An independent forum of strategy, tactics and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements
The Communist Party in Australian life
By Bob Gould
This article is an overview of the significance and influence of the Communist Party in Australia, covering the period between the German invasion of Russia in 1941 and the dissolution of the CP in the early 1990s. This essay is to be considered along with other pieces I have written, including my lengthy polemical study of Stuart Macintyre’s book, The Reds, on the CP until 1941, and my short piece on the labour movement split of 1955. It is very much work in progress. I am circulating it in my usual fashion, for criticism and comment, by anyone interested, and I will modify it suitably on the basis of valid observations and criticisms. I would like to stress that it is, at this stage, a very rough early draft.
Existing histories of the Communist Party vary widely in their attempt to locate the Communist Party in the broader labour movement and Australian life. Bob Gollan’s Short History of the Communist Party does this well by describing the differing approaches of the Communist Party, the Groupers and the Trotskyists to key questions, but it is too short to do justice to the texture of all these interactions. Macintyre’s lengthy history of the CP until 1941 doesn’t attempt this task at all, and treats an idealised, Stalinised CPA as an almost supra-historical entity, standing splendidly alone on the left, located almost outside the context of the labour movement and Australian life.
The Communist Party from its foundation to 1941
The Communist Party commenced as a socialist grouping in the then existing tradition of the Australian labour movement, and was a group made up mainly of proletarian autodidacts, who had been active in previous socialist groups and the IWW, along with a number of radicalised trade union officials, particularly in Sydney, the Trades Hall Reds, the whole group brought together by the enormous beacon of the Russian Revolution, the charisma of Lenin and Trotsky as proletarian leaders, and the possibility of successful socialist revolution embodied in the new Russian workers’ state, “the first workers’ state in history” as was often said at the time. The foundation members of the CPA included Jock Garden, the secretary of the Labor Council of NSW.
The founders of the CPA were free spirits, rebels and proletarian organisers, from the rank and file level up to and including a number of union officials, moving in and out of the Labour Party, depending on circumstances and tactical considerations. They were a healthy combination of experimenters, idealistic rebels, serious trade unionists and others. They were, in a real sense, the elite of the existing workers’ movement, and they had the occupational hazards of that elite, ranging from opinionated sectarianism to embryonic labour movement careerism, such characteristics sometimes existing even in the one individual. The other major current in the dominant broad left of the labour movement after the Conscription Split of 1916-17, was a broad layer of radicalised Catholics, also usually proletarian autodidacts, with similar cultural characteristics to the founders of the CP, some of whom were among the founders of the CP.
During the relative boom of the 1920s there were still some sharp class struggles, but the revolutionary wave after the First World War receded as the decade rolled on, and the new Communist Party had considerable difficulty establishing itself as a major force in these changed conditions. There were splits and departures from the organisation. Towards the end of the 1920s the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union began to have a catastrophic effect throughout the world Communist movement, including Australia, and the young communist parties globally were thrust, after 1929, into a Stalinist straitjacket, which had decisive effects on their development for the rest of the 20th century.
In Australia, as in many other countries, direct Stalinist intervention from the Soviet Union imposed on the CPA a rapidly completed process of “Bolshevisation”, which coincided with the imposition of the Third Period line. The Third Period rhetoric involved the “exposure” of the rest of the labour movement as “social fascists”. This was particularly damaging in Australia, where the onset of the world Depression produced a mass, populist movement of labour rebellion, at the head of which stood the NSW Premier, J.T. Lang. All through the mass mobilisation early in the Depression embodied in Langism, the CPA was on the sidelines “exposing” and denouncing it, rather than making realistic socialist demands on its leadership. Who can know what mass socialist current might have emerged in Australia had the CP adopted tactics more realistic than simple "exposure" towards the big Lang movement.
The “Bolshevisation” of the CP involved turning what had been a relatively democratic grouping into a ruthlessly centralised, bureaucratic formation organised around a newly invented, Stalinist formula of so-called “democratic centralism”. This gave the Political Committee of the party total control over political line, strategy, organisation and personnel, and in practice over time tended to eliminate any open inner-party argument, discussion and conflict.
Inevitably, continuing power struggles were forced underground in the organisation, and usually ever after consisted of contenders vying for the ear of, or influence on, anointed leaders such as J.B. Miles, Lance Sharkey, Richard Dixon, Sam Aarons, E.F. Hill, etc. Almost everybody who had been associated with the CP in the 1920s was eliminated from the organisation during the Stalinist “Bolshevisation”, and a process commenced in the broader labour movement of the CPA being surrounded with people who had once been in it or around it, who usually became its opponents because of the denunciations to which they were subjected, and who were often forced by circumstances to associate with forces opposed to the CP to survive in the labour movement.
As the Depression rolled on, the CPA recruited new forces, mainly young, radicalised by the Depression, to replace the rebellious spirits forced out of the party by the process of Stalinisation. These new recruits were indoctrinated in a rigidly Stalinist political culture and organisational style. After 1934 the People’s Front strategy was progressively adopted, culminating in Dimitrov’s Report to the 1935 Comintern Congress.
This turned out to be the last conference of the Comintern. The People’s Front policy was a 100 per cent swing away from the Third Period strategy, and involved a united front, not just embracing the left of the labour movement, but broadened to embrace the right wing of the workers’ movement and whatever sections of the bourgeoisie could be inveigled into it.
This strategy was motivated primarily by the diplomatic and state interests of Stalin’s bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and allowed little scope for Communist Parties having any perspective of socialist revolutions in their own country, as was demonstrated by Stalin’s strangulation of the embryonic socialist revolution in Spain after 1936.
The CPA, by now thoroughly Stalinised, threw itself into the People’s Front with enthusiasm, and intervened in the continuing crisis in the broader labour movement by forming a tactical alliance with the most right-wing force in the movement nationally, the federal bureaucracy of the Australian Workers Union, to bring down the decaying Langite machine, which still persisted in control of the Labour Party in NSW.
In this period the vicious tableau of the Show Trials in Moscow produced some defections from the CPA, and some anger among other socialists, who had difficulty believing that Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Trotsky, and the other murdered Bolshevik leaders, were really “agents of Hitler”. At the same time, the melodrama of the Moscow Trials was used to harden up the cadres of the CPA, and to insulate them from anyone in the labour movement with whom they were in conflict for any reason. These people were easily dubbed “Trotsky fascists” and “agents of Hitler”.
As industry revived later in the 1930s, the CPA, grew a bit, mainly by recruiting young unemployed people who got jobs as employment revived. Once back at work, and thoroughly Stalinised, this younger layer rapidly became a powerful influence in the reviving trade unions. The previous generation of trade union officials, whose organisations had been smashed up by the Depression, were largely worn out by that experience and a number of them were fairly easily replaced by younger Stalinists who had received their initial political education in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement.
The increased trade union influence of the CPA became a very important factor in labour movement politics from then on.
The enormous prestige of the Soviet Union, in the context of the Depression in the capitalist world, made quibbles about the Moscow Trials seem irrelevant to many, and the bloc with the federal AWU and ALP politicians on the outer with Lang, culminated in a spectacular success for the CP. In NSW an entry tactic in the Labour Party, which had commenced in 1935, culminated in the CP’s capture of control of the ALP apparatus from the Langites at the Unity Conference in Newtown in 1939.
Another major benefit of the Labor Party entry tactic was the very substantial recruiting to the CP that took place in the ALLY (Australian Labor League of Youth), the Labor Party youth organisation. Hundreds of people recruited to the CP in the ALLY remained active in the CP for the next 20 or 30 years.
All of this came to a sharp end with the onset of the Second World War. The CPA underwent three major changes of line in two years. For the first couple of weeks, it briefly supported the war, before the line of opposition to the war, imposed by Stalin, became clear. During this brief period of support for the war, several leading members, such as Alf Bradley in the Bootmakers Union, his wife Win, and CPA old-hand Guido Baracchi, who couldn’t stomach support for the war, broke with the CP and joined the small group of Trotskyists. Others such as Tony McGillick and the CP Sydney district organiser, George Bateman, broke with the party on the war question.
Two weeks later, following the Comintern directive, the CP opposed the war, and was shortly after declared illegal, along with the smaller Trotskyist group, which also opposed the war. Over the next two years, the underground CP recruited quite well because the effect of the antiwar line was that communists in industry prosecuted the class struggle with somewhat greater vigour than they had during the later period of the Popular Front, and this intersected with the attitudes of many working class militants, who resented excessive sacrifices, imposed primarily on the working class, for the war effort.
The CP prosecuted the antiwar line implacably, but tactically unwisely, in its entry work in the Labor Party, and the 1940 Easter Conference of the ALP adopted the Hands off Russia resolution, which implicitly opposed the war. This gave the dominant forces in the ALP, led by Prime Minister Curtin, NSW parliamentary leader William McKell and the federal AWU bureaucracy, which by now wanted to break the alliance with the CP, an excuse to step in and throw the CP out of the Labor Party in NSW.
During this crisis, several people in the CP leadership, most notably Lloyd Ross, the secretary of the powerful Australian Railways Union, and his sidekick, Jack Ferguson, fell out with the CP. (This Jack Ferguson became secretary of the ARU after Lloyd Ross went to the Department of Postwar Reconstruction and then became president of the ALP until 1952. He is not to be confused with the Jack Ferguson who later became deputy premier of NSW, who was no relation). Lloyd Ross and Jack Ferguson went along with the official Labour line on the war and broke with the CP, costing the CP control of the NSW branch of the Railways Union, which it never subsequently regained.
Taken as a whole, in most unions, CP influence was unimpaired in this period, however, and CP membership actually increased during the “illegal” period.
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The Australian Communist Party during the Second World War
In May 1941 the armies of the German Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, catching Stalin napping despite the warnings he had received from the heroic Soviet spy Richard Sorge and others, which Stalin refused to believe.
Immediately the CPA’s again did an about-face on the war. The CPA became the most enthusiastic supporter of the war, vigorously opposing strikes and supporting speed-ups. This effectively put the CPA on the extreme right of the labour movement. The practical effects of this line were mixed. The new Curtin Labour government quickly restored the CP’s legality.
The CPA, being a significant and powerful and knowledgable force in the labour movement, was consulted by the Labour Government on major matters. Key CP union leaders, such as Ernie Thornton in the Ironworkers, and Jim Healy in the Waterside Workers, were put on major industry boards to help the war effort go smoothly. CP organisers were given jobs in areas such as the movement raising war bonds, and patriotic activities too numerous to mention.
The CP recruited rapidly on the basis of the heroic Soviet war effort, which was real and obvious to the world. Anti-communism was very muted during the Second World War. The CP also recruited extensively in the army among younger soldiers radicalised by the Depression, many of middle-class origin.
During the war, the party organisation was largely run by tough, capable Stalinist women, such as June Mills, and many others, because most male Communists were in the armed services. By the end of the war the CP claimed that its membership had increased from 4000 to 16,000. While this figure is probably exaggerated, there was massive growth of Communist Party membership and influence. By the end of the war, approximately half the trade unions in Australia were under direct Communist Party influence.
