Blog post

Old left, new left and Australia in the ‘long 1968’

Did the events of 1968 reach Australia? Jon Piccini and Evan Smith on the "long '68" and the old and new left in Australia

Evan Smith, Jon Piccini18 May 2018

Old left, new left and Australia in the ‘long 1968’

Where does Australia fit in the story of the ‘long 1968’? The nation entered the decade ruled over by a conservative government whose cold war rhetoric fostered only limited and marginalised dissent. Yet, the impetus of such factors as the Vietnam War, increasing access to overseas travel and the news of similar rebellions around the world soon saw the emergence of protest groups from a diversity of backgrounds that began to radicalise Australian society. Yet, this is not the story popularly presented. Instead, activism supposedly arrived “by airmail subscription”, as Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett remind us in their controversial cultural history of the period.[i] Commentators remark condescendingly on the way activists borrowed their practice purely from America – importing it like a Bob Dylan record – even down to the use of American spelling.[ii] In 2009, social commentator Hugh Mackay struck a similarly dismissive tone in an international collection on the legacies of 1968.[iii] Mackay channelled Prime Minister Harold Holt’s reprimand of his constituents as “a nation of lotus-eaters—hedonistic, materialistic and lazy”. While perhaps “intrigued, saddened, even alarmed” by the global struggles of the era, Australians were “not really engaged”—at least until well into the 1970s.

If we look closely at the events of the time, however, a whole constellations of movements emerges, but it is necessary to pursue a line of inquiry that views ‘1968’ less as a discrete date range than as a phenomenon with its foundations in the Cold War 1950s and its effects only really materialising much later. Our story must begin with that mainstay of the Australian far left, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Founded in 1920, the organisation’s zig zaging policies finally resonated with significant numbers of Australians in the period of the ‘people’s war’ against fascism. In 1944, it is estimated the CPA had 23,000 members. Yet, after nearly a decade of intense pressure from without and significant decline in membership numbers due to the heightened anti-communism of the Cold War (estimated at between 6-8,000 in 1956),[iv]the CPA faced its biggest battle in 1956 over new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ and the subsequent invasion of Hungary. The CPA leadership were reluctant to discuss the denunciation of the Stalin regime by Khrushchev and, like the British and American Communist Parties, the revelations caused a massive rift in the Australian party.[v] When the Soviets invaded Hungary in October of the same year, many who had reservations about the CPA’s support for the Soviet Union chose to leave the Party, with around 2000 people leaving or being expelled between 1956 and 1958.[vi] A small group of these defectors went on to establish Outlook journal, consciously modelled on publications like New Left Review in the UK, constituting the first wave of Australia’s ‘new left’. Radicals around this publication, particularly Ian Turner and Rex Mortimer, were to play significant roles in the 1960s radicalisation.

While a significant number left due to the events of 1956, a large portion of the CPA was pro-Soviet and against the ‘revisionism’ of Khrushchev. Its long association with Communist Parties in Asia, especially the Chinese Communist Party under whom many party leaders studied in the 1950s, also established a sizeable pro-Chinese section inside the CPA, with General Secretary Lance Sharkey being one of the Western leaders who was most sympathetic to Mao. As the Sino-Soviet split loomed larger in the late 1950s, Mark Aarons and others have suggested that the CPA was considering siding with the Chinese, alongside the smaller Communist Party of New Zealand.[vii] It was for both practical and ideological reasons that the CPA eventually aligned itself with the Soviets, but after committing to the USSR in 1960, the anti-revisionists started to work for a new kind of organisation. Led by trade union lawyer Edward (Ted) Hill from the Victorian State Branch, several hundred anti-revisionists concentrated in Victoria and including significant union leaders formed the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) in 1964. Denouncing the Khruschevite revisionism of the CPA, the outbreak of the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966 was to make this small party a drawcard for radical youth.[viii]

