A nostalgic company history of Australian Stalinism

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A nostalgic company history of Australian Stalinism

The Reds
By Stuart Macintyre
Allen & Unwin, 1998. $49.95.

 Review by Bob Gould

Stuart Macintyre is a competent historian where either his past Althusserian Stalinist ideological outlook, or his present social democratic neo-liberal slightly postmodern viewpoint, or both together, are not a hopeless obstacle to the inquiry. Unfortunately, neither standpoint, nor Macintyre's conflating of the two, is any use in producing an objective institutional history of any communist party, in this case the Communist Party of Australia.

 Despite the very unpleasant impact that the book makes because of its major whitewashing of Stalinism, it is, like the curate's egg, good in parts. Particularly in the first half, Macintyre assembles a lot of interesting material, in a pretty accessible way, some of it new.

PictureUnfortunately, Macintyre's obvious animosity to all the major founders of Australian communism and their political outlook and interests gives a rather nasty edge even to this material.

In my view, any serious history of a communist party has to face up squarely to the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution, communism and communist parties, and the effect that this had on the project of mobilising the labour movement and the working class for the overthrow of capitalism. It is an enormous advantage — in fact, probably a necessity — to have some developed idea of what Stalinism actually was as a social and historical phenomenon.

Macintyre rejects Trotsky's major theory and detailed description and analysis of Stalinism. Though there are lengthy, slightly ponderous, asides about Stalinism, they all remain hopelessly abstract generalisations, all of which boil down to the proposition that Leninism and the Russian revolutionary project were deformed from birth and led directly to Stalinism.

Nowhere in the book is there any sustained description of the actual development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, involving, as it did, a counter-revolution against Lenin and Leninism, or, for that matter, any sustained description of its awful and murderous consequences, in which all the old Bolsheviks of all factions were exterminated.

The consequences are that The Reds becomes a narrowly focused, rather flat institutional history of the Communist Party from its foundation to the invasion of Russia in 1941, with the interaction between the CPA and the broader labour movement downplayed, and major difficult and complex incidents treated cursorily or smoothed over. The Stalinisation of the party in 1929, and the “high Stalinism” of the CPA in the 1930s, are treated essentially sympathetically.

Macintyre is both extremely ungenerous to other scholars, and quite intellectually evasive in relation to some of the key political issues.

For instance, in the study of the “Third Period” in the CPA, there are two major contributions pre-Macintyre. International Socialism and Australian Labour by Frank Farrell is mentioned in a footnote in relation to a minor matter. Farrell's book focuses, in a much more comprehensive way than Macintyre, on the impact that the Third Period had on the socialist project and on the CP's influence in the broader labour movement. Farrell's conclusion is quite explicit:

“Yet clearly third period Communism hindered rather than helped the overall radicalisation of the labour movement in the early depression years ... Despite the growth of conditions favourable to the propagation of socialism, left-wing initiatives lacked overall direction, and working-class radicalism was divided on itself.”

Macintyre is particularly churlish in relation to the Comintern archives pertaining to Australia. He mentions that they have been deposited in an Australian library, and he mentions Barbara Curthoys in relation to some minor matter. However, he doesn't mention that Barbara Curthoys spent her own money to travel to Moscow in the early '90s, and retrieved, at some expense, copies of this material and deposited it in the Australian library. She then proceeded to write a major study of the Stalinisation of the Communist Party in 1929 and 1930, on the basis of the new material.

Curthoys' conclusions are not dissimilar to Farrell's. Since Macintyre's political conclusion is to give an overall favourable emphasis to the “straightening of the line” in the Third Period, he might at least have attempted some direct engagement with the contrary view of Farrell and Curthoys, and common courtesy might have led him to mention Curthoys' enterprising project = Tricky periodisation

Macintyre's choice of cut-off point is a part of the political nature of his project. By finishing at the moment of the German invasion of Russia, he avoids the most striking and difficult epochs in the history of Australian communism, the pro-war orgy during the second world war, the ultra-leftism in the postwar period leading up to the coal strike, the attempt to suppress Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin, the Sino-Soviet dispute, the support for the Accord, the many splits and the demise of the CPA.

