Life as a communist in the '50s

Issue 

The Hammer and Sickle and the Washing up: Memories of an Australian Woman Communist
By Amirah Inglis
Hyland House, 1995, 195 pp, $24.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
The Communist Party of Australia is no more. It has however, left behind a rich tradition of struggle for a world free of oppression and exploitation. Conservatives will cry "Stalin!" and "gulag!" to pooh-pooh that tradition but, as Amirah Inglis demonstrates in her memoirs of her 16 years in the CPA from 1945, the role of Stalinism, though a major cause of the CPA's decline, can not be used by the politically challenged to simplistically devalue the CPA. Inglis joined the Melbourne University branch of the CPA in 1945. It was not an unusual act. There were 16,000 other members of the CPA at the war's end. All Western Communist parties boasted large memberships and immense prestige from their role and the Red Army's military exploits in the defeat of fascism. They represented the hopes of millions of battlers for radical change after decades of Depression and war. With the equally "young and ardent" Ian Turner, later her husband and famed labour historian, by her side, Inglis began her march towards the socialist future. At first Inglis thought herself a mediocre student politician — "too emotional to handle opposing views calmly, easily silenced by clever talkers, and tongue-tied by anxiety about the correctness of my contributions". Others disagreed, and the skills she learnt were to come in handy when she got her first job with the Commonwealth Department of Transport and was plunged into the "smouldering battlefield" of the Federated Clerks Union (FCU) where CPA and ALP delegates lined up against the anti-communist "groupers" of BA Santamaria's Catholic Action. The FCU was eventually lost to the Right and became a bastion of conservatism in the labour movement. It was one black episode in the CPA's Cold War years of hardship, siege and decline. Cecil Sharpley, Victorian CPA state executive member, broke with the party and smeared the CPA all over the press. The Victorian Government called a Royal Commission, and Menzies a referendum, to scourge the Bolshevist virus. The CPA survived these attacks (there was resilient working class support for the party, based on its defence of trade unions and democratic rights) but the CPA made heavy weather of it, compromised by its Stalinism which was to be a major cause of its undoing. The authority of the Soviet Union as a socialist benchmark soon began to erode. Tito challenged Stalin, Lysenko mocked the principles of science, and the "Doctors' Plot" (nine doctors, five of them Jewish, framed for killing Soviet leaders) raised the possibility of Stalin's paranoia and Soviet anti-semitism. In the watershed year of 1956, Kruschev exploded the Stalin myth with his secret speech denouncing Stalin's terror only to then see Moscow's repression of the workers' uprising in Hungary explode the Kruschev myth. Each crisis "deposited particles of unresolved doubt" in Inglis, worried by the CPA leadership's branding of the anti-Stalinist pressure from within its ranks as "revisionism". Some members left the Party, like Inglis' mother, or were expelled, amongst them Ian Turner. Other members drew the wagons into a tighter circle. Inglis' father clung to a dogmatic Stalinism, and Jean Devanney, the talented and perceptive novelist, wrote angrily to Turner over his stance on Hungary — "Do you seriously suggest that Russia should permit the vultures of imperialism to roost on her doorstep?". Amirah Inglis avoided an immediate decision. Her two daughters and son were "my escape from too many conflicts and the ideological uncertainties I was not ready to tackle. Who would not rather read War and Peace and feed a delightful and contented child ... than to wrestle with revisionism?". When the CPA leadership tried to dam the fractured dyke of Stalinism by not consulting with its members on the Soviet-China split, Inglis made her exit in 1961, at the same time that her marriage to Turner ended. Soured by politics, she remarried in 1965 and went to work in Papua New Guinea, emerging decades later to edit recollections of Australian volunteers with the International Brigades in Spain, and to march on May Day. How could the CPA self-destruct like this, and toss aside so many remarkable comrades like Amirah Inglis? The major cause was the folly of attaching socialism to a country, instead of to a critically-renewed theory which was sceptical of any national regime's claim to represent the historic interests of the working class. With this came elements of Stalinist organisation. The CPA leadership during this period did not encourage independent thinking and judgement amongst its members, which would have made it harder to follow Moscow's every word. Although not addressed by Inglis, a further cause of the CPA's self-destruction was the tension between its desire for revolution and a strategy for the reform of Australian capitalism. Its reformist urge was sometimes at the behest of Moscow, and at others it was in accord with members' desires to be part of the political mainstream. As long as there was no significant revolutionary alternative to the CPA (its slander of the Trotskyist left had long seen to that) the CPA could contain this dual nature with its unchallenged claim to be the party of socialist revolution. Once Stalinism had lost all credibility and a New Left emerged in the late sixties, revolutionaries who did not want a party which was a pale imitation of the ALP found other political homes. The CPA could still sound revolutionary whilst the Liberals ruled the parliamentary benches in Canberra. But with the ascension of the ALP from 1983, the bankruptcy of the parliamentary road to socialism was soon evident, and it became harder to justify a reformist CPA's existence. The Accord, hand-crafted by CPA union officials, was the CPA's coup de grace. So what do we make of Inglis' "selfless, humane and indefatigable" workers for democracy and socialism in the CPA who were uncritical followers of Stalin? Dazzled by the majesty of the world's first socialist revolution in Russia, millions of the best of the working class were blinded to the reality of the Stalinist counter-revolution. Trotsky, the target of many Stalinists, had nothing but praise for such rank and file Communists — praising the "great courage" of "revolutionaries, abused by Moscow, but honest". Conservatives only know the half of it — the "blind loyalty to the henchman Stalin" bit. What they are keeping their fingers crossed against however, is the appeal that socialism, and a revolutionary party, can have amongst the working class which could make for many sleepless nights for the men and women of wealth.

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