Some history of the Vietnam antiwar movement in Australia
ozleft at optushome.com.au
Thu Jul 17 22:29:50 MDT 2003
By Bob Gould
The recent movement against the imperialist war on Iraq was the biggest such
movement the world has seen. There has been some dismay that it seems to
have ebbed as quickly as it appeared. The Vietnam antiwar movement of the
1960s and early 1970s also surged and ebbed several times in the course of a
very long struggle.
During that great upsurge there were many political experiences, arguments
and conflicts, one of which we make available here: an exchange between
Denis Freney and myself in the pages of The Old Mole, a leftist underground
newspaper that was published out of Sydney University in 1970, at a crucial
time in the antiwar struggle.
The Old Mole was frankly imitative of the London newspaper of the time, Red
Mole. Both names hark back to Marx's image, first used in The Eighteenth
Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, of the revolution as a mole burrowing quietly
below ground and breaking to the surface occasionally, at which time:
"Europe will leap from its seat and exult: 'Well burrowed, old mole!'"
The Old Mole Workers Council, which published the newspaper, included Hall
Greenland, Keith Windschuttle, Warren Osmond, Cathy Crawley and others. The
paper lasted eight issues, and was pretty popular during its short life.
The exchange between myself and Denis Freney, along with the open letter
about the organisation of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign, reflects the
tension between political struggle by various currents, and co-operation in
a common cause, that characterised the Vietnam antiwar movement over a very
The exchange was sharpened by the fact that Denis and I were immediate
contemporaries and old associates who had eventually fallen out due to our
different political trajectories.
Denis later wrote his autobiography, A Map of Days, in the early 1990s,
before his early death, which included a rather unflattering view of myself.
Denis was a good hater and he and I were both pretty robust polemicists.
We later debated some of the issues in his autobiography at a rather rowdy
meeting attended by about 200 people in the Harold Park Hotel, which Anne
Curthoys described in a witty article in Arena.
The political relationship between Freney and myself, and our common mentor,
the veteran Australian Trotskyist Nick Origlass, is also covered in Hall
Greenland's exceedingly useful biography of Nick, Red Hot.
Two alternative views of the complicated history of the development of the
antiwar movement in Australia, from the point of view of the official left,
are left Labor MP Tom Uren's lengthy autobiography, Straight left, and the
recent biography of former Labor deputy prime minister Jim Cairns by Paul
Strangio, called Keeper of the faith.
Both of these accounts are heavily biased in favour of the official left
view of the time, but taken together with other material they are of some
This exchange between myself and Denis is of some historical significance
because it includes a detailed discussion of the internal dynamics of the
Moratorium movement, which grew into the largest antiwar mobilisation up to
that time, and was only recently surpassed by the recent mobilisation
against the Iraq war, on February 16.
Denis Freney, who sadly died prematurely in the early 1990s, is quite
properly remembered most for his energetic and intelligent agitation against
the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 and his support of the
Timorese people in the years thereafter.
The Communist Party of Australia, of which Freney had just become a vigorous
leader at the time of this exchange, had during the Stalin period usually
been on the extreme left of international Stalinism. It carried on this
tradition in its anti-Stalinist phase and became for a relatively brief
period the most leftist of the "Euro-communist" parties. For a more complete
view of the CPA's history and evolution, see The Communist Party of
Australia in Australian Life
http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/CPA.html and Stewart MacIntyre's
The Reds: A Review http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/McIntyre.html
After this period of relative "leftism", some of it rhetorical ultraleftism,
the CPA swung over in 1978-82 to being the main ideological inventor of the
Prices and Incomes Accord between the incoming Labor government of Bob Hawke
and the trade union movement, This dramatic shift to the right was
effectively political suicide for the CPA as a current, and those CPA
leaders of the 1960s, such as Eric Aarons, who are in some sense still
politically active, now explicitly reject the socialist project of the 20th
century as a quixotic aberration.
Nevertheless, at the moment of this exchange the CPA was still a powerful
force, which recruited a layer of the more conservative left-wing students,
many of whom are now prominent in social service organisations, academic
life, government bureaucracies and the trade unions.
A useful and interesting biography of someone out of the CPA milieu of this
period is Brad Norrington's biography of Jennie George, former president of
the ACTU, now a federal Labor MP.
One wing of the more leftist participants in the struggle described went on
to the form the Socialist Workers League, which later became the Socialist
Workers Party, and then the Democratic Socialist Party. Many of the people
most closely associated with me went on to found the Socialist Labour
League, which operated successfully for about 15 years until it more or less
definitively imploded in 1986.
There was a moment in the mid-late 1970s when the CPA newspaper, Tribune,
still sold 6000-7000 copies, the SWP newspaper, Direct Action, was selling a
similar number and so was the SLL newspaper Workers News, which means
between them socialist newspapers were selling about 20,000 Australia-wide.
That approached the level of the CPA's sales of its press at its peak during
in the late 1940s.
One curious feature of The Old Mole was an article by Keith Windschuttle,
now a propagandist for the political right, in which he repeatedly describes
the police as "pigs", in the uninhibited style of that time. Maybe we'll put
up that article sometime just to remind Brother Windshuttle of his earlier
Ozleft has also added a couple of other historical items recently:
Jack Kavanagh's 1940 statement on joining the Communist League after being
expelled from the Communist Party,
Jock Garden's 1922 speech to the Comintern
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