Into The Mainstream by Tom O'Lincoln

Into The Mainstream

If the latter part of the seventies had been a time of working class defeat, beginning with the fall of Whitlam and continuing through the destruction of Medibank and the failure of the 11-week Latrobe Valley power strike, it appeared as we entered the eighties that this grim situation might be about to change.

Starting at the end of 1978 with a hard-fought dispute in Telecom which ended in something like a draw, Australian trade unionists began to regain confidence. This partly reflected a mild recovery in the economy, which improved workers' bargaining position. Partly also it was due to psychological factors, as the Fraser government began, for electoral purposes, to talk up the emerging "resources boom". Having been told by the government that big money was about to be made, workers felt that they could and should get in for their chop.

In the three-year period 1979-81 strike levels revived dramatically. They even compared fairly well to the historic high point of 1974-76 as i lie following table shows:

STRIKE DAYS LOST (THOUSANDS) Source: ABS
Year Days Lost Year Days Lost
1974 6292 1979 3694
1975 3509 1980 3320
1976 3799 1981 4192
1977 1654 1982 2158
1978 2130 1983 1641

The consequence was that while the "resources boom" was much over-rated from the point of view of profits, the unions did succeed for the first time since the fall of Whitlam in shifting economic equations in their favour. As the main information paper at the 1983 Economic Summit put it:

All measures show a downward trend in the wages share from 1974-75 until 1978-80. Over this period the measures... show only a partial recovery in gross operating surplus shares...

All measures show that the wages share increased again in 1981-82 and the half-yearly data... suggest that this continued into the first half of 1982-83. All the measures of gross operating surplus show falls over this period... [1]

Workers were clawing back what had been taken from them in the early Fraser years. An alarmed Malcolm Fraser spoke of a "wages explosion"[2] and Industrial Relations Minister Ian McPhee warned that "the relative share of GDP for wages and profits is now at the same unhealthy proportion which prevailed in the notorious years of 1974-75".[3] McPhee's comment, while perhaps exaggerated, nevertheless came perilously close to a confession of bankruptcy. If the union-bashing Fraser regime could not maximise profits as against wages, why should the ruling class continue to pay the high price of confrontation in terms of social polarisation?

The working class offensive at the start of the eighties also contained underlying weaknesses, however. Unlike the period of historic militancy a decade or so earlier, it was not accompanied by significant signs of political radicalisation. There were no green bans or workers' control struggles, and few cases where rank and file unionists adopted views and strategies which challenged the established union leaderships. The "wages push" was just that and nothing more: a flexing of union muscle for limited demands within the system.

Moreover it did not last long. The metal trades unions, which had been relatively sluggish even at the height of the industrial offensive, made a lasting peace with their employers by the end of 1981. By this time also militancy was declining generally as the "resources boom" began to ebb. Towards the end of 1982 unemployment rose with startling rapidity as the boom gave way to recession, and the unions were largely cowed. The government was able to impose a wage freeze in December 1982, and it appeared that Fraser had weathered the storm.

However the appearance was misleading. The more farsighted employers had reflected upon the events of 1979-81 and drawn some lessons. Fraser-style confrontation with the unions had proved effective enough in forcing concessions in times of recession, but the unions had retained their basic organised strength and were able to redress the balance when the economic cycle turned upwards. Since any strategy for pulling Australian capitalism out of its long-term economic difficulties depends on permanently improving capital's position vis-a-vis labour, the Fraser methods had failed.

The prospect of arriving at some sort of "social contract" with the union officials began to appear more attractive. During the wages offensive the union officials had proved able to control their rank and file, and this was an important development. The Whitlam government's promise to contain wage demands had proved hollow, because the union rank and file was too militant and sometimes too radical, and even the union officials had often been willing to sanction relatively militant actions. But by 1981, both workers and officials had experienced long years of economic instability and significant defeats. They were more cautious and more open to the idea of a government-sponsored wages policy, and the attractions of such a policy grew considerably with the emerging recession.

The ALP had been attempting to formulate some sort of "social contract" for many months. Negotiations with the ACTU had reached the point of agreement in principle and it seemed clear that large sections of employers were open to the idea. Labor had some difficulty putting the finishing touches on the deal, because leader Bill Hayden alienated the ACTU by his confused response to the Fraser wage freeze (first opposing it, then appearing to endorse it, before finally coming out in opposition). However at this point Bob Hawke emerged to articulate a coherent alternative to Fraserism. On 30 January, 1983 he made an important speech to the Australian Institute of Political Science, in which the logic of Labor's approach to industrial relations was spelt out. The speech, which was reprinted in the press, flayed the Fraser government for combining union-bashing with a laissez-faire approach to wage fixation:

In the pre-election period at the end of 1980, against the expert advice available to them, Ministers ceaselessly talked up the coming "resources boom"... And if (Fraser) brought the unions up to the starting blocks for the wages scramble by such statements he really fired the starting gun on 30 April (when he) argued the merits of deregulation ... It doesn't need the genius of an Einstein to understand that with the Government saying that those with power should use it and let prices be determined accordingly, the trade unions would embrace that philosophy...

