From Communism to Civil Liberties: Autobiographical and Political Reflections

Ken Buckley

Ken Buckley, who retired as Associate Professor of Economic History at the University of Sydney in 1988, is an historian and veteran Left activist who has devoted much of his life to the defence and advancement of civil liberties. As an active leader of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Ken and his wife Berenice were recognised by the HREOC for their contribution to the maintenance of human rights in Australia. Ken is the author and co-author of a number of important books, including No Paradise for Workers, and False Paradise, co-authored with Ted Wheelwright, and a biography on Dr HV Evatt, with Barbara Dale and Wayne Reynolds. The following is the text of Ken’s address to the Sydney Branch’s Annual General Meeting, held at Sydney University on 29 March this year.

This paper originated from a discussion between myself and a member of the Union Club – that old bastion of the Establishment in New South Wales. He knew about my long­-term involvement in the Council for Civil Liberties, but it was only recently that he learned that I had been a Communist. He reckoned that there was a strong contradiction between these two activities. Offhand, I failed to persuade him otherwise. Hence this considered explanation.

I add that my questioner had derived the information about my activity in the Communist Party from a book, False Paradise, written by me and Ted Wheelwright. Published in 1998, the book has already been remaindered by its unfriendly publisher – I gather that no review copy was received by Labour History – and my wife, Berenice, is sitting here with a pile of copies for sale at a price of $8 each. It’s a bargain!

At the outset of this talk, some personal background information is useful. I was born in 1922 in Hackney, in the East End of London. My parents were working-class and my father was a life­long member of the British Labour Party. Not surprisingly, when I left school I was already a believer in socialism, with a strong sense of justice and opposition to class privileges.

I had two strokes of luck as a youth. At the age of ten I won a scholarship to a grammar school, which meant that I got a reasonably good secondary education. Then, in 1941, I gained a scholarship to Queen Mary College [QMC], the only constituent body of London University which is situated in the East End, (in Stepney). Actually, QMC was evacuated to Cambridge early in World War Two, and it shared premises with King’s College, Cambridge, when I arrived there as a student.

At QMC I found a number of like-minded students, some of them Communists, and I joined the Party – after an encounter with bureaucrats of the Cambridge University Communist Party. The secretariat of that august body, after questioning me as to what Marxist classics I had read, told the QMC Communist Party branch that I was not yet ready to join the Party. The QMC branch told the Cambridge bureaucrats to get stuffed and proceeded to admit me. In effect, the working-class comrades at QMC were not inclined to accept orders from a rather effete bunch of officials from a privileged section of society.

My decision to join the Communist Party was largely practical. I believed in a socialist future for Britain, yet I saw no prospect of the Labour Party bringing it into effect. In that supposition I was absolutely right. I was wrong about the Communist Party, but that was not obvious at the time. The party was a legal entity in Britain, it supported the war effort against Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union was by then fighting on our side – a big plus.

After a year at University – Arts students were limited to one year during the war – I joined the Army and served in the Middle East, Italy and Greece. I became a paratrooper and was a lieutenant by the end of the war in Europe. I might add that army life reinforced a distinctive feature in my character: I object to being pushed around, and I’m inclined to react strongly to attempts to bully or intimidate me. This attitude became more prominent later on, in civil liberty activities relating to police. In some quarters, I am regarded as an aggressive bastard.

Coming back to the situation at the end of the war, I resumed studies at QMC in London. I also resumed activity as a Communist, despite which I was elected to the Students’ Representative Council – admittedly, a significant part of my vote came from Engineering students, who were not very bright about politics but they knew that I played rugger for the College! Also at this time, I was a member of the Marxist Historians Group in London, the guiding light of which was Eric Hobsbawm. Outside the University, I joined in street protests against attempts by Mosley’s Blackshirts (protected by police) to march again provocatively through working-class and Jewish areas of East London as in the 1930s. Further, I joined in a picket by staff of the Savoy Hotel, who were on strike for better conditions. This sort of activity is indicative of Communist attitudes. The Party did a lot of good work.

After graduating with a First in History in 1948, and then a period of research, I obtained an Assistant Lectureship at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. From there I applied for a lectureship in Economic History at the University of Sydney. I was successful, despite an attempt by ASIO to stop the appointment. I learned about that more than 30 years later, when I obtained a copy of my ASIO file – a file which had been initiated in 1952, some months before I ever set foot in Australia. As noted in the False Paradise book, ASIO had been informed by a UK Intelligence body (probably M15) that KD Buckley was an active member of the Communist Party in Britain – true enough, though irrelevant to the job I was seeking. My war record evidently counted for nothing in Intelligence eyes.

