Soviet visit renewed Calwell’s socialist edge
A SOVIET-ERA medallion commemorating VI Lenin and the anniversary of the October 1917 Russian Revolution presented to a prominent Australian has recently been uncovered.
The proud recipient of the totalitarian bauble was former federal Australian Labor Party leader Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973).
The medallion, given to Calwell in Moscow during a visit to Russia in 1967, is part of the official Arthur Calwell Collection housed at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra. The collection consists of objects donated by Calwell’s daughter, Mary.
Calwell entered federal parliament in 1940 and, as befitted someone who distrusted the media, served as minister for information from 1943 to 1949. He was Australia’s first minister for immigration, from 1945 to 1949.
Calwell almost won the 1961 federal election after becoming the ALP leader in the previous year. That was his apogee.
After losing the next two elections he had to stand down as leader, although he served a further two terms as a backbencher.
The collection includes items given in gratitude by post-war migrants from eastern Europe, such as a cushion knitted by Ukrainians living in Bathurst, 200km west of Sydney.
There are items relating to Calwell’s deep Catholic faith, including his regalia as a papal knight. Photographs of Calwell’s family, including his son Art, feature in the collection. Art’s death from leukaemia in 1948 at age 11 devastated Calwell; from then on, in a lifelong sign of mourning, he always wore a black tie.
Amid the religious and personal objects and items from the eastern European migrants, many of whom were anti-communist, one is hard to miss.
This is a souvenir medallion bearing the image of Lenin on the obverse and depicting Leningrad (“Hero City”) on the reverse. It is accompanied by a Soviet hotel card. Calwell received this official medallion on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1967 while he was still a member of parliament. It symbolised a strange late twist in his political career.
As he was often keen to point out, Calwell was never enamoured of capitalism, but neither did he favour a communist system of government as an alternative. He was a democratic socialist.
For a long time, Calwell was not a friend of the regime in Moscow, or of the local Communist Party of Australia. In 1940 a fellow Laborite, lawyer Jack Barry, described him as “a careerist whose favourite cry when opposed is that the comms are after him”.
This was at a time when Calwell still followed the trajectory set by Melbourne’s famed Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix.
Once seen as almost treacherous because he opposed conscription during the World War I, Mannix became strongly anti-communist once the Soviet Union emerged. Calwell seemed to follow this same path.
However, Calwell ceased to march in lockstep with Mannix once the archbishop began to rely on BA (Bob) Santamaria as his primary source of political advice.
Calwell resented the rise of Santamaria. His animosity was fully expressed during the Labor split of the 1950s, when he sided with his federal leader HV Evatt, whom he had previously strongly disliked, after Evatt denounced Santamaria.
From the mid-50s onwards, Calwell’s opposition to Santamaria meant he took on a renewed radical tinge. This culminated in the federal election campaign of 1966, when Calwell opposed Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. As a result, he was seen as anti-American and lost the election heavily.
Calwell was succeeded after that election by his deputy, Gough Whitlam.
The new leader, much to Calwell’s chagrin, planned to overhaul Labor’s structure and policies. Whitlam wanted to curb the power of Labor’s faceless men, in particular the left-wing dominated state executive in Victoria. In this internal struggle, Calwell sided with Whitlam’s enemies.
Whitlam was determined to make the ALP more appealing to an increasingly better-educated and suburbanised electorate. Shibboleths such as socialism and the White Australia policy were ditched.
Whitlam’s changes offended Calwell’s commitment to old-style Labor attitudes.
In 1967, Calwell undertook a five-month trip overseas. In the course of his travels he spent two weeks in Leningrad, Odessa,Yalta and Moscow, where he was deeply impressed when he was shown Lenin’s private apartment in the Kremlin.
On returning home, he wrote two favourable newspaper articles on the Soviet Union that appeared on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the articles, the heinous crimes committed by Joseph Stalin were treated as a thing of the past.
“Russia’s present leaders,” Calwell insisted, “have destroyed Stalinism and have opened a new phase of Russian history.”
In areas such as education, medical services and mass transportation Russia was, he argued, progressing by leaps and bounds.
Calwell annoyed Victoria’s Liberal premier Henry Bolte no end when he later announced Australia was “just a nation of hillbillies compared with Russia”.
As a sign of appreciation, his hosts gave Calwell his Soviet medallion. It was, the Museum of Australian Democracy informs us, “typical of souvenir presentations made to distinguished visitors to the Soviet Union at that time”.
So while the medallion may not have been particularly special in itself, it did mark something significant for Calwell.
It symbolised his rejuvenated left-wing faith, which was in peril as the modernising Whitlam era kicked in.
To honour the centenary of Lenin’s birth, Calwell – following on from his 1967 visit – contributed an article entitled “A Great Russian Patriot” for a booklet, Lenin: Through Australian Eyes. Other contributors included well-known communist writer Katharine Susannah Prichard, who died before the booklet was released in 1970.
The booklet, in which Calwell hailed Lenin as an “extraordinarily gifted man”, was published by the Soviet-run Novosti Press Agency in Sydney.
For a man who once almost became prime minister of Australia to praise Lenin was, for Moscow, a propaganda coup.
Some of Calwell’s centenary comments on Lenin rivalled those of Manning Clark in their gnomic effusiveness.
“The historical significance of the October Revolution,” Calwell commented, “was world-shattering at the time; it still remains so today.”
Other remarks were more pointed. Calwell recalled Lenin’s remark from 1913 that Australia was “a peculiar capitalist country. The Australian Labor Party does not even claim to be a socialist party. As a matter of fact, it is a liberal party and the so-called liberals are really conservatives.”
Lenin’s gospel had been responsible, Calwell thought, for fixing up this anomaly.
“The Labor Party,” he observed, “adopted a socialist objective at the Brisbane conference in 1921, four years after the Russian Revolution, and as a direct consequence of it.”
But things had gone wrong recently. Calwell was worried that Labor’s former determination to defeat its old enemy, “monopoly capitalism”, had grown weaker.
There were people in the ALP – Calwell meant Whitlam, though he was not named – who were seeking to turn Labor into “a petty bourgeois party”. It would be infested by “social-climbing, status-seeking, lower-middle-class and white-collar people”.
Under Whitlam, the ALP – to Calwell’s dismay – seemed bent on reneging on its faith in a brave, post-capitalist future.
The crucial Leninist spark that had once seemingly galvanised the ALP’s expression of working-class hostility to capitalism was fading away. Or so Calwell believed.
While what he said about Lenin in his centenary year may have had little connection with the course of events in the Soviet Union since 1917, his comments were clearly intended to convey his deep suspicion of Whitlam’s attempts to reform the ALP.
But whatever his motives, Calwell’s praise for Lenin and the Soviet Union were on the public record. They were surely music to the ears of the ever-vigilant Soviet propaganda machine. That’s why they were published.
Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt are co-authors of Alan (“The Red Fox”) Reid: Pressman Par Excellence (NewSouth Books).
The Weekend Australian. September 1-2, 2012, Inquirer p 16