Take-down of old bearded pseudo-prophet who supported mass killing … no, it’s not an Osama bin Laden story, it’s Ross Fitzgerald on Manning Clark in The Australian. In one of the most bizarre sallies in the ongoing, nasty kulturkampf against Clark, Fitzgerald joins his voice to those who saw the great historian as some sort of Soviet stooge. Years ago that was tried using allegations — utterly false ones — made by the erratic poet Les Murray, that Clark had received the Order of Lenin.

After that embarrassing episode, most attacks on Clark have been of the Chevy Chase “General Franco is still dead” level. Clark had visited the USSR in the late 1950s; he had written a book, Meeting Soviet Man, about everyday life in the USSR. It was not uncritical of the USSR, but it was wreathed in the idealist cast of mind that Clark was beginning to develop as a way of telling the Australian story — societies as evolving some idea of human possibility, of human prospect. A complex treatment of it would put it in context of the period.

Fitzgerald appears to have done so and then changed his mind. In Saturday’s Oz he reviewed Mark McKenna’s monumental biography of Manning Clark, merely arguing that McKenna hasn’t sufficiently explored or critically interrogated Clark’s genuine attitude to Communism beyond Clark’s own statement that “he hadn’t made up his mind about it” — in terms of the ultimate historical meaning of 1917.

But in Monday’s Oz he returns to Clark’s life to ask, was Clark a “crypto-Communist”? He has already decided the answer is no, but it allows him to trawl through a series of pseudo charges that would not be out of place in a HUAC file. At the time he wrote Meeting Soviet Man, Clark had “already started to learn Russian”. Shock. He thought “whoever lives unmoved in Moscow must have a heart of stone” and that “he had a very positive opinion about what life was like for the average person in communist Russia”. Horror. He met an old friend Ian Milner (who had defected to the Eastern bloc) behind the Iron Curtain, twice, in 40 years. The bastard. He was a member of the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society, and went to public events at the Soviet embassy in Canberra.

This all adds up to nothing more than Clark being sympathetic to the idea of the USSR — even Fitzgerald’s claim that Clark was a “strong supporter” of the USSR is over-egging it somewhat.

One expects this from the usual hacks, but it’s generally depressing to see it coming from Fitzgerald, a historian of note. First because he leaves out some obvious points that complicate the picture — such as Clark’s friendship with conservatives such as James McAuley, and the fact that Clark was on the board of Quadrant(!) at the time (which technically makes him an agent of CIA influence).

Secondly is the vociferous criticism Clark faced from the Marxist left, for what was, by any measure, a non-Marxist approach to history, focused on the movement of ideas, spirit, and the effect of “Great Men” in the making of a society. Third is the baiting tendentiousness: Fitzgerald notes that Clark received the “Lenin centenary medal” which was given to people from “East Germany and North Korea”. So it was, but it was given to people from across the world. Really.

Fitzgerald’s resulting analogy for Clark’s relationship to the USSR is absurd:

“Even if Clark was not an active Communist Party operative, it seems indisputable that he was a strong supporter of the Soviets. To deny this seems as ridiculous as Gerry Adams, or his supporters, denying that Adams had once been a leading member of the IRA.”

Adams, as a leader of the IRA, has been involved in the killing of hundreds of people. This is a vicious and unnecessary analogy.

Even more absurd is Fitzgerald’s inconsistency on how one assesses “supporters” of Communism. Take, for example, his biography of Fred Paterson, the Communist MP from Queensland. Fitzgerald is not uncritical of Paterson, but read the final paras:

“Frederick Woolnough Paterson was remembered by those who worked with and against him as a formidable and conscientious political activist. In the modesty of his personal life in his serious commitment to his electorate,and by his passionate enunciation of a philosophy at odds with prevailing political norms, Fred Paterson carved himself a unique position in Australian history.

An idealist who fought for a better world, who so often represented the underprivileged and dispossessed he was indeed the People’s Champion.

As the twentieth century closes, much of the pattern and shape of Paterson’s politics deserve emulation in Australia, especially by those who claim to be of the Labour Left.”

Hilarious, is it not? Paterson was indeed a people’s champion. He was also a member of the CPA during Stalinism, and at a time when the party was getting financial support from the USSR, and cleaved to its line. He actually was a bona fide agent of influence. Yet apparently he is a model to be emulated.

How to explain this ludicrous reversal of accurate assessment? One might note that Fitzgerald was writing Paterson’s biography not a review of it — rather easier to have a hero for your subject, than someone you want to morally condemn.

But it may also be not unrelated to something that Fitzgerald himself has pointed to, in book form: his transition from serious alcoholic to a firm follower of the AA 12-step program. Is it possible that in the decade or so since he published People’s Champion, Fitzgerald has gone from being a romantic leftie drunk to a tiresome reformed sinner, placing faith in a higher power, and seeing the past as nothing other than pretext for making amends (step 8 of 12)? It’s a pretty awful position for a historian to be in, if it’s the case, because it makes for bad history — the past judged through the narrow agendas of the present, the wider world in which decisions and commitments were made shorn away.

Mark McKenna’s 800-page biography of Manning Clark is now available. So too is Clark’s six-volume history. Ross Fitzgerald’s study of Austen Tayshus is forthcoming.