“More than an Abstract Principle”: Reimagining Rights in the Communist Party of Australia, 1956-1971

Jon Piccini. Journal of Australian Studies. Volume 39, Issue 2. 2015.

Samuel Moyn argues in The Last Utopia that modern notions of human rights, generally considered to be a trans-historical narrative of teleological progress articulated in various forms for thousands of years, are actually of a very recent vintage. The rise to dominance of an individualised, universal notion of human rights is very much a product of the decline of other state-based utopias—namely socialism and national liberation—a movement from “the politics of the state to the morality of the globe”. Moyn argues that this process largely occurred in the mid to late 1970s as the horrors of Pol Pot and the Chinese Cultural Revolution were revealed. Domestically, an ascendant Right in the west challenged many New Left radicals to reconsider their previous forms of activism, targeting overseas imperialism, supporting Third World liberation movements or challenging systemic and seemingly irrevocable racial, class or gender oppressions. However, this paper argues that a similar process of progressive activists questioning old certainties and adopting new universalist rights discourses was present more than a decade earlier in the perhaps unlikely context of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Various repressive actions of the post-Stalin Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), changes in the definition and applicability of rights in that nation and the ascendancy of a youthful and experimental Australian party leadership ensured that rights debates flourished in the organisation throughout the 1960s.

In her work on the political employment of human rights language in West Germany, Lora Wildenthal identifies two key foundations for its usefulness as an activist discourse: universality and transnationalism. Human rights provided a political discourse that penetrated the Iron Curtain, while it also broke down distinctions between the global and the local. This paper focuses on how the language of rights allowed the CPA to mount previously unimaginable criticisms of the USSR around anti-Semitism. It also analyses the local ramifications of these transnational issues, particularly the debate around 1967’s twenty-first party congress and local reactions to the invasion of Czechoslovakia a year later, two events prominent in their influencing of ideological battles that would tear the party asunder. Where reformers found a new and more useful discourse of appeal to Australians, conservatives saw only “soft-pedalling and appeasement”. In analysing these moments, revealed through a close reading of party theoretical and discussion papers, documents and archival records, this paper discovers how previously scorned notions of human rights and “bourgeois” democratic freedoms were re-imagined within the party during the period, beginning a long-overdue democratic transformation.

Marxism, Rights, and the Bolshevik Tradition

The CPA had traditionally held a dismissive view of individual rights, in keeping with the Marxist-Leninist theory that abstract rights were irrelevant unless accompanied by those of a social and economic nature. Sean Scalmer describes the way that such doctrinaire notions of Marxism operated within the CPA as a “master discourse—a language within which members argued out policies and talked about the world”. This was an enclosing language and a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the tools crafted by Marx and Lenin seen as able to predict the laws of history. Yet, such rigidity had not always been the case. The CPA of the 1920s was marked by its heterogeneity; forces as diverse as One Big Union supporters, left-wing trade unionists and anarchists called themselves members. By 1930, the Communist International (Comintern), of which the Australian party was a member, imposed what was termed “Bolshevisation” on the party and forced it to adopt the forms and practice of Stalinist Marxism that Scalmer details. Lenin’s concept of democratic centralism became both organising principle and disciplinary procedure, ensuring that, to paraphrase Marx, the ideas of the Moscow-centric leadership became the ruling ideas.

For Marxist-Leninists, bourgeois rights were merely a part of capitalism’s ideological superstructure: underclass society, “[t]he practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property”, as Marx put it in On the Jewish Question. What was the use of rights—to freedom, to life or to expression—without access to the social and economic means to make these abstract principles a concrete reality? Rights, it was argued, could be left until after the revolution. While this was in many ways a misreading of Marx, such notions became central to Soviet legal and political practice after the Bolshevik revolution, particularly embodied in the so-called Stalin Constitution of 1936. While civil rights to vote and to exercise free expression and assembly were guaranteed to citizens, this was on the proviso that their exercise “correspond[ed] to the interest of toilers and the strengthening of the socialist system”. The document clearly gave precedence to social rights in the areas of education, employment, aged care and health— for which the Soviets ambitiously labelled their constitution “the most democratic in the world”. And while Jenifer Amos highlights the Soviet Union’s adoption and use of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights internationally in the post-war years, it was not until Khrushchev’s rule that “the Declaration became a part of the domestic politics as well”.

