Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality

Review essay by John Shields

Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from Origins to Illegality, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1998. Pp.xii + 482. $49.95 (hardback).

In recent decades, devotees of Australian labour history have been well served by the publication of a steady stream of candid and well crafted reminiscences by dozens of men and women whose lives, like those of 100,000 or so other Australians, were shaped by their membership of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). In the writing of communist history, as in their earlier lives of activism, it is they who have made the running. It is the academy which has lagged behind – until now.

Authored by Stuart Macintyre, Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne University, The Reds is the first general history of the CPA to appear since the publication of Alistair Davidson’s The Communist Party of Australia (1969) and the first detailed reassessment of the nature and impact of inter-war communism since Robin Gollan’s Revolutionaries and Reformists (1975) and Frank Farrell’s International Socialism and Australian Labour (1981). Whilst these were all excellent studies for their time, The Reds meets a long-standing need for a comprehensive reconsideration of the phenomenon of Australian communism. What makes this study different is that it is a commissioned history and a post-mortem. For the CPA is no more. The Reds constitutes the first instalment of a projected two volume general retrospective on the Party from its difficult birth in 1920 until its dignified, if still defiant dispatch in 1990. Commissioned by the Search Foundation, the trust body established after the Party’s demise, this handsomely produced volume takes the story up to the Party’s banning by the Menzies Government in 1940. Its author is one of the country’s most highly regarded labour historians. In The Reds, Stuart Macintyre once again demonstrates those powers of historical empathy and insight so evident in his earlier work in the labour history genre – particularly Little Moscows. Communism and Working-class Militancy in Inter-war Britain (1980) and Militant (1984), his superb biographical study of Fremantle union activist Paddy Troy.

Macintyre’s declared objectives are three-fold: firstly to provide a narrative account of the party’s organisation, doctrine and practice; secondly, to evoke the ‘milieu’ of Australian communism; and thirdly, to offer a detached explanation of its character and significance. The real challenge, he proposes, is to understand what communism meant to the men and women who embraced it, what happened to them when they did, and what impact they and their party had on the wider world. If The Reds falls short of attaining these daunting objectives, it nevertheless confers a level of understanding far more sophisticated than anything published hitherto. It is a work of truly prodigious scholarship; one which no serious student of Australian labour history can afford to ignore. But it is also a book which is bound to arouse controversy (and, indeed, has already done so). For this is no celebratory or sentimental study, and the author declares quite openly his personal reservations about the Leninist model and his abhorrence for the practices of Stalinism:
It is now apparent to all but those impervious to reason that the communist project itself was deeply flawed, that it nurtured tyranny within its emancipatory scheme. (p.413)

The book’s fourteen chapters are constructed along orthodox chronological lines. The first four chapters deal with the CPA’s first eight precarious years of existence, when it sought without success to engender ‘revolution from within’ by working within the forms of the established labour movement. The narrative begins with a fascinating, if forensic account of the Party’s faltering emergence in the political ferment of post-war Sydney. Farce and tragedy meet as the Sussex Street camp (aka the Trades Hall Reds), led by Jock Garden and W.P. Earsman vie with the Liverpool Street group (the remnants of the Australian Socialist Party) for organisational dominance and the all-important imprimatur of the Communist International. It is a tale of treachery, duplicity, ruthlessness, conceit, vainglory, and infidelity – hardly an auspicious beginning – and Macintyre’s pen leaves few reputations untouched, particularly those of the ultimately victorious Sussex Street leadership. Earsman, the Party’s founding secretary, comes across as a conceited and self-absorbed philanderer – ‘an egocentic monster’ (p.68). Perhaps the state did both his hapless comrade-in-arms, Christian Jollie Smith, and the infant Party itself an unwitting favour when they effectively exiled Earsman from the country in 1923. But, as these opening chapters also establish, the young Party’s problems ran far deeper than those of personality, so much so that by 1925 the Party’s attempts to forge a united front with the unions and the ALP lay in tatters and the Party itself was on the verge of collapse, with one of its more admirable founders, Guido Baracchi, actually recommending that it be disbanded. The Party survived – barely.

