Right-revisionism in Australia
by Peter Symon
The following article was published by the American magazine, Nature, Society and Thought(NST). It was written at the request of the editor to inform the readers of NST of some experiences of the left in Australia.
"It was believed that the militant proletariat had been finally buried with the [defeat of the - PS] Paris Commune. But, completely to the contrary, it dates its most powerful advance from the Commune and the Franco-German war". So wrote Engels in his Introduction to the Class Struggles in France by Karl Marx. Engels wrote this Introduction in 1895, 25 years after the days of the Paris Commune, but sufficient time to gauge the direction being taken by events.
Engels was right and since that time the proletariat continued to grow throughout Europe and the world. Many struggles and revolutions followed the Paris Commune, culminating in the victory of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The first workers' state was established. Communist Parties, committed to socialist revolution, were formed in many countries. Inexorably, capitalism produced more and more of its own grave-diggers – the working class.
Revolutions in Europe and Asia followed. Then Cuba broke the capitalist wall in the western hemisphere. We can see in all these an historic progression of the international working class and revolutionary movements.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist states of eastern Europe has once again led to euphoria on the part of international reaction. Communism is dead and buried, they cry.
It is asserted that the collapse marks the end of history, meaning that capitalism is humankind's highest level of development and is not to be replaced by any other social system.
But we can paraphrase Engels today and comment: It was believed that the militant proletariat had been finally buried with the (defeat) of the Russian revolution. But, contrary to those who declared its death, the revolutionary working class movement dates its most powerful maturing and inevitable resurgence from that time.
Now, less than five years after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the demise of the CPSU, it is already possible, not only to write of an inevitable resurgence by using our knowledge of historical materialism, but to see its early manifestations in the struggles of the people and the work of the communist parties on all the continents.
Marx and Engels learned much from the lessons of the Paris Commune. Our task is to learn from the break-up of the Soviet Union as well as from the Commune and many other experiences.
Many Marxist parties have already turned their attention to this task. They are learning from the complex processes which undermined socialism and the communist parties of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and are reviewing their own work and improving their theory and practice.
Our basis is the working class of our countries and, collectively, the international working class. It cannot be replaced or done away with. It is an essential and indispensable part of modern productive processes. And just so long as there is an exploited working class, there will be a working class movement demanding an end to exploitation and its consequences. Hence the need for political parties committed to that purpose.
However, there are those who do not accept this estimation. In response to the events they have, in one way or another, abandoned their revolutionary position and relegated the socialist objective. To the extent that they still wish to be regarded as on the side of socialism and progress, they are searching for a "new" course.
It is this supposed "new" course I wish to write about in this short article and to draw on the specific experience of the Australian movement believing it to be one of the lessons to be learned from this historical period.
This "new" course became identified with claims of "socialist renewal", a non-class "democracy", criticism and rejection of democratic centralism and the concept of the leading role of the working class and the party, abandonment of the party being an activist organisation, rejection of class struggle, "pluralism" in ideology, etc.
The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) was founded in 1920. Militant and revolutionary-minded workers were given great encouragement and inspiration by the success of the Russian revolution. There were also several generations of Australian working class politics to draw upon. The Party did much highly creditable work. It won considerable influence among the working class, particularly in the trade union movement.
The struggle against the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s' Depression, against war and fascism, and then the heroic resistance of the Soviet Union against the Nazi invasion proved for many the validity and achievements of socialism and the leadership role of communist parties.
World War II was followed by a long period of economic boom conditions for capitalism, coinciding with the Cold War in the international arena. It was a period of intense anti-communism. The influence of the Communist Party, compared with the days of the Depression and World War II, declined.
Capitalist leaders, including the social democrat leaders of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), declared the post-war boom years to be a "golden age" for capitalism. And so it seemed for many. There was very low unemployment, low inflation and considerable industrial growth. The working class movement was able to make considerable economic and social gains. Reforms were easy to achieve. Given the advances being made, revolution hardly seemed to be necessary.
