First Person

The Great Escape

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 6, 1989, I left the Left; I’m not sure of the exact time. Though it happened in the city square between St Andrew’s Cathedral and the Sydney Town Hall, it actually began in the mid-1970s, when my life was going on normally. More or less by accident I was working in London when I bought a package holiday, breakfast included, to see one week of revolution in Lisbon, then Whitlam was sacked and I helped organise a demonstration in The Strand (the poster I had printed was too large for shop windows and none of us knew how to have it pasted up around the city), then, after a four-week course, I went to live and work teaching English in Algeria, and that’s where it all began to go wrong.

From a distance Algeria in the mid-1970s still had revolutionary Left chic from memories of the war with France (1954 to 1962) and the more current association with Black Panthers in exile, Timothy Leary, hijacked planes and Third Worldism. Joan Baez (I prefer Om Kalsoum) popped up for a concert in Algiers—I think her father was living there, but I might be wrong—and later the airport would host the just-freed American hostages from Tehran. When I explored the Casbah I searched for landmarks familiar from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, which I had recently seen again in Oran.

Borrowing from Isherwood, I was a small, unimportant, observing camera, afraid then and now that if I looked too closely I would see Australia’s future in a land from where the established settler society had been driven from their homeland, their legitimacy to exist destroyed by France’s Left intellectuals who worked to divide the communities of a French Department and to transform co-citizens into fascists and colonial exploiters. The war threw up intellectuals who rightly condemned the tortures carried out by the French Army but ignored the far worse crimes carried out by their side in the Algerian conflict, and they never condemned the dictatorial and terrorist state, still in power today, which they helped to create.

I shopped, I travelled by bus (if you understood the complexities of fighting your way into and out of these conveyances several times a day it might not seem such a simple boast), I sat in local cafes, I knew few people beyond my students, I went to the cinema—a lot. My baker disappeared, a friend was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for a civil crime. The difficulties and bastardries of a socialist regime were everyday experiences in a country where the dictatorship and secret police probably kept me safe.

It was always interesting. One winter night, as I was cloaked in a djellaba in a village on the edge of the desert, the quiet conversations about me stopped, there was just a glow of individual cigarettes in the dark, and we all turned to watch a rail-squealing train pass. In outline against the starry sky a line of flat cars passed by, many surmounted by plump black shapes and the unmistakable barrels of tanks as a consignment of weapons headed south towards the Polisario in Western Sahara for the killing of Moroccans, whose closed border with Algeria was at this point only a few kilometres to the west. At other times in this same place you might hear the explosion of a near or distant landmine—probably set off by an animal or smuggler, though one never knew—placed either by the French Army or more recently in the continuing conflict between the two Maghreb neighbours.

I lived safely in a country where some years earlier I would have been tortured and killed by Muslim terrorists or some years later tortured and killed by either the army and police of the terrorist state they had established or the Muslim extremists who wanted to usurp them. Chronology was kind to me.

I lived the malaise of socialism which afflicted the country. I tried talking of this in the context of the simple difficulties of everyday life to a friendly young couple I met when on holiday in London. I think the English pair ran some sort of small Left magazine. It was my first experience of being treated like a liar. Then and later I thought that as a witness to the daily life of socialism what I had to say was interesting, but when I talked of these experiences there was either no interest or a passionately strong rejection of what I was saying. Thankfully there are still some people, like Michael Galak, with the patience to explain. The young couple did not believe me, and, pleasantly middle-class themselves, accused me of mixing with the complaining bourgeoisie. The intolerant Left never relents. Over thirty years later in our free country an academic journal of Aboriginal history calls me a “massacre denier” because I step outside their conformity and question a massacre historian.

Along the way, at an early stage of my long journey from the Left, I was corrupted by a book. In the library of the French Cultural Centre in Oran I found a copy of Ombres chinoises (Chinese Shadows) by Simon Leys. I read it, with an overworked dictionary close at hand, and though I surely missed the finer points of Leys’s analysis it was the reality and terror of the Maoist regime he described which cracked my own trusting stupidity. I lived well inside the Left community; even then and in that distant land I was a subscriber to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker. My views on socialism and fashionable China—during the Cultural Revolution I was known to be eloquent on the subject of barefoot doctors—had come from blue-covered Penguins.

“Have you turned conservative?” It was the early 1980s, I was back in Australia, and the speaker was a friend I had made during the campaign for Whitlam in London. It was the last time I saw her.

At first you think that you can say what you want to say because those around you know you are a good-hearted person making valuable criticisms from the inside. Those on the Left are very aware that something is wrong with us even before we are. You imagine you still belong and people you know will listen to you, as they did before, when we all agreed. Surely people you have known for years are aware you are neither a liar nor a fascist but the same person you always were. It doesn’t work like that. And when you realise there is a problem, wisdom suggests you either shut up or change the subject. It doesn’t always work, as they instinctively know what you are up to—they are a sensitive lot, ever ready to scent dissent.

