History of the Communist Party

EASTER, 1921. Eighteen delegates from Marxist study circles around the country meeting in Wellington, voted to form the Communist Party of New Zealand and affiliate to the Communist International.

From foundation until the late 1930s the CPNZ mounted a long and difficult struggle to establish a centralized revolutionary party and link it with the struggles of the working class, hampered by sectarian thinking on the one hand and by trade union opportunism and state repression on the other.

Jim Dyer, a Millerton miner, was elected the party’s first secretary and branches established in Blackburn and Millerton on the West Coast, Christchurch, Wellington, Napier and Auckland. A manifesto was issued, based on the 1903 Bolshevik programme.

The Russian Revolution, and the hostility towards it from the capitalist press, was a central catalyst for the creation of the CPNZ, reflecting the widespread sympathy for the revolution among NZ workers.

Labour Party Leader, Robert Semple, said at the time, "If I were in Ireland, I would be a Sinn Feiner; if I were in Germany, I would be a Sparticist; if I were in Russia, I would be a Bolshevik".

Despite the prestige of the Bolshevik party and the line of the Communist International that communists should forge deep connections with the immediate needs and struggles of the workers, the groups on the West Coast and Auckland took off on ultra-left and semi-anarchist lines demanding immediate revolution. In response to the establishment difficulties the 1924 conference decided to temporarily become a section of the Communist Party of Australia.

Small though the party was in size and influence, the capitalist class tried to stamp it out from the start. A number of communists were arrested and jailed in the 1920s under the War Regulations Continuance Act, which prohibited printing or import of "seditious" documents. In 1924 the Labour Party expelled six Communist Party members and in 1925 resolved that the CP would not be allowed to affiliate.

Left Opportunism

In April 1926 the CP launched a monthly newspaper, Worker’s Vanguard, which quickly expanded its circulation to 2000 copies per issue, especially among the militant West Coast miners. Party membership rose to 120.

However left opportunist thinking, accompanying the election of Dick Griffen as Secretary in 1929, repeatedly led the party into the political wilderness. In 1929 most of the party members in the mines left, after the Central Committee ordered them to try to push for an export ban on coal in solidarity with striking miners in Australia. This was far beyond the level of understanding of rank and file miners union members. In 1931 the Central Committee opposed the Seamen’s Union placing a ban on a low-wage Japanese ship and instead unrealistically called for a general strike on the waterfront to achieve equal rates, which turned the seamen’s leader into a bitter enemy of the party.

An assesment from the Communist International in 1933 summed up the party’s shortcomings:

"Up to the present, the practice of the Party shows that the Party chiefly limits its activity to a small circle of Communists and, standing apart from the struggle of the workers, criticises the reformists from afar."

The Comunist International also criticised the lack of collective leadership by the Central Committee over the day-to-day work of the party. "The weak development of Party sentiment, the absence of Bolshevik disciplice, is to no small degree responsible for the present situation in the Party".

Mass Base

While the party failed to maintain a foothold in the basic industries, the rapid growth in unemployment in the early 1930s gave the party a renewed chance to exercise effective mass leadership. Unemployment swelled from 8,703 to 47,096 in the course of 1931. The CP, through the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, organised relief workers’ strikes, marches, demonstrations and deputations, and made contact with a new generation of militant working class leaders.

Weak though the communists were, the capitalists saw them as a major threat to their programme of wage cuts and labour camps for the unemployed. So fierce were the attacks on the party that there were few months when one of its leaders was not in jail. In 1933 the whole Central Committee was jailed for six months.

Yet despite the state repression, the party grew strongly. The monthly Red Worker, became the Workers’ Weekly in 1933; sales rose to 7,000 and party membership to 350 by 1935. A second monthly paper, Working Woman, was launched, while a party-initiated Congress against War and Fascism in February 1935 was attended by 48 organisations with a membership of over 20,000.

Ironically, however, the party’s success renewed the left-opportunist tendencies among the leadership. The party contested the 1935 General Election with the slogan "neither reaction nor Labour", urging workers to cast invalid ballots labelled "Communist" where no party candidates were standing. The communists were swept aside by the landslide for what most workers saw as a real socialist party; electoral support collapsed from a 1931 high in Auckland Central of 6.2% to 1.9%, paper sales halved and a third of the party’s membership quit.

United Front Against Fascism and War

Shocked at the realisation that it had greatly isolated itself from the masses of workers, the CP reversed its policy for a united front against fascism, which had been put forward by the 1935 conference of the Communist International, and recognised "that under present conditions the Labour Government represents a blow against the forces of reaction". The support however was "unconditional". In the 1938 General Election the CP did not even stand candidates against Labour.

Outside the electoral arena the Party threw itself into extensive mass work against fascism. In 1936 they organised material aid for the Spanish Republic against the fascists in 1936 and sent members, like Alex McClure and Tom Spiller, to join the International Brigades. In 1937 the party organised a boycott of Japanese goods following Japan’s invasion of China.

By 1938 party membership had been rebuilt to 1935 levels. The party had finally broken through its isolation from industrial workers, with branches in the railways and on the wharves in several centres.

In September 1939, the CP came out in support of the Communist International’s line that the war between the British-French alliance and Germany was an imperialist war that had to be opposed.

This was not a popular analysis in the climate of the time, but support continued to grow. In May 1940 the party’s weekly, now called the People’s Voice, with a circulation of 10,000, was declared illegal and the party press confiscated. New papers sprung up in the main centres immediately. Party members were harassed and imprisoned, but the organisation remained intact.

