Into The Mainstream by Tom O'Lincoln

The Monolith Cracks

Faced with a hostile political climate in Australia, the Communists often consoled themselves with the thought of their comrades' triumphs abroad. The Communists had come to power throughout Eastern Europe, replacing fascist rule and beginning reconstruction; they had won a great civil war in China and achieved control of parts of Korea and Vietnam. John Sendy has related just how important these victories were for one member of the CPA:

George Robertson found great solace in the Chinese victories. He literally cheered them on. "You bloody beauty," he would yell as the fall of Soochow or Hangchow was announced on the radio. Yet George did not know where any of these places were. After cheering he would look confused – "John, where in the bloody hell is Soochow?" [1]

Immense faith in the world movement was, in turn, tied to an immense faith in Joseph Stalin. That famous grandfatherly face peering out reassuringly from countless walls, and the simple, Grimm-Brothers writing style lulled you naturally into a sort of complacency. The CPA rank and file undoubtedly accepted at face value, therefore, the first articles in the party newspaper which insisted: "Don't fall for press stories of attacks on the late J.V. Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."[2]

But the complacency was soon to be shattered. Khrushchev, the rising new Soviet leader, had attacked Stalin only three years after his death, in guarded terms at public sessions but much more bluntly in a secret speech – which was soon leaked to the New York Times. While the public speech only criticised the "cult of personality" which had surrounded the leader, the secret speech told a tale of horror: murder of political opponents, political terror, criminal irresponsibility during the Second World War, distortion of history. Everything that the western press, as well as the trotskyists, had been saying for decades was revealed to be true.

And Communists who read the secret speech could not really doubt its authenticity, as Sendy makes clear:

Jim Moss and I took it in turns to go to the public library on North Terrace to read the speech in the New York Times. Each of us returned ashen-faced, believing that what we read was authentic. It seemed to explain so many things which had been difficult to comprehend – the fact that so many old Soviet Communist leaders had been found guilty of spying, the unanimity which marked the proceedings of the CPSU, aspects of Soviet literature, the doctors' plot, the excommunication of Yugoslavia, and so on.[3]

It was a shock to the system and later in the year it was to be followed by another, when Soviet armed forces intervened to crush a workers' uprising in Hungary. An entire dream world which had been so crucial to the morale of Australian Communists was under threat, and the party leadership waged a determined battle to save it.

Unlike some western parties, the CPA refused to admit publicly that the secret speech was genuine. Unlike the British party, which had a major debate forced on it by dissidents – and whose own newspaper correspondent supported the workers of Budapest – it was able to suppress any real discussion of the Hungarian events. Critics soon found themselves expelled, if they did not resign first, and this general closing of ranks around support for the Kremlin was largely accepted by the party's cadre.

Even so, there had to be some discussion at leadership level and some assessment of the issues that had been raised. In the course of this process, the seeds of future change were sown.

There were several closely linked issues. Firstly the attack on the "cult of personality" which had surrounded Stalin. Secondly, a criticism of the previous attitude of Communists to parliament and the social-democratic parties; and thirdly, the Hungarian events. The latter two points were closely tied to the first; they were both blamed in large part on "errors" of the Stalin regime.

The CPA's account of these issues and of its own response was summarised in a booklet called Basic Questions of Communist Theory published in early 1957. This contained speeches and resolutions from the party leadership, which were so closely interlinked that they can be taken as a single document.

The experiences of 1956 were portrayed as essentially positive. "One might even say we are reaching a turning point, a leap to a new higher stage in the historical development of international Communism." This was because the errors of the past had been exposed and overcome. Scorn was poured on those who "cannot perceive the great leap forward of our movement." [4]

Having performed this necessary ritual, the documents then took up the past "errors", beginning with the cult of personality. The CPA was "surprised to learn that Stalin, whom we had always regarded as a model of revolutionary virtue, had fostered and encouraged the cult of the individual and placed himself above the party." Under the impact of this discovery, the CPA had seriously examined its own practice, and found that there had indeed been "tendencies toward exaggerated praise and adulation of individual party leaders." [5] "But it never grew to any proportions amongst was rather alien to the Australian outlook for one thing... "[6]

And if the CPA had escaped the worst aspects of the personality cult, it had been no less fortunate in escaping the worst of the other "errors". For example, Stalin had been attacked for his theory of the "main blow", a sort of bowdlerised Leninist concept that at any given time, some particular political current should be singled out for intense attack. Typically, this concept had been used whenever it was felt necessary to aim the "main blow" at the social democrats. Now Khrushchev had announced that the social democrats were to be allies, and that the Communists could collaborate with them in finding a parliamentary road to socialism.

The CPA leaders happily pointed out that they had been pursuing a united front policy with the ALP since 1951. So much for that error!

With regard to Hungary, the CPA leadership could even partly turn the events there to its advantage. On the one hand, the Hungarian events were blamed to some extent on blind copying of Soviet methods, an error of which the CPA had already decided it was comparatively innocent. On the other, the very fact that "socialism" in that country had been so seriously threatened showed the importance of strong Communist leadership, said the CPA leaders:

If the Hungarian events proved anything, it was the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, in fact, a major criticism of the Rakosi-Gero regime was that it failed to deal a timely blow and destroy the counter-revolutionaries financed by U.S. imperialism.[7]

It was not hard to translate this into Australian terms: here in this country we need a strong central leadership in the party, and strong discipline to ensure that "counter-revolutionaries" (read: dissident CPA members who were unhappy about the Stalin revelations and Hungary) did not subvert the party:

If democratic centralism did not exist, then these comrades perhaps feel they would have a better chance to impose their revisionist, petit-bourgeois-idealist and Browderite views on the Communist Party.[8]

And certainly the party made short shrift of most of the oppositionists who did raise their heads. When the intellectual Jim Staples circulated a document demanding discussion of the secret speech, he was forced to withdraw it; after the Hungarian events he was expelled. Helen Palmer was kicked out when she moved to set up an independent journal called Outlook. Ian Turner was expelled some time later in Melbourne and figures like Stephen Murray-Smith left in solidarity with him. These were only the most prominent individuals amongst hundreds of intellectuals who left the party or were driven out.

