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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/A response to “The legacy of 1968”

A response to “The legacy of 1968”

Barry York

Platypus Review 165 | April 2024

On June 24, 2023 at Trades Hall in Melbourne, Australia, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel on the legacy of 1968.[1] The speakers included Andy Blunden, Alison Thorne, and Arthur Dent. Barry York provides his response to the panel.

HERE ARE MY RESPONSES to the questions put to the panelists.

How were you aware that what you were doing was something new compared to that of the Old Left of the 1930s and 40s?

We were developing in rebellion against the Old Left, i.e., the old Communist Party revisionists who consistently tried to block our anti-imperialist “red” politics on the grounds that they would alienate people and lose support for the Australian Labor Party whose election they said we needed to support.

The generational aspect to the rebellion was also in play. The Old Left were elderly people, whom we could respect for their past sacrifices and struggles, but they were culturally different, compared to the permissive values of most of the young rebels.

It was not that simple, though, as there were communist leaders like E. F. (Ted) Hill who, for all appearances was an “Old Left,” short-haired “suit,” yet he and his Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) (CPA (ML)) keenly supported and encouraged our rebellion and revolutionary politics. This made him and his party all the more attractive.

We were aware that we were doing something new because the Old Left leaders usually opposed us, ostensibly on tactical grounds but essentially because they opposed revolutionary politics. This became clearer through debate with them during practical struggles and campaigns.

How was this task transmitted and transformed?

In a couple of words: by direct confrontation with the Old Left revisionists and developing our own positive policies and strategies that bypassed them. There is such a thing as the spirit of the times, a Zeitgeist, and we helped create it, along with all the other rebels around the world. We developed ways of doing mass work and promoting actions that were based on our own self-reliant organizations, with our own printing machines, etc.

On the campus where I was active, we often bypassed the official Students Representative Council (SRC) and held unofficial mass meetings. These were usually larger in attendance than the official SRC general meetings and the SRC general meetings might just have a quorum of about 300 and that meeting would supposedly speak for all students. Yet our unofficial meetings made no claim to speak for anyone other than those who attended and voted. Our biggest unofficial general meeting was more than a thousand students, at a time when the campus student population was 2,500.

Which forms of theory and practice did you reach for and why?

Most of us embraced Marxism, but there was a smorgasbord of groups offering different takes on it. In Melbourne, the most influential for a few years was an orthodox Marxism that had been developed through China’s revolutionary experience and leadership into a Maoist position.

The notion of “cultural revolution” and “bombarding the headquarters” resonated with those of us who came to understand the dead-end that was revisionism and who felt the “deadening conformity and alienation” of life under capitalism, as panelist Alison Thorne described it.

There were academic Marxists who had done heaps of reading but they tended to be disconnected from actual struggle. We understood that “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality.”[2] The forms of our practice were varied — street theater, leaflets, banners, graffiti, general meetings, fund-raising for bail funds, and, of course, constant arguing with those in the movement with whom we disagreed. We spent a lot of time organizing and participating in rallies and street marches.

For those who identified with Maoism, such as myself, the notion of mass work was important. We wanted to be integrated with everyday life and people while also being revolutionaries. We wanted to learn from the people who weren’t like us, and we felt that we could better convey our politics and views to them. The theory and practice of mass work differentiated us from the counter-culturalists who, while sharing our alienation from capitalism, sought to opt out by building communes in the bush or smoking dope and, in my experience, they tended to regard the working class people with disdain.

Did the following decades vindicate your choices or were you proven to be mistaken?

A favorite quote of mine from Karl Marx is “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[3]

Those who understood the dialectical materialist approach were able to come to terms with new circumstances arising from the decline of the movement, which happened around 1972 in Australia (see below). I was one of those who could not understand the new circumstances; indeed I was completely tossed by them. This reflected both my weakness in Marxist theory, my dogmatism, and my disconnect from social life beyond university and Left circles. The balance for nearly all of us had been toward practice, daily action, and organizing. It was all intense and activism-based. I describe it as living and breathing political activism.

