Mao and the Australian Maoists
In December 1993, to mark the centenary of the birth of Mao Tse-tung, the Melbourne Age commissioned an opinion piece from Albert Langer, who as a student activist in the 1960s had been the best-known public face of Maoism in Australia. Around the time Langer accepted the invitation, Western culture had been beset by a vogue for big, showpiece political apologies: Bill Clinton apologized for slavery, the Queen apologized for British imperialism, the Pope even apologized for the Crusades. But it never occurred to Langer to follow suit.
He wrote at a time when the populations of eastern Europe had just revealed what they thought of their former Communist rulers by throwing them all out of office, and when China was finally pulling itself out of poverty by developing a capitalist economy. Rather than the end of socialism, Langer portrayed this merely as its “low tide”. It would inevitably be followed by another high tide like the one he enjoyed in his youth. The impasse into which the Left had fallen, he wrote, would not last forever. “As Mao points out,” Langer declared, “there is an alternative — rebellion, struggle, the fight for socialism … Happy birthday Mao Tse-tung!”
When Mao's next major milestone, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, arrived in 1999 Australian Book Review commissioned another Sixties Maoist, Humphrey McQueen, to write its annual La Trobe University Essay. By this time, McQueen was less of an enthusiast than Langer. He had now, he said, lost all sympathy with the regime. But he still claimed the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was justified for attempting to bring backward rural China into the modern world, and he still considered Mao a great intellect. “Far from seeing Mao Tse-tung-Thought as sloganeering”, McQueen wrote, “I knew how demanding his ideas could be.”
When the review commissioned McQueen it could hardly have been unaware of the radical shift in Western opinion about the nature of Mao's regime. This was partly the result of Jung Chang's best-selling 1991 book Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which told the story of how her own once-dedicated Maoist family, and many others like it, had been humiliated, imprisoned and destroyed by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. When Jasper Becker's book Hungry Ghosts: China's Secret Famine revealed in 1995 that Mao had caused between 30 and 40 million people to starve to death during the so-called Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, the horror of the regime was there for all to see. But McQueen's reminiscences mentioned none of this.
It is unlikely that future Chinese anniversaries will be celebrated by anyone in the Australian media in the same way. Mao Tse-tung now stands revealed as the greatest mass murderer in human history. We now have plausible evidence that he was responsible for the deaths of more than 70 million people, a tally larger than that achieved by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin combined. In their new biography Mao: The Unknown Story ( Jonathan Cape, London, 814 pages, $59.95), Jung Chang and Jon Halliday attribute 38 million of these deaths to the great Chinese famine of 1958–61. Another 27 million were executed or worked to death between 1950 and 1976 in Mao's gulag of prisons and labour camps. During the initial nationwide campaign of terror to consolidate his regime from October 1950 to October 1951, Mao oversaw three million Chinese killed by execution, mob violence and suicide. A further three million suffered the same fate after 1966 at the hands of the Red Guards and other protagonists of the Cultural Revolution.
Although some of Mao's Australian sympathizers, such as Linda Jaivin writing in The Bulletin, have tried to nitpick Chang and Halliday's total of 70 million dead, their figure is, if anything, conservative. For instance, the 38 million death toll they attribute to the great famine is around the middle of the recorded range. Jasper Becker cited reliable Western demographers who argued at least 30 million died but he also quoted several Chinese estimates that each recorded a total of more than 40 million. One source was the senior Communist Party official Chen Yizi who in 1979 was appointed by Premier Zhao Ziyang to find out what really happened in 1958–61. Chen led a team of 200 officials who visited every province to examine internal Party documents and records. His report put the total at between 43 and 46 million dead.
Moreover, Chang and Halliday reveal how much responsibility Mao had for this particular catastrophe. Becker had attributed the famine largely to the ideological folly of a failed experiment in collectivization. Chang and Halliday produce new evidence to show it was more sinister than that. Mao's regime confiscated Chinese harvests during the Great Leap Forward so it could export food to Communist-controlled Eastern Europe in exchange for armaments and political support. Food and money were also exported to support anti-colonial and Communist movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the first year of famine, 1958–59, China exported seven million tons of grain, enough to feed 38 million people. In 1960, a year in which 22 million Chinese died of starvation, China was the biggest international aid donor in terms of proportion of GNP in the world. Thanks to Chinese agricultural exports, East Germany was able to lift food rationing in 1958, and Albania in 1961.
In China at the same time a major food source for the urban population became the “food substitute” chlorella, a disgusting substance that grew in urine and contained a little protein. In the countryside, starving Chinese peasants were reduced to eating bark and compost and, in Anhui and Gansu provinces, to cannibalism. In Chinese cities in 1960, the maximum daily intake was 1200 calories, compared to the 1300-1700 calories a day fed to the inmates of Auschwitz.
