“Il est interdit d’interdire”! It is forbidden to forbid! Free speech and the spirit of ’68.

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One of the most positive qualities of the great upheavals of the year 1968 was the assumption that people had a right to free speech. No-one was going to stop us speaking out, no matter how offensive some people found what we had to say – and we definitely were not going to allow the state to determine what could and couldn’t be said. Governments had forced the issue by banning publications – to protect us from ourselves – ranging from seedy crime novels to DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

On the university campuses that helped fuel the ‘cultural revolution’ of that time, it was never doubted that we should have a right to say what we thought on any topic. The global student unrest had been sparked in 1964 by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, where students and staff defied the University of California’s regulations restricting free speech.

In the People’s Republic of China a similar movement led by the young was underway, with ‘Big Character Posters‘ pasted up on buildings and in streets criticizing reactionary authorities within the Communist Party of China. Mao ZeDong said that  “The big-character poster is a very useful new weapon, which can be used in the cities and the rural areas, in factories, co-operatives, shops, government institutions, schools, army units and streets – in short, wherever the masses are to be found. It has already been widely used and should always be used.”

This was overturned in amendments to the Chinese Constitution in 1982, however, when reference to the right to produce Big Character Posters was removed.

One of my first defiant acts in ‘the Sixties’ took place in 1968, my final year at high school in Melbourne, when I unlawfully distributed to my fellow students a banned publication exposing US war crimes in Vietnam. I forget the exact title but it was banned under Obscene Publications legislation. I was very nervous giving out copies at school, without being part of any organised radical student group, as I was isolated and worried about getting into trouble – especially for distributing ‘obscene’ literature!

In my first year at University, in 1969, the free speech question again arose: a contingent of La Trobe students, organised by the Labour Club (not to be confused with Labor Party!), went to Melbourne’s City Square to defy with other protestors the Melbourne City Council’s bylaw 418, which prohibited the distribution of literature in the Central Business District. The bylaw claimed to be neutral but was really an attempt to suppress the handing out of leaflets opposing the US and allied aggression in Vietnam.

There is some irony in the fact that 50 years later, the assumption that individuals should be free to say what they think is in reversal. Groups who may think of themselves as ‘left-wing’ or ‘radical’ today seek to do what the overt right-wing reactionaries of the 1960s did: namely, protect us from ourselves in the interests of cohesion and harmony. It’s scary stuff – or should be. And especially worrying when it happens on campuses, usually through collusion between official student representatives and University authorities.

Perhaps Australia would benefit from its own version of the UK’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR), which are conducted by the on-line group, Spiked.

Spiked has just published its fourth annual report, and it shows that campus censorship isn’t going away. Their survey, ranking 115 UK universities using a ‘traffic-light system’, shows that 55 per cent of universities now actively censor speech, 39 per cent stifle speech through excessive regulation, and just six per cent are truly free, open places. What’s more, in some areas, the severity of restrictions seems to be increasing. The FSUR survey found that almost half of all institutions attempt to censor or chill criticism of religion and transgenderism. It concludes that ‘There are blasphemies on campus, new and old, that students commit at their peril’.

The spirit of 1968 – a spirit that boils down to the right to confront and engage in the open exchange and debate of ideas – in a word ‘to rebel’ – is in urgent need of revival, especially if the next global capitalist crisis is ‘the big one’.

The late 1960s to early 1970s were years of success for the Left precisely because we created a milieu in which reactionaries in power and within the movement could be exposed and challenged. There was meaningful debate about what it meant to be left-wing, set against the context of real struggle. We challenged the old revisionist farts of the Communist Party of Australia as well as the old conservative farts of the Coalition Government.

I commenced this post with the words “One of the most positive qualities”. It would not be accurate to say that the whole cultural and political movement from the late 1960s to the early 1970s in Australia, with its many factions and outlets for expression, was consistently imbued with the ‘free speech’ ethos. And after the movement’s quick decline, an authoritarianism set in – among some/too many (though not all) – that ran counter to the earlier rebellious ethos. At its worst, some of us turned into our opposites. I personally regret that very much. It applied to me, too – but not everyone. It’s what happens when you stop thinking and become obedient, a follower rather than a critical thinker. You can be obedient to the state or to the gods or God – or, in my case, to a party leadership. Big mistake.

There were some terrific – poetic – slogans from the French student-worker uprising of 1968. “Il est interdit d’interdire”! “It is forbidden to forbid” represents a certain spirit. Of course, if it is dissected clinically, one can immediately think of flaws and exceptions: is it forbidden to forbid murder? But it is the spirit of that slogan that mattered back then. And still does.

 

 

Letter smuggled out of Pentridge Gaol, Melbourne, in July 1972

Pentridge
When I read my letter today – 45 years on – I stand by its description of prison life. However, I would moderate some of my language… Also, the analysis that concluded that ‘all prisoners are political prisoners’ because they were victims of the class war was manifestly wrong.

Letter written by Barry York and smuggled out of Pentridge Gaol in July 1972 when he was a political prisoner in ‘A’ Division with Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola.

Preamble (14 September 2017)
The letter was written secretly in my cell in ‘A’ Division when I was a prisoner in Pentridge Gaol with two comrades, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson. There was no shortage of time to write it, as we were in solitary confinement, in our separate cells, for 16 hours each day.

