Celebrating Darce Cassidy

Notes for my contribution to memorial meeting on May 14, following Darce’s death on 2019-04-29

I’m not a historian and cannot do justice to the story of Darce Cassidy.

But I do know that he played a critically important part as a leader of the sixties rebellion in Australia and it would be well worthwhile for some historian to write up that story.

Most people who knew either Darce Cassidy or Jon Cassidy would know him as a progressive and radical who worked in the mainstream as an ABC journalist, staff organizer and manager and who was able to get on with all kinds of people helping others to organize themselves in a progressive direction that caused problems for the powers that be. He would be known by many for his contributions to Community and Multicultural radio and opposition to internet censorship and surveillance as director of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. He did all of that and more, and it was central to his life.

But I knew him as a revolutionary as well as a friend, and specifically as a revolutionary communist leader, and I know that was also central to his life and should not be forgotten so I will focus on that. That description may come as a surprise to many who got to know him after the sixties wave had subsided when there was no radical left to help organize and lead. He was able to adapt because he always followed the “mass line” of taking progressive political ideas from the masses, concentrating and developing them and taking them back to the masses.

In the late 1960s Darce played a significant leadership role in the largest and best known radical student and youth organizations in Australia – the Maoist led Monash University Labour Club and Worker Student Alliance. Like other open supporters of the Vietnamese armed struggle against US occupation and advocates of militant protest tactics in Australia he was regularly slandered. Bob Santamaria’s far right wing Newsweekly had a major campaign to oust him from his “subversive” influence at the ABC, claiming that he was a terrorist. More common were the slanders from the “Communist” CPA, the “Labor” ALP “left” and some Trotskyists who portrayed revolutionary rebels like Darce as sectarians.

In response to Santamaria’s campaign, the ABC duly obtained a report on comrade Cassidy from ASIO. This confirmed that actually he was a revolutionary, not a terrorist, and that his employment in charge of book reviews for the ABC was not a matter of immediate concern to ASIO in the current situation and while he was not in charge of news or current affairs. But Darce was no sectarian either and helped ABC news and current affairs staff to rebel in ways that right-wingers are still upset about.

For anyone interested in sources to find out more about Darce’s revolutionary activities, in preparing notes I was helped by two references easily found online by a google search for “Monash Labor Club”. They are listed at the end.

ASIO’s records have been released and would provide a lot more detail.

Darce was not a theoretician, nor a public spokesperson for revolutionary politics. But he was a leader, with a major role in strategy, tactics and organization. His revolutionary work as a journalist and organiser was central to the radicalization of the youth and student movement in the sixties because he taught others how to do radical journalism, how to get organised and how to maneuver against our enemies without getting isolated. He was particularly good at teaching people how to think before writing, so as to produce short punchy items with real impact, through careful attention to catchy headlines and humorous slogans that adapted tactics to strategy.

Darce arrived in Melbourne and enrolled at Monash University shortly before things got moving in 1967. He immediately helped launch our regular news sheet called “Print”. Unlike most of the sixties activists in Australia he had several years experience of radical politics at Sydney University before the movement took off and had edited a weekly newsheet there called “Wednesday Commentary”. He advocated a neutral name to focus attention on the content not proclamation. But he originally proposed the name “Gladys” as he thought “Gladys says” would catch on. Fortunately we were able to persuade him that “I saw it in Print” would also work.

The sixties Vietnam movement in the US grew more directly out of the civil rights movement than in Australia (especially with black conscripts as the most important force). But a lot of the sixties Australian indigenous rights movement was also inspired by the US example. An obvious direct import was the rural NSW Freedom Ride that Darce helped organize in March 1965 following on from solidarity protests in support of the fights against racism in the U.S. and South Africa. The Vietnam movement also had a natural continuity from solidarity with US as well as South African struggles. (My own earliest political activity was as secretary of “Youth Against Apartheid” around the same time.)

It is ironic that we were presented as “anti-American”. As with the Freedom ride, even more so for Vietnam, a lot of the inspiration for the sixties movement came from following the examples set by radical Americans.

We did not have the internet back in the sixties. But we did have typewriters, wax stencils and duplicating machines called “Gestetners”. One of Darce’s slogans was “All power grows out of the barrel of a Gestetner”. Darce was more than anyone responsible for launching an irreverant and uncensorable underground journalism tradition of “the sixties” that Australian university and later high school authorities could not cope with.

Another of Darce’s slogans was “If there is to be a revolution there must be a revolutionary party – Friday night at Jasmine Street”.

Jasmine street was the home of several Monash Labor Club activists including Darce from the summer break1966-7.

The revolutionary parties at Jasmine Street every Friday were pretty wild, some would say they were drunken orgies. But the revolutionary music organized by Darce was not just background noise. Radical songs are always a necessary part of any radical culture and tradition. Jasmine Street was also the off campus HQ where people developed their ideas on HOW to rebel in continuous political discussion. Later a similar role was played by “Shirley Grove” and then “The Bakery” which became the headquarters of a non-student organization, the “Revolutionary Socialists”. Darce was central to organizing all three HQs, fostering an atmosphere in which ideas could develop. Later he proposed disbanding the Rev Socs to form a more explicitly Maoist led youth organization, WSA, the “Worker Student Alliance”, in January 1970.

These irreverant takeoffs from Mao’s slogans “All power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and “If there is to be a revolution, there must be a revolutionary party” were typical of the thoroughly irrevererant and politically incorrect sixties rebellion that Darce helped organize.

As Darce confirmed in an interview half a century later:

“By late 1966 early 1967 I grew to see ALP politics as futile and the Maoist stance offered a clear anti-Parliamentary line. Other than this fact it was the sheer rebelliousness of the Maoist ideas like ‘It is right to rebel’ that became attractive
to a lot us around that time.” (2005-09-03)

Soon after Darce’s arrival we had a major breakthrough in 1967. After some initial toughening up in response to attempts to censor “Print” from the University administration we were able to withstand a real “baptism by fire”. This came when we organized collections of aid for solidarity with the “National Liberation Front” who were fighting and defeating U.S. and Australian invaders in south Vietnam. The concentrated attacks from press, TV, government and University authorities as well as the peace movement “establishment” were a major turning point, not just for the student movement but for the wider anti-war movement. As intended the whole climate shifted left. The “moderates” were now able to distance themselves from us while also moving towards a position that the war could only be ended by defeat of the U.S. rather than by respectably influencing its government to be less aggressive. The left became a major force in the organized anti-war movement with Darce often representing us at private meetings where he helped out maneuver the old guard “peace movement” without them ever quite understanding how they got done over.

Darce’s detailed organizational proposal for moving from a weekly “Print” to a daily were written under the name Len Esdaile in the third issue of the internal bulletin of the Young Communist League, Sunday February 15 1969. Eventually the Monash radical student movement had many weeklies, including those from groups in most Faculties such as “Spanner and Sickle” in Engineering, as well as the daily “Print”. Many high schools also had their own regular newsheets based on the same rebellious and offensive “underground” style. These had to be distributed anonymously as the editors would be expelled from school. Being cheeky, rebellious and highly offensive to all right thinking people was easy. Learning to do it skillfully required lessons from a professional revolutionary journalist – Darce Cassidy, also known as “Tony Brooks”.

Darce’s commitment, like that of other sixties radicals, was not virtue signalling and hence was of interest to ASIO without them pretending that he was a eiither a terrorist or about to launch an armed struggle. Like the rest of us he was totally in favour of offending people to make them think (while rejecting the “being offended” that helps people avoid thinking). He was of course hostile to the censorious “political correctness” that now dominates the pseudo-left that imploded into the vacuum left by the subsiding radical wave half a century ago. It was the radical left, not the right that invented that term “politically incorrect”, and its Australian equivalent “ideologically unsound” to mock the pretensions of the pseudoleft.

Darce was a thorougly mainstream and thoroughly political incorrect revolutionary. That style of politics was fun. Darce will be remembered for it.

REFERENCES

1. Robins, Daniel (2005) Melbourne’s Maoists : the rise of the Monash University Labor Club, 1965-1967. Honours thesis, Victoria University.

http://vuir.vu.edu.au/30211/

2. From http://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/biogs/E000612b.htm links from page on “Monash Labor Club”

“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.

 

 

Bill Leak (1956-2017) – ‘waking up with a roaring fatwa’

“It’s a strange world when the most conservative people on earth call themselves ‘progressives’ and no one bats an eyelid” – email from Bill Leak, 4-10-15

“These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism” – email from Bill Leak, 30-10-16

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marx cartoon - Bill Leak

I had the privilege of becoming one of Bill Leak’s friends. We corresponded, sometimes in substantial emails, and chatted by phone. We never met, but wanted to.

I did not agree with all his cartoons, needless to say, but defended his right to express his views via his excellent technical skills, brilliant intellect and wit, powerful way with words and awesome imagination. In terms of political philosophy, I had very little in common with those on the Right who supported him – other than a shared, stated, commitment to free speech.