The Bolshevised Australian party adopted similar ideas, and the rigid, undemocratic mode of organising that went along with them. At its 1948 conference, the CPA reaffirmed the secondary importance, and reactionary intent, of rights language by arguing that the conservative side of politics upheld “human freedom” so as to allow “a handful of parasitical millionaires to continue to exploit and plunder the Australian people”. In keeping with Marxist-Leninist notions of subordinating personal freedoms to those of a social and economic nature, it was argued that “the first condition of personal freedom for the great majority of the people is to smash monopoly-capitalist control”. While the party called for the defence of “democratic rights”, these were usually synonymous with collective trade union rights, and the defence of the individual against the predations of the state was rarely if at all mentioned.

The 1951 referendum seeking approval to ban the CPA stands as a high point for the use of such discourses, but the language of human rights was consciously avoided. The Australian Council for Civil Liberties, a prominent organiser of the “no” case led by communist fellow-traveller Brian Fitzpatrick, “rejected the post-war project by international organisations to reinterpret civil liberties within a framework of international human rights”. Such internationalism was seen as a menacing imperialist ploy, a mere extension of the West’s desire to cast “new communist countries in Eastern Europe as despotic puppet regimes of the Soviet Union”. The case was instead presented as the protection of British legalism and often couched in anti-fascist language, rather than appealing to universal individual freedoms against governmental intrusion that Moyn and others present as the basis of modern human rights.

The notion of rights and responsibilities—enshrined in both the practice of democratic centralism and the USSR’s constitution—also provided a means through which to control internal dissent. The basics of democratic centralism were that party members had a right to contribute to and discuss matters of policy and action, and an overriding responsibility to enact what the majority—read, the leadership—decided. As Phillip Deery explains of veteran communist Jack Blake, Marxist discourse was used to reprimand and remove from positions of authority the highly popular leader, who was charged with individualism and “right deviations” for positing that Australian communists might model their policies more on local issues than Moscow’s orders. His case was just one example among many of how Marxist dogma and organisational rigidity stifled discussion. As Scalmer explained, “the master discourse of Marxism was a poor weapon in the hands of the frustrated, democratically minded CPA member”. Instead, better, subtler tools were required.

The Road to Independence

In the Soviet Union, though, change was in the air. The ascension of Nikita Khrushchev in 1955-1956 saw a thaw in political and cultural practices in the USSR, marked perhaps most glaringly by his speech at the twentieth Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Congress denouncing Stalin and castigating the cult of personality he had fostered. The 1961 CPSU party programme removed mention of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, replacing it with the notion of an “all-people’s state”. There was also significantly more talk on the withering-away of the state in classical Marxist terms and the increasing importance of “mass organisations” such as the youth grouping Komsomol in decision-making. This new approach was imagined by reformist communists as “the basis for change in the whole political system according to democratic principles”, while lessening the state’s role was an anathema to the country’s conservative bureaucrats. This theoretical, at least, freeing up of democracy was a part of a general turn in rights discourse under Khrushchev’s rule. As Mark B. Smith puts it, during the post-Stalin years, “it became increasingly possible to talk meaningfully of a general system of rights, or at least aspects of such a system”. Literary censorship was largely lifted, and works long suppressed under Stalin began to appear, while criticism of government was more vocal and the foundations of a dissident politics were laid. As Soviet dissident Valery Chalidze presciently remarked, the “Communist movement for human rights was begun by Nikita Khrushchev”, though this was far from his intention.

If Khrushchev’s freeing up of expression and talking of rights and democratisation in the USSR seemed to challenge old certainties, it was in other parties and nations, primarily National Communism in Italy, that a new crop of Australian communist leaders began seeking answers to their local problems. And many problems were increasing ascertainable. Debate and questioning around the dual crisis of 1956—first Khrushchev’s speech and then the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November—were met by the party leadership with a heavy hand. While an uneasy period of questioning followed the CPSU congress, with criticism encouraged at the branch level and with the party newspaper Tribune, by late 1956, a reversion to dogmatism was apparent among the party leadership. A Tribune report from July 1956 indicates how little ground had shifted after the secret speech in relation to rights: “Freedom to criticise does not … mean freedom to propagate anti-Party or disruptive views through the Party or through the press”. Even Eric Aarons, who had argued for greater transparency and debate in early 1956, wrote in November:

that it would be ridiculous to think [that] freedom means freedom to disseminate slanders more appropriate to the capitalist gutter press or to propagate ideas opposed to the basic principles we have voluntarily combined in the Party to give effect to.