In writing the letter, I was careful not to be detected by the screws. They would have been very angry about it. So, I hid it under my mattress, folding the letter narrowly so that I could hide it under the side of the mattress nearest to the wall. One day, the warders came in to do a cell inspection. They did the usual finger across the top of the door checking for dust, and then checked that the blankets were folded into perfect squares and then – to my horror – they decided to check under the mattress. They pushed it up from the bed-frame but not far enough and so my letter was still hidden at the side of the bed nearest to the wall. I was very worried, I can tell you.

I forget how the letter was smuggled out – possibly by Ted Hill on one of his visits or by one of our other ‘legal advisers’. I recall that Ted used to smuggle the newspaper ‘Vanguard’ into the gaol by rolling it up and putting it under his trouser leg. He would then give it to me, during a ‘legal visit’, and I’d do the same and carry it in my sock and trouser leg to A Division.

‘Vanguard’, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), published the letter on 17 August 1972 after we were released (on 4th August). They knew not to publish it while we were still inside. Thank heavens.

* * * *

We were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972.
We had been leaders of the militant student movement at La Trobe University and prohibited from entering the campus under an injunction taken out by the University authorities. We defied the injunction, seeing it as an encroachment on free speech and an attempt to quell campus militancy. For ‘stepping foot upon the premises known as La Trobe University’, we were gaoled without trial, without sentence (ie, indefinitely), without rights of bail or appeal.

Fergus was captured first and did four months. Brian Pola next, did three months. I was caught last, and served six weeks. Rodney Taylor, the fourth named in the injunction, avoided capture. We were released when the University authorities surrendered to the mass campaign against the gaolings and approached the Supreme Court for the abandonment of the injunctions.

* * * *

When I read my letter today – 45 years on – I stand by its description of prison life. However, I would moderate some of my language. For instance, I wouldn’t refer to the gaol as a concentration camp; though technically it was similar. But, ‘concentration camp’ brings to mind the Nazi rule of terror in Germany in the 1930s and Pentridge was nothing like that. (Did I even have to say that?)

Also, the analysis that concluded that ‘all prisoners are political prisoners’ because they were victims of the class war was manifestly wrong. There was, and is, a big difference between people who are imprisoned for their political activities or beliefs and those who rob banks and steal cars. I’m not sure now why I would have gone along with that anarchist slogan. I identified as a communist, after all.

* * * *

In 1973, Fergus and Brian and I, and others, revived the Victorian Prisoners’ Action Committee (PAC). I became its spokesman for three or four years. The PAC fought for prison reform but tried to connect the issue to the bigger question of capitalism and its overthrow. We supported the rebellion that was taking place inside Pentridge and other gaols, led by inmates with whom we had become friendly, and perhaps influenced, on the inside. (We used to hide works by Marx, Lenin and Mao on the very top of the bookcase in the prison library, laying them flat and out of view of the prison officers. We were able to receive such books from the outside, after a La Trobe academic comrade assured the prison authorities they were ‘for educational purposes’! Sympathetic prisoners knew of this secret stash of subversive material that was allowed in only for the ‘La Trobe Three’).

In campaigning for prison reform, we were able to assist individuals on their release. This experience was double-edged, and some negative experiences led me to better understand that there is such a thing as personal responsibility and agency, not just victimhood. Even the most oppressed individuals can make choices for the better within the confines of socio-economic limitation. Too many didn’t. Bad culture perpetuates oppression.

* * * *

This year, I came across the letter as published in ‘Vanguard’ while sorting and culling folders of old paperwork. It reminded me of how genuine we were in our commitment to revolutionary change back then, and how lucky I was to have been active in those years of global solidarity from 1967 to 1972. We really believed we were approaching a revolutionary situation. Perhaps the state had similar feelings, and that may explain why they came down so heavily on those who went beyond reformism and challenged the system itself.

Of course, the revolution didn’t materialize but the broader social movement, of which we were part, won changes that cannot be reversed.

And, perhaps best of all: we certainly gave some bad reactionaries a very hard time!

* * * *

For those interested in more detail, my book ‘Student Revolt’, is now available free on-line at https://c21stleft.com/2015/09/05/student-revolt-la-trobe-university-1967-to-1973/
Barry York, 14 September 2017

* * * *

The letter from Pentridge (July 1972)

As I write this letter from my cell in “A” Division, two very significant occurrences are taking place.

Firstly a radio announcement from the Prison Committee’s prisoners’ representative has called for prisoners in remand to submit affidavits to Mr. Kelly, a solicitor on the Government Prison Inquiry, regarding a vicious attack by about 30 screws (N.B. prison slang for warders) on 4 Bendigo escapees and about 6 other prisoners. Pentridge is buzzing with the news. The escapees, according to eye witness reports, were beaten with 3 ft. long night sticks. Apparently, one had his head forced through a railing on a staircase. The scalp split wide open and he lost much blood.

Other prisoners in remand who objected to the screws’ violent attack were also bashed. One of the prisoners who received a bashing has identified [name removed] not only as one of those most active in the baton attack, but also as one who laid in the boot after some of the prisoners were beaten unconscious!! The escapees, still without medical aid, have been placed in Pentridge’s ‘maximum security’ division, “H” Division.

HELL DIVISION
“H” Division stands for “Hell” Division. And this leads me to the second significant occurrence taking place as I write.

