The history and future of radical politics
About 60 km from Sydney's city centre, on a 14 acre bushland property on the gorge of the Georges River, Eric Aarons resides in a two room cottage. This property, which was once also home to a residential school for the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), now belongs to a group called the 'Co-operative for Aborigines': an organisation which runs the Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney, and aims, one day, to become an independent university.
Today, Eric continues to manage the property as a holiday camp for the new owners. Preferring these peaceful environs to his once hectic lifestyle as a Communist Party activist, and once joint National Secretary, Eric spends much of his time consumed by research, writing and sculpture, which are chief amongst his many passions.
The grounds immediately outside this humble cottage are notable for the sculptures which have been the focus of Eric's powerful creative energies. Amongst these is a six tonne granite sculpture of a Diprotodon, a prehistoric, long-extinct giant Australian marsupial which once shook the world with its thunderous footsteps. As I sit down to edit a three hour transcript of a discussion between Eric and I into an interview suitable for publication, I cannot but think that old Communist activists such as Eric - part of a movement which once shook the world with its radical politics and uncompromising zeal - are themselves part of a dying breed.
Although Eric concedes that the Communist movement has all but breathed its last in Australia, it is still with pride that he recalls the principles of a movement which he effectively called home for most of his life. When asked about what the Communist Party stood for, he replies earnestly: I would pick out perhaps first of all our internationalism, that is our opposition to all forms of racism, discrimination and colonialism. We were the first political party in Australia to oppose the White Australia Policy and to take up indigenous rights.
When the Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920, Eric was but a toddler, and his memories of this period are particularly scarce. His recollections of the Depression and pre-war years, however, remain fairly vivid despite the fact that during this period he was still but a very young man. As he recalls, "I think the Communist Party really came into its own during the Great Depression." Eric provides numerous examples to confirm this view. He recalls the Communist Party's vigorous defence of the unemployed during the Depression years when unemployment had skyrocketed well above twenty five per cent, and the determined 'eviction battles' which Communist activists fought to prevent such people and their families from being thrown onto the street. He recalls the struggle of the Communist-led waterside workers to prevent the export of pig iron to Japan in 1938: the conflict which earned Robert Menzies the ignominious title 'Pig Iron Bob'. It is also with particular pride that Eric recalls the commitment his father, and others, made in joining the International Brigades in Spain to fight against fascism.
Despite the tumultuous nature of these times, however, Eric does not believe that, even in the Depression, there was any prospect of actual revolution. "It was largely a defensive struggle", he insists. To illustrate his position he points to the rise of quasi-fascist organisations such as the 'New Guard' in Australia at this time, whose numbers far outstripped those of the Communist Party even at the height of its influence. And yet, even despite this, Eric remembers this period as one of rising confidence and hope within the movement: The important thing was that nobody else virtually was doing anything except the Communist Party ... The Labor Party was completely at a loss as to anything to do which again strengthened the view that per
Of course, such hopes were gradually eroded during the postwar years. The prestige of the Communist Party, which had risen to an all time high during the latter stages of the Second World War, was shattered with the dawning of the Cold War, and the onset of McCarthyist hysteria in Australia and overseas. And yet, despite this hardship, including the successful defeat of Menzies's 'Communist Party Dissolution' proposal, Eric and his comrades in the Communist movement soldiered on in the hope that the crisis would pass, and that the tide of history would once again turn in their favour.
Indeed, the Communist Party of Australia continued to play a leading role in many struggles during the postwar period, and was to become renowned around the world for its courageous stand against both Stalinism, and also the rampant US war machine in Vietnam. Eric recalls addressing a factory gate meeting as early as 1964, long before a significant anti-war movement had arisen in Australia, predicting the eventual victory for the Vietnamese communist forces. He remembers, "one worker said that the Americans had never been defeated before and wouldn't be now, but it turned out otherwise as we know." Notably, the principles of self determination which inspired the leading role Eric and his comrades played in the anti-war movement, were to be applied with equal vigour in 1968 as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. At the time, the CPA left no question that its sympathies rested with the Czech socialist leader, Dubcek, in his attempts to build "socialism with a human face". As Eric remembers, "we left no doubt where we stood and struck out after that on a course independent of both Soviet Union and China and their various satellites."
