The CPA revisited: what went wrong?


By Gerry Harant

GLW is to be congratulated for initiating a critical examination of the history of the Australian Communist Party; it is to be hoped that it will continue.

Instead of treating the subject as dead history, political activists will want to analyse the features in both theory and practice which are relevant to our present situation. To deal with these adequately would need a book, but the few points raised here may stimulate further discussion.

I can afford to be analytical in relation to the CPA because as one of the few unexpelled pre-1950s anti-Stalinists (the apparatchiks didn't expel Realist Film Unit people, who were too useful; they also knew that we wouldn't have cared a stuff), I am not stricken by remorse, nor did I ever have a love-hate relationship to east bloc countries.

To list, let alone analyse, the many areas where CPA mass workers (as they were called then) organised movements would require many pages, because Communists were active and successful in so many. This article will be devoted to posing, and trying to answer, two vital questions:

  • Why did the party succeed so magnificently in various fields, from promoting jazz to basketball, from organising unions to organising tobacco farmers in Queensland, and yet fail to leave its ideological mark on the Australian body politic? Or, if it left a mark, was it more than a greasy blot?

  • What alternatives were there, and how many are still relevant and open?

The positives

For all my disappointments, I, and thousands of others, owe an enormous debt to the party. The party taught us to understand and value collective work. The party — and the Marxist method of analysis — helped many of us to become articulate, to speak in public, to learn to organise, to write coherently and to analyse and forecast political and economic events.

For instance, the five working-class women appearing in the US documentary Rosie the Riveter, who were chosen from an original 200, all turned out to be Communists. I refuse to believe that this is merely because interesting people became Communists. Contact with the party turned ordinary people into interesting and articulate members of society.

Virtually all analyses so far seem to have treated the CPA as a monolithic body. This leads to many of the apparent contradictions.

There was, in fact, a gulf between the leadership and its aspirations, and the rank and file and its day-to-day involvement in Australia's political and cultural life. Paradoxically, it was the leadership which concerned itself with parochial matters (such as the Sydney-Melbourne split), and the membership which rarely lost sight of international issues. There were honourable exceptions to this amongst leaders, but not many.

Structure and ideology

The CPA, while claiming to be based on democratic centralism, was rigidly hierarchical. Although I had the good fortune to operate in real collectives, I also — to my shame — once participated in expelling a comrade on the say-so (no evidence) of an official.

Not only was the CPA hierarchical, but its modus operandi was totally bourgeois. All upper-level decision-making followed the manipulable Westminster pattern which encouraged factions (not officially), and their infighting dominated the party apparatus. Changes made to the CPA constitution in the postwar years in no way represented the needs and desires of the members, but were point-scoring exercises by factions in the leadership.

Much the same can be said for the "ideological" splits, always identified with personalities. None of these were more blatantly personal than the final split, which was not even claimed to be about ideology, but a long-prepared affair which left two equally reformist-oriented groups.

The CPA's bourgeois approach can be shown in other ways, particularly in its attitude to trust money and properties; for instance, there was never a disclosure as to what happened to the CPA funds or indeed how much was there. This holds to the present.

Women working in CPA offices, or in union offices run by Communist union officials, found the sexism and managerial attitudes not far from those in "capitalist" employments.

As for the "revolutionary" ideology of Stalinist parties worldwide, not just the CPA, you may take your pick. You can read all the official documents — the "new man" and all that — or you can look at the lifestyle of officials in the USSR and "Communist" aspirations everywhere, such as "overtaking the west" or defining socialism in terms of space technology.

Apart from a handful of early feminists in the USSR — very soon eliminated — in notions of "family", sex morality and human relationships, the party line followed not just bourgeois teachings, but the worst reactionary tenets of right-wing churches.

Talking to Ralph Gibson one day — and I regard him as a fine human being — I was shocked to hear him defending bourgeois censorship in terms which would have done the Reverend Nile proud; this was a long time ago when the sort of sex-cum-violence porno product which is now common didn't exist, and when all censorship was quite clearly political. The "artistic" notions put forward came straight from Zhdanov.

