The Russian revolution was inspiring to class-conscious workers in Australia, as evidenced by the demand for literature on Russia, and the fact of a celebration being held in 1918, on the date of the first anniversary. With disillusionment in the Labor Party and the smashing by the authorities of the IWW, it was inevitable that before long a Communist Party would appear. Maruschak in the VSP in 1919 and 1920 had tried to change the VSP into a Communist Party and actually gained a majority vote at one meeting, but that decision was reversed at a subsequent meeting. Carl Baker supported these moves.
In Sydney, on October 30th, 1920, a conference of interested groups and individuals was convened by the ASP for the purpose of founding a Communist Party. The Party was formed and a provisional executive of twelve members elected (including three ASP members). Carl Baker and Guido Baracchi attended from Melbourne. However, the ASP at a special meeting of its Central Executive held on the 14th December, 1920, unanimously decided to withdraw from the "united" party. It formed a Communist Party of its own: thus there were two Communist Parties, unity being achieved in the middle of 1922.
On the withdrawal of the ASP, the remaining group (mainly OBU supporters) ratified the October decision to form a Communist Party and elected W. P. Earsman as first general secretary.
Whilst October 30th is generally accepted as the founding date, a statement issued by the party of which Earsman was secretary declares:
. . . We would further say that we represent the original C.P. of A., which was in existence as an organisation before the conference of October 30th called by the ASP. The proof of this is that the ASP adopted, with a few minor alterations, our manifesto and programme, which was later accepted unanimously by the Provisional Executive of the CP, which the ASP now endeavours to disrupt.
This statement was issued by the Provisional Executive of the Communist Party under the signatures: W. P. Earsman (secretary), Tom Glynn, C. Hook, A. Thomas, J. S. Garden, Miss C. J. Smith, Tom Walsh, Mrs. Adela Pankhurst Walsh, S. Zanders (Trustee), R. Webster (Trustee) and C. Baker [notation that he couldn't sign as in Melbourne].
Under date 29th September 1920, Laidler wrote to Scott, "A Communist Party has been launched in Sydney, apparently by Earsman and probably Peter Simonoff has a hand."
As for Melbourne, a Collingwood Group of the VSP had been organised in May 1919 and its secretary was Charles France. Socialist of November 5th 1920 reported that the Collingwood Group had announced its intention to form itself into a Communist Group.
The above referred to, Sydney statement (undated) indicates that Melbourne branch had been formed before December 24th.
. . . We have already formed a branch in Melbourne, one in Balmain, two in course of formation in W.A. and one to be formed in Sydney on Monday night at the Trades Hall, to which all communists are invited. Meetings will be held in the Domain on Sunday afternoon, and the evenings in a Hall to be advertised by hand-bills.
The official organ of the Party, the "Australian Communist", will appear on Friday, 24th December, and will be published weekly thereafter . . .
The first Melbourne meeting was held in the Theatrical Employees' Union Rooms in Lonsdale Street—delegates were invited from the existing workers' organisations. There was a fair attendance, but not all joined. Amongst those who did join were Frank and Max Stephanski, May Francis, Charles France, J. Maruschak, Nellie Rickie, Carl Baker, G. Baracchi and Percy Laidler. This inaugural meeting was chaired by Laidler. Carl Baker acted as branch secretary. [See note, "The first Victorian branch secretary" -AW] Thirty-nine membership application forms were forwarded to W. P. Earsman in Sydney.
The first Victorian branch secretary
There does not appear to be a record of Baker being elected as secretary at the inaugural meeting, but he was the representative with Baracchi in Sydney at the October 30th meeting and he was signing correspondence as Branch secretary early 1921. France himself (in later years) claimed to be first secretary but he may have been referring to the fact that he was secretary of the Communist Group derived from the VSP. On the other hand France may have been elected, relinquishing the position to Baker after a short time.
[footnote from original edition of Solidarity Forever!]
A hall was acquired at 224 Swanston Street, City. This hall seated about 250 people and the rent was £3.10.0 per week. There was an office and domestic quarters where Baker and his family lived.
Meetings were held on Friday nights, lectures on Sunday evenings and mid-week. A class was organised on Saturday evenings. 250 copies of the weekly paper were ordered from Sydney. The original order was 500 copies but transport restrictions prevented effective handling of this number. Leaflets were issued. Speakers were invited to Geelong. A delegate was sent to a Peace Conference.
Charles France was elected Secretary when Baker was transferred to Sydney.
In October 1921 the branch reported raising funds for famine relief and that D. Rosen had been elected secretary, because France had resigned the position. However, the branch soon ceased to function.
Baker had gone to Sydney as acting General Secretary, replacing Earsman when he went to the USSR. Baker was remembered in Melbourne by a parson who had asked him, "What would you do with me after the revolution?" Baker replied, "Sentence you to 6 months in a Public Library."
The reason for demise was partly due to poor relations with Sydney.
Apparently Jock Garden and his friends were inclined to treat Melbourne with contempt. On the 23rd February, 1921, Baker had written to the Secretary of the Party in Sydney as follows:—
I have been instructed by this Branch to ask the Central Executive to explain why Comrades Garden and Walsh, while in Melbourne, did not communicate with this branch in any way. Comrade Laidler informed Garden that the Secretary wished to see him but he ignored the request.
Further, I am asked to point out that the fact that Comrade Garden lectured on Sunday last for Scott-Bennett when it would have been possible for this Branch to have arranged a lecture for him, and as Comrade Garden is known to all as being a member of the Central Executive, this was used against the party here by its critics with some effect.
In face of the above this Branch thinks that some explanation should be given.
Signed, C. W. Baker, Secretary, Melb. Branch, C.P. of A.
Joe Shelley, a German who had been interned during the 1914-18 war in Western Australia, was the prime mover in reestablishing a branch of the Communist Party in Melbourne.
