State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 63 Autumn 1999

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Radical Making and Unmaking
The Early Careers of Stephen Murray-Smith and Ken Gott

I not only want to learn from the 25-year olds, but to teach them something too; it's desperately important that we do; our own experiences, the things that moulded us and our attitudes, were true experiences and the attitudes were true attitudes; they are still (mutatis mutandis) true.1
For two Decades after the Second World War, Stephen Murray-Smith (1922-88) and Ken Gott (1922-90) were among the leading activists of the left in Melbourne. Born in the same year, both became student leaders and members of the University branch of the Communist Party in the 1940s, went overseas and worked as journalists in Prague in the early years of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, left the Party in the years following the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then played leading roles in the development of the new left in Australia. But while Murray-Smith turned his energies to Australian literature and education, Gott remained a journalist and political activist. Murray-Smith founded and edited the literary journal Overland, completed a doctorate on technical education in Victoria, and eventually became Reader in Education at the University of Melbourne. Gott worked as a journalist for the West Australian, wrote for the Sydney fortnightly Nation, and then was one of the foundation staff of the Australian, before going off to New York, and later Hong Kong and Bangkok, as a senior editor and research director for Business International, a company which serviced multinational companies world-wide. After his return to Australia he became a senior adviser in Melbourne for the mining company CRA. Both were great letter writers and kept extensive papers, which the State Library of Victoria has now acquired.2
The two collections are complementary, and provide rich material for future biographers, for students of ideology, and for social, cultural and political historians. Gott, the supreme journalist, attracted masses of gossip, amicable and malicious. His files date from his last years at secondary school, and contain a wealth of information on student life and politics. His letters to Beth Serpell, who later became his wife, after she had left for London to take up a postgraduate scholarship, are a record of love, the grief of separation, and the anguish of finding a living in postwar Melbourne while trying to find the fare to get to London. Murray-Smith's files, which also date back to his schooldays in the 1930s, were divided into three parts: the Overland collection, dealing with the establishment and maintenance of the literary journal Overland and its predecessor, The Realist Writer, and including voluminous correspondence with most major Australian writers and many leading politicians
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from these years; the University collection, dealing with matters arising from Murray-Smith's academic career; and the Special collection, comprising personal papers. These have now been consolidated into a single collection, with each part retaining its chronological ordering, but consolidating letters with individual correspondents in discrete files arranged by author.3 This essay concentrates on the light thrown by the two collections on the circumstances of their lives and their political opinions as they were attracted to the Communist Party in the first place, responded to its disciplines, and eventually became disillusioned. The two collections help us to understand how two such individualists could subordinate themselves for so long to what Murray-Smith was to describe as the ‘rigid and demented authoritarian system’ of the Communist Party.4

Keith Benn, photographer. Ken Gott as a young man at the University of Melbourne ca. 1942. Gelatin silver photograph. Photograph courtesy of Beth Gott.

Gott commenced studies at the University of Melbourne in 1941, and entered camp with the Melbourne University Regiment on 6 December 1941, the day that Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbour, but he was cleared to return to studies, and later declared unfit for active service.5 His files record the involvement of the left in the war effort, ideological arguments, and conflicts between Party loyalty and his innate hedonism and iconoclasm. Murray-Smith also entered the university in 1941, but enlisted in the AIF directly from vacation on 29 December 1941. After the briefest training, he was sent as a Commando to New Guinea, where he served until 1943, when he transferred to the cipher division. Murray-Smith did not resume his studies until 1945, and for his wartime activities we have to rely largely on his war diary, now held in the Australian War Memorial Museum in Canberra.6 This diary shows how his youthful and patriotic enthusiasm gradually gave way to a deep scepticism about military authority and bureaucracy generally. This scepticism was to lead him first into the Communist Party, which seemed to hold the solutions to both war and poverty, and then out of it after its true nature had been revealed.
The attraction of the Communist Party of Australia to postwar intellectuals has to be understood not just in terms of wartime loyalties, but in the context of the two world wars and depression that together had racked the world for three decades. As
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Donald Sassoon explains, the appeal of Marxist socialism was that it provided an explanation of the ills that were all too evident in capitalist society, a clear vision of an alternative, and a practical strategy to move from the one state to the other.7 Patrick O'Brien argues that this visionary embodiment of a worldly paradise and its promise of redemption for a humanity fallen into the toils of capitalism ensured the commitment of those Australian intellectuals whose lives the decline of religion had otherwise deprived of meaning.8 Interestingly, O'Brien places his emphasis not so much on the social as on the personal aspect of liberation. The left intellectuals he writes about do not see ‘the extension of popular sovereignty … as an end in itself … [but as] a means towards the further liberation of man's consciousness and social being from both present and past restrictions … and thereby to act as a free, self-determining agent of his own will’ (p. xi). Robert Manne suggests that literary intellectuals saw Communism as the final movement of the Enlightenment, a belief that led to the moral blindness towards Stalinism of what he calls ‘anti-anticommunism’, with its tolerance of Communist oppression from the immediate postwar years in Europe to the bloody excesses of Pol Pot after the Vietnam war.9

Stephen Murray-Smith as a young soldier serving in World War II. Gelatin silver photograph. Photograph courtesy of Nita Murray-Smith.

