Sean Scalmer. Journal of Political Ideologies. Volume 3, Issue 1. February 1998.
This article attempts to place the philosophy of Marxism inside the web of Communist political practice within the Communist Party of Australia between 1942 and 1956. It argues that Marxism was presented as an objective knowledge, and the prestige of Marxism was used by Party leaders to build internal discipline and unity, and quell dissent. Party intellectuals selectively called upon Marxist authorities in order to entrench their own power, and to justify political strategies. Detailed attention is given to three specific uses of Marxism: the way Marxism was used to justify Party policy, to explain the Party’s growth between 1941 and 1945, and to justify ‘loyal’ dissidence within the Party. The result of these ideological uses of Marxism was that Communists failed to understand their political environment and the extent of their political influence. The events of 1956 threatened the health and internal equilibrium of the Communist Party, and the implications of these events on the subsequent uses of Marxism are also briefly surveyed. The article closes with a discussion of theoretical issues involving the study of’ ideology and political discourse inside labour movement institutions.
Marxist thought—the corpus of concepts produced by Karl Marx and developed by his intellectual successors, has a rich and well documented history. A significant part of that history has involved the elaboration of the concept of ideology. Ideology is a distortion of perception, a process by which ‘men and their circumstances appear upside down, as in a camera obscura’. Marxism, in this conception, is an antidote to ideology, an analysis of the material processes, which produce such an inversion. The concept of Marxist ideology would therefore seem to be oxymoronic.
Nevertheless, this paper deploys the concept of Marxist ideology. The concept refers to the political ideas that were the official discourse of Communist political institutions These ideas were ‘Marxist’. They spoke of classes, of the mode of production, even, ironically, of ideology. Of course, they also claimed to be ‘Marxist’. However, these ideas were marked by the democratic centralism, the political warfare, the rationalizations, and the petty tyranny that characterized Communist Parties. Stalinist practice worked so that tactics were primary, and theoretical generalizations were deduced from them—were mobilized as an intellectual support. As a result, within the Stalinist Party, Marxism operated as a master discourse or dogma:
a dogma is expressed in the form of an assertion, and is unshakable, but at the same time any practical opinion can be made to harmonize with it; admittedly more easily in some cases than in others It is not a wall setting limits to what can be believed, but more like a brake which, however, practically serves the same purpose.
This is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s description of how a dogma operates, and it fits well the way Marxism was used inside Communist Parties. The language of Marxism provided the master discourse within which discussion occurred. However, it did not prevent the implementation of a variety of policies and political strategies. Rather, it was the language within which these various strategies were justified, contested, explained, and used to unify the Party. Marxism effectively structured the context in which Party intellectuals produced political rhetoric. In practice, most of the work produced by affiliated intellectuals consisted of the manipulation of this master discourse of Marxism in support of certain strategic ends.
For example, the pursuit of an alliance or united front with other workingclass parties could be justified through the insights of Marxism. But equally, so could a policy of competition and conflict with those parties. However, these policies were not simply argued for on strategic grounds, they were always linked to the state of capitalism, the power of the working class, to specific writings of Lenin, and to other apparently Marxist authorities. In this sense, Marxism could be thought of as an ideology, which circulated within Communist Parties. Its prestige and/ objectivity—its ‘dogmatic power’ as a master discourse—meant that the predictions and concepts that were labelled ‘Marxist’ could not be argued about. They were a bedrock, and could therefore be used to justify other, more conditional, strategic, and political positions. Because all policies needed to be justified in the language of Marxism, it cast a veil over the political and economic environment, allowing only certain things to be seen and ‘Certain things to be said. It distorted the perceptions of Communists in a number of ways.
If this analysis is to be accepted, then the concept of Marxist ideology would seem to be highly defensible. More than this, it could be argued that it is a Marxist concept. If Marxism is to perform its allotted role of analysing the material processes, which produce ideological distortion, then it must analyse the operation of Communist political institutions. Marxism must analyse the distortions of Marxist ideology (rather than just those of the State or the Church), if it is to understand the failures of the past and the possibilities of the present.
