Tim Lambert reports that former Courier-Mail editor and current Australian editor Chris Mitchell has attempted to flog back into life the mouldering equine carcase of the claim that Manning Clark was a recipient of the Order of Lenin award.
Friday’s Australian published an article by Peter Kelly which largely reiterates the hearsay from two mutual friends of Kelly’s and Clark’s, namely Geoffrey Fairbairn and Les Murray, which formed the original basis of Kelly’s claims in 1996, subsequently picked up and run with by Mitchell as editor of the Courier-Mail, that Clark had received the Order of Lenin. The paper reported this “disovery” with the claim that Clark was a secret member of the communist world’s elite, or words to that effect. However, despite having unfettered access to the archives of the former Soviet Union, the Courier-Mail found no evidence that the medal worn by Clark, which Murray and Fairbairn claim to have seen, was the Order of Lenin rather than one of the millions of iconographic baubles which the former Soviet leadership handed out like jellybeans to all and sundry to anyone who ever had a kind word for the USSR. The upshot of all this was a Press Council ruling which stated that:
The newspaper had too little evidence to assert that Prof Clark was awarded the Order of Lenin – rather there is much evidence to the contrary. That being so, the Press Council finds that the Courier-Mail was not justified in publishing its key assertion and the conclusions which so strongly flowed from it. The newspaper should have taken further steps to check the accuracy of its reports. While the Courier-Mail devoted much space to people challenging its assertions, the Press Council believes it should have retracted the allegations about which Prof Clark’s supporters complained.
Kelly adds virtually nothing to what he admits to be “a truncated version” of his 1996 piece, but does make the following statement:
Much has been made of the fact that the Order of Lenin was the Soviet Union’s highest decoration and therefore how could Clark, a mere historian in distant Australia, be awarded one? Actually, there were more than 400,000 awarded, so it was hardly reserved for the elite of the elite.
Kelly is apparently unaware of the dissonance between this statement and (a) the Courier-Mail’s claim that Clark was a secret member of the Communist world’s elite, and (b) the following statement (which he quotes uncritically) from Murray:
Yes. It was genuine. Many thoughts went through my mind. How could a mediocrity like Manning have one of those? That’s a high-order gong. Doesn’t he know how much blood is on it?
What could he have done to be awarded one of those by a government which had been responsible for over 40 million deaths?
Manning Clark’s supporters have understandably made an issue of the failure of Clark’s most vehement critics such as Peter Ryan and Peter Kelly to utter their claims about Clark until after he was conveniently dead and could not respond to them. I am prepared to give Kelly the benefit of the doubt and accept that he felt bound by a pledge to Fairbairn not to break his silence until after both Fairbairn and Clark. However this leaves unanswered the point which Tim Lambert rightly raises. That is, in the two decades since Mikhail Gorbachev began, and Boris Yeltsin completed, the opening up of the Soviet archives, nobody has found the slightest scrap of paper suggesting that Clark ever received the Order of Lenin. True, the Courier-Mail’s journalists were able to discover other information in the archives about Manning Clark and about the connections between the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union and sections of the Australian left (summarised by Gerard Henderson). But their ability to make such discoveries in the archives casts an even starker light on their failure to find evidence for the Order of Lenin claim.
The other question to ask is suggested, obliquely, by Les Murray’s rhetorical question about what Manning Clark “must have done” to allegedly receive the Order of Lenin. What did Manning Clark ever do for Soviet communism or for Australian-Soviet “friendship” which put him so far out in front of other prominent pro-Soviet Australians who did not receive the Order of Lenin? Whatever Mitchell, Kelly, Murray et al think about Clark, do they seriously suggest that he was a more diligent, loyal or effective friend of Soviet communism than Wilfred Burchett, or former Communist Party General Secretary Lance Sharkey? Sharkey engineered the Stalinist takeover of the CPA from more independent-minded radicals in 1930, maintained a line of unswerving devotion to Moscow throughout his 35 years in charge of the CPA, and actually spent time in jail for some of his pro-Soviet remarks. Yet neither Burchett nor Sharkey received the Order of Lenin.
What to make of the persistence of Kelly and Mitchell? Apart from stubbornness and stiff-necked pride, perhaps there is also an element of Australian anti-communism’s uneasy awareness of its own essential triviality in the great struggle against Soviet totalitarianism, and that its main contribution was not to contribute anything of substance to the aid of the plucky Sakharovs, Walesas, Havels & Co., but to provide aid and comfort for anti-communist anti-democrats closer to home, such as Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, Suharto in Indonesia and occupied East Timor, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and anti-feminists, anti-unionists, anti-anti-racists and authoritarian obscurantists of all stripes throughout Australia. Perhaps the escalation of a Culture War adversary such as Clark into a “secret mamber of the communist world’s elite” was and is a kack-handed way for the Australian Right to stake a claim that its own role in the Cold War amounted to something more meaningful than throwing cream puffs at the Lubyanka prison.