This aspiration to personal liberation was certainly central to the motivation of young radicals like Murray-Smith and Gott, who were to see it apparently justified in the dramatic spectacles of the great peace festivals and conferences which they were later to attend, and which they described in their letters in terms of a vision realised. But these kinds of general appeal become effective only in specific circumstances, and by the 1950s postwar left intellectuals were becoming sceptical of the claims of world Communism. After the First World War, Eric Hobsbawm suggests, revolutionary movements drew their strength from a total revulsion at the governments that had brought about the war and then conducted it with such callous disregard for human life. By contrast, those involved on the side of the victors in the Second World War in general believed that they had been involved in a just struggle which had achieved at least some of its objectives.10 To support revolution was to help the peoples of the world take the last steps to eliminate oppression, poverty and war.
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Gott's papers show clearly that from his schooldays he identified with these revolutionary aims. At Northcote High School, which he attended up to Intermediate level (Year 10), he talked politics with his mates. One of his school friends was a Trotskyist, another was the brother of a fulltime Communist Party organiser, whose interpretation of world events he relayed at lunchtimes. Ken himself was already reading Trotsky and other Marxist works in the Public Library.11 He met other leftwing students when he moved to Melbourne High School in 1939, and by the following year he was describing himself as a ‘Red’. At the front of a diary he kept during 1940 he listed, among books for his reading, No Compromise, by Professor Rader; The Socialist Sixth, by Dean [Hewlett Johnson]; Program for Progress, by [John] Strachey; and The Indian Problem, by an author whose name remains indecipherable. A further list included Children of the Earth, Intelligent Women's Guide, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Sons and Lovers, and F[rank] Harris.12 On 22 January, he noted the authors who reinforced his ‘revolt against conventional thought. … O. Henry, Byron and de Maupassant.’13 It is little wonder that he won the school prize for dux in the literary division — that is, the humanities.14
Apart from reading and study, the diary indicates his range of interests and activities. During January, he was in a warehouse, which he found extremely boring, apart from its opportunities to meet girls. At school, he failed to obtain election to the Students Representative Council, and, disappointed in being appointed only subeditor of the school paper, Sentinel, resolved nevertheless to co-operate with the editor, who, he believed, ‘crawls too much’ (16 February). Later in the year he found that position does not necessarily lead to success: ‘I was on the Unicorn committee & had two articles rejected. First time this has happened to me’ (16 July).
Already at school, politics was paramount. Even when writing about his relations with girls, or YLs [Young Ladies] as he coyly refers to them, politics enters the equation. In January, while he was working in the warehouse, he noted of someone whom he had met that she is ‘very friendly — took her to T. Manner is thrifty she uses the same expressions of phrase and setting many times again but does it agreeably.’ He then added the important observation that ‘She is an anarchist.’ Later, he clarifies his attitude to anarchists: ‘Anarchists are not fanatics — they are idealists of exceedingly noble temperament. They are men willing to die for their ideals and deserve respect. Although I disagree with them I admire them. I do not hate them as I hate fascists’ (14 February).
The absorbing topics were the war, in which he anticipated he might be conscripted, the situation in the Soviet Union, and the immediate politics in Australia, where the UAP conservative Government under Robert Menzies was under pressure from both the trade unions and the Labor Opposition, led by John Curtin. His politics was based on a belief that revolution was a necessary and imminent response to the Depression, war and fascism. This expectation was supported by his reading. On 15 January he wrote that ‘7 Red Sundays [by Ramon Jose] is a fine proletarian novel and gives an excellent atmosphere of revolution activity. It may come to Australia. It will come to Germany soon.’ His revolutionary expectations shaped his response to
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domestic events. On 15 February, he had commented that the ‘U.A.P. is better than Lab because you know what you are getting & are not deceived by false election promises. Labour, despite all its guarantees, would do the same as U.A.P. for they are treacherous deceivers solely after office.’15 He was delighted by the news that the Communist Party had selected Ralph Gibson to stand for the safe Labor seat of Carlton, whose sitting member, Bill Barry, he considered ‘the most reactionary of Labourites & an R.C.’ Optimistically, he predicted that ‘Gibson should get a lot [of] votes’ (1 March). On 25 April, he noted that the government had issued an ultimatum to the striking miners, and was contemplating using ‘SCAB labour’. He added the comment, ‘I do not doubt that Curtin would join with U.A.P. to defeat the Australian workers.’
The war provoked his strongest feelings. On 25 January he transcribed a quotation, ‘Why not let those who wave the flags hardest fight — the company directors, the newspaper editors and the politicians,’ and then wrote out what reads like the start of a formal essay:
A man whose mind is concentrated on sex is regarded as abnormal and a pervert. Yet what of one who's [sic] sole interest is concerned with armies, tanks, guns, bombs, gas, shells and other phases of the wholesale slaughter of his fellows. Surely he is worse. As progressive education dispells [sic] the mystery of sex we grow to be less horrified at it but it is impossible to white-wash the ruthless killing of innocent people. This new pervert thrives, in fact is fed on, the new picture mags devoted entirely to the war which have appeared since the commencement of the slaughter.
