National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012


Airbrushing the record — Mark Aarons’s attempt to re-shape history



by Mark Aarons

(Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010)
Paperback: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781863954815
RRP: AUD$34.95


Reviewed by John Ironmonger


The apparent objective of The Family File, the latest book of Mark Aarons, a fourth-generation communist, is to reveal what he sees as the betrayal of the communist cause and how the Aarons family sought to redeem that cause. The catalyst, seemingly, is Aarons’ gaining access to ASIO’s files on his family. However, one is left wondering if there is more to the book than this.

Another explanation could be that Aarons is seeking to ameliorate what history might say about his family. Indeed, at times, he seems to use ASIO’s records to validate the impression that the Aarons family were the “moderates” of the Communist Party. Given that Aarons says his father had devised techniques to try to avoid ASIO scrutiny and assumed that all their activities would be monitored or recorded, it is not surprising that he is able to do so.

The reality is that, like another book Australia’s Spies and their Secrets (1994), by David McKnight (a one-time editor of the Communist Party newspaper Tribune), Aarons’ book does have a downside. It pays insufficient attention to how, during the time of the Soviet Union, all too many Australians on the political left profited from ignoring, denying or disbelieving that:

•   the Soviet Union ran espionage operations in Australia and, at least until the 1950s, involved Communist Party of Australia (CPA) members in those activities;

•   certain members of the ALP were secret members of the Communist Party;

•   the Soviet Union financed the CPA at least from the 1950s until the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, despite communist barrister Ted Hill’s demolition of Soviet defector Vladimir Petrov’s assertion that a Soviet official handed over US$25,000 to the party in 1953; and

•   the Soviet Union was in a position to pursue strategic objectives through the CPA’s influence over key unions and within the ALP.

Moreover, few of these left-wingers who denied or disbelieved these things were ever made to be accountable for the consequences of their actions.

Of course, many of them are long since dead, as are many individuals who were vilified or pilloried for seeking to negate the influence of the CPA and expose the brutality and atrocities of communist regimes, especially those of the Soviet Union and China.

As for those fellow-travellers who are still alive, they can rest safe in the knowledge that these horrors have receded into historical memory and that the community has moved on.

Take, for example, when Aarons alleged that a number of senior left-wing Labor identities, including former senators Arthur Gietzelt and Bruce Childs, were also secret members of the Communist Party. Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr (currently Australia’s foreign affairs minister) declared this to be a “bombshell revelation” and added, “The implications are huge.” (The Australian, July 5, 2010). However, elsewhere in Australia, scarcely an eyebrow was raised. Yet Carr spent time as the education officer for the NSW Trades and Labor Council. It defies credulity that he was not acquainted with the names of ALP members who were thought to be secret Communist Party members.

The approach that Aarons has taken to publishing this book has significant benefits for him. By basing his book on ASIO’s records of his family, he thereby avoids:

•   discussing sensitive issues which (the reader must assume) the Aarons clan never mentioned during a single telephone conversation;

•   commenting on the implications and consequences of what he does reveal;

•   commenting on the quality of the political judgments made by the CPA;

•   revealing the extent of the influence the CPA had over the ALP and the trade union movement, and how and why it exercised that influence;

•   discussing communist involvement in student politics — involvement which a number of politicians and political activists would still find embarrassing; and

•   revealing how Aarons himself used his position with the taxpayer-funded ABC to proselytise the communist cause, about which there is an inkling with a reference to his having given 45 minutes on the ABC’s Radio National program in 1976 to two Americans who, in Aarons’s words, “seemed to have a plausible explanation for the Khmer Rouge’s forced evacuation of Phnom Penh” (Aarons, The Family File, p.285).

For example, Aarons refrains from discussing communist involvement in the peace movement. Early evidence of its power behind the scenes was the refusal of the Australian and New Zealand Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament, when it met in Melbourne in November 1959, to pass a motion condemning the suppression of free speech anywhere, because that would have been tantamount to criticism of the Soviet Union. Nor did the ANZCICD concern itself with the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary.

CPA influence over the peace movement is a delicate issue as, after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, the CPA purported to become independent of both Moscow and Beijing, at the urging of the group which was led by the party’s national secretary, Mark’s father Laurie. However, in the 1980s, the peace movement in Australia, like the peace movement internationally, opposed the basing of US Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe; and prominent communist union official John Halfpenny led the Pacific Ocean nuclear-free campaign. Had these campaigns been successful, the Soviet Union would have benefited strategically at the expense of the free world. Aarons is able to avoid dealing with the question of whether the CPA was still supporting the peace movement in the 1980s, and its motive for being involved in the Soviet-initiated Pacific nuclear-free campaign, because he was able to access ASIO files only up to 1978.

