Communist Party of Australia
by David Matters
When Marx and Engels wrote the �Communist Manifesto� just
over 150 years ago, the working class was only in its
infancy and was confined almost exclusively to Europe.
There was little or no working class in Latin America, on
the African continent or in Asia.
But, with brilliant foresight, Marx and Engels wrote: �In
proportion as the bourgeoisie is developed, in the same
proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class,
developed ... [The proletariat lives] only so long as they
find work, and find work only so long as their labour
All subsequent history has confirmed their analysis. Today,
the working class is numbered in the hundreds of millions
and such a class is to be found in virtually every country.
In industrialised countries the working class is by far the
biggest class in society.
Australia's colonisation by British imperialism just over
two hundred years ago, implanted capitalist relations of
production from the very beginning of white settlement. The
Australian continent did not have a feudal past. Migrants
from Britain brought with them the ideas of the Chartists
and trade unionism. At the same time as �The Communist
Manifesto� was being published, the first trade unions were
being formed in Australia.
One of the earliest successes of the trade union movement
was the winning of the 8-hour working day in 1856.
Forty years later as a consequence of some large strike
struggles and their suppression by the state machine, the
Australian Labor Party was established by the trade union
movement. It was argued that the trade union movement
needed to have its own representatives in parliament to
ensure that the laws favoured workers and not just
employers. But this idea was not advanced from
revolutionary or socialist positions. The workers'
representatives were to achieve their aims within the
system of capitalism, by reforms only.
This social democratic approach has remained dominant in
the ranks of the working class and trade union movement for
over 100 years.
In 1920, the Communist Party of Australia was founded and
immediately inscribed revolutionary and socialist
objectives on its banners. It played an important role in
strengthening the trade union movement in the years that
Today, the Australian working class, the trade unions, the
Communist Party and left social democrats are facing the
full force of the counter attacks of capitalist
globalisation -- the most concerted, far-reaching and
all-round offensive against the working class in the whole
history of the working class movement.
The corporate objectives include the destruction of the
trade union movement and the re-establishment of the
�Master/Servant relationship� between worker and employer
as had existed before the formation of trade unions. There
are strong attacks being made on working conditions, hours
of work, trade union rights and welfare entitlements. They
are pursuing the privatisation of all publicly owned
enterprises and institutions, the destruction of even
bourgeois democratic rights and the control of the State
apparatus by the direct representatives of the
corporations. We have called it TNC dictatorship.
The implementation of their plans required the direct
involvement of right-wing social democracy which, in
government, helped to legislate the legal framework and
advanced the political and ideological arguments by which
to carry out the corporate plans.
In Australia, the first major step was the conclusion of a
class-collaborationist social contract between the
leadership of the trade unions and the Australian Labor
Party. It was argued that all the trade unions needed to do
was to sit around a table with employers and achieve
mutually advantageous agreements. Strike action was
declared to be out-of-date.
Unfortunately, many trade union leaderships accepted these
arguments which were vigorously pushed by Labor Party and
reformist trade union leaders, including some who were
regarded as left-wing.
The second step was the dismantling of �Awards� which were
legally binding documents specifying wages and working
conditions in considerable detail across a whole industry
or occupation. They covered all workers whether union or
Awards were replaced by �enterprise agreements�. This meant
that instead of there being one Award for all workers in an
industry or occupation, agreements covered only the
enterprise in which they worked. Some unions had to
negotiate thousands of such agreements although all the
workers involved were employed in the same industry say
metal shops or building projects. Where the workforce was
not unionised, employers had a free hand to attack wages
This paved the way for the introduction of individual work
contracts which were secret agreements between an employer
and each individual worker. Such agreements were enforced
by draconian laws that took away the right of unions to
strike and even to represent workers in a workplace. Huge
fines could be imposed for strike action.
As a consequence there has been a steady lengthening of the
working day with many workers working a 12-hour day often
with no paid overtime. The 38-hour week which had been
widely implemented by the 1970s has now been virtually
eliminated. On the other hand, upwards of 30 per cent of
the workforce is employed on a casual or part-time basis
resulting in a widespread loss of conditions and a lowering
of wage rates.
Privatisation, previously strongly opposed by the trade
union movement has proceeded with little resistance.
Publicly-owned enterprises and services such as hospitals,
water supplies, public schools, energy systems, transport
and telecommunications, and even government departments
have been handed over to the private sector.
Trade union leaderships did not find the answers to these
new circumstances and a loss of support for trade unions
quickly followed. Trade union membership declined from a
high of about 60 per cent in the 1970s to less than 25 per
cent today with many important enterprises being totally
Another aspect of the corporate offensive is the attempt to
turn working people into shareholders, by encouraging their
purchase of shares in companies being privatised. This is
part of the long-standing attempts of the ruling class to
create a �people's capitalism� to blunt the class struggle
and to tie the working class to the capitalist system.
From its very inception, the Communist Party of Australia,
gave much attention to strengthening the trade unions. Many
of the Party's members were workers and they played a
tremendous part both as rank and file activists and as
trade union officials.
Communists can be credited with many of the campaigns and
achievements of the trade union movement. They advocated
and helped to establish a single national trade union
centre the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) a
peak body that includes all trade unions. Australian unions
are not divided into different trade union federations
affiliated to one or another political party. At the moment
the ACTU is strongly influenced by social democratic
policies but this does not exclude the active participation
and influence of communists in its leadership.
Communists, who often united with left Labor activists,
helped to win many conditions and rights and built rank and
file trade union organisations as well as a network of
workplace Party organisations which were the inspirers and
organisers of many campaigns.
A number of factors, however, undermined the work and
achievements of class conscious communists.