While the personal sex morality of some in the leadership closely followed Engels' concept (sex in future societies would have no more significance than "drinking a glass of water"), by and large the "morality" enforced in places like Camp Eureka in Victoria, run by the CPA-influenced Eureka Youth League, was utterly hypocritical. It was laughable how those who advertised themselves as revolutionaries always told the membership to disport themselves as puritans: otherwise, "What would people think?".

All this of course closely followed Uncle Joe's precepts, and the "Australian" line merely invented excuses for these inapplicable politics. However, these dogmas became so ingrained as to be internalised permanently by many of the members.

Religious methodology

The greatest contradictions, however, were in the area of political practice. While the party supposedly promoted "scientific" socialism, its actual methodology was that of a religion.

For instance, the notion of "criticism and self-criticism" — i.e. treating each action as an experiment to be analysed afterwards and conclusions drawn for the future — was distorted by Communist parties worldwide into breast-beating self-accusation, where the action itself was never up for discussion, only the behaviour of individuals. It was a bit like court-martialling common soldiers in World War I for having "failed" in trench warfare, so as to exonerate the generals.

Other contradictions were equally glaring. The "dignity of labour" was forever on the lips of the leaders, yet its abolition under socialism was axiomatic. This came from a failure to distinguish between alienated and social labour.

The "new man" was supposed to reject private consumption, yet most union activities were aimed at increasing private property. "Come the revolution", said a popular and not inappropriate parody, "it will be the workers who have the big houses and the flash cars". Communists and devout Christians shared the contradictory belief that although rejection of unnecessary private property is good for the soul, in practice it is an act of self-denial.

While the classics always featured a call for the abolition of wage labour, the USSR and east bloc countries — just as China does currently — reduced all work, except that of the apparatchiks, to wage labour. Such contradictions could, and perhaps would, have been resolved had the party education system been geared to free discussion rather than being wedded to the Soviet catechism.

The Lysenko nonsense, which sent many excellent Soviet scientists to the gulag, became — despite opposition — CPA gospel. Stalin's pet meaningless economic theory of "maximum profit" was elevated to a science.

Just as, for some reason inexplicable to us, the Roman Church sponsored the Greek model of the universe against Galileo, so Communist parties worldwide pushed a centuries-old Newtonian model at a time when quantum theory had been accepted for ages. What relation mechanistic views of science had to socialism was never made clear. Nor was the notion of "scientific socialism" subjected to scrutiny despite the obvious inherent contradiction which put reductionist science on a pedestal and removed it from Marxist analysis.

As a result, most CPA comrades' idea of socialism was an industrial system just like we have now, but run by a hierarchy of "selfless" leaders. The poverty of bourgeois personal relationships and the emerging horrors of environmental catastrophe were hardly touched on; communism was seen as almost exclusively an "economic" system. The assumption appears to have been, as said in the Bible, that on day one after the revolution, "the trumpet shall sound, and all shall be changed". Feminists know better.

In line with these limited notions of an alternative society, demands on the system were the age-old meaningless cry for "the right to work" and "a living wage", demands which, even if capitalism were benign, it simply could not achieve.

Most of the "analytical" writings in journals such as Communist Review, later the Australian Left Review, were limited to "playing the doctor at the bedside of sick capitalism", despite the knowledge that even if the diagnosis was right, the hierarchy in charge of the system was disinclined to believe it was sick, let alone take medicine in accordance with "socialist" prescriptions.

Why they failed

Revolutionary spirit arises from the contrast between what we experience in the here and now and what future we think is possible. The utopias we believe in need not be feasible as long as they are attractive. To be attractive, models must address the needs society fails to fulfil.

The CPA had only one model: the Soviet Union. In the '30s it was attractive because it was remote and its rhetoric reflected the aspirations of ordinary people in the grip of depression.

Once the phoney war had ended, the exploits of the Red Army in its fight against fascism gripped the people's minds. The ostensible war aims of the allies, as embodied in the Atlantic Charter, resembled a "socialist" program, mainly because "socialist" programs at that time were thoroughly reformist, as can be seen in the CPA publications of that time.