As Calkin and Deery write, many party members from all walks of life departed during this time, if not in shock at the USSR’s violation of its own principles in deposing the Nagy government in Hungary, then due to the Australian leadership’s unwillingness to allow any discussion of the ramifications of either this or Stalin’s cult of personality. These departures opened up new spaces for discussion and debate such as Outlook magazine and the ex-communist Overland literary journal, both of which provided new avenues for work more critical of the USSR and more amenable to Australian traditions. For those who stayed, however, new ideas and beliefs were needed to replace those that Khrushchev had dismissed. European historian Pavel Kolar argues that this period marked a transition in communist parties around the world from a vision of a utopia of the communist future to that of the party itself—a “processual utopia” that abandoned the inevitability of Soviet-style communism spreading throughout the world, in favour of the constant transforming and reimagining of the organisation.

Similar processes are seen clearly in the CPA, with new utopias being sought out in a diversity of contexts. Many younger cadres such as Melbourne jurist and functionary Rex Mortimer, Melbourne organiser Bernie Taft, and Eric and Laurie Aarons, soon to be respectively the party’s key theorist and general secretary, were encouraged by the Chinese communists’ anti-dogmatic position. Rhetoric of letting “one-hundred flowers bloom” and allowing local conditions rather than stale dogma to drive political action were inculcated in many of these individuals during party schools in Beijing in the early to mid-1950s. Hill and others, particularly enamoured with Mao’s later guise as a neo- Stalinist, split from the CPA in 1963 after a tumultuous period of debate and infighting to form a Beijing-aligned organisation, while those who remained more closely followed the Soviet road of liberalisation.

Taft recalled how this split, while acrimonious and opening more wounds than it healed, “freed us from old concepts and restrictions which had acted as a barrier to growth and change”. Many reformists began looking to National Communism in Italy for an example of how socialism could be more open to the language of democracy and rights. Palermo Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from 1926 to 1964, adopted a post-Second World War policy known as Partito Nuevo (New Party), which involved the massifying of its appeal and accepting Western norms of rights and democracy while maintaining Soviet support.

Many Australians were deeply influenced by this new approach, one of developing independence within a national framework while remaining within the Soviet orbit, and also by the Italians’ approach to internal democracy and the rights of members. Taft recalled a meeting with Togliatti in Moscow during 1961 where he was particularly impressed with the Italian Party’s “open and much more self-critical” attitude, while Laurie Aarons’ late 1964 trip to Italy and France, only months before he was to take on the top position of general secretary of the CPA, cemented the party leadership’s new interest in moving beyond rigid Soviet domination. While Aarons saw “it [as] quite impossible to transplant mechanically the experience of other Parties”, Italian ideas such as a plurality of political ideas and forces under a socialist state and the democratisation of party processes could be employed locally.

Khrushchev’s Demise and Anti-Semitism

The generational shift between Lance Sharkey (1948-1965) and Laurie Aarons (1965- 1976) as general secretary of the CPA was a victory for the modernising wing of the Party, but the political climate in the USSR that the new leadership was responding to was rapidly changing. A liberalising leadership had in fact been in the ascendancy in the Australian party throughout the early 1960s, with Aarons taking over most of Sharkey’s responsibilities before officially receiving the position, while Taft, leading functionary John Sendy, and other reformists took on key regional posts, particularly after the split with Hill. The first international test of this developing reformist position came with the 1964 bloodless coup against Khrushchev by neo-Stalinist Leonid Brezhnev. Khrushchev’s seemingly real commitment to reform and democratisation had provided hope to Australian communists, with Taft recalling how:

The labour camps had been emptied, and inmates were returning with horrifying stories about life in the camps … I desperately wanted to believe that the Soviet Union was now heading in the right direction and that the problems of the past … were now behind them.