Firstly, a long period of capitalist development and boom
conditions sowed illusions among workers who had not
experienced the earlier hard conditions or the trials of
the capitalist depression of the 1930s.
Secondly, the promotion of revisionist theories in the
ranks of the communists also undermined class consciousness
and class struggle. The adoption of revisionist theories
by the leadership of the Communist Party of Australia in
the 1960s and 70s, led to various splits and divisions
which severely weakened the whole movement. One theory
advanced was that the working class had been absorbed into
the capitalist system and that the academics and students
provided the only revolutionary force in society.
Pursuing such ideas, the then leadership of the Communist
Party, deliberately dismantled the network of Party
workplace organisations that had been the heart and soul of
much trade union work.
Thirdly, social democracy moved substantially to the right
and strongly advocated class collaborationist ideas in the
trade union movement.
Fourthly, the launching of �neo-liberal� policies was
accompanied by a massive ideological offensive. Capitalism
has learnt lessons from the period of the Great Depression
and from the formation of a number of socialist countries.
The establishment of numerous capitalist �think-tanks�
provided persuasive arguments for politicians, academics
and even trade union leaders to use to undermine class
consciousness and class struggle. Workers were told that
they could be better off without trade unions.
These were major factors, along with structural changes in
the economy and in the working class, which resulted in a
substantial weakening of the trade union movement, its
inactivity and loss of membership.
Taking advantage of this weakened state, conservative and
right social democratic governments further intensified the
attacks of employers on working conditions and workers'
While the trade union movement has been put in a
strait-jacket, capital has been de-regulated and given a
virtual free hand. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for
workers to be sacked without the payment of accumulated
entitlements such as holiday and sick pay, long service
leave and retirement savings. Companies are being
restructured. The real assets of a company are placed in
one company while workers are employed by another company
that has been divested of assets. When workers are sacked
they are left with an empty shell. Australian workers have
been robbed of millions of dollars in this way.
A penalty for the revisionism of former Communist Party
leaders and the rightward shift of social democracy is the
rise of Trotskyist organisations. The Australian ruling
class and mass media are actively promoting Trotskyist
organisations among young people, particularly among young
Well aware of the historic discredit of Trotskyism and the
Fourth International, the Australian variety is assiduously
attempting to present itself as the true Marxist-Leninists.
Underneath this fa�ade we note a vitriolic anti-communism
and opposition to the international communist movement
while, at the same time, attempting to infiltrate its
However, the inevitable consequences of exploitation, the
steadily worsening living standards of a majority of the
working people, the destruction of the democratic rights of
the trade union movement, the offensive against progressive
and revolutionary ideas and the promotion of militarism and
a war policy, are steadily awakening more and more people
to the true face of capitalism and corporate globalisation.
Working class and people's struggles are increasing.
It is in these circumstances that the recent 9th Congress
of the Communist Party of Australila adopted a resolution
calling for the concentration of Party forces on the task
of strengthening the Party's influence in the trade union
movement and rebuilding the network of Party workplace
organisations that were destroyed by previous revisionist
�The trade unions are the most important organisations of
the workers in their daily fight against the capitalist
employing class�, said the Party's resolution. �Trade
unions are a vital arena for workers to test different
ideologies and policies.
�At present, our forces in the trade union movement remain
too weak to properly fulfil our ideological potential.
Strengthening our work in this area is a vital issue for
the Party. Such work will strengthen the trade unions as
well as the Party.
�As a first step, Party organisations need to be active in
assisting union members and supporters in their workplace�.
An important aspect of our work is the development of trade
union rank and file and workplace organisations.
Another major feature of the present struggles of the
working class is the spread of internationalism. Workers
and their unions are now actively seeking international
solidarity during industrial disputes. A very good example
of this was the international solidarity extended to the
Maritime Union of Australia during the lock-out of its
members in 1998. International solidarity became an
important factor in the defeat of employer and government
plans at the time.
The call of the Communist Manifesto that �Workers of the
world, unite� has been given flesh and blood by this and
other similar international solidarity actions. While
capital is becoming increasingly global so are the actions
of the working class and their trade unions.
The main demands at the present time are measures to
achieve job security for all who want to work; the
reduction of the working week to 35 hours without loss of
pay; the payment in full of workers' accumulated
entitlements; the maintenance of a living wage and the
outlawing of individual work contracts; the repeal of
anti-trade union legislation.
We advance the necessity for struggle against continued
privatisation and for the extension of public ownership.
Measures to protect the natural environment and reverse the
damage already done by capitalist exploitation are widely
supported as is support for the interests of farming
communities. Many small farmers are being driven off the
land by deregulated trade and unfair prices being imposed
for farm produce by the big processors and super-markets.
We demand the recognition of Australia's indigenous people
as a national minority and their right to land. We strongly
oppose the US plans for a National Missile Defence system
and call for the maintenance of Australia's national
independence and sovereignty.
These policies are widely supported among progressive
workers and other sections of the community which are also
faced by the onslaught of the big corporations against
their economic and social interests.
The basis for coalitions of action on these policy demands
is growing and this has been confirmed by community actions
on many of these issues.
The recognition by the working class, the trade union
movement and the Communist Party that there is now a
fertile field for the establishment of widespread
cooperation among the different social forces which are
being impoverished and strangled by the big corporations,
is an important question that has to be understood and
implemented by all working class organisations.
There are good reasons for optimism that a new and more
favourable situation is emerging. Our great international
communist movement has immense responsibilities to defeat
the capitalist offensive and to lead the whole working
class to take offensive actions for its interests. Our
objective remains to bring an end to the capitalist system
so that the working class and its allies can start the
building of the new socialist society.
We wish to thank the Communist Party of Greece for their
initiative in hosting this conference and for their
hospitality during our stay in Athens. Thank you.