The Communist Party was faced with a declining membership and a contraction of influence in the trade union movement as right- wing social democrats challenged the influence of the communists. Electoral votes went down compared to those won in the War period. An attempt was made to outlaw the Communist Party and although this failed, the intense anti-communism and anti- Sovietism at home and internationally had their effect. But it was not just the internal pressures.
This was also the period of the Cold War launched by Churchill's Fulton speech. Krushchov's 20th Congress speech shocked many. Then came the counter-revolutionary attempts in the GDR, Hungary and later, Czechoslovakia. The rupture in the international communist movement which mirrored the split between the parties of the Soviet Union and China, led yet others to look for another way.
However, the CPA (and, one suspects, many other parties) failed to deal adequately with these problems. Two extremes emerged. One which excused all and the other which condemned all. A thoroughly objective analysis was required, one which separated socialist principles and Marxist theory from distortions, crimes and abuse. This is a task which, in many respects, is only now being made in the international communist movement.
At this time another phenomenon arose. The 1950s and 60s saw the emergence of the women's liberation and gay liberation movements, student struggles and workers' control movements were prominent. Towards the end of the 60s the struggle against the dirty war in Vietnam brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. Then came the environmental movement.
The CPA saw in these movements new contingents in the struggle for socialism. This evaluation was an over-estimation of the revolutionary potential of such movements. The CPA leaders saw in them something that was not there. At the same time they asserted that the working class had been absorbed into the bourgeois system.
The elevation of the mass movements and the downgrading of the working class when put together led to a downgrading of the class struggle and of Marxism. They were seen as having been superseded by middle class social forces, by non-class "human values" and "pluralism".
Yet another factor which influenced events in the 1980s was the shift to the right by the leaders of social democracy. The developing crisis of capitalism was also a crisis for social democracy. Its leaders readily took economic rationalist theories on board. This right swing by the social democratic leaders created the illusion that there was space for a left social democratic party which would be more popular than the communist party.
All these factors operated over a considerable period of time, but combined, they provided a breeding ground for the right- revisionism which grew apace in the Communist Party of Australia.
While the process began in the early 1960s, the truth was obscured by claims that changes were needed for the "renewal" of the Party and the socialist objective. The new ideological concepts claimed to speak for "social progress", for "liberation" and "human values". They were said to be a "development" of Marxism. It took some time for most members of the party to understand the real essence of the direction being advocated by the leadership.
While it is always necessary to review the objective realities and to take account of the economic, political and social changes taking place in society, this must be done by the application of Marxism. The fact was, however, that bit by bit, Marxism was abandoned. A foot was placed on the path to liquidation of the revolutionary party and the abandonment of the socialist objective.
"Renewal" did not follow the adoption of the "new" ideas and organisational principles. Instead, there was a slow process along the long road to liquidation which was finally reached by the CPA in 1990. The Party was not destroyed directly by the ruling class but from within.
In preparation for the organisational liquidation of the CPA its leadership proclaimed the objective of forming a New Left Party (NLP) – a so-called "broad" party. The CPA leaders thought they could create a party which would attract many of the activists from the various mass movements. Despite the very positive role and courageous activity of forces from these movements, many did not and do not want to be organised into a political party. They did not have a developed political strategy in mind nor had they moved towards accepting a revolutionary theory.
Those advocating the formation of the NLP, assumed that the new party would also attract left-social democrats. This assumption did not turn out to be valid either. Left-wing social-democrats continued to find a home in the ALP and went along with right- wing policies for the sake of party unity and with the purpose of retaining hold of government. Opportunism, combined with an absence of theory and class commitment, turned out to be stronger than the proclaimed commitment of some left social democrats to socialism and social justice.
This new and allegedly "broad" party did not advance a socialist objective. It did not base itself on Marxist ideology but was pluralist and eclectic. It did not have any organisational cohesion. It had a "do what you please" approach and abhorred any suggestion of discipline. It did not base itself on the working class.
In ideological and organisational orientation, the New Left Party was a left-leaning social democratic type party in a country where a strong and well-entrenched social democratic party already existed. The ALP continues to command the political allegiance of most of the working class and many intellectuals and is able to include left-wing activists in its ranks. There was no place for a second social democratic party.
