The radicalisation of the campuses, 1967-74

By MICK ARMSTRONG

[This is based on a chapter from Mick’s book, One, Two Three, What are We Fighting For? (Socialist Alternative, Melbourne 2001). Send enquiries to the email address above.]

Taking Monash by storm

The turmoil that swept the campuses can be most vividly seen at Monash, the initial hot bed of radicalism. Monash University in Melbourne's southeast, which opened in 1961, was the first of the new universities, and its staff believed they had an opportunity to start afresh. The Vice-Chancellor spoke of a true community of scholars, with new courses and a new approach to students. But the relentless demands of capitalism meant these ideals were never fulfilled. The University, which grew rapidly to over 7,000 students by 1967, was a soulless campus isolated in Melbourne’s then outer eastern suburbs. Appropriately enough, a towering high rise monstrosity, the Sir Robert Menzies building, physically dominated the campus – and still does. The "Ming Wing", as it became known, epitomised the alienation of student life -- the mass production degree factory. Victorian Education Minister, JS Bloomfield, insisted that Monash "take care first of the study of the application of science to industry". To make his intentions crystal clear he appointed Robert Blackwood, general manager of Dunlop, to head a University Council that was stacked with business reps.

In the early sixties the Monash Labor Club -- founded under the influence of the Melbourne ALP Club -- was right wing Labor, consciously dissociating itself from the Communist-influenced Melbourne Labour Club. In fact, until the beginning of 1968 the Monash Labor Club’s constitution barred Communist Party members. Vietnam and conscription rapidly transformed the safe social democratic consensus. In May 1965, one month after the despatch of Australian troops to Vietnam, the Australian Student Labor Federation (ASLF), the national organisation of Labor Clubs, held its conference in Canberra. The ASLF passed a motion supporting the National Liberation Front (NLF) (later rescinded under pressure from the ALP leadership). Three Monash delegates voted for it. A minority of delegates, only about 30 in all, organised a sitdown to block traffic in central Canberra leading to sixteen arrests, three of whom came from Monash. In 1966 one of the three, Dave Nadel, then a supporter of Jim Cairns, defeated the ALP right to become Labor Club President. Nadel’s Vice-President Albert Langer, who had come into politics via Young Labor but by 1966 was probably a secret Maoist, became Australia’s best-known student radical. With the tide moving sharply left Nadel and his supporters soon broke with social democratic politics. By the start of 1967, after the experience of Labor’s defeat in the 1966 elections and the police violence at the Johnson and Ky demos, many of the frantically active Labor Club members had moved towards a revolutionary socialist perspective. Nadel argued:

I want Australia to become a Socialist society. Like an increasing number of Socialists the world over I have no country I can point to as an example of the ideal I support. The reformist welfare states of Scandinavia do not qualify, neither does the Soviet bureaucracy. China perhaps is closest to my vision -- but there are many aspects of Chinese society that I would reject. The basic features of the sort of Socialist society that I would want to see would include a complete abolition of any private means of production and supply with the factories and industries run by state-appointed managers under the control of the workers in each factory; in fact much the same sort of control the Labor Club talks about when it demands staff-student control of the universities -- the only way one can bring about this kind of society is by a revolution.

Early in 1967 Professor Louis Matheson, set to become the most hated VC of the era, presented the Labor Club with an issue around which it could galvanise support -- an honorary degree to the detested Henry Bolte. Bolte loathed what he called "long-haired student bludgers" and had just hanged Ronald Ryan. The VC’s decision was a vivid illustration of the links between the university, supposedly a centre of "independent, free enquiry" and the capitalist state, and highlighted how senior academics were the "servitors of power". The Labor Club held its own degree ceremony. To a packed lecture theatre, it awarded an honorary degree to Sir Henry Pig. The pig led off 300 protesters to admin where the relationship of the university to the state was discussed.

The Monash Labor Club’s broadsheet Left Hook changed its name to Print at the start of 1967. With an initial print run of 1000 and under the editorship of experienced former Sydney Labor Club leader, Darce Cassidy, Print became a must-read -- a topical broadsheet exposing the latest admin scandals. By 1969 Print had gone daily. The situation really came to a head with the decision of the Labor Club to collect money for the NLF. After a series of meetings argued out the issue, an 80-strong Labor Club meeting on 21 July 1967 decided after a seven-hour debate to commit what the press branded "treason" -- to provide aid to "the enemy". There was an immediate furore -- only matched by the outrage the following Easter over a mock Crucifixion carried out by a "ratbag" apolitical group of students. The admin moved to ban the collection of aid for the NLF. Labor Club members faced death threats and were beaten up by right wing students. They were condemned not just by the government and the media but by the SRC President. The ALP, including left wingers such as Cairns, joined the Liberals to pass special legislation to outlaw the Labor Club’s action. This helped drive home to activists the limitations of reformism. The fact that no section of mainstream opinion was prepared to champion outright opposition to the war hastened the transformation of a whole layer of students into revolutionaries.

