Santamaria and the Movement

Book Review by Keith Harvey

Mark Aarons with John Grenville. The Show – Another side of Santamaria’s Movement. Scribe, July 2017. 288 pp

ISBN: 9781925322316

RRP: $32.99


The number of books written about the Catholic Social Studies Movement [which later became the National Civic Council] headed by B A Santamaria continues to grow. In recent years we have seen Robert Murray’s Labor and Santamaria, an update of his classic account of the split in the ALP in the 1950s and Gerard Henderson’s long awaited biography Santamaria – A most unusual man.

These added to earlier substantial books, such as Fr Bruce Duncan’s Crusade or Conspiracy, Ross Fitzgerald’s The Pope’s battalions – Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split and Patrick Morgan’s two volumes of documents drawn from the extensive personal papers of Santamaria held by the State Library of Victoria.

The latest offering has an unusual origin. It is written by Mark Aarons, a former member of the Communist Party of Australia with assistance from John Grenville, a former member of the NCC and union official at the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Federated Clerks Union (FCU)

The Show is thus the product of two people who were on opposite sides of the clash of forces that in the 1950s and beyond convulsed the trade union movement and the ALP. It was a local expression of the global Cold War.

The rise of Communist power in the Australian trade union movement led to the formation of an opposing force consisting of two strands of activists: the ALP-created Industrial Groups and the Catholic Action-inspired Movement of B A Santamaria.

Santamaria, the son of Italian migrants, harnessed the Catholic faith and commitment of the largely Irish/Australian working class to build a counterforce to the CPA with the financial support, encouragement and supervision – until 1957 at least – of Australia’s Catholic Bishops and in particular Melbourne’s Irish-born Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

All of this was, and remains, highly controversial within both the Catholic Church (see Bruce Duncan’s book in particular) and within the ALP which split after federal leader Dr Evatt denounced the role of the Movement in the ALP.

In Murray’s recent book, Graham Freudenberg, a long term ALP member and speechwriter to successive ALP leaders, wrote:

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism in 1989-91 has rendered almost incomprehensible many aspects of the Cold War to 21st century generations…the ideological threat presented…now tends to be discounted. But it was real…. (Murray, p viii)

People of goodwill have a range of views of this period of Australian history and of the methods of the Movement. Many have been highly critical. But, in The Show Aarons takes the critique of the Movement to a new – and, in my view, insupportable – level. His thesis, to which every event and document in the book seems directed, is that the Movement was modelled on the Communist Party and was, in its nature and tactics, a Stalinist operation.

Aarons says that his book was originally intended to be a parallel history of the CPA and the Movement but the result seems to be largely a criticism of the Movement with only limited references to the activities of the Communist Party.

The central theme of The Show appears to be an attempt to demonstrate some sort of moral (or amoral) equivalence between the Communist Party and the work of those who opposed Communism through the Movement/NCC.

There are, of course, some parallels: it is clear that Santamaria sought to fight a disciplined and dedicated force with an equally committed body of men and women. The key to the success of the Communist strategy was their penetration of the trade union movement. The Movement – initially in conjunction with the ALP Industrial Groups – met their enemy head-on in this field of battle.

Aarons quotes a 1944 document written by Santamaria for the Catholic Bishops saying that it was necessary to meet the Communist challenge by creating an organisation ‘completely modelled’ on the Communist Party.

Aarons seizes on this document as the base and theme for his subsequent argument. While it was undoubtedly unwise of Santamaria to use these words, this initial document does not support the thesis. Immediately after these words are used, the document goes on to define what they mean:

That is to say, we will make our qualifications for admittance very high, admitting only people who are ready to do active work for the movement and to pay a membership fee of 26/- [shillings, about $89 today] a year. [emphasis added]

Charging a membership fee of whatever level does not make an organisation ‘completely modelled’ on the CPA nor Stalinist, nor does anything else recounted in this book.

What were the defining characteristics of Communism or Stalinism as practised by the Communist movement from which the CPA drew its inspiration? In the Soviet Union the Bolsheviks came to power and Stalin maintained that power by bank robbery, mass arrests, torture, show trials, internal exile, the creation of the Gulag containing millions of inmates, as well as judicial and non-judicial murder.

The Movement and the Industrial Groups did none of these things.

In Australia members of the Communist Party rigged union ballots as the historical and legal record shows. The Industrial Groups and the Movement fought for ‘clean’ and fair union ballots in the face of opposition from the Communist party. The Chifley ALP Government legislated for ‘Court controlled’ ballots to ensure fair and democratic elections in unions.

Until the Split at least, the Movement and the Industrial Groups worked for the election of ALP members to office in trade unions and as members of parliament. The forces of the Communist Party worked against the ALP, as Aarons has elsewhere acknowledged.

The Split was a disaster for the ALP and had many consequences including the transfer of many Irish working class votes to the conservative side of politics, results of which may be seen on the Coalition front bench today.

The ALP split was not healed until the 1980s when four major unions which left in the 1950s returned to the ALP fold. But much damage had been done and many loyalties had been placed under enormous strain.

The Show tells a number of colourful tales of the contest for control of Australia’s unions. It draws on a variety of sources, including some Communist Party sources available to Aarons, some Movement/NCC records and Santamaria’s papers, as well as ASIO files and the information provided by John Grenville.

In its later chapters, The Show recounts the troubled relationship between John Grenville (for a time Clerks Union Federal Secretary) and John Maynes (FCU Federal President and NCC National Industrial Officer) and B A Santamaria.

These chapters show not so much a clash of ideas but rather a clash of personalities. The 1980s split in the NCC is well described by Henderson and Morgan. Aarons’s version of the causes of this event appears to be totally at odds with their accounts, except with respect to what he calls Santamaria’s ‘cult of personality’. His account of this later period in NCC history evokes the image of a clash of bulls in a paddock, a tale of people and ego in high places.

History is often based on the accounts and the documents left by leaders. These accounts often do not reflect the role, dedication and commitment of the foot soldiers in the conflict. The ordinary people who dedicated their lives to these struggles were often let down by their leaders who put ego, ambition, power and personal authority ahead of the causes to which they called others.

This might be the conclusion that readers of this book could reasonably come to. But the attempt to see everything that happened through a prism of alleged Stalinism weakens the impact and significance of this account.

Keith Harvey

Keith is a frequent contributor to Tinteán. He worked for the Federated Clerks Union during the 1980s and early 1990s and has written a short account of the life and times of John Maynes, former national President of the FCU (Labor History No 97, November 2009).