The huge size of the Chinese population, around 600 million in 1960, gave Mao many more potential victims than available to either Hitler or Stalin. What made Mao the greater monster was not just the sheer quantity of his killings. It was because so many of his victims came not only from his real and imagined enemies but from his own supporters. Chang and Halliday show that Mao built his political power out of a life-long strategy that easily outdid even Stalin in waging murder and terror among his own Communist Party comrades.
Mao was never the agrarian reformer his Western supporters claimed. He redistributed no land and liberated no peasants. His initial “red base” at Ruijin in Jiangxi province, southern China, had been achieved not by a revolutionary uprising of the masses but through military conquest by the Red Army, armed and funded by Moscow. His rule was identical to that of an occupying army, surviving by plundering the local population and killing anyone who resisted.
The system of control established at Ruijin from 1931–34 was introduced by Chou En-lai, sent there by his Soviet controllers from party headquarters in Shanghai. It was based on the model of the Stalinist state in the USSR. The whole population was organized into various committees whose role was to carry out party orders. Anyone suspected as an ideological enemy was dispossessed of all property, sentenced to limitless forced labor, or executed. Mao's innovation to the Soviet system was to turn this persecution into public display. Mass rallies, public denunciations by informers and public confessions of being AB (anti-Bolshevik) became the order of the day. Mao used this accusation to purge the party hierarchy of anyone who disagreed with him and anyone he suspected of disloyalty. The first to be charged were Red Army officers and Mao's rivals for leadership. Most of those murdered were party members.
In 1934, when Mao and Chou En-lai prepared for their Long March from Ruijin to Yenan in the north-west, they drew up a list of party officers they rated as unreliable. Their parting gift to the region was to execute thousands of these party members, including the majority of teachers at army schools, and bury them in mass graves. Chang and Halliday calculate that between 1931 and 1934, some 700,000 people died at the Ruijin red base, half of them murdered as AB or “class enemies”, the rest worked to death or dying from other causes attributable to the regime.
The same pattern was repeated at Yenan in the late 1930s and 1940s. Tens of thousands of young, educated Chinese read the translation of Red Star Over China by the American journalist Edgar Snow who painted a flattering portrait of Mao and romanticized the Long March as a heroic exodus. By 1941 more than 700,000 had flocked to join the Communist Party. Those who made the pilgrimage to Yenan hardly knew what hit them. They quickly found themselves trapped within a regime they could only leave by forfeiting their lives. Anyone criticizing these arrangements, no matter how privately, found themselves denounced as Trotskyites and sentenced to solitary confinement. In 1942 Mao accused all the volunteers who had come from Nationalist-held areas of being spies. He ordered thousands arrested and tortured to make confessions. Executions, both real and mock, were an everyday affair. Life at Yenan came to be centered on interrogations and terrifying mass rallies where volunteers publicly confessed to being spies.
Mao used all those not yet accused to spy on, guard, interrogate, arrest and punish those already accused. The Yenan settlement became a self-perpetuating totalitarian state. No outside press or radio communication was permitted. No letters could be sent or received from the outside world — indeed, letters were construed as evidence of spying. Humour, sarcasm and irony were banned. The regime invented a new catch-all offence, “Speaking Weird Words”, which meant any comment that could be interpreted as a complaint or a joke could have its speaker accused of being a spy or traitor. Two years of this regime transformed the once young and passionate volunteers into robots, capable of enunciating nothing but bland echoes of the party line.
Mao used the same model in the Cultural Revolution of 1966–68. Party historians and sympathetic Western academics, then and now, rationalize this event as Mao's attempt to revive the revolutionary spirit and arrest pro-capitalist and anti-socialist tendencies. In reality, Chang and Halliday show it was yet another purge of Communist officials designed to terrorize the party and secure Mao's leadership. Indeed, Mao himself thought of it as the Great Purge. Its principal targets were those party leaders who dared to say that Mao's attempts at collectivization and industrialization during the Great Leap Forward had been a disaster. Chief among them was Lui Shao-chi, long Mao's second-in-command in both army and party. He was deposed in August 1966 and died in November 1969 after three years of physical and psychological abuse in prison.
Chang and Halliday observe that Stalin had carried out his purges through an elite, secret police force, the KGB, which hustled victims out of sight to prison, gulag or death. Mao, however, enacted his Great Purge through violence and humiliation carried out in public. He vastly increased the number of persecutors by having his victims tormented and tortured by their own direct subordinates. By 1966, Communist rule in China had produced a plethora of people hungry to take revenge against those in authority and eager to seize power for themselves. Mao used party members to collaborate in their own terrorizing. During the Cultural Revolution, the whole of China was ruled like the initial red bases at Ruijin and Yenan.
