Jim McIlroy reviews Radicals: Remembering the Sixties, the recent book by two Sydney activists – politician Meredith Burgmann and award-winning author Nadia Wheatley – on the radical movement of the 1960s.
“If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there,” is the famous saying quoted by Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley in the introduction to Radicals: Remembering the Sixties, their informative and entertaining anthology of interviews with participants in the radical movement of 1960s Australia.
“The Sixties – an era of protest, free love, civil disobedience, duffle coats, flower power, giant afros and desert boots, all recorded on grainy black and white film footage – marked a turning point for change. Radicals found their voices and used them,” a publicity blurb for the book observes.
While the initial trigger for protest was opposition to the Vietnam War, this anger quickly escalated to include demands for Aboriginal land rights, women’s and gay liberation, opposition to Apartheid, for student power and workers’ control of industry.
The 1960s was not just a period of protests, but an era of revolutions — which shook the capitalist and imperialist system to its foundations. While those revolutions were not, for the most part, finally successful in sweeping away the class oppression that dominated the world, they arguably went close in a number of cases, such as in France in 1968.
What the radical youth revolution of the 1960s and ’70s did achieve was to challenge the ideological hegemony of conservative forces in the Western world, and much of the Third World. Together with the anti-colonial revolts occurring throughout the declining former First World empires, the 1960s radicalisation laid the groundwork for the mass struggles that broke out in the following decades.
While this anthology is not primarily an analytical account of the 1960s revolt, it deals with many of the issues thrown up by this tumultuous period in the course of lively interviews with more than 20 prominent figures in the Australian radical youth scene of that time – including the authors themselves.
Burgmann, who was a student activist in the Sydney anti-Vietnam War movement, states: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Vietnam changed my life … My political views were changed forever. I came out of the Sixties with a belief in internationalism, direct action, participatory democracy, and the unending struggle against racism and sexism.”
Like many others of the period, her career after the 1970s took a complicated path – in her case through the Labor Party into parliament, to eventually become president of the NSW Upper House.
Wheatley describes herself in her chapter as, “The girl who threw the tomato,” (in 1969 at then NSW Governor Sir Roden Cutler during a university ceremony). She had also been drawn into anti-war activism as a student at Sydney University, and later became an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction books.
The heading for the chapter on prominent Aboriginal activist Gary Foley is appropriate: “Fighting for truth, justice and the Aboriginal way.” Foley, born in Grafton, NSW, in 1950, became involved in the establishment of the Indigenous Black community in Redfern in the early 1970s, and in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Federal Parliament, Canberra from 1972.
An iconic photo of the young Foley is reproduced in the book – the famous picture of him sitting during the July 1971 South African Springbok rugby tour with a sign reading: “Pardon me for being born into a nation of racists.”
Foley is now renowned as a historian, writer, actor and teacher, and is a professor of Aboriginal studies at Melbourne’s Victoria University. He founded the Aboriginal history website kooriweb.org in 1994.
Margret Roadknight is one of the icons of the folk/protest scene of the 1960s. Her parents were classic Catholic anti-Communist Democratic Labor Party supporters in Melbourne, but Roadknight found her way into the progressive movement through folk music.
Through collaboration with other well-known folk singers such as Glen Tomasetti and Jeannie Lewis, she became famous in the music scene from the 1960s performing on the platform of the May 1970, 100,000-strong Vietnam War Moratorium march in Melbourne.
In late 1960s Melbourne, Albert Langer was either famous or infamous, depending on your standpoint on the student left of the time. He was the spokesperson for the Maoist Worker-Student Alliance at Monash University, which led the movement against the Vietnam War and student activism at that campus.
Langer — who now calls himself Arthur Dent, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — told the authors: “We had a slogan that, in order to have a revolution, you had to have a revolutionary party. So, we had one every Friday night.”
Langer’s Maoists played a somewhat contradictory role in the anti-Vietnam movement in Melbourne: their prominent activism helped to win students and others to join the movement, but their ultra-leftism hindered the unity of the cause, and ultimately led to their demise during the 1970s.
Helen Voysey was an 18-year-old secondary student when she addressed the first anti-war Moratorium march in Sydney in May 1970. She was a member of the High School Students Against the War in Vietnam, which was based in the original Resistance Bookshop in Goulburn Street, Sydney.
At that time, Resistance (later the Socialist Youth Alliance) was the most active socialist youth group in Sydney, and later expanded nationwide. Helen spoke for many radical high school students when she told the Moratorium crowd, “We’re here in numbers. We want to stop this rotten war in Vietnam.”
The authors note that current secondary school student climate radicals (now organised in School Strike 4 Climate) are speaking out on the climate crisis, just as the 1960s students did against the Vietnam War.
There are many other well-known and not so widely recognised people featured in Radicals — including human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, former Labor senator Margaret Reynolds, actor and writer John Derum, feminist Jozefa Sobski and journalist and broadcaster Peter Manning.
While they are an eclectic mix of interviewees, with many crucial activists missing out, Burgmann and Wheatley have given us a colourful picture of the 1960s radical scene. Radicals is certainly not the definitive analysis of the ’60s youth revolt in Australia, but it provides a great amount of material to get a good start.
Radicals: Remembering the Sixties by Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley is published by NewSouth Books. RRP $39.99. It is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst, 207 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst – www.thebookshop.com.au – among other outlets.
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