Aarons is a name associated more than any other with communism in Australia. As Marxists used to say, that is no accident. For communism appears to have been congenital in the family; it was carried by four generations. Several Aarons family members occupied the most important positions in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). And they had a significant, even if less than hoped for, influence on the politics of the nation.
If this all sounds implausible, just consult the family tree, which was compiled by ASIO to overcome any natural confusions, at the start of The Family File (Black Inc., 368pp; $34.95). ASIO and its predecessors had a special interest in the family for over five decades, accumulating 209 volumes (32,000 pages) of material on them. According to Mark Aarons, this is “the largest single collection of intelligence dossiers in Australian history”. It has also proved to be a goldmine for him, since “the family files are a comprehensive account of our lives. It would have beenf impossible to keep such an extensive diary.” Aarons, a member of the fourth generation, has made good use of these files. He acknowledges this with sober, and only slightly ironic, gratitude. It has aided him in producing a book remarkable both for the tale it tells and the way it is told.
Mark’s great-grandparents were revolutionary socialists who joined the CPA on its creation in 1921. His grandfather Sam was devoted to the Soviet Union from its inception until his death in 1971. Mark’s father, Laurie, was national secretary of the CPA for 11 years; Laurie’s brother Eric was a communist theorist and his successor as national secretary. Laurie’s three sons were active in the cause from their youth.
In ASIO’s estimation, Laurie was ahead of the rest – indeed, of anyone – with 85 volumes (14,000 pages). He is the central figure of the book. Laurie was born in 1917, and appropriately so, since “the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the family’s inspiration”. And not just inspiration was involved. As Mark Aarons says and shows, “for much of its history communism was rightly seen as an alien import, controlled by a foreign power. The Soviet Union provided substantial funding and directed the CPA’s political strategies for its first forty-five years. Communists owed a higher loyalty to Moscow, proclaimed in the interests of the ‘workers of the world’. This led some communists to betray Australia by spying for Soviet intelligence.”
Devotion ran deep. In 1932, great-grandmother Jane was the first Australian woman to travel to the Soviet Union for a May Day parade. She went again in 1934. As Aarons notes, several million Soviet citizens had already been killed in Stalin’s campaign to break the peasantry and collectivise Soviet agriculture. In the succeeding decade millions more died. Murders aside, the whole society was a gigantic prison in which people led stunted and fearful lives. Plenty of evidence of this was becoming known in the West. None of it was acknowledged by the family. War broke out in 1939, and it was revealed, astonishingly, that the Soviet Union was allied with the Nazis. Australian communists, like those around the world, did as they were instructed and promptly opposed Allied participation in the war. When the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, international communism switched to defend the Soviet Union in its unanticipated reversal of fortune. It now supported the war.
Throughout this time, world communism was ruthlessly Stalinised without objection from party loyalists. As Aarons notes, “the CPA was no exception. Along with all other communist parties affiliated to the Comintern, the Australian party blindly supported Stalin’s policies, ignoring growing evidence of his crimes. The CPA also conducted periodic political purges in line with Soviet policies.” The Aarons family supported it all. After the war, the Soviet Union communised its neighbours with great bloodshed, purges and the destruction of all independent life, and the family supported that too. They welcomed Mao and applauded the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, as well as other calamitous policies. During the Korean War, they supported the communist North. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, Eric explained that “intervention of Soviet troops was necessary to prevent the restoration of fascism in Hungary”. In 1958, Laurie visited the Soviet Union. He found it “on the threshold of still greater advances as it moves towards Communism”. On to Czechoslovakia – one of the most repressive members of the Soviet bloc (though competition for that title was fierce) – where he noted: “It is very difficult to describe the affection of the Czechoslovak people for the Soviet Union.” It must indeed have been difficult.
All this was being tracked by ASIO. The organisation was set up in 1949, when American and British intelligence presented the Chifley Labor government with “an alarming picture of Soviet espionage in Western countries”, including incontrovertible evidence of a spy ring in Australia. Top-secret British documents that had been shared with the Australian Department of External Affairs ended up in Moscow. So too did military intelligence affecting Allied operations against the Japanese and extremely sensitive American information that had been shared with London and Canberra. Notwithstanding what Aarons calls the widespread “mythology” of the Left that these allegations of espionage were all part of a conspiracy to destroy them, he shows that espionage was organised from the early 1940s by Wally Clayton, who was in charge of CPA illegal organisation and a close comrade (but on this, apparently not a confidant) of his father for over 40 years, and that its major source was agents in the Department of External Affairs. So, despite what he describes as “many stupidities, considerable crudeness and frequent lapses of professionalism, ASIO had a legitimate task” and “stands in contrast to intelligence services in communist countries, which established elaborate networks to intimidate their own citizens and compiled dossiers on millions of innocent people. These agencies were principally instruments of repression and often mass murder.”
Aarons establishes all this and more, some of it for the first time. And yet his tone is altogether more nuanced and empathic, often sympathetic, to his subjects than mine. Why so? First of all, people are more complex than the positions they adopt. He knows that, and he knows them. Secondly, he is an Aarons – part of a warm and close family that is remembered and portrayed perceptively, but also affectionately and sometimes with pride. His pride is not for the activities I have summarised, but for other engagements such as union campaigns for workers’ conditions, opposition to apartheid and the war in Vietnam, and support for Aboriginal land rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and the environmental movement. Most of all, he is proud of the campaign, ultimately destined to fail, that Laurie and Eric waged from the late ’60s to develop the CPA in a purportedly democratic direction. This involved bitter rupture with former comrades, and with the Soviet Union, as “the family tried to redeem the cause, and in the process, itself.”
The combination of loyalty and honesty, and of affection and forensic investigation, that Aarons achieves in the book is personally admirable. It cannot have been easy. And yet I am only partly persuaded. Communists may well have been involved in some decent causes, but so were many others who rejected their devotion to Soviet dictatorship. Several of the most prominent members – he mentions Lloyd Ross, Laurie Short – broke with the party, and fought against it because of this. For devotion to “the Revolution” was not incidental but the main game, and for a long time the point of all other engagements. So long as it lasted, everything else was subordinated and instrumental to it. That is what was distinctive about communism and, in the context of a civil and decent society, what was distinctively evil about it.
It is good that Laurie and Eric broke with the Soviet Union after 1967. This, also, cannot have been easy. However, for anyone who knew the nature of the Soviet experiment of the preceding 50 years, it must have seemed too little, too late. And it was. By then the worst Soviet crimes had long been committed, and exposed, over and over again. What was left was a sclerotic bureaucratic empire, immeasurably less murderous than it had been, but without charm or pulling power for anyone but a few old party troglodytes. Why not break with it? The deeper question, not just political but moral, is this: Why not much earlier, when so much had been known for so long?
But then, I have an interest. Like Mark Aarons, I also had a father. Like his father, mine, Richard Krygier, was born in 1917, and the rest of his life was shaped by the Revolution and its consequences. The difference is that he was opposed to it. A refugee from Poland, he knew what had happened there but he also knew, as would any reader of freely available works by Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Csezlaw Milosz, Milovan Dilas, Victor Kravchenko and scores of others (nowhere mentioned in Aarons’ book), what catastrophes had been systematically and repeatedly imposed throughout the communist world. The true and abiding mystery of communism is what impelled idealists such as the Aarons family, not thugs and murderers like those they supported for so long (though many of them also were or had been idealists), to do so. Despite this exemplary book, I still have no idea.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription