ASIO and the Labour History Society: An Incident in 1964.

Terry Irving

(Dinner Address at the Eighth Australian Labour History Conference, Brisbane, 4 October 2003.)

People sometimes ask me whether I think labour history has a future. When I was very young – this is surprisingly relevant – we had a family friend called Gus. He wore a green star as a badge in his lapel. Because most of the badges in my family were red, this was intriguing. Gus, my mother told me, was an Esperantist. To my childish mind this was a satisfactory explanation for wearing a green badge, since I then understood that Gus grew asparagus. Not that we grew asparagus; we were far too busy letter-boxing, but I had an aunt in the far west of New South Wales who hand-watered exotic vegetables, including asparagus, with a broken cup and a bucket. Later I discovered that Esperanto was an international second language, developed in the late nineteenth century.

For the past fifteen years, walking to University from Redfern station, I have often recalled this childish confusion as I pass the Esperanto Domo, the headquarters on Lawson Street of the dwindling band of Sydney Esperantists. It is their habit to pin up on the paling fence of their domo a handmade poster about the attractions of Esperanto, and the most recent one never fails to divert my thoughts into a pleasing melancholia as I trudge along, thinking of labour history. On an A4 sheet, the bubble-jet colours already fading, are the words: ‘Facts About Esperanto. Every month one or two CDs of Esperanto music are produced in the world.’ So you see, I really have no doubts about the future of labour history. If the Esperantists can survive, so can we.

What I want to talk about tonight is a principal reason for our survival, and at the same time a threat to our existence: I mean, labour history’s unavoidable political situation. Most of you will know my preoccupation with this theme. Not many, however, will know of the political struggles over historical ideas that accompanied the birth of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, or the attention that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation paid to the Society, and how a disruptive incident in 1964 was resolved when the protagonists, seemingly on opposite sides in the Cold War, agreed to a liberal intellectual practice for the Society.

Like all successful organisations we have our foundational myth, and ours runs true to type by glossing over the contentious elements in our beginnings. In our myth the founding fathers are academics, they are left-wing, but moving away from the control and dogmatics of the Communist party, they are influenced to form the ASSLH by the British example, and they reach out to non-academic labour historians to involve them in the Society. There is a brief moment of contention, but it is caused by one member who has personal differences with others on the Executive.

As I came into the Society at this time I know that there are truthful elements in this myth. I remember attending the public meeting in 1961, a few months after the formation of the Society, where Eric Fry and Bob Gollan addressed a meeting of academics and trade unionists during White Collar Festival Week in Sydney.1 As a post-graduate student, from a Communist family, I had both professional and political motives for getting involved in the Sydney branch. But the professional was paramount: I published my first academic article in Labour History two years later. Therefore, when a brief article appeared in 1964 in The Bulletin about a purported Communist take-over of the ASSLH I was predisposed to dismiss it as a Cold War beat-up.2

I thought nothing more about this article until recently, when I began to research the development of historical awareness in the labour movement. I soon discovered that the Society’s foundational myth was skewed strongly in the direction of the academic contribution, and that it was far too benign. I also recalled that I had witnessed an exchange between Miriam Dixson and Alan Martin that was part of the conflictual and heated climate in which the Society was born. It occurred at the ANZAAS Conference in Sydney in 1962. Alan Martin gave a paper on what he called ‘the whig view of Australian history’, by which he meant labour history. He likened labour history to a body of British historical writing in which events are placed in a story of ever-widening political freedom, under the wise leadership of the great ‘whig’ statesmen. In the Australian version, labour historians unfolded the history of our social and political democracy in a similar way, as a story of progress led by the labour movement. In his paper, Martin gave labour historians a severe trouncing for their romanticism, bias, and parochialism. The lecture room, which contained many labour historians, was tense. There were several comments, but it was the courage of Miriam Dixon’s intervention that I remember. In an agitated voice she responded to the confrontational character of the event by insisting on the validity of our field of study. In a room dominated by the middle-aged male professoriate here was a young, articulate woman defending labour history. Clearly, there was something like a war going on, and it had gender as well as political fronts.3

