Stephen’s vector

Stephen Murray-Smith felt that he grew up in a no-man’s land. He thought the family house in Toorak had no books – an exaggeration, he later realised, as his mother was always borrowing romances from the library. But the home was middlebrow, and in a way placeless. Rather than being conventionally Anglophile (his father was a Scot), the family and its business connections were as strong with India as they were with Australia. (The family supplied horses – ‘Walers’ – to the Indian Army.)

Being a boarder at Geelong Grammar further dislocated Stephen, who was given there an antiquated education, and had a hard time of it for a while. He took refuge in voracious reading.

But the school brought out his basic self-reliance and a quirky avoidance of authority. Two years in the army, much of it as a commando in the jungles of New Guinea, strengthened these characteristics. Added to them was a newfound respect for the ordinary bloke, and a belief in the value of mateship.

Stephen came to university at an age when most people have just left it: twenty-two. As was the case until the 1970s, the extracurricular life at Melbourne University was vigorous, intellectually as well as socially. Stephen was immensely stimulated by it. Although at first he did not know which way to turn – his parents joined him up for the Liberal Party – by the end of his first year (1946), he had joined the Labor Party and then moved further to the Left by joining the Communist Party.

This was, in fact, less surprising then that it seems. The Labor Club at Melbourne University functioned as a popular front, and while Communists held most of the key positions, they not only worked with social democrats but were also prepared to moderate their platform. (There was even a fantasy about the branch having autonomy, but this went squarely against the communist doctrine of democratic centralism.) The world had lurched as much to the Left then as it has to the Right now. The Soviet Union was the respected ally of the recent war; in England, there was a considerable consensus about the objectives of the welfare state. For young students – with a Labor government in Canberra – sliding into the party via the Labor Club was a chic way of expressing radicalism.

Stephen was caught up in all of this, and more – to the detriment of his formal studies in history. But then he felt himself to be on the side of history, so that did not seem to matter. Meanwhile, he had started a lifelong interest in scouring second-hand bookshops, and had begun reading extensively in Australian literature. Years later he recalled the immense effect Henry Handel Richardson’s great novel had on him: tears streamed down his face as he read of the death of Mahony.

Shortly after marrying Nita – the marriage to a gentile disapproved of by her parents as much as a Jewish marriage was by the conservative Murray-Smiths – Stephen set off for Europe with his new wife. In England they taught, as well as being involved in party affairs; Stephen enjoyed the exposure to a variety of other people and causes, particularly the liberation movements in South-East Asia. But they were keen to move to the Continent. Nita, after all, had been born Polish.

They settled on Czechoslovakia. For a time, Czechoslovakia had been the Labor Club writ large: a popular front, implementing considerable social reform. ‘Prague, boy, that’s the place to be,’ said the social democrat Geoff Serle. But gradually the communists took control. It was at that point – something that emphasised their commitment – that the Murray-Smiths went to Czechoslovakia. There Stephen worked for Telepress, a kind of communist Reuters, developing facility as a journalist. Missing Australia keenly, he also worked on a projected anthology of Henry Lawson’s short stories.

Returning to Australia in 1951, Stephen trod water for a while, and then became national and state secretary of the Australian Peace Council. Here his capacity for systematic activity was given full rein – organising meetings, demonstrations, being on festival committees, arranging publicity, advising people on how to lobby. This, in fact, was his major job when he founded Overland in 1954 – major, because, among other things, he had to find his own salary. Until he was ‘let go’ at the time of the Petrov commission, Stephen augmented his income in the evenings by subediting at the Age.

For a while Stephen’s literary interests appeared to have subsided. There was always something immediate to be done. Moreover, he had developed a considerable interest in folk music – often described as the soundtrack of the international peace movement – and went about collecting songs and interviewing the old men who sang them.

With all this activity, the earlier fantasy of editing a literary magazine had somewhat receded. But shortly after returning to Melbourne, Stephen joined the Realist Writers Group, a communist organisation. The group was mindful of Comrade Stalin’s injunction that ‘writers are the engineers of the human soul’ and sought to advance the struggle through writing according to the precepts of socialist realism. In part, socialist realism was a repudiation of literary modernism, which was perceived as a decadent elaboration of bourgeois culture. More positively, socialist realism was centrally concerned, as a Soviet ideologue put it, with promoting ‘revolutionary romanticism’, expressing in literature ‘the very soul of the proletariat, its passion and its love’. It sought to articulate the aspirations of all the oppressed – extending from male workers to ‘woman, whom we are making into a comrade,’ and the ‘coloured’ races.

