Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)

ASIO and surveillance of the women’s liberation movement in Australia in the 1970s

This post is an extended version of the paper that I gave recently for the ‘How the Personal Became Political’ symposium, hosted by the ANU Gender Institute. I am posting this on International Women’s Day 2017, so enjoy!

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In the volume of the official history of ASIO that deals with what Greg Langley has described as the ‘decade of dissent’, 1965 to 1975,[1] there is one mention of the women’s liberation movement and ASIO’s surveillance of it. In his volume, John Blaxland lists the women’s liberation movement as just one of the social movements that was monitored by ASIO during the late 1960s and early 1970s, alongside the peace movement, and the movement for Aboriginal rights.[2] Blaxland does not go beyond this mention, but we know from other autobiographical works on the material history of ASIO, such as Anne Summers’ chapter in the Meredith Burgmann’s Dirty Secrets anthology,[3] that the security services did extensively monitor feminists and the women’s liberation movement during this period.

Unlike the National Archives in London, the National Archives of Australia have been very forthcoming in releasing ASIO files from the 1960s through to the early 1980s, particularly due to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by people who were subject to ASIO surveillance, as well as by a small number of interested journalists and academics. Although, as Tim Sherratt has written,[4] the publicly available ASIO files often have the most controversial elements still redacted, while more sensitive files are retained by the government. Still the amount of material that has been released has been highly useful for contemporary historians.

Most of the publicly available ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement have been digitised and cover the period from 1970 to 1980. As well as four national files (which are the papers that I have explored), there are a number of files dedicated the movements in New South Wales (9), Victoria (4) and the Australian Capital Territory (2). There are probably more files dedicated to the movements in the other states and territories, but some files on South Australia and Tasmania are incorporated into the national files.

ASIO were not the only branch of the state to be involved in the monitoring of the women’s liberation movement. The Special Branches of each state police force were involved in the surveillance of feminist activists across Australia, with Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter revealing the in-depth monitoring of socialist feminist Carole Ferrier by the Queensland Special Branch between 1975 and 1989.[5] The Special Branch files in most states have been destroyed (or are deemed not locatable),[6] with only glimpses of the work of these Special Branches being seen in their correspondence with ASIO maintained in the released ASIO files (one exception to this being the papers of the South Australian Special Branch made public during the inquiry by Justice White into the Special Branch’s security records in 1977).[7]

As Henderson and Winter, as well as Jon Piccini,[8] have noted in their research into ASIO and Special Branch files, while these files give us a detailed record of events, they also present a narrative of activism as determined by the surveiller and not by the subject of the surveillance. Their actions are deemed noteworthy if they fit in with ‘paranoid’ outlook of the security services, who were trained to see potential threats from a multitude of otherwise innocuous sources. As much as we see the behaviour of the activist in these files, we also see the thinking underpinning the actions of the state, who were much more readily to believe that many independent actors were part of a wider conspiracy against the established political and social order in Australia at the time.

The ASIO files on the women’s liberation movement assembled at the national level begin in early 1970. This provides evidence of three main motivations for surveillance of the movement. Firstly, the file contains plenty of clippings on the women’s liberation movement in the United States and their radicalism, and, as Ruth Rosen has shown, the FBI showed great interest in these feminist activists for a variety of reasons. This suspicion was transferred from the US to Australia, as Australian women started to read Kate Millet, Betty Friedan and other US feminist writers. Secondly, the files also note the beginning of various Women’s Liberation Groups formed in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1969-70, who are in communication with each other and looking to organise on a national scale, with the Sydney group coming first and then others taking inspiration in the other cities. Thirdly, ASIO were already heavily monitoring the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) and it is from these two groups that many of the more militant socialist feminists emerged.

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CPA feminist Olga Silver selling ‘Tribune’

Both the CPA and SYA were involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the wider cultural radicalism of the era and tried to organise around the issue of women’s liberation, both within their party structures and within broader activist circles. In the fourteen years since 1956, the CPA had undergone a significant change from a very pro-Stalin and pro-Chinese militant party to a proto-Eurocommunist party that sought to embrace the new social movements that arose in the 1960s. As Margaret Penson has shown, under the new leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA started to take the idea of women’s liberation seriously and several women party members were involved in organising around the issue, with a national conference on women held by the CPA in 1970.[9] At the same time, those within the Party who eschewed these social movements (and held a more pro-Soviet viewpoint) started to agitate against the Aarons leadership and eventually broke away in 1971 to become the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).

