Marxism and New Histories of Human Rights: The Australian Experience — Jon Piccini

In this post I explore the idea of human rights as it was engaged by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) during the post-war period. The “new human rights” scholarship has sought to trouble easy assumptions about the idea’s genesis and impact: while now almost a catch-all for anything progressive, human rights were only a few decades ago one of many competing activist horizons, not the least of which was Marxism. The CPA moved from a rejection of rights under capitalism as a bourgeois distraction in the 1940s to an embrace of universality in the 1960s, criticizing their denial in the Soviet Union as well as the West while adopting a new party platform that promised to press forward with their realization in Australia. Paul O’Connell has recently written of how “situating discussions of human rights within a Marxist tradition that emphasizes contradiction, social struggle, and the need to transcend the system which structurally undermines human flourishing opens a way of understanding human rights that can support movements for radical social change”. [1] In this post I suggest that the CPA’s embrace of human rights discourse demonstrates practically the promises and pitfalls of such an approach. 

It might appear contradictory to talk about a history of Marxist human rights. One can easily reach to storied quotes from Marx and others to the effect that rights in bourgeois society are the rights to private property, “the rights of egoistic man, of man as a member of bourgeois society, that is to say an individual separated from his community and solely concerned with his self-interest”. [2] Rights did little but maintain an illusion of personal freedom, abetting and facilitating frameworks of systemic oppression. Validating such concerns, the “new historians” of human rights, especially Samuel Moyn, find human rights to be captives of the political right. While playing a not insignificant role in drafting its articles, the Soviet Union abstained from voting on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the term “almost immediately became associated with anti-communism”. [3] In the 1950s the term is said to have become a dead letter, assiduously held to only by conservative reactionaries in Europe. It is then said to have been rediscovered, almost accidentally, by a small group of Soviet dissidents in the late 1960s, a process that culminated in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the launch of Charter 77 and the global ascendence of human rights politics in the 1990s. 

Yet such an argument ignores the role that human rights have played in the global workers’ movement. For starters, one of the earliest articulators of what we would now call “human rights” was the trade union movement, which used them to challenge the primacy of property rights. No less a person than US President Woodrow Wilson was quoted in The Australian Worker in 1914 in the following terms: “Why am I interested in having the government more concerned about human rights than about property rights? Because property is an instrument of humanity; humanity is not an instrument of property.” [4] Equally, the discourse of rights was far from foreign to the Soviet state. The 1918 Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited Peoples was followed in 1936 by the so-called “Stalin Constitution”, dubbed a “Charter of Human Rights” by The Australian Worker. “Where else but in Russia are the toilers guaranteed the full right to work, to rest and to leisure, to every conceivable form of free social service, and an old age free from care?”, its editors asked. [5]

Within the Australian party itself, rights received a contradictory airing. Formed in 1920 the CPA was originally marked by its heterogeneity; forces as diverse as One Big Union supporters, left trade unionists, and anarchists called themselves members. By 1930 the Communist International (Comintern), of which the Australian party was a member, imposed what was termed “Bolshevization” on the party and forced it to adopt the forms and practices of Stalinist Marxism. [6] Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism became both organizing principle and disciplinary procedure, ensuring, to paraphrase Marx, that the ideas of the Moscow-centric leadership became the ruling ideas. [7] The Bolshevized Australian party adopted similar ideas, and the rigid, undemocratic mode of organizing that went along with them. At its 1948 conference the CPA reaffirmed the secondary importance, and reactionary intent, of rights language. The conservative side of politics upheld “human freedom” only to allow “a handful of parasitical millionaires to continue to exploit and plunder the Australian people”, and “the first condition of personal freedom for the great majority of the people is to smash monopoly-capitalist control”. [8]

While the party called for the defence of “democratic rights”, these were usually synonymous with collective trade union rights, and the defence of the individual against the predations of the state was rarely if at all mentioned. [9] Yet within two years communists had moved from cynicism towards individual rights to what appear at least to be their staunchest champions and articulators. The communist weekly Tribune published nearly a hundred articles concerned with human rights in 1949 alone, and organized commemorative events to mark “Human Rights Day” on 10 December in both 1949 and 1950. [10] This was reflected in the party’s trade unions. The Maritime Worker, published by the CPA-controlled Waterside Workers Federation, recorded that it had received “many requests” for a copy of the Universal Declaration, and as it was “impossible to get sufficient printed copies” had printed the “historical document” in its entirety. [11] The powerful Building Workers Industrial Union demanded that the Australian Council of Trade Unions support a referendum to “incorporate the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” into the nation’s constitution in 1951, early hints of the more emphatic calls for a bill of rights in later decades. [12]

