Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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What prevented you from going overseas to study to be a priest?

I think it appealed to me greatly of course, the opportunity to travel, go to a centre of higher learning.

... [question repeated] ...What prevented you from taking up the opportunity to go away to study to be a priest?

In a word, I think my father. His attitude had always been that if we wanted to be little Catholics, it was alright by him, but it was another matter when it came to losing his clever son to the priesthood, putting pay to any other ambitions he may have had for me.

What do you think those were?

Well, he just thought that I would do well in something or other, he didn't know what it was, but ... [interruption] ...

... [question repeated again] ... What prevented you from going overseas to study to be a priest?

Oh, in a word, my father. As I've said, he, in accordance with the promise he'd made when he was married behind the altar, he didn't mind his children, you know, going through the harmless antics of youthful Catholicism, but it was another matter to lose his clever son to holy orders, and to see him disappear from the possibilities that he held out for him, of achieving in some field or other.

Did it matter to him a lot that you should not be a tradesman, that you should become a professional?

Oh no, he wanted ... didn't want me to become a tradesman. He had higher notions than that for me.

What was life like in Ballarat, where you spent most of your childhood, in an everyday sense? Could you describe what it was like in that household, in that environment, the life of your mother and your father and the interaction with the neighbours and the people around?

What I remember chiefly about Ballarat was the cold. For some reason that I've never worked out it's a very cold place. I remember having chilblains on my ears. I was, I suppose I enjoyed the sporting activities of the school, although I was never really a sportsman. We went to the pictures occasionally. I don't know whether my memory is correct but I think I saw Fred Astaire in Top Hat when I lived in Ballarat. That could be checked on. That was, that would have been about 1930 — no, I'm wrong, it couldn't have been then. That wouldn't have been where I saw it. I don't ... I do remember going to the films occasionally there. And we had a football team that we used to follow in the ... in the football competition there. There were half a dozen teams and we barracked for South Ballarat, which was, for some reason or other, the Catholic team, it was full of big hearty Irishmen. And that was a regular feature on Saturday afternoon. We mostly stayed home. We didn't have much money for ... to be spent on activities outside the house. We talked.

Did you have any toys?

Not that I can remember, but I suppose I did. It was, it was the time when ... there was of course no television, but radio was just commencing. I remember we had one of those cat's whisker radios. I can remember listening in to the cricket in England, in the year that Bradman took the world by storm. I used to sit up late at night, because of the difference in the times, and I can remember listening to that. We ... the old man had a sort of a musical bent. He taught himself to play the piano, and he'd bought, despite his, you know, straightened financial circumstances, he'd bought a piano. And he used to have what used to be known as singsongs. We'd sit around the piano. My sister learnt to play a little. And the old man, who had a light baritone, as he used to describe it, would sing songs, such as The Floral Dance or Drake is Going West. And that was the staple fare for people who didn't have money to splash around in those days. That's as I recall life in Ballarat.

Was your big sister good at school as you were?

No, she wasn't as studious as I was. I think she was as bright, but she wasn't, she wasn't a natural student. She was a reader all her life and she was quite a bright woman. But she really, she was a woman of her age. It didn't occur to her when she left school that she shouldn't follow the pattern of two or three years as a typist, and then meet Mr Right and then settle down and have children. I think that she really showed signs later in life of being conscious of having wasted opportunities that could have come away if she had more of a modern woman's outlook.

Despite the misery that it sometimes caused you, looking back at your Catholic upbringing, do you think you got anything positive out of it?

I ... well I ... I suppose in a sense I've been a moralist all my life. Part of my revolt against Catholicism was based on the idea, the sort of philosophical stance, that to be ... to act well, to be good, as the religious world put it, primarily because of a fear of eternal damnation, or the hope of eternal reward, was not really a very moral stance at all. I emerged from my Catholic faith, not thinking that because there was no God anything goes, you know the Nietzschean expression, but there were still values, there were still things that you should do. I don't know whether I can really say that I owe that to my Catholic upbringing. But I certainly did not emerge morally nihilistic.

And did it concentrate your mind on thinking about some of these moral and philosophical views?

Yes, I suppose it did. I mean my next religion was Marxism. The notion that the Marxists used to — well, they probably still do if there are any of them left — that Marxism was a scientifically based philosophy is of course rubbish. It's just another religion. It requires ... well it's got several articles of faith which can be disproved by a process of reason. But I always think the reason why I was a sitting duck for Marxism, pure Marxism, not Stalinism, Trotskyism, was because I was looking for a substitute for the absolute basis of morality that I'd had in the Catholic church.

Now, did you find this when you went to university?

Well, when I went to university I was only about 17. I was much too young. I was like a duck out of water at university. Everybody was two or three years older than me and you know how much that is when you're young. The difference between being 15 and being 16 was an almost unbridgeable chasm. I was out of my depth there and I was very conscious of the fact that I was a burden on my parents. They didn't have to pay any fees, but they had to keep me. So after I'd been there for a year I got a job and finished my arts course part-time, you know, night-time.

