Fellow traveller was mute about Communist crimes
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