The Victoria Police arrived at Monash University at one o’clock in the morning, 26 September 1974.
Dozens of uniformed officers poured into the administration building. At their head was the university’s pro-vice chancellor, John Swan. Their mission: to restore peace and order to the campus and to evict the student radicals who, for eight days, had been occupying the building, demanding a radical transformation of curriculum and assessment policies.
Swan read out the eviction notice and the police charged. The phalanx of cops began dragging students out, one by one, and loading them into divvy vans bound for Oakleigh police station. Among those arrested was Tess Lee Ack, a 21-year-old trainee teacher.
Four years earlier, she had come to Monash hoping to get a taste of activism. Now, in her final year, she was the public face of the Monash Revolutionary Communists, publisher of the university’s most popular revolutionary broadsheet, and a key leader of the occupation.
I meet Tess at a cafe on Melbourne’s Lygon Street. Forty years later, Tess is humble about her role as an organiser of a campus uprising. “In some sense, it was forced upon me”, she says. “I am not someone who likes to push myself forward.
“I had no political background. I came from a conservative Catholic family in the outer eastern suburbs. I was very ignorant of all this stuff – Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism.”
Despite this, Tess began university, like many students, hoping to become an activist.
“I came to university determined to get involved in the student movement”, she says. “Monash was the most radical campus … I was sitting in my lounge room watching a lot of this stuff unfold on TV and thinking, ‘I want to be there!’ I deliberately chose to go to Monash because it was a radical campus.”
‘You say you want a revolution …’
In the late 1960s, there was an explosion of radical activism on Australian university campuses. Monash was rocked by waves of student protests, mass meetings and occupations, over everything from the war in Vietnam to the funding of campus libraries.
The Monash Labor Club was an organising centre for radicals and revolutionaries of all traditions. There, Tess met Dave Nadel, who had been a supporter of Mao’s China, but was becoming critical of its authoritarian, dictatorial system.
“I basically went on that journey with him”, she remembers. “I arrived at the worldview that I still have today, which is anti-Stalinist: socialism is about human liberation.”
Along with Nadel, Tess began attending the regular mass meetings of Monash students, where politics would be debated and activist campaigns proposed. “They were frequent events. Sometimes there’d be a couple in a week.”
The two of them became increasingly concerned about the influence of the student Maoists. The Maoists’ support for the dictatorship in China undermined their claim to be supporters of human liberation. And their obsession with street fighting, conspiracy and public posturing meant that most students were sidelined from activities that the Maoists led.
Tess and Dave thought that they needed to form a group that would organise militant actions, but which also would draw in the mass of students – an organisation based on the politics of authentic revolutionary Marxism.
“Towards the end of 1971 we started thinking about setting up some kind of alternative political current on campus”, she remembers. “At the beginning of 1972 we set up the Revolutionary Communist club and produced a weekly broadsheet, Hard Lines.”
The “RevComs” were tiny – with only three really active members at first. But they threw themselves into producing the broadsheet. “We would meet on Wednesday night to write it. Initially I didn’t write very much, not being very confident. It took me a little while.” Soon Tess was a leading radical journalist on campus.
“We would have these enormously long Wednesday night sessions. Quite often, it would be three or four in the morning before we actually had copy. I would arrive very early at Monash and type it up on wax stencils.”
Each edition had a formula: “One international story, one national story, one university or student-based story and one political polemic.” A typical Hard Lines would present the RevComs’ revolutionary analysis of everything from French militarism to strikes by Melbourne metalworkers, plus an attack on sexist exam questions in the Monash literature department.
And was it popular? “It was! We placed enormous importance on humour. I think that was quite important.” And the dedication of the RevComs made Hard Lines influential in the student movement at Monash. “Rain or shine, Hard Lines would come out on a Thursday. No-one else could match that.”
Every one of the 1,500 copies would be distributed to radical students hungry for ideas and analysis. Despite their small size, the clarity and commitment of the RevComs meant they were able to play a leading role in campus politics.
Upping the ante
In 1974, the RevComs decided to launch a campaign against exams. The concept was simple. “Initially the focus was: ‘Everyone hates exams, right?’ But the really intriguing thing was how it developed.”
Being a trainee teacher, Tess was a member of the teachers’ union, which argued for free university entry for everyone. And if there weren’t enough university places? Then a ballot should be held, and “if the rich miss out and don’t like it, they should fund more universities”.
Many students, particularly in the science faculty, lived in dread of three-hour exams that would determine their entire future. “We initiated a group called the Assessment Action Group, which brought in quite a range of independent activists who had ideas about education and the role it played in capitalist society.”
The campaign was a winner. “The first meeting we called was wildly exciting”, Tess recalls. “We were a hard core of three or four people. The first meeting we called, 20 or 30 people showed up.”
