Into The Mainstream by Tom O’Lincoln

A Revolution in Theory?

In discussing the traditional views of the Communists, I have sometimes used the term "Stalinism", not as a term of abuse but with a specific meaning. The methods and ideology of the Communist movement under Stalin arose from the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy, and the peculiar circumstances of its program for building an industrial society on the ruins of a workers' revolution.

Stalin set out to industrialise Russia on the basis of a planned economy under totalitarian control. He set out to harness the international Communist movement to defending the Soviet Union while the industrialisation took place. In the beginning, at least, the Soviet leaders may have still been animated by the belief that they were in some sense "building socialism", and certainly the popularity the regime retained outside Russia derived partly from its revolutionary past. What arose was an ideology of totalitarian collectivism clothed in concepts derived from that past, concepts that were formally Marxist.

The substance of Marxism was of course transformed. Democratic centralism, which for Lenin had meant freedom in debate and unity in action, was now taken to mean authoritarian control. Internationalism was taken to mean defence of Russia at all cost, even the cost of blinding oneself to harsh realities or carrying out dizzying changes of line. The leninist concept of leadership degenerated into a personality cult of the leaders.

The dialectical quality of Marxism was flattened out. From a living critical method designed to overthrow oppressive social relations it was transformed into a series of mechanical formulas suited to justifying existing Soviet society. Marx's theory of history was broken into two opposing extremes: on the one hand an extreme voluntarism according to which plans could be and were forever over-fulfilled; on the other a vulgar determinism proving the "inevitability" of socialism — and with it the correctness and inevitability of existing policy. In the latter case, ideas were sometimes reduced to mere reflections of reality: "put crudely, gasometers produce poetry via men". [1]

The concept of class assumed new meaning as well. For Marx, class analysis was a tool to identify antagonisms within society. In Stalin's Russia the regime insisted that such antagonisms had been abolished (although "remnants" of the old ruling classes remained to justify the activities of the secret police). The USSR as a whole was now said to embody proletarian class interests. The "class line" could therefore be drawn between Russia and its allies on the one hand, and the western bourgeoisie on the other.

This had several consequences. For a start, it justified subordinating the world Communist movement to the cause of defending the Soviet Union and its program of industrialisation. It also led to a blurring of class divisions in the west. Those among the western bourgeoisie who could be won to an alliance with the Kremlin were included in the "people's front" and became allies of the working class. Those among the working class who made a Marxist critique of the Soviet bureaucracy — the trotskyists in particular — were labelled fascist agents and treated as such.

This entire ideological structure began to crumble when the Communist movement started to fragment in the sixties. With the Sino-Soviet split, there was no longer any single sourse of wisdom, nor a monolithic "socialist camp" to defend. With the drift of the large European and Japanese parties away from Moscow, and nationalist stirrings in the East European parties, Communists were presented with myriad conflicting political lines. As Russia developed a sophisticated modern industry, and therefore needed a workforce capable of flexible behaviour, the police terror began to be modified even in Russia itself, and western liberal ideas began to penetrate there.

With the growth of the class struggle and the student radicalisation in the late sixties, new ideas and new people entered left movements in the west. Often the CPs were outflanked by radical new forces. Communists were forced to rethink.

The most obvious and powerful alternative sets of ideas which presented themselves were liberalism and social democracy. By liberalism we mean an ideology which places individual rights and individual freedoms at the centre of politics. For Marxism, though these had been important questions, they were traditionally placed firmly within a broader context of collective self-emancipation, and class struggle. Stalinism, however, had given the latter concepts a totalitarian content and hence, ironically, given a new appeal for Communists to their formal opposite, liberalism.

In politics liberalism is closely tied to pluralism, a view of the state which sees its proper role as reconciling the competing claims of individuals and groups. (Here too we may note that Marxism is also meant to accept that in a free society a plurality of views would contend without compulsion. However for Marx this was to be achieved with the withering away of the state. As long as the state machine continued to exist, it embodied the domination of one part of society — and hence its point of view — over others; this was axiomatic for him from his early critiques of Hegel onwards, and it applied to a proletarian state as much as a bourgeois one.)

By social democracy (or "reformism") we mean the view that socialism, or profound social change, can come about through extending the control of the existing state over the economy; that this can be done through parliament, helped along perhaps by protest action; and that the best vehicle for doing so is a political party which embraces the masses of the working class in a loose organisational framework. In Australia, Laborism is the obvious example; though there are differences between Laborism and classical social-democracy, they need not concern us here.

Liberalism and social democracy appeared as the main alternative to Stalinism for two basic reasons. One was that the logic of their situation impelled the Communist parties toward their own domestic bourgeoisie, and hence toward the dominant ideas in the labour movement that were associated with class collaboration. We have outlined this dynamic in chapter one. The second reason was that the other alternative that should have attracted CP militants — a revolutionary approach that sought to revive the tradition of Marx and Lenin — did not present itself to them in a very attractive form in the 1960s, anywhere in the world.

The organisations which had kept revolutionary Marxism alive throughout the Stalin period, largely the trotskyist groups, were tiny before the late sixties and still comparatively small in the seventies.

Militants accustomed to a mass party were not likely to be attracted to them. Moreover, years of isolation had made the majority of trotskyist groups ingrown and sectarian. In this regard they sometimes reminded CPers of the worst periods in their own history, only rendered more comic than tragic by the small size of the groups.

We must also remember that many Communists simply could not tell the difference between genuine Marxism and leninism and the Stalinist forgeries which they had only just begun to reject. The revolutionary groups spoke of building vanguard parties, democratic centralism, smashing the state — and CP members were irrestistably reminded of how the same phrases had slid off the tongues of their own Stalinist leaders. They remembered too the content with which these phrases had been invested and which they had not liked. Why should the revolutionary groups be different?