From his cell in “H”, Paul Hertzell [correct spelling is Hetzel] is screaming out the following statement:–
“Hey all you toffs (N.B. prison slang for ‘good blokes’) out there! You’re doing a terrific job! We’ve got to get rid of this incompetent government!”, “Down with the imperial government!”, “This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’. All ‘H’ prisoners are political prisoners – a result of the government’s incompetency!”, “Free all political prisoners!”, “Abolish ‘H’!”, “Hey you toffs out there! This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’…”

I have an almost uncontrollable urge to climb up to my window and scream back my complete support, but unfortunately, I lack the courage of Paul Hertzell. Confronted in an isolated prison cell by overpowering violence, Hertzell’s protests prove conclusively what we already know to be true – namely, that where there is repression there is resistance.

SYMBOL OF IMPERIALISM
Pentridge was born out of the domination of Australia by British imperialism in the 19th Century. Today it serves as a monument to the fascist bestiality of the U.S., British and Japanese imperialists and the local quislings who dominate Australia economically, politically, and culturally. This statement may seem rhetorical and emotional but the situation in Pentridge, with its emphasis on psychological as well as physical punishment, is similar to a concentration camp. It is an institution of fascism in the sense that it is an institution based on overt reactionary violence. Its existence and present function and nature proves that the state is a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and, that under capitalism this means the oppression of the working class by the capitalist class.

Let me elaborate by relating my own personal experiences and some of the experiences of other prisoners, in the form of a brief description of the divisions which constitute Pentridge.

“A” DIVISION
We are currently located in “A” Division. Relatively speaking, “A” is the “best” Division in Pentridge. The prisoners throughout Pentridge have waged heroic struggles which have improved conditions in “A” Division and led to a reduction in the use of violence against the prisoners by the screws. Applying the old colonial principle of ‘divide and rule’, one very small section of “A” Division is reserved for the elite of prisoners; the ‘aristocracy of prisoners’ if you like. This section (consisting of about ten out of 160 cells) is used as a public relations centre. Any visiting magistrates of government inquiry teams are promptly directed to this section. The prisoners there are the “good boys” who earn $2.50 a week in positions as head librarian and the like. The real “A” Division is the “A” in which the vast majority of prisoners exist. No T.V. sets, record players or heaters for these prisoners on $1.30 a week – just mental and psychological anguish, pre-planned long term physical destruction, and cruel, sadistic humiliation. This is the real “A” Division, the “A” Division in which the vast majority exist.

“B” DIVISION
“B” Division lacks the relative freedom of life in “A”. Conditions are far worse and the intensity of manual labour and degradation by the authorities are far more extreme. “B” is organised on the basis of strict regimented discipline. One prisoner who spent some years in “B” has informed me that the discipline in “B” reminded him of the discipline enforced upon him in “H” Division. Unlike in “A” where you are permitted to occasionally forget to address the screws as “sir” in “B” any such omission is sometimes met with physical assault, but more typically, verbal abuse. A report received from another prisoner who had just ‘graduated’ from “B” to “A” claims that “the tense atmosphere in ‘B’ can be sliced with a knife”. Again, I could not help but recall those words of Chairman Mao’s “Where there is repression there is resistance”.

“C” DIVISION
“C” Division looks like a scene from a ghost town in one of those old cowboy movies. The cells are literally iron bolted stables. Even the government declared “C” Division a ‘condemned’ division some years ago but still nothing has been done about it. “C” is renowned throughout Pentridge for its rat problem. Huge gaps exist in the cell doors which allow the rats to enter each cell. Naturally, there is a much higher rate of disease in “C” than in “A”. “C” remains unsewered. Prisoners must contend with only a small night pan. One old prisoner who spent several years in “C”, explained to me that during summer he used to sleep on the floor of his cell with his face near the gap below the door because the general stench of “C” and the specific smell of his cell used to become unbearable.

“D” DIVISION
“D” Division or “Remand” is second only to “H” Division. I spent some time in remand. The cells in “D” are basically toilets equipped with a bed. The entire cell smells of semi-sewered toilet. Even by the lowly standards of bourgeois morality the conditions are appalling. The “D” prisoners spend all day long pacing up and down the remand yard. This yard consists of a small triangular concrete yard surrounded by three huge blue-stone walls which block out any sunlight. One shower, one open toilet, and one clothes hoist allegedly make the yard suitable for fifty men. One prisoner I met had spent 12 months in remand awaiting trial. In this sense, remand is a sort of ‘limbo’. It represents an in-between world between the courts and prison.

“E” DIVISION
Any prisoner may see the prison doctor at “E” Division and receive medical or dental attention. “E” is basically a dormitory for sick prisoners. It is apparently based on very strict discipline and I have been told some prisoners are sent to “E” as a form of punishment. There is only one doctor to cater for Pentridge’s 1,200 prisoners.

“F” DIVISION
“F” is simply a dormitory for about 30 prisoners from the remand yard. The rest of the remand prisoners retire in “D” Division cells which I have already described.

“G” DIVISION
“G” is the Prison Psychiatric Centre. Not all prisoners who need psychiatric care get it though. In “A” at the moment, for one example, is a prisoner who just sits in the sun trembling all day. He studies his hands as though inspecting each intricate part of the mechanics of a clock, for hours on end. He showers each day but can never remember where the shower room is located. He clearly requires urgent psychiatric attention.

