Free radicals of the left
Reviewed by Tristan Ewins
in post-war Melbourne
Free radicals of the left in post-war Melbourne
John McLaren, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing
John McLaren begins his study of the lives of three Australian
radical writers and activists by stating:
"Free radicals are groups of atoms which exist independently but change
the world around them."
The same, as McLaren infers, could be said of Ian Turner, Ken
and Stephen Murray-Smith.
McLaren's biographical study of these radical Australians is
breadth, searching deeply not only for the motivations, dreams and
aspirations of his subjects, but in the process painting a panoramic
view of a truly fascinating epoch of Australian history.
Beginning his story in the pre-war years, during which a
Australian students and thinkers found themselves radicalised by the
successive influences of Depression, and the Spanish Civil War, McLaren
intimates how, "for a few years" the three "blazed as bright stars
across the firmament of student politics", thereafter following Turner,
Gott and Murrary-Smith through the difficult war years, and through
their tumultuous period of activism within the Communist Party of
The examination of Murray-Smith's experiences in a commando
New Guinea during World War II are particularly fascinating, his
experiences with inept leadership and the bloody hardship of armed
conflict heightening rather than diminishing his instinctive
egalitarianism, and convincing him that "the world must be made safe
The sheltered world provided by the Communist Party, during
period, was such that Ken Gott found himself able to proclaim that
"Stalin is simply General Secretary" of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union, "liable to dismissal if he does not please them".
Successive revelations, however, were to shatter such
to throw Turner, Murray-Smith and Gott into open conflict with the
Party to which they once owed their allegiance.
McLaren traces their break with that organizsation, stemming
from disillusionment in the face of Soviet Premier Khruschev's "secret
speech", revealing the crimes of his predecessor, Stalin, and in
reaction to the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. What follows is a
celebration of the determination of these three men to retain their
engagement in radical Australian politics, within the world of academe,
independent publishing and editing, and within the Australian Labor
This, as McLaren explains, was certainly no easy task: "there
the practical problems of rebuilding their lives outside the Party and
of finding ways to continue the political and cultural struggle."
Without the Party, Turner, Gott, and Murray-Smith "lacked the
structure to support their plans." Turner himself, as McLaren explains,
had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1958 for "revisionism": a
common charge against those who deviated from the orthodoxy of
Marxism-Leninism: or, more particularly, its Stalinist variant.
Leaving the Party more or less meant leaving behind one's
family" and, as McLaren portrays, such incidents were not unlike family
break-ups in their bitterness: accusations and recriminations following
in their wake. This was particularly painful in that, even after a
process of disillusionment with the Party leadership, there most often
remained a sense of solidarity with "ordinary" Communist Party members
who "carried on" with progressive struggles often spurned by the ALP.
Cut off from one's social and political support networks,
were expelled from the CPA (or who resigned in protest or despair)
often "went out of their minds." Others, in McLaren's words "set about
the anguished work of redefining themselves and creating new meanings
for their lives." Turner, Gott, and Murray-Smith fell into the latter
camp, turning, among other projects, to radical nationalism, the Labor
Party and democratic socialism as outlets for their energies, and
vehicles for their aspirations.
In following the lives of his three subjects, McLaren surveys
intellectual and political landscape of the Australian Left over a
period of approximately four decades, from the rise of the peace
movement in the postwar period ("under the shadow of the bomb"), to the
resurgence of the Left that arose with the anti-Vietnam War movement,
and the election of Whitlam.
He considers the formation of the Overland literary
its attempts to build a working class subscriber base, and the bitter
struggle for control that ensued after the expulsion of its then
editor, Ian Turner from the Communist Party.
Sources of the Democratic Labor Party split are traced, as is
rise of Jim Cairns, the "modernisation of Labor" that occurred under
Whitlam, and the bitter struggle for control of the Victorian branch of
the ALP, which culminated in the Federal intervention which crippled
its traditionally "hard-line" Left.
The author considers the great power then wielded by the
Party, culturally and via the trade unions, as well as the various
struggles that took place between what were the makers of "left
opinion". (eg, the Fabian Society, the ex-communist Outlook
group, and the publishers of Dissent journal.)
In particular, McLaren suggests the intellectual force that
Australian nationalism" became in the hands of men like Turner, who saw
"the distinctive element of Australian culture as a democratic
egalitarianism", where "mateship spilled over into solidarity."
McLaren sees his subjects as writing "within the Australian
democratic tradition." This tradition, with its egalitarian undertones,
was to remain a powerful theme in Australian politics, until the
sustained pragmatism of Hawke and Keating all but extinguished such
sentiments from popular consciousness.
Turning to the ALP, McLaren intimates how Turner reflected
new position: "fluttering rather ineptly around the edges of this
amorphous and most unsatisfactory Labor Party" with the additional
frustration "of making next to no input on its policy, or what happens
in politics". As Turner argued, in a statement that could just as well
apply to the Communist Party as to the Labor Party, or any one of its
"The democratic structure of politics offers hope that policies
and rational change can be initiated from below, but between hope and
fulfillment comes the Party machine."
Stephen Murray-Smith wrote to Turner in 1961, in an attempt to
provide some insight into his friend's condition, as he struggled to
come to terms with a bitter reality. Through his examination of such
personal correspondence, McLaren intimates a shared friendship of
incredible depth and strength:
"I once wrote to David Martin that he doesn't have the
shelter-belt of self-delusion ... that prevents a deep erosion of the
sou ... I'm not sure whether it's that people like you ... just know
and understand too much ever to be happy."
The triumph of Turner, Murray-Smith and Gott that emerges from
McLaren's masterful weaving together of their lives, and their shared
experiences, is that, despite all manner of hardship and
disappointment, their fight for a better world, and engagement in the
cultural struggle, never ended. The author paints a picture of men of
deep conviction: who by the force of this conviction, and by force of
will, maintained a determined struggle for their ideals against the
odds despite the realisation that these ideals may never be realized in
their lifetimes, or perhaps ever. Theirs became a politics of
McLaren examines the respective careers of his subjects in
from Gott's years as a journalist to Stephen-Murray-Smith's
ground-breaking thesis regarding the history of technical education in
Australia. His re-evaluation of Turner's engagement with the "New Left"
is particularly fascinating, identifying Turner's anticipation of
postmodernism, with its rejection of "grand narratives" and the
resultant danger of political withdrawal and resignation.
The author's consideration of Murray-Smith's research on the
of the Bass Strait also makes for extraordinarily engaging reading, as
do his occasional "interludes", which consider the regular
"pilgrimages" by his subjects and their circle of friends to Erith
Island in the Bass Strait, and of their deep but unromantic love for
nature and simplicity.
McLaren's intimate portrayal of the personal lives of his
of their loves and losses, hopes and fears, is as touching as it is
sincere. The stories and anecdotes he shares will bring his subjects
vividly to life in the minds of readers. As history, and as biography,
`Free Radicals' makes essential reading: a valuable addition to
existing literature on the historical Australian Left, yet one whose
depth and intimacy places it above many other such contributions.
First published in the Canberra Times, November 22,