Into The Mainstream by Tom O’Lincoln

A Party Besieged

Some soldiers in a train were eating bananas, and one of them threw the skins out of the window. His mate said: "You shouldn't throw the skins out there. Someone might slip and get hurt". The thrower of banana skins replied: "Don't worry, the Communists will get the blame for it". — Fred Paterson, Communist MLA[1]

From about 1947 when the CPA took the offensive, a ruling class counteroffensive was also gaining momentum. It had its roots as far back as the meeting of fourteen right wing groups called by Menzies in 1944 to found a new conservative party, but it began in earnest with the onset of the cold war. By 1950 the new Liberal Party had a membership of 150,000 and provided the main focus for a rightwing revival. Others included the ALP Industrial Groups, and employers' bodies including especially the bankers and insurance executives. The scope of the mobilisation is most obvious if we examine the struggle over bank nationalisation. This was a co-ordinated offensive by political and industrial wings of the ruling class:

The mobilisation extended far beyond the Liberal Party, with business publicity and financial resources being coordinated by the banks — the chief manager of the National Bank, L.J. McConnan, working practically full time on the campaign. The Liberal president R.G. Casey, a scion of Mt. Morgan money, raised large campaign funds from English capitalists; Menzies built the issue into a general campaign against rationing and government controls as a foretaste of socialist dictatorship — and the Labor cabinet went down to defeat in 1949, hardly knowing what had hit it.[2]

The ALP leadership did its best to facilitate the rightwing offensive, even though it meant paving the way for its own downfall. Victorian Labor Premier Cain had fought the metal workers tooth and nail in 1947, and Queensland Labor Premier Hanlon had used violence against the railway workers. Chifley backed them both, and himself spearheaded the great counterattack which broke the coal strike. He also amended the Conciliation and Arbitration Act to allow appeals over union elections, a provision that was soon used by the right wing to take over the Ironworkers union.

Labor governments, however, dependent as they are on trade union organisation and working class votes, are poorly placed to carry out open assaults on the working class. By 1949 Australian employers had turned decisively to the Liberals and the extreme right to carry out the task.

While Menzies was winning power in the arena of federal politics, the ALP Industrial Groups were carrying on a growing campaign in the unions. Behind the Groups stood the shadowy "Movement" whose social base lay among rightward moving Irish Catholics. Its leader, Santamaria, was a professional anti-communist whose magazine, known first as Freedom and then as Newsweekly, warned the nation that the Communists were "now in supreme control of the Australian trade union movement. . . Australia stands one step from revolution".[3]

With the aid of the appeals provisions introduced by Chifley and further legislation from Menzies, making it easier to get court-controlled ballots in union elections, the Groupers were able to displace the Communists in a number of unions. Some of them, notably the Federated Clerks and the Ironworkers, remain under extreme rightwing control to this day. The Groupers even won temporary control of the Melbourne Waterside Workers, and for one year forced the CPA out of the leadership of the Miners' Federation.

The anti-Communist campaign soon expanded into an anti-militant campaign, with anyone who tried to be a good trade unionist as fair game. Ultimately as the Groups gained in strength they began to campaign against anyone who would not support them, an orientation which Santamaria made quite explicit:

Firstly they (the Groups) opposed Communists. Secondly they opposed men who helped Communists, even though they might call themselves"good Labor men". Thirdly, they opposed men who considered themselves anti-Communist but who, for their own various reasons, wished to destroy the ALP Group organisation by withdrawing ALP endorsement from the Groups.[4]

By 1951, with the unions greatly weakened by this onslaught, Menzies was ready to hit them with legislation imposing severe penalties for militant action. These were the notorious Penal Powers which hamstrung the more militant unions to a considerable degree, until they were effectively defeated by the Clarrie O'Shea strike of 1969.

Finally the Federal government used economic policy to weaken the union movement by increasing unemployment:

The 1951 "Horror" budget was the first post-war attempt to repress economic activity through fiscal measures. The 1952 budget, though less drastic, continued policies of restraint. . . The significance of Menzies' fiscal policy lies not in its effects on demand, but rather in its impact on the level of unemployment, which increased dramatically during the recession. [5]

The ruling class offensive was successful in its main objectives. Union militancy declined markedly after 1950. Strike days lost, which , had been about two million in 1950, fell to under 900,000 the following year and remained around a million for the following period. Labour's share of the national product fell dramatically during 1952, and stabilised at a level about four percent lower than before the recession of that year.

The success of the ruling class offensive was fairly central to laying the basis for the postwar economic expansion and political conservatisation of Australian capitalism. The rate of exploitation was raised, and a climate of reaction was created in which trade unionists felt powerless. Politically the rule of the Liberal Party was established for over two decades.

Simultaneously there was a quite specific campaign against the Communist Party, waged on many fronts.

Lance Sharkey spent eighteen months in jail for the crime of answering a journalist's question about a hypothetical invasion of Australia by Soviet troops. Sharkey did reply that "Australian workers would welcome Soviet forces pursuing aggressors as the workers welcomed them throughout Europe", but added that such a prospect was "very remote and theoretical" and insisted that "the job of Communists is to struggle to prevent war".[6] The disclaimers did not save him from imprisonment.

