Crisis arose from the whole background of the Party. Sooner or later, a crisis had been bound to occur. Its immediate precipitating cause was the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That Congress was held in 1956. Fraternal delegations attended from almost all Communist Parties in the world. It was a meeting somewhat akin to one of the Communist International although the International had formally ceased to exist some 13 years earlier.
Soon after the Congress, it was revealed that in a secret speech, Khrushchov had systematically repudiated Stalin. Khrushchov in an unbalanced way had emphasised Stalin’s shortcomings in contrast to previous unbalanced acceptance of Stalin’s virtual infallibility. This created its own crisis. The secret report called into question the credibility of Khrushchov and his associates because of their long-term identification with Stalin and with the misdeeds of which they now accused Stalin.
In his public official report to the Congress, Khrushchov raised acute controversy. What he did in these two reports was not to open a debate within Communism as was permissible, indeed obligatory, and for which there was room. He used the distortion of the principle of democratic centralism and “authority” of the Soviet Party already commented on, to attempt to impose views on fundamental questions that in the opinion of many Communists were not in accordance with Communism. He gave a distorted picture of Stalin’s work rather than a balanced assessment. In his talk about the cult of the individual, Khrushchov fastened upon the correct conception that no individual leader should be deified. In his subjective attitude to Stalin, he failed to analyse what was correct and what was incorrect and the historical background in which Stalin worked. He failed to analyse the role of the people and of leaders. History is made by the people but the people, social classes and parties throw up in struggle “authoritative, influential and experienced” leaders. Events subsequent to Khrushchov’s reports confirmed that in attacking Stalin, he not only distorted the picture but used methods derived from Stalin’s errors to attempt to impose on all other Communist Parties his own views and those ostensibly of the Soviet Party. He purported to speak for the world Communist movement and laid down a “line” to which all Communist Parties were expected to conform.
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union nominally subscribed to different paths to socialism in different countries. This was contained in Khrushchov’s main public report. It commented usefully on differences between the path of the October Revolution and that of Eastern European countries, differences in Yugoslavia and unique features in China. This aspect of it was good; it departed from the “universality” of the path of the October Revolution. It commented on the possible paths to socialism in the capitalist countries. However, it distorted certain principles of Communism. Distortions included an over-emphasis on the possibility of a peaceful parliamentary path to socialism whereas a correct all-round Communist analysis includes recognition of the great probability that change to socialism will be violently resisted by the minority exploiters and that the people must be prepared to meet that violence, an over-emphasis on peaceful co-existence between countries with different social systems as constituting the whole of socialist foreign policy (really the foundation for subsequent cloaking of Soviet expansion), an implied estimation that the expansionist, aggressive nature of imperialism had undergone benevolent change whereas Marxists hold that the nature of imperialism will never change. As Khrushchov’s ideas unfolded, it was revealed he had “abolished” the classical and correct dictatorship of the proletariat as the government in the transition period from capitalism to socialism. Thus the 20th Congress of the CPSU nominally invited an independence for other Parties to take their own path, but really demanded that those Parties obey the Soviet Party. The two ideas were mutually exclusive. Practice and the subsequent 21st and 22nd Soviet Party Congresses and 1957 and 1960 international Communist gatherings also confirmed that Khrushchov and the Soviet Party were attempting to maintain themselves as the centre of the world Communist movement.
The effect of this within the Communist Party of Australia was to call into question the so-called monolithic unity of the Party and other assumptions and policies that had been regarded as sacrosanct. Because the Australian Party was firmly tied ideologically and politically to the Soviet Party, it was scarcely avoidable that internal problems over Khrushchov’s views would arise. Given a correct understanding of democratic centralism within the Party and a correct Australian outlook, the proceedings of the Soviet Party could have been regarded as another external event which in itself did not affect the line and policy of the Australian Party. Soviet Party decisions would have been evaluated from an independent Australian standpoint. In this sense, it could have been the Australian opportunity for a great clearing up of various ideological and political questions within Australia. But old habits die very hard. The Soviet Party was the Party. What it said, went, or at the very least, had tremendous influence. Distortion of “democratic centralism” was used in an attempt to impose a set of views different in many respects from those that had previously prevailed. A credibility problem arose around the Australian Party leadership. If for example, that leadership adhered to Khrushchov’s view of Stalin, what of the past very high assessment of Stalin and following of him? If the leadership repudiated Khrushchov, what of traditional relations with the Soviet Party? Debate in the Australian Party did arise. That debate tended to be preoccupied with events within the Soviet Union and Soviet Communist Party rather than with the solution of Australian problems. This too carried on the old pre-occupation with Soviet policy and the Soviet Union.
