Jack Lang

Australia's Experiment in Communism

Jack Lang

Jack Lang was the Premier of New South Wales during 1925-1927 and 1930-1932 (and had been Treasurer in the NSW Labor government of 1920-21). In this extract from his book, I Remember, Lang gives a short history of William Lane's ill-fated experiment for a utopian settlement in Paraguay, South America. The name of this "Working Man's Paradise" was New Australia. This ill-fated saga demonstrates the futility and impossibility of Communism in the "real world".

Communism is tied up in most people's minds with the Russian Revolution. They think of it in terms of Lenin and Trotsky, the death of the Czar and blood running in the streets of Moscow. It is always regarded as being a blood-thirsty affair. Hordes of marching men and women. November 7, 1917 is regarded as the birthday of the Communist spectre that has hovered over the world ever since. It was a Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet that seized power on that historic day, and ever since it has been maintained at the point of the bayonet, the terror of secret police and armed aggression by a new kind of Russian Imperialism.

But Communism has not always been thus. Neither have Communists always been grasping opportunists and self-seeking individualists. It was Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels who first gave Communism its military manifesto when in 1848 they declared that their ends could only be attained by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.

But there have been others, who have believed that Communism can be attained without resort to arms. Many of the early Christians were true Communists, if by Communism we mean "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." They were Communists in the true sense when it came to an equal sharing of their worldly goods.

It is interesting to recall that Australia had an experiment in Communism, 24 years before the Russians achieved their present subjection to Communist Bureaucracy.

But the particular brand of Communism which had its origin in the very fertile brain of an Australian journalist, and led to more than 500 Australians leaving their own country for what was to be a Communist Utopia in South America, had very little in common with Russian Communism.

It was a gentle kind of Communism. It resembled early Christianity much more than the modern brand. It had its origin in the books that were being written on Socialism, telling of the earthly Paradise that could be achieved if all men and women were equal.

It was in the early nineties that I first heard of the plan in McNamara's Bookshop. Quite a number of those who frequented the shop were arguing whether it could be a success. There was great social unrest in Sydney at the time. We had been through the Big Strike. There was much unemployment. There were runs on some of the banks. About 20,000 were without work in Sydney alone. The Active Service Brigade started a hostel to house homeless and provide a soup kitchen.

Arthur Desmond, a real revolutionary, ran the hostel, collecting money in the Domain and elsewhere. Cardinal Moran was one of those who helped. Many families were lucky to get a threepenny meat ration a day. When Desmond got into strife with the law over one of his demonstrations in the city, I had the job of running his hostel for some days.

That was the background against which we first heard of the plan to establish a New Australia which was to be free of all poverty, without capitalism and with equality for all. It was going to take its followers away from all the hatred, the petty jealousy and the exploitation of man by man. It was to be real Communism.

The whole idea had its origin in the brain of William Lane, a very active Labor journalist who had settled in Brisbane. Lane was a dreamer who had roamed the world before coming out to Australia in the eighties. He was only 21 at the time, but was well read and had a vigorous pen. He did much to start the Labor Party in Queensland, and after writing articles in support of the new party for one of the Brisbane papers, started his own paper, which he called The Boomerang. He later sold it, and became the first editor of the Brisbane Worker.

We soon heard of him. He wrote many pamphlets which were sold in Mac's Bookshop. He was one of the new intellectuals who were going to lead the Labor Party into the Promised Land. There was even greater interest in him when it became known that he was prepared to buy working class poems and articles for his paper. Henry Lawson soon became one of his contributors, and Lane at one stage gave him a job at 2 a week. That made him Lawson's hero.

After The Boomerang ceased publication, Lawson came back to Sydney with glowing reports about Lane. It seemed that he was a man of considerable personal magnetism, who influenced people with whom he came into contact. He even persuaded Sir Samuel Griffith, then Queensland Premier, to write an article for the Christmas issue of his paper, extolling the virtues of giving the worker the proper share of his labor.