Nor was the exodus limited to middle class elements, as the CPA leadership claimed. Certainly these were in the majority of at least the explicitly political cases, but given that the party membership slumped from about 8000 to less than 6000 in the aftermath of the events of 1956, it seems clear that a significant number of workers must have left too. The experience of one branch, in West Como, NSW, has been documented. One intellectual was expelled, and the whole branch of 16 members promptly collapsed. As two ex-members of the branch wrote:

In fact, W. Como branch was made up mostly of industrial a primarily working class area... West Como branch is now almost non-existent, with a total of two members ... A branch destroyed... and the C.C. can boast of another complete victory. [9]

Of course, losses of this magnitude could not be explained away as the defection of "a few individuals in the Party who have lost their balance"[10] but the CPA leadership had another explanation: throughout the fifties it consistently pointed to the intensity of Cold War repression as the main reason why the party's mass membership was falling away. Sharkey quoted Khrushchev in 1956 as saying that the parties in the west "had been passing through a most difficult and trying time"[11] and such explanations could be put forward again for the losses suffered alter 1956. Alistair Davidson has rightly challenged this explanation,

pointing out that many of the people who left at this time had already weathered the worst of the cold war successfully. He therefore argues that the "large number of defectors of the years 1956-58... left not because of persecution, but because of disagreement with the policy and organization of the party."[12]

Both explanations seem a bit one-dimensional and they suggest a third: that many of the people who had survived the worst of the Cold War had done so precisely because of their faith in the triumphs of "socialism" on a world scale; that in surviving they had nevertheless suffered a great deal of damage to their morale; and that the impact of the Stalin revelations, followed by Hungary, was the final blow. Nor was the blow merely psychological: the events of 1956 brought a new and intense isolation to Communists. "We were like a besieged fortress," writes Sendy. "Our shop windows were smashed and Party members were abused by neighbours and work-mates as had happened during the coal strike." [13]

In addition to the defectors and those expelled, there were dissidents who managed to remain within the party. Of these the most vocal was W.J. Brown, who published a remarkable series of articles in the Communist Review. Brown sought to build on the positive features of the Stalin revelations as he saw them, and to use them to strengthen the party within the context of official policy. This was a delicate high-wire performance, and Brown suffered a bruising at the end of it.

He was careful to surround his criticisms with disclaimers. Stalin's positive features were mentioned, it was noted that the CPA had already taken "appropriate steps" to rectify all possible problems, and J.B. Miles was declared to have provided "sterling service as general secretary". Nevertheless, Brown was prepared to be truly critical.

There had been an "excessive adulation of leaders," he said14 [14] and some comrades had adopted "an almost instinctively hostile attitude to even the most moderate criticism of the leadership." 15 [15] Praise of the USSR in the party press was "overdone"[16] and Communists had to "learn how better to talk in the language of the people." [17]

This was heavy stuff coming from a prominent party member, and in return it received boots-and-all treatment from Ted Hill. Brown was accused of being divisive, undermining democratic centralism, and advancing a portrayal of the party which was "not in accord with reality". The tenor of the whole article can be conveyed by one masterly passage:

Dissent in the sense of complete disagreement with the line of the party is not so common because Marxism-Leninism is directed to the correct working class solution of the problems that face the working class and the people. Unanimity of voting is quite a common occurrence and naturally so because the Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist Party based on the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. All the efforts of all Party members are devoted to serving that purpose. [18]

In the face of such subtle reasoning, what could Brown do but publish a grovelling retraction, not only admitting his own metaphysical, undialectical, compromising, anarcho-syndicalist, bourgeois liberalism, but thanking Hill for pointing it out." [19]

Between Moscow and Peking

YET if the liberal dissidents received a hammering, there lay concealed beneath the surface another kind of dissent among large sections of the leading cadre of the party: a Stalinist dissent. The leadership of the party-had been conscious Stalinists, having risen to power with Stalin's direct support and having been associated with him and his regime for decades. Exposure of his failings automatically reflected on them. Moreover the political changes inaugurated by Khrushchev were by no means to their liking. Some of the rank and file shared these feelings.

Khrushchev had proposed that the Communist Parties attempt to improve relations with the Social Democratic and Labour parties, with an eye to transforming society by parliamentary means. This new strategy for the Communist movement was closely tied to the needs of Soviet diplomacy, which was now firmly set on a course of "peaceful coexistence" with the west. The CPA leadership had not, of course, pursued a really revolutionary orientation for a very long time. Yet a certain "leftism" had remained in the make-up of the Australian party's leaders since the days of the "Third Period"; they preferred to distinguish themselves from the social democrats and to retain a formal committment to revolution (some examples will be considered in chapter 6). Nevertheless, the Australians would undoubtedly have followed loyally after their Soviet masters, had not another important ruling party dared to challenge Moscow. This was the Communist Party of China.

The Chinese had found Soviet tutelage oppressive and considered that the Russians wanted to turn them into a satellite on the East European model. At the same time, they feared that peaceful coexistence would bring an accommodation between Moscow and the west at their expense. By the late fifties the Chinese were moving toward a position of aggressive independence, and they attempted to rally support for their position in the world movement. They appealed to Communists in the west for support not only on international questions, but on a platform of greater militancy, hostility to reformism and a more "balanced" appraisal of Stalin.