As well as seeing the first anti-revisionists split from the CPA, The early-to-mid-1960s opened up the left in other ways. The events of 1956, as in the UK and the USA, had seen a new left emerge, tied to the emerging social movements, such as the peace movement, and the new Marxist-oriented journals, such as Arena. Much more so than in Britain, the CPA was heavily involved in the formative years of emerging social movements, such as peace, Aboriginal rights, anti-apartheid and Women’s liberation. For example, a number of those involved in the push for Aboriginal rights were members of the CPA,[ix] while members of the Union of Australian Women, made up of primarily of CPA members, played vital roles within what would become the Women’s Liberation Movement.[x]

Around the Western world, the mid-to-late 1960s saw an explosion in industrial militancy and cultural radicalisation. The predominant catalyst for the upsurge in radicalisation in Australia was the Vietnam War, bringing into movement new forces, particularly students on ever-expanding university campuses. In April 1965, Prime Minister Menzies announced that Australia would be sending troops to support the USA and South Vietnam in the conflict. This led to the beginnings of a mass movement against the war and against conscription for overseas service, which was introduced in 1964. The CPA was quick to embed themselves within the anti-war movement, but other Marxists and sections of the Labor left began to participate as well. While always in a minority within the anti-conscription and wider anti-war movement, which culminated in the 1970-72 Moratorium marches, Marxists played significant roles in leadership and organisation, alongside sections of the trade union movement and the Labor Party.

Trotskyism in Australia, bar a brief period of influence during the CPA’s wartime popular front period, had been rather dormant since the 1930s.[xi] However, the late 1960s saw a new dawn for Trotskyists, inspired by the groups in the US and UK and a new youth politics sceptical of the USA and USSR in equal measure. The first major Trotskyist group to emerge out of the student and anti-war movements was the Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA), established in 1968 as Resistance in Sydney by the Percy brothers, plus several others. Publishing the paper Direct Action, the SYA (changed from Resistance in 1970) was based in the Third World Bookshop in Sydney’s CBD. The group was inspired by the US Socialist Workers Party and from very early on, concentrated on anti-imperialism in the developing world, primarily looking to Vietnam and Cuba.[xii] Scattered across the Eastern States, several small groups influenced by the International Socialist tendency of Trotskyism started to co-ordinate with each other and by 1972-73, groups in Melbourne, Hobart and Canberra had banded together to produce The Battler under the name of the Socialist Workers Action Group (SWAG).[xiii] Both were heavily involved in other radical and social movement groups in the 1970s, including the women’s liberation, gay liberation, the anti-apartheid and anti-war movements.

At the same time as the proliferation in Trotskyist groups in Australia, Maoism in Australia was heavily inspired by the Chinese Party’s Cultural Revolution and spread amongst radical elements of the student movement. The CPA (M-L) was the most prominent Maoist group in Australia but like the Communist Party of Britain (M-L), the fact that its existence pre-dated the Cultural Revolution meant that its make-up was less student recruits and more the established membership of industrial and white-collar workers (including trade union officials and lawyers). The other prominent group was the Worker Student Alliance (WSA), which was much more student-orientated, although still under the somewhat covert leadership of Hill’s organisation.[xiv] Developing on the university campuses of Melbourne and Adelaide, the WSA was involved in the student radicalism that swept across Australia in the early-to-mid-1970s,[xv] but was also heavily invested in sending students into factories to build the supposed alliance between the two groups, inspired by the Cultural Revolution.

