The Royal Family of Australian Communism

The Aarons family were influential Australian communists over three or four generations. In presenting his family’s story Mark Aarons has two aims which are in conflict with each other. One is to criticise his family for being supporters of communist mass murderers—he admits some communists “betrayed” Australia, a strong word. The other aim is to salvage something from the wreckage by bignoting his relatives, particularly his father Laurie Aarons, for being close to the centre of great events, as though some of the glamour rubs off on them. He claims they wielded great influence (especially in the ALP), and had the biggest ASIO files (Why is this surprising, why an occasion for boasting?). It’s a tightrope act to reconcile these contradictory aims, and Mark Aarons falls off on a number of occasions.  

The Aarons family were Leninists of the Stalinist variety who supported a regime which kept a great nation, Russia, in physical and psychological thrall for seven decades. Along with Mao, the Soviet communists were the worst mass murderers in history. This book has a major problem with the misleading term “Stalinist”. It’s based on the belief that being Stalinist is bad, but once you dropped Stalinism, as Laurie Aarons did after 1968, you are a goodie. But the accurate descriptive term is “Leninist”, never mentioned in this book. Laurie Aarons was a Leninist totalitarian from the moment he joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). For some decades he espoused a particularly virulent form of that disease, Stalinism, but then reverted to his basic Leninist persona. The thing is not to praise him for this move, which this book does, but to condemn him as a lifelong Leninist operative. 

A funny thing is that the label “Stalinist” is liberally thrown about in his book. Ted Hill is rightly described as a hard-line Stalinist, so are Lance Sharkey and Jack McPhillips too, after Laurie fell out with them, but I can’t remember the term being applied to Laurie. Another murky question is: When exactly did Laurie give up Stalinism? The book claims that when Khrushchev gave his de-Stalinisation speech in 1956, Laurie agreed with it and argued with the hard-line Stalinist Ted Hill, who thought Khrushchev had gone too far. But we have no independent evidence backing this. And Mark Aarons admits that, soon after, Laurie was in the front line of those denouncing the Khrushchev revisionists! Even after communism collapsed in 1990 Laurie Aarons never to my knowledge repudiated communist ideology nor Leninist totalitarian tactics, as his son has.

There are two quite separate sources of material in this book. One is ASIO files on the Aarons family and their associates, which contain information which is brief and factual, and, as Mark Aarons admits, in most cases accurate. The other source is family memory, in particular the memoirs of the author’s father, Laurie. To his credit Mark Aarons does parallel these family memoirs with an accurate history of Soviet and Australian communist delinquencies along the way, and his bona fides are not in doubt. During a controversy two years ago over the pro-communist writer Wilfred Burchett, Aarons wrote a devastating critique in the Australian of the attempts of left-wing academics to use weasel words to defend Burchett’s indefensible actions.

George Orwell was the first to point out that a dedicated communist’s whole career involved constantly rearranging the past to suit the exigencies of the present. This ingrained habit of mind persists with Laurie Aarons’s memories, which are post hoc facto rationalisations and need other sources to confirm them, which they often don’t get here. The book, titled The Family Files, is marketed as based on ASIO files, but in fact the ones quoted in the book tell us little that we didn’t know already. It’s the Aarons family’s own account which is the real spine of the book, with new material. All the “sensational” revelations, Arthur Gietzelt’s and others’ alleged dual membership of the Labor and Communist parties, and Wally Clayton’s belated confession, come from family memory more than ASIO files.

Mark Aarons’s public revelations about dual membership are not new. Extensive evidence on this matter from KGB and ASIO files has been published in two books—David McKnight’s Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets (1994), and Desmond Ball and David Horner’s Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network (1998). These books reveal that in New South Wales there was a large group of people with dual CPA-ALP membership, including Gietzelt. This was different from the situation in Victoria. In New South Wales the Left was a minority in a party dominated by a powerful and successful right wing. In post-Split Victoria the Catholic Right had been forced out, and the party under Bill Hartley was already in the grip of an extreme Left cabal of Gietzelt’s complexion, which made a New South Wales-type entrist operation unnecessary.

Bill Hartley from Western Australia was a protégé of Joe Chamberlain, the Federal ALP president. Bob Santamaria often wondered how an obscure official from a small union in Western Australia could be catapulted into such a powerful position, and Santamaria’s files reveal he spent a lot of energy trying to pin down Chamberlain’s mysterious background in England. The Hartley “tomato left” group of George Crawford and others had such far-out polices and such draconian treatment of party members (like expelling the respected Labor upper house leader Jack Galbally from the party) that Gough Whitlam and the New South Wales party realised they had to staunch the Victorian wound to make the ALP federally electable.

It’s the omissions, not the revelations, in this book that are startling. Mark Aarons wants to show the CPA was influential in the ALP during its right opportunist phase, but the full story is not revealed. In this book he has “outed” Gietzelt, Childs, Uren and Wheeldon, but those with far-Left views we all want the full truth about are Lionel Murphy, Jim Cairns, Dr John Burton, Bill Hartley, Joe Chamberlain and Dr Evatt. These are much bigger fish. Just how close were they to the CPA? None are mentioned at all in the book, except for two brief references to Evatt over the Split and the Petrov affair. On the cover of the book is an ASIO surveillance photo of Bill Hartley in earnest conversation with Laurie Aarons. By making the photo so prominent, is Mark Aarons dropping us a hint? This very selective outing is disappointing, as the Aarons family may have known a lot about those mentioned above. Two articles on Dr Evatt by Andrew Campbell in the National Observer (Winter 2007 and Autumn 2008) reveal Evatt had much more extensive CPA connections, especially through Katharine Susannah Prichard, than previously known.  

Mark Aarons’s final exculpation of his family is to state that at least they were never found to be engaged in espionage, the worst charge. This is disingenuous. Espionage—spying is a better word—is stealing the secrets of your own country for an enemy’s use. The Aarons family and senior communists were working on behalf of the interests of a foreign enemy country, the Soviet Union, and taking money from it. This is the other side of the same coin as spying.

It is well known that Communist Party leaders in all countries did not themselves get directly involved in spying, because if caught it would ruin their formal organisational network. Spies and their controllers were kept separate so that in case of trouble there was a cut-off mechanism. But in practice, as we know from The Mitrokhin Archive and other sources, there were some connections; Moscow money was funnelled on occasions through the party to the spy network. In the USA and Britain the spy masters were foreign illegals who controlled the spies, often unknown to the party. But in Australia the spymaster was a local, Wally Clayton, a CPA member, who gave his material not to a lone wolf illegal but to Tass and other reps from the Soviet embassy. Mark Aarons admits that spying “was approved by senior CPA party leaders”. They knew about it. The Aarons family were not cleanskins when it comes to espionage. In less squeamish times spying and working for an enemy foreign power was a capital crime.

In his introduction, Mark Aarons says correctly that higher loyalty to Moscow “led some communists to betray Australia by spying for the Soviet Union”. His next paragraph concludes: “Yet ASIO never found any evidence of spying implicating a family member, although my grandfather, Sam Aarons, was found in possession of a classified government document.” This seems to me evidence of spying, of betraying Australia, and of Mark Aarons falling off his tightrope.

Many important parts of this book involve “the case”. Venona transcripts of Soviet cables in the postwar years revealed that allied military and strategic secrets were being leaked in Australia to the Soviets by a spy ring whose members were given code names. The “case” consisted of identifying these spies and their controller, and stopping them. It was eventually found that a “nest of traitors”, Ian Milner, Jim Hill and probably Ric Throssell of the External Affairs Department, and Frances Bernie of Dr Evatt’s staff, were giving top secret intelligence to an Australian communist, Walter Clayton (codenamed Klod), who was passing it on to the Soviet embassy in Canberra. This has been clearly established for many decades by the Petrov Commission, by subsequent books on the topic, and by the release of the Venona transcripts. To say it didn’t happen is to live in fantasy land.

In the Weekend Australian of July 10–11 Mike Steketee tries to defend Dr Burton, the head of our External Affairs Department under Dr Evatt at the time, against alleged “Cold War hysteria [that] led to many Australians being unfairly hounded by the security service”. Steketee describes Burton’s views as perhaps naive, but left-wing and ahead of their time. In his book The Alternative (1954), Burton wrote that “Communism, or at least features of it, is better suited to the immediate and urgent needs of under-developed countries than is Capitalism”, that “the spread of Communism in China, Korea and throughout other Asian areas must be regarded as inevitable”, that “there is no reason to suppose there will be an attempt to spread Communism by force”, and that “the reasons for conflict between American and communist centres lie in the refusal of the United States to contemplate adjustments within its own economy”. Steketee must know of these views. Why doesn’t he face their implications? These are much more than naive left-wing ideas. This was the man running our External Affairs Department and directing our foreign policy. In the book which quotes these extracts, Ball and Horner’s Breaking the Codes, the authors reveal in addition that Burton opposed the formation of ASIO, defended Milner when he was under suspicion, rapidly promoted Jim Hill, and falsely claimed he was not a close acquaintance of Hill. The question is not whether Burton was a formal member of the CPA, but that this pattern of behaviour helped Soviet and Australian communist strategies to the utmost, and it would have been negligent of our security services not to look at it. It wasn’t Cold War hysteria, it wasn’t unfair hounding. Burton was not ahead of his time, as Steketee claims, he was living in the past, and so is Steketee.

Another big gap in this book is the unions. Much is made of CPA influence in the ALP but little of its influence in the unions, which was incomparably greater. A very damaging aspect of that control was rigging union ballots, which eventually destroyed communist union credibility. When Laurie was organiser in Newcastle he “was informed that the secretary of the Newcastle branch, Charlie Morgan, and his team had ‘won’ the previous election this way. ‘I had no idea of what the situation was’, he (Laurie) recalled.” What a naive fellow Laurie was! Everyone knew the communists were tampering with union election results except Laurie. But next page we are told in regard to communist ballot rigging:

Stalinist leaders like McPhillips, however, justified any means, fair or foul, in pursuit of the noble ideal of socialism. There was one occasion when Laurie allowed his better judgment to be swayed and he participated in stuffing a union ballot.  

When the communist leader McPhillips rigs a ballot, he is a Stalinist who uses foul means, but when communist leader Aarons does the same thing he is not called a Stalinist but a decent man swayed against his better judgment. The tightrope is getting decidedly wobbly again.  

A supposed highlight and revelation, made much of in this book, is that Laurie Aarons extracted from Wally Clayton a belated confession in 1993 that Clayton had in fact engaged in espionage for the Soviets. Hold on a minute. We are being asked to believe that Laurie Aarons didn’t know this until he got it from the horse’s mouth forty-five years after it happened. All this comes about because Mark Aarons wants to claim that whatever else bad his family did, at least they were never involved in espionage. The phrase “illegal network” is confusingly used in this context with two different meanings. One meaning is the communist “underground” set up in case the CPA was banned. But the other meaning of “illegal” is the espionage ring which Wally Clayton ran. Why did the CPA chiefs hide Klod from the Petrov Commission for so long if they did not know he was the spymaster?

The author writes on the last page of his book of “events (the Soviet espionage ring in Australia) that have only previously been surmised by ASIO and Western intelligence agencies and other researchers”. But it was much more than a “surmise”. Frances Bernie had confessed to handing classified material to Clayton, Venona revealed the existence of a spy ring, and the Petrov Royal Commission filled in the details. It didn’t need Wally Clayton’s belated 1993 confession to confirm the “surmise”. It would have been a “sensational revelation” if in 1993 Clayton was still denying it against all the evidence.

Readers of the immense literature on spying since the Philby revelations will be familiar with the figure of Jim Skardon, the feared MI5 interrogator, able to prise out information bit by bit from the most reluctant spy. We are asked to take seriously in this book that Laurie Aarons acted as late as 1993 as a Jim Skardon-like interrogator painfully and laboriously extracting information from the ageing spy Wally Clayton, able to do what the Petrov Commission and ASIO failed to do. This is a Clayton’s revelation in more senses than one.

Not much gloss rubs off on those who made a career from all this. Mark Aarons describes his family as “idealistic”. “Power-hungry” would be a better description—they wanted control over people. The author admits that communists were ruthless from the start, which Laurie Aarons knew when he joined. They openly called for a violent revolutionary overthrow in Australia to destroy our democracy. The last two decades of the CPA were spent in vicious internecine warfare. The comrades were a nasty lot, noted for their personal animosities, and for splitting, purging old allies and infiltrating each others’ groups. There was no love lost, since there had been none from the start. The time-honoured lesson here is that if you let ideology override respect for human beings, disaster follows. If that was how the comrades treated party members they had control over, imagine how they would have treated us. After communism collapsed in 1990, an Australian communist leader (I think it was Eric Aarons) admitted they would have killed their opponents had they got to power here. Some idealism. The CPA had the defining characteristics of a cult or sect.

Among all this depressing material we get some light relief from reading about the CPA leaders’ sexual shenanigans—they were constantly having affairs, marrying party wives, divorcing, and contracting liaisons on their frequent interstate and overseas trips. As the author points out, a double standard operated here—leaders could do what they liked, but puritan behaviour was imposed on the lower ranks, who could be reprimanded if their personal affairs detracted from their party work. This replicated the situation in communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Russia and China, though the Aarons family were not in the same league in these matters as Mao and Beria.

Close connections between the extreme Labor Left and the CPA were obvious from the 1950s and the “Unity Ticket” phase onwards, but of course observers of politics didn’t then have the proof we now have. For decades people like Bob Santamaria, Laurie Short, Lloyd Ross, Dr Frank Knopfelmacher, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the DLP and others, who used the phrase “the pro-communist Left” as a short-hand for this unholy alliance, were ridiculed as McCarthyists, Cold Warriors and relics from the dark ages. Anticommunists have now been vindicated by Mark Aarons, but will receive neither apologies nor thanks, only more stale disinformation from Mike Steketee and his ilk.  

But in the long run we weren’t the ones who suffered. It was those people in Russia and Eastern Europe whose lives were terminated or ruined, and who couldn’t be rescued by the West because a fifth column in our midst prevented any concerted effort to free them.

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