On the waterfront in Australia

We continue our series on the spread of Socialist ideas in other parts of the world. This month, the development of the Socialist Party of Australia, later the World Socialist Party (Australia)

The first self-proclaimed Socialist Party of Australia was formed, in Melbourne, in 1906. Most of its founder-members were active trade unionists. The first editor of its weekly journal, The Socialist, was Tom Mann, who had previously been a member of the British Social Democratic Federation and, later, the Independent Labour Party, before moving to New Zealand and then Australia. By the autumn of that year, it claimed a membership of 1500, of whom almost all resided in the Melbourne area.
    In the August 1906, issue of “The Socialist”, Mann outlined the party’s object and policy under the title “The Socialist Party and Political Action”. The statement was both clear and, at times, vague. It claimed that socialists believed in the necessity of working for the speedy realisation of a “socialist regime”, yet did not define what it meant by a “socialist regime”. The Socialist Party stated that its object was to “secure economic freedom for the whole community”, and that “all women and men shall have equal opportunities of sharing in wealth production and consumption, untrammelled by any restriction it is possible for a state to remove”. The Socialist Party argued that it could not support opponents of socialism, and that within the ranks of labour it was no secret that there were “some who had no knowledge of socialist principles”.
    The Party consistently advocated the “class war”, internationalism, because “the capitalist class dominates in all countries”, the “abolition of class society” and the “modern class state”. Moreover, the Socialist Party of Australia did not officially advocate palliatives or reforms, yet it critically supported Labor Party candidates at elections, if it considered them to be “class conscious”. In the words of Mann, “it becomes our duty to work for them, and do our honest best to secure their return”. Furthermore the Party, like most other parties claiming to be socialist at that time, considered religion to be “a purely private matter”.
    The first Socialist Party of Australia’s main form of propaganda, besides its weekly paper The Socialist, was outdoor, street-corner meetings, and this is where they soon came up against the power of the state. Time after time the police closed down party meetings and arrested its speakers, both male and female, and time after time they were fined or – in many instances – refused to pay the fines and were jailed. Nevertheless the Socialist Party speakers continued to defy the law, and ultimately they won their free-speech battles. And, later, others addressed meetings, which largely became routine, in Sydney on the Domain, the city’s “Speakers’ Corner”. In 1910, Tom Mann left Australia. The party did not go from strength to strength, however, particularly after the beginning of the World War in 1914. It had always been ambivalent towards the Labor Party despite its so-called anti-reformism, and inevitably many of its members joined it, some becoming well-known in that organisation. By 1920, Australia’s first “socialist” party had faded away. The Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist Party did not help either.
    On January 22 1924, however a new and very different Socialist Party of Australia was formed. It is the story of a quite remarkable group of people. They included William “Bill” Casey, William “Bill” Clarke, Jacob Johnson, Barney Kelley, Marie Stanley, Stan Willis and, from Sweden, Charles Sundberg. Casey had been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, for whom he had composed songs which were sung worldwide. He was a seaman who, before emigrating to Australia, had been a member of the SPGB. He was also an active member of the Australian Seamen’s Union, as was Barney Kelley, also a former member of the SPGB. Jack Temple was a former member of the Socialist Party of Canada. Jacob Johnson was secretary of the Sydney branch of the Seamen’s Union, and a sympathiser of the SPGB. Bill Clarke, also a seaman, was Federal Secretary of the Australian Seamen’s Union, and editor of its official journal. At its foundation in 1924, the Socialist Party of Australia, unlike the previous SPA, immediately adopted the Object and Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and became a companion party of the SPGB.
    Also unlike the previous Socialist Party, the new SPA was opposed to all other parties, including the Labor Party:

“The Australian Labor Party, appealing to the workers and to small shopkeepers, is a reformist organisation. In spite of using socialist phrases from time to time, to allay the impatience of the more militant sections of the Trade Unions, it makes its electoral appeal on the basis of the present system, and administers that system when it gets into power.”

And of the Communist Party, the SPA claimed that:

“It is a party of reform, seizing upon every possible grievance of the workers to get members. Its programme is a hotch-potch of immediate demands dressed in militant phrases. Its final aim is the establishment of state capitalism in Australia, similar to that existing in Russia.”

Furthermore, the Socialist Party of Australia, again unlike its predecessor, had a clear-cut policy on religion; it opposed it.
    The SPA emphasised that socialism must be international and classless; that it cannot be imposed by a small minority on an unwilling population, and that it would entail the abolition of exploitation, the wages system and buying and selling. Moreover, claimed the Socialist Party of Australia, “You can’t have socialism without socialists.”
    As with the previous Socialist Party, the SPA was, prior to the Second World War, particularly active in the Melbourne area. Writing in the World Socialist (No. 6, Winter 1986-7), Bill Clarke recalled:

“Over the years, the Melbourne Branch of the Socialist Party of Australia had been conducting open-air meetings on street corners in Elsternwick, Port Melbourne, South Melbourne, Albert Park (we just about founded the Red Square there), Brunswick, Newport and Williamstown. On Sundays, we held meetings on the Yarra Bank, lectures in the city on Sunday evenings, classes on economics, industrial history and other kindred subjects, all based on teaching workers Marxist history and philosophy.”

The Sydney branch also held outdoor meetings, including on the Domain. In 1934 the Socialist Party of Australia decided to test the Parliamentary waters. It stood Bill Clarke as the Party’s candidate, in a by-election for Port Melbourne. He was opposed by the Labor Party and the United Australian (later Liberal) Party. The outcome was Labor, 27,081 votes; the United Australian Party, 12,173; and Clarke for the SPA, 3,872 votes. This was considered to be a magnificent achievement for the Socialist Party, although it must be admitted that many of the votes must have been for Bill Clarke personally, and not for socialism. Had the SPA chosen a lesser-known member, the result would surely have been different.
    Throughout the 1920s and 1950s the Socialist Party of Australia debated with representatives of the Labor Party, most of the leaders of the Communist Party and many other political organisations. During the latter part of the 1930s and during the Second World War relations between the SPA and the Communist Party were particularly bitter. The SPA, like its companion Parties elsewhere, opposed the war. The Party was not banned, but it found it increasingly difficult to get its message to the Australian workers who, in the main, supported the war. The Socialist Party was – due partly to paper restrictions – unable to publish its official journal, Socialist Comment, until May 1943, although a highly controversial, high-profile and presumably affluent individual, Jim Dawson, joined the Party and published a considerable amount of socialist material through his Workers’ Literature Bureau. By the end of the war however he fell out with the Socialist Party. Shortly after, the SPA published an important and influential pamphlet detailing the Party’s case entitled Socialism or Chaos.
    The SPA enjoyed something of a resurgence in the 1980s when it revived publishing Socialist Comment. However, in 1962 the Communist Party of Australia had split into two factions over the Sino-Soviet split, one (the pro-Moscow wing) taking the name “Socialist Party of Australia”. The Australian Party therefore decided to change its name to “World Socialist Party of Australia”. The situation is further confused by the fact that, with the demise of the pro-Moscow “Communists”, the name “Socialist Party of Australia” was picked up by a Trotskyist group. So anyone seeing a pamphlet published by the Socialist Party of Australia should be careful to check what they might be buying, since over the last hundred years at least four different parties, with quite different policies, have used this name.
    At the moment there are only individual socialists active in different parts of Australia.


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