And does the final irony escape your notice? The great deregulator of April 1981, the great unleasher of market forces in November 1982 became the greatest interventionist of them all the architect of the wage freeze.

Fundamental to everything Labor does will be the attempt to create an understanding between parties of the present and foreseeable economic environment. [4]

And this in turn, said Hawke, would lay the basis for a return to centralised wage fixing.

The message was pitched at the employers: Fraser had stumbled from letting market forces determine wages (and thus ensuring that strong unions would win gains) to crude methods of compulsion. Labor by contrast would cook up a deal with the union leaders to hold down wages over time by more subtle methods. Within days of this speech, as an early election loomed, a combination of pressure from establishment forces and panic on the part of the Labor caucus at Hayden's blunders led to Hawke's installation as leader. Just as swiftly, a complete wages policy was put together in the form of the Prices and Incomes Accord, which was agreed to at the highest levels by ALP leaders and ACTU officials, and imposed bureaucratically on Australian trade unionists.

Labor swept to a dramatic election victory, whereupon the new government revealed that the previous Liberal regime had lied about the projected size of the budget deficit. The budget blow-out provided Hawke with an impeccable excuse to dump most of his election promises. The Hawke government would now, inevitably, be judged overwhelmingly on the success of its deal with the unions.

The Communist Party and the Labor Government

CONSISTENT with its new reformist program, the Communist Party began to consider one or another type of "social contract" from the late seventies. In 1982 the party published a policy statement calling for a "comprehensive working class incomes policy". The CPA made no pretense that such a policy was a radical, let alone socialist measure: "The ideas advanced here could well be adopted by left and centre forces in the unions if they hold a genuine commitment to improve living standards".

At the time the party was toying with something it called "centralised direct bargaining". With its usual impressionism, the CPA was overly impressed with the temporary gains the unions had made in 1981 after the collapse of wage indexation. Not realising that these would be reversed in the following recession, the party imagined that direct bargaining had some inherent virtue of its own. These notions were soon to be abandoned. However other features of the 1982 document were of lasting importance and prefigured the CPA's response to the ALP/ACTU Accord. One was the concept of the "social wage": instead of simply trying to force up wages for their members and ignoring problems of welfare, inflation and the like, the unions were urged to develop a strategy to raise the overall living standards of the working class:

The central concern of an incomes policy is how the national income is distributed. Present distribution accounts for social inequality, poverty and discrimination, and affects economic growth and creation of jobs. . . concern about income distribution should be the entry point into economic policy in general.

In the abstract, this argument made a certain amount of sense. Taking the class struggle beyond immediate sectional economic demands has been an objective of the communist movement since its inception. It can be an essential part of encouraging workers to seek control over society as a whole.

Whether any "working class incomes policy" actually has such a radical cutting edge, however, depends on two things. Firstly, it depends on whether the policy is implemented through struggle at the grass roots, rather than collaboration between union officials, employers and government. Secondly, it depends on whether the policy aims to present a revolutionary alternative to capitalist society, or whether workers are to be drawn into taking responsibility for making the existing capitalist society work.

Where did the Communist Party stand on these issues? The document did make a rhetorical gesture or two in the direction of radical alternatives, suggesting that "a challenge to the ruling class in Australia can develop", but the rest of the text made it clear these gestures were not to be taken too seriously. It spoke of "intervention into government economic policy to encourage industrial expansion" and also of "union cooperation in labour-market planning". There was no mention of industrial action. [5]

The pattern became clearer in an interview with Laurie Carmichael on "Social Agreements" published around the same time. Carmichael spoke of "working class intervention in macro-economic policies" and then said: "For example, we have proposed tripartite conferences between employer organisations, government and the ACTU". He made it clear that the working class was to take responsibility for making capitalism work:

In developing this idea in the working class movement, we also must bear in mind that we live in a real world, and that you cannot ask for everything without also finding the means of paying for it. [6]

It was hardly surprising, then, that when the ALP/ACTU Accord was announced, the Communist Party fell in behind it. In fact, Carmichael had played a role in its formulation. The ideas being floated in Tribune from 1982 also helped provide the left and centre ALP union officials with a set of radical-sounding rationalisations for this exercise in class collaboration. When Labor assumed office in March 1983, the Communist Party immediately took up a political stance similar to that of the softer sections of the Labor left.