Once he had consolidated power by eliminating rivals in China, Mao's ambitions extended well beyond his own country. In 1959, when Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev visited the United States and announced a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West, Mao saw an opportunity to advance himself as the true leader of world Communism. Part of his strategy involved splitting Communist parties everywhere between pro-Soviet and pro-China factions. He denounced the Russians as “capitalist roaders” and declared the Chinese the true Communists. The resulting propaganda campaign introduced the world to the thought of Mao Tse-tung and the term “Maoism”. Peking funded pro-China Communist parties around the world from then until Mao's death in 1976. In the West, none of them ever gained anything but miniscule support with the electorate. But among Western intellectuals and artists the story was very different.
A long line of Western celebrity intellectuals replicated in Mao's China what their counterparts of a generation before had done in the USSR. The English Fabian socialists, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, who visited Russia in 1932–3 and proclaimed Soviet Communism a “new civilization”, were emulated in China by the French duo Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. De Beauvoir went to China in 1955 and wrote a book about her visit entitled The Long March, declaring: “The power he [Mao] exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt 's was.” Sartre praised the “revolutionary violence” of the Cultural Revolution as “profoundly moral”. The American journalist John Reed's homage to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, was more than matched in 1937 by his compatriot Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China. Snow portrayed Mao and his fellow Long Marchers as epic figures who liberated the Chinese peasants from feudalism and Japanese invasion.
In reality, Chang and Halliday show that, rather than opposing the Japanese invasion, Mao had welcomed it. He hoped the Japanese would engage and destroy his Nationalist Party rival Chiang Kai-shek and would also draw Soviet troops into China. Rather than a champion of independence for his country, since the 1920s Mao had been an agent of the Soviet Union, taking its arms and money, doing its bidding and accepting its control of the Chinese Communist Party.
In Australia, the political centre of Maoism was Melbourne where in 1964 the lawyer Ted Hill had broken with the Moscow-oriented Communist Party of Australia, to found the rival, Peking-backed Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). Among ordinary Australian voters, the attraction of Hill's party was negligible but among intellectuals and within the labour movement it had far more success.
The intellectual centre of Australian Maoism was also Melbourne, where it became part of the radical student movement that emerged in the late 1960s to protest against the war in Vietnam. The political base of Maoist students was the Monash University Labor Club. At the time, the various Communist and Trotskyist political sects were trying to use anti-war sentiment to attract recruits and build a coalition of support on university campuses. In this, they were largely successful. In 1966, when the media had portrayed the war as a defence of liberal democracy in South Vietnam against the encroachments in international Communism, it helped produce a landslide victory for Harold Holt and his Liberal Party government. But by 1970, when the Left had successfully re-defined the war as a struggle by an ancient and gentle Asian people for national independence from French and American imperialism, the new vision won over not only the student protest movement but also large sections of the Labor Party. More than 100,000 people in Melbourne and 30,000 in Sydney marched in Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations that year. The sentiment helped Gough Whitlam's Labor Party gain office in 1972.
The anti-imperialist theme of the anti-war movement did not derive exclusively from the Maoists. All the other Communist factions pushed much the same line. The Maoists, though, were the most vociferous since their great helmsman had based his bid for leadership of non-aligned and Third World countries on an anti-imperialist appeal.
In the political heady days on Australian campuses from 1968 to 1972, leftist meetings and conferences were invariably attended by the ubiquitous troika of Monash Maoists, Albert Langer, Mike Hyde and Darce Cassidy. Dressed in jungle greens to imitate guerilla commandos, and taking their cue from the rhetoric Mao deployed to denounce the Russians, they castigated everyone else for not being revolutionary enough and for engaging in much talk but little action. Hyde wrote a book about their activities and took its title from one of Chairman Mao's aphorisms: It is Right to Rebel. While the book did not have much impact outside, it went down well in the milieu of political converts on the university campus. Cassidy did more to give the Maoist perspective a wider audience. He was then an ABC journalist, a job that somehow gave generous rein to his political activities. Along with wife Julie Rigg, also an ABC broadcaster, Cassidy pushed his political line both within and outside the organization.
