from the editor's desk

Australia and Asia: Dr. Burton’s Challenge

Editor’s note: This post is part of the second instalment in Henry Ward’s archival project that researches Westerly‘s engagement with the Indian Ocean region.

The article was originally published in Westerly 1:1, 1956.

by T. M. Artingstoll



Australia has confused its fear of invasion with its fear of Communism. Hence, because of the ANZUS pact she is helping to rearm the Japanese, whom she fears may one day invade her, to help her against Communist “aggression”. But in so doing she is assisting in bringing about the very conditions in South-East Asia which give rise to Communism.

Anyone who reads Dr. John Burton’s book (“The Alternative”, Morgans Publications, 9 Castlereagh St., Sydney) will find the facts to support this argument, along with many other informed arguments on contemporary world politics. To that travelled and politically progressive section of the Australian public his book appears like a breath of fresh air amid the noisome turgid odours of present-day politics in this country.

Dr. Burton figured prominently on the political scene when he and Professor Fitzgerald attended the Bandung Conference, April 18-24, 1955. Australia had not been invited formally to attend and it is doubtful if she would have done so had an invitation been issued to her. Consequently a furore was raised when these two prominent Australians appeared at the Conference, even though they continually reiterated that they were there as private citizens only.

Dr. Burton has presented the reading public with the book to which the writer of this article has previously alluded; and it is the latter’s opinion that anyone who reads it without sectarian prejudice cannot fail to benefit in informal knowledge on present world affairs.

“Western leaders also take comfort from the belief that religious repression and the absence of democratic processes will ultimately destroy communist societies” (p. 9).

Dr. Burton refutes the common fallacy presented above, remarking that the West, particularly the United States, is gaining a dangerously one-sided impression of the internal security of communist states by listening to this sort of propaganda. From Australia alone a large number of missionaries and ministers, including scholars in contemporary religion, in their writings and provision of financial statistics, and often personal tours of Communist states, have supported the view that reports of religious suppression and persecution have been greatly exaggerated.

In a later context, Dr. Burton refers to the alleged persecution of Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary (p. 98). Pressure by the Roman Catholic Church on the Australian Labour Party caused the latter to take an active part in the United Nations Organization discussion on the subject—”in spite of clear warnings based on completely reliable information that this Cardinal was certainly guilty of treasonable acts. His refusal to recognise the new Republic of Hungary, his insistence on his position as ‘first dignitary of the Common Law’, his political activity in opposing land reform, and in conspiring with foreign powers, far exceeded the rights and duties of any priest or citizen to oppose a government of which he disapproved, yet Australia defended him”. That there are two sides to most religio-political questions may be readily tested by the anti-Communist reader, if he reviews the British treatment of Archbishop Makarios in a similar situation in the Cypriot struggle for independence.

Lest any Catholic perusing this takes Dr. Burton’s remarks on Cardinal Mindszenty as a narrow-minded sectarian attack on his Church, a glance at a later comment of his should remove the misconception. “There can be no objection in a democratic system to minority activity as such,” writes Dr. Burton (p. 106-7). “Taking the Roman Catholic Church as an example, it is an organization with beliefs and a philosophy, and as such it has a duty in a democratic community to express its opinions. . . . It is being too idealistic to suppose that all the groups within the community would approach every problem from the viewpoint of the community as a whole. . . . If the Roman Catholic Church, financial interests, and other groups, exercise by one means or another an influence out of proportion to their numbers, it is because other sections of the community are not taking the active part in Australian political life that they should. At the same time there are special opportunities for political pressure available to certain groups, usually for some historical reason.” This applies in Australia both to the Roman Catholic Church and to financial interests.

To those acquainted with a little Australian political history it may be common knowledge that the Australian Labour Party was founded originally by Irish immigrants who were also mainly Roman Catholics. This is observed in passing to illustrate at least one of the “historical reasons” why certain groups have “special opportunities” to exert political pressure when they so desire.

Dr. Burton writes sympathetically of the weak point in the Australian Labour Party. The weak point being that any socialist party is nowadays peculiarly prone to charges of being Communist. “Communism has never had much influence in Australia. From time to time it has been exaggerated for party-political purposes,” he alleges (p. 99). When Labour was in power after the last war this ideal line of attack (politically) was kept up by the Menzies Opposition at every opportunity, especially as the Labour Party had shown itself to be so sensitive to it. All community difficulties, strikes, etc., were alleged by the Liberal Party to be the work of Communists aided by the Australian Labour Party. “By exaggeration and invention the power and influence of the Communist Party were made to appear much greater than they were, and overnight the Communists, much to their surprise no doubt, became a force within the community” (p. 100).

But whatever the powers of Communism in the Australian community may or may not happen to be, the disturbing fact must be faced by the Western nations at large, that Communism is now securely established as an economic and political system because of a variety of reasons. Among them are its undeniable benefits to under-privileged peoples, such as the Chinese were under British and American exploitation; and its ability to withstand change, as can be seen by the difference between the Chinese and Russian forms of Communism. Another success of Communism, sadly lacking in the West, is its ability to make all sections of the community feel that they are taking an active and responsible part in its economic and political life.