The CPA had reproached itself during the seventies with having been "sectarian" toward the Whitlam government, and it was determined not to repeat this supposed error. Shortly after Hawke came into office, dumping election promises right and left, and well before the Accord could be implemented, Tribune produced a banner headline: "Defend and Extend Labor's Reforms".[7] The reforms, of course, existed only in the imagination of the sub-editors, but the headline was meant primarily as a declaration of intent. The Communist Party would be ready and willing to apologise for the Hawke government at key junctures.

The party did criticise the Economic Summit for excluding women, the poor and others (it wished to include these people in the process of class collaboration) but was also willing to praise aspects of it enthusiastically. Brian Aarons and Rob Durbridge wrote that the Summit had "widened the concept of democracy". And while Tribune disliked the three economic "scenarios" offered by the Treasury, it had much more sympathy with the "clear alternative model" put forward by Victorian Premier John Cain, though the latter was simply somewhat more Keynesian in its approach. [8]

The CPA had originally declared that the ALP/ACTU Accord offered important opportunities for the working class, but it soon became clear that the Accord's main consequence would be to rein in wages. Labor was prepared to support very moderate wage rises during the recession, but without allowing the unions to do anything about their claim to recoup the 9.1 percent in wages they had lost under Fraser's wage freeze. Then as the economy moved into recovery and inflation fell, the full import of the Accord became clear. The unions, having been thrown a few crumbs during the recession, were to exercise extreme "restraint" during the recovery. The benefits of recovery were to go entirely to the employers.

Finally at the start of 1985 the Arbitration Commission removed any remaining doubts. Poorly paid Commonwealth public servants were denied any wage rise at all, although they had fallen well behind their equivalents in the State services and despite a government proposal to give them a derisory 2 per cent rise. The government immediately fell into line with the Commission.

The unions argued that their claim was within the Accord, pointing to a clause which called for maintenance of real wages over time and another which promised to maintain relativities with State public servants. The government and media promptly replied that the Accord also included a commitment to centralised wage fixing, and thus to accept the decisions of the Arbitration Commission. It was a classic Catch-22. The Accord meant precisely what the government, employers and Arbitration Commission chose it to mean.

Yet throughout 1984 and into 1985 the CPA continued to cling to it. In a resolution passed at its 1984 Congress, the party condemned the "sectarian-dogmatic left who claim the Accord is 'class collaborationist'." The resolution went on to indicate just what criteria, in the party's view, were appropriate for judging the Accord. It is instructive to consider these criteria, for on closer examination they offer sufficient grounds for concluding that the "sectarian-dogmatic left" is entirely correct. The four points are as follows:

1) Maintenance and improvement of working class living standards in their broadest sense, involving both the industrial and social wages...
2) Bargaining about total incomes the industrial and social wages and about redistribution of wealth through tax reforms;
3) A positive intervention by unions in economic planning at all levels, particularly to stimulate employment through industrial development; and
4) Mobilisation and education of union members needed to achieve these goals.

With regard to the first criterion, the resolution itself goes on to say "real wages have been partially maintained against the CPI" (my emphasis) If so it is a poor result indeed for there has been an economic recovery. Normally in a recovery workers make gains. To hold the line is no achievement, because they can expect to lose ground in the recession which follows. Meanwhile, as the resolution quickly adds, "profits have risen spectacularly. In September 1982, profits were 11.8 percent of GDP, by December 1983 they were 15.5 percent, and EPAC forecasts 17 percent of GDP for 1984." In other words, the Hawke government through its Accord has managed to do what Fraser could not: to improve the employers' share of the national product throughout a phase of economic upswing. The resolution states these facts without censure. But what they prove is that the Accord is a device to maximise the exploitation of the working class.

With regard to the second point, there has no doubt been a great deal of "bargaining about total incomes" and the Hawke government did eventually offer small tax cuts. But the CPA resolution admits that this was partly achieved "at the expense of the social wage incomes of pensioners, other welfare beneficiaries and of other public sector services".[9] It might have added that the value of the tax cuts was effectively nullified by previous tax increases imposed by Labor.

The third criterion, "intervention by unions in economic planning", simply means that the union officials now sit on committees, where they collaborate in administering the exploitation of their rank and file. As for the fourth, "mobilisation and education of union members", the education amounts to selling the Accord's dubious virtues to a somewhat reluctant membership, while the party's own union officials have been prepared to attack trade unionists who do mobilise to fight for higher wages.

