1956, that ‘Secret Speech’, and Reverberations in Sydney

Bob Walshe

This is the text fo the first of three addresses reproduced in this issue which were presented at the Sydney Branch’s recent Sunday Symposium on the impact of Krushchev’s 1956 ‘Secret Speech’ on the Communist Party of Australia.

When Rowan Cahill rang me to give this talk, I said “No, too busy”; but then I thought, “Well, yes, it would give me an opportunity to rebut the things Denis Freney said about me in his 1991 book A Map of Days: Life on the Left — about my activities in and out of the Communist Party in Sydney in that heady year 1956”. So, 47 years removed from those events, I began to refresh memory, and turned first to an estimate I’d made of “Change in the Communist Movement 1 a talk by that title to historians in the Wallace Theatre of Sydney University in 1967 (it was published later in that year as “Marxism, Socialism and the USSR” in the journal
Teaching History October 1967). Let me quote from its conclusion:

1956 was an epochal year in the history of the world-wide communist movement. Until then this movement had preserved a surprisingly high degree of unity (the exception was the Tito breakaway of 1948). Stalin, building on the foundations laid by Lenin, had painstakingly constructed and jealously guarded this edifice of international unity. He spoke of it proudly as being ‘monolithic’. Its monolithic character depended on the preservation of the high prestige of the leading communist party, the ‘Party of Lenin’, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in the eyes of the other communist parties. And the prestige of the C.P.S.U. in turn depended on its leaders’ ability to preserve a unique combination of state power, wielded in the name of the proletariat, with doctrinal authority, as the virtually infallible interpreter of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

First, Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ by destroying the myth of Stalin’s infallibility inadvertently destroyed as well the infallibility of the C.P.S.U. in the eyes of other communist parties. Second, the Hungarian revolt exposed the falsity of the claim that the communist state is a proletarian state, revealing instead the totalitarian power of a privileged minority who were operating a system of state ownership of industry that was a travesty of the ‘socialism’ of Marx and Engels.

After 1956 the international communist movement could never be the same again. Its monolithic character was shattered. It entered a period of protracted ideological crisis marked by questioning of many long-held orthodoxies, proliferation of national-communist tendencies, controversies between parties, and above all the mighty schism between Moscow and Peking. The change is of world-historic significance and its consequences can scarcely even be guessed.

Well, Rowan wants me to be a “primary source” on the effects of the Khrushchev ‘secret speech’ in the Sydney of 1956.I was a high school history teacher at the time, living at the dark end of a rather bushy avenue in West Como. It had passed 10 o’clock on a cold June evening when there was a loud knock on the front door. I called out, “Who’s there?” … “It’s me Bob — Jim Staples”.

This was the Jim Staples I’d known at Sydney University in the late 1940s, he then a leader of the CFAS Students (Commonwealth Financially Assisted Students) while I’d been involved with ex-service students — both of us were Communist Party members. Jim was later Mr Justice Staples of the Industrial Court.

Jim unfolded a copy of the International Edition of The New York Times (June 10 1956). He’d been regularly buying this edition each week, for its coverage of world news, from the Wynyard Railway Station newsagency.

That was the form in which I read the now famous “Secret Speech” delivered by Nikita S. Khrushchev to a closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 24-25 February 1956.Jim talked to my wife Pat while I read rapidly for over an hour. When I looked up I said, “I reckon this is fair dinkum”. Jim was in no doubt — and we talked through till two in the morning.

What followed was weeks of effort to get leading Party people to acknowledge the document. I’ve forgotten the detail of that period, but we got nowhere. Jim had a shorter fuse than I had and he soon got angrily offside with the Party hierarchy. I recall being asked in to talk with Bill Brown who assured me the document was a “falsification” by the CIA, and he urged me to stay away from Jim Staples. “He’s erratic, unbalanced,” said Bill reassuringly. “Look, I’ve read the document and it did upset me at first but I took a fortnight off, spent a lot of time on the beach, tossed a ball around, and regained my class perspective. I’m a better Party member for the experience, and I strongly recommend you to do the same. The Party values you Bob — and keep away from Staples, he’s unstable.”

Instead I was raising the matter in my Como Branch of the Party. The document was passed around and keenly discussed. At the same time, I was talking with members of the Communist “fraction” in the Teachers Federation. Especially with Helen Palmer.

Helen was the daughter of the brilliant literary duo, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and herself an outstanding writer. No more devoted socialist could be imagined. Weekly, for a period, a growing group of concerned Party members met in Helen’s Kirribilli flat. We no longer had the vestige of a doubt about the authenticity of the “secret speech”. We felt the need of a journal in which we could reflect on the state of the international socialist/communist movement and possible ways forward to a socialist Australia. Out of those discussions came the journal Outlook, under Helen’s editorship. I can’t speak too highly of the vast energy and talent she brought to it. Around Outlook a large number of notables clustered.

Before a dark cloud of Party disapproval had time to fall on me, I was elected locally to the 1956 Sydney Conference of the Party and I determined to raise the issue there of publishing the “secret speech”, and duly did so in the 15 minutes I had on the agenda.