The New Left Party had a short life of about two years. It also disbanded in 1992.
The tragedy is that many excellent and committed activists who hold to a socialist objective have been run into a dead-end and the CPA to which they adhered, destroyed.
When right-revisionism takes hold of a party leading a socialist state it results in the abandonment of the leadership role of the communist party and to the liquidation of both the party and socialism.
The adoption of right-revisionist ideas and practices by Gorbachev and other leaders of the CPSU has had that consequence in the former USSR – a catastrophe for the people of the Soviet Union and the CPSU, not to mention the revolutionary and liberation movements of many countries.
The Soviet Union had many problems which needed to be solved and many were under the illusion that they could be overcome by the adoption of a right revisionist course. As in Australia this course was dressed up as "socialist renewal".
The abandonment of Marxism, the adoption of unprincipled compromises in the class struggle and eventually the abandonment of the class struggle itself, lead inexorably to liquidation of the revolutionary party of the working class. It means the restoration of bourgeois, idealist philosophy. It leads, in the case of a socialist country, to the restoration of capitalist class rule. It represents a repudiation of socialism.
This is the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the experience of the CPA and international experience in recent times.
It is necessary to say more about some of the ideological positions taken up by the liquidationists.
"Human values", attitudes to democracy, the class struggle, changes in the working class, pluralism, questions of unity, "broadness" and "narrowness", the understanding of democratic centralism, the question of the leading role of communist parties and what this means, nationalism and internationalism, dogmatism and right opportunism, are all familiar to readers.
As far back as 1972, Australian Communists were presented with arguments to the effect that a struggle for "human values" was superseding the class struggle. But, first of all, the relationship of being to consciousness was turned on its head:
"In present conditions a transformation of consciousness is essential before objective conditions can be suitably transformed, not the other way round..." wrote Eric Aarons a leading figure in the CPA in 1972. (Philosophy for an Exploding World, Eric Aarons pp. 126/7).
He claimed that "because values deal with the most generalised attitudes which people have and act upon, they may be regarded as the 'social cement' ... holding a social system together."
Aarons asserted that "as it developed, marxism took on a rather equivocal or even disdainful view of ethical, moral, value considerations." On the class structure of society: "Many attempts have been made to find some basis for analysis which would provide an objective starting point for delineating in classical marxist fashion the class forces of modern society."
He went on, "...among the eighty per cent of people owning no means of production there are various and divergent strata -- they can be called classes and sub-classes if so wished – (but) To look for a 'leading class' among these strata in the classical way that the bourgeois class held leadership in the capitalist revolutions...is to try to apply a model which does not fit."
And again, "It now seems to me that these attempts (at political analysis) fail because they keep within the framework of the primacy of ownership over all other social relations and the determination of consciousness by these ownership relations, while other vital aspects are ignored or minimised."
These viewpoints are presented to show the ideological positions used to underpin the political course which was taken by the leadership of the CPA. As already said, they were at that time put forward as the way to achieve a "renewal" of the Party.
Pluralism was an essential basis of attempts by the CPA to form a "coalition of the left" and after the Party's liquidation, the New Left Party was a continuation of the search for pluralism.
In 1972 Eric Aarons wrote: "Pluralism has come to stay in political commitment, in life style and in philosophy and theoretical approach in general ... Such an apparently amorphous arrangement might well prove more enduring ... compared with the integral social structures and systems of thought which tend to become brittle and moribund through being militantly defended against dissenting views and ultimately against innovation and change." (Ibid pp 152/3)
Eric Aarons took the undoubted ideological pluralism in society and attempted to introduce it into Marxism and into a Party basing itself on Marxism. The inevitability of differing ideological and political views on a multitude of issues in society is one thing. Ideological pluralism within a party is quite a different matter.
