Tuesday, 7 October 2014


WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE COLD WAR, DADDY? Personal Stories From a Troubled Time
NewSouth, 2014, 297 pages, $34.99 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The Cold War (1946 - 1991) affected everything, so how did the conflict between the capitalist West and the Soviet East play out at the personal level, ask Ann Curthoys and Joy Damousi (History professors at Sydney and Melbourne universities) in What Did You Do In The Cold War, Daddy?  The book’s contributors try to recreate how their families experienced the Cold War in Australia.

Patrick Stalin Brislan (fortunately, this classical musician’s middle initial now stands for Sean) was the wartime son of a father who was, not surprisingly, a Communist Party of Australia (CPA) organiser, and he recalls the trouble his middle name threatened on top of the “personal physical violence” he already received from his school peers.

George Zangalis, of Greek anti-fascist familial origins, found support as a migrant worker in the CPA  as he encountered double Cold War jeopardy, being told by a police officer when arrested as a CPA election candidate in Victoria in 1973 that ‘What’s worse than a commo bastard is a dago commo bastard’.

John Docker (culture academic) remembers the struggle between doctrinal purity and friendship as political rifts split the Old Left, including his own arguments over the New Left with his father, Ted, a founding member of the CPA.

Children of both the expelled and the expellers sense an emotionally fraught atmosphere in a party which was often enough the author of its own misfortunes because of its slavish adherence to a Moscow-imposed party line.

The temperature was cooler over at the Australian Labor Party (ALP).  Rodney Cavalier (party ‘machine operative’) was the son of an ‘unthinking Liberal’ and was unmoved by the sixties in university until, in 1968, he joined the ALP, not the  students who were ripping up Parisian cobblestones and capitalist verities.  ‘Never attracted to Marxism’, he found the serenity of often inquorate but career-smoothing ALP branch meetings more comforting.

For the ALP more broadly, the Cold War meant the wary and stumbling choreography between its Right and ‘Left’ factions, and the CPA, for union influence in the face of ‘The Movement’, B. A. Santamaria’s visceral anti-communist, anti-Labor, Catholic organisation.  The political manifestation of ‘The Movement’ was the Democratic Labor Party which housed Peter Manning (ABC and commercial journalist), from a conservative Catholic family, during his time at Sydney University, and it took many years for him to see that, at least on the Vietnam War, it might be better to be red than dead.

With Professor Martin Krygier, the historically sloppy and politically lazy equating of the left (all shades) with Stalinist authoritarianism is on display as he inherited the stale anti-communist formula which justified the switch of his father, Richard, from Polish socialist to leading Australian anti-communist and founder of the CIA-funded magazine, Quadrant.

For conservatives like the Krygiers, the Cold War was always about the class war, no matter how they dressed it up as a fight between tyranny and ‘liberal democracy’.   Stalin’s gulags and ‘the God that failed’ were only ever excuses for the reactionary social policies, intellectual conformity and ‘free enterprise’ economy that were their true religion.

Few contributors, alas, meet the, admittedly difficult, brief of the book’s editors.  As young children, informed political awareness of the Cold War was not possible so their contributions rarely bring off a successful merger of history with memoir, anecdote with analysis.

Nevertheless, their chapters can be productively compared to show that, for all its self-inflicted faults, the historical communist left in Australia, and not the Cold War Right, were on the truly right side, the side of the exploited and oppressed many, not the powerful and wealthy few.  The Cold War may be over but the class war goes on.

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