By contrast, social democracy and liberalism offered apparent benefits: individual freedom and access to mainstream politics. No wonder most Communists moved in that direction.

In Australia the ideological shift was carried out, in broad outlines, between 1963 and 1971 and despite apparent moves back to the left in the early seventies, has proved to be permanent. In this chapter I will trace some of the roots of the new ideas in the experiences of Australian Communists, then devote some attention to the work of an individual, Eric Aarons. I do not mean to suggest that the role of Aarons, or any other individual, was decisive; had he been absent the same general trend would undoubtedly have emerged. But because Aarons made it his task to attempt to think through at a theoretical level the issues we are about to consider, his work provides a convenient framework in which to discuss them.

The Belated Impact of the Postwar Economic Boom

ONE IMPORTANT factor impelling Australian Communists to rethink their ideas was undoubtedly the postwar economic boom. The boom flew in the face of everything they had been taught to expect. The Communist International had been founded in the belief that "the epoch of final, decisive struggle... has arrived".[2] The grim depression of the thirties appeared to be a decisive confirmation of that thesis. After World War II, Communists firmly believed a second depression would ensue, and their leaders continued doggedly to predict it for a decade or more after they had been proved mistaken.

Had the boom only meant a refutation of the CPA's theories, however, it would have not been such a blow. But much more serious, it brought a historic decline in the class struggle. Strike levels had been up to two million days lost in 1950; in 1951-6 they averaged around one million; then from 1957 to 1967 they averaged well below that. The decline was even more serious than these figures suggest, given the rapid growth in the size of the workforce. The decline in industrial militancy was only the most obvious feature of a general conservatisation of Australian life, which included anti-communism and conservative government as well as a dominant ideology according to which a woman's place was in the home.

The boom and the decline in the class struggle naturally produced theories according to which Australia was a "classless society", capitalism had overcome its contradictions, and Marxism had become outdated. The Communist Party opposed these theories, but only on the basis of dogma. In 1958, attacking those who had left or been expelled from the CPA for just such "revisionist" ideas, Sharkey said that "In the light of the growing crisis of capitalism we can only hope they will realise the erroneous character of their views." [3] What was needed was a theory which faced up to the reality of the boom, and which also sought to identify the contradictions within it which would eventually bring it to an end. Attempts of this sort were made overseas, by Marxists outside the official Communist movement. [4] Unfortunately the CPA possessed neither the sophistication nor the theoretical framework to attempt it.

Similarly with the notion that the class struggle had ceased to be the central motor of change. In a period of downturn in industrial struggle, a left party needs to face up to the fact and find other places to work, other layers of society from which to recruit. In doing so, however, it needs to retain its long-term working class orientation. The CPA however, in the face of a changing world simply dug in its heels and indeed often exhibited an increased suspicion of non-workers, especially intellectuals, that was later to be referred to as "proletarian sectarianism". Partly this suspicion arose out of the rapid departure of middle class elements from the party at the onset of the cold war. Many workers in the party felt middle class elements had been proved unreliable, and to some degree they had a point. There is no substitute for a working class base. But any recruitment is better than none, and besides it is essential to win as many intellectuals as possible to a serious revolutionary stance.

Partly, too, the suspicion was consciously bred into the party by the leadership to explain away the loss of large numbers of intellectuals after 1956. Here the danger was that it could give rise to anti-intellectual prejudices as a substitute for critical thinking, and allow important issues to be swept under the rug. Either way, the result was inflexibility.

In the short term, dogmatism of this sort, either on economics or on the question of a working class orientation, could only lead to isolation. In the longer term, ironically, once the hold of such ideas was broken, they were quickly replaced with their diametrical and equally unfortunate opposites.

In the sixties the Communist Party finally accepted that there had been a postwar boom. So far so good, but the CPA now preceeded to invest it with a permanence it did not in fact possess. In 1966, in the first issue of the new journal Australian Left Review, Bernie Taft wrote:

The question is: Are there new features which have changed the pattern of cyclical development and brought an accelerated rate of growth of a transient character, or do they reflect fundamental changes in the world? Can we expect a return to the old types of crises and to a drastically reduced rate of growth, or are these new features likely to be with us for a long time, possibly for the transition period between capitalism and socialism?...

If the former view is adopted, there will be tendencies to wait for change; if the latter, marxists have to find the way to win wide popular support in present conditions. (Emphasis added.)

Taft clearly believed the latter, and was prepared to draw the political conclusions:

...the problems created by capitalism, economic, social, moral and cultural are greater and more varied than ever. Insoluble within the framework of the capitalist system, objectively they make the need for socialism ever more urgent... New needs created by modern life remain unsatisfied... [5]

A theory which accepted that capitalist economic stability would persist right up until socialism arrived, necessarily meant a political strategy based as much on "moral or cultural" as on "economic and social" issues. Such a shift in political program has traditionally been associated with a downgrading of the central role of the working class in the struggle for socialism. And sure enough, early the following year Ron Hearn, apparently writing under the influence of Taft's article, expressed quite clearly the link between the prospect of capitalist stability and that reorientation to the middle class which was embodied in the "Coalition of the Left":

Because of several factors operating on Australian conditions the possibility of a change to a socialist form of society without passing through a deep economic crisis exists... the effects of automation and the influence of socialist trade, etc., which are dominating social changes today, are two very important factors which could stave off deep economic crisis for a long period. If this does occur, then a decline in socialist influence on a mass scale is likely...
On the other hand there is established a very fine and mature growing of left forces particularly noticeable among academics, students, the clergy and within the ALP itself... this left trend is a forward moving development which will grow in depth and later in size to mass proportions.[6]

It was a wide swing of the pendulum: from denying the boom to granting it virtual immortality; from dogged "workerism" to placing ones hopes in academics, students, the clergy and the ALP. What is striking is the speed with which the CPA leaders were able to make the shift. The basic reasons why this was possible have been suggested in previous chapters. However, there is one interesting additional factor which contributed to shaping the political make-up of the party leaders and their supporters, which may perhaps justify a brief digression: the peculiar experience of training in China.

