Stuart Macintyre’s The Reds, a bland, overly nostalgic and essentially Stalinist company history of Australian Communism
The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1998
I must initially state my personal view of this book. I have been rather a fan of some of Macintyre’s historical writing. I find three of his other books exceedingly useful: Proletarian Science, about the ideological and intellectual climate that produced the foundation leaders of the British Communist Party; Militant, the intelligent and revealing biography of Western Australian waterfront union leader Paddy Troy; and, in another vein, the reflective examination of 19th century liberalism in the state of Victoria.
Macintyre is a competent historian in territory where either his past Althusserian Stalinist ideological outlook or his present social democratic neoliberal slightly postmodern viewpoint, or both together, are not a hopeless obstacle to the inquiry. Unfortunately, neither stand-point, or more particularly, Macintyre’s conflating of the two, is any use in producing an objective institutional history of any communist party.
Macintyre has produced a kind of company history of Australian communism. As with almost all sponsored histories, Macintyre makes the usual statement that the Search Foundation did not try to influence him in writing the book. Nevertheless, the book has all the features common to most sponsored company and institutional histories, of the material being organised in such a way as to meet the sensibilities of the present directors of the old firm.
The book has a difficult and rather curious history. The project was conceived about eight years ago in the period when the Communist Party leadership’s 100 per cent support for the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord, combined with the overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, had thrown the organisation into constant ideological and practical crisis and terminal decline.
During the development of the project the Communist Party went out of business, and its very considerable assets of $6-$9 million were handed over to a body called the Search Foundation. This outfit is fairly tightly controlled by a group, the core of which is the extended Aarons family, who were in charge of the equally tightly controlled rump of the CPA at the time of its dissolution.
Macintyre and Andrew Wells, another left-wing academic (from Wollongong University) were retained to write the CP history. Wells later dropped out. Macintyre, via a research grant, also retained the services of the redoubtable functionary, Bev Symons, as research assistant on the project. As a byproduct of the project, Bev produced, in 1994, her wonderful Bibliography of Australian Communism, which has proved to be a very useful volume indeed, and an infinitely superior work to Macintyre’s history.
It’s a pity Bev’s demonstrated and considerable research skills were not directed at a number of the hidden episodes of Australian Communism which still, unfortunately, remain somewhat hidden after Macintyre’s first volume, as I’ll discuss later in this article.
Before I commence my major criticisms of the book, I have to say that despite the very unpleasant impact that it makes on me because of its major whitewashing of Stalinism, it is, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. Particularly in the first half of the book, Macintyre assembles a lot of interesting material in a pretty accessible way, some of it, though by no means all of it, new.
Unfortunately, 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 interesting material. Nevertheless, despite the high price, people with a serious interest in the history of the Australian labour movement should acquire, read and keep the book, but read it along with other books that bear on the topic, and with a highly critical eye.
In my view, any serious history of a communist party or communism has to face up squarely to the Stalinisation of the Russian Revolution, communism and communist parties, and the effect this Stalinisation had on the project of mobilising the labour movement and the working class for the traditional objective of the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialism.
This necessarily has to involve a serious and comprehensive study of the interaction between communism, communist parties and the broader labour movement, and the impact on this process produced by Stalinism. To write useful and objective history in this territory, 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 much of the critique of the major analyst of Stalinism, Leon Trotsky, and his detailed description and analysis of the nature of Stalinism.
Although, at various points in the book, there are lengthy, slightly ponderous asides about Stalinism, they all remain at a level of hopelessly abstract generalisation, 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 process of the development of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, involving as it did, an effective counter-revolution against Lenin and Leninism, or, for that matter, any sustained description of its awful and murderous consequences in the Soviet Union, in which the old Bolsheviks of all factions, including both the major oppositions and the Stalin faction, were exterminated by Stalin and his supporters.
The consequences of this approach 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 Communist Party and the broader labour movement downplayed, and major difficult and complex incidents in the history treated cursorily or smoothed over.
In fact, the Stalinisation of the Communist Party in 1929, and the “high Stalinism” of the Communist Party in the 1930s, are treated essentially sympathetically in contrast with the alleged amateurism of the CPA in the 1920s. Macintyre’s approach to his history of the CPA owes something to Edward Bernstein’s famous aphorism: “The movement is everything. The end nothing.”
This kind of approach to the history of the CPA produces a strangely unbalanced book, dripping with dubious Stalinist nostalgia, combined with masses of interesting but mostly slightly vicious anecdotes directed against individuals in conflict with the Stalinist apparatus. A number of the major events that are difficult to handle from this point of view are barely mentioned.
