Support for socialism in general and communism in particular appears to be on the rise in the West – over a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is reflected in the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain and the support gained by Bernie Sanders in his unsuccessful campaign to win the Democratic Party nomination to contest the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
Corbyn is 69 and Sanders is 76. In their long careers, both men have supported socialist outcomes and on occasion flirted with communist causes. Yet, both enjoy considerable support among the young, most of whom were not alive when the Communist Party dictators in Moscow ruled over most of Eastern Europe.
The Australian politician who sounds most like Corbyn and Sanders is Lee Rhiannon (nee Brown) who will step down as a Greens senator for New South Wales at the end of the August sittings. In the Senate last Monday, Rhiannon delivered her valedictory speech. It consisted mainly of thanking her supporters over the years and condemning “careerism, hierarchical control, bullying behaviour and the associated leaking and backgrounding”.
On foreign policy, Rhiannon spoke about the need to build relationships with the “Palestinian community”. And she mentioned her “visits to Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan” but did not refer to Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.
Perhaps the most interesting refection turned on the senator’s recollection of her first visit to Parliament House. It was May 1968 and Rhiannon was part of a group of high school students who travelled to Canberra to protest against Australia’s military commitment in what was then South Vietnam.
The Vietnam protest movement presented itself as anti-war. But in fact it supported one side of the conflict (communist North Vietnam led by dictator Ho Chi Minh) against the other side of the conflict (non-communist South Vietnam which lacked a stable leadership). The Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China armed North Vietnam. South Vietnam was supported in the field of battle by the US, Australia and some other nations.
The high school group protested outside the US embassy in Canberra and met with the Labor Party’s leading left-wingers at the time – Jim Cairns and Tom Uren. Both Cairns and Uren welcomed the communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975.
Last Monday, Rhiannon recalled that “some conservative MPs … misrepresented our motives as communist inspired”. She added: “Yes, the parents of a few of us were in the Communist Party, but so what?”
Yes, so what? So what that Bill Brown and Freda Brown (Rhiannon’s parents) were long-time leading members of the Communist Party of Australia when the CPA supported all the actions of the totalitarian dictator Josef Stalin and his heirs in the Kremlin?
Including the forced famine in the Ukraine, Stalin’s show trials, the gulags, the notorious Nazi-Soviet Pact (which effectively commenced the Second World War), the establishment of communist totalitarian regimes in post-war Eastern Europe, Moscow’s crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and its similar demolition of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968. So what?
It was the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact nations, under the leadership of the Soviet Union, which led to a situation where many CPA members could not take it anymore. Led by Laurie Aarons, the CPA broke from Moscow. However, there were continuing Stalinists in the party – and, in time, they split from their comrades and formed the Socialist Party of Australia. Moscow, which had financially backed the CPA for decades, switched its monetary support to the SPA under the leadership of Bill Brown.
Lee Brown, as she was, joined the SPA as a young woman and remained active in the organisation (which had a name change) until around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed two years later. Rhiannon joined the Greens in 1990. Her valedictory speech made no reference to the SPA.
Rhiannon’s role in the SPA included writing for and at times editing its journal Survey. Her name at the time was Lee O’Gorman. In November 1981, Survey described its role as providing “facts on trends in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries”. Needless to say, the “facts” presented were invariably favourable to the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
In 1977, Lee O’Gorman accepted an invitation from the Soviet Union to lead a delegation to Eastern Europe. As Mark Aarons (Laurie’s son) wrote in The Monthly in May 2001, “persecution of Soviet dissidents was widespread in 1977, with psychiatry routinely used as an instrument of torture” and “repression of Jews…was also endemic”.
One of the members of the SPA, who in 2011 told me about the delegation, said he soon became disillusioned with Soviet communism when he found that he had to sleep with his jeans on in order to prevent them from being stolen. A man with a working class background, his view was that if workers in the so-called communist utopia could not afford jeans then it was no utopia at all. On return to Australia, he quit the SPA.
Lee O’Gorman stayed on in the Soviet Union for a six month course at the International Lenin School in Moscow (graduates of which included the East German dictator Erich Honecker). She initially declined to answer my questions about the Lenin School but acknowledged that she had studied there in an interview with ABC journalist James Carleton in December 2013.
The evidence suggests that from her late teenage years until the collapse of European communism two decades later, Rhiannon was supportive of communist dictatorships. However, on Monday she offered no apology to the victims of regimes she backed. Instead, she attacked her critics whom she accused of “McCarthyist tactics”.
Rhiannon will soon leave parliament and, as she put it, return to the streets. This will occur at a time when communism and socialism are gaining support – if only among the intelligentsia. Rhiannon never protested in Moscow but more protests in Canberra seem likely.