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Fellow traveller was mute about Communist crimes

2 May 2011 7,608 views 5 Comments

TOWARDS the end of fifth form, after I had devoured The Communist Manifesto and endeavoured to understand Das Kapital, I tried, unsuccessfully, to join the Communist Party of Australia. Along with my fellow student at Melbourne Boys High School, Alan Piper (with whom I had played cricket for the Victorian schoolboys team and who later became a multi-millionaire Brisbane car dealer) I met a CPA organiser outside the Bryant & May match factory in Richmond, near Melbourne High.

That afternoon after school I’d had a few beers but I wasn’t drunk. The organiser was Rex Mortimer, himself an ex-student at Melbourne High, who later gained a PhD at Monash University, where I studied as an undergraduate. Mortimer ignored Alan entirely and concentrated on me. After I’d babbled on for a few minutes, he put up his hand and said: “I think you can do better elsewhere son.”

I wasn’t turned down on ideological grounds. The message was, as I came to realise afterwards, that however desperate the CPA might have been for members in the late 50s, it didn’t need an erratic young pisspot gumming up the works.

After I’d left school and finished my PhD at the University of NSW in 1976, my brilliant but idiosyncratic biology teacher Norton Hobson confided that he was an ex-member of the Communist Party who worked as a part-time operative for the Victorian State Special Branch and for ASIO, supplying information about staff and students alike.

As it happens, in my Grafton Everest novels, Hobson is the prototype for Lee Horton, the head of Australia’s newly privatised Australian Security Corporation.

When I flew to Melbourne in late 1970, Hobson said that he had always regarded Manning Clark as a “crypto”, that is, someone who kept his membership of the Communist Party and-or his strong support for the party a secret because he could be more useful that way than as an openly CPA member.

So what of the proposition that Manning Clark was a crypto-communist?

On one level, because in those days the CPA was such a highly disciplined organisation, it seems unlikely the party would have wanted to recruit as a member someone such as Clark who was extremely erratic and who for most of his life had a severe drinking problem.

Yet because the historian was such a leading member of the Australian intelligentsia, it may have been the case that the CPA would have welcomed Clark’s support.

This certainly applied to Clark’s 1960 book Meeting Soviet Man, which detailed a trip, paid for by the Soviet Union, that he took in 1958 accompanied by the hardline Australian communist writer Judah Waten and the poet Jim Devaney.

This short book was effectively a pro-Soviet tract. At this time, Clark had already started to learn Russian. That Clark should have written such a paean for the communist state so soon after Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech of March 1953 denouncing Joseph Stalin, and the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956, would suggest Clark was, at least, an ardent fellow traveller. Also it’s important to remember that, in this dreadful book, Clark described Vladimir Lenin as “Christ-like in his compassion”.

Significantly, in an interview with Gerard Henderson at his home in Canberra in November 1988, Clark conceded Meeting Soviet Man was “not an aberration so much as an error of judgment in not making clear what I really had in mind”. This interview is dealt with in depth in Henderson’s chapter on Clark in his book Australian Answers, published in 1990. But what Clark actually had in mind in his 1960 book he never divulged. Certainly, the historian wrote unequivocally of his 1958 experiences of communist Russia that “whoever lives unmoved in Moscow must have a heart of stone”. Certainly at that time, at least as expressed in the book, he had a very positive opinion about what life was like for the average person in communist Russia.

In June 1970 Clark again visited Russia at the Soviet Union’s expense. Although this was a time when many dissident Russian intellectuals were still imprisoned or kept in psychiatric institutions, Clark gave a laudatory speech praising the Soviet Union and in particular Lenin, who he described as a great “teacher of humanity”.

Even though he definitely did not get the Order of Lenin, Clark certainly received, on June 22, 1970, at the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, a Lenin Jubilee Medal to celebrate the centenary of Lenin’s birth in 1870. Other of the many overseas recipients of the Lenin Jubilee Medal included delegates from North Korea and East Germany. That in 1970, after the brutal Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and with Leonid Brezhnev’s ongoing repression of Soviet writers and intellectuals still in full sway, Clark should praise the Soviet Union without even mentioning the many victims of communist totalitarianism, is puzzling. Indeed it seems inexcusable.

