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Security, communism and one family’s very thick file

25 July 2010 2,426 views No Comment

This fascinating study canvasses four generations of an extended family of Jewish atheists and committed communists who challenged the “established order” in Australia and overseas.

The book’s author, Mark Aarons, came under the “adverse notice” of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in early 1965 when he was only 13, while his father’s ASIO files began when he was 14, in the early 1930s. Indeed, one of the great strengths of The Family File is the extensive use made of the detailed reports of the many ASIO agents who successfully infiltrated the communist movement in this country, and especially the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and its many and varied offshoots.

Remarkably, ASIO’s surveillance files on Laurie Aarons – a “professional revolutionary” born in August 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and three years before the founding of the CPA, amounts to a massive 85 volumes, while that of his third son, Mark, boasts nine volumes of text and photos – up to the time when such ASIO files could be officially “released”.

There are at least two important revelations in The Family File: the first concerns the radical Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett and the second the Soviet Union’s Australian spymaster, Walter (Wally) Clayton.

The fact is that throughout his life, Burchett, who developed a close friendship with Ho Chi Minh and leading revolutionaries throughout the world, repeatedly claimed not to be a communist. Yet Mark Aarons’s communist grandfather, Samuel Aarons, who met Burchett when he boarded a ship in Noumea on the way to Europe to “try his luck”, puts paid to this. Samuel Aarons clearly stated that “Burchett had previously applied for membership of the CPA in Melbourne, but claimed he never received a response”. Burchett later wrote with considerable warmth about his time on board a ship with Samuel and his wife Esme. The author simply puts the situation thus: “It is possible that Sam finally recruited Burchett to the party on the voyage.”

The other crucial revelation in The Family File concerns an interview that Laurie Aarons taped with Wally Clayton shortly before the latter died in October 1997. This makes it crystal clear that Clayton not only admitted to be the senior CPA member who co-ordinated the KGB’s operations in Australia, but that he was also entirely unrepentant about being the key spymaster, identified by ASIO and MI5 officers as “KLOD”.

The Family File contains an excellent black-and-white photo of a bespectacled, gaunt and harried-looking Wally Clayton at the time of his appearance in March 1955 at the highly explosive Royal Commission on Espionage. As the book makes clear, in 1943 Clayton was recruited as the Soviet’s Australian spymaster.

Throughout his crucial undercover career, Clayton handed over highly classified Western secrets to his KGB handler in Australia for direct transmission to Moscow.

One crucial weakness in Mark Aarons’s important study is that the book contains no endnotes or footnotes. This means that it is utterly impossible to trace and check the many sources he has relied upon for the hundreds of quotations that grace The Family File. Annoyingly, the contents page contains no chapter titles, and no chapter breakdowns. Whether this is deliberate or a typesetting mistake is unclear.

As the narrative proceeds, it is illuminating to be told the names of key Australian politicians who were, at least for a time, “dual members” of the Australian Labor Party and the CPA, and also for it to be demonstrated just how many ASIO spies had penetrated the communist movement in this country.

Even more so than in the Labor Party, deeply acrimonious “splits” were common among Australian communists. Indeed, towards the end of their formal existence, there were up to eight communist groups or parties co-existing at the same time. It is worth remembering that, even today, there is still a Communist Party of Australia that was largely formed from the largely Russian-oriented Socialist Party of Australia. In 2010 the CPA produces its own newsletter and, perversely, seems flushed with funds.

In The Family File, Aarons deals with honesty and aplomb about the many and varied weaknesses of the CPA and, perhaps even more so, in the other communist parties in the country. Yet he also chronicles how dedicated “communist revolutionaries” played a useful and important role in the anti-apartheid and anti-war movements, as well as helping to promote indigenous self-determination, green bans, feminism and the independence of East Timor.

As he points out, militant communists were at the forefront of promoting workers’ rights in Australia, as well as successfully lobbying for improved wages and conditions. Thus until the 1980s many ALP supporters regularly voted for communists in trade-union elections. This was because card-carrying communists were “often effective unionists, immune from bribery, prepared to fight the bosses and use effective tactics to win concessions for union members”.

The Family File, Mark Aarons, Black Inc, #34.95
Review by Ross Fitzgerald in The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 2010