An incomplete, yet valuable insight into the Communist Party of Australia

March 28, 2022
The Party by Stuart Macintyre

The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning
By Stuart Macintyre
Allen & Unwin
RRP: $49.99

The Party is the long-awaited second volume of Stuart Macintyre's authoritative history of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). It follows up his first volume, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from origins to illegality, published in 1998, which dealt with the CPA's first two decades.

Unfortunately, Macintyre was unable to see the publication and launch of his latest book, as he passed away last year. But The Party is a detailed and lively account of the history of the CPA from its heyday in the early 1940s, to 1970 and its later Euro-Communist period.

Macintyre had a personal and academic commitment to the long and tumultuous development of Australia's largest and most influential socialist organisation. He joined the CPA in the early 1970s as a student and then transferred to the British Communist Party during his doctoral studies at Cambridge University.

His first major project on return to Australia was a biography of prominent Communist and union leader, Paddy Troy.

As Sean Scalmer wrote in The Conversation on March 7, "Macintyre’s immense natural talents, prodigious commitment to his work and restless curiosity led him to explore many other fields. He made important contributions to the historical study of liberalism, historiography, the universities, the social sciences, the Australian Labor Party, social justice, and much else besides".

But Macintyre returned in his later years to further study the history of the CPA.

In the book’s introduction, Macintyre writes: "Communism was a political movement like no other, unique in its scope and in the commitment it demanded, utterly different from conventional parties ... The Russian Revolution was at once the inspiration for Communists everywhere, a universal model applied to their own country's circumstances, and a form of political activity grafted onto its history and traditions."

However, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's (CPSU) rule "degenerated after Lenin's death into rule by a single person, and Stalin's dictatorship of the Soviet Union carried over to the Communist International" — including its Australian section.

"In the 1920s, communism was a beleaguered movement on the fringes of Australian politics.

"It grew during the 1930s, and by the end of the decade communists had won leadership of a number of trade unions: first the coalminers, then the ironworkers, waterside workers and seamen ... Tribune, the party's national paper, appeared twice a week in Sydney, and there were weekly papers in three states."

It was in this context that the book begins with the period of illegality from 1940‒41, when the party was banned in light of its opposition to Australia's involvement in WWII because of the signing by Moscow of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact. CPA leaders were forced to go underground, its offices raided and literature seized.

Macintyre explains that the party was forced to print its material in secret: "Queensland had the most exotic printery, a cave now known as the Communist Cave overlooking Thunderbolt creek in the rugged ranges north-west of Townsville."

In a huge turnaround, the CPA then declared itself to be "the leading and most active war party" in the country, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. After subsequently being re-legalised by the new Labor government in 1942, the party launched a large-scale recruiting drive and by early 1945 it had more than 22,000 members.

The CPA faced contradictions during the latter stages of the war. On one hand, the prestige of the Soviet Union soared, and the CPA itself grew immensely as the Soviet people and Red Army took the offensive against Hitler and his armies.

On the other, right-wing, anti-Communist forces began to organise through Catholic Action and The Movement against the rising influence of Communism in Australia. The origins of an eventual split in the Labor party arose, especially in Victoria.

The onset of the Cold War, combined with an escalating class struggle as workers sought to win wage gains and other social improvements in the post-war era, produced new challenges for the CPA. The party initially sought a united front with the Labor Party leadership, but increasingly came into conflict with Labor in the union movement and elsewhere.

The anti-Communist repression intensified. CPA general secretary Lance Sharkey was jailed for three years for alleged sedition, and others were charged and lost their jobs as the witch-hunt progressed.

The 1940s culminated in the historic miners' strike of 1949, led by the CPA, and fuelled by the growing anger of coalminers frustrated at continuing restrictions on wages and working conditions. Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley infamously sent troops into the mines to break the strike, which was a major setback for workers and the CPA itself.

Macintyre recounts the struggle against Liberal PM Robert Menzies' Communist Party Dissolution Bill of the early 1950s. The party campaigned strongly — and successfully — against the bill and Menzies' referendum to ban the party in 1952, which followed the High Court's overturning of the law banning the CPA.

Macintyre notes that the CPA maintained leadership of key trade unions in this period. It also launched new campaigns in the peace movement, the cultural and youth arenas, the women's movement, the Aboriginal community and among migrants.

Macintyre reminds us, however, of the virulent anti-Communist atmosphere CPA members were subjected to in this period "under surveillance, your phone tapped, ostracised by neighbours and subjected to anonymous abuse, threats and broken windows, the children bullied at school".

He notes the dramatic aftermath of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev's Secret Speech revealing the crimes of Stalin in February 1956. Many Communist activists resigned and others were expelled by a party leadership grappling with the implications for the CPA of the tragic, but contradictory, history of the Soviet Union.

Many loyal party members attempted to stay the course, and dissident magazines such as Outlook and Overland were established. However, the trend for the CPA was toward declining membership and influence as a new era of political radicalisation in the 1960s began.

Macintyre covers the period of the Sino-Soviet Dispute, which led to a split in the CPA and the formation of the Maoist CPA(M-L) in 1963. He also briefly discusses the student and anti-Vietnam War radicalisation of the 1960s, which was reflected in an opening up of the party and advocacy for a broader Coalition of the Left by the CPA leadership.

Macintyre also mentions the CPA's condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the subsequent internal disputes that prepared the way for a split of the pro-Moscow section of the party. As a result, the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) was eventually formed in December 1971 by CPSU loyalists.

In his epilogue, Macintyre attempts to summarise the history of the CPA up to 1970 and make some conclusions about its overall course and impact. Despite the deep shortcomings of the party over many decades, he concludes: "[I]t was the party that brought [these members] together, trained them in the practical tasks of political activism, lifted their sights beyond national boundaries, provided them with opportunities for education and cultural engagement, sustained and inspired them.

"The CPA stood out among the nationally based parties for its insistence on complete independence. The history related in this volume traces a painful passage to autonomy that ended in 1970, with two more decades of activity to follow until it was wound up in 1991."

The Party, together with its predecessor The Reds, provides a valuable insight into this controversial centre of struggle within the Australian labour movement. While one can disagree with some of the assumptions and conclusions the author draws from this history, Macintyre has done the progressive movement a great service with his well-researched study of Australian Communism.

While The Party provides, on balance, an incomplete account of the history of the CPA, it definitely gives us an improved factual basis on which to better understand the true story of this crucial organisation of the Australian left.

[An obituary for Macintyre appeared in Green Left, Issue 1328, November 30, 2021.]

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