Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior by Keith Harvey
Connor Court Publishing, 2021
RRP $34.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Michael Danby
Armando Iannucci, the British Film director, evokes the blackest of black humour about “The Death of Stalin” in a film of that name. Those not acquainted with Soviet history might guess from the film’s antics that the director used wide artistic licence to portray the brutality of Stalin’s ghouls as they panic over his corpse, organise monstrous funerals for a man they hated and, during mourning, plot to kill secret police boss Lavrenty Beria before he kills them.
Not so. Both the ghastly events and the verbal exchanges are culled from the very words and memories of Politburo children and grandchildren and from the pages of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s magisterial Stalin, the Court of the Red Tsar. So large parts of the seemingly nightmarish language and bestial Soviet logic are a largely accurate account of events around the 1953 death of the Soviet dictator.
Reading Keith Harvey’s valuable and humorous insight into Australian political history I am repeatedly struck by Harvey’s verbatim (and now with 40 years retrospect) comic recounting of the struggle against communism on the Labor side of politics, a la Iannucci.
Did people really speak with such jargon? Did communists exert such influence from the 1940s to the 1990s in sunny pleasure-loving Australia? Weren’t communists just a bunch of harmless woolly-headed idealists, an earlier version of the Green Party?
This book’s abiding merit is it distils the seriousness of the 40 years of bitter struggle against domestic but largely Soviet inspired Communism. Orwell’s futuristic communist nightmare 1984 is the opening scene and accords with an end to the power of the hard Left as a new Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, successfully steers the four large industrial organisations who left Labor over the issue of communism back into the Labor Party. They were the Federated Clerks Union (FCU), the Shop Assistance Union (later referred to as the SDA) the Federated Ironworkers Association and the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.
The lives of people like Keith Harvey and his equally active wife Mary Lambert as union officials was focussed on working for members but also tirelessly fighting the communists at Trades Hall or the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). It was selfless: a “vocation”. Of course, opposition to the hard left was organised and determined but it was motivated by ethics. Violence harassment and bribery were a reflection on the other side of the coin. The resistance to the left was pursued through ballots and propaganda. They were not a carbon copy of the Communist hard men Ernie Thornton, Jack McPhillips or Pat Clancy – a reverse anti-communist Stalinism, as claimed by sons of the founders like Mark Aarons.
It is why Harvey’s Memoirs are invaluable, recreating the key struggles and the atmosphere of these days for the benefit of Australian history that has been largely cancelled out by our conformist and depressing Woke and populist culture.
Harvey sees his and others’ lifework in context. He quotes Gough Whitlam’s legendary advisor Graham Freudenberg thus:
The Split was an Australian manifestation of the Cold War……The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism in !989-91 has rendered almost incomprehensible many aspects of the Cold War to 21 Cenuniontury generations…. the ideological threat…presented now tends to be discounted. But it was real…
Straight away the book produces evidence of the Freudenberg’s assessment. Many years after he graduated from Monash University in the early 1970s and many years of political struggle later, Harvey was working as researcher in the Federated Clerks Union with the controversial anti-communist John Maynes. Two decades before Keith Harvey arrived, the FCU was controlled by the Communist Party. Doing some research, Harvey chances upon a cache of old union documents that show that in the 1950s the communist controlled Clerks organised for a complex of Communist Party unions to share their records with Asian regional Communist Party boss – the fearsome apparat Ernie Thornton who had relocated in Beijing soon after Mao’s communists conquered China. There in the files of the defeated communist faction were also copies of various union activities routinely copied over years to the KGB Resident at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra who was, for a time, Vladimir Petrov!
Comrade Petrov was no doubt bored by streams of interminable minutes being sent to him with slavish devotion by provincial communist supplicants, but he would have been pleased they came from over a third of Australian unions! Again, without Harvey’s account, it is hard to believe but the CPA only surrendered control of the Victorian Branch of the FCU when its then Returning Officer burnt the union’s 1949 ballot papers in his backyard. The Courts, using Chifley LAbor Government legislation, ordered a supervised replacement ballot for Clerks Union members.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald believes also in the importance of this work and its original research fills a gap in the war of ideas in post World War II Australian history. He argues that: Memoirs of a Cold War Warrior details PM Bob Hawke’s “successful attempt to bring four major anti-communist trade unions back into the Labor Party” in his absorbing review in Quadrant (September 2021). Both Professor Fitzgerald and my friend Michael Easson, past Secretary of the Labor Council of NSW laud this account – the result of 40 years of work by Keith Harvey and a pantheon of forgotten anti-communist heroes.
