Radicals book coverRadicals – Remembering The Sixties by Meredith Burgmann & Nadia Wheatley

NewSouth Publishing 2021

ISBN: 9781742235899

RRP: $39.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Keith Harvey


There were many important social and political issues worth taking up in the 1960s. These included Aboriginal and islander rights (including land rights), racism, apartheid, women’s rights, censorship (up to a point), gay and lesbian rights and capital punishment (although the last hanging was that of Victorian Ronald Ryan in 1967).

Boredom, however, was not one of them. Oddly enough, however, boredom – and the need to have fun – intrudes as a central theme in this collection of pen portraits of 20 Australian radicals from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, including the self-portraits by the two authors, Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley. In their introduction, the authors say:

For a twenty-year-old Australian today, who has lived through seven prime ministers, it would be impossible to imagine how stultifying it was to grow up under a single one – and a patriarchal, conservative one at that…

It is easy to point to the Menzies government’s support for policies such as the White Australia and Assimilation, not to mention the military commitment in Vietnam, but just as bad was the cultural repression. Growing up behind the white picket fence of Menzies’ Australia was deadly boring. [emphasis in original]

Note the words: “just as bad”.

As their subjects, the authors have deliberately chosen people who did not have a radical political background – rather, they sought out individuals from conservative backgrounds or families who, because of an “a-ha” moment – an epiphany – became radicalised. Another theme flows from the saying that “the personal is political”. This phrase is of contested origin but is associated with the second wave of feminism. In this collection of stories, it appears to be reversed – the political is personal.

That is to say that the motivating issues for many of the people in this collection – excepting the Indigenous Australians who had a common experience of discrimination and exclusion and those, such as Margaret Reynolds, who reacted against and responded to racism experienced in Townsville – is an eclectic range of issues with a personal meaning or impact.

What is largely missing from these stories is any serious consideration of economic issues or wealth inequality and power in Australian society. There is little consideration of the issues facing working families in Australia in the 1960s. The concerns are, to a large extent, middle class issues. Workers are notably absent from this volume.

One significant exception to this is the story – the “a-ha” moment – of Peter Batchelor. Perhaps not well known outside of Victoria, Peter Batchelor grew up in a middle-class suburb of Melbourne [Beaumaris]. He participated in an anti-Vietnam demonstration in 1968 and went to Monash University in 1970 – the same year as your reviewer.

Batchelor says that he participated in the Vietnam Moratorium demonstrations in 1970 but as an individual, not as a member of a group. The chapter notes that at Monash at the time “Maoists were in the ascendancy” and that the key political activists were “all firmly in the extreme left or Maoist categories”. Peter Batchelor said that he thought that the atmosphere on campus was “very sectarian, very ideological”. It is hard to disagree. There was no space for moderate politics at Monash in the early seventies, ALP or otherwise.

During his long vacation, Peter Batchelor worked in a mattress factory – a working class environment. After his second summer stint there, he stayed a year and did not return to Monash. Instead, he became a union shop steward and became involved in union activities and campaigns. Later the Furnishing Trades Union offered him a job. Peter then became ALP Victorian State Secretary, which he was when your reviewer did a stint on the Administrative Committee of the ALP after the four right-wing unions reaffiliated with the ALP in 1984-85. Peter was completely committed to the union movement and the ALP, later serving as an MP and a Minister.

I single out Batchelor’s story only because it is virtually the only working-class story in this collection. In the 1960s and 1970s, workers were not bored. They were struggling with economic insecurity. They were not out to have fun – just to feed, house and educate their families.

Meredith Bergmann says that “one day” she decided that she was “a socialist” and on meeting Geoffrey Robertson at university that same day she revealed this new found political position to him. According to her, Robertson replied “Meredith, don’t be silly. We’re all socialists”.

However, there is nothing in this collection which comes even close to discussing what socialism – or any other coherent political philosophy – might mean to any of those concerned. What is left is a grab bag of isolated issues – some very important – of concern to individuals but without an underlying social or political cohesiveness.

A common concern to many in the book is, of course, the Vietnam war and the closely related issue of conscription for service in that war. Conscription began in 1964 and had the potential to affect the life of every young man at the age of 20 (this reviewer included – my marble dropped in a 1972 ballot). There is perhaps no closer definition of the “personal is political” than the prospect of conscription with the possibility of serving and dying overseas. This applies to both the young males concerned and their loved ones.

However, the discussion of the Vietnam War in these pen portraits barely rises beyond the banal – opposition to the war is a given and spoken about in cliches. “It was wrong to send men to fight”. Conscription has a particular history in Australia and conscription for Vietnam fuelled opposition to the war.

But even if this link is not accepted, these essays ignore the other reality of opposition to the war – and many other issues of the 1960s/70s. That is, at that time many world issues were part of the Cold War contest and frequently generated by the communist and pro-communist left in Australia and elsewhere in the foreign policy interests of the then Soviet Union.

Few people objected to men being asked to serve in the Second World War (especially after Hitler attacked the USSR) to fight fascist Germany or militarist Japan. In the sixties, the Soviet Union (rather than China) was backing the communist regime in North Vietnam and their agents of influence in the West were generating opposition to the war in the interest of the Stalinist regimes in Moscow and Hanoi. Similar campaigns were waged against nuclear powered warships in the Pacific and even against UK membership of the European Common Market – all in the interests of the geo-political interests of the USSR.

Moreover, not all Vietnam war protestors were anti-war or pro-peace. Some openly sought a Communist North Vietnamese victory. One of this book’s subjects admitted this position without equivocation: Monash Maoist student Albert Langer, who now prefers to be known as Arthur Dent (a character in Douglas Adams’s comic sci-fi tale The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy!).