“J” DIVISION
Before describing the notorious “H” Division, let me say something about “J” Division. Presumably “J” stands for “Junior” as the prisoners here are aged between 18 and 21. Some of these lads are beaten and humiliated by the senior authorities and their lackeys, the screws. All sorts of sexually perverted acts are launched against some of these basically decent young Australians. Looking down into the “J” Division Labour Yard and seeing these tired, ragged, illiterate, scruffy uniformed young prisoners, I could not help but recollect some of the apt descriptions of the Pentridges of yesteryear as reported by Charles Dickens in “Little Dorrit”.

“THE SLOT”, “H” DIVISION
The maximum security Division is “H” Division or, to use the prison slang, the “Slot”. The “H” stands for “Hell”. I have interviewed ex-“H” prisoners who have informed me of the heinous sadistic crimes launched against them by the screws in “H”. I entered “H” two days ago to collect some laundry. It would not be an exaggeration if I were to describe the effect “H” had on me as “spine chilling”. The “Slot” is a small building guarded at the front entrance by two huge brutal looking screws. The first thing I noticed on entering the front doors with my laundry trolley was a large mirror (used to observe anyone approaching) with a long horizontal crack in it. I later discovered that a prisoner had been thrown onto the mirror. The whole situation struck me as nightmare like and unreal. It was very macabre, like something out of Luna Park’s Chamber of Horrors, only extremely serious. The two screws reminded me of “heavies” from a Boris Karloff movie. They abused me and attempted to humiliate me. Why? Simply because I dared enter the “Slot” and leave with my trolley full of laundry.

“H” prisoners are put to work in the “Labour Yard” where they spend hours each day breaking up rocks. They are marched around the yard with military discipline. Most of these men have been sent to “H” for breaches of internal discipline. Many of those who have visited “H” still have the signs to prove it: scars, broken noses, etc. Conditions are so bad that two “H” prisoners have hung themselves during the past few years. Others cut their wrists of throat in order to be removed from “H” and sent to hospital. One “H” prisoner swallowed a 12 inch long metal towel rack. He was sent to hospital and the rack was removed by surgical operation. He was then returned to “H” and promptly swallowed the metal towel rack once more.

“H” from what I can fathom, rightly deserves the title: “Hell”.

You have probably heard about the infamous “Bash”, or at least seen the slogans painted on factory walls around North Melbourne, “Ban the Bash”. The “Bash” has recently been abolished as a result of the prisoner’s rebellion and the government’s inquiry. I met one 26 year-old prisoner who had just been released from “H” after 3 and a half years! Snowy white hair, badly injured eyes, and sickly yellow skin, this once dark haired, normal, healthy young Australian has been subjected to one of capitalism’s “rehabilitation” programmes. He related to me his experiences in “H” when the “Bash” was a formal daily occurrence. The screws would order individual “H” prisoners to jump into the air. When the prisoner landed after having jumped into the air, he would be told: “You were ordered to jump into the air, you were not told to land” and promptly given a bashing. On other occasions prisoners in “H” would be directed to march into cell walls and keep marching until badly bruised and bleeding. Others would be humiliated and forced to imitate animals.

All this in the name of “rehabilitation”!!

A few days ago a riot broke out in “H”. I saw the smoke, heard the screams, and saw the screws frantically running hither and thither. Again I recalled those wise and correct words, “Where there is repression there is resistance”.

THE PRISONERS AND THE SCREWS
Now I would like to give you my general impressions of my fellow prisoners and the screws.

My fellow prisoners are, generally speaking, courageous and kind-hearted men. Most have an instinctive hatred of the capitalist class. They are all political prisoners in the sense that their alleged crimes are socially induced. No murderer is born a murderer, no rapist born a rapist. The various types of social pressures exerted on decent working people by the corrupt and exploitative capitalist class force some people to resort to crime. But what do we mean by “crime”? Is the man who steals food (or money to buy food) for his family really a criminal? And what of the unemployed or unemployable, the so called “vagrant”? Ah, but, you will ask, what of the man who murdered and raped his sister? Surely, I reply, he needs help and pity, not sadist-based punishment. He should be, to coin the popular stereotyped expression, “rehabilitated”. But the notion of “rehabilitation” is by no means a neutral concept. The fundamental question remains “rehabilitated” to what sort of social system and to what sort of value system? The capitalist class can be so hypocritical! They maintain and profit from the social system based on exploitation in the form of private appropriation and the value system based on selfishness and yet they seek to “rehabilitate” the convicted criminal to re-accept those very same social conditions and values which engender crime in the first place!!

This is the same capitalist class which gives out-and-out “Sanctity of Law” to mass destruction of property and people in Indo-China and to the foreign plunder of Australia, yet send basically decent working people to the Pentridge concentration camp for alleged “crimes against private property”. Of course there are criminals and there are criminals. But getting to the root cause of the problem, the real criminals are the very same hypocrites who uphold the present penal system. I refer of course to the criminal capitalist class which, like a lowly parasitic thief, thrives off the labour of others.