The Australian party had always felt a great respect for the Chinese.[20] Now they found that Peking was voicing doubts they had already felt. At first the Chinese expressed themselves with a certain circumspection, and the differences seemed to be no more than a comradely disagreement in which the CPA could take sides without any lasting consequences. Both the national leadership under Sharkey and also the group around Hill in Victoria lined up with the Chinese at first. It appears, moreover, that they all remained in the Chinese camp until very near the time of the final, public split. The leaders of the New Zealand party later described the attitudes of Sharkey and Dixon in 1960 as follows:

We would remind them that, early in 1960... they cabled asking our General Secretary to come to Sydney urgently for what was obviously regarded by them as an important discussion. Cde. L. Sharkey had just returned from China... L. Sharkey (in his own garden – Cdes. R. Dixon and L. Aarons also being present) reported on discussions he had had in China, in particular with Mao Tse-tung.
The core of Cde. L. Sharkey's report was to warn us not to fall for the new view being advanced that imperialism would die easily, not to fall for the illusion of world-wide peaceful transition to Socialism. Basically, it was a call to reject the many incorrect assumptions arising from uncritical acceptance of the decisions of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union...
Later... did you not many times compliment, through a number of New Zealand comrades... Cde. J. Manson for his firm stand in refusing to be associated with the attack of Khrushchev and others on the Chinese Party leadership?
When the New Zealand Party delegation to the 81 Parties' Meeting in Moscow passed through Sydney, did you not discuss your views with both Cde. V.G.Wilcox and Cde. G.E.Jackson?. . . We talked well into the night. And was not the key note of yoar approach the need to have a common stand against the revisionist danger at Moscow? And Cde. L. Sharkey, do you not remember that when we arrived in Moscow you said, "I'm in the dogbox" and that a Russian comrade well known to both of us "no longer loved you"?

The 81 Parties' Meeting was a last, temporary attempt to paper over the differences between Moscow and Peking. Soon each side was interpreting the meeting's declarations differently and attacking the other, and as the battle hotted up Sharkey began to swing around to the Soviet position. Davidson notes that there is "an observable difference in the tenor of Sharkey's and Hill's writings before April 1961. Sharkey stressed unity, attacking leftism; and Hill emphasized the need for Marxist-Leninist purity, attacking moderate communism and revisionism."[22]

This was the beginning of a growing division between Hill and his supporters on the one hand, and the bulk of the party on the other.

The background to the shifting attitudes of the CPA leadership is complex and obscure [23] but the pressures moving Sharkey back toward Moscow seem clear enough. There was, firstly, the ingrained loyalty to the USSR built up over decades, combined perhaps with the fact that the vast majority of the parties internationally were sticking with the Kremlin. As it became clear that a real split was inevitable, Sharkey drew back from the prospect of international isolation. Secondly, there was strong sentiment among sections of the secondary leadership in both Melbourne and Sydney against supporting China; this grouping included Laurie Aarons and Eddie Robertson in Sydney, and a group around Bernie Taft and Rex Mortimer in Melbourne.

Third and probably most important, the extreme leftism of the Chinese rhetoric had no appeal to the majority of the party rank and file, who had spent the past decade learning to be restrained, moderate and above all devoted to a pacifist struggle against war. The Chinese, after all, opposed disarmament. Their real reason was that they wanted the bomb, but for international consumption they posed the issue in terms of class struggle and the fact that war was built into the imperialist system. To justify an indifference to the dangers of nuclear war, in turn, it was necessary to portray the world as a whole as being perpetually on the brink of revolution. The average CPA member was unlikely to be sympathetic to a point of view expressed in terms like these:

The workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie, patriotic and revolutionary national intellectuals, and patriotic and revolutionary national bourgeoisie of various countries who constitute more than 90 per cent of the world's population, are always for revolution.[24]

In domestic terms, the issues became those of a strategy for Australia, styles of work, and attitudes to the ALP. Sendy recalls that at a Political Committee meeting in 1961, Ted Hill "advanced ideas, influenced by the Chinese experience, which would have involved turning our party into an underground, clandestine, revolutionary detachment, working in an illegal fashion, rather than as an open political party."[25] This was no more attractive to the CPA rank and file than the Chinese equanimity about World War III. But above all, debates about how to build a Communist Party in Australia centred around the strategic attitude toward the Labor Party.

Stalinism has traditionally had difficulty coming to terms with its attitude to mainstream reformist parties. The underlying thrust of Soviet policy since the mid-twenties has always been towards either opposing, or attempting to ally itself with, particular western ruling classes, and this fact was the most important factor in shaping the strategies toward reformist parties. The parties' central concern has normally been what attitude to take toward the official structures of the reformist organisations, and towards their leaderships. For it is the officials and the politicians, after all, who have an influence with the ruling class, and conversely it is they who attempt to carry the ruling class point of view in the labour movement. Thus the CPs moved between two basic attitudes: either immense hostility toward reformist leaderships (in periods, like the late forties, when the world movement was in open conflict with the western bourgeoisie) or an attempt to conciliate them (as for example during the Popular Front).

However, there is also the reformist rank and file to be considered. In theory, and also to a limited degree in practice, the CPs differentiated between the leaders and members of reformist parties. During periods when they were on a "left" course, they called for a "united front from below", in which Communists were to attempt to maintain common activity and dialogue with the supporters of social democratic parties while lambasting their leaders. During more moderate phases they still made some carefully couched criticism of the reformist leadership in order to differentiate themselves in the eyes of rank and file workers who might be moving leftward.

But as long as the CPs remained tied to the Kremlin, the main concern for them was to advance the foreign policy of the USSR. Attempting to win rank and file workers to Communist politics was a secondary consideration, which in theory as well as practice was subordinated to the needs of Soviet diplomacy. This had its consequences for the bulk of the CP members, who have always had trouble remembering to differentiate between party attitudes to reformist leaders and to their rank and file.

Consequently, Stalinism has tended to oscillate between two poles: hostility to social democracy as a whole, and accommodation to it. In the split in the CPA, each faction seized on one of these two poles.

