I was a teenage socialist

Every time I hear Midnight Oil’s chorus – “Oh, the power and the passion. Oh, the temper of the time” – I am transported to the past. Not to 1982, when the song was released, but to the heady days of the early 1970s, when I first encountered socialist politics.

An idea that something momentous was happening had first stirred in me during the huge student and worker struggles in France in May 1968. Suddenly the household of my best friend at high school drew me like a magnet. Not only did her working class parents listen to and discuss the news (unlike mine), but the home contained what to our crowd was an exotic beast – a university student, her older brother.

US Yippie leader Jerry Rubin spoke of “generations of kids who want to grow up and become demonstrators”. I didn’t know it in 1968, but I was to be one of them.

A rising tide of militancy

The late 1960s saw a rising level of industrial action – culminating in more than 6 million strike days in 1974 – that led to a series of significant victories for the unions. The combination of full employment, a generation of young workers without the fear of unemployment that the Depression had bred and a victory for strike action as significant as the ending of the penal powers, was a powerful one in fuelling workers’ expectations and militancy – including those of white collar workers.

Wage militancy paralleled a great upsurge of political activity in society, particularly among young people. A more general radicalisation was taking place, reflected also in union action as part of movements for Aboriginal rights, against a touring white South African rugby team, for women’s and gay rights, and against the destruction of the environment.

If one union organisation epitomised the merging of industrial and social or political concerns, it was the NSW branch of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF). As well as the fight for better wages and conditions, the union also began to argue in 1971 that its members “had the right, indeed the responsibility, to intervene in the decision-making process and … to use their labour in a socially useful manner”.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate sexism. Long before I could name it, I knew there was something not right in being denigrated as a “tomboy”, “too smart for a girl” and similar slurs. So when the BLF took up the fight for women’s right to work in the construction industry and won, I paid attention. They were not simply changing the composition of the workforce. From the union’s perspective, challenging sexism was part of a wider process of civilising the industry and “winning dignity and respect for the workers”.

Vietnam

The political movement that had the most widespread influence on Australian society in this period was that against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, known as the Vietnam Moratorium campaign. Student radical Barry York later wrote:

“The word became a part of everyday language because of the extraordinary success of the … movement. Never before had such a vast number of people taken to the streets against Australia’s involvement in a war. Between 120,000 and 150,000 Australians ‘stopped work to stop the war’ on each of the Moratoriums in 1970 and 1971, and many more joined them on the street.”

The anti-war movement galvanised a generation of radicals. Not only was a mass campaign born, but also a new left. The persistence of those who stood against the war paid off. Polls tracked the shift in public opinion. It was only in August 1969 that an anti-war majority was recorded for the first time: 55 percent favoured the withdrawal of troops, while 40 percent supported continued Australian involvement.

The effects of this shift were felt in surprising ways. Within a year of starting high school, I had developed a weekly ritual of buying Go Set, a very popular music newspaper, at the local newsagent. In 1969, as radicals gained the status of pop stars, Go Set ran a feature on the jailed draft resister John Zarb (a Melbourne postie who spent a year in Pentridge prison for his objection to the war). The following year Go Set supported the anti-Vietnam war Moratorium marches. Like thousands of others, I absorbed all this as eagerly as I did the weekly top 40 listings and Molly Meldrum’s column.

I was lucky enough to have two young women at my high school who already knew something about left wing politics. A year ahead of me, Kathie and Sioux got me involved in the Moratorium movement.

It is worth saying a bit about what the movement looked like. These days, every campaign is maintained by small numbers of committed activists doing the necessary work of preparing the next rally, discussing press releases and so on. The Vietnam Action Campaign was another thing entirely. Its central meetings were big, rowdy affairs, often numbering in the hundreds, where political debates were thrashed out loudly and at length, and the trajectory of the campaign determined.

But this was only part of the organisation. In addition to the central meetings, there were regular meetings of suburban groups. When I first got involved in early 1970, the nearest suburban meeting to where I lived was in Cheltenham, a leafy North Shore suburb. We met in a capacious lounge room. Within a month or two we had outgrown it. So those of us who lived further north split off to form another branch, this time in leafy Beecroft. By mid-year, we were meeting in Kathie’s Hornsby flat (by this time the campaign had 30 suburban groups in Sydney). In addition to the meetings, there were exciting nights of pasting up rally posters and graffiti runs to paint the rally details on overpasses.

The first huge Moratorium march was on Friday, 8 May. A hundred thousand demonstrated in Melbourne and 20,000 in Sydney – among them not a few high school students who were supposed to be elsewhere. The following day, our local group was leafleting the shoppers at Hornsby Westfield, and planning for the September Moratorium was under way.

All this was remarkably politicising. As well as issues of imperialism and Australian nationalism, there was racism against the Vietnamese, Australia’s own apartheid system of anti-Aboriginal discrimination, the ongoing militancy of the working class, the emergence of women’s and gay liberation and international issues from Palestine to Rhodesia – and all of this meant there were a lot of questions crying out for answers.

When the September 1970 Moratorium was violently attacked by the cops, issues about the role of the state came to the fore for me. It was my first arrest. We were bundled into a police van and taken to a suburban station. The police seemed increasingly dispirited as we gave our dates of birth. Every one of us was under 18, and therefore we would all have to be dealt with in Children’s Court. I gather this was more hassle than the adult courts as far as the cops were concerned, as they let us go with a stern talking to and a warning to go home. Of course, we all went back to the city and rejoined the demo.