For those who did have a stronger theoretical understanding, and who were much better at undertaking investigation of reality, some progress was made. The publications of the Red Eureka Movement (REM) in the late 1970s and early 80s stand up well today and are in the spirit of the 1968 rebels. I was opposed to REM, not due to their politics but because of an obedience and blind loyalty to the leaders of the CPA (ML) who assured us, among other things, that one of the REM leaders was a CIA agent. (I regret going along with that, but the bigger problem was that I had stopped thinking. I wasn’t alone, unfortunately.)

We weren’t entirely “mistaken” but there must be a reason as to why 1968 Marxism has not led to anything in the same spirit for about 50 years. It’s not just about the spirit but also the Marxist approach and politics. Postmodernism and “identity politics” seem to have won the day quite easily — for now.

How are today’s Left still tasked by the unfinished work or the new work handed on by the New Left?

The question assumes that there is a Left today. One of the things that attracted me to the Platypus Affiliated Society was an early item I received that declared: “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” That’s spot on.

There are people calling themselves Marxists all over the place but few who are consistent with Marx’s enthusiasm for expanding human potentialities, for unleashing the productive forces from the constraints of capitalism, and for reaching for the stars. I read something by David Harvey some years ago, and he shocked me by claiming, on one hand, to be a Marxist, yet, on the other, advocating for “zero growth.” What a strange Marxism. No wonder Marx said, in 1862, that he was not a Marxist.

A Marxism that does not support material progress is hardly Marxist; so too with a Marxism that fails to unequivocally take the side of people who are fighting fascist regimes and imperialist aggression. In 1968, we celebrated the Vietnamese victory of the Tet Offensive. Today, Leftists support the Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism, and we support the Russian people in their struggle to overthrow the Putin regime. There is no need for “mental gymnastics” that on one hand support the Ukrainian people but on the other hand demand that NATO, their most effective military ally, gets out of Europe. This is not “nuance” or dialectical thinking. It’s bizarre and reactionary. It effectively allies with Putin, with the Russian fascist regime, who would love to see NATO withdraw from Europe.

Perhaps a real Left will be built from the solidarity with Ukraine around the world and through the struggle against those who claim to be Left but cannot bring themselves to support Ukraine’s democratic revolution and the only military force that can effectively assist the Ukrainians to victory.

The Ukrainian people are fighting for democracy — bourgeois democracy. They are not fighting for socialism. I refer again to the terrific point made by Marx about how people don’t make history according to their wishes. The Left is unequivocal in its support for democratic struggle against fascist and autocratic regimes. It always has been and always will be.

Does the task of social emancipation today appear more or less obscure as it did in the 1960s and 1970s?

I don’t know what is meant by “social emancipation.”

Politics generally is depressing today, but I find hope in the amazing scientific and technological advances that are being made. They transform the way we live and help create preconditions for something better. Arthur Dent mentioned how the internet was created on the basis of a communist mode of production.

Another strange quality to what passes for Left-wing today is the caution and concern about new technologies. Apparently, like the women in the communist party who were told they’d have to wait until after the Revolution, humanity is supposed to wait until after the Revolution before encouraging further research and development in technology.

Marx said that “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”[4] What does the internet bring? Or, for that matter, AI?!

In the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx described the organizing principle of the communist society of the future: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”[5] That was in 1875. We are now in 2024. We need to add “and dreams and fantasies” after “needs.”

There is much more I could say, especially about the period of decline in the mid and late 1970s and 80s, but I will leave it there. My thoughts on the legacy of 1968 are below.

On 1968

Thanks to the Platypus group for organizing the discussion of the legacy of 1968. Good to have different perspectives and a debate that was structured in such a way as to ensure that each person had a fair say and could respond to one another, with time for questions from the floor too. The latter is especially important.

A similar thing was attempted in 2010 and 11, initiated by a few “unreconstructed Maoists” in Melbourne. It was called “The Monthly Argument.” The best exponents of opposing sides to an issue were brought together to argue their case, respond to one another, and then face the floor. The debates ranged from free speech to Syria and nuclear energy.[6]

The masthead for The Monthly Argument website has a quote from Christopher Hitchens: “The progress that’s made in any argument or in any discussion is by confrontation.”