Aarons says that —

•   there was no other CPA leader who had more influence over the ALP at senior levels than his father;

•   the party influenced significant sections of the ALP left, especially in the unions; and

•   the party’s condemnation of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 gave it continuing standing with important sections of the ALP left.

However, he does not say how his father exercised his influence, and who benefited. He admits that, during the 1930s, many talented ALP left-wingers secretly became dual ALP/CPA members, but he does not say who these left-wingers were, or if, and if so when, the CPA ceased its practice of providing secret membership. For example, there was speculation about Jack Ferguson, the leader of the parliamentary left in NSW, who played a critical role in Neville Wran’s ascension to the state’s premiership in 1976. Jack, the father of current federal MPs Martin and Laurie and aspiring state MP Andrew, had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s before apparently leaving it in 1940 to join the ALP (according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography). After the war, however, he visited communist eastern Europe when it was not fashionable to do so. He served as NSW’s deputy premier from 1976 to 1984, and died in 2002.

Aarons also says that his father’s main contact was Arthur Gietzelt, whom he describes as a CPA member.

More controversially, Aarons alleges that former Western Australian Labor senator John Wheeldon was also a secret CPA member. This has, however, been specifically and explicitly denied by Peter Coleman (a former Liberal parliamentarian, and former editor of The Bulletin and Quadrant magazine), Dr Paul Stenhouse (scholar and Catholic priest), and at least one former senior ASIO officer. Although Senator Wheeldon was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, in 1968 he was one of the leading critics in the Australian parliament of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1978, he was one of the principal authors of a parliamentary investigative report, Human Rights in the Soviet Union, which catalogued gross human rights abuses in the Soviet Union.

Then there was Tom Uren, one of Wheeldon’s closest comrades (according to Aarons), and over whom, Aarons says, his father Laurie had great influence. In the 1960s, Uren successfully sued a newspaper which described him as a communist, but ASIO continued to monitor his activities. According to Bob Carr, Uren still vehemently denies ever having been a CPA member, “and Aarons, who listened to a long oral history interview between Uren and his father, accepts Uren’s denial” (The Australian, July 5, 2010).

The influence that the CPA wielded over the Whitlam and Hawke governments, not to mention the strategic priorities pursued by the party, is avoided by Aarons. Aarons recalls that his father acknowledged, however, there was validity in the criticism that the party did not do enough to support the Whitlam government’s domestic agenda. However, we shall never know if that lack of public support was a tactical decision, despite internal criticism from the ”pragmatic” wing of the party, so as not to focus attention on the party’s influence over the government.

By basing so much of his book on ASIO records, Aarons also escapes discussing the wider implications of the revelations that, since the end of the Cold War, have been consigned to the dustbin of history. For example, Arthur Gietzelt’s brother Ray was national secretary of the Miscellaneous Workers Union which was very influential within the left. Ray played a critical role in securing Bob Hawke’s election as ACTU president over the right-wing candidate, the then assistant secretary Harold Souter.

Indeed, the whole subject of how the Communist Party exercised its influence in the union movement is steadfastly ignored. For example, there remains the question of whether communist-inspired strikes were used to damage Australia’s economy as part of the “historic” struggle” to undermine capitalism and build socialism. The potential economic damage of the wave of disputes unleashed after World War II, culminating in the 1949 miners’ strike, was the beginning of the long decline for the CPA. The question of the CPA’s motive in initiating widespread industrial action remained an issue until the 1980s, when a 38-hour week campaign led by prominent communist AMWU officials, Laurie Carmichael and John Halfpenny, is said to have cost 100,000 metalworkers their jobs.

As for the Aarons clan, the book reveals a family which lived by the adage that the end justifies the means. Great-grandfather Louis Aarons and his wife Jane visited the USSR during the 1930s; but, like most communists of the time, they ignored accounts of the terror-famine Stalin inflicted on Ukraine. Grandfather Sam also visited the Soviet Union during the 1930s and became an apologist for the rest of his life. He went to Spain to fight with the communists against Franco. According to Aarons, he never accepted the destructive role that Stalinism played in fragmenting the Republican forces and ensuring Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. Nor did Sam Aarons express any empathy for the victims of communist repression. Despite fighting against Franco, he toed the Soviet line regarding Nazism. First, he opposed Hitler. Then, during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939-41), he supported Hitler. Finally, once Hitler turned on Stalin, he opposed Hitler. In the 1950s he and his wife Millie blindly accepted the supposed benefits to the Chinese population of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward”.