This article documents the political uses of Marxist ideology inside the Communist Party of Australia between 1942 and 1956. The history of the CPA is in many ways stereotypical. It was formed in 1920, rose to its peak of around 20,000 members during World War II, declined in the period of Cold War, and was dissolved in 1991. Between 1942 and 1956, the tactical stances of the Communist Party of Australia were strongly influenced by the fate of the Soviet Union. It supported the war effort after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, and it endorsed the Cominform’s famous 1947 declaration on the overriding importance of the struggle for peace, and the need to appreciate the strength of the working class. In effect, its policies were therefore structured around pursuit of a full war effort in the early 1940s and pursuit of the struggle for peace from 1947 onwards. Only in the brief moment between the end of WWII and the onset of the Cold War did the fate of the Soviet Union not determine the primary struggles of the Party.
During the entire period, the Party operated on principles of democratic centralism—although all organs of the Party were both elective and accountable, the higher organs of the Party made decisions, which were binding, for all Party members, and strict discipline ensured that the minority was subordinated to the majority. In practice, Marxism was shaped by both of these institutional practices, so that it became an ideology, and this paper documents the form and the consequences of its distortion of perception.
Marxism as a Master Discourse within the Communist Party of Australia
Inside the Communist Party of Australia, Marxism operated as a master discourse—a language within which members argued out policies and talked about the world. It was largely an internal discourse, used among Party members and sympathizers rather than in mass recruitment drives. As one Party publication put it, it was not for ‘agitation’ among the masses, but for ‘propaganda’ among the relatively few. Within this limited field, Marxism was understood to contain immense analytical power. It was used to ‘teach us what is true or false, what is finite and what is necessary’. By understanding Marxism, the limits and the dimensions of the world could be traced. The leadership of the CPA insisted that all new members gain the ability to talk in the language of Marxism, to deploy its concepts and appreciate its knowledge. It was established as ‘essential for an understanding of any political question’.
Inside the CPA, Marxism was presented as an objective truth. In the Party anthology, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Stalin was quoted as insisting that the ‘laws of development of society’ were to be regarded as objective laws. As a domestic Party intellectual put it, the insights of Marxism were not at all conjectures or reasonable, testable hypotheses, but were instead to be equated with the laws of gravity. The evidence of the absolute truth of Marxism was deemed to be ubiquitous.
As had been foretold, capitalism was crumbling. The objective truth of ‘the whole social and economic theory of Marx in general’ had therefore been demonstrated. It had been demonstrated in the economic crises, the currency inflation, and the growing impoverishment of the working people, which Communists saw. Even more than this, the objectivity of Marxism was shown in the achievements of the Soviet Union. The Party press enthusiastically proclaimed the rapid scientific and industrial advance of the Soviet Union, and used this as evidence of the objectivity of Marxism. In this way, it was argued that: ‘The story of Soviet electrification is a chapter in the Leninist use of and development of dialectics.’ Together the immiseration of capitalism and the progress of socialism were proofs of the objectivity of that brand of Marxism practised by the CPA. They demonstrated that it was only Marxism that had penetrated the veneer to reach the core of historical change, only Marxism which ‘correctly reflects the needs of development of the material life of society.’
Such objectivity and insight into social laws also allowed Marxist knowledge to predict social change and development. Lenin had apparently been able to foretell the nature of the Second World War in 1914. It was asserted that the ability to predict ‘the general trend of future development’ was equally open to Communists today.
With this ability to predict apparently came the ability to control. Like the physicist or the biologist, it was asserted that the Marxist was able to modify substances and to create new ones. This happened not only in the laboratory, but also on the terrain of the class struggle itself. The Marxist could objectively apprehend social conditions and problems, and was thereby empowered to predict and to control social change. Of course, the Communist did not have absolute freedom to improvise any possible future. But the Communist, by coming to grips with the ‘necessary’ and ‘objective’ direction of social change, could push joyfully with history, could make that history real today. In this situation, freedom was to be understood as the recognition of necessity. The Communist poet David Martin equated the knowledge, the insight, and the freedom of the Marxist with a game of Chess:
Where spirit reasons and where sense is law,Where theory is measured by resource,And beauty rises from material force,Where each obeys the limit of its kind,Where matter moves, but does not rule the mind,Where change is order, order lies in changeChange only changeless, knowable yet strange,And always marching to the final leap,The last, decisive, liberating sweep—On this small board freedom is shown to beThe recognition of necessity?
