Australian Freedom-Haters

Dangerous Dreamers: The Australian Anti-Democratic Left and Czechoslovak Agents, by Peter Hruby; iUniverse Inc, 2010, 420 pages, $43.95.

We can be grateful that a scholar of Professor Peter Hruby’s knowledge, experience and commitment to democratic and human values has turned his attention upon one of the murkiest sections of Australian history—the role of Czech and local communist agents here during the Cold War.

In his preface Mark Kramer of Harvard University, a member of the advisory board of the Czech government’s institute for the study of totalitarian regimes, says this book:

highlight[s] the successful efforts by the Soviet and Czechoslovak foreign intelligence services to recruit and suborn left-wing intellectuals and journalists in Australia, [and] sheds an important and disturbing light on an underexplored aspect of the Cold War. Even though the large majority of leftist intellectuals in the West were not traitors to their countries, far too many were remarkably complacent about the minority of leftists in their midst who actively colluded with communist governments and worked to subvert democratic freedoms. Professor Hruby’s book shows that this effort was not a trivial dimension of the “active measures” adopted by the Soviet and Czecheslovak state security organs.

Hruby mentions a textbook crammed with Soviet propaganda which was distributed in West Australian state schools by someone in the Education Department. I was working on the West Australian at the time and wrote a feature on this book, after which it was recalled and changed as far as hard factual errors were concerned. For example, a reference to “Stalin’s fall from power” (which never happened) was removed. However, its general tone and its propaganda content remained the same. Nowadays I would investigate the matter further.

There was plenty for agents to do even in a backwater country like Australia. Leftist politicians, union leaders and cultural figures all needed to be supported and disciplined, and promising cadres to be recruited, and given the ANZUS and ANZUK alliances with concomitant intelligence sharing, as well as the very important Five-Power Defence Treaty there was always scope for some espionage of the real hard-nosed military kind as well as commercial espionage. Australians who remained in the Communist Party, however, often seem to have had personality disorders which compromised their usefulness.

There now seems to be considerable evidence that, at the behest of its Soviet masters, the Czech security services picked out Australia for special attention during the Cold War. For various reasons it occupied an important place in the communist long-term “strategic plan” for an international takeover.

Prominent Australian communists were frequent visitors to Prague and the Czechs had at least one major success in recruiting the Australian diplomat Ian Milner, a spy and traitor probably of comparable importance to Burgess and McLean, with access for a time to major Western diplomatic and military secrets.

A number of Australians seemed to have occupied positions between idealistic “political pilgrims”, deluded Walter Mitty-type game-players, literary, intellectual and artistic careerists and outright Soviet agents, though the various categories are by no means mutually exclusive.

It is a significant comment on the state of Australian academe that this whole business has received relatively little attention until now. We must be grateful for the work Professor Hruby has done in filling this gap.

Utilising the Czech records when they became available after the fall of communism, Professor Hruby sets out the activities of Milner, Wilfred Burchett, Judah Waten and others was well as the agent or quasi-agent of influence Manning Clark, Milner’s friend and to some extent protégé. Almost all of these still have claques of supporters, although diminishing ones. Hruby’s book will make it even more difficult to sustain the efforts to build the likes of Burchett and Waten into heroes.

It was also always important that anticommunist intellectuals and other activists such as James McAuley or even completely non-political writers, as well as, of course, ex-communists be slandered and silenced. I recall the West Australian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers receiving a denunciation from Dymphna Cusack of Dorothy Hewett after she left the Party. William Hart-Smith was another sent to Coventry for dropping out of politics and writing about seashells. In this the Left seems to have had a great deal more continuing success than it has in maintaining the popularity of its own cultural idols.

I call Clark a quasi-agent because it seems possible he was not formally recruited. He was in any case a heavy drinker, which usually puts a stop to such a career, further, as his writing shows, he became increasingly eccentric and unbalanced with the passage of time. This does not mean he could not function as an agent of influence and indeed as a spy of the conventional kind—in the small, incestuous world of the Canberra cocktail circuit he was well placed to pick up gossip which his masters in Prague and ultimately Moscow would have found useful. He was for a time also on the board selecting cadets for the Australian Diplomatic Service. Writing in Quadrant in January-February 2009, Peter Ryan says Clark was “terrified” when named as communist in 1948. I was also told by the late Professor Patrick O’Brien, who knew Clark in Melbourne, that he arranged to have the Communist Party newspaper Tribune delivered clandestinely to him through a dummy address.

The fact that he received a Lenin Jubilee Medal at a ceremony in Moscow shows that his services were at least highly regarded by Soviet officialdom even if he was considered too unreliable for a regular position. Whether or not he received the Order of Lenin I do not know but the circumstances in which he received the Lenin Jubilee Medal in front of a gathering of international Communist Party leaders prove his services were regarded highly by Moscow. As Professor O’Brien pointed out, the speech he made at the time of his investiture showed all the marks of having been fed to him and rehearsed beforehand: it contained the approved catch-phrases and anecdotes of Soviet propaganda. When in Prague, Clark made a point of visiting Milner, who had been working for both the Russian and Czech secret police. Milner’s tasks in Prague included reporting of Czech University personnel who had contact with Westerners. According to Prague police records, he fulfilled this task “very well”.