In 1983 the Food Preservers Union waged a prolonged strike at Heinz in Dandenong, near Melbourne. The government declared the wage demands to be outside the Accord, and demanded that the union be excluded from the National Wage case. The FPU was threatened with fines. And at the ACTU Congress in September, the Food Preservers' officials were attacked by ACTU heavies. Among those joining in the attack was Laurie Carmichael, who announced:

Those who've got the idea that the road to socialism is made up of individual wage struggles in half a dozen companies without mobilising all the workers combined in the strength of all the workers have no bloody idea what it's all about. [10]

One doubts that the FPU imagined their little strike represented the "road to socialism". Nevertheless they were at least mobilising a small number of workers in a real struggle. Carmichael and the Communist Party, on the other hand, were clearly in the business of demobilising "all of the workers combined". No wonder an Age correspondent remarked that Carmichael's statement probably made the ACTU leaders' day. [11] The CPA was not, to be sure, entirely uncritical of the Labor government. In July 1983 Peter Ormonde wrote in Tribune that "Keating's obsession with deficits, interest rates and inflation has almost completely overshadowed Labor's commitment to stimulate the economy and create new jobs, [12] and a year later another correspondent had this to say about the government's second budget:

A few minimal handouts have been given to placate the unions and welfare recipients in the lead up to the election while business has been given the scope for further increased profits. But none of the underlying economic or social questions have been addressed. [13]

Moreover, Tribune was scathing about the Hawke government's policy on nuclear issues. But the criticisms were characterised by important limitations. Firstly, with regard to economic questions, the Communist Party consistently argued within the framework of the Accord. The Accord had great potential, said the CPA, if only it were implemented properly. A struggle was needed to ensure that the progressive character of the Accord was not subverted by the government:

The Accord is as yet far from an effective instrument because of insufficient support inside the union movement and from the disadvantaged outside unions including pensioners. [14]

Yet the means of struggle which the party proposed to rank and file workers and pensioners were hardly such as to excite enthusiasm. Real class struggle was out of the question, since it would have threatened the whole machinery of class collaboration. Instead Tribune praised bureaucratic devices such as a "Jobs and Social Needs Inquiry" and "moves for a tripartite council (government, employers, unions) for the manufacturing industry".[15] Thus the CPA's criticisms appeared rather lame, since it was unwilling to advocate serious struggle.

With regard to the anti-nuclear movement, the party's stance was more militant. Tribune was full of abuse for the government's stance on uranium mining and disarmament. And party members were often quite active in the peace campaigns which mobilised large numbers in the streets (though they usually represented a conservative pole within them). But this was only possible because in taking such a stand, the party blended in with the Labor left and sections of the centre. Even John Cain was prepared to address anti-nuclear rallies, and a great many ALP rank and file members were involved in the peace movement. Battles went on repeatedly over the issue inside the Labor Party.

In both cases the Communist Party was simply keeping in step with the left and sometimes the centre of the mainstream labour movement. Various union officials grumbled from time to time about government wages policy, but were not prepared to do much about it; and the CPA response was much the same. The ALP left wanted to fight over uranium, and so did the CPA.

At no time did the party represent an alternative to Laborism. At best, it occasionally played the role of providing theoretical rationalisations for sections of the ALP.

Feminism Versus Class Politics

THE COMMUNIST Party's accommodation to the ALP was, of course, entirely consistent with its rightward drift since 1975. The party's move to drop the last vestiges of Marxism also manifested itselt in other ways. One that deserves separate treatment is its accommodation to feminism.

We have seen that the women's liberation movement had a major impact on the CPA in the early seventies, an impact which was largely healthy given the militant and often socialist direction of the movement. From about 1974, however, women's liberation gave way gradually to a "feminism" which was increasingly hostile to socialist ideas, advocated an "autonomy" for women's struggles which began to imply hostility to the "male left", and was increasingly reformist in its political strategies (concentrating on reforms which most benefitted professional women and on piecemeal welfare projects that depended on government funding). These later trends in the women's movement (the term "liberation" was gradually, but significantly, dropped) also affected the Communist Party. In particular, the increasing feminist hostility to Marxism and class politics began to be taken up by CPA women.

A major statement on the latter issues, written by Joyce Stevens, appeared in 1983 as the party discussed the centenary of Marx's death. [16] This statement merits some discussion. Stevens began with some rather unoriginal criticisms of Marxism and the socialist left, arguing that "Marx's views on the class struggle were often sketchy and incomplete". There had, it was true, been "subsequent debates" which had clarified some matters, but "all forms of this debate have one shared characteristic sex blindness". Moreover, "most men... persist in speaking about the working class as though it were a male monolith".