In various entries during January he noted that the ‘first imperialist war caused many changes — it brought into public notice such names as Bela Kun, Lenin, Trotsky’ and wondered, ‘Will this war produce another Lenin, another Luxembourg or Leibknecht. Who knows? Some nation must lose the war & defeat may bring revolution.’ He reflected on his own fate in these latter days of capitalism: ‘I suppose that sooner or later I shall be called up for compulsory training but I must & shall escape it. I must see I am not dragged into this foul imperialist war. I refuse to defend the money bags of capitalism.’ The patriotic parades left him unmoved: ‘Saw the march. Every one in the office was enthusiastic but to me it is a parade of the supreme folly of mankind. So young, so straight so fearless being decoyed to their deaths for the profit of the bourgeoisie. Found a sympathiser in [Jack] Morrison of Intl Bookshop. Together we sneered at the flag waving and lamented it all’ (January 24).16
Gott's response to the unfolding events of the war was resolutely pro-Soviet. On 15 January he wrote, ‘We must defend S.U. at all costs. Chamber[lain], Mussolini, Franco etc. have no right to attack it after what they themselves have done.’ On 21 January he noted that he had written a speech on Finland, and was ‘behind the S.U. entirely.’ Although he noted that a remark overheard in a tram probably reflected general opinion — ‘Hitler's a bastard & Stalin's a bloody cunning bastard’ (31 January) — he made his own distinctions. ‘There is only one party in Russia because there is only one class — the working class. C.P. is governing body and Stalin is simply its General Secretary, liable to dismissal if he does not please them. The best & hardest workers
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only are admitted to the C.P.S.U.’ (20 February). And on 2 August, he declared that after the fall of France his only thought was for the safety of the Soviet Union.
Sometimes he got away from the preoccupations of war and politics. During the long weekend in January he visited Airey's Inlet, where he ‘was stunned by the absolute beauty of the ocean and the hills’ (27 January). Occasionally during the school year he was able to get a weekend away visiting friends or down to the then seaside town of Frankston, where he enjoyed more mundane pleasures: ‘Down to Frankston for weekend & led a different type of life. People so different — ever so nice and friendly. Grand is lovely hotel — swing orchestra. Does the beer go down. No liquor laws there — all hours … Went fishing & caught some flathead.’ As examinations approached, he envisaged even wider celebrations: ‘After the exams we'll have some fun. I think I'll get a job straight away so that I'll be able to have some £SD. Then paint the town red …Luna Park, Glaci, st Moritz, Palais, Cafes, Girls. Well well. Something to look forward to. Must save my money,’ (14 March).
Other weekends he spent at the Yarra Bank, where the fights between servicemen and Party speakers provided diversion and prepared the atmosphere for imposing bans on Communist activity. ‘The weekly fight on Yarra Bank was bigger & better than ever. C.P. brought volunteers from Savoy … It seems that there was a definite organisation behind the Sunday business. They were soldiers and … tried to break into CP HQ’ (12 February). ‘Another fight yesterday. CP had lorry and amplifier. Soldiers used belts. Cops used batons. Victory for C.P. Biased reports in papers. Basher gang at Geelong too. …Got out a 6 page Sentinel. Good experience & may be useful one day’ (19 February).
On occasions Gott tempered his enthusiasms with scepticism. Speaking of one of his student comrades, he wrote that ‘MacDonald Knows the Party line backwards Forwards & sideways. His Mother & Father are in it & active. He's the perfect 3rd Internationalist does not deviate one inch. But strange contrast: (i) He does not work — looks on Sentinel as school work. (ii) lives like a bourgeois. Drives father's car around etc. etc. (iii) Going to Uni to do elect. Engineering’ (11 April). He was also sceptical of applying Marx too broadly, commenting acidly on another schoolfellow that ‘Eisen won't get nowhere [sic]. His essay on Goldsmith was 80% Manifesto. Fancy quoting such a materialist document in a poetical essay. No sense of values etc., also no appreciation of finer things — a political maniac’ (19 April). Yet by the end of his secondary schooling, he was completely committed to the left and well studied in its rhetoric and historical interpretation. In his first year at the University of Melbourne, in 1941, he joined the Labour Club and then, recruited by Margaret Paul, née Ramsay, sister of the future Archbishop Ramsay of Canterbury, he made his final commitment and became a member of the Communist Party of Australia.17 But his loyalty remained compatible with a deal of scepticism towards the attempts by the Party authorities to control the thoughts of the members, particularly in relation to culture.18
Unlike Gott, Murray-Smith did not identify with the left until he returned to the university in 1945. His war diary and his autobiographical writings show how
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Geelong Grammar School and the army had instilled in him a growing dislike for bureaucracy and authority, until, in his own words, ‘I again set myself on a path towards becoming a rebellious subordinate within a rigid and demented authoritarian system.’19 His correspondence with his schoolfriend Rob Hamilton shows him at the start of the war as a fairly conventional middle-class student, quarrelling with his parents about his studies, indifferent about the university, keen on parties, theatre, music. His interests still revolve around his old school, and he is wary of Rob's involvement with Labor politics at Adelaide University. They gossip about old friends, speculate on obtaining military commissions, and devise schemes to evade the militia and join the AIF. Stephen, in one of his few directly political comments, remarks that Rob must be happy now that his ‘Labor Party’ has won the election, and admits that on paper Labor's policies are not all bad. He rebukes him for relying for his views on the New Statesman, and is particularly sarcastic about Russia's late entry into the war.20 The correspondence ends when the two of them enlist in the AIF in January 1942, and serve together in the Fifth Independent Company, first in training in Victoria and then in New Guinea, where they spent much of the time behind enemy lines.