David Horowitz has well summed up what I was going through when he wrote, of one stage of his own journey into the light, “I had abandoned most tenets of the leftist faith, although not yet departed its community.” Leftism isn’t a religion, it is closer to alcoholism. And having given up one addiction I wasn’t in the mood for another. Coming slowly out of the Left in the 1980s I was still part of the community when I began reading Quadrant. For anyone on the Left that is a major event, for the thought of even touching the magazine causes them physical pain, and of course they would never actually read it. I also bought the Spectator when it began appearing in newsagents. In books I think I wandered into military history and my usual scattered readings—little fiction. I was not aware, and could not find, a cultural life outside the Left to help me move forward or to evaluate the political life I had lived and I could not move forward until I had accepted that I had broken away from the Left community—which was the only one I knew.

When the break finally came it happened in Sydney on a Tuesday in 1989 because I had come into the city to be part of the crowd protesting against the murder of students in Tiananmen Square. Veteran Labor politician Tom Uren spoke loudly and railed against the “fascist” Chinese government—I think the response he proposed to the murders his political allies had carried out involved trade sanctions. I wasn’t the only one to notice his word choice and the following day’s report on the rally in the Sydney Morning Herald had the word fascist in the headline. For generations this old man had supported thugs in China, and elsewhere in the unfree world, and now when they acted in public instead of in secret he could not simply name the criminals as communist. For me, each time Uren said “fascist”, each time he exhibited his cowardice and dishonesty, was like receiving a hammer blow on the chains that still held me to the Left. I recognised too my guilt and cowardice, and that of my generation, for never examining our support of the Vietnamese communists during the war and our failure to criticise them when they imposed a bloody peace on the land they had conquered.

Uren was a liar too far, and that afternoon I was released, but as disoriented as any leftist would be if you turned off the ABC. I was a free man who had been dreaming of escape across a frontier without even knowing the name of the land on the other side.

There is no map to the nameless territory outside the Left. There is no smiling welcome as you are handed a copy of the words of the Horst Wessel Song, as leftists try to make their slaves believe. The French historian François Furet, who also made the great escape, was describing romantic writers of the nineteenth century who were politically active but remained “generally beyond political classification”. I think this was where I had been headed for most of the 1980s and where, thanks to the unlikely help of Tom Uren, I had finally arrived.

In the compulsory Left–Right political division I have never been sure if the word conservative covers me, but it does annoy the Left. Conservative seems to exclude the rather enjoyable company of the bohemian anarchists one encounters enjoying their liberty to mock the Left. Unfortunately, only a couple of years later when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, I realised beyond doubt that whatever was the name of the land I had entered, I was living with the losing mob who did not value their own freedoms.

When those communist dictatorships in Europe and the Soviet Union ended I expected the exhilaration I felt would be transformed all around me into a powerful desire to see a reappraisal of what had gone before and that those who had described and analysed communism and sometimes directly suffered for telling the truth would be recognised and acclaimed. Instead I heard the old corrupt voices warning of gloating and triumphalism on the part of those who history had shown to be correct.

I naively expected to see academic conferences and seminars devoted to exploring the errors made and the truths ignored. Nothing like this happened. François Furet’s book The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, first published in English in 1999, from which I quoted above, was the sort of intelligent debate I expected to immediately occur. Nothing did, and I don’t even think Quadrant examined its archives and drew attention to the brave voices it had published who had been abused by the Left and proven right by history.

Philosopher Michel Onfray has observed how the always guilt-free Left have awarded themselves “total intellectual impunity”—being Good people they can never do Bad. That they did not deal with their responsibility in supporting one of the most murderous political philosophies in history denies them any essential credibility. That the free did not make them do so is a mistake that allowed them to regroup and prosper. I was disappointed also in my expectation that the opening of Soviet archives would have sent Australian scholars rushing to Moscow to examine the extent of the secret penetration of our society by Soviet intelligence agencies. Wishful thinking. Even as I am writing today there is an essay atop the homepage of a government over-funded literary review that begins with a quote from Lenin the mass murderer and ends with a quote by Marxist philosopher Karl Kautsky, with sandwiched in between a silly-beyond-satire argument that Australia needs a Corbyn–Sanders socialist party. The Left have never been held responsible for their history, and instead of teaching students the bloody story of communism in the last century we allow them to rewrite our own history to cover their crimes and promote their lethal fantasies. When it was published, The Black Book of Communism made it onto few Australian bookshelves.

At some point in the next few years I came across another corrupting book which served as a map to the new territory I was exploring. Bill Muehlenberg’s Modern Conservative Thought: An Annotated Bibliography was published by the IPA in 1990. It listed writers and their books with a short and useful note on each entry. Going forward into the 1990s it introduced me to thinkers I had never heard of and books I never saw in our bookshops. Muehlenberg’s little blue book included details of the Laissez Faire Book Club in the US and throughout the decade my life was enriched by their parcels until Amazon and AbeBooks appeared with their even richer offerings. In the last decade of the century I discovered Robert Conquest, Milovan Djilas, Paul Hollander, Victor Kravchenko, Richard Pipes, Jean-François Revel, Thomas Sowell, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Paul Johnson, with a special place of honour for Solzhenitsyn. The Liberal Conspiracy by the former Quadrant editor Peter Coleman looked interesting but I never saw a copy until Peter gave me one years later. Mark Steyn and P.J. O’Rourke, Melanie Phillips and Douglas Murray lay in the future.