The socialists and the students

I experienced another first that day. I bought my first revolutionary newspaper, Direct Action, and talked to members of the Socialist Youth Alliance. They seemed to share all my concerns about capitalism but, unlike me, they could make sense of the whole picture. I started going to their weekly meetings, eventually buying my first motorbike to avoid the scary train rides home at night.

As well as political discussions that went for many hours, and voraciously devouring every bit of Marxist literature we could get our hands on, there was even more activism. We produced a regular leaflet, The Spark, for distribution at high schools alongside sales of Direct Action. Within a few months of getting involved, I was sent by the Direct Action editor to interview one of Australia’s founding Trotskyists, Nick Origlass. Still wearing my school uniform, I got on my motorbike and did it.

The anti-war radicalisation resonated in high school classrooms. Unsurprisingly, many high school administrators, principals and the like were irked by the fact that thousands of students were being politicised against the war and against the government. In many schools, discussion of the war, attending marches and wearing anti-war badges were banned. But students ignored these bans.

The winding down of the anti-war movement didn’t calm the scene but changed its focus. By 1971, protests, walkouts and playground demonstrations were becoming increasingly common in high schools. Our demands were around issues of hair length and uniform, corporal punishment, crowded classrooms and poor infrastructure. For example, at my school students were not allowed to have briefcases. The reason for the requirement to bring a hard suitcase to school was the lack of a school hall: you needed to be able to sit on the suitcase in the playground during assembly.

In the middle of 1972, the Socialist Youth Alliance initiated a call for a national student strike on 20 September, which was endorsed by the Education Action Groups in Sydney and Melbourne, the tertiary student union and a few trade unions. On the day, thousands of students across the country took direct action – strikes, walkouts, meetings and rallies after school. I spoke at the Town Hall rally and, after we’d marched to Hyde Park, radical Aboriginal activist Gary Foley was among the speakers. In the park a bunch of students also burned their ties in symbolic protest at the choking conformity they represented.

All this was despite a huge red-baiting scare campaign by the media. A group of us high school socialists were interviewed at the SYA centre in St Johns Road, Glebe, for the original A Current Affair in the lead-up to the strike. Although a HSC student, Greg Adamson, was the key organiser of the strike, it was the youngest of us, Dennis Garnsey, a 13-year-old “self-styled Marxist from North Sydney Boys High”, that the media couldn’t get enough of.

The Daily Telegraph the day after the strike continued the red-baiting, with a quote from the education minister about socialists “pulling the strings and hoping to use secondary students as puppets”. But the last word on the strike should go to Adamson, no longer an activist, but who had this to say about it just this year: “A few weeks later I failed every subject in my HSC. 44 years on, no regrets”.

Changing times

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

Wordsworth’s well-known sentiments on the start of the French Revolution could very easily be applied here. It was an era overflowing with a sense of expanded possibilities. The highly politicised climate around a wide range of issues interacted with the confidence that had been born in the workplace. The growth of political strikes, in which unions used their industrial muscle to influence issues that affected them far beyond their individual workplaces, indicated how confidence gained in one area of struggle could affect other areas.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a reinforcing between the militant student protests and the defiant mood among important groups of workers. By the late 1960s, some genuine interaction was taking place. Brisbane boilermaker Jim Craig made the connection:

“The sooner the trade union movement takes a leaf from the students and youth in their actions for civil liberties and anti-draft actions the better – if it’s a bad law, defy it; and the sooner we start publicly burning Court Orders, as the kids burn their draft cards, the better.”

In NSW, the strongest connection was between students and the BLF, through common actions in the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-war movement and the green bans. When the Sydney University Student Union was turned into a sanctuary for draft resisters, BLF members built the barricades that kept the police out. Within a single week in 1973, the BLF had banned construction work at Macquarie University in protest at a gay student being expelled from a residential college, and done the same thing at Sydney University when the Professorial Board vetoed a women’s studies course.

Social conservatism, such as support for capital punishment or the routine censorship of even faintly erotic literature, was also being challenged. Sentiments were embodied in action. The fact that change was not only desirable but possible was expressed in Labor’s 1972 “It’s Time” election slogan. The Liberal Party’s only answer to “It’s Time” was “Not Yet”. As journalist Mungo MacCallum noted, “It must have been one of the most dispiriting T-shirts ever manufactured”.

Even at the high points of student and union radicalism in the early 1970s, the activists were only a small minority of society. But while this is true, it understates the significance of the role played by that militant minority informed by an anti-capitalist world view.

For example, whatever the Communist Party’s numerous political weaknesses, the unions that took anti-war action were usually Communist-led. The Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Building Workers’ Industrial Union had both condemned the war in the mid-1960s, when it was very unpopular to do so. At the same time, members of the Seamen’s Union had banned work on two ships, the Boonaroo and the Jeparit, which were taking military supplies to Vietnam.

It is easy today to look back at the things we fought for in the early 1970s and see how right we were. The Vietnam War, apartheid, explicit discrimination against women (we didn’t get equal pay until 1974) – who today wants to defend these things? Yet in the 1960s this and many other reactionary ideas were widely taken for granted and officially endorsed.

The minority of activists grew from very small beginnings to a size that could not go unnoticed. The left wing politics and persistence of those who were prepared to stand against the stream in the 1960s and early 1970s was an essential precondition for the social gains that were later won.