The Marxist could conceive of the necessity, could foresee social change, and thereby reached freedom. No longer blind, groping about in crisis, the Communist acted constructively, in the light of theory, with disciplined vigour and wisdom. The Communist could control the economic system, could master the machine, be free from the golden chains of capitalism. The key to Marxist thought was its ability to manipulate and control, to consciously grasp and then influence the process of ceaseless development. Nothing was outside the dialectic, nothing could not be predicted, and therefore controlled. The most extreme manifestation of this logic was in the field of science. It was famously argued that by applying dialectical thought to plant research in the Soviet Union, Marxists had effectively learnt the ‘secret’ of heredity. Marxists were able to alter history purposively like Gods:
Consciously and systematically, by changing the conditions of life of plant and animal organisms, the Michurin school changes their very nature and hence influences heredity as well. It regards heredity as an inherent quality of a living body and denies the existence of any special substance of heredity.
In being deployed in this way—as an objective knowledge, a predictive device, and a controller of social change, Marxism acted as a unifying knowledge. This was in two ways. Firstly, by sharing in the same language and insights, Party members cohered as a collective. Secondly, and more powerfully, this unity was heightened because references to the absolute and objective insights of Marxism were used by Party leaders to justify Party tactics, and to defuse dissent. The theories and insights of Marxism thereby became the Party’s ideological cement. This was something that Party leaders were quite self-conscious about. Greater study of anointed Marxist texts was suggested as a practical mechanism for making unity and for excluding disruptors. It was also a means of controlling the ‘deviations’ of sincere but theoretically primitive comrades.
Marxism was a knowledge and a force for unity in deeper ways, It should be noted that although treasured for its objectivity and its predictive force, and imbued with a scientific and prophetic air, the Marxism which Party members learnt was not chiefly a Marxism concerned with capitalism, class or crisis. It was a Marxism that actually took unity as its theme. Worldwide, the textbook The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) was the Communist’s bible. In Australia, this was particularly acute—the book was described as taking ‘first place’ in any study of Marxism? It was a ‘landmark’ in the history of the working class movement, recommended as the constant companion of every Party member.
This is important for our purposes, because the book is not at all a work about the nature of capitalism, about exploitation, class tyranny or the like. It is a book that details the rise of the Bolsheviks to power. It details the formation of the Social Democratic Party, the Party split, the battle against the Mensheviks and other ‘petit-bourgeois’ Parties, the battle against Trotsky, Bukharin and other ‘petit-bourgeois’ individuals, and the living triumph of the Soviet State. This ‘essential Marxist text’ is concerned overwhelmingly with unity in action, with the ability of the CPSU to construct internal and external unity, and to make revolution as a result. It is a book about unity. In the conclusion of the History it is stated:
The history of our Party is the history of the struggle against petty-bourgeois parties—the Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, Anarchists and Nationalists—and of the utter defeat of these parties. If these parties had not been vanquished and driven out of the ranks of the working class, the unity of the working class could not have been achieved; and if the working class had not been united, it would have been impossible to achieve the victory of the proletarian revolution.
Therefore, it seems true to say that when the Party member learnt about Marxism, he or she primarily learnt about the political construction of unity. However, that unity was distinctive in two ways. Firstly, it was a unity around the institution of the. Party. Secondly, it was a unity given the label of ‘Marxism’, and therefore the status of objective and immutable truth. It followed that Marxism was used to heighten unity within the CPA to a very great extent.
There was a final element of the Marxism imbibed by Party members, which further allowed it to act as a unifier. This was its presentation as a ‘dialectical knowledge’. Dialectical knowledge was defined by the CPA’s theoreticians as a knowledge concerned with:
the study of things (be they wars, revolutions, and depressions on the one hand, or atoms, molecules and living bodies on the other) in their relations, and in the process of ceaseless development.