According to the Maoists, the majority of the party were guilty of accommodation to Laborism. This was not a hard charge to substantiate, though the most explicit formulation by the majority on the ALP question – the one which I will quote in order to make the exposition as clear as possible – appeared just after the split itself. This was Laurie Aarons' pamphlet, Labor Movement At the Crossroads. The pamphlet took the form of some friendly advice to the ALP leadership and in particular to Arthur Calwell, who was described rather favourably:

Mr. Calwell is neither of the extreme right, nor the left, of the Labor Party. He is openly and proudly a reformist. He outlines lucidly and persuasively the philosophy and policy of Australian reformism. [26]

The failures of the Labor Party to win government were assessed as a consequence of the errors of the ALP leadership: "Most Labor Party leaders will not come out boldly and campaign for their own Party platform. Thus, they get the worst of both worlds."27 [27] The ALP and ACTU socialist objectives were quoted without comment, as if Calwell were privately committed to them but had simply neglected to campaign for them out of a mistaken tactical approach. The next section was headed: ' 'How to Make a Start On the Road to Socialism " – as if the ALP leadership would give such a project their earnest consideration.

There was no suggestion that the Labor leaders supported capitalism; that, in government, even the best of them would operate the system at the expense of the working class (indeed, Calwell had been a minister in the Chifley government which crushed the coal strike of 1949); and that, consequently, there might be some need for workers to organise independently of them. And there was most certainly nothing in the pamphlet to suggest seriously to a worker that he or she should consider changing allegiance and joining the CPA.

Hill seized on this pamphlet as summing up everything he had alleged about the party's capitulation to reformism. Yet the Maoist approach to the Labor Party was at an equally unrealistic opposite extreme. For Hill, the Labor Party was a capitalist party, and there were no grounds for preferring it to the Liberal Party. One simply built the Communist Party as the alternative.

Each side could quote Lenin against the extreme views of the other. But as prisoners of the foreign policy of Russia, and China, respectively, neither could seriously consider Lenin's own positive approach, expressed in his famous pamphlet Left Wing Communism. According to this approach one supported Labor against the open parties of the bourgeoisie, but critically, with the aim of winning away their rank and file:

we must, first, help (Labour leaders) Henderson and Snowden to beat Lloyd George and Churchill. . . second, we must help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right, i.e., that the Hendersons and Snowdens are absolutely good for nothing... third, we must bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of most of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible, with serious chances of success, to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once... I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man...[28]

The vast majority of the CPA rank and file, anxious to find a way out of isolation after years of the Cold War, was unlikely to be attracted by the Maoist approach. The central leadership could therefore count on winning the debate on this crucial question.

At first the faction fight had been conducted, at all levels, as merely a struggle within the inner circles of the parties. The Soviets had attacked the "Albanians" when they meant the Chinese, the Chinese in their turn vilifying the "Yugoslavs" when they meant Moscow. Only a chosen few could follow such Aesopian language, and it was only when a split became inevitable and the broad membership had to be prepared for it, that the issues were discussed openly. This was certainly true in the Australian party. At first, only an inner circle was aware of the extent of the differences and these were debated in public forums only in an indirect manner. Vic Williams recalls:

People would go to branches and give reports, and people would give other reports, and fair dinkum, quite often the branches wouldn't appreciate the difference... And it finally got to the hilarious stage that a conference was called, and Sharkey was at this conference, and there were two different lines given to the conference – and the conference didn't even appreciate it. So I stood up and said 1 wanted to ask a question of Comrade Sharkey... I asked him would he comment on the fact that there were two different lines being put forward... (one) was the line of the Chinese Communist Party. And on the other hand there was the line of the Central Committee. ... He sidestepped the issue. But there was an absolute furore. I remember Vic Little confronted me on the floor and there was a bit of a yelling match, and all sorts of people said I shouldn't have done it – I'd split the party! [29]

Williams had not split the party, but it was split and when it became clear there was no healing the breach, the central leadership did appeal to the membership. It knew it could count on their support. Large cadres' meetings were held which recorded overwhelming majorities for the Central Committee, and finally things were brought to a climax at the 1963 Victorian State Conference. The Hill forces, aware they could not win, aimed less at gaining votes than at making the maximum organisational impact.

Hill had already resigned as State Secretary some time before, leaving behind Frank Johnson who attempted to hide his Maoist sympathies. Now, a week before the Conference, prominent Tramways Union leader Clarrie O'Shea resigned from the party. Hill and his supporters addressed the Conference itself for two hours, only to receive a derisory 16 votes out of 159. Johnson was thrown out and replaced with Ralph Gibson, while John Sendy was brought over from Adelaide to be State President. A new layer of people was brought onto the State Committee, many of them known enemies of Hill.

Nothing was left but for the Maoists to depart – comparatively quietly at the end – and establish a new organisation, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist). This group had a considerable strength at the official level in Victorian trade unions, which has gradually eroded as the officials have retired, leaving only the Builders' Labourers as a Maoist bastion. The CPA(ML) also assumed a certain importance in other spheres in the late sixties and early seventies, when it won the allegiance of numbers of students inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution and used them to build a nationalist Australian Independence Movement. Subsequently this movement declined as the CPA(ML), following Chinese foreign policy, became obsessed with campaigning against the USSR, even where it meant aligning themselves with the Fraser government. Most recently, Hill and his followers have indicated a desire to break with the most dogmatic of their past policies, but without having much idea what to replace them with.

"The Coalition of the Left"

YEARS AFTER the Hill split, Dave Davies told a joke about the time he had trouble finding the question mark on an unfamiliar typewriter. "Ah, comrade," said a young smart alec. "It's an old typewriter – about your age. It dates back to when you didn't ask questions in the party." [30]

One might tell stories like that about any section of the party, but in i he old days none had been so rigidly authoritarian as the Victorian organisation. Sendy has even revealed that Hill had his own private

spies, and was prone to extreme paranoia about police agents within the party. Many individuals have since commented that they were glad to see the back of him. It was fitting, therefore, that his fall became the signal for a new era of open debate and critical thinking within the Communist Party.