Towards the end of the war, Murray-Smith prepared a number of articles for the local press. As well as fictional and historical accounts of Kanga Force, these include one with a visionary plan for the postwar ‘exploitation’ of New Guinea in the interests of Australia. The troops who have fought in New Guinea would provide the manpower, but he clearly expects that the fruits of this exploitation of natural resources will be used to improve the material lives of the villagers.21
While his politics was to change, the sense of adventure of this proposal is echoed at the beginning of 1945 in an inquiry he made to Douglas Mawson about the possibilities of obtaining a place in a projected expedition to the Antarctic, a journey he was not to achieve until 1985.22
Within a year of returning to Melbourne and arriving at the University, Murray-Smith had moved to the left of his old friend Rob Hamilton, and was one of the most effective leaders of the Melbourne University Labour Club and the University Branch of the Communist Party. He became determinedly international, but at the same time developed a strong pride in the Australian national tradition. He and Nita Bluthal, later Nita Murray-Smith, combined the national and the international by translating Pinchas Goldhar's essay on Australian literature for MUM, the Melbourne University Magazine, 23 and Stephen got into trouble during his Diploma of Education year, when he submitted a history curriculum exercise which started from a study of Australian literature. The Professor of Education, G. S. Browne, rebuked him for misunderstanding the concept of teaching from the present to the past, and for using such a narrow basis for the task. In a separate note, headed ‘S. Murray-Smith’, he wrote that he
Appears to have done insufficient class-teaching in the course to date. The Method staff feel that if he is to complete the course successfully he will need to show more keenness
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and thoroughness in preparation, more co-operation with school staffs, and a greater readiness to conform to the requirements of school routine. We feel, however, that he has natural teaching ability, and with more attention to the points mentioned, has it in his power to do well. The Method Staff is anxious to help, but the ultimate result depends on Mr. Murray-Smith himself.
Browne explained to Murray-Smith that he had not actually failed in practical teaching, but had not yet passed. To pass he would need to place himself in the hands of Major-General Ramsay at Melbourne Boys High School. Browne advised him that as well as taking classes, he should thoroughly involve himself in the school routine. An appraisal of one of his English lessons shows that he succeeded in the first, but the records do not reveal whether the ex-Sergeant pleased the Major-General with his overall approach.24 He did pass the subject.
There is ample evidence, in the files and elsewhere, that Murray-Smith was an able and inspiring teacher, at both secondary and tertiary levels.25 Similarly, he was a charismatic and authoritative political leader, although he could also be domineering and hectoring. These qualities are evident in a report he delivered at a conference of the University Branch of the Communist Party held to plan its activities during 1947.26 He begins with a vision of hope, a rebuke to the slovenly, and a stirring call to action:
Comrades,
Every year sees the day on which the party will win power in this country closer; and with it we inevitably find desperate attempts made, increasingly bitter, dangerous and well-organised, to stem this advance, brought about by the decay of world capitalist economy and the leverage applied to this by all militant working class elements.
Do we really see the work of the L/C [Labour Club] in this light? How often do you stop and consider, not only the success of isolated functions, but the general effect of the L/C on the student body, taken over a term of a year. Comrades, the task allotted us in the advance to a Soviet Australia is that of working on and winning over the youth of our university, and now we have also assumed responsibility for the University youth of the continent. That in future our branch is to be directly represented on the S/C [State Committee] should be sufficient indication that our leaders consider our role of very great strategic importance.
Do we consider our role in this light? The only conceivable answer I can make is that we do not. The last year's experience in the life of the Branch has convinced me utterly that we are hypocritical, slack, criminal about and light-hearted in our deficiencies. I despair of getting you to remember this for more than 10 minutes; the only clue I can give to solving the problem is that neither better leadership or more discipline will effect a cure. I am not indulging in pure breastbeating. I am drawing attention to a disgraceful state of affairs unmitigated by constructive work by party members on a broad basis at all.
… We must fight for peace …
We must draw attention to and resist the encroachments of American imperialism in Australia.
We must support the struggle of the militant unions…
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We must be prepared for a political crisis in the State field. It may well be that a snap election will be held here this year. We must succeed in our doubly difficult task of attacking and yet returning the Cain government, and should realise the greatly increased danger of having no direct Communist parlt. representation.
We must fight anti-semitism & anti-alienism, exposing them as weapons of the ignorant assiduously fostered by the all too sophisticated. We must show the basis of these campaigns to be diversionary & planned.
Finally, in the university we must defend the Party, the Labor Movement, and what makes it possible to do this, freedom of speech & academic freedom; and we must appeal directly to the material interests of students, by showing them that we are really working in their interests as students…