It was argued that the Party’s knowledge was dialectical knowledge in that it reacted to the prevailing political circumstances, and adjusted to them scientifically. Over time, as the conditions of Australian capitalism and working class consciousness changed, the CPA’s knowledge also continued to develop, and therefore continued to construct unity with a greater and greater facility. This aspect of the Party’s Marxism was important, because it made the correctness of any particular strategy pursued irrefutable. If any set of tactics proved ineffective, and required change, this did not at all threaten the perceived sagacity of leaders, or the predictive power of Marxist theory. Rather, because altering the Party’s tactics could be interpreted as a ‘dialectical’ response to capitalist development, it could be seen as a confirmation of the power and of the distinctiveness of Marxism. It did not threaten the ‘absolute’ status of the Party’s version of Marxism, but confirmed it. When one of the Party’s founders, Guido Baracchi, was critical of the CPA’s changing attitude to World War II, he found it impossible to cope rhetorically with this aspect of the Party’s science. As he wrote to R. Dixon, a Party leader later to become President of the CPA:
it has been traditional practice of Party leaders in recent years always to attempt to justify their changes of ‘line’, zig-zags, ‘turns’, somersaults, etc., as being ‘correct’ in the ‘new conditions’. This ‘dialectic’ might be true or false, but it had this advantage: the leadership remained ‘correct’.
Clearly, Marxism operated as a master discourse and as an ideology within the Communist Party of Australia. Marxism was presented as an objective, predictive, irrefutable form of knowledge. It was authoritative. It was also ubiquitous. It was essential to the understanding of every political question, omnipresent. As a result, it could be used by Party leaders as an ideological cement—a unifying and controlling force upon Party members. More specifically, it could be used in two ways. Firstly, it could be used to justify Party policy, especially during those moments when that policy was changing. Secondly, it could be used to explain the Party’s fortunes, its successes and failures. But it could also be used as a language of dissent and contest by those without power in the Party, and anxious to alter its policy in some way. This paper will consider each of these uses in turn.
Marxism and the Justification of Party Policy
During World War II, Communists were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort, of maximum production, and of unity with the governing Labour Party. However, this policy stance was disrupted by a number of factors in the early post-war years. Firstly, a strike wave emerged, with the number of working days lost annually per employee in industrial disputes rising from only 0.20 in 1942 to a peak of 1.11 in 1945, and remaining above 0.5 until the end of the decade. Secondly, the international Cold War emerged. Thirdly, there was a prevalent fear of world economic instability, linked to the dollar crisis, and signs of an emergent American recession. As a result, the CPA moved to support for strike action, and opposition to the Labour Government in 1947.
This changing stance was clearly provoked by a hardheaded assessment of political opportunities. The Communist Party had an obvious opportunity to side with workers against the Labour Government, and to win workers away from labourism and towards Communism. This was the very justification that the Australian Secretariat used in a hostile exchange with the British Communist Party. The Australian Secretariat berated their British counterparts for not grasping their strategic opportunities:
The wave of discontent in Britain, the outbreak of ‘unofficial strikes’ should indicate the need for an active policy that decisively distinguishes them from the Labor Party, especially on questions of production and strikes. It appears to us that the whole line of the British Party in relation to the Labor Party and the struggles of the working class should be reviewed.
However, within the Australian Party itself, support for the wages offensive was not expressed in these strategic terms, but in the language of Marxism. In September 1947, the Central Committee made a statement that an economic crisis, linked to overproduction, was threatening Australia. Around the same time, it was prophesized that a ‘revolutionary situation’ was possible in the next few years, linked to a ‘general crisis of Capitalism’. During the later 1940s there were frequent predictions about the developing economic crisis, and the imminent dissolution of capitalism. Some predictions, like those of Jack Hughes, were buttressed by ‘scientific’ analyses of the stock exchange, or other strange and fearful portents. This provided the Marxist veneer for the Communist Party’s championing of the wages struggle.