The Experience of China Training

IN THE EARLY fifties, a small group of Australian Communists travelled secretly to the People's Republic for a political education, and they were followed by other groups throughout the decade. Among the first group was Eric Aarons, who found among his teachers a flexibility in political thinking which neither the Russians nor the CPA leadership of the time had often displayed.

The Chinese Party had met a bloody defeat in 1927 because of mistaken instructions from Moscow, and Stalin had never shown much enthusiasm for the Chinese revolution. Moreover, Peking was wary of Soviet domination. The Chinese Communists were therefore critical of Moscow from the start. The differences did not become public before the late fifties, but were reflected in an insistence by Peking on the importance for Communists in each country of making a concrete study of local conditions.

At the same time, the particular nature of the Chinese revolution led to theoretical innovations. The working class had played no role whatsoever in Mao's rise to power. For Mao, therefore, class politics had not needed to display any connection with the working class at all.

Already the Soviet rulers had drawn the class line more between Russia and the west than between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Yet Moscow had to lead a world movement of workers' parties. China did not, and was thus free to transform the content of class politics much more thoroughly. In Mao's thought, it was reduced to extreme subjectivism. As Nigel Harris puts it:

Mao uses the terms "proletariat", "peasant", "capitalist" in a... loose fashion. The terms do not refer to objective categories, but to political attitudes, degrees of support for the Communist Party (which is itself the "proletariat"). . . Thus the "dictatorship of the proletariat" can arrive in 1956, ending the "New Democracy", somehow disappear along the way, and then become the prize in the Cultural Revolution...[7]

Chinese society was also different than Russia: it was far more backward. Stalin had been able to carry out an industrial revolution in Russia, mobilising the resources of the nation through ruthless compulsion. Mao had neither the material nor the cadre resources to construct a comparable repressive apparatus or to mobilise comparable masses of capital. The peasantry could not be driven, so it had to be coaxed; the same, to a lesser degree, applied to the urban population. The situation demanded a considerable flexibility on the part of the party cadres; a flexibility which tended to find an ideological reflection. Hence the comparative open-mindedness which Eric Aarons found in his teachers. If it was not really Marxist, neither was it "Stalinist" in the sense Australian Stalinists were used to:

The Chinese lecturers we had, and the cadres we met, evidenced considerable flexibility of thought and non-dogmatism (or anti-dogmatism) especially when compared with the Soviet lecturers...
Particularly noticeable, though hard to specify precisely, was the emphasis on things of the mind and emotions. This is hard to define also, but it stood out in marked contrast to our Australian brashness, lack of consideration for dignity and feelings, and over-riding emphasis on "objective causes" with much playing down of "subjective" ones, which we had thought to be one of the main hallmarks of "Marxism-Leninism".

This general climate found a rather remarkable expression in the Chinese teaching methods. These sometimes resembled western encounter-group therapy. The emphasis was heavily on individual and subjective factors, as one writer explained:

Ideological remoulding through introspection (to give it its full title) began ... with the study of a particular topic, say, the role of a Communist Party. Then, the class committee ... would pick out one theme for intensive study ... The choice... may have been the notion of the Party as a vanguard. ... Group members would then reflect on this "centre of gravity". They would ask themselves how well they had observed this principle in practice. And eventually they might come up with examples, however trivial, where they, as members of the party, had gone beyond the level of the consciousness of the masses. From this they would conclude. ... that they had been guilty of "commandism." At this point, someone would probably point out that "commandism"... constituted a serious breach of the Party's mass line...
...this fault would be traced back to one or another of the variations of bourgeois ideology... most likely, "individualism" or "contempt for the masses" or maybe both. The group member would then be obliged to dig up other examples of his "bourgeois individualism" or "contempt for the masses" from both his present and past behaviour. Finally ... he would try to overcome these particular shortcomings in practice.

This process approaches the strengths and weaknesses of cadres as a moral and individual problem; the "masses" appear only as a backdrop, or as passive herds towards whom "contempt" or a correct "mass line" is expressed by the individuals. There is a strong flavour of guilty liberalism, and it is almost a relief to discover that later tour groups displayed a "healthy scepticism" toward this ideological remoulding, with Claude Jones declaring, "if you have a guilty complex, a uselessness complex, how can you be a good Communist?"[10]

I have dwelt on these experiences because they were an important formative influence on the generation that transformed the CPA, including Eric Aarons. It seems they came away from China with a number of new ideas: the fallibility of the Russians, the value of flexibility and studying the local conditions in ones own country, but also an approach to the education of cadres that was a bit fixated with the individual as against the social aspect, and perhaps finally the Maoist tendency to free Marxist categories from any fixed content. Commenting later on his own China experiences, Rex Mortimer described them as a "liberal education." If that is what it was, then no doubt it made some modest contribution to the liberal theory which Eric Aarons, also the recipient of such an education, began to develop in the course of the sixties.[11]

A Revolution in Philosophy?

