Wilfred Burchett and the Cold War

Something weird’s been happening at Crikey over the last few months — a prolonged discussion about the life and politics of Wilfred Burchett. There has been something of a revival of Burchettalia in recent years (a biography, a collection of journalism and so on) but even so you’d think this was more a question to preoccupy specialists than a debate likely to rage in the letters page of a popular publication.

When Crikey recently moved all the Burchett stuff to a special section, Leigh Josey’s post noted that the whole thing actually began in response to a piece I wrote about Manning Clark, another historical figure who keeps popping up in the midst of culture war flare-ups. Which prompted me to try to work out what was behind it all, as per below:

If you had to nominate the topic that would most exercise Crikey correspondents in 2009, what would it be? Climate change? P-rnography versus censorship? The War on Terror?

Most of us would not have picked Wilfred Burchett.

So here’s a theory about Mr Burchett’s rather mystifying epistolatory popularity: the Cold War remains unfinished business in Australia — and, with the global crisis, we’re seeing a kind of political return of the repressed.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm defined the ‘short twentieth century’ as the period between the Great War and the collapse of communism. For most of that time, the political spectrum was refracted through attitudes towards the Soviet Union. That is, the nation’s great political battles took place in a landscape shaped by the a broadly shared belief that, for better or worse, there existed a political and economic alternative to the way Australia was organised, an alternative represented by the Eastern Bloc.

The former Senator John Button once described the ALP as ideologically “loitering like a foolhardy pedestrian in the middle of the road between the excesses of capitalism and the inefficiencies and totalitarianism of Soviet communism”. The words date from after the collapse of communism (while no one much likes to remember it now, there was a time when the Labor Left saw in the Soviet Union efficiency and freedom) but even so, from Button’s words you can see how the existence of Soviet Russia provided, even for social democracy, a horizon of possibility.

You can also recognise how the definitive collapse of those possibilities after 1989 contributed to the ALP’s rightward drift, for, with one extreme political pole removed, the free market thereafter pulled Labor politicians like a magnet drawing steel.

Thus one of the consequences of the Cold War — and the Right’s victory in it — was the sense that, as Thatcher put it, “There is no alternative”. Which is surely partly why we’re in this current mess. Neo-liberalism has never — not anywhere in the world — enjoyed popular support. But TINA meant that the population grudgingly acquiesced to privatisation and user-pays and the rest of it: hadn’t the fall of Communism demonstrated that economic regulation of any kind would culminate, at best, with us all driving Trabants and, at worst, with us sipping gruel in the gulag?

A few years back, anti-globalisation protesters in London carried a sign reading “Tear down capitalism — and replace it with something nicer”. Which is cute, but whimsy alone can’t provide the alternative that the Socialist Sixth of the World once seemed to be.

Of course, no matter what people pretended Soviet Communism represented, in reality it meant repression and mass murder. Not all of the Left cheered on dictatorships abroad, but much of it did, and to a considerable extent, the Left’s decline after 1989 can be attributed to that criminal willingness, when it came to the Eastern Bloc, to pass off the worst kind of sh-t as socialist shinola.

But that’s the beginning of a historical analysis, not the end of one. The majority of Australians who identified with the Left throughout the twentieth century did so not to sing hosannas to Stalin but because they supported trade unionism and anti-fascism and an opposition to racism, all causes which retain their force. In the ’30s, Australian communists brayed support for the Moscow Trials — but they also marched for Aboriginal rights and equal pay for women, long before such ideas entered the heads of most bien pensant liberals. Or, to put it another way, Wilfred Burchett might have been hideously wrong about the so-called People’s Democracies, but that doesn’t, in and of itself, invalidate his stance on, say, Hiroshima or Vietnam.

Which is simply to say that the accepted orthodoxy of the Cold War imposes a crass Manichaeism on a contradictory history. And it’s a history that still matters, as events taking place around us show.

The latest Newsweek proclaims “We are all socialists now”; the cover story on the European edition of Time discusses the return of Marx. Both articles are rather silly beat-ups, but they do suggest a growing need to reconsider what an alternative to the status quo might mean.

No, the revolution’s not around the corner. Nonetheless, it’s no longer good enough to pretend that the failure of bureaucratic command economies in the Soviet Union and its satellite states provides a sufficient basis to dismiss all the old critiques of the free market. Indeed, one might go further and argue that, if 1989 meant the collapse of the Old Left, the current crisis signals the bankruptcy of the New Right and thus an opening for new ways of thinking.

When asked what he thought about the French revolution, Mao (and, yes, he was a genocidal tyrant, too) was supposed to have quipped, “It’s too early to tell.” The same thing might yet be said about the Short Twentieth Century. A lot depends on what happens next.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I think some of the ongoing fascination with Wilfred Burchett is that point at which morality and politics meet, means and ends. The revolution is not just round the corner? Bugger, we must work harder. There must be some way of hurrying it up.

  2. I think you’re right about Burchett, though it’s odd that other scandals from the Cold War have been completely forgotten. Menzies’ move to ban the CPA came pretty directly out of revelations from Cecil Sharpley, a leading Victorian party member who became a turncoat and alleged all kinds of skullduggery. Who’s heard of Sharpley today?

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