Cecil Sharpley, a member of the CPA's Victorian state committee, broke with the party and wrote a series of sensational "revelations" in the Herald, charging ballot-rigging and other crimes. The Victorian 'government seized the opportunity to summon a Royal Commission, only to find that the Commission became a minor victory for the Communists, because the government had made the mistake of appointing a Commissioner with a certain amount of intelligence and integrity. Mr. Justice Lowe found that the CPA did not advocate a minority seizure of power, and that strikes led by Communists were waged genuinely "for the advantages sought in the men's demands". He found no evidence that the Communists were "foreign agents", paid or unpaid, and he found all but one charge of ballot-rigging unproved. Indeed on several counts — ballot rigging, the level of internal democracy, and subservience to the USSR — Lowe was rather more generous to the party than some of its members have been in their memoirs. [7]

Another pathetic attempt was made to frame prominent Communist Ken Miller on a charge of molesting a little girl, but the case collapsed ignominiously when the girl admitted under oath that she had been put up to making the charge.

But temporary victories could not stem the anti-communist tide. There was a wave of petty legal harassment, Ralph Gibson being arrested in Geelong for speaking in the street. Councils cancelled CPA bookings for use of their halls, and in Sydney the Lord Mayor even banned the Central Council of Railway Shop Committees from holding a meeting in the Town Hall, on the grounds that they were "not a registered union".[8] The real reason, of course, was Communist influence in the shop committee.

Left activists resorted to ingenious devices to circumvent the bans. When the Melbourne Town Hall was denied to Mr. John Rodgers for a speech about the Soviet Union,

Mr. Rodgers announced that he would speak and a crowd gathered on the Town Hall steps. And he DID speak. The crowd heard a five-minute recorded address blaring from a microphone in an upper storey of a building nearby. The crowd was then advised to adjourn to the Unitarian Church where Mr. Rodgers spoke at leisure. [9]

While legal harassment could be dodged, it was less amusing dodging the missiles of hecklers. The RSL systematically mobilised hecklers in country towns, plied them with beer, and sent them to break up Communist meetings. Police stood idly by. Gibson observed wryly of one such episode, "it was the tomato season, and before the meeting the local fruiterers were doing a roaring trade in tomatoes. This was a good sign, as tomatoes are actually the softest form of missile".[10]

The campaign against the party reached its climax with Menzies' attempts to ban the CPA altogether. He first introduced a bill to that effect, only to find it held up in parliament for a time by the Labor-dominated Senate, then later ruled unconstitutional by the High Court. He called a double dissolution to remove the first obstacle, then called a referendum with the hope of overcoming the second. Australians would vote on 22 September, 1951 on whether the Communist Party had a right to exist.

The CPA had taken the threat of illegality very seriously from the start. They had gained some experience in underground work during the war and now proceded to make use of it. A number of party leaders went "into smoke" to avoid likely arrest, a Comintern document on illegal work appeared in the Communist Review, and the Review itself ceased legal publication for a time. Four illegal issues, on a trial basis, were published by the "Henry Lawson Press" supposedly operating out of Eurunderee, NSW.

Attempts were made to consolidate and "purify" the membership. Members whose political affiliations were not publicly known were sought out to provide accommodation for Communists who had to stay clear of the authorities.

Above all, the party made a determined campaign to establish unity with anyone who would oppose banning the CPA. Repeated attacks on sectarianism appeared in the party press, with an olive branch even being extended to the Balmain trotskyists. Whereas a few months earlier they had been "fascist rats", Tribune now announced with delight that trotskyist leader Nick Origlass was the chairman of the Mort's Dock "Vote No" Committee. [11] And summing up the struggle in late September, the paper headlined: <>"Lesson of the Referendum is Unity, and Still More Unity".[12]

The most important allies were to be found in the Labor Party. Evatt, who followed Chifley as leader, had decided by 1951 that if the CPA could be banned, the same measures could be used against the ALP. The Federal Executive of the Labor Party voted by eight to four to oppose the referendum, and Evatt threw himself into a vigorous campaign, warning:

It is the Hitler technique all over again. First the Reds, then the Jews, then the trade unions, then the Social Democratic parties, then the Roman Catholic Centre Party, then the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. [13]

The ACTU voted to oppose the most objectionable of Menzies' proposals, and indicated its unease about all of them. A broad spectrum of intellectuals and public figures stated their opposition, and a Democratic Rights Committee held a rally of 2000 in the Melbourne Town Hall. Above all, the Communist rank and file threw itself into the struggle. Letter-boxing, painting slogans, stuffing envelopes became a day and night activity. Even the football grounds were leafletted. And no wonder. John Sendy has recalled the grim future which party members felt might be in store for them:

Central Committee Secretariat member Jack Henry visited Adelaide several times that year. . . Henry attended our state conference, held in a small hall in Coromandel Valley ... I remember him enthralling the delegates with his account of probable illegality and the dangers which existed for active Party members. "There may be sacrifices," his voice rang out, "there will be sacrifices, there need to be sacrifices to inspire the masses to struggle". So as we marched into the red dawn it seemed that some of us might be left to languish in prison or fall before blood-stained walls. [14]

The defeat of the referendum by about 50,000 votes marked the end of Menzies' all-out offensive, and while severe repression continued, the party was never again in such immediate danger. But the results of the onslaught were bad enough. Membership had fallen by half, from twelve to six thousand. Vic Williams, long-time Footscray Section Secretary, remembers once standing outside the party bookshop in 1952 and watching seven people walk by one after another, all ex-Communists! [15] And as serious in the long run as the numerical losses were the effects on morale, consciousness and the style of party work.

Internal Factors in the Party's Decline

HOW HAD the party fallen so far so fast? Repression of course is part of the explanation, but it does not seem enough to explain the severity of the setbacks, for a communist organisation is supposed to be able to face repression. The period of setbacks after mid-1949 revealed a number of serious weaknesses within the CPA which had laid hidden beneath the surface.