These charges were neither very profound nor very accurate... and one suspects they were not very honest either. Had Stevens never encountered Frederick Engels' Origin of the Family, or the writings of Alexandra Kollontai or Wilhelm Reich? Had she never visited the Communist Party's own Intervention Bookshop, which stocks various writings by modern Marxists (some of them male) on women and the class struggle? Whatever one might think of the quality of this work, the suggestion that it is all "sex-blind" is preposterous. Joyce Stevens would also be aware of the instrumental role played by socialists in launching the women's liberation movement in the first place. Her charges therefore did not reflect a considered argument, but were simply a recital of dogmatic radical feminist cliches aimed at laying the basis for an all-out attack on Marxism.

Stevens proceeded to argue for removing the class struggle as the central strategic concept for socialists and feminists both. She was scathing about those who assumed "that the working class is or can be a unified group" (my emphasis) and who thought in class terms:

Efforts to accommodate women's oppression within theories of class struggle stem, at least partly, from the fact that Marxists still accept working class struggle as the motor force for social change. Yet there has not yet been a successful "socialist" revolution as the result of such class struggle, nor has the numerical growth of the working class in industrially developed countries produced revolutionary consciousness on a mass scale...

Actually history has known both a socialist revolution based on working class struggle (Russia in 1917) and mass consciousness in the industrialised west (in Germany and Italy after World War I, where very large numbers of workers followed the Communist International, built factory councils, staged insurrections and so on). And these are rather more impressive achievements than anything feminism can claim. However, it is true that classical Marxism has no massive accomplishments to its credit in recent decades, so it would be wrong to dismiss a proposed theoretical revision out of hand. The question is: where does the revision lead? We shall see that in the case of Stevens it does not lead anywhere very constructive.

Certainly she intended a major challenge to Marxism:
Such a suggestion requires not a small revising of Marxism, but rather a questioning or jettisoning of really basic notions of Marxist theory, starting with the idea that Marxism, or for that matter any other "ism", can provide a total, unified and integrated world view.

This is the pluralism first introduced into the CPA by Eric Aarons, which is now leading to drastic conclusions. Writing about the whole complex of gender, race and class conflict, Stevens argued:

These various contradictions and struggles cannot be reconciled in any simple way, though they share some common enemies and aspirations. Though they may not be understood theoretically or politically in isolation from one another, neither can they be accommodated within any single practice or theoretical development. (My emphasis)

On this reasoning, women's struggle for liberation or even for reforms not only could but must be waged separately from the class struggle. The argument was reinforced in practice by the party's support for separate women's actions over disarmament, women-only actions against the RSL's Anzac Day parades, and the like. It was also reinforced by the star treatment afforded to visiting writer Beatrix Campbell, who preaches hostility to male trade unionists ("the men's movement which has highjacked the labour movement").[17] Such stances were tailor-made to make Stevens and her allies in the CPA popular with feminists, both of the reformist sort and those in Sydney's separatist ghetto.

However there were problems, too. Stevens offered no strategy for socialist (or other radical) transformation of society which would replace the allegedly bankrupt Marxist orientation to the class struggle. And that is no surprise, for the only practical proposal which can arise from a pluralist argument is a non-strategy: everyone will do their own thing. This inability of feminism to formulate any coherent strategy apart from revolutionary Marxism and reformism also ultimately reflects social realities. It reflects the fact that only capital and labour are really powerful forces in Australian society. Those who reject a strategy of class struggle against capitalism will usually be impelled, fast or slow, toward a reformist capitulation to it. [18]

Moreover, Stevens' argument offered no reason whatsoever why feminists or indeed anyone involved in social movements should join the Communist Party. If anything it suggested the reverse, that there was no role for a coherent socialist party organisation of any kind. And so it was no accident that those who thought like Stevens were prominent in moves to liquidate the Communist Party, which began to gain momentum from 1983.

Towards Dissolution

FROM 1982 onwards a discussion began inside the CPA about its future and its viability as a political party. The first development was a suggestion that the party's name be changed, on the grounds that the term "Communist" no longer reflected the reality of the organisation's politics, and was simply a factor in isolating it from a populace which associated "Communism" with Russia. The discussion over the name soon blossomed into a debate about basic perspectives, and prominent members began to speak of a "crisis" in the CPA. The party's numbers, notionally about 2000, were claimed by some to have fallen to 1500 or even 1300. And the CPs in Europe, to whom the CPA had looked for inspiration in the seventies, were not doing very well either.