What was it about being young, what did you miss out on at university?

... [question repeated] ... What did you miss out on at university as a result of being young?

I felt out of my depth, and I was also conscious of being financially broke. I didn't have the resources that kids would have today; no matter how impoverished their background, they'd have a little bit of money to spend. Well, I can remember going for weeks without, literally without, having any money in my pocket. I would get a monthly rail fare and I'd get off at Flinders Street and then I'd walk to the university, a distance of whatever is the kilometrage of two miles. And I'd walk back from the university to the station and walk home from the station. And I literally couldn't afford to catch a bus. And I could see that other young people at the university, and almost by definition, if you're at the university you weren't among the impoverished, had a few bob to spend and I missed that. I felt out of things.

But more than that I was, I thought I was, just too much of a burden on my family. Everybody, you know, in those days, kids stayed home and ... well often until they got married. Especially women, but it was quite common for a man in his early 20s still to be living with his parents. So I thought I should get a job and I got a job, in the railways, as a matter of fact, a clerical job in the railways. Largely through my father's, my father's brother's influence. He was a bit of a big shot in the Railway Department, he was head of a department.

What were you studying at university?

Oh well, English literature, history, French.

... [question repeated] ... What did you study at university, Jim?

Oh, English literature, French, a bit of history.

Why did you choose to do an arts degree rather than any of the other things you might have done?

Well, I was oriented towards the humanities. I had some vague literary ambitions. A lot of my contemporaries would do law, but they would do arts first, and it seemed to me ... I contemplated it, I thought of doing law ... but I thought I'd be much too young to graduate as a lawyer, about the age of 19. So I decided to do arts first.

And always in your mind was the thought of possibly doing law later?

Well, it really disappeared after a while. I, even though I finished up as a lawyer, I was never one who had a reverence for the law. The law never had much of a mystique for me. I finished up in law, more or less by accident.

So how long were you at university?

Well, full-time only for a year. Melbourne University. And then a couple of years I finished it while at work.

What did your father say when you decided not to continue full-time?

Well, he understood and, you know, he didn't want me to give it up altogether, but he understood that I would continue to study, even though I was working as well.

What year was this?

Ah, well, I would have gone to the university I suppose in 1932 ... at the very depths of the Depression. Thirty-three percent of people out of work. People of today who talk about hard times have never seen them the way they were then. You could absolutely see misery on the streets.

In what form?

Oh, gaunt men sitting on benches in the park, people coming to your house asking if they could chop a bit of wood, people actually asking for handouts, people looking hungry.

Now, this made you feel that you needed to get a job, rather than you needed to get a qualification?

Yes it did. Well I knew that I needed to get a qualification, but I was more conscious of needing to earn some money.

So tell me about your first job.

Well, the railways I found ... well I don't suppose I was cut out for the public service. I found most of my fellow workers stodgy, conformist ... little suburban boys like John Howard.

What were you doing in the railways?

Oh, because of my comparative literacy, they gave me a job in the publicity department, writing about Mt Buffalo and the wonderful new train, the Spirit of Progress, and all the wonders of Victoria.

So you got ...

... Places that I'd never been to.

Oh, you'd never been?

I never got to them. They didn't tell me, I had to just work on my imagination.

So you wrote good copy?

I did, I think. But I enjoyed it for a time, and then the war was looming, and round about 1938 to ’39, most people of my generation, people who follow events at all, felt the inevitability of war looming up on them. And I became obsessed with the idea of if there was a war that it was going to be another futile war, like the First World War, an unnecessary war. I realise now that it had to be fought. Fascism was something that had to be resisted. But it struck me then, because I'd caught the Marxist bug by then, that it was a war in which the working class of the world had no real interest and what was required was an uprising against the capitalist system, which I saw as being responsible for the war situation.

How did you become a Marxist?

Well, by reading, by meeting various people who were, you know, who'd seen the light. There was one man in particular that I ran into, a man named Moroney. He was a medical student. A very ... fundamentally a very religious type. He was, what I would call a religious Marxist. I don't mean in the sense that he had any belief in God but Marxism to him was the way and the light. It was the only way out of mankind's desperate situation. He was a highly intelligent bloke, and he lent me some of his books.

How did you meet him?

I can't quite remember. I think I just met him through some friends on some social occasion. And we had a tiny little Marxist cell, Trotskyists, and we used to meet in a little room above a shop in Bourke Street, one of the main streets of Melbourne. And we became obsessed with this conspiratorial feeling that the police were watching us. You know, it was a vast overestimate of our importance. Although I've heard since that ASIO was vaguely interested in us. So we decided that we'd stop meeting there. In other words, in the romantic parlance of the Marxists, go underground. Sounds wonderful and Dostoyevskian. And we decided not to go to the room any more. And I remember one day this intense young man, Les Moroney, asking me to have a cup of coffee at a little cafe shop in the city. And he brought all of his Marxist books, a little case. And he told me he was going away for a while. Didn't specify where he was going. And he entrusted his books to me. But he was away for weeks unsighted. He'd given me the number of an uncle to ring in some sort of emergency. I could see he intended that I should ring his uncle very early.

