BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The rise and fall of the New Left
, October 15, 2011
FROM NEW LEFT TO FACTIONAL LEFT:
Fifty Years of Student Activism at Sydney University
by Alan Barcan
(Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing)
Paperback: 250 pages
Reviewed by Mervyn F. Bendle
In the mid-1970s the New Left in Australia began its “long march through the institutions” to seize power in the political and cultural spheres and, through its destructive influence, produce the crisis of governance that now blights our nation’s political system.
As Barcan points out (p.209), this strategy was originally articulated in 1967 by the German New Left theorist, Rudi Dutschke, who was reformulating the theory of class struggle as a battle for cultural hegemony propounded by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, while adding the Maoist allusion to the Long March, emphasising how the overthrow of capitalism requires a long period of subversion from within.
This formulation was an ideological coup, because the idea that “the Revolution” could be promoted through the systematic penetration and subversion of institutions in the political and cultural spheres provided a political rationale for the opportunism of former radical students who, eventually leaving university and facing the need to enter the adult world and earn a living, moved into politics or the unions, or acquired comfortable and secure positions in universities, schools, the public service, the legal world, the welfare sector, the media and the culture industries.
Dutschke’s formula meant that these radicals could simultaneously pursue well-paid careers while paying at least lip-service to the revolutionary aim of destroying capitalism. Indeed, for many, especially feminists, their own career advancement was seen as a revolutionary imperative that justified any form of manipulative and opportunistic behaviour.
Barcan’s book chronicles much of this history of ideological self-aggrandisement, political adventurism and careerist opportunism, focusing mainly on the activities of the New Left at the University of Sydney while referring frequently to similar behaviour on Australia’s other campuses, including Monash, La Trobe, Melbourne, Macquarie, UNSW and Flinders.
There are various factors that explain the rise of the New Left, many of which Barcan canvasses (pp.203-7). These include: the demographics of the baby-boomer generation; the affluence of the post-war boom (1945-74); the expansion of the university system; excessive parental permissiveness; the emergence of the youth culture; the crisis of authority and social institutions; the Vietnam War and the introduction of conscription; and the incapacity of the traditional university system to meet the challenges it faced.
To these Barcan adds a range of factors that applied more specifically to the University of Sydney, including shifts in the school and social origins of students, along with a decline in the quality of their secondary education. The increased presence and activism of female and older students was also important.
He begins his account with the eclipse of the Old Left and the first New Left (whose history he had previously chronicled in Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University, 2003), which retained the traditional Marxist allegiance to the industrial working-class. He then turns to the second coming of the New Left in its neo-Marxist and anarchist form and its ascent to ideological and organisational pre-eminence at Sydney. There and elsewhere it did incalculable harm to Australian society.
He explains how the “welfare university” that emerged under Whitlam was transformed during the 1980s into a “political nursery” for leftists seeking to make a career as ALP “liegemen”, setting up a career path that progressed through student politics, trade unions, ministerial offices, the party machine, and ultimately into state or federal parliament, where they did the bidding of the factional bosses who controlled them while they played out their allocated time before retiring with massive benefits to make way for the next wave of apparatchiks.
He details the ways in which self-styled radicals would periodically emerge on campus and seize control of Honi Soit and other key student newspapers and publications, along with the presidency of the Student Representative Council, the University Union, and various student organisations, especially those with radical political aims, such as the ALP Club, the Labor Club and Students for a Democratic Society.
At times this makes almost tedious reading as we witness the never-ending rise and fall of various apparatchiks, and the comings and goings of the usual radical suspects who roamed the halls of student power, seeking out sinecures and always looking for the main chance.
The same names appear over and over again: Anthony Albanese, Dennis Altman, Mick Armstrong, Wendy Bacon, Meredith Burgmann, Rohan Cahill, R.W. (Bob) Connell (or Raewyn Connell, as she is now known since a gender-reassignment in 2006 (p.151)), Ann and Jean Curthoys, Bob Gould, Hall Greenland, Germaine Greer, Craig Johnston, Michael Kirby, Belinda Neal, Jim and John Percy, Jim Spigelman, Anne Summers and Malcolm Turnbull. And they are joined by a strong supporting-cast of acolytes and hangers-on.