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The SYA were a Trotskyist group that emerged out of the anti-war movement at Sydney University, influenced by the US Socialist Workers Party and the Mandelite Fourth International, including the British International Marxist Group. Critical of the Communist Party’s ‘Stalinism’, the SYA emphasised its anti-imperial solidarity work, including the establishment of the Third World Bookshop in Sydney, which became an organisational hub for the SYA (but also bugged by ASIO).

A 1971 report on the Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference, organised by the CPA’s Aileen Beaver, explicitly outlined the ASIO’s interest in the women’s liberation movement in Australia:

Over the past months the Women’s Liberation Movement has been gaining increasing support… and many of the Groups appear to be dominated by Communist Party of Australia (CPAS) members, eg, the Working Women’s Women’s Liberation Group in Sydney or by Maoists eg, the Worker Student Alliance Women’s Liberation Group in Melbourne or by Trotskyists eg, Sydney Bread and Roses Women’s Liberation Group. It is for this reason that ASIO is maintaining an interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (my emphasis)[10]

Much of ASIO’s surveillance of the women’s liberation movement came from its surveillance of the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance, through the bugging of the CPA and SYA offices, and reports by agents at meetings and conferences. As David Lockwood has noted, these ASIO files often observed the mundane every-day activities of those involved in progressive and left-wing politics. Page after page is filled with short memos outlining particular people of interest, their links to other people and organisations under surveillance and often with a short description of the person. With the case of feminist activists, these candid remarks by ASIO agents reveal the sexist contempt that they had for the women’s liberation movement at the time. For example, a memo on Isabelle Sandford (also known as ‘Coonie’) stated:

Coonie is approximately 23 years of age, approximately 5’2” tall, with shoulder length straight dark brown hair. She has brown eyes, weights approximately 8 stone. She has a good figure, is neat and well groomed. She is not popular with the other members of the Women’s Liberation Group as they consider she talks a lot of rot, and has in fact been accused on occasions of being a liar.[11]

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Another memo on Elisabeth Elliott seemed to complain that while she was considered ‘a very attractive girl’, she was deemed to be ‘untidy in her general appearance’.[12]

The CPA had overseen the establishment of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in the 1950s, but by the early 1970s, it was being taken over by the Women’s Liberation Groups which involved both CPA and SYA members. One report from November 1970 noted ‘a lot of bickering’ at a South District branch meeting over whether the UAW was still the ‘main CPA women’s organisation’,[13] with dissidents (who would eventually form the SPA) allegedly pressing for the traditional organisation to maintain its role. In March 1971, ASIO further noted that future SPA leading figure Pat Clancy:

spoke disparagingly of the CPA leadership’s attitude of concentrating on Women’s Liberation as he feels that the potential of Women’s Liberation is minor compared to the possibility of organising women in the industrial area.[14]

The CPA maintained its support for women’s liberation movement and published a pamphlet in 1971 titled, What Every Woman Should Know, under the guise of the Women’s Liberation Working Women’s Group. An ASIO intercept report noted that the CPA sold out its initial run of the pamphlet and that hundreds of copies were to be sent to CPA bookshops in Melbourne and Perth.[15] In July 1972, ASIO still saw the CPA as ‘the best appointed Women’s Liberation’ group, but noted that ‘even within it there is quite strong opposition from many of the men’.[16] An agent’s briefing from 1972 National Congress of the CPA noted that one male Communist Party member spoke out against women’s liberation at the Congress, reporting:

He was very much against the part of Women’s Liberation where they were men hating. He felt that this was a bad attitude which could do nothing but harm to the organisation.[17]