Macintyre is a bit cute, however. He still plucks out of the air a concluding balance sheet on communism and the CPA. In this, he rejects all critiques of Stalinism based on the conflict between Stalinism and the interests of the working class and socialism, globally or nationally. He concludes that the net effect of Stalinism in the 1930s was to create a wonderfully effective political outfit.

He makes a very revealing observation on the CPA and academics and intellectuals, even reinforcing traditional Stalinist prejudices with the striking aside, “but there were no Communist academics other than John Anderson, whose ill-starred intervention into the Party's affairs confirmed members' suspicions of halls of learning”.

What a nasty little sentence that is. Anderson's major intervention into the CPA was his principled and determined rejection of the early Stalinisation of the CP, and then his participation as a founding member in the first Trotskyist group in Australia. To Macintyre, “premature” revolt against Stalinism is obviously Anderson's great sin.

Major omissions

I will demonstrate the unbalanced and special-pleading nature of Macintyre's book by reference to two defining events treated completely summarily. It is not accidental that both these major episodes relate to the Communist Party's relationship to the broader labour movement.

The first is the socialisation units organised in the NSW Labor Party in partial conflict with the Lang machine in 1931-32. A major and promising socialisation movement in the NSW ALP came into conflict with the Lang machine and had to cope with a brutal second front from within, from a Communist Party faction led by Tom Payne, which started a big fight inside the socialisation units, saying that they shouldn't be in the Labor Party at all, because the Labor Party were social fascists.

This stab from behind complemented the CPA's general denunciation of the extraordinary mass populist Labor Party movement led by Lang as social fascists. The socialisation units are mentioned in passing by Macintyre without any serious discussion of the role of the CP.

After 1936, in the most right-wing period of the popular front, the Communist Party moved back into the Labor Party and, by forming a bloc with the ALP right wing federally, against the declining Lang movement in NSW, was organisationally pretty successful — so much so that it won control of both the Labor Party in NSW and its youth movement, the Australian Labor Party League of Youth.

The period of wholesale entrism in the Labor Party from 1936 to 1940 was a major defining political experience for most communists in NSW and for many others in the labour movement. It came to an abrupt end in 1940, when the Communist Party swung over from the very right-wing orientation in the late popular front period, to the ultra-left denunciation of Laborism and all its works, dictated by subservience to the Comintern's opposition to the war during the Nazi-Soviet pact.

One would have thought that Macintyre, the researcher who now has had access to all the internal party documents of this period, might have discussed this area in some detail. Ray Markey, with much less access to internal CP material, discusses it much more forthrightly and with greater depth, in his history of the NSW Labor Council.

Repetition of slander

A slightly repellent aspect of Macintyre's book is a hint of the old Stalinist practice of destroying dissidents by accusing them of assorted crimes, alcoholism, sexual libertinism, even the one most favoured by Stalinist bureaucrats in the past, pinching the money.

Macintyre explicitly dismisses any overarching theory about the decisive influence of Soviet Stalinism on the political corruption of the Australian Party, in favour of the petty theory that what was really wrong with the CPA was leadership by a bunch of petty adventurers, whom he proceeds to name. He is mindlessly venomous when he occasionally repeats as good coin the Stalinist slanders routinely unleashed on anyone active in the workers movement who fell out with the Stalinist machine.

For instance, it is asserted that Orr and Nelson, the redoubtable communist mass leaders in the mining industry, fell out with the Communist Party because their alcoholism got worse. What bullshit!

This reduction of the Stalinisation of the Australian communist movement to personal trivialities becomes almost comical in the earnest, rather Protestant, fashion in which he quotes the view he attributes to several middle class Melbourne communists, that the CP in Sydney was a cesspool of alcoholism and sexual corruption.

Moscow Trials

Macintyre's treatment of the Moscow Trials, and their impact on communism in Australia, is outrageous.