Yes, it tells Harvey’s personal story but at every turn he explains the idealism behind the anti-communist resistance. The why of politics so often indecipherable to observers not involved in the fight. Against the prevailing wisdom of the mechanical explanation of politics, its clear from every chapter of this book that his life and that of his colleagues was infused by beliefs focused on a determination to politically resist the “totalitarian temptation” and the attempt to seize the Labor movement embodied by the local communist apparatus.
That is why a book by an Australian unionist is replete with references to the great works of intellectuals: Raymond Aron, Andrei Amalrik, Evgenia Ginsburg and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and includes well-chosen ironic references to Marx, Lenin & KGB boss and Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, as well as local communist chieftains Ted Hill, Bernie Taft and Eric Aarons. A much higher tone than what you expect from a labour movement infested with gormless apparatchiks on the make or looking to be bumped into parliament.
So, from where did Keith Harvey spring into his engagement with politics? His arrival in the early 1970s post-dated the great anti Communist Split of the Labor Party in 1954-55 and when major anti-communist centres like B A Santamaria’s National Civic Council (NCC) were long established.
Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci’s “Long March through the institutions” had not yet triumphed at Australian universities (I would say it has been largely successful but through the deformation of class politics in the form of identity politics).
Yet, even as far back as the sixties as a reaction to our involvement in the Vietnam War, a febrile far Left atmosphere pervaded most Australian campuses including the fulcrum of support for the North Vietnamese communists at what was then called the Monash Soviet (University). Here poor Harvey enrolled. Alone, the only non-leftist in a course instructed by lecturer Alistair Davidson – later the official chronicler of the Communist Party of Australia. Keith Harvey felt obliged to write a long essay on Gramsci so at least his topic would satisfy Davidsons’s proclivities and help his mark.
Academic oppression aside, like an underestimated number of other students, Harvey revolted against the existing student Marxist orthodoxy. Not yet a Catholic nor associated initially with Santamaria’s existing anti-communist organisation, he threw himself into student politics running for student office, networking and running the anti-communist Monash Democrats Club and its publications. Without going into the all the chicanery of student politics, members of the Monash Democrats allies were assaulted by the ultra-Left and threatened with violence by lead local Maoist Albert Langer. Filled with insolent power, Langer wrote to the student paper ‘Lots Wife’ threatening to punch one of Harvey’s colleagues.
Italians have a wonderful word for the reaction to this Marxist violence –“anti alphabetico” (roughly translated: counter suggestible). For those of us who have survived the ordeal of communist polemic, harassment and violence, it steels you and you learn more about the real nature of Marxist praxis than a battalion of Alistair Davidsons or Greens leader Adam Bandt could ever teach you.
Harvey begins his post Monash life in the antediluvian outpost of the tiny anti-communist Rope & Cordage Union becoming more involved with the NCC and starting to write for its publication, News Weekly. Again, it is difficult to believe but the Victorian Trades Hall Council had its own bevvy of reporters, and its struggles and fights were widely reported. Although VTHC Secretary Ken Stone was a moderate, the “the Cold War was in full flight at the VTHC” as the communist aligned unions, even if they did not have a clear majority, often got the numbers.
All of us wearisomely know that as fanatics they “would come early and stay late”. Even when the non-Left had a majority it was a constant battle to see that majorities were maintained at the ACTU and at the Victorian Trades Hall. I told the launch of Keith’s book that it is crucial to remember that the anti communist Industrial Groups formed to fight inside the Labor Movement were initially authorised and encouraged by the ALP Executive. Honestly, it is hard not to admire Keith and Mary with a young family – and so many others – for tuning up to decades of union meetings to peacefully resist the commos or their latter day Socialist Left fronts
Naturally, as a competent organiser, Keith Harvey was offered and appointed to a higher position in the Trades Hall. Sadly, the VTHC leadership lost its nerve when faced with an organised cacophony of opposition. Again, it is difficult to transport ourselves back to the hysteria of those times but the hard left’s victory in sacking Keith Harvey was front page news. WEG, the Herald cartoonist of the day, portrayed a bemused bearded Harvey arriving at a bricked-up office. With his keen and self-deprecating sense of history, the chapter appropriates John Reed’s famous paean of praise to Bolshevism Ten Days that Shook the World with a self-deprecating headline “Thirty Days that Shook the Trades Hall.”