The Maoist and Trotskyist groups offered radical alternatives to the CPA in the 1960s and 1970s, although the CPA itself was moving in different directions. The CPA of the mid-to-late 1960s presented a kind of proto-Eurocommunism, embracing the rising new social movements seeking a parliamentary approach to socialism, closer ties with the ALP and a shift away from uncritical support of the Soviet Union. This came to a head at the 21st Party conference in 1967, when a highly contention “Charter of Democratic Rights” was endorsed, and most significantly during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Most Western Communist Parties (such as the British, French and Italian parties) criticised the USSR for this action, unlike the silence that followed similar events in 1953 and 1956.Tribune (the CPA’s weekly newspaper) stated:

We cannot agree to the pre-emptive occupation of a country by another, on the alleged threat from outside, particularly when such action is taken without prior notification to the government and CP of Czechoslovakia. ... It is hard to believe that [the Soviet leaders] realise the damage they cause to their own standing and the image of socialism throughout the world by acting in this way.[xvi]

This response led to divisions inside the Party. More conservative members called for greater support of the Soviet Bloc and voicing suspicion about the new social movements, primarily women’s liberation. Over the next few years, the National Congresses of the CPA were dominated by clashes between different sections of the Party and eventually in 1971, around 800 pro-Soviet members left the then-4500 strong organisation to form the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA).[xvii]

By the early 1970s, the radicalism had spread from the anti-Vietnam War and student movements into many other areas, such as women’s liberation, anti-apartheid, Aboriginal rights, gay rights and anti-imperialism, inspired by the global spread of the cultural militancy of ‘1968’. In July 1971, there was a wave of protest by anti-apartheid activists against the tour of the Springboks, the South African rugby team, which led to a state of emergency being declared in Queensland by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.[xviii] In January 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected outside Parliament House by Indigenous activists campaigning for land rights, which became a meeting site of intersecting political movements.[xix]

Many of those involved in these progressive social movements were involved in far left groups, primarily the CPA, the SYA/SWL and the SWAG/IS. The SPA, as well as the Maoists, were primarily anti-revisionist in their politics and were sceptical of many of these ‘bourgeois’ and ‘reformist’ social movements. Others involved in these movements were also sceptical of the role that these avowedly Marxist activists played within the movements. For example, Indigenous activist Paul Coe criticised the ‘white left’ for their lack of interest in Indigenous matters, particularly in places like Redfern.[xx] Furthermore feminists organised around the Mejane editorial collective called out the ‘destructive’ tendencies of the Australian left in 1971.[xxi]

This radicalism eventually permeated the centre and popular momentum surged forward with the election of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in December 1972. While some embraced the promise of Whitlam’s progressivism, such as the ‘femocrats’ who had been part of the Women’s Liberation Movement who became involved in state-centred activism,[xxii] the radical left did not abate after the ALP victory. In some places, such as the university campuses, the struggle intensified and throughout 1973 and 1974, occupation of university buildings spread across Australia.[xxiii] In Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s National Party clamped down on protest and the state became a focal point for the Australian left in a fight against creeping authoritarianism. Despite Whitlam’s policy programme, there were many problems facing Australia that needed radical action, not merely the agenda put forward by the Labor government. But it is possible to argue that Whitlam’s most significant reforms were accepted by the public because the left had already challenged many of the assumptions and prejudices that had previously stood in the way of reform. For example Whitlam’s embrace of the Women’s Liberation Movement was only possible owing to its social weight.

Like the rest of Australia, the left and the protest movements that had emerged over the previous decade were shocked by ‘The Dismissal’ in November 1975, when the Governor-General Sir John Kerr dissolved the Whitlam government after the Opposition chose to block supply in the Senate.[xxiv] One of the most pivotal and contested moments in contemporary Australian history, many scholars posit this moment as the ‘end of the 1960s’ in Australia. While its after-effects were present in later events, from the 1978 Mardi Gras riot to the ever-growing number of women-run shelters and centres as well as a new cycle of contention around uranium mining from 1977 onwards, the Dismissal did seem to auger the end of what Donald Horne has called this “time of hope” in Australian history.


Jon Piccini is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. His first book, Transnational Protest, Australia and the 1960s, appeared with Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. He is currently completing a book on the idea of human rights in Australian history, contracted with Cambridge UP. He can be found on Twitter @JonPiccini.