For a start, he doesn't even mention any of the books in the vast literature of personal memoirs of survivors of the camps, or painstakingly collected summaries of the experiences of the many millions “burnt by the sun” of Stalinism.

You get no mention of this vast awful but necessary literature. But you do get an implicitly favourable mention, in a footnote, of a US historian, one J. Arch Getty, the foremost “revisionist” historian of the Stalin period, who assiduously tries to praise Stalin's rule and to minimise the negative impact of it and of the mass murders and purges.

Macintyre's conclusion is spelled out:

“The purges of the party's ranks, the Great Terror that carried off real and imagined opponents, and the show trials that paraded former leaders to confess their treachery, these were something more than measures of repression whereby the Soviet leadership consolidated its supremacy. Rather, they involved the population at large as active participants.”

It's hard to exaggerate the historical enormity of this view. There is a vast and incontrovertible literature and evidence about the magnitude, scope, scale and duration of Stalin's physical assault on the members of the Communist Party, the working class and the Russian people as a whole. This continued from 1927 until Stalin's death in 1953, involved the extermination of half the members of the Communist Party and, one way and another, well over 20 million people.

I find it absolutely repellent for Macintyre to rope in the thoroughly policed and coerced masses as alleged equal participants in Stalin's crimes. (It's also a very malign attempt to establish the proposition that all popular mobilisation and revolutionary activity inevitably leads to Stalinism.)

Macintyre inserts this repellent little piece of apology for the vicious slanders of the past:

“It was at this time also that the party press began to carry lengthy reports of treachery in the workers' state. Imperialist agents were destroying livestock to create food shortages. The great Five Year Plan for modernising Soviet industry was being sabotaged by foreign technicians. The founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, expelled from the party in 1927 and deported in 1929, was conducting a campaign of vicious lies against the party leadership. Former leaders such as Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin were revealed as counter-revolutionary plotters. If these illustrious Old Bolsheviks could turn out to be traitors, how could the tiny Australian party remain pure?”

The real situation was that, to make this crazy story stick, that all the old leaders of Bolshevism were spies and agents, just about all the early leaders of the Australian Communist Party — in fact, almost all the previous leaders from the '20s of every communist party in the world, along with many thousands of rank and filers — had to be driven out and turned into enemies and non-persons.

A really sickening feature of the Workers Weekly in the late '30s is that the many front pages that had hysterical, lying stories justifying the Moscow Trials, because all the Bolshevik leaders were spies and agents, had the real police spy, Alf Baker's, name on the masthead as business manager.

There was a good deal more exposure of and dissent from high Stalinism than you would believe, reading Macintyre. For instance, in his consistently trivialising way, Macintyre mentions Gil Roper in some relatively minor contest. He doesn't mention that Roper, the manager of the Communist Party printery, and his wife, Edna, who ended up not exactly minor figures in the labour movement in NSW, broke, in a very sharp and angry way, with Stalinism over the Moscow Trials and published an open letter about the murder of the old Bolsheviks in the Militant, the Sydney Trotskyist newspaper.

(Roper went on, with other pioneer Trotskyists like Allan Thistlethwaite, to initiate the industrial struggles in the printing and power industries, towards the end of the second world war, against the opposition of the Stalinists. These industrial struggles began the ultimately victorious struggle for the 40-hour week.)

Literally thousands of Communist Party members and sympathisers moved away from the Communist Party in all directions in reaction against the Moscow Trials and high Stalinism. They were aware that their former comrades would denounce them as spies, police agents, Trotsky fascists, renegades, Nazi collaborators. The forces who remained with the Communist Party, by no means inconsiderable, and with a great deal of influence in the workers' movement, were hammered into shape, into the secular religion of high Stalinism, and trained and indoctrinated in a political culture in which three or four books became the dominant, and possibly the only, books of a political nature that the cadres read.

Macintyre makes great play, now, of the idea that Khrushchev's exposure of Stalin was the point after which it was legitimate to become an anti-Stalinist. Unfortunately for this view, there were many people in the labour movement who were “premature” anti-Stalinists, and by and large they became vehement opponents of the CP.