In the Sixties anti-war movement, the impact of Maoism was mainly felt in Melbourne. In Sydney, the radical Left remained dominated by pro-Moscow Communists and dissident Trotskyites. But Maoism's more aggressive stance, both against its enemies on the Right and its even greater enemies on the Left, infected the movement everywhere. In Melbourne, the Maoists controlled the unions in the building industry where their aggression turned into sometimes violent stand-over tactics against employers who refused to comply with their demands. Their biggest industrial success came in 1969, when the Maoist head of the Melbourne Tramways union, Clarrie O'Shea, was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to pay fines levied by the Industrial Court. One million workers in all mainland states went on strike in sympathy.
But the Maoists were always more interested in political power than class struggle. Their real enemies were the Labor Party and the old Sydney-based Communist Party. They used their control of the Builders Labourers' Federation to expel prominent Sydney Communists like Jack Mundey and Joe Owens from both the union and the industry.
Had they ever gained any real political power in Australia there is little doubt the Maoists would have taken these methods to their logical conclusion. In his memoirs What's Left? the Sydney Communist Eric Aarons recalled that in 1962 Ted Hill had returned from a long visit to China urging the Australian party to prepare organizationally for military struggle. This would include placing undercover Communists as officers in the Australian army, from which, in some future armed struggle, they could defect with their troops to the Communist side. Aarons thought this strategy “patently absurd” but Hill was serious.
When Mao said political power grew out of the barrel of a gun he really meant it. Military power was the only revolutionary strategy he knew. Chang and Halliday's book shows that the particular tactic advocated by Hill in 1962 had been, in fact, vital to Mao's defeat of Chiang Kai-shek's forces in 1945–9. Communist cadres planted within Chiang's army ten to twenty years earlier provided key intelligence information for Mao's troops. During several critical military encounters, these undercover operators, some of whom had by then become generals, either withheld their troops from battle or defected with them to the Communist side. They were the key to Mao achieving power in China. In Australia, the dissent and conflict created within the party by this Chinese strategy was one of the reasons behind Hill's breakaway two years later.
Apart from its focus on armed struggle, the main contribution Maoism made to Marxist thinking was about the status of culture. Traditional Marxism held that the culture of a society was determined by its mode of production. Taking their cue from what they imagined the Cultural Revolution to be, Western Maoists, especially those on the French journal Tel Quel, argued instead that culture was a relatively autonomous realm. This opened a space for them to endorse the notion of cultural politics — the idea that literature, debates, lectures, performances and artistic output could effect social change — a position that was bound to be popular with writers, academics and artists who had been previously consigned by Marxism to utilitarian roles. Intellectuals were thus elevated to major players in the socialist revolution.
Maoism also added to the language. Mao might not have coined term “ Third World ” but he certainly made it common parlance. The phrase “politically correct” originated with Lenin but the Maoists of the 1960s gave it international currency. The example of their po-faced moral earnestness, however, allowed conservatives to eventually turn it against them as a satirical term. “Self-criticism” was another piece of Maoist terminology as well as a political practice. Eric Aarons said the self-criticism classes he underwent during his three years in China as guest of Mao's regime in the early 1950s were a precursor to the “consciousness raising” sessions that became an initiation ritual of the women's liberation movement in America and Australia two decades later. When Gough Whitlam had an audience with Mao in October 1973, he fluffed an answer to a question about Darwin and so wrote to Mao what his memoirs call “a self-criticism”.
In the Seventies, Maoism in Australia became radical chic. Celebrities such as advertising executive Phillip Adams and ambassador to China Stephen Fitzgerald turned Mao caps and jackets into fashionable attire. The collection of Mao's revolutionary aphorisms, The Little Red Book, became a best-seller in left-wing bookshops. In 1971, a tract by two Danish authors urging children to defy authority and enjoy sex was published and sold in Australia by radical journalist Wendy Bacon under the name The Little Red Schoolbook. After New York 's Andy Warhol produced his silk screen multiple portraits of the great helmsman in 1972, the National Gallery of Australia purchased a copy. Sydney celebrity artist Brett Whiteley followed with a number of social realist paintings acclaiming life in China under Communism. As part of a series of portraits of his artistic heroes, van Gogh, Gauguin and Bacon, Whiteley added one of Chairman Mao in full military dress.
When the film of the 1969 Woodstock rock ‘n' roll festival reached Australia the following year, showing the American Maoist rock group Country Joe and the Fish performing its notorious chant F-U-C-K, it was a sure bet Australia would produce a home-grown version. In 1975, Flinders University philosopher and Maoist Brian Medlin asked his students to collaborate in a musical project, and the band Redgum was formed to fulfill this role. The multiculturalist public radio station 3CR, which Maoists controlled from 1976 to 1978, subsequently promoted the superior virtues of Australian rock music versus American imperialist “Coca-Cola rock”. When David Hare's play Fanshen, about the coming of Communism to a Chinese rural village, opened in Sydney at the Nimrod Theatre in August 1977, directed by Richard Wherrett, it was the hottest ticket in town.