Aarons began his rethinking of Communist ideas with a study of philosophy. He was most impressed with the western thinkers whose books were recommended to him by academic friends. Compared with the tedium dished out by Soviet sources they were lively and refreshing, and appeared to have made new insights. He concluded:

there was no likelihood that the bourgeoning knowledge in this and other fields could be squeezed without damaging surgery into any glass slipper, however elegant, and that the easy divisions into "bourgeois" and "proletarian" ideology we were in the habit of making were a major aspect of confining thought within old pre-determined bounds and could no longer be accepted in that form. [12]

The old notions of bourgeois and proletarian ideology, of course, had virtually amounted to western and Soviet ideology. Not surprisingly, when Aarons published the fruits of his studies in a book called Philosophy for an Exploding World, he announced almost at the start that he was taking up problems that were common to both East and West:

The people of all countries — socialist and capitalist, "East and West", industrially advanced and undeveloped, are for the first time simultaneously involved, all driven by problems which are at least substantially similar, however different the starting points.[13]

This could have been the signal for an important breakthrough: if the USSR is "driven" by the same fundamental problems as the western capitalist societies one might begin to question the socialist nature of the USSR. Moreover, a Marxist who saw in the prosecution of the class struggle the answer to social problems might be led to discover the presence of a class struggle in the eastern bloc societies. From here it would be a short step to a class analysis of these societies, perhaps in terms of state capitalism. Unfortunately, Aarons' concerns are far removed from the class struggle. Instead he writes of a values revolution:

There is mounting evidence that a revolution in thinking and, perhaps more important, a revolution in feeling, is taking place in industrially developed societies. It is a tide which cannot be stemmed... It is potentially socialist since the new values emerging involve man taking conscious control of his relations with his kind and with nature... [14]

This passage represents a decisive departure from Marxism. The suggestion that a revolution in feeling can be more important than a revolution in thinking already suggests a retreat from scientific thinking; the notion that either can be a "tide which cannot be stemmed" is wishful thinking rather than analysis. The idea that societies which are already socialist need to develop a "potentially socialist trend" removes any content from the term "socialist" itself, as does the suggestion that there can be socialist societies in which man has not yet "taken conscious control of his relations with his kind and with nature". Nevertheless, the passage might be simply dismissed as vague and muddled, were it not coupled with a conscious shift of emphasis away from the working class and the class struggle. Aarons identifies three major areas of his values revolution: the ecological crisis, women's liberation and industrial democracy. It would be difficult to find three more vital issues for revolutionaries today, but what leaps out at you from the pages of the book is that it does not relate any of these questions to the class struggle. The struggles of third world peoples and Aborigines are given their due, but the working class does not appear to have anything to do with them. Women's liberation is treated simply as an issue between women and men, as if the women of the bourgeoisie did not have class interests which might get in the way of women's liberation, and as if working class women's position in the process of production did not impinge on a strategy for their liberation as women. The emphasis in Aarons' treatment is on sexuality and lifestyle — important issues to be sure, but dealt with largely in psychological terms which are not really anchored in a social, let alone class analysis.

In the discussion of industrial democracy there is no mention of unions! Nor is there a critique of "workers' participation" as opposed to workers' control. Indeed there is no discussion of workers' struggle at all (how else will industrial democracy be achieved?). Rydges, the management magazine, is quoted and so is an academic. Jack Mundey, the prominent Communist who was leading workers' control struggles in the building industry at that very time, is noticeably absent.

Can all these be simple oversights? No indeed. Aarons has consciously and explicitly rejected class politics:

it is not "the workers" or "the intellectuals" or any other stratum as such, but the revolutionary-minded elements from among them all that must make themselves into a social force, grow to a majority or near enough to it, and impress upon society new revolutionary values which permeate all spheres of society. [15]

For Marx, the workers were to seize power and transform society. For Aarons, the most revolutionary-minded from all sections of society are to impress new values on it. Quite logically, therefore, he embraces political and philosophical pluralism:

Pluralism has come to stay in political commitment, in life style, and in philosophy and theoretical approach in general. A common core of thought and feeling which can only spring from shared values must be achieved... This process would be hampered rather than furthered by attempts to constrict it within a highly ordered edifice of thought and organisation. [16]

Lenin had stood for a disciplined party of the working class, which in turn allowed the workers as a class to exercise political hegemony over their allies among the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie. Aarons wants an alliance of diverse elements, all of which he considers equally important, based on shared values rather than political agreement. Quite logically he must oppose both a "highly ordered edifice of thought" (that is, a coherent political program) and anything but a very loose form of organisation.

Within the first few pages of his book, Aarons laid the philosophical basis for a shift from Stalinism to liberalism in thought and to social democracy in organisation. He was no less forthright in translating the philosophical shift into political terms.

The Nature of the Soviet Union

ONE OF the first questions he had to consider was the nature of Soviet "socialism". In the sixties, Communists had begun to reconsider their previous blind loyalty to the Kremlin, and so they felt a growing need for a new analysis of Soviet society.

There are several options open to leftists trying to develop a critique of Russia. The followers of Chairman Mao contend that Soviet socialism was betrayed by Khrushchev and that capitalism was restored in the USSR after 1956. But this explanation had little appeal for Communists. If the Russian workers, after decades of socialism, could allow the restoration of capitalism without a struggle — and there was no visible struggle against Khrushchev — then only very pessimistic conclusions follow about the ability of the working class to govern society at all.