It’s important to have a culture in which confrontation, debate, and argument can happen freely and without persecution. An expression of how the culture has changed since 1968 struck me when, during the 80s, people became more interested in consensus than in argument. Fundamental disagreement was seen negatively, something to smooth over, rather than a healthy way of challenging ideas and having one’s ideas challenged. This was a profound change, and, in Australia, it was represented well by the Labor government headed by Bob Hawke whose main objective was “to bring everyone together” in a type of corporate state.

Back in 68, at our best, it was different: lots of debate and argument between us and the overt reactionaries or within and among the broad Left and the communists. This dynamic pushed things forward, and, in Melbourne where I was active, allowed for good revolutionary politics to be heard and to exert significant influence at a critical time.


I agree with Andy Blunden’s skepticism about vanguard parties. This is largely born of my own experience in one of them — the CPA (ML). I roll my eyes when I hear people talk today about how their particular small group — or sect? — is building a new party, linking internationally with other small sects, but it will all work out because of “our Marxism.” It is delusional, dogmatic (non-dialectical) twaddle. Sorry, but “committees for revolutionary international regroupment” strike me as Monty Pythonesque. We need fresher thinking than that.

I am aware of how the comrades at Monash University in Melbourne operated, and they were an inspiration to those of us making revolution on the campus I attended, La Trobe University. We were not as good at it — we lacked the deep theoretical understanding and the charismatic leaders — but things moved forward, for a few years, because our party organization, our cell, encouraged argument and wider debate in the Labour Club, which was the main Left organization. We never took militant action without the endorsement of a general meeting of all students, where further debate occurred outside the club. And, most importantly, like the Monash comrades, we put forward demands that were winnable. We were out to win, not just protest.

It all went wrong when dogma set in and we stopped thinking and became followers of the Party leaders, the old veterans like Ted Hill and Ted Bull. The worst part was that some of us, myself included, started to ingratiate ourselves with the leaders, as happens in a religious organization with members of the inner sanctum of the congregation wanting the reward of a blessing for obedience and good works. It was the opposite of a Maoist approach.

Another example of the quasi-religious nature of the Party was its insistence on collective study of Marxist classics. I agree with Arthur that it needs to start with individual reading/study, but this isn’t what happened in my party branch, at least not during the second half of the 1970s. Rather, we would sit around with the selected text and go around the room with each person reading a few paragraphs, sharing the reading. We could discuss it afterwards, which was a saving grace, but I regret to say that there were some works that I never read for myself, and I learned very little from “collective study.” (I don’t recall how we collectively studied in the late 60s / early 70s, but I do recall doing a lot of my own reading and then discussing with comrades informally).


The comfort of dogmatism started, I think, around 1972 when key demands of the movement were being met and the movement declined: the Australian government withdrew its ground troops from Vietnam at the end of 71 (following the process of U.S. withdrawal under Nixon) and, for those of us on campuses, universities had agreed to demands for things like greater student representation on governing bodies. Moreover, the remnants of the old “Victorian Era” culture were being overtaken by a new, permissive, youth-consumerist one. Nonetheless, for many of us who embraced revolutionary politics, the new situation was incomprehensible. How could it be that after such an exciting and rapid building of a movement, of such intense, always-upward activism, it all suddenly changed? The spirit of the times transformed, it seemed, from one where revolutionary politics were taken seriously to one in which people were pinning all their hopes on the election of a Labor government.

Most of us were frustrated and confused, but the ready-made dogma, the formula-thinking, brought comfort and allowed us to pretend otherwise. On the front page of Vanguard, the newspaper of the CPA (ML), for each year of the 70s, the headline assured us that “Revolutionary struggle reaches new heights,” or words to that effect. But the frustration was still there. This disconnect from reality grew worse, though there were notable individuals who did seem to understand the change and its process. By the late 70s, some of these people had grouped together as the REM.

Another terrible outcome of this dogmatism and obedience was that we became cynical. It was the opposite of our genuine commitment, our investigation of reality, our arguments, and optimism of 68. It’s what happens when you stop thinking critically, stop thinking dialectically, drop the willingness to “bombard the headquarters” and just go along with what the leaders tell you. Its consequences are not pretty. It’s easy to keep identifying as being Left-wing, or Marxist, or Maoist, or whatever, but I learned that it is also easy to slip into a type of Left-fascism.

