April 20th 2002

  Buy Issue 2631

Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: PM leads Australia down the slippery slope

Urgent action needed to save Australia's sugar industry

The ALP and the embryonic stem cell issue

NSW Euthanasia bill overwhelmingly defeated

Report recommends relaxing controls over violent computer games

Can the Public Service be depoliticised?

Straws in the Wind: Living fossils / Engineers of human souls

Western Australia: MP looks at SA's marijuana laws

Media misrepresentation on stem cell therapy (letter)

Media bias (letter)

Refugees: where do you stand? (letter)

Water and Australia's priorities (letter)

The high price of misplaced idealism

Is the 'war on terrorism' being hijacked?

Peter Singer's utilitarianism

Books: 'The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and their Victims' by Robert Stove

Books: 'Children as Trophies?' by Patricia Morgan

Film: Some Like it Hot - a tribute to Billy Wilder

Books available from News Weekly

Books promotion page

Straws in the Wind: Living fossils / Engineers of human souls

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, April 20, 2002
Supping with living fossils

A few months ago, I lunched at a handsome old Melbourne pub, with a group of academics and a number of doctoral students. Nowadays, I rarely mix with academics, and although I knew them all, I seldom run into them. Which doesn't grieve me. It was all the idea of one very nice senior academic who loves lunches, chitty-chats, and so on.

But one reason I sidestep mixing with the lost tribes of moulting gurus who first burst upon the scene - as students - in the 1960s, is the fear of the ensuing conversations being as predictably foolish, amateurish and deluded as they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. In the main, this one was. Age had not withered, nor custom staled their infinite banality.

There is a crisis in our universities - especially in the Humanities. Masses of human tape-recorders and broken records are being retrenched or marginalised, while legions of business types, led by all-powerful bureaucrats, goose-step around the chook pen, driving away the happy snoozing inhabitants, now forced to run wild in the scrub, or seek out some foreign chook pen.

This was no ordinary chook pen; very few roosters (most knocked-off or shipped out early in the piece), hordes of capons, and squawking pullets who specialise in laying rubber eggs. Something had to go. It did. They did. There was so much lead in the saddle, that one day the old nag dropped dead.

Some of my companions, obsessed with "politics", which they had been since student union days, demanded to know why I had gone "right-wing" and write for "right-wing journals". Remember, these are grown men. I just said, "because I enjoy writing for the journals I write for". Just as you enjoy reading and quoting the daily edition of The Watchtower with its cartoons from The Tribune. What's its name? Ah yes, The Age. Or listening to our own Radio Omsk. Horses for courses. And donkeys too.

And, my obsessional friend ground on, "You're on the side of the 84 per cent of Australians supporting Howard on the boat people!" You must be a mind reader, I thought. "Yep," I replied.

At that point another Super Chalkie in ringing tones (he can't ever decide whether to play the cerebral, judgemental professor, or Hamlet, the Prince of Renmark) "Don't you realise, everyone at this table disagrees with you! You're on your own!" Then he sank back triumphantly - fanning himself with a bread roll. In fact, most people there hadn't had a chance to say anything.

Now what can one say to this green-eyed leftist piffle? Well ... "if you're grading us by intelligence, there is one who stands apart". Or another one "If you're thinking of a herd of cows mooing, say sorry, moo, boat people, moo, kill Howard. Mooooo - and at a distance stands a bull. Saying nothing. Yes I'd buy that."

No, I said, "I've wandered into a gathering of the moonies."

Brothers and sisters. The line is clear - those Americans all suffer from false consciousness. The 84 per cent of Australians also suffer from false consciousness.

Only the elite, the chosen, know what is to be done, what is right, who should be punished.

This is a spiel which started in the Reign of Terror, was continued with Marx and false consciousness (as a concept), on to Lenin and Dzerzhinsky, then Mao and Pol Pot. Definition of people with "false consciousness"? Those who disagree with you. And where are we now?

At that point I repaired to the powder room. Upon returning, it all became clear. These idealists had expected a Labor win, with all the grants, trips, fellowships, etc, that the Cosa Nostra gives to its agit-trusties and ward heelers of hand and brain. But ... Labor didn't win - so they will have to pack their swags and resume their search for new radical chook pens in unsuspecting foreign places. Global smarming. The pity of it all - but hence the present Australia-wide revenge fantasies.

I had a vision of a scene from Harry Potter with the students, carrying their wands and luggage, waiting for the train to take them to Hogwarts.

The vision changes into a station packed with nomenklatura and academic agitprop artists - briefcases bulging with yellowing, derivative hocus-pocus from the French; or their pseudo-revolutionary pasts ... waiting for the gravy train to Kleptograd. The train approaches ... then ... speeds up and roars through the station. Not stopping! The driver looks like Little Johnnie. The guard like Philip Ruddock. So, we really shouldn't expect too much sweetness and light from these grimacing wallflowers.