Afterwards in transiting to the largest anti-communist union, the Federated Clerks, Harvey joins the inner sanctum of the Industrial Groups but finds himself working for John Maynes. As Michael Easson wittily surmises from the chapter, Maynes is the “Miranda Priestly” of the union movement, the exasperating character in the film The Devil Wears Prada.
There is a Lubavitch expression “bashert” (it’s ordained) about which the Catholics in the NCC, the communist Left or the wider Australian Labor movement never thought applicable to them but which I favour as relevant. For two crucial events in Harvey’s original contribution were inextricably linked. Bashert and the reaffiliation of the four unions to the Victorian ALP could not have happened without an earlier split in the NCC. Suddenly, in 1982 the National President of the National Civic Council, B A Santamaria, sacked all five of the leading Victorian industrial officials and locked them out of their Queensbury Street offices. Why? No one to this day knows but it was an essential cleansing of their record that made their momentous reacceptance into the Victorian ALP possible. Beshert.
Keith Harvey remains generous to both Maynes and Santamaria overlooking their faults from the perspective of their overall fidelity to the cause, which is the anti-communist fight. So, in 1984, when the four unions reaffiliated with Victorian Labor, they were abused as Groupers and pelted with tomatoes by the hard left but because they were out of the influence and membership of the NCC their readmission to mainstream power could not be stopped.
Here I must note the role of my mentor Franta (Franta) Knopfelmacher in his support for those who split with/were expelled from the National Civic Council and support for the four trade unions who sought, and attained, reaffiliation with the ALP. I have in mind the likes of Gerald Mercer, Michael O’Sullivan, Jim Maher and Keith Harvey.
The disputes between such anti-communist “giants” as Frank Knopfelmacher and Bob Santamaria were entertaining for their bruising rhetoric (and private jokes). But the influence of Knopfelmacher in supporting the anti-communist unions was central to their re-admission to the Victorian branch of the ALP.
Time travelling back to that conference – where I made a point of sitting with the just-admitted SDA delegates – it is hard to fathom the level of hatred and harassment that even the seasoned unionists had to face. Their reaffiliation was a tremendous fillip for PM Bob Hawke and until recently restored some ballast in Labor against the Left. At that stage, the unions – organised by the selfless Gerald Mercer and the publication Social Action – lost not a whit of their idealism. The moderate unions were entitled to a representative on what was the infamous left dominated Victorian Central Executive (later the Administrative Committee). After years of long boring meetings of the union movement, poor muggins Keith was the four unions’ representative to the Victorian Labor Executive where, family man or not, he endured interminable and often acrimonious meetings which often went to midnight and beyond.
Solidarity’s struggle in Poland against the communist behemoth was coming to a head in the last half of the 1980s and their chief local advocates were people like the National President of the SDA (the Shoppies) Jim Maher. There is a significant Polish diaspora in Australia and Maher and the SDA collaborated hard with them to ensure all major Polish intellectuals and unionists got a platform in Australia both before and after the fall of communism in Poland and Europe.
As final victory over the dead hand of Communism was happening in Europe, the centre did not hold back at home. Harvey has a sad yet somewhat revealing chapter “Winning the Cold War and losing the Clerks Union”. Away at Harvard’s Trade Union program, on a course, he hears of the surprise defeat of the jewel in the largest section of the anti-communist unions – the Victorian branch of the Clerks. Perhaps for the first time in this book Maynes’ role in the slovenly first election, his later deal with the left and public defunding (but paradoxical, secret private financing) of his own rank and file who were determined to seize the Victorian Branch of the Clerks back from the Socialist Left comes under criticism. They get very close, but it all comes to nought and eventually the union is swallowed up in an amorphous Australian Services Union, (although I am pleased to note that two rump autonomous right votes in the ASU were crucial in my 1997 pre-selection as the Labor Member for Melbourne Ports).
Left wing doyen Rodney Cavalier has praised this account as honest and detailed, “anchored in documents” and it is indeed footnoted in a most scholarly manner. Most useful is the appendix which sets the events of the book in a wider Australian context. It might be thought of as a short history of communism in post-war Australia. With his usual sharp eye for historical allegory the author invokes Karl Marx’s warning in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 that “a spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism”, writ smaller for our fateful shores.
Michael Easson, in a blurb on the book’s back cover writes: “Every communist and every communist sympathiser in Australia hopes that this book will be unread, have no impact and inspire new readings of Clive James poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”.
High praise and richly deserved.
Michael Danby was the Member for Melbourne Ports from 1998-2019. He was Parliamentary Secretary for the Arts & Chair of Federal Parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence. He worked for the SDA in 1995 & 1996.