Essay submitted to the Australian Foreign Policy class, taught in 1975 by Associate Professor Owen Harries, in third year Political Science at the University of NSW.
Now, what I want are facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the facts, sir!— Mr Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.
Dr Cairns has been accused of obscurantism because his writings are supposed to be infected with distorting ideological conceptions;1 facts are the Ark of the Covenant, and Cairns evades the empirical evidence likely to contradict his views. It is the purpose of this paper to:
i. argue against the idea implicit in much of this criticism (viz., that theory and facts are separable);
ii. outline Dr Cairns’ theoretical principles;
iii. summarise Dr Cairns’ views concerning Asia; and,
iv. offer a critique of Dr Cairns’ conception of Asia.
The fallacious view that as soon as enough ‘facts’ are collected theory will arise like steam from a kettle has been attacked by E.H. Carr who claimed: “It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order and context.”2 This is not to assert that we are left with a choice between competing theories all of which are equally valid. Some theories are better able to connect or integrate certain evidence than others, and a theory could be falsified by the accepted evidence; it is not the case that one interpretation is as good as another. Dr Cairns, when outlining his views concerning this topic, said: “It is likely that our history will be clearer and more authentic and possibilities of agreement will be much greater if we make our presuppositions, and our interests as well as our theories or interpretations as explicit as possible.”3
So far, this essay has been limited to attacking the “Gradgrind account of history”, the idea that empirical evidence is the terra firma of historical research. The level of debate concerning Cairns’ views would be raised considerably if criticism is applied to Cairns’ ideological views, rather than the naive idea that if only Dr Cairns would look at “the facts”, “the empirical evidence” he would understand the real nature of the conflicts in Asia.
In general terms, Cairns’ ideology can be divided into four rubrics:
(i) the idea of the “progressive” march of history. In a speech Cairns made in 1963 entitled “Socialism in the ALP”, he said:
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the history of man …shows a purpose …a drive towards a better life… This evolution is not without a direction… It moves logically as though it has a destination. And that destination… is… man in one, men in unity.4
There is a danger here in accepting that “progress” naturally flows over time: There is a danger here in accepting that “progress” naturally flows over time: we are led into difficulties as far as ascertaining reasons for historical regressions and more importantly, we might confuse change itself for progress. There is the problem, also, of how such a position, even in theory, can be falsified.
(ii) a utilitarian conception of morality. Speaking of the Vietnam war in 1966, Dr Cairns said:
A settlement would lead to the killing of many and would destroy the freedom of many. But when one has taken the position of playing God in a situation like this and has to decide how many deaths there are going to be on the side of the scale and how many there will be on the other, this is the kind of decision that one has to make.5
But although Cairns believes that less suffering will eventuate with the ‘ending’ of the Vietnamese war rather than its continuation, he does assert that the ‘winning side’ in the South Vietnamese struggle will be the Vietcong — who wish to instigate the needed social and economic reforms in their nation.6
(iii) a humanist, almost Feuerbachian conception of Man. In The Quite Revolution, Cairns asserts:
The good men of the earth, according to each and every standard of goodness that has ever been accepted from the beginning of time, will take sides with those who need this social revolution, while those whom philosophy and religion have eventually judged to be bad will be found among those who resist the revolution. This, perhaps, greatest moral watershed in the history of man will divide more men than may have ever been divided before.7
This quote serves to emphasise Cairns’ withering contempt for those who oppose the inevitable “social revolution” (accepted by “The good men of the earth”) and the didactic, almost nauseous moralising cant of his writings.
(iv) the conception that socialist policies are the most progressive political beliefs for mankind. Cairns’ difficulty here is in advancing from the general point (that revolutionary forces are necessary in order to facilitate those needed social and economic changes in Asia)8 to the issue of ‘what forces are we to support?’ As far as Cairns’ analysis of Vietnam goes he sometimes only presents two alternative ‘governments’ to choose from.9 Even if this interpretation was correct, Cairns’ conception of revolutionary change falls into difficulty when presented with a variety of competing (socialist) groups all of which want to enact ‘favourable’ economic and social changes. Sometimes, however, Cairns recognises a ‘third force’ — as in the latter part of his discussion in The Lotus and the Eagle. But his general position makes it difficult to seriously accommodate a third force. Indeed, the simplicity of Cairns’ argument concerning Vietnam indicates his dilemma: to admit that much of the opposition to the former South Vietnamese government was non-communist would complicate Cairns’ vision of a Vietnam united by a unison of forces dedicated to the overthrow of the former government. Criticism of this sort, of course, points at more than Cairns’ ignorance of empirical evidence; it points at the deficiencies in Cairns’ philosophical conceptions.
