The sad, contradictory life of Wilfred Burchett


Bob Gould

During my long political life there have been a number of decisive moments. Among them were the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Khruschchev’s secret speech on the crimes of Stalin, and the crushing of the Hungrarian revolution in 1956. These events shook me out of the political orbit of Stalinism.

Another was the seven years socialist agitation in which I was fairly prominent in Sydney, against the imperialist invasion of Vietnam.

I take back none of the agitation against the war in Vietnam. We were correct and we did what was necessary against that war.

The avuncular figure of Wilfred Burchett was important in the political processes of 1956 and the Vietnam antiwar movement. The Australian Literary Review today carries an important article by Mark Aarons, who from my point of view is a political opponent, as part of the push to drive the labour movement to the right and particularly an apostle of the reactionary proposition that union influence should be removed from the Labor Party. I am his bitter opponent on those questions.

I’m reasonably sure that that a combination of the unions and the Labor rank and file will defeat Aarons and others like him on those questions, but the struggle continues.

Nevertheless, Aarons’s lengthy article about Burchett is a valuable contribution to socialist history. Aarons, due to his family connections, is very well-placed to know the story he recounts about Burchett. The article is a useful introduction to part of the literature about Burchett.

During the Vietnam antiwar agitation, as an ostensibly independent journalist, Burchett captured the imagination of antiwar activists throughout the world. The images of this plump little journalist puffing up and down the Ho Chi Minh trail with Vietnamese guerillas was a very powerful one.

Burchett’s associated journalism about the struggle of the Vietnamese people was very considerable and assisted agitation against the war of US imperialism throughout the world.

Despite this, I had considerable reservations about another aspect of Burchett’s life and activity, which has now been documented very thoroughly in a number of books, biographies and analyses, critical and defensive.

Aarons’s article assembles much of this material in an accessible way.

My scepticism about Burchett, or more properly my sadness about him, was based on another set of experiences. I sell in my shop some rather yellowing copies of the classic defence of the Stalinist trials in Eastern Europe, Burchett’s book, The People’s Democracies.

These trials included the brutal murder after judicial frame-up of many leaders of the communist movement in Eastern Europe, including a number of journalists who had been associates, and even colleagues, of Burchett.

The flavour of that terrible time was captured in a letter discovered by the conservative Australian journalist and military historian, the late Peter Charlton, in the archives in Prague.

In this letter Burchett poured contumely over a number of his old associates, and desperately pleaded that he wasn’t a Trotskyist wrecker like them, and that he was vouched for by the Australian Communist Party. What a terrible situation loyal Stalinists were reduced to by these vicious trials and purges.

One only has to think of the situation of other people associated with various Western Stalinist parties who disappeared into the gulags or were killed between 1936 and 1953, such as the US communists, Noel and Herta Field, arrested in Hungary in 1949 and released in 1956.

In 1956, when reform communism swept Hungary but was crushed by the Soviet tanks, many communists and socialists faced a crisis of conscience, not least communist and socialist journalists who had written up the trials in Eastern Europe.

The resulting crisis on the Daily Worker in England has been described in several memoirs. The courageous communist journalist Peter Fryer, who like Burchett had written naive defences of the trials, redeemed himself by reporting the crushing of the Hungarian uprising honestly and publicly in articles that were subsequently collected in the book, The Hungarian Tragedy.

Fryer was summarily booted out of the British and sacked from the Daily Worker. The Australian communist novelist, Eric Lambert, who happened to be in Britain, went to Hungary and sent reports to Tribune similar to those of Fryer, and when Tribune refused to publish them he published them in the bourgeois press, for which he was booted out of the CPA.

Tens of thousands of people left communist parties all over the world in countries where it was possible to resign without being jailed or killed.

Burchett’s response to these events was to go to Hungary and serve as a kind of finger man for the regime against dissidents such as Miklos Gimes. He proudly proclaims this in all versions of his autobiography. It was this action that drove his old Hungarian associate, Tibor Meray, to fury and clearly was the basis of Meray’s subsequent lifelong vendetta against Burchett.

The political point of all this is not that Burchett started life as a Stalinist. Many socialists affected by the Great Depression and the two world wars did that. Burchett’s political crime against the socialist project in the 20th century, which was so damaged by Stalinism, was that when the facts became clear he didn’t draw up an objective balance sheet of Stalinism.

He was in a position to do this and still remain an active socialist for the rest of his life, as did Peter Fryer, who died recently.

We all have our demons, and Aarons obviously has his. His father, Laurie Aarons, and his close associate in the CPA leadership, Mavis Robertson, were the prime movers in a libel action by Burchett in Australia when he, quite properly, got his passport back.

This case, which essentially failed, is discussed in detail in a critical biography of Burchett by Roland Perry. In the preparations for the case, Burchett was initially defended by the late Roy Turner, MLC, who I knew pretty well through labour movement politics. Turner was a very good lawyer who defended many rebel causes in the courts.

He had been around the edges of the Trotskyist movement in the 1940s but by that time had drifted back towards Stalinism and the USSR. When Turner saw the accumulating evidence about Burchett, he quietly advised Aarons and Robertson that they were on a loser legally, and he withdrew from the case without fuss.

More recently Burchett has become a kind of hero of many on the liberal left. People who I respect for their radical and liberal journalism, such as John Pilger, have a naive view of Burchett. They tend to dismiss evidence about Burchett’s association with Stalinism as some kind of frame-up, which it isn’t. Or they treat matters such as the show trials in Eastern Europe as belonging to the distant past, and of relatively little importance.