Yet, the manner of Khrushchev’s dismissal by conservatives on the Politburo seemed to hark back to an earlier, more troubling time. Soviet daily Pravda announced on 16 October—two days after Khrushchev’s replacement—that “subjectivism and drift in communist construction, harebrained scheming, half-baked conclusions and hasty decisions and action divorced from reality” had forced the hands of those who now led the USSR. Yet, at no point was Khrushchev mentioned by name.

Such a disappearance—if to the relative comfort of his dacha rather than by firing squad—clearly concerned the CPA’s political committee, who published a closely worded statement entitled “Changes in the Soviet Union”. Therein, the Australians expressed their hopes that “the basic policies pursued over the past decade will remain unchanged”. These policies were commended for making “big advances towards correcting serious mistakes of the past”, achievements “publicly associated with the name of Khrushchov [sic]”. This carefully worded criticism, labelled “wishy-washy” by Aarons in a private communication, articulated how the Australian leadership felt about Khrushchev’s liberalising record. It also raised eyebrows in the CPSU’s international bureau, as well as among less critically minded Australians. The publication of an anti-Semitic book in the USSR, Judaism without Embellishment, sparked further recriminations. As Philip Mendes argues in his work on this topic, the international outcry that emerged after this book’s publication “provided an opportunity for the CPA’s new openness to be put to the test”.

The CPA—much like numerous other revolutionary groups around the world—had a large Jewish membership. The Aarons family, dubbed the “royal family of Australian communism” in a 1962 Bulletin article, were only a few of the many, including Taft, of Jewish identity. While not practising, and like their Russian Bolshevik revolutionary counterparts having largely abandoned their Jewish faith for Bolshevism’s messianic promises, Jewish party members were occasionally the subject of anti-Semitism. Sharkey in particular was a known anti-Semite, views which were exacerbated while under the influence of alcohol, while ASIO alleged that some central committee members referred to the Aarons family as “the hooked-nosed Jews”. As such, there was much reason for Jewish party members to adopt a critical stance of anti-Semitism in the USSR, and by association, in their own party.

This situation allowed for the emergence of a new discourse: one admitting that real existing socialism’s laudable social and economic rights were not enough, but that continued racial discrimination and unfair legal proceedings necessitated a call for universal rights that transcended Cold War meanings and borders. The notion that nearly anything was admissible for a party serving history and progress was no longer palatable. Mendes tells of how Taft and Rex Mortimer, editor of the Victorian CPA weekly Guardian newspaper, began meeting with Melbourne Jewish leader and prominent campaigner Isi Leibler to discuss the publication of Judaism without Embellishment and other anti-Semitic tracts in late 1964. They both issued statements criticising the USSR, part of their plans of “testing the limits of party democracy”, which assisted Leibler’s aims of breaking monolithic communist thought on the issue. Leibler’s attempts to depoliticise the rhetoric of human rights is an example of the broader transformation that Moyn describes, as it moved from a Cold War weapon to a set of truly universal rights needing to be upheld by both superpowers, presaging the work of Amnesty International a decade later. After his discussions with Taft and Mortimer, Leibler published a pamphlet entitled Soviet Jewry and Human Rights in early 1965—to which the CPA political committee issued a reply that attempted to appease both conservatives and reformists. Therein, it was admitted that “mistakes were made on the national question in the Soviet Union” and that Soviet Jews “suffered from these acts”, while simultaneously arguing that Jews held significant social and economic rights and were dramatically over-represented in all fields of endeavour. The pamphlet ended with a condemnation of those who use “the whole question of Soviet Jewry … to engage in anti- Soviet and anti-Communist propaganda, interests in no way concerned with the well- being of the Jewish people anywhere”.

While the CPA’s reply still clearly placed such calls for rights within Cold War discourse, Leibler pushed the point. He wrote to Laurie Aarons personally in August 1965, encouraging the CPA to adopt an overt position against the USSR’s Jewish policies, arguing that such an approach could be “principled, based on evidence and not connected with Cold War polemics”. Leibler concluded:

[t]he Soviet authorities will surely be influenced if their friends in the West insist that human rights are indivisible and that they are prepared to speak out against the deprivations of equal rights to groups in socialist countries as well as in the West.

Such exhortations, very much in keeping with contemporary human rights rhetoric, coincided with the new leadership’s increasing desire to express its independence, and they chose to do so at least in part by adopting a notion of rights devoid of Cold War constraints.