As Steve James has written, the primary function of ASIO was intelligence gathering,[18] but one wonders about what use the information gathered by ASIO agents would be. For example, after a Women’s Liberation Conference held in Guthega in NSW in January 1972 by a faction within the SYA, a brief called for the following from any agents or informants attending the conference:

  • Identification of persons attending the Conference with particular reference to their political leanings…
  • Information concerning the reported split within the Socialist Youth Alliance over the issues of Women’s Liberation.
  • Information concerning a possible split in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Sydney following the formation of the New Communist Party (Socialist Party of Australia).[19]

The first three national files are dedicated to the years from 1970 to 1972, but the last file covers the years from 1972 to 1980, suggesting a reduction in interest from ASIO, particularly in relation to the links between the Communist Party and the Socialist Youth Alliance to the women’s liberation movement, which was, as quoted above, the main reason for ASIO’s surveillance of the movement. This neatly coincides with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972 and the reform of ASIO after the raid ordered by Attorney-General Lionel Murphy in early 1973.

However surveillance did not stop entirely in this period and it seems that ASIO seemed to shift their focus of concern from the women’s liberation movement being a political concern with regards to Communist and Trotskyist entrism to a concern about the impact that the movement was having socially and culturally. One document drafted in November 1972, just before the election of Whitlam, argued explicitly that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a subversive movement… in a unique manner.’[20] Firstly, the report acknowledged, as had been ASIO thinking over the last few years, that the women’s liberation movement was ‘a target movement… for communist action organisations.’[21] The report expanded on this, stating:

This feature of Women’s Liberation, by itself, would make Women’s Liberation of security interest as the expressed aim of the communists is to capture, control, exploit every critical, reformist movement or organisation and develop it into a new revolutionary context.[22]

But this communist infiltration was not the only concern of ASIO. The same report purported:

Women’s Liberation… is not directly concerned with political subversion but is concerned with subversion on a higher and more sophisticated level, (that is social subversion, into which political subversion is incorporated).[23]

This suggested that certain people within the security services believed that the women’s liberation movement were actively undermining the moral fabric of Australian society in the 1970s. The report outlined at length the ways in which this moral subversion alleged manifested itself, including through the degradation of the education system, reconfiguration of sex values and conduct, promotion of drug use, rejection of traditional social values, and undermining of traditional understandings of ‘democracy’.

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ASIO outlines the ‘subversive’ agenda of the WLM in Australia (1972)

‘Because of its relentless critique of the existing social order, and the unique nature of its critique,’ ASIO stated, the women’s liberation movement was ‘a fertile field for communist activity’.[24] The report continued…

Women’s Liberation is engaged in the same process of dismantling existing institutions that the communists engage in AFTER the revolution (and, of course, continuously attempt). The communists are delighted to have a ‘captive audience’ which can be mobilised against the capitalist system…

From the Women’s Liberation social analysis, then, it is a short step to the communist analysis of political and social power in capitalist societies.[25]

However as the 1970s progressed, the focus of ASIO on communist entrism in the Women’s Liberation Movement shifted to other parties than the CPA and the SYA (which had become Socialist Workers League after 1972). Between 1972 and 1975, ASIO noted the increased interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement from the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). The aforementioned report from November 1972 noted that the CPA(M-L) held the line that women should organise inside the Communist Party as ‘Marxism-Leninism is the only correct theory on this question.’[26] Two memos from 1975 reveal that some within the SPA, who were originally sceptical of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, argued that the Party ‘must associate with groups such as Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Electoral Lobby because in these groups is where the progressive people are.’[27] Geoff Curthoys was quoted as saying that ‘the S.P.A. must not sever connections with these groups’.[28] Freda Brown reportedly agreed with Curthoys, but stated that ‘the S.P.A. has not got the women’s forces’ to work with these groups.[29]

By 1980, the focus had moved the Australian branch of the Spartacist League, a highly sectarian orthodox Trotskyist group that had grown from the US and UK in the late 1970s. A memo from June 1980 commented that the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand were ‘active in two main groups… the Gay Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole, not in individual groups within the movements’, with the Women’s Action Committee identified as the group that the Spartacists were ‘specifically interested in’.[30] In one document from 1980, ASIO outlined the strategy of the Spartacists to acquire members, remarking ‘[i]t is a very long slow process but they gradually draw people away from groups like Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights’.[31] However a document from 1977 had already noted that the Women’s Liberation Movement had already expelled a number of Spartacist League members.[32]

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From ‘Australian Spartacist’, May 1980.