Retreat is a more complicated and difficult exercise than taking the offensive. All sorts of new and, for those accustomed to militant action, distastefully slow and unrewarding areas of work have to be entered. Above all, reality has to be looked squarely in the face, and the need for retreat fully accepted. But the party found it hard to accept reality, and was ill-equipped for the complexities of retreat.

For eighteen months after the defeat in the coal fields, the CPA leadership pressed on with a perspective of immediate gains just around the corner. The coal strike itself was claimed as a victory, on the grounds that the miners had exposed the "ALP traitors inside and outside their organisations," [16] and Tribune went so far as to declare:

The way is open for taking further offensives in future to see that the capitalist class never again escape with their callous policy of unloading their depression losses at the expense of hunger and want for the working class. (Emphasis added.) [17]

The party held out similarly unrealistic hopes for what could be accomplished in the 1949 Federal elections, arguing that "there is little doubt that we can achieve a big swing to Communists as the only real alternative to treacherous Labor politicians ... we are out to win".[18]

The CPA did pick up some extra votes from militants outraged by Chifley's role during the coal strike. But of course the winner was Menzies. The CPA reacted to his victory by calling for a united front, and immediately claimed the most outlandish successes for it, announcing in Tribune: "Bosses Wilting Under United From Pressure"[19] and reporting that Communists in the factories had been besieged by Labor Party workers clamouring for a united front. And even as late as April 1951, Jack Henry told an unbelieving world that "the time is approaching when the factories can be made fortresses of Communism".[20]

It is no wonder if members were quickly exhausted or demoralised, when they had to face workmates or political contacts armed with such an unrealistic political perspective.

A second basic weakness was the style of leadership, both in the party and in the unions, which was bureaucratic, manipulative and elitist. There was a cult surrounding Sharkey and Miles. When Sharkey was jailed, a pamphlet was produced about his life which concluded by comparing him to Lenin. [21] Speeches at Central Committee meetings and Congresses often began with the words, "I fully agree with the remarks made by Comrade Sharkey" or something to that effect. The same adulation was extended in more moderate form to other leaders. For example, in Frank Hardy's book The Hard Way we read that "Ralph Gibson will not die, rather he will wear himself out in the service of the people then lie down to rest".[22] And of Ted Hill:

There is an air of tremendous strength about him that inspires others to greater fortitude. He can hold a situation together and prevent panic. He can be ruthless when the struggle calls for ruthlessness, yet he can be warm and sympathetic, making allowances when the luxury of tolerance can be afforded. [23]

If a man of Hardy's ego could write that way about the leadership, it is a comment on what the average party member was expected to think. As Sharkey later grudgingly admitted, "The idea was created, flowing from Stalin and his cult, that the workers had to have leaders in whom they could have confidence." [24]

This idea was applied to trade union officials in similar measure. Every effort was made to turn Jim Healy and Ernie Thornton into folk heroes. The thoroughly elitist nature of the cult emerges best from the passage in John Morrison's novella Black Cargo, in which the Communist union official Manion is pictured looking at wharfies in the pub:

He was seeking courage in the soiled and lively faces. Ill-informed no doubt, but staunch as cradled brothers and forthright as children. Easily led as long as the path had all the outward appearance of loyalty. Easily baffled by the plausible and hypocritical scheming of the (rightwing) Nesses and Heffners. Indomitable under the (Communist) Healys and Elliots. [25]

The personality cults were backed up by the use of pseudo-Marxist "science" to dazzle the naive. By "science" was meant a kind of absolute truth which was the property of the experts. Zelda D'Aprano no doubt expressed the feelings of many when she wrote:

Our leaders made lengthy reports and speeches and I never questioned what they said. I was always overawed by their intelligence, ability to express themselves and their composure. I never questioned a doctor when giving a diagnosis, and it was the same in the party. One never questioned the experts. [26]

Elitist attitudes went hand in hand with undemocratic practices in the party and in the unions. That is not to say that party conferences were not formally democratic. It is sometimes imagined that the Communist Party was an armed camp with whip-wielding commissars, but in reality the mechanisms of control were normally relatively subtle. Rather than a reign of terror, there was often a reign of speechifying, with all the top leaders making lengthy reports which pre-empted any serious discussion. Anyone bold enough to disagree was as likely to be attacked by the membership as by the leaders, as one activist remembers:

to oppose views from people in leadership positions... was seen incorrectly as the voice expressing views of the class enemy. This was seen as planned disruption... and was not to be tolerated by the "party."
The general approach was to rally to the leadership and deal blow after blow at the malcontents. [27]

Just as often, potential critics were dissuaded in advance — again by their fellow rank and file members. W.J. Brown noted that "Too often when somebody raises a criticism we hear the phrase, 'You'll get done.' Then fear of 'getting done' becomes a fetter on criticism." [28]

A similar pattern emerged in the unions, with drastic consequences in some cases. When CPA officials were defeated in union elections after 1949, Ted Hill found himself forced to record the reaction of the rank and file in these terms:

I have heard it said that it will do some of these trade union officials good, that they be defeated in these ballots and be returned to the workshops ... I have heard it said that they have been guilty of bureaucracy, that they have failed to develop Party organisation down below, that they are economistic and various other phrases about trade union officials. [29]

In an attempt to save themselves from the challenge of the Industrial Groups, Communist officials sometimes resorted to ballot-rigging. Daphne Gollan, who worked in the office of the Ironworkers union, has confirmed this fact and explained the elitist justification which was advanced:

Those who argued for adjustment of union ballots, recognising it as an evil necessity of course, said that beleaguered as we were in the unions ... we could not allow the enemy into policy-making bodies...
After all, the long term objectives of the socialist movement could not be jeopardised by the errors or failures of our short term policies, or halted because the rank and file were temporarily misled by the overwhelming barrage of lies from the reactionaries... The use of dishonest expedients to gain time brought its own punishment. . . the time gained never was used to reassess policies...
Adjustment of ballots continued, with the hope that sooner or later, the rank and file would catch up, come to realise the correctness of party policy. Needless to say, the perspectives of party and masses, far from converging, drew further apart. [30]

Political initiatives were forced on union memberships bureaucratically, while bread and butter issues were neglected, so that in 1951 Dixon could attribute electoral setbacks on the wharves to "neglect of the economic issues, the day-to-day questions" while concentrating on political strikes.31

The party was also paying the price for dampening militancy during the war. In their all out push for war production CPA officials had weakened the shop committee movement, but now with the right wing on the offensive, shop committees were one important way Communists could retain influence on the shop floor even if official positions were lost. In some areas, such as the power industry in NSW, the CPA was able to do just this. But in other areas, it proved very difficult to revive shop committees that had lost their dynamic quality during the war. Even worse, as Ted Rowe discovered, many left officials had become afraid to do so:

a certain temerity had emerged within some of us in union jobs who were inclined not to relish the enfilading from the flank, which was very often very healthy working class criticism. [32]

The elitism and bureaucratism in the unions led to setbacks for two basic reasons. First, they discredited Communists in the eyes of the rank and file and gave ammunition to the right wing opposition. Second and probably most important, they demobilised the militants who were the party's own base, or at least discouraged critical thinking and imagination among them — qualities that are especially important in a period of retreat.

Within the party, the same weaknesses led to decline for similar reasons. Members trained in parroting dogma, and unaccustomed to open debate, were ill-equipped to defend the party in the face of intense ideological attack. Abuses were hard to correct: Vic Williams remembers raising problems of minor corruption among the union officials in his section, only to find that "people at the top were just closing their eyes", and discovered that if you relayed criticism from your branch members, "it was immediately imputed that you held that criticism yourself." [33] But perhaps the most scandalous example was the "Party Consolidation" episode of 1954. In that year, when the worst defeats were over and the situation had stabilised, the party leadership attempted to produce some assessment of the period 1949-51 and explain the setbacks, with an eye to consolidating the party on a new course. The result was very sad indeed.

The blame was, predictably, placed on "ultraleftism" and sectarianism. This was, as we have seen, a very one-sided approach but what was worse was that the whole responsibility was dumped on the doorstep of two individuals, Jack Blake and Jack Henry. The Central Committee disinterred the Victorian draft resolution of 1946, written by Blake, to show the historic roots of his errors. It blamed him and Henry for leftism in general, for leading the party astray when Sharkey was in jail, and even for attempting to seize control of the party while Sharkey was out of the way. Now, several years later, these alleged sins were suddenly brought to light and Blake and Henry were removed from the Secretariat even though they had "given no sign of resuming their earlier activities." The two scapegoats were then obliged to publish grovelling statements approving the verdict, Blake admitting that "my activities in the period referred to were a grave menace to the Party, and the Party owes a great debt to Comrades Sharkey and Dixon who led the Party out of this danger." He promised to correct his errors and to "eliminate all forms of subjectivism from my make up." [34]

Nothing about the appalling manipulation by Communist union officials; no assessment of the internal life of the party. In fact, the scapegoating of Blake and Henry could only make the real problems worse. It could only reinforce the authoritarianism of the remaining leaders and make middle cadres wary of taking initiatives. As for the substance of the criticism — the attacks on ultraleftism and sectarianism — it only paved the way for an increasing conservatism and timidity in party work, including in some cases a positive fear of industrial militancy.

The focus on unity which arose with the struggle against the attempt to ban the party found its reflection in the practice of running "unity tickets" for union office. These were joint tickets of Communist and Labor Party supporters with policies based on the lowest common denominator. Care was taken to avoid initiatives that might alienate ALP officials, and to avoid excluding them from leadership in unions where the CPA was strong. By this means the party rapidly regained its strength in the union bureaucracy so that by 1958 it had won back most of the ground lost since the forties. But at what price?

It is instructive to note that while party membership grew for a time in the mid-fifties, it by no means grew as quickly as the party's bureaucratic union strength. And it fell again after 1956 without substantially affecting that hold on official positions. There were two factors at work here. On the one hand, a combination of increasing prosperity, the defeat of the left offensive of the late forties, and the sustained ideological and legal onslaught from the right had reduced both the urgency and the appeal of radical politics in the eyes of many workers, while militant trade unionism around economic issues still offered tangible rewards. Workers might therefore elect Communist officials who were seen as effective union leaders, without being interested in radical politics. (To be sure, many workers had always adopted this attitude, but postwar conditions were designed to intensify the problem.)

At the same time, it seems clear that the CPA was now winning union positions not by distinguishing itself from the ALP officials, as it had generally done in decades past, but by merging into the mainstream. This might win union jobs, but would not provide workers with any reason to join the CPA. But if the numbers of the officials grew, without a corresponding growth among the working class rank and file, that could only mean that the party's industrial work would be increasingly dominated by the bureaucrats, with a consequent tendency to conservatise the work.