In 1941 when the Nazi’s invade the Soviet Union, the character of the war changed to an all-out struggle between fascism and democracy and the party mobilised behind the war effort. In Print, edited by the poet Ron Mason, emerged as the unofficial paper, with circulation climing to 14,000, while party membership rocketed to 2,000 by the end of the war. In 1946 communist candidates gained 21% of the votes in the Wellington City Council elections. In Auckland there were large numbers of CP members on union executives and many of the main trade unions had CP members as presidents or secretaries, and there were party branches on Victoria and Otago university campuses.

Cold War and Revisionism

The success of the party during the war had been from its work in building progressive united front organisations and the trade unions, rather than carrying out independent political work. This right opportunism, the flipside of the earlier left adventurism, left it ill-prepared for the onslaught of the Cold War.

In particular party leaders were influenced by the CPUSA, whose leader Browder, had argued that the 1943 agreement between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had ushered in an epoch of long-term collaboration between capitalism and socialism and that class conflict should therefore be minimised. This led the NZ party to underestimate the reactionary role of the Labour Party.

The party’s trade union work was also limited to taking positions, rather than building party organisation on the job and mobilising workers in class struggle. Communists were often elected to positions because they were good unionists, rather than representatives of the party. This made the party’s influence vulnerable to electoral disputes in the trade unions.

The US anti-communist propaganda campaign to halt the advance of socialism in Europe and Asia, was taken up with gusto by Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser. At the 1947 Federation of Labour Conference, he warned against revolutionary threats which, aided by foreign forces, sought to ruin NZ and plunge the country into poverty and misery. Fraser was strongly supported by the former-communists who made up the leadership of the FOL

In 1948 the right in the trade union movement made a clean sweep of all major positions in the Auckland Trades Council and in 1949 the Labour government prepared an assault on the Auckland Carpenters’ Union, the centre of the CP’s influence outside the maritime unions. After a long and bitter struggle the union was deregistered and broken, and a scab union set up by the government in its place.

In 1951 the capitalists turned to the waterfront unions, and with fascist-like regulations starved and batoned the wharfies into submission. The CP had warned of the impending assault a year before, but failed to appreciate the urgency of the situation, and once the dispute started, despite tremendous and heroic work, the party consistently tailed behind the isolationist leaders of the waterside workers union. Despite the unparalleled opportunity for political work, the party gave up its independent communist agitation and propaganda, submerging itself into trade union work connected with the strike.

Perhaps the clearest lesson of 1951 was that the state is a weapon used by the capitalist class to dominate the working class. Yet little over a year later the Central Committee drafted a new programme which called for a peaceful transition to socialism. Despite its title, the path in New Zealand’s Road to Socialism had actually been penned in Britain the year before.

"Parliament will be transformed into a genuine instrument of the people," claimed New Zealand’s Road.

Party members were dedicated fighters for the working class throughout the 1950s and 60s, involved in many local campaigns to improve workers daily lives as well as the long and difficult struggle to unify the trade unions. The party’s unceasing opposition to imperialist aggression paved the way for the mass movements that arose in the 1960s and 1970s.


The revisionist right opportunism of the 1950s had led to bureaucratic organisational methods within the party, particularly an over-centralized leadership. The leadership tailed overseas programmes rather than making any effort to develop a genuine analysis of New Zealand conditions. This was most evident in the failure to recognise the colonial dispossession of Maori.

By 1963 party membership had declined to 400, and the over-concentration of power in the leadership encouraged factionalism. The party leadership split between left and right opportunism in 1966, in the wake of the Sino-Soviet dispute, with the revisionists leaving to form the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party. Left-opportunism was left to run riot in the Communist Party.

Following the massacre of communists in Indonesia in 1965, the Party decided to create a secret parallel organisation within the party. Inner-party democracy was suspended. There were no conferences and no elections. House meetings were banned, so it became difficult to recruit. But when the parallel was eventually abandoned, there was no return to democratic methods in the party.

With an increasingly isolated leadership, party positions became increasingly eratic. In the late 1960s, in place of political work in the working class, the leadership extolled anything "youth" engaged in, from anti-war demonstrations to trivial issues, like the "liberation of Albert Park". Trade union officials and trade union work was denounced as "bureaucratic." In 1969 the party effectively denounced the whole Seaman’s Union, perhaps New Zealand’s most class-conscious, as sell-outs. In the early 1970s the Peoples Voice featured ultra-left headlines like "We ARE in revolutionary times HERE" and "WHY BEG FOR WAGE INCREASES? Workers have the strength to seize what they want".

The party oscillated back and forth between theories of national-democratic and socialist revolution, without any genuine analysis of New Zealand capitalism. Each time a section of the party left or was expelled following a change in line, the new leaders proclaimed with an optimism rooted in religious fervour rather than science that the party had grown stronger.

Party Reconstituted

The death-throws of the opportunist leadership came in 1993, when the Central Committee announced (what many had charged them with for years) that it was abandoning Marxism-Leninism for Trotskyism and intended to merge the party with the Socialist Workers Organisation. Many veterans and supporters inside and outside the party were outraged by this decision, which amounted to an internal coup and a final degradation of a heroic tradition, and so decided to reconstitute the communist party on a firm ideological basis.

Learning from the experiences of other parties in dealing with the collapse of revisionism, the Communist Party of Aotearoa was reconstituted on the basis of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, drawing its cadre from the most militant sections of the disintegrated old party. Already, the party is laying down deep roots among the masses where this has never been done adequately before.

The CPA is determined to draw the best from its militant past and, learning well from its mistakes, to confront the task of leading the working class to socialism with a seriousness and determination that has hitherto been sadly lacking.