Not only did Aarons raise these concerns with Soviet officialdom, but, when interviewed for Tribune in December 1965, he also responded to Soviet attempts at having Zionism and Nazism linked in a UN resolution on racism by commenting that “it is certainly wrong to link Zionism and Nazism in this connection”. He argued, contrary to many decades of excusing Soviet actions as responding to capitalist imperialism, that “[t] he fact that the USA has been attacking the Soviet Union in pursuance of the cold war does not alter the fact that the formulation was wrong”. Aarons’ raising of these criticisms, implying that an action can be subjectively amiss despite objective conditions, marked a significant turning point. This also evidences the view of many contemporary scholars that the idea of universal and global human rights emerged as the “long-term connection of rights and state sovereignty” was rendered invalid.

The Twenty-First CPA Conference and the Charter of Democratic Rights

As the CPA saw international and domestic politics as intricately linked, it is no surprise that criticism of the previously unassailable Soviet Union using a new form of universalist discourse would have a transnational resonance, leading to similar changes in party operation and policies in Australia. This period marked the start of a protracted thaw that changed the direction of communist policies in Australia, with the aim of saving the party from what well-known member and writer Dorothy Hewett called its destiny as a “a shrinking, conservative, ingrown sect”. Early criticism was muted, especially of previously sacrosanct theoretical articles. Already hinted at by Aarons upon his return from Europe in early 1965, leading communist Bill Brown noted in an instructional article in the July issue of Communist Review how the idea of democratic centralism, while “emerg[ing] from the basic, material and universal experience of … the working class against capitalism in all countries”, need not be applied the same way everywhere. Brown waxed poetically that “[w]hat is necessary is to remove all clogs from our Party’s arteries; to allow lively fresh blood to continually course through the whole process of Party thought and action”, and added that “Democratic centralism, properly applied, provides the method to ensure this”.

Opponents of such positions were equally aware of the local effects of global political commentary, such as that levelled by the party at the CPSU. Long-time CPA member Ernie Thornton, former head of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association and himself a dissident in the 1940s, wrote in December 1965 that the new-found taste for questioning and criticism was “excessive”. Thornton mused that the “pre-occupation with mistakes of the past to the exclusion of proper examination of the problems of the present” by the current crop of reformers was “sterile and useless”.

Many took umbrage at Thornton’s subtle reprimand. Len Fox, party journalist, artist and dissident, protested that Thornton “goes close to denying the fundamental right of a Party member … to criticise”, comments taking as an exercisable right what had often been only a formality. Another writer noted that the party’s “poor history in matters of democratic rights and freedom of the individual” needed to be publicly acknowledged to ensure that a new generation could hold any trust in the party. Similar questions quickly came to the fore during the preparation for the 1967 Twenty-first Congress of the CPA and were epitomised in “a very significant document”, the Charter of Democratic Rights.

The foundations of this new charter were laid out in two theoretical articles in the newly minted Australian Left Review (ALR)—whose publication of non-party viewpoints and critical opinion was itself a mark of the times—in late 1966. Taking Brown’s tacit criticisms of democratic centralism even further, Sendy’s “Democracy and the Communist Party” recommended that “the dust should be shaken off the textbooks” and that “lubrication must be provided for minds clogged with the formulas of yesteryear”. Sendy took such rhetoric to a practical level, concretely proposing the “free discussion of ideas … the rights of dissenters, and an end to attitudes of suspicion, and gestures of retaliation against members who feel constrained to disagree or challenge majority viewpoints”.

Eric Aarons took such criticisms into a discussion of the party’s plan for a socialist Australia in “Socialism: only one party?” The article came to the long-overdue realisation that Australians “are deeply attached to the measure of actual freedom they have, and will vigorously defend it; they are not moved by abstract discourses on the superiority of socialist over bourgeois democracy”. The rhetorical toolkit of the 1930s proved less pertinent in the prosperous 1960s. The charter itself was released for circulation in early 1967, followed by a formalised version a year later. The charter’s introduction declared “the indivisibility of human rights [are] more than an abstract principle”, a clear statement of just how much party reformists had reconsidered this question. A new draft constitution was also released, which controversially removed all reference to democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, while proposing that socialism in Australia could arrive via a coalition of the Left and expand on supposedly bourgeois freedoms.