The Communist Party in North Queensland
During the late 1930s the Communist Party had built up durable popular support in North Queensland, leading major strikes in the sugar industry against Weil’s Disease, and strenuously defending the large settlement of Italian, Maltese and Spanish cane farmers and agricultural workers against racist attacks.
During the war the left-wing faction in the Labor Party in Townsville, led by Tom Aikens, split away from the right wing in Brisbane, and formed a united electoral front with the CP, which won control of Townsville Council. Among the communists elected to the council was the colourful Rhodes scholar Fred Paterson.
In 1944 Tom Aikens was elected as an independent left-wing Laborite for the Townsville seat of Mundingburra and Paterson was elected as the Communist candidate for the adjacent seat of Bowen, the only Communist ever to be elected to an Australian parliament. He held the seat in the 1947 state election, but a biased redistribution and a change in political climate contributed to his defeat in 1950.
Aikens and the dissident left-wing populist North Queensland Labor Party gradually shifted to the right in the 1950s, and Aikens held on to his seat until 1975 as a kind of conservative North Queensland populist independent and ended up being feted as the "father" of the Queensland Parliament.
These developments are well covered in Diane Menghetti’s extremely useful book The Red North, in A Majority of One: Tom Aikens and Independent Politics in Townsville by Ian Moles (University of Queensland Press, 1979) and in Fred Paterson: The People's Champion by Ross Fitzgerald (University of Queensland Press, 1997).
Negative features of the CPA's role during the Second World War
The negative features of the wartime activity of the CPA were considerable. The CPA was even further Stalinised, if that is possible. A distinct high Stalinist political culture rapidly developed in the CP at this high point of its influence. Not all of this was bad.
For instance, autodidacts such as L. Harry Gould, Syd Mostyn, Steve Purdy and even E.W. Campbell, Lance Sharkey and J.B. Miles, had a certain interest in theory, literature and culture. The CPA in this period even independently published an unusual pamphlet by Maxim Gorky that treated some of the purged old figures of the Russian Revolution as human beings.
It also published, in very large editions, selections of Marx and Engels on literature, obviously made by someone like L. Harry Gould, a book by B. Hessen, who had been murdered in Stalin's purges, on the social and economic roots of Newton’s Principia and another book by the renegade Karl Kautsky on slave society in imperial Rome. The wartime CP, while rigidly Stalinist at the political level, had a certain eclecticism in cultural and ideological matters.
Nevertheless, this was also the period of the indoctrination of the party in the texts and political culture of high Stalinism. Stalin’s fantastic 1939 History of the CPSUB, with its extraordinary lies about the history of Bolshevism, arrived in Australia early in the war and became, ever after, the basis of party education. The CP also published an enormous run of a paperback abridgement of the notorious book The Great Conspiracy Against Russia by Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn, a bizarre cops-and-robbers account of the “Trotsky-Bukharin-Zinoviev-Hitler conspiracy” that was widely read by party members and supporters because of its accessible “global conspiracy” construction. Sayers and Kahn became another central text in party education.
The war period was when the frequently impressionable middle-class recruits to the CP were indoctrinated in all these falsifications of history, and domesticated to the political practices of a totally centralised, completely undemocratic party apparatus. In Australia the political culture of high Stalinism as a mass phenomenon was really born during the Second World War in the context of natural enthusiasm for the wartime ally, the gallant Soviet people and army, and their pipe-smoking leader, Uncle Joe, who became a kind of global folk hero, along with Churchill and Roosevelt.
The consequences of the enthusiasm of the CP for the war effort had mixed results in the labour movement. Workers in a number of industries, while in a general way supporting the war, still prosecuted the class struggle in their traditional way, although their tactics were necessarily modified by war conditions.
Many miners resisted exaggerated speed-ups, generally quite successfully. The CP weekly newspaper, Tribune, contained repeated exposures of non-existent “Trotskyites among the southern miners”, based, apparently, on the resistance of many miners to speed-ups.
The old socialist, Muriel Heagney, who held a position of importance around the Melbourne Trades Hall, tried to use her industrial influence to fight for a rapid increase in the female rate towards the male rate of pay. In Heagney’s view, the crisis of the war created favourable conditions to press hard for equal pay.
CP-influenced unions bitterly opposed Heagney on this question, and the opportunity to push rapidly in the direction of equal pay for women during the war was lost, mainly because of CP intervention against it.
Throughout war industries women workers, brought in to replace men who were at the war, were often to the fore in struggling for hitherto unsatisfied, or even previously unrecognised, demands. Spontaneous strikes broke out in Sydney among women textile workers and clothing workers pressing for more pay and better conditions in the factories.
The union bureaucrats of the textile union tried fairly unsuccessfully to oppose these strikes. So, also, did the Communist Party industrial branches in several textile factories, and their intervention against the strikes was rather more successful than the intervention of the textile union bureaucrats.
It is painful and moving to read the article A stitch in time: experiences in the rag trade about this textile upheaval, written by Betty Reilly, nearly 40 years later for Australian Left Review in 1982, in which she describes with pain and shame her own intervention, along with that of other women Communists in the textile industry, against this mass struggle of working women. Their stand was made out of blind loyalty to the party and the Soviet Union.
The Balmain ironworkers’ struggle
The highest point of resistance to the right-wing industrial policy of the CP during the war was the struggle of the Balmain ironworkers between 1943 and 1946. This struggle was described by Daphne Gollan in two articles published in Labour History magazine in May and September 1972.
A small group of Trotskyists, in alliance with Lang Laborites, resisted excessive speed-up in the ship repair and ship building industry around Sydney Harbour. To head off rising discontent, the Stalinists in control of the federal office of the union rigged the ballot in the Balmain Branch to take control of the branch from a group of Langites who had been hesitant to fully back the industrial betrayals of the CP.
Two notable Trotskyists, Nick Origlass and Laurie Short, rapidly emerged as the leaders of the Balmain ironworkers in their resistance to excessive industrial demands of the employers. As this struggle unfolded, the Stalinist leadership of the union bureaucratically removed Origlass as a job delegate.
This action precipitated an unprecedented six-week general strike of all metalworkers, totalling about 4000, on the Sydney waterfront against the bureaucracy of the Ironworkers Union.
During this struggle the Balmain ironworkers seized back control of the branch by shrewd legal tactics at a union general meeting, which was later ratified by the Industrial Commission. Eventually the strike was settled, the Stalinists were defeated, Origlass was reinstated as delegate and the rebels re-established control of the Balmain Branch.
The 40-hour week struggle
In 1944, female printers, a very poorly paid group at Sydney’s newspapers, went on strike for shorter hours, under the inspired generalship of the then Trotskyist Gil Roper, a member of the powerful delegates’ board of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union.
The Communist Party was initially suspicious of the strike, but as the war was winding down and the strike was an official strike of the PKIU, the CP opposition to it was rapidly modified, and it eventually swung around to support for the action.
The CPA was prodded in this by a small group of Trotskyists led by Allan Thistlethwaite, a leader of industrial action for the 40-hour week at Bunnerong Powerhouse. As the war came to an end the Stalinists gradually began to relax their anti-strike policy, and the industrial juggernaut of the 40-hour week got rolling in Sydney from that point on. The 40-hour week was achieved finally in 1947.
Balance sheet on the Communist Party and the war
The Communist Party came out of the Second World War very much larger and with much broader social and cultural influence in Australian society. On the other hand, it had a special and rigid high-Stalinist culture, which despite good features such as an interest in culture and literature, tended to cut it off from the rest of society, particularly anyone on the left who didn’t go along with Stalinism.
During the war the Catholic Action Industrial Groups got going, as a kind of counter-movement to the CP, modelled on the centralised, combative Stalinist CP, sharing to some extent the radical political and economic sentiments common to just about everybody in the workers’ movement in 1946, but competing directly for hegemony with the CP in the labour movement.
If you’d taken a slice of Australian society in 1946, the CP would have had maybe 12,000 real members, and the Grouper Catholic Action Movement about 6000. Both group had quite a few union officials among their members and adherents.
Both groups had dedicated and active memberships. Both groups were comparatively young. The Grouper movement, as it developed, began to exploit antagonism to the Communist Party among groups such as the Balmain waterfront metalworkers, who had been in conflict with the CP during the war.
This conflict was exacerbated when, towards the end of 1947, the CP swung for a couple of years into to a an orgy of ultraleftism in industrial matters.
The beginnings of the Cold War
In 1946 the Cold War was inaugurated by Churchill’s anti-Soviet speech at Fulton, Missouri. From then on, the contest between the Communist Party and the Santamaria Catholic Action Movement for hegemony in the labour movement proceeded in the context of the Cold War.
Everybody in the labour movement, right, left and centre, wanted a new order, not the old order of depression and war, produced by the capitalist system.
The leadership, and many of the members, of the CP believed their party would be at the centre of an Australian socialist revolution, which would happen very rapidly, and which would impose on Australian society a set-up modelled on Stalin’s Soviet Union and, indeed, on the authoritarian set-up in their own party.
The Catholic Groupers also thought this a likely possibility, and devoted all their energies to defeating the CP. From the hindsight of our experience of the expansionist boom of postwar capitalism, both these sets of beliefs may appear quixotic, but they were held with deadly seriousness by most of the participants in the social and political battles in Australia in the 1940s and the 1950s.
World capitalism responded to the “Communist threat” by making major tactical retreats in the face of the desire of the masses of the world for a new order. Social Democratic and Labour governments in western Europe, Britain and Australia made major social changes, which embodied many of the social aspirations of the working class.
These reforms were all a product of, in the final analysis, the very substantial movement of the working class. There were strike waves in the United States and Western Europe. The masses of the Third World rose up and tore down most of the colonial empires of European imperialist powers, bringing independence to many former colonies.
This had considerable impact in Australia because of our location in the Asian region, and to its considerable credit the Communist Party of Australia supported struggles for colonial independence generously and with considerable ingenuity.
The CP Political Committee had enormous influence in the political strikes organised by a number of Australian waterfront unions in support of Indonesian independence, and these industrial struggles in solidarity with Indonesian independence in Australia had major influence on the successful outcome of the Indonesian independence struggle.
In the trade unions, the left turn of the Communist Party was pretty popular from 1946 to 1948. Ingenious CP militants such as Ted Rowe in the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Bill Bird among the Seamen, Stan Moran on the Sydney waterfront, and many, many others, including many senior CP union officials, threw themselves with very practical enthusiasm into the industrial upsurge that began the major process of incremental improvements for Australian trade unionists, which we can now see, with hindsight, was unfolding in the context of what later became the “postwar settlement”.
During the long period of the Menzies government, the complex network of social, political and industrial arrangements that developed was ultimately presided over by "Black" Jack McEwan, the Country Party leader.