By way of contrast, Robin Gollan’s smaller, but politically much more comprehensive, book on the history of the Communist Party, Revolutionaries and Reformists, published 20 years ago, faces up much more squarely to the question of Stalinism by way of creating a dialectical interaction between the views of the Communist Party on the one hand and the Trotskyists and the Catholics on the other, to give an idea of what all the fighting was about.
Macintyre largely avoids this kind of contrast via conflict and, while he mentions and discusses several other books on the history of Australian communism, such as Alistair Davidson’s over-optimistic book, he avoids engaging with Gollan’s approach to this history, and only mentions Gollan’s seminal book once, in passing.
Macintyre is extremely ungenerous to other scholars, and intellectually evasive in relation to some of the key political issues raised implicitly in his history. For instance, the study of the Third Period in the history of the Australian Communist Party is hardly virgin territory. There are two major contributions to study of this area, pre-Macintyre.
The first is International Socialism and Australian Labour by Frank Farrell, of the history department at the University of New South Wales. Once again, Macintyre mentions this book in a footnote in relation to a minor matter (although it doesn’t make it into the index).
However, Farrell’s book, published in 1981 in three exhaustive and thorough chapters, particularly focuses, in a much more comprehensive way than Macintyre, on the impact of Third Period on the socialist project in the broader labour movement, and on the CP’s influence on the broader labour movement in this period.
Farrell’s conclusion on the experience of the Third Period is quite explicit:
Clearly, Third Period Communism hindered rather than helped the overall radicalisation of the labour movement in the early depression years. Of all the left-wing groups outside the CPA only the IWW can be said to have been won over to Communism, and even then there was some dissent. Thus the CPA in these years remained essentially a party of the unemployed, and largely isolated from organised labour. Its logical allies in the socialist movement had been forced either to merge with right-wing forces or become inactive. The net effect was to weaken the forces of the left. 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 matter of the Comintern archives pertaining to Australia. He baldly mentions that they have been deposited in an Australian library, and once again, he mentions Barbara Curthoys in relation to some minor matter. However, he doesn’t mention that Barbara Curthoys spent her own money to make the necessary trip to Moscow at the last possible moment, so to speak, in the early 1990s, and retrieved, at some expense, copies of this material and deposited it in the National 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, available from the Comintern documents, and her article was then published in Labour History, the journal of the Labour History Society.
Curthoys’ conclusions from her major study of the material are not unsimilar to Frank Farrell’s, quoted above, but they gained strength from the new material retrieved from the Comintern archives. While we all know that scholars can be a bit petty and small-minded in relation to this kind of thing, as 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 Barbara Curthoys’ enterprising individual project, in his otherwise voluminous acknowledgements.
Macintyre’s tricky periodisation and his conclusions
Macintyre’s choice of cutoff point for this history is obviously 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 ultraleftism in the postwar period leading up to the 1949 coal strike, the attempt to suppress Krushchev’s exposure of Stalin, the Sino-Soviet dispute, the support for the Prices-Incomes Accord, the many splits, and the demise of the CPA.
On form, it is a dubious proposition that the second volume will ever see the light of day. In the eight years since the inception of the project, Macintyre himself has made the evolution from an Althusserian semi-Stalinist to featured speaker at major ALP intellectual events, more or less explicitly justifying the ALP’s shift to the right in recent times.
If the same time span is applied to the second volume, it’s almost unimaginable what the political terrain will be, or what Macintyre’s own views and interests will be, in the year 2006. The possible timing and size of the second volume becomes even more eccentric if we look at the period covered: 1920 to 1940 is 20 years, 1940 to 1990 is 50 years.
If the second volume were to go by the period covered, the second volume will appear in about 2017, in time for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, and incidentally, be 1200 pages long, which is likely to give Allen and Unwin, the publisher, a corporate heart attack.
Macintyre is a bit cute however. He has it both ways. He still plucks out of the air a concluding balancesheet on communism and the Communist Party. This balance sheet, because of his chosen periodisation, sidesteps the need for a clear and honest total appraisal, but it still deserves careful study. In this conclusion, 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 dismisses such critiques as what he calls “fideism”. He’s a great one for pithy, but rather obscure words and classifications, is our Macintyre. But 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 Communist Party and academics and intellectuals, and he even reinforces traditional Stalinist prejudices with the striking aside that “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’s affairs 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.
This is a little reminiscent of the great arguments amongst American left-wing intellectuals. One of my own intellectual heroes, the redoubtable American novelist Mary McCarthy, recounts in her memoirs that she was still widely condemned in the 1970s by many American Stalinists and liberals for her “premature” anti-Stalinism in the 1930s.
