Battle for the hearts and minds
RADICAL STUDENTS: The Old Left at Sydney University
by Alan Barcan
Melbourne University Press
Rec. price: $49.95
Radical Students is a very important book. It documents the emergence of the student left at Australia’s oldest campus, Sydney University, from the 1920s onward, and shows the influence which the Communist Party and Professor John Anderson’s freethinkers had on successive generations of student leaders, many of them later emerging as politicians, academics, lawyers, and leaders in the other professions.
Dr Alan Barcan is uniquely placed to write this study.
As a student leader in the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) for six years before resigning in protest against its subservience to the Soviet Union, and later was co-editor of the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and General Secretary of the National Union of Australian University Students.
Despite severing ties with the CPA, he remained for some years a revolutionary socialist, and therefore mixed freely among left-wing academics in Newcastle, Sydney and the Australian National University in Canberra. It was only when the “old left” embraced the “new left” in the 1960s, that he finally abandoned the left, and adopted a position of liberal humanism similar to that of James McAuley.
Radical Students is the result of meticulous research, over many years, through university publications, and interviews with many of the participants. Among those who played a role were Dr H.V. Evatt, Professor John Anderson, Alf Conlon, Gough Whitlam, Gordon Jockel, David Armstrong, James McAuley, Doug McCallum and Peter Coleman – surprisingly diverse and talented people.
Dr Barcan’s book is attractively illustrated, and contains an extensive bibliography and index.
It shows the formative influences on the political views of many of the public figures of New South Wales from the 1940s onwards, as various strands of radicalism and freethought battled for the intellectual ascendancy, influenced by local political and international events.
It is true, of course, that only a minority of students were directly involved with such activities. Yet even non-participants were influenced by articles expressed in various campus publications, and at public meetings where the best minds of the university put forward their ideas.
The history of this era began at the end of the First World War, when the rapid increase in the size of the university coincided with the growth of Fabian socialism in Britain and the Communist “experiment” in Russia.
In the 1920s, Labour Clubs, informally linked with the ALP, emerged at both Melbourne and Sydney Universities. Student newspapers appeared, and debate on political and cultural issues began in earnest.
With the arrival of John Anderson as Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University in 1927, and the advent of the Great Depression in 1930, things fundamentally changed.
Anderson was to become the most important single influence on the succeeding generation. He was an outspoken atheist, an opponent of religion and censorship, advocate of sexual freedom and, for a time, an active Communist.
He sponsored the formation of the Freethought Society and the Literacy Society at Sydney University, and quickly became an important public figure in New South Wales.
He broke with the Communist Party when it attempted to control articles he had written in left-wing publications, initially switched to Trotskyism, and ultimately rejected Marxism altogether while continuing to be a social radical and free thinker.
The Depression triggered a loss of faith in both the economic system and in democracy, and prompted the emergence of a powerful Communist “cell” at the university, usually operating within the Labor Club.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Communists and Andersonians waged on-going war for the hearts and minds of the student body, opposed intermittently by ALP and Liberal-aligned students.
As Professor Anderson’s influence waned in the 1950s, anti-Communist Labor and Catholic students emerged as a growing force, but they disappeared temporarily following the Labor “Split” in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, the “old left” provided the nucleus for the emergence of New Left organisations such as the Trotskyites (which continue to survive in the Democratic Socialist Party and Green Left), Students for a Democratic Society, and various counter-culture movements, which ultimately influenced public policy on issues such as the Vietnam War, censorship, feminism, pornography, racism, homosexual rights, environmentalism and other issues.
Radical Students deserves to be seen as one of the more important works of scholarship to emerge over recent years.
I don’t think it is possible to understand the emergence of the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s without some appreciation of its antecedents from the 1920s, which were substantially influenced by the formation of the USSR and the Communist Party, even if not part of it.
Radical Students illustrates how the university shaped the broader society, rather than vice-versa.