In Victoria, Hill's departure along with a big chunk of the leading cadre brought to power leaders of a new stamp. People like Bernie Taft and Rex Mortimer, who had opposed the pro-China policies of Hill (and also Sharkey) early on, were not simply uncritical supporters of the USSR. The influence of the Italian Communist Party had begun to make itself felt in Victoria from as early as 1953, and the grouping around Taft had discussed them with considerable interest in 1959-60. The Italians were developing a policy of "polycentrism" in the world movement, and were no longer prepared to accept the tutelage of any other Communist Party. In their own strategic thinking, they were developing the ideas that have since come to be called "Eurocommunism".

The Taft group had been temporarily broken up by the Sharkey leadership, at the time when Sharkey was still in alliance with Hill. But in the aftermath of the Victorian split, the central leadership was forced to look to these very people to lead the State organisation. Rex Mortimer, a strong supporter of the "Italian line", became editor of the Guardian. And in the course of the sixties Taft himself emerged as a moving force in the organisation.

Mortimer soon set the new tone by participating in producing the independent Marxist journal Arena together with ex-Communists of the 1956 vintage. He then proceeded to enter into a dialogue with Melbourne Jews about Soviet anti-semitism. While he still apologised for Soviet policy, he openly admitted the existence of anti-semitism in the USSR, and called for a vigorous campaign to eradicate it. In 1966, Sendy wrote an article for the first issue of the new CPA journal Australian Left Review attacking monolithism in the party. And the new journal was significant in itself: unlike the old Communist Review, it was to be open to critical input from outside, and even included non-Communists among its editors.

The Victorians were the trailblazers, since they had developed in their study of the Italians a relatively coherent point of view. In the national leadership new ideas grew up more slowly at first, and more impressionistically. Yet in the final analysis, it was among the national leaders that the central ideas were developed which informed the new strategic approach adopted by the CPA in the latter part of the decade.

The national leadership had also seen a change of personnel. In the course of the Sino-Soviet split Sharkey had become politically disoriented and had also fallen into ill-health. The prosecution of the fight against Hill had been left largely to Laurie Aarons and by the end of it Sharkey was in effective retirement. In May 1965 Aarons replaced him as General Secretary.

Aarons had been a hard-line Stalinist for many years. In the aftermath of the Stalin revelations he had been one of the leaders in cracking down on dissidents, and had published a pamphlet called Party of the Working Class, which made ferocious attacks on liberal ideas. Aarons had characterised such ideas as follows:

"There is no need for a social revolution to achieve socialism, which will come gradually. The working class does not need to set up its own political power, its own state organisation to consolidate its rule and build socialism.

"Not the class struggle but propaganda of general truths and moral maxims will bring about socialism. From this it follows that not the working class but intellectuals are the leaders of the socialist cause.

These and similar ideas are called "revisionism", because they would "revise" Marxism-Leninism in such a way as to get rid of its class-conscious spirit and revolutionary meaning.[31]

It was ironic that the same Laurie Aarons was now to lead his party rapidly in the direction of adopting just such ideas. He and his supporters took the first major step in this direction by formulating a new strategic concept, the "Coalition of the Left", which became party policy at the 1967 Congress.

For a concept whose implications proved so far-reaching, the "Coalition of the Left" first appeared in a surprisingly modest set of documents. The 1967 Congress documents devoted six pages to outlining the contemporary situation as the party saw it, another three and a half pages to setting out a "Program for Peace and Social Advance", and only in the last couple of pages was there any attention devoted to the "unity of the left" which was supposedly the thrust of the new orientation. Moreover, very little of the documents departed sharply from established phraseology.

To be sure, the documents faced up to the reality of the postwar boom and the social changes that had accompanied it, noting in particular the growth of the white collar sector. This was a major development in itself for a party which had denied these changes for many years. Still, these were facts that could no longer be evaded rather than a theoretical revolution, and in any case the industrial workers were still referred to as "the decisive class".

The documents stressed the importance of a democratic concept of socialism, which could appeal to the Australian "national tradition". Yet this could be considered an extension of the traditional national-democratic approach of the popular front, and certainly the talk of democracy did not extend to open criticism of the Eastern bloc regimes.

As for the section discussing unity of the left, it called for unity in struggle against reaction, expressed the hope that a "far-ranging discussion" would emerge, and suggested that this could lead in turn to the possibility of a "commonly agreed program and course of action". These notions appeared at first glance to be nothing more than a re-run of the traditional ideas of the united front or popular front. [32]

No wonder that Lloyd Churchward, a sophisticated Communist academic, concluded that "the present documents are clearly in the Dimitrov tradition"33 [33] and another member described the new concept as embodying the classical definition of the popular front.[34]

Yet in fact there were new ideas hidden in the documents, and some members sensed as much. One D. Beechy of NSW wrote in the pre-Congress discussion that "the impression given to many comrades, especially in our branch is that the Communist Party will become submerged, and this creates a fear of a loss of identity."[35]

What was Beechy driving at? Laurie Aarons answered this question for the membership at the Congress itself, in a speech which was quite explicit and hence possibly more significant than the official documents:

New features of this concept can be seen if we consider the ideas expressed in the present party program: ' 'Such experience, together with frank and free discussion of policy and aims by all sections of the labour movement will ultimately lead to the formation of a single mass working class Party based on the principles of scientific socialism."


"(transformation) ... will be possible through the strength of the organised working class firmly united and in alliance with the small farmers, under the leadership of the marxist party and with the organised co-operation and support of the majority of the people."

Compare this with the concept in "Towards a Coalition of the Left":

"This co-operation in action for social change (by working class parties) would continue as the centre of different social and political groupings which would share the leadership of the new society.
"These may well include besides trade unions and other people's organisations, other political parties which formed to represent interests of classes and social groups other than the working class. "

Quite clearly, the intent was firstly to water down the working class content of party strategy, secondly to modify the class content of the socialist state power that would follow a social transformation, and thirdly to remove any concept of the leading role of the party. A coalition of proletarian and non-proletarian forces was to arrive at a common approach, transform society, and rule in concert. The Communists were to be only one force among many.

