Saturday, 30 June 2012

AN EYE FOR ETERNITY: The Life of Manning Clark by MARK McKENNA

AN EYE FOR ETERNITY: The Life of Manning Clark
The Miegunyah Press, 2011, 793 pages, $54.99 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

In a Gallup Poll in 1988 on popular figures in Australia, Manning Clark, Australia’s first professor of Australian history, came in 21st, pipping John Howard, Shadow Treasurer and future Prime Minister, by one spot.  This slight was to be avenged by Howard, as Mark McKenna’s biography of Clark shows, as part of the offensive against Clark by a hit-squad of right-thinking reactionaries.

Howard said he was 'nauseated' by Clark and the cultural left, eagerly joining in the condemnation of Clark, after his death in 1991, by conservatives for what historian Geoffrey Blainey in 1993 called Clark’s ‘black armband history’ which highlighted what Clark identified as the 'three great evils' of the coming of the British to Australia - violence against the original inhabitants, violence against the first European convict labour force and violence against the land itself.

Howard’s outburst followed a long history of Liberal parliamentarians taking a stick to Clark, beginning in 1947, alleging that Clark was a communist spy, a fiction which was picked up by the Brisbane Courier-Mail fifty years later whilst Les Murray, the poet and literary editor of the CIA-funded journal Quadrant, chimed in with a venomous smear against the 'traitor Clark who was a hero of left-leaning intellectuals’.  ASIO dutifully played along, considering Clark to be 'someone to be watched'.

The charge that Clark was Stalin’s spy proved to be the baseless figment of malicious gossip but the right were right to fear Clark, a progressive public intellectual who had begun life as the son of a clergyman in 1915.  Melbourne University in the thirties educated Clark on war and fascism and he took a real and risky anti-fascist stand when leaving a visit to Hitler’s Germany in 1938 “wearing a huge black velour sealskin coat stuffed with gold watches and other treasures given to him by the Jews he met in Bonn for safe transport to England”, an action quite at odds with Les Murray’s subsidiary slander that Clark was an anti-Semite.

Clark’s long dalliance with the left continued, incongruously, as a History teacher at Geelong Grammar, a “God and Empire” school for the rural bourgeoisie, where he regularly cycled twelve kilometres to buy his copy of the Communist Party of Australia’s Worker's Weekly.  At the same time, Clark was also flirting with Catholicism and whilst he believed in 1944 that 'socialism is the best organisation of society’, this ideological commitment was, adds McKenna, grounded “as much in Christian compassion for the poor as it was in political theory”.

As a professional historian, Clark turned his taste in history for “grand, romantic, epic, character-driven literary narratives" to what was to be his massive, six-volume A History of Australia.  History must tell a story and be alive to human emotion, Clark believed, but this approach had its critics who, with some justification, faulted Clark’s focus on individuals at the expense of political and economic, and social and cultural, forces.  Clark’s imaginative recreations proved popular, however, and readers forgave his often overblown prose and factual inaccuracies for the sake of a good, dramatic read. Clark “made the dead live”, says McKenna.

Clark’s popularity agitated his right wing critics.  His books sold like hotcakes, his 1963 Short History of Australia topping a quarter of a million, making it on to school reading lists and being serialised in tabloid magazines like Pix, “flanked by bikini-clad models and man-eating crocodiles”.   Clark’s abridged history also resonated with popular discontents, describing a fledging nation “left prey to the materialism and greed of the bourgeoisie”, and pulled no punches in its criticism of post-war anti-communists. 

The professional Red-haters cranked up a mud-slinging campaign, seeing in Clark’s three trips to the Soviet Union evidence of taking instruction in his secret career as a Red spy.  Whilst Clark’s romantic yearning for the utopian promise of the 1917 Russian Revolution could lead him to soft-pedal his comments on the Soviet Union, Clark was in fact revulsed by the Stalinist betrayal of the revolution, noting in his diary how Lenin’s vision had “rotted in the minds of his successor”. 

Not of any interest for the intellectual bruisers of the right were the less-than-Bolshevik inconveniences of Clark’s rejection of Marxist philosophies of history, his individualism which meant he would never align himself organisationally with the socialist movement, his claim to “stand above the fray of Left and Right” and thus antagonise both, his membership of the editorial board of Quadrant, his more-Pope-than-Marx religiosity, his view of the university New Left as 'hideous', and the limits of his leftism (an ALP supporter, in Whitlam he thought he had found his Messiah).

The right’s target, as ever, was not some fictitious espionage agent but Clark’s left-wing and progressive advocacy as a national celebrity whether during the Cold War (when anti-communist hysteria tarred all dissent with the communist brush) or in his later years of opposing the ‘intellectual torpor” of 23 years of conservative rule from 1949 to 1972 and his support of the anti-nuclear, anti-war, pro-environment and Aboriginal rights movements (Clark once disrupted a Ku Klux Klan meeting in North Carolina, abusing the hooded racists as 'strutting galahs').

Clark became “the central figure in the war over the nation's past” because history is also a battle over the nation’s present and future.  Through all the sometimes overwhelming minutiae about Clark’s colourful private life, McKenna’s biography rarely loses sight of how Clark’s practice of “engaged scholarship” was the outcome of his political view that those who have been on the losing end of history need not, and should not, always be so.

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