“PRISON POLICE”
Now let me comment on the screws, the prison police. Just as it is often claimed that there are “good” as well as “bad” police, so it is said there are the “good” screws and the “bad” screws. The role of the screws is really indefensible. They maintain “law-n-order” within the concentration camp. Some do it with a smile, others don’t give a damn, others take great pride in their work. This latter type is the most prominent, active, and vocal within Pentridge. All the screws are armed with either batons, guns, or .303 rifles. The latter type of screw is sadistic and gains pleasure from humiliating the prisoners. They abuse and try to humiliate us. In “H” Division for example, prisoners are forced to lie on their stomachs naked on their beds and hold the cheeks of their back-sides wide apart for the screws to examine. In “A” Division, one cold frosty morning I was ordered by a clenched fisted screw to “Get you f…… hands out of your f…… pockets”. (They are very foul-mouthed creatures.) However, in trying so desperately to humiliate others, they really only humiliate themselves.

The screws and prison authorities fear the prisoners’ rebellion. Like all reactionaries they are superficially strong but essentially weak. Like the vast majority of prisoners I hate the screws and prison authorities with an intense class hatred.

The day is not far off when justice will be dealt to the screws, the prison authorities, and the entire ruling class!

*********

Bold thinking, revolutionary democracy and ‘the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola’

Last month, La Trobe University organised a ‘Bold Thinking’ panel for its 50th anniversary program at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

I was one of the four panellists. The others were Katie Holmes, professor of History at La Trobe, and my two old comrades, Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola. Fergus and Brian and I became known as ‘the La Trobe Three’ after we were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972. Amnesty International became interested in our case as we were political prisoners.

La Trobe live-streamed the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, including question time, and it can be seen here. Anyone wanting greater background can check out my book ‘Student Revolt’ (1989) or this essay which appeared in ‘Vestes: Australian Universities Review’ in 1984: VESTES essay – Student dissent LTU 1967-72 (1984)

This morning, I viewed the film of the event for the first time. I thought each of us did well but had a lot more we could have said.

As for me, I was extremely nervous. The last time I had spoken before so many people in a public political forum was 1980 at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall when I was on a panel in support of a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games.

Prior to the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, I jotted down a few key points. I was only able to make a few of them – after all, there were four of us sharing an hour – and I want to offer a few more thoughts (in no particular order) here.

* * * *

  1. I had wanted to mention at the beginning of the evening that while the notion of ‘the La Trobe Three’ is valid because only three of us were gaoled, there were in fact four of us who were named in the Supreme Court injunctions. The fourth was Rodney Taylor, who was never captured and thus not gaoled.
  1. Also, in late 1971, twenty-three left-wing students were fined by the University’s kangaroo court, or Proctorial Board, and twelve were excluded (expelled for specific periods). The authorities had accurately identified the core of the militant left, with one or two ‘innocents’ thrown in to make it look fairer. The point I had wanted to make was that of those 23 comrades, five are no longer with us. I want them to be remembered, and do so now: Rob Mathews, Ken Rushgrove, John Cummins, Jan Schapper and Maggie Grant.
  1. A factual blooper on my part: I said that we escorted Defence Department recruiters from the campus in 1969 – it was actually 1970. (The first on-campus confrontation with the University’s governing body, the Council, had occurred in 1969, when a protest delegation entered a Council meeting without permission to demand student representation on the governing body).
  1. Fergus made the point that the type of student rebellion of the late 1960s-early 1970s is “almost impossible to replicate today”. I broadly agree but feel that his reasoning – decentralised campus structures and overseas students – requires further consideration. To me, a glaring problem is the absence of communists on campuses. La Trobe – and Monash – had genuine left-wing leadership for at least a couple of years and we instigated and led the issues and set the pace. At La Trobe, this was the situation in 1970 and 1971. Today there are lots of ‘greens’ and post-modernists on campuses so…
  1. Left-wing leadership was made possible through challenges we made to ‘revisionist’ or pseudo-left people with whom we were in open conflict. The CPA (Communist Party of Australia) was not just an opponent but an enemy. They sought to constrain our militancy and politically sought to divert our energies into supporting the Australian Labor Party. (At this time, after the ascendancy of Whitlam in 1967 as ALP Leader, the ALP’s position as the federal Opposition on Vietnam was no longer one of immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops but rather ‘holding operations’ in Vietnam. This pushed many of us further to the extra-parliamentary left, as there was no parliamentary party through which we could secure our goal in Vietnam).

The CPA was not in any sense a revolutionary organisation, and we were revolutionaries with an understanding of state power and the history of class struggle and the nature of the overthrow of one class by another. As with Marx and Engels in the C19th, some of our biggest ideological battles were with ostensible comrades, those seen as leftists or progressives. Within the left/rads/revs (whatever) is its opposite.

I believe there is a need for a similar overthrow of the faux left leadership today. Until that happens, the period of hibernation, or whatever it is, may continue for another 40 years.

  1. The question of our relationship to the counter-culture came up and I wish I had been a bit more nuanced. It’s true that I wrote my book, ‘Student Revolt’, because I didn’t like the way the period was being portrayed/trivialised in popular culture as almost wholly about sex, drugs and rock music. But I should have made the point that, for all our hard-line politics, we were also part of a counter-culture in that we were working and thinking outside the system. We eschewed the ‘proper channels’ established by the La Trobe University Act to channel student discontent – the Student Representative Council – and I recall a leaflet describing the SRC as a ‘glorified high school prefect system’.