These were policies designed to allow the CPA to blend into the political mainstream by blurring both its distinctive politics – indeed its claim to have any special vision at all – and also its stance as an independent organisational force competing for influence. A second major step in this direction was taken the next year, when the party published a Draft Charter of Democratic Rights.

In 1968 John Sendy related comments a wharfie had made to him:

Democracy might be a class question. But when we talk of democracy, that's what we've got to mean. If an author writes a book we don't like, or people refuse to toe our political line, that's too bad. When we talk about bloody democracy, that's what we've got to mean – it's as simple as that." [37]

This rather straightforward, common-sense approach was in striking contrast to the traditional Communist view. For decades Communists had been told that democracy was a class question. And so, for Marxists, it must be. The working class, in the Marxist view, has the right to exercise a political dictatorship over its opponents, and it will not shrink from censorship or other forms of repression in emergencies – any more than capitalist governments have done. But this is meant to be the dictatorship of the proletariat as a class, "democracy for the working class", and a transitional phase to a free society in which all forms of repression would wither away. Under Stalinism the "class question" became something else: the dictatorship of the party and state bureaucracy over the working class itself. The atrocities which this involved were stupendous, the implications horrifying. When CPA members became aware of them, they were rightly repelled. But what analysis were they to make of the problem?

I have suggested in chapter one, and will attempt to develop further in chapter six, an analysis of the USSR as essentially capitalist. The bureaucracy dominating Soviet society is seen, in such an analysis, as an exploitative ruling class, and its repressive behaviour as flowing from that fact. It follows that to end the repression, what is required is the overthrow of the bureaucracy and its replacement with the social rule of

the working class. On the basis of such analysis it becomes possible to oppose Stalinist repression, defend democracy, and yet see democracy in class terms.

This analytical framework had no appeal for the membership of the CPA, for the simple reason that it suggested they had spent their lives defending a capitalist state. Rather they preferred to continue regarding Russia as some sort of socialist society, to which democracy needed to be somehow added as an extra ingredient. As we will see in the next chapter, this is precisely the position of liberal critics of Stalinism. The CPA wanted a more democratic socialism, in the east and in the west, and quite rightly; unfortunately, the idea of democracy which they developed inevitably had a liberal caste.

The Charter of Democratic Rights approached these questions from the point of view of Australian society, but there was no mistaking its relevance for Eastern Europe as well.

The Charter complained that in Australia, "our democracy has never been fully realised." It assured the reader that "Australian Communists work in a democratic way" and expressed regret over the "declining role of parliament". It referred to "our independent judiciary". The security organisation ASIO was to be replaced by "men whose responsibilities will be strictly confined to defence and security matters under the control of a parliamentary committee." Finally, it insisted that under socialist rule, anti-socialist parties would be guaranteed their freedom. [38]

Quite obviously, the authors of the Charter conceived of socialist democracy as simply an extension and completion of the existing, bourgeois democracy of modern Australia – and indeed, with regard to restoring the power of parliament they appeared to want a return to older practices. A statement that the CPA worked "in a democratic way" could only mean repudiation of revolution, and this was quite logical, for revolution in the west means precisely a dramatic rupture between bourgeois democracy and workers' democracy – a distinction which the Charter was designed to blur.

The draft aroused considerable hostility, especially among those who were soon to form a pro-Soviet opposition. Its critics made arguments against it which were formally Marxist, and worth examining:

Is it fair to say "the Communist party should be legal under capitalism, but the capitalist parties should not be legal under socialism"? One could give a quick mechanical "no". But it is a dialectical answer we want, and that answer is: "the working class is the rising new force, the capitalist class is the dying old force which nevertheless will fight desperately to turn back history's clock. Therefore the fight for a legal Communist Party under capitalism serves human progress. The fight to prevent the capitalists forming parties under socialism to rally their forces and bring capitalism also serves human progress." Are we then for human progress, or "nice", "democratic" but nonsensical formulas of a fair go for all – worker and boss alike? [39]

Despite an element of overstatement (such as seeming to say that bourgeois parties would necessarily always be banned) this was, as CPA cadres well knew, more or less the traditional Marxist view. Yet they were also becoming aware that in practice this view had been used in Eastern Europe as a pretext for repressing all dissent, from the workers themselves as well as from the bourgeoisie. They did not wish to project such an unpleasant future for a socialist Australia. Unable to develop a Marxist critique of the Eastern bloc states, they were forced to effectively abandon the Marxist concepts to the Stalinists and collapse into liberal democracy. This became quite clear in their response to the Czechoslovakian events of 1968.

The Consequences of the "Prague Spring"

IN 1966 two Soviet writers, Sinyavski and Daniel, were imprisoned for dissident writings, and the Communist Party of Australia broke new ground by expressing its disapproval. To be sure the disapproval was carefully qualified: the writers were declared to be guilty as charged but "we consider it would have been far better to rely upon publishing the truth of their double standards and dealing, and allow public opinion and that of their fellow writers to decide."[40] Yet even this mild statement drew critical letters from amongst the membership, one of whom even insisted on remaining anonymous for "fear of reprisals".[41]

The following March, Lloyd Churchward published a lengthy critique of Soviet democracy, which drew fire from Alf Watt and sparked a short debate in the letters page of Tribune.