For a time at the start of the eighties, things had seemed rather more hopeful. In Brisbane, a nearly moribund organisation had been revived by an influx of young activists led by Lee Bermingham. In Sydney an organising project in the western suburbs seemed to be going well, and in Melbourne the party claimed that "a greater number of sincere and devoted younger people who look for an effective alternative are joining the CPA".[19]

But the temporary successes appear to have been simply the consequence of the party's rightward movement, which brought it into step with the motion of its environment. The party could recruit, or win the sympathy of people whose response to the political climate was similar to its own. This situation could not last for long, though, because for people moving rightwards the name, history and traditions of the Communist Party were an obstacle to winning real influence in reformist politics, while its organisation was too weak to offer much support. If you were going to be a reformist, it made much more sense to join the Labor Party.

Moreover, in the period from late 1982 the rightward drift of

Australian society appears to have accelerated. Not only was the industrial struggle at low ebb, but the number and size of political demonstrations began to decline. The one exception appeared to be the disarmament movement, which was able to put many tens of thousands of people into the streets of the capital cities once a year. However even this movement was politically limited. It lacked the militancy and also the working class support which had characterised the earlier Movement Against Uranium Mining. It was unable to recruit on-going activists out of the large marches on any significant scale. In fact, its on-going organisations were little more than bureaucratic shells except in Melbourne, where a sizeable layer of established (and aging) left activists joined People for Nuclear Disarmament and gave it something of a (modest) "mass" quality.

This was not the sort of climate in which socialists of whatever stripe could make major organisational gains. They could only hope to consolidate their organisations, clarify their ideas, and hopefully recruit in small numbers. A holding operation was required until times changed.

But for the Communist Party, which had so drastically watered down its politics precisely in order to win friends and influence people, such a situation was a bitter blow. Thus a major internal debate began, whose logic was spelt out by Pete Cockcroft of the CPA's South Coast organisation:

A new word came into vogue in our national discussions "mainstream". How were we to get into the mainstream? Why were we not in the mainstream? If we said this or did that, would we become part of the mainstream? [20]

Various proposals were made to resolve this problem. On the right wing of the discussion stood, as usual, the Melbourne leadership grouped around Bernie and Mark Taft.

The Melbourne organisation had the strongest links with the trade union officialdom and with the ALP. It also had within its ranks a number of important union officials such as Roger Wilson of the Seamen's Union and Jim Frazer of the Railways Union. Thus the Tafts had the connections to make some sort of regroupment with sections of the Labor Party and official union movement a serious proposition. They therefore became the strongest partisans of liquidating the existing Communist Party.

Of course they did not put it in quite those terms. Rather they harped on the CPA's "crisis" and failure to progress, and called on its members to abandon the party in favour of a new, broader "socialist organisation" which was to be "independent of political parties":

Such an organisation will tap into a much broader activist base than the CPA is able to. Apart from being open to the ALP centre and left organised factions, it will be open to the vast majority of ALP members who are not members of any faction. Beyond that, and most importantly from our experience, it will be open to people who see themselves as broadly on the left, but who are not part of any political grouping. [21]

Given that a two-year waiting period is normally required by the ALP before ex-Communists can join, such a non-party formation would also offer a convenient way-station on the way into the Labor Party.

The centre and majority view was that of the Aarons family in Sydney and their supporters such as Rob Durbridge and Joyce Stevens. They accepted the Taft argument that the Communist Parties had failed to make advances, but argued that there was still room for some kind of broader, independent socialist party outside the ALP. Rob Durbridge pointed out the flaws in the Tafts' proposals:

While the idea (of a new "socialist organisation") may be tolerated by the ALP right, centre and sections of the left as long as the SO was ineffective and confined itself to vague socialist discussions, I cannot believe that it would not be proscribed if it started to tread on toes. If it did not tread on toes it would hardly be worthwhile. If it was proscribed then where would we be... having put all our eggs into a basket that the bottom fell out of! [22]

Other critics pointed out that the CPA lacked the right connections outside Victoria to make the Taft project viable anywhere but in that state.

But what of the proposal for a "new socialist party"? In one sense it had an obvious logic. Certainly the term "Communist" appears incongruous and anachronistic as applied to the politics of the CPA today, and it is undoubtedly an obstacle for those who seek immersion in the political mainstream. It is equally true that the party's politics are now so similar to those of other (reformist-minded) leftists, feminists and trade unionists that the divisions between the Communists and the others sometimes seem arbitrary. Moreover the party is now so loosely organised, and contains within it so many currents of opinion that broadening out further should not be terribly difficult.

