Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Communists "not influential"? Pardon me?

An entertaining spat has been playing out in the pages of The Listener between historian Graeme Hunt and defenders of the late Bill Sutch. Hunt is convinced that Sutch passed information to the Soviet Union, despite his acquittal on spying charges, and wrote an article for The Listener setting out the basis for his belief (a remarkable occurrence in itself, since the Listener of old would have been very reluctant to publish anything likely to startle its genteel left-leaning readership).

There has since been a flurry of indignant correspondence defending Sutch’s honour, and the latest issue carries a long and detailed rebuttal of Hunt’s article by Sutch family friend John Edwards.

I wouldn’t know if Sutch was a spy. The circumstantial evidence against him seemed pretty damning, but my understanding is that the case against him failed largely because no one could prove exactly what information he gave the Russians – if indeed he gave them any at all. But I’ll leave that argument to people who know more about it.

What I do object to is people blithely rewriting history, as one of The Listener’s pro-Sutch correspondents did. Lenore Baxter of Khandallah wrote: “The NZ Communist Party was never particularly influential in New Zealand, even in trade union circles.” The latter part of this statement is demonstrably untrue.

Communist influence ran deep in the New Zealand union movement for decades and has been well documented in several books, including the memoirs of former Marxist insiders such as Dick Scott. Most famously, communists played a crucial role in the historic 1951 waterfront dispute, though they had been busy fomenting industrial unrest in key industries long before that (as Graeme Hunt demonstrates in Spies and Revolutionaries and his excellent biography of Fintan Patrick Walsh).

It’s unclear whether Jock Barnes, the charismatic watersiders’ leader in 1951, was a party member himself, though he used plenty of Marxist rhetoric. But many of those around him, including his close associate Alex Drennan, undoubtedly were.

Communist activists had a long record of involvement in other unions besides the watersiders, notably the seamen, miners, drivers and freezing workers. The militant activities of a communist element known as the Red Guard exhausted the patience of Labour Minister Jack Marshall (and to a lesser extent the seamen's own exasperated leader, Bill "Pincher" Martin) and led eventually to the deregistration of the Seamen’s Union after in the early 1970s. Dave Morgan, who was the seafarers’ leader for much of the 1980s and 1990s, was open about his Marxist beliefs though it seems unlikely he was a member of the Communist Party, which by that time had all but disintegrated.

Even in the generally moderate Public Service Association, communist influence was strong in the 1940s and 1950s. Both Jack Lewin, the national president, and Gerald Griffin, the Wellington secretary (uncle of Richard, the “silver fox” of media fame) were former communists who retained strong leftist sympathies. Party member Ken Stanton was the PSA’s research officer and communist stalwart Rona Bailey was on the national executive. The aforementioned Dick Scott, another party member, edited the PSA Journal (and had previously edited the wharfies' paper). None of this is paranoid speculation; it's a matter of record.

When I was an industrial reporter in the early 1970s, the union movement was sharply divided between communist factions, both of the Soviet and Maoist persuasions, and non-communists. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Federation of Labour conferences were a battleground between the two. But there was no doubt which was in the ascendancy: it was the communists.

Bill Andersen, who led the Northern Drivers’ Union for decades, was a member of the Communist Party before the great Moscow-Peking split of the early 1960s and subsequently became a leading light, with his Wellington Drivers’ Union colleague Ken Douglas, in the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party. The SUP also controlled the Auckland Trades Council.

Douglas’s then deputy Pat Kelly was a Peking-aligned communist – there must have been some lively office discussions – before later turning respectable and joining the Labour Party. Frank McNulty, the leader of the powerful Meat Workers’ Union, was another SUP stalwart. Meanwhile a newer generation of communists - such as Graeme Clarke - won control of key union positions in the car assembly industry.

Ken Douglas, of course, went on to occupy the most powerful position in the New Zealand union movement – that of president of the Federation of Labour. Sir Tom Skinner, a moderate who led the FOL from 1963 to 1977, was moved to remark in a TV interview in 1986 that communists had taken over the movement.

The lonely figurehead of the anti-communist faction for many years was the late Tony Neary, leader of the Electrical Workers’ Union, who fought tirelessly against communist influence. In his memoirs, The Price of Principle (written with Jack Kelleher), the Irish-born Neary explained Communist Party tactics for infiltrating and taking over unions. The communists, having worked out their strategy in advance, would attend union meetings in force, always sitting in different parts of the hall so as not to arouse suspicion. They would then deliberately prolong meetings, throwing proceedings into utter confusion with constant noisy motions, amendments, interjections and points of order until no one knew what was being discussed. After several hours, most attendees would lose patience and drift away, leaving the communists in control.

If it happened in the Electrical Workers Union, then it’s reasonable to assume other unions were being similarly subverted. The difference was that in Neary, the communists had an opponent who refused to capitulate, and who commanded his members’ intense loyalty because he was an outstandingly successful union leader, negotiating pay settlements that were the envy of other unions (much to the chagrin of his Marxist enemies, who were notably less successful at achieving gains for their rank and file).

Incidentally, New Zealand was not alone in experiencing conflict between communist and non-communist unions. The Australian Labor Party was torn apart – literally – by similar tensions in the mid-1950s, leading to the creation of the right-wing, Catholic-dominated Democratic Labour Party which later worked with the Liberal Party to keep the ALP out of power. If anything, communists wielded even more power in Australian unions - and for longer - than they did here.

That so many unionists of that era were communists was perhaps understandable. They had seen the effects of the Great Depression and the terrible suffering inflicted by the rise of fascism in Europe. What is less easy to excuse is their willingness to subvert democracy and use underhand tactics to gain control of unions; and it’s harder still to understand how they could remain loyal to communism once the world learned what was really going on in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China.