The Communist Party’s policy was to fight for the raising of real wages and the shortening of the working week. If pursued before the onset of the predicted economic crisis, an increased standard of living ensured that workers could combat the crisis from a strong strategic position. If pursued in the very teeth of the crisis, it promised to reduce the extent of the crisis. Somewhat paradoxically, it was also argued within the CPA at this time that to fight for concessions was to fight for socialism. Concrete gains were presented as anti-capitalistic, because they made capitalism more fragile, less able to weather each succeeding wave of economic crisis. Wages and profit were enemies, and increased wages attacked the profits of the monopolies. These apparently contradictory arguments were reconciled by their harmony on one point—they each justified the pursuit of wages as a properly Marxist policy with a Marxist rationale. The latter argument also suggested that there would be Marxist implications if such a policy were pursued. As a result, the changing stance of the Communist Party appeared objective and irrefutable. An ideological closure on debate was achieved.
This proved especially significant, not only because it prevented a full, democratic conversation as to the wisdom of support for the wages struggle. It also blinded the Communist Party as to the possibilities of support for the CPA amongst the Australian working class. The continual emphasis on the imminence of economic collapse counselled that political power was not many years ahead for Australian Communists. It implied that with the coming ferocity of a ‘developed’ class struggle, the Party’s declining membership in the post-war years would be reversed. Perhaps more fundamentally, these ideological projections of future revolution tended to colour assessments of the political present. Fantastical imaginings about immanent Communist centrality spilled over into delusions about the CPA’s current significance. The strike wave was not characterized as a simple attempt to extract more wages while the opportunities of workers were momentarily greater. Nor was it characterized as an autonomous drive by workers against the policies of reconstruction advanced by both the Communist Party and the Labour Party before 1947. Instead, Communist intellectuals interpreted the strike wave as part of a ‘left swing’ sweeping over the continent.
The Party believed that it gave a lead to the wages struggle, and that its changing direction was a ‘tribute to the Communist Party’s influence’. As a result, the Party leaders did not conceptualize the later 1940s as a time of disenchantment with the Party, declining membership and increasing intolerance as the Cold War began to bite. Instead, the delusions held about the CPA’s centrality caused them to assert that they possessed very great influence ‘among the masses’ and ‘in struggle’, but to lament that this had not translated into the Party’s ‘organisational aspects’. In short, the Party’s interpretation of the context and justification of policy was shaped by its form of Marxism. This caused it to misapprehend its own strategic surrounds, and to foresee greater merits in a policy of support for the wages struggle than actually existed. This fantastic ideological aura was characteristic of the CPA right up until 1949, and
only evaporated with the defeat of the Communist-led miners strike, the election of the conservative Menzies Government, and the resultant Cold War repression.
Using Marxism to Explain the Party’s Fortunes
The ideological power of Marxism was also evident in discussions of the Party’s health and prospects. This was especially true during the middle war years, when the CPA’s fortunes brightened considerably. In May 1942, the Communist Party had only 7200 members, but this rose until late 1944, when it reached a peak of 23,000 members. This was accompanied by a concomitant rise in the Party’s presence in the unions, electoral fortunes, and in the circulation of the Party press.
The most frequent explanation for the Party’s growth advanced by non-Communists at the time was the Soviet Union’s war effort in the Allied cause. Not only did the courage and success of the Soviets draw admiration; it also cancelled the previous identification of Communists as un-Australian. As historians have since noted, the main efforts of the Communist Party were directed towards what the majority of Australians perceived as their national interest. The Party’s disciplined activity harmonized with the discipline of war society, and the Party enacted a policy ‘in tune with popular national sentiment’ Australians could support the Communist Party without stigma, and they therefore did so in unprecedented numbers.
However, rather than admitting that the Communist Party’s growth was the product of this particular, conjunctural set of opportunities and needs, the CPA interpreted its own rise in the master discourse of Marxism. As a result, the wartime growth of Communism was presented as the glorious and inevitable unfolding of history’s dialectic.