The Grouper faction in the labour movement did not basically disagree with the struggle for most working-class demands, spearheaded by the left. Disputes between the Groupers and the Communists in unions were over tempo, strategy and which faction was going to have industrial and political hegemony.
No one disputed that the job of trade unions was to achieve steady, incremental improvements for the working class.
The CPA’s sharp and bureaucratic “left turn” in 1948
It has always seemed to me that the Australian Communist Party was more at ease and more vigorous in its prosecution of “leftist” tactics and even ultraleftist tactics.
In the immediate postwar period the Stalinist international centre in the Soviet Union began to encourage a more leftist posture towards Social Democracy, and this fitted quite well in Australia with the need to accommodate the CPA’s primary constituency, trade union militants demanding rapid improvements — a “new order”.
Ernie Thornton’s ephemeral romance with “Browderism” (which was the idea of Earl Browder, the American Communist leader, that the wartime “class peace” should continue into the postwar period) was rapidly ditched and a sharp left turn prevailed from 1946 to 1951.
Unfortunately, Stalinist habits of leadership prevailed in this left turn, and Communist union leaders often behaved as if it was possible to turn industrial struggles on and off like a tap, which, coming after a long period during the Second World War of blocking industrial struggles, frequently collided with working class sentiment, particularly among more conservative layers.
The Australian CP took up the left turn from Moscow with considerable enthusiasm. In the late 1940s it launched a systematic and belligerent attack on the British Communist Party, which kept trying to stop industrial struggles into the late 1940s.
This attack on the British CP, like the attack by Maurice Thorez, the French CP leader on the leader of the CPUSA, Browder, for a similar deviation, obviously took place on Moscow’s initiative, but the Australian CP prosecuted it with vigour and enthusiasm, and Lance Sharkey sent his capable and inventive intellectual amanuensis, Rupert Lockwood, off to Britain to tour that country, dishing out copies of the Australian Central Committee’s attack on the British CP to Communist dissidents all over Britain. This was a very considerable breach of international Stalinist etiquette, but was obviously given the go-ahead by the unseen hand of Stalin in Moscow.
In this period, Sharkey made a famous speech at a conference of Asian Communist Parties in Calcutta, which, in pretty unequivocal tones, laid the basis for Communist parties in South-East Asia making a direct bid for power. This speech coincided with the rapid development of the Telengana Peasant Uprising in India, and was followed shortly after by the launching of the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla struggle for power.
The Australian CP was up to its neck in all these aspects of the international Stalinist left turn, and played quite a role in these ideological and political developments, particularly in the Asian region. To its considerable credit, but not always tactically wisely, the CP in Australia did everything it reasonably could to organise solidarity with the Indonesian independence movement, the Vietnamese revolution and the insurrection in Malaya.
The coal strike
The tempo of the Cold War hotted up from the time of the Berlin airlift in 1948. The Soviet Union gave the cue to Communist parties throughout the world to adopt a more aggressive stance, particularly towards exposure of Social Democratic parties, including the ALP.
The leaders of the Australian CP got carried away by this new atmosphere and this posture culminated at a political level in frantic and totally unsuccessful attempts to get unions to disaffiliate from the ALP and affiliate to the CP.
At an industrial level the CP leadership encouraged a headlong collision between the Miners Union and the Chifley Government. There is no question that the miners had a number of legitimate, unfulfilled industrial demands, but the well-entrenched CP leadership of the union swung this struggle in the direction of a political challenge to the Chifley Government, which was, to say the least, tactically reckless.
When the Chifley Government, completely predictably, refused to back down, and put troops into the mines — a despicable act for a Labour government — the CP quite unwisely tried to encourage the miners to hang out doggedly to the bitter end.
A more realistic socialist leadership would have argued for a tactical retreat, but the CP did not do this, primarily because of the leadership’s fantasies about a final showdown with the Labour Government.
The results are well known. The miners lost the strike, and straggled back to work. The CP leadership of the Miners Union was displaced for a period. The Chifley Labour Government lost the 1949 election, ushering in a long period Liberal government under Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
The Moscow-Yugoslav split in 1948
In 1948 Stalin expelled Tito and the Yugoslav CP from the Cominform, because the Yugoslav Communist leadership, who had led an independent Partisan military struggle for political power, displayed too much independence from the Stalinist centre in Moscow.
Immediately afterwards, the Yugoslavs were denounced as “Trotsky Fascists” and a series of bizarre trials, similar to the Moscow Trials of the 1930s, took place in most Eastern European countries, the victims being Communist leaders in Eastern Europe who displayed at least the potential for some independence from Moscow.
The frame-up of Yugoslavia and the witch-hunt trials in Eastern Europe were all subsequently exposed as fraudulent during the Khrushchev period, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
Entrenched as it was in the bizarre political culture of High Stalinism, the Australian Communist Party swallowed whole the expulsion of Yugoslavia, the vilification of Tito, and the Eastern European trials. Fantastic literary falsifications, like Wilfred Burchett’s repellant book, Peoples’ Democracies, justifying the Eastern European trials and the excommunication of Tito, joined Stalin's 1939 History of the CPSUB, and the Great Conspiracy Against Russia as central texts in party education.
A scattering of Yugoslav Communists in Australia, and some other Australian Communists who supported Yugoslavia, were excluded from the CPA.
After the defeat of the Coal Strike in 1949, the CP, while remaining rigidly Stalinist, began to recover a bit from the ultraleft delirium of the previous couple of years. After the fall of the Chifley Labour Government, and the election of the Menzies government, the attempt by Menzies to ban the Communist Party became a watershed in Australian society.
The Communist Party Dissolution Bill, and the subsequent High Court case and Referendum campaign after the Bill was thrown out by the High Court, took place in the context of the Korean War.
During the Referendum campaign, the Communist Party quite sensibly swung back a little to the right, and attempted to mobilise a broad united front of the whole labour movement against the ban, which tactic proved successful in the subsequent Referendum, and the ban was defeated.
This was a very good thing from the point of view of future possibilities for the Australian workers’ movement. It’s hard to imagine how bad the future contours of Australian society might have been had Menzies succeeded with the ban. The defeat of the attempt to ban the Communist Party was a fairly major turning point in Australian political life, and one result of it was that the Menzies Government cautiously drew back from too brutal an attack on trade unions, and the conditions unfolded for effective trade union struggles during the post war boom, that really got fully under way in the early 1950s.
By 1952 the CP had swung back completely towards an exploration of united front tactics in the labour movement. In that year Sharkey wrote an article in the party's theoretical magazine, Communist Review, The Labor Party Crisis, in which he sketched out, in his usual rather crude fashion, a new tactic that became the dominant feature of CP tactics and strategy for the next 30 years.
In sum, Sharkey said the class struggle continued, and the Communist Party had a major “leading role”, but for practical purposes it was necessary to form a kind of bloc or alliance with progressive forces in the Labor Party and the trade unions, against the Liberal Government, the employers and the right wing in the labour movement.
Despite the literary clumsiness characteristic of Sharkey’s writing style, this wasn’t such a bad general tactic. Moving away from that tactic had proved disastrous between 1948 and 1950, and had played into the hands of the Grouper faction, which had been practicing its own united front with the Labour right during that period.
Over the next few years, a continually widening civil war erupted in the labour movement between the Santamaria Movement — the cadre group of the right — and the general labour movement left, of which the CP was the most powerful force.
At the critical point in this battle in 1955, after the Labour federal leader, H.V. Evatt had launched his public attack against Grouper control of the ALP, the Groupers made the same kind of tactical error that the Communists had made in 1949, and split away from the mainstream of the labour movement, taking very few allies with them.
The Labour Movement Split
The tactical mistakes of the Groupers, and their self-isolation and ultimate split away from the ALP, gave the Communist Party a considerable political opening, which it rapidly filled, with enthusiasm and ingenuity.
Many anti-Grouper Laborites, particularly many anti-Grouper union officials, even including the deeply anti-Communist bureaucratic clique running the AWU, swung over quite rapidly to an informal alliance with the Communist Party, dictated by the CP's very real and widespread organisational network in the trade unions.
The CP also recommenced a certain amount of entrism in the Labor Party, particularly in the major states of NSW and Victoria, and key figures, of whom the most extraordinarily capable and professional was Arthur Geitzelt in NSW.
Geitzelt, who had a close ideological and tactical association with the CP, became central figures in the organisation of the ALP left, which relied particularly on the large block of votes exercised at ALP Conferences by unions in which the CP was the major political influence.
A broad left emerged, once again, of which the CP in practice was the ideological and practical central force, although contested from the left by small groups of Trotskyists, who were for the first time grudgingly tolerated within this broader left coalition.
This basic CP strategic orientation became institutionalised for many years. The Communist Party had an “independent role”. It recruited and maintained the maximum membership it could achieve, and it also prosecuted a “united front” relationship with the Labour left and other progressive forces in society.
The instrument of this united front was often the institution of unity tickets in trade unions, which became the bete-noir of the extreme right in the labour movement and the newspapers of the bourgeoisie. These unity tickets usually involved open members of the CP and left-wing Laborites, often under CP influence. They were even broadened in the Ironworkers Union to include the CPs old Trotskyist bete noir, Nick Origlass, as candidate for general secretary of the Ironworkers Union against the incumbent national secretary, Laurie Short, Nick’s one-time associate, who had crossed over to the right and had become the major leader of the right wing faction in the trade union movement.
The CP at this time had a considerable literary and cultural network. On the basis of the successful agitation against the attempt to suppress Frank Hardy’s important political novel, Power Without Glory, the Australasian Book Society, a leftist publishing venture, was set up.
Realist writers groups were set up in every state. The magazine’s Realist Writer and Overland were commenced under CP auspices, and the New Theatres in each city were developed and invigorated. Communists were to be found active in everything from local housewives' associations and progress associations to film societies and folk music organisations.
This was the period of the extraordinary popularity and success, for year after year, of Helen Palmer’s and Dick Diamond’s leftist New Theatre musical, Reedy River. This CP cultural network had very wide influence.
Black Jack McEwan, the Menzies Government, the postwar economic boom and its effect on the Labour movement, including the Communist Party and the Groupers
What we now know, in retrospect, to have been the Black Jack McEwan postwar settlement, came upon the workers movement in Australia piecemeal. Protectionist economic arrangements satisfied the farming community, whom McEwan represented. They also made possible significant incremental concessions to trade union demands.
Australia has a patchwork of governmental set-ups, a federal government and, in those days, six state governments, some Labour and some Liberal. Throughout the 1950s and half the 1960s the Libs were in power in the federal sphere, and Labour was in power in NSW, the main industrial state.
After the attempt to ban the Communist Party, the Menzies government began to treat the trade unions with more circumspection. As the split in the Labor Party between the Groupers and the left widened, the left won back a certain number of unions, or won control in some new unions, like the Miscellaneous Workers, the Liquor Trades and newly emerging public service unions.