There’s an excellent article “Fascism and the Left” (1980) by Arthur that I shared at the C21st Left blog.[7] I’m embarrassed to admit that I can identify with what he describes; at least where I had ended up by the mid-1970s. Some of my old comrades, who were so good in the late 60s / early 1970s, today openly take the side of the Assads and Putins and, of course, Xi Jinping, just as they took the side of the fascist Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

When women rose up recently in Iran, an old former comrade shared a post on Facebook pointing out that U.S. imperialism was behind the “uprising” – with “uprising” in inverted commas. The reason for this, he said, was because Iran has joined the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation, thus challenging “U.S. hegemony.” Conspiracy theories flow naturally from formula-thinking, because such dogmatism tries to force the world into an ideological schema. When the world doesn’t cooperate with the schema, there must be a conspiracy involved.

So, it wasn’t a case of the “1968” leaders being “tamed” by cushy jobs, though Alison makes a valid point that what were previously voluntary movements became professionalized as NGOs. This too is not straightforward, though, as some of the NGOs allowed for good work to continue and for some of the leaders / activists to earn a living for doing good stuff.

The late Jim Bacon was a comrade of mine. We went to China as part of an Australian delegation in May 1971. He was a very effective Maoist leader. He then became an official in the Builders Labourers Federation and moved from Melbourne to Tasmania, where he became prominent in the Australian Labor Party. In 1998, he was elected Premier of Tasmania. Some old comrades regarded this as selling-out, but Jim never reneged on his past, and simply pointed out that he became sick and tired of waiting for the revolution. He did some good things as Premier and showed that “we” can govern.


Andy Blunden says, “The unfinished work of the New Left is to learn how to practice solidarity,” but “Marxists still say ‘Follow us.’” My only disagreement is this: people who say that are not Marxists, and I am more comfortable with those who say, “Question everything!” That is the Marxism that appealed to me back in the late 60s / early 70s, and that needs to be revived.


I put “68” in inverted commas because, even though that year was the highlight for the Left internationally and is yet to be matched, the period we’re talking about is roughly 66 to the early 70s. In other words, in Australia and the U.S., the period when Vietnam was the central issue. The system of compulsory military service made Vietnam a life-and-death question for every young man who had to register with the Department of Labour and National Service when they turned 18. While conscription only applied to men, the issue obviously also closely affected women who were mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends. It was no coincidence that “Save our Sons” was the most prominent women’s group opposing the U.S. war at the time.

“Vietnam” quickly became the number-one issue for the Left and no other issue at the time mobilized such large numbers. The secondary issue was probably apartheid in South Africa, around which another mass-based campaign was launched and grew into a mass movement.

The Indigenous Australians’ struggle was perhaps third on the list, and I remember one “black nationalist” being upset with all the activity around South Africa, arguing that we should focus more on what was “happening in our own backyard.” But apartheid took up much more of our time and energy than the Aboriginal issues. It’s interesting that the main issues were internationalist ones, in which we acted in solidarity with people fighting injustice and tyranny a very long way from Australia’s shores.

I’d like to mention, as an aside, that the first Australian history book to offer a nation-wide overview of Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion and settlement of Australia was the work of individuals who identified as or with Maoists. The book, The Black Resistance: An Introduction to the History of the Aborigines’ Struggle against British Colonialism, was published by Widescope International in 1977 and was co-edited by Fergus Robinson and yours truly, with chapters by Fergus, me, and four others. Prior to our book, the widely accepted view was that Indigenous Australians had been passive recipients of the changes wrought by dispossession and massacres.

Another example is the solidarity we showed with the rebellions in the “Eastern bloc” or Soviet satellite countries, especially Czechoslovakia in 68 and Poland in 70. There were pro-Soviet remnants who identified as being on the Left but, in the main, they were marginal and persuaded no one but themselves that they were right. Few young people identified with that line — they were mostly fuddy-duddies, out of touch with the Zeitgeist and with the politics that helped define it.