While previous changes in party policy had been approved almost unanimously, and any dissent quickly quashed or muzzled, the release of these documents “sparked off a wide discussion unique in our 47 year history,” as long-standing member Sam Aarons put it. While conservative leader Jim Henderson claimed that this discussion was carried out in much the same way as previously, with the membership compulsively agreeing with yet another veer in political trajectory, publications such as Discussion Journal—the first intensive and public form of pre-conference discussion in CPA history—speak to the openness and transparency of this debate. Covering “372 large pages” in which “[e]verything submitted was printed”, Discussion Journal was where the main issues percolating among the membership—the nature of the Soviet Union, democracy, rights and the future of Australian capitalism—were for the first time publicly and thoroughly debated. The documents provided a rare view of the oft-secretive party’s internal life, with the gap between the party’s public profile and private intrigues almost entirely dissolved. This openness sparked interest and comment from many outside the party. Melbourne’s Age asked, “Are Australian Communists going soft?” in a prominent article, while Taft recalled Discussion Journal reaching a wide readership in the Labor Party and other progressive circles. This interest arose from the document’s fundamental rethinking of Australian history and culture, and particularly the democratic rights Australians took for granted. CPA youth leader Mavis Robertson summed up the feelings of many contributors when she argued that policy needed to “derive from attitudes, traditions and experiences of Australians” and not from “foreign forms of organization”—statements that only years earlier could have seen her expelled.

One rank and file party member was quoted by Sendy as saying, in a testament to this new-found respect for Australian tradition, that:

Democracy might be a class question. But when we talk of democracy that’s what we’ve got to mean. If an author writes a book we don’t like or people refuse to toe our political line, that’s too bad. When we talk about bloody democracy that’s what we’ve got to mean— democracy—it’s as simple as that.

This simplicity illustrates how, after decades of theoretic obfuscation, a universal human- based rather than class-based notion of rights was in the ascendancy. As the Charter of Democratic Rights put it:

The key to a real guarantee of human rights lies in a new social system that will strengthen and expand democracy by elevating the rights of the individual … and creating institutions of government designed exclusively to serve the people and fully answerable to them.

This was a social system that only a rebranded, rights-focused CPA could provide. Many others made similar opinions known, abandoning decades of prior practice by tying internal party practices in Australia to their perception in the wider community. Betty Lockwood explained that “Democracy is strong in Australia’s heritage, and lack of it in our Party … has been the main reason for waning enthusiasm and drop in activity” among local branches.

Others argued that this turn reflected the party’s history of fighting for social and economic rights. One correspondent pointed out that communists “have been in the forefront of the struggles for democratic rights” and as these freedoms were now regarded as “an attribute of our society … [w]e have to be able to demonstrate that we will extend such freedom[s]” in individual terms. These ideas were additionally wrapped up in concerns around the party’s inability to appeal to the newly radicalising youth of the New Left—the products of a post-war economic boom the CPA had previously refused to either acknowledge or theoretically comprehend. Attempts had been made to court these young radicals—particularly through the launch by Mortimer and ex-party intellectual Geoff Sharp of Melbourne’s Arena magazine in 1963—and communists played significant roles in early student activist initiatives such as the 1965 Freedom Ride. Still, many youth saw the party as “stodgy and conservative … a stern disciplinarian against dissent in its own ranks, and chastising with Old Testament zeal those intellectuals who may question our Ten Commandments on the graven tablets”, as Queensland party member and journalist Pete Thomas put it. Indeed, possibly the second most discussed topic in Discussion Journal after democratic and individual rights was the question of youth—whether in terms of morality or their unwillingness to be mobilised within old class-based categories.

Such supportive words for the conference documents were in no way universal, however. Dorothy Hewett, for one, felt that the reforms did not go far enough, arguing that, while “regressive” terms such as democratic centralism had disappeared from the programme, it “keep[s] the idea intact, just dressed up a little”. Changing the organisation’s long-established practices and structures was much less simple than altering phraseology. Opponents on the conservative side of the debate were just as vocal, taking advantage of the new freedom of expression to voice their continued support of the Soviet Union and opposition to “bourgeois” notions of rights that they claimed were underlaying the documents. Douglas Price questioned why the existing constitution that “has been built up on 44 years [sic] experience” needed to be changed at all, describing its proposed replacement as one “that would be equally suitable for a left social democratic party as for the Communist Party”.