The Groupers mainly retained control of two big unions that they’d seized from the Stalinists in 1951 and 1952, the Ironworkers and the Clerks, and developed considerable influence in the enormous Shop Assistants Union, and they too had considerable influence in the newly emerging public service unions.
The battles for control between the right and the left proceeded in unions, state Labor councils, state Labor Party conferences and branches, and shop stewards' committees. The role of the Communist Party as the major left wing organising force in the labour movement, became almost institutionalised in this period, despite the still entrenched Stalinism of the CP.
When I started attending NSW ALP Annual Conferences — coincidentally the first Conference held in the Sydney Town Hall — in 1954, I became a witness, all through the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s, to what became the structural framework of the incremental improvements achieved by the Australian working class during the postwar boom. The real industrial guts of every Annual Conference in NSW was always the Monday morning discussion of the Industrial Report.
This was usually scheduled to happen on Sunday, but always seemed to be carried over to Monday morning. Magically the Conference would fill up as delegates returned from the pub, etc. Conference would discuss for three hours, with a pretty packed Town Hall floor, every piece of minutiae of the industrial life of NSW.
“Village Hampdens”, from every union under the sun, would speak eloquently and with considerable detailed knowledge, about the specific issues affecting their industry. There would be banter and sharpness in debate, but despite this, everyone would be listened to seriously, and unlike other simply political arguments at the Conference, positions occupied would often cut across factional boundaries.
The general rubric would emerge, of the left pushing for all kinds of reforms and improvements, some of the right doing the same thing, and the managers of the right trying to slow down the tempo. A composite resolution would eventually emerge that satisfied most delegates, embodying demands for many significant new improvements across a range of industries and callings, a kind of ambit claim.
You could almost write the script of the meetings the following week between the right wing Labour Council officials and the representatives of the State Labour Government. It is easy and accurate to imagine Jim Kenny or John Ducker or whoever, saying to various ministers: “This is what the unions want. You had better give us at least this, this, this and this, or the Coms will eat us at the Labour Council and the next ALP Conference”.
You can even imagine representatives of the state Labour Councils and the ACTU making the same sort of educated demands, with the same sort of appeal to prevent the Coms eating us, to state and federal Liberal governments.
The Communist Party in the unions and the labour movement
The 1950s and the 1960s were a period of instrumental influence for the Communist Party in the broader labour movement, which was, in a way, more significant than the more overt numerical preponderance that the CPA had in the trade unions at the height of its formal structural influence at the end of the Second World War.
The CP never regained national leadership in the two major national unions that it lost control of to the Groupers in 1952: the Federated Clerks Union and the Federated Ironworkers Association, though in the late 1960s a group of left wing militants defeated the Groupers in the important Port Kembla branch of the union, and the left stubbornly held on to the leadership of the Port Kembla Ironworkers thereafter, while the right was in control federally and in the other branches.
The left regained power in a number of other significant unions, and in particular it regained power in the Victorian Australian Railways Union. The left eventually won the protracted and complex battle for control of the Amalgamated Engineering Union which seesawed backwards and forwards all through the 1950s and the 1960s.
In addition to this, the self isolation of the Grouper unions that went with the DLP put the right wing in the trade union movement, somewhat on the defensive.
The CPA, in this period, became more clearly what it had partially been for most of its existence, a political formation preoccupied with serious and rather professional trade union and labour movement industrial activity, albeit conducted in an often bureaucratic fashion, and within the framework of the exotic and bizarre international Stalinist political culture, which had been mainly imposed on the CP by historical circumstances.
The industrial activity of the CP, although profoundly influenced by this international Stalinist political culture, was often carried out in a peculiarly vigorous Australian way. Shop committees — cross-union organisations of delegates in factories and workshops — had an episodic existence in Australian industrial life.
The CP mobilised and organised them as a main sphere of activity, wherever it had enough influence to do so, which was in a surprising number of places. Sharkey’s small booklet on the trade unions, written in the early 1940s, is fairly summary and Stalinist in tone. It has three or four significant themes, one of which is that Communists in unions should develop shop committees vigorously. Another is the assertion of a rather utopian commitment to the ultimate socialist goal of the trade unions. Another is the importance of Communist union officials being vigorous and combative in their industrial activity and not relying too much on the arbitration system, while however being systematic and professional in their dealings with the said arbitration system.
Sharkey’s little book on the trade unions The trade unions: Communist theory and practice of trade unionism, expressed though it is in his Byzantine Stalinist lingo, had a number of useful features and was regarded as a kind of bible by several generations of Communist trade unionists.
If you did a bird’s-eye survey of the labour movement in Australia in, say, 1962, you would find institutions like the Council of Railway Shop Committees, vigorously led by Communist delegates in every Australian city that was the centre of a rail network, and shop committees in many parts of industry, which would contest the power of union officials and labour councils on numerous occasions.
A very successful example of shop committee organisation was the network in the electricity and coal industry around Yallourn in Victoria. The waterfront unions, which had largely CP union leaderships, vigorously developed a network of delegates.
The CP political committee and industrial committees would, from time to time, launch campaigns on industrial questions, and in Sydney and Melbourne the CP even required CP full-time union officials to attend a weekly meeting at 8am at CP headquarters, where tactics for the week would be discussed, the meeting being conducted by people like Eddie Maher in Sydney and Flo Russell or Ted Hill in Melbourne.
CP industrial strategy and practice still had a rather Stalinist aspect in the sense that CP union officials would often head off or contain struggles that had a too spontaneous character from their point of view, and they were always heavily preoccupied with preserving the united front with union bureaucrats of centre and right wing political persuasions.
Despite its profound bureaucratic limitations, the CP influence helped create a leftist and effective ginger group throughout the organisations of the working class, and in the labour movement in general. This was also a period in which the CP still produced a quite extraordinary range of roneod double-sided agitational bulletins in particular workshops, industrial locations or occupational groupings, as well as in residential localities, produced systematically week by week by dedicated typists working out of political commitment, on low party wages in CP headquarters in each city.
In a very obvious way, the contest for power and influence between the broad left formation, of which the CP was at the centre, and the right wing Grouper formation in the labour movement, was an energising force. It was partly the circumstances of this very conflict that produced the steady and implacable improvement in conditions for the working class that took place during the Black Jack McEwan epoch.
In my view, current labour movement “innovators” like Stuart Macintyre, who applaud the demise of these postwar social arrangements, are placing abstract considerations about some notion of the proper running of bourgeois society, that they have absorbed from the ideology of the ruling class, over the real and objective interests of ordinary working people.
I remember the years 1961 to 1965 rather vividly. I used to regularly attend fortnightly meetings of the ALP Youth Council at the Trades Hall, participating in the protracted war between the left and the right, after which we of the left would go down to the Electrical Trades Union Club in the basement, where we would rub shoulders with the rebel Builders Laborers led by Jack Mundey, Don McHugh and Mick MacNamara, who were gradually wearing down the right wing clique in control of the Builders Laborers Union at the BL’s monthly meetings.
I remember how we all got very drunk the night Don McHugh and Mick McNamara were elected organisers on the floor of the Builders Laborers monthly meeting. In the early part of those years I was working as a letter sorter in the mail branch of the GPO, involved in the New Deal committee and then the Independent Labour factions in the Postal Workers Union, sometimes in unity, and sometimes in conflict with the CP faction in that union.
One event that sticks sharply in my memory is an explosive and colourful siege of the weekly Labour Council meeting in the Trades Hall. The Labour Council leadership had sold out a particular struggle in the railways for some incremental improvement, maybe an industry allowance or something like that. I forget the details.
The CP Industrial Committee operated a complex strategy of trying to influence the Labour Council leadership, but from time to time, gave them a bit of curry, so to speak, just to keep them honest. The CP faction in the railways had obviously organised a march by the Council of Railway Shop Committees on the Labour Council weekly meeting that Thursday night.
I remember a couple of hundred railway workers being led by a rather unshaven and young Tom McDonald, then a carpenter in the Railways, and Ted Walsham, an old CP veteran, in an extremely vigorous demonstration at the Labour Council meeting. That was how things proceeded in those days.
The impact of the crisis of international Stalinism on the CPA after Stalin’s Death, and particularly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
In 1953 Stalin, the bloodstained Machiavelli, and murderer of almost all the leaders of the Russian Revolution and more than a million Communists, died. After factional struggles in the CPSU, Khrushchev came to power and, to keep his factional rivals at bay, launched an attack on Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956.
This attack on Stalin was made in what came to be known as Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the Congress. It detailed, from inside Stalin’s court, many of the vicious crimes committed by the despot against the Soviet Communists and people, and against the international working class. This speech commenced the destruction of Stalinism as an international force, but that destruction took another 40 years or so to complete.
The impact of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin on the CPA was considerable. The Party leadership, with powerful Stalinist reflexes, attempted to suppress the speech and to deny its authenticity, although the Political Committee of the Party had been informed of its genuineness by a member of the New Zealand CP leadership who had attended the Congress and reported to the Australian CP leadership on the way back through Sydney to New Zealand.
The impact of Khrushchev’s speech was blunted a little in Australia by the fact that, for the previous three or four years, the Australian CP leadership had been quietly coming under the influence of Chinese Stalinism and many of the leading cadres of the CPA had been studying in China, and the Chinese posture in relation to Khrushchev’s secret speech — which was to say that Stalin had indeed made mistakes, but he shouldn’t be exposed — suited the Australian CP leadership quite well.
They relied heavily on party loyalty and also traditional loyalty to the Soviet Union, and also on the exotic private pro-Soviet political culture that had developed in the Australian CP. As the Soviet Union was fairly remote from Australia physically, and China was closer, the CP leadership’s attempt to limit the impact of Khrushchev’s speech was reasonably successful.
As a result of the crisis caused by Khrushchev’s Secret Speech exposing Stalin, the Australian CP leadership’s reaction, and that leadership’s support for the Russian military intervention against the Hungarian workers revolution in December 1956, a few hundred people were either expelled from, or broke with the CP.
They included a number of rapidly maturing labour movement intellectuals like Ian Turner, Bob Walsh, Helen Palmer, Stephen Murray Smith, Jim Staples, Eric Lambert, George Petersen, David Martin, Ken Buckley, Lionel Anet, Edgar Waters, Ken Gott, Miriam Dixson, Anne Turner, Peter Hamilton, Bob Gollan and quite a few others.
Many of the men in this group had joined the CP on the basis of their Army experiences and been Commonwealth Reconstruction Trainee Students after the War. (There is a most moving retrospective tribute to these people in an extract from the second volume of Dorothy Hewett’s autobiography published in the latest issue of Overland.)
Zoe O’Leary’s interesting biography of the writer Eric Lambert, The Desolate Market, describes his separation from the Communist Party after his journalistic reporting on the Hungarian Revolution against Stalinism in 1956. The book describes the attack on Lambert by other communist writers like Frank Hardy, who remained loyal to Stalinism during this crisis.