Murray-Smith then turns to detailed plans to implement this program. These employ the Labour Club both as a vehicle of policy and as a means of recruiting Party members. The first is ensured by nominating Party members, who can be ‘disciplined’, to crucial positions on the Club executive, including President, Secretary and Publicity or Publications Officer. The second, Murray-Smith reports, has been obstructed by Geoff Serle. Serle's departure for Oxford has left the Ormond College Group open to a move to the ‘extreme right’, but also removes the obstacle he had presented to recruiting members to the Party. This, Murray-Smith laments, has cost them some ‘10 valuable members’. Beyond this, Murray-Smith calls for further work in national and international student organisations, co-operation with the Eureka Youth League, and political work designed to ensure the return of the Cain government while still opposing its neglect of working class interests. Later correspondence from the Minister for Information shows that Murray-Smith, as well as opposing anti-semitism and anti-immigrant racism, was also already interested in the problems of Aborigines.27
At the end of 1947 Beth Serpell, née Noye, who was to marry Ken Gott, left for London to further her studies in science. Ken was not able to join her until August the following year. Stephen and Nita Murray-Smith married in February 1948 and in March left for England, where they were to be witnesses at the Gotts’ wedding at Battersea Registry Office on 16 October 1948. The destination of both couples was Czechoslovakia.28 For both Gott and the Murray-Smiths, the journey to Europe was a journey to the sources of a civilisation that they had only glimpsed from afar and through secondary sources. Despite the wartime ravages from which it was still recovering, and the continuing shortages, particularly in Eastern Europe, of foodstuffs, heating and everyday essentials like razor blades and condoms, they were enchanted. For the journey was not merely a visit to their past, but a pilgrimage to the revolutionary future being established before their eyes. In his letters to Beth from Prague, Gott describes his excitement at the great cultural displays that accompanied the festivals for youth and peace that played so important a part in the Soviet's construction of the image of the eastern block of Peoples’ Democracies as guarantor of peace and a bulwark against any renewal of fascism. The festivals enabled Soviet foreign policy, directed against the imperial powers, to be presented as a global
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movement of free people rather than as an instrument of state power. This had an enormous appeal to those like Gott and Murray-Smith who had been appalled by the horrors of war and were cynical about the western politicians who, despite changes of government, were resuming the imperial alliances and pursuing the same economic interests that had led to these horrors. Only Russia, apparently committed to equality at home and peace abroad, seemed to be different. The generosity of the Marshall Plan, which actually brought about the renewal of western Europe, had no impact on their imagination, and could be dismissed as the mere extension of American economic interests which in part it was.29 Misreporting by the western press of the situation that they actually saw in eastern Europe did nothing to lessen their optimism. A Tribune article by Gott, for example, notes that he ‘has had an easy time in Prague reading London press accounts of mass arrests, terror and gunfire, travelling in the country and coming home to hear BBC reports of all traffic being checked.’ On the other hand, the note in the report that Stephen Murray-Smith has also written ‘exposing the whole press campaign about Czechoslovakia “mass arrests” as a frame-up’ shows how easy it was to move from general observations on life in Czechoslovakia to a refusal to admit the possibility of activities of a different kind occurring outside the field of their direct observation.30 But, behind this public enthusiasm, there were, even then, private doubts.31
Before going to Prague, Murray-Smith had run into trouble with the Australian executive, who had charged him with ‘factionalism’ for privately circulating a Party statement about its disagreements with the British Party.32 Nevertheless, after his experiences of Australia and England, Prague, for all its hardships, seemed a new world. He wrote to Gott, who was still in London, that
the overwhelming impression is one of confidence in the government and particularly in the leadership of the communist party. The security of the state rests on this, on the workers who keep their arms by them and parade in overalls occasionally, on the housewives who clean out their corners and put out the salvage on the pavements for the 5-year plan, on the hordes who crowd the huge number of marvellous bookshops and buy books and books and books.33
Evidence to the contrary was dismissed as counter-revolutionary prejudice. In Hungary, he saw the dispossession of Cardinal Mindszenty's villa as an indication of the people's confidence in putting the church in its place, and explained the apparently greater enthusiasm of the Hungarians for Communist rule in terms of the relative strengths of the bourgeoisie:
we have never seen such tumultuous joy and spontaneous expressions of confidence in the new government as we have seen in Hungary… In Hungary one person, and only one, spoke to me against the peoples’ democracy … In Czechoslovakia it is enough to speak English on a train to have some greasy character sidling up to you with a hard luck story. One of the reasons for this is that the bourgeoisie in Hungary were discredited once and for all by their dealings with the fascists, whereas in Czechoslovakia large numbers of petty bourgeoisie were corrupted by years of largely phoney propaganda about the west.34
