated in 1920, directed national sections to establish a “parallel illegal organisation”: “In all countries where a state of siege or emergency laws make it impossible for Communists to carry out all their work legally, it is absolutely necessary that legal and illegal activity be combined’. In the Australian case, and despite the exhortations to develop an underground apparatus, the CAAL documents give no indication that such an apparatus was ever created. It is not surprising, however, that the suspicion of espionage should have fallen on the communists. The use of communist parties to extend the reach of Soviet espionage was acknowledged by Leon Trotsky, one of the Comintern’s founders. Only days before he was assassinated by a Soviet agent, Trotsky declared that “the GPU … completely dominates the Comintern”.
The Comintern was undoubtedly connected with collecting information for the Soviet intelligence services; its dissolution in 1943 created difficulties for intelligence gathering, as the following message from “Viktor” (Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin) in Moscow to his agent in Canberra on September 12, 1943, reveals:
“A change in circumstances—and in particular the dissolution of the BIGHOUSE [that is, Comintern] —necessitates a change in the method used by the workers of our residencies to keep in touch with the leaders of the local FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [that is, Communist] organizations on intelligence matters.”
This is not to say that all communists were spies. There is an important distinction to be made between communists who were loyal to policies (and who joined, and left, communist parties as policies changed—and there were many in that category) and those who were loyal to the party and through it ultimately to the Soviet Union. It was the latter who would respond to the 1930 reminder by the ECCI to Western communist parties that “legal forms of activity must be combined with systematic illegal work”.
Australia became a fertile target for Soviet intelligence agencies from the middle of the Second World War, around the time of the disbanding of the Comintern in 1943. With the release in 1995 of the Venona decrypts of Soviet intelligence traffic from Canberra to Moscow in the 1940s, it became clear that “From 1943–49, a group of about ten people, all of whom were members of the Communist Party of Australia or close acquaintances of communists, provided information and documentary material to the Soviet State Security Service, commonly known as the KGB” (Breaking the Codes, by Desmond Ball and David Horner).
Orders from Moscow
That the Russians were in charge of the Comintern is not in doubt. They dominated both by virtue of having Comintern headquarters based in Moscow, and by being the largest single bloc of votes on its Executive Committee. In the prevailing atmosphere amongst communists approaching worship of the Bolsheviks and their revolutionary achievements, few challenged this Bolshevisation. While the initial hope may have been for a partnership between constituent parties, the Comintern became an instrument of the Soviet regime. Ultimately all Comintern policy had to be sanctioned by the Russian Communist Party. After Stalin indisputably consolidated power in his own hands in Russia (perhaps around the time of the assassination of his potential rival, Sergei Kirov, in 1934) the Comintern simply echoed his views. The Russian party became so powerful within the Comintern “that its delegation often decided among themselves not only which tactics and strategies the Comintern would pursue but who to remove from and appoint to the Central Committees of fraternal parties” (Enemies within the Gates? by William J. Chase).
The communist parties were expected regularly to send details of their own operations, and of the political situations they faced, to the Comintern’s Executive Committee. The main “line” for each communist party to follow was decided in Moscow, sometimes (depending on the party involved) by members of those parties based in or visiting Moscow before major congresses or meetings of their own parties. In a 1935 letter home, “Randolph” lets the CPUSA know how it stands in Moscow and what the American comrades are being criticised for, but reveals much about the practical side of relations between the Comintern and its parties:
“The greybeard who manages me has really followed our work very closely. He reads all the material carefully, and we have almost daily meetings on various questions … [H]e pointed out that almost all our ‘brati’ are increasing their families considerably. Thus, he compared [us with] the Frogs [French], who, from March till now, have increased from forty odd thousand to about 75,000.”
Such direction was readily accepted by most communist parties around the world; to deny it meant to be isolated from the communist movement. The party disputes in which the Comintern intervened—or, for the most part, was asked to intervene—ranged from relatively trivial questions of personality to major questions of strategy, though trivial matters tended to be invested with a class significance beyond their real import, and strategic questions tended to display the hallmarks of personality clashes. And just as the Comintern could recognise affiliated parties, so it could abolish them: in 1937, the Comintern ordered the dissolution of the Communist Party of Poland, claiming infiltration by fascist agents.