In 1967, according to a hostile observer, Paul Francis Perry, there was only one Maoist on the Labor Club committee, "but by 1970 the Maoists were the major political force on campus, although the hard core never exceeded a few dozen". The Maoist-dominated Labor Club was not the only left group at Monash. By 1968 there was also SDS, a New Left Club (which became close to the CPA) and a Pacifist Club that was heavily involved in the draft resistance movement. However, according to Perry, between 1969 and 1971 "The Labor Club executive, by taking the initiative on almost every occasion, monopolised attention and formed the nucleus of an activist group of between one and two hundred". By 1968 the club had over 300 members.

After the Labor Club’s decision to collect aid for the NLF, the right wing DLP Club, confident they had popular backing to condemn "treachery", organised the first ever general student meeting. But to the right wingers’ consternation the meeting of over a thousand voted to support the Labor Club’s right to collect aid for the NLF! Instead of the Labor Club’s stand isolating the left -- as moderates in the anti-war movement had argued -- it shifted the terrain of debate to the left. What had previously been considered "extreme" became mainstream. As Print put it, "people who were previously saying ‘well of course I don’t really agree with the war but we can’t pull out now’ are now saying ‘I’m opposed to the war but I couldn’t possibly support the NLF.’" The following year students in a number of cities held specifically pro-NLF demos. In 1970 a general meeting made collecting funds for the NLF official Monash Association of Students (MAS) policy and when the University regiment tried to recruit on campus, it was bodily removed by angry students and had its weapons confiscated.

There is a very important lesson here for revolutionaries. A militant minority by taking bold and decisive action and being prepared to risk isolation can sharply accelerate the pace of political development. Revolutionaries in the future will have to be prepared to take precisely these sorts of risks to advance the struggle. However this is not a timeless lesson. The revolutionary minority can only hope to have this impact when the pace of political developments is beginning to move in its favour. This was the case at Monash in 1967. In other, less favourable, circumstances such minority actions can backfire badly leaving the revolutionaries isolated and open to state repression. Even in a favourable political climate revolutionaries can take actions that are so out of step with the mass of their potential supporters, that they derail quite a promising campaign. This was to happen in subsequent years at Monash. So there is no general formula. Revolutionaries have to make a concrete assessment of the pace of political development and of the balance of class forces. Even then there are no guarantees. Politics is as much an art as a science. Revolutionaries have to learn from sometimes bitter experience to sense which way the wind is blowing and when to take a risk.

It was not just over Vietnam that Monash students were beginning to move into action. Indeed, the first large-scale direct action had nothing to do with the war. It was over library funding. In July 1966 there was an overnight sit-in in the library with the backing of staff, part of a nationwide protest. In May 1968 the admin’s attempt to introduce a new discipline statute to penalise students for off-campus activities, saw the first Monash mass meeting (2,000-strong) to vote for a sit-in of admin. The occupation tactic, made famous by the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, had jumped continents. Just as the strike has long been synonymous with working class struggle, the occupation became the hallmark of the student movement. Students did not invent the sit-in. It was made famous by a wave of factory occupations in the United States and France in the 1930s, and Italian workers in the revolutionary years immediately after World War I had occupied their factories in a direct challenge to capitalist rule. But in reviving a seemingly forgotten working class method of struggle, student activists raised their own movement to a new height and provided an inspiring example to a workers’ movement that was beginning to flex its muscles after long years of lassitude.

Occupations are crucial to student struggles. Quite small groups of workers, such as power workers, can bring the capitalist economy to a grinding halt by withdrawing their labour, but even if students struck for a year they would not directly hit the bosses’ profits. Because of this lack of economic power, students – if they are to win – have to be prepared to disrupt "business as usual" on campus. That means employing militant collective action, such as occupations, that create a political crisis for the university admin and/or in society more generally. A march of a few thousand students through the city, although an important component of any political campaign, does not have anywhere near the same impact as a mass occupation. It is not simply that large-scale occupations of key buildings such as admin or the library can disrupt the normal functioning of a university. Militant and determined actions like occupations can inspire large numbers of other students to get involved in the campaign and, by showing that students are serious about the issue, can win solidarity from workers both on and off campus. At the height of a struggle an occupation on one campus can inspire a wave of occupations on campus after campus and win important victories. Moreover, occupations are easier to sustain for a prolonged period than demos, student strikes, blockades or riots. The occupied buildings can become important organising centres that draw other students into activity. They can be centres for producing and distributing leaflets and other information about the campaign and for launching further occupations, demos and campus strikes. This was the pattern time and time again in the sixties and it is a pattern that was replicated numerous times over the decade of the 1990s.