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His enthusiasms were not, however, shared by his family. The following year he wrote to Gott that ‘A kind letter from my family suggested that I stay in Europe and not return — interesting to see the class cutting across the family ties…35 Meanwhile, he saw the defeat of the Chifley government and the return of Menzies in 1949 as evidence that Australia was moving in towards inevitable revolution: ‘It is too early yet to forecast what the results are going to mean to our friends in Australia, and to ourselves! I think we were all surprised, even slightly shocked, to hear Ming got back, although we all realised it was quite likely. In one sense it makes one realise how advanced the situation is at home. …’36
After his return to Australia, Murray-Smith earned his living as correspondent for a Czech newsagency, and then as secretary of the Australian Peace Council and a freelance journalist, working mainly for Soviet bloc publications.37 He edited the duplicated journal, Realist Writer, later to be superseded by Overland.38 He also corresponded with the American folk singer Pete Seeger, exchanging the words of songs and notes for a projected collection of radical ballads.39 He continued to defend the Peoples’ Democracies, writing several letters to the Melbourne Age explaining that ‘The so-called ‘Communist coup’ of 1948 was not a ‘Communist’ putsch but an attempted putsch of reactionary elements within the Government.’40
For virtually all the university Communists, the crucial event was the publication in 1956 in America of the Khrushchev's secret report to the twentieth congress of the CPSU. This report revealed the horrors of the Stalin period. Although the CPA leadership almost certainly knew it was genuine, they denounced it as a fabrication. Jim Staples in Sydney produced and circulated a duplicated copy, which Ken Gott circulated in Melbourne. The question for activists was then whether to resign or to stay in the Party and attempt to reform it from within. For many, the final straw was the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the execution, or murder, in 1958 of the leader of the Hungarian uprising, Imre Nagy.41
Gott in particular was devastated, but refused to resign from the Party, which he said belonged as much to him as to its officers. He was expelled in 1958.42 He wrote later
A crushing sense of inadequacy comes down on me, even now, when I think of Hungary … The uprising of the youth, the intellectuals and the workers of Budapest was in the name of Communism and against the Red Army. I had friends there, like Tibor Meray the journalist and novelist, and without being told I knew which side of the barricades they were on. Hungary was nights spent crouched over a little short-wave set, hoping to pick up the rebel radio, hoping and praying for Imre Nagy. Hungary had revealed Communism in its most macabre and sadistic mood — the Rajk frame-up. Later it was to be the setting for the ultimate in treachery — when Nagy was lured from the Yugoslav Embassy with the promise of a safe conduct and was then taken away and shot by the Russians.
By this time I was doing what I could to help any Hungarian Olympic team members who wanted to seek political asylum in Australia. …43
Murray-Smith had become sceptical of Soviet Communism as early as 1949, when during a visit to the Soviet Union he objected to crude anti-Semitism in a puppet
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performance.44 In 1958, Ian Turner was expelled and Murray-Smith resigned in protest. In a letter to a Party comrade and friend, Bernie Meyer, he explained the reasons for his action:
Thanks for your warm and friendly note. My decision to resign from the Party is NOT a decision to divorce myself from the millions of mankind struggling for socialism and a better life; it's just that, in the present circumstances, I found my eagerness to work for these aims in the best way I can (i.e. in the peace movement and in the cultural movement) stultified by increasingly bitter and dogmatic internal ideological arguments over matters that others, not me, have decided must divide us.
My differences cover too broad a field to detail here, but, generally speaking, I have felt it the duty of a Communist to speak up if he feels action are taken which harm the cause of the working people everywhere, and which divide the working-class movement against itself and which hamper the fight for peace. Despite the fact that for several years I have tried to speak as an honest Communist on these matters, the party leaders now feel that this can no longer be tolerated. I feel that my principles, and my positive faith in the cause of socialism, come into conflict with this view…45
The break with the Communist Party represented an end to dogma, but it also deprived left intellectuals of a vehicle for their hopes. The files provide evidence of their continuing search for an organisation and philosophy that would provide a vehicle for an effective politics. Both Murray-Smith and Gott were involved in the organisation of the 1928 Melbourne Peace Congress, disagreeing on tactics but uniting in opposition to the attempts to silence the Hungarian dissident, Tibor Meray, and on calls for freedom of speech within the Soviet bloc. They tried to build an organisation around the independent socialist journal, Outlook, and were involved in the establishment of a Socialist Forum and the resurrection of the Victorian Fabian Society, which brought together some of the activists from the postwar Melbourne University Labour Club, as well as the newer generation that had emerged from the ALP Club. Both Gott and Murray-Smith joined the Fabian Society, but only Gott joined the ALP. Eventually, Murray-Smith's politics coalesced around democratic education, a variety of battles against crass bureaucracy, and the struggles of Overland to maintain an independent Australian culture. Gott built his politics around independent journalism, particularly for the new Sydney fortnightly Nation, and later as political adviser to individuals in the Australian Labor Party. These developments lie outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that for both Stephen Murray-Smith and Ken Gott, the experience of the Communist Party provided the contradictory experiences of invigorating comradeship and an overweening and destructive authority.
John McLaren
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Notes