The period of the Communist Party’s growth was also a period of rapid industrialization for the Australian economy, of a sharp drift to the cities, and of a quickened process of proletarianization. Factory employment as a whole increased from 565,000 in 1938-1939 to a peak of 766,000 in 1943-1944. At the same time, the proportion of metal workers employed in establishments with 100 hands or less on the payroll fell from 42% in 1935-1936 to 24% in 1942-1943. Hypnotized by its own ‘Marxist’ propositions about the necessary development of the working class, the CPA explained its own growth as the direct product of such changes in economy and society. As Lance Sharkey argued:
The working class feels the new conditions and its own increasing strength more every day. It is in this setting that Communism reaches mass dimensions and will continue to grow organisationally and politically, and the Labor Party will continue to lose its old influence over the proletariat’.
This ‘Marxist’ explanation of the Party’s growth suggested that history was on the side of the Party guided by Marxism-Leninism, that a sort of ‘logic of history’ was sweeping the CPA to dominance. In its most elaborate versions, such a schema understood the ALP as playing a developmentalist role for the Australian nation and working class, but as being superseded by the Communist Party. The working class needed socialism, and it therefore needed a more committed Socialist Party. That Party was the Communist Party, and its birth had been ‘the most significant event in the history of the Australian labour movement’. All in all, the history of the labour movement could be conceptualized as a history of expanding unity and growth, and with the growth of the CPA (and the momentum of its united front campaign), that unity was on. the eve of being crowned. The working class needed the Party to fulfil its historic mission, and for Communists that mission and that role for the CPA seemed to be confirmed by the Party’s expanding influence.
Because the CPA leadership explained the Party’s growth in the master discourse of Marxism, it succumbed to ideological misperception in a number of ways. Firstly, it misled itself as to the significance of the Party’s expanding influence. Because it was not a direct product of changes in Australian economy and society, that expanding influence could not be expected to keep on rising exponentially. Equally, it could not be expected to inevitably outstrip the influence exerted by the Labour Party. If Party intellectuals and members had accepted this, then they may not have committed themselves to such a competitive, antagonistic stance towards the Australian Labour Party in the post-war years. However, the master discourse of’ Marxism prevented such an understanding, hiding the political context in an ideological veil.
The Communist Party of Australia was constrained by the ideological power of its Marxism in additional ways. The combination of a vastly increasing Party membership without a history of disciplined, democratic centralist political participation, of greater Communist/Labour unity, and of necessarily infrequent contact between the CPA and the Soviet Union could have provided the conditions for a transformation in the nature of the Party, and the emergence of a more democratic, participative form of politics. However, despite its possibility, this transformation in the CPA did not occur. The force of Marxist ideology was an important force in maintaining democratic centralism. Because the CPA explained its growth in the language of Marxism, leaders continued to assert the necessity of the Party’s democratic centralist practice. The growth of the Party gave the leadership an increasing confidence in the power of their ‘Marxist’ predictions, leading them to affirm the sagacity of their centralized, hierarchical leadership, and its importance to the Party’s brighter fortunes. As a result, the Party’s leaders became both more convinced of the importance of their ‘Marxist’ domination of the Party, and more able to point to evidence of the virtues of such domination. The opportunity to reorient the Party was therefore lost in a swirl of ideological confusion and domination.
Using Marxism in Political Contest
It is possible to see division and contestation within the Communist Party of Australia. Although the CPA was organized by the principles of democratic centralism, the extent and the implications of this practice did fluctuate over time. It was in the political contest over the Party’s nature and direction that intellectuals called upon Marxism to validate rival strategies and to argue out policy positions. By calling upon and selectively manipulating Marxism, it was possible to open a space in which the Party’s ‘line’ could be creatively implemented and partially problematized.
For example, to argue for the devolution of authority and a greater democratization of the Party outright would be heresy. However, it was possible for J. C. Henry to argue for just such a policy via reference to Marxism. This occurred at a Central Committee meeting in the early 1950s. Henry initially pointed out, in a spirit of self-criticisms, that in the past few months he had been looking towards the Party’s Secretariat to solve political problems, instead of fighting for solutions himself. From this point, he argued that:
I feel we are not sufficiently seized with Lenin’s thesis on the Party, the Party as a whole, and I am afraid that we should perhaps study more the whole of Stalin’s teachings on the Party, seeking in this way to improve our understanding of the question of responsibility and the whole question of the collective work right down through.