Jack Hughes wrote a more sustained criticism along similar lines to Price’s, in Discussion, which replaced Discussion Journal after the twenty-first conference’s closing. He condemned the new approach to rights, describing Australian democracy as a form of class rule and insisting that the party return to its position of “seeking … unity to end the present democratic system of inequalities”. Another critic, under the pseudonym of Jayeff, argued that the CPA’s new democratic approach posed internal dangers, as well, with the new upswell of criticism needing to be “restrained” by party leaders. Such “deficiencies of discipline,” as the author presented them, “need to be corrected by Centralist leadership”. Yet, despite this criticism, reformers felt that much had been gained with relatively little cost. Taft insisted that “[w]e were living in an exciting atmosphere, and felt that we were travelling on a new road towards a model of socialism that was pluralist, open, democratic and humane”. This new approach was soon, however, to undergo a new test—one that challenged the very basis of reform communism and sparked the party’s second split.

Czechoslovakia and the Death of Reform Communism

On 20 August 1968, Warsaw Pact troops rolled into Czechoslovakia. This action— disturbingly reminiscent of 1956—was in response to the so-called Prague Spring of political, social and economic reforms the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had undertaken under the leadership of mild-mannered Slovakian bureaucrat Alexander Dubcek. Much like the Aarons leadership in Australia, Dubcek rose to power to correct and liberalise the mistakes of a leadership still functioning in what amounted to a Stalinist fashion. Acting uncharacteristically quickly after his January 1968 appointment, Dubcek lifted press censorship, introduced new economic policies and facilitated the greater involvement of workers in democratic decision-making.

The Czech’s Action Plan, as it was called, published around the world, was met with great support among party members in Australia, who saw it as an approval of their own liberalising tendencies and of the importance of individual rights under socialism in developed nations. Eric Aarons, by now Australian communism’s key theoretical mind, described it as a document of “world significance” that “faces questions as they actually present themselves”, and did not by “effort or by design seek to shift the ground by raising other questions which … are not really at issue”. Trade unionist Jack Mundey explained how events in Prague made the Australians confident that they were on the right side of history: the policies adopted at the party’s 1967 congress were similar “in more than a few ways” to those of their Czech counterparts. Laurie Aarons declared in an April 1968 issue of Tribune, entitled “the Czech renaissance lights a way for us”, that Dubcek’s reforms “are showing in practice that the ideas … advanced at our 21st Congress and developed in the draft Charter for Democratic Rights … are neither a dream nor a manoeuvre”.

Thus, even before the invasion, Czechoslovakia had become a prism through which party members could debate the new democratic and rights-based policies being implemented locally. Conservative forces, for example, used the example of Czechoslovakia’s democratic approach to attack the charter’s hopes for a non-violent revolution and the risk of allowing uncontrolled freedom of expression. Seaman Max Wood, from the conservative waterside branch of the party, attacked Dubcek’s attitude towards free speech for the bourgeoisie and the existence of capitalist political parties. Drawing on what were seen as examples of “capitalist roading” and right-wing revanchism in Czechoslovakia, he argued that “the old order still is prepared to raise its putrefied head, under cover of the new democratic improvements now being tried out”, setting a dangerous precedent for Australia.

Such debates became only more heated after the Soviet intervention. The CPA was the first communist party to publicly condemn the Soviet invasion; however, fissures soon developed. Mark Aarons relates how the Soviet leadership began exerting significant pressure on leading Australian party members to reverse their heresy by removing the reformist leadership, and these manoeuvres are evidenced by increasingly heated exchanges within CPA publications. Aarons described censorship in a late 1968 article for ALR as “wrong in itself”, sparking the ire of conservatives who saw such a universal claim as ignoring the importance of “class struggle”, particularly the need to repress bourgeois ideas in a post-revolutionary environment.