Lane had started out as a follower of Henry George's "Progress and Poverty" and Single Tax, but later became a confirmed Socialist. But he didn't derive his inspiration from the ponderous works of Marx. He owed more to the gentle philosophy of William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and other British Socialists. McNamara was all for Hyndman. Lectures on Socialism were given on Sunday nights at Leigh House by George Black, W.G. Spence, J.D. FitzgeraId, W.M. Hughes and W.A. Holman, and soon there was a group of followers who wanted to put their ideas into practice instead of merely talking about them. They were the people who found their dreams crystallised in the plan put forward by Lane.

Incidentally, the caretaker at Leigh House achieved notoriety on his own. His name was Butler, and he murdered a Captain Lee Weller at Glenbrook on the Blue Mountains. He escaped by sea but was arrested at San Francisco, extradited and duly hanged in Sydney.

We first heard of Lane's plan for a New Australia in 1892. He had just published a Socialist novel which he called The Working Man's Paradise and became so wrapped up with the idea that he decided to start one of his own. When it came to swaying people to his ideas, Lane was a regular Savonarola.

After intensive reading, he decided that the only way Utopia could succeed was by setting it up well away from the contamination of the capitalistic world. Australia was not big enough. So his attention turned to South America. He used the A.W.U. and W.G. Spence to promote the idea through its various branches. In Sydney the unofficial headquarters of the venture were in McNamara's Bookstore. Most of the followers were recruited personally by Lane in Brisbane.

That was how the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association came to be formed. The basis of it was to be communal ownership, that is pure Communism. The means of production, distribution and exchange were to be owned by the community. All were to be equal. There was to be no capitalism. Lane was going to show the world that Socialism could be achieved before the 19th Century closed.

Those joining up were required to pay a deposit of at least 10, and another 50 before they sailed. More wealthy converts put in bigger sums. There were varying accounts that Lane put in 100, and up to 1000. Lane elected himself Chairman.

Although believing in Socialism, Lane was also very color conscious. He was against black labor, and had helped to inspire the White Australia policy, which had its origin in the sugarcane fields of North Queensland, where Kanaka labor was introduced. He had to find a white man's country for his settlement. He decided on South America.

Some of my friends tried to persuade me to join up. But there were two obstacles. In the first place I didn't have the necessary 10. In the second place, I saw no reason why I should leave Australia for some foreign country.

Hughes, Holman and leading members of the Labor Party turned down suggestions that they should abandon politics and test out their theories in a new land. They were just getting on their political feet, and were quite satisfied to keep their Socialism for Hyde Park, the Domain and Leigh House.

Many young people were attracted to the band of Utopians. Mary Gilmore, the poetess, was an ardent follower, Holman's brother, Charlie, also joined up.

When they had collected sufficient money, Lane sent three experienced bushmen across to South America to negotiate for a grant of land. He insisted that it must be well away from any settlement. The Argentine Government refused to have anything to do with the idea. It had enough problems of its own without encouraging any new-fangled Socialist ideas. If it wanted revolutions, it could manufacture its own without any aid from across the world. So the delegation next turned its attention to Paraguay, which was more broadminded. They were offered 500,000 acres of fertile country free of cost and without taxes. But it was a thousand miles up the River La Plate.

Lane next purchased a barque of some 600 tons, which had been built at Nambucca and singularly enough it was christened the Royal Tar, a rather strange title for the first ship of the Communist Navy.

Early in 1893, the New Australians were all assembled in a camp at Balmain waiting embarkation on the Royal Tar. There were poets, dreamers, a few neurotics, some hefty men from outback, and all in all a strange cross-section of humanity.

One of the first problems was the question of leadership. If all men were equal, how could one be greater than the rest. Lane quickly settled that problem. He was Treasurer and also Prime Minister. Still there was some discontent before they embarked. Rations in Balmain were light, and the would-be settlers had too much time on their hands. So they got into mischief.

