THE PARTY – THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF AUSTRALIA FROM HEYDAY TO RECKONING

 by Stuart MacIntyre

Allen & Unwin 2022,

ISBN: 9781760875183

RRP $49.99

Reviewed by Keith Harvey

 

The Party is Stuart MacIntyre’s second volume of his history of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). It will also be his last as, sadly, he died of cancer in 2021 after completing the book, but before it was published.

MacIntyre’s history of the CPA was originally commissioned by the Trustees of the CPA (now known as the Search Foundation) and the first volume – The Reds – was published in 1998. The second volume has been a long time coming. MacIntyre says that the second book was intended to cover the period right up until 1991 when the Party wound itself up, but that this task became impossible.

It concludes in 1970 and thus, MacIntyre writes, ends at the time he joined the CPA “as a young historian” in 1971. Shortly after joining the CPA, he left Australia to work on his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, where he also joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). When he returned to Australia in 1980, he did not re-join the CPA. Rather, he joined the ALP and its Socialist Left faction. Reportedly, he declined to re-join the CPA since it was an organisation “visibly in decline”. However, he found political discussions in the Socialist Left “abysmal”, an unsurprising finding.

It appears from The Party that, latterly, MacIntyre considered himself to be a member of the “broad left” rather than the “narrow left”, the latter referring to the Communist Party.

Given this political background, but also his well-recognised status as an academic historian, it is not hard to see interwoven but clashing threads of intellectual and personal tension in The Party many of which are not reconciled. A certain ambivalence can be detected in the text – was the CPA a good thing,  or a disaster?

At times, the text clearly raises key issues in the history of the CPA; in other places significant matters are passed over so quickly that the reader may not immediately realise the enormity of the omission. MacIntyre seems to want to praise the work of many individual communists but, ultimately, in this reviewer’s opinion, the text – read closely – damns the Communist Party, not just with the faintest of praise, but with respect to facts that go to the heart of Communism as practised by the CPA and other such parties around the world. But this may not be obvious to all.

It is also not clear if this is what MacIntyre intended, but it seems to be an inescapable conclusion from what he has written, even if the message is often not writ large in the text. The book appears to have two personalities: a desire to see or find good intentions ultimately contradicted and overwhelmed by the evidence of the mendacity of many communists and Communism as a whole. There was an endemic “culture of denial” as MacIntyre puts it.

Some of the narratives recorded, he says, “are thus personal stories of a journey from innocence to experience”. Is he writing about himself as well as others? If so, the text also reminds us that innocence (or ignorance) was really no excuse, since MacIntyre also points out (at pages 116-117) that that there were many and sufficient accounts, for example, of Stalin’s crimes that were available well before the Second World War. In these circumstances, he writes: “The willingness of people to overlook the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his people is difficult for a later generation to comprehend.”

Indeed, but overlook them they did, even when CPSU leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed them in the so-called “secret speech” in 1956, the CPA sought to suppress discussion of them and expel members who wanted to do so.

The Party covers the period from the Second World war onwards and thus includes the period of the infamous Nazi-Soviet “Non-Aggression” Pact which led to the joint dismemberment of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union. The CPA then slavishly followed the Soviet line that the war was simply an imperialist conflict that “progressive” forces should oppose. In Australia, the CPA pivoted to adopt this CPSU/Soviet policy “within a week”, MacIntyre writes.

Not only that, but in 1939 the USSR also invaded Finland though fortunately the small Finnish army fought back thwarting a full Soviet victory (as they had following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917). In 1940, Soviet forces and Soviet control were imposed on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and they became part of the Soviet Union. The attack on Finland is mentioned in The Party but not the fate of the Baltic nations.

But who could support a country that behaved in this way? The CPA of course. MacIntyre writes: “The CPA was notable for unquestioning adherence to a monolithic communist orthodoxy.”

And if anyone thought that Khrushchev’s revelations would lead to a new approach by Soviet Communist leaders, this was crushed when the leaders who had condemned Stalinism then used tanks to crush the Hungarian uprising in the very same year (as well as worker protests in Poznan in Poland). And, again, in Prague in 1968 and whenever citizens in a Soviet bloc country protested against Soviet-imposed totalitarian communist dictatorships.

In the Introduction to The Party, MacIntyre appears to chide Stephen Murray-Smith who left the CPA in the aftermath of its attempt to shut down discussion of the “secret speech” and the 1956 events in Hungary. Murray-Smith resigned from the party after academic Ian Turner was expelled from the CPA for comments critical of the role of the Soviet Union in Hungary.

MacIntyre says that in a 1983 memoir Murray-Smith wrote about becoming a communist but had been criticised by Macintyre because he “had not accounted for it”. MacIntyre notes that Murray-Smith had penned as recently as 1952 (just four years before he resigned from the CPA) the propaganda text: There’s no iron curtain: An Australian journalist in Eastern Europe “dismissing all criticism of the Eastern bloc”. MacIntyre says that it was “only as I conducted research to write this book that I became aware of such inconsistencies – and then it was too late” (page 25).