However until 1968 the criticism was limited and vague, and the debate could be kept within bounds. This all changed with the Czech events. Quite early in the year it became clear that a very far-reaching process of reform and even upheaval was in train in Czechoslovakia. The CPA, which had been groping toward some kind of democratic socialist concept with no obvious example to point to, was absolutely enraptured by the "Prague Spring". An anonymous correspondent from Prague summed up the feeling:

This country has taken an enormous step forward – and I am so glad... Here we stand on firm ground to beat the whole concept of "Western way of life" in its entire ramifications. This is the "cultural revolution" which is utterly and completely invincible! There will be no H.G. Wells society; there will be, however, a free cultured, dignified mankind – much more wonderful than William Morris dared to dream.[42]

Here it seemed was the socialism with a human face that the party had been searching for... and it was crushed by Soviet tanks in August of the same year. The CPA's response was correspondingly angry and agonized, but within its own ranks it also led to a severe polarisation.

The party's National Committee voted to condemn the Russian invasion by a vote of 37 to 2, and a special Tribune supplement was published to get the message out. A mass protest meeting was held in the Sydney Town Hall at which speakers included Laurie Aarons, Malcolm Salmon who had previously been in Prague and – ironically, given his later pro-Soviet stance – the leading trade union figure Pat Clancy. Aarons told the meeting:

The Communist Party of Australia has protested against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and four other socialist countries because we support socialist democracy and national independence for all countries in the world.[43]

This stand sparked immediate controversy within the party and helped to cohere an open, pro-Soviet opposition. Jack Henry sounded the most blindly religious note, declaring that as a result of the Russian invasion "once again good has triumphed over evil; brotherly love over the foul witches' brew; enlightenment over the knights of darkness whose fortresses are in the quagmire of imperialism."[44] And many others, though they might not write of fortresses located in quagmires, also expressed their point of view in terms of irrational faith in Moscow. However there were those among the Stalinist critics who made points worth looking at, because they exposed underlying weaknesses in the majority approach.

One Lulla Davis wrote to Tribune to point out that the alacrity with which the party had rallied around the Czechoslovakian issue was a bit suspicious:

it seems strange to me that the National Committee was able to get cracking really fast on this question and throw all its resources and organisation into condemning the Soviet Union, when questions vital to the Australian people never seem to get off the ground. [45]

In other words: was the party perhaps anxious to attack the Russians in order to prove its respectability in the eyes of bourgeois public opinion? We will have occasion in the next chapter to suggest there is a grain of truth in Davis' suggestion.

Then there was the question of national self-determination. Quite obviously the Russian invasion was a violation of Czech national sovereignty, but the question then arose: was self-determination an absolute principle, or was it expendable in pursuit of higher ends? Neither for Marx nor for Lenin had national independence been an end in itself. Marx had supported the national movements of the Irish and the Poles but opposed that of the southern Slavs because he saw it as a stalking horse for Russian Tsarist reaction. Lenin had been equally emphatic in insisting that national self-determination was not an abstract, absolute principle. Rather he saw the "nationalism of the oppressed" precisely as a strategic device for attacking imperialism. The revolts of colonial countries, he argued, could undermine the power of the imperialist bourgeoisie. That Lenin saw national sovereignty as a consideration secondary to the defence of workers' power in Russia was made quite clear by his preparedness to invade Poland during the Russian civil war. [46]

In 1968, however, the problem seemed posed in a new manner. Here was one supposedly socialist state invading another. For the supporters of the Kremlin this was justified on the grounds that the socialist regime in Prague was allegedly threatened by counterrevolutionary forces. Opponents of the invasion might simply have denied this claim, but in fact they went further, contending that between socialist states the right of self-determination was something like an absolute principle. Lenin's own views were distorted to make them dovetail with this view, which is that characteristic of liberal democracy:

Self-determination is one of the main principles, not something of relative importance. Lenin regarded it as the principle of democracy in relation to the national question, an essential part of the democracy he considered the key question in the struggle for socialism.[47]

In reply the opposition could, and did, simply quote Lenin himself:

But no Marxist, without flying in the face of Marxism and socialism generally, can deny that the interests of socialism are higher than the interests of the right of nations to self-determination.[48]

Here again was that vexed question: democracy and socialism. Again, a Marxist solution was possible on the basis of an analysis of the East European countries as a form of capitalist society: one could defend Czech self-determination on Lenin's grounds, by regarding the USSR as a capitalist imperialist power and perceiving the fight for Czech independence as a blow against that power. But for the reasons already indicated, the CPA could not consider this solution. As in other situations two dismal alternatives arose: having accepted that the Eastern bloc regimes were in some sense socialist, one had either to accept the brutal actions of the USSR as legitimate (and defend them in formally Marxist terms) or collapse into liberal-democratic ideas in order to avoid such a fate.

The Party Splits

THE CZECH crisis proved the catalyst for the worst split in the history of the party, with a sizeable section of the membership in several States departing to form the new Socialist Party of Australia. After Czechoslovakia the pro-Soviet elements who had been vaguely uneasy about the party's development began to perceive a pattern to the changes in policy, a pattern which they did not like at all. Their understanding of it went roughly as follows.

The Aarons brothers and their supporters had been a bad element for at least fifteen years, ever since they came back from China. The Aaronses had hidden their "sympathies with Mao's opportunist theories" during the split with Hill, in order to climb into power when Sharkey retired. But "privately, their pro-Mao sympathies remained. As the Aarons brothers increased their influence in the leadership, their real position emerged. This was not expressed in open pro-Mao terms. It was seen in increasingly hostile attitudes towards the international communist movement in general and the Soviet Union in particular together with an increasingly opportunist line in Australia."[49]

The leadership had gone through a "right opportunist" phase in the late sixties, said the opposition, pointing above all to the Charter of Democratic Rights. However, as the party entered the seventies, they claimed, it was moving into an ultraleft phase. This latter phase was associated with irresponsible politics in industry, most notably on the part of the NSW Builders Labourers. It was made worse, they said, by an excessive openness to the more radical elements of the new student and antiwar movements, whose actions "smacked more of political lairising than of serious activity'"[50] and only made it harder to achieve the main task, electing a Labor government:

it is certain the decisions to withdraw the troops (from Vietnam) and end conscription must be made, in the final wash-up, by a government and not by some queer form of workers' control. [51]

And perhaps most horrific of all, the CPA was falling under the influence of trotskyism. It emerged that one Denis Freney, a supporter of the French trotskyist Michel Pablo, had been visiting Laurie Aarons for years and discussing the evolution of the Communist Party. Freney for his part hoped the party would evolve in a revolutionary direction, and by the early seventies was sufficiently satisfied with its progress to join it. Aarons, meanwhile, had clearly been influenced by trotskyism, largely via the ideas of Pablo and historian Isaac Deutscher.