Amongst the Australian people the confusion caused a loss of support for the Communist Party. It led to a number of members leaving the Party. In itself it was no bad thing that it struck a mortal blow to the old “monolithic unity”, “discipline” and the unquestioned authority of Party leaders.
The upheaval caused by the 20th Congress of the CPSU expressed itself in various ways. There were some who genuinely sought a correct Australian Communist line and correct Communist activity in Australia. It helped them to think, to emancipate their minds from past stereotypes and dogma. It caused others to re-open the question of “freedom of criticism” in the sense that within the Communist Party it was permissible to attack Communism itself and turn the Communist Party into a society which endlessly debated the correctness or otherwise of Communism itself. But the Party’s very foundation was the correctness of Communism. To turn the Party into a debating society on this fundamental matter meant to destroy it. There were others who challenged the whole principle of democratic centralism. Thus within the Australian Party the consequences of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were far-reaching. Confusion reigned. It did not immediately set the Party on the search for Australian solutions to Australian problems.
There were two separate but related issues really involved in considering the 20th Congress of the CPSU. The first concerned upholding the fundamental principles of Marxism and the correct democratic centralist principle of Party organisation. The second concerned the correct approach to the integration of those principles in Australia. It involved considering the correct operation of democratic centralism, the attempted imposition of a universal Communist line, Australia’s own path to socialism, other Australian questions. The two were incorrectly mixed up. Resolution of them at the time was virtually impossible.
The hubbub that arose from the 20th Congress was still in train when in October 1956 an uprising of Hungarian dissidents arose. Suppression of the Hungarian rebellion by the Soviet Army, renewed the debate. It fomented within the Australian Party the controversy around the 20th Congress.
Thus for the first time virtually in the history of the Australian Communist Party and certainly its history from 1929, the Communists in Australia were compelled to think for themselves about a previously unthinkable proposition – whether the Soviet Party and its leaders were sacrosanct and always correct. It introduced an entirely new atmosphere amongst a significant number of Australian Communists. It ushered in a time of overall rethinking.
In 1957 and 1960 attempts were made in international conferences of Communists to resolve controversies and difficulties that had arisen worldwide over the 20th Congress and the Hungarian events. Within the Communist Party of Australia, debate continued on questions such as whether the transition to socialism would be peaceful or violent, whether the fundamental nature of capitalism and imperialism had changed, what was the true nature of peaceful co-existence between countries with differing social systems, what was the correct appraisal of the life and work of Stalin. There were other questions. These involved important fundamental principles of Communism and needed to be sorted out. In the sense of advancing Australian Communists on the correct Australian solutions for Australia, they provided only general guidance. They were seen as abstract things in themselves. They left largely untouched the detailed working out of these general principles in the particular circumstances of Australian society. The Australian Communists tended to see them and international discussion about them much in the same way as they had regarded the Communist International, namely, that this new “International” (the international Communist conferences) would solve all these vexing questions along with Australia’s own problems. This is not so much a reflection on the international gatherings as a reflection on the Australian Communist Party’s difficulty in finding its own way.
Because of its traditional attitude of seeing the solution of problems largely in terms of solutions offered by international bodies or foreign Parties or foreign Party leaders, a strong tendency in the Australian Party was to confine debate to which was correct – the Soviet Party or those who opposed these Soviet views and opposed the attempted imposition by the Soviet Party of its views on all other Communist Parties.
