Part of the literary and political heritage of the Canberra region has been hidden under a bushel this year. No one seems to have realised that this year marks the centenary of the birth of a young man from the southern tablelands who later trod in the footsteps of the great George Orwell.
This regional echo of the Indian-born and Eton-educated author of Nineteen Eighty-Four was a Labor stalwart named James Joseph Maloney. Born in Goulburn in 1901, almost precisely two years to the day before Orwell, Maloney travelled a strikingly similar route from dissident socialism to Cold War anti-totalitarianism.
The young Jim Maloney embraced trade unionism after being apprenticed at Baxter’s boot factory in Goulburn. By 1932 he was the state secretary of the bootmakers’ union in Sydney.
At the height of the Depression Maloney mixed with socialist zealots who chafed at Jack Lang’s dictatorial control of the ALP in New South Wales. After 1936 internal tension culminated in a struggle for power in an antipodean equivalent of the civil war that Orwell witnessed in Spain. Right-wing Langites opposed a united front of
left-wing Laborites and Communists.
The rebels’ power base was the NSW Labor Council and they eventually organised themselves into a rival state ALP branch. Maloney was prominent in the affairs of the rebel state branch.
In 1939, when Lang was deposed as state parliamentary leader, a vacuum was created which was filled by covert Communists who infiltrated the official state ALP machine. This was a grave embarrassment to the parliamentary party in Canberra led by John Curtin.
Maloney had to make a choice between the two camps. Severing his links with the militants, he opted for Curtin. At party conferences Maloney, blessed with a powerful voice, enforced moderate resolutions and silenced left-wing interjectors.
In 1941 Maloney defeated the Communist candidate in a crucial election for the Labor Council presidency. He was rewarded by being appointed to the New South Wales Legislative Council.
The Communists responded by seeking to undermine Maloney’s position in his union. Unless he had its backing he could not attend ACTU national congresses where he was a leading anti-communist speaker.
The astute Curtin killed two birds with one stone when, at the height of the Second World War, he appointed Maloney as Australia’s Minister to the USSR. By doing so he removed a major irritant to the then ultra-patriotic Communist Party from the local scene while Maloney’s hard won anti-communist credentials ensured that he
could be trusted not to allow his dispatches from Russia to be distorted by uncritical pro-Soviet views.
In 1946 Maloney returned to Australia, now in the grip of the Cold War. His stint in Russia gave him the credibility to lead an attack on the pro-Soviet idolatry of the Communist Party which menaced the Chifley Labor government through its connection with disputatious trade union militants.
In a series of newspaper articles and radio broadcasts in which he discussed his time in Russia Maloney detailed a dismal story of political dictatorship, censorship, surveillance by the secret police, scarce and expensive consumer goods, labour camps and the ruthless exploitation of workers in factories and collective farms.
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