The whole flavour of Macintyre’s book is an implied, and often explicit, condemnation of anyone who broke with the CP, for their “premature” anti-Stalinism. The florid and gee-whiz nature of Macintyre’s attitude to his imagined Communist Party of the 1930s is encapsulated in the last 15 lines of the book:
The Party channelled the spirit of rebellion into obedience, banished transgression, imposed regularity: of all sins in the communist lexicon, that of anarchy was the most reprehensible. Its emphasis on unity, firmness and control, its mistrust of spontaneity and local initiative, gave it a formidable capacity to direct campaigns and to withstand campaigns against it. The very qualities that enabled it to withstand illegality during the Second World War fatally compromised its revolutionary mission. Unlike the Wobblies, those unbending rebels who owed allegiance only to their principles, disdained all subterfuge and were ground under the iron heel, the Communist Party of Australia tied its fortunes to a foreign dictatorship, persisted with its own iron discipline and survived. Embattled and defiant, it still expected to keep its appointment with history.
Wow! And if you didn’t quite get the message that the Stalinist movement was the best of all possible worlds in the labour movement of the period 1929-89, cop this piece of purple prose, also from the conclusion:
For in the end they were not defeated but rather succumbed. Some fell by the wayside, to be sure, and some retreated into an imaginary world in which time stood still and Khrushchev had never revealed Stalin’s crimes, but the best of them remained true to their ideals, confronted the past as well as the future, and continued to organise and agitate. Whether or not they retained a formal connection, the CPA remained their party. Time did not so much vanquish the obduracy and ardour of these ageing comrades so much as it thinned their ranks, depleted their audience and removed the landmarks of their politics. As in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, there was no last heroic stand but an accumulation of failures, a growing realisation that the cause could not be salvaged. They did not yield to their enemies, they terminated the party as defiantly as they had created and sustained it.
I will demonstrate what I means by 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 question of the Communist Party’s relationship to the broader labour movement.
The first is the question of the socialisation units organised in the NSW Labor Party in partial conflict with the Lang machine in 1931-32. This upheaval is well described in Robert Cooksey’s little book, Lang and Socialism. 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.
These CPA supporters started a big fight inside the socialisation units, saying that they shouldn’t be consorting with “social fascists”, by being in the Labor Party at all, and that they should immediately leave and join the Communist Party. This stab from behind complemented the Communist Party’s general denunciation of the extraordinary mass populist Labor Party movement led by Lang, as social fascist.
Caught in this crossfire between the Stalinists and Lang, the socialisation units were smashed. This is a well-known, very public and major event in the relations between the Communist Party and the Labor Party.
The socialisation units are mentioned in passing by Macintyre without any serious discussion of the role of the CP.
Labor Party intervention number two: well into the 1930s, after 1936, in the most right-wing period of the Popular Front line, 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 in entrism in the Labor Party.
It was so successful, in fact, that it won control, both of the Labor Party in NSW and its youth movement, the Australian Labor Party League of Youth. Through judicious use of the youth movement, the CP successfully recruited a very large number of youth, and expanded rapidly.
The period of wholesale Communist Party entrism in the Labor Party extended from 1936 to 1940 and 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 of the late Popular Front period to the ultraleft denunciation of Laborism and all its works, dictated by the CPA’s subservience to the Comintern’s opposition to the war during the Nazi-Soviet pact.
There has been no major research into the activities of the CP in the Labor Party in this period, and one would have thought Macintyre, the researcher who now has had access to all the internal Party documents of this interesting period, might have discussed this area of activity in some detail.
Ray Markey, with much less access to internal CP material, discusses it much more forthrightly and with greater depth than Macintyre, in his history of the NSW Labor Council. It’s obviously a difficult area of discussion for Aaronsism-Macintyreism, and so it is glossed over ever so lightly, and a big research opportunity is passed up.
The closest Macintyre gets is the bald reporting of the Hands Off Russia resolution that led to the expulsion of the communists from the Labor Party, and the bland, rather triumphalist recounting of the between 5 per cent and 10 per cent electoral results achieved by communist candidates running as the State Labor Party in the elections in 1941.
What Macintyre fails to tell the uninitiated reader about the elections following the three-way split between Curtin federal Labor in NSW, the Langites, and the Stalinist-led State Labor Party, is that in the mood for Labor unity that developed the Curtin Labor Party was comfortably ahead in almost all the contested Labor seats.
Further, its main competitor in the main working class seats that were contested was the Lang faction, which got a respectable 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the vote. The Stalinist-led State Labor Party came a very distant third in the contested working class electorates, with about a third of the votes of the Lang candidates.
Three of the breakaway Lang candidates were actually elected, but immediately after the election they rejoined the official ALP. A few months later, when the independents Coles and Wilson voted to bring down the Menzies government, the Labor government led by John Curtin was put in, and one of the Langites, Jack Beasley, became a minister in that government.