After emigrating to Australia in 1953, 1 switched my Communist Party membership to a branch in Sydney. In both Britain and Australia, the Communists I knew were a fine bunch of people – hard-working and idealist! Very few, if any, people joined the Communist Party in the hope of making money out of it. In fact, there was a likelihood of being discriminated against in obtaining a job or gaining promotion in it. As for our view of the Soviet Union, we were disastrously wrong in failing to recognise the great defects in the regime there. We assumed, naively, that in a socialist country conditions must be improving and that there was no cause for basic criticism. Consequently, we refused to believe stories of injustice or distortions in the Soviet Union. We dismissed them all as capitalist propaganda – and indeed there was a great deal of false propaganda from 1917 onwards.

Our attitude changed belatedly in 1956, when Krushchev set the record straight. It was a horrific story: Stalin’s regime had butchered or imprisoned millions of Soviet citizens, including many Communists. Disillusioned, I and many others quit the CPR. The same happened in Britain. Among them, incidentally, was Kingsley Amis, the novelist, who had joined the Party in 1941, the same year as I did, though in his case he was a student at Oxford, not Cambridge.

It was not simply the revelations about Russia that caused people to quit the Party. After all, our political efforts had been directed towards creating a socialist society in our own country, not in some other country. No, what clinched it for me and others such as Helen Palmer was that the Communist leadership in Australia tried to cover up the Soviet revelations and to prevent party branches from discussing them. In short, democracy in the Party was strictly limited.

I had no further connection with the CPA. However, I remained politically on the Left. When Helen Palmer began to edit a non-Communist, socialist journal named Outlook, people like Ted Wheelwright, Ian Turner and I were active members of its Editorial Board. Apart from this, and drawing on my wartime experience in Greece, I became Sydney President of the Cypriot Self-Determination Committee, in which capacity I accompanied Don Dunstan on a trip to Cyprus, Athens and London. It’s probably the only political movement in which I was ever involved which achieved its main objective! (until Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in the 1970s).

I had one other interest in the 1950s. That was as honorary secretary of the Federal Council of University Staff Associations of Australia for a number of years, including the Orr case. Another interest later, in the 1980s, was editorship of your journal, Labour History.

In between times, I taught economic history, mainly Australian, and wrote a number of books and articles, including, unusually for a labour historian, a history of a company, Burns Philp.

I turn now to my main forum for extra-curricular activities: the Council for Civil Liberties (CCL). This body was established in 1963, after an incident in which I figured. Three plain-clothes cops barged into a quiet party at Kings Cross one night and made themselves thoroughly objectionable. Their leader, when questioned, gave a false name, which occasioned lot of wasted time in the following weeks when I visited police stations trying to identify him for the purpose of making a complaint. The official police line was that this person must be someone impersonating police. When I tracked him down eventually he proved to be Detective Sergeant Giles, head of the Vice Squad at the Cross.

I got no satisfaction about complaining to the Commissioner of Police. However, there was a spate of incidents at the time, indicating that NSW police were out of control. This situation was of concern particularly to young barristers involved in cases where police deliberately lied or manufactured false confessions verbals) in order to get convictions. In these circumstances, it was possible to set up a respectable CCL, concerned with censorship of literature, plays and films, along with abuse of powers by police, prison warders, and public service bureaucrats, particularly in relation to marginalised people such as Aborigines.

I was the first secretary of the organisation, an honorary position which occupied a lot of my time. There were no funds to pay for any employee. I was under threat, too, which partly explains why I acquired a faithful dog – a large Alsatian. However, I was buoyed up by the presence on the CCL Committee of a number of lawyers. Most of them were conservative in their views but they were genuinely concerned about breaches of civil liberties. Early on, I realised that it was imperative for the CCL to retain the support of these people, who were familiar with criminal law and often volunteered to act without fees in court cases involving civil liberties. Michael Kirby, now on the High Court, was one of those who did that in his early years of law practice. A number of others also subsequently became judges.

I turn now to consider some aspects of the work of the CCL, whose history is not well known. The CCL aims to protect and extend a broad range of traditional civil liberties, notably freedoms of speech, publication, assembly and organisation. These are personal freedoms, but they do not include everything that is nowadays labelled as ‘human rights’ – a title which embraces such matters as poverty, unemployment and social services. Yet, to my mind, the struggle for civil liberties, emphasising social justice and equality before the law, is an integral part of the socialist objective.