The current batch of files run out in 1980, but the last file of the series demonstrates that ASIO’s interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement had greatly waned by the late 1970s. Over the preceding decade, the movement had moved from the extra-parliamentary sphere to the heart of parliamentary politics and policy, as evidenced, for example, by the appointment of Elizabeth Reid as the first Advisor on Women’s Affairs by Gough Whitlam in 1973. The role that the far left played in Australian politics had also waned after the upturn in radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We know that surveillance of the far left and other social movements continued into the 1980s, but the files relating to the Women’s Liberation Movement do not continue into Hawke era.

[1] Greg Langley, A Decade of Dissent: Vietnam and the Conflict on the Australian Homefront, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

[2] John Blaxland, The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO 1963-1975 (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015) p. 4.

[3] Anne Summers, ‘Number C/57/61: What ASIO Knew’, in Meredith Burgmann, Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files (Sydney: New South, 2014).

[4] Tim Sherratt, ‘Turning the Inside Out’, Discontents, October 24, 2016, http://discontents.com.au/turning-the-inside-out/ (accessed 6 March, 2017)

[5] Margaret Henderson and Alexandra Winter, ‘Memoirs of Our Nervous Illness: The Queensland Police Special Branch Files of Carole Ferrier as Political Auto/Biography’, Life Writing, 6/3 (2009) pp. 349-367.

[6] Andrew Moore, ‘“A Secret Policeman’s Lot”: The Working Life of Fred Longbottom of the New South Wales Special Branch’, in John Shields (ed), All Our Labours: Oral Histories of Working Life in Twentieth Century Sydney (Kensington: UNSW Press, 1992) pp. 193-226; Mark Finnane, ‘Long Gone, But Not Forgotten’, Griffith Review, 21 (2008) https://griffithreview.com/articles/long-gone-but-not-forgotten/ (accessed 7 March 2017).

[7] Justice White, Special Branch Security Records: Initial Report (Adelaide: Government of South Australia, 1977); Richard G. Fox, ‘The Salisbury Affair: Special Branches, Security and Subversion’, Monash University Law Review, 5/4 (June 1979) pp. 251-270; Anna Kovac, ‘ASIO’s Surveillance of Brian Medlin’, Flinders Journal of History and Politics, 31 (2015) pp. 132-133.

[8] Jon Piccini, ‘“People Treated Me With Equality”: Indigenous Australians Visiting the Soviet Bloc During the Cold War’, Labour History, 111 (November 2016) p. 2.

[9] Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[10] ‘Women’s Liberation Trade Union Conference’, August 1971, A6122 2573, National Archives of Australia (Canberra).

[11] ‘Isabelle SANDFORD’, 6 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[12] ‘Elizabeth ELLIOTT’, 8 June, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[13] ‘South Coast District – Communist Party of Australia’, 13 November, 1970, A6122 2274, NAA.

[14] ‘Communist Party of Australia Dissidents – Activities in Trade Unions’, 30 March, 1971, A6122 2274, NAA.

[15] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1971, A6122 2573, NAA.

[16] ‘Communist Party of Australia 23rd National Congress – Women’s Liberation’, 12 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[17] ‘Leslie William SMITH (S/65/20)’, 10 July, 1972, A6122 2574, NAA.

[18] Steve James, ‘Policing Political Violence in Australia’ in, David Lowe, et. al., Examining Political Violence: Studies of Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Internal War (London: Taylor & Francis, 2013) p. 342.

[19] ‘Women’s Liberation Conference, Guthega, New South Wales, 29th-31st January, 1972’, 13 January, 1972, p. 2, A6122 2573, NAA.

[20] ‘Women’s Liberation’, 16 November, 1972, p. 1, A6122 2575, NAA.

[21] Ibid., p. 1.

[22] Ibid., p. 1.

[23] Ibid., p. 2.

