The 60s and 70s - A Change in Direction and the Formation of the Socialist Party of Australia
By the mid-1960s the existing Party leadership was shaky and a shift in power resulted in the election of Laurie Aarons as General Secretary in 1966. Aarons’ influence, along with his brother Eric and Jack Mundey, represented a change in direction for the party. At the 1967 Congress a range of new ideas was presented to party members, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
The theme of the 1967 Congress was ‘Coalition of the Left’ and the party considered how it fit into the wider political spectrum and its relationships with Left groups and trade unions. How to deal with rapidly evolving technologies and their impact, was a key issue, and differing views were presented, particularly during a debate between Laurie Aarons and Pat Clancy, an official with the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU). Clancy favoured change through legislation and arbitration. He argued the Party should focus on the actions of ‘big unions’ making decisions at the top levels. In contrast, Aarons favoured grassroots unionism and actions by rank and file members who had democratic control of their unions and workplaces.
The Party considered itself to be revolutionary and differed with the ALP on many issues, but it did agree on the necessity to unite with other like-minded groups in acting on shared causes such as the Vietnam War and opposition to conscription. This led to the Left Action Conference, held in Sydney in April 1969, which sought to bring together different Left groups including political groups, trade unions, workers, students and academics.
However, there was yet another growing split within the party. The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 caused great concern and the Party officially condemned this action, standing in opposition to the CPSU and actively supporting overseas independence movements. However, a pro-Soviet Union group persisted within the Party.
At the 1970 Congress many of the pro-Soviet group lost their positions in the National Committee, including Edgar Ross, Elliot V. Elliott and Tom Wright. The new committee urged former members to co-operate and implement Congress decisions, but their refusal led to the highly-controversial expulsion of Edgar Ross and Alf Watt from the Party.
In 1970-71 a series of events contributed to a Party split. An article that was highly critical of new CPA policies was published in The Tribune. It criticised the CPA’s policies, its abandonment of Marxism-Leninism, Ross and Watt’s expulsion, and the elevation of Trotskyites, which was seen as an insult to long-serving comrades who had been expelled.
Major conflict erupted at the ‘Ultimo Meeting’ in October 1970, called by members whose views differed from the National Committee. Members who had been excluded from the meeting accused organisers of arranging a secret meeting in conflicted with CPA aims and policies.
The final event that led to the split was the resignation of Pat Clancy, a result of long-running conflict and his feeling that the Party had been taken over by “ultraradicals”, “middle class left intellectuals” and Trotskyist influences.
The culmination of these events was the formation of a party from the ranks of the Marxist-Leninists, the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), on the 4-5 December 1971.
“Having considered the Australia-wide decline and disintegration of the Communist Party of Australia and its serious departure from Marxist theory and practice, we consider the immediate establishment of a political party based on scientific socialist principles, essential for the further development of die people’s struggle against monopoly capitalism, for peace and advance to socialism. Conference therefore, resolves to establish a political party to be called the Socialist Party of Australia” (Socialist Party of Australia 1971)
The SPA saw itself as a "continuer" of the best policies and practices of the old CPA, while rejecting the revisionist ideology and policies of the leadership of that party (Australian Communist Party nd). It attracted many the CPA’s working-class and trade unionists and it formed progressive policies around working class issues such as workers’ rights and trade unions as well as the rights of women and migrants, environmental issues, Aboriginal land rights and the Peace Movement.
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Van Der Kroef, J 1974, Australian Communism: the Splintering Prism, Journal of International Affairs, vol. 28 no. 2, accessed