Cover of book: The Party: The Communist Party  of Australia from heyday to reckoning

Stuart Macintyre
The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning

In The Reds (1998), the first part of his history of the Communist Party of Australia, the late Stuart Macintyre commented: “With its passing, communism has become almost unintelligible.” Twenty-four years later The Party, the posthumously published second volume, continues the argument.

The book begins with World War II, a conflict the CPA briefly opposed after the Hitler–Stalin pact. Macintyre’s description of the small campaign against conscription that followed defamiliarises the usual narrative about social unity during the Good War – as does his account of the wartime ban on communism. Who remembers that in 1940 a couple served six months in jail merely for lending two Marxist books in Geraldton?

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1940, the Communist Party loyally reversed its line, declaring itself “the leading and most active war party”. Again we encounter the foreignness of the past, a bizarre country where, with the USSR aligned with the Allies, The Sydney Morning Herald celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Russian Revolution by praising “the constructive strength of the Stalinist regime”.

With Uncle Joe smiling genially from the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly and CPA leader J. B. Miles standing alongside Labor ministers at patriotic rallies, the Communist Party grew massively, boasting perhaps 20,000 members by the end of the conflict.

In other words, Australian communism reached its organisational peak in a period in which its union activists sought to suppress strikes and intensify production. The party presented, Macintyre says, “an alternative account of military service in which the citizen soldiers exemplified the best democratic instincts of the Australian people”.

The end of the war brought to a finish that strange collaboration between communists and the state, with renewed hostility between the Soviet Union and the West and a corresponding resurgence of communist militancy at home.

Anyone fretting about contemporary “cancel culture” would do well to read Macintyre’s account of the intimidation facing party members in the postwar years. When the Korean conflict began, then prime minister Robert Menzies warned of an imminent global war that required a crackdown on communism at home. Though Menzies’ attempts to wipe out the party through his Dissolution Bill failed, the authorities deployed existing legislation to target leading members. A court sentenced the publisher of the Tribune to six months’ jail for sedition; police raided the writer Rex Chiplin for – of all things! – “disparaging the monarchy”.

Meanwhile, ASIO compiled files on anyone even tangentially connected with the party, as its head, Colonel Charles Spry, regularly fed sensitive information to right-wing politicians and the press. Understandably, the CPA declined precipitously.

The party’s failure to regroup when the Cold War eased showed that external repression ultimately mattered less than the internal contradictions associated with unflinching devotion to Stalinist Russia.

Over time, the party’s willingness to adjust its principles according to the vagaries of Moscow’s foreign policy conflicted with its devolution to a day-to-day practice akin to that of social democracy. In 1956, Khrushchev acknowledged the extent of Stalin’s terror – and then demonstrated the limits of de-Stalinisation by crushing the so-called Prague Spring. To Australian communists struggling to process these events, the local cadre could only offer bluster and bullying. “We will pour shit on you!” threatened the novelist Judah Waten, as literary intellectuals resigned over Hungary.

A belief in Soviet infallibility had distinguished communists from Laborites. The new tensions in the Eastern bloc radically challenged that faith, with the eventual split between Russia and China undercutting the CPA’s claim to an uncontested orthodoxy. The Party devotes only a brief epilogue to the period between 1970 and the CPA’s dissolution in 1991, with the bulk of the book centred on the 1940s and ’50s.

In The Reds, Macintyre described how his undergraduates at Melbourne Uni responded to two different historical discussion of freedom. The students absorbed without difficulty arguments by the neoliberal pioneer Friedrich Hayek about private property and open markets but found communist writings about freedom from capitalism entirely baffling. In The Party, Macintyre emphasises the culture of public participation associated with communism, something the neoliberal turn has erased from popular memory.

Even at its height, the CPA might have only reached a third of the ALP’s membership, but “it had far more organisers, its publications outsold those of the Labor Party, and its training was of a different order of magnitude”.

In each chapter of The Party, Macintyre outlines a general theme – “Headwinds”, “The Offensive”, “The Chill”, and so on – and then uses his immense erudition to show that narrative playing out across the different aspects of the party’s work. We find communists organising in support of Indonesian seamen; backing Indigenous strikers; establishing jazz festivals; running sports carnivals; marching for peace; debating aesthetics; and engaging in a vast array of other activities – sometimes hindered and sometimes assisted by the formal politics they espoused.

Is communism unintelligible today? The children of those undergraduates from 1998 might now be students themselves. One suspects they would find the CPA’s devotion to the Soviet Union even more baffling than their parents once did. Yet, amid the chaos wrought by 21st-century capitalism, they might feel inclined to investigate what Macintyre calls the “lost world of political engagement”.

If so, they’ll find in The Party an account that’s as readable as it is definitive: an invaluable resource for both scholars and the public.

Jeff Sparrow

Allen & Unwin, 512pp, $49.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning, Stuart Macintyre".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow

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