Marxism is essentially critical, recognising change as "the way of life" of all things. But this dialectic of a changing world is different from an eclectic of the differing philosophical theories to be found in society. For example, it is not possible to synthesise opposing views concerning the basic question of philosophy – that matter is primary and thought is secondary and a derivative of matter. Both idealist and materialist philosophies will continue to exist and contend into the foreseeable future. But it is not possible to contemplate a philosophical "marriage" between them.
The advocacy of pluralism by Eric Aarons was an attempt (successful as it turned out) to introduce ideological pluralism into the Communist Party which, until then, had been based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, meaning by that, dialectical and historical materialism.
The 1958 Constitution of the CPA said: "The program, policies and organisational principles of the Party are based upon Marxism- Leninism, applied to the conditions of Australia."
In the 1970 Constitution, however, this formulation was changed to read: "The program, policies and attitudes of the party are determined by a scientific socialist analysis of the contemporary world and Australian reality". It goes on: "Scientific socialism, founded by Marx, is a rational method of studying and changing society". (Emphasis added)
This opened the door to pluralism within the party and it was not long after this that Trotskyism was proclaimed as a "legitimate revolutionary trend". Marxism became just one among a number. Later, all references to Marxism were dropped and bourgeois philosophy took over.
Another concept assiduously pushed by the CPA leadership was that of "broadness". This term is usually posed against an alleged "narrowness" of a Marxist party. But how can a party, guided by the comprehensiveness of Marxism, which takes into account the many-sidedness of phenomena, which studies and comes to decisions on the basis of the objective realities of society, be "narrow"?
It is suggested that other community organisations are "broad", hence the idea, (since "broadness" is preferable to "narrowness"), that a communist party should mirror itself on the various community organisations. To achieve this, the party must adopt pluralism in ideology, abandon its partisanship in the class struggle and adopt liberal bourgeois concepts of organisation rather than democratic centralism.
The CPA leaders attempted to implement their ideas on "broadness" when they launched the New Left Party. It incorporated all their principles in ideology, politics and organisational principles. Experience has shown that it was a dismal failure.
It can be argued that communist parties are part of society and are, hence, part of the "broadness" of society. In practice, however, those who preach "broadness" attempt to exclude and isolate communist parties from any participation in social and political life. In the case of the CPA leaders they achieved that result by liquidating the party altogether!
There is a direct connection between this ideological base and the gradual transformation of the CPA, its abandonment of class positions and the socialist objective, of democratic centralism as the Party's organisational principle, of its working class base and its revolutionary role in society. Its final liquidation as an organisation was merely the logical outcome of the so- called "new" course begun in the 1960s.
It was necessary to vigorously oppose the right-revisionist trend in the CPA and although this took some time to develop it was the fundamental reason leading to the formation of the Socialist Party of Australia in 1971.
The experience of right-revisionism in the present period shows conclusively that it is a departure from Marxism. It is anti- communist and anti-socialist in essence. When followed, it transforms a communist party into, at best, a social democratic or radical type party. If it takes root in a socialist state it will lead to the destruction of socialism and the re-establishment of bourgeois rule, bourgeois ideology and capitalist economic relations.
Space does not allow for discussion of other issues listed earlier but those few discussed are sufficient to identify right-revisionism.
Revisionism is always present in society and it infiltrates the communist movement. It finds a particular base among the middle class in society and reflects their equivocal position between the working class and the capitalist class. Within the working class and communist movements it is a reflection of bourgeois ideology and attracts those whose Marxist-Leninist theory and working class commitment is limited or undeveloped. It is a variant of bourgeois ideology and is not a variant of Marxism. It is an opponent and bitter enemy of Marxism. Its slogans of renewal are not to be believed.
The current horrific consequences of right-revisionism, the unparalleled tragedy which it has wrought on the citizens of the former socialist countries and its destruction of the revolutionary parties in a number of countries should lead all to be on their guard, to recognise and work to defeat its influence wherever it appears.
It can be overcome by a correct application of Marxism-Leninism in all its scientific richness and revolutionary creativity.
Marxism-Leninism is equally opposed to dogmatism and left-sectarianism which is the other side of the right-revisionist coin. But that is another story which could also be told about the Australian movement.