Macintyre’s account of this crucial election is thus entirely misleading. Such limited and effectively misleading information on electoral results is the inevitable consequence of writing a narrow, institutional history of the CP without reference to the interaction of this institution with other forces in the workers’ movement.
MacIntyre’s uncritical repetition of past Stalinist slanders
A slightly repellent aspect of Macintyre’s book is just a little hint of the old Stalinist practice of destroying dissidents within the movement by accusing them of assorted crimes: alcoholism, sexual libertinism, even the one most favoured by Stalinist bureaucrats in the past, pinching the money. In fact, in his summing up at the end, 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 CP was that it was beset at the leadership level by a bunch of petty adventurers, who he proceeds to name.
Essentially, with a few of the names changed, this is like Stalin’s explanation of the history of Bolshevism in the 1939 History of the CPSU, that all the founders except he and Lenin were scoundrels, spies and double-dealers. This was translated into Australian idiom, in relation to the Australian Communist Party, in Ernie Campbell’s classic high-Stalinist Short History of the Australian Labour Movement.
According to Macintyre, the problem wasn’t the Stalinisation of the world communist movement, and the CPA, it was “spivs and crooks” such as Jock Garden, William Earsman, Bert Moxon and Lance Sharkey. Macintyre 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 Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson, the redoubtable communist mass leaders in the mining industry, fell out with the Communist Party because their alcoholism is alleged to have got worse. What a bullshit explanation. This reduction of the real drama of the Stalinisation of the Australian communist movement to personal trivia becomes almost comical. In an earnest, rather Protestant, fashion Macintyre quotes the view he attributes to several middle-class Melbourne communists that the CP in Sydney was a cesspool of alcoholism and sexual corruption.
Such a Melbourne Protestant view of Sydney may be culturally traditional, but it’s grossly inadequate as an understanding of the phenomenon of Stalinism. His trivialising of the issue of high Stalinism is also expressed in his facile relating of adherence to Stalinism to a previous relationship with religion, particularly the Catholic Church.
While it is true, in a way, that high Stalinism became a kind of secular proletarian religion, it’s putting the cart before the horse to treat the matter in the way Macintyre does. In the way he handles this question there is just a little hint of the anti-Catholic bigotry endemic in Macintyre’s own cultural background.
Macintyre and the Moscow Trials
Macintyre’s treatment of Stalinism and the Moscow Trials, and their impact on communism in Australia, is outrageous. For a start, he might, in one of his erudite digressions have tried to indicate something of the horror of Russian Stalinism, to serve as some kind of contrast to the religion of high Stalinism. He doesn’t even mention any of the books in the vast literature that now exists of personal memoirs of survivors of the camps, or painstakingly collected summaries of the life experience of the many millions “burnt by the sun” of Stalinism.
He might just have mentioned Let History Judge by Roy Medvedev, or In the Time of Stalin by Anton Antonov-Ovsenko, or Alexander Solzhenitsen’s The Gulag Archipelago, or even the recent book, 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror by Vadim Rogovin. There is no mention of this vast, awful, but necessary literature, but there is an implicitly favourable mention, in a footnote, of an American 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.
Getty is, so to speak, Stalin’s David Irving, the David Irving of Soviet studies, and Macintyre clearly leans towards his views. The whole 300 pages, from page 130 to the end of the conclusion on page 419, is marked by a quite explicit acceptance of the Stalinisation of the Communist Party and quite explicitly relates the proclaimed success and growth of the Communist Party to the process of Stalinisation, which is presented as both inevitable, and even necessary and useful.
Macintyre’s sympathy to revisionist history in relation to Stalin’s crimes is made absolutely clear in the following:
“Those opponents who allowed the Stalinist dictatorship no redeeming virtues, for so long confounded by the persistence of the Soviet regime, now triumphantly deride the revisionists who insisted that it had enjoyed a measure of popular support.
“Then as now, critic and supporter alike place undue weight on this aspect of the Soviet regime. Each treats democracy as the inseparable companion of liberty.”
And later on the same page, Macintyre’s conclusion is spelt 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.”
Macintyre’s view could hardly be clearer. It’s pretty much the same view held by the misguided Stalinists of the 1930s: Stalin’s stamping out of the oppositions was justified by the activities of the oppositions, and had the support of the popular masses. It’s hard to exaggerate the historical enormity of this view.
There is now a vast and incontrovertible mountain of literature and evidence about the 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, more tha 15 million people.
The high figures for the number of dead long advocated by the implacable right-wing western expert on these matters, Robert Conquest, have proved to be generally correct from all the material coming out of the Soviet archives. It is not really possible, in the face of the mountain of evidence to avoid the conclusion that this, the largest political massacre by far in history, one directed against the Soviet Communist Party and proletariat, was perpetrated by Stalin as a preventative measure to entrench his own personal dictatorship.
