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June 28, 2006

The Culture Wars Down Under: John Wren, Frank Hardy, and Power Without Glory

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - explores Australia's culture wars by examining the continuing controversy surrounding the novel, first published in 1950, Power Without Glory.

Many readers will surely know little or nothing about the political and intellectual debates in modern Australia (where this writer lived between 1976 and 1995), and may well be surprised to learn that these disputes are not only interesting and significant, but parallel - albeit with their own local twists - the "culture wars" between the left and the right which have taken place elsewhere. I hope to explore a number of these in my forthcoming columns.

Arguably the most famous novel written in post-war Australia is Power Without Glory (1950) by Frank Hardy (1917-94). Any literate Australian will know of it and the enormous controversy it engendered. Although Power Without Glory might well be the most famous modern Australian novel, by no conceivable standards is it the best - presumably the honour belongs to some work by Patrick White. Power Without Glory is, in fact, a two-dimensional, even cardboard work which is, in its literary attainments, only a few steps up from Barbara Cartland.

The novel is a fictionalised, but allegedly true-to-life account of the career of John Wren (1871-1953).

Wren was born to an impoverished Irish Catholic family in Collingwood, a working-class slum district just north of central Melbourne, and clawed his way to the top by illegal off-track betting (the "tote"), employing thuggery, murder, and bribery to become a millionaire and a major power in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its political machine in Melbourne. Wren invariably used his political influence, according to the novel, in the interests of the Catholic right-wing of the party, and was, later in life, a dedicated anti-Communist. In Power Without Glory Wren is called "John West", but he and all other characters in the novel are based on actual men and women who are readily identifiable.

Power Without Glory was written after several years of extensive research during the late 1940s by Hardy - then a young, unknown, aspiring writer of Irish Catholic background - and other fellow-members of the Communist Party of Australia. Their aim was to use the novel as a stick to attack the ALP and its alleged corruptions, as well as what they regarded as its incorrigible and chronic sell-out to capitalism and the "Establishment". If their aim was to generate controversy, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The novel might well have made little impact but for the fact that, soon after its publication, it and Frank Hardy became the focus of one of the most famous Australian lawsuits in history. The novel alleged that Wren's wife, Mrs Ellen Wren ("Nellie West") had an affair during the First World War which produced an illegitimate child. Mrs Wren, who was still alive, unwisely decided to sue Hardy for criminal libel, a rarely-used action which, if successful would have seen the author sent to prison for many years. Reportedly John Wren, a shrewd man, laughed at the novel and wished to do nothing, but his children persuaded their mother to prosecute.

Although Ellen Wren had what would appear to have been an open-and-shut case - she did not produce an illegitimate child (as James Griffin proves in his biography of Wren) and Hardy has engaged in the defamation of a harmless old lady - Frank Hardy was, sensationally, acquitted. Hardy's legal defence was outstanding while the jury, it seems, believed that Wren was indeed a criminal who took to the law when it suited him to do so, and apparently decided to teach him a lesson at his wife's expense. The verdict was surely a blatant miscarriage of justice, with the result that Power Without Glory is the only book in Australian history legally deemed to be a work of fiction.

Frank Hardy appears to have felt lifelong guilt at his accusation of Ellen West's adultery. The Power Without Glory case became a cause celebre in Australia, and came at a time when the Communist Party of Australia was under great pressure from the newly-elected Menzies government, which wished to make it an illegal organisation.

In 1976 the novel was made into an Australian television series by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), the national broadcaster which was then moving rapidly to the cultural and political left. This television series was certainly one of the most gripping I have ever seen, and, defamatory or not, probably deserves to be internationally known.

Hardy, still a loyal Communist, wrote a sickeningly glowing account of Stalin's Russia, Journey Into the Future, in 1952, but later, like so many others, left the party and, from the 1960s on, became a pioneering campaigner for the Aborigines, especially over Aboriginal health, where he probably did some good. As a writer, Hardy showed considerable capacity for growth and development, and, by the time of his death, was arguably a great writer, as well as something of a stage "Character" (he spent four years on the French Riviera pursuing the singer Nana Mouskouri.)

Like the Hollywood Ten and the Rosenberg Case, Hardy and Power Without Glory continue to divide Australia's intelligentsia along political lines, as can be seen in two recent books, Jenny Hocking's Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life (South Melbourne, 2005) and James Griffin's John Wren: A Life Reconsidered (Carlton North, 2004).

Hocking, an Associate Professor at Monash University in Melbourne and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies there, is an avowed leftist whose previous works include such titles as Terror Laws: ASIO, Counter-Terrorism and the Threat to Democracy (ASIO is Australia's intelligence gathering body, similar to MI5) and Beyond Terrorism: The Development of the Australian Security State. Normally, today's leftwingers are highly critical of Soviet Communism and far from blind to the horrors of Stalin. Her biography of Hardy, however, seems intent at portraying him in as favourable a light as possible regardless of circumstances, and certainly whitewashes his support for Stalinism in the 1930s and 1940s while at the same time gratuitously attacking Australia's conservative politicians of that era, especially Robert Menzies.

That Hardy and his associates supported a regime which murdered millions of innocent people is entirely ignored, although it is difficult to believe that any academic historian today is unfamiliar with Stalin's record. In contrast, Menzies is depicted as a virtual pro-fascist and dangerous reactionary, entirely ignoring the fact that it was Menzies who, in September 1939, declared war on Nazi Germany, in defence of Britain. At that time, the Soviet Union had just (23rd August 1939) signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, meaning that it, and its supporters, were de facto allies of the Nazi regime. According to Hocking (p. 27):

Hardy was one of many who publicly maintained the Party line [supporting the Pact], yet claimed to have privately argued against it.
She provides no evidence that he actually did so.

In the period between September 1939 and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Germany conquered most of continental Europe, imposing Nazi terror everywhere, moved the Jews of Poland into closed ghettos where thousands perished, and levelled many cities in Britain, then fighting alone, to rubble in air raids. The Australian Communist Party was silent on all of this and were, as noted, de facto allies of the Nazis, with Stalin, as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, helping himself to the eastern third of Poland, the Baltic states, and Moldavia. But according to Hocking's book, it was not Hardy and the Communists who were at fault, but Robert Menzies and the Australian government, invariably depicted as villains in her work.

Hardy appears in a very different light indeed in James Griffin's John Wren: A Life Reconsidered. Wren was an Irish "wide boy" from the slums, who made a fortune providing harmless fun deemed illegal, due to Evangelical pressure, by the authorities, but was otherwise an unusually upright man who committed none of the crimes alleged by Hardy and his detractors. Based on very deep research, it is a convincing account of the historical nonsense written about Wren and his alleged crimes, all of which - his murders, his thuggery, his political corruption - are manifestly untrue or wildly exaggerated. For Griffin, Hardy was "a literary hoodlum" (p. 385), who was not even the sole author of Power Without Glory, a work apparently researched chiefly by other local Communists.

Griffin depicts Hardy as a compulsive liar who distorted the most basic facts about his early life, a drunken, self-centred adulterer in his private life (Hocking's work often agrees, adding details). Griffin's book is listed (p. 297) in Hocking's bibliography, but is apparently not mentioned or discussed in her book.

There is, as well, the underlying question of why Wren was singled out for attack. Although a rich man, he was, after all, a marginal figure from an immigrant background whose activities were at the economic fringes. Hardy and his associates must have known that it was nonsense to assert that he politically "controlled" Melbourne, as was sometimes alleged.

Hardy and his fellow Communists were concerned with the rising tide of Catholic, right-wing penetration of the ALP and the trade unions, led by the seminal figure of B. A. Santamaria (1915-98), his Catholic Social Movement, and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. Wren was seen as close to these figures and the Movement's fund-provider, although, as always, Wren's role appears to have been exaggerated.

More fundamentally, there is the question of why Wren in the first place, and not some Anglo-Protestant banker or newspaper tycoon, some key figure in the Melbourne Club/Collins Street mafia of Anglo-Protestant upper class magnates close to the City of London, who figured so prominently in left-wing propaganda of the time? Communists critical of Hardy's novel - there were some - were perfectly aware of the anomaly of centrally attacking an Irish Catholic gambling king from the slums rather than a pillar of the Anglo-Protestant "Establishment" and, in Power Without Glory, Wren is (Griffin, p. 2): reminded

by a certain "Baineton"…that ultimate power lies with the mining directors and bankers, not with an upstart from Collingwood.
"Baineton" was meant to be W. L. Baillieu, the so-called "Money King of Australia", whose son Clive was given a British peerage in 1953. Traditional Protestant hostility towards Catholics and their influence in Australia, the so-called "sectarian issue", was still alive and well even in the 1940s, and it has been repeatedly rumoured that much of the funding for the research on Hardy's novel, and the costs of his legal defence, actually came from Protestant and Orange order extremists and pillars of the Melbourne Club "Establishment" rather than from left-wing sources. (Griffin, pp. 392-4).

Ironically, the success of Power Without Glory probably owed less to ideology and even to Hardy's trial than it does to the novel's unquestioned power as the saga of a man, his rise to the top, and the corruption this entailed. Power Without Glory has a great deal in common with Citizen Kane and the Godfather trilogy, often said to be the greatest films ever made in Hollywood, which also recount the rise and fall of men and families who are morally corrupted and destroyed by power and money. Good old-fashioned story-telling, and an archetypal morality tale about wealth and power, depicted in Australian terms, have arguably been chiefly responsible for the book's success. Yet the issues of politics, ideology, and historical truth it raises still have the power emotively to divide.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. The Social Affairs Unit is publishing a fully updated and revised edition of Prof. Rubinstein's seminal Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution. To read William D. Rubinstein's other essays on the Australian culture wars, see: The Culture Wars Down Under: Keith Windschuttle, the Aborigines, and the Left - Part One
and The Culture Wars Down Under: Keith Windschuttle, the Aborigines, and the Left - Part Two.

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A good article, but I would substitute "Australia" with "Melbourne" wherever appearing. And, as Sydney is the capital of Australian culture as well as its business and financial capital, I would suggest that a Melbourne controversy isn't really going to be of much importance in the Australian cultural wars.

Far more important are the recent "History Wars" in which a Sydney historian has taken on and defeated the leftist academics over their fabrication of massacres Aborigines in Tasmania in the 19th Century.

Posted by: Peter L at June 30, 2006 04:49 AM

Re the comment by Peter L, I intend to discuss Keith Windschuttle and the attacks upon him in my next column. I agree this is a more important topic. In 1950, it would seem that Melbourne and Sydney were still rather worlds apart, divided by the famous rivalry between the two. The Communist/Catholic divide mainly affected Melbourne, in part because Archbishop Mannix lived there.

Posted by: Prof. Bill Rubinstein at July 1, 2006 08:10 AM

My personal knowledge of Frank Hardy relates mainly to his constant passing of dud cheques in the early 80s. From grocery bills to fags. He could have gone to jail on an almost daily basis and yet, no one called the police. The guy was a cove to the end but an amoral cove at that. He had no qualms getting money by deception.

Posted by: Peter B at September 29, 2006 02:02 PM
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