Of course, the uprisings in Paris in May of 68 were inspirational. I loved the graffiti — “Society is a carnivorous flower,” “It is forbidden to forbid.” My favorite remains “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Beneath the pavement, the beach”). It was the spirit and style that moved me, and millions of other young people around the world. The Paris uprising indicated that workers and students could unite in struggle. It defined the May rebellion. In Australia, a Worker-Student Alliance was organized in 69. Some of us — “Maoists” — went to work in factories over the three-month university vacation period in order to learn from the workers — and to earn a bit of money! A few even became full-time factory workers (or builders laborers) after graduating from university.


The other significant event that had a big influence on the “1968” movement was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in China. The mainstream media reported on it negatively, emphasizing chaos and destruction — much the same as today’s supporters of the dictatorship of the billionaires in China do.

Ted Hill gave a speech about the GPCR at La Trobe University in 69. It was easy for those of us who were rebellious to identify with what was happening — the youthful challenge to old authority and traditional ways that kept people in their place. That this was happening against the bourgeois elements within the Communist Party of China was also something we could grasp. But what really “blew our minds” was that China had a leader who was encouraging rebellion, including against the “new emperor” mindsets and behaviors within the governing party. No other world leader had declared “It is right to rebel.” On the contrary, the others, like the Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, were saying, “We shall tolerate dissent so long as it remains ineffective.”

Today, there is a consistency in the attitudes of some of my old former comrades who once supported the GPCR to identify with the social-fascist regime and other dictatorial and autocratic regimes around the world. They now advocate the line that the GPCR was erroneous and held back China’s progress. There are, however, scholarly books that provide a different view, such as William Hinton’s The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China 1978–1989 (1990), Mobo Gao’s The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008) and Dongping Han’s The Unknown Cultural Revolution (2008). I wonder if these make it to the reading lists in universities today.

The Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989 should have left little doubt in anyone’s mind as to the nature of the post-Mao regime but, again, among some of my old former comrades, it was attributable to “foreign agents” who were behind the protests. More recently, they tell me that “errors were made on both sides.” I have no idea how anyone can regard this as “Left-wing.”


It puzzled me, given our correct understanding of the Soviet and Eastern bloc satellite regimes as social-fascist back then, that when the “Wall” came down in November 1989, some of my old comrades who had got it right in the late 60s /early 70s were now expressing doubt — or outright angst — about the collapse. Most said they still didn’t like the regimes — but U.S. imperialism would benefit in its quest for world hegemony, and that those social-fascist states, like them or loathe them, were a force against that hegemony. It was weird because we had always been anti-fascists first and anti-imperialist second. After all, the Left supported the anti-working-class, “war monger” (as the Mosleyites[8] described him) Winston Churchill — a representative of the world’s worst imperialism at that time, namely British imperialism — against the Nazi appeasers like Neville Chamberlain. An anti-imperialism that serves fascist regimes is hardly worth having.


None of the speakers mentioned the fact that the Australian economy was doing well in the 1960s. There was economic growth, real wage increases, expansion of infrastructure, plenty of jobs, and big demand, after the War, for Australia’s agricultural produce and mineral resources. We were not rebelling against economic crisis, so it is remarkable that we were questioning and challenging capitalism. We were a product of alienation, an understanding of how capitalism was exploitative, and an awareness of suffering elsewhere in the world, rather than direct economic hardship arising from crisis; though those of us who studied Marx understood the nature of crises as periodic — until the “big one” would come. But we’ve been waiting a long time for the big one. Certainly things are bad at the moment, and most projections by mainstream economists say things will worsen, so maybe the big one really is imminent now.

What would happen if it did come?! Where is the economic understanding, not just of what is happening, but of how to build the new social system? Arthur pointed out that the Left wasn’t interested in economics. That tallies with my experience and, unlike him, I am one of those who had little interest in the subject. Like many of my comrades, I was the “arts” type, interested in ideas, political philosophy, and polemics. I tried reading Capital and I think I waded through Volume 1 (1867), but couldn’t proceed to the other volumes. What I knew about Marxist economics, I really had learned from the lectures we all read such as Value, Price and Profit (1865). In a letter to Engels, Marx had said “You cannot compress a course in political economy into one hour but we shall have to do our best”[9] — I don’t think he expected so many of us to be satisfied with going no further.