In Hardy’s case, and that of Rupert Lockwood, another important communist intellectual, their personal disillusionment with Stalinism was brought to a head 10 years later by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which led Hardy to write his important work, The Heirs of Stalin, and Lockwood to write much journalism about Stalinism, leading them to be attacked by those who still defended the Soviet Union after 1968, in a similar fashion to the way Hardy had attacked Lambert. By this time Eric Lambert had died, and the human reconciliation that might have taken place between him and Frank Hardy was no longer possible.
The departures from the Communist Party in Australia in 1956 were, however, mainly confined to intellectuals, and Khrushchev’s Secret Report and the Soviet invasion of Hungary did not have anything like the terminal impact on the Australian Communist Party that it did, for instance, on the British Communist Party.
This political upheaval was resolved in the traditional Australian Stalinist way. No real internal discussion was allowed in the party and oppositionists were removed from the organisation speedily and rather brutally. For instance, read Dennis Freney’s account of his expulsion from the CP in his autobiography A Map of Days (William Heinemann Australia, 1991).
I vividly remember the termination of my own brief experience in the orbit of the CP. I was present at a cadres meeting chaired by Bernie Rosen, the East Sydney section secretary, in the old CP shop in William Street, where 150 of us crammed in to listen to a predictably three-hour long address by the silver-tongued J.R. Hughes.
When asked the million-dollar question by oppositionist Peter Hamilton, who knew that the New York Times version of Khrushchev’s speech was authentic, because the same New Zealand Communist leader who had reported the genuineness of Khrushchev’s report to the Australian CP leadership had met a Communist friend of Hamilton’s, an old university colleague, in a Sydney street and told him of the authenticity of the speech, but had sworn him to secrecy.
Hamilton was in the difficult position of knowing the truth but not being able to dob in his indirect informant. He used the device of asking Jack Hughes the direct question: “Wasn’t it a fact that the New York Times version of the speech was authentic?” Hughes responded by the most skilled piece of Stalinist demagoguery that I have ever witnessed. No mean orator, Hughes performed like a silver-tongued Jesuit.
Appealing to the battle-scarred, party-loyal, mainly proletarian audience, he said: “The New York Times! We know the filthy New York Times like all the filthy bourgeois press. They lie about the working class and its struggles! They lie about the Soviet Union! They lie about everything the working class holds dear! How can you believe anything that they say?” He went on in this vein for at least 10 minutes, avoiding a direct answer, but whipping up the deeply ingrained loyalty to the Soviet Union and the Party, of the very fine group of working class Stalinist activists in the room, directing it against the small group of critics and sceptics, which included me.
I found this experience traumatic, and that was the last Stalinist meeting I ever attended as any kind of supporter of Stalinism, reluctant though I was to sever the connections that I had developed with the fine working class activists in the CPA in East Sydney, who I still admired for their considerable human qualities.
Their extraordinary loyalty to the exotic political culture of Australian High Stalinism, in the face of the obvious truthfulness of Khrushchev’s speech, was just too much for me to stomach, and this experience shook me loose from the influence of the Stalinist movement, which turned out to be a critical development in my political life.
The Sino-Soviet Split and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War
These two major developments, which unfolded in time fairly close to each other, had a much greater impact on the Australian Communist Party than the 1956 crisis over the 20th Congress and the invasion of Hungary.
The Sino-Soviet split, which unfolded between 1960 and 1963, produced a fairly deep crisis in the Australian CP because, for the previous 10 years, the Australian CP had moved very close to China and many of its middle cadres had gone for long periods of training in China. Relative geographical closeness and natural human excitement about some very real, and some idealised and imagined, features of the extraordinary revolution in China had become part of the popular culture of Australian Stalinism.
Magazines like China Pictorial, Peking Review and China Reconstructs were widely read by Australian Communists. Pamphlets by Mao Tse Tung and Liu Shao Chi, particularly Mao’s pamphlet On Contradiction, and On Practice and Liu Shao Chi’s How to be a Good Communist, and On Inner Party Struggle had, for a period, very wide circulation in basic Party education in Australia.
Initially the central leader, Lance Sharkey, favoured the Chinese, and Ted Hill, the Victorian CP Secretary, favoured the Russians, but in the course of the early stages of the international Stalinist debate, which took place behind closed doors, and was confined to the leadership of most CPs including the Australian CP, Sharkey and Hill changed roles, with Sharkey ending up on the Soviet side and Hill ultimately became the leader of the pro-Chinese.
A clandestine factional struggle unfolded in Victoria, with Bernie Taft, Rex Mortimer, Harry and Jack Stanistreet, Keith McEwan and others, conducting a factional struggle within the large full-time apparatus of devoted CP functionaries, against the pro-Chinese position of Hill, Flo Russell, Vin Bourke, and Victorian CP union officials like Paddy Malone, Norm Gallagher, and a number of others who followed Hill in supporting the Chinese.
As there was no constitutional framework or political tradition of any kind for open debate in the Stalinist party, this factional struggle was initially confined to the leadership of full-time functionaries and some other privileged members like certain union officials.
This inner-party struggle developed in a ruthless and cruel way, as the Stalinist tradition allowed no scope for any sort of civilised resolution of differences. It is described fairly accurately in Keith McEwan’s autobiography Once a Jolly Comrade, and Geoff McDonald’s strange but informative autobiographical book.
Eventually this struggle could not be contained within the leadership, and when the international split between Russia and China became total, it erupted here in a split conducted in the usual Stalinist fashion.
Lance Sharkey and Laurie Aarons’ control of the central apparatus in Sydney was the decisive factor, and though the Maoists initial had comfortable majority support in Victoria, the Hill group was rapidly isolated because of the tradition of Stalinist centralisation, effectively forced out of the party, and split away to form a new rival party, the Communist Party-Marxist Leninist, (CPA-ML) with the initial support of most full-time CP union officials in Victoria, but with minimal support in other states. This split was a much more fundamental and deep rooted split in the body politic of Australian communism than the upheaval ten years before.
The impact of the Vietnam War
In early 1965 the Australian Government did the bidding of its great and powerful friend, US imperialism, and sent Australian military conscripts to Vietnam, a very fateful political decision for the future of Australia. Fortuitiously, this deepening of the Vietnam conflict and the involvement of Australia coincided in time with the unfolding of a “cultural revolution” among the youth of advanced capitalist countries, as the extraordinarily rapid expansion of postwar tertiary education had produced a much larger proportion of students in relation to the total population than had ever previously existed under capitalism.
The rather difficult and crowded conditions of student life for many of the new students created objective circumstances for a certain radicalisation, which rapidly intersected, in Australia and the United States, with the brutal impact on the student population, and youth in general, of conscription for a remote and morally unjustified colonial war in Asia.
The period 1965 to 1970 witnessed the constant broadening and escalation of the youth and student radicalisation to which the Vietnam War became the catalyst. All significant leftist groups in Australia, the CPA, the small but significant group of Trotskyists in Sydney, and the CPA-ML in Melbourne, threw themselves, in their own particular ways, very quickly, into the agitation against the Vietnam War.
The CPA was at an initial slight disadvantage in one way, that its primary penchant for generally cautious and rather moderate agitation against the war was in fairly sharp contrast with both the Trotskyists in Sydney and the Maoists in Melbourne, who initially favoured somewhat more militant strategic actions like occasional civil disobedience.
The CP, however, had a certain initial advantage in another way, in that it had widespread mass connections in unions and the Labor Party left. It had an established network of “peace” organisations, which had a large middle class constituency, and considerable official left wing trade union support. The network of CP influenced peace organisations had substantial financial resources, which the newer, radical antiwar organisations, like the Vietnam Action Committee, didn’t have.
Sydney and Melbourne experiences were different. The Sydney Trotskyists, while somewhat more radical than the CP in relation to mass demonstrations, were also active in the same labour movement arena as the “official left” influenced by the CP.
This fact constrained the Sydney Trotskyists to practice more militant tactics than the CP, but to conduct these tactics carefully so that they were not so extravagant as to completely alienate the bulk of the labour movement.
While there was a fair amount of competition, with the Trotskyists at first having an advantage, because their more radical style had an initial popularity with radicalising youth, nevertheless, the organisational grip of the CP in the broader labour movement led to a kind of dual power, which proved in the event to be quite healthy.
In Melbourne the situation was a little different. The CPA-ML rapidly recruited an important group of radical students, particularly the rolly-polly but politically charismatic Albert Langer, and the Melbourne Maoists were quite unrestrained by broader labour movement tactical considerations, and carried over into Australia an extraordinarily colourful and rather exotic culture of total confrontation with the capitalist state, which, despite its sometimes suicidal implications, acquired a certain glamour for some of the young, who were engaged in their own rite of passage, so to speak.
One result of all these developments was to break down the rabid Stalinist cultural isolationism of the CPA. It was forced by circumstances to drop the public practice of denouncing Trotskyists and Maoists as “police spies” and “agents of the bourgeoisie”, and a kind of grudging united front developed in the antiwar movement between the different leftist actors, which was, however, intertwined with constant tactical and ideological conflict at the same time, making for an exciting and colourful political and cultural life on the left.
I was one of the leaders of the Trotskyist current in the Sydney antiwar movement (secretary of the Vietnam Action Committee). We engaged in a strategy of orienting ourselves both to the radical youth and, over the heads of the CP leaders, to the militant trade unionists and shop committees, and militants on the waterfront, etc.
From our point of view, this tactic worked quite well. Although they hated us, the CP leaders were forced to acquiesce in our more militant street demonstrations, the core of which were radical youth, and older CP workers. These older proletarian CP activists often developed the grudgingly respectful attitude that “Bob Gould and the VAC may be Trotskyist bastards, but they are pretty good at organising effective demonstrations”.
In Sydney, throughout the whole period of the antiwar movement between 1965, and the winding down of the war in 1972, preliminary to the final victory of the Vietnamese Revolution in 1975, a sort of dual power prevailed between a more radical Vietnam Action Committee, which mainly concentrated on militant street demonstrations and a bit later, on radical youth organisation, and a broader structure of mobilisation committees and Moratorium Committees, which included both the more moderate elements and the more radical groups, and was in practice run, largely financed and held together by the dedicated, hardworking, poorly paid Stalinist functionaries who had devoted most of their lives to the peace movement.
Despite the sharpest political differences amongst us, a certain esprit de corps and grudging mutual respect and tolerance eventually unfolded, but that didn’t happen all at once, and the previously ferociously separatist Stalinist culture never entirely disappeared in the CP, even in the 1970s.
The radicalisation of the 1960s and the early 1970s brought a whole new generation into left wing politics. Marxism revived in universities, and a broad cultural radicalisation throughout the whole population took place, which assorted reactionaries have been whingeing about ever since.
The CP remained a powerful influence, and it recruited quite rapidly from the more conservative among the young leftists of the time, and also a bit from some ultraleftist youth. The Trotskyist and Maoist groupings, while they had extremely broad support amongst the youth and students, didn’t have the durable implantation in the labour movement that the Stalinist movement had.