Why such a shift? On the one hand, of course, human rights took on renewed meaning in this period, being “vernacularized” in a slew of different ways. What Mark Bradley calls the “conditions of possibility” for the term’s employment were much wider during the late 1940s than they were to be in later years. Indeed the declaration’s now largely forgotten focus on rising standards of living, social welfare, and employment seemed to speak to a progressive position. Equally, this was not a pure veneration of newfound principles. William McBride argued in the 1980s that the “language of rights [could be used] to point up inconsistencies of practice in the sense of violations of asserted rights which abound within our present socio-economic-legal system”. [13] This seemed to be the tack to which the Australian party adhered in the 1940s, using rights language to call to account the incompatibility between the great powers’ nominal commitment to universal values and their many failings to live up to it. One cartoon featured a ghostly, enchained indigenous man haunting Australia’s Attorney General Herbert V. Evatt, while another sardonically riffed on human rights’ role as an anti-Soviet tool, with the American vintage of rifles used to suppress Italian strikers meaning their killings fell outside of human rights’ remit. Attempts to ban the party in 1951 were also resisted in rights terms, particularly the right to membership of organizations. Yet as is clear in the graph presented here, human rights appeared only as supplementary to older discourses, particularly that of “democratic rights”–what the party conceptualized as the liberties Australians had won through political struggle from convictism onwards. 


It was especially in the struggle for Aboriginal rights, however, that the party began to conceptualize human rights as something more than liberal illusions in need of shattering. Since 1931 the party had been committed to freeing indigenous Australians from their position as “slaves of slaves” in colonial Australia. However, the 1960s saw a notable turn in such discourse. [14] On 31 July 1960, in the far northern Queensland town of Cairns, a Declaration of Rights of Queensland Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was unanimously adopted after several days of discussion. This was the foundation document of the Cairns Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League, which declared that “the world-wide movement of subject peoples for full human rights, is a major feature of the times we live in”, adding that “[t]he old colonial system is being swept aside”. [15] 1960 was the year of Africa, and the document welcomed how “[m]any of the formerly colonial peoples have already established independent, self-governing republics”, while in South Africa and the United States colonized peoples “are still pursuing the goal of full equality”. Such rhetorical flourishes–the grouping of Aboriginal Australians as a colonial “subject peoples”, and the conflation of “human rights” with national self-determination–owed much to the close involvement of many communist-controlled trade unions, in particular the Waterside Workers Federation, to which key activists like Joe McGuiness–nicknamed “Uncle Joe”–belonged. 

This was far from a blip in the party’s interests. Of all articles that referenced human rights in the Tribune during the 1960s, over one in four concerned indigenous Australians. Indigenous people appeared less as mute objects of violence than as actors demanding their own rights. Communists played a not insignificant role in organizing what was then called the “Wave Hill Walk Off” in 1966, better known as the Gurindji dispute, including flying one of the local leaders, Dexter Daniels, to the 1968 World Festival of Youth and Students. [16] In 1967 the party released an updated program on indigenous issues entitled “Full Human Rights for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders”, which demanded not only the repeal of legislation discriminating against indigenous Australians but a positive economic, social, and cultural programme. This reflected the way in which human rights had come to be identified with the self-determination of peoples during the 1960s. As the program put it, “[t]he Australian Aboriginal movement has become part of the world movement for national liberation”. This was reflected in what the party called for: “Aborigines and Islanders should have inalienable possession of their remaining tribal areas[,] … ownership of mineral and other natural wealth located on their lands, and economic aid to enable them to develop rapidly as modern communities”, while “[p]reservation and development of their own cultural heritage” should be facilitated. [17]

Within the party itself rights were also being read on a different octave. A leadership change in the mid 1960s saw a younger cohort take the reigns. People like Laurie Aarons and Bernie Taft sought not only to “de-Stalinize” the party, but to take advantage of the seeming openness of Khrushchev’s thaw to embark on a project of greater political openness. I have written elsewhere about how the shock of 1956 saw the Australian party double down on internal dissent, but less than a decade later the example of Italian “national communism” saw a powerful section of the party begin pushing for “an Australian road to socialism”. This was to be one tied up with the international idea of human rights, as well as a greater recognition of the party’s historical role in fostering democratic change locally. One party member noted that as communists “have been in the forefront of the struggles for democratic rights” in Australia, and as such freedoms were “an attribute of our society[,] … [w]e have to be able to demonstrate that we will extend such freedom”. [18] Another took this same line to castigate the party’s attitudes to internal dissent: “Democracy is strong in Australia’s heritage, and lack of it in our Party … has been the main reason for waning enthusiasm and drop in activity” among local branches, not to mention the party’s shrinking from some 20 000 in 1944 to only 7000 in 1967. [19]

In that same year, the twenty-first party congress adopted a “Charter of Democratic Rights”, the opening pages of which declared “the indivisibility of human rights” to be “more than an abstract principle”. “[A] new social system” was required “that will strengthen and expand democracy by elevating the rights of the individual and creat[e] institutions of government designed exclusively to serve the people and fully answerable to them”. [20] The excitement of 1968’s “Prague Spring” seemed to show “that ideas … advanced at our 21st Congress and developed in the draft Charter for Democratic Rights … are neither a dream nor a manoeuvre”. [21] However, the crushing of Dubček’s “socialism with a human face” by Soviet tanks demonstrated to reformers the limits of socialist democracy. The Australian party quickly condemned the Soviet invasion, putting itself in the crosshairs of the Soviet Union’s international bureau, which had already begun fermenting opposition to Aarons’ reforming leadership. 