I go further. As an unregenerate Marxist – one of the old school who believes in the value of both organisation and work in broad movements – I remind you of Marxist analysis of bourgeois society in class terms, of dominant ruling groups in control of instruments of repression, notably armed forces, the police, spies, law courts and compliant media. The CCL is a partial but necessary offset to such a pattern of oppression. For example, most of the cases we defended in magistrates’ courts involved charges such as offensive language or behaviour, or resisting arrest, the defendants being generally from poor areas such as Redfern or Marrickville – plus a sprinkling of middle-class people and students arrested in protest demonstrations. Areas such as Vaucluse did not come into the picture – cops know better than to pick fights with wealthy or important people.

This is the first time that I have publicly expressed my Marxist view of these matters because I did not wish to alienate conservative supporters of the CCL; and other conservatives would have inferred a Communist plot. The leadership of the Seamen’s Union, whose members were frequently arrested in pubs in Sussex Street, did recognise the significance of the CCL, and their union became a member of the CCL, though without any attempt to influence its policy. Some other trade unions, such as the wharfies’ and building workers’, were sympathetic but they and their members did not join. The same was true of most of the individuals whom we successfully defended. The CCL was largely composed of middle-class individuals, mainly professional, not business people.

Over the years since 1963, we had a number of victories. One big one involved the breaking of the federal ban on importation of books which the Customs Department listed as obscene. The only way of challenging such a ban was to publish a listed book in Australia itself – though it might still be subject to State laws on censorship. The CCL decided to back the proposed publication in Sydney of a banned book – the Penguin
Trial of Lady Chatterley. Our contribution was to guarantee the publisher and printer that in the event of prosecution (which was quite likely) we would arrange for good legal representation without fee. As it happened, although Menzies was furious (as we now know from the CCL’s ASIO file) no prosecution was launched. We won – and it could be applied to many other publications on the banned list. The Customs Department backed down.

The CCL got virtually no public credit in this matter. Similarly, in relation to our many court victories, we gained little recognition. Our Committee had little conception of the value of publicity, and individual lawyers appearing in our cases invariably insisted on no publicity until the court case was over – by which time media interest had mostly evaporated.

Of course, we lost some cases. Also, we often wasted time in dealing with complaints from crazy people. I recollect interviewing a bloke who said that he was being persecuted by police because he was homosexual. When I asked for evidence of this, he said that police regularly searched his office before he arrived for work in the morning (he was a railway clerk). He knew that police had been there, and said that they wanted him to know that, because they left bits of paper strewn over the floor of the office. As proof, the clerk showed me an envelope stuffed with bits of paper!

As I said earlier, it was vital for the CCL to keep interested lawyers onside. The corollary was respect for their inclination to conservatism. Any attempt to turn the CCL into a radical body would have been repugnant to lawyers, and I did my best to keep party politics out of policy considerations. Of course, we had our share of disagreements on various issues.

There was a situation of potential division in the CCL in relation to the Vietnam War. Those CCL members who were opposed to Australian participation in the war realised that a CCL decision to that effect would probably split the organisation down the middle and render it impotent. So we opted for a tacit agreement for the CCL not to oppose the war but to give full support to conscientious objectors, including those who were simply opposed to that particular war. In effect, we lined up with Quakers and others. We also provided CCL observers, fitted with black armbands, at protest demonstrations as a means of checking police excesses.

Some of us went further, acting as individuals, not in the name of the CCL- Mary McNish and I were among those who were prosecuted for urging resistance to conscription laws. In my own case, after explaining my position in some detail to a magistrate, I told him that I would refuse to pay any fine he might impose. He ignored that and fined me­ $200, which I never paid. The government’s decision not to send me to gaol for failing to pay the fine was a bit of a disappointment, as I had intended to raise hell as a prisoner!

Then, last year, in relation to the looming war in Iraq, the CCL was more forthright in its attitude. There was a clear link between the prospect of war and the actuality of the imposition of very severe restrictions on civil liberties in Australia. So we joined protest marches in Sydney, with our own banner. I was there and proud of it.

I conclude on two notes. First, that although I am dedicated to the CCL – I’m still a member of the Committee, partly serving as a record of institutional memory – I also received much in return. Not only do I feel that I have made a reasonable contribution to society, but it was through the CCL that I first met the woman I later married. While I was the initial secretary of the CCL, Berenice was the initial assistant secretary. Our partnership was one of equals.

Second, I have occasionally wondered what would have happened if a Communist government had, by some chance, come to power in Australia. Would it have put up with the CCL – and me -for more than a few months? I have some doubts, but it is not worth much thought, as there was never any real prospect of a Communist government in either Australia or Britain.

What we still have is a Left movement in its various forms, notably The Greens. That’s where I belong.