At Monash University, the Maoists regarded themselves as the soul of wit for their version of the theme tune from television's Mickey Mouse Club:
M-A-O T-S-E T-U-N-G
Me favourite boong,
Forever let us hold his banner High, High High
Come along and sing his song
And join the Red CP,
M-A-O T-S-E T-U-N-G
Humphrey McQueen, whose 1999 article fondly recalled singing these lyrics with his Monash comrades in the 1960s, thought they demonstrated the group's daring irreverence. They would certainly have been daring in China itself where, at the time, a ditty like that would have earned its singers a death warrant.
McQueen's musical ear might have been insensitive but his choice of academic issues was deft. His writings not only made an impact at the time but shaped the course of left-wing intellectual activity in this country for the next thirty years. The cultural politics of Australian Maoism had consequences we still live with today.
In 1970, McQueen's book A New Britannia startled almost everyone on the Left by arguing that the Australian labour movement, which had long defined its history as a story of progress and egalitarianism, was saturated in racism. Manning Clark gave McQueen a teaching position in history at Australian National University and anointed him the authentic voice of the New Left. Clark wrote:
What one does associate with the New Left is this rummaging round in the past to find examples of men and women who were tainted by racism … they have quite a field-day in ripping the mask off the advocates of “mateship” and “social equality”, and showing the racist hells, as it were, in the hearts of many who have been canonised and indeed almost sanctified as “Dinkum Aussies”.
McQueen wrote the notion of this purported racist hell into the national story, where it has been ever since. He was soon followed by a bevy of imitators, eager to occupy the space he had opened up and to complete the agenda he had proclaimed. From then until now, in Australian history books about race relations, the same names from the Sixties generation crop up again and again — Andrew Markus, Raymond Evans, Ann Curthoys, Kay Saunders, Richard Broome, Henry Reynolds and others — all treading in McQueen's footsteps as authors and editors of books and anthologies bearing a story that has changed little since they were in their youth: Australia is an inherently racist country, one of the herrenvolk democracies of the settler societies of the New Worlds of the Americas and the Pacific. Herrenvolk is German for “master race” and authors like Markus and McQueen who deployed the term were making a direct comparison between Australia and Nazi Germany. Historian Richard White of the University of Sydney could write in his widely-prescribed undergraduate text Inventing Australia (first edition 1981, tenth impression 1992) that the Australian national character projected by both the outback pastoral worker and the sun-bronzed surf lifesaver “was uncomfortably close to Nazi ideas about the Aryan master race”.
McQueen's aims in A New Britannia were not just to rewrite the Australian story but to use history to serve the politics of the present. He wanted to discredit both the parliamentary Labor Party and the Old Left historians of Australia in the universities. The most prominent of the latter were current or former members of the Moscow-oriented Communist Party of Australia. He wanted to demolish what he saw as the romantic nationalism of the Old Left's grand Australian narrative of an arch of inherent rebelliousness from the convict era to the anti-conscriptionists of World War I. He was especially critical of the Communist historian Robin Gollan's Radical and Working Class Politics for downplaying the racist component of Australian nationalism. He took issue with Russel Ward in The Australian Legend for being unable to accept that racism was “the lynchpin of his precious nationalism”.
Even more disturbing was McQueen's comparison between the Australian Labor Party and the Labor Party of the Rand which was the first party in South Africa to write racial segregation into its political platform. Until then, most historians had seen Australian Labor's support for the White Australia Policy as primarily an industrial issue to prevent Chinese and Melanesian coolie labour being used by employers to undermine wages and working conditions. Not so, argued McQueen. Labor was more concerned about race than class.
Most of the historians who followed suit began their careers as leftists themselves but their interest in race eventually led them to abandon the Old Left, with its emphasis on the blue collar working class, for the New Leftism of the post-1960s, with its emphasis on feminism, gay liberation and multiculturalism. Their biggest single issue became the Aboriginal cause. In this field, McQueen's Maoism wrote the agenda for them yet again.
To show this, the rise of Aboriginal history needs to be put into its political context. There is nothing so adaptable as a left-wing intellectual whose leader has just announced a dramatic shift in policy. In 1939, when Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Marxists around the world, who till then regarded fascism the source of all evil, suddenly had to cheerfully accept the fact that Hitler was now their ally. Then, in 1941, when Hitler broke the pact and invaded the USSR, they had to show equal enthusiasm for a return to their previous position. Mao made his own supporters in the West perform precisely the same kinds of back flips and forward rolls.