The consequences have been well summarised by Jack Mundey, who in 1970 described the postwar union work of the CPA in these trenchant words:

...when a group of workers was involved in a struggle... after a few days or a week an array of union officials ranging from extreme right to extreme left would turn up and urge them... to return to work to avoid the penal powers being slapped on... the "left" officials usually justified this as being "in the interests of the class as a whole"... There was too much readiness to settle rather than set out to win disputes. [35]

It is worth discussing one specific example of what this style of work meant in practice. Vic Williams, then a power worker, got together with a few other Communists to set up a shop committee at Melbourne's Newport power station. They were "practically begged" to set it up by the workers, and were soon able to contact other stations and establish shop committees in them as well. After a prolonged agitation about the fact that wages were lower among these workers than their counterparts in NSW, the stage was set in 1961 for a 24 hour strike. The strike would be illegal but it was obvious that the militants had mass support. "Prior to that," says Williams, "there was a sort of Communist leadership in the SEC but all it did was make pronouncements. . . They were so afraid of ilie SEC. ..." But now this section of the working class, previously neglected by the mainstream union officials, was about to enter a major struggle, with the Communist Party on the ground floor, after two years ot work by its members. How did the party leadership respond?

Right on time came the 24 hour stoppage... and the State Executive decided otherwise! I did my block and went off in high dudgeon. I remember a great delegation of trade union officials coming out to Newport power station, they came over the bridge. I saw them coming, and went out to meet them. And as they came down the steps I called out to them, "It's no bloody use, the stoppage is going on." Laurie Carmichael was in front, and he just laughed and said, "Oh yes, I guess it is." He was a bit of a realist. [36]

And the strike did go ahead against the desires of the CPA leadership, setting the stage for a historic period of militancy among Victorian power workers that culminated in the 1977 Latrobe Valley strike. But the party leaders would have stifled it at birth.

Turning Inward

IN A PERIOD of defeat, the greatest danger is that the activists will turn inward. It is hard to talk to non-Communists, and tempting to spend all your time talking to comrades. From here it is only a short step to bitterness and contempt for other people. This is the road to sectarian isolation, and not a few Communists travelled it, as Jack Blake made clear as early as 1951:

The conditions of the early post-war years ... led to a defensive spirit among some party members, linked with a turning inwards for the comfort of being among like-minded people.
Of course this tendency was not consciously thought out in this way — it expressed itself mainly in evading the political struggle, shifting ground under pressure...
Basically our sectarianism is related to an inability or unwillingness to undertake political work among the working people who are not Communists or who are not even close to the Communist Party.[37]

Blake was writing about the late forties, when things were polarised but at least the left was winning some victories. How much worse these tendencies must have become in the early fifties! The passage suffers from the usual CPA leader's habit of placing all the blame on the rank and file, but it is insightful nonetheless.

If members were evading the political struggle, they had some good reasons. The wages struggle on the job was something Communists could agree about with fellow workers fairly easily, and they could even win support and popularity among other militants on this account. Getting a hearing for Communist politics was far more difficult. Winning an argument about the merits of Soviet Russia was well-nigh impossible, except in isolated left-wing bastions like the Seamen's Union. But even the Peace Movement propaganda, which had a moderate language and popular appeal, did not excite much real enthusiasm in a working class battered by a series of defeats.

After a period of frustration, many Communists began to turn bitterly inward. An internal party document of the time offers a graphic account of their sentiments:

(There is) a lack of faith in the strength and potentialities of the Australian working class and the Communist Party. "They (the working class) will not accept Socialism — they may in the distant future after the capitalists have kicked their guts in."

Having turned away from the masses, the next step was to leave politics altogether. The internal document indicates quite bluntly how many comrades were tempted to do just that, quoting members' statements as follows:

"I've done my bit in the past (or I'll do my little bit now), let others have a go...I've been a fool so long — depriving myself of things while the rest of the so and so's looked after themselves — now it's my turn..."
Some comrades spoke of fearing to come out openly as a Communist for fear of being "branded" and suffering the social stigma associated with being a Communist in the eyes of many today, thus ruining their chances of "becoming something" socially. . . Others leave jobs where they have won considerable mass influence for jobs with higher pay, or where the struggle appears to be easier. [38]

The party was also pervaded by paranoia, and understandably so. Communists faced one witch-hunt after another, were often victimised at work, and found their children being harassed. Frank Hardy's account in The Hard Way of the repression and harassment he faced while writing Power Without Glory is only a somewhat more spectacular version of what others faced. But while the Communists' fears were understandable, a fascination with security could only hamper recruitment. Potential members were not likely to feel comfortable in a party that was constantly looking over its shoulder, and branches often approached potential recruits with more suspicion than enthusiasm.

In 1956 W J. Brown went so far as to say that the fear of spies was hurting democracy in the organisation, because whenever someone raised a critical viewpoint, "Very quickly some party member suggests there might be more behind such criticism than meets the eye..." Brown pointed out that in fact the best guarantee of security is free political discussion:

Quick stifling of criticism provides the atmosphere in which police agents can flourish.
Genuine criticism that could lead to uncovering a police agent remains unspoken. Chance incidents that might lead to uncovering a provocateur go unmentioned because we have failed to create a free atmosphere for exercise of criticism... [39]

Given the setbacks and problems, however, it is remarkable how many Communists survived the cold war with their confidence in socialism (of some kind) and the working class intact. Unfortunately, they often did so at the cost of a retreat into blind and dogged faith, a process which the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci once summed up very well:

When you don't have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance. "I have been defeated for the moment, but the tide of history is working for me in the long run."
Real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history. . . [40]

This "mechanical determinism" is an expression of perseverance and dedication and so contains a healthy element. But for cadres forced to live with it for two decades, it inevitably leads to permanent distortions: they get in the habit of thinking in terms of slow, gradual change. In the late sixties, when both students and young workers produced explosive struggles and were bursting with anger and impatience, far too many Communists, shaped more than they realised by the years of downturn, responded with annoyance at these ignorant youngsters who didn't understand that "things take time".