Writers themselves should be proletarians, said the forceful Frank Hardy; indeed, only working-class writers and Marxist-Leninist intellectuals allied with them, Hardy argued, can ‘produce significant works of literature’. Hardy attacked writers who sought conventional public recognition and rewards from publishers, as well as those middle-class comrades who disdained factory bulletins and the other art forms used by workers. There should be more faith, he urged, in ‘the creative powers of the working class’. The party, Hardy believed, should ‘develop worker readers, worker critics and worker writers’. Building a community of socialist readers and writers would advance party objectives on a broader front, drawing people in.

It might seem odd, now, that so much faith would have been put into raising the literary consciousness of workers. But apart from the left-wing optimism of the immediate postwar political climate, there were a number of important cultural factors operating. One was that this would turn out to be a unique window of opportunity. It began with the war and its curtailments, when everybody (including soldiers) was subjected to long stretches of boredom, so that people read as never before – something that would be brought to an end with the introduction of television in 1956. And people were increasingly open to reading Australian material.

Moreover, many of the prominent writers were left-wingers: Katharine Susannah Prichard, Dame Mary Gilmore, Frank Hardy, Eric Lambert and Judah Waten among them. (Christina Stead had disappeared over the horizon, Patrick White was still relatively unknown, while Martin Boyd was preoccupied with the gentry and had recently returned to England.) And there was, in the culture generally, still some notion of ‘improving literature’: a lot of people read to expand their horizons, and in many suburbs there were private lending libraries to help them. Intelligent kids might first encounter the novels of Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson or Charles Dickens as ‘Classics Illustrated’, a brand of comics.

Meanwhile, left-wing circles in Melbourne had been stirred up by the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party, and (running almost parallel) Hardy’s trial for criminal libel in his novel Power Without Glory. The book had been printed underground and, when it came to distribution, Hardy worked through the party and the trade union movement. At the time of the trial, a defence committee had organised over 200 meetings in homes and factories – and even put two floats in the 1951 May Day march. All this activity demonstrated what could be done for a cultural-political cause. Such a degree of mobilisation should not be allowed to fade away.

One outcome of this context was the formation of the Australasian Book Society, set up to publish progressive new literature. (There was a greater trans-Tasman consciousness in those days.) The venture would be made possible by people taking out a subscription – and hundreds of workers did. Impressed by the ‘energy, vision and political acumen’ of Hardy, Stephen joined the committee of the Australasian Book Society. The society ‘really is something very big,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘and I’m proud and happy to be associated with it.’

A second initiative, also undertaken in March 1952, was the appearance of the journal The Realist Writer. Bill Wannan was the first editor; Stephen did not take over until the third issue. But Stephen was a presence from the very beginning, contributing the manifesto ‘In Defence of Australia’s Culture and Freedom’. Characteristically, he bypassed class for national issues. There was a pattern, he averred: America ‘sees Australia as the provider of cannon fodder to be thrown against the Asian people … militarisation and Americanization cannot be divorced.’ And Americanisation was proceeding everywhere, through film, radio, music and printed material. It had to be combated.

The Realist Writer began so tentatively that each article was paginated separately. It was typewritten and cyclostyled, not typeset; on the cover, like flowers on wallpaper, was the word PEACE (the ‘dominant issue’ of our time). It hoped to appear monthly, commenting on literary and political events. Articles and statements were contributed by Realist Writers Group members, including Hardy, Lambert and Ralph de Boissière. There were no stories – this wasn’t the place for them, as group members were doing so well in the annual anthology Coast to Coast. Poetry, however, was a strong feature, with work from John Manifold, Laurence Collinson and David Martin appearing regularly. But, the paper declared, ‘we shall be looking for written down experiences of men on the job and in the struggle, applying standards of realism and strength rather than literary style’. Indeed, literary style as such was despised.

