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Does it matter to be called a communist?

  • May 27th, 2008

I was not aware until late last evening of a passing claim on Kiwiblog, that I had been a communist. DPF was wrong, though I can understand both his impression (because I went to Mao’s China in 1976 to try to experience life on a commune), and perhaps his feeling that having been communist would be just historical trivia.


But it matters a great deal to me. Then and now I regard(ed)  leftist dupes as dangerous and often unpleasant fools. When Warren Freer procured for my travelling companion Jenny visas for China for both of us, with terms and other conditions that even the dedicated worshippers in the NZ China Friendship Society could not get,  it was the first of many delicious ironies, for I’d always seen them as dupes, and most of them would have seen me as “unreliable” if not a “capitalist roader”.


I can understand that these distinctions may seem trivial to David Farrar’s generation. They’ve grown up after Reagan defanged the monster. For them Stalin and his successors, and  Mao are historical monstrosities. They’ve never had to fear them. The remnant Kim Il Sung II (Kim Jung Il)  is a cartoon dictator, scary in a ‘monsters under the bed’  way (maybe they exist and could really catch and eat children who can’t leap into bed over the end) but David’s generation missed out on feeling that particular evil could triumph. They can’t know how close it felt at times.


I saw the fear of many people obliged to speak to us in China. In my mornings with Rewi Alley in Peking he explained the soldiers at the door, and his long house arrest by the Gang of Four.


I’d always detested the supercilious certainty of the various schools of communist who contended to stand at the top of their intellectual dung heap. Though  I argued with my parents against the Vietnam war, and for Norman Kirk’s ohu scheme, and other Labour soft socialist policy, I did not regard ANZUS as superfluous. Until I went to China I could think that Maoism was a necessary phase to end a corrupt feudalist oligarchy there, but never that communism was for New Zealand or any other people who were not desperate.


I can remember only one Communist who I could like socially (Peter Wilson, VUW Student Association President who was later assigned by the Party to work in a car assembly plant and join the Territorials, then committed suicide when it all proved to be fruitless).


Among the earnest Strelnikovs who infested leftist university politics were Don and Peter Franks. We have no known family connection, but people got us mixed in their minds. They were hard left and in reality they had nothing to do with me because we were on different sides, even then.  I came to know Peter a little after University days, and like him, but still do not know Don beyond a social ‘gidday’. His clique shunned people they regarded as class enemies. Today he is more polite than then. 


David Farrar’s generation can only know intellectually about the era when it was a genuine security risk to have universities everywhere full of willing dupes of Communism ( their dreary successors’ instinctive collectivism now  is merely evidence of the intellectual quality problem in higher education). But at the time the distinctions between liberal left and communist were very important. It seemed at the time unlikely that the US intellectual right would face down their own and the European intellectual left.


I regard the difference as important still. To me, to have been a communist remains evidence of credulity and a weakness for power and cruelty.


  • Patrick Dunford
  • May 27th, 2008
  • 11:21 am

Indeed, it is quite wrong for Farrar and others to claim that socialism is dead. Every so often the socialists go into hiding, as they did in the trade union movement of NZ during the Employment Contracts Act era, only to resurface and rebuild in the term of this Labour government. In China and Vietnam the hard core are still there in the background, building up vast armies to take on the world.

[…] posts on his blog that a gentle correction I don’t have it right. He did travel to Mao’s China to see […]

[…] Stephen Franks Do you realize, Comrade, the implications of the weapon that has been placed at your disposal?…A normally-conditioned man who has been trained to kill and then to have no memory of having killed. Without memory of his deed, he cannot possibly feel guilt. Nobody, of course, has any reason to fear being caught. Having been relieved of those uniquely human symptoms, guilt and fear, he cannot possibly give himself away. Ah, now he will remain an outwardly-normal, productive, sober, and respected member of the community. And I should say, if properly used, entirely police-proof.His brain has not only been washed, as they say… It has been dry cleaned. […]

  • Paul Williams
  • May 28th, 2008
  • 7:37 pm

Stephen, this is an interesting piece. It might have been more so were you less patronising and dismissive of people who have different perspectives from you. Here you criticise Don Franks for rudeness, yet your own language is embittered and angry; as if somehow you alone stood against the tide.


I could illustrate my reasons for using the term “willing dupes” with many stories, but two will do, one in China and one in Sweden.
Jenny and I did not fit China Travel Service’s pattern. They were set up for awed bus loads waiting to be banqueted while unseen by them the population needed ration cards. So as a pair we were attached to whatever group we chose among those where we were at the time. Often we were given English language students as guides, instead of professionals.

As friendship society members many in those groups thought to honour their hosts (or curry favour – take your pick) by bad-mouthing their own countries in comparison with China. We came to realise that despite the Communist rhetoric against our governments, nationalism is so strong for the Chinese that such behaviour was seen as bad character. Our guides accepted the ‘self loathing’ of their visitors but found it embarassing, sort of like abusing your parents – it said as much about you as your parents.

Watching a gory acapuncture eye operation one day a women was gushing about how no such marvel could ever be performed in her country (the US). After many minutes of this, pulling down his mask the gowned surgeon said in good English “Maam, I learned this in San Francisco”. It was even more surprising because at that time (the height of the Cutrual Revolution) few of the people we watched on these tour visits made spontaneous contact. It was too dangerous for them.

The other example is from Sweden. I worked there for some months later in the year of my China visit. Some of the students I met (I stayed in a student flat when not at sea on the boat I crewed on) were self avowed Maoists. They were utterly uninterested in learning anything from someone who’d actually been in China recently. I learned not to mention it. Their Maoism was just an excuse to justify vandalism, and hostility to most of their country’s successful institutions.

  • Paul Williams
  • May 29th, 2008
  • 1:00 pm

Stephen, again I find your stories interesting and I’ll not for one minute suggest that the Maoist regime was anything other than totalitarian. I’ve no idea what the others on this and other trips thought when they left. Perhaps they also realised that the promise of socialism was an illusion.

I’ve recently read McNeish’s book on Paddy Costello. Would he also fit your charge of a ‘dupe’? His was far from an uninformed or naive perspective. He appears to have mixed feelings about both the communists and the capitalists – not unreasonably I’d suggest – and yet I suspect you’d readily discount him in much the same way you have others.

I’ve not heard much from either Don or Peter Franks of late. I doubt that they’re advocates, however, for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. But I suspect they don’t agree with your specific approach public policy but this alone does not make them dupes.

[On Costello Graeme Hunt seems to me more likely to be closer to the truth than McNeish, and as to the current position of Peter and Don I did not mean to comment. Being a dupe was important was 30 years ago, before Reagan’s US won that struggle. I suspect that Peter and Don now differ, and Peter would have a much richer analysis than then. SF]

  • Paul Williams
  • May 30th, 2008
  • 6:10 pm

Stephen, I’m not sure I agree that Hunt’s more likely to be correct. It appears as if McNeish has more material to support his thesis. It’s possibly not material. My point was that Costello’s no dupe, even if he was sympathetic to Communist goals (and as McNeish argues, it’s not like conditions in the capitalist west were attractive).

  • Paul Williams
  • May 30th, 2008
  • 7:00 pm

I should have said “It’s possibly not ‘critical to the point we’ve been discussing'” rather than material. I’m sure you understood however.

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