Here the whole functioning of the Party is being questioned, but it is being done in such a way that the question is harmonized with Marxism, presented as a simple query rather than a fundamental critique. In this way Henry not only proves his commitment to the Party and evades the tag of heretic, he also develops an authentic theoretical rationale for his suggestions.
Creative applications of Marxism more often took more limited and less critical forms. Particularly in the various Communist front organizations, autonomy could be justified and Party leaders could be silenced by a selective interpretation of Marxist authorities. The most skilled practitioner at all of this in the Australian Party was Audrey Blake. Although regarded by many as a Stalinist because of her Central Committee membership, her extended periods in Russia, and her real mastery of Marxist parlance, her political practice as a leader of the youth movement was actually flexible, free and undogmatic. The explanation for this apparent contradiction lies in her mastery of Marxism itself—it was her ability to argue for the comparative independence of the youth movement which both secured such independence and confirmed her as an ideologue. Blake herself makes this clear:
putting ‘the line’ into action opened up creative paths for all of us, especially in the youth movement where we had scope to use our talents and ingenuity. We made good use of Lenin’s stress on the organisational independence of the youth movement—a sine qua non according to him, if the youth were to embrace socialism as an ideal worth the long hard slog.
However, precisely because contestation was articulated in the language of Marxism, it was sharply limited in practice. Marxist ideology acted as a brake, thereby preventing certain things from being said. Certainly it was possible to grab greater autonomy for the youth movement via reference to Lenin. But if a genuinely democratic Party was sought, then there were few Marxist references available to Party members. The master discourse of Marxism was a poor weapon in the hands of the frustrated, democratically minded CPA member. While it remained an objective, predictive and authoritarian discourse, it would be impossible to transform the Party into a flexible, democratic institution, responsive to the working class it claimed to represent.
This is confirmed by an analysis of the events of 1956. The combined impact of the invasion of Hungary and Kruschev’s secret speech was to have a devastating impact upon the health of the Communist Party. The hierarchy of the CPA denied events in Hungary, while it attempted to suppress, and then sidestepped, the significance of the CPSU’s 20th Congress. Those who opposed leaders were expelled, while others were ‘invited’ to leave the Party, or departed voluntarily. It has been estimated that, all in all, just over 26% of the CPA’s already small membership left the Party. Intellectuals were particularly targeted, and branches like those at Melbourne University were significantly affected by the crisis. Leading intellectuals like Helen Palmer, Ian Turner, Stephen Murray-Smith (and his journal Overland) all left the CPA in this period.
However, despite a mass level of disaffection, there were insufficient institutional and ideological resources available to coordinate an organized, Marxist response to Party policy. A Party revolt, using the language of Marxism, did not materialize. Precisely because they were schooled in a Marxism that was used to unify the Party, to justify its tactics and its structure, internal critics found it difficult to question the Party fundamentally without questioning Marxism itself. A Marxism separate from a Party representing the interests of the working class seemed, for many, not to be a Marxism at all.
As a result, many critical intellectuals simply left the Party. Furthermore, such intellectuals effectively interpreted the crisis of the Party as the crisis of Marxism. Because Marxism was typically used as a unifying and disciplining force, it was, for them, inextricably linked to a repressive and antidemocratic politics. The subsequent careers of a number of ex-Communist intellectuals of this period can therefore be seen as an attempt to ‘save’ Marxism from the status of Party ideology, and to salvage it as a creative, analytical philosophy.
This was the motivating force behind Helen Palmer’s journal Outlook, as it was behind the journal Arena, specifically formed to ‘re-assert the claims of Marxism, as a relevant and meaningful guide to social comment and analysis’. Others, such as Ian Turner, attempted to explore the disjunction between the Communist Party’s ‘Marxist’ image of the working class, and the apparent historical reality of a group now smothered in the ‘T-Bones and television of the welfare state’.
Within the Party itself, Marxism was still used in an authoritarian manner.