Personally, I had a good relationship with the hippy kind of people but I didn’t approve of the idea of ‘dropping out’ of society and living in share-houses or of the drug culture. Indeed, in 1971 or thereabouts, I compiled a pamphlet called ‘Goddam the pusher man’.

I did wear my hair long back then, wore a purple coloured top from London’s trendy Carnaby Street for a while and loved the more edgy music – especially The Animals, Nina Simone, Country Joe and the Fish, and J B Lenoir (one of the few overtly political blues men). And (gulp) I owned a pair of flairs.

My distaste for the idea of communal share-house living reflected my strong commitment to home ownership, something I retain to this day. I had this attitude because from the age of three to five, I was technically homeless (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homelessness).

My parents and I disembarked at Station Pier, Melbourne, in 1954 and after a very brief stint with my dad’s brother, Joe, who had worked on the wharves since the mid-1920s when he migrated from Malta, we became the ‘drifting migrants’ you see in the movies. My mum used to talk about how we had seven different accommodations – all boarding-houses in Coburg and Brunswick – within our first 21 months in Melbourne. That averages out as a move every three months. In each place, there was a single room for each family, with rooms running off long corridors. A notorious one in West Brunswick was run by a Lithuanian landlady. I was five but still vividly recall the police coming to evict an old drunk from his room. As they forced him out, the landlady ran behind them, screaming in her thick Baltic accent to the poor old bloke: “God help you! God help you!”

‘Housing for all!’ was a communist slogan back then. It should be revived today.

  1. We also shared with the counter-culture a genuine interest in how society could be reorganised, how people could live differently to the alienating system based on wage slavery.

And we were all moved by the wonderful provocative slogans emanating from the 1968 Paris uprising when ten million workers went on strike and students took over the streets with them. I use one of the 1968 Paris slogans as part of the banner of C21st Left: “Sous les paves la plage” – Under the paving stones, the beach!” Awesome stuff and I hope I live long enough to see a revival of the soixante-huitard spirit.

“Society is a carnivorous flower!” Oui!

  1. I had also wanted to mention and discuss Jean Luc Godard’s famous phrase (used in his 1960s film ‘Masculin-Feminin’): “The children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola”. It’s a rich comment, and an accurate one. We were the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola in so many ways. I’ll flesh this out if I ever write a subjective memoir of those years.
  1. Brian said he was still a communist. Fergus indicated he wasn’t. I described myself as a “revolutionary democrat” who supports all struggles against dictators and tyranny, especially in Syria. I said that I wouldn’t feel safe in North Korea or Cuba or any other nominally ‘communist’ country today. I wish I had expanded on what this means. The reason I wouldn’t be safe is because I’d seek out the dissenters and rebels against ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’.

Revolutionary democracy, to me, is entirely consistent with Marxism. But one can be a revolutionary democrat without being a Marxist. For instance, there are Islamists who are revolutionary democrats (and there are those who are very much the opposite). Under conditions of fascism, people who fight for basic bourgeois democracy can be revolutionary democrats regardless of how they self-identify politically.

For Marxists, the ultimate aim is a more democratic society, one in which democracy is extended to the social and economic realm through the ‘lifters’ overthrowing the rule of the 0.1% who are ‘leaners’ and establishing their own rule. In the C21st, no-one in their right mind will support this if it means one-party dictatorship or a continuation of the current Australian model of two-party dictatorship. They will want a genuine competitive multi-party electoral system, one in which the parliament and other representative bodies reflect accurately and proportionately the people’s will. There is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a system based on social ownership.

  1. Which leads me to my regret that I didn’t once talk about ownership of the means of production. “Means of production”! Sometimes I feel like emulating Howard Beale, the character in Paddy Chayevsky’s great film script, ‘Network’ (1976), by going to a window in a tall building, opening it, and yelling to the universe: “I can’t take it anymore!!” but with the added words: “Why is no-one talking about the means of production?!!!!”

Revolutionary democracy, to me, implies the eventual social ownership of means of producing the stuff society needs, with a view to improving living standards and lifting everyone currently in poverty out of it globally, while also going well beyond catering for ‘social need’ through greatly expanding scientific and technological research and development in the interests of even greater progress – the pursuit of fun and fantasy. The early Suffragettes had it right when they talked about ‘Abundance for all!’ My early interest in communism, in the late 1960s, found that slogan enormously attractive. Old coms often talked like that. Back then.

  1. Early influences. It’s always of interest to others to know how and why someone becomes a communist revolutionary. This is largely because 99.9% of people in the west don’t, and they find it intriguing and weird that anyone would.

The ‘Bold Thinking’ event provided opportunity for each of us to talk about this. Fergus and Brian and I had very different upbringings and socio-economic-family environments. I’m sure we each could have talked more about ourselves, and I’ll do so now partly because, for one thing, I regret not being able to explain the extent to which I was already political when I first went to La Trobe in 1969.

I had been involved in the campaign against capital punishment – the hanging of Ronald Ryan – in 1966 and 1967. It was easy as a 15 year old to cycle from my home in West Brunswick up to Coburg to attend protests outside Pentridge Gaol. This year is my 50th ‘on the left’.

In my final years of high school, 1968, I attended the ‘riot’ outside the US Consulate in Commercial Road, St Kilda, Melbourne. The militancy helped ‘bring the war home’ and also jolted the CPA revisionists who had assumed they could keep leading and controlling the growing Vietnam solidarity movement. I was in my school uniform and my emotional response to the police riot, baton assaults and mass arrests left me both very frightened and excited by the fact that people were fighting back.