As Cairns sees it, modern Asia is characterised by extreme poverty, by unfair economic and social inequalities:
In South East Asia, more than half the peasant’s income is spent on food, but he gets less than 2,000 calories compared with over 3,500 for advanced countries; he has less than ten grams of protein compared with 40 to 50 in advanced countries; in clothing he gets less then 5 pounds weight a year compared with 30 pounds and more, and he can use 200 to 300 pounds of fuel compared with 10,000 pounds in advanced countries.10
This obscures the fact that conditions within South East Asia vary very greatly. For example, Cambodia and Laos were not countries suffering from population pressures and food shortages.
Having painted a sorry picture of conditions of extreme deprivation, Cairns advances the thesis that a messianic, revolutionary movement must arise and usurp the old order; and therefore: “Our first aim should be to understand the nature of the national revolutionary movement which must take place differently in all countries to the north of us.”181 (My emphasis.) If the revolutionary movement is not la contestation permanente it is latent in all Asian countries, “it is present in all.”182 Cairns has been challenged and criticised here in that he cavalierly treats ‘Asia’ as if were an undifferentiated entity with ‘emerging forces’ cropping up everywhere.183 Criticism of this sort, however does not tackle the important theoretical basis on which Cairns grounds his views concerning Asian ‘revolutions’. What is missing in Cairns’ analysis is a demonstration of the required causal connection when he claims that economic deprivation necessarily causes revolutionary movements to arise.184 Cairns seems to be confusing the necessary conditions for revolutionary movements to arise. Cairns seems to be confusing the necessary conditions for revolutionary movements with their causes.185 On this point, Humphrey McQueen claims that: “…Cairns brilliantly confirms Joan Robinson’s proposition that the dominant characteristic of contemporary bourgeois thought is its confusion.”186 McQueen argues that Cairns’ ideas are liberal bourgeois (“in the English Fabian tradition…”187) and are distorted because they lack a Marxist base, and fail to analyse the class basis of (i) Western imperialism, and (ii) the economies of Asian nations. It is not my purpose to argue that McQueen’s analyses of Asian societies are valid,188 but only to point to an alternative “explanation” concerning the changes wrought throughout Asia, an interpretation which involves less confusion than Cairns’ analysis.
But not only are Cairns’ propositions concerning the ‘emerging forces’ in Asia theoretically weak, they also contradict his views concerning Papua New Guinea. In 1965, Cairns advanced the thesis that: “It seems that [Papua and New Guineans] have been cared for and protected to a point where dependence, not independence is rational.”19 Australians should therefore, Cairns contends, be stimulating a drive amongst ‘Nuiginians’20 to become independent. This proposition must surely call into question Cairns’ essential belief in the inevitability of the national revolutionary movements. After all, Cairns believes that poor economic and social conditions in Asia must by themselves give rise to national revolutionary movements;21 yet he is also saying that ‘conditions’ in Nuigini do not give rise to such a movement.22 In other words, Cairns’ conception is exposed as a metaphysical theory relying upon an illusory revolutionary movement, the standard bearers for the “new society.” One might say in contradistinction, however, that the revolutionary movement in parts of Asia is not illusory. It exists right enough.