Yet in another sense it was most unrealistic. The Aaronses and their supporters appeared to imagine that a regroupment of leftists around the existing Communist Party, together with a further softening of politics, could lead to dramatically increased influence and growth. Thus for example Merv Nixon and a number of other South Coast members claimed that "in many ways it would be true to say that in Australia the Left is growing while the CPA is declining":

The growing peace movement which protests the insanity of the arms race, the women's movement which challenges the hierarchical organisation of a society based on profit and not social need; the increasing autonomous organisation of blacks and other oppressed peoples; the environmental movement all these autonomous organisations are raising sharp criticisms of the capitalist system. The problem is that at this stage, there is no organisation that can adequately fuse these disparate criticisms into a whole, offering a vision and a strategy to successfully challenge capitalism. [23]

A new socialist party, Nixon felt, might do the job. Yet surely the whole argument was illusory. The peace movement was a real force, but politically limited. The women's movement was no longer inclined toward socialism, the black movement was in disarray and the environmentalists represented an established cadre rather than a growing current. (The party was perhaps impressed by the mass support for struggles over the Franklin Dam, but ignored the fact that this support was conditioned by the hostility of influential sections of the ruling class to the dam.)

It was possible, even likely that some activists from the peace and environmental movements might be drawn into a revamped party, as might some trade unionists. It was unlikely that large numbers would be attracted. Most certainly the established feminists had shown no interest. At the same time it was likely that the regroupment process would lead to losses as well as gains. For example, it was possible that the grouping of ex-members of the Socialist Party led by Pat Clancy would join. It was equally possible that they would stay outside, hoping that the left wing of the CPA would be propelled out of the party by an influx of more rightwing elements and would then merge with the Clancy forces.

At the same time there was another danger. By opening up the party to a wider range of people, and watering down its political program in order to make itself more attractive to them, the CPA risked strengthening the centrifugal tendencies which were already strong within it. The party was already more a meeting place for different tendencies than a united organisation. A great many of its members saw their work in various external arenas as more important than the party itself. Within the organisation there were little autonomous fiefdoms (the Tribune collective, the Sydney bookshop, various areas of union work). Holding a new party together might prove quite difficult.

Yet the success of the "new party" proposal was ensured by the sudden departure of the Taft grouping. A statement by 23 members of the Victorian State Committee announced their resignation from the party, on the grounds that their proposals were meeting what they considered pig-headed resistance:

To those who will question why we have not stayed on longer in order to fight for our position ... we say that it is no longer a serious or fruitful option ... it has become impossible to sustain the enthusiasm and will of those who support change in the face of such opposition. [24]

The new "Socialist Forum" established by the Tafts attracted a substantial layer of people from the CPA, plus various academics and union officials (most notably in the public service). It also enjoyed some support in the ALP, (not necessarily among the most leftwing sections) and it seemed likely that this was where the "Socialist Forum" would eventually end up.

The split in Melbourne was a major blow to the Victorian organisation, and while the remaining members rallied and showed some enthusiasm for maintaining the party, it was by no means clear whether morale could be sustained over time in what was now a fairly small organisation.

With the departure of the Taft grouping, the party could postpone a resolution of the debate no longer, and scheduled a special Congress for November 1984. Its result, of course, was a foregone conclusion. The only significant opposition to the Aaronsite perspective came from a rather fragmented and vague left wing, centred in Sydney and on the South Coast.

Revolutionary critics of the Communist Party were not invited to the special Congress. However I was able to listen to tapes of the Sydney district conference held shortly beforehand, which offered a good impression of the various points of view. [25]

Introducing the majority resolution, Brian Aarons said the proposals were aimed at creating a party with "more clout". Yet he proceeded immediately to admit (indeed proclaim) that the CPA leadership had no clear way forward to offer: "We can't keep on pretending we have all the answers". In fact, the leaders had been unable to resolve the fundamental problem raised by the relations between the class struggle and the struggles of the oppressed. Between those like Joyce Stevens who wished to separate the two (and, implicitly at least, downgrade the former in favour of the latter) and those who wished to maintain an emphasis on the working class, the leadership had only

arrived at an "ambiguous compromise". From the outset, therefore, the CPA's attempts to lay the basis for a new party rested on a blurring of fundamentals.

One CPAer argued for the new perspective on a feminist basis, stating that "in many ways Marxism has been an inadequate method to understand women's oppression", and that it was better to think in terms of "a contradiction not to do with class but one which is around how women perceive some of their struggles between men and women". Explicitly anti-Marxist and idealist statements of this type were at no time challenged by the leaders of the majority, though some of them must have disliked the implications. They were too concerned with maintaining the momentum toward change for fear, as one of their supporters put it, that the party was about to "disappear up its own orifice" if the changes did not take place desperately soon.