In February 1974, Mao and Deng Xiao-ping set out the “Theory of Three Worlds”. This held that the First World was composed of the two superpowers, USA and USSR, both of them predatory imperial states. The Third World contained the post-colonial states of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The Second World comprised all the remaining countries, including Europe, Japan and Europeanised nations such as Australia. The Second World, Mao decreed, were victims of imperialism too, not only of the obvious imperialism of the United States but also of the more insidious “social imperialism” of the USSR. Mao's political prescription for combating this oppression was anti-imperialist nationalist struggle, a movement which he hoped would unite the whole world under his leadership in a combined force against the two superpowers.
Within the parameters of Australian politics, the whole thing was an obvious fantasy from the start, but the local Maoists did not see it that way. They formed the Australian Independence Movement to reassert Australian national interests. Australian employers, who had until then been denounced as the villains of history, were suddenly redefined as a “national bourgeoisie” allied with the workers in the struggle for national independence. Australian history was combed for precursors.
Poor Humphrey McQueen, who had just made his name denouncing nationalism as the ideology of the racists in the labour movement, had to do a complete about-face. In A New Britannia, he had portrayed the miners at the Eureka Stockade as aspirant property owners, whose greatest concerns were the high price of foodstuffs and the rough justice of the mining licence system. The Maoists redefined them as a revolutionary vanguard and adopted their Southern Cross flag as the ensign of national liberation. A New Britannia had dismissed Ned Kelly and his brothers as “louts of the contemporary bikie variety”, but under the Theory of Three Worlds they suddenly metamorphosed into Irish rebels who provided fine models for the struggle against imperialism. McQueen's 1982 book Gone Tomorrow, which held overseas control of Australian industry and resources responsible for the recession that dogged the Fraser government, was conceived within the same strategy.
Aboriginal history became part of the same campaign. In 1974 McQueen published a 63-page Penguin booklet entitled Aborigines, Race and Racism. It identified its target readers as students in schools and colleges of advanced education. Modest though it appeared, this work carried every major argument that academic historians would flesh out over subsequent decades. Chief among them was the concept that the Aborigines were Australian patriots who had engaged in violent resistance in an attempt to defend their country and repel the invading imperialists. McQueen wrote:
In order to defend Australia it was necessary to scare off the fair skinned enemy's advance scouts. The first European marauder was Jansz in 1606 and at least one and possibly nine of his men were killed in the first blows struck for Australian independence.
It mattered little that Aboriginal culture had no concept of either “ Australia ” or “independence”. The analysis fitted Mao's doctrine and that was enough. Without benefit of any serious research into the subject, McQueen described a “massive struggle” and “a long, protracted war” between Aborigines and settlers across the continent.
By 1977, two other Monash Maoists, Fergus Robinson and Barry York, had produced their own book of Aboriginal history entitled The Black Resistance. In their acknowledgements, they paid tribute to the “political inspiration” provided by Ted Hill. McQueen wrote the book's preface saying its story of Aboriginal resistance was “as magnificent in their particular way as was the Long March of the Chinese Communists”. The Aborigines, McQueen said, had shown all Australians how to struggle for independence:
Only when the lessons of the Black resistance have been learnt in practice by all the Australian people will we have an independent and socialist nation. New enemies appear: today, the Soviet Social-Imperialists have their eyes on our “jewel” of mineral wealth. What remains constant is the willingness of peoples everywhere to resist oppression.
The Black Resistance covered Aboriginal history from 1788 onwards, discussing every state and the Northern Territory. Robinson and York managed to pack all this into 134 pages. Their research was thin, deriving mainly from secondary sources and a handful of the better known official documents and colonial newspapers. Nonetheless, they had enough confidence in their case to dedicate the book to “the first Australian patriots” who “waged a splendid and heroic struggle against the British seizure of their land”. In short, they began with a particular view of the politics of Aboriginal Australia and then went looking for evidence that would support the thesis they had already decided upon. Crude as it was, this was the very methodology adopted by the academic historians who came to the field after them.
Before the books by McQueen, Robinson and York appeared on the scene the interpretations by historians of Aboriginal Australia had been far less dramatic. Three major works were published between 1970 and 1974: Charles Rowley's The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Henry Reynolds's Aborigines and Settlers (1972), and Bob Reece's Aborigines and Colonists (1974). All three addressed the issue of Aboriginal “resistance” but found no evidence of any major or extended struggle for independence.