From this new territory of thought I also discovered the secret history of our times in the voices of those who had made the journey away from the Left before me. Brave men who recognised evil when they were confronted with it, and changed their minds: Malcolm Muggeridge and Eugene Lyons in Soviet Russia, Whittaker Chambers and David Horowitz in the US. There were also those, like some present-day Quadrant contributors, who discovered, when they looked more carefully, that the foundations of the Leftist orthodoxy they believed in were faulty and dishonest and then did something to shake them. The editor of this magazine referred, in his 1996 book The Killing of History, to “Henry Reynolds’s breakthrough in discovering and deploying previously untouched evidence”; then, of course, Keith Windschuttle checked that “evidence” and changed his mind, and has written books, derided or ignored today, which will lead to the future regeneration of Australian history studies and writing: just add some free minds.

Incidentally, there would be no present-day “history wars” if senior students in history departments were set the task of taking a complete chapter from any well known or influential history text and checking the footnotes. Gertrude Himmelfarb, who wrote beautifully and wisely, wrote an excellent and inspiring essay, “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” which acknowledged that the footnote “would seem to be the smallest detail in a work of history. Yet it carries a large burden of responsibility, testifying to the validity of the work, to the integrity (and the humility) of the historian, and to the dignity of the discipline.”

Quite recently Jay Nordlinger in National Review wrote, “The Left in South Korea bitterly resents defectors [from North Korea], especially ones who squawk about human rights and what they suffered back home.” Defectors and second-thoughters do squawk a lot, they are troublesome people. They never keep quiet about what they have quit. Traditional political Left and Right teams scrape along loathing and adjusting to each other; cultural defectors can’t shut up. Australian conservative governments bribe their enemies in the hope of a quiet life—these cultural vandals on the Right fund the ABC, they fund the (dark) arts, they support 2 per cent DNA Aborigines, they give prizes to histories and historians who seek to turn our history into a slasher movie (only the academic dreariness of their writing has saved us from this fate—so far), they fund the continuing corruption of an educational system designed to create gendered tots and unemployable university graduates, they fund family eradication, they order the feminisation of the armed forces and buy French submarines (French!!)—and they expect us to vote for them and fund their superannuation.

In the beginning my exit from the Left and search for freedom came from my rather ordinary experiences in Algeria and the personal experience that socialism is dictatorship and the Left loves its dictators. This simple and obvious observation took me years to accept. I exited the Left only because I banged into reality. If that is the only way our loved and very, very silly country is going to wake from the spell of deep cultural unreality and foolishness cast on it by the Left then we have entered a tragic century.

6 comments
  • Dallas Beaufort

    Wonder escapes at last

  • Elizabeth Beare

    I had always been a somewhat suspect lefty in academic circles because I was from the working class, more lumpenprole than prole, although I hid it well. But I tried hard to be like them, and gained leftist acceptance, sufficient to carry copies of Nation Review, our weekly read, into 1973’s Sri Lanka, along with my first husband, also trending left, and our first baby. Talk about babes in the wood. The government was socialist and the place was disintegrating. The rot was setting in for me on leftism and feminism then. A longer story in all that, not for here. 🙂

    ‘Chronology was kind to me’. Us too. We arrived in Sri Lanka in between two bloody revolutions. We heard stories on arrival for our year of ‘fieldwork’ of bodies piled high in the streets not so long before, some no yet dead, and you all know of what happened with the Tamil Tigers. We merely had a close-up glimpse of ‘salon socialism’ at its worst; no imports at all and no local economy. Only problems we encountered were shortages of uncontaminated baby powder and most consumer goods (including saline drips so you get my drift), plus a typhoid and cholera epidemic.
    Easy peasy.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    ‘If that is the only way our loved and very, very silly country is going to wake from the spell of deep cultural unreality and foolishness cast on it by the Left then we have entered a tragic century.’

    Yes. Very sad. Perhaps, Michael, you could publish a book of some significant accounts of ‘leaving the left’ in Australia. There would be some fascinating stories in that I am sure, including yours above, It might make many more come out of the woodwork too. As a bonus, it would likely sell well because there are many who have done similar things in a variety of ways, so there’s a ready market there.

  • ianl

    >”Leftism isn’t a religion, it is closer to alcoholism”

    Truly wonderful description 🙂

  • GaryR

    For a hilarious account of a similar, if less exotic, journey from Left to Right, read (or re-read) ‘The setting of their leftist suns’ by Tim Blair (Quadrant, June ‘17).

  • Occidental

    “I exited the Left only because I banged into reality. “

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