The left made its main stand on an argument for class politics, and in doing so a number of them made Marxist arguments. The most prominent figures arguing the left point of view were postal worker Brian Carey and trade union official Linda Carruthers. Carruthers challenged those feminists who wished to separate women's liberation from the class struggle:

There is not a united working class. . . But I don't think having said that, that you then proceed to organise as though that will always be the case, should be the case, and can be no other way... Capital imposes those divisions ... I don't think we ought to be seen to be in a position where we're adding our little bit to that process.

But while the left was prepared to challenge bits of the majority resolution, all but a handful nevertheless accepted the general framework. When Carey was attacked for "fundamentalism" his supporters protested that he was in fundamental agreement with the NC resolution, but only wished to clarify it somewhat. And while she opposed the separatist logic of some feminists’ views, Carruthers nevertheless addressed other women present as "sisters" rather than comrades. By and large, moreover, the left argued abstractions. They were not concerned to present alternative practical proposals. The idea of seeking to create a "new socialist party" had effectively become hegemonic.

How was the new party to be created? The beginning would be a process of discussion. CPA members in NSW had been impressed by joint forums which had been held with other leftists, particularly with Clancy's grouping. The CPA proposed to hold more such "socialist forums" which would "involve all socialist groups and individuals sincerely seeking the movement's renewal". It proposed to make attempts to "develop a common program" and to establish local "socialist alliances".[26] One important focus, not too conspicuous in the final Congress resolution but prominent in discussions surrounding it, was electoral work, especially at the local level. Joint left tickets had achieved some success in this area and it was hoped these could be built on.

In the autumn of 1985 it was too early to tell just where the various discussions about forming a new party would lead. Certainly it was not precluded that something might be achieved. It appeared the idea had some support in the public service, and in the NSW Teachers' Federation where Max Taylor took it up with some enthusiasm. On the other hand, it was unlikely that such a new party would be qualitatively larger than the CPA, or wield qualitatively greater influence.

And what was certain was that the events of 1984 signalled the end of Australian Communism as any sort of distinctive current. The former Communists will end up in that mainstream toward which they have been striving so long. They will be part of it because they have liquidated themselves into it politically.

The Communist Party that was launched in 1920 to lead the workers to power in revolutionary struggle is today a political corpse. Anyone who wants to wage a struggle for socialism in the tradition of Marx and Lenin must seek to build an alternative to it. Even the bogus revolutionary pretensions of Stalinism are gone, replaced in the end by nothing but liberal bourgeois politics. That this was the logic of the party's development was foreseen as early as 1968 by Dr Graeme Duncan of Melbourne University, who was allowed to publish his comments in Tribune. His remarks seemed belied for a time in the early seventies, but now provide a fitting speech at the graveside:

"Certainly the Marxist teeth have been drawn, and the new model Australian Communist Party has moved explicitly into the mainstream of western democratic theory. We are all bourgeois gentlemen now. "[27]


1. Financial Review, 11/4/83.

2. Age, 28/1/83.

3. Age, 2/2/83.

4. Age, 1/2/83.

5. Tribune, 27/10/82.

6. Tribune, 13/10/82.

7. Tribune, 4/5/83.

8. Tribune, 20/4/83.

9. Socialist Perspectives on Issues for the '80s, CPA 28th National Congress, 3-4/11/84, Sydney n.d.

10. Financial Review, 16/9/83.

11. Age, 16/9/83.

12. Tribune, 13/7/83.

13. Tribune, 22/8/84.

14. Tribune, 8/8/84.

15. Tribune, 4/5/83.

16. Tribune, 4/5/83. .

17. In Marxism Today, London, December 1984. Quoted in Socialist Worker Review, London, February 1985, p. 17.

18. I have discussed feminism's inability to provide a coherent strategic orientation at more length in my "Behind the Fragments", International Socialist, Summer 1981-82; and "What's Wrong with Disarmament Feminism", Hecate X, i, 1984. See also Janey Stone, Perspectives for Women's Liberation, Redback Press, Melbourne 1981.

19. Tribune, 23/1/80.

20. Praxis, No.25, April 1982, p. 12.

21. The Prospects Discussion; Views and Proposals, CPA, Sydney 1983, p.3.

22. Praxis, No.33, p.38 (my bootlegged photocopy docs not have a date).

23. The Prospects Discussion..., p.34.

24. Tribune, 24/4/84.

25. The quotes without footnotes which follow were all transcribed from this tape.

26. Australian Socialism; a proposal for renewal, CPA, Sydney n d

27. Tribune, 3/7/68.