That’s one incontrovertible historical fact that isn’t really subject to individual interpretation. I find it absolutely repellent, on the basis of all the historical and memoir literature that I have read, for Macintyre to rope in the thoroughly policed and coerced masses as alleged equal participants in Stalin’s crimes. What an unpleasant confusion of criminals and their victims this view is.
It’s also a very malign attempt to establish the proposition that all popular mobilisation and revolutionary activity inevitably leads to the totalitarian conclusion of Stalinism. In real historical fact, Stalin had to wipe out all the factions of Bolsheviks that had made the Russian Revolution, including the majority of the Stalin faction, and a big section of the working class as well, in order to establish and preserve his personal dictatorship.
Even the list of chapter headings in this section of the book reflects this celebration of Stalinism. All these chapter headings are without quotation marks, which is very revealing. Chapter 6, The Line Straightens. This chapter is about the monstrous Third Period, but it’s good features are stressed, not quite as crudely, perhaps, as in E.W. Campbell’s high Stalinist Short History. Chapter 7, Bolshevisation. Again, no quotes, and the influence from the Comintern, while ruthless and authoritarian, is presented as smartening up the Party.
Chapter 8, Class Against Class. Again, the “good side” of the “social fascist” line is stressed, and no attempt is made to detail the many hundreds of expulsions and exclusions that were part of this ruthless process. Pages 217 and 218 are particularly revolting in their apology for Stalinism. Macintyre gives us an interesting account of the role of certain police agents in the Communist Party, including Alf Baker, who was the business manager of the Workers Weekly, and a Central Committee member of the CPA from 1928 to 1938.
Macintyre inserts here 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 1920s of every communist party in the world, along with many thousands of rank and filers, had to be driven out and transformed verbally into “enemies” and non-persons.
A really sickening feature of the Workers Weekly in the late 1930s is the many front pages that had hysterical, lying, false stories justifying the Moscow trials because all the Bolshevik leaders were “spies and agents”, had the real police spy, Baker’s name on the masthead. Macintyre could have reproduced one of these front pages, say the vintage front page of the Workers Weekly for Tuesday, October 20, 1936, headlined The Trotsky Fascists.
Even Macintyre’s use of illustrations is revealing. The only picture of Leon Trotsky in the book (there are no pictures of Lenin or Stalin at all) is the vicious, anti-Semitic caricature of Trotsky on page 318. While we are on the question of police spies in the CPA, which is of some interest, it might also be added that Philip Deery’s research for his recent article on the Diver Dobson case clearly indicates that ASIO had an informant with access to the three-person Central Committee Secretariat of the CPA well into the 1950s.
In the relevant chapter about Russia and high Stalinism, called The Socialist Sixth of the World, again, without the historically appropriate quotation marks, Macintyre quotes, apologetically and fairly approvingly, the euphoric and misguided “reports” on the wonderful features of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the times of the Moscow Trials, and the “Yezhtoschina”.
He plays down and underrates the traumatic upheaval that the Moscow Trials produced in the world labour movement and he exagerates the uncritical way the Stalinist leadership and rank and file accepted high Stalinism and the Moscow Trials. For a start, even in far-off Australia, there was a good deal more exposure of, and dissent from, high Stalinism than is evident from reading Macintyre.
For instance, in his consistently trivialising way, Macintyre mentions Gil Roper in a relatively minor context. He doesn’t mention, however, 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 such as Allan Thistlethwayte, to initiate 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 were around the issue of the 40-hour week and began that ultimately victorious struggle.
Again, the ugly experience of Guido Barrachi, being forced by his membership of the CPA to repeat the gross slanders against the murdered old Bolsheviks, particularly Karl Radek, over which Macintyre gloats, was the turning point, according to Barrachi, who I knew personally, in his subsequent decision to leave the CP once and for all.
Literally thousands of Communist Party members and sympathisers moved away from the Communist Party in all directions after the Moscow Trials and in reaction against the trials and high Stalinism. As they did so, they were well aware that their former comrades would denounce them as spies, police agents, Trotsky fascists, renegades, Nazi collaborators, etc.
The forces that 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.
These defining books were Stalin’s History of the CPSUB, The Socialist Sixth of the World by Hewlett Johnston, my namesake, L. Harry Gould’s Marxist Glossary, The Great Conspiracy Against Russia, by Michael Sayers and Albert Kahn, and the so-called verbatim records of the Moscow Trials.