Cairns maintains that:
There is a growing awareness among Asians who live in poverty and desperation, and without powers to govern themselves, that they can improve their position… They see that their present position was created by human action. Many of them are prepared to die so that their children can live like human beings, and they do not need Communist subversion to think like that.23
Cairns is clearly having it both ways: in the case of “all the countries to our Cairns is clearly having it both ways: in the case of “all the countries to our north” revolutionary movements arise from deteriorated economic and social conditions and yet poor economic and social conditions in Nuigini are sufficient to blunt the “revolutionary movement”! Cairns’ belief that there is a groundswell of support for revolutionary movements as opposed to the established government (which Cairns normally caricatures as composed of rich merchants and corrupt officials) can be challenged; Peter Hastings, for example, has claimed:
At the village level in South Vietnam one finds little ideology. Vietcong hamlets certainly exist. Possibly there are tens of thousands of South Vietnamese with genuine Vietcong allegiance. Possibly there are hundreds of thousands without it, who wish to be left in peace but who will eventually go with the strength who so-ever.24
There is a strange ambivalence in Cairns’ writings concerning the autonomy There is a strange ambivalence in Cairns’ writings concerning the autonomy and power of individuals, and his theory of history; for Cairns each individual is culpable for Australia’s military involvement in the Vietnam war; in Asia, the ‘Asian people’ want to change their societies — their solution will be “man made”. This conception of the moral responsibility and the independence of Man, however, conflicts with Cairns’ notion of the progressive development of history: it is almost as if powers outside man’s actions are at work: ‘conditions’ lead inexorably to revolutionary change. This confusion in Cairns’ philosophical principles can also be demonstrated by reference to Cairns’ understanding of terror. In Living with Asia Cairns writes:
I am not suggesting that we have to agree with everything that is done by the “emerging forces”. We should not support Indonesia when she drops paratroops in Malaysia. We should not support the Vietcong in their terrorist activities.25
Having unequivocally asserted that he is opposed to terrorism, Cairns also states:
The national revolutionary movement, we have seen, is predominantly indigenous and significantly political. Success depends upon the extent to which it can be politically acceptable, although “terror” can be effective provided it is mainly confined to use against those who are politically unpopular.26
The ambivalence here lies in Cairns both saying that terrorist activity is not worthy of support and, also, claiming that terrorist activity can be a useful device for facilitating the desired revolution. On the face of it, there is no contradiction. One can recognise effectiveness and withhold support. But Cairns shifts about on this question. Of course, the justification of violence is an ethical problem, which has not been surmounted by minds more acute than Cairns’.27 Nevertheless, Cairns’ confusion is accentuated because he does not really explore the important ethical ramifications of his views.
Dr Cairns dismisses as ludicrous the conception of monolithic, aggressive communism: the proponents for this view have never advanced beyond the level of the World War I propaganda ‘the Kaiser wants to rule the world’. National interests, Cairns contends, divides ‘communist’ as well as Western nations: there is nothing in the simplistic myth of ubiquitous communism. For Cairns, the idea that Asian revolutionary movements are national or indigenous is not based on any a priori conceptions but on an understanding of the nature of their societies — which must ‘breed’ these movements. Thus, the proponents for the ‘domino theory’ are ridiculed: they lack an understanding of the internal character of the changes within Asian nations.28 But, as this essay has pointed out, the unwieldy belief that in democratic, unpopular cliques29 are all that stand in the way of a successful ‘people’s revolution’ can be challenged on empirical and theoretical grounds. It is one thing to state that one is a supporter of these ‘revolutions’, another to claim that opposition to these movements consists of exploitive land owners and the like.30 But Cairns’ acceptance of communist movements does not entail a sycophantic attitude towards the communist revolution:
…its [communism’s] self righteous historical confidence tends to suppression of dissent… The struggle for freedom begins only after the communist win… Historically the communist-led revolution in China and North Vietnam meant a better chance for national and economic progress — things that counted most at the time.31
The least that can be said about that statement is to ask how can one make general statements of this kind if the nature of each society is a crucial variable? It has been the purpose of this paper to delineate the nature of Dr Cairns’ ideological views and offer a critique of his views concerning Asia by pointing to the confused conceptions of his philosophical basis. Unfortunately, if Dr Cairns’ analysis of Asia is clouded with confusion, some of Cairns’ critics do not advance beyond the claim that ‘Cairns ignores the evidence’. This is probably the weakest criticism that can be made because it does not analyse Cairns ideological considerations and adopts an uncritical approach to the philosophical beliefs of the person challenging Cairns’ ideas. What Cairns and his critics have failed to do is to adopt Descartes’ maxim of questioning everything — not least of which is their philosophical framework.