Opposition to exams became part of a critique of the whole education system. “Universities were basically degree factories, churning out workers for capitalism, entrenching and reinforcing ideas of competitiveness. Learning and critical thinking were very much in third place. It had a real snowball effect. The ideas became more complex as the campaign went on.”
The group wrote articles and leaflets, made arguments at student meetings and quickly won more and more support. Meanwhile, they tried lobbying through official channels. Tess recalls “meeting with various deans and bodies of authority, getting knocked back, being told to fuck off. Eventually we thought, ‘Nobody’s listening to us. They are refusing to consider anything we say, so we’ve got to up the ante.’ That’s when we started talking about occupations.”
The crunch came at a mass meeting of Monash students. The RevComs’ effort had won hundreds of students to a militant stance against exams. Now it was time to take action.
Maybe a thousand students crammed into the union building to hear the arguments. “It was quite a vigorous debate”, Tess says. “There had been a lot of occupations in the early ’70s, but there hadn’t been one for a while.” Some students were cautious, or hostile to militant action.
But speakers from the Assessment Action Group won the day. Tess remembers her sense of the crowd being swayed first one way, then the other, and then finally resolving on an occupation. A vote was taken, and the occupation was approved. “Then we marched over to the administration building. There were no security guards then, no fences. We just walked in.”
Numerous students occupied the foyer of the administration building. “It was a real festival of the oppressed”, she says. Festooned with banners, and the site of constant discussion and debate, the administration building was transformed into a site of 24/7 politics. Hundreds of students visited, with many staying overnight.
“We didn’t want to get the campus workers offside”, Tess explains. “This wasn’t aimed at them. We wanted to make a point to the administration.” The occupation would be strengthened if workers supported it. A meeting for campus general staff was organised, at which Tess spoke for the occupiers.
Large numbers of university workers attended to hear Tess face off against Louis Matheson, the dictatorial university vice chancellor – the enemy of students and workers alike.
“It seems like a big deal now”, Tess says, “but at the time I took it in my stride. This is just what you did to keep the campaign going.”
As the occupation continued, it expanded, disrupting and energising the campus. “We know from our experiences in the administration building the kinds of possibilities that exist; we have had a glimpse of what university life and learning could be about”, wrote the editors of the official student paper, Lot’s Wife. “We now know concretely that learning does not have to be an alienated and alienating experience.”
The growing movement was threatening the bureaucratic stability of the campus. University workers were sympathetic; the situation was potentially explosive. When the occupation expanded to take over the vaunted Council Chamber, a boardroom reserved for Monash’s senior management, the administration denounced the “intolerable provocation” and sent in the police.
In the chaos of the eviction, overseen by the gloating pro-vice chancellor Swan, Tess remembers one of the RevComs shouting out: “It’s state power!” Swan shot back: “You’re absolutely right!”
More than 70 students were imprisoned that night, crammed into tiny cells. Tess smiles as she recalls the conditions. “They had these two cells – 19th century Victorian dungeons, which might normally accommodate the odd Saturday night drunk. Suddenly they’ve got 70-odd students. We did some chanting. The atmosphere was jocular. It was great. We’d got a response. We expected students would be outraged.”
The students were charged with besetting a building – a charge that might have carried a three-month prison sentence. The next morning, at an emergency meeting, nearly 2,000 Monash students voted to demand the resignation of the administration. “We wanted to escalate”, Tess says.
But despite repeated attempts, another occupation could not be organised because right wing students turned out in force to end the campaign.
The RevComs were still too small to organise an effective resistance. Even though the 70 arrested students were willing to face court, conservative students brokered a deal to guarantee the occupations would end. Over the occupiers’ protestations, the offer was accepted at a mass meeting. A heroic chapter in the history of the Australian student movement was over.
The end of the beginning
Forty years later, the Monash administration building is a fortress, bristling with CCTV cameras and ringed with metal shutters to prevent any unauthorised outbursts of democracy. Occupations are rare and mass meetings almost unheard of. The student union building, where 1,000 students voted for occupation in 1974, has been transformed into a shopping mall.
But student activism is back on the agenda. In the last two years, thousands of students have protested around the country against the Liberals’ attacks on the university system. And Tess Lee Ack is still inciting rebellion and resistance.
The RevComs underwent a number of transformations. Tess is now in Socialist Alternative, a national group of revolutionary Marxists. Hard Lines was the grandmother of Red Flag, which Tess still sells every week (and which she meticulously proofreads every fortnight – Ed.).
The first time I saw Tess, two years ago, she was using the skills she learned as a student: speaking to a mass meeting of 15,000 unionised teachers, she argued for a strike against the NAPLAN test. I could see her swaying the crowd, just as she did in 1974.
A lifelong revolutionary in a world where capitalism degrades and destroys the education system, Tess is still fighting for the worldview she learned as a student radical: “Socialism is about human liberation.”