The No.2 in the Party, Richard Dixon, had obviously been waiting for this. He followed me, with plenty of time, laying down what he called the Party’s “principled position” which would “not give comfort to the class enemy”.As the agenda of that Sydney Conference was arranged, election of delegates from it to the NSW State Conference was held before I had been demolished by Dixon — and I was elected! So I had another chance. But on the agenda of the State Conference I was given (despite protest) exactly 5 minutes; so, realising I couldn’t do much, I concentrated on asking why the Communist Party in Australia had failed to win anything like mass support, and I based my position on Lenin’s famous pamphlet,
What is to be done? I stressed the need to be more democratic.

Now, one of the Party’s then favourite sons, Ted Hill, had just returned from China with glowing accounts of how a clean, green and smiling socialist utopia was being rapidly built there, having learnt all the lessons from the unfortunate but excusable pioneer “errors” made by Comrade Stalin. Hill was a very competent barrister and (surprise!) he’d been assigned the position on the agenda immediately following my 5 minutes — but he had half an hour or more! This time I was doubly demolished, again with no right of reply … Some years later I enjoyed a malicious pleasure when Hill denounced the Communist Party and, following the Chinese critique of the Soviet Union, set up the breakaway “Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)”. What a travesty that was! For all Hill’s brilliance, his life was a tragedy.

The dissidence in the Como Branch of the Communist Party continued, until one evening (late in 1956 or early 1957)! had another knock on the door, but at a more civilised hour, and Alf Watt stood there, a big man, sixtyish, looking uncomfortable. He had been the editor of the Communist paper Tribune and was currently a Party organiser. He’d come to tell me that the Party had resolved to expel me. “Shouldn’t I have been present?” I asked. No, the charge was that most heinous of Communist Party crimes — factionalism, in the form of association with “the anti-Party Outlook group”.

I’d been determined not to leave the Party quietly (as some others were doing) without the strongest possible protest about its suppression of discussion of the “secret speech”. I’d done all I could. Now I was expelled. I felt relieved, unburdened.

Let me return to the days of circulation of the speech. Here I’ll let Denis Freney tell the tale. He’d heard about the speech, and writes (p.86): “I was now desperate to get a copy … I was soon presented with one by Bob Walshe … I bumped into [ at the Teachers Club … I let him know I was eager to get a copy. He looked around furtively, reached into his briefcase and slipped one under the table. I followed his lead and put it surreptitiously into my briefcase. At home that night… I soon came to the conclusion that it was genuine.”(A Map of Days, p.86.)

Denis goes on to say “Bob had undoubtedly got hold of his copies directly or indirectly from the US Consulate…” and (p.87) “He was an extremely intense type, with the rimless glasses that in those days signified an intellectual”.(Ibid., pp.86-7)

Then he has me falling into the hands of the Scientology cult, having a nervous collapse under its treatment, paying big sums to it for advanced treatment, heavily mortgaging my house to meet the bills and, on at last recovering from the “breakdown”, returning to teaching and “authoring history textbooks which were widely used in high schools”.(Ibid., pp.98)

In the midst of my astonishment at reading all this, I had a phone call from Bob Gould who asked me to come to a “politics at the pub” session at Harold Park Hotel, on Sunday 21 April 1991, where he was to debate Denis Freney over assertions in A Map of Days which, Bob said, he’d show to be “tendentious and inaccurate in major respects”. At that well-attended meeting — 150-200 present — I asked for permission to speak. I said that on the 4 pages of Denis’s book that mentioned me I had found 18 factual errors, and since the book had 400 pages the whole book could well contain 1800 errors of fact — surely an Australian record! I concluded by saying I’d give Denis$1000 if he could prove any of five main assertions:

  1. That I’d ever distributed material from the US Consulate.
  2. That I’d dropped out of the Outlook group from “psychological strain”.
  3. That I’d ever had a “nervous collapse” or “breakdown”.
  4. That I’d ever owed money to a Scientology organisation.
  5. That I’d ever mortgaged my

And I added that I’d make it $10,000 if he could show that I’d ever owned or worn a pair of rimless glasses.

In the event, Denis did make a stumbled apology, especially on the US Consulate bit and the nervous breakdown. (I’d pointed out that in my seven years at Sutherland High School up to 1958 I’d had only one day’s absence — and that for my mother’s funeral. I’m blessed with good health.)

Here, by the way, is a copy of the Khrushchev “Secret Speech” which I and others distributed: you see, it’s a laboriously typed version amateurishly produced by Jim Staples, with help from the artist-printer Rod Shaw. They produced only 500.

May I conclude by saying that here is a handwritten letter from Alex Elphinston who was Secretary in the Communist Party Section Committee for Sutherland Shire at the time of my expulsion. His letter, dated 16 January 1991 — that is 35 years after 1956 — says: “I want to apologise to you (and other Como Branch comrades) for my part in the action taken against you by the CPA leadership following the 1956 Hungarian invasion and the publication and dissemination of the New York Times exposure article, an action that also wrongly affected Jim Staples. Your actions in fact proved courageous and correct in the light of the present European events.”