Langer/Dent told the authors:

The CICD-Moscow peace line was Stop the War, Negotiate. And the line of the Maoists and Monash Labor Club was Win the War. They were doves. We were hawks. We were on the side of the liberation forces, fighting for victory…It was a military struggle to defeat US imperialism – it involves killing enemy troops.

Those “enemy” troops included Australian soldiers, including conscripts.

Langer/Dent is equally frank about why the radicalism of the 1960s did not endure. Asked why the militant anti-war movement was later to “wither away” he replied:

…because we won, basically. The Vietnamese won in Vietnam, and in Australia there was a total retreat from the atmosphere of the 1950s.

What Langer/Dent meant was that, following the election of the Whitlam Labor government in December 1972, conscription was abolished, and the remaining Australian Army Training Team was withdrawn from the conflict. Saigon fell in April 1975 to North Vietnamese tanks [not Viet Cong/NLF guerrillas]. With no conscription and no war involving Australia, the momentum drained quickly from the protest movement.

This, to some extent, is the problem with the activism of many of the middle-class radicals in this volume. Once their personal/political concern has been addressed, their activism fades away with the issue. There is little that is systemic in many of the issues identified. Again, an important exception are those issues still confronting Indigenous Australians – despite the later Mabo/native title achievements Australia still struggles with its black history and its failure to give a proper voice to the original owners of this land.

On the right side of history?

The pen portrait of Geoffrey Robertson is sub-tiled The Right side of history – a statement attributed in the book to Robertson. Robertson, to be fair, has maintained his interest and involvement in his issues relating to censorship and war crimes and human rights in particular. Robertson’s view is “we were on the right side of history, basically – capital punishment, Vietnam, apartheid”.

Capital punishment and apartheid were hardly major left/right issues in Australia. No Australian political party of any significance supported apartheid – the issue was how best to bring about its demise – and opposition to capital punishment has been a bipartisan political position for decades.

On Vietnam, although the left orthodox view would dispute it, the evidence of waves of Vietnamese refugees risking their lives to flee Communist Vietnam is evidence that victory for the North was not in the best interests of the Vietnamese people – in the south or the north. While Vietnam is a freer society today, the Vietnamese Communist Party still holds all political power. The people enjoy none of the human rights for which Robertson fights elsewhere.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 (notwithstanding the present state of Russia) clearly demonstrates that the radical/pro-communist/anti-western positions adopted by many of these sixties radicals were not on the right side of history at all – it is totalitarian communism that has been thrown into the “dustbin of history” not capitalism, despite the latter’s many flaws.

The greatest challenge to world peace and security today – and the greatest threat to human rights is the so-called People’s Republic of China where the people have no human or political rights – Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, or in fact anywhere in mainland China. To the extent that the middle-class radicals of the sixties supported the geo-political interests of the Communist powers they were – and some remain – on the wrong side of the historical ledger. It is time to turn the page and make a new history beyond the strictures of 1960s ideologies.

White Australia Policy

Your reviewer is puzzled as to why the White Australia Policy is so often referred to by subjects of this book as a defining issue that radicalised them in the 1960s. Together with the Democratic Labor Party as a bogeyman, this policy is repeatedly referred to as a touchstone issue, driving them to a left/radical position.

The White Australia Policy was – for a least half a century after Federation– a thoroughly bi-partisan political policy in Australia – supported by both the Labor and anti-Labor parties as well as by the trade union movement. It was an offensive policy – not only for our relations with neighbouring countries – but of course also to the original inhabitants of the land who were ignored in this misguided goal to create a white European nation in Terra Australis.

But the political party that held onto this policy position the longest was – almost unarguably – not the conservative Menzies government – but the ALP almost up to and until the demise of Arthur Calwell as Federal leader. Calwell was closely identified with the White Australia Policy – which was only repudiated by the ALP in 1965.

The Whitlam government can rightly claim to have removed the very last legal vestiges of this policy, replacing it with multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act, but the ALP was not the first mover in this arena. Gough Whitlam acknowledged that the fight for change was the longest in the ALP (but said that when it was won, the victory was the most complete).

The B A Santamaria led Catholic Social Studies Movement, the precursor to the National Civic Council and intellectual driving force behind the DLP, began a long campaign against the White Australia Policy in 1943. The DLP was the first major political party to call for the abolition of this policy. The Liberal Party dropped the term in 1960 – the ALP only in 1965. Both major parties still had adherents to this policy in their ranks after that date.

Malcolm Fraser’s ready willingness to accept thousands of Vietnamese refugees after 1975 was perhaps the first major test of the new approach to immigration. The history of the demise of the White Australia Policy is complex and a number of people can rightly lay claim to having played a significant role in its death. But to suggest that support for a White Australia was the preserve of the Menzies-led Coalition governments flies in the face of Australian political history.

This reviewer also wonders if the struggles against censorship have resulted in this policy falling on the right side of history. In the 1960s, anti-censorship campaigners argued (ultimately successfully) against censorship of literary works such as D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What has most frequently resulted from our relaxation of censorship has not necessarily been a great flourishing of literature but a flood tide of pornography – increasingly cited as a factor in the hyper-sexualisation of young males and their frequently predatory and misogynist approach to young women and sex.

Your reviewer might be getting old, but it seems to me that we could well have done without a small number of literary works if it were ultimately to mean that our young women and girls were able to feel safer and more respected in our society. The MeToo movement has rightly called out predatory behaviour by men in powerful positions but the problem is not just in the corridors of power – it is in school corridors as well.

Radicals – Remembering the sixties is not without importance. Many of the issues confronted at that time were of genuine significance but what the subjects of these portraits talk about is equally revealing in what they do not mention.

Keith Harvey is a non-factional member of the ALP in Victoria. He was employed for many years in the trade union movement and is currently a director of an industry super fund.