“For the West to believe otherwise is a dangerous delusion,” states Dr.Burton (p. 12). “Many official statements are being made, especially by President Eisenhower, suggesting that Communist countries must in due course crumble from within … it may prove disastrous, if the idea is built up that there are oppressed Communist peoples only waiting to welcome their liberators from the West.” However, Dr. Burton infers that such moves are not due to the political naivete of some leaders so much as dictated by political expediency, for example to get a War Appropriation budget passed.


Under-developed Countries

Whilst it is true that Communism is firmly established in most Communist states, it is also true that Communism is spreading. The reason is given by Dr. Burton, along with the message that the Western nations have little to fear from it, and possibly great benefit will accrue. “The fact is that Communism or at least many features of it, is better suited to the immediate and urgent needs of under-developed countries than is Capitalism.” (p. 13). The West has shown an understandable desire to maintain the best of its own political and economic institutions in the face of what may appear to be Communist attempts to overthrow them. But the integration of bad institutions with good institutions tends to promote the maintenance of out-moded forms of politico-economic practices to the detriment of under-privileged peoples. As Professor P. A. Baron is quoted as saying, “The keepers of the past cannot be builders of the future”.

Yet, where the people of a country have been granted their independence, the threat of Communism has been considerably mitigated. “The tendency has been to draw upon Capitalism, Communism and every other philosophy in the way which seems best suited to their own needs, and a desire for freedom from every foreign influence is always evident” (p. 14).

India and Indonesia and probably the new government in Ceylon are examples of this trend.

Eventually Dr. Burton makes the challenge—”The assumption is that the spread of Communism is not a natural development but arises out of aggressive intent. Where has there been such aggression; and where is it threatened?” (p. 15).

Communism was not a factor in the cases where India, Ceylon and Pakistan gained their independence. It had little to do with forcing the Dutch out of Indonesia. And a glance at recent developments in Indo-China will show that the fighting there was not originally due to Communist machinations. What is now called the Communist Vietminh movement was originally a nationalist movement aimed at gaining independence from French colonial rule. Allegations of Chinese Communist intervention were denied by French military authorities as soon as they were made, yet American intervention was plainly noticeable.

The case of Korea is more difficult of solution, and because of the close proximity of two ideologies at the 38th parallel, namely American forces and North Korean Communist forces, is unlikely ever to be solved. For a single minor incident could ignite a major conflagration if one or both of the governments concerned were aggressively inclined.

“Even assuming there was active intervention by Soviet agents in these countries and in Western Europe, there is nothing to show that this intervention exceeded American interference in elections and domestic politics in Greece, Italy, the Philippines and Austria, to name but a few countries. The Communist countries did nothing which compares with the establishment of military bases encircling Russia and China, and with the employment of hundreds of thousands of service and administrative personnel by the United States outside their own country…. Most probably it (Communism), would have spread had there been no Communist nations. The spread of one system more rapidly than another does not make aggressors out of countries which have that system.” (p. 18)

Yet there is little likelihood of Communism penetrating within the boundaries of those nations which possess the more developed forms of democratic processes and economic justice. The trend could be seen after the first World war when Communism spread rapidly through those European countries where parliamentary processes failed to give opportunities of political power or influence to socialist parties.

Naturally the Communists deny that their particular philosophy will not penetrate the developed democracies for one of their fundamental tenets is that Capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Yet Marx was necessarily referring to the Capitailism of his own epoch, not the modified forms which exist today in countries like Britain, Australia and New Zealand. National Communist parties by their persistent maintenance of what is probably now an old-fashioned politico-economic analysis have themselves contributed to the fear of Communism in the West.


Aggressor Nations

Indeed, the Communist nations have a direct interest in positively avoiding aggression in any circumstances unless directly threatened as may have occurred in Korea. “Russia and China have within their own borders an agricultural and industrial potential adequate to ensure for many years to come a steadily improving standard of living” (p. 23). Their problems are internal domestic ones of organising resources and means of production, not the Western problem of acquiring resources and expanding their markets. Looked at like this, it is easy to see another side to the penny of who are the aggressor nations.

But in taking the war into the enemy’s camp like this, Dr. Burton sees a difference between Britain and America. The former can trade successfully on the barter system favoured by Communist countries. They have also developed successfully methods whereby private enterprise in Britain can negotiate intelligibly with socialist governmental buying systems in other countries. But America poses a different problem. Her economy is less systematised than that of Britain, and of course, the Communist countries. American economy is subject to frequent and severe fluctuations; and it is a well-known economic fact that in such systems it is necessary to export large quantities of farm and industrial produce and to promote investment overseas. “Dumping practices, gifts, the supply of war materials and trade posts which seek special privileges for United States investors, are all symptoms of internal problems” (p. 28).