Environmental issues were rarely taken up in a significant way. I recall the far-Right League of Rights going on about “the despoilation of Australia’s environment by foreign companies,” but it was rare for the Left to give much priority to those issues. Vietnam, and apartheid were the main issues. The “green” movement didn’t so much arise from the 60s movement as emerge after its decline; though it’s true that many of the activists who, as Alison pointed out, were now becoming “co-opted,” supported the new green movement. Perhaps it’s a case of political philosophy abhorring a vacuum, just as Nature does. By the early 80s, when Graham Richardson, of the Labor government’s Right faction, started to promote a major national green issue to oppose the building of a dam in Tasmania, it was clear that the new, growing, green movement’s leaders were not the people who had put their heads on the line during the Vietnam solidarity period. This was a different leadership and a different kind of politics and political philosophy. The campaign to save the Franklin Dam in 1983 was the birth of the green organizational movement.

It goes without saying that Leftists opposed air pollution, which was a significant environmental issue in the 70s. I recall being involved in a campaign against lead content in petrol. The campaign was successful but did little, if anything, to promote socialism, let alone communism. And lead was removed from petrol by legislative mandate — under capitalism. It’s strange to me — a disconnect from reality — when individuals who identify as Leftists say that something is a product of capitalism, that capitalism needs a particular injustice, but then don’t seem to draw any lesson when the issue or injustice is remedied within the framework of capitalism.

The Left’s problem with green political philosophy was based on the Marxists’ historic and traditional commitment to unleashing the productive forces. “Nature worship” — the idea that humanity should live in harmony, or sustainably, with Nature rather than “conquer” or “decouple” from Nature — was where the line was drawn. Indeed, it was a line of demarcation between a progressive and a reactionary outlook. The Nature worship outlook was, and still is, openly advocated by the princes and popes who have a better understanding of its content and purpose than those who believe one can be a Marxist, in support of progress, while at the same time believing that the planet has already exceeded its capacity for further growth and development.


A great progressive movement that can be said to have emerged from the “60s” movement was the women’s liberation movement. It was most notable in the early 70s in Australia, and, indeed, some of its activist women were pissed off with the male chauvinism in organizations of the Left and of being told by men, as Alison points out, that their liberation is something for after the Revolution. It was understandable that women established their own organizations and consciousness-raising groups. However, they had much bigger problems than male chauvinism on the Left, given that our society was still so backward when it came to women.

Helen Reddy’s anthemic song “I am Woman” (1971) sums up all that was great about the spirit of the old women’s lib movement: its rebelliousness, which was very much in keeping with “68,” determination to win, and the absence of any ideology of victimhood. Had anyone dared to tell those women that they were “victims,” the response would have been “Not any more!,” possibly followed by “Go jump in the lake!” Victimized — yes — but victims — no!

Over time, new generations of feminist activists emerged and, it seems, there has been fragmentation, and today it is rare to see or hear the spirit of the 70s women’s lib people. “Identity politics” has taken over, with the support of the institutions of the state (including the universities), and socialist feminists are usually of the older generation, who were steeled in the struggles of the women’s lib period. A worrying aspect of a current significant faction of feminists is what Camille Paglia called “sex-negative feminism.” This is the puritanical streak that wants to ban pornography. The late Right-wing English morality-crusader, Mary Whitehouse, would applaud them but she was a target of much ridicule by “pro-sex” feminists and Leftists generally — those in the 68 tradition, that is.


I was lucky to be 17 in 1968; I was able to be a conscious part of the chaos, the dangers, the fun, and the politics that believed in a better, winnable future and that, at its best, questioned everything. It was exhilarating being part of a mass movement that was gaining support, that went beyond reformism and asked why the issues existed in the first place. There was something joyous about challenging nasty authorities, pointing out their hypocrisies and their perpetuation of injustices. When I look back on that period, 1966–1972, I think that while we didn’t overthrow the ruling class, we certainly gave their most reactionary members and representatives a very hard time. That in itself justifies the movement, I reckon.