But back to Monash. Disciplinary measures taken by the VC against three Labor Club members for collecting aid for the NLF provoked a cycle of protests and occupations. No other Australian campus had larger meetings than Monash; the largest in May 1969 saw 6,000 students (out of 9,500) vote to oppose the disciplinary statute. General meetings would often narrowly vote against occupations, but when militant students, led by the Labor Club, pushed ahead on their own, the mass of students would be drawn in to support them after the admin laid charges. A further occupation would result in more charges and the scenario would be re-enacted.

However, as I have mentioned previously, the tactic of a militant minority acting on their own as a catalyst has its dangers. The Maoists’ approach was on occasions wildly ultraleft, and this led to setbacks for the movement. At times they initiated actions without the support of MAS. This occurred during the three-day occupation in 1970 of the Careers and Appointments office by 50 Labor Club supporters, which only served to isolate them from the majority of students. Only the admin’s heavy-handed response – seven students were expelled – enabled the Club to regain support. Some of the anti-disciplinary campaigns drew in large numbers – the 1968 Campaign for University Freedom was the first campaign that could claim truly mass involvement. However, some of the subsequent disciplinary campaigns drew an enormous amount of energy away from campaigning on issues like conscription that were radicalising students. It was the Moratorium, draft resistance and later apartheid, not the endless cycle of disciplinary campaigns, which were decisive in drawing new students to radical politics. The Maoists could have made greater gains if they had concentrated on these issues rather than repeatedly being drawn into defensive struggles over discipline. Significantly the Maoists never made the draft resistance movement a major priority and did little to build the second Moratorium in September 1970 because of their focus on disciplinary penalties.

There were a series of other problems that limited the gains. One was an obsession by the Maoists and other sections of the movement with police violence and state repression. In the initial stages of the student revolt, the harsh police repression at the LBJ and Ky demos in Melbourne and during the right to march demos in Queensland played an important radicalising role. However the Maoists, and some anarchists, overstated the importance of state repression in maintaining the rule of capital and moved towards clandestine forms of organisation and semi-terrorist activities. They downplayed the important role of ideological factors and alienation in securing "consent" to capitalist domination. One result of this over-estimation of the role of violence was the development of a "hit on the head theory" of radicalisation. Having felt the "iron fist" of repression, "small-l" liberal students would supposedly come to understand the real nature of state power and draw the appropriate revolutionary conclusions. This was combined with a view that the forces of reaction were trapped in a no-win situation. Either they attempted to suppress protests, driving students into the hands of the radicals, or alternatively they did nothing and were exposed as "paper tigers". A La Trobe Maoist leaflet at the time claimed:

The state apparatus is in a dilemma. If they suppress demonstrations, then the Marxist analysis of the state is validated and mass support is gained or the alternative of non-interference in our demonstrations would mean the easy propagation of our ideas.

This crude theory of radicalisation was combined with an overblown political analysis that saw fascism as imminent: in 1971, the Monash Labor Club Newsletter proclaimed that "In Australia at the moment we are faced with fascist repression of progressive forces". In fact, the fascist forces active in Australia at the time were minuscule.

The process by which masses of students and workers move to the left is much more complicated than the crude caricature of Marxism implied by the "hit on the head" theory. State repression can just as easily intimidate and breed resignation as lead to revolutionary consciousness. Only from the confidence and sense of collective power gained by participation in victorious mass struggles can millions of workers and students potentially draw revolutionary conclusions. That potential can be fulfilled on two conditions: firstly, that there is such a severe crisis in the system that the ruling class is unable to offer enough concessions to contain discontent; and secondly, that there is a sizeable revolutionary party that offers a clear road forward.

