This is an edited extract from a chapter in Evan Smith, Matthew Worley and Jon Piccini’s collection ‘The Far Left in Australia since 1945’ (Routledge, 2018)
By the end of World War Two, the Australian far left was in a buoyant mood. The Soviet Union was held in high esteem, European colonies around the world were declaring independence, and with some 23,000 members in 1944 and an ability to exert control over at least 40% of Australia’s unions, the previously marginal CPA had become a force to be reckoned with.[i] At the height of this momentary euphoria, the Party’s Assistant Secretary Richard ‘Dick’ Dixon wrote a short pamphlet entitled Immigration and the White Australia Policy, which captured the Party’s partial awakening to the issues of race and migration—openly attacking the White Australia policy for the first time. Yet, Dixon’s pamphlet straddled a difficult course – challenging the labour movement’s long history of opposing coloured immigration, while arguing to retain the wages and conditions that ‘white Australia’ maintained.
The pamphlet proposed a new position on migration for the Australian labour movement: one based on the recognition of Asia as a vital location for Australian diplomacy – as well as proud people struggling for independence – all while advocating a very low, non-discriminatory, level of immigration to Australia. The pamphlet sought to achieve this first by underplaying the level of racism present in the historic Australian labour movement, arguing that “The extent to which the working class movement has embraced ‘White Australia’ is nothing more than an indication of the degree of employer class influence in the labor [sic] movement.”[ii] Such apologism should not be surprising, as in line with the language of the Popular Front period, officially promulgated in 1934 by the Comintern, which saw the CPA reimagine itself as the inheritor of all of Australia’s radical tradition and mellowed its language towards the ALP. Dixon remarked of the 1938 sequicentenary anniversary of Australian nationhood that “We are the real Australians…the inheritors of everything that is good and decent in the history of Australia”. [iii] An article popularising the Party’s new stance, appearing in its national organ Tribune, sought to recast Australian history as one with immigration at its centre, with mention made of the Polish explorer Strzlecki and the multicultural Eureka Stockade, while the role of Asian workers in Australia in the struggle against Japan was highlighted.[iv]
In keeping with this new fondness for inclusive nationalism, Dixon also cast White Australia as an imperialist policy “of building Australia as a “British race” so that this country might stand as ‘trustees’ for British, as well as Australian, interests in the Pacific”. In this way, it stood as “Australia’s ‘Monroe Doctrine’ — its object the preservation of the British Australian nationality”. The White Australia policy was then constructed, not as a pact between labour and capital to each protect their respective gains, but as a conspiracy of bourgeois ideology and imperialist interest, with the CPA standing as defender of the working class and inheritor of Australian egalitarianism. White Australia, in Dixon’s approximation, was not a progressive leitmotif, but “an outrageous insult to our great allies in the people’s war against fascism — China, India and Indonesia — because it proclaims ‘white’ superiority” – and as such constituted a stymie to better regional relations.[v] Australian communists were furthering their connections with foreign parties in the 1930s and 1940s, and many members had Asian postings during the war. The Army newspaper, Salt, was a conduit for the opinions of many CPA members in the army, who having met with independence forces in Malaysia, India and elsewhere, felt that “In the interest of justice we owe [them] every assistance in their struggle”, as one recruit put it, concluding that “No lasting peace can be established so long as one subject people remains in the world”.[vi] Another writer condemned the White Australia policy as a “closed door policy to particular races that fans the embers of war [and] fosters mistrust and widens the gap between countries”.[vii]
Such solidarity with Asian peoples, and opposition to discriminatory immigration policies, did not however mean that the party opposed the use of the Immigration Act to limit migration. If anything, quite the opposite was true, as the party was a vocal opponent of the federal government’s rhetoric of ‘populate or perish’. The party’s 1945 constitution makes no mention of its opposition to White Australia, instead only articulating a desire for “an immigration policy adjusted to industrial conditions so that the living standard established by the long struggle of the labor movement will not be undermined”. The wording of this was even harsher than that adopted at the 1938 congress, which spoke of Australia’s need to “bear…a share in giving asylum to the refugees from fascist brutality”, posing questions as to just how much of a shift had taken place.[viii] Dixon went to some effort in the pamphlet to argue that the ‘White Australia’ policy was not an economic policy designed to protect living standards – as the mainstream argument went – but a racist policy detrimental to Australia’s interests. Rather than a racial system premised on British superiority, Dixon stated, “the number of immigrants each year should be determined by the economic situation in Australia”. What this meant concretely was elucidated at the 1948 Party Conference, which supported “a quota system of immigration, based on the country’s capacity to absorb new migrants, a system that would not discriminate against potential migrants on grounds of colour, race or creed.” [ix] As such, the Party was able to express a somewhat contradictory position of solidarity with Asian peoples, while enforcing a policy that would ensure Australia was not “overrun by Asiatics”, as it was put.
[i] While the Communist Party of Australia changed its name to ‘Australian Communist Party’ in 1942 in response to a government ban, herein the party is referred to by the acronym, ‘CPA’.
[ii] R. Dixon, Immigration and the ‘White Australia Policy’ (Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1945), available at https://www.marxists.org/history/australia/comintern/sections/australia/1945/white-australia.htm
[iii] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia From Origins to Illegality (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1998), 317.
[iv] Tribune, 14 July 1945, 7.
[v] Dixon, Immigration.
[vi] B. Harwood, letter published in Salt, Vol. 10, 7 (4 June 1945), p.54. Quoted in Lachlan Grant, “The Second AIF and the End of Empires: Soldiers’ Attitudes Toward a ‘Free Asia’”, Australian Journal of Politics & History 57, No. 4(December 2011): 489.
[vii] M.D. McGrath, letter published in Salt, Vol. 9, 7 (4 December 1944), pp.45-6. Quoted in Grant, “The Second AIF”, 485.
[viii] On 1945, see “Constitution of the Australian Communist Party, adopted by the 14th National Congress of the Australian Communist Party, held in Sydney August 10th, 11th, 12th, 1945”, available at: http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/155033; on 1938 see “THE WAY FORWARD ORGANISE A PEOPLE’S FRONT FOR A FREE AND HAPPY AUSTRALIA: Decisions of the 12th National Congress, Communist Party of Australia, 1938” available at http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/155134.