I was fairly conservative socially but not politically. At the age of 15, in 1966, I’d cycle from my home in Brunswick, Melbourne, to the large front roller-door at the entrance of Pentridge Prison in the adjoining suburb of Coburg, to protest against the death penalty and the hanging of Ronald Ryan. On one occasion, the protest turned violent, and I remember men running at the huge roller-door, leaping up and kicking at it. (Any wrestling fans will be familiar with the flying dropkick maneuver.)

In speaking with other activists of my generation, I’m surprised at how many others also became active as teenagers because of the issue of capital punishment. I’m sure I joined an organization opposed to capital punishment but I don’t recall its name. At this time, I learned how to give out leaflets. I also learned how to argue about an issue. There were key debating points and, on one occasion, I wore a badge that displayed the words “I am against capital punishment. Please talk to me about it.” I nervously wore it on one of my tram rides into the city and was extremely relieved that nobody wanted to talk about it.


The counterculture was a significant part of all this questioning. Its members were treated far more sympathetically by the media and the Establishment than we — activists with a political direction and understanding — were. I didn’t agree with the notion of setting up communes in the bush under capitalism, nor with drug taking, but I loved and still love the music of the time: the rock pop songs that we could embrace as anthems, songs like Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” (1969), Nina Simone’s revolutionary version (1969) of The Beatles’ reactionary “Revolution” (1968), and The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965). The latter was hugely popular with the U.S. and allied soldiers in Vietnam but the lyrics are metaphorical: “this place” can be capitalism, an alienating system that in the advanced industrial societies, in the main, had long outlived any former progressive qualities. In a later version of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the singer ad-libs with “Out of the factory, out of this place, out of the kitchen, out of this place.” Love it. The good music brought “hippies” and Marxists together; though the Old Left was associated more with folk music. I never related to folk music. It seemed too whingey, always complaining, gently melodic without a back beat driving it relentlessly forward.

Like others who identified with, and as, Maoists, I was critical of the counterculture, even though some of its members had proven to be reliable comrades in action on the campus of La Trobe University in Melbourne where I was enrolled in 69. So, I concur with the speakers who point to the diverse nature of the “60s movement.” You name it — it was there! The reactionaries were threatened by it and sometimes resorted to state violence to try to curb it and intimidate its leaders, especially those who were effective in encouraging militancy, an anti-imperialist perspective and solidarity with the Vietnamese (rather than an “anti-war” position). The movement’s spirit was vital and summed up by our belief that it was right to rebel; to us, harmony was a reactionary value. The state and its institutions, ranging from churches to universities and prisons, were out to crush that spirit. But, they failed — for a brief few years, at least — and each of those institutions experienced their own internal rebellions.


In 1968, I was in my final year of high school in Melbourne and was by that time politically aware and interested in communism. I was a bit of a wannabe communist. After school, still in my school uniform, I made my way to the big demonstration against the U.S. war in Vietnam on July 4 that year. The police rioted. They removed their identification badges and used batons, fists, and boots against us. It was scary. The demonstration included workers and students. The next day at school, one of the teachers claimed to have seen me on TV at the demo, and admonished me in front of the class. I felt embarrassed but also angry and determined to attend the next demo. The teacher’s admonition did not deter my classmates from electing me as class captain, and I was chuffed to see, on reading my old school magazine from 68, that I was described as “the rebel leader.”

Most of the school rebellion was about dress codes and hair length for boys, but there were also a couple of more political actions, such as when three of us decided to stand up and raise our clenched fists at morning assembly in solidarity with the two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, who had made the same gesture at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. They were supported by the third-place getter, an Australian named Peter Norman. On another occasion, I distributed a pamphlet around the school which, from memory, was called “American Atrocities in Vietnam” and had been banned under Victoria’s Obscene Publications Act. I was not part of any high school “underground” or organization but was influenced heavily by my father, Loreto, who had developed strong Left-wing views during his military service in World War II. He was Maltese. Born in Malta in 1918, he had volunteered in 1940 when it was clear that Mussolini’s Italia irredenta[10] meant that fascism was part of a global threat.

My dad’s influence on my political development means that I can’t really agree with Arthur’s exclamation that “We told our parents to fuck off!” Of course, if by “parents” is meant the older generation, I can see the point. There was much in the culture that had been carried on by the older generation that we objected to, which is why the 68 rebellion was disproportionately a youth rebellion with the “oldies” in the revisionist communist parties trying to curb what they called the “excesses” (but really trying to curb the militancy and revolutionary perspectives).