The most comprehensive and scholarly was Rowley's book, which described Aboriginal resistance to British colonization as “somewhat sporadic and periodic”. In some regions it amounted to, at most, “a series of deliberate, if limited, guerilla skirmishes” but nothing as intense as warfare. Rowley noted: “Aboriginal society lacked the type of organization which makes possible a campaign of warfare.” Reece arrived at a similar conclusion: “The superiority of the invaders' arms and organization and the Aborigines' small population and lack of political unity meant that such resistance as there was to white settlement took the form of ‘guerilla activity' rather than open confrontation.” Reynolds's book was a collection of documents, which he introduced and annotated. “Frontier conflict,” Reynolds wrote, “was inevitably scattered and sporadic and many encounters passed unrecorded while writers interpreting the process of settlement have sometimes exaggerated, but more often underestimated, the extent of bloodshed.”
After 1977, however, the story shifted dramatically. Scattered and sporadic incidents quickly turned into a heroic tale of concerted resistance. By 1982, in The Other Side of the Frontier, the book that transformed Reynolds from regional obscurity into a national figure, he could write:
Twenty thousand blacks were killed before federation. Their burial mound stands out as a landmark of awesome size on the peaceful plains of colonial history. If the bodies had been white our histories would be heavy with their story, a forest of monuments would celebrate their sacrifice. The much noted actions of rebel colonists are trifling by comparison. The Kellys and their kind, even Eureka diggers and Vinegar Hill convicts, are diminished when measured against the hundreds of clans who fought frontier settlers for well over a century.
Just how much of this dramatic change of heart could be attributed to the model provided by McQueen, Robinson and York is hard to pin down precisely. Their version of events was obviously part of a wider intellectual milieu that included the ideas of other political activists and historical revisionists, both here and overseas. But the fact that their thesis was at least one of the critical pivots on which the Aboriginal debate turned to the far Left is beyond doubt. In an article in the Journal of Australian Studies in 1978 Reynolds made it clear he had by then abandoned any pretence at objectivity and adopted not only the same ideological content as the Maoists but also the same politicised methodology:
Discussion of Aboriginal resistance brings home to us the close relationship between history and the political and moral issues involved in the cause of Aboriginal advancement … History should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian … It should aim to right old injustices, to discriminate in favour of the oppressed, to actively rally to the cause of liberation.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, there was a great debate among economists about the best policies to end the poverty and backwardness of Asia, Africa and Latin America. By this time, enough information had emerged from the USSR to show that its regime's claims and statistics about industrial success and agricultural output in the 1930s and 1940s were either largely exaggerated or outright bogus. State control of the economy, collectivization and five-year plans should have been consigned to the dustbin of economic history. Yet at the very time this was becoming apparent to those with eyes to see, left-wing economists were lining up to offer precisely the same advice to the Third World. Many used Mao's Cultural Revolution as confirmation their case.
The world's leading Keynesian economists became prominent advocates of this cause. In his 1973 book, A China Passage, written after a Potemkin-style tour of the country, the American John Kenneth Galbraith gushed: “There can now be no serious doubt that China is devising a highly effective economic system.” Despite the complete absence of any published statistics by the Maoist regime for more than a decade, Galbraith endorsed estimates by other economists who traveled with him that Chinese industrial and agricultural output was growing at 10 or 11 per cent per annum: “This does not seem to me implausible.” Throughout his career, Galbraith had made a point of avoiding the jargon and ideological crudities of orthodox Marxist economists. But when it came to recommending policies to lift the people of China out of poverty, he advocated precisely the same political program.
The Keynesians at Cambridge University led by Joan Robinson used their considerable influence with Social Democrat politicians around the world to support the same policies. For Britain itself, the Cambridge Keynesians advocated a mixed capitalist/state-owned-enterprise model, but for the Third World they came out as true believers of state-controlled socialism. In her 1969 book The Cultural Revolution in China, Robinson urged Mao's policies as the solution to the under-developed world's poverty. She said that the Soviet example showed a socialist revolution could transform a backward country into a great industrial and military power. But Mao had demonstrated that transforming the economic base was not enough to create genuine socialism. So, she argued, the revolution had also to be carried into the superstructure, that is, the culture of the society. Throughout the late 1960s, when she made personal appearances at conferences in India and other underdeveloped countries, this Cambridge don, whom many Keynesians thought deserved a Nobel Prize, took the stage with a copy of Mao's Little Red Book clutched firmly in her hand.