The Communist Party's stand against Maoism and Stalinism led to splits in 1964 and 1971 as splinter groups broke off to pursue their own lines. Both the Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), and the Stalinist 'Socialist Party of Australia' (which has recently reclaimed the name 'Communist Party of Australia'), continue to struggle on despite declining membership bases, and the consensus elsewhere that, in Australia at least, Communism is a spent force. And yet the original Communist Party of Australia voluntarily dissolved in 1991. Eric is adamant that the declining fortunes and relevance of Communism by the 1990s called for hard-headed realism, rather than what he views as a rather futile sentimentalism. As early as 1976, when Eric became joint National Secretary of the CPA, Eric remembers "having some premonitions about what was to come." He recalls that "the former common outlook based on Marxism, that had given the Party its unity and its drive was disintegrating." By the time of the Soviet Union's collapse, Eric is also adamant that the hopes of reforming 'really-existing' Communist regimes had already been lost. "It was too late. If it had happened ten or twenty years earlier it might have been possible but at that time, twenty years earlier there was no place for so-called 'liberal communism'." "The fact of the matter", Eric argues, "is that things had gone [too] far." Here Eric points to the process of "internal disintegration, and the alienation of the population." "The Party/State bureaucracy had become too entrenched and powerful." And yet the collapse itself certainly did nothing to solve any of these problems and, if anything, simply worsened the plight of the ex-Soviet republics. "It was a bleak thing that emerged and the bleakest part of it was that there was and still is to a large extent a political and moral vacuum there which will take many years, I think, to overcome."
With the Communist Party of Australia's voluntary liquidation in 1991, there was a brief attempt at regroupment around a new party, the "New Left Party", but with the failure of this project, a veritable vacuum was created to the left of the Australian political spectrum. The CPA's assets, distributed for safe keeping amongst a variety of companies, were thereafter directed into a body called the 'SEARCH foundation', whose name represents an acronym for 'Social Education and Research Concerning Humanity'.
To this day, the SEARCH foundation continues to support independent left criticism, subsidising publications, radio stations such as Melbourne's Radio 3CR (Community Radio), and providing scholarships for independent research. There is little prospect, however, of the SEARCH foundation striking out to form a party of the Australian left. As Eric argues, "we think it's useful [to] work not as a Party but as an organisation that does networking both nationally and internationally."
Eric is scathing of arguments to the effect that, with the collapse of Communism, we have arrived at an 'end of history' scenario. Referring to Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history' thesis, which proposed the dawning of a global liberal democratic hegemony, he contends: Well ... it was a very foolish thing to say. [What] he said was that the collapse or the victory of the West in the Cold War meant that liberal democracy ... would prevail throughout the world. Well of course what we have is not liberal democracy, but neo-liberalism which [is] a very different kettle of fish.
As Eric recognises, Fukuyama's arguments have failed to stand in light of the reality of economically neo-liberal (as opposed to liberal democratic) regimes taking an authoritarian road, politically. And even in countries with strong liberal traditions, Eric points out, there can be little guarantee of peaceful, constitutional change when vested interests are threatened. He takes the example of the 1972 coup by Pinochet against the leftist Allende government in Chile to illustrate his point. "Helms notes of the meeting show that Nixon wasted little breath in making his wishes known. Allende 'was not to assume office' quote, '$10 million available, more if necessary', 'full time job, best men we have', 'make the economy scream'". The logic of Eric's argument is plain. It has happened before. It could happen again. We simply cannot take anything for granted.
Recognising the fading popularity of Fukuyama's position, Eric notes that "the new guru if you like, of historical prediction is Samuel Huntington with his book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order". Rather cynically he adds, "You note the full title - and that world order is sought to be being made by the United States as I think now more people can see." Referring to the tragedy which unfolded with the disintegration of Yugoslavia as a consequence of rampant nationalism, Eric is adamant that there are "dangers ... which are ... inherent in Huntington's new prescriptions about a clash of civilisations." "Of course it can happen but it's a very dangerous path in these times when we have a lot of international issues including say, the environmental ones that can only be tackled by humanity as a whole. It's very dangerous indeed."
