RED PROFESSOR: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose
PETER MONTEATH and VALERIE MUNT
Wakefield Press, 2015, 373 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Australia’s secret police, ASIO, had codenames for those in the Commonwealth Public Service it suspected of spying for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. One of them was ‘Professor’. Was it Fred Rose, ask the Flinders University academics, Peter Monteath and Valerie Munt, in their biography of the Australian communist and anthropologist.
The 1954 Royal Commission into Espionage, called by the conservative Prime Minister (Robert Menzies) just before an election to capitalise on the defection of the Russian spy (Vladimir Petrov) in Australia, found nothing to warrant criminal prosecution of Rose (or, indeed, any of the suspects hauled before the Commission), despite ASIO’s feverish snooping.
Innocence did Rose no good, however, as he was tarnished by judicial insinuation as an ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘unreliable’ witness thus confirming Rose’s view that the Commission ‘subverted the principle of trial by jury’ and was intended to ‘smear liberals and progressives with lies and rumours’.
Rose, born in London to Tory parents, had been radicalised at ‘Red Cambridge’ by the failings of capitalism during the 1930s. Nazi racism, in addition, sparked his academic interest in anthropology, and a moral and political rejection of ‘bourgeois anthropology’ as pseudo-scientific gloss for imperialism’s ‘civilising mission’.
Rose pursued his scientific studies in Australia where his “scholarship and political activism converged” as he examined how Aboriginal Australians coped with the imposition of a capitalist economic order, particularly its mining and pastoralist arms. Rose opposed assimilationist policy in favour of Aborigines ‘adhering to their own culture and way of life’ based on indigenous ownership of land. He found a receptive political home in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which he joined in 1942.
As anthropology was still then an ‘amateur’ science, poorly served by universities, Rose had to earn his crust elsewhere, first as a government meteorologist, then as a senior public servant with a special focus on the development of northern Australia.
ASIO’s obsessive anti-communism, however, cost Rose career promotions, his public service job and any prospect of a university profession in the country. His professional lifeline was emigration to East Germany where he headed up anthropology at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
With this move, however, came another commitment, one willingly entered into by Rose, to spy for the East German secret police, the Stasi, in defence of what he saw as a socialist state. Rose was not alone in this – at its peak, the Stasi employed one full-time spy for every 180 citizens, not counting its even larger number of contacts and informants like Rose.
There was no cloak and dagger, no seductive allure of the international man of mystery, in Rose’s undercover life. Rather, his was the workaday, low-level observational domestic reporting on colleagues, students, friends and family.
Rose had material and professional reasons to be grateful to his new host country but there was a socialist alternative available to him as a Marxist dissident, or at least as an academic who steered clear of complicity with the Stasi.
For Rose, however, who sided with the Socialist Party of Australia after the pro-Moscow hardliners split from the de-Stalinising CPA in 1969, there was too much political capital invested in his new neo-Stalinist homeland for him to take a more self-critical stance of his undercover role in its defence. ASIO must share much of the blame for this, however, because their career-wrecking, character-assassinating frame-up of Rose forced him into the arms of their Cold War opponent.
Nevertheless, Rose, who died in 1991, could have rejected both ASIO and the Stasi, and left his reputation as a Marxist anthropologist, and an activist for Aboriginal rights, unclouded by false allegations of, and real activity in, assisting the anti-democratic states the political police serve.