1938 • Thought-Russia

Madeline can’t accept that such vast despotic violence is possible. And look at this, a little further down: Communists are torturing children. To obtain their father’s gold, their mother’s emeralds. Are we supposed to credit that? Thousands of them? In the parilka—“sweat rooms”. [RED, page 63]

The “torture” episode comes from Lyons’ book Assignment in Utopia. Lyons goes on to write that a whole family was tortured “on the rack”, so he seems to picture this procedure taking place on an electrified rack or parilla, though he spells the word parilka. A parilka is a Russian sauna. It’s possible that the story Lyons has got hold of is confused. A web search in 2015 produced no references to steam torture in the USSR at any time.

Eugene Lyons was just one of many journalists producing fictional accounts of communist horrors for the daily papers. Seven years earlier, Howard Ashton imagined what would happen “If Revolution Came to Sydney”: “Death, Fire, Plunder … Gunswept Streets and Mob Rule” would follow, because this horror was “What Communism Really Means.”


[Sydney Sun, 8 November 1931]

The full-page illustration shows tanks, overturned cars and one man in the moment of being shot in front of familiar landmarks such as Sydney’s Martin Place and Central Railway, with bodies heaped up in trams, and machine gunners behind barricades. These gunners are “anti-revolutionists … defending the wheat dumps” from the communists. The piece is done as a narrative looking back on future events, “as a historian might see it in 1993”.

“In accord with the best precedents of Communism,” Ashton claims, “any suspect was promptly dispatched. The former rich were dragged out of their houses and the most revolting outrages and cruelties were practised upon them”, such as the rape of their women by “a scum which always attaches itself to revolutionary forces”. Meanwhile, heroic young anti-communists were mobilised “at once”, managing to capture “several of the communist leaders and shooting them against the nearest wall.”

These “anti-communist forces” are based on real organisations, the Old Guard apparently witnessed by D. H. Lawrence in 1922, and the New Guard, formed in 1931.

Ashton’s article claims that riot and chaos would follow a revolution because the purpose of the communists would be “to abolish work”. The upshot could be the rise of one “John Smith”, who would become dictator of NSW (not Australia) and then impose the 60-hour week on everyone. We must then all work in chain gangs under armed guard for “rations, clothes and shelter”, while the dictator lives in his “palace”—more like Sydney in 1800 than Moscow in the 1930s.

This narrative appeared in a mainstream newspaper, the Sydney Sun. Howard Ashton had been its associate editor since 1926 and was in 1931 writing its leaders. He was one of the Ashton family of traditionalist painters, but he was also a member of the New Guard. This secretive right-wing militia believed its job was to resist the NSW government by taking paramilitary reaction—interpreted by some as a planned coup d’état in which the Labor government would be imprisoned in Berrima jail.

38 Howard Ashton photo of (SLNSW)
Howard Ashton [ADB; State Library of NSW]

Obviously untrue claims in the papers, such as those of Howard Ashton and Eugene Lyons, led Communist Party members to become suspicious of all newspaper reports about communists and Russia, including accounts of Stalin’s show trials, gulags and assassinations that turned out to have been appallingly true.

We know these cartoon-Communists, with beards to hide their faces and bombs in all their pockets, don’t look like any of our friends. We know these claims are lies because we ourselves are witnesses against them. So. It’s reasonable to assume they do the same with Communists abroad as well. Particularly Stalin. If they lie about the ones we know, why would they tell the truth about the ones we don’t? [RED, page 64]