And it’s certainly true that back in Australia Clark was a strong supporter of the Australian-Soviet Friendship Society and a regular visitor to the Soviet embassy in Canberra.

Then there is the fact of his close and continuing friendship with his ex-academic colleague from the University of Melbourne, the well-known New Zealand-born, Oxford-educated communist Ian Milner, who undoubtedly was a spy for the Soviet Union and who defected to communist Czechoslovakia in 1950. Milner later worked for the Czech secret service spying on foreign visitors and also on students and his colleagues at Charles University in Prague.

Clark must have known that Milner was a committed communist yet he saw fit to visit Milner twice in Prague, once in 1958 straight after his trip to Russia and, again, in 1984.

Indeed five months before his death, Clark wrote to Milner: “I see us all as people who have lost their ‘Great Expectations’, either in any world to come, or in the here and now. [J]ust because 1917 fell into the hands of spiritual bullies, that does not mean we should give up the hope of stealing fire from heaven – or that we should bow down to 5th Avenue.”

Even if Clark was not an active Communist Party operative, it seems indisputable that he was a strong supporter of the Soviets. To deny this seems as ridiculous as Gerry Adams, or his supporters, denying that Adams had once been a leading member of the IRA.

Many people, including Clark’s most recent biographer Mark McKenna, argue that Manning Clark was a person who never made up his mind about the Soviet Union.

But even if this were so, what would the attitude be to an intellectual and historian who never made up his mind about fascist Italy or Nazi Germany? Such a position would, rightly, be denounced. And would such a person be excused for sitting on the fence? Not on your nelly. It saddens me to say this, because Manning Clark was supportive of me personally and as an historian.

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 33 books most recently the co-authored Alan “The Red Fox” Reid, which is shortlised for this year’s National Biography Award.

The Australian, May 02, 2011

5 Comments »

  • Stephen Holt said:

    Manning’s ambivalence

    ALTHOUGH we are friendly co-authors (of the recent Alan Reid biography) I can’t agree with Ross Fitzgerald when he says Manning Clark gave strong support to the Soviet Union (“Fellow traveller was mute about communist crimes”, Commentary, 2/5). Clark never gave strong support to any ideology or power bloc.

    He did not embrace communism because it was irreligious but, while abandoning Protestantism, did not embrace Catholicism. He did not fully reject the ways of British Australia. He could not heartily embrace Australian nationalism. Even sexually (as we now know) he was ambivalent. Trying to track down the real Clark is akin to the efforts of the 19th century explorers who tried to discover a Great Inland Sea in Australia. Many of them came to grief in a howling wilderness.

    Stephen Holt, Macquarie, ACT
    The Australian. May 3, 2011

  • Guy Rundle said:

    Manning Clark and the Austen Tayshus comparison
    From London, Guy Rundle writes:

    Take-down of old bearded pseudo-prophet who supported mass killing … no, it’s not an Osama bin Laden story, it’s Ross Fitzgerald on Manning Clark in The Australian. In one of the most bizarre sallies in the ongoing, nasty kulturkampf against Clark, Fitzgerald joins his voice to those who saw the great historian as some sort of Soviet stooge. Years ago that was tried using allegations — utterly false ones — made by the erratic poet Les Murray, that Clark had received the Order of Lenin.

    After that embarrassing episode, most attacks on Clark have been of the Chevy Chase “General Franco is still dead” level. Clark had visited the USSR in the late 1950s; he had written a book, Meeting Soviet Man, about everyday life in the USSR. It was not uncritical of the USSR, but it was wreathed in the idealist cast of mind that Clark was beginning to develop as a way of telling the Australian story — societies as evolving some idea of human possibility, of human prospect. A complex treatment of it would put it in context of the period.

    Fitzgerald appears to have done so and then changed his mind. In Saturday’s Oz he reviewed Mark McKenna’s monumental biography of Manning Clark, merely arguing that McKenna hasn’t sufficiently explored or critically interrogated Clark’s genuine attitude to Communism beyond Clark’s own statement that “he hadn’t made up his mind about it” — in terms of the ultimate historical meaning of 1917.