Selective use of sources

Macintyre has ostensibly had access to the maximum range of records and archives of the Communist Party and oral research, yet he does not discuss in any depth party security and expulsion from the party. Even in the limited period he is discussing, several thousand people were expelled. Few departed without some process. For long periods the CP security apparatus, so called, was in constant session.

A discussion of this aspect of the CP's internal life would seem of the utmost importance to a real history of the Communist Party. But Macintyre hasn't seen fit to dig into this half world very much at all. What a pity.

Macintyre, had he chosen, could have dramatised the conflict between the secular religion of high Stalinism, as expressed by the Communist Party in the late 1930s, and the real history of the 20th century by briefly quoting from some of the absolutely incontestable historical literature that has emerged, particularly in recent times, from Soviet archives, like the admission by the KGB that it had unjustly executed more than 700,000 people in the late 1930s, or the fact that 90% of the delegates and Central Committee members at the Congress of Victors, so called, in 1935, had been killed by 1939. Such brutal realities, however, would obviously interfere with the nostalgic blandness.

Another example of Macintyre's careless simplification is his discussion of the CP's increasing influence in the unions. There are about 10 excellent trade union histories that cover unions in which the CP had influence or power, in a way that intelligently describes the interplay and struggles between the CP and other forces. Macintyre refers to very few.

Talking about the Ironworkers Union in the late '30s, he says that the CP increased its power in the union without trouble. Not true.

If you refer to Bob Murray's history of the Ironworkers Union, you'll find that Ernie Thornton, as federal secretary, threw out the officials of the South Australian branch, and more particularly, very ruthlessly threw out the leadership of the Newcastle branch, led by an old socialist called Connolly. The use of bureaucratic power came back to haunt Thornton in the late 1940s when the Newcastle branch, with many members still smarting over the removal of a popular leadership, was the first branch to overthrow Thornton's leadership in the battle by Laurie Short to replace him as national secretary, which was successful in 1951.

Macintyre's cut-off point in 1941 saves him from having to describe the classic episode of resistance to Stalinism's forward march in the unions, the dogged, spectacular and successful resistance of the Balmain branch, led by Nick Origlass and Short, to Thornton's leadership in the Ironworkers Union during the second world war.

Loopy postmodernism

Macintyre stakes a clear claim to be writing the “definitive” history of the CPA, with his emphasis on the vast array of material available to him. Yet his use of the material is blatantly selective. Macintyre's book is a loopy reductio ad absurdum of the postmodernist approach to history.

It's a triumph of a powerful implicit ideological standpoint over the narrative and the historical investigation, an approach to history postmodern historians share with the old Stalinists, and which is in sharp contrast with past, better historical approaches either of the Marxist or empiricist variety.

The ideological point of view is that the revolutionary socialist project of Lenin and the early Communists was quixotically doomed from the start (the view currently fashionable amongst conservative historians) and that the Stalinisation of communist parties and the Australian Communist Party was, within certain limits, a good thing, giving rise to pleasant nostalgia about the wonderful outfit that was the CPA of the popular front period. Popular front Stalinism was a good thing, implies Macintyre, but, of course, now the whole socialist project is finished.

But the final collapse of the Stalinist monolith in 1989, rather than the collapse of some kind of socialism, was the final removal of a gigantic obstacle to the development of a socialist movement in new conditions.

The triumphalism of global capitalism of 1989 looks very sick in 1998, with the many economic and social crises of the capitalist system telescoped on a global scale. What unfortunately lags behind the global crisis of capitalism is the failure, so far, of the modern socialist and workers movement to re-fashion and retool socialist and working-class programs and tactics, in these extraordinary new conditions. In re-fashioning and retooling the socialist movement ideologically, the study of the history of communism, communist parties and the vicious Stalinisation in the middle of the 20th century will be an important part.

Those who don't study history properly are bound to repeat it badly. From that point of view, the nostalgic Stalinism of Macintyre's book on the CP is a greater danger to the necessary reinvention of the socialist movement than his more overt consigning of the whole socialist project to the historical dustbin.

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