I look at such issues differently. I’m still deeply committed to rebuilding the socialist project, but one of my most deeply held beliefs is that the socialist project cannot be rebuilt in any meaningful way without absorbing the negative lessons of Stalinism.

Burchett did some good things, as Mark Aarons points out, but it’s counter-productive to the socialist project to sweep under the table his commitment to Stalinism.

Interested younger socialists should read all the material about Burchett, not just the hagiography, but the critical material.



7 Responses to “The sad, contradictory life of Wilfred Burchett”

  1. Bill Hyde Says:

    It is very decent of you, Bob, to acknowledge some unsavoury things about Burchett. It would be even more decent if you mentioned: in what sort of connection Mark Aarons wrote whatever he wrote… Have you read the book Mark Aarons reviewed “in that writing”? Perhaps you don’t want to? Perhaps you don’t want others to know about that book?

  2. Ed Lewis Says:

    Bill, Bob’s article includes a link to Mark Aarons’ review of Tibor Meray’s book. The review is in the Australian Literary Review, which is a supplement to The Australian. Incidentally, The Monthly has a much longer article on Burchett, by Robert Manne.

  3. Greg Adler Says:

    The article by Robert Manne referred to by Ed Lewis in the Monthly magazine is interesting to read in conjunction with Mark Aarons article. Aarons writes as a former Communist Party member who has moved well to the right. Manne was a one time cold war warrior and an editor of Quadrant who came to grief with his rightist compatriots on the issue of aboriginal rights and the fevered campaign run by Windschuttle and others
    against the very notion of a stolen generation and has generally taken a sort of soft leftish position on a number of issues.

    Manne’s article is titled Agent of Influence — Reassessing Wilfred Burchet. A conclusion he comes to is that he no longer believes as he once did that Burchet was an actual agent of the KGB.

    By the way I found the comment by Bill Hyde extremely strange. How does drawing attention to Aarons review of Tibor Meray’s book and providing a link to it suggest that Gould doesn’t want people to know about the book. In fact Bob’s post has made me interested in getting my hands on the book.

  4. Antigone Says:

    I thought Manne’s article was more nuanced and therefore valuable than Mark Aarons’ in its approach to the question of why Burchett did what he did and wrote what he did — which at some point at some cognitive level he must have known was a betrayal and untrue.

    The limit of Aarons’ analysis on this key question seems to be that Burchett simply lacked “courage”. On the other hand, Manne alludes to the material, including financial benefits Burchett gained from being a propagandist for the regimes he supported which on its own is probably enough reason to explain why he refused to change his tune whatsoever about the Soviet and Chinese regimes in particular.

    Manne specifically discusses right at the beginning of the recent Monthly article the possible reasons for the current uncritical defence of Burchett by Pilger and a range of Oz academics which he lists as parochialism, vanity and pride, rancour, and a species of ideological loyalty that many find they don’t have the stomach to breach. Manne points out that in comparable circumstances none of these things is peculiar to the Left.

    Significantly, Aarons makes no reference to the emancipatory, liberatory potential and goal of communism that might understandably lead someone (or anyone) like Burchett to choose the course he did in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, as history unfolded.

    Interesting that Manne is able to reach towards doing precisely that and Aarons is not.

  5. Greg Adler Says:

    Both Manne and Aarons are to be on Philip Adams Lateline on Radio National tonight(Wed 11/6) at 10.00pm
    Greg Adler

  6. Bill Hyde Says:

    Further to my comment on Bob Gould’s initial piece. Bob is saying that Meray is conducting a “vendetta” against Burchett. The word “vendetta” would imply that Meray has been writing articles, letters to Editors, etc. virtually every month if not every week. What is the situation with Meray? Burchett traduced him and his friend the executed Miklos Gimes in At the Barricades. Meray has written a book in which he refutes Burchett’s lies and also discloses a few unsavoury things about Burchett. In addition: when Burchett had his defamation case (against Jack Kane) Meray was asked to be a witness for Kane but he declined. The reason being: Meray remembered that Burchett was friendly and helpful to him in Korea. This is what Bob Gould calls “vendetta”.
    My other comment is on Greg Adler’s remark. Greg is gloating that Robert Manne has acknowledged that Burchett was not an actual agent. Therefore Burchett was, presumably after all, according to Greg a “good boy”, snow-white. However, what Manne has said that Burchett was not a KGB agent in the sense of Kim Philby but a diligent supplier of useful information here and there. Refer also to Manne’s interview in LNL on June 11! And how about the other facts about Burchett, namely that he was a disinformer, and not only a disinformer but informed on his fellow journalists to his masters, the supposedly “excellent investigative journalist” who not only swallowed holus-bolus the false charges in the show trials behind the Iron Curtain but added a shovelful of his own lies and many other unsavoury facts disclosed in the Meray book.

  7. Peter Hruby Says:

    I enjoyed reading the book on Burchett by a witness. namely Meray. My book that was just published, called “Dangerous Dreamers: The Anti-Democratic Left and Czechoslovak Agents” contains also a long chapter on Burchett’s secret membership of the CPA and on his books, even on the attempt to bring back to life this “devote scribe for hire”. Probably his son will be the last person in Australia to refuse to accept the ugly truth about his father. Gods bless him.

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