Per­sonal his­to­ries of a (not so) Cold War

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

Ehren­re­ich gier, the son anti-com­mu­nist ac­tivist and founder of mag­a­zine Richard Kry­gier.

When the third sec­re­tary in the Rus­sian em­bassy in Can­berra, Vladimir Petrov, de­fected in 1954, he took with him ma­te­rial that seemed to doc­u­ment the stark fact of Soviet es­pi­onage in Aus­tralia. Although at the time many cit­i­zens and in­tel­lec­tu­als dis­puted this, his fa­ther, as Kry­gier puts it, had no doubt about the ve­rac­ity of “the rev­e­la­tions of a Soviet spy ring at the high­est level of Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment”. In­deed the claim that Soviet spies in Aus­tralia passed sig­nif­i­cant Bri­tish and Amer­i­can se­cret doc­u­ments to Moscow has been proved true.

It is also in­dis­putable that the Petrov rev­e­la­tions were a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in caus­ing the great split in the ALP in the mid 1950s.

Many of th­ese mat­ters are dealt with in Mary Cal­well’s es­say, How We Sur­vived the Move­ment. The Mel­bourne-born daugh­ter of de­vout Catholic fed­eral La­bor leader Arthur Cal­well ar­gues with con­sid­er­able force that the Cold War would have been rel­a­tively in­signif­i­cant in Aus­tralia with­out the ac­tiv­i­ties of the se­cre­tive and strongly anti-com­mu­nist Catholic So­cial Stud­ies Move­ment, and of the trade union­based In­dus­trial Groups. Mem­bers of the move­ment, which mor­phed into the Na­tional Civic Coun­cil, were led by BA San­ta­maria, with whom I filmed a lengthy in­ter­view shortly be­fore his death in Fe­bru­ary 1998.

This wily po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor sought to use the com­mu­nists’ own meth­ods of pen­e­trat­ing unions to un­der­mine, and if pos­si­ble an­ni­hi­late, the CPA, which by the end of the war had won con­sid­er­able support in trade unions and the wider labour move­ment.

Cer­tainly as a re­sult of the split in 1955, which kept La­bor in Aus­tralia out of power fed­er­ally for decades, many fam­i­lies, friends and com-

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de­scrip­tion: I was look­ing at a tree … but the word ‘‘tree’’ was gone, along with all no­tions of tree­ness that had ac­cu­mu­lated in the last dozen or so years since I had ac­quired lan­guage. Was it a place that was sud­denly re­vealed to me? Or was it a sub­stance — the in­di­vis­i­ble, el­e­men­tal ma­te­rial out of which the en­tire known and agreed-upon world arises as a fan­tas­tic elab­o­ra­tion? I don’t know, be­cause this sub­stance, this residue, was stolidly, im­per­turbably mute.

For Ehren­re­ich such episodes rep­re­sent a cri­sis of faith and a kind of class apos­tasy. De­scended from a long line of athe­ists who viewed the church as an apol­o­gist for the boss, she re­gards askance all talk of the spir­i­tual. In essence, how­ever (and para­dox­i­cally), her de­ter­mi­na­tion to ex­plore th­ese reveries is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy? Edited by Ann Curthoys and Joy Da­mousi New South, 297pp, $34.99 THE Cold War dom­i­nated geopol­i­tics in the years after World War II and, in the light of cur­rent events in Ukraine, some com­men­ta­tors think a new ver­sion of it is emerg­ing. But as Vladimir Putin was shaped by ear­lier con­flicts when he worked for the KGB that should come as no sur­prise.

As Ann Curthoys and Joy Da­mousi point out in their help­ful in­tro­duc­tion to this col­lec­tion of fas­ci­nat­ing per­sonal sto­ries from another deeply trou­bled time, the Cold War be­gan about 1946 and ended in 1991. Or so we thought un­til re­cently.

From the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of World War II un­til the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War dom­i­nated world pol­i­tics and had a pro­found im­pact on fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia. This es­pe­cially ap­plied to mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party of Aus­tralia and to those ac­tivists more or less sym­pa­thetic to the com­mu­nist cause.

As Sheila Fitzpatrick, daugh­ter of rad­i­cal Aus­tralian his­to­rian Brian Fitzpatrick, puts it in her thought-pro­vok­ing es­say in this finely pro­duced book: “If you’re old enough, and grew up in a left-wing fam­ily, the Cold War is part of your per­sonal life, not just a pub­lic event.”

But like many mem­bers of the Old Left in Aus­tralia, Fitzger­ald — whose per­sonal life was bedev­illed by his al­co­holism — was cer­tainly not a com­mu­nist.

In this care­fully edited col­lec­tion I was par­tic­u­larly taken by the mem­oir of Martin Kry- her scep­ti­cism. ‘‘I was adamantly dis­in­clined to any­thing that smacked of mys­ti­cism,’’ she writes, ‘‘But I was also an em­piri­cist, and em­piri­cism is one of the great pil­lars of sci­ence … [I]t would be a great mis­take to ig­nore the stray bit of data that doesn’t fit into your pre­con­ceived the­o­ries, that may even con­found ev­ery­thing you thought you were sure of.’’