Macintyre’s narrative then traverses the Party’s fragile recovery in the latter half of the decade, the flux of new blood from New Zealand and elsewhere, the elevation of Canadian ex-Wobbly Jack Kavanagh to Party leadership, the heroic struggle waged by Jack Ryan and others against racism in the local labour movement, the brief but remarkable flowering of open debate in Party circles in 1929, and the subsequent destruction of the Kavanagh-Ryan leadership at the behest of the recently Stalinised Comintern Central Executive.

Whilst seasoned readers will already be quite familiar with the broad contours of these early developments, much of the detail is quite fresh. The chapters on the 1920s draw extensively on a range of hitherto inaccessible or little used primary sources – from intercepted personal correspondence secreted away in spy files generated by intelligence services and personal diaries kept by figures like Earsman to official correspondence and other records retrieved from the Comintern Archives in the dying days of the Soviet regime. It all makes for compelling reading, although some may find the accompanying backgrounding chapter on Leninist ideology and tactics and their transmission to Australia somewhat arid and disruptive of the flow.

The book’s middle-order chapters focus on the Third Periodism of the years 1930-34 and its two hallmarks – the Comintern-imposed strategy of ‘Class against Class’, and the doctrinaire and dictatorial leadership of the gang of three – J.B. Miles, Lance Sharkey and Dick Dixson. As Macintyre demonstrates, the events of these years are pivotal to a proper appreciation of the contradictory character of Australian communism and the Leninist ideal of democratic centralism. On the one hand, we get a chilling portrait of J.B. Miles, the grey eminence of antipodean Stalinism, and the disciplinary handiwork of the Central Control Commission: “We do not allow dissension in the Communist Party”, Miles casually observed (p.223). But these chapters also speak of the selfless work of the hundreds of new recruits who daily put life and limb at risk in defence of workers’ rights, sometimes in open defiance of the party bosses and their threats of ritual humiliation (‘self-criticism’) and expulsion. On occasions the hierarchy’s obsession with secrecy reached ludicrous heights, as one fearless Toowoomba comrade made patently clear:
‘Oh, don’t be so fucking stupid. Everyone knows my name’s Cliff Jones. How can I run round this town telling them I’m someone else? You must be bloody stark staring mad down in Brisbane.’

Against this though must be set the presence of agent provocateurs, spies and police plants, even at the highest level; a presence which simply fuelled the fears, suspicions and petty-mindedness of the Party hierarchy. It’s all pretty riveting stuff.

I must confess, though, that I found the author’s treatment of this critical period less than wholly satisfying. Preoccupied as they are with dynastic changes, high party politics and national and international developments, the chapters on Third Periodism add very little depth to our understanding of the party’s position or the wider role which party activists played during the early 1930s. Much of the narrative in these chapters is constructed around the voluminous transcripts of central committee meetings and other high party assemblies. Of deliberations and debates in other, lesser forums we hear very little. Neither of the two main party front organisations of the Third Period, the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) and the Militant Minority Movement (MMM), are accorded the treatment which they deserve. There is certainly some discussion of the work of the UWM, some stark images of anti-eviction struggles, an account of the Party’s first concerted efforts to mobilise women workers, and brief reference to the beginning of the Party’s support for Aboriginal rights, but the MMM – the training ground and springboard for subsequent success in the union movement – remains an inchoate presence and the focus remains firmly on the organisational centre. I feel that Macintyre’s treatment of high party politics itself during the Third Period also leaves something to be desired. Whilst Jack Ryan’s political execution is covered quite well, no adequate explanation is given for the fall of Ryan’s adversary, Bert Moxon – the first of the ‘line straighteners’. Moreover, whilst Macintyre makes much of the role of Comintern emissary and FBI spy, Herbert Moore (aka Harry Wicks), in Stalinising the Party he misses the point that control-from-above and the elimination of rank-and-file spontaneity might have been precisely what Moore’s other political masters also wished to achieve. I feel, too, that the author’s own attachment to the social democratic way – and hence his understandable aversion to the Stalinist mantra of ‘social fascism’ – inclines him to gloss over the abysmal performance of the Labour Parties and moderate union leaders during these years of crisis.