[24] Ibid., p. 2.

[25] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[26] Ibid., p. 4.

[27] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206003’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[28] Ibid.

[29] ‘Socialist Party of Australia – Second National Congress, June 13,14, 15 & 16, 1975 – STB S7/75 MS 1206005’, 9 July, 1975, A6122 2575, NAA.

[30] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Interest in Mass Issues’, 30 June, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[31] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ): Tactics at Demonstrations’, 23 July, 1980, A6122 2575, NAA.

[32] ‘Spartacist League of Australia & New Zealand (SLANZ)’, 20 June, 1977, p. 3, A6122 2575, NAA.

Sydney, London, Moscow, Beijing: Schisms in the international communist movement, 1947-61

The following forms part of a forthcoming book chapter on the relationship between the Communist Parties in Britain, Australia and South Africa. It builds on previous posts (here and here) and will also be worked into the manuscript that I am currently developing from my postdoctoral research. As per usual, any feedback is most welcome!

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Mao Zedong meets Harry Pollitt, Nelson Clarke and L.L. Sharkey.

The relationship between the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Moscow started to deviate in the post-war period. In the era of decolonisation that started after the Second World War, the CPA increasingly look towards Asia and the revolutionary precedent established by the Communist Party of China. It is evident that as the dual processes of the Cold War and decolonisation got underway, there was a clear division of labour between Moscow and Beijing, with the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence concentrating on Europe, while it was accepted that the colonial countries of Asia would follow the ‘Chinese path’. As David Lockwood has argued, after 1949:

an informal ‘division of labour’ within the world movement seems to have been agreed upon between the Soviet and Chinese parties in which communists in the colonies, ‘semi-colonies’ and ex-colonies would receive their advice from Beijing.[1]

The CPA was to provide support to the anti-colonial movements in Asia and formed particularly close links with the Communist Parties of Malaya, Indonesia and India, as well as the Chinese Party. This support also caused friction between the Australian and British parties, particularly over the level of support that the British party gave to the national liberation movements in the British colonies.

On the eve of the Malayan Emergency in mid-1948, the CPA’s leadership used the situation in Malaya to attack the CPGB for its reformist tendencies. In the initial post-war period, the CPGB supported the Labour Government, who despite endorsing colonial independence in some instances, harshly put down anti-colonial movements which had communist links, such as in Malaya. The CPA saw the CPGB’s support for Labour as ‘Browderist’, based on the argument made by former CPUSA leader Earl Browder that separate Communist Parties were no longer necessary in the global West. The Australian party further accused the British party of substituting the struggle for socialism with the acceptance of bourgeois democracy. The CPA believed that the CPGB had lost its way and it would rather look towards Moscow (and Beijing) for direction.

In particular, the Australian Communist Party, strongly influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (and for a time, the Tito regime in Yugoslavia), accused the British Communist Party of not fully committing the struggle against colonialism.[2] This began in 1947 with Sharkey’s heavy criticisms in the newspaper Tribune of the new pamphlet by CPGB General Secretary Harry Pollitt, Looking Ahead for ‘mislead[ing] the British working-class’ and evading the logic of Marxism-Leninism.[3]

The CPA had close ties to the Communist Party of Malaya (based in Singapore), who were debating whether to launch an armed insurrection against the British colonial government. Part of the CPA’s critique of the CPGB was that as the British party supported the Labour Government under Clement Atlee, they were unwilling to fully support anti-colonial rebellions in the British Commonwealth as this would upset any prospective ‘Labour-Communist’ alliance. On the other hand, the CPA was very supportive of communist anti-colonialism in the South-East Asia region (on the doorstep of Australia). With its enthusiasm for the Malayan Communist Party, the CPA could highlight the contrast between its agenda and the ‘reformism’ of the CPGB and also depict itself as a supporter of the emerging anti-colonial movements in Asia.