The following list of foundation members is not guaranteed as a full list, but there were not a great number.
Joe Shelley, S. (Bluey) Jeffries, Jim Morley, Bob Brodney, Mrs. Nicholson, Mrs. Peach, Mrs. O'Reilly, Mrs. Jeschke, May Francis, Mrs. Blackler and Mrs. Young (early in the century she was stoned in Collins Street for daring to wear harem pants). Possibly there were one or two from the country.
This group shows the majority were women, and these, with the exception of May Francis, were in the middle-age group, divorced from industry and mass organisations. Most had participated in the anti-conscription campaigns and some had been members of the VSP, but not in any leading capacity. May Francis alone, of the women, had been active in the trade union movement and had led political groups. With the exception of possibly one, the men were not born in Australia.
Looking at this group, Laidler, contrasting it with the mass contact and influence of the members of the LPG, must have really felt what he gave as a reason for not joining—"the time is not ripe in Victoria." Baracchi in Sydney in 1925 resigned for a similar reason and was declared a "liquidationist".
Isolated as it was, the Party fought tenaciously and survived many mistakes and other disasters. It met firstly at 122 Bourke Street and then took premises at 217 Russell Street, consisting of two floors above a barber shop, and here Shelley, the President lived on the top floor. At this period Tom Wright was General Secretary, and he addressed all correspondence to Bob Brodney, the first secretary. S. Jeffries at 23 Gipps Street, East Melbourne, was listed as Group Secretary, in the Workers' Weekly in June, 1925.
Classes, lectures, meetings and socials were held on the premises. Meetings were conducted at the Yarra Bank and at street corners. Sale of the Workers' Weekly, organ of the Party, published in Sydney, was an important activity. Dances were held and social functions commemorating the Paris Commune and 7th of November were big events. In July, the CP participated in combined meetings on the Yarra Bank and in the Socialist Hall. Speakers were Don Cameron, Secretary of the VSP; H. Wilkinson, Treasurer of the IWW and Joe Shelley, President of the CP. The issue was to demand the release of American class war prisoners and "give the real reason the American Fleet is coming here."
By 1925 some mass work was carried out in organising the unemployed, and in Morley becoming secretary of the British Seamen's Strike Committee and Shelley being a member of that Strike Committee. A Militant Women's Group was set up, of women who did not wish to join the CP. Mrs. Sally Barker and Mrs. Hilda Wilson led this group. A children's group known as the Young Comrades Club was formed. Shelley acted as a full time worker and there was very little money to pay him sustenance. A very fine ALP member, J. M. Alexander (father of Dorothy—Mrs. Ralph Gibson) bought Shelley a taxi-cab with which, theoretically, he could earn a living and would not be compelled to be at work when important political matters were afoot. It seemed an ideal arrangement—Joe painted it red and hung red curtains in the windows. Alas, whenever the cab was seen it was full of members and supporters, papers and pamphlets, platforms and etc. etc. going to meetings, the Bank and various other places. The CP had a piano which would be dragged out and taken to the Bank every Sunday and used to accompany revolutionary singing. Some other early members were C. Monson, G. Bodsworth, T. McDaid, Tom and Dorry Le Huray, Charlie Campbell, Charlie Wilson, Tom Hemming, Tom Barnaby and Alan McEvoy.
Laidler had dissolved the LPG to assist the CP, and its members leaned heavily on him for advice, assistance and introductions. In every way he was their connecting link with the mass movements of workers and other political parties—it was hard slogging, because of chronic sectarianism, rabid conceit and lack of sense of humor. It was not many years before the Central Executive in Sydney felt that Shelley should leave Melbourne but there is no doubt that he has the credit of establishing the organisation despite his dogmatic bullheadedness.
Joe Shelley was one of the most courageous of men and served time on several occasions. Once he was charged and convicted of "inciting to murder". When questioned regarding his attitude to violence, he said—"I hold that force, violence and energy are the essence of progress and as such are necessary. I do not believe in individual violence, but in the organisation of workers into defence corps and volunteer armies."
People often came to Laidler and asked him whether he thought they should join the CP (rather strange when he wasn't a member himself). He would judge each case on its merits and sometimes, if he felt they really didn't want to join and would not last long, he would say, "You've got doubts now, so it doesn't seem much use joining." Others, he felt, wanted to join but needed reassurance. In these cases he would tell them to join. On platforms he would frequently end with a call to the members of the audience to join the CP, if this suited them; the ALP if that suited them better, or the FOSU, UWM (he would name whatever were the current organisations)—"but, join some organisation" would be the final appeal.
Lenin's death on January 21st, 1924, was marked by the carrying of resolutions at both Melbourne and Sydney Trades' Councils. In Melbourne the following resolution was carried by delegates standing:
That this Council places on record its regret at the reported death of N. Lenin, President of the Russian Soviet Republic and expresses its appreciation of his great work and self-sacrifice on behalf of the people of Russia in obtaining for them their emancipation from Czardom and oppression and winning for them the right of working out their own destinies in accordance with their own desires.
The Red flag was flown at half-mast on the Trades Hall. In Sydney the Labour Council delegates rose and sang the "Red Flag" after carrying a resolution:
That this council mourns with the working class of Russia, the loss of the working class leader, Nicholai Lenin. We appreciated at all times his value to the working class movement. We know of his strenuous fight against the entire forces of capitalism throughout the world. Notwithstanding the opprobrium and calumny launched against him throughout the world since 1917, he vigorously maintained a working class State, which in itself is a beacon light to the workers of the world.
On February 3rd, a combined memorial meeting was held on the Domain.
In Melbourne, Russians and Australians attended a service at the Unitarian Church and a meeting was held in one of the side rooms of the church.
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