I drank tomato juice; so we parted good pals - me and the living fossils.

Engineers of human souls

Robert Stove has written a most engrossing book on secret police forces - domestic surveillance systems - which proceeds from the Elizabethan system under Walsingham and Cecil right through to Hoover and his FBI. (See Ian Spry's review on page 20.) What follows below is an extract from the Russian experience, part of a longer general review I have written for The Adelaide Review.

Stove's is a stimulating and most successful bringing together of much grim and melancholy history, but is enlivened by lucid and eloquent writing on Stove's part - and laced with choice witticisms from the French, and drolleries from the author. A very good read.

Russians suffered from the attentions of political police, and close inspection of their lives by "the authorities", for much longer than most European countries. The Tartar descent upon the squabbling Russia principalities in 1237 was followed by a centralised, bureaucratised empire that lasted for 250 years.

Method of control

Mongol bureaucratic flair, military virtuosity, skill at indirect rule, and bribery, enabled a quite small number of tartars to govern a much larger number of Russians. A secret police force, and prison camps for political offenders, were ways of controlling the restive subjects, along with cruel punishments and torture.

So when the Tsarist autocracy came into their own, they also saw their subjects as their vassals, and ultimately their property from the highest to the lowest.

There was customary law, statutes and regulations flowing from Moscow, but no notion of individual rights. Terms of conscription lasting 25 years were normal, while deportations to Siberia, exile and ever-present censorship, continued long after Western states had granted widespread liberties.

So, when the Bolsheviks seized power, they felt free to reinstitute rigid censorship, fill the empty Tsarist prison camps with new political prisoners, but also, to introduce the barbaric liquidation of whole classes and the massacre of opponents on a scale of which the Tsars had seldom dreamt.

Stove does not spend much time on the organisational character of the Russian state or of the secret police, but rather on the succession of characters who for a time dominated the scene; the culture of the secret police, their methods, and their attitudes to rule by terror; the use of torture and confessions; the psychology and economics of the gulag system; and the ease with which Stalin, through his secret police, and the timorous acquiescence of the party, was able to destroy all his rivals and critics, then any group or individual who stood in his way.

After meeting Stalin's needs, the security organisation was given carte blanche to act out its own likes and dislikes.

Among the dominant and often hideous characters whom the author describes here, there is only time to talk of Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), perhaps Lenin's closest and most trusted comrade, co-author of the theory and practice of rule by terror, and the leader of the first Soviet political police, the Cheka.

None of its successors, no matter how much cruelty, death and injustice they spread, could ever match the psychopathic basis of Dzerzhinsky and his avenging angels.

In 1912, Polish policemen picked him up for murder. A brief affair with a Polish girl, who bore him a child, was followed by her disappearance. Some years later he tracked her down to a brothel in Tomsk - where the girl confessed to drowning the child because she could not keep him.

Dzerzinsky beat her to death with a flat iron. Immured in Warsaw prison for 18 months awaiting sentence, he "repeatedly shook the bars .. screamed imprecations, clambered up like an animal, bit at the iron until his teeth were broken, dashed around his cell looking for something to throw" (Polish police report).

The Revolution enabled him to escape and he quickly rose to become Lenin's chief comrade and trouble shooter, i.e., mass murderer and torturer. He liked doing some of the killing and torturing himself. Thus when a Social revolutionary, Fanny Kaplan, gave Lenin the wound from which he eventually died, she was flayed with knives over the next week, forced to drink molten wax and then shot in the head by Dzherzhinsky.

Felix found it hard to sleep, working 16 hour days, seven days a week, so would go down to the Lubyanka Prison and beat up inmates - males and females - himself.

Any Cheka agent caught drinking, or engaged in sexual intrigue, was killed. A lot changed in Soviet police work after his death.

On New Year's Eve 1918, he overindulged and blubbered to Lenin, "I have spilt so much blood that I no longer have any right to live. You must shoot me now." He was right; but no doubt Lenin told him not to be a silly-billy and go off and have a sleep.


These two, the philosopher of rule by terror, and his cracked grand inquisitor, set the scene, the ground plan which followed until after the death of Stalin. On the way, Stove shows us each star in the firmament, and how it disappeared one night.

Robert Conquest thinks that the Western admirers and defenders of this system, who encouraged the people running it to pretend that they were doing well, admirers who then switched to Mao's nightmare or Pol Pot's abattoirs, when the Ruskies started getting soft, and having doubts ... have a great deal to answer for.

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