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A letter from the Central Committee of the CPGB to Sharkey in July 1948 accused him of ‘uncomradely and un-Communist’ behaviour for using the theoretical journal of the Malayan Communist Party to attack the CPGB.[4] The CPGB described Sharkey’s article, titled ‘The International Situation and Opportunism’, as ‘an entirely false presentation of the policy of our Party’ and pronounced:

Such methods as you have seen fit to adopt have nothing in common with international practice among Communist Parties and between Communist Party leaders.[5]

In a further exchange of letters between the two parties, published in the CPGB’s World News and Views, Sharkey further criticised the British party over its anti-colonial work, accusing it of

insufficient struggle on behalf of the independence of the colonies; and worse still, the example of the British comrades which led to opportunism and confusion in a number of the colonial Communist Parties.[6]

Although Sharkey did not elaborate on this accusation, it is true that some national liberation movements and Communist Parties in the colonial sphere, such as those in India, believed that the resolve of the CPGB on anti-colonial issues had waned in the 1940s.[7] The CPGB believed that the Australian party was possibly ‘pro-Tito’ (and thus willing to criticise the British party) because Sharkey had spent time in Calcutta with a Yugoslav delegate in 1948 as the only two non-Asian communist representatives at the congress of the Communist Party of India.[8]

In further private correspondence between Sharkey and Pollitt, the Australian Communist leader wrote, ‘you have an incorrect understanding of the present day maneuvers of British imperialism in relation to the colonial revolutions’.[9] However the CPGB maintained that anti-colonial politics was central to its programme and that ‘as the Party in the ruling centre of the Empire’, it held ‘the greatest responsibility… to combat the vicious and harmful policies of imperialism’.[10] And despite these fractures, the Communist Party of Australia still sent delegates to the CPGB’s Communist Parties of the British Empire conferences in 1947, 1954 and 1958, while several leading CPGB members, such as Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallacher, toured Australia in the 1950s.

Throughout the 1950s, the CPA looked increasingly to the Chinese Communist Party for direction and as Mark Aarons has written, ‘[t]he CPA was the first Australian political party to understand that Australia is geographically located in Asia.’[11] Although Australia was a settler colonial power, rather than a colony, it seemed to make sense, geographically, for the CPA to build closer ties with China, rather than simply looking to the Kremlin and the CPGB in London, with whom ties had been loosened throughout the late 1940s.

After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. Inside the British Communist Party, dissidents, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Phillip Deery and Rachel Calkin have shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA.[12] Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. In Britain, the Communist Party lost over 8,000 members between February 1956 and February 1958,[13] leading to the creation of the first New Left that attempted to negotiate a path between Western capitalism and Stalinism.[14] In Australia, Communist Party membership ‘slumped from about 8000 to less than 6000’,[15] which was followed by further divisions inside the CPA over the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s.

Between 1956 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China seemed to heading towards a major split in the international communist movement and it was up to each individual country or Communist Party to decide where their support lay. Right up until 1960, the CPA seemed to take the side of the Chinese in the dispute, with Nick Knight claiming that during the late 1950s, ‘virtually the entire National Secretariat of the CPA was ideologically and psychologically in favour of the Chinese position’.[16] However Sharkey, despite visiting China in 1959 and 1961, pulled back at the last moment and shifted its support back to Moscow when attending the 81 Communist and Workers Parties conference in Moscow in November 1961.[17] ASIO noted that the Sino-Soviet split also had a major impact upon the CPA’s relationship with the Communist Party of New Zealand (the only Western Communist Party to side with China in the split).[18] While Mark Aarons suggests that Sharkey was partially swayed by some large cash payments by Moscow, Tom O’Lincoln suggests that the rank-and-file membership had little appetite for the extreme rhetoric of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, while Knight argues that it was Sharkey’s probable realisation that the CPA ‘would become isolated from the fraternity of the international communist parties should its support for the Chinese position continue’.[19]

After the realignment of the CPA towards Moscow, a pro-Chinese faction broke away and formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1963, led by Ted Hill. In Britain, the CPGB experienced similar breakaways from anti-revisionists. In the same year that the CPA (M-L) was formed, Michael McCreery formed the Committee to Defeat Revisionism for Community Unity and led a small number of party members disgruntled with the ‘revisionism’ of The British Road to Socialism.[20] A larger group left in early 1968 when AEU leader Reg Birch formed the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).[21]