The 1960 international conference, commonly referred to as the 81 Parties Conference, failed to resolve these questions. Its origin had been in a sudden unheralded overall attack by Khrushchov on his opponents at a gathering where many Communist Parties were represented. Khrushchov treated this as an authoritative meeting for the international Communist movement. The Australian Party was not represented. Agreement was reached to hold an international conference for which a preparatory committee on which the Australian Party was represented, was set up. The debate at the international conference attended by the 81 Parties in 1960 proceeded as a debate on general principles of Marxism and on the persisting practice of the Soviet Party of attempting to impose its “line” on the international Communist movement. In Australian Communist circles, this aspect of it tended to strengthen the existing preoccupation with the abstract general principles rather than with the far more important question of those general principles and their detailed working out in Australian conditions. Australian Party line and documents were altered to conform with the general decisions made at this conference, still without really getting down to Australian solutions.
In 1961, the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union unilaterally renewed the attempt to impose on all other Communist Parties its own views, unchanged despite the international documents’ criticism of some of those views. Now the Communist Party of Australia in substance adopted the Soviet Party’s views. Previous criticism of Soviet Party views where the Australian Party had upheld basic principles of Communism was repudiated.
The Australian Party leaders, by these actions, opened up an additional aspect of their own credibility. In re-adopting their traditional adherence to the Soviet Party, they repudiated without serious analysis, their own well-known criticism of Khrushchov’s views. This series of events brought to a new crisis weaknesses in the Party discussed in previous pages.
The Communist Party in Australia expelled a number of leading activists in 1963. The expulsion centred on dispute over important general principles of Communism to which reference has been made, rather than on divergent views as to Australian solution of Australian problems. All participants were weak on this latter question.
Expulsion of leading activists was followed by a large number of departures from the Party. In the immediate sense the Communist movement had been weakened by division. For reasons advanced earlier, the Party had developed in such a way that within its structure there was no way apparent to the participants of resolving differences which were conceived to go to the heart of the principles of Communism. Because of the deepseated misunderstanding and distortion of democratic centralism, the Party machine was called into operation against those who held a view different from that of the leadership. Experience also served to illustrate the misunderstandings that can arise about formal majorities and formal unanimity. In this case, there had been formal unanimity in opposition to Khrushchov’s line. Overnight that unanimity turned out to be far from unanimity. It proved to be a superficial unanimity in which the majority of those who had previously been unanimous, in criticising Soviet Party views, opted for the traditional dominance of the Soviet Party’s views. Mention has already been made of the credibility problems to which these decisions gave rise. The hostility visited by the competing participants on each other exceeded that which they visited on outright enemies of the people. Throughout, the Soviet Party strenuously worked and manipulated to maintain its support in the Australian Party. As to those who dissented from its view, the Soviet Party tried alternate wooing and intimidation. Though the primary responsibility for an inability to resolve the situation rested on Australian Communists, still note must be taken of Soviet Party interference. One further aspect of it was the authoritarian position adopted by the Soviet Party and its attempted use of the Australian Party (and others) to serve Soviet foreign policy.
Each of the competing groups into which the Australian Party had dissolved gradually strove in its own way to find an independent Australian path. Some who had followed the Soviet Union began after a time to distance themselves from the Soviet Union. They occupied the key positions in their Party press and apparatus. Then dissatisfaction arose amongst pro-Soviet adherents. On the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, further disintegration set in. The Soviet Party then sponsored a new Party which maintained a strictly pro-Soviet position.
Weaknesses in the original Party of 1920, aggravated by international imposition in 1929 of an arbitrary and subjective left “line” culminated in the great difficulties that arose within the Communist movement. The penalty was paid for unbalanced adherence to the Soviet Party, to the Communist International, for the Australian Communist Party’s following of its own rather vague understanding of general principles of Communism without a deep-going effort to study Australia, Australian conditions, the nature of a Communist Party required in Australian conditions. Again the penalty was paid for having the objective of socialism which could only be realised in the future, presented as immediately attainable. It gave the Party strong doctrinaire tendencies. Warnings by Lenin about the negative influence of Soviet decisions in proceedings of the Communist International had not been heeded. Nor had his admonitions to study the specific conditions in the given countries been fully understood.