My own contention, as indicated in previous chapters, is that the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy represented the liquidation of the Bolshevik revolution. The Stalin regime carried out the tasks of capitalist accumulation on the basis of a state-run economy; Russia is therefore best defined as a state capitalist society. But this analysis, too, is a hard one for veteran CP members to accept. Who wants to feel they have spent decades defending a capitalist regime, without even knowing it?

There remained the theory elaborated by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky broke with Stalin in the twenties, and denounced the bureaucracy which Stalin represented as repressive and counter-revolutionary. Yet he defended the Soviet state against the west on the grounds that it still retained socialist property forms. The state industry represented a fundamentally socialist aspect of the regime, said Trotsky, but the society was held back from achieving genuine socialism by the bureaucracy. Hence the USSR was a "degenerated workers' state". In the Stalin period, Trotsky had been labelled a fascist for putting forward this analysis, but by the sixties it began to have an appeal for CP intellectuals, particularly in the modified version advanced by Isaac Deutscher. [17]

Deutscher followed Trotsky in declaring Russia a degenerated workers' state and he agreed that the Stalin regime was repressive. But he argued that Stalinism had been a historically necessary phenomenon. Great revolutions, said Deutscher, have a heroic phase represented by personalities such as Lenin and Trotsky. After that they must be consolidated, and this task falls to less appealing but more practical realists, such as Stalin. Essentially he saw the Russian revolution as analogous to the French revolution: first the heroic upsurge led by the Marats, Dantons, and Robespierres; then a consolidation under Napoleon. This consolidation, he said, leads to a loss of some of the original progressive content of the revolution, and to a loss of democracy. This is regrettable but unavoidable. It is up to later generations to rectify the situation.

For Communists this version had a greater appeal than Trotsky's implacable anti-stalinism, and it suggested a perspective of reforming rather than overthrowing the Eastern bloc regimes. It also allowed CP members to feel they had still been part of a historically progressive movement throughout the Stalin period, while criticising specific features of the contemporary USSR. It is probably no accident, therefore, that Eric Aarons' major document on this question cites Deutscher more than once while mention of Trotsky is avoided.[18]

By 1970, under the influence of such ideas the CPA was prepared to define the Soviet Union and similar societies as "socialist based" rather than "socialist", and to declare:

Conditions for man's liberation were created and these countries have challenged imperialist domination in the fields of production, science and technology; but the actual liberation of man in the main has yet to be accomplished.[19]

Among the negative features of Soviet society, the party cited "over-centralised control of the economy", the ''existence of bureaucracy", "curtailment of political democracy and individual freedom", a shortsighted nationalism, and "dogmatic ideologies". And it warned:

In some countries these problems and their various manifestations arc leading to the build-up of social pressures and tensions which will eventually lead to crisis and upheavals while present policies remain. [20]

This prediction was borne out the same year by a massive revolt of Polish shipyard workers. The CP A was obviously on the right track. But as the 1970 statement itself conceded, the analysis was far from being coherent. For example, Laurie Aarons suggested in 1971 that the genuine socialist alternative to bureaucratic Stalinism was "public ownership plus democracy, plus liberty, plus workers' control plus self-management".[21] As a list of desirable features this might suffice, but as an alternative social program it was rather fragmentary and eclectic.

It was left to Eric Aarons to attempt to raise the discussion to a theoretical level. His document, circulated in 1974, was more sophisticated than anything else the party has produced before or since. For just this reason, it is perhaps more revealing. Aarons elaborated a reformist perspective towards the eastern bloc states which, given his previously declared emphasis on the similarity of problems facing east the west, had implications for CPA strategic thinking in Australia. He began his discussion by examining the term "socialist based", which he said

was intended on the one hand to acknowledge the fact that private (capitalist and feudal) ownership of the means of production no longer existed, having been replaced by social ownership, and on the other that the political forms were not of the kind to which Australian socialists aspired.[22]

This formulation is clearly derived from trotskyism, but Aarons took a step further, because he pointed out a contradiction in the trotskyist approach. He noted that it drew a sharp dividing line between the (supposedly progressive) economic base of the society and the (undemocratic) political superstructure. Such a sharp division is unusual in Marx and foreign to his basic method, though it was common enough in the vulgar Marxism of the Stalin period. Moreover, it is particularly unsuitable to a society in which the means of production are in the hands of the state, as Aarons makes clear:

Private ownership of the means of production and the relations of production which go with it may have been abolished, but "public ownership" does not, and cannot, by itself fully establish new relations of production. For without actual decisions (by the state) no production, distribution or reproduction will take place. The decision making process, then, in the very nature of things, becomes an essential part of the relations of production, or if you like, of the economic base. [23]

This is a most important insight, but it can lead in two opposite directions. We recall that Trotsky's analysis as modified by Deutscher tended to blur the distinction between a revolutionary opposition to the Soviet regime, aimed at overthrowing it, and a reformist one aimed at gradual change. Nevertheless, the reformist tendency is partially restrained by the sharp distinction between a progressive economic base which one supports, and a repressive political superstructure which one is still committed to transforming. Once that distinction is dissolved, you either have to accept the whole of society as essentially progressive, or consider the whole as reactionary.

The revolutionary response would necessarily be to conclude that Russia has no socialist base at all. If the decision-making process is part of the relations of production — and a rather vital part — and this process is controlled by the bureaucracy without any hint of workers' democracy, then clearly these relations of production are not themselves socialist. By this line of reasoning one arrives in fairly short order at the conclusion that the Soviet Union is an exploitative class society.