Lane was a Quaker by conviction. He was not only against all violence, but also against strong drink as well. Some of his followers were Bohemians. But Lane had no time for any Free Love ideas. He even objected to the men and women mixing on deck after lights out had been sounded. There were disputes before the Royal Tar sailed. There were many after it was on its way. When some of the Communists spent their money in port and became drunk, Lane was most irate and showed it. He insisted that they must bow to his discipline.

Lane was rather a small, insignificant figure, and also a cripple from birth. Many of his followers towered over him. They refused to accept the idea that he should be a dictator. So even early Communism had its woes.

The total capital amounted to 30,000 and Lane controlled it all. On arrival in Paraguay, they found that Lane had wangled the powers of magistrate for himself from the Government, and had a guarantee of military support if required.

His plan was that the New Australians should build their own homes, the communal settlement houses, and grow their own food, make their own clothing and furniture. The women were to be emancipated and given equality with the men in all things. Property was to be shared equally and there were to be no private possessions. That was the theory.

When they left Australia, there had been a Depression. There were to be no Depressions in this New Australia under the Southern Cross. They landed in their New Australia in October, 1893. Within a few weeks, trouble had started.

The Communists found that under Communism there still had to be overseers. It was agreed to hold a secret ballot. Then the foremen started ordering the rest around, just like capitalists. There was more trouble. There were stop-work meetings and family squabbles. Jealousy extended to the women folk.

On Christmas Day a number of the men went into a native village, drank too much liquor and started to fight on their return to the settlement. Lane called in the Paraguayan police and expelled some of the settlers for drunkenness because they had signed a teetotal pledge before sailing. There was trouble indeed in the Working Man's Paradise.

Crops failed, and they started eating the stock they had brought with them for breeding purposes. Rations began to drop. Some of the settlers suggested that if it was to be a workers' paradise, they should hire themselves some colored labor, which would be cheap. Lane objected and the proposal was dropped.

But the Communists still couldn't agree amongst themselves. Instead of Utopia, New Australia was turning out to be worse than the old Australia.

Some of the original settlers returned to Sydney on the Royal Tar, minus their savings. Still a second contingent was raised. But faction fighting had started in earnest. Those who objected to Lane's wowser ideas, and despotic ways were in the majority. So he was deposed from the leadership.

Lane then decided to leave New Australia, and start a Second Earthly Paradise a few miles away. He had 46 disciples still following him, and about a dozen children. They called the new settlement Cosme, and it was supposed to regain all the ideals that had been lost in the first venture. But the society that hated capitalism found that it didn't have sufficient capital. At one stage they were literally starving. But they were the true idealists and Lane had undisputed sway over the new settlement. A few Socialists from Britain came out to join them.

Lane stuck it out until 1899 when he resigned his leadership. The settlement struggled along for a few more years. Gradually the settlers either straggled back to their homes in Australia, or married into South American families. Some of their descendants are still there. But they are no longer Communists. They are now firm believers in Capitalism, and according to reports some have become quite large landowners, employing labor. On his return to Australia, Lane became editor of the Sydney Worker, but soon drifted off again to New Zealand where he became a leader writer for an anti-Labor paper and an ardent conscriptionist. One of his brothers, Ernie, who was with him at Cosme, was a leading Communist and died quite recently in Brisbane, being a contributor to the Communist Press.

Many of his disciples later played prominent parts in Australian politics and literature. One became Professor of Oriental studies at Sydney University. Some of them remained Communists to the end.

But as an experiment in Communism, New Australia was a great disillusionment. They searched for the equality of mankind and could not find it. The theories did not work out in practice. Even Lane found himself drifting into dictatorship. The weak went to the wall while the strong survived. Human nature could not be changed even under conditions that should have been ideal. Still Australia had given the world its first working experiment in Communism. It ended in disaster. Was it to be a premonition of things to come?

This document is an extract from Jack Lang's book, I Remember, first published in 1956 (Chapter Three, "Australia's Experiment in Communism").