Launching ‘The Party’

Frank Bongiorno


Stuart Macintyre, The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning (Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2022). pp. xii-498. $49.99 Cloth.

I begin by paying my respects to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation on whose country we meet tonight.

I recall Stuart Macintyre explaining to me the purpose of the history of the Communist Party of Australia in one of the earliest conversations I had with him. It would have been early 1990, in Canberra. He wanted to explain to readers – he had in mind younger readers especially, who had little or no experience or knowledge of communism – what it had been all about. In other words, he was thinking as a teacher, as he so often did. At this stage, the Berlin Wall had been breached, but the Soviet Union limped on and so did the Communist Party of Australia. But Stuart was under no illusion. He understood that he was dealing with a phenomenon that already had a beginning, a middle and an end.  

When the first volume appeared in 1998 as The Reds: From Origins to Illegality, we gained a stronger sense of what Stuart was doing. He had written a social history, as well as a political and industrial one. The book had a strong ethnographic, almost anthropological, aspect: Stuart wanted to convey what it meant to be a communist, what that experience was like for those who belonged to the Party or were involved in its auxiliary organisations. Why, for instance, had intelligent, idealistic men and women been willing to subject themselves to a discipline that was unknown in democratic societies anywhere outside of the Party itself, and perhaps the odd religious order? Stuart told readers that he, too, had been a young communist. But he had joined the Party in the early 1970s, at a time when its demands on members were much less pressing than they had been in earlier decades. Most of his time as a member had been while he was a student in Cambridge. When he returned to live in Australia, he joined the left of the Australian Labor Party. That was by no means an uncommon journey.

None of this should suggest that Stuart’s engagement with communism was superficial or fleeting. His Party membership might only have covered a few years, but his intellectual and emotional engagement extended across most of his adult life. It was there in his earliest books on British labour history, Little Moscows and A Proletarian Science and his first on Australia, Militant: The Life and Times of Paddy Troy, the legendary Western Australian union leader. It was there in the middle with The Reds. And it was there at the end, in The Party.

Stuart Macintyre

At a recent conference at the University of Melbourne in honour and memory of Stuart convened by Joy Damousi and Sean Scalmer, one of the issues discussed was whether The Party was a tragedy, an idea developed by Ann Curthoys. I remain undecided on that one. In one sense, the very scope of this book dictated that The Party would be a tragedy. It begins during the Party’s period of illegality in 1940-42, followed by the peak of its vibrancy, popularity and influence between 1942 and 1945. It then extends through the Cold War from the late 1940s into the era of anti-communist mobilisation and repression of the 1950s, exploring the fallout of the death of Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev’s secret speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, both in 1956, the fragmentation in the 1960s provoked by the Sino-Soviet split, and ending in 1970 with Australian communism about to divide further in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia – ex-members massively outnumbering those who remained, its old warriors dying off, its dreams in ruins. How could this not be tragedy? 

By the early 1970s, Australian communism had in some ways returned to where Stuart began his story in The Reds. In the earlier book he had shown that, in the 1920s, the Communist Party of Australia was just one among several small parties to the left of the ALP. The imprimatur of Moscow and the Third International mattered, and the hopes inspired by 1917 were alive. But Stuart’s work – in both The Reds and The Party – showed that it was not really until the 1930s and 1940s that the Communist Party emerged as the only serious alternative to the Labor Party for members of the working class and others working for a socialist Australia. 

It was a part of Stuart’s endeavour in The Party to explain the nature of this relationship between Labor and Communist parties. The communists clearly posed no electoral challenge of any great significance. As is well known, the Party only ever had one official communist candidate elected to an Australian parliament, Fred Paterson, who won a northern Queensland seat in that state’s Legislative Assembly in 1944. Communists sometimes polled strongly in port and mining constituencies during the war, but their election candidates often lost their deposits.

The strength of the Party, as Stuart shows, lay elsewhere. It lay especially in the unions, several of them large and powerful. Some union officials are attractive figures in the nation’s industrial history, with Jim Healy of the Waterside Workers’ Federation most obviously falling into this category and, in Stuart’s view, the most impressive of them. Others, such as Ernie Thornton of the Ironworkers and E.V. Elliott of the Seamen’s Union, are harder to warm to. Stuart underlines the limitations even of the authority these men exercised. Communist officials usually shared power with non-communists. The work of communist union leaders, moreover, frequently went unappreciated among the Party leadership, which harboured unrealistic notions of what could be achieved in the industrial sphere. Clashes between the Party and union leaders were frequent. The Communist Party leadership over-reached in the coal strike of 1949, imagining that the Party could use the Miners’ Federation’s industrial campaign to reveal the bankruptcy of the Labor Party. Instead, several communist union leaders spent time in prison under the government’s anti-strike legislation.

All that was in the future during the war itself, when communist union leaders enjoyed a warm relationship with senior figures in the Labor government such as the Treasurer, Ben Chifley. It is notable that Stuart devotes well over half this book to a single decade, the 1940s, on top of his treatment of the early war years in The Reds. Perhaps a third of The Party deals with the war itself. It is worth pausing over the amount of space Stuart gives the war, especially in the context of the question of whether he is writing tragedy. 