In Australia, the same kind of economists pushed the same line. In fact, Joan Robinson wrote the introduction to Australia 's major contribution to the international literature: The Chinese Road to Socialism: Economics of the Cultural Revolution by Ted Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane. When the book was published in 1970 Wheelwright was Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Sydney and McFarlane was lecturer in politics at ANU, but the publication soon won the latter a chair at the University of Adelaide. Both had made two-month visits to China in 1966 and 1968, inspecting enterprises and communes at the height of what they reverently called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The Chinese economy, they argued, could not be judged by purely economic standards. The true goal was not industrial development but the production of a society with “high moral standards and a certain style of collective living”. They observed that Chinese factories had abandoned financial incentives, bonuses and piecework. Workers were motivated instead by daily ritual readings from the Little Red Book and by compulsory singing of “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, “The East is Red”, “Wish Chairman Mao a Long Life”, and “Long Live Chairman Mao”. With straight faces, Wheelwright and McFarlane compared this patently totalitarian fare to the moral incentives that had inspired capitalist development in Britain :
Every society needs a morality which suits its economic development, as Tawney argued in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Britain had Adam Smith's “invisible hand” of self-interest, as the mainspring of its industrialization, which was regulated by competition, so that “private vice became public virtue”, as Mandeville put it. For China, Mao presents himself, and the socialist morality he preaches, as the visible bond linking decisions and motivating producers.
Wheelwright and McFarlane noted that many Western economists had regarded the Great Leap Forward from 1958–61 as politically motivated and a disastrous failure. “We cannot agree with these propositions,” they declared. They blamed its deficiencies on natural disasters, the withdrawal of Soviet economic aid in 1960 and “organizational problems in the communes”. Though we now know that these organizational problems arose because the Red Army confiscated harvests so that millions of communards died of starvation, Wheelwright and McFarlane explicitly denied this:
A serious food shortage developed, but famine was avoided by rationing and collective effort. The commune system, by its ability to mobilize large numbers of people, undoubtedly helped in avoiding famine in these difficult years.
Another Australian author who advocated Maoism as the solution to the poverty and under-development of the Third World was La Trobe University politics professor Joe Camilleri. His 1975 book Civilisation in Crisis held up the Cultural Revolution as a model of emancipation that other countries should follow. Without benefit of statistical data of any kind, he compared the ability of China, Brazil and the United States to feed their populations. Anyone who thought the Chinese were the poorest and worst-fed of this trio, Camilleri pronounced, would be mistaken:
In actual fact, China is the most successful of the three in ensuring an adequately nutritious diet for all its citizens. The key to this success undoubtedly lies in the structural reconstruction initiated by the communist revolution which has led to a rise in living standards, the almost complete elimination of unemployment, a universal education system and an extensive program of social security.
What is of concern here is not merely that Australian taxpayers have forked out millions of dollars to employ academic clowns like this for decades, nor that generations of students have wasted so many undergraduate tutorials, essays and exams regurgitating this useless guff. The most serious issue is the cumulative effect their ideas had on real life-and-death situations in the world's poorest countries. Jasper Becker observes in Hungry Ghosts that figures like Galbraith, Robinson and their academic followers around the world used their weighty reputations with governments to endorse policies that had disastrous results for the underdeveloped countries they advised. They deepened their poverty and persuaded their younger generations that the route to modernization lay in the Maoist brand of socialist revolution. “Ignorant of the millions who had been sacrificed on the altar of Mao's vanity,” Becker writes, “academics and pundits now held up China as a development model, and Mao's policies began to cast a terrible and destructive shadow on the rest of the Third World.”
In July 2004, after one of the original Monash Maoists died, Albert Langer, Mike Hyde and Kerry Miller wrote his obituary in the Age. Although Jim Bacon had succumbed to lung cancer while Labor Premier of Tasmania, they claimed he had always remained true to his old radical principles. In his youth, they recalled, Bacon had been a disciplined Marxist-Leninist and a leader of such Maoist organizations as the Young Communist League, the Worker Student Alliance and the Builders Labourers Federation. His move to the Labor Party and to state political leadership, they said, did not mean he had become a careerist or renegade. Given the circumstances of the Left at the time, it was the most effective action Bacon could take — “what else is there to do right now?” he asked his old comrades. In their obituary, the trio remained as politically confident as Langer had been in 1993 when he celebrated Mao's 100th birthday. The low tide of the socialist movement had been out for a long time, they acknowledged, but was due back in again soon. “When the next high tide comes we'll remember Jim as we sing again: The times, they are a-changing.”
Instead of Bob Dylan, however, the lyrics of Pete Seeger would have been more relevant. His Sixties anti-war folk song Where Have All the Flowers Gone? posed a rhetorical question still pertinent for all those seduced by the sirens of socialism: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
Keith Windschuttle was a leftist in the 1960s and 70s but was never a Maoist or Communist of any other variety.