Wednesday, 11 December 2013

UNDESIRABLE: Captain Zuzenko and the Workers of Australia and the World by KEVIN WINDLE

UNDESIRABLE: Captain Zuzenko and the Workers of Australia and the World
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2013, 274 pages, $39.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

On the 7th of November, 1917, when the Winter Palace was stormed in Petrograd, sealing the victory of the Russian revolution, Alexander Mikhailovich Zuzenko, one of the revolution’s most loyal servants, faced a local court in Ingham in northern Queensland, where he worked on the canefields, and was fined 10 shillings for losing his ‘aliens registration certificate’.  Zuzenko was tragically to pay a much heavier price two decades later under Stalin, writes Australian National University academic, Kevin Windle, in Undesirable.

The young Latvian revolutionary had hurled himself into Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution, dodging the post-uprising repression by escaping to Australia where thousands of other Russian exiles and job-seekers were concentrated in the labour-hungry workplaces of Queensland.  Zuzenko was one of their leaders, in the militant and anti-war Union of Russian Workers and the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Attacked by violent patriots in Brisbane and arrested for carrying a banned red flag, Zuzenko was deported to Russia in 1920, where the former anarchist joined the Bolsheviks, now seeing anarchism as pretty much the same thing as Bolshevism, not least in the proclamation that the ‘complete abolition of the state’ was the end aim of the Moscow-based Third, or Communist, International, the organising body for world socialist revolution.

Zuzenko’s Australian experience impressed Lenin and he was assigned to establish an Australian communist party which he successfully forged from the rival claimants before being arrested and again deported in 1922.  In Russia, Zuzenko found an exhausted socialist state where idealism was in reluctant retreat against the chaos and dislocation from civil war, invasion, blockade, political isolation and economic backwardness.

Undaunted, Zuzenko became captain of the Smolny in the Soviet merchant fleet on the Leningrad-Hamburg-London route.  Zuzenko relished his role as unofficial envoy of Soviet Russia, once teaching an on-board English jazz band the tune of the Marxist anthem, the Internationale, much to the delight of the dockside German audience other than the fuming Nazi brownshirts.

Zuzenko wasn’t to have known it at the time, however, but his travel to capitalist countries provided some of the hostages to fortune in the murderously paranoid new Stalinist reality, along with his anarchist past, his ship’s costly accidents and long lay-ups for repairs (when the labels of economic ‘saboteur’ and ‘wrecker’ carried great jeopardy) and his prominence as an ‘Old Bolshevik’, the politically heroic and visionary socialist generation targeted for liquidation by Stalin at the head of the rising new class of privileged party-state bureaucrats.

It did Zuzenko no good to denounce, at a crew meeting in 1937, the ‘vile Trotskyites and Rightist renegades’ who were framed at Stalin’s ‘Show Trials’ in Moscow.  Peril awaited even those most admiring of Stalin.  Awareness of the bankruptcy of the Stalinist regime came too late to Zuzenko who, shortly after complaining in private of the ‘fascism’ sweeping Soviet Russia, was shot during the purges of 1938 as a ‘British spy’.

Windle regards Zuzenko’s tragic end as the shameful murder of “a brave and lifelong revolutionary”.  Windle shows a Zuzenko who, as a journalist, may have been woodenly didactic but who made up for his lack of literary flair with the energy and drive of a tireless organiser and the commitment and sincerity of a motivational leader.  As even his Australian secret-police taggers conceded, Zuzenko’s ‘fluency and forcefulness as a speaker’ rightly scored him high on political effectiveness.

Zuzenko’s political competencies, however, came at the cost of a sometimes divisive bluntness when berating local communists for ideological deviation, organisational incompetence and lack of revolutionary ardour.  Zuzenko, a veteran of high political and industrial drama in revolutionary Russia, also tactlessly vented his frustration with the ‘apathy and inactivity’, and xenophobia, of the Anglo-Saxon proletariat.

In the end, however, what betrayed Zuzenko’s socialist hopes were not these hurdles but Stalin’s counter-revolution.  Windle, despite his warm regard for Zuzenko, is dismissive of his socialism – an ideology, says Windle, which may once have had some potency but which “now belongs firmly in the past”, a “misguided conviction” of purely historical interest.  To so blithely dismiss what inspired Zuzenko, with no consideration of the new language, forms and political fronts of a still-evolving socialist politics, is to betray Zuzenko and the other Bolshevik pioneers of socialism a second time.

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