By the same standard, of course, MacIntyre could be accused of not accounting for his decision to join the CPA (albeit at a much later date, after the party was trying to distance itself from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the wake of the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 – but also well after knowledge of the true nature of Soviet Communism was well known). But, much more importantly, The Party does not attempt in any significant or substantial way to account for the actions of the Communist Party itself and its role both in Australia and in Europe and China.

This is a significant omission, even if certain conclusions can be discovered in the text. The book’s failure to confront this issue head on is made more egregious by the fact that MacIntyre often acknowledges what was going on. As early as page 3 he notes: “Under Stalin, the Communist International became an appendage of Soviet foreign policy, completely subordinated to its interests.”

All Communist parties that wanted to be part of the international communist movement were required to be members of the Communist International – a.k.a. the Comintern, which was created in the early 1920s. This required that those parties accept a number of principles including the “leading role” of the CPSU – then the only Communist Party ruling a nation. Indeed, the CPSU/USSR funded many of the international parties, including the CPA until after 1968.

A telling statement appears on page 321 of MacIntyre’s book:

Though Khrushchev did not say so [in the secret speech] Stalin had consolidated his rise to supremacy at the end of the 1920s not simply by taming the party but by annihilating it…

Khrushchev did report on Stalin’s physical annihilation of his opponents: a majority of delegates to the CPSU’s 1934 Congress and two-thirds of those who served on the Central Committee were subsequently arrested as counter-revolutionaries.

But MacIntyre’s point goes beyond the fate of the individuals: what he says is that the CPSU as a collective organisation or as a party simply ceased to exist: what was left was an appendage of Stalin in the way that the Comintern was an appendage of Soviet foreign policy.

In other words, there was no “leading Communist Party” in the Soviet Union. There was only Stalin. And all the communist parties associated with the Comintern and, later, the Cominform, danced to the tune of Stalin and his successors. However, many of Stalin’s crimes were repeated after his death in the repression in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia and, after 1949, in China. The CPA was initially very close to the Chinese Communist Party, many key party members having visited and studied there.

International Communism was a fraud foisted on the world by the leaders of the Soviet Union and slavishly transmitted to other countries by local communist parties, including the CPA.

It is frequent enough now to see Stalinism decried – as if it were an aberration. MacIntyre notes that there are of course “no Stalinist memoirs”. But the problem is not just that some Communist parties were Stalinist at some time. Rather it is that they were all Leninist all of the time.

To be part of the Comintern (as all major parties were) the communist parties had to sign onto several fundamental principles: including “democratic centralism” and rejection of means other than revolutionary ones to win power (parliamentary means were not sufficient).

Democratic centralism, simply put, means dictatorship from the top and was not democratic at all. It easily led to domination by an individual. The crimes of the Bolshevik form of Communism began with the 1917 revolution, not with Stalin.

But despite MacIntyre’s observations still there is no real accounting for the enormity of the evils that were done in the name of communism to be found in this book. Your reviewer looked hard for it, but it proved elusive.

On page 362, in the context of a discussion about the Sino-Soviet split, there is a single reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called 1968 Great Leap Forward which “brought a devastating famine that cost at least 30 million lives”. On the next page, again in the same context, there is reference to a comment (by Laurie Aarons, although it is not quite clear in the text whether this is a reference to Aarons, Lance Sharkey or Ted Hill) that Stalin had been “30 per cent wrong and 70 per cent right” which was, MacIntyre writes, “a bizarre qualification of a tyranny that killed millions”.

But these two oblique references to the human toll of totalitarian communism do not constitute an “accounting” for communism or an individual decision to join this murderous movement. There is certainly no assessment of this sort in the Epilogue where it might have been expected.

The Epilogue is a bleak recounting of the passing of many of the party members that MacIntyre knew. The party split twice, losing first the pro-Beijing faction (led by Bill Brown ) and later the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia (SPA). It ends with mournful reflections which are worth recording in some detail:

When members looked back on the party they served with such devotion, they remembered the causes it took up, the activities it made possible and the comradeship it provided more fondly than they did communist doctrine and organisation…The party itself has an ambiguous status in these memoirs, at once a source of guidance and inspiration and an unforgiving taskmaster that exacted unconditional loyalty…

The temptation in writing communist history is to attribute all that was rewarding and admirable to communists while reserving censure for communism as an ideology and organisation. It is a false dichotomy…

[The party] made heavy demands, imposed an ideology that was not open to question, required them to suppress misgivings and blinded them to the reality of communist regimes. By the 1960s that reality was undeniable.

The book concludes with a whimper:

Sooner or later the overwhelming majority [of party members] left, but not before leaving their mark on this country.

That does sound a lot like damning with the faintest of praise, if indeed it is meant to be praise at all.

One of the areas which The Party glosses over is the role of the CPA in rigging and attempted rigging of union election ballots in this country. The Party correctly notes that the Victorian Lowe Royal Commission into the Communist Party in Victoria did not uphold most of the claims of Cecil Sharpley, a defector from the CPA, who had alleged multiple instances of ballot rigging by Communist union officials.