By the 1960s, the international communist movement had fractured, caused partly by the events of 1956, partly by the Sino-Soviet split and partly by the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, which presented an alternative to both Stalinism or Maoism for the new decolonised nations across the global South. This was very different from the situation in 1945 when communists the world over looked the newly triumphant Soviet Union, the People’s Democracies in Eastern Europe and the Chinese Communist Party on the verge of winning a decades long civil war. As the Cold War got underway, coinciding with the era of decolonisation, Communist Parties in the West shifted to the left and embraced this enthusiasm for socialism and anti-imperialism, including the Communist Party of Australia. The Communist Party of Great Britain, although taking a more conciliatory approach to domestic politics, was charged by Moscow with assisting anti-colonial struggles within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The CPA quarrelled with the CPGB over its reformism and alleged that this political shift had left the CPGB unable to assist its comrades in the colonial sphere. This tumultuous relationship was not repaired until the 1950s, when important figures such as Harry Pollitt visited Australia, and grew closer after L.L. Sharkey was replaced as Party leader in the mid-1960s. However the enthusiasm for Stalinism and Maoism, which had characterised the outlook of the Party in the 1940s and 1950s had given way to a proto-Eurocommunism by the late 1960s.

CPA pamphlet

[1] David Lockwood, The Communist Party of India and the Indian Emergency (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016) pp. 10-11.

For further discussion of this division of labour, see: John Herouvim, ‘Australian Communists and Peking: New Light on an Elusive Source’, Politics, 20/1 (1985) pp. 127-129.

[2] See: ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, World News and Views, 31 July, 1948, pp. 332-339.

[3] L.L. Sharkey, ‘Critical Comment on Harry Pollitt’s Book’, Tribune, 25 October, 1947, p. 7.

[4] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey, 16 July, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, CPGB archive, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[5] Letter from CPGB to L.L. Sharkey.

[6] ‘Exchange of Letters Between the Australian and the British Communist Parties’, p. 334.

[7] Smith, ‘National Liberation for Whom?’, p. 289.

[8] Letter from Brian Pearce to CPGB Executive Committee, 7 August, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[9] Copy of letter from L.L. Sharkey to Harry Pollitt, 22 October, 1948, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[10] R. Palme Dutt, ‘Political Report to the Conference of the Communist Parties of the British Empire’, in CPGB, We Speak for Freedom (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1947) p. 24.

[11] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc, 2010) p. 172.

[12] Phillip Deery & Rachel Calkin, ’”We All Make Mistakes”: The Communist Party of Australia and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956’, Australia Journal of Politics and History, 54/1, pp. 69-69-84.

[13] Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 218.

[14] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995); Wade Matthews, The New Left, National Identity and the Break-Up of Britain (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2013) pp. 1-26.

[15] Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism (Sydney: Stained Wattle Press, 1985) p. 98.

[16] Nick Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 28/2, 1998, p. 236.

[17] Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010) pp. 172-185.

[18] ASIO, ‘Oceania: Communism’s Last Target ’, A 12388, 81 PART 2, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

[19] O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream, p. 102; Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, p. 236; Aarons, The Family File, p. 192.

[20] Parker, The Kick Inside, pp. 45-50.

[21] Will Podmore, Reg Birch: Engineer, Trade Unionist, Communist (London: Bellman Books, 2004).

Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945

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I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!

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CFP FOR EDITED VOLUME ON HISTORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN FAR LEFT

CPA pamphlet

Evan Smith (Flinders University), Matthew Worley (University of Reading) and Jon Piccini (University of Queensland) are calling for chapter proposals for an edited volume on the Australian far left in the post-war era (1945 to the present). Expanding on our work looking at the history of the British far left, we believe that a survey of the exciting new work being done of the far left in Australia and its influence on wider Australian political history is due.

