Undesirable: Captain Zuzenko and the workers of Australia and the world
Kevin Windle, Australian Scholarly Press
Alexander Zuzenko arrived in Brisbane in 1911, exiled after taking part in the 1905 Russian revolution. He was an anarchist and a sailor who became a member of the Russian Communist Party and was to play an important part in the early Australian Communist movement.
Academic, Kevin Windle, has written a book on Zuzenko’s time in Australia, using Communist International (Comintern) archives and family records.
Zuzenko helped lead protests that resulted in the “Red Flag riots” in Brisbane in 1919. These were a series of demonstrations where the Russian community, local unionists and socialists dared to defy the War Precautions Act and marched with red flags, a symbol of support for both the Russian Revolution and workers’ struggle.
The notorious riots began when returned soldiers attacked Brisbane’s Russian community in March 1919, in a frenzy of British Empire loyalism.
These “concerned citizens” in the Returned Soldiers and Citizens Political Federation and the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (the predecessor to the RSL) were egged on up by the local Brisbane newspapers.
The Sydney Morning Herald argued the veterans, “had done their duty to empire, and on returning, found a class of foreigners and disloyalists, who were trying to rule, and ruin, the country, so the soldiers found it necessary to step in and take a hand in upholding law and order.” Zuzenko was deported in 1919 for his role in the protests. But in 1922 he returned, illegally, as a Comintern agent.
While Windle is sympathetic to Zuzenko as an individual, he is hostile to his politics. He writes, “This is a story of courage of that misguided [communist] conviction.”
He dismisses Zuzenko’s hopes of spreading socialist revolution, noting that despite his efforts, “capitalism in Australia remained unshaken.”
But in 1919, spreading the revolution beyond Russia was a real possibility. Four European empires had collapsed and four monarchs had been deposed in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
British PM Lloyd George, wrote to Clemenceau, his French equivalent:
“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution… The whole existing order, in its political, social and economic aspects, is questioned by the mass of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”
The war strained the established world order to breaking point. Hungary briefly had a Communist government as did the German state of Bavaria. Italy went through two “red years” with widespread factory occupations. Germany remained on the brink of revolution for practically the whole period until 1923.
In Australia, the Great War split the Labor Party, radicalised the unions and saw two conscriptions referendums defeated.
Strike levels rose significantly, reaching 4.5 million days lost as a result of the near general strike in NSW in August 1917, when the working class was just a quarter the size of today’s.
The high point of struggle in the 1970s saw six million strike days. A figure proportionally as large as the immediate post-WW I years would have been 18 million strike days!
The enormous credibility of the Russian revolution was also a boost to anyone who wanted to end capitalism and war.
The Russian Communists created the Comintern in March 1919, declaring that “the epoch of final decisive struggle…has arrived”.
So when the Australian Socialist Party called a meeting in October 1920 and invited the various existing socialist sects and the IWW, expectations about building a Communist Party in Australia were high.
Creating a united party meant resolving the historic divide between those socialists who worked inside the Labor Party and those who adopted a sectarian attitude, refusing to work with the Labor Party on principle. While both methods had their problems, the first at least was a break with the model of a propaganda sect which abstained from involvement in real workers’ struggles.
Zuzenko was present at the Communist Party of Australia’s conference in July 1922. His mission was to unite the then two warring Communist Parties.
Zuzenko was deported shortly after the conference. Back in Russia, he tragically became a victim of Stalin’s purges in 1938. Windle offers two explanations for this degeneration of the Russian revolution: that Lenin led to Stalin and that all revolutions devour their children.
But Stalin’s rule marked the defeat of the Russian revolution, not its continuation. It marked the rise of a bureaucracy as a new ruling class. Zuzenko, a man who had worked for the Comintern to help end the isolation of revolutionary Russia, was bound to come under suspicion as Stalin abandoned international revolution for building “socialism in one country”.
Zuzenko, a long-term anarchist, was one of many from different left-wing traditions inspired by the reality of the Russia in 1917. Despite its politics, Windle’s account helps unearth the story of someone who drew hope from the revolution and its impact on Australia. Zuzenko’s story deserves to be better known.