Aussie progressives choose long hard roads
Seventy years of Left activism in Australia
Far Left In Australia Since 1945, editors Jon Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Routledge, London and New York, 2019. Book review by Bernie Dowling
THIS book, written for popular as well as academic readers, is officially due out next year, so I guess this is a preview rather than a review. Copies appear to be available now from the publisher’s website. The site does not have a graphic of the cover and I copied the one above from the national library records. The publisher could update with a different cover but I am betting on the banner of the defunct Builder’s Labourers’ Federation – now part of the CMFEU – will fly on the front of this book.
As well as constituting a preview, my musings are largely based on background material and a review of a Beta copy by Wollongong academic Rowan Cahill.
I will stop the equivocations lest I start to appear as incredible as triple-speak lawyer Rudy Giuliani defending Donald Trump. This book does not regard the Far Left as the inverse of the deservedly maligned Far Right, Cahill tells us in his review. Reviewer Rowan Cahill probably could have saved time by saying the 17 contributors have varying degrees of sympathy with the Left.
But, in saying that, Cahill would have lost all the fun of describing the Far Right: “a gaggle of neo-nazis, fascists etcetera of a thuggish acid-in-your-face kind, racist trolls, a cyberspace of one-person-and-a-dog-flat-earth ‘parties’ that manage to jag the system and gain traction amongst fake news devotees, Christian clappers with heads buried in the Old Testament, and a galaxy of their combinations and ilk.”
On the other hand, “Far Left refers to the politics, passions, enthusiasms, strategies and formations to the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which, as is evident in this book, and generally speaking, was not Far Left.”
In short, the sort of people I, and perhaps you, engage with on Twitter, including people committed to reforming the Labor Party from within. By now, you will probably have an inkling whether you will like this book but I will provide more encouragement with chapter outlines:
Introduction : the history of the far left in Australia since 1945 / Jon Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley · Australian communism in crisis, 1956 / Phillip Deery ·
The current of Maoism in the Australian far left / Drew Cottle and Angela Keys · Breaking with Moscow : the Communist Party of Australia’s new road to socialism / David McKnight ·
The “white Australia” policy must go : the Communist Party of Australia and immigration restriction / Jon Piccini and Evan Smith ·
The far left and the fight for Aboriginal rights : the formation of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (CAR), 1951 / Jennifer Clark [No Capital A for Aboriginal according to details lodged with the national library. I will ask Tweeter Marcia Langton about this]. ·
How far left? : negotiating radicalism in Australian anti-nuclear politics in the 1960s / Kyle Harvey · 1968 in Australia : the student movement and the New Left / Russell Marks ·
Changing consciousness, changing lifestyles : Australia’s women liberation, the left and the politics of “personal solutions” / Isobelle Barrett Meyering ·
Black power and white solidarity : the Action Conference on Racism and Education, Brisbane 1972 / Lewis d’Avigdor ·
The Australian left and gay liberation, from 1945 to 2000s / Liz Ross · Beating BHP : the Wollongong jobs for women campaign 1980-1991 / Diana Covell ·
Halcyon days? : the Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union and the accord / Elizabeth Humphrys · Reading and contesting Germaine Greer and Dennis Altman : the 1970s and beyond / Jon Piccini and Ana Stevenson ·
The cultural front : left cultural activism in the post-war era / Lisa Milner.
NOW that I have performed my reviewing duties I am entitled to a whinge about the prices of books which are likely to be set as university texts. This 286-page book retails for $AU 242 (hardback) $49.99 (paperback) and $67.27 (eBook).
As someone of mature age, if not maturity, I have gone back to university full-time and have to endure the expense of academic texts. I know 17 historians contributed to this book but I cannot imagine they would expect much in the way of royalties. Aren’t they supposed to be publishing to garner peer admiration, tenure, a pay rise, or escape from a tiny office near the broom cupboard to a slightly larger room neat the stairwell? Prices seem exploitative of history students, teachers, and librarians who have to fork out $AU242 for a hardback or $67.27 for an eBook. Any neo-Marxist among the authors must be suitably embarrassed.
My own 300-page history book sells for a mere $AU30
Now an audiobook https://awesound.com/audiobook/iraqiicicle
As an eBook, my quasi-historical neo-noir is $AU11.67. And I cannot make a bunch of history student buy my books. Where’s my placard? I can feel a protest coming. What do we want? Mandatory purchases of Bernie’s books. You can buy The Far Left In Australia Since 1945HERE. Rowan Cahill review was first published in an edited form in Recorder (Newsletter of the Melbourne Labour History Society), Issue No. 293, November 2018, pp. 8-9.