Hardy hoped that The Realist Writer, through discussion of socialist realism and other cultural issues, might become ‘a minor Novy Mir’. And there remained the hope of finding promising worker-writers. But these proved to be few on the ground; most of the creative work submitted was dire. As for discussion, while there were statements by various writers about their work, broader issues were more usually canvassed in the form of Soviet and European pronouncements on culture. The magazine functioned most effectively as a kind of notice board for the Realist Writers Group, sometimes with shades of the Bulletin. From the very first issue there was a column called ‘Swag’.

Stephen’s interest in Australia’s past – a militant sense of history, which gave a sense of inevitability to the people’s struggle – advanced as he ran The Realist Writer. He felt that writers, in particular, while making themselves familiar with the theoretical works of socialist realism, should make themselves familiar with Australian writers. All of them. The aim should be to develop a literature ‘national in form, but socialist in content’. There was no conflict; to the contrary, there was a reassuring congruency. Stephen regularly quoted AA Phillips’ observation that to this day no Australian writer has identified so completely with proletarian subject matter as did Lawson and Joseph Furphy.

Others were unable to countenance any
such synthesis or accommodation. Party operatives could not understand why Prichard would not submit her manuscripts for their approval; they had no sense of the free play of the imagination. Also active in Western Australia was the unionist poet Vic Williams, whose best work – held in place by a confident rhyming structure – could achieve with industrial subjects a lightly tamed rawness. Williams wrote in to attack the tendency of the poetry published to move away from the class struggle. Those poets should, as he did, write about the economic struggles of the people. ‘To the extent that I have succeeded,’ Williams wrote, ‘I am better than most Australian writers’.

Stephen fumed at Williams’ ‘almost lunatic self-satisfaction’ and at the imputation in correspondence that because he ‘happened to be born in the wrong suburb’, he was not quite orthodox in his socialism. ‘The liberation of the working class,’ Stephen declared, ‘is not the task of the working class alone.’ Indeed, his work with the peace movement was leading him to think of the ‘broad masses’ of the people, rather than just the proletariat.

A broader magazine had been on the agenda of the Realist Writers Group for quite some time – as a separate publication. Stephen began to think The Realist Writer might provide the basis for such a venture. Even a party official had asked why the existing magazine had ‘to read so much like a Communist journal’. The alternative was to address not only the working class, but those sections of ‘other classes’ who were ‘determined to join with us in defence of peace & national independence’. The canvas would be expanded; new writers would be drawn in.

The Realist Writers Group approved. Stephen, to ensure control of the transformation, used a simple device: he went out and registered the name. Overland would be his.

Whenever he could, Stephen stressed continuity: ‘incorporating The Realist Writer,’ the new magazine proclaimed on its masthead. Its appearance had not been triggered by any explicit division but rather by a sense of a publication bursting its bounds, something recognised by Waten, who had access to funds that would enable the existing publication to be typeset. There were no resignations from the editorial board: it became larger, national. And given the general aim of the Realist Writers Group to produce a broader magazine, Jack Coffey and Hardy could subsequently claim that it was the group, not Stephen, who set up Overland. Stephen’s commitment, drive and organisational capacities engendered a number of tacit understandings: sharp political differences would emerge soon enough to disturb them.

The first issue of Overland (‘Temper democratic, bias Australian’) appeared in the spring of 1954, and was a delicate balancing act. The names bookending the list of authors were Nettie Palmer and AD Hope, but above them (to reassure readers of The Realist Writer) appeared a vigorous sketch by Noel Counihan of a pair of diggers off to the goldfields. Leading the issue was a short editorial: the new magazine would aim high ‘but has no exclusive or academic standards of any kind’. Like The Realist Writer, Overland asked readers, ‘however inexpert,’ to write for it, so long as they shared a ‘belief in the traditional dream of a better Australia’.

Endorsements from literary figures followed: from Dame Mary Gilmore, Vance Palmer, Alan Marshall and a rather frosty one from RG Howarth of Southerly. Clem Christesen endorsed Overland too, welcoming the way the magazine promised to stand ‘four-square behind genuinely Australian democratic values’. Not least, it would provide another platform to defend dissident writers such as Waten, and the Commonwealth Literary Fund for funding him. Brian Fitzpatrick’s vigorous discussion of that issue was given pride of place. Also in the first issue were pieces by John Manifold on ‘Banjo’ Paterson, with Nettie Palmer and Prichard writing on Richardson. To offset this cultural infill, Stephen made sure that the longest piece in the opening issue was a John Morrison story about wharfies. This issue served as the Overland prototype for many years to come.