Some Sydney Trotskyists had a certain presence in the labour movement, but nothing like that of the CP. Over time the greater popularity of the Trotskyists in Sydney and the Maoists in Melbourne among the youth had greater impact, as the CP’s proletarian base got older and more dispersed, and as the CP itself experimented with new ideas under the impact of the ferment of the times.
In the mid to late 1960s some very useful things, industrially, emerged from the CP, or the orbit of the CP. The rank and file agitation that culminated in the emergence of the Mundey leadership in the Builders Labourers Federation was the most effective campaign to change the leadership of any union for many years.
It had all the classic elements of the better sorts of such interventions organised by the CP. It involved a combination of older battle-scarred CP militants with a younger generation of knockabout auto-didact proletarians who were attracted to the CP, like Jack Mundey, who rapidly acquired the necessary mixture of militancy, commitment to ideology, ability to learn some trade union skills, and a certain amount of controlled ambition, all factors required for the success of any such trade union enterprise, conducted with a good deal less of the Stalinist sectarianism than had been the hallmark of some such enterprises in the past.
This model trade union agitation is usefully and pedagogically described in Paul True’s little book, Rolling the Right, about the BL’s rank and file movement.
Some other CP trade union ventures were marred by the old CP sectarianism. One very unfortunate example of this was the messy bust-up in the CP faction in the Liquor Trades Union, which culminated in CP members John Morris and John Woods swinging over to the right and taking that union with them.
In 1967 “permanency” was introduced on the Australian waterfront, impelled by the rapid mechanisation and containerisation of the industry. The Communist Party on the waterfront was divided over the details of the “permanency” proposals.
The Maoists, many independent leftists and the Melbourne right wing, all favoured a more belligerent attitude for more industrial gains for wharfies out of the inevitable deal on “permanency”. Many CP wharfies had a similar attitude, but the CP officials of the Sydney branch and Norm Docker (an old CP hand) in the federal office, went along with Charlie Fitzgibbon, the right wing ALP federal secretary of the union, accepting somewhat less than the more militant section favoured.
Several stormy wharfies stopwork meetings in both Sydney and Melbourne rejected Fitzgibbon’s deal in favour of a better package. The critical point in this battle was the third Sydney stopwork meeting, at which Tas Bull, a talented, fluent and effective agitator, an ex-member of the CP, who had up to that point led the opposition to the deal, pronounced that they had squeezed as much as they could out of the shipowners, and that a moderately improved package, the one now presented by General Secretary Fitzgibbon, was the best the wharfies would get.
Bull’s change of tack was decisive, and that critical Sydney stopwork meeting accepted the deal, which was then accepted nationally. (Bull was subsequently elected National Organiser of the WWF, and went on to succeed Fitzgibbon as General Secretary of the union.)
One most interesting feature of CP trade union work in the period was the important book written by AEU proletarian autodidact and CP member, research officer, Jack Hutson, From Penal Colony to Penal Power. This extraordinarily useful book was a balance sheet of the socialist and militant experience with the arbitration system and collective bargaining in Australia, and a rather comprehensive manual for union officials and rank and file activists on how to use the system from the socialist point of view.
It placed primary emphasis on rank and file mobilisation, delegates committees and collective bargaining, where that was possible, but it also treated the now quite well developed arbitration machinery as a fact of industrial and political life and indicated the importance of trade union activists having a professional and thorough mastery of the whole industrial relations system, and how to exploit and use aspects of it in the interests of the working class.
It is a very concrete and important book all round, imbued with a basic kind of class-struggle Marxism, but also infused with a sensible and responsible approach to the existing legal structures in which unions have to work. This book still stands as the highest point of the codified experience of the Australian labour and socialist movements in industrial matters, although it had one weakness: it didn’t address in any detail the particular biases against women traditionally built into the Australian industrial system.
The radicalisation from 1965 to 1975 and the further differentiation within the CP that took place as a part of this radicalisation
A useful biography came out last year, Jennie George, by Brad Norington. This book, in a way, expresses in the life of one individual, the evolution of the CP in the period 1965 to 1975, and later from 1975 to the spearheading by the CP of the imposition of the prices and incomes Accord on the labour movement and the working class in 1981-83.
In the late 1960s the CP still aspired to be the hegemonic left wing institution, although its hegemony was contested by Trotskyists, Maoists and others, like the charismatic Brian Laver in Brisbane.
The CP itself moved quite rapidly away from the tutelage of the Stalinists of the Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union. With the enforced retirement of Sharkey and the death of Dixon, personalities like Laurie Aarons, Bernie Taft, Mavis Robertson and Eric Aarons came to dominate the CP, and when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring, the CP joined with the rest of the far left to oppose the Soviet intervention.
This had an explosive internal impact in the CP, and led, over the next three years to a further split, this time of most of the union officials in the CP in the Sydney district, who broke away out of initial loyalty to Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and supported the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia. These union officials and others then went on to form the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).
The discontent of the pro-Russian trade union officials was sharpened by episodic dabbling in industrial ultraleftism by the Aarons leadership. At this time the Aarons leadership tossed around fanciful rhetoric about “action committees as instruments of dual power”, and even encouraged a rather exotic work-in in the tiny Harco Factory in south-west Sydney, which only had about 30 workers.
The results of this kind of rhetorical ultraleftism were rather unfortunate for the courageous workers involved in some of these adventures. I often wonder what happened later to Lloyd Caldwell, the courageous and loyal boilermaker leader of the Harco work-in. In the CP rhetoric of the time, work-ins and action committees were raised to the level of a charismatic global strategy, which was a kind of delirium, given the objective conditions that prevailed in Australia at the time.
The curious feature of this kind of activity by the Aarons leadership was that, at the same time, it still exerted considerable influence on the official left of the Labor Party. In that sphere, they encouraged a fairly dogged conservatism. So in the actual practical work of the CP there was, during that period, a ferocious kind of Stalinist double-entry book-keeping — by no means a new development in the Stalinist political tradition.
In 1969 the new, more leftist industrial and political mood in Australia culminated in the action of the courageous Melbourne Maoist Tramways Union secretary, Clarrie O’Shea, in refusing to pay a fine inflicted on his union under the Penal Clauses of the Arbitration Act.
He was supported by the breakaway Melbourne Trades Hall Council leftist group of unions, and to their considerable credit, the CP leadership exerted every piece of industrial influence that they had in mobilising a national general industrial action for the release of O’Shea. It was quite clear from the pattern of strikes and mobilisation that the CP was the main influence that came to bear in the O’Shea campaign, but the campaign spread to much broader layers.
The widespread industrial action panicked the ruling class, and some Tory paid O’Shea’s fine “for the good of the country”. The penal clauses were never thereafter used, and the period from 1969 to the Accord in 1982 became the longest period of sustained incremental improvements for the Australian working class, achieved through the usual combination of normal trade union industrial action, combined with appropriate activity in the industrial courts.
This whole process was assisted by the fact that it was now no longer politically possible for the employers, the government or the courts to enforce penal clauses.
Throughout this period the competition between left and right in the trade union movement for hegemony, that I have described earlier, continued to act as an instrumental factor in the forward march of the trade unions and the labour movement.
The atmosphere in the CP and on the left in the 1960s and the 1970s is captured very well in Frank Hardy’s important novel The Dead are Many, and in Roger Milliss’s autobiographical novel, Serpent’s Tooth.
Victorian ALP upheaval. The 1971 ALP conference. The election of the Whitlam Government and the “wages explosion”
In 1971 the ALP parliamentary Centre Group organised by the rather cunning Clyde Cameron, Mick Young, Tom Burns and Jack Egerton, moved in to get rid of the intransigent old-style syndicalist leftist Victorian ALP executive, in the interests of the “moderation necessary to get a Labor government elected”.
The CP leadership gave tacit support to this intervention against the leftists in Victoria, although denying it publicly, and key figures in the “official” ALP left, like Jim Cairns also gave the intervention against the Victorian left, initial tacit support.
However, the middle ranks of the left wing unions, the state officials in Victoria, almost universally revolted against this intervention, and formed a new formation, the ALP Socialist Left, which rapidly developed major influence in the ALP and the trade unions in Victoria.
This was a development that broke significantly free of the direct influence of the CPA, particularly of the Taft leadership of the CPA in Victoria, which most Victorian left-wingers could see was complicit in the intervention against themselves.
Coincident with the formation of the Socialist Left in the ALP, there emerged inside the CP an opposition grouping called the Left Tendency, which conducted a rather abstract Althusserian polemic with the CP leadership over the nature of the capitalist state, which did not have very clear immediate strategic implications, other than a general itch by the Left Tendency for a deepening of the kind of rhetorical ultraleftism that the Aarons leadership had dabbled in briefly.
The Left Tendency was easily contained by the CP leadership, because their opposition was politically and industrially incoherent. The fact that, even at this late stage in its development, the CP refused to accept the Left Tendency’s demand for the right to form open factions in the Party, underlined the CP’s continuing Stalinist character in some respects.
The 1971 ALP Federal Conference in Launceston, to which I scraped in by one vote, as the one delegate from a mushroom growth, the NSW Socialist Left, that I helped organise, became a bit of a barometer of the political circumstances in the Australian labour movement at that time. Clyde Cameron attempted to get the conference to accept a “Wages and Incomes Policy” very similar to the later 1982 Accord.
The Socialist Lefts in Victoria and NSW beat the drum loudly against these proposals, particularly the aspects of them that restricted the right of unions to push for improvements. The CP leadership was initially attracted by these proposals, but pressure from the middle ranks of the trade union movement caused them to change their position to opposition.
Even the bulk of the right wing in the trade unions ended up being opposed to the proposals because they so clearly contradicted the traditional prerogatives of trade unions to fight for their members’ interests. As a result the Cameron proposals were rejected by the conference, and the subsequent Whitlam Government was therefore not in a position to effectively impose a policy of “wage restraint” on the trade unions.
This 1971 ALP Federal Conference also went within one vote of supporting my motion for the abolition of ASIO, Australia's secret political police unit, which was only saved by the intervention of a section of the “official” left that supported Murphy’s proposal for the reform of ASIO, which won by the aforesaid one vote.
The effect of all these developments was that, for the whole period from 1969 to the defeat of the rather weak Fraser Tory Government in 1982, trade union membership, influence and power reached its peak in Australian society.
All through the period trade union membership hovered around 50 per cent of the employed population, a very high figure, and in the so-called “wages explosion” of 1972-75, the share of wages in the GNP rose rather sharply.
This whole period was a period of “Forward March” for the working class and the labour and trade union movement in Australia, although the beginnings of a capitalist slump, and the unwise demolition of some tariff barriers by the Whitlam Government, precipitated the onset of a period of highish unemployment.
Nevertheless, the influence of trade unions, the size of their membership, and their capacity to represent the interests of their members, was at a peak. This continued even in the period of the Fraser Liberal Government, which, like the Menzies Liberal Government before it, proved much more circumspect in its dealings with trade union matters than Tory rhetoric might otherwise have indicated.