But, for me, the rebellion was not against my parents because my father, a factory worker, was on the side of the rebels. He was in the Labor Party but identified strongly with communist union leaders such as Clarrie O’Shea and Ted Bull (both of whom were leaders in the CPA (ML), which identified with Maoism). He was skeptical about Labor opportunists, and attended some of the militant Vietnam solidarity demonstrations.

My mother was a sweet, gentle, woman who used to say that she wished she had been born later because she then would have had the advantages of “women’s lib.” She was born in Hackney, London’s East End, in 1916. She was not particularly political but, like most people who had had a poor and very hard life, she understood what Andy Blunden called “solidarity” — the importance of “helping others on their own terms.” She also understood how society was changing for the better, especially for women, and that the “protestors” were helping drive that process as were new technologies like washing machines and vacuum cleaners. For working-class women like my mother, technology was nothing to fear. It was definitely not something to wait for until “after the Revolution.”


Growing up in an industrial, migrant, working-class place like Brunswick, from the age of three (in 1954) to my early 30s, and with my kind of parents, made it easy for me to develop a socialistic outlook. There were a dozen ethnicities in my street but we all got on well, notwithstanding occasional nastiness. Paying the bills was more important than picking on one another for being different. We were united by two things: our class position and the English language. I grew up immersed in this low-income, working-class milieu.

Television was important in my awareness of world and national affairs. After my parents bought a television set in 1960, the world came into our loungeroom — including, the horror of apartheid in South Africa and the disgraceful treatment of Australia’s Aborigines. Like a lot of my generation, we were frightened when a showdown seemed imminent between the two superpowers in 1962. I still remember the grainy black-and-white imagery on television of the warships which we were told were heading toward one another in confrontation. To this day, I recall vividly the scene on television of the Democrat Police Chief of Alabama setting vicious Alsatian dogs onto black American protestors. It made me angry — and still does.

These images stood in stark contrast to the series like Father Knows Best (1954–60) and Leave It to Beaver (1957–63) that portrayed an unrealistic, idealized, version of American life in which everyone was happy and prosperous. These series rarely featured black Americans, other than in the roles of musicians or servants. But the contrast between the reality shown on news broadcasts and the idealized family series was not lost on me, even though I was young.

I was a big fan of science fiction. This was prompted by exciting “space” adventures in the real world such as the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. Four years later, the Soviet Union again led the “space race,” and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space. It was so thrilling and set my young mind racing.

I read sci-fi books, usually collections of short stories, but movies on television and at the cinema showed just how far human beings might go thanks to our ingenuity and engineering skills. I was enthralled by movies that showed spaceships and exploration of other planets. These 1950s films seem a bit naïve today, when we have an actual spacecraft, Voyager 11, traveling beyond our solar system, now into the constellation of Pavo, and still sending the occasional “beep” more than 23 billion (Billion, not million) kilometers back to Earth.

I’m sure, on reflection, that this enthusiasm for space travel and sci-fi helped put me on the path of interest in the political philosophy that advocated for unleashing human potential. And this certainly informed the spirit of “1968.”


I’ll leave it there and hope my ramblings are of some use in understanding “1968.”

The period of decline from the early or mid-1970s is just as important in terms of lessons, but I’ll have to leave that for another time. |P

[1] See the transcript in this issue. Video of the panel is available online at <>.

[2] Mao Tse-tung, “On Practice: On the Relation Between Knowledge and Practice, Between Knowing and Doing” (1937), available online at <>.

[3] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851–52), available online at <>.

[4] Karl Marx, “The Metaphysics of Political Economy,” in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), available online at <>.

[5] Karl Marx, “Part I,” in “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875), available online at <>.

[6] The arguments were documented, and are available online at <>.

[7] See <>.

[8] After Oswald Mosley (1896–1980).

[9] Karl Marx to Friedrich Engels (May 20, 1865), quoted in “Introduction,” in Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit (New York: International Co., Inc, 1969), available online at <>.

[10] [Italian] Unredeemed Italy.