The great conflict between the undoubtedly devoted and courageous Stalinist workers, functionaries and intellectuals soaked in this political culture of high Stalinism, the dominant force on the left of the labour movement, on the one hand, and everybody else in the labour movement, particularly some thousands of leftists who reacted against the religion of high Stalinism, on the other, partly explains the mobilisations in different unions, sections of the Labor Party, Catholic circles etc, against the influence of the Communist Party.
One very common theme, remembered retrospectively by repentant Stalinists in their memoirs, is the enormous pressure exerted on everybody in the CP to swallow whole, the basically incredible official Stalinist story about the Moscow Trials.
For instance, Eric Aarons, who is now the main administrator of the Search Foundation, has a revealing anecdote in his memoir What’s Left. He describes how, as a young Stalinist in the late 1930s, he had some discrete social contact with Trotskyist “renegades” Wally Mohr and Jack Wishart. They gave him the Dewey Commission book exposing the Moscow Trials.
The material in the book about the internal contradictions in the evidence is really quite irrefutable and stands the test of time, which Aarons concedes in his memoir. However, he describes how he just ignored it all at the time, although in his memoir 40 years later, he is full of anguish about how terrible Stalinism was. One can see his dilemma in 1938, with an absolutely rabid Stalinist mother, father and brother, the father having just come back from Spain, where his political co-thinkers had just murdered many members and leaders of the POUM.
In 1938 it was obviously domestically impossible for Eric Aarons to consider the evidence about the Moscow Trials in any objective way. This was the kind of dilemma that faced many people in the Communist Party, and those who elected to stay in it were gradually indoctrinated into believing fantastic stories which were, even then, obvious lies.
Macintyre makes great play, now, of the idea that Krushchev’s exposure of Stalinism 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 CPA, both for reasons of principle, and also for reasons of personal survival industrially and politically.
Incredibly, Macintyre even presents Stakhanovism straight, as if it really happened. Everyone in the world except Macintyre now knows that the whole Stakhanov business was faked, but Macintyre gives it to you straight that Stakhanov mined 102 tons of coal in a shift with a pick and shovel, a story that’s a bit reminiscent of the more modest but still fantastic claims of the scab wharfies at Patricks during the recent wharfies’ strike, as to their productivity. (Page 372.)
Even where he comes across anecdotal evidence from friends of Australians, such as Katherine Susannah Pritchard, having some misgivings after visiting the Soviet Union, Macintyre tends to dismiss it, obviously as it contradicts his main thesis that all but “premature” anti-Stalinists took it all as good coin.
On page 371 he mentions Melbourne metallurgist Neil Greenwood’s favourable impression of a scientific conference at Kharkov in 1932. With a little more research on Macintyre’s part he might have discovered that this was the same conference attended by German communist chemist Alex Weissberg, Arthur Koestler’s brother-in-law. Weissberg settled in the Soviet Union after this congress, as a “guest worker”.
In 1936, like most foreign Communists in the Soviet Union, he was pinched by the GPU. He was one of the lucky foreign Communists who was not executed, but he spent the next 15 years of his life in the camps. He was only released in the 1950s after a big public fuss by Koestler. He wrote an extremely useful book about his experiences in Stalin’s camps called Conspiracy of Silence. Stalin’s camps were full of old communists like Weissberg.
What happened to the Russians from Australia?
In his material about the foundation of the CPA Macintyre mentions several Russians, including Artem who was killed in the train accident in the 1920s, and Tom Sergyev, who disappears from Macintyre’s narrative in Moscow down on his uppers, as Macintyre puts it, sometime in the 1920s. Sergyev was later murdered by Stalin (along with millions of others) which Macintyre doesn’t mention.
Actually several hundred Russian social democrats and Bolsheviks, most of the Russian colony in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Broken Hill, returned to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Like most returned old Bolsheviks from overseas, almost all of them ended up in Stalin’s camps, and many of them were killed.
It has always seemed to me that as an act of historical memory, Australian communists and socialists should investigate what happened to them, or at least commemorate and mention their lives as part of the historical accounting with the phenomenon of Stalinism. In a history of Australian communism in the 1920s and 1930s, with all that research material now available, Macintyre doesn’t even mention the Russians from Australia, though he does mention Tom Sergyev without reference to his ultimate death in Stalin’s camps.
Obviously an inquiry, even at this late stage, into the fate of the Russians from Australia would throw into very harsh relief the awful monstrosity of high Stalinism. Macintyre’s bland account of the development of high Stalinism in Australia gives no hint of the magnitude of the reaction against it, including the reaction in the workers’ movement.
There are two examples of the kind of thing I’m referring to that spring to my mind as a bookseller. One is Out of the Night by Jan Valtin, an essentially truthful account of his experiences by a former Comintern agent. The second is the anti-Communist but essentially accurate account called Inside Red Russia, by J.J. Maloney, the Labor parliamentarian and former Boot Trade Union secretary, of what he saw of working class living conditions during his period as Australian ambassador in Moscow during the Second World War.