And even in the fifties, while "mechanical determinism" could be forgiven in the rank and file activist, it could hardly be forgiven in those who formulated party programs. In the passage quoted above, Gramsci had gone on to explain that if it were taken up by the leadership and made into a political principle, "it becomes a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency".[41] Yet the leaders, more perhaps than the rank and file, were fascinated with a number of articles of political faith that bore little relation to the reality around them. One was the perspective for building a "mass" party in the immediate future, a perspective which Jack Blake later recalled with some acerbity:

In 1958 the "mass party" conception was embodied in the Party membership target of several tens of thousands; the idea being some forty or fifty thousand members, or twice our best wartime figure. By 1961, still pursuing the same conception, the slogan calling for doubling the Party membership was put forward... [42]

The fantasy of massive growth prospects was based in turn on the belief, held to grimly throughout most of the postwar boom, that a cataclysmic economic crisis was imminent. Sharkey's prediction of "growing political as well as economic crisis," [43] made in 1958, is a sample of the splendid disregard which the party leadership entertained for economic reality.

Such pronouncements produced a remarkable sort of behaviour among the membership. Some members no doubt simply laughed them off, and a number of others tried to act on the basis of them. The majority, however, inevitably became schizophrenic: in one compartment of their mind they accepted them, believed them, and would even sometimes defend them heatedly; at the same time, they did little if anything about them. They were articles of faith, not perspectives for action.

The unfortunate consequence was that even perspectives that deserved to be acted upon got the same treatment. For example the peace movement of the fifties, whatever political criticisms one might make of it, certainly did arouse popular sympathy as the huge meetings and massive signature campaigns proved. Yet it was hard to get the party membership enthusiastic about building it, leading Jack Blake to complain that it took some time even for the Central Committee to "grasp the central position which the struggle for peace must occupy", let alone the rank and file. [44] Similarly on the question of sexism, then called "male supremacy", there were continual exhortations from the leaders for male members to take work among women seriously, or to do housework and so free their wives to do political work. One reason these appeals were disregarded was undoubtedly that the personal record of the individual leaders did not match their own rhetoric, but another was that these pronouncements appeared as simply another abstract ideal to which lip service must be paid — and little else.

Party work tended to get into deep ruts. Vic Williams recalls that he was always dismayed by the fact that "too often you'd find people who should have been doing the work couldn't see beyond making a general pronouncement" and were incapable of "the sort of spark that generated leaflets here and committees there".[45] Branches clung to tried and true methods of work, and every meeting was like every other. In her novel Bobbin Up, Dorothy Hewitt has provided a portrayal of the atmosphere of a CPA branch in the fifties. Nell, the heroine, is a shop steward in a textile mill. She wants to put out a job bulletin with a lively style.

"Well, I don't know, Nell," said the section secretary. "I don't like the tone of it much. Doesn't sound... dignified to me..."
"There ought to be more of the Party's policy in the thing." Mick Shannan was laying down the law. "There's not a straight-out political article in the whole bulletin. Now when I was gettin' out a political bulletin in the AWU..."
"It doesn't sound nice," Rae said firmly. "I don't think the girls would like it. Nell often exaggerates, and she hasn't got anythin' about peace in the bulletin."
"Have you taken it down to the Centre yet, Nell? The Centre ought to see it before it's roneoed."
"It's got to be out by tomorrer," Nell said stubbornly. "Anyway we can't always be wet-nursed by the Centre."
"It'll probably all fizzle out anyway." Rita shrugged her plump shoulders.- "When I was in the clothin' trade..."
"I move we pass onter the political discussion. We haven't had a decent political discussion since I came inter this branch."
"Oh! Snow, for Christ's sake shut up," Nell thought, but she only said quietly, "This is the political discussion, Snow." [46]

And just as Nell found her branch more hindrance than help, so did many activists find party campaigns an obstacle to real work. Dulcie Mortimer remembered:

For a long time we had Party-building drives — in themselves narrow, inward-looking — absorbing a great deal of time of most members of local organisations in a fruitless search for a magic formula; while on the other hand a thinning band of mass workers, who were gaining valuable experience among real people, were becoming more and more frustrated. Nobody was interested in what they were doing; it didn't seem to have any bearing in the arid atmospheres of local discussions. [47]

Still a Major Force

OF COURSE we must not overstate the case. For all the setbacks both in numbers and in consciousness., the Communist Party remained the most important organisation outside the ALP promoting progressive and radical causes, and was still able to do so on a large scale. In fact, considering the conservatisation of most of society, its role became perhaps proportionately more important. And its members were involved — indeed the moving force in — a great many activities.

"It didn't matter what happened," says Vic Williams, "if some school committee hit the headlines, you could bet your life, there'd be some Communist Party member at the school, and he'd be organising. I used to pick up the paper when I was a Communist Party organiser and I'd be amazed; I'd see all these issues and I knew someone who'd be running them." He even recalls a story, probably apocryphal, that the CPA had a fraction in the Masons. When called upon to report they replied that they couldn't do so because, as Masons, they were sworn to secrecy.48

To get a sense of the scope of the party's mass work in this period —but also simultaneously of its limitations — let's look at some concrete examples.

Peace was an obvious and urgent issue in the fifties, as both superpowers were developing gigantic nuclear arsenals. Lest one imagine that this country could remain on the sidelines, there was Menzies to declare that "Australia must be ready for war in three years," [49] and the participation of Australian forces in the Korean conflict. The prospect of nuclear warfare was immediate and moderately terrifying, and we must remember that people in those days had not yet had decades to become used to the idea of nuclear weapons. The left and especially the Communists could therefore build a sizeable campaign against the war danger.

