Bill Shorten comes from the social democratic, and historically anti-communist, tradition in the Labor Party. This exists side by side within the ALP with the left-wing, and historically pro-communist, tradition. Labor’s most successful leaders have come from the social democratic tradition. Recent examples include Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Neville Wran, Steve Bracks, Anna Bligh and Bob Carr.
As Sid Maher reported in these pages last Tuesday, it is planned that Shorten will announce a list of Labor heroes when he delivers the first chapter of Labor’s draft program at the ALP’s national conference in Melbourne in July. The chapter will include some of the best lines spoken by Labor leaders such as Ben Chifley, Kevin Rudd and Keating.
But that’s not all. Shorten will link Labor’s parliamentary best and brightest with the social democratic tradition by declaring “our heroes are social democrats the world over”. The designated social democrats include 19th-century socialism advocates Robert Owen and William Morris, economists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, British labour leader Keir Hardie, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, and Nelson Mandela, along with Australian Jessie Street.
There is one problem with this proposed list. It includes three supporters of totalitarian dictator Joseph Stalin, who persecuted social democrats in the Soviet Union from the early 1920s until the early 50s — namely the Webbs and Street.
This week I got down from the shelves my 1937 edition of the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation . The first edition, published in 1935, was titledSoviet Communism: A New Civilisation? By 1937 the co-authors were confident enough that they had seen utopia to drop the question mark. Yet the Soviet Union was more repressive in 1937 than it had been two years earlier. In fact, 1937 was the year when the Moscow show trials were taking place and Stalin and his henchmen were waging a war against the Bolshevik Left.
Sidney Webb (1859-1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858-1943), who were involved in the foundation of the London School of Economics, visited the Soviet Union in 1932. As British writer Malcolm Muggeridge (a relative of Beatrice) observed, the Webbs saw what they wanted to see, which was that Vladimir Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks had established a new civilisation following the communist victory in the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Webbs admired not only the Soviet prison system but also Stalin’s secret police. As Paul Hollander wrote in Political Pilgrims (1981), the Webbs’ “misapprehension of Soviet society” was even greater than that of many like-minded left-wing intellectuals at the time. They even praised the OGPU (the predecessor of the KGB), mentioning its “strong and professionally qualified legal department”. Sure, the Webbs ended up buried in Westminster Abbey. But their support for Stalin’s repression is unforgivable, especially because, in their capacity as free intellectuals in the West, they supported Stalin’s actions in persecuting and killing intellectuals in the Soviet Union.
The Webbs were still supporting Stalin in their final book, The Truth about Soviet Russia, which was published in 1942 — indicating that the authors were unfazed by the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, which effectively launched World War II, because the agreement made it possible for Adolf Hitler and Stalin to divide up eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
It is much the same with Street (1889-1970). Initially Street advanced various feminist and trade union causes. However, by the 1930s she became one of the many educated Westerners who fell for Stalin and his brutal dictatorship. Perhaps the best summary of Street’s infatuation with the Soviet Union is contained in Lenore Coltheart’s chapter in Political Tourists: Travellers from Australia to the Soviet Union in the 1920s-1940s, edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Carolyn Rasmussen.
Street visited the Soviet Union on 10 occasions between 1938 and 1965. On her first journey, she visited Ukraine and praised Stalin’s rule — ignoring the reality of Moscow’s forced famine, which had led to the deaths by starvation of millions of Ukrainians.
In 1939, Street barracked for the Nazi-Soviet pact. This means that between August 1939 and June 1941, Street wanted Nazi Germany to win the war. While her fellow members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR resigned in protest against the pact, Street ran the organisation for the next two years. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Street carried on her support for Stalin as if the pact had never happened.
When in Sydney, Street lived in luxury. When in Moscow, she looked favourably on the victims of Soviet totalitarianism and appeared not to notice their privations and repression. In 1966 Street published her memoir, Truth or Repose. She never renounced Stalin’s communism in the face of all the evidence. During her career Street supported communists, not social democrats. Just like the Webbs.
If Labor cannot find enough social democrats to be classified as heroes, it should re-examine the careers of the likes of British Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and Australian trade union official Laurie Short.
Gaitskell took on the pro-communist Left in his party in the late 1950s and early 60s during the Cold War. Short fought for social democracy against communists in Australia during the 40s, 50s and 60s. Both are entitled to be social democratic heroes. Whereas the likes of the Webbs and Street were at best naive fools and at worst congenital liars.