Writing a four-generation history of a family intimately linked with the history of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) is not an easy task, especially if you are a member of that family.
Mark Aarons has done this and in the process has tried to make a judgement of the political strengths and weaknesses of himself, his family members and the party.
It is a painful process for anyone to face up to political errors, particularly serious ones.
If he has not fully succeeded in facing up to past mistakes, he still paints a portrait of a radical Jewish family which made great sacrifices for what they believed was a noble cause, but which was in large measure in the service of counter-revolutionary Stalinism.
Aarons is a political and trade union activist who has written books such as Sanctuary: Nazi Fugitives in Australia and East Timor: A Western Made Tragedy. A member of the CPA until 1978, he served as a senior adviser to the NSW Labor government from 1996-2007.
In the past period he has emerged as a leading representative of a drive to turn the ALP into a Blairite New Labor Party with his call to reduce union representation in the party.
Aarons points out that from the 1920s to the 1970s, and beyond, his family were the principal target of a range of spy agencies including the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, the Security Service, the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, ASIO and the state police Special Branches.
Aarons had 13 of his families’ ASIO files declassified: 209 volumes of files, photographs, films and tapes—a total of 32,000 pages. Aarons’ father, Laurie, had 85 volumes of over 14,000 pages.
Despite all this Aarons has a remarkably benign attitude to ASIO—which is completely unaccountable and has had an enormous increase in its draconian powers under the Howard government with Labor Party blessing. Aarons concludes that ASIO “had a legitimate task”.
Communist Party’s role
In the case of the CPA, all of ASIO’s efforts were based on a fundamentally flawed premise: that the CPA represented a revolutionary threat to Australian capitalism. But for much of its history it was anything but that.
Among its other crimes the CPA denounced Trotskyists, and other lefts, as “fascist” and supported the Moscow Trials; the Hitler-Stalin Pact; and the crushing of the East German workers’ uprising in 1953 and the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. Aarons deals with some of these—even if in a limited way.
It is correct, nonetheless, that the CPA made some positive contributions such as leading industrial struggles around the forty-hour week and job safety, supporting Aboriginal rights, and playing a role in the anti-war movement and international solidarity.
But there are some aspects of the CPA’s role after its limited break with Stalinism around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that need to be challenged.
Although Aarons does not deal with it, for whatever reason, the CPA was instrumental in the development of the Prices and Incomes Accord in the early 1980s. Metalworkers’ leader and CPA leading member Laurie Carmichael played a crucial role in promoting this policy.
While it is commonplace now in the union movement to correctly criticise the Accord for having a major effect on weakening industrial struggles, at the time only one delegate opposed this policy—Jenny Haines of the NSW Nurses Association.
Aarons does not claim to be writing a history of the CPA and his book must be accepted within the limitations of a family political biography.
But he does draw some lessons from his family’s history—unfortunately often the wrong ones.
Stalinism versus Bolshevism
The central problem is that Aarons identifies Stalinism with Bolshevism and can only see two options: either Stalinism/Bolshevism or apitalism.
He cannot see a revolutionary alternative to Stalinism and so his rejection of Stalinism is also a rejection of Marxism. For him the end of the CPA is the end of the socialist project and Marxism is “a fatally flawed ideology”.
There is scarcely a mention of Trotskyism in the book and those—such as Nick Origlass and Issy Weiner—who fought the Stalinist politics of the CPA well before the late 1960s, are ignored.
Aarons argues that the CPA’s difficulties can be attributed, at least in part, to the adoption of a model of party building that was appropriate in Tsarist Russia, but is not applicable in countries like Australia.
This included “a steely discipline that demanded that members subjugate themselves to ‘democratic centralism’, under which the central apparatus exercised ultimate power.”
Writers such as Paul Le Blanc (Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, 1990) have demolished this view and shown that in fact the Bolshevik party under Lenin was full of tendencies and groupings at various times which gave it enormous life and vitality.
The monolithic Stalinist model, which was gradually imposed on the CPA in the 1920s, was the very opposite of Leninist democracy.
Nonetheless, Aarons has written an interesting account of the development of Stalinism from one family’s point of view and how some family members tried to come to terms with that terrible legacy.
In 2000, after a gap of 30 years, Laurie Aarons met Jack McPhillips, an ex-CPA member who remained a hardline Stalinist.
Asked about Stalin, Aarons said:
“Well, Jack, I don’t think there is much in favour of a man who murdered 20 million of his own people.” At the age of 90 McPhillips replied: “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”