Quotations in the text are verbatim, except that I have corrected obvious errors of spelling and spelled out obscure abbreviations.

1

La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, Stephen Murray-Smith papers MS 8272, Box 196, SMS to Ian Turner, 24 May 1961. Further references to this collection are to SMS MS.

2

Ken Gott papers MS 13047, particularly Box 3802/4. Further references to this collection are to Gott MS. For Murray-Smith biography, see Stephen Murray-Smith, Indirections: a literary biography, Townsville: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, 1981.

3

The Realist Writer was established in 1952 as a duplicated journal. The first two issues were edited by Bill Wannan, the remaining seven by Stephen Murray-Smith. The first issue of Overland, a printed magazine, edited by Murray-Smith and described as incorporating the Realist Writer, appeared in 1954. See Overland no. 1, Melbourne, 1954, front and back covers and p. 13.

4

Murray-Smith, Indirections, p. 23.

5

Gott MS, Box 3770/11, Registrar, University of Melbourne to KDG, 6 May 1942, official certification that KDG is ‘Medically Class II and is not eligible for enlistment in the A.I.F.’ 10 May 1943.

6

The war diary is housed in the Australian War Memorial Museum, File no AWM67 3/283. The handwritten original is included in the SLV SMS papers, Box 262. This also contains newspaper clippings, maps and water-colours related to the diary.

7

Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism: the west European left in the twentieth century, London: HarperCollins/Fontana, 1997 [1996], p. 6.

8

Patrick O'Brien, The Saviours: an intellectual history of the left in Australia, Richmond, Vic., Drummond, 1977, pp. 1–30 and passim.

9

Robert Manne, The Shadow of 1917: cold war conflict in Australia, Melbourne: Text, 1994, particularly pp. 3–29 and 237–46.

10

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century 1914–1991, London: Abacus, 1995, p. 53 [1994].

11

Gott MS, Box 3802/4, ‘The Forties’ — typescript, apparently a chapter of a projected autobiography.

12

Gott MS, Box 3802/1. The book which he lists as The Indian Problem may be Indian Problem and its Solution by R. Palme Dutt [pub. date unknown].

13

The entry is written across a page of dates in January, so cannot be precisely dated.

14

Gott MS, Box 3802/1, Melbourne Boys High School Speech Night Program, 18 December 1940.

15

UAP stood for United Australia Party, formed when Joseph Lyons left the Labor Party government in 1931 in order to become Prime Minister with the support of the Nationalist Opposition.

16

Jack Morrison was a Party member and manager of the International Bookshop. He was not related to the writer John Morrison.