When asked what prospects there are for a renewal of radical politics in Australia, Eric is caught between despondency and hope. "Marx himself said that the traditions of all past generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living." For many people, then, Communism is irretrievably stained by the crimes of Stalinism, its worthwhile legacy buried beneath the nightmares of purge trials, omnipresent repressive state apparatuses, the denial of national and minority rights. And yet, Eric seems to accept that the Left cannot wholly 'reinvent' itself, or detach itself from past traditions. "In certain respects", he concedes, "it is true that there is nothing new under the sun. [Most] of the ... moral/philosophical problems have been there all the time."
While radicals might want to draw from the Marxist tradition to find ideas and inspiration today, however, Eric is adamant that Marxism is far from having 'all the answers'. In particular, he is scathing of the old orthodoxy of anti-humanist Marxists that History "was independent of the will and consciousness of people." The most glaring absence in Marxism, Eric asserts, is the lack of any clearly articulated ethical grounding, even although he remains convinced that Marx himself was driven by powerful moral impulse. And yet Eric is convinced that it is not only Marxism that fails in this regard: There is a great reluctance in Australia, at any rate, I don't know about elsewhere, to even talk about values ... Most people ... act, as it were, instrumentally. [They] think about the policies but not about the values on which those policies are based.
Despite having long since abandoned the idea of Marxism as some kind of theoretical panacea for the world's ills, Eric retains a strong commitment to "the values of socialism." Asked to elaborate, he provides a brief list: "Reduce poverty, promote egalitarianism, press for reconciliation, develop democracy, respect the dignity of every person, develop community, preserve the environment, curb money domination of everything."
Eric is sympathetic of a variety attempts to influence the direction of Australian politics: from the Greens, Democrats, and from the Left of the Labor Party. Eric believes that Bob Brown has "come out very well in his role". However, he feels that Natasha Stott-Despoja is a "captive" of her party's nature, torn as it is between those who seek a mediating small 'l' liberal role between the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition, and those who envisage the Democrats, effectively, as a party of the Left.
On the ALP Left he fears that ideological content and cohesion is minimal at best, a degree a "coherence" coming only from the "system of factional rewards". Nevertheless, Eric cannot deny the strategic importance of the ALP, noting that it is still important for the Left to endeavour to "influence" the ALP, and provide an alternative to the "hegemonic neoliberal discourse". Unlike others, however, Eric believes that the "main impetus" for change will come from "outside": from independent movements which will place increasing pressure upon the major parties. Eric sees the so-called 'anti-globalisation' movement as one of the strongest current challenges to the "global neoliberal hegemony", although he rejects the assumption that the movement wants a reversion to autarky. Rather, he sees the movement as part of an alternative "global response to a global problems", as became evident at the recent 'World Social Forum' conference in Brazil.
Asked if he has anything further to say before we conclude our discussion, Eric pauses for a moment in thought. Finally he replies: "study and learn, think for yourselves, act and then do it all again and then again." As Communism fades, probably irretrievably, from the Australian political landscape, then, perhaps this is what we all ought be doing: drawing inspiration from the past, but also heeding the lessons of history. Despite what many on the Left once thought, Marxism never had all the answers, but as a tradition and a heterogeneous body of critical thought, it is still something from which a new generation of radicals can draw strength.
Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer. Eric Aarons was born in Marrickville, Sydney, and joined the Young Communist League in 1935, later working as a bootmaker, and later a sculptor. He led the Communist Party of Australia to a Euro-Communist position from 1967. After retiring from the position of Joint National Secretary in 1982, he supported the dissolution of the CPA in 1991. Image courtesy of the Sydney Contemporary Art Network.
Ewins, Tristan, 'Between despondency & hope', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 6 (sup.), October 2002.<https://evatt.org.au/post/between-despondency-hope>