The family file by Mark Aarons – a review

The family file by Mark Aarons is a political genealogy of three generations of a family who belonged to the Communist Party of Australia. As the CPA journeyed from being a working class revolutionary party in the 1920s to dissolving itself in 1991, via Stalinism and reformism, several members of the Aarons family were also party members. The central character is Mark’s father Laurie, who had been the General Secretary of the CPA from 1965. After Laurie died in 2003 Mark succeeded in gaining access to his family’s ASIO files, which provided most of the raw material for this book.

The most astounding idea in the book is repeated several times when describing reprehensible decisions or positions of the CPA that baffled their own rank and file, such as support for the Stalin Hitler pact. According to Aarons, the Party had to take these positions, there was no alternative.

I was intrigued, and perhaps naively shocked to read in The family file just how much attention Moscow paid to the CPA, right up until the early 1970s, and how much direction the CPA took from Moscow. After World War II a network of CPA members infiltrated the Australian public service and passed on secret documents from the British and American allies (including Katherine Susannah Pritchard) that Moscow could not get more directly from the UK or the USA. Moscow closely directed and funded failed efforts by the Moscow loyalists to reconquer the CPA after a majority, led by Laurie, voted to criticise (fairly mildly on grounds of national independence, not on grounds of working class independence) the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. CPA reliance on Moscow funding is described in some detail and was such that the party rapidly declined once that funding was shifted to the new Moscow line Socialist Party of Australia after the split over Czechoslovakia.

Conspiracy and secrecy abounded from the 1930s onwards, not out of necessity for activists trying to rouse Australian workers, but to conceal connections with Moscow. Laurie took up golf with his comrades, as conversations were hard for spies to overhear on the golf course. In the Cold War it was the connection with Moscow that was subversive and attracted such a large volume of ASIO surveillance. Both the CPA and the Australian government (similarly to other western governments) mixed up the foreign affairs threat implied by the CPA’s allegiance to Moscow, and the threat of civil unrest at home instigated by Communists.

The fascinating aspect of this book is that it depicts frustrations and dilemmas of significant individual CPA members trying to balance the demands of Moscow with the realities of Hitler, World War II, the Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia, and class struggle in Australia.

But it is frustrating and dissatisfying that Mark Aarons avoids taking advantage of hindsight to try to give a political account of these dilemmas, or of the changes in point of view of Laurie or himself. It recounts changing loyalties within the trajectory of Stalinism. The book is glib about the murderousness and treachery of the Stalinist regimes, as if their crimes were incidents in a work of fiction, with no serious consequences, and no need for rigorous analysis.

Laurie’s reaction to Kruschev’s secret speech was anti-climactic. “I don’t recall being terribly shocked in the sense that it shattered my whole world…It seemed to make sense to me. A lot of things that I’d read were now explained: the fight against the Troskyites and the ‘crimes’ of Tukhachevsky, Radek, Bukharin, Zinoviev and the others, this made it sound rational. I was convinced it was right.” “I don’t think it seems that bad to me” he said of Kruschev’s revelations. (179-180)

According to Kruschev, Stalin had claimed to be fighting Trotskyism, long after the danger of Trotskyism had been vanquished, as a cover for the purges which were really in aid of Stalin’s personality cult. What a comforting thought for anti-Trotskyists such as Laurie, there was no real Trotskyist threat after all. The book is astonishingly silent on how a regime that the CPA and the Aarons family still called “Marxist” could have perpetrated a reign of terror on a scale larger than Hitler’s? How could it not be “that bad”?

The most irritating thing about the book is the reference by Stalinist epithet to around five or so former comrades as ‘trotskyites’ (unindexed unfortunately), including Wally Moor . Aarons never gives recognition or credit to Trotskyists for seeing back in the 1930s that Stalin was an enemy of working class struggle and of human freedom, motivated primarily to protect and increase his own power at the expense of anyone who might get in the way. Those baffling and criminal decisions about the Spanish Civil War, fascism and social democracy that were directed by Moscow and supinely followed by the CPA still prompt no rethink about the murderous treatment meted out to Trotskyists who challenged and explained them.

Laurie, Mark, other Aarons family members and indeed other CPAers no doubt were sincere in their hope for a more equal society, improved living standards for workers and the poor, and freedom from oppression for women, aborigines, gays. The CPAers wasted decades, and led many others to waste decades too by following Moscow when strong independent minded labour movements could have eroded the power of capital and learned about the possibility of creating a socialist world. The tragedy of their story is the tragedy of the Communist Parties outside the Soviet bloc. The party loyalty of members blinded them to the evidence, and deafened them to voices saying that Stalin was no Marxist, that the USSR was not socialist, and the CPs were not revolutionary. They not only insisted that the USSR and Eastern Europe were socialist, but they took sides in debate on the basis of who endorsed the Stalinist regimes. Many good socialists and working class activists had their critical faculties poisoned if they stayed in the CPA for too long.

But all along socialists could choose an alternative to following Moscow. Red Hot the biography of Nick Origlass by Hall Greenland chronicles a parallel story to that of the Aarons family. Nick was a working class fighter in inner Sydney who stood up to the CPA from the 1930s onwards, and a more inspiring character than any who feature in The family file.

My personal connection with the CPA

I was a first year university student in 1974 when I joined the CPA.

Rod Webb was the first Trotskyist who I ever talked politics with, about the same time as I joined the CPA. Rod had succeeded Mark Aarons as the editor of Arena, the Macquarie University student newspaper. It was Rod’s role in the 1975 student occupation of the Vice Chancellor’s office from which I gained my first practical experience of rank and file democracy. The occupying students demanded student control of student affairs, and Rod opened up the Arena office space for daily meetings of an occupation committee open to all students who supported the occupation to thrash out what next steps would be proposed to student mass meetings.

Rod called the CPA Stalinist. At first this seemed unwarranted to me. The CPA supported liberation struggles of women, gays and aborigines. I came to understand Stalinism as defined not by advocacy of Stalin’s repression, but by the domestic policies of the CPA which chose ‘popular’ cross class alliances, at the expense of trying to develop specifically working class solidarity and policies, and even at the expense of actual working class struggles. Reading Aarons book I now understand that even in 1974 an informed anti-Stalinist calling the CPA ‘Stalinist’ had more reasons for doing so. The CPA had not so much cut ties with Moscow, as Moscow had cut ties and funds from it, and redirected them to the more loyal faction that founded the Socialist Party of Australia. To someone who did not know the very recent history or appreciate its tangible significance, the ‘Stalinist’ label could be seen to be sectarian name-calling on the left.

I was tantalised by Mark Aarons’ references to the Left Tendency which developed in the CPA around the same time I was a member. The family file shows the Left Tendency as being more critical than most CPA leaders, of the reformism of the ALP. However the Left Tendency seems not to have been the source of any coherent analysis that could sustain any core of support, and to have vanished even before the CPA dissolved itself. When Mark’s brother Brian (a Sydney based official of the CPA) called me to his office to tell me off for ultra-leftism in 1975, for being critical of the ALP and its leader Whitlam who had been sacked, I had only heard rumours of the Left Tendency and not discussed ideas with any of its advocates. I resigned from the CPA soon after the meeting with Brian Aarons.


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