A World Peace Council had been formed in Paris in 1949 after a meeting which attracted 2000 delegates, and by October of that year there were committees in 70 countries. In Australia a peace organisation was relatively easy to establish, as a section of its natural constituency among intellectuals and clergy was already more or less organised. These were the groups that had campaigned for free speech and the right to use public halls for various leftists. Many of their members moved directly into the peace movement.

The movement held its first Peace Congress in April 1950 featuring Dr. Hewlett Johnson, the "Red Dean of Canterbury" and author of The Socialist Sixth of the World as guest speaker, Hewlett attracted crowds of ten thousand people to the Melbourne Exhibition Building twice in one week and the organisers raised £10,000 — a lot of money in those days. Two years later the Eureka Youth League, youth section of the CPA, and other organisations sponsored a Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship, which became a centre of controversy when Menzies refused to allow the Chinese delegates to enter Australia. But despite —or perhaps because of— such official opposition, the Carnival was a massive success, attracting 2,364 participants and crowds as large as 30,000.

These successes were achieved, moreover, despite proscription of the movement by the Labor Party. After the split with the Groupers in 1955, Labor moved back toward the Left and it became possible for peace organisations to make new overtures to ALP members. To this end the movement was reorganised, both to get around the proscription and to present something of a new face to the world. A Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament was held in Melbourne in 1959, and leading Labor and union personalities were induced to attend. This ought to have been the beginning of a new period of growth.

The potential was not realised, and part of the reason appears to be that the Communist Party was increasingly tied up with divisions over the Sino-Soviet split. [50] By the time it had put that problem, and the split with the Australian Maoists, behind it the Vietnam war had appeared on the scene and the old peace issues and organisations began to merge into a new antiwar movement. In fact the power of the movement against the Vietnam war seems nowadays to have totally overshadowed previous peace work in public awareness.

Yet the older movement had its importance. At a time when the world seemed to be moving rapidly toward nuclear war, and the cold war atmosphere was being used to erode civil liberties, the peace campaigns undoubtedly represented an important check on the Menzies government. In the 1980s, as a new mass movement against nuclear weapons emerges internationally and in Australia, it becomes especially important to look at the political lessons of these experiences. Unfortunately, the peace movement of the 1950s reflected all too clearly the Communist Party's drift to the right.

The central political thrust was multilateral disarmament: "For a Pact of Peace Between the Five Great Powers".[51] The world's ruling classes would somehow, under pressure from their populations, agree to eliminate war. Unilateral disarmament, the slogan which lent such a radical cutting edge to the disarmament movement in Britain, was never seriously considered in Australia. Had it been, the CPA would undoubtedly have seen it, as did its sister party in Britain until very late, as upsetting the orderly progress of big power negotiation. Nor did the Australian peace movement have any class politics: there was a clear assumption that only lunatics could favour nuclear bombs, and that all the people of the world bar a few evil conspirators could therefore be united against them. "All the women in the world want peace, and... a thousand million women can't be wrong." [52] In consequence the peace propaganda was often remarkably insipid. One could not, of course, expect the Communist Party of the fifties to have more than a dim recollection of Lenin's viewpoint:

An end to wars, peace among the nations, the cessation of pillaging and violence — Such is our ideal, but only bourgeois sophists can seduce the masses with this idea, if the latter is divorced from a direct and immediate call for revolutionary action. [53]

But one would have hoped for something a bit more feisty than this proposal for antiwar struggle, which appeared in the Victorian newsletter of the CPA-influenced Union of Australian Women:

Let us teach our children that there are other ways of settling differences than by war... Let us teach them above all, to be human, and to do as they would be done by... If we cannot reach the children of tender years through their mothers, then let us try to reach them through other ways.
Example One. School teachers who belong to the UAW or perhaps their husbands who are school teachers could work the Peace Plan into their history, explaining to them after a lesson on Battles how wrong it is to kill, especially people who are undefended.
Example Two. By approaching the teachers of Sunday School classes. I approached my son's Sunday School teacher...
Example Four. By getting up a Petition to be signed by members of the Community to say that they lie in dread of their little children passing school age, in case they are claimed for war. [54]

This rather passive quality in the propaganda went together with a certain fascination for petition campaigns — the most passive form of political expression. Of the eight million signatures collected for the Vienna Peace Appeal internationally in 1954, Australia contributed 300,000. One man, W.J. Ross, made his run for the Guiness Book of Records by collecting 6000 all by himself. Unfortunately, unless there is some form of struggle, such expressions of public opinion do not overly impress the power brokers of the world, although they do manage to consume the energies of countless activists.

A second political problem was the implicit pro-Sovietism of the movement. The peace organisations contained large majorities of non-Communists, but between the superior organising ability of the CPA and the naive illusions cherished by their liberal allies about the "socialist camp", the peace organisations nevertheless clung to the belief that the western powers were the only threat to peace. While it was undoubtedly correct for the peace movement to direct its concrete agitation against western nuclear weapons — since it was operating in the west — the uncritical attitude to the Russian bomb and to Russian

policy in general was a drawback. It meant that rightwing charges that the peace movement was only a trojan horse for a foreign power appeared plausible to many people, and after the events of 1956 it also cost the peace organisations the support of some activists.

In the work among women many of the same political features emerged. Here too, we must emphasize at the start that the Union of Australian Women, formed after the decline of the New Housewives' Association and noticeably less militant, was nevertheless far in advance of any other group of women in Australian society at the time. They carried on the battle for equal pay and other aspects of women's rights in a society that was increasingly hostile. They demonstrated in the face of police repression and published magazines that took up such issues as women's rights at work. Yet little could be achieved in these areas for some time, and for the majority of the membership there was a retreat into charitable work, making sandwiches for the school canteen or raising money for nurseries.