For some sections of the CPA's old guard these trends were simply anathema. They had been trained over many years to regard trotskyism as counter-revolutionary and even as associated with fascism. To see its influence growing in the Communist Party helped add a frenzied quality to much of the minority's criticism. But then by this time the majority had worked up a fair bit of steam too.

It seems clear that by 1970 the Aarons group had made a conscious decision to drive the minority out of the party. Formally speaking they had organisational grounds to do so, for the minority had established their own publication, The Australian Socialist, and were refusing to abide by party rules. These grounds were cited to justify expulsions of key leaders of the opposition. But the leadership also had its political reasons. There seems little reason to doubt that, as Sendy put it: "The leadership was mesmerised with the false belief that the opposition was the main impediment to a growth in size and influence."[52]

The CPA leadership believed, rightly, that society was changing rapidly around them and new layers of people were being radicalised. The old, tired Stalinist politics could only be a hindrance to recruiting these new people and building new influence. Yet what exactly did the CPA have to offer, and just how was it going to relate to the new radicalisations? In the following two chapters we will consider, first, the theoretical basis of the party's new ideas; then just how the CPA faced up to the challenges of the new decade in practice.

1. John Sendy, Comrades Come Rally, Melbourne 1978, p.49.

2. Guardian, 23/2/56.

3. John Sendy, op. cit., p. 100.

4. Basic Questions of Communist Theory, Sydney 1957, p.3.

5. Ibid., p.6.

6. Ibid., p.23.

7. Ibid., p.4.

8. Ibid.

9. Quoted in Alan Barcan, The Socialist Left in Australia, 1949-59, Australian Political Studies Association, Occasional Monographs, No.2, Sydney 1960, p. 15.

10. Basic Questions of Communist Theory, p.71.

11. Ibid., p.68.

12. Alistair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia, Stanford 1969, p. 121.

13. John Sendy, op. cit., p.101.

14. Communist Review, August 1956, p.27.

15. Communist Review, September 1956, p.304.

16. Communist Review, October 1956, p.345. .

17. Communist Review, October 1956, p.348.

18. Communist Review, December 1956, p.398.

19. Communist Review, May 1957, p.160-2.

20. It is not correct, however, to conclude as some writers have that there is a direct link between the CPA members trained in China and the element that left the party in the early sixties to form a new pro-China organisation. In reality most of the Chinese-trained cadres ended up supporting the liberal Aarons line after 1967. Cf. Angus Mclntyre, "The Training of Australian Communist Cadres in China", Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol.11, No.4, Winter 1978, p.419-423, and chapter 6 of the present work.

21. Foundations of Communist Unity, CPNZ, Auckland 1964, p.7-8. Emphasis in original.

22. Alistair Davidson, op. cit., p. 153.

23. Davidson, op. cit., p. 151-3 provides a reasonably plausible exercise in Kremlinology on this question.

24. Quoted in Differences in the Communist Movement, CPA Sydney 1963, p.30.

25. John Sendy, op. cit., p. 127.

26. Laurie Aarons, Labor Movement at the Crossroads, Sydney 1964, p. 10.

27. Ibid.,p.2\.

28. V.I. Lenin, Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, Moscow 1968, p.69-71.

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

30. Dave Davies, "One Minute Parking", Tribune, 24/8/77.

31. Laurie Aarons, Party of the Working Class, Sydney 1959, p.19-20.

32. "Towards a Coalition of the Left", in CPA 21st National Congress Documents, 1967, passim.

33. Lloyd Churchward, "Realism and the Document Perspectives", Discussion Journal, No.l, CPA Sydney, March 1967, p.92.

34. "K", " 'Towards a Coalition of the Left' – Some Comments", Discussion Journal, No.2, April 1967, p.7.

35. D. Beechy, "On the Role of the Communist Party", Discussion Journal, No.2, April 1967, p.47.

36. Laurie Aarons, "Report of the Central Committee", Sydney 1967, p. 14-15.

37. Quoted in John Sendy, "Democracy and Socialism", Australian Left Review, March 1968, p.8.

38. Draft: Charter of Democratic Rights, first issue ofInformation Service ofCPA, 1968, p.l, 3, and 8.

39. A. Miller, untitled contribution to Discussion, No.2, January 1970, p.27.

40. Guardian, 24/2/66.

41. Guardian, 1/3/66.

42. Tribune, 28/6/68.

43. Tribune, 28/8/68.

44. J.C. Henry, "My Viewpoint on the Czechoslovakian Crisis", Discussion, No.4, October 1968, p.52.

45. Tribune, 11/9/68.

46. Cf. Lenin on the National and Colonial Questions, Peking 1975, passim. For a discussion of the views of Marx and Lenin on the national question including documentation of what is asserted here, see Tom O'Lincoln, "An Imperialist Colony? An Analysis of Australian Nationalism", International Socialist, No. 10, Melbourne, August 1980, p.40.

47. "E.W.", "A Major Principle", Australian Left Review, December 1968, p.25.

48. Quoted in J.B. Henderson, "Self-Determination Qualified", Australian Left Review, December 1968, p.21.

49. This passage was constructed by paraphrase and quotation from W.J. Brown, What Happened to the Communist Party of Australia?, Sydney 1971, p.5-8

50. Quoted in What’s Happening in the CPA? – Will the Communist Party Split?, CPA, Sydney 1970, p.10

51. Quoted in ibid., p.7.

52. John Sendy, op. cit., p.187