We have seen, however, why this conclusion was unacceptable to most Communists. Aarons therefore moves to the exact opposite conclusion. From denying a sharp division between base and superstructure, he moves to blur the distinction between the idea of a "socialist based" society and socialism itself. His portrayal of Soviet society is noticeably more favourable than those which had appeared in party documents in the period immediately prior. He identifies two mainsprings to the Soviet system:

For the Soviet Union it appears that the two things mentioned above — the material living standards of the people and the influence and power of the nation ... are these springs.[1]

This is a key test. For the Communist movement under Stalin, the concept of "socialism in a single country" promised to combine just these features: growing power for the Soviet state to enable it to survive in a hostile capitalist world, yet at the same time a society where the needs of people were to take precedence over accumulation — unlike capitalism, which is characterised precisely by the subordination of human needs to profit, and hence the subordination of consumption to accumulation.

There is no doubt that the second of the two "mainsprings" nominated by Aarons has indeed been a constant feature of Soviet society. Stalin himself had made the central logic of Soviet economic development quite clear in a famous speech in 1931:

No, comrades... the pace must not be slackened! ... To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind; and those who lag behind are beaten...We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us. [25]

The historic problem, of course, was to combine this with a social order in which human needs ("living standards") were nevertheless the main priority. This, the Soviet Union has manifestly not done; on the contrary, the Stalin regime turned the society directly away from such a priority, as the following table illustrates:

Percentage Distribution of Industrial Production [26]
Year Means of Production Consumer Goods
1928 35.1 64.9
1940 61.2 38.8
1960 72.5 27.5
1970 73.4 26.6
1973 74.0 26.0

In fact, the only evidence Aarons advances to show that improving living standards is a mainspring of the Soviet system is the statement that "material well-being is fairly consistently advancing".[27] But this is hardly a decisive argument. Material well-being may rise as a by product of economic development in a society whose central dynamic is entirely different. In fact, many Marxists today would agree that the historic tendency in capitalist society is for living standards to rise. And certainly at the time Aarons' document appeared, material well-being in Australia had been "fairly consistently advancing" for two decades. To conclude from such evidence that improving living standards was a "mainspring" of Australian capitalism would lead one straight to reformism. And certainly that is where it lead Aarons in the case of the USSR.

To be sure, the idea that Russian society can be reformed was not stated explicitly in this document, but then it did not need to be. For Communist Party members trained for many years to be sympathetic to the Kremlin, one needed only to refrain from an explicit call for revolution, and to hint that basically, Russia wasn't too bad. And Aarons certainly goes out of his way to find positive things to say about the Soviet regime.

The ruling group in the USSR, we are told, "cannot (and probably do not want to) amass wealth in its general form." [28] They display this remarkable lack of interest in worldly goods because they are "to one degree or another bound and/or motivated by at least some of the ideals of the revolution".[29] The most concise means of refuting this fantasy is perhaps to quote the experience of journalist Alexander Werth, who observed conditions of different layers of Soviet society in 1942.

It was the height of the war, when sacrifice was especially called for. Werth spoke to a maid, whose children had to live on bread and tea, but he also recorded his experience at luncheon with the elite:

That lunch at the National today was a very sumptious affair, for, in spite of the food shortage in Moscow, there always seems to be enough of the best possible food whenever there is reason for any kind of big feed, with official persons as guests. For zakuski there was the best fresh caviare, and plenty of butter, and smoked salmon; then sturgeon and, after the sturgeon, chicken cutlets à la Maréchal, then ice and coffee with brandy and liqueurs; and all down the table there was the usual array of bottles. [30]

For Aarons, not only are the Soviet bureaucrats a spartan lot, but even their nuclear weapons have virtues. The Soviet nuclear capacity has "created possibilities of averting world nuclear war." [31] By this logic even Stalin's terror would have its positive features; it was, after all, essential to building the industrial capacity for nuclear weapons.

Given this general background it is hard to see any but a reformist meaning to the one passage Aaron devotes to the possibilities for change in the USSR. The structures of this society must be "negated", we are told, but this is "not to call for the 'overthrow' of socialism"; rather it is to "speak up for socialism, it is to urge the completion of what has been called 'The Unfinished Revolution'." [32] That, however, will not happen quickly:

Change will not be easy, and all the indications at present are that it will not be quick. No sober assessment could hold that the present system must give way in a shorter time than it has taken to develop to a considerable degree of maturity (that is, 25 or 30 years). [33]

Aarons had raised the discussion of the USSR to a higher level only to turn it back in the direction of accommodation to the Soviet ruling circles. When he turned his attention to socialist strategy in the west, the thrust of his argument was similar, except that the reformism was much more explicit.

The Transition to Socialism

BEFORE 1870 Marx and Engels had believed that the existing state machinery of capitalism could be taken over by the workers and used to introduce socialism, but the Paris Commune changed their mind. Marx wrote soon after the Commune that "the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it" and after quoting these words, Lenin added that they "briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism on the tasks of the proletariat in relation to the state during a revolution".[34] For the Communists of Lenin's day, this was a central part of their concept of revolutionary politics.

In practice, revolution ceased to be Communist policy by 1935 at the very latest with the adoption of the policy of the Popular Front. The Popular Front involved collaboration with a section of the bourgeoisie, and even brought Communists into governments in some places. However this strategy was limited to specific aims: immediate reforms, the defence of democracy, defeating fascism. The transition to socialism was put off into the dim future, but in theory it still involved revolution. Ralph Gibson has made this quite clear:

In past years, when we spoke of the workers' "united front" and the broader "people's front", we thought of them as directed to winning peace, progress, democratic liberties, not to winning socialism. This was, I remember, my own treatment of the matter in Party discussions over many years.[35]

A new stage was reached after World War II. Throughout Eastern Europe the Soviet forces had imposed governments to their liking. These were coalitions involving not only the CPs but also social democratic and bourgeois parties. The CPs held key ministries and had the backing of the Red Army, but the public position was that the governments were "people's democracies" rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat. So far this was consistent with the conception of the Popular Front as outlined above.

