A conversation with Arthur Gietzelt

There’s been quite a lot of discussion about the political views of former Senator Arthur Gietzelt, who died recently at the age of 93, and in particular about claims[1] that he was a secret member of the Communist Party.

Although it’s scarcely conclusive, this is one of the few occasions when I have some direct evidence to contribute to a discussion of this kind. In the aftermath of 1975, I formed the view (ill-advised in retrospect) that I could help fix Australia’s problems by becoming a Labor party staffer. I wanted to move to Sydney, so I applied to all the shadow ministers based there, receiving replies only from Doug McClelland and Arthur Gietzelt.

I can’t remember much about McClelland, or even for sure if I met him. As I recall, he was associated with the Right, but didn’t have the thuggish persona that generally went with that group, especially after the rise of Graham Richardson.

But, although I didn’t get the job, I did have a brief conversation with Gietzelt, who said something to me along the following lines “When I was your age [I was in my early 20s at the time], we all thought the Soviet Union was the way of the future. But you young people will have to find a different way forward”. My politics then were much as they are now, on the left, but strongly anti-communist, and of course, I was puzzled as to how the left should respond to the resurgence of neoliberalism/market liberalism, represented at the time by Malcolm Fraser(!). So this resonated with me in a number of ways, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I took it to mean that Gietzelt had once been a communist sympathizer (whether a party member or ‘fellow traveller’) but had ceased to be so. That wouldn’t be totally inconsistent with an association with the then Communist Party of Australia, which had broken from Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but that wasn’t the impression I had: I assumed that his views had changed well before that, presumably in the wake of the Hungarian invasion and Kruschchev’s secret speech.

As I say, this is scarcely decisive evidence, but Gietzelt had no reason to mislead me, and no need to say anything at all to me along these lines: in all probability we were never going to meet again, and we didn’t.[2] So, my own guess is that, if Gietzelt was ever a member of the Communist Party, it was well before he entered the Federal Parliament.

[fn1] Made most prominently, I think, by Mark Aarons, who, however, wasn’t drawing on personal knowledge but from a reading of ASIO files – scarcely a reliable source as anyone who remembers the ASIO of the Cold War era will attest

[fn2] It was a long time ago, and it’s possible that I was still a candidate for the job. But presumably, in that case, a secret CPer would be dropping hints in the other direction, to see if I was likely to be OK with the idea.

165 thoughts on “A conversation with Arthur Gietzelt

  1. i’ll bear that in mind. it was a while ago but i recall that the navy was considerably more democratic than the army, in that a man, who did not serve as a hoplite, had to have money to afford good armor and/or a horse, whereas you needed nothing of the sort to make a contribution to homeland security in the navy, which came therefore to be well stacked with commoners & radical democrats.

    i have a question, if it is known: were those admirals & captains selected by lot from a pool of proven admirals & captains? or were they selected by lot from a pool comprised of everyone in piraeus? corollary: did they have a surfeit of admirals & captains, all possessed of egos & equally eager to secure the exclusive honor of serving their city? or did they just luck out and select by lot, from among everyone, capable men to admiral & captain the fleet? -a.v.

  2. @J-D
    I’m wondering what body you have doing the work of a parliament …

    I also think it problematic reading our current circumstance into the counter factual. Consensus might be easier than you think.

  3. @alfred venison

    They were selected by lot from a pool of everyone in Athens. The Athenians would have regarded a competitive election as a deeply unreliable way to choose leaders for a crucial battle because the less qualified could get themselves elected by campaigning.

    Of course the less qualified never get themselves elected by campaigning in a modern and sophisticated representative democracy. Surely the Athenians only imagined that could happen? Oh wait…

  4. @Fran Barlow

    The parliament does one thing, and one thing only: it passes laws.

    In recent decades each parliament has passed more laws than the last.

    If the laws were good they would stand the test of time and new laws wouldn’t need to be passed all the time.

    This might be understandable if the laws were changing back and forth between two interest groups whenever one of them was ruling. But the vast bulk of these laws – almost always increasing complexity while somewhat bizarrely reducing certainty – have been passed by virtue of the ALP & LNP voting together against the cross-benchers.

    It’s a political cartel.

  5. PS: A perfect example of a ‘good’ law is the Qld “Sale of Goods Act 1896” (links aren’t allowed blah blah blah).

    Beautifully drafted and still easily read and understandable today.

    It makes sense, it is extremely workable in the real world and it has never needed to be amended. Obviously that sort of law is unacceptable to a parliament which wants to “Get Things Done”.

    Consequently, qld governments constantly pass ancillary laws that affect the operation of the Sale of Good Act and reduce the certainty for every day people and businesses the Act provided for nearly a century.

  6. @Fran Barlow
    If you are suggesting that under a different political structure a much greater degree of political consensus might emerge than under existing ones, you may be right. But when I think in the abstract about theoretical models, I consider that it’s a virtue for a system to have the flexibility to operate well under varying conditions; in respect of this particular point, I agree that it’s good for a system to express consensus when it exists, but it’s also good for a system to be able to function when there’s no consensus. The liberum veto of early modern Poland did more harm than good.