So to the final third of the book – the chapters dealing with the era of the United Front, opposition to fascism, support for the Spanish Republic, the policy contortions associated with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Peace Pact, and the rocky road to illegality in 1940. Whilst these chapters break little new ground, in my view they are amongst the best in the book. With the end of Third Period separatism, the CPA underwent a remarkable recrudescence, winning control of a string of key unions, pushing its national membership up to 4,000, and establishing a strong, albeit short-lived presence in the ALP. For the first time, the Party also attracted a significant number of middle class professionals and intellectuals. In so doing so, it achieved a presence and influence out of all proportion to its still modest numerical strength.

It is in these later chapters that Macintyre is most scathing in his criticism of the Party bosses and dogmatists and most revealing of his instinctive empathy for the coalface activists. One of the most striking contrasts in these chapters is that between the aloofness of the Party apparatchiks and the energy, openness and fortitude of the new phalanx of communist union officials – Bill Orr and Charlie Nelson in the Miners, Jim Healy in the wharfies, Lloyd Ross in the ARU, Ernie Thornton in the Ironworkers, Tom Wright in the Sheet Metal Workers, and Sam Lewis in the NSW Teachers, and others:
tough, intelligent, prickly, turbulent men who battled all their lives for a job and a fair go. They were prepared to stand up to anybody on behalf of their members, and the members in turn stuck by them with a fierce loyalty. (332)

Macintyre reserves his highest accolades, though, for the declasse intellectuals drawn to the Party from the universities and the professions during the ‘Red Decade’ by a sense of moral outrage at the basic rottenness of the capitalist system – people like Ralph and Dorothy Gibson, Gerry O’Day, Judah Waten, Noel Counihan, Len Fox, and James Normington Rawling, as well as fellow-travellers like Brian Fitzpatrick. What they brought to the Party was a healthy disregard for the dogmatists and straighteners and an incipient Marxist-humanism. Macintyre provides a fine account of the impact which these people had on literary and artistic life in an otherwise culturally colonised country during the mid- to late-1930s.

Yet, the contradictions remained. As Macintyre suggests, the gains of the Popular Front era also amounted to a capitulation of sorts – a resignation to working within rather than against Australian institutions and traditions. They were also accompanied by a remarkable act of collective denial – the refusal by the leadership and the rank-and-file alike to acknowledge, let alone question, the Soviet Union’s descent into the horrors of Yezhovschina – the Show Trials, Purges and mass executions of the later 1930s.

So, what’s Macintyre’s ‘line’ on all of this? Why, despite the crises war and depression, did a Soviet Australia remain a distant dream? What went wrong (or right, perhaps, depending on your point of view)? Macintyre’s answer is not immediately evident, but it is there – embedded in the narrative and the textual asides. Perhaps out of consideration for the general reader, there is no survey of the existing literature, no theoretical preface, no explicit hypothesising. Instead, what we get is a running commentary, the full import of which is only made clear in the book’s conclusion. Communism remained an alien presence within Australian capitalist democracy because it failed to compete effectively with the forms of the established reformist labour movement for the hearts and minds of the Australian working people. It isn’t the worker who Macintyre has in his sights when he relates, with obvious relish, the case of the Newcastle maritime worker ‘who proudly announced that he had been reading all about this “diabolical materialism”’ (p.351). Note too the sub-text of this reported exchange between Comrade Miles and Toowoomban activist Claud Jones:
…Miles told him, “The trouble with you, Jones, you’re too much of a larrikin”, and he replied, “A few more fucking larrikins and less theoreticians, and we might get somewhere” (354).