But after 1947 Moscow tightened its grip, the commanding heights of the economy were placed in the hands of the state and the CPs became openly dominant. It was announced that the East European states were on the road to socialism. To Communists who did not perceive the iron hand of the Red Army and the Kremlin as the moving force behind the changes, but rather accepted the democratic pretensions of the East European regimes as genuine, it seemed that the transition to socialism had been achieved through peaceful reform with the co-operation of sections of the bourgeoisie. The smashing of the capitalist state and the dictatorship of the proletariat appeared to have been superceded by the Popular Front as a method of achieving socialism itself. And Khrushchev made this new view official in 1956 when he announced that the "parliamentary means of achieving socialism are now possible."[36]

Even now, however, Communists still clung to tattered remnants of leninism as they understood it. For example Gibson in his memoirs writes at some length about the virtues of Lenin's work State and Revolution, and about how it showed the need for revolution. He then proceeds to fill Lenin's terms with reformist content:

If in our day it has become more possible, in certain conditions, on the basis of a powerful mass struggle, for the people to win power peacefully, take over the basic means of production and turn parliament into an instrument of their own will, the change involved is still a revolutionary one. [37]

Gibson was only concerned with retaining the term revolution, but according to John Sendy many CPA leaders retained secret hankerings after a real revolution well into the postwar period:

Certainly to my knowledge leading Communists took a tongue-in-cheek attitude to our stated "preference", in various party programmes, for a peaceful road, while others have long regarded with disdain such strategies as those of the Italian Communist Party. Following the 1956 20th Congress of the CPSU, Party leaders laughed about Spanish Communists considering a peaceful road as possible in Spain. The same leaders, and those who followed, ridiculed the possibility of structural reform in Italy.[38]

Even Eric Aarons' brother Laurie, in a short-lived left period, could declare as late as 1972 that the election of a Labor government "cannot change anything, because the real power does not lie in the government and parliament".[39] If the CPA was to become a left reformist party, someone would have to wage a struggle against this residual revolutionary sentiment. Eric Aarons took up the task.

The problem became acute after the fall of the Allende government in Chile. Allende had stood at the head of a "coalition of the left" and had argued that the existing capitalist state could be manipulated in favour of the workers. He promised that the army would remain neutral and even invited some generals into his cabinet. The generals responded with a military coup and the annihilation of the left. This experience might have given some pause to the advocates of a parliamentary road to socialism, but Eric Aarons stoutly defended Allende's strategy:

So far as one can judge, the strategy of the Popular Unity was correct enough in the respect that they planned to use (and did use) various laws ... to erode the economic power of capital, and to assist mass mobilisations...
They also spoke of not ultimately counting on the neutrality of the army or adherence to "the law" by the opposing classes.[40]

While not "ultimately" counting on the neutrality of the army, in the short term Allende had trusted them enough to include them in his government! At the same time, he systematically dampened workers' struggles. But Aarons would only make the most minor criticisms, referring to a "hesitation in relying sufficiently on the workers and an apparent (!) failure of work in the armed forces." [41] The only major criticisms he made were made from the right. There was sectarianism toward the church, he said. And while the fragmentation of the left was regrettable,

Nor should the later consequences of such a political evolution to a single party as revealed in the Soviet Union in particular be forgotten.[42]

If the strategy of the "coalition of the left" proves incapable of meeting the threat of capitalist violence, never mind: the main thing is that the hypothetical threat of Stalinism is staved off! The CPA's inability to criticise the Soviet regime except in terms of liberal democracy now bore fruit, in the form of a failure to face up to the lessons of the Chilean defeat. And indeed Aarons was absolutely determined to learn no strategic lessons from it:

The most one can say is that a combination of all available means, with flexible shifting from one to the other as occasion demands, will probably emerge. [43]

Some time later Eric Aarons turned his attentions to the question of socialist strategy in Australia, in an article which showed definite signs of Eurocommunist influence. Entitled "The State and Australian Socialism", the article contends that the capitalist state has changed qualitiatively since Lenin's day. Its institutions now contain large numbers of employees who can be mobilised against the system, writes Aarons — and this is undoubtedly true. Yet the very example he chooses to hammer home the point reveals the fundamental error behind his train of thought:

There are even examples in history of armies — the ultimate core of the state — being influenced by the prevailing social sentiment and political situation to refuse to fire on strikers.[44]

Again, the statement is undoubtedly true, but what does it prove? One might quibble about whether the army is the "ultimate core of the state", but certainly it is vitally important. The point, however, is that splits in the ranks of the armed forces have been a feature of every great revolution in modern history. Whole sections of the army came over to the Bolsheviks in 1917. Would Eric Aarons, had he been present in Petrograd in 1917, have concluded that the Russian state was being democratised; that leninist-style revolution was outdated?

Aarons seems to imagine that the traditional leninist concept of smashing the state somehow means the physical liquidation of its employees, and a general bloodbath all round. On the contrary, it means breaking up the authoritarian structures of the state machine. To this end the mobilisation of state employees is vitally important, of course, but the fact that these employees are numerous and can be organised does not mean that the state has been democratised. Ask any public servant!