    But in Monday’s Oz he returns to Clark’s life to ask, was Clark a “crypto-Communist”? He has already decided the answer is no, but it allows him to trawl through a series of pseudo charges that would not be out of place in a HUAC file. At the time he wrote Meeting Soviet Man, Clark had “already started to learn Russian”. Shock. He thought “whoever lives unmoved in Moscow must have a heart of stone” and that “he had a very positive opinion about what life was like for the average person in communist Russia”. Horror. He met an old friend Ian Milner (who had defected to the Eastern bloc) behind the Iron Curtain, twice, in 40 years. The bastard. He was a member of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society, and went to public events at the Soviet embassy in Canberra.

    This all adds up to nothing more than Clark being sympathetic to the idea of the USSR — even Fitzgerald’s claim that Clark was a “strong supporter” of the USSR is over-egging it somewhat.

    One expects this from the usual hacks, but it’s generally depressing to see it coming from Fitzgerald, a historian of note. First because he leaves out some obvious points that complicate the picture — such as Clark’s friendship with conservatives such as James McAuley, and the fact that Clark was on the board of Quadrant(!) at the time (which technically makes him an agent of CIA influence).

    Secondly is the vociferous criticism Clark faced from the Marxist left, for what was, by any measure, a non-Marxist approach to history, focused on the movement of ideas, spirit, and the effect of “Great Men” in the making of a society. Third is the baiting tendentiousness: Fitzgerald notes that Clark received the “Lenin centenary medal” which was given to people from “East Germany and North Korea”. So it was, but it was given to people from across the world. Really.

    Fitzgerald’s resulting analogy for Clark’s relationship to the USSR is absurd:

    “Even if Clark was not an active Communist Party operative, it seems indisputable that he was a strong supporter of the Soviets. To deny this seems as ridiculous as Gerry Adams, or his supporters, denying that Adams had once been a leading member of the IRA.”

    Adams, as a leader of the IRA, has been involved in the killing of hundreds of people. This is a vicious and unnecessary analogy.

    Even more absurd is Fitzgerald’s inconsistency on how one assesses “supporters” of Communism. Take, for example, his biography of Fred Paterson, the Communist MP from Queensland. Fitzgerald is not uncritical of Paterson, but read the final paras:

    “Frederick Woolnough Paterson was remembered by those who worked with and against him as a formidable and conscientious political activist. In the modesty of his personal life, in his serious commitment to his electorate,and by his passionate enunciation of a philosophy at odds with prevailing political norms, Fred Paterson carved himself a unique position in Australian history.

    An idealist who fought for a better world, who so often represented the underprivileged and dispossessed he was indeed the People’s Champion.

    As the twentieth century closes, much of the pattern and shape of Paterson’s politics deserve emulation in Australia, especially by those who claim to be of the Labour Left.”

    Hilarious, is it not? Paterson was indeed a people’s champion. He was also a member of the CPA during Stalinism, and at a time when the party was getting financial support from the USSR, and cleaved to its line. He actually was a bona fide agent of influence. Yet apparently he is a model to be emulated.

    How to explain this ludicrous reversal of accurate assessment? One might note that Fitzgerald was writing Paterson’s biography not a review of it — rather easier to have a hero for your subject, than someone you want to morally condemn.

    But it may also be not unrelated to something that Fitzgerald himself has pointed to, in book form: his transition from serious alcoholic to a firm follower of the AA 12-step program. Is it possible that in the decade or so since he published People’s Champion, Fitzgerald has gone from being a romantic leftie drunk to a tiresome reformed sinner, placing faith in a higher power, and seeing the past as nothing other than pretext for making amends (step 8 of 12)? It’s a pretty awful position for a historian to be in, if it’s the case, because it makes for bad history — the past judged through the narrow agendas of the present, the wider world in which decisions and commitments were made shorn away.

    Mark McKenna’s 800-page biography of Manning Clark is now available. So too is Clark’s six-volume history. Ross Fitzgerald’s study of Austen Tayshus is forthcoming.