In fact, only a few months earlier Peter Coleman had published a book in which he set out the war-aims of a new generation of conservative intellectuals. One of those aims was to conduct what Coleman described as ‘the counter-revolution in Australian historiography.’ Under attack was the tradition of committed radical history, exemplified by Gordon Childe, Bert Evatt, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a tradition then receiving reinforcement, as Coleman pointed out, from within the universities in the work of Russel Ward and Robin Gollan.4 Coleman’s manifesto was the culmination of a trend that had been gathering force for almost a decade, since Manning Clark had mocked the romanticism of radical historians in 1955. Then Hartley Grattan, in the second issue of Quadrant, the Congress for Cultural Freedom journal secretly funded by the C.I.A, deplored the dominance of economic determinism in Australian history, singling out the work of Fitzpatrick as the root of this evil. By a remarkable co-incidence, in the same year the unfortunate Fitzpatrick’s work was set up for demolition at a conference of historians at the ANU. In the next two years books by J.D. Pringle, Colin Clark, and R. M. Crawford, continued this attack on a supposed dominance of the radical tradition in Australian historiography.5

All this is well known to any student of Australian historiography, and no doubt many of us today would agree that there were defects in the work of the first generation of labour historians that laid them open to some of this criticism. But what we often forget is the usually unspoken political function of intellectual argument, and the mobilisation of political resources on both sides of this debate about labour history in the fifties and sixties. Thus, while Bob Gollan and Eric Fry were taking the first steps to organise the labour history society, Coleman was organising contributors for the new conservative manifesto. A few months earlier, a debate in the Commonwealth parliament revealed ASIO’s role in the decision by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales to prevent the appointment of Russel Ward to a lectureship in history.6 I should have realised that the resources of the security service would be deployed against the society when I read the 1964 item on the society in The Bulletin. How else could the writer have discussed the membership in such detail, naming as members Labor’s federal leader, Arthur Calwell, and NSW Premier, Jack Renshaw, as well as B.A. Santamaria? Using information given to me by David McKnight I have been able to confirm this.

ASIO received a report on the ASSLH a few months after its first Annual General Meeting in 1962. A year later the same informant, having diligently kept a record of what happened in the Sydney branch during 1963 – politically suggestive utterances, attendance, the lot – sent a long report to ASIO. Curiously, some of its details could not have been discovered simply by attending the branch’s meetings. Obscure middle names, addresses, membership of the Communist party or ALP: these are not usually announced when labour historians gather for discussion. And there was a third report, in February 1964, which delivered to ASIO a full list of subscribers to the journal,
Labour History, and details of the executive, corresponding committee, and State memberships. So, if there was a Sydney mole, there was a Canberra one too, with access to the files kept by the society’s Federal Executive.

I have often wondered about the identity of the Sydney mole, because according to his report I was there, at those Sydney branch meetings in 1963. The logical person to finger was Fred Wells, whom the whisperers on the Left already identified as an ASIO spy. Wells had been a coming man in the Seamen’s Union, and a prominent Communist militant since 1945, until in 1960 he began writing well-informed articles on the party for The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald. When I met him at the Sydney branch meetings he was in his mid-forties, but one could easily imagine him, in the nineteen-forties and fifties in the thick of Communist street demonstrations (he was arrested in three of them), a dark-complexioned nuggety man, proud of his strength and his intelligence. Officers of the security organisation have since confirmed to David McKnight that Wells
was reporting to a case officer by 1963. Yet, although Wells would be a key player in the disruption of the society in 1964, I doubt that he wrote the ASIO report on the branch. It showed for one thing that he attended only three of the meetings, and it always referred to Wells in the third person. Incidentally, Wells published in Labour History a useful and dispassionate account of his part in a Communist street demonstration, ‘The King Street Riot’, and he was, according to Bede Nairn’s tribute to him, an energetic secretary of the branch in 1963-64.

I believe the ASIO informant was Jack Clowes. When Bob Carr met Clowes, ‘a little old man with a briefcase and a battered hat’, it was at a Catholic Club in Sydney. Carr was introduced to him probably by John Ducker, and if so it was Ducker who described Clowes as ‘an amiable old ASIO man’. (Just like Le Carre’s honourable schoolboy, really.) Formidable, would have been a more apt description, for since the early fifties, Clowes’ ‘incredible card index system’, and his ASIO connection, had enabled the Catholic Right to retain control of key unions and the Labor Council. By 1971, Ducker had installed Clowes, recently retired, in the library of the Labor Council. What makes me believe that Clowes wrote the report on the Sydney branch? Firstly, its language reveals it as the work of an ASIO officer, accustomed to the organisation’s information needs and mental habits. Before he retired Clowes was certainly an ASIO officer. Secondly, the details about industrial and political individuals are fuller than for students and academics. As Carr pointed out, Clowes’ specialism at ASIO was trade union personnel. Thirdly, when Marilyn Dodkin interviewed Barry Unsworth he defended Clowes against Left-wing fantasists (he was thinking of David McKnight) by saying: ‘Clowes was a Labor historian. He belonged to the Labor History Association.’ Now, I don’t remember Clowes at Sydney branch meetings; I never met him or had him pointed out to me. But I was a young post-graduate; I knew very few of the people who attended the branch meetings. Clowes could certainly have been there, an unremarkable old man, with a battered hat and a briefcase, taking notes down the back. So the fact that Unsworth remembers him as a labour historian, although there is no record of Clowes making any contribution in that role, clinches it for me.