As for Laurie Aarons, he:

•   concluded that it was wrong for the Soviets to invade eastern Poland in 1939, but (unlike principled communists like Lloyd Ross, who resigned from the party), justified toeing the party line, on the basis that it was just one more necessary “adjustment” in the “historic struggle” to build socialism. Later, he said that, while he did not think it felt it was wrong, the CPA made a very serious political mistake at that time.

•   vetoed ballot-rigging in an Ironworker Union Newcastle branch ballot, but later organised the rigging of a Boilermaker Union Newcastle branch election. (Subsequently, according to Mark, Laurie said this was bad and that he should never should have done it).

•   supported the Soviet Union’s 1956 invasion of Hungary. According to Mark, Laurie — together with his wife Carol and brother Eric —he later came to regret his stance. (Presumably he did not regret it before 1959, when the ANZCICD’s Melbourne conference, at the direction of the CPA, refused to condemn the suppression of free speech anywhere it occurred.

•   wrote glowingly about the Soviet Union in 1958, despite, apparently, having gained a rather poor impression of the USSR from a visit.

•   got infected with what he eventually called “misplaced enthusiasm” about Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

•   concluded, after the 1954-55 Petrov Royal Commission, that the CPA should not get dragged into spying because “it’s a very damaging thing to have alleged against you”.

While Mark Aarons says his father Laurie never entirely came to terms with Wally Clayton’s role in Soviet espionage, and the damage it had done to Australia and the CPA, he did not think that Clayton gave the Soviet Union any secrets of major importance. Indeed, Laurie wrote to Clayton’s widow in 1997 expressing his “deepest regret at Wally’s death”. (The Family File, p.226).

In the beginning of his book, Mark Aarons appears to play down the verification of the CPA’s involvement in Soviet espionage, the details of which (he writes) “have been broadly known since the 1950s”. Nicholas Whitlam, business luminary and son of Gough, presumably would have been grateful had he known these details before he co-authored with John Stubbs, Nest of Traitors: The Petrov Affair (1974), the left-wing version of Australian Cold War history published before the facts could not be denied any longer.

As Aarons himself says, the absence of prosecutions following the Petrov Royal Commission, which itself could not be given critical evidence for security reasons, created “an enduring myth” among communists — and within the ALP — that there was no Soviet espionage in Australia in the 1940s. This is a myth that Laurie, who was responsible for winding up the CPA’s illegal apparatus after the Royal Commission, could have exposed. He did not.

Aarons seeks to create the impression that his father was a man who spent the subsequent 40 years seeking to extract the truth from Wally Clayton about his activities, and who was “astounded” by what he learnt in an interview with Clayton in 1993. It beggars belief that Laurie did not determine, when he was closing down the illegal apparatus, that Clayton had been engaged in Soviet espionage. Even so, Mark Aarons writes that his father obtained a secretly taped confession in 1993. Not only did Laurie not reveal what he now “knew”, even after Clayton’s death in 1997, but he told his son a few years later that the tape had been lost. Obviously, the idea that he should apologise to all those who had been mislead by the myth, or suffered for exposing the truth and acting on its implications, did not cross his mind.

In all of these recantations, there is not the sense of genuine remorse. While Laurie did a lot of writing after he retired as the CPA’s national secretary, mea culpas were not in the list. There is no apology to those who were vilified — with the support of Laurie Aarons — for responding to the dangers to the national interest posed by Soviet control of, or influence over, the CPA. Instead one is left wondering if the primary motive for Mark Aarons’s book is an attempt to re-write the history by playing down Laurie’s obvious support for what is now undeniably the indefensible.

Like father, like son. Mark Aarons himself also hangs out his dirty washing. Again, one wonders about his motives.

Mark was heavily involved in supporting the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), including travelling to communist Mozambique in 1976 to raise money for them (The Family File, p.280). While his doubts about the leaders of Fretilin increased, especially after a fanatical group of Maoists gained control, he turned a blind eye to their paranoia, and publicly defended the position of the CPA’s senior link with the Fretilin leadership, Denis Freney, who supported the Fretilin line. As Aarons admits, José Ramos Horta and others were not traitors, and the Maoists did indeed engage in the brutal torture of innocent people, arbitrary executions and inhumane incarcerations. Aarons was unaware of these atrocities at the time, but says he ”feared the worst”. Nevertheless, he did not do anything.

