Laurie Aarons: 19 August 1917 - 7 February 2005

This obituary for Laurie Aarons, a leader of the Communist Party of Australia, appeared in The Age, 11 February 2005 under the heading 'Top comrade bucked heavy-handed Soviets'.

One of the first acts of rebellion by Laurie Aarons, who has died of cancer at Calvary Hospital in Sydney, aged 87, occurred during the 1930s when a conservative member of the NSW Parliament tried to pass a law enforcing "neck-to-knee" costumes at Bondi and other surfing beaches in Sydney.

Along with his comrades in the Young Communist League, Aarons wore bathing trunks and defied the planned law, which soon collapsed.

A short time earlier, at age 14, he had made his first political speech, this time opposing the New Guard, a quasi-fascist group that attacked communists and unemployed protests.

Aarons was born in the year of the Russian revolution and led a life full of commitment to the ideal of socialism as a member and leader of the Communist Party of Australia. Paradoxically, his greatest achievement was to have the moral courage to question the distortion of the socialist ideal in the USSR.

He represented a strand within the Jewish community epitomised by Marx that was internationalist, socialist, revolutionary and secular.

In the 1930s he became a boot repairer and threw himself into political activity and the trade union movement. Alarmed by the growth of fascism, and like many in the CPA, he initially supported World War II, only to soon criticise it as an "imperialist war" when the CPA dogmatically followed the Soviet position. This changed after the Nazi attack on the USSR in 1941, and Aarons tried to join the RAAF but was rejected. He later found out from security files that this was largely because his father had fought in Spain on the Republican side during the civil war. During World War II he worked with the services bureau of the CPA, which supported the 3000 to 4000 communists in the armed forces.

In 1944 he married Carole Arkinstall, after separating from his first wife, Della Nicholas. Thereafter, he shared his life with Arkinstall, until her death in 2003. They had three sons, Brian, Mark and John.

The CPA emerged in the post-war period as a strong force and Aarons worked as a party organiser, first in Adelaide, then Newcastle.

When the party faced banning in 1951, Aarons was poised to go "underground" with a secretly elected leadership group intended to replace the central committee, which would have been arrested.

Throughout the Cold War, as with all leading communists, he was under surveillance by secret intelligence organisations. ASIO accumulated at least 20 volumes of files on him, recording his movements, speeches and telephone conversations. In the 1980s he was able to read much of this with wry amusement at the National Archives.

His period as national secretary of the CPA from 1965 saw a period of renewal, as the party's internal workings were democratised and loosened.

The speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denouncing Stalin, and the Sino-Soviet split, caused Aarons to become sceptical of the Soviet claim to unquestioning respect.

In early 1968 he welcomed the development of "socialism with a human face" under Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia.

His denunciation of the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks set the CPA on a collision course with the Soviet Union; it resulted in the Soviet Communist Party attacking the CPA and sponsoring a pro-Soviet wing, which formed a breakaway rump in 1971. In the 1970s the CPA embraced the ideas of the emerging radical movements among women, students and environmentalists. Under Aarons' leadership, communist-led unions looked increasingly outwards to the community rather than inwards to the narrow issues of members' wages and conditions.

He was particularly heartened by the struggle of the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation, which saved historic buildings from demolition, while taking militancy on members' poor wages and conditions to new heights.

This renewal, plus the CPA's passionate participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement, led to a rejuvenation of the CPA that lasted into the 1980s. But by 1991, the CPA could not go on and the party dissolved.

Aarons retired as CPA national secretary in 1976 and, to the surprise of his comrades, took up work as a taxi driver.

In the 1980s he held great hopes for the program of perestroika and glasnost under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and was deeply disappointed when this collapsed.

In retirement he wrote a series of pamphlets attacking tax avoidance by the rich, ASIO, and the growing inequality in Australia. He also conducted many oral history interviews with veteran communists, and these are now in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

As a man, he was well loved for his modesty, integrity, optimism and passion for justice and fairness.

Aarons is survived by his brother Eric, half-brother Gerald, sons Brian, John and Mark, by four grandchildren, and great grandchildren.