Incidentally, Unsworth’s remark meant that he also was taking an interest in the political role of the Sydney labour history branch. This was to be expected, given that the Sydney branch attracted a handful of the Communist party’s leading publicists. I remember journalists Bill Wood, Len Fox, and Rupert Lockwood at early meetings, as well as Jack Blake, a dissident communist by then, and Roger Coates who had guided the CP’s work among students before he became a school teacher. It also meant that when the first crisis in the society arrived in the following year, those who created it could justify their actions by claiming they were exposing a Communist plan to take over the Society.

For five months, February to June 1964, the work of the Society was disrupted. The Executive in Canberra was dysfunctional, and production of issue 6 of Labour History behind schedule. In Sydney, Labor Premier Jack Renshaw had heard the rumours about a Red takeover and telephoned Bede Nairn. But was there a Communist plan that needed exposure? The idea of course was incongruous, given the recent history of the relationship between Left intellectuals and the Communist party. It was no secret that the Society had been set up by academics, some formerly, and others who were presently, in the Communist party. But why had they had gone out of their way to include non-Communists in the running of the Society? What the promoters of the ‘Communist plot’ scenario did not understand was the crisis among Communist intellectuals that followed the publication of Khruschev’s secret 1956 speech attacking Stalin. Denying the authenticity of the speech, the Australian party’s Stalinist leadership had resisted the demand for open discussion and sharing of knowledge in the party. There followed an exodus of intellectuals from the CPA, and with it the discrediting of the intellectual role that Communists had adopted under Stalinism, that of the militant communist intellectual. In recoil from that role, the defecting intellectuals dedicated themselves to liberal intellectual values. The formation of the Labour History Society was part of the emergence of a New Left in which labour intellectuals, many of them in the expanding Universities, would have a more independent and critical relationship with the organisations of the labour movement.

Finally, what is the point of talking about this Communist plot that never was? Firstly, it is reassuring, and diverting, to recall the incompetence and the failures of intelligence that characterised anti-communism. How could anyone believe that if Eric Fry enthusiastically introduced Jim Hagan (a long-time member of the Labor Party) as a potential volunteer worker for the Canberra Executive that this was evidence of a Communist plot – even if Eric also recommended Roger Coates as a Sydney member of the Corresponding Society in the same letter? Yet this introduction of Hagan, and his subsequent election as Vice-President at the next AGM, after it altered the Constitution to allow the election of two Vice-Presidents, were the central allegations of those who were disrupting the Society. Luckily, their counter-conspiracy soon fell apart. They challenged the validity of the AGM, and of the constitutional change, but a legal opinion found that neither Jim Hagan’s election nor the general meeting were invalid. They published their allegations in an issue of The Crucible, published by the ANU Labor Club, but subsequently the Labor Club disowned the issue and condemned its ‘character sniping and unethical journalism’. They hoped that Sam Merrifield and Bede Nairn, prominent non-Communist historians, would come out publicly against ‘the Communists’, but both very definitely told the disruptors that they were wrong.

Secondly, it is interesting to speculate about how the counter-conspiracy worked. Eric Fry, in one of his letters at the time explained the disruption as the product of the coalescence of personal differences in Canberra and political differences in Sydney. If so, it had to be more than co-incidental. The sequence of events is crucial here. Eric’s reference to ‘personal differences’ related to the Society’s Secretary/Treasurer, and co-editor of the first five issues of Labour History, Bruce Shields. He had carried a large share of the Society’s organising load and had been complaining about it since 1962. He thought ‘the academics’ were not taking their fair share (he was an archivist). In his grumbles, however, there was no hint of anti-Communism until 1964, and even then not till after the notorious AGM. Suddenly, in May, Shields began to call the Executive ‘Communist-dominated’ and to refer to an influx of Communists at the last Sydney branch meeting. He then travelled to Sydney to spread the rumour that the Society has been taken over by the Reds. Back in Canberra he worked with Bob Harney to produce the article in The Crucible. But how did he make these connections? The chief disruptor in Sydney was Fred Wells, whose budding career as an ASIO informant we have already noted, and it must have been ASIO that provided Harney and Shields with the Crucible’s material about the Communist party. Now that we know the extent of ASIO’s interest in the Society it is difficult not to conclude that it was the security organisation that coordinated the disruption.