In this situation, the party had useful recourse to the right to self-determination, using the invasion to fight internal battles. Queensland member Ted Bacon took to the party’s theoretical journal to argue that the right to self-determination–enshrined as the first article of both human rights covenants of 1966–applied equally to the socialist and capitalist worlds. The “basic faults in Soviet democracy cannot be excused merely by reference to the difficulties of the historical development of the USSR”, Bacon argued. In fact, “the defects of Soviet democracy are not just the internal affair of the Soviet Union. They are the affair of all communists, for they affect the whole present and future of the world socialist movement.” [22] Critics responded that such formulations “reek[ed] with right opportunism and revisionism”, noting that “[o]ld formulas of self-determination” were no longer relevant in a “period of ever greater integration” within the socialist bloc. [23] The idea of rights took on a new significance not abstractly, but because of the concrete conditions in which the party found itself.

There seems, then, to be two ways in which O’Connell’s statement, which I quoted above, is meaningful. On the one hand, rights are always contradictory–a “concrete contradiction” that exists in relations between people, whether that be the cognitive dissonance between a liberal government seeking to ban a political party or a nation claiming to be representative of the small and downtrodden internationally while repressing sections of its own people. On the other hand, these contradictions are mediated through social struggle: the term “human rights” changes in its meanings depending upon who is employing it and whether it is being employed in aid of or in opposition to power. In utilizing human rights as both a way of making socialism more meaningful to Australians and defending the party’s right to self-determination, the CPA demonstrated that human rights are something more than merely a bourgeois illusion.

[1] Paul O’Connell, “On the Human Rights Question”, 40 (2018) Human Rights Quarterly 962, at 988.

[2] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1843], in Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1977) 211, at 230; also available at

[3] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 71.

[4] “The New Freedom”, The Australian Worker, 19 February 1914, 6.

[5] W. F. Ahern, “Soviet Russia’s New Constitution”, The Australian Worker, 12 August 1936, 8. 

[6] Much literature exists exploring this early history, most importantly Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998). See also Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1969) and Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Cartlon: Red Rag Publications, 2009).

[7] The original quote is: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1970 [1846]), 64; also available at

[8] The Way Forward: Resolutions of the 15th Congress of the Australian Communist Party (Sydney: Communist Party of Australia, 1948), 9. 

[9] See, e.g., “Resolutions of the Queensland State Conference, Communist Party of Australia, 1955”, in Papers of Eva and Ted Bacon, UQFL241, Fryer Library, Box 4, Folder “CPA Queensland Branch State Conference”.

[10] Advanced search at for statistics. On Human Rights Day see Tribune, 14 December 1950, 5. On multiple uses of human rights see Tribune, 26 March 1949, 3; Tribune, 30 July 1949, 5.

[11] Maritime Worker, 25 November 1950, 1. 

[12] Tribune, 4 July 1951, 11.

[13] O’Connell, “On the Human Rights Question”, 972. 

[14] “Aboriginals: An Appreciation”, Workers Weekly, 18 September 1931, 2. 

[15] Declaration of Rights of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, First Conference of the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Advancement League, Cairns, North Queensland, 29–31 July 1960, Barry Christophers Papers, MS 7992, Box 28, NLA, p. 2.

[16] Jon Piccini, “‘People Treated Me with Equality’: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War”, 111 (2016) Labour History 1.

[17] “Full Human Rights for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders: A Program Adopted by the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of Australia, June 1967”, available at

[18] Yvonne Smith, “Program and Organizational Changes to Help Party Forward”, 3 (1967) Discussion Journal 9. 

[19] Betty Lockwood, “Price of Dogmatism and Democratic Discussion”, 4 (1967) Discussion Journal 66. 

[20] Charter of Democratic Rights (Sydney: Communist Party of Australia, 1967), 1. 

[21] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010), 222. 

[22] Ted Bacon, “On Self Determination”, 15 (1968) Australian Left Review 40.

[23] Analyst, “Revisionism”, 28; Jim Henderson, “The Principle of Self-Determination”, 16 (1968) Australian Left Review 20, at 22–23.

Jon Piccini is Fellow in History at the University of Queensland.