The Communist Party of Australia’s Post-War Internationalism

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Looking through documents from the National Security Archive from Georgetown University has got me thinking about the shifting allegiances of the Communist Party of Australia in the post-war era up until the mid-1970s. As I have written in another post, the CPA came out of the Second World War as quite a militant organisation and was heavily influenced by the anti-colonial wave in South East Asia, led by the Chinese Communist Party. In 1948, the CPA lambasted its British sister party for not adequately supporting the anti-colonial struggles in places such as Malaya and for indulging in ‘Browderism’.

This enthusiasm for Chinese communism and the direction put forward by Beijing/Peking lasted throughout the 1950s. Part of this was geographic, but also ideological. The Soviet Union and China had divided its attentions to different spheres after 1949, with the USSR focusing on Europe (as well as the Middle East) and China on Asia and tensions developed between the two, primarily over the subordination of China to the Soviet Union within the international communist movement. After Khrushchev’s Secret Speech about the crimes of the Stalin era in February 1956, the division between China and the Soviet Union took on an ideological bent and two communist powers raced towards confrontation with each other. The CPA shifted towards the Chinese line and were wary of ‘revisionists’ within the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet split came to a head in 1960 and the USSR called an international meeting of communist and workers’ parties, with each Communist Party across the world having to declare their allegiance to either Moscow or Beijing. In his book The Family File, Mark Aarons suggests that the CPA leadership was wavering over which side to join (the Communist Party of New Zealand chose to align itself with China) and it took two significant payments from the Soviet Union to assure their allegiance.

The Soviet Union sent an emissary to shore up the CPA’s position within the international communist movement and the CPA became more critical of China. As this ASIO report outlined, this realignment caused a considerable minority within the Party to revolt against the CPA leadership and in 1964, Victorian CPA leader Edward (Ted) Hill led a section of the membership out of the Party to form the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). But while an overtly pro-Chinese element had been forced out of the Party, the new leadership of the CPA, under Laurie Aarons, was not exactly the most slavishly pro-Soviet.

As Andy Blunden has shown, the CPA was openly critical of the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the CPA newspaper Tribune, the Party stated:

We cannot agree to the pre-emptive occupation of a country by another, on the alleged threat from outside, particularly when such action is taken without prior notification to the government and CP of Czechoslovakia. … It is hard to believe that [the Soviet leaders] realise the damage they cause to their own standing and the image of socialism throughout the world by acting in this way.

Aarons made similar criticisms of the Soviet Union in a speech at the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties in Moscow the following June, where several other CPs also used the meeting as an opportunity to criticise the USSR. In his speech, Aarons said:

Concretely, we believe that this Meeting should declare its full and unequivocal support for national independence, sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs for all nations, whether great or small, and whatever their social system. We support the amendment already proposed in the Preparatory Commission by the Italian comrades which states this clearly. This would demonstrate the moral superiority of socialism, guaranteeing fulfilment of Marx’s prediction that the new society will establish relations between nations that correspond to human relations between people. This problem is posed before us by the events of August 1968 and their consequences.

If we say openly that the August 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia was wrong, it is not because we want to intervene in the internal affairs of the Parties which made the decision. If we say the continued presence of troops is wrong, it is not because we seek to intervene in the internal affairs of the Czechoslovakian Party, nor to comment upon its policies. We have spoken up, and speak up before this Meeting, out of a deep and heartfelt commitment to the socialist cause and to our understanding of Communist principles and ideals.

We have said, and we say again, that the intervention harmed our cause, the struggle for a socialist world. Its impact was deep, its consequences far– reaching. They will not be easily overcome; this will be all the more difficult so long as unequal relations continue. Others may disagree; we hope our debate can develop on the level of principle and theory.

Internationalism cannot be separated from a regard for rights of all nations, great or small.

In our view, internationalism cannot be identified with the state interests of any socialist country. This is all the more important when contradictions and even antagonisms arise between socialist states. Then, we must say that it is not possible to decide the issues by an appeal to internationalism.

While criticising the Soviet Union, Aarons also made some measured pro-Chinese remarks:

In this connection we have proposed an amendment to the Document, which would state our support for the restoration to the People’s Republic of China of its territory of Taiwan, illegally occupied by US imperialism by force. And we propose here a statement condemning US imperialist policies against China and in this area of Asia and the Pacific. These proposals are made in the interests of the fight against imperialism, with the aim of taking some initiative for moving towards a common stand by all components of our movement.