Professor Hruby has done a splendid job of disentangling these relationships (which Australian academics apart from O’Brien have shown little or no interest in). There is also a chapter on the political use of Australian writers, complementing O’Brien’s writings on that subject, particularly in his book The Saviours. New light is also thrown on the visit to Australia of the Comintern agent Egon Kisch, who remains a hero in some Australian leftist and pacifist circles.

Professor Hruby writes that on arriving in Australia:

To my surprise, I realized rather soon that I had come to a country that was being systematically conditioned for a future takeover by communist conspirators and their fellow-travelers. Once when replacing a colleague who happened to be unavailable, to take part in a committee session selecting books for courses on China. I objected to the biased selection. All proposed sources were Communist or pro-Communist and pro-Mao. The other members looked at me askance. How did he get here? Nothing was changed. Indoctrination was to go on systematically.

Books by Australian communists or by Marx and Lenin, he says, were rarely borrowed from the library and looked untouched. On the other hand, books by the likes of Manning Clark and Wilfred Burchett circulated often and were underlined on many pages, suggesting that they had far more influence. Despite the conclusive evidence of Milner’s treason in the Prague files, a number of Australian academics and writers have continued to defend him, as in the truly nauseating claim by Vincent O’Sullivan that Milner’s “decency and charm equaled that commitment [to communism]”, although, as with Manning Clark (often defended by the same people) interest in him appears to be dying away. It is odd that such people seem unable to stop revealing so much, not about their subjects but about themselves. Hruby remarks dryly: “since so many authors keep stressing honesty, sincerity and honour in connection with the question of Milner’s spying, clearly they consider it possible to combine honour with spying and lying”—and spying for one of the vilest tyrannies in the Soviet bloc at that.

The achievements of the communist government included hanging pregnant women because of their political beliefs. The post-communist Czech film Dark Blue World gives some notion of postwar Czech prison conditions. Thousands were executed or died in prison there.

Another involved was the grotesque, tragic-comic Comrade Hill, later to lead the Australian Maoist Party on its march, to use Marxist terminology, into the cesspit of history. Secret police documents quoted here give the details of Milner’s reports on academic colleagues. Another whose name recurs is a mysterious army officer, A.W. Sheppard, apparently quite senior, about whom there should be some official records.

Hruby says that until 1996, when he was able to research in the Prague archives, he did not have any idea of the scope of Czech communist activities in targeting Australia. He argues that after the communist coup on Prague in 1948, the party in Prague (one of the most enduringly hard-line and Stalinist in Europe) was tasked with preparing for communist takeovers in several other countries including Australia.

He gives a considerable list of Australian communists who worked in Prague at that time, mainly through the International Union of Students. Federal and state Australian governments were compelling students to finance its local subsidiary, the Australian Union of Students, through compulsory student guild fees. Julia Gillard was elected president of the AUS in 1983, when Soviet influence on the IUS was quite obvious. Was she unaware of this or did she condone it? One or the other has to be the case. However, I doubt this is a question that the Australian media will put to her. The year of her election saw the AUS annual council heavily defeat a resolution to oppose “all acts of terrorism and political violence” (Motion N28). How did she vote?

The writer Stephen Murray-Smith, long-time editor of Overland, later told Professor O’Brien that he had been part of “an Australian colony in Prague, largely built around the International Union of Students”. Other important front organisations operating from Prague included the World Federation of Trade Unions, the World Council of Churches, the World Peace Council, and the World Association of Journalists. Many Australian communists and fellow travellers also went to Prague on the way to Moscow or Peking. Czechs were used because they seemed less suspicious than Russians. Czechoslovakia had also had a prior history of democratic government. Further, of all communist parties in government, the Czech party was probably the most experienced in obtaining power through united front tactics.

It speaks volumes about the fanatical, ingrown tribalism and moral deformity of the Left that the question of whether so-and-so was or was not a Party member has received as much attention from various commentators as it has. Let someone not actually carrying a Communist Party card unswervingly support and work to advance communism—an ideology responsible for about 100 million deaths—and, history shows, there need be virtually no adverse career consequences, at least in the ALP—Dr Jim Cairns became Deputy Prime Minister and could easily have been Prime Minister, for example, after decades of working for Soviet fronts. But to carry a CPA card while a member of the ALP would have been a breach of party rules and, if detected, would have merited instant expulsion. Similarly, communist associations often carry none of the career and other punishments of Nazi associations—who would defend Manning Clark if he had been given the Iron Cross, of whatever grade, rather than the Lenin Medal?

Hruby says accurately:

The Twentieth Century, the most murderous in human history, is shameful not only for the massacres of many millions of innocent victims by totalitarian dictators but also because so many intellectuals helped to support such villains and even admired them as saviours instead of unmasking them and combating them. Such wilful blindness helped diminish resistance to evil and political criminality of the highest order.

Thanks to the efforts of some good people, a security service more effective than many gave it credit for, and a lot of luck, the Old Left during the Cold War never got far politically in Australia. Whether the new, Gramscian post-Cold War Left will do better in seizing the commanding heights of the culture is another matter.

This book should be essential reading for students of the Cold War and of the Australian Left. Kramer concludes that Hruby has “produced what is by far the most authoritative book on the subject, and I hope the example of this book will encourage other researchers to travel to Prague to work with the [archives]”.

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