    I feel as if asking what body would do ‘the work of parliament’ in the absence of a parliament is similar to asking what body would do the work of a secret police force in the absence of a secret police force. The point of not having a secret police force is to not have any body operating the way a secret police force does. The point of not having a parliament is to not have any body operating the way a parliament does. I would not suggest that the activities of parliaments are as harmful as the activities of a secret police force, but I do suggest that the activities of parliament are mostly pointless and useless, and I find support for this view in the way its meetings are treated by its members themselves.

  7. Alan – they were not selected by lot from all the citizens of athens. the military commanders navy & army were elected annually and could be re-elected without restriction. not even the most radical assembly would risk the possibility of its fleet being commanded by a man who had not before been on a boat, nor would it risk its army being commanded by a man with no experience in arms. of course they watched over the military commanders closely but they were not chosen by lot. -a.v.

  8. @J-D

    A couple of questions: do you see a value in fostering inclusion of the populace in design of public policy? If so how would you see this arising? What would be the constraints? How could theses constraints be diminished? What measures would foster engagement in a positive sense?

    I don’t personally care whether whatever body that devises the framework for public policy and manages it over time is called a parliament or not. Some institution responsible to the public has to do that because in practice people can’t do that directly.

    The current parliaments are of course a sham — mere fig-leaves hiding the power of the boss class. It’s little wonder that the meetings are largely frivolous. It seems to me though that what one would want to do would be to clear away the bonds tying the parliament to the interests of the boss class — the MBCM, the banks, the political parties and so forth. Only when the oxygen returns to the room will there begin to be signs of life amongst the dormant populace.

  9. also, re:- sortition & classical athens

    they did not choose by lot men to rule over them.

    no one ruled over them – the assembly of all eligible citizens was the supreme sovereign authority.

    they chose by lot men to serve on committees.

    in contexts like the army & navy where they needed someone to command free men they chose him by election.

    appeals to the example of classical athens in support of sortition in the absence of direct democracy is an anachronism. -a.v.

  10. @alfred venison

    I’d invite you to read the text of the Themstokles decree, sometimes known s the Salamis decree.You are simply wrong. I’ve been speaking about a specific text that applied one occasion, to sudden read a series a grand and utterly inaccurate statements is a bit surprising.

  11. @alfred venison
    a.v. says that the commanders of the Athenian navy were not chosen by lot.

    But perhaps the captains of the Australian vessels that trespassed into Indonesian territorial waters *were* chosen by lot. That explains a lot (sorry!) about the incompetence behind the six successive “accidents.” Maybe Mr. Morrison should trial this excuse.

  12. @Fran Barlow
    Yes, I am in favour of the populace influencing public policy. I am in favour of the populace having as much influence over public policy as possible. How much influence it is possible for the populace to have over public policy depends on a number of factors. The design of the political structure is one of those factors, and I am in favour of a political structure designed to facilitate popular influence over public policy as much as possible. Another of the factors that influences popular influence over public policy is how much the populace is interested in having an influence over public policy. So I am in favour of a political structure which facilitates popular influence over public policy as much as possible but which will also continue to function effectively when the populace is not much interested in public policy.

    One feature in the construction of a political system that is an obstacle to popular influence over public policy is lack of transparency. The less clearly the populace understands how the political system works, the less effective influence they can have over public policy. So I am in favour of a a political structure that is as simple and as easily understood as possible. A body like a parliament obscures more than it reveals the opportunities for popular influence over public policy, so I’m not in favour of having one. That is, I’m not in favour of it as a matter of abstract theoretical principle, considering the hypothetical case of design of a political structure from scratch.

  13. i’ve read it – i am not wrong – it does not say the strategoi were selected by lot.

    it says (i’m using the tulane university translation):-

    strategoi in command should tomorrow appoint 200 trierarchs (i.e. commanders of triremes), one for each ship, from among those who hold land and house in Athens and who have legitimate children and who are not older than fifty years, and allot the ships to them.

    and that they should choose ten marines for each trireme from those who are between twenty and thirty years, and four archers; and that they should choose the officers for the ships by lot when they allot the trierarchs.

    strategoi were elected, the strategoi appointed the commanders of the ships under their command, the officers under those commanders were chosen by lot. -a.v.

  14. @J-D

    That is, I’m not in favour of it as a matter of abstract theoretical principle, considering the hypothetical case of design of a political structure from scratch.

    I don’t disagree with much important in your post above. When I mentioned parliament, it was because it seems to me that in the new inclusive context, it would reveal much more than it obscured and be an organising point for the engagement of the public in policy. So my proposal was not abstract or theoretical but simply a manifestation of this wish in language with which most are familiar.

    While you’ve endorsed the big picture stuff I’ve proposed, you’re a little light on how we achieve those things. As an educator, I learned long ago that it’s virtually impossible to foster learning apart from a belief by putative learners that their learning is germane to their aspirations. Whatever we do with structure needs to embed that principle lest we merely get a new iteration of the boss class exclusive rule we have now, with all the maladaptive responses one sees in the populace at large.

  15. @Fran Barlow
    I agree that you can’t force people to learn if they don’t want to. The way to embed that principle in a structure is by not trying to make enforced learning part of the structure.

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