It is hard to see what this gang has accomplished over the past 40 years that has contributed anything of positive and lasting value to Australia, as the information provided by Barcan or available in the public domain makes clear. At a personal level, many have enjoyed glittering careers and have accumulated power, wealth, fame and influence. And no doubt there are some people who may even like and respect them, along with those who fawn over them, seeking their patronage and preferment, and their support for venal or parochial ends, often promoting some version of “identity politics” involving favourable legislation and legal decisions and copious government funding for favoured pressure groups.
However, it is highly unlikely that many of these names would evoke any favourable resonance within the great suburban expanses of Australia’s cities where the ordinary working people of our nation strive to make lives for themselves and their families, while they watch with bemusement and mounting anger the supercilious self-indulgence of the political parties on the left.
This arrogance is illustrated by the tendency within the intelligentsia and the media to refer to ordinary people as “bogans”, “rednecks”, “racists” and “xenophobes”, and it is exemplified by Anthony Albanese’s contemptuous dismissal in federal parliament of the many ordinary working people who had travelled across Australia to protest against the federal government’s destructive policies, as a “convoy of no consequence”.
This disdainful attitude on the left reflects the foundational decision made by the New Left to discard the working class as a revolutionary force in favour of a coalition of now familiar pressure groups led by a vanguard leadership inspired initially by the ideas of neo-Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse and later by postmodernists such as Michel Foucault.
As Ann Curthoys lamented in 1986: “The only true sources of opposition and radicalism would henceforth come from … groups defined by virtue of a specific oppression — women, Aborigines, migrants, gays” (p.155). “Radicalism now had more in common with a whole range of special interest pressure groups than with ideological world-philosophies seeking to transform society” (p.159), and this situation prevailed until radical environmentalism emerged as a neo-totalitarian ideology in the 21st century.
Given the destructive impact of the New Left, it is appropriate that Barcan also recognises the efforts of those Sydney students who resisted its reign in often heated engagements.
For example, at the beginning of 1969 members of the SDS decided to block a guard of honour provided for the state Governor at a graduation ceremony. This was countered by a group led by Peter Westmore, who was then a postgraduate engineering student and member of the Democratic Club. Consequently, “a brawl broke out near the Great Hall and tomatoes were thrown, two of which spattered the Governor” (pp.56-7), and it was made clear that the left was not without opposition on campus.
At the time, the Democratic Club was also producing 2,000 copies a week of Democrat, which provided an alternative commentary of student affairs to that promulgated by the New Left.
Tony Abbott also played a notable role a decade later leading an offensive against the far left domination of the SRC and Australian Union of Students, as well as against radical academics who were promoting courses in Marxist pseudo-economics. As Barcan notes, Abbott’s struggle (in which he was joined by others, including Greg Sheridan, now foreign editor of the The Australian) “offers a vivid glimpse of the gritty side of student politics” (p.133) that ended up in the Supreme Court.
By this time the New Left was thrashing about, as its influence waned and it sank into degeneracy. Winning the presidency of the SRC in 1978, Abbott and his supporters “confronted an Honi Soit obsessed with Far Left politics and with sex” (p.135), and Barcan provides some very telling examples of just how decadent and self-indulgent campus politics had become, with the New Left regime making a fetish out of the alleged benefits of male self-abuse, for example. Abbott was then able to expose how SRC funds (derived from students’ contributions) were misused to promote “ultra militant feminism, homosexual proselytism, and environmentalism gone to crazy lengths” (p.137).
Barcan provides several accounts of why the New Left declined in this fashion (pp.153-5; 207-9). The end of conscription and the end of the Vietnam War removed the primary aggravating factor; the economic recession of the mid-1970s shifted attention from internationalist idealism to domestic anxieties; the unity of the left collapsed under the impact of feminism; neo-Marxism was discredited and radical theory fragmented with the rise of identity politics; and the elite cadre of activists moved on, leaving an inferior next generation to carry on.
Nevertheless, the leftist system of patronage, preferment, nepotism and corruption was firmly entrenched, along with nihilist ideologies that justified doing “whatever it takes” to seize and hang onto power, however destructive the effect, especially in education.
At the end of his book Barcan assesses the legacy of the New Left. It amounts to little. For all its sound and fury, and despite the energy and idealism that it misdirected and consumed, it is hard not to see it all as a legacy of ashes.
Dr Mervyn F. Bendle is senior lecturer in history and communications at James Cook University, Queensland. His many articles include “The origins of the radical intelligentsia in Australia in the ’sixties”, National Observer, No.75, Summer 2007/08, and “The prehistory of ’68: the birth of the Australian intelligentsia”, Quadrant, October 2008.