1. For example, Alan Watt claims: “It scarcely seems necessary to try to confute Dr. Cairns. Either you accept his intuitive ideology, or you don’t; if you are a believer, sufficient facts can be found to fit.” (Review of Cairns’ The Eagle and the Lotus, The Australian Outlook, April 1970, p. 89.)
2. Carr, E.H., What Is History?, Penguin, London, 1964, p. 11. See also Stedman Jones, Gareth, ‘History: The Poverty of Empiricism’, in Blackburn, Robin, editor, Ideology in Social Science, Fontana/Collins, 1972, pp. 96-118.
3. Cairns, J. F., ‘Some Problems in the Use of Theory in History’, The Economic Record, Vol. 26, 1950, pp. 244-245. Of course, as this paper will show, Cairns fails to fully explain his theoretical preconceptions when writing about Asia. The fault Cairns recognised in 1950 has been present in much of his writing ever since.
4. Cited in Summy, Gay, ‘The Revolutionary Democracy of J.F. Cairns’, Politics, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 1972, p. 58.
5. Hansard, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), hereafter cited as CPD (H of R), Budget Debate, 30 August 1966, p. 548.
6. Cairns’ utilitarian beliefs are also partly the source of his revulsion concerning Australia’s intervention in Vietnam: Australia, in Cairns’ view, was aiding an unpopular government which was against “the good” of the Vietnamese people.
7. Goldstar Publications, Melbourne, 1972, p. 78.
8. Cairns’ conception of dire economic and social conditions necessitating revolutionary and probably socialist movements will be discussed in detail later in this essay.
9. For example, in 1963 Cairns said: “Political changes are made difficult or impossible because there is no political opposition or alternative… because the opposition is in gaol. Communism is the only alternative.” (‘Ourselves and Our Neighbours’, p. 73, in Barwick, Garfield et. al. (contributors), Living with Asia, A Discussion on Australia’s Future, Australian Institute of International Affairs, Sydney, 1963.) In crude terms, Cairns is claiming that there is only a choice between the communist ‘opposition’ and the ‘corrupt’, ‘mandarinal’ government. This choice seems to me to involve a false dichotomy: granted the proliferation of opposition to various South Vietnamese regimes, but this opposition is not entirely communist – Buddhist and Catholic opposition is hardly tantamount to support for the revolutionary movement Cairns describes.
10. Economics and Foreign Policy, Victorian Fabian Society pamphlet, Melbourne, 1966, p. 4.
11. ‘Foreign Policy After Vietnam’, in The Asian Revolution and Australia, papers presented to a conference organised by the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament), Sydney, 1969, p. 182.
12. The Eagle and the Lotus, Western Intervention in Vietnam, 1847-1971, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, revised edition, 1971, p. x.
13. For example, Sibrarayan, Ray claims: “Dr Cairns… has chosen to think of Asia as a lump without any meaningful differentiation of its peoples. He is obtusely impervious to their multiple lines of development.”: ‘Australia, Asia, and Dr Cairns’, Quadrant, March-April 1966, p. 29.
14. Cairns’ conception of history (as discussed above) is probably the source of Cairns’ failure to clearly explain his views. When an historical progression is assumed, we are provided with an illusory basis for our theories.
15. See Harries, Owen, ‘The Australian Debate on Vietnam’, Quadrant, May-June 1966, pp. 40-41.
16. ‘Living Off Asia’, Arena, No. 26, 1971, pp. 18-19. But see also, Summy, Gay, ‘Cairns Reassessed: A Critique of McQueen’, ibid., pp. 38-61. Summy savagely attacks McQueen’s argument – which is exposed to be largely political subterfuge and polemical abuse.
17. McQueen, Ibid., p. 14.
18. Of course statements such as the following can only buttress McQueen’s argument: “To win this struggle we must return, in my opinion, to the spirit of John Kennedy and the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt.” CPD (H of R), 11 October 1966, p. 1562). But see Footnote 16, above.
19. Living with Asia, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne and London, 1965, p. 104.
20. ‘Nuigini’ is a term of more recent origin than 1965, but I am using it to describe the ‘Papua and New Guinea nation’.
21. On this basis, of course, Cairns can claim that the Vietcong were an indigenous movement (spawned as ‘products of their environment’.)