Given the parallels of the CPA program with mainstream aspirations, the CPA and other Communist parties became thoroughly respectable. Humanism was indeed at the heart of CPA members' concerns. CPA "socialism" was never more than "capitalism with a human face". With the "exposures" of the crimes committed by the CPSU, and the emergence of (temporary) bourgeois-democratic models such as the Scandinavian, the CPA lost relevance because of its innate conservatism.

Added to this absence of ideology, or perhaps due to it, was the failure of the CPA to define its organisational role. Despite constant claims that it was a "party of a different kind", the leaders rarely looked beyond the aims of building membership, distributing literature and collecting funds.

Faced with having a massive influence, through its members, on scores of movements (apart from unions), leaders desperately tried to turn these bodies into CPA fronts by insisting that CPA members should occupy top positions and promote the CPA itself regardless of the aims of organisations, thereby often rendering them impotent. Amongst the groups so destroyed were the Australasian Book Society and Realist Film Association, as I know from my own experience.

Possible roles

Lacking a relevant model of socialism, when the east bloc collapsed, so did the CPA, regardless of having for the previous decade rejected the east bloc "model".

Yet at this time real models are easier to propose than ever before. They are circumscribed by what humans need, and by the limits set by the environment.

Basic human needs are food, shelter, health and outlets for self-expression. We also need effective contraception (made necessary by availability of the first three). Industrial capitalism thrives on denying us all of these. In that sense, socialism can be defined as supplying them. As far as I remember, CPA programs never expressed such a simple philosophy.

Beyond this, we need transitional strategies, which can be seen as achievable and which are seen to lead towards the aim outlined above. One of these is the radical shortening of time spent in alienated labour. This stands in contradistinction to the left's mindless demand for the "right to work", meaning the right to be exploited. Even if such a strategy of providing alienated labour for all were successful, it could not possibly lead to socialism.

Other transitional demands are workers' control, community education and health services based on collectives, with the aim of the ultimate elimination of the nuclear family. We need gradual reduction and ultimate abolition of unearned incomes.

With such transitional demands we can lay the groundwork for a cohesive revolutionary strategy. For instance, radical reduction of hours working in alienated labour to say, 10 a week, under present conditions of productivity, would be more than ample to supply all our needs. Such short hours would move towards a sustainable resource use as well as allowing the time for social labour such as looking after the young, the old and the sick as well as to, once again, incorporate everybody back into the community.


The CPA strategy was to adopt the aims of other protest movements and interest groups, aims which were often pedestrian or even counter-productive. The purpose was, as mentioned, to put CPA personnel into leading positions; from there, the only way to go was the parliamentary road because there was simply no ideology beyond reformism in this strategy.

Also, once CPA members moved to take over, even though they were effective in working for organisations, they often lost credibility. After all, the hundreds of CPA members working under cover in, say, mothers' clubs, were simply doing similar work to non-party activists.

Nowadays this is even more obvious. While socialists will obviously support all sorts of single-issue movements, I hope we don't kid ourselves that we are doing our work better than other activists.

The purpose of socialists in alternative movements must be ideological: to help such groups to transcend their reformist aims so as to weld protest against aspects of the system into a force for an alternative system. For this, we don't need to be in leading positions but merely to have a wider and more positive vision.

I would go so far as to say that without an independent agenda based on a meaningful model, there is no value in having a socialist movement. This was proved abundantly in the Vietnam War movement when the CPA, for the last time in its existence, held leading positions but knew no way of making use of them.

The disappearance of the CPA is felt by many of us as a necessary disaster. However, by discussing the reasons for this demise, socialist groups such as the Democratic Socialist Party can develop aims and strategies which will take us forward on a far more fruitful road.

The shortcomings of capitalism, far from having lessened even in exploiting countries like Australia, have never been more acute or more visible. What we need more than ever is that "light on the hill" provided by an alternative model of society.