Stuart clearly – and uncontroversially, I think – regarded the war as the party’s ‘heyday’. He said so in the subtitle to The Party. My reading is that he saw the experience of the party in wartime and immediately afterwards as exposing both the possibilities, and the limitations, of communist politics in Australia. It was a kind of political laboratory. He does not romanticise those possibilities, and he recognises the exceptional character of the wartime context, but he uses the years between 1941 and 1946 to dramatise most that was best, and worst, about the Party. By early 1945 the Communist Party had about 22,000 members, and it was well represented in the leadership of several key unions, notably the Miners, Waterside Workers, Seamen and Ironworkers. This industrial strength in vital industries that gave the communists their greatest clout, but many of the party’s wartime recruits were of the progressive middle class, and included artists, writers, students and scientists. Women came to occupy positions of significance and responsibility although not the most senior ranks. The Party provided for its cadres almost a self-contained intellectual, cultural and social life and was also a vehicle for patriotism and idealism, at a time when its stocks benefited from the Red Army’s heroic defence of the Soviet Union against the Germans.  

From 1944 a party member in Sydney could visit splendid Marx House in George Street, or a Melbourne comrade might drop into Australia-Soviet House in Flinders Lane. In either place, they might visit the bookshop, eat at the canteen, or listen to a lecture from a party bigwig. A member might attend a performance of the New Theatre, such as at its Melbourne headquarters at 92 Flinders Street, or an exhibition of socialist art by Noel Counihan and Yosl Bergner. They would likely read a party newspaper such as the national Tribune, or one of the state papers such as the Guardian. They might be expected to spend some time selling party publications in a street or park, in a house-to-house canvass, or at a factory gate. Even with history on their side, they believed in the power and importance of the word, whether printed or spoken. Those especially serious about their Marxism-Leninism in the party’s theoretical monthly, Communist Review, or they might attend the Marx Schools set up in Sydney and Melbourne, or classes held in party offices in the other cities. The Party’s Eureka Youth League had some 5,000 members at its peak.

Here, Stuart was sensitive to the possibilities of Australian communism, indeed the wider potential for radical political change in this country. Still, he was also all too aware of Australian communism’s frailties and evasions, and the price paid for them. The Party’s period of wartime illegality had been remarkable for the government’s light touch in most parts of Australia, but the ban had nevertheless stimulated the taste of some in the party for a culture of secrecy and a conspiratorial outlook. That perspective was further reinforced via penetration by security and informers, as Phillip Deery has shown vividly in his new book, Spies and Sparrows. The Party’s democratic centralism bred authoritarianism and its rigid discipline demanded more of members than most could give; or Stuart clearly felt, they should have been asked to give. The Party’s uncritical attitude to the Soviet Union and devotion to Stalin set it up for the disorientation and disillusionment that would follow Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress. 

Marx House (National Archives of Australia, A705 171/94/413)

There are some vivid sketches – covering appearance, mannerism and personality – of key communist figures – J.B. Miles, Lance Sharkey, Jack and Audrey Blake and Ted Hill. While they lacked neither fervour nor determination, it is impossible from Stuart’s account to see the men leading the Party mid-century as master tacticians and leaders of a revolutionary vanguard ever likely to liberate the working class and forge a socialist society. Indeed, Stuart makes it clear throughout that the Communist Party was an inadequate instrument for the radical transformation of Australian society. Even by the standards of the times, its mid-century leadership often seemed narrow and limited, shaped by so many of the prejudices and limitations of the men of their generation also found in other walks of life and beyond the working class – such as a sexist outlook. There is incongruence between the high hopes invested by many communists in the Party and the outlook of these leading men. 

Stuart offers them all the respect that is their due from any serious historian. He also offers a gentle admiration, affection and warmth to those many Party members he regarded as selfless and decent, even while refusing to overlook their flaws and errors. Stuart resists any separation of communism as a cause from the men and women who professed it. We do an injustice to them, and we fail to understand the ways they changed this country, unless we consider people and cause together. 

Stuart did not slide over the theoretical debates that occurred within the Party, and he brings what might otherwise be rather arcane theoretical argument to life through the play of personality, power and ideas. He was also sensitive to the array of political interests, causes and commitments that emerged out of Australian communism, especially as it entered a new post-1968 pro-New Left phase under the leadership of figures such as Laurie Aarons and Bernie Taft: Aboriginal rights, anti-Vietnam War, the peace movement, Women’s Liberation and environmentalism, to name only some of them. Stuart hints at these developments – for instance, he explores the party’s long-standing commitment to Aboriginal rights – but his story in The Party is really of a communism embedded in Australia’s industrial, pastoral and agricultural economy of the middle decades of the century, a society riven by class and still marked by significant social and economic deprivation. That world was growing harder to discern by the 1960s and early 1970s, even as new patterns of conflict emerged, along with a growing awareness of previously neglected forms and sites of oppression, suffering and want.

I thank the Search Foundation and the Melbourne Labour History Society for organising this evening’s launch, and for their support of the project. I also thank Elizabeth Weiss and Allen and Unwin: they have turned out a beautiful book. I again offer my condolences to all of Stuart’s family, friends and colleagues but especially here, Martha, Mary and Jessie. Families live with big projects such as this for years even as they have their own busy lives to live, Martha Macintyre’s as a distinguished anthropologist. Finally, I pay tribute to Stuart Macintyre’s achievement in The Party. He completed the book with great fortitude and courage. The Party is also an awe-inspiring exercise in intellectual discipline by a great historian, achieving a remarkable balance of shrewd judgment, and moral and political vision. His passing was a premature conclusion to a rich, abundant life as a historian, intellectual and activist who, with Henry Lawson, also modestly nurtured ‘the hope of something better’. I have much pleasure in declaring The Party: The Communist Party of Australia from heyday to reckoning, launched.

Frank Bongiorno at the launch. Photo by Carmel Shute.

Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at the Australian National University. The Party was launched at Victorian Trades Hall, Solidarity Hall, 16 March 2022.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 7-10.