Thirdly, although the disruption was set to collapse under the weight of its own incompetence, the efforts of the Society’s founders to head off the disruptors enormously strengthened the Society. Indeed, the Society has survived since this incident because, as a result of those efforts, it is now based on what the relationship between labour intellectual body and the labour movement ought to be. Eric Fry took a trip to Melbourne at the end of May for informal discussions with Merrifield and others. Almost immediately afterwards he went to Sydney, where together with the rest of the Canberra Executive he held a meeting with Bede Nairn (who was Chairman of the Sydney branch) and Fred Wells, the branch Secretary. But Shields would not attend, preferring to stay in Canberra to assist in the production of The Crucible. This was a big mistake. At the meeting it was agreed that the participants would dedicate themselves to preventing any form of political or ideological domination of the Society. As a result Wells found himself ‘neutralised’, to use Bob Gollan’s word, and agreed to write a piece for The Bulletin rejecting the allegations in The Crucible. And that was what I missed when I read Wells’s
Bulletin article. To be sure, nine-tenths of it was about the alleged Communist take-over, but what I overlooked was the reference to the Sydney meeting of the Executive with Nairn and Wells, and the statement that, even before The Crucible was printed and distributed, the matter had been ‘discussed, acted upon and eliminated.’ So Fred Wells kept his side of the bargain.

Isolated in Canberra, Shields lasted a few more weeks before resigning at the end of June. John Merritt filled his place on the Executive, and a new stage in the history of the Society began.


  1. White Collar Festival Week, an innovative mix of artistic events and political rallies, was organised by John Baker on behalf of the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations in the second half of 1961.
  2. The Bulletin, 13 June 1964, p.17
  3. Martin’s ANZAAS paper is referred to in Rob Pascoe, The Manufacture of Australian History, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 73 and 125. Martin also presented the paper to a seminar in August 1964 organised by the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom.
  4. Peter Coleman (ed.) Australian Civilisation – A Symposium, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1962, p.9
  5. C.M.H. Clark, Select Documents in Australian History, 1851-1900, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1955, pp.xi-xii; C. Hartley Grattan, ‘Reflections on Australian History’, Quadrant, I, Autumn-2, pp. 53-60; J.M.D. Pringle, Australian Accent, London, Chatto and Windus, 1958; Colin Clark, Australian Hopes and Fears, London, Hollis and Carter, 1958; R.M. Crawford, An Australian Perspective, Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
  6. Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2003, pp 6-8
  7. National Archives of Australia, Canberra; Australian Security Intelligence Organisation; Personal Files A6119/79, item 911 (file for Charles Frederick Wells)
  8. David McKnight, Australia’s Spies and their Secrets, St Leonards, NSW, Allen and Unwin, 1994, p.319
  9. Fred Wells, ‘The King Street Riot’, Labour History, 3, Nov. 1962, pp.23-31; Bede Nairn, ‘Fred Wells, an Appreciation’, Labour History, no. 7, November 1964, pp 57-8.
  10. McKnight, p. 206
  11. Marilyn Dodkin, Brothers – Eight Leaders of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2001, pp 50-54, 129-31.
  12. The Crucible, no date, but late May 1964 – copy in possession of the author of this paper.
  13. Merrifield’s reaction is referred to by Shields in his letter to Merrifield, 30 May 1964, and see also Merrifield’s indignant annotations on a copy of The Crucible in his papers. Nairn’s reaction is reported by Fry in his letter to Merrifield, 4 June 1964. See Merrifield Collection, MS 13045, La Trobe Library, Melbourne, boxes 13 and 14.
  14. Fry to Merrifield, 15 June 1964
  15. For the record, the current co-editor of The Hummer denies any association – familial, ideological, or otherwise – with Mr. Bruce Shields. Any resemblance between the two is strictly mnemonic [The co-editors].
  16. Shields to Merrifield, 23 November 1962.
  17. Shields to Merrifield, 10 May 1964.
  18. Gollan to Ian Turner, 4 June 1964, National Library of Australia, Ian Turner manuscripts, NLA 6206, box 109, file 13 (I am grateful to John Mclaren for this reference.)
  19. The meeting is referred to in Fry to Merrifield, 4 June 1964, and Gollan to Turner, 4 June 1964.
  20. Fry to Merrifield, 3 July 1964.