And he went back to the room and killed himself. He was, he had this intensity, and he got depression about the state of the world. And when he'd seen me and given me the books, he'd obviously gone straight back to the room and killed himself, took some sort of lethal dose. He was, you know, he was a sixth-year medical student. He knew how to kill himself. And after he was found I remember his uncle rang me up and abused me for not having told him about this room in the city. Of course I had no ... not the vaguest notion that was what he was going to do.

What effect did this have on you?

Well, I suppose it really intensified my devotion to the cause. He was, to me, almost a martyr. A man who believed so intensely in his principles that he'd reached a stage of despair over the state of the world.

Did it make you feel despairing at all?

Well, we were all, all Marxists were a mixture of despair and rabid optimism. The ... there's no doubt that an intelligent young person looking at the state of the world where there was this immense destruction going on, and the possibility of it escalating into, as it did ultimately, into nuclear war, we took it all very seriously. And we believed, or the Marxists believed, or the pure Marxists, that the only way to put an end to the war was for the masses everywhere to rise up and throw off their chains. That was of course the great delusion of the Marxist faith. That the oppression of the masses all over the world would reach a stage where they would rise and overthrow their tyrannical masters ... [interruption] ...

Sometimes when somebody very close to you commits suicide, the person left behind feels very guilty. Did you feel at all responsible?

Yes, I did. I felt guilty. But more bewildered. He was older than me, he was several years older than me, and I thought he was a very wise and balanced man. I didn't realise that he was ... he was obviously a manic depressive, and he was a charming, highly intelligent man.

Why were you a Trotskyist?

Well, I was really saved from Stalinism by my reading. It's ... it wasn't commonly known at the time, but at the time of the Moscow trials, the great frame-up trials that started in about 1936, went on ‘til about 1938, when all of the old leading Bolsheviks, the people who'd made the 1917 Revolution, were eliminated by Stalin. Now all over the world the leading Stalinists believed in the guilt of these people, who confessed to their crimes. A commission was held at the behest of a few leftist intellectuals in America, which was called the Dewey Commission. It was headed by a prominent American philosopher, John Dewey. I suppose he's America's most famous philosopher. And he and a few other independent, mostly leftward looking people held this commission. They got the transcripts of the Moscow trials and various witnesses gave evidence. And they came up with an absolutely convincing, damning conclusion that the trials were a frame-up. Now if you're a Stalinist you didn't believe that. You've no idea just the depth of the gullibility of the believing communists in those days. And of course they were all Stalinists. There was no alternative, they thought. And Trotskyists were regarded as traitors, as being actually in the pay of the imperialist enemy. That's how gullible they were. Well, I suppose what saved me from becoming just an orthodox Stalinist was reading the account of the Dewey Commission. It did strike me at the time, when the trials were on, that it was inherently implausible that people who had worked for the overthrow of the capitalist system would then become traitors to their cause.

I was incredulous about that. But the Dewey Commission confirmed my suspicions that communism under Stalin had become a real threat to the world's masses rather than their salvation. And of course, what I should have seen, if I'd carried my thinking right through, was that the whole Marxist philosophy was actually a fraud. Well, not a fraud. Marx, of course, believed what he taught. So did Lenin. But that it was fundamentally flawed. And that Stalin, far from being just an aberration, was a natural result of the beliefs of the Marxist Leninists. I didn't draw that conclusion, because I also got on to the works of Trotsky at the time. And Trotsky of course was a very charismatic figure. He was — well he was really the leader of the actual 1917 Revolution in many senses. Lenin was the ideologue but Trotsky formed the Red Army and he was a wonderful writer, very, very ... and that's what conned me in a way. I read his history of the Russian Revolution, a massive tome. And it was so beautifully persuasively written that I really fell for it. And there were a few Trotskyists worldwide. There was a strong party in France, there was the beginnings of a party in the United States. They actually won some governmental office in, I think, Sri Lanka of all places. It wasn't a total joke. But in retrospect it was a totally unreal, fanciful notion, based on a sort of purist interpretation of Marxism.

In Australia, apart from this little group that met around Les Moroney, were there any other Trotskyists?

In Australia?

Yes.

Oh, there was this small group in Melbourne that I belonged to. And a larger group in Sydney. But they were so pure that every time they reached double figures they'd split on some question of doctrinal purity. It was a ratbag sect basically.

Now, during the time that you were going along to these meetings, did you continue to work in the railways?

Oh yes, but at a certain time ... this is another...

[end of tape]

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