Both these books were best-sellers in Australia, as also were Joseph Davies Mission to Moscow, which supported the Moscow Trials, and Hewlett Johnson’s aforementioned pro-Stalinist Socialist Sixth of the World. All these books turn up in large numbers at secondhand book fairs, suggesting something of the ideological ferment and argument about these matters that took place in the workers’ movement in the 1940s.
If you believe Macintyre, the Stalinists had it all their own way, which is by no means true. A problem the Communist Party faced in all its activities in the workers’ movement is that it was surrounded, everywhere it went by labour movement activists who had once been CP members or friends of the CP, and it had subsequently tried to wipe these people out of workers’ movement in a way analogous to the way Stalin wiped out the old cadres of the communist movement in Russia.
Maybe Macinture should cancel his history exams, like the Russians!
During the turbulent period of the overthrow of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, the Russian educational authorities cancelled history exams and history courses because all the old history books were a pack of lies.
The Russians are still having a great deal of difficulty in producing truthful historical text books. It’s really quite extraordinary that a professional historian like Macintyre should still give such credence, or at least such reverent consideration, to the old Stalinist historical lies.
Macintyre’s selective use of sources
Macintyre tries to show the breadth of his interests by reference to a couple of novels, Frank Hardy’s But the Dead are Many and Eleanor Dark’s gentle Waterway. He could, if he wished, have used Kylie Tenant’s wonderfully sardonic Ride on Stranger and Foveaux, which so upset the Stalinists when they were published in the early 1940s. Or he could have drawn on her autobiography, The Missing Heir.
These three books all capture some of the flavour of the sharp conflict between high Stalinism and those who fell out with it on the left. Ride on Stranger for instance has a thinly veiled portrait of George Bateman, the energetic communist functionary who fell out with the Stalinist movement in 1940. But the Kylie Tenant view of it would interfere with the institutional focus on the CP as an all-pervasive institution, and the blandness of it all.
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 from the CP.
Few departed without some process of expulsion or exclusion. For long periods the CP security apparatus, so called, was in constant session, dealing with dissidents, back-sliders etc. A discussion of this aspect of the CP’s internal life would seem to me to be of the utmost importance to a real history of the Communist Party.
Maybe all the documents of the CP’s internal expulsion apparatus, control commissions etc, have disappeared or been destroyed, although I’m sure a fair bit of it is still accessible somewhere to a reputable figure like Macintyre. But he hasn’t seen fit to dig into this half-world very much at all. What a pity.
A final word on high Stalinism. 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, such as the mordant admission by the KGB six or seven years ago that it had unjustly executed more than 700,000 people in the late 1930s, or the fact that 90 per cent 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 Macintyre’s nostalgic blandness. Another example of Macintyre’s careless simplification is his discussion of the CP’s increasing influence in the unions. There are at least 10 useful 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 of these books. Talking about the Ironworkers Union in the late 1930s, he says 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 Ernest Thornton, as federal secretary, intervened and 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, flying in the face of Newcastle branch elections and Connolly’s popular support.
This 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 a few years before by bureaucratic means, was the first branch to overthrow Thornton’s leadership in the battle by Laurie Short to replace him as national secretary, which was ultimately successful in 1951.
Macintyre’s cut-off point in 1940 conveniently 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. This culminated in a famous six-week mass strike of Balmain ironworkers against the Stalinist national leadership of the union.
Consistent with Macintyre’s bland approach to these very major political questions is a faint, ever so gentle, dose of professorial academic snobbery that I find slightly irritating. It is, however, kind of consistent with the $50 price of the book.
It seems to me that the book is directed at two markets: academics and very nostalgic old Stalinists. The two words that most get up my nose are “costive” and “invigilation”, used twice.
It may be pomposity on my part but, as a fairly widely read person, with extensive interests, I tend to regard the use of words I’ve not encountered before as the height of pomposity. I’ll leave it to others to tell me whether I’m right on this.
Macintyre’s book gets worse the more you read it
When I started writing this overview, I had a gentler view of the book than I have after considering it and rereading parts. At the end of this process, I’m overwhelmed by a kind of anger at the emerging nastiness and dishonesty of it.
Macintyre stakes a clear claim to be writing the “definitive” history of the Communist Party, with his emphasis on the vast array of research 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 narrative and historical investigation. this is an approach to history that postmodern historians share with the old Stalinists, and it is in sharp contrast to past, better historical approaches either of the Marxist or empiricist variety.