THE FAR LEFT IN AUSTRALIA
[Review of The Far Left In Australia Since 1945, editors Jon Piccini, Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Routledge, London and New York, 2019.
At the outset, a few comments. First, this is an attractively designed book, not something associated with the bland churn mills of academic publishing. Second, while it is packaged in the usual academic publisher’s hugely expensive hardbound library edition, it is also available in affordable paperback and eBook formats. Third, the astute reader will note me cited in a few footnotes and thanked in the acknowledgements, so as a reviewer I’m connected with the book. Hence this explanation: the thank you is due to my having read a draft of the editors, Introduction essay and the feedback provided. Given the editors aimed this book at a wide readership academic, general, people new to the era, old hands. I thought they delivered an astute, even-handed introductory treatment of a complex era, its passions, enthusiasms, its politics, strategies and its factional complexities, some of which are still divisively alive. I stand by that judgement. Now a quibble. When Australian leftist commentators use the term ‘Far Right’ today, it is generally in a derogatory way, shorthand to describe a gaggle of neo-nazis, fascists etcetera of a thuggish acid-in-your-face kind, racist trolls, a cyberspace of one-person-and-a-dog-flat-earth ‘parties’ that manage to jag the system and gain traction amongst fake news devotees, Christian clappers with heads buried in the Old Testament, and a galaxy of their combinations and ilk.
While there are Australian commentators of a Murdochian/ Quadrantian kind who regard ‘Far Left’ as anything to the left of Genghis Khan, in this book Far Left refers to the politics, passions, enthusiasms, strategies and formations to the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which, as is evident in this book, and generally speaking, was not ‘Far Left’
in the same sense of the ‘Far Right’ I’ve sketched above, rather manifestations and expressions of good old social justice issues, concerns for human decency, and pursuit of a better world. Indeed, it could be asked in a Sat-Nav way just where does the Australian Far Left begin, when, as evident in this book, elements of the left of the ALP and the left beyond the ALP often shared the same political space? As noted above, the Introduction is a useful account of the territory covered by the book and sets the context for the essays that follow. As the editors confidently assert and explain, based on scholarly research, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War 11 robustly, with some20,000 members, and with organisational and political clout. Despite the repressive Cold War climate, the Party “seeded or provided impetus” for the emergence of other movements and organisations “steadfastly devoted to a better world”.
Along with work in the trade union movement, these variously struggled “for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace”, contributing in the process to “reforms that have changed Australia from the racist, sexist and parochial society of1945”.
The fourteen chapters by sixteen authors that follow, variously illustrate, reinforce, and inform this.
However, the CPA did not remain the robust outfit it was, and post-1945 went into decline,
especially following the ‘Secret Speech’ of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and in the 1960s the impacts of Euro-communism on the party and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968). The Party eventually voted to dissolve itself in 1991. The decline and end of the CPA are a seminal part of the book’s discussion, as are the ramifications and morphings of this process. There is a lot going on in this book, actually too much to encapsulate in a brief review. Much of the content is either new, or adds nuances to previous understandings of the period, if not outright challenges. All of the contributions are based on significant original research, and as the extensive end notes to each chapter indicate, they are not confectionary cut-and-pastes from secondary sources.
Overall, the striking feature of this book is the way it goes beyond the simplistic, bland and sweeping strokes of much commentary and analysis of the period studied, yes, even in scholarly discourses. The authors and their chapters variously demonstrate that the tumult of the period, the social movements, the protests, the issues, the various struggles for social justice, the splits that wracked the CPA, were complex and nuanced. What transpired did not just occur, did not just happen, but gestated and emerged out of complex local and national processes. When there were transnational influences, and there were, these were
influences, reimagined, reinterpreted, and ameliorated by the rootedness of the lives of people and their experiences. There was no lock-step international puppeteering or mimicry. Pressed to describe the book simply, it is a nuanced study of Australian leftism post-1945 offering much of relevance to the present and future. If it gets the circulation and sales it deserves, it will be mined by researchers for years to come, for it is a mother lode. Read thoughtfully, it also has much to offer activists.
First published in an edited form in Recorder (Newsletter of the Melbourne Labour History Society), Issue No. 293, November 2018, pp. 8-9.