It is, then, as a ‘‘sternly ob­jec­tive re­porter’’ that she sets out in search of an ex­pla­na­tion, and many in­ci­sive and in­sight­ful things are said in this en­deav­our. But for me the real in­ter­est of this book lies less in the anal­y­sis of th­ese ‘‘fugue states’’ than in the de­pic­tion of an emerg­ing (po­lit­i­cal) per­son­al­ity. In this con­nec­tion our ob­jec­tive re­porter turns out to be an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor: declar­ing the idea of a ‘‘nar­ra­tive arc’’ to be sus­pect in her open­ing pages, Ehren­re­ich then sets about demon­strat­ing that her life has in­deed had a def­i­nite tra­jec­tory.

This tra­jec­tory is clearly re­lated to her par- ents, who, while po­lit­i­cally lib­eral, were cold and un­af­fec­tion­ate, as well as fre­quently and of­ten dan­ger­ously drunk. Bar­bara is thus a lonely child who has to dis­cover for her­self that ‘‘sol­i­dar­ity’’ ex­ists in prac­tice as well as in the­ory. She calls this process ‘‘join­ing the species’’. And once she is in, she can­not leave: any­one’s suf­fer­ing be­comes a ‘‘po­ten­tial emer­gency’’.

More than once in Liv­ing With a Wild God, Ehren­re­ich im­plies that her ‘‘mys­ti­cal’’ reveries de­rive from the same ‘‘es­cape’’ from solip­sism in­volved in this po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing. Per­son­ally I think she’s over­reach­ing, but the spec­ta­cle of her do­ing so is strangely mov­ing nonethe­less.

In­deed, I came away from this book with a sense that it was all the more af­fect­ing for be­ing slightly less than con­vinc­ing. Those fis­sures in re­al­ity are clearly im­por­tant to Ehren­re­ich. But I’m not sure she has got to the heart of why. mu­ni­ties, were, as Cal­well puts it, “es­tranged for life”.

Writ­ing to the Vatican in 1956 about con­flicts within the Catholic Church, Arthur Cal­well urged ‘‘a com­plete reap­praisal’’ of the role of the move­ment in Aus­tralia. As he so pre­sciently put it at the time: “Life­long friend­ships had been sev­ered, calumny is wide­spread and de­trac­tion is re­garded as a virtue.”

One pos­si­ble ben­e­fit of Cal­well’s piece about her fa­ther’s dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal life is that it may di­rect read­ers to Arthur Cal­well’s Be Just and Fear Not, re­leased a year be­fore he died in 1973. It re­mains one of the best au­to­bi­ogra­phies about the life and legacy of any politi­cian prom­i­nent in 20th-cen­tury Aus­tralia.

One of the most im­por­tant re­cent books about po­lit­i­cal life in Aus­tralia is Mark Aarons’s story of four gen­er­a­tions of his prom­i­nent com­mu­nist fam­ily and their ac­tiv­i­ties in the CPA.

As well as draw­ing on nu­mer­ous oral his­to­ries, The Fam­ily File used the largest col­lec­tion of se­cu­rity files in Aus­tralian his­tory. Hence it may come as no sur­prise that one of the high­lights of What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy? is Aarons’s mas­terly con­tri­bu­tion, Scenes From My Cold War.

Aarons was born three months after Robert Men­zies’ failed 1951 ref­er­en­dum to ban the CPA, and the Cold War dom­i­nated his child- hood, teenage years and the first two decades of his adult life. His par­ents, Lau­rie and Carol, were lead­ing mem­bers of the CPA, and as a re­sult, ASIO kept vo­lu­mi­nous files on them all.

How­ever, well be­fore Lau­rie and Carol died — in 2005 and 2003 re­spec­tively — in­deed, from the late 1960s on­wards, they were, to put it mildly, far less cer­tain of the truth of ‘‘sci­en­tific so­cial­ism’’ and the va­lid­ity of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism lead­ing to a com­mu­nist fu­ture via the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism by an or­gan­ised, mil­i­tant pro­le­tariat.

As Aarons doc­u­ments, in Aus­tralia, as else­where in the West, this ap­plied to all but a dwin­dling bunch of dyed-in-the-wool ide­o­logues and age­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary true be­liev­ers.

One of his many fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into the his­tory of com­mu­nist ac­tivism in this coun­try is how, largely as a re­sult of the ac­ri­mony be­tween Moscow and Pek­ing (now Beijing), the CPA split into three sep­a­rate and war­ring com­mu­nist par­ties.

It all seems rather bizarre in the con­ser­va­tive Aus­tralia of to­day, but it’s a his­tory worth re­mem­ber­ing, par­tic­u­larly when Rus­sia seems keen to re­claim some of the clout it had when it was still the Soviet Union.

The Petrov af­fair cast light on Soviet es­pi­onage in Aus­tralia

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