Of course, it’s all history now. But that doesn’t excuse people like Lenore Baxter, whose name is unfamiliar to me, taking liberties with the facts.


stephen said...

Couple of points:

- first, I actually bought Hunt's book a couple of weeks ago. I lost confidence in him when I read his warm thanks to Trevor Loudon, who is a barking mad paranoiac. If Hunt thinks he is a viable source then I don't think we can place much faith in Hunt.

- second, as a relative of some communist 50's unionists I can tell you that they rationalised thusly: they simply didn't believe that what they heard about Stalin was true; and to the extent that they did, they believed that harsh measures were made necessary by the continual attacks of capitalism; and when they broke with Stalin (or Mao or any other authoritarian criminal) they always blamed the man, not the ideology. In other words, they thought as most people do when their heroes turn out to be villains.

Steve Withers said...

Communists and socialists were undoubtedly influential in New Zealand's recent history.

I just wouldn't believe anything Graeme Hunt had to say about it unless it was independently verified by a historian for whom I do have respect.

Hunt and Michael Bassett should be flatmates. Between them they would (almost) have two eyes.

Steve Withers said...

stephen: I agree. That Communism was corrupted by criminals doesn't necessarily discredit communism. That capitalism has also been corrupted by criminals doesn't mean capitalism is discredited.

Either case shows us that criminals will corrupt any system for their own benefit. The trick it is to identify the criminals early on and stop them. Unfortunately, they tell a lot of lies and enough people believe them that they get away with it.

The only thing wrong with all these "perfect" systems is the people who operate them.

We need a moral and ethical compass and the integrity to live by it. That's the only workable system whether you want to own everything or give away everything you own.

Karl du Fresne said...

I don't know Trevor Louden but I understand he's been monitoring the New Zealand Left for years and accumulated a vast amount of information. An author might well decide to treat his material with some caution, but it would be silly to ignore a resource like that. As for Graeme Hunt's books, his biography of Walsh is damned-near impeccable; and while some of the material in Spies and Revolutionaries has been challenged, much of it is corroborated by other published sources.

Unknown said...

Coupla things:

Karl has made some of the points I would have made so all I'll do is endorse them.

I'd been reading a bit about Sutch (for completely unrelated project) in Brian Easton's 'Nationbuilders' only about a month before the Sutch SIS File was released. Easton's writing is aimed at emphaising there was more to Sutch than that bloke who got arrested and then acquitted for spying, and it does widen the picture somewhat.

Having read the SIS file I'm not quite convinced Sutch was spying, but I do have to wonder what the hell he was doing.

I think the SIS File has been somewhat mis-represented. Several entries in the 1940s and 1950s stress there was no reason to think Sutch was disloyal, but the combination of his strong Soviet sympathy and his rather odd character meant he was a possible security risk.

The one thing that comes through - far more strongly than I would have thought - is the extent to which Sutch was a Soviet sympathiser and propagandist.

Two things: in the file is transcirpts of radio talks he gave for the NZBC in 1950. They were never broadcast. The thrust of them is that places like Poland and Hungary were now free, for the first time in their histories. Also, it was the 'workers' who fought the occupying Nazis: the aristocrats and merchants classes (these are Sutch's terms) were all collaborators.

Earlier, Sutch had written of trekking through Europe in the early 30s and seeing people starving in places like France. He then trekked across Russia. It's a matter of historical fact that the Ukraine and similar regions were then suffering the worst man-made famine in history. This famine was a result of deliberate Soviet policy. It was also written about at the time: Malcolm Muggeridge, then a left-wing journalist, visited Russia at that time and, having expected to find paradise on earth, came away shaken and disillusioned.

Sutch mentioned nothing of this. Only the poverty and hunger in non-Soviet countries.

This is why people like Stephen's relatives believed in communism in good faith - because people in a position to know, like Sutch, misled them.

One other thing: Sutch was highly critical of NZ's entering World War II. He was on the Army Reserve but resigned his commssion in August 1939 - four days after the Soviets and Nazis signed a non-aggression pact which led to the invasion and bloodbath in Poland. He spoke at several meetings of Nazi symapthisers in Wellington shortly after the outbreak of war. But when Germany invaded Russia he dropped his criticism.

On the spying thing: I'm not convinced he was a spy, but I'm even less convinced by the explanations offered for his series of meetings with a Soviet official in the dead of night in out-of-the-way places.

The main one is that the official wanted to defect. That just doesn't make sense. Think about this: why would someone wanting to defect seek out a known Soviet sympathiser to defect to? It would be the riskiest possible way to defect. (I'm not saying Sutch would have handed the guy back: I'm just saying a Russian wanting to defect is unlikely to take that risk).

The most charitable conclusion I can come to - and I don't think this is at all unlikely - is that Sutch was old and was going a bit dotty. He died of cancer about a year after the arrest and he would not have been the first, or the last, person to have their mind go a bit funny in the early stages of the disease.

On a wider, philosophical note in response to TruthSeeker: Capitalism doesn't claim to be perfect. It isn't an ideology at all, in fact, although some people (both pro and anti) have tried to turn it into one.

David said...

In 1980 P.M. Muldoon tried to do a "Joe McCarthy" by publishing names of SUP members active in the union movement. It was all a "damp squib" as rank and file workers knew already the politics of their officials, recognised their worth as solid unionists, and continued to vote for them in union elections. SUP membership was insignificant when matched with their ongoing dedication to the union movement.

Regarding Bill Sutch, I think it is all rather sad - he was likely duped or even self deluded, but a spy? Someone so dedicated to building New Zealand as a free and independent nation just couldn't be a spy.