Laurie Aarons, 1917-2005

Green Left Weekly #616 – February 23, 2005
By John Percy

Laurie Aarons, general secretary of the Communist Party of Australia in the crucial years 1965-76, died earlier this month at the age of 88. The Aarons family played an important role in the CPA: Laurie’s grandparents were members, his father Sam was a national leader, his brother Eric was general secretary in 1976-82, and his son Brian was later a national secretary.

Laurie Aarons succeeded Lance Sharkey as CPA general secretary in May 1965, and from then on the CPA departed from the mould of traditional Stalinist parties, breaking with Moscow and introducing major political and organisational changes in the Australian party. However there’s been much debate, at the time and since, about the political content of these changes. Had the CPA shed its Stalinist politics, and moved in a revolutionary Marxist direction? Was it only a cosmetic change? Or was it a retreat away from a revolutionary perspective?

In his February 11 obituary on the Workers Online website, Eric Aarons mentioned “four particular accomplishments” by his brother soon after he was elected CPA general secretary.

The first was “to discern that the then escalating Vietnam War would be a major political issue in Australia for years to come, and he mobilised the party to initiate what became a broad and mighty movement.

“The second was to put an end to the hollow Stalinist rituals that passed for democracy and creative discussion. This he did in the preparations for the 1967 party congress where, unique in the communist world at that time, things were freely said, written and published.

“The third was to discern that the time was coming in which it would be possible to challenge the penal powers of the Arbitration Act, which were used to enforce government policies and strengthen the power of local corporations and the burgeoning multinationals.” This led to a massive trade union response to the 1969 jailing of Victorian Tramways Union leader, Clarrie O’Shea, “that rendered those penalties inoperative for years”.

The fourth accomplishment was that “when cataclysmic world events again intervened, with the invasion by the Soviet Union of a reforming and renovating Czechoslovakia – the Prague Spring... [the CPA was] the first communist party to make an unequivocal condemnation, one to which we resolutely adhered in face of massive external and some internal pressure”.

But Laurie Aarons, like the CPA in those decades, had a very contradictory history, and those four “accomplishments” must be qualified.

Yes, the CPA organised the first protest actions against the US-Australian war in Vietnam, and being by far the largest party on the left at the time it carried a lot of weight in the movement. But the CPA was outflanked by newly emerging left forces among the youth, and many times the CPA was a conservatising brake on the movement.

Yes, the CPA at times mobilised its trade unionists, such as against O’Shea’s jailing, and CPA leader Jack Mundey and others played a pioneering role in the Builders Labourers Federation and the “green bans” campaigns. But, unfortunately, the overall balance-sheet of the CPA’s trade union work under the Aarons leadership is disastrous, culminating in the CPA-inspired ALP-ACTU Accord in the 1980s.

Yes, under Laurie Aarons’ leadership the CPA was quick to strongly denounce the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But Laurie Aarons and the leadership group around him tended to explain their break with Moscow and the changes they introduced into the CPA as based on an exaggerated characterisation of capitalism’s changed social and technological features, rather than making a historical analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and attempting a return to the revolutionary politics of Marx and Lenin. Thus they could continue with the essential political perspectives of the previous CPA leadership in relation to the trade unions and the ALP.

The CPA leadership’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 encouraged those hoping for a fundamental break with Stalinist politics by the CPA, and its “new left” image allowed it some recovery among youth in the 1970s. Some young radicals joined it, hoping to deepen the changes, but over time they were politically tamed and conservatised by the CPA. Similarly, the thousands of serious working-class militants who joined the CPA over the years were demoralised and disappointed as the CPA moved further and further right under the Aarons’s leadership.

The leftist posturing taken up in the 1960s didn’t last very long. During the 1970s and ‘80s, on most major issues the CPA fell in behind the ALP. By the start of the 1980s, the CPA – via metalworkers’ union leader Laurie Carmichael – could claim authorship of the ALP-ACTU Accord, the social contract between the union movement and the Hawke Labor government elected in 1983, which over the next 13 years led to a huge transfer of wealth from workers to the capitalist class and the debilitation of much of the trade union movement.

Most of the Victorian leadership of the CPA, who had been strong supporters of the Aarons line, had moved to the right even earlier, leaving the CPA in 1984 and quickly settling in to the rightwing of the ALP. With only brief pauses, most of the rest of the CPA leadership also slid to the right, pushing a politics hardly distinguishable from that of the ALP, before finally dissolving the CPA in 1991. All that’s left is the ghost of the CPA – the Search Foundation, which holds the CPA’s millions of dollars of assets.

Well before the final dissolution of the CPA, Laurie Aarons had lost confidence in the possibility of socialism.