Once the Australian party had been recognised by the Comintern, it was not just an affiliate, but the “Australian section” of a world party, and the Congress and Executive of the Comintern had, as Stuart Macintyre rightly puts it, “absolute power over every constituent organisation”. Members of the CPA were well aware that their close relationship with Moscow was a liability in political debate. In a 1927 article on “Politics and Publicity”, the Sydney philosopher and (then) communist sympathiser Professor John Anderson described the daily press version of communism as follows: “Communism is a criminal conspiracy, conducted under ‘orders from Moscow’”. The latter phrase was a commonplace and, as we can now document, accurate.
The control exerted by Moscow was something that communists—in Australia and elsewhere—were keen to deny. Lance Sharkey, General Secretary of the CPA, in his 1947 pamphlet Australian Communists and Soviet Russia, put the official view: the party had never had relations with the Soviet government, since the Comintern itself had no relation to the Soviet government. It was a necessary fiction, required to deny that the CPA was the agent of a foreign power. It was a difficult fiction to maintain.
To become adept at the communist style, Australian communists participated in training provided by the Soviets through the International Lenin School, especially during the 1930s, and were annoyed when they believed they were being left out of invitations to the school. But the expectations of those from different political cultures did not always mesh with Leninist norms. The Anglo-Americans sometimes had problems with what they described as the “police methods” of the administration, and some were disappointed with Soviet reality.
The Russians’ response to criticism was particularly telling. N.S. Skorobogatykh relates that one of the Soviet leaders of the English-speaking students of the Lenin School declared: “There are traces in the group of the influence of social-democracy, for example the question ‘Why?’” From the American Comintern archives comes a letter of May 27, 1936, from “the collective of Sector ‘D’”, referring to the expulsion of an American, Karl Meredith, from the Lenin School. Meredith, according to this correspondent, “did not feel fully at home in the USSR … By a mechanical, typically bourgeois method of comparison of figures, he repeatedly stressed the erroneous conclusion that the standard of living in USSR is lower than in the USA.”
The CPA’s subservience to Moscow made its policies at times out of touch with the concerns of ordinary workers; and its clear praise for the workers’ paradise of the USSR did not ring true to most workers. J.B. Miles’ Political Report to the CPA’s Eleventh Congress in 1935 is typical of the CPA’s approach: “We go before the workers full of confidence that the Soviet Union is a living example which can be followed by the toiling masses in Australia.”
The question of the public image of the USSR continued to preoccupy Western communists during the 1930s. Audrey Blake, after visiting the Soviet Union, returned to tell Australians:
“Comrades, the youth of Australia must know that there is a youth happy and free, a youth with a brilliant future, the youth of the Soviet Union; and if it gets to know the truth about that surprising country, it will be filled with great love and admiration for the Soviet Union and its great leader, Comrade Stalin.”
Such observations must have been built on a profound willingness to believe, since not all visitors to the USSR were duped by Potemkin villages. And during the Great Depression, when the Soviets should have been winning the propaganda war, they were hampered by problems in their own industrialisation efforts. As even one sympathetic economist, Alec Nove, explained, the year 1933 in the Soviet Union “was the culmination of the most precipitous peacetime decline in living standards known in recorded history”, when workers’ real earnings represented one-tenth of what they had been in 1926-27. No matter how much the party’s Secretary, J.B. Miles, may have enthused in 1935 about the “astounding progress” of the Soviet Union, or expressed his amazement and happiness at reading reports of the Five Year Plans, Australian workers remained sceptical.
The relationship between the CPA and the Comintern is vital to explaining the party’s origins, development, campaigns and leadership. The Comintern exercised a very important, and at some points decisive, sway over the CPA, as its archived documents attest. Throughout the period from 1920 to 1940 the CPA was “unswervingly loyal” to the Comintern and the Soviet Union—that was what made it a communist party—even if the phrase itself was first used only in 1929. At the end of the Ninth Conference where a major change in leadership had been engineered, the victors telegraphed to the Secretary of the Comintern: “annual conference greets comintern declares unswerving loyalty new line”. At the first Plenum of the new Central Committee in June the following year, greetings were sent to the Comintern along with a repeated declaration of “unswerving loyalty”.
