Free radicals of the left in post-war Melbourne

by

Tristan Ewins

Free radicals of the left in post-war Melbourne, by John McLaren, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing

John McLaren begins his study of the lives of three Australian radical writers and activists by stating:

Free radicals are groups of atoms which exist independently but change the world around them.

The same, McLaren infers, could be said of Ian Turner, Ken Gott and Stephen Murray-Smith.

McLaren’s biographical study of these radical Australians is vast in breadth, searching deeply not only for the motivations, dreams and aspirations of his subjects, but in the process painting a panoramic view of a truly fascinating epoch of Australian history.

Beginning his story in the pre-war years, during which a number of Australian students and thinkers found themselves radicalised by the successive influences of Depression, and the Spanish Civil War, McLaren intimates how, “for a few years” the three “blazed as bright stars across the firmament of student politics”, thereafter following Turner, Gott and Murrary-Smith through the difficult war years, and through their tumultuous period of activism within the Communist Party of Australia.

The examination of Murray-Smith’s experiences in a commando unit in New Guinea during World War II are particularly fascinating, his experiences with inept leadership and the bloody hardship of armed conflict heightening rather than diminishing his instinctive egalitarianism, and convincing him that “the world must be made safe from war.”

The sheltered world provided by the Communist Party, during this period, was such that Ken Gott found himself able to proclaim that “Stalin is simply General Secretary” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “liable to dismissal if he does not please them”.

Successive revelations, however, were to shatter such illusions, and to throw Turner, Murray-Smith and Gott into open conflict with the Party to which they once owed their allegiance.

McLaren traces their break with that organizsation, stemming largely from disillusionment in the face of Soviet Premier Khruschev’s “secret speech”, revealing the crimes of his predecessor, Stalin, and in reaction to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. What follows is a celebration of the determination of these three men to retain their engagement in radical Australian politics, within the world of academe, independent publishing and editing, and within the Australian Labor Party.

This, as McLaren explains, was certainly no easy task: “there were the practical problems of rebuilding their lives outside the Party and of finding ways to continue the political and cultural struggle.”

Without the Party, Turner, Gott, and Murray-Smith “lacked the structure to support their plans.” Turner himself, as McLaren explains, had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1958 for “revisionism”: a common charge against those who deviated from the orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism: or, more particularly, its Stalinist variant.

Leaving the Party more or less meant leaving behind one’s “extended family” and, as McLaren portrays, such incidents were not unlike family break-ups in their bitterness: accusations and recriminations following in their wake. This was particularly painful in that, even after a process of disillusionment with the Party leadership, there most often remained a sense of solidarity with “ordinary” Communist Party members who “carried on” with progressive struggles often spurned by the ALP.

Cut off from one’s social and political support networks, those who were expelled from the CPA (or who resigned in protest or despair) often “went out of their minds.” Others, in McLaren’s words “set about the anguished work of redefining themselves and creating new meanings for their lives.” Turner, Gott, and Murray-Smith fell into the latter camp, turning, among other projects, to radical nationalism, the Labor Party and democratic socialism as outlets for their energies, and vehicles for their aspirations.

In following the lives of his three subjects, McLaren surveys the intellectual and political landscape of the Australian Left over a period of approximately four decades, from the rise of the peace movement in the postwar period (“under the shadow of the bomb”), to the resurgence of the Left that arose with the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the election of Whitlam.

He considers the formation of the Overland literary journal, its attempts to build a working class subscriber base, and the bitter struggle for control that ensued after the expulsion of its then editor, Ian Turner from the Communist Party.

Sources of the Democratic Labor Party split are traced, as is the rise of Jim Cairns, the “modernisation of Labor” that occurred under Whitlam, and the bitter struggle for control of the Victorian branch of the ALP, which culminated in the Federal intervention which crippled its traditionally “hard-line” Left.

The author considers the great power then wielded by the Communist Party, culturally and via the trade unions, as well as the various struggles that took place between what were the makers of “left opinion”. (eg, the Fabian Society, the ex-communist Outlook group, and the publishers of Dissent journal.)

In particular, McLaren suggests the intellectual force that “radical Australian nationalism” became in the hands of men like Turner, who saw “the distinctive element of Australian culture as a democratic egalitarianism”, where “mateship spilled over into solidarity.”

McLaren sees his subjects as writing “within the Australian democratic tradition.” This tradition, with its egalitarian undertones, was to remain a powerful theme in Australian politics, until the sustained pragmatism of Hawke and Keating all but extinguished such sentiments from popular consciousness.

Turning to the ALP, McLaren intimates how Turner reflected upon his new position: “fluttering rather ineptly around the edges of this amorphous and most unsatisfactory Labor Party” with the additional frustration “of making next to no input on its policy, or what happens in politics”. As Turner argued, in a statement that could just as well apply to the Communist Party as to the Labor Party, or any one of its modern-day factions:

    “The democratic structure of politics offers hope that policies and rational change can be initiated from below, but between hope and fulfillment comes the Party machine.”

Stephen Murray-Smith wrote to Turner in 1961, in an attempt to provide some insight into his friend’s condition, as he struggled to come to terms with a bitter reality. Through his examination of such personal correspondence, McLaren intimates a shared friendship of incredible depth and strength:

    “I once wrote to David Martin that he doesn’t have the shelter-belt of self-delusion … that prevents a deep erosion of the sou … I’m not sure whether it’s that people like you … just know and understand too much ever to be happy.”

The triumph of Turner, Murray-Smith and Gott that emerges from McLaren’s masterful weaving together of their lives, and their shared experiences, is that, despite all manner of hardship and disappointment, their fight for a better world, and engagement in the cultural struggle, never ended. The author paints a picture of men of deep conviction: who by the force of this conviction, and by force of will, maintained a determined struggle for their ideals against the odds despite the realisation that these ideals may never be realized in their lifetimes, or perhaps ever. Theirs became a politics of “permanent protest”.

McLaren examines the respective careers of his subjects in depth: from Gott’s years as a journalist to Stephen-Murray-Smith’s ground-breaking thesis regarding the history of technical education in Australia. His re-evaluation of Turner’s engagement with the “New Left” is particularly fascinating, identifying Turner’s anticipation of postmodernism, with its rejection of “grand narratives” and the resultant danger of political withdrawal and resignation.

The author’s consideration of Murray-Smith’s research on the peoples of the Bass Strait also makes for extraordinarily engaging reading, as do his occasional “interludes”, which consider the regular “pilgrimages” by his subjects and their circle of friends to Erith Island in the Bass Strait, and of their deep but unromantic love for nature and simplicity.

McLaren’s intimate portrayal of the personal lives of his subjects: of their loves and losses, hopes and fears, is as touching as it is sincere. The stories and anecdotes he shares will bring his subjects vividly to life in the minds of readers. As history, and as biography, `Free Radicals’ makes essential reading: a valuable addition to existing literature on the historical Australian Left, yet one whose depth and intimacy places it above many other such contributions.

First published in the Canberra Times, November 22, 2002.

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