And I didn’t agree when he would use the term ‘the Left’ to assail his opponents. It was understandable that he would regard the censorious reactionary creeps who John Pilger and Andrew Bolt both agree are ‘the Left’ as actually constituting some kind of left. After all, where is the alternative – a genuine Left – in public discourse? But I managed to point out to him that the Left is not defined by self-labelling, or by the right-wing media, or by some dogmatic formula into which reality is forced, but rather by long-established values and theory, and politics based on the ever-changing real world.

In an article Bill wrote defiantly for ‘The Australian’ after being summoned before the Human Rights Commission, he again attacked ‘the Left’. I emailed him, arguing that “such types have nothing in common with Marx’s rebellious spirit, let alone revolutionary political philosophy, and the term ‘pseudo-left’ and ‘faux-Marxists’ needs to be popularised”.

Bill’s response:

“Thanks SO much, Barry. If ONLY I’d spoken to you while writing it. I squirmed in my chair for a fortnight but couldn’t come up with the terms pseudo left and faux-Marxists and now it’s too late”.

 

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Our contact began when I wrote to him, three or four years ago, to congratulate him on an excellent cartoon in ‘The Australian’, attacking a union boss who had been dog-whistling about ‘foreign workers’. As a leftist influenced by Marxism, I knew there was no such thing as foreigners when it came to the working class. I told Bill. He agreed.

Foreign workers’ cartoon… (112 years) after Livingston Hopkins… 

 Bill Leak cartoon - foreign workers - cropped

 

He had an indomitable sense of humour and wit. Early in 2015, when very serious death threats were made against him by Islamo-fascists, he had to uproot his family and move house and studio at short notice, and adopt a false name. Armed protection had to be arranged for him and his family. His crime had been to portray a figure in a cartoon that resembled Muhammad. It was not gratuitous stuff, but a response to the murder of cartoonists in France.

“Je suis Charlie’. Remember?

Bill’s response to me, in an email was:

“In much the same way that it takes a bit of time before you can laugh at tragedies, it might still take a while before Goong [his wife] and I can laugh about all this upheaval. I feel pretty sure though that it won’t be long before I’ll be able to say, “You remember that day when I woke up with a roaring fatwa? Best thing that ever happened for both of us.”

He continued:

“It is of course galling to read the letters in the paper from people “daring” me to “dare” to draw a cartoon that may offend Muslims in the way Saturday’s cartoon appears to have offended some of the more humourless Christians. It’s not as if I can write a letter myself, demanding they go back and check the cartoon from January 10. I’d love to tell them it resulted in me having to find a new home and live under an assumed name because the people I’d “offended” wanted to square things up by tracking me down and cutting my head off but, for obvious reasons, the less people know about it the better.

 

“Right now the thing that worries me most is the prospect of discovering I’m being targeted by Evangelical Christians, wanting to turn up at my place in a mini-bus and stand around on the front lawn strumming guitars and singing songs at me.

“One fatwa at a time, please!”

 

State censorship and the spirit of ’68…

As someone radicalised in the 1960s, who still regards 1968 as the Left’s finest year and high point internationally, I saw in Bill’s spirit and many of his cartoons the long-lost spirit of that year: its irreverence, rebelliousness, defiance and challenge to the dominant ideology (what we today call ‘Political Correctness’ – yes, it was around back then but in an openly right-wing form).

Much of the censorship back then was undertaken by the state under the guise of clamping down on obscenity. There was an Obscene Publications Act, which banned art and writings that members of a Vice Squad regarded as sufficiently pornographic for them to physically remove them from bookshops. If a magistrate shared the Vice Squad’s view, then the literature was banned.

Publications exposing US war crimes in Vietnam were also banned under the Obscene Publications Act. At high school, I unlawfully distributed the banned pamphlet, ‘US atrocities in Vietnam’ (I think it was called that, from memory).

The attempt at state intimidation and censorship that Bill Leak experienced, and fought, was undertaken via ‘human rights’ legislation: the Racial Discrimination Act. Go figure. And see the Appendix below for Bill’s email of 30-10-16 as to why and how the cartoon sought to support Indigenous people in remote communities and was not racist.

Every society has a dominant sense of what is right and wrong, what is fair comment and what is going too far, but the real question concerns the parameters as set down by the state, by official censorship.

That action could be taken against a cartoonist in the C21st by an arm of the state – and let’s not be coy about it, that’s what the Human Rights Commission is – showed that the parameters are way too broad and censorious. Even the Greens Senator, Nick McKim, stated on national television that he felt Bill’s controversial ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was exempt under Section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act (which basically exempts on the grounds of ‘fair comment’).

