This talk was presented at ‘October 1917: Forgotten Possibilities’, a public meeting convened in Brisbane on 29 October 2017 by The Cloudland Collective with the support of the Brisbane Labour History Association. The event was called to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution and discuss its contemporary relevance. The other speakers were Alison Stewart and Andrew Bonnell. Alison’s talk appears as an earlier post to this blog.
One hundred years ago Australia was blighted with poverty, inequality and job insecurity, and employers were aggressively asserting managerial prerogatives and launching attacks on wages, conditions and the right to unionise. Many workers at the time understood that the rules of the system were stacked against them. Change was needed. Many of them wondered: What would a better society look like? Some of them went further and speculated: How do we go about creating it?
Then, late in 1917, a new development jolted these questions into even sharper focus. Word reached Australia of a revolution in Russia, a second revolution, this one led by a workers’ party known as the Bolsheviks. Details were initially sketchy but it soon became apparent that something completely new and strange had happened. Workers in Russia were running industry themselves and a workers’ government was in power. This was indeed startling news.
But what did Australian workers and socialists make of it? How was the news received here? How did it change the workers’ movement and the socialist cause in this country? On this, the centenary of that revolution, I want to spend some time considering these questions.
Understanding how the Russian revolution influenced Australian labour movement politics is a complex challenge. I think the task can be instructively broken down into two parts, one quantitative, the other qualitative. The quantitative issue is whether or not the Russian revolution drew new people into the socialist movement.
If we are looking at the short term the answer is no, it did not. In 1917 and into 1918 there were no less than eight distinct socialist groups of some significance in Australia in addition to the socialists independently active within the Labor Party. Three of these groups are important to our story: the Australian Socialist Party, or ASP, which had its headquarters in Sydney and branches around the country, including in Brisbane and Ipswich; the Socialist Labor Party, or SLP, a Sydney-based outfit which had begun life as the Australian Socialist League way back in 1887; and the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, whose organisation and press had been outlawed by the Hughes government, but who still organised in various guises, especially here in Queensland, where they were the backbone of an outfit called the Universal Freedom League.
All of these groups – the three mentioned plus the other five – were active in word and deed. But there is no evidence that any of them grew significantly in the years immediately following the revolution. If anything, with the possible exception of the Wobblies in North Queensland, the far-left struggled to make headway.
But that’s not the full story. We should not conclude from the size of the organised far-left that there was very limited support In Australia for the October revolution. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence that the revolution sparked a great deal of interest and enjoyed widespread sympathy.
On the 24 March 1918 the ASP held a meeting in Guild Hall in Swanston Street, Melbourne, featuring as the keynote speaker Peter Simonoff, the Bolshevik Consul General for Australia. The Guild Hall was a large venue. Yet such was the interest in the speaker and the topic, the ASP completely filled it.
Seven months later, on the first anniversary of the revolution, the turnout to an ASP commemorative event in Broken Hill was so large that the crowd not only filled the hall but spilled into the middle of the street outside, forcing the ASP to reconvene the meeting outdoors.
In Brisbane, a large crowd of Russians and others wishing to commemorate the first anniversary were denied access to Centennial Hall, even though they had booked it. They marched across Victoria Bridge to South Brisbane where at least 1000 and up to 1500 of them assembled in market reserve to celebrate one year of workers’ rule in Russia. Even more impressively, two nights later 2000 supporters of the revolution gathered in William Street for an open-air rally to celebrate the anniversary.
The scale of these meetings reveals a well-spring of interest in and sympathy for Soviet Russia. Perhaps an even better illustration of this enthusiasm is the explosion in Australia of literature on the subject. Late in 1918 the Proletarian Publishing Association in Melbourne published and circulated no less than 2,500 copies of Zinoviev’s speech, Lenin: His Life and Times. In March 1920 Andrade’s Bookshop in Melbourne published 7,500 copies of Professor William Goode’s book In Russia.
Radical Australian publishers were not just pushing a political barrow. They were responding to a demand. One title, The Soviets at Work, came out under two separate imprints. Andrade’s published it in Melbourne, while the ASP published an edition in Sydney derived from copies of the work smuggled into Australia by radical seafarers. Andrade’s was one of the first publishers in the Anglophone world to publish Karl Radek’s pamphlet, The Russian Revolution. Not to be outdone, Melbourne socialist printer R.S. Ross published Inside Soviet Russia in January 1920 and an Australian edition of Red Russia by British Labour Party leader George Lansbury two months later. By 1922 the shelves of Andrade’s carried no less than 30 titles on the Russian revolution.
Some of the works were homegrown. Probably Australia’s first locally-authored publication on the revolution was Maurice Blackburn’s pamphlet Bolsheviks, which came out at the end of 1918 or early 1919. And the biggest-selling Red Read of them all was by another Australian Labor parliamentarian, Frank Anstey. His book, Red Europe, was published in September 1919 following a tour of European countries. It covered the revolution and the diplomatic intrigue and brutality associated with the Allied intervention. The first edition sold out in weeks, leading to the release of a second edition in November. A third edition appeared in March 1920. It went on to become a global blockbuster.
