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Sharkey, Lawrence Louis (1898–1967)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Lawrence Louis Sharkey (1898-1967), communist leader, was born on 19 August 1898 at Warry Creek, near Cargo, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Michael Sharkey, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Teefy. Little is known of Sharkey's early life apart from communist apocrypha. His parents were both of Irish descent and raised him as a Catholic. Leaving school at the age of 14, he commenced an apprenticeship to a coachmaker at Orange and subsequently worked in the trade. He later claimed that itinerant bushworkers drew him into the conscription struggle during World War I and into support for the Industrial Workers of the World.

At the end of the war Sharkey moved to Sydney and obtained a job as a lift-attendant. In 1922 he joined the Communist Party of Australia. It had only a few hundred members, mostly in Sydney, where its chief strength lay in left-wing unions. Sharkey became a member of one of them, the Federated Miscellaneous Workers' Union of Australia, and was elected to its executive. He lost the post in 1925 after organizing the Trades Hall cleaners—who were sacked and then reinstated—but was to be made a union delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales in 1928.

'Lance' Sharkey was elected to the executive of the Communist Party in 1926. He was dumped in 1927 when he resisted the turn from a 'united front' with the Australian Labor Party. Scruffy, inarticulate and unconfident, he attached himself to stronger personalities. He boarded with Esmonde Higgins and Joy Barrington, and mixed with their circle of lively, hospitable and incurably optimistic activists. Jack Kavanagh, the leader of the circle, attributed Sharkey's reluctance to appear on the picket line as evidence of his 'indecision and vacillation'.

In 1928, however, Sharkey re-emerged as a strong advocate of the Communist International's new line of forthright opposition to all kinds of reformism. He rose to prominence behind Bert Moxon and J. B. Miles, the chief critics of the Australian leadership. After they won control of the party in December 1929, he became editor of its newspaper, Workers' Weekly. In 1930 he visited Moscow as a delegate to the congress of the Red International of Labour Unions. Moxon's downfall in 1931 confirmed Sharkey as second only to Miles in the Australian party's hierarchy.

Thereafter Sharkey remained an unshakeably orthodox communist in the Stalinist mould, unswerving in his support for the Soviet Union and willing to follow the Kremlin in every change of direction it imposed on the Communist International. In the early 1930s he was a fierce exponent of sectarian opposition to Labor reformism, notwithstanding being tossed into a creek by factory workers when he stood against Jack Lang for the Legislative Assembly seat of Auburn in 1932. Chief Australian representative at the congress of the Communist International in 1935, he brought back news that national parties were to return to the strategy of a united front.

At the congress Sharkey had been elected a member of the executive-committee of the International, much to the surprise of Australian members who expected Miles (as party secretary) to receive that honour. According to other Australians present, Sharkey argued that Miles was a married man with family responsibilities, while he was single and better able to represent the party. By this time Sharkey had given up his job to become a full-time party worker on a subsistence wage. A hard, driving disciplinarian, he insisted on absolute obedience, claiming that: 'We have no personal ties in the Communist Party'. Yet on 10 December 1936 at the district registrar's office, Petersham, he married Catherine Craig Maxwell, a stenographer; they had no children.

Following the signing of the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, the C.P.A. dropped its call for united action against fascist aggression. Next month the party swung behind the Soviet policy of opposing World War II as an imperialist conflict. When the Australian government declared the C.P.A. illegal in June 1940, Sharkey went underground with other leading members. He resumed open activity after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. That year the ban on the party was relaxed; in 1942 it was removed. The Australian Communist Party (as it styled itself from 1944 to 1951) backed the national war effort and grew in numbers.

With the onset of the Cold War, the party withdrew its conditional support for the Labor government's programme of postwar reconstruction. By 1948 the A.C.P. was forthright in criticizing reformist tendencies in its British and American counterparts. That year Sharkey allegedly gave instructions to the Malayan Communist Party to conduct insurgency and displaced Miles as general secretary of the Australian party. Deteriorating relations with the A.L.P. broke down completely when the communist-led Miners' Federation went on strike in June 1949 and the Chifley government gaoled the union's leaders.

In March 1949 Sharkey had told a Sydney journalist that if 'Soviet Forces in pursuit of aggressors entered Australia, Australian workers would welcome them'. He was tried in the Central Criminal Court and found guilty of uttering seditious words. The High Court of Australia upheld his conviction and in October he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The term was later reduced and he served thirteen months. On his release he embarked on a national tour. He then spent six months at a sanatorium in the Soviet Union for treatment of a heart condition.

Despite these absences, Sharkey outmanoeuvred his critics within the C.P.A. to consolidate his leadership and ensure that the party minimized the impact of Khrushchev's repudiation of Stalin in 1956. Sharkey sympathized with the Chinese party's criticisms of Khrushchev's revisionism, but, succumbing to majority opinion in the Australian party and to intense pressure while in Moscow in 1961, he rejected the Chinese position in the subsequent Sino-Soviet split. As the party liberalized its policies and practices, Sharkey's limitations were cruelly exposed by a halting performance on national television. He ceded the post of secretary to Laurie Aarons in 1965.

Sharkey was lauded in his heyday as a heroic communist leader, but his reputation sank with the fortunes of his party. His own dogmatism and deviousness added to his consistent support for the worst abuses of Stalinist dictatorship. He had directed the activity of the C.P.A. under repressive circumstances that included constant surveillance by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and the strain took its toll—his drunken binges on visits to the Soviet Union were notorious. The close watch on his activities had worked to his advantage in 1954 when the Soviet intelligence officer Vladimir Petrov defected; Petrov alleged that Sharkey had received $US25,000 from the Soviet Union on a night when A.S.I.O. agents had him under continuous observation.

Five ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with dark brown hair, Sharkey was described as 'a rugged, forceful speaker' who had 'a gift for expounding the Marxist classics in terms understandable to any worker'. He was a prolific journalist, pamphleteer and expositor of Marxism-Leninism. His more substantial writings, Dialectical Materialism (Sydney, 1942), The Trade Unions (1942) and An Outline History of the Australian Communist Party (1944), were faithful renditions of orthodoxy.

Sharkey died suddenly of coronary atherosclerosis on 13 May 1967 in Sydney and was cremated. His wife survived him. Lacking the warmth and companionableness of communist union leaders such as Jim Healy, he was nevertheless respected for his courage and dedication. A largely self-educated boy from the bush, with strong national roots and popular tastes, he owned a shack on the New South Wales coast, and was fond of surfing and fishing; chess was a Bolshevik accretion, a marker of the unusual path he took from Warry Creek to the Kremlin.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Wood, The Life Story of L. L. Sharkey (Syd, 1950)
  • A. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford, California, US, 1969)
  • S. Macintyre, The Reds (Syd, 1998)
  • C. Sheil, The Invisible Giant: A History of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers' Union of Australia, 1915-1985 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Wollongong, 1988)
  • J. N. Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • L. L. Sharkey files in series A6119 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Sharkey, Lawrence Louis (1898–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sharkey-lawrence-louis-11664/text20839, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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