22. Only a particular sort of Marxist, surely, could maintain that ideological forces are crucial in stultifying the emergence of any Nuigini ‘revolution’. Where is the class — either middle or working — to carry it out? I suspect only a Leninist believing in the leading role of the intelligentsia or a Marxist substituting the peasants for the proletariat could have any expectations. Cairns’ theory whilst recognising the strength of such ‘forces’ proposes that these ideological forces are not sufficient to restrain the emergence of the revolutionary movement – hence the opaque description of the situation in Nuigini.
23. Living with Asia, Ibid., pp. 163-4.
24. ‘Survivalism is the Name of the Game’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1973, p. 6.
25. Op. Cit., p. 113.
26. Ibid., pp. 166-167.
27. See for example, Birchall, Brian, ‘The Ethics of Violence’, Dialectic, Vol. 7, 1972, pp. 22-23. Thus: “Too many times do we hear the meliorists demanding peace now – forgetting that brutality and violence may be the only way to …real peace.” (Ibid., p. 25.) It seems to me that the rationale for violence can only be concerned with specific instances – we cannot formulate an ethical rule divorced from the actual conditions which it seeks to be applied.
28. An objection here might be that Cairns is knocking down a ‘straw domino theory’. That is, the domino theory might be interpreted as a view that if revolutionary movements are successful in an Asian nation, they might support similar movements in nearby nations, thus adding to the instability of the region and enhancing the advancement of those movements.
29. On this matter, see: Morris, Stephen, ‘The Social Basis of Politics in Vietnam: The Nguyen Van Thieu Government’, Australian Outlook, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1973, pp. 272-274. Morris argues that Thieu derived strong, genuine support from the rural areas of South Vietnam – and considerably less support from urban areas; the point here is that it is unfair to claim that the former South Vietnamese government was engaged in a battle against the great majority of the people. Undemocratic and authoritarian though the Thieu regime might have been, it was not unpopular with the South Vietnamese ‘people’. But see also: Thayer, Carlyle, ‘The Social Basis of Politics in Vietnam: A Rejoiner’, Australian Outlook, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1973, pp. 262-271, and McQueen, Humphrey, ‘Vietnam – Villagers and Voters’, The Australian Quarterly, December 1968, pp. 5-11. McQueen argues against the worth of elections in Vietnam, elections which might fulfill the western tradition, but have no historical precedence or importance for the Vietnamese. But also see: Watt, Alan, ‘The Geneva Agreements 1954 in Relation to Vietnam’, The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1967, pp. 7-23. Watt clearly demonstrates that South Vietnamese officials consistently opposed the French negotiations at Geneva in 1954 and claims that both from a political and legal point of view (after all, nothing was signed at Geneva!) the South Vietnamese can hardly be said to be bound by such an ‘agreement’. So much for the ‘violations of the Geneva Agreement’.
30. After all, over 220,000 South Vietnamese died in 1974 – this hardly represents the struggle between an unpopular clique and ‘the people’. On the matter of distortion regarding some polemical works covering Vietnam, see: Morris, Stephen, ‘Doctored Quotes, “Forgotten” Facts Help Whitewash Vietnam History’, The National Times, 2-7 July 1973, p. 40.
31. Economics and Foreign Policy, Op. Cit., p. 11. Claims such as this leads McQueen amongst others to assert that Cairns’ purpose is primarily counter-revolutionary: to direct revolutions along “social democratic” or, hanker of hankers, liberal lines. But see the earlier discussion in this essay.
I left out the bibliography attached to this essay which bears the unmistakable stamp of a 20-year old finding his way to writing an academically competent paper. Footnotes are far too wordy, some of the argument and evidence could be stronger. But I think, generally, the arguments stack up well.
Cairns’ near mystical faith in quasi-Marxist analysis had its origin in his earlier sympathy for the Communist Party of Australia, with which he was a sympathiser, participating in united front “peace” activities, prior to winning ALP pre-selection in the heat of the 1955 Split in the party.
Writing this essay made me more wary of the thinking of leading members of the ALP Left and made me feel more aligned to the NSW ALP Right. Anti-communism, in a George Orwell inspired way, guided my thinking and developing outlook.
I was grateful to Owen Harries for getting me to think harder than I otherwise might have in thinking about the issues.
Our politics did not align, but I developed an appreciation for how to — and how not to — argue.