Evan Smith is a Research Fellow in History at Flinders University in South Australia. He has written widely on the history of the left and social movements in Britain, Australia and South Africa. He is the author of British Communism and the Politics of Race (Brill, 2018) and the co-editor of Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2017). He blogs at Hatful of History and tweets from @hatfulofhistory

Jon and Evan are both co-editing (with Matthew Worley) The Far Left in Australia since 1945, which will be published as part by Routledge in July 2018.

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[i] Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett, Seizures of Youth: The Sixties and Australia (South Yarra, Vic: Hyland House, 1991), 35

[ii] Gerald (sic) Henderson, “The Derived Nature of the Australian New Left,” Quadrant 15, No. 6 (December 1969): 66-7.

[iii] Hugh Mackay, “Australia: A Nation of Lotus-Eaters,” in 1968: Memories and Legacies of a Global Revolt, eds. Phillip Gassert and Martin Klimke, 73 (Washington D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2009).

[iv] Alastair Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia: A Short History, Stanford: Stanford Hoover Institution Press, 1969, p. 120; Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, Sydney: Stained Wattle Press, 1985, p 62.

[v]Phillip Deery & Rachel Calkin, ‘“We All Make Mistakes”: The Communist Party of Australia and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 54/1 (2008) pp. 69-84.

[vi]O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, p. 98.

[vii] Mark Aarons, The Family File (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010) p. 192.

[viii]Nick Knight, ‘The Theory and Tactics of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L)’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 28/2, 1998, pp. 233-257.

[ix] See: Deborah Wilson, Different White People: Radical Activism for Aboriginal Rights 1946-1972. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2015.

[x]Margaret Penson, Breaking the Chains: Communist Party Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975 (Broadway, NSW: Breaking the Chains Collective, 1999).

[xi] Hall Greenland, Red Hot: The Life and Times of Nick Origlass (Sydney: Wellington Lane Press, 1998).

[xii]For a history of the International Socialists, see: Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics, pp. 84-112; Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist For His Time, London: Bookmarks, 2011; Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945–2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956,Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014, pp. 80–97.

[xiii]See: Phil Ilton, The Origins of the International Socialists (1984) (accessed 8 July, 2017).

[xiv]Daniel Robins, ‘Melbourne’s Maoists: The Rise of the Monash University Labor Club, 1965-1967’, unpublished Honours thesis, Victoria University, 2005.

[xv]Kate Murphy, ‘“In the Backblocks of Capitalism”: Australian Student Activism in the Global 1960s’, Australian Historical Studies, 46/2 (2015), pp. 252-268.

[xvi]Cited in, Andy Blunden, ‘The International Break Up of Stalinism’, (accessed 8 July, 2017).

[xvii] See: David McKnight, ‘Breaking with Moscow: The Communist Party of Australia’s New Road to Socialism’, in Evan Smith, Jon Piccini & Matthew Worley (eds), The Far Left in Australia since 1945 (London: Routledge, 2018).

[xviii] Larry Writer, Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia (Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe, 2016).

[xix] See: Gary Foley, Andrew Schaap & Edwina Howell, The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State (London: Routledge, 2016).

[xx]Gary Foley, ‘Black Power in Redfern 1968-1972’, 2001, pp. 11-12. (accessed 8 July, 2017).

[xxi] Camille, ‘NSW Women’s Lib Conference’, Mejane, no. 1 (March 1971): p. 14, as cited in Isobelle Barrett Meyering, ‘Changing Consciousness, Changing Lifestyles: Australia’s Women Liberation, the Left and the Politics of “Personal Solutions”’ in Evan Smith, Jon Piccini & Matthew Worley (eds), The Far Left in Australia since 1945 (London: Routledge, 2018).

[xxii]Hester Eisenstein, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1986.

[xxiii]Graham Hastings, It Can’t Happen Here: A Political History of Australian Student Activism, Adelaide, SA, Empire Times Press, 2003, pp. 75-134.

[xxiv]See: Jenny Hocking, The Dismissal Dossier, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015; Paul Kelly & Troy Bramston, The Dismissal: In The Queen’s Name, Sydney: Penguin Books, 2015.

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