How, then, do we explain the character of Australian communism? If I read Macintyre correctly, his argument, in essence, is that the phenomenon can be understood neither as an unmediated Stalinist imposition on a noble Marxist-Leninist working class project (as some historians of left have asserted), nor as the inevitable consequence of any fatal flaw in the Leninist ‘meta-narrative’ itself (as both postmodernistists and those of the political right are wont to argue). Just as it isn’t good enough to point the finger at inept or evil leadership, so it isn’t adequate to attribute the blame solely to ideological misconception, though Macintyre certainly suggests that both played some part. Rather, he contends that Australian communism must be viewed as the outcome of a two-fold dialectical interplay, first between leadership and membership, and, second, between party and context. This certainly represents a promising departure from the standard reductionistic explanations of both left and right. Yet Macintyre seems uncomfortable with the full implications of this approach. It certainly points to the need to recognise the possibility of ongoing, if clandestine, opposition to central authority even – and perhaps especially – under threat of expulsion. Indeed, the book highlights the extent of rank-and-file resistance and how this occasionally forced change at the top. Macintyre’s approach also points the need to recognise that the leadership’s insistence on absolute obedience to the party line and the obsessive concern with secrecy was shaped, at least in part, by the hostile environment in which the party operated – state surveillance and repression, right-wing paramilitaries, union and Labor Party opposition, and the like. On the other hand, as Macintyre readily acknowledges, such an approach implies a degree of rank-and-file complicity in the practices of Stalinism; it posits Stalinism as a form of ‘popular tyranny’ (p.374). As Sir Humphey Appleby might observe, this is a ‘courageous’ line of argument. When Macintyre goes so far as to imply that the regime of iron discipline imposed by Miles and company may have been necessitated by the naturally rebellious temper of the Party rank-and-file (p.415), he places himself well beyond the theoretical ‘comfort zone’. The contention could easily be (mis?) construed as letting the perpetrators of Stalinism off the hook, so to speak. Who said history wasn’t a blood sport!.

Yet it would be inappropriate to characterise The Reds as marking a radical new departure in communist historiography. Notwithstanding the author’s insistence on the need to appreciate the wider canvas, his orientation remains overwhelmingly institutional and ‘top-down’. As Alistair Davidson observes in his own review of the book (Arena Magazine, October-November 1998), despite the author’s desire to highlight ‘milieu’, The Reds is predominantly a study of leaders, official ideology and policy, and high party politics. One consequence of this failure to engage ‘history from below’ is a tendency to regard the small but steadily growing number of women communists not as activists in their own right but as a token sexual presence; as a foil for the foibles and follies of the ‘great men’. Witness the portrayals of Christian Jollie Smith and Jean Devanny primarily as bits of leadership ‘skirt’. Here too Macintyre seems to be very much a captive of his sources. Whilst due recognition is paid to the work of those two indomitable women, Joy Barrington and Edna Ryan, we hear next to nothing about the crucial behind-the-scenes contribution of women like Irene Orr, Grace Scanlon, Jean Young, Lucy Woodcock and others in the Party’s victories within the unions in the later 1930s.

Moreover, apart from one or two very promising excursions into the regions (notably Lithgow and regional Queensland), The Reds is very much a study of metropolitan communism. Arguably, a more innovative and balanced approach could have been achieved by shifting the spatial emphasis away from the international to the regional. If the North Queenslanders could be so different and difficult, might this not also have been true of those from other regions? A more spatially aware approach might also have enabled a more systematic account of the role of non-Anglo-Celts in the affairs of the emergent party. Whilst Macintyre offers promising insights on the role of Italian workers in party affairs in North Queensland, and of Jewish refugees in Melbourne, the vital contribution made by ethnic groups in other localities, such as Broken Hill, goes unreported.

Finally, I have some concerns about the text’s accessibility. Whilst The Reds will no doubt be read avidly by those with an established interest or emotional investment in the field, the general reader is likely to find the 400-plus pages of densely-packed text rather heavy going. This is a text for aficionados rather than neophytes. Simply keeping track of the dramatis personae is a difficult enough task, even for those well-versed in labour biography. The task would certainly have been made much easier by the inclusion of a biographical appendix or some sort. It’s also important to remember that this volume covers only the first third of the Party’s life course, a fact sometimes lost sight of in the book’s concluding generalisations. This is really asking the general reader to take an awful lot on trust. A one volume paperback history would no doubt have had greater popular appear but, then again, I suppose you can’t have it both ways.

These reservations aside, though, I have to say that I found this book an immensely stimulating read – both times around! Like the author’s previous publications, The Reds is bound to affect the way that labour historians approach the history and meaning of Australian communism. And for that we owe Stuart Macintyre and the Search Foundation an enormous debt of gratitude. Roll on volume two!