Leader of the way into the wasteland

Wednesday, November 30, 1994

Crossing the Party Line: Memoirs of Bernie Taft

By Bernie Taft

Scribe Publications, 1994. 352 pp., $26.95 (pb)Reviewed by Phil Shannon

I remember one of the more humorous contributions to the "Prospects Discussion" in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in the early 1980s which appeared in the CPA's internal bulletin, Praxis, in which the CPA's postwar historical search for socialist meaning was compared to a mining engineers' exploration.

The shaft that had been drilled towards the Russian fatherland had encountered an authoritarian rock face, causing a left turn (or was it a right?) towards China. More rock faces, a geological split and a great leap forwards (or was it backwards?) later, the comrades agreed that Italy and Euro-communism might be easier going. Some comrades dissented, briefly claiming allegiance to the 1968 French mining manuals and suggesting the whole thing be referred to the student communes and workers' councils. Yet others began drilling towards Canberra — towards Parliament House, in fact, in a joint venture with the ALP conglomerate.

Bernie Taft, who spent 43 years in the CPA from 1941, most of these as a full-time party functionary, a prominent leader of the Victorian Branch and a National Executive member from 1967, was a key player in this enterprise.

His journey mirrored the evolution of the CPA from an at-times-revolutionary, but Stalinist, party to a mildly reformist group which finally dissolved in the face of the ALP's self-proclaimed role as the non-revolutionary and moderate protector of the working class. Taft was on the most right-wing edge of this process, and his memoirs are an extended defence of the CPA right wing against those currents in, and outside, the CPA which claimed some sort of revolutionary orientation.

Bernie Tugendhaft's youthful sense of justice was violated by the fascism and Depression in his native Germany, where he joined the Young Communist League in 1932 at age 13. He lobbed in Australia as a refugee in 1939, Australianised his name to Taft, joined the CPA in 1941, organised the union and the party while working for Ansett at Essendon aerodrome during the war, before working full time for the party from 1944.

From this point on, Taft began to consider the need to de-Stalinise the ideology (uncritical support of Soviet foreign policy and domestic politics) and organisational life of the CPA (it was run from the top down), though he did so from a liberal rather than a revolutionary angle.

The first fissures in the Stalinist edifice arose from the CPA cadres, Taft amongst them, who studied in China in the 1950s. Mao's China, on nationalist grounds, was running into conflict with Russia, and this opened up some space for a rival quasi-Marxist view.

The CPA cadres brought back with them an awareness that the USSR was not infallible and that political strategy should be derived from a study of local conditions. They also imbibed, however, the Maoist tendency to free classical Marxism from any meaningful or fixed content at all.

Ironically, when Maoism soon passed through one of its many mood swings and claimed the mantle of Stalinist orthodoxy against the liberalising Khrushchevite revisionists, the super-Stalinists in the CPA, around Taft's bete-noire Ted Hill, split in 1963, and the majority swung behind the USSR. An invasion of Czechoslovakia later, and the staunchly pro-Moscow wing of the CPA split in 1971, leaving a CPA tasting the new fruit of an independent and critical culture within the party.

In getting rid of Stalinism, however, the CPA began to be filled by a reformist politics. A revolutionary anti-Stalinism such as Trotskyism was never entertained by the CPA. Taft's references to Trotskyism and other revolutionary politics are few and merely serve as fuel to his critique of what he saw as a damaging "leftism" in the party.

The brief turn to the left by the CPA in the early 1970s, when the party was in danger of being outflanked by its rivals in those radical years, is dismissed by Taft as a return to "dogmatic Marxist orthodoxy". For the rest of the '70s Taft praised reformist politics and its radish (red on the outside, white inside) labour movement leaders such as Hawke, Gerry Hand, John Cain, John Button and Bill Kelty (the latter has made "a lasting contribution to the movement" by leading the way in a "radical break with the unions' confrontationist approach of the past" — All Hail the Accord!).

The end was in sight by the early '80s, and Taft, most of the Victorian leadership and a quarter of the CPA National Committee departed to form Socialist Forum, an ALP ginger group. The rest of the CPA slowly folded over the remaining years of the decade.

Taft's final ruminations are dispiriting — the "collapse of communism" and the death of socialism (all due to "the birth defects" of the Russian Revolution) and the necessity of "market forces" are all given an airing and dull the possibility of a politics of resistance.

The CPA never quite got the balance right between revolution (it followed various Stalinist or Maoist variants) and reform (Stalinist popular fronts and all manner of illusions in the ALP and union bureaucracy in the postwar period). Thus when the Stalinist model had lost all credibility, the tension between the CPA's revolutionary soul and its quest for the political "mainstream" was resolved by dissolving into the ALP or adopting other styles of bland reformism.

Taft was the most consistent leader of the right-wing transformation. His jousts with the CPA's "leftism" do not help us understand the reasons for the decline of the CPA.

The "leftism" which, according to Taft, resulted in a "hard-line oppositionist attitude to the Labor Party" is more to be celebrated (despite periods of genuine sectarian excess) as trying to build a revolutionary politics independent from the ALP than to be condemned as mindless militancy. The problem was not that the right wing of the CPA was too hard on the ALP but that it was often too like the ALP in its later decades and eventually had nowhere to go, when Stalinism perished, except into liberal reformist politics, then extinction, when it found that niche already occupied by the ALP.

There is much to celebrate in the CPA's history — for many decades its members were at the forefront of struggles for greater political and economic democracy in Australia, for the rights of minority groups and women, for international solidarity and anti-imperialism. The CPA should be a proud part of the heritage of today's activists, but there is also much to learn from its political decline. Taft and the CPA right wing, which led this decline into the reformist wasteland, can not provide the insights.