It may have been my first experience of the feeling that I was taking part in something much bigger than Australia. I had seen footage of the French and US student uprisings of that year – thanks to television. I felt for the first time that little ol’ me was part of a truly international movement of solidarity. (It was not, however, my first riot, as I had been at Festival Hall, West Melbourne, in 1965 when the Mongolian Stomper attacked Domenic DeNucci with the heavy brass ringside bell causing 7,000 Italian wrestling fans to engage in riotous behaviour that required the attendance of many police and several police divisional vans).

  1. And speaking of my old friend Television, I should have thanked it for bringing the world into my lounge-room. News reports of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 11, stay with me to this day, as does film of Bull Connor setting vicious attack dogs onto black protestors in Alabama. Connor was a Democrat of the ‘southern’ kind and Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. There was also footage on the news of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. I wasn’t just disappointed or saddened by what was happening. I was angry – an anger intensified by the juxtaposition of programs like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, which promoted the idealised American family, against the real world characterised by so much oppression, suffering and resistance. Programs like ‘The Twilight Zone’ were among my favourites. In taking me into “a world of imagination”, Rod Serling really helped spark my imagination. Subversive stuff.
  1. Another cultural influence of that time – another expression of the ‘Coca Cola’ in Godard’s formulation – was science-fiction literature (and movies). For a few years in my teenage years I read short stories in that genre and received at Christmas the year’s ‘Best of Sci Fi’ collections. Back then, there wasn’t so much dystopianism. Arthur C Clarke in particular saw the positive potential in rapid technological development. To this day, I believe in reaching for the stars, figuratively and literally. But we won’t get there via capitalism, where R&D is constrained by the pursuit of maximum profit and concentrated private ownership. I would have liked to have made that point on the night.
  1. Still on personal influences, I told the audience how my parents were wage workers, my dad a factory worker and we were on the lower socio-economic side of life. I spent about 30 years growing up in Brunswick, which was all pretty much ‘lower socio-economic’ with many migrants from diverse places and many factories. You could be sure back then that wherever there were lots of migrants there would also be lots of factories. For more than ten years I lived next door to one. Its high red brick wall was the view a metre from my bedroom, blocking out the sun.

Perhaps coming from that background was the reason I do not share Fergus’ view that university life was fairly drab and that the left provided an avenue into stimulation from the boredom. To me, just going to the campus – two bus rides and eleven kilometres away in a strangely named suburb called Bundoora – was excitement in itself. My parents never owned a car and everything went into paying off our house. We never had a family holiday. I knew – and still know – West Brunswick like the back of my hand – every back alley, road and side street. There was a strong neighbourly ethos among some along my street but there was also insularity. For instance, West Brunswick ‘boys’ viewed East Brunswick, on ‘the other side’ of Sydney Road, with caution while we all regarded Coburg people as toffs and snobs. For me, going to La Trobe University in 1969 was like a whole new universe opening up. The politics was icing on that cake. I was meeting people of my own age cohort who lived on properties with beautiful gum trees in places I’d never normally visit, like Montmorency and Eltham. Not a factory wall in sight.

Brunswick suffered three main social problems back then: alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence. In my family home, there was no gambling and no alcoholism. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The act of going to university each day, all that way from Brunswick, was in itself liberating for me. An escape. I loved it.

  1. There was a smattering of applause when Brian declared that ‘the New Left’ treated women very badly. I noticed that some of those applauding were not our age cohorts, so wondered how did they know?

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I would gladly have swapped places with a woman, had one been able to replace me as a target in the Supreme Court injunctions, but none were in positions of leadership at that time to experience that degree of state repression. Was this because of the undoubtedly male dominated nature of the left’s leadership at La Trobe? Did the men hold them back, consciously? I don’t think so.

Was there a problem with male chauvinism? Yes.

When I enrolled at La Trobe I broadly sympathised with equality for women but I also brought with me the common assumptions about men and women of that time. I didn’t come from a ‘bohemian’ bayside background, where Simone de Beauvoir was discussed over fine wine in the evenings. Some of my personal attitudes and expectations were quite conservative in that regard. I was fairly backward in some ways but, as a slow learner, I’m a good learner. While achieving much progress for women, the women’s movement also challenged and changed many men. Including me.

Was there also egalitarianism within the left? Yes again. (I wish I had a dollar for every leaflet I typed – it’s a myth that women did all the typing. It is true, though, that nearly all the leaflets were written by men – which is certainly proof of male dominance).

Going by memory, I think the first regular newssheet published by a women’s lib group on the campus was called ‘Women Arise’ in 1970 (or perhaps 1969). Helen Reddy’s magnificent anthem, ‘I am woman’ was a year or two away but, to me, it sums up all that was and is great about the best politics of women’s liberation. No hint of victimhood, it is a song of defiance, determination and optimism.

I told the audience that I strongly supported the Women’s Liberation movement back then. I did, and still do. It was a very effective movement with clear, attainable, political objectives and it included many socialist women. I regard it as one of the great socio-cultural-political developments of the C20th. But it certainly fragmented – as part of the left’s rapid decline, I would argue – and some of the later varieties of feminism were distinctively not socialist and some were divisive and reactionary.

