Radical reminder of a passion for progressive activity
by ROSS FITZGERALD
A Maoist, an anarchist and a Trotskyist walk into a bar. Make that a book. Add communists, socialists, feminists, two lesbians, a gay man, and three Indigenous activists; all appear in Radicals.
Sydney-based Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley are contributing editors of this often intriguing book they have dedicated to “all those comrades who were part of the radical Sixties” and who, “despite their differences, fought for a better world”.
Rather idiosyncratically, this critical decade is defined by Burgmann and Wheatley “as roughly spanning the years between 1965 and 1975”. In tune with this chronology they argue that the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Freedom Ride for Aboriginal rights began the era and the Dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s federal Labor government ended it.
The best-known slogan of that time is “the personal is political”.
According to Radicals this motto “expresses the spirit of those years”. It was “a powerful and heady mix” of street marches, sit-ins, sexual liberation, folk music and rock, alcohol and other drugs. This was combined with a comradeship shaped by living in share houses, handing out leaflets, singing anti-war songs and getting arrested. This partisan collection of stories involves the editors tape-recording a number of people who “rejected the political views and values of their family, school, church and class.”
Along with mini-memoirs of well-known radicals Albert Langer (now named Arthur Dent), Burgmann herself and Gary Foley, three stories demand attention.
A piece featuring troubadour Margret RoadKnight is a highlight. This towering figure with a glorious voice and signature afro often sang from the back of trucks at anti-Vietnam War marches.
Although her parents were Democratic Labor Party voters, when African-American singer Paul Robeson visited Melbourne in 1960 they thought Margret and her sister should go to his concert, despite the fact Robeson was a known communist supporter. Perhaps, as Burgmann puts it, her parents’ “love of good music and their opposition to the persecution of this great man was more important than their anti-communism”.
Asked how she ceased being conservative, Margret says: “I can tell you it was through folk music.”
Other standout stories include one about Brisbane-based anti-fascist Brian Laver and another featuring Australia’s best-known pornographer, Robbie Swan.
A talented tennis player born in 1944, Laver (Rod Laver’s cousin) is a fiercely anti-Marxist-Leninist libertarian who was a leader of the anti-war movement in the 1960s.
But he says “people who were radicalised at Queensland University were more radicalised about the right to march than about Vietnam”. In 1968 he was influenced by the student protests in Paris led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Soviet Union’s brutal crushing of the Prague Spring. Both widened the chasm between the Old Left and the New. For Laver, the invasion of Czechoslovakia confirmed a long-held belief about the brutality of Stalinist totalitarianism.
Asked to nominate his radicalising influence, Swan has one word: “Drugs.” Born in Sydney in 1951, Swan was strongly influenced by LSD, marijuana and the music of Jimi Hendrix. His anti-authoritarianism at high school stayed with him all his life. This includes his opposition to police aggression and conscription. In 1971 he studied creative writing at the Canberra College of Advanced Education but even there he felt an outsider. He began attending the Aquarius Arts Festivals, “an inspired blend of rock and roll, academia and student politics”.
Swan was also intimately involved with Transcendental Meditation. He became a lobbyist for the adult entertainment industry. Because the pornographic films he was defending “contained no illegal acts”, he regarded this as a matter of freedom of speech.
In concert with partner Fiona Patten, now a Victorian upper house MP, Swan founded the Australian Sex Party – for which I stood as lead Senate candidate for NSW at the 2016 federal election.
As for being nostalgic about the Sixties, Burgmann and Wheatley claim that, five decades on, “our society seems to have moved so far from that hopeful and innocent era” that even using the word “radical” requires explanation.
It is hard to disagree with their contention that, in the current political climate, the term is most often associated with extremists rather than people passionate about social change. It almost makes you hanker for the good old days. Almost.
Radicals: Remembering the Sixties By Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley, NewSouth, 432pp, $39.99 (PB)
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Australian, March 19, 2021 p 12.