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A Murdoch man turns to Trotsky

30 January 2012 2,437 views One Comment

ALEX Mitchell began his journalistic career as a cadet reporter on the Townsville Daily Bulletin. After working at the Mount Isa Mail, Mitchell joined Rupert Murdoch’s tearaway tabloid The Daily Mirror, first in Sydney and then in the Canberra press gallery in 1964. This was a time when competition with rival The Sun, owned by the Fairfax family, was at its fiercest.

As this insightful and racy memoir makes clear, not only was Murdoch a hands-on proprietor but he was, for a time, quite radical and reformist in his views – promulgated in The Daily Mirror – about apartheid South Africa and in some ways about the parlous situation of Aborigines in Australia.

Armed with a flattering letter of support from Murdoch, who had launched the first national daily, The Australian, in 1964, Mitchell arrived in England on the SS Oronsay in March 1967. He gained part-time work on the London Daily Mirror and then a full-time job at The Sunday Times.

In Fleet Street he became an investigative reporter, taking part in exposes of Soviet double agent Kim Philby; corrupt publisher Robert Maxwell (widely known as “the bouncing Czech”); L. Ron Hubbard’s so-called Church of Scientology; and international offshore funds swindler Bernie Cornfield. After The Sunday Times, Mitchell worked on Granada Television’s weekly program World in Action, where he was the first Western reporter to interview president Idi Amin, “the man who stole Uganda”, after his coup in January 1971.

In England, Mitchell was radicalised politically, becoming a militant Trotskyite. This meant Mitchell took to heart Karl Marx’s 1845 injunction: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Utterly disillusioned with the politics of the British Labour Party and social democratic parties elsewhere but also with the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain, Mitchell became an avid follower of Leon Trotsky, who had been assassinated in Mexico in August 1940 on Stalin’s orders. Influenced by Gerry Healy, a pugnacious Marxist-Leninist theoretician and activist, Mitchell accepted Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution” and his notion of uncompromising internationalism.

Before long, Mitchell became affiliated with the Trotskyist Fourth International. Healy drummed into him the fundamental Leninist lesson: “Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary party. Without a revolutionary party, no revolutionary action.”

Indeed, for 15 years, Mitchell worked as a reporter, then editor, of the daily newspaper of the militant Socialist Labour League, later the Workers Revolutionary Party, whose members included British actors Corin and Vanessa Redgrave. Workers Press and then News Line were radical papers of high quality. It was only after his hero, Healy, was expelled from the Workers Revolutionary Party, which imploded and split, that in 1986 Mitchell, with partner Judith White, returned to Sydney. He started work for the Fairfax-owned Sun-Herald, although this period is not covered in any detail.

Come the Revolution is, in the main, a compelling read. However, it is rather too long. Mitchell seems intent on including every last detail of his professional and personal life until his return to mainstream journalism in Australia.

For this reviewer at least, Mitchell’s memoirs may have been much better by half.

Review of Alex Mitchell, COME THE REVOLUTION, NewSouth Books, 536pp, $39.95
Review by Ross Fitzgerald, Sydney Morning Herald, January 28-29, 2012 SPECTRUM p 33.

One Comment »

  • Harry McKenzie said:

    I’ve been reading the book and it’s a fascinating insight into the radical politics of the 1970s and 1980s, but there are some minor errors and a lot of omissions and not that much reflection. For example Mitchell claims the Communist Party of Australia supported the USSR’s actions in 1968 and that it was only a few branches that opposed the invasion of Czechosovakia when in fact the opposite was true- the Party opposed the action and some branches supported it, leading them to split off in the 1970s. A minor point, but it made me wonder if all his other assertions about politcal rivals and those he differed with at the time were also accurate.

    Similarly the WRP and SLL had a reputation for thugishness and violent action against opponents, but this isn’t really addressed in the book. I wasn’t around then and don’t know exactly to the extent to which violence was employed, but Dave Douglass talks in his memoirs about SLL members roughing people up in Newcastle in the 1960s and a friend was beaten up in Brixton in the 1980s by WRP members who were supporting their ally Lambeth mayor Ted Knight against local squatters. Perhaps Mitchell’s position in the party meant he wasn’t aware of such activities, but given the party’s rough treatment of opponents and “defectors” who opposed their line during Healy’s time perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that the party imploded in the way it did.

    Lastly, the lack of reflection and insight into things such as why the party aligned itself with Gaddafi and Hussein (misguided anti-imperialism, money?) and what Mitchell made of their downfall along with other questions about Healy’s legacy, the nature of authoritarian partys, etc make the book feel somewhat shallow.