During 1969 the struggle at Monash became increasingly defensive. The militants allowed themselves to be trapped in increasingly ritualistic confrontations in response to successive acts of repression by admin. "Through intransigence, backed up by press hysteria, the administration finally managed to isolate the Labor Club and decapitate its leadership". At the end of 1969 in a blatant case of victimisation, Albert Langer was refused enrolment in a postgraduate course, but the Labor Club was unable to mobilise to beat Langer’s victimisation. Monash was far from tamed – there were drawn out struggles over discipline in 1970, including a major occupation in September and a mass mobilisation in support of the first Moratorium – but it was no longer the storm centre of revolt. Moreover, in 1970 the far left split between the Maoists and Dave Nadel’s Independent Communist Caucus. By 1971 the influence of the Maoists had waned. Over the next few years a small Trotskyist current -- the Revolutionary Communist Club -- led by Nadel eclipsed the Maoists as the leading radical force at Monash. A key turning point was a 1973 public debate between the Maoists and the Revolutionary Communists (by now linked to the recently formed Socialist Workers Action Group) over the issue of nationalism. Most of the several hundred radicals that attended the debate backed the Revolutionary Communists’ internationalist position against the Maoists’ increasingly strident Australian nationalism.

In September 1974, the Assessment Action Group which had been initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Club, led the last major act of the Monash revolt -- its longest ever occupation. The eight-day occupation was the culmination of a long campaign around extremely radical demands, including the abolition of all competitive assessment, student-staff control of course content, and open admissions to allow the entry of working class students. The admin building was turned into an organising centre for building the assessment campaign. Indeed according to Tess Lee Ack, a Revolutionary Communist who was one of the leaders of the campaign, the occupation

developed an atmosphere of creative struggle lacking in the Monash campaigns of 1968-71. At that time the people who later formed the Revcoms criticised the then-leading Maoists for controlling campaigns rather than leading them -- a small group would use a larger group of students for confrontation scenes on liberal issues. The assessment struggle as led by the Revcoms was a very different affair…The occupation discussed every question of tactics and principle in detail, and the Revcoms had to fight for each position rather than making pronouncements `a la Langer. As a result, we experienced a much more united, much less alienated atmosphere, one in which valuable political discussion and democratic decision-making could take place.

For the first time admin called police to break an occupation after students forced entry into the council chambers. In the early hours of the morning of 26 September police dragged out the remaining 77 occupiers who were charged with "besetting a building". The VC, Louis Matheson, justified calling police because: "The patience of the administrative staff was wearing thin for they were tired of having their work impeded by a bunch of hippies, twanging guitars and playing their radios". A few hours later a general meeting of 1,800 voted for Matheson’s resignation and for a campus strike but put off a further occupation for three days. This allowed time for student bureaucrats to do a deal to have the charges dropped if there were no further occupations. While the occupation won few concrete reforms, it radicalised and inspired a layer of students and led to significant recruitment by the Socialist Workers Action Group.

Queensland Uni: where the radicals first established a mass base

While Monash became to be seen as the storm centre of revolt, a radical wave was also sweeping the University of Queensland (UQ). This campus had the most rapid growth of student numbers of any Australian campus in the fifties -- 80 per cent between 1953-59, compared to 45 per cent nationally -- and by the early sixties was experiencing considerable overcrowding. By 1971, with over 18,000 students it was the largest university in the country. Unlike the situation in Melbourne and Sydney, UQ did not have a strong left tradition, and consequently the radical students did not emerge primarily in the traditional Labor or ALP Clubs. Instead, they drew their initial inspiration from the US student revolt and from Catholic social activists in the Newman Society.

The early sixties saw the emergence of activism over a range of issues at UQ -- the introduction of a photo ID card, a boycott of buses over fare rises, protests over racist deportations, and in May 1965 a "protest squat" over Vietnam. The Student Union was very conservative, leading one early radical, Humphrey McQueen, to describe it as "enemy territory". But by 1967 the Student Union was under challenge from a new movement headed by Students for Democratic Action (SDA), named after the US Students for a Democratic Society. Under the leadership of Brian Laver, Dan O’Neill, Peter Wertheim and Mitch Thompson, SDA’s influence grew rapidly. During 1967 it established a mass base at UQ which was the first campus where radicals were able to mobilise a clear majority of students. Initially SDA focused on Vietnam but this spilled over into a civil liberties movement after the government used draconian police measures against protests. In October 1966, twenty-six people were arrested at an anti-Vietnam protest for marching without a police permit. A wave of illegal marches followed. In September 1967 police attacked a 3,500-5,000-strong march of students and staff that sat down in Roma St. In the course of making over a hundred arrests "they punched, kicked, cursed and threatened, and used every dirty trick forbidden by the Marquis de Queensberry Rules", according to the Brisbane Truth newspaper.

A series of forums on staff-student control culminated in June 1969 in the occupation of the Senate Room -- the first of a succession of