The rise, struggles, and fall of the Mundey leadership of the Builders Laborers Federation
The rank and file struggle organised by the CP for leadership of the Builders Laborers Federation is best described in the book already mentioned, by Paul True, Rolling the Right. The story of the Mundey, Owens, Pringle leadership of the BLs in the 1960s and the 1970s, is in Meredith and Verity Burgmann’s useful book, Green Bans, Red Union. The Mundey leadership was elected as a product of an entirely normal trade union agitation for a more militant industrial leadership, which happened, fortuitously, during the maturing of the capitalist building boom, in metropolitan Sydney in particular.
Initially the Mundey leadership led major struggles for industrial gains for builders labourers. In its middle period, it added to this industrial menu, environmental concerns, which in a way stemmed from the very nature of the building industry, but which was sharpened by the political consciousness of the leadership of the union, and their desire to assist, and make alliances with, new forces emerging in social life who were fighting for the preservation of the natural and built environment.
To their eternal credit, the Builders Laborers Federation and their leadership took up the cudgels for the environment imposing “Green Bans” on a number of undesirable developments, often with a great deal of success, the Green Bans provided the necessary window for public agitation and support to build up for the preservation of many desirable aspects of the Sydney environment.
Without the Builders Laborers, freeways would have devastated Glebe. Millers Point, the Rocks and Victoria Street would have been destroyed, Kelly’s Bush would have disappeared, and the environmental restraints on development, which have become entirely normal parts of social life, would never have developed.
In the heady industrial and political atmosphere of the time, the BLF leadership made several honourable, but in retrospect, fairly obvious, mistakes. One of them was in the sphere of union leadership. At the height of the CP leadership’s fairly “leftist” industrial rhetoric, “limited tenure of office” for union officials became a fashionable CP catchword.
Jack Mundey became, in fact, the only union official in Australian history to implement this slogan, and stood down from full-time office as union secretary after a certain period, and went back “on the tools”. This action is a powerful commentary on Mundey’s enormous personal integrity, but looking back on it, it was politically unsound.
The problem in the uneven and combined social development that always exists under capitalism, is that the complex mixture of militancy, conscientious beliefs, principles and industrial experience, embodied in a Jack Mundey, is at this stage in human society, a fairly unusual phenomenon, and in my view, for a “good guy” like Mundey to relinquish office in pursuit of some principled abstraction like limited tenure of office was a courageous and noble act, but a political mistake, a kind of substitutionism in reverse.
This is thrown into bold relief by the relative rareness of the phenomenon of union officials defeated in union elections going back “on the tools”. Only a few such instances spring to mind, J.J. Brown, the CP leader in the ARU in Victoria, Bernie Willingale, the left wing leader of the AFULE in NSW, and Jenny Haines the independent leftist in the Nurses Union in NSW.
Most defeated union officials go off to more comfortable jobs in management and the political world. The minority, mentioned above, of union officials defeated in elections who go back to playing a rank and file role in their industry often become once again major leaders in their industries (and are quite frequently eventually re-elected to full time union positions). It’s an entirely different question for a competent official like Mundey to voluntarily stand down from full-time union leadership in his prime, and he remains the only example of this phenomenon in Australian industrial history.
The other significant mistake of the BLs leadership was overuse of the entirely righteous and defensible Green Bans tactic. The problem was that industrial gains for the membership became harder to achieve with a downturn in the building industry. For defensible moral reasons, the BLF placed a very large number of Green Bans on different developments, but they became very difficult to maintain in the context of the downturn, and they began to strain the allegiance of the rank and file to the union leadership.
In a completely unscrupulous way, the federal Maoist leadership of the BLF, led by General Secretary Norm Gallagher, made an obvious deal with the Master Builders Association and intervened in NSW and sacked the officials of the NSW branch in 1975. Despite initial resistance by the rank and file at several stopwork meetings, the resistance collapsed, in my view, partly because of the exhaustion of the rank and file at the large number of Green Bans.
The bureaucratically imposed Maoist leadership managed to establish themselves in the Builders Laborers in NSW, and they victimised many of the supporters of the Mundey leadership until they themselves were bureaucratically removed with the deregistration of the BLF 10 years later, which was a sad example of the “biter bit”.
The imposition in 1982 of the Prices and Incomes Accord on the labour movement. The CP, the “official” left, and the peak trade union leadership, in collaboration, impose unprecedented new industrial arrangements, which have catastrophic results for the whole labour movement
In the late 1970s and the early 1980s the CP and the “official” left moved into what was, from the standpoint of hindsight, a terminal crisis for both of them, as a serious alternative force in the Australian labour movement. Many of the older people in the left of the labour movement had been worn down by history and circumstance, and the gradual unwinding of the Stalinist regimes overseas, in which they had placed such great, though misguided, hopes.
Many of the younger people around the CP and the “official” left had rapidly developed a powerful desire for careers in and around the labour movement and in the bureaucracies of the helping professions, and proved ready soil for the idea of new industrial and social arrangements in which “experts” and professionals would have the major industrial and political role.
In 1980, about 20 years ago, the CP held an Anniversary Conference about its own history in Melbourne, which was a rather interesting catalogue of many past events and glories. The papers were eventually produced in two substantial booklets.
The most interesting session was in a packed hall of 300 or 400 people to which a quite unrepentant E.F. Hill defended his Maoist point of view, while in a cautious way, endorsing the project of all the fragments of the old CP forming a united front. Another rather curious paper was given by Jack Hughes, lamenting the tactical mistake that he and other CP leaders had made in adopting the “Hands off Russia” resolution, and splitting away from the official Labor Party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period.
He showed great sadness over the fact that if it hadn’t been for this tactical error, he himself and others like Rupert Lockwood would have taken their rightful places as Labour members of parliament.
This interesting, nostalgic conference was only a short interlude in a very fundamental shift to the right that was taking place in the CP and the official left at this time. This shift was very noticeable at the CP summer schools at Sydney University in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At these schools, classical Marxism was derided, the nuts and bolts of the class struggle were dismissed as “economism”, and a series of fashionable books, which undermined the idea of the working class as agents of social change, and socialist parties as effective vehicles, such as Beyond the Fragments and In and Against the State, were praised as the way of the future.
The ideas expressed in these books, which downplayed the significance of the economic class struggle, had an enormously disintegrating impact internally in the CP.
The idea of “giving up the crude wages struggle” in favour of an “incomes policy”, was peddled at these conferences for several years, particularly by the industrial star of the CP leadership, the energetic and forceful assistant secretary of the metalworkers union, Laurie Carmichael. A powerful and intimidating presence, and a widely read and persuasive proletarian auto-didict, Carmichael argued aggressively for an “accord” with the Labor government, a “wages and incomes policy”, what he called “strategic unionism” against what he dismissed as “economism”, ie the continuance of the traditional form of class struggle for wages and conditions improvements.
He convinced the CP leadership and the left, centre and right of the trade union bureaucracy and, in fact, he set about writing most of the required policy documents himself. Carmichael became the energetic and practical spearhead of the new ideology, policy and practical arrangements in the labour movement.
In particular, the right wing of the trade union bureaucracy and the ACTU capitulated to Carmichael’s ideas immediately, and the triumph of this new scenario was almost instantaneous at the official level. Eighty years of developments advantageous to the working class in Australia were ditched in the space of a year or so.
This uneven and combined kind of development, where the trade unions, in which a broad left faction led by the CP was the energising force, which had produced most of the improvements for the working class since the turn of the century, was over the short period of a couple of years, demolished in favour of a new set-up which, in practice, removed the effective mobilisation of the class struggle from the industrial scenario.
It would be totally unscientific to reduce this major abdication and collapse to a simple question of betrayal. The acceptance of the Accord was partly the product of the wearing out of a whole social group and political generation.
The people who inflicted the new arrangements by and large believed that they were doing a good thing, believed that they were engaged in useful innovations. They argued that, despite the abdication of all the traditional forms of struggle for improvements, something better would take place, a broad new arrangement in society.
They were a bit hazy about the details of how this new utopia would be achieved, and they rather self-servingly prattled on about the importance of the “social wage” which they hoped to achieve. They mobilised every piece of influence and power that they held in the labour movement to make this schema the new political and industrial orthodoxy.
The leadership of the CP was at the absolute centre of this dramatic destruction of the previous labour movement set-up, and Carmichael was the extremely charismatic personality, the energetic prophet of the “New Order”.
The ACTU Conference which adopted the Accord
The Accord was officially ratified at a federal unions conference in 1983. Norington’s biography of Jennie George describes the scene exquisitely. A small group of unionists spearheaded by Jenny Haines, an independent leftist recently elected general secretary on a Reform Movement ticket in the important NSW Nurses Union, but including some ACTU delegates from round the CP orbit, like Jennie George and Van Davey in the Teachers Union, resisted the pressure to accept the Accord’s abdication of the right of unions to press for award improvements.
At left union caucuses and elsewhere, enormous pressure was exerted to try to make acceptance of the Accord unanimous. Right up to the last moment Jenny Haines believed, on the basis of their statements and the political rhetoric that they used, that the teachers' officials and some others, would vote against the Accord.
Norington describes what happened. Van Davey and Jenny George decided between themselves that they might abstain if the platform weren’t looking straight at them. In the event, rather to her own surprise, Jenny Haines was the sole elected trade union official and conference delegate to vote against, which gave her considerable notoriety amongst the trade union bureaucracy, particularly its left, which ever after did everything it could to destabilise her newly elected leadership in the Nurses Union.
Along with the new Accord arrangements went an acceptance of “Enterprise Bargaining”, which atomised trade union influence, and a program of rapid, often forced, union amalgamations under the rubric of “modern unionism”. Many of the amalgamations took place bureaucratically, based on the political alignments of the amalgamating unions, and created unwieldy conglomerates, cutting across natural industrial boundaries.
Rather than creating authentic industrial unions, in many instances the cumbersome entities were almost the antithesis of industrial unions. This amalgamation process coincided with the abolition, at one stroke, of the traditional round of wage claims, claims for improvements, industrial action for claims, interacting and combined with cases in the state Industrial Commissions, and the Federal Industrial Court.
For the following 12 or 13 years it became rather unclear to most trade unionists what in the hell trade unions actually did, as all the social and wages arrangements were made by top-level negotiation, including, as they did, a substantial lagging of wage increases behind inflation. When the modest wage increases that had been negotiated at the top level eventually resumed, they were ruthlessly associated with “award restructuring”, “offsets” and other givebacks, which involved the liquidation of many conditions that had been gained over the previous 30 years.
The rapidly declining “official” left of the labour movement, and particularly the CP, completely reversed their traditional role in this period. They ceased to have as their central interest working class mobilisation at the rank and file level, or even the official union level, for periodic improvements and increases. The role of the “official” left became totally reversed. It became the collective “enforcer” for the new arrangements, vigorously opposing all spontaneous working class actions which took place outside of the framework of the Accord.