Loyalty did not always mean blind obedience. From its origins until the end of 1929, the political line and organisational instructions coming from Moscow were considered and sometimes debated, even if they were rarely challenged directly. (If the CPA could be said to have had relative autonomy from the Comintern during the mid-1920s, it was chiefly by virtue of poor communications.) After the Ninth Conference, however, there was a major change: the CPA was much more finely attuned to the Comintern’s wishes, and twisted and turned at the behest of Moscow. The price of dissent was now a humiliating “self-criticism”, or even expulsion. Difficult though it may be for us to appreciate, expulsions were a genuinely feared punishment, even if for the vast majority of communists outside the Soviet Union the stakes were not life-or-death. After 1929, to be sure, some decisions handed down from above caused consternation and confusion, but there was no sense in which they could any longer be genuinely debated within the party.
However cogent the political issues raised by the CPA—and issues related to living standards, restrictive immigration, and the future of indigenous Australians were indeed important—party members were burdened, and the issues tainted, by the charge that they were simply doing Moscow’s bidding. Furthermore, the CPA’s policies for Australian workers were far in advance of what was permitted in the USSR, and many foreign communists visiting the socialist future (including Australians) sometimes expressed—almost always in private—their disgust at unsafe, dirty and inappropriate working conditions in Soviet factories. Communists’ ability to win workers away from the ALP’s reformism was compromised not just by their association with the Soviet Union, but also by the abruptly changing, dogmatic, one-size-fits-all positions coming from Moscow. The CPA never established a mass base among workers. The party numbered officially 128 at the end of 1922, 486 in 1930, and 4421 members by the middle of 1939; the vast bulk of its members were unemployed men, concentrated in metropolitan areas.
During the period 1920 to 1940, the CPA was—for most intents and purposes—marginal to Australian political and social life. Despite the terrible hardships of the Depression years, especially its worst years from late 1929 to late 1932 when unemployment peaked at 28 per cent, it struggled to gain a membership of more than a couple of thousand dedicated communists and perhaps a few thousand sympathisers. While its leadership remained fairly constant through the 1930s, there seems to have been a high membership turnover. It consequently put a particular emphasis on winning leadership positions in trade unions. It loomed larger in government calculations and in the public imagination than its size and activities perhaps warranted, chiefly because of its Soviet connections.
The Comintern created parties that would do its bidding. It kept a close watch on their reliability, by examining party documents and journals, by commissioning reports from trusted agents, and by compiling information on party members, particularly leaders. As the Comintern bureaucrat André Marty wrote in a directive to Australia in 1940:
“We must tighten control of our personnel to ensure that they are fully devoted to the USSR, the CPSU (Bolshevik), and Comrade Stalin, the leader of the working class and the working people of the entire world. There must be complete clarity about this. What the CPSU (Bolshevik) and Comrade Stalin do is exclusively in the interests of the working class of the whole world. There must be no doubt about this matter, and the personnel must be able to find their bearings on this basis.”
What the Comintern in fact achieved was a collection of parties which constantly looked to the centre for direction, which could not exercise intellectual or political judgment, and in which fear of being out of step with Moscow paralysed independent thought and action. However misguided they may have been, the decent motives that turned many people into communists were subverted to Moscow’s purposes.
We are left to ponder the human side of the party experience. We can only wonder at the extent of Moscow’s authority that it could turn strong, independently-minded people struggling for human dignity into its creatures: obeying every twist and turn from Moscow; abasing themselves in rituals of self-criticism; denying the plain truth. That experience, akin to a religious faith, is one of the fascinating sub-texts of the CAAL documents.
Loyalty to communism and a better future for humanity transferred easily to loyalty to Moscow. But this loyalty turned into a slavish subordination to its decisions: decisions about what communist policy was, and who was and was not a “communist”. Such decisions were increasingly based on narrow calculations about what was best for the Soviet state. A partial explanation for such dogged loyalty may be sought in members’ experiences of the Great Depression that began in 1929, peaked in Australia in 1932, and ended only with the Second World War. John Sendy, who joined the CPA in 1942, asked: “How then do good idealistic people become tyrants who will stop at nothing?”
The CPA was reinstated to legality at the end of 1942 and achieved its highest-ever membership just after the Second World War, courtesy in large part of the wartime Soviet alliance. Its political course over the decades until it disbanded in 1991 is a complex story to which future archival releases will doubtless contribute useful detail. For the moment, we are fortunate to be able to explore the first instalment of the CPA’s history in the CAAL documents.
David W. Lovell is a Professor in Politics in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. The book Our Unswerving Loyalty, by David W. Lovell and Kevin Windle, will be published by ANU E Press later this year.