Central Committee member (and later Party Secretary) Eric Aarons has recalled the situation in 1956:
Having concluded that I would support the leadership’s line, I then willingly did the main work of preparing a publication that promoted that line, under the inappropriate title, ‘Basic Questions of Communist Theory’. No such questions were in fact canvassed in the booklet: they were covered up.
Communist political practice had not fundamentally changed, and Marxism remained an ideology in the hands of Party leaders. Not until the Sino-Soviet dispute and the rise of left activism outside the Party in the 1960s would the Party’s form of Marxism be analysed and used in a more critical and democratic manner.
The concept of ideology was developed by Marxists in an attempt to combat the distortion propagated by ruling class ideas and agencies. This paper has taken up the concept of ideology, and used it to explain the operation of Marxism as a master discourse within the Communist Party of Australia. It has, in effect, offered a brief materialist analysis of the political uses of Marxism inside the CPA during the 1940s and 1950s. This is a painful exercise for the contemporary Marxist intellectual, because Marxism was so shaped by democratic centralism that it became an authoritarian tool for internal control and unity. It was used to curtail discussion and close debate. It prevented the Party leadership from fully understanding their political opportunities and options. It was a poor tool in the hands of those Party members who attempted to gain autonomy and practice a more participative, democratic form of politics. In all of these ways, the authoritarian form of Marxism practised by the CPA was an ideology that put a brake on the possible discussions, strategies and struggles that were waged inside and around the Communist Party.
This analysis implies two obvious things. Firstly, there is a need to pay detailed attention to the role of political institutions if we are to understand the influence and impact of Marxism in nations like Australia. The possibilities of Marxism were substantially set by the institutional practices of the Communist Party. Those seeking to read Marxist discourse for its meaning cannot do so rigorously without understanding how the Communist Party set the context in which Marxism was used. The political discourse of Marxism was embedded in a specific institutional context, and it cannot be understood outside this context, to make the point more generally.
This more general point suggests a path forward for those concerned with the study of ideology and with the problem of how to theorize the relationship between discourse and material context. Much of the existing literature attempts to counterpose discursive and materialist explanations, to try and determine which is the more or less powerful force. The recent debate in the English journal Social History has largely adhered to this framework. Post-structuralists such as Vernon and Joyce have called upon the ghost of Michel Foucault to emphasize the structuring power of political language, and the role of language in the construction of political actors imbued with agency. The analysis of class has been stigmatized as the search for an external, social referent. Defenders of class analysis and of the agenda of social history have responded by asserting the importance of powers and forces operating beyond the construction of subjectivity.
What this article has demonstrated is that studies of ideology can bring discourse and context together on the terrain of political and institutional analysis. Discourse and context need not be kept apart and set against each other. It should not be a question of ranking one as more powerful than the other.
This is an approach that draws support from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that language and context are not separated in everyday existence, but that together they are fused in a ‘form of life’, and he introduced the concept of the ‘language game’ to express this fusion. This indissolubility of language and context does not only mean, as the post-structuralist may argue, that language saturates all experience. It also means that to separate language from context, and to look for the meaning of a word outside of its use in a practical situation, is an error.
Applying these insights to a program for the study of the political ideology of the labour movement implies that we need to conduct detailed analyses of the way political concepts have been used by intellectuals in concrete historical locations. That is, we need to look at those who did the articulating—the labour movement intellectuals, and we need to place them in their practical contexts-labour movement institutions. We need to look at what intellectuals were practically trying to do inside institutional locations if we are to make sense of just what they are saying about themselves and the world. In this sense, if we are to understand labour discourse, then we need also to understand labour intellectuals, labour movement institutions, and the broader class structure. That is, the study of labour discourse, of labour movement institutions and of classes may be complementary and mutually supportive, rather than the stark alternatives they are often portrayed as. Historical studies of political ideology informed by this approach promise greater rewards than the current stale debates conducted on an abstract, theoretical plane.
The second point made in this article is a more political one. If a mass, democratic politics informed by an undogmatic Marxism has been consigned to the dustbin of history’, this is not because it has failed. It is because, at least in Australia, it has yet to be tried.