Equally, on the principle of self-determination, Ted Bacon argued for a universalist notion of the rights of nations to apply in both the socialist and capitalist worlds. The “basic faults in Soviet democracy cannot be excused merely by reference to the difficulties of the historical development of the USSR,” Bacon argued; in fact, “the defects of Soviet democracy are not just the internal affair of the Soviet Union. They are the affair of all communists, for they affect the whole present and future of the world socialist movement”. This sort of rhetoric, reminiscent in many ways of contemporary human rights activism, was the last straw for many. Such utterances “reek[ed] with right opportunism and revisionism” in the opinion of one writer, while others defended the Soviet Union’s move as being in keeping with their supposed transition to communism. “Old formulas of self determination” were no longer relevant in a “period of ever greater integration”, Jim Henderson claimed, cloaking what was a fundamental attack on human rights as progress towards socialism—and a clear divide was exposed. The fracture between the reformists and the conservatives was now almost complete.

By 1970, the divide in the CPA was clear. Leading oppositionist Bill Brown wrote in a letter to the national committee that his proposed expulsion from the party arose not from any “alleged technical breach of the rules”, but rather was the outcome of an “ideological struggle between petit-bourgeois radical trends that have penetrated the Party and those who adhere to a sound Marxist standpoint for unity in the international communist movement”. He accused the party leadership of, under the guise of democracy, “initiat[ing] the worst wave of administrative and punitive measures in Party history”. A year later, Bill Brown, Pat Clancy, Jim Henderson and other leading oppositionists were finally expelled from the party for organising secret meetings and publishing their own newspaper, the Australian Socialist. In its drive to cleanse the party and start afresh, the reforming leadership adopted disciplinary measures and bureaucratic intrigues not so dissimilar from those enacted during the party’s Stalinist period, targeting an opposition who were making as much use as they could out of the party’s new democratic procedures to sow division.

For those who stayed, however, reformist communism and notions of human rights had a much longer and more convoluted life. For many, these ideas were crushed under Soviet tanks in Prague. Laurie Aarons was particularly shocked and dispirited by the Soviet invasion and led the dominant faction of the party’s turn towards the student-based New Left. The 1969 Left Action Conference, organised by the CPA to both develop links with these newly radicalising sections of society and figure out a way forward in a post- Prague Spring world, was held in Sydney over the Easter weekend and drew nearly 1000 attendees. The gathering demonstrated the departure of the Aarons leadership from its heralding of Australian democracy and individual rights. Instead, they “were enraptured over silver-tongued, charismatic Brian Laver, Brisbane student leader” and his “rousing speeches for ‘occupation of the factories’, ‘action committees as instruments of dual power’” and other new forms of direct or participatory democracy. These ideas were brought back from Laver’s tour of Europe the previous year and soon became central tenets of CPA policy, most prominently employed in the famous Builders Labourers’ Federation “Green Bans” period.

Chief supporters of the party turn towards universal rights in Victoria such as Bernie Taft looked askance at this turn towards the New Left, dismissing it as irrelevant to the Australian context and just as rigidly dogmatic as imported ideologies of yesteryear. Taft bemoans in his memoir how “there was a growing and disturbing shift to the extreme left by members of the party leadership who were attempting to overcome their Stalinist past” who “turned away from the direction the party had taken before 1968 … and moved increasingly towards a fundamentalist, extreme left position”. Taft and his supporters in Victoria, forming a faction in principled opposition to Aarons’, continued to pursue the more open and consultative form of party life that was developed at the twenty-first congress, working alongside the Labor Party and maintaining the use of rights language. This trajectory presaged the departure of Taft and many of his supporters into the Labor Party in the 1980s.


Stalinist Russia was the political utopia of Australian communism prior to 1956. The myth of Stalin and inevitable progress towards the socialist future never really survived the dual shocks of that year. Kolar argues that a new utopia was needed in communist parties after this, one that was found in the “processual utopia” of the party itself. Previously viewed as monolithic, the party was now seen as fallible and was re-imagined as a “never-ending process of making and remaking”, while the idea of the communist future faded into various types of socialist accommodation with the realities of markets and consumer freedoms. While Kolar’s work looks at regime parties, the flow-on effects of these ideas were felt in fraternal organisations around the globe. For the CPA, a new utopia was needed, one that allowed international ties to be challenged and local practice refounded. Perhaps the new and seemingly unchallengeable notion of rights— human, democratic and universal—was the utopia they needed at the time, but one that could just as easily be abandoned.