These open criticisms of the Soviets were seen by many as a revival of soft Maoism within the CPA. The US State Department, according to documents released by the National Security Archive, saw the CPA as ‘pro-Chinese’, but also as occupying a third position between Moscow and Beijing. Dated September 1969, the memo said:

The Australian CP statement… rejected the claims of either side to be the sole interpreter and custodian of Marxism, and thereby to assume a position of hegemony over others.

In the conclusion of the State Department’s memo, it posited what would happen to the international communist movement if more CPs became critical of the USSR – how would the Soviets deal with this dissent without driving them into the arms of the Chinese? The document said:

What cannot be predicted, however, is how Moscow would take on its critics – whether it would move to squash them…; whether it would delay and temporize in an effort partially to accommodate them; or whether it would ostensibly ignore them…

In the case of the CPA, the Party was still partially accommodated by Moscow, but the pro-Soviet breakaway party, the Socialist Party of Australia, was also courted by some within the Soviet Union. The SPA, led by Pat Clancy and Peter Symon, was formed in 1971 from those who left the CPA over its criticisms of the Soviet Union and alleged abandonment of the principles of Leninism. While the CPA had not embraced the ideas of Eurocommunism yet, as it did in the mid-to-late 1970s, it had lost its pro-Soviet (and pro-Chinese) edge and was influenced by the thinking coming out the Italian, French, Spanish and British Communist Parties.

We know from the transcribed diaries of Anatoly S. Chernyaev, a member of the CPSU’s International Department during the 1970s, that the Soviet Union were disgruntled with the direction that the CPA was taking, but did not entirely freeze them out. In March 1972, Chernyaev amended a note from the CPSU’s Central Committee to the CPA leadership conditionally offering support if the CPA’s forthcoming Congress was agreeable to them. He wrote:

The gist of the matter: the Aaronses (“revisionists and anti – Soviets”) are proposing a meeting of CPSU and CPA delegations, and they are asking us to send greetings for their Congress (March 31st).
The note: We’ll respond after your congress, depending on its results. [If we don’t like it], we will formally sever our connections with the CPA.

Elsewhere Chernyaev complained about dealing with delegates from foreign CPs, writing about the CPA’s third positionism:

Or – [John] Sendy, the chairman of the CP of Australia, which has been sticking its nose in the air at the CPSU for many years. They can’t adapt to what is going on in the world, where three cumbersome and powerful wheels (U.S., USSR, PRC) are turning, and which are so connected to each other in their momentum that no grains of sand like the Communist Party of Australia can stop them. One wouldn’t even hear a squeak if it carelessly got caught between these wheels. The best thing to do for such CPs as the Australian one is to quietly cling to the safe side of the Soviet (or the Chinese, if they like) wheel.

On the other hand, Chernyaev also met with representatives of the SPA in Moscow and ‘encouraged [them] to keep it up against the Aarons brothers’, although by 1973, when he met with Pat Clancy, Chernyaev admitted that the SPA was ‘really a lost cause’.

In the same 1973 diaries, Chernyaev described a delegation from the CPA in a very critical and unflattering light:

From September 27 – October 6, a delegation from the Communist Party of Australia (Aarons, Taft, and Mavis Robertson – a woman) was in Moscow. At the first and main meeting – with Ponomarev – they were obnoxious: Aarons made an official speech and laid out everything they have approved in their policy documents – that the CPSU is leading a hegemonic policy in the ICM, that peaceful coexistence is only the public interest of the USSR, that the Soviet Union is a country with only a “socialist base” as opposed to a socialist society, we are stifling democracy, suppressing dissent with prisons and mental hospitals, and so on in the spirit of Sakharov; the CPSU is aiming to split the communist and labor movement in Australia (followed by a series of big and small facts about our relationship with the Communist Party of Australia)…

Zhukov and I spent four hours at Sheremetyevo airport, seeing Aarons off. We informed the CPA about everything. They had been expecting a breach. It seems things are moving towards normalization after all. They understand that a break with us would isolate them from the majority of communist parties and eventually would bring them to the position of a sect.

By the mid-1970s, the CPA had taken up the ideas of Eurocommunism and Gramscism, in a similar manner to the CPGB and the PCI. It was still nominally aligned to the Soviet Union, but the SPA had taken over as the pro-Soviet organisation within Australia – with both parties being welcomed by the Soviets in Moscow. In the case of their European counterparts, these CPs slowly drifted from an explicitly pro-Soviet position in the 1950s to a Eurocommunist (and more critical one regarding the USSR) position in the 1970s, but the road travelled by the CPA was less straight forward. A question to seek an answer for is how pro-Chinese was CPA during the late 1960s and whether there was any rapprochement between the two…

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