"Nearly every UAW woman was a member of a mother's club, if they had children," says one of the longest standing UAW activists. Nor would we want to suggest that such work is wrong in principle: communists must be prepared to work just about anywhere in a difficult period. But the effects of a decade or more of luncheons and charity work on the spirit and consciousness of Communist women must have been deadening; worse, it came to be seen as the normal way for Communists to operate. And when in the late sixties and early seventies, women really did begin to be radicalised, the new Women's Liberation movement simply by-passed the UAW, which could not cope with the new style of work and new attitudes toward politics and personal life. The same activist remembers:

When Women's Lib started, some of the older women were a bit shocked by some of the things that went on in Women's Lib, and they wouldn't have a bar of that. The younger women felt this, and they sort of felt that the UAW was old hat. They didn't want to have a bar of it or anything to do with it. [55]

The CPA also put a lot of effort into establishing trade union women's committees, more or less on the model of the Miners' Women's Auxiliaries. These committees helped to inform wives of the principles of trade unionism and about their husbands' work experiences, for example by organising workplace tours. Sometimes they mobilised them for strike support. All too often, however, they remained largely in the role of "hewers of cake and drawers of tea", or engaged in charitable activity designed to ease the loneliness of seamen's wives or help the children of strikers.

In themselves such activities have their place, of course. Moreover some committees that began life this way went on to more political activities. For example, the Waterside Workers' women's committee was first agreed to by the union "mainly to assist in the union canteen", but by 1956 it was playing a militant support role in the wharfies' national strike and its members were being invited to stopworks. [56]

However, to the extent that Communists found themselves trapped in relatively passive and apolitical roles, the work among women became part of the trend toward stagnation, conservatism, and ultimately accommodation of the party to mainstream Australian life.

1. Quoted on a CPA leaflet, "They Lie About Communists", n.d.

2. Bob Connell and Terry Irving, "The Making of the Australian Industrial Bourgeoisie: 1930-1975", Intervention No.10/11, August 1978, p.22.

3. Quoted in Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists, ANU, Canberra 1975, p.170.

4. Quoted in ibid., p. 175.

5. Rick Kuhn, "A Poor Start to Prosperity", International Socialist, No.8, Autumn 1979, p.9.

6. Tribune, 9/3/49.

7. Quoted in Ralph Gibson,My Years in the Communist Party, Melbourne 1966, p. 156. Some rather more critical memoirs are cited elsewhere in the present work.

8. Tribune, 9/3/49.

9. Gibson, op. cit., p. 138.

10. Ibid., p.139.

11. Tribune, 1/8/51.

12. Tribune, 26/9/51.

13. Quoted in Gollan, op. cit., p.268.

14. John Sendy, Comrades Come Rally, Melbourne 1978, p.64.

15. Vic Williams, interview with the author, 7 October 1981.

16. Tribune, 13/8/49. .

17. Ibid.

18. Tribune, 31/8/49.

19. Tribune, 7/1/51.

20. Tribune, 28/4/51.

21. W.A. Wood, The Life of L.L. Sharkey, Fighter for Freedom, Sydney 1950, p.16.

22. Frank Hardy, The Hard Way, Melbourne 1961, p.40.

23. Ibid., p.95.

24. L.L. Sharkey, "CPSU 20th Congress an Epoch-Making Event", in Basic Questions of Communist Theory, Sydney 1957, p.23.

25. John Morrison, Black Cargo, Melbourne 1955, p.224.

26. Zelda D'Aprano, ZWtfa, the Becoming of a Woman, Melbourne 1977, p.75.

27. R. Marriot, untitled article in Discussion No.l, November 1967, p.14. This was a CPA internal discussion journal.

28. Communist Review, September 1956, p.302.

29. Communist Review, May 1952, p.147.

30. Daphne Gollan, "The Memoirs of 'Cleopatra Sweatfigure' ", Part II, in Extra Papers, Women and Labour Conference, May 1978, p.102.

31. Communist Review, October 1951, p.945.

32. Communist Review, November 1948, p.339.

33. Vic Williams, op. cit.

34. Tribune, 3/11/54. The party has since declared that it was wrong to scapegoat Blake and Henry. See "CPA NC Resolution", Australian Left Review, No.76, June 1981.

35. Jack Mundey, "Towards New Union Militancy", interview in Australian Left Review, August-September 1970, p.3.

36. Vic Williams, op. cit.

37. Communist Review, September 1956, p.302.

38. Untitled internal document, duplicated, issued by "Central Cadres and Education Committee", 4 June, 1956, p.11. In possession of the author.

39. Communist Review, September 1956, p.302.

40. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, New York 1971, p.336.

41. Ibid.,p.33T.

42. Jack Blake, "Party and People", Discussion Journal, No.l, March 1967, p.30. This was an internal CPA discussion journal.

43. Report ofL.L. Sharkey to 18th Congress, Sydney 1958, p.18.

44. Communist Review, October 1951, p.947.

45. Vic Williams, op. cit.

46. Dorothy Hewitt, Bobbin Up, Melbourne 1959, p. 127.

47. Dulcie Mortimer, "On Some Welcome Changes", Discussion Journal, No.3, Mav 1967, p.82.

48. Vic Williams, op. cit.

49. Quoted in Ralph Gibson, op. cit., p.160.

50. Sam Goldbloom suggested this obliquely in a talk at the "Communists and the Labour Movement" conference, Melbourne 1980. Cf. Sam Goldbloom et al., "The Peace Movement", tape in Latrobe Library, Melbourne.