17

Gott MS, Box 3802/1. Typescript starting: ‘I was recruited to the Communist Part by the sister of the Archbishop of Canterbury … Margaret Paul’.

18

See his wartime correspondence with Noel Ebbels, Gott MS, Box 3770/11.

19

War Diary, loc. cit. The autobiographical writing is in Stephen Murray-Smith, Indirections — a literary biography, Townsville: Foundation for Australian Literary Studies/James Cook University, 1981. On authority, see p. 23. See also Geoffrey Serle,’ Tribute to the Editor’, Overland 50/51, Autumn 1972, pp. 3–4.

20

SMS MS, Box 263, File 1 — various. See letters from SMS to RH dated 6 October 1941 and 15 July 1941.

21

SMS MS Box 264, File 2–1. The file also contains a rejection slip from the Melbourne Herald.

22

SMS MS Box 265/1 Douglas Mawson to SMS, 22 January 1946, responding to a request by SMS to participate in Antarctic operations — a project Mawson said was far from realisation.

23

SMS MS Box 266/3-1. Undated typescript and handwritten draft.

24

SMS MS Box 267/7-1, undated note on SMS, initialled GSB; GS Browne to SMS, 26 October 1947; appraisal of English lesson, MHS, 5 January 1947, signed A.T. Rowan. Box 266/1, outline of readings in the Australian literary tradition, and attached exchange between SMS and GS Browne.

25

See, for example, SMS MS Box 265/9, note from Manning Clark, 19 July 1946: ‘My Dear Stephen, It was very good for you to lead the discussion on communism for the V.I.S. tutorial. It was apparently a great success. You should make an excellent teacher — with the skill in presentation and having something to say.’

26

SMS MS, Box 265/9, undated ms (handwritten) [1947, or perhaps end 1946] Report to CP uni branch conference.

27

SMS MS, Box 265/9, 17 April 1947, Office of the Minister for Information to SMS, acknowledging letter referring to Aborigines affected by proposed weapons tests in South Australia. Mrs Serpell to Ken and Beth, 10 January 1949.

28

Gott MS, Box 3770/1, contains the letters Ken wrote to Beth during their separation. Beth had previously been married to a Bill Serpell, a RAAF pilot who went missing in action in 1944 or 1945. See Box 3770/1, KDG to Beth, 28 January 1948, on Murray-Smith marriage. On Serpell, see Box 3769, Dorothy [Painter?] to KDG, n.d.; KDG to Jean [Muir?], 11 March [1945?], to Nancy [Fletcher?], 9 February 1945; Box 3770/1, Mrs Serpell to Ken and Beth. 10 January 1949.

29

Gott MS, Box 3770, Files 2, 4 and 5 contain letters to and from Prague.

30

Gott MS, Box 3770/2, clipping — Tribune, n.d. KDG from Prague.

31

See Gott MS, Box 3802/4, letter to ‘Bill’ [probably Bill Irwin], 22 July 1964: Gott comments: ‘But one argued against these things which were bad in Communism for the sake of Communism. I am not re-writing the past when I say that in Prague in 1949–51 some of us found the Russians and their propaganda blatantly chauvinistic. …’

32

Gott MS, Box 3764/1, SMS to L.L. Sharkey, 17 October 1948; SMS to KDG, 7 May 1948; KDG to L.L. Sharkey, 27 October [1949].

33

Gott MS, Box 3746, SMS to KDG, 11 June 1949.

34

SMS MS Box 276, ‘round robin’ letter from SMS to various friends, 20 September 1949.

35

Gott MS, Box 3764/1, SMS to KDG, 11 June 1949; SMS to KDG, 24 November 1949.

36

Gott MS, Box 3764/1, SMS to KDG, 16 December 1949.

37

SMS MS Box 92/1-1 contains an exercise book showing that during 1957 and 1958 SMS received a total of £295/0/11 for articles published in Soviet and Czechoslovak publications — scarcely Moscow gold!

38

Murray-Smith, Indirections, pp. 28, 30. The first two issues of Realist Writer were edited by Bill Wannan. In 1954, Murray-Smith established Overland, which on its first issue carried the statement ‘Incorporating the Realist Writer.’ This led to later disputes over ownership.

39

SMS MS Box 37/1.

40

SMS MS Box 276/2, SMS to Age, 14 September 1951.

41

Gott MS, tape of conversation between Gott and Jim Staples, Hong Kong. Personal communication from Beth Gott to JMcL, 2 December 1998.

42

Gott MS, Box 3802/4 Autobiographical writings; outline of his career.

43

Gott MS, Box 3802/4, carbon of typescript letter to ‘Bill’, at Business International, 6 July 1964.

44

Comment by Nita Murray-Smith, 24 November 1998.

45

SMS MS, Box 6, 29 July 1958, SMS to Bernie M[eyer].