The hidden hand, the not-to-clearly stated, but absolutely present ideological point of view, is that the revolutionary socialist project of Lenin and the early Communists was quixotically doomed from the start (the view of Bolshevism that is 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 and out of date. It’s hardly accidental that this is, broadly speaking, the political viewpoint of the extended Aarons family, who now control the Search Foundation.
I am writing this overview of Macintyre’s book, obviously, with strong personal feelings. These strong feelings are based on my own life experience. I commenced my active political life in the orbit of the Communist Party in the 1950s, as a very young person. I broke sharply with Stalinism at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, just after Krushchev’s public exposure of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU.
Subsequent to that, I’ve been associated with several groups of left-wing socialists of anti-Stalinist and Trotskyist persuasion, competing with the Communist Party, before its demise, over the nature and direction of the socialist project. I have also, on many occasions, collaborated with members of the Communist Party in common projects, such as the campaign against the Vietnam War.
I know from personal experience that many people who stuck to the Communist Party right to the end, and some people who are even now totally unreconstructed Stalinists, are good people personally. There are even a few unreconstructed Stalinists these days who number me, grudgingly, as a kind of personal friend, mainly through the humanising influence of long acquaintance.
I also, however, remember the long period in the late 1950s and early 1960s when these same people, who have now been worn down by events, very easily called me and anybody else who campaigned vigorously against Stalinism from a socialist point of view, ASIO agents, police spies and many other similar epithets, and did their damndest to stamp any socialist in opposition to Stalinism off the face of the earth.
Despite personal experiences, however, the important thing about a serious history of communism and the Communist Party ought to be, among other things, to give us some guidance as to how the socialist project can be rebuilt without the monstrous enormities of Stalinism happening again.
Reviewer response to the book is interesting. Peter Coleman, the long-time anti-socialist, likes it and reviews it favourably. In passing, he uses a rather pithy paragraph, which sums up the confluence of his and Macintyre’s politics.
Macintyre tells us that he wrote this book at the invitation of the Search Foundation, the successor to the Communist Party of Australia.
It gave him full access to the party’s records on condition that any dispute over use of the records would be referred to a “reference group” named by the Search Foundation. But there were no disputes. Why should there be? Macintyre has delivered a generous, if self-serving, graveside panegyric, told a few jokes, and pointed a way ahead.
The Search Foundation has done well. In a longer review in the Australian Review of Books highly regarded art historian Bernard Smith, for many years a member of the CPA himself, basically endorses Macintyre’s nostalgic viewpoint, and makes some play of Eric Hobsbawm’s nowadays fashionable aphorism about the short 20th century: started 1914, finished 1989, which has become entwined in the minds of the postmodernist section of the intelligentsia, with Francis Fukuyama’s throw-away ideological proposition: “the end of history.”.
Well, in my mind, the Hobsbawm-Fukuyama short 20th century/end of history thesis isn’t obvious at all. For a start, the outbreak of the First World War, which led directly to the Russian Revolution, didn’t fall out of the sky.
It was produced by sharp contradictions within the previous, apparently stable, phase of global imperial capitalist development. Engels, in the 1880s, predicted an enormous war stemming from inter-imperialist rivalries. A.J. Hobson and Lenin drew the same conclusions in their examinations of imperialism.
The 1905 revolution in Russia was a rather sharp precursor of what was to come in 1917. Likewise at the end of the 2oth century, the final collapse of the Stalinist monolith in 1989, rather than the collapse of some kind of socialism, as the nostalgic old Stalinists would have it, was actually the final removal of a gigantic obstacle to the development of a socialist movement in new conditions.
The apparently triumphalist dominance of global capitalism of 1989 looks very sick in 1998, with the many economic and social crises of the world capitalist system telescoped on a global scale. The extraordinary television image of the desperate anarchic urban poor in Jakarta, trotting back into their slum dwellings with looted televisions and computers on their backs is, in a way, symptomatic of our modern world.
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. For instance, there is now a bigger, modern proletariat in China alone than there was in the whole of Europe at the start of the First World War.
In re-fashioning and retooling the socialist movement ideologically, the study of the history of communism, communist parties and their vicious Stalinisation in the middle of the 20th century will be important. 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.
The fantastic expansion of the world capitalist economy involving, necessarily, the vast expansion of the world proletariat, combined with the re-emergence of the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system, has produced a definite re-emergence of the Old Mole of the class struggle in countries as diverse as Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Denmark, Mexico, Brazil, France and China.
The necessary re-fashioning of tactics and ideology for a mass socialist and workers’ movement won’t be far behind. Realistically, we are actually entering the end of the long 20th century, rather than the short one of Hobsbawm’s throw-away remark. History is actually just beginning to get up a bit of steam, rather than being ended, as Fukuyama would have it.