We are currently seeking chapter proposals on the following topics:

  • The CPA and Cold War espionage
  • 1956 for the Australian left
  • The peace/nuclear disarmament movement
  • The student left and the anti-Vietnam War movement
  • Radical Marxism since the 1960s (Trotskyism, Maoism, anti-revisionism)
  • Anarchism in Australia
  • ASIO and the new left
  • The left and Indigenous rights
  • The left and the women’s movement
  • The left and gay rights
  • The anti-apartheid movement in Australia
  • Nationalism and internationalism on the far left
  • Trade unionism, the ALP and the left
  • The Green Bans
  • Environmentalism and the Greens as a ‘left’ party
  • Or any other aspect of the Australian far left if suitably interesting.

We welcome proposals from both scholars and activists, but emphasise that chapters must be presented in an academic format, written ‘objectively’ and with references to primary source materials.

An internationally recognised publisher has already shown interest in publishing the collection.

300 word abstracts and a short bio should be sent to: evan.smith@flinders.edu.au (Please CC in m.worley@reading.ac.uk and Jon.Piccini@uqconnect.edu.au into all emails)

Please email any editor with any further questions.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS – 4 APRIL, 2016

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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…

New post at The Conversation: ‘Student Protests Won’t Be The Last’

A protest against higher education cuts in Brisbane yesterday

A protest against higher education cuts in Brisbane yesterday

The Conversation has just published this piece by myself on yesterday’s demonstrations across Australia against the Liberals’ cuts to higher education and the introduction of higher fees, arguing that the Liberals have been fearful of student radicalism since the late 1960s.

Incidentally, I am giving a paper tomorrow at Flinders University on the same topic. See details here.

Persons of Interest? View the digitised ASIO files from the NAA

The first two episodes of the SBS documentary Persons of Interest have been aired, portraying to a wide audience the level of surveillance undertaken against potential ‘subversive’ people in Australia by ASIO between the late 1940s and late 1970s.  The documentary, by Hadyn Keenan, uses a lot of recently opened ASIO files from the National Archives of Australia, many of which were opened via Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the people surveilled. Many of these files have also been digitised by the National Archives and are available for public reading. Using the new features of the NAA website, I have posted the links to a few files relating to the people discussed in Persons of Interest.

There are many files on the Milliss family that have been digitised. With all of the files I have linked to, I have only linked to volume 1, but a search through the NAA catalogue will show that there are numerous files. Firstly, there are the files of Bruce Milliss, the father of Roger and David, who was an ardent Communist Party of Australia member and then became a supporter of Mao in the breakaway CPA (Marxist-Leninist). (Click on pic for link to NAA file)

Bruce Milliss

There are also numerous digitised files on Roger and David Milliss, although the file on Suse Milliss has not been digitised.

Roger Milliss

David Milliss

There are also more than 15 files on founder of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), Ted Hill, that have been digitised, as well as one on the CPA (M-L) from 1968.

Hill file

CPA ML

Bob Gould was another CPA member mentioned in the documentary whose files have been digitised.

Bob Gould

There are many files on the CPA that have been digitised, but coinciding with the forthcoming episode of Persons of Interest on the Aboriginal rights movement, here is a file on the CPA’s work on Aboriginal rights.

CPA Aborigines

ASIO kept tabs on the Aboriginal rights movement, particularly those involved in the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in January 1972, including activist Gary Foley.

Tent Embassy file

Gary Foley

But nearly all social movements that arose in the 1960s and 1970s were surveilled, including the anti-Vietnam War campaign and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Moratorium file

AntiApartheid

Prominent activists from these campaigns and other movements/groups were surveilled, with massive files created by the day-to-day following of these activists. A number of these have been digitised in recent years following FOI requests. These include the Burgmann sisters, Meredith and Verity, who were involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the campaign against the Springboks in 1971, as well as Rick Kuhn, a leading member of the Australian Trotskyist group, the International Socialists (following the Cliffite IS/SWP from the UK), and CPA youth member (and future Professor) Ann Curthoys.

Meredith Burgmann

Verity Burgmann

Rick Kuhn

Ann Curthoys

These are only a few of the many digitised ASIO files that people can access through the NAA catalogue. It is worth having a search for other well-known activists. If the files has been digitised, you can view it on the NAA’s new file-viewer, SODA.

Just type in the URL: http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/ [barcode of file] /1

Now have some fun!