Likewise, he uncritically supported Vietnam’s communists, knowing that the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) was controlled by the communist North Vietnamese. By 1978 he was “disturbed” by the re-education camps, the flood of boatpeople escaping communist repression, and the Soviet Union’s influence over Vietnam. Yet he grew up in a household which knew better than most about the atrocities perpetrated by communists in the Soviet Union and China, and should have been aware of such possibilities. Others certainly were.

Aarons recalls that “dire predictions of a ‘blood bath’ did not eventuate” and that he consoled himself with the thought that the Vietnamese communists were not as barbaric as the Khmer Rouge in neighbouring Cambodia. Apparently, he imagined that these mercies ameliorate the responsibility which he and the CPA should accept for the horrors that followed the communist invasion of South Vietnam.

Nevertheless his “disquiet” was not the catalyst for his allowing his party membership to lapse. Rather, it was the surreptitious involvement of Victorian members of the Communist Party in The Little Red Book for Social Change, which advocated terrorism and violence.

Mark writes fondly about the CPA’s supposedly altruistic motives for being involved in:

•   the environment movement, through its influence over unions and green bans;

•   the campaigns to force Northern Territory pastoralists to pay Aborigines award wages in the 1960s and subsequently to recognise native title (although he does not acknowledge, as do people such as Noel Pearson and Professor Marcia Langton, the social and cultural vacuum created by the former and its consequences, or the failure of the latter to make a significant impact on the social, cultural and moral challenges facing Aborigines);

•   the anti-Apartheid movement; and

•   the feminist and gay and lesbian movements.

Aarons does not canvass the extent to which communist involvement in these causes was driven also by the view that some campaigns (such as the forcing of pastoralists to pay award wages) constituted an economic attack on the capitalist system (although he does seek to justify why the CPA under Laurie’s leadership refused to support the Whitlam government in the 1970s, on the basis that all Labor could do was adopt a strategy modelled on an updated and sophisticated Keynesianism).

Neither does he discuss the extent to which the CPA’s involvement was a strategic decision based on the necessity to expand its membership base, which had declined dramatically from the 1950s onwards. In this context, the comment of veteran communist Freda Brown — who, like her husband Bill, remained loyal to Moscow to the very end — that movements such as the feminist movement were “trendy, middle-class causes”. To the extent that the CPA’s support for these causes was part of its recruitment strategy, it failed. Freda Brown and those of like-mind, including some within the “left wing” of the CPA, were right. These are middle-class issues, which attracted people who were not driven by a concern for the traditional, working-class issues which underpinned communism.

Ironically, Freda’s daughter Lee (now Rhiannon), who also remained loyal to Moscow, is now a Greens politician (who took her place as a senator in July 2011), as Aarons points out. The Greens’ agenda epitomise the trendy, middle-class causes which Lee’s mother Freda scorned.

It is interesting that Lee Rhiannon is the only “red-diaper baby” (child of CPA parents who imbibed the communist cause) whom Aarons mentions. Aarons implies that this citation was due to the close relationship between the Browns and the Aarons. However, there may be more to it than that. Rhiannon does not mention her membership of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Party of Australia in her CV on her parliamentary website.

The mentality of the end justifying the means — a mentality which engendered hypocrisy and duplicity in Communist Party members individually — also infected the organisation. Despite the CPA’s championing of “progressive issues” and, as Aarons does, relying on them to put a gloss on its record, anti-semitism was rife among its leadership. This culture reinforces the suspicion that the CPA’s support for these middle-class causes was driven as much by a strategic imperative as by principle.

It is paradoxical that the Aarons clan tolerated this culture. Aarons has written extensively about World War II alleged war criminals living in Australia, the Vatican’s alleged role in enabling war criminals to emigrate from Germany after World War II, and the Western intelligence agencies’ undermining of Israel. He also has been in the vanguard of various “progressive” causes. Yet he has not focused attention on the anti-semitism evident in communist ranks. Presumably, his father Laurie’s defence for tolerating this culture would have been that, as his son Mark says, he did not consider himself to be Jewish.

Mark Aarons says that Laurie achieved his ambition to be a professional revolutionary. If the Aarons family’s story is an indication of the compromises of values and principles required to be successful in that line of business, it is not an occupation which commends itself.


About the reviewer

John Ironmonger is the pen-name of a Melbourne-based writer.



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012