So, whether the measure is books and pamphlets printed and distributed or public gatherings attended, there was clearly a significant appetite for information about Soviet Russia. It did not translate into active socialist recruits but the interest was there, expressing a deep yearning for a social order without exploitation and misery. People were keen to know about this bold venture in workers’ democracy in the former Czarist empire.
The impact did not stop there. The revolution also affected people who were already active socialists. Ultimately, I want to suggest, this was the most important element of all. For although the number of activists was quite small, the news of the revolution had an influence on their politics that would set in train a series of events that would cement the Bolsheviks’ place in Australian labour memory for generations to come. This is what I mean by the qualitative effect.
To tell this part of the story I must first point out an important historical fact. In 1917 the organised socialist movement may have been small but the idea of socialism, the idea that there was a viable and necessary alternative to the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism, enjoyed widespread acceptance within the Australia labour movement. Union newspapers and union meetings from the 1890s onwards are littered with strident criticisms of the wage labour system and calls for a just alternative.
This anti-capitalist impulse found expression in various political programs. By the mid-1890s the dominant scheme in labour circles was to elect Labor governments to nationalise and run industry. State socialism, they called it.
To give you a sense of what this idea meant to workers I want to read a passage from a manuscript written by Bill Davis, a labourer who was employed in the freezer room at Ross River Meatworks in Townsville in the 1910s. Bill’s manuscript is a fictionalised account of his own experiences as a worker and activist. In this passage he is describing the reaction of the fictional character Bill to the news that the Labor Party was on track to win the 1910 federal election:
‘This glorious news acted like a tonic on Bill, who now had visions of the Cooperative Commonwealth being ushered in in the not far distant future, where poverty and riches would cease to exist, and misery and degradation would be relegated to the limbo of the forgotten past.’
A little later in the manuscript, after Labor’s victory is officially declared, Bill writes that ‘this announcement was met with wild scenes of approval among the workers in all parts of Australia, especially the industrial centres. [The workers] now settled down to await the new government’s legislative program.’ These passages evoke the hope, the radical hope, that many workers placed in the Labor Party.
Seven years later the picture was quite different. In April 1911 a referendum to give the Commonwealth powers to nationalise industry was defeated and the federal parliamentary party washed their hands of the idea. Then in 1914 Fisher supported the war and his successor Billy Hughes tried to introduce military conscription. In this he was backed by the Holman Labor government in New South Wales.
In Queensland a Labor government came to power in 1915 but despite introducing progressive reforms and commencing a program of state-run enterprises, the Ryan government made no serious effort to curtail the power of private capital. What’s more, in 1917 it attacked railway workers who were of course state employees. As for Labor’s industrial arbitration system, the militant unions such as the ARU and the AMIEU quickly realised they could achieve better results without it. They concluded that arbitration was actually a millstone around their necks.
In New South Wales, meanwhile, the push for Taylorist methods of labour control in the workplace was led not by employers in private enterprise but by bosses in the state-run railway workshops. Their attempt to introduce the card system sparked one of the largest general strikes in Australian history.
So by late 1917 both the program of state socialism and the Labor Party as a party of socialism had lost most of their gloss. As Bill Davis disdainfully concluded after witnessing the Ryan government’s efforts, ‘they opened state butcher shops and started a state lottery, and called it socialism’. Many workers like Davis turned away from the ALP towards more direct methods of achieving a just society. Many of them embraced the Wobblies’ anarcho-syndicalism, believing that One Big Union with revolutionary intent could sweep away the capitalist class and impose direct workers’ control.
But by late 1917 this, too, seemed doubtful. Efforts to build One Big Union in Australia were being co-opted by the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) for its own conservative purposes. And in 1917 the IWW and the New South Wales general strike were both ruthlessly crushed, suggesting that industrial organisation alone could not overcome capitalist state power. On the other hand, workers had seen in two successful anti-conscription campaigns that mass political movements drawing on the strength of organised labour could be effective.
So the socialist cause in Australia had reached something of a crossroads. Certain ideas had been tested in practice and had fallen short. It was against this backdrop that news arrived of the triumph of the Russian workers.
The immediate effect was to give the Bolshevik Party unassailable prestige as the party of socialism. As A.S. Reardon , the leader of the ASP, put it,’what is good enough for the Bolsheviks is sure good enough for me’.
But here was the rub. What in fact was good enough for the Bolsheviks? The Communist International declared only one communist party in each country would be recognised. So the SLP and the ASP and some independent Sydney Trades Hall socialists battled it out. They were joined by quite a few former Wobblies and, eventually, the whole rather messy business culminated in the emergence of a single Communist Party of Australia.
I want to contend that the politics of this new organisation represented both a continuation of some pre-existing currents and their synthesis into something quite new and distinct.
What were these currents? What were the important characteristics of Bolshevik-inspired communism? I want to mention just three.
- The consolidation of Bolshevik politics at the centre of Australian socialism eliminated racial exclusion as an acceptable position within socialist circles. Never again would a racist like William Lane be able to claim legitimacy as a spokesperson for socialism. The CPA was unequivocally opposed to the White Australia policy and said so, again and again. It supported the development of the Red International of Labor Unions, which saw Australian Communists working alongside trade unionists from Asia. It gave principled practical support to the struggles of Aboriginal people. In North Queensland it organised southern European workers and led the opposition to the officially-sanctioned racism of the Australian Workers’ Union. This tradition of anti-racism is, I think, a very important legacy.
- On the fundamental question of how socialism would be achieved and indeed what socialism actually was, the early CPA put the case for a new form of workers’ power, not a form of power centred on parliament, not one based on trade unionism, but a form of power residing in the self-organisation of working people in councils or soviets. This formulation effectively dissolved the old debate between supporters of industrial action and supporters of political action, recasting it into a new polarisation: Soviet power v Parliamentary power.
- Along with this bottom-up conception of socialism came a new approach to the tasks of the socialist party. It would not be a party fixated on winning seats in parliament. Nor would it merely serve as a source of propaganda, struggling at the level of ideas to convince workers of the merits of socialism. Propaganda was still considered important but as the party grew it was anticipated that its role would become more direct. It would organise workers as a socialist political force. As the ASP put it in 1920, shortly before it merged with other groups to found the CPA:
‘The Australian Socialist Party is not a party in the sense that other parties are. It is in politics for the purpose of wresting out of the hands of the capitalist class the power which is used to oppress and rob the workers. It is also in politics for the purpose of reorganising society.’ (ASP NSW Election Manifesto, 1920)
Now none of these elements of Bolshevik doctrine was completely foreign to Australian socialism prior to October 1917. As I’ve already discussed, parliamentary socialism was already floundering and many left-thinking workers had turned to mass class struggle to win improvements and build a socialist alternative. We see a forerunner of the CP’s anti-racism and internationalism in the politics of the ASP, the SLP and the Wobblies. We see the revolutionary critique of the One Big Union strategy in the political arguments put forward by both the ASP and the SLP, despite their own differences.
So, we can say that nascent Bolshevism was already here. What the Russian revolution did was give these political ideas unprecedented authority and clarity amongst the most politically advanced layers of the Australian working population. And it linked these ideas to an international movement. A movement which at the time seemed unstoppable. In those heady days, no matter how rocky the road in Australia, to be a socialist of the Bolshevik type was to believe you were on the side of history.
We see this optimism and confidence in the manuscript of Bill Davis. Bill, remember, had been an early fan of the Labor Party. Well let’s return to his account as he departs the North in the early 1920s, having led strikes, campaigned for the ALP, experienced Labor in power, followed events in Russia and discovered the writings of Marx and Engels. His final chapter on North Queensland finishes on this stirring note:
‘And so, with his eyes fixed in the direction of where the greatest experiment in the world’s history was taking place, and being confident of the ultimate success of the experiment, Bill left Townsville, the scene of many of his ups and downs on life’s journey, more determined than ever to continue to play his part according to his ability in bringing about the end of a system which was responsible for the misery and degradation of millions of human beings throughout the world. ‘Au revoir, Townsville,’ he said as the train pulled out of the station, ‘someday I hope to return’.’
Less than 10 years after the real Bill Davis left Townsville, world communism and Australian communism with it succumbed to Stalinism. In the Soviet Union the attempt to build socialism from below corroded away, the vacuum filled by bureaucratic rule from above. The original emancipatory content of the politics was lost. But for thousands of members of the CPA and many others down through the generations the inspiration of October 1917 never disappeared.
What they continued to see in it (despite the eventual iron grip of a bureaucratic ruling class in the Soviet Union and the Stalinisation of the Communist Party here) was what Brisbane socialist Ernie Lane saw in it only two months after it occurred. The ‘Russian revolution,’ he wrote in The Daily Standard, ‘developing day by day, hour by hour, stands as the mightiest achievement in recorded time…’ For Lane and his contemporaries the grandeur of the revolution lay in the fact that for the first time the toilers of an entire nation – millions of workers, peasants and rank-and-file soldiers and sailors – had taken their destiny into their own hands. They had won the battle of democracy and elevated themselves to the position of ruling class.
A century later much has changed. But I would contend that Ernie Lane’s assessment, written in the enthusiasm of the moment, is still valid. For the root of the problem then remains the root of our problems today. We may be in a digital age but our brains and muscles are still exploited for the benefit of the few, we still live under a system in which competitive capital accumulation invariably spills over into war and leads to ecological catastrophe, where resources are squandered on a massive scale while people starve, where capitalism has given up even promising prosperity and freedom for everyone, insisting instead that austerity, mass surveillance and repression are the eternal future for the vast majority.
Russian workers, soldiers and peasants put in place an alternative to this abomination. In the end they were defeated. But their bold venture can still stand as a beacon, just as it did for Bill Davis and Ernie Lane and the thousands of others who read books and attended meetings about socialist Russia all those years ago. October 1917 still has a world of possibilities to offer.
For the information on early Australian publishing about Soviet Russia I am indebted to Bertha Walker, Solidarity Forever!: the Life and Times of Percy Laidler (1972).