That this should be so indicates the deep frustration Stephen had been feeling for quite some time. He had never been comfortable in the party: as a student he had bridled when, at a national Labor Club conference in Tasmania, he had learned of the Zhdanov decrees, which laid down the party line in all scientific and cultural matters. Later, concerned with cultural and peace issues, he had no taste for inner-party power struggles. When news of Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin to the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow leaked out, Stephen was appalled by the way the party in Australia did all it could to suppress it. Once the speech was published in Melbourne’s Herald, Stephen eagerly distributed copies to Communist friends and acquaintances. He also began to wonder: what if Stalin’s crimes were not an aberration, but were inseparable from communism as implemented? What if they stemmed inevitably from such an authoritarian system?

Far from being the communist-informed propaganda sheet that right-wing opponents alleged, Overland provided an escape from issues plaguing the movement. It became Stephen’s adventure playground, where he hoped to help fashion a distinctive Australian culture. Meanwhile, when going overseas on peace work, he talked to concentration camp survivors as well as to Soviet officials, establishing the substantial truth of the charges against Stalin. At home, he announced his findings at a public meeting. But in Overland, Stephen decided, he would publish no material that was directly opposed to party policy.

It would not be that easy. Two years after the Hungarian Revolution, the Russians executed Imre Nagy, the Hungarian leader. Ian Turner, outraged, declared it ‘bloody murder!’ – and, in response, was expelled from the party. Next morning, Stephen resigned. Almost immediately he went with Turner to the Australasian Book Society office, and made off with the Overland subscription cards. That captured the journal’s sustaining network.

When, in April 1959, Overland published a discussion of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago – with Prichard’s communist response balanced by a more liberal one – a struggle for control of the magazine began. Stephen was attacked in Tribune, the communist paper: Overland was ‘a shackle on the labour movement’, and its editor should be ‘dealt with’. Stephen took the view that since it was he, not the Realist Writers Group, who took financial and legal responsibility for the journal, the ownership question was a non-starter. The Realist Writers Group did not even take out a block subscription or assist with distribution. But it was important, he realised, not to be provocative; as Betty Vasilieff advised him, ‘if the Stalinists walk out at some stage, OK, that can’t be helped … you mustn’t walk out on them.’

Stephen was aware that his ownership placed the magazine in peril, for he was an easy target. Perhaps the answer might be to create a fuller board and to transfer the ownership to it. Such a body would be drawn broadly from the Left, and communists would be included – but only as one element. In the post-Hungary climate, there was strong support for resisting the dictates of the party. And now that he was no longer a member, the party was finding that it could no longer control him.

Stephen dug in. In a series of meetings, the principle was accepted, grudgingly, that people no longer in the party should be accepted as ‘equal members of the Left’. Subsequently, Coffey tried to stack an editorial board meeting but had unintentionally tipped Stephen off in a phone call, giving him time to organise a counter-stacking. A screaming match resulted: one man, just as he was leaving the room, mischievously turned round and said he was a member of the ALP arts committee, and it would be prepared to help Overland in any way. Good night!

Outmanoeuvred, Coffey tried to get Murray-Smith to a meeting where he would be confronted by party heavies, but he refused to attend. At a subsequent private meeting, it was agreed – since Stephen held most of the cards – that all would work together, so long as Coffey and associates ceased their attacks on the editor. But there were more attacks, whereupon Stephen and his allies proceeded to recast the committee.

It gradually became apparent that the battle had been won.

Stephen – who would later be described (inaccurately) as ‘the lordly Stalinist’ – was inclusive by temperament: a broader-based magazine was the one he wanted. For a long time, he remained ‘intensely grateful’ for the way the party had saved him ‘from becoming another middle-aged, middle-class ex-public schoolboy’. But gradually that ebbed away, and with Turner at his right hand, Stephen took the journal into a new phase of exploring Australian culture and articulating radical nationalism.

Jim Davidson

Jim Davidson has written two prize-winning biographies, and is now working on a double biography of Stephen Murray-Smith and Clem Christesen of Meanjin. He was Meanjin’s second editor, from 1974 to 1982.

More by Jim Davidson ›

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