MacIntyre notes that this was in large part because the Royal Commissioner found Cecil Sharpley to be an unreliable witness, whose evidence was not accepted unless there was corroborating evidence. In most cases, there was no such evidence since the union officials concerned all denied the allegations.

In those days, union incumbents had many advantages, including the ability to appoint one of their own as the election Returning Officer. Today, all union elections are conducted by the independent Australian Electoral Commission.

However, Sharpley’s allegations were only part of this story and MacIntyre does not examine other independent evidence of the extent of ballot rigging by Communist Party union officials. This is despite evidence presented in The Party that this was occurring.

For example, in the context of the Federated Ironworkers Association (FIA) then under CPA control, MacIntyre reports (at pages 126-7) that one party member – Kate Challis – resigned when she was expected to help fill in a batch of FIA ballot papers. MacIntyre writes: “We do not know how widely such chicanery occurred or how many communists were involved. That Kate Challis, a recent recruit and a high-minded teacher, was called on suggests it was widespread in the FIA and that she was not alone in her abhorrence.”

At pages 236-7, MacIntyre refers to and conflates two issues relating to the Victorian Branch of the Clerks Union. He correctly notes that an allegation by Sharpley in respect of this Branch was dismissed by the Lowe Royal Commission. But this was not an allegation of ballot rigging. MacIntyre then conflates this with a discussion of a ballot in the Branch in late 1949 in which the Branch Returning Officer – Fred Farrell, who was named as a CPA member in the Royal Commission’s report – burnt most of the ballot papers rather than count them.

MacIntyre only gives Farrell’s version of these events – his sources are newspaper clippings and a family biography of Farrell. He does not appear to have read Justice Edward Dunphy’s scathing assessment of Farrell’s behaviour of which the judge said: “If I had the power to do so I would direct that Returning Officer Farrell be relieved of his position….” Justice Dunphy could not do so under the Act at the time, so Farrell continued as a co-Returning Officer in a fresh ballot held in early 1950. Farrell, as even MacIntyre notes:

…once more proved to be an unhelpful returning officer, claiming that illness prevented him from authorising more than 200 of the 6000 ballot papers in any day, and then resigning before the result was declared so that the process would have to begin again. He was delaying the inevitable.

The “inevitable” was a victory by the Clerks anti-Communist ALP Industrial Group which won the re-election independently supervised ballot by a margin of 2:1 – proving that when given a clean ballot newly allowed for by legislation of the Chifley Labor Government, union members would reject the CPA’s candidates. Farrell had been interfering and stalling to assist the Communist incumbents in Victoria and nationally.

In this discussion of the affairs of the Victorian ALP Branch, MacIntyre makes an error. He says that members of the ALP Industrial Group in the Clerks Union “had been seeking to win back control ever since the communists evicted them in 1945 from the union office in Elizabeth Street…” (page 236).

But this cannot be correct. The Victorian Branch of the ALP did not authorise the establishment of Industrial Groups in affiliated unions until Easter 1946 – and the Clerks Industrial Group was not formed until September 1946. The Industrial Group cannot have been in control of the Branch prior to 1945. The 1949/50 ballots were the first which the new ALP Industrial Group team was able to successfully challenge the CPA and its supporters for the control of this Branch.

The Party deals very lightly with the struggle for control of the FIA dominated by CPA heavyweights. It does mention a decision by Justice Dunphy to overturn a disputed election and award the ballot to challenger Laurie Short – an Industrial Group activist. Dunphy found that the ballot, as MacIntyre reports, was rendered invalid by “forgery, fraud and irregularity on a grand scale”. MacIntyre does not say who was responsible for these acts, but the evidence is clear: the CPA. Dunphy did not bother with a fresh election – he installed Short in office. The Party does not mention the violent physical assault on Short that followed or ask who was responsible.

A final word. In left-wing circles, the ALP Industrial Groups and the Catholic Social Studies Movement/NCC (the “Movement”) is generally regarded with disdain. It is therefore worth noting the comment by MacIntyre at page 20:

The Labor Party set up a dedicated organisation to drive communists out of the labour movement, and the failure to do so allowed its opponents to kick the communist can.

It is hard to imagine exactly what MacIntyre meant by this statement. That Labor Party leader Evatt was wrong to attack the Movement? That the ALP was wrong to disband the Industrial Groups and expel their anti-Communist supporters, especially in Victoria? That the ALP would have been better off and had better electoral prospects without the millstone of the extreme and anti-democratic left supporting murderous regimes in the Soviet Union and China? Unfortunately, it is too late to ask.

Readers must draw their own conclusions from what is presented in this history (and what is left out). The Party is replete with ambivalence – but in this reviewer’s opinion, the worldwide communist movement was a human rights tragedy on a vast scale – aided and abetted by communist parties around the world, including the CPA.

Keith Harvey’s memoir, Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior, is published by Connor Court Publishing, 2021. A review by Michael Danby can be found here: https://thesydneyinstitute.com.au/blog/taking-on-the-left-a-lonely-long-distance-struggle/