Any “ism” that uses the term “white men” as though it somehow wins an argument or proves a point, let alone as an insult, loses me as someone influenced by Marxism. These days, I’m favourably disposed to the libertarian feminists who, while not socialist, none the less display some of the qualities of the soixante-huitards. Conservative feminists don’t like them very much. I would have liked to make the point that, in my opinion, we need more Pussy Riots and fewer neo-Mary-Whitehouses.

An old comrade from the La Trobe days has made this comment: “The effect was certainly one of male dominance. A more contentious and important issue is that of intent. Did we write stuff out of a sense of ‘male entitlement’ or because we had things to say and stepped onto a stage that was as much our own making as not? Did we exclude women, that is, discourage their involvement? That is not my memory and the problem I have with the proposition that we did (it’s more an assumption than a proposition) is that it delivers a nice backhander to the women, a more pernicious form of sexism than anything I can remember us being guilty of”.

  1. Smash Soviet social-imperialism! Fergus and Brian and I made it clear that we believed in international solidarity but it’s a pity none of us mentioned the fact that we supported the student and worker uprisings ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ as well as in the west. Again, I was a slow but good learner and came to regard the Czech and Polish rebellions as part and parcel of our own struggle. It made sense from a Marxist revolutionary democrat perspective to support the Polish Solidarity movement later and to rejoice in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had no problem with the Maoist line that saw Soviet social-imperialism as an ascendant threat and US imperialism in decline following its defeat in Indo-China. Richard Nixon’s memoir (1978) shows how Mao and Zhou En Lai wanted more than just normalised diplomatic relations with the US in facing the Soviet threat.
  1. Decline of the revolutionary left. I know that several hours would have been required to discuss and debate the above points. It’s understandable that people are interested mostly in the dynamic period of the late 1960s to early 1970s when there was so much passion, intensity, dedication, excitement, argument, optimism and resistance to repression. But I would have liked to have said something about the period of decline too, which I think was starting during 1972. The subsequent years in the 1970s were nothing like the period from 1968 to 1971, in activism or in spirit, and I’m still waiting for the spirit of ’68 to re-emerge in the C21st.

The period from 1972 to 1980 warrants the same level of investigation and discussion as the earlier period but this has not been undertaken. From my point of view, those years were characterised by increasing dogmatism. We stopped thinking anew, or dialectically. In some cases, ‘we’ turned into our opposites. I know this from personal experience, and to a large extent it happened to me.

One of the important lessons I learned from my activism back then is that it is very hard to think critically or dialectically. And it is even harder to think for oneself.

  1. People usually want to know whether the gaolings, and involvement in left revolutionary politics, had an impact on our employment and careers. In my case, it had a very negative effect later in the 1970s when I was black-listed by the Director-General of the Victorian Education Department. I had completed my Diploma of Education and worked as an Emergency (or Relief) teacher in the Technical Schools Division of the Education Department. Back then, the principals of the schools could employ such casual teachers without needing the approval of the Department. To cut a long story short (I must write it up one day), I had been working at various schools on a casual basis, hoping to eventually be offered a ‘permanent’ teaching job, which would mean having a career and some security. I still have the references from principals of those schools and they range from good to very good in their assessments of me.

Finally, the principal at one of the schools told me that a full-time teacher was retiring and he would like to have me on the staff as an on-going teacher. I was thrilled, as I had been hoping for such an opportunity for many months. The principal took me into his office and rang the Staffing Office in my presence. He told the person on the phone that he had someone to replace the other teacher but when he mentioned my name the response made his face drop. His tone changed and at the end of the call he turned to me and said, “I’m very sorry, Barry, they told me you’re not to be employed”.

It’s hard for me to describe what a personal blow this was – in 1976 or 1977. It knocked me badly, emotionally and psychologically.

I was called to attend a meeting with someone from the Staffing Office, on a street corner in the CBD (I kid you not). I was told that the meeting was strictly ‘off the record’. The officer told me that “someone upstairs” had marked my file “Not to be employed” and that the reason was because I was “a known political activist”.

Of course, I went straight to the union with this news and, to their credit, the union leaders saw the issue in a principled way, as one of opposing the political black-listing of qualified teachers. I was able to keep working on a casual basis, as the Department regulations allowed principals in each school to decide who to take on as a Relief teacher. I had a lot of support and worked pretty much full-time as a Relief teacher, going from school to school as required. The fact that I was doing well in the classrooms, sometimes five days a week, completely undermined any arguments from the Department that I was not suitable for permanent employment.

It took about 18 months of protests, meetings, negotiations, and utter anguish on my part (I was almost certainly clinically depressed during this period) before the Director-General, Laurie Shears, surrendered and I was given an on-going teaching job. A highlight of the struggle was when the three separate teacher unions – The Victorian Teachers Union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria united and stopped work on my behalf. I was told by the TTUV president that it was the first time that the three teacher unions had taken united action.

Mao said that reactionaries lift a rock only to drop it on their own feet. I have experienced and witnessed that truth many times.

Barry victimisation by Education Dept - Brunswick Sentinel - 23 Nov 1977

 

  1. I hope this piece will prompt others from that period, or those with an interest in it, to send in their thoughts on that period of struggle… and beyond.

Struggle - La Trobe heroes cover 1972