“Maverick” trade unions and workers, like the Pilots, the Victorian Food Preservers and the NSW Nurses, which tried to get the 38 hour week without offsets, and had the impudence to fight the closure of hospitals and psychiatric institutions by the state Labor government, were isolated, attacked and beseiged, with the “official” left, particularly the ubiquitous Laurie Carmichael, playing the role of super-propagandist for the ACTU leadership in this whole development.
The culmination of this process was the deregistration of the Builders Laborers Federation.
In the quarterly journal, Labour History, industrial relations academic Ross Martin customarily has written a report of a comprehensive and thorough sort, on each biennial ACTU Congress since about 1980. His reports of the ACTU Congresses through to now make fascinating reading.
They describe in ruthless detail a process (which Martin himself possibly favoured) but which he observes truthfully, in which the left of the ACTU bureaucracy — people like Laurie Carmichael, Tom McDonald and Tas Bull — played the constant role of verbally battering into the ground any attempt to go back to the old class struggle practices of the labour movement.
It can be argued that this bureaucratic ruthlessness and the participation of the “official” left in it, preserved the Labor government many years beyond its natural life, but it’s now pretty clear that the actual impact of the Accord process on the organisation of the labour movement and the working class was devastating.
The proportion of wages in the GNP dropped during the period. Unemployment remained fairly high for most of the 1980s and 1990s, although there were some gains for the working class in the sphere of superannuation. The much touted notion of the “social wage” that had been the ideological spearhead used to gain acceptance of the new arrangements, quietly went by the board.
What is clear in hindsight is what the courageous initial opponent of the Accord, Jenny Haines, predicted. The coincidence of the Accord arrangements, enterprise bargaining, award restructuring, bureaucratic trade union amalgamations, and the demolition of the old class struggle institutions like councils of shop committees etc, has had an absolutely devastating impact on working class organisation.
The Trade Union Training Authority structure was used all through this period as a mechanism to indoctrinate union delegates in the virtue of the new arrangements, and to discourage them from the older type of trade union agitation.
The disastrous character of this whole process is demonstrated by the results. The proportion of employed workers in unions has halved. Trade union delegate organisations have atrophied. A real crisis has developed in the organised labour movement, and it’s fairly easy to see that one of the main causes of this development is the disappearance of any organising centre or broad political formation capable of energising the left to act as a serious force for improvements and change.
All of this stems directly from the corporatist abdication from the role of collective organiser of proletarian discontent, by the “official” left, including the Communist Party, in 1982, when the CP took the initiative in devising the Accord.
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper
The eventual collapse and liquidation of the CP was almost an anticlimax in relation to these broader developments. The final overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe had a devastating impact on the whole ethos of the “official” left, including the CP.
In the early 1990s the CP was wound up, leaving behind the Search Foundation to manage the still substantial resources of the organisation for unspelled-out future political activities and, incidentally, on the right, the Grouper organisation, the NCC, fractured and the Santamaria wing of the NCC withdrew fairly deliberately from labour movement activity.
The collapse of the “official” left, cleared the field for a number of younger groupings, the three major ones being out of the Trotskyist tradition. A balance sheet on these groupings is a bit outside the scope of this chapter. It belongs in a separate chapter.
These groups are quite large, and are mainly made up of enthusiastic radical youth and students, and they are capable of energetic agitational activity, often reasonably successful, as demonstrated by the colourful and effective S11 protests recently in Melbourne. The problem with these latter day socialist groups in the Trotskyist tradition is that they tend to operate a bit “outside society”, so to speak, and it has to be said that none of these groups has, at this point, anything like the significant implantation in the labour movement which the CP had from the early 1950s to the end of the 1970s.
They have not shown, as yet, a primary interest in training a broad layer of activists in the trade unions, in the instrumental way that the CP used to do, as described earlier in this article.
As an old Trotskyist, I’m struck by the paradox that I am bemoaning the disappearance of the significant role the CP played for a considerable period as the mobiliser of a serious and useful wing in the trade unions and the labour movement.
I am the last person to regret the disappearance of the nasty, exotic and terribly misguided political culture of High Stalinism, or of the ruthless and centralised bureaucratic set-up that prevailed in the CP in the period that I’m talking about. I have spent a fair bit of my life fighting against the Stalinism of the old CP.
Nevertheless, the seriousness and professionalism in relation to the labour movement, the trade unions and the working class, embodied in Jack Hutson’s Penal Colony to Penal Powers and even, in retrospect, in Sharkey’s crude analysis of the Labor Party crisis in 1952, are very important things to study and learn from.
The labour movement as a whole is now in an extremely defensive situation. The official leadership of the trade unions and the ALP have shifted a long way to the right. Despite this more difficult political terrain, the strategic and practical perspectives of socialists have to be grounded in the realities of the existing workers movement.
The class struggle still exists even in this adverse set of circumstances. The new generation of serious socialists would do well to study many aspects of the experience of the CP at a number of points in its history, while rejecting totally the bloodthirsty Stalinist political culture, which was unfortunately part of that process, because of the overwhelming influence of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and China.
The beginnings of such a development might be to examine the industrial and political practice of such forces as the Workers First leadership of the metalworkers in Victoria, who have reintroduced industrial mobilisation for “pattern bargaining” in wage campaigns, and the Victorian CFMEU (the building workers union) who have mobilised the might of the union to successfully achieve a reduction in hours.
They might also study the experience of the small, but militant Fire Brigade Union in NSW, which has, by mobilising its members in industrial campaigns, achieved significant wage gains despite the resistance of the NSW government.
They might also examine the experience of the militants in the NSW Nurses Union. In this union, which happily has a historic structure that embodies more than 200 hospital branches, an annual conference of branch delegates, and six general meetings of branch delegates a year, the militants, although currently “in opposition”, to the “government” of the right wing officials, have even from this position of opposition, effectively led over the last few years a series of major successful struggles against cuts to health facilities, deskilling of nurses' jobs, closures of hospitals and other facilities, etc, and effectively created a situation where the NSW government treats the public health system with the greatest circumspection, because of the industrial strength of the NSW Nurses Association.
It’s not accidental that in these four industrial situations, where “old” notions of struggle are still powerful, and traditional structures of mobilisation and organisation are maintained, that trade union membership is actually stable, or in the case of the NSW nurses union, steadily rising, in stark contrast with the bulk of the trade union movement, where the curve, at the moment, is ever downward.
Brief Notes on three significant questions in the history of the CPA
Moscow gold. Right wingers like Peter Coleman make much of the proposition that the CP got lots of money from Moscow. No doubt right-wing scholars digging into the Soviet archives will end up giving us a detailed account of whatever subventions took place. It seems clear to me that, on the scale of the activities of the CP, financial support for the Australia CP from Moscow was fairly modest. Unlike, for instance, the CPUSA, which was, literally swimming in the fabulous Moscow gold because of the great importance ascribed to the United States by successive Soviet leaderships. The overwhelmingly proportion of the funds raised by the CPA over its whole existence came from the generous contributions of generation after generation of left wing Australian workers. A small financial subsidy from the Soviet Union and the psychological impact of occasional trips to the “proletarian fatherland” for selected leaders and activists, were small issues compared with the overwhelming personal dedication, including dedicated financial support, of both the rank and file and the functionaries of the Stalinist movement.
Intelligence activity on behalf of the Soviet Union and China. It’s pretty clear now that there was a small amount of intelligence gathering for the Soviet Union in Australia by dedicated Stalinists. This question is handled carefully and objectively in David McNight’s book Australian Spies and Their Secrets and Dick Hall’s sensitive and intelligent book about Ian Milner. The saddest case of all, of course, in this area, is the story of the peripatetic Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett. The empirical inferences clearly are that, at different times, Burchett acted on behalf of certain Soviet intelligence agencies, out of the same deep ideological conviction about the bankruptcy of the capitalist system that motivated people like the scattering of information gatherers for the Soviet Union in Australia and Kim Philby, Richard Sorge and Leopold Trepper. Those were the times. That was what people did. The really tragic thing about the Burchett story, however, was that politically he remained an unrepentant Stalinist until the end of his life.
The tragedy of this man, who had played the role of a Australian Joseph E. Davies, in the sense that he wrote the classic melodramatic defence of the Stalinist frame-up trials in Eastern Europe, Peoples Democracies, is that, having lived long enough to see the exposure of the criminal nature of these trials, for which he had been such an eloquent propagandist, he never made any kind of open honest balance sheet about Stalinism, like, say, his contemporary, Peter Fryer, the British Daily Worker journalist who also covered the 1950 trials. After Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech exposed the Eastern European trials as frame-ups, Fryer wrote a self-critical balancesheet on Stalinism and the Eastern European trials that he had reported, underlining their criminal character.
Despite Fryer’s balancesheet, Burchett never faced up to the crimes involved in the East European trials, and in both versions of his autobiography he still apologised for them in an indirect way. It is also quite clear that he acted as a kind of policeman for the Hungarian Stalinist bureaucracy at the time of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. I found extraordinarily moving an article published in Australia in one of the very last issues of the CP newspaper, by Burchett’s daughter, who lives in Bulgaria, celebrating the overthrow of Stalinism in Bulgaria. The great tragedy of Burchett and the period in which he lived is that he could not bring himself to make any honest balancesheet on the Stalinism that he had witnessed at close quarters for many years, and for which he had been such an eloquent propagandist.
Police spies in the CP. In his book The Reds Stuart Macintyre mentions the case of Baker, the police spy in the CP from 1928 to 1938. In a recent article on the Diver Dobson affair in a historical journal, the historian Philip Deery notes in passing that his researches indicate that at the time of the Diver Dobson affair in the late 1940s, there had to be a police informant at the level of the Political Committee of the CP, because ASIO knew within 24 hours that Dobson had made contact with the CP and he had only made contact with members of the three-person Political Committee. Recently I, like others, have taken advantage of my constitutional rights to get my ASIO file and particularly my State Special Branch files. It’s glaringly apparent, from my rather voluminous file, that I was being observed from the moment that I made contact with the CP in 1954, by a long-lived agent who was still active at a significant leadership level in the CP in Sydney into the 1970s, and still reporting on me.
I find this continuity of state observation in the CP not particularly surprising, but wryly amusing, considering that oppositionists like myself were routinely accused, by the CP leadership, before about 1965, of being police agents. Even at this late stage it would be nice, and useful for the education of the young, for many of us who have now got our files, to compare notes, with a view to piecing together the realities of the past, not judgementally or hysterically, but just to get an idea of how it all worked. It appears to me that police observation inside the CP was significant, but that it would be the crudest of unscientific conspiracy theories to regard it as being decisive in any of the political developments in the CP, in the melodramatic way that some Maoists view the evolution of the CP.
Comments welcome. Ozleft Bob Gould
Created on October 14, 2003