‘Dear old dad’ cartoon…

leak dear old dad

Bill tapped into a mood of resentment on the part of many people who grew sick and tired of being smugly admonished by their finger-prodding ‘betters’ in the Establishment that they should not do this or that, or think ‘like that’. This is not to suggest that those feeling resentment are always right, they are not, but the culture of Political Correctness has made nuance almost impossible. You either toe the line entirely or you are racist and any variety of ‘phobe’. There is little room in this culture for debate, for the open clash of conflicting ideas. In this context, ‘Being offended’ has become an argument – a case for opposition to something – rather than just a subjective feeling.

Punching up… at the cultural establishment

Those who accused Bill of ‘punching down’ have it upside down. His cartoons in the main were actually punching up, challenging those at the top, the decision-makers, those with great and sometimes dominant influence in the media, the senior bureaucracy, bourgeois academia, the ‘aristocracy of labour’ (or ‘union bosses’ as we described them in the communist party) and mainstream politicians of all stripes who, in general, prefer to deny or obfuscate life-threatening problems and restrict civil liberties. It takes a weird sense of victimhood – a denial of human agency – to see it the other way ‘round.

No other mainstream cartoonist so incisively mocked the Green quasi-religion. His ‘Christine Milne’ sitting self-righteously with the fairies at the bottom of the garden, in vivid unreal technicolour, was among my favourites.

Green fairies at the bottom of the garden…

leak milne

No other cartoonist so effectively challenged economic protectionism. None so willingly revealed the absurdity of all the religions, including the quasi-religious totalitarian impulses of the reactionary pseudo-left. None so courageously stood up to the current brand of ‘clerico-fascism’.

He will be best remembered for his defence of free speech. He stood up to fascists, at great personal cost. To me, regardless of the cartoons with which I disagreed, those qualities make him a cultural hero.

I’m devastated by his death, and disgusted by the attacks he endured from what passes for ‘the left’ today, by the state and by Islamo-fascists.

Bill, thank you for your work, and for having me as a friend. And for your spirit, the best long-term hope for which is the revival of a genuine left.

* * * *

Appendix:

 

Bill’s email of 30-10-16 on why his ‘Dear old dad’ cartoon was not racist:

Sorry I didn’t reply to your previous email that arrived just a few days after I received news I was about to be hauled before the Inquisition. Since then I’ve discovered drawing cartoons and fighting the dark forces of tyranny at the same time is bloody hard work and doesn’t leave me with much time to spare for writing emails.

I have to give my cartoons names when I put them up on the website and the name I gave the one that’s caused all this latest trouble was “Dear Old Dad”. Well, dear old dad is having one hell of an impact. I hoped it would prompt people to take a good, hard look at the plight of aboriginal kids in remote communities but it seems that’s something so confronting they prefer not to look at it at all. So much easier to accuse me of racism for having brought the subject up. It’s pleasing to see, though, that finally the virtue signallers are running out of abuse to hurl at me and the conversation is starting to focus on the little boy in the middle of it and his indescribably sad, desperate life. The cartoon was supposed to be about him after all, for Christ’s sake. Col Dillon (Anthony’s father) [both of Indigenous ancestry] rang me on the morning of the day it was published to thank me and congratulate me for doing it. He knew what I was trying to say and knowing he was glad to see I’d tried to say it clearly was good enough for me. 

I grew up in a place in the bush called Condobolin among aboriginal kids. When I went back there in 2001 (for the first time in over 30 years) it was depressing to see how much worse things were for the indigenous people than they were in the 60s. Intergenerational welfare dependency is like a slow working poison. Killing with kindness is just the ticket I suppose if, deep down, what you really want to do is discreetly eradicate a population while simultaneously parading your compassion and telling everyone how much you care.

To tell you the truth I had no idea dear old dad would also trigger a debate on 18C, let alone that I’d end up at the pointy end of a battle to get it amended or (dare I hope) repealed. Two shitfights for the price of one! Perhaps by now Southpommasane and Triggs might be regretting they decided to try to rid themselves of this turbulent cartoonist. But they did, and I’m going to fight like buggery. It’s just as well I like a blue, Barry.

These people are trying to take us down the road to fascism. It might be nice, PC, inclusive, compassionate, non-gender specific smiley-face fascism but it’s still fascism. And if that’s where we end up the Triggses and Southpossums and all their fellow members of ‘the new monocled top-hatted elite who hold the workers in disdain for their consumerism’ won’t know what hit them. – Bill Leak, 30-10-16

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