    Crikey.com. May 3, 2011

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    ▪ Australian Reader Peter Morris Nails Manning Clark’s Soviet Softness

    Peter Morris wrote to The Australian on Tuesday defending Ross Fitzgerald’s article (The Australian, 2 May 2011) about Manning Clark titled “Fellow traveller was mute about Communist crimes”. Fitzgerald’s piece was criticised by Stephen Holt, who claimed that the late Manning Clark was not really a supporter of Soviet communism. Last Tuesday, The Australian published the following letter supporting Professor Fitzgerald:

    It’s not correct for Stephen Holt (Letters, 3/2) to suggest that Manning Clark never gave any support to communism. In the first school term of 1944, when Clark was a master at Geelong Grammar School, he gave a special lecture in which he eulogised Lenin, communism and the Soviet Union. As well as the students who attended the lecture (of whom I was one) another master was also present, a Dr Parness, who was a refugee from (I think) Poland.

    Immediately after Clark finished speaking Parness stood up to challenge him and started by saying, “Do you realise you are supporting a regime which has killed 30 million people?” Clark rubbished the suggestion and refused to accept any further discussion.

    – Peter Morris, Armadale, Vic

    Peter Morris wins Five Paws for historical memory.

    Gerard Henderson’s Media Watch Dog. May 6, 2011

  • ross (author) said:

    Fence-sitting not allowed

    ANDREW Clark is right (Letters, 7-8/5). Of course Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech denouncing Stalin occurred in 1956, not 1953.

    But this doesn’t affect my statement that Manning Clark went to the Soviet Union (at the Soviet Union’s expense) in late 1958 — more than two years after the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956 and Khrushchev’s detailed denunciation that year of Stalinist atrocities.

    Nor does it get around the fact that Manning Clark’s Meeting Soviet Man, published in 1960, was a pro-Soviet tract which stated: “Whoever lives unmoved in Moscow must have a heart of stone.” During the times he visited the Soviet Union, Manning Clark also did not protest about the abuses of human rights — including the imprisonment and psychiatric incarceration of members of the Soviet intelligentsia.

    All of Andrew Clark’s ranting about Macarthyism in no way answers my basic point about those who excuse Manning Clark as “a person who never made up his mind about the Soviet Union”. But even if this were so, what would the attitude be to an intellectual and historian who never made up his mind about fascist Italy or Nazi Germany?

    Such a position would, rightly, be denounced. And would such a person be excused for sitting on the fence? Not in a million years.

    Professor Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney, NSW

    The Australian, May 09, 2011

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    Manning Clark

    THERE is something admirable about a son defending the memory of his father.

    However, when the subject of filial love was a public figure this can be overdone.

    Andrew Clark (Letters, 7-8/5) objects to criticisms of the late Manning Clark by Ross Fitzgerald in The Australian. Clark has accused Fitzgerald of being “hysterical”, engaging in “character assassination and crude guilt-by-association red-baiting” of a Joe McCarthy kind and launching a “cowardly, slanderous attack on a dead man”.

    Manning Clark was one of the leading Australian historians of the 20th century. It’s only proper that his ambivalent attitude to the communist regime in the Soviet Union should be open to analysis and criticism. The same is true of Clark’s 1960 book ‘Meeting Soviet Man’.

    Then there is Andrew Clark’s evident double standard. He accuses critics of his father of “smearing the dead”. But what of Manning Clark, who in 1987 wrote that the late Robert Menzies “served alien gods and may have tasted deep damnation”? Then there is Andrew Clark himself, formerly of The National Times. He did not complain about smearing the dead when, just days after Robert Askin died in September 1981, The National Times condemned the former NSW Liberal Party premier as corrupt.

    It is well established that the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was a corrupt killer. Yet, in ‘Meeting Soviet Man’, Clark declared that Lenin was “Christ-like, at least in his compassion”. Fitzgerald and others should be able to analyse such views free from abuse and attempts at censorship.

    Gerard Henderson, Sydney, NSW
    The Weekend Australian. May 14, 2011