By Rowan Cahill
From 1969 to 1973, I was a member of the Editorial Board, later Editorial Collective, of Australian Left Review (ALR), the Marxist journal of cultural and political comment and discussion published bi-monthly by the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). ALR commenced publication in 1966, its precursor the Communist Review.
At the time I had a significant profile nationally in the student and anti-war movements, primarily as a publicist and communicator, and was part of the emerging New Left. In 1969, I produced a monograph on the Australian New Left for the Australian Marxist Research Foundation. While never a member of the CPA, personally I had little problem working with it. I saw the main problem at the time as one of bringing together the fractured forces of the left to bring about the end of conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and to create a socialist Australia. For me, working with the party was part of the way forward.
As to why I did not join the party, I felt I operated better free of any party constraints and wanted to be able to move freely wherever and whenever I felt necessary. That said, I was a member of the Australian Labor Party, but that was primarily the result of an earlier branch stacking exercise by leftists on Sydney’s North Shore, the engineers of which included distinguished journalist, author and Australian Broadcasting Commission identity, Allan Ashbolt and my compatriot at the time, Mike Jones, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society. My main contact with the CPA was one of its leading reformers and intellectuals, Eric Aarons, who I came to regard as a profound, original, and stimulating political thinker, evident in his first major publication independent of party, Philosophy for an Exploding World (Brolga Books, Sydney, 1972).
Joining me on what was a revamped Editorial Board, part of the CPA’s 1960s evolution towards an independent stance, free from loyalty to the Soviet Union and its version of Marxism, were Laurie Carmichael, Alastair Davidson, Doug Kirsner, Dan O’Neill, and Bernie Taft. This was a mix of student, trade union, party, and academic people. The revamp followed a secret meeting over a couple of days with the CPA leadership in the party’s training camp at Minto, then on the semi-rural outskirts of Sydney. A sign of the direction ALR was travelling was manifest in its publication in 1968 of Alastair Davidson’s book Antonio Gramsci, The Man, His Ideas, a short intellectual biography which introduced Australian audiences to Gramsci.
Why secrecy? Well, for good reasons, the party had a long history, tradition, and culture of secrecy and counter surveillance. This went back to the 1930s and was sharpened during the 1940s and during the early years of the Cold War when the party was variously banned or threatened with bans. During the 1960s, anti-communism was still a powerful conservative political force in Australia, and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) deemed the CPA its number one target. History has shown as archives have opened, all of us ‘editors’ were of considerable interest to ASIO at the time and variously under surveillance.
While this surveillance awaited the documentation by history, hamfisted evidence was apparent––tampered mail, mechanical interference on the phone, a clumsy photographer, and so on. Beyond this, the editorial revamp was part of a push by party reformers to change the politics and culture of the CPA, something not universally popular within the party, and politically an attempt by the party to extend its power and influence. Under such circumstances, elements of secrecy and the clandestine were commonsense. While one accepted that surveillance was taking place, the attitudes were that you didn’t have to spoonfeed the spooks, and that privacy was a right.
Monash University political scientist Dr John Playford was also part of the editorial mix, but, as I recall, he was under criticism and pressure from his employers for publishing his deeply researched power elite studies on Australian capitalism in leftist outlets rather than in peer-reviewed academic outlets. He took an unacknowledged editorial advisory role. Another academic, as I recall, also took this unattributed advisory role: Sydney University psychology lecturer Dick Thomson, pioneering what would later become widely accepted as media studies, but at the time research regarded in the cloistered environs of Sydney University as not a pursuit worthy of scholarship or academia. At the Minto meeting, I recall Playford and Kirsner enthused, and having late night informal discussions about what would later become their book Australian Capitalism: Towards a Socialist Critique (Penguin, 1972).
The ALR editorial process for me was very much a hands on process, contributions variously sought, commissioned, circulated, discussed, with Board meetings held in Sydney at the party’s Day Street headquarters. Eric Aarons, a member of the party’s National Executive and part of a family central to the history of the CPA, chaired the meetings. He was a careful listener, and his contributions to editorial debate/discussion were considered and incisive, delivered quietly but with authority. Mavis Robertson, part of the previous Board, was always present, a strategic thinker, articulate, intelligent, sharp. Melbourne based party leader and intellectual Bernie Taft, a major player in the new emerging socialist politics and vision of the party, was a significant presence at these meetings. Taft had personal contacts with and within the Czechoslovakian ‘Prague Spring’ liberalisation that was, along with liberalisation movements in other Eastern European communist countries, catalytically spurring the reform drive in the CPA. He was an intellectual and political force to be reckoned with, and had little regard for the politics and tactics of the student movement, nor the counterculture. Eric, while not mercurial, had a wry sense of humour and was strategic, and made for easy, productive, discussions.
Amongst lasting memories of my time with ALRis of the proofreading stage, when whoever was available, often Eric, Mavis, and myself, would go to the party’s printery in Forest Lodge near Sydney University, and correct galley pulls. It was an old world about to give way to the modernities of offset printing, a world where the smell of printers’ ink was pervasive along with the rhythmic clatter of the old linotype machines, and crucial to production, the culture of the typesetters, well versed in the complexities of grammar and spelling, tactful, and seemingly so unflappable when it came to editorial changes required to the solidities of print set in lead.
For a complexity of reasons, I decided to end my editorial association with ALR in 1973. Since 1970 I had been working for the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) as a journalist and historian, completing a manuscript commenced in the late 1940s by historian Brian Fitzpatrick; my commission was to bring it up to 1972 in commemoration of the first century of the SUA’s history.
As I have explained elsewhere, my association with the SUA had profound historical, personal, and political, effects upon me. To cut a long story short, tensions within the CPA arising from the reform process eventually peaked, and in 1971 the party split. Some 800 or so pro-Soviet adherents were variously excluded from the party, either leaving or refused membership. Many of the 800 were members of the trade union movement, including people in the leadership and rank and file of the SUA with whom I had become close. My politics were split. I had been part of the reform process that had brought about the split, but during my time with the SUA (1970-72) had undergone a sea-change.
I had come to think that use of the term ‘Stalinist’ to describe Australian communists like those leaders and rank and file members I had met in the SUA, was an abusive, dismissive, form of stereotyping that prevented other ways forward and understandings of the life-experience complexities of the people involved. It was drastic intellectual and political self-surgery which cut off a rich cultural and experiential limb of organisation and struggle. For the party to isolate itself from this significant historical, industrial and financial base, hugely weakening itself in the process, made me wonder about the point of what was left? It seemed to me to be a sort of suicide. In Victoria, with little avail, Bernie Taft and his comrades argued for softer dealings with pro-Soviet dissidents, seeking instead ways forward that would not necessarily damage the party. He eventually withdrew from the party and with comrades established the Socialist Forum.
So it was I gave notice of my decision to quit ALR. I did not come clean on the complexities of my reasons, and framed them in terms of the other realities of my life at the time: family, work and trade union commitments in rural NSW which had made the sort of hands-on editorial work of my Sydney-based years unfeasible.
In 1991, at its last conference, the CPA decided to dissolve itself.