Aarons goes on to identify another supposed change in the capitalist state:

The claimed "impartiality" of the state, which is a vital ideological prop... has to be given some lip service. This creates avenues for ideas and actions which don't prop up the existing order.[45]

Once again, the statement is quite true, and yet it proves nothing whatsoever. The capitalist state claims to be impartial and this claimed impartiality opens up contradictions which socialists can exploit. But there is hardly anything new about this situation. In 1884 Engels wrote, not just about the capitalist state but about all past states, that because of the existence of class struggle "it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society... and this power ... is the state." After quoting these words Lenin comments that after the February revolution in Russia all the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries "descended at once to the petty-bourgeois theory that the state reconciles classes".[46] And in any case, we are only dealing with a claimed impartiality which needs to be exposed, not with a real democratisation of the state. Surely it is Aarons, with his theory of democratisation, who builds illusions about the impartiality of the state.

The most audacious part of his article concerns the transition to socialism. For some reason he attempts to cite Lenin to justify his own theories, offering the following paraphrase of State and Revolution:

The state consists, (Lenin) pointed out, of a separate body of people whose function is to rule. The aim of marxists in respect to the state is not to make it all powerful, but to "do away" with it.
How can this be done? By having everyone partake of the function. We call this self-management, and see it as a great extension of democracy.
A "democratic road to socialism" might therefore be briefly characterised as the process in which more and more people in more spheres of life act over things that affect them.

The first paragraph correctly reproduces Lenin's view of the "state in general", of all states. The second is made to follow on so as to suggest that all states can be "done away with" by "having everyone partake of the function". The third generalises this into a "democratic road to socialism" which is made to appear consistent with Lenin's own views. It is a rather squalid exercise in sophistry.

In reality, Lenin's pamphlet, after making general points about the state, proceeds very pointedly to distinguish two very different kinds of state with which communists have to deal. On the one hand, there is the capitalist state which must be smashed; on the other there is the workers' state, which is to be progressively democratised, with "everyone partaking of the function" until it "withers away". These propositions, the core of Lenin's argument, are belaboured tirelessly through the work and are so well known on the left that one can hardly believe Aarons is unaware of them.

Beginning with a healthy desire to criticise Stalinism, where have Aarons and his co-thinkers ended up? With liberalism in philosophy, with reformism in strategic thinking, with sophistry in the presentation of ideas. This theoretical progression is the reflection of, and to some degree a contributing factor in, the evolution of Communist Party practice from Stalinism to a kind of left reformism. In the following pages we will see how this basic trend, despite a left lurch in the early seventies, reached full fruition as the party entered the eighties.

1. Nigel Harris, India/China; Underdevelopment and Revolution, Delhi 1974, p.228.

2. "Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World", in Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, New York 1972, p. 19.

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

4. Cf. for example the articles reproduced in Michael Kidron, Capitalism and Theorv, London 1974.

5. Bernie Taft, "Changes in Modern Capitalism", Australian Left Review, 1/66, June-July 1966, p.4-5.

6. Ron Hearn, "Questions on the Mass Party Aim", Discussion Journal, March 1967, p.73-4.

7. Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven, London 1978, p.287.

8. Eric Aarons, "As I Saw the Sixties", Australian Left Review, No.27, October-November 1970, p.61-2.

9. Angus Mclntyre, "The Training of Australian Communist Cadres in China", Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol.11, No.4, Winter 1978, p.412-3.

10. Quoted in ibid., p.416-7.

11. Rex Mortimer, "The Benefits of a Liberal Education", Meanjin, June 1976.

12. Eric Aarons, op. cit., p.70.

13. Eric Aarons, Philosophy for an Exploding World, Sydney 1972, p.8.

14. Ibid., p. 11.

15. Ibid., p. 128.

16. Ibid, p.152. .

17. Trotsky's analysis is contained in The Revolution Betrayed, New York 1965. The most straightforward statement of that aspect of Deutscher's analysis which I have paraphrased can be found in his Stalin, London 1966, p. 14 and 612-4.

18. Eric Aarons, Discussion Document, 1974.

19. Statement of Aims, CPA 22nd Congress, March 1970, p.9-10.

20. Ibid.

21. Tribune, 11/8/71.

22. Eric Aarons, Discussion Document, p.2.

23. Ibid., p.3-4.

24. Ibid., p.13.

25. Quoted in Deutscher, op. cit., p.328.

26. Statistics are from Mike Haynes, "The USSR and the Crisis", Internationa! Socialism (old series), London, May 1976, p.36.

27. Eric Aarons, Discussion Document, p.9.

28. Ibid., emphasis added.

29. Ibid.

30. Quoted in Tony Cliff, Russia, a Marxist Analysis, London 1970, p.59.

31. Eric Aarons, Discussion Document, p. 11.

32. Ibid.,p.17.

33. Ibid.

34. V.I. Lenin, State and Revolution, Moscow 1972, p.36.

35. Ralph Gibson, "Why a Left Coalition", Discussion Journal, No. 1, March 1967, p.89.

36. Guardian, 23/2/56.

37. Ralph Gibson, My Years in the Communist Party, Melbourne 1966, p. 15.

38. John Sendy, The Communist Party; History, Thoughts and Questions, Melbourne 1978, p.28.

39. Tribune, 4/4/72.

40. Eric Aarons,' 'The Chilean Revolution", A ustralian Left Review, No.42, December 1973, p.4.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., p.7.

43. Ibid., p.8.

44. Eric Aarons, "The State and Australian Socialism", A ustralian Left Review,tio.f>'i, March 1978, p. 19.

45. Ibid.,p.18.

46. V.I. Lenin, op. cit., p.8-9. (Emphasis added in Engels quote.)

47. Eric Aarons, "The State...", p.20.