The American economist James Warburg is quoted as saying—”… money must be got rid of in one way or another if our economy is not to go into a tailspin . . . . For the immediate future, we must contemplate public investment abroad on a large scale immediately our military expenditures are reduced”. (p. 28)

Owing to her unplanned economy America is in danger of becoming a “have-not” nation as regards natural resources. The Editorial of The New York Times remarked in 1951, “… to the extent that we are increasingly dependent upon foreign sources we are coming to be increasingly vulnerable to interruptions in supply consequent upon political developments or in wartime interruptions to shipping” (p. 29). (My emphasis.)

In view of this and what has been said before, even a prejudiced Communist reader would be fully justified in becoming alarmed at reading such a paragraph in a leading newspaper—think of the effect in the West if this Comment had been attributed to a Russian governmental decision. It certainly provides at least one sound economic reason as to why America personally is concerned at the spread of Communism which denies her the right to make use of other countries to dump her unwanted produce, and refuses her the privilege of investing money in industry in such countries, and utilising the profits for her own use. Much of the recent upheaval in Argentina may be understood as an American fear that President Peron, in his socialistic zeal, represented a threat to United States investments there; disguised as a politico-religious incident though it was.

Anzus Pact

It should now be understandable, although regrettable, as to why Australia and New Zealand allied themselves to the United States in the ANZUS pact of 1951.

” … By it Australia does not make use for its own defence purposes of the American fight against Communism; on the contrary, through it America persuaded Australia to accept Japanese rearmament. It extends the areas of possible conflict, antagonises all Asian neighbours who have been excluded from it, and draws Australia into any and every conflict in which America might become involved in the Pacific.” (p. 74)

America, because of the Commonwealth’s organisation, has also indirectly succeeded in bending Britain to its Pacific wheel. This was done whilst at the same time excluding Britain from the pact. Hence the Commonwealth, which seeks to restrain, not encourage America, is denied the opportunity of supervising the United States’ often inept handling of Asian affairs.

“Australia has left itself no more freedom of action than if it were a state of the American Union” (p. 75).


The Alternative

“The West cannot win any war, hot or cold, if right through South-East Asia and the Middle East in particular, the people—as distinct from the governments which at the moment rule them—believe that the West is on the side of colonialism and feudalism” (p. 61 – my emphasis).

It is clear, that if Dr. Burton is right in his analysis the above conclusion is correctly drawn, and one which requires immediate action. Events in Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Trans-Jordan and Syria in the last few months show to a great extent the predictive force of this book, bearing in mind that it was published two years ago.

Land reform is a pressing need in most of the trouble spots of the world and here the West can take a vital step to contain the spread of Communism. “Political in stability in under-developed areas can be traced in every country to the feudal landlord system,” (p. 62) writes Dr. Burton. Analysis of Korean, Chinese, Russian and Philippine history seems to confirm this. It was impossible of accomplishment without revolution in Russia and China. The West has the opportunity to prove that it can be done without violence in the case of the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Colonialism must be eliminated and self-government quickly granted to peoples clamouring for it. All other methods support the monopolists, industrialists or feudal landlords in their rule, and will ultimately lead to Communist action. This can readily be seen in the case of Malaya where, luckily, Britain has at last seen the writing on the wall and granted self-government to that colony.

It is of no use to grant freedom to anyone without also giving him the means to make use of it. Therefore the West must actively assist the peoples from the underprivileged areas to build up their industries, supplying finance and technical assistance without “strings”, such as military bases.

An even more drastic step ought to be taken. Removal of those rulers who are now being maintained in their position by Western influence is desirable and indeed necessary in some cases. Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee must be removed to allow the peoples whom they rule but do not represent, free opportunities to elect their own government.

“The Western governments have therefore the choice—either they can continue to maintain the out-moded systems of the past which are creating conditions for the growth of Communism or they can ensure that these systems are re-moulded to suit the needs of the peoples concerned” (p. 65). Signs that Dr. Burton’s advice is being taken, at least by Britain, may be seen in the recent events in Singapore. There a democratic modified capitalistic government is being moulded out of the old colonial regime. It is to be hoped that similar action will follow in the troubled Middle East areas, and Malaya as a whole.

In a warning paragraph the author writes—

“… The situation has now become desperate, and requires far more imaginative policies than the threat of unlimited destruction: it requires policies of political and economic construction. The opportunity still exists, even at this late stage, to choose the alternative policy: the positive application of the principles and the procedures of the United Nations” (p. 70).

Lest any citizen of Australia should apathetically leave this problem to leaders who are only men like himself, I shall wind up this digest of Dr.Burton’s book with his last words in it.

“… Experience in our time, in Europe before the war, in the United States now, and in many Western countries, shows that any hesitation by individual citizens in a democracy to accept their obligations in due course leads to far greater burdens and to the destruction of liberties and of peace.”(p. 116).

The book is a must for anyone who wishes to claim more than a newspaper acqnaintance with world politics. Statements in it show clearly that the writer is not a Communist nor anti-clerical. It is written by an intelligent, objective political scientist. It is to be hoped, that before this country of Australia becomes a star in the American flag or a Japanese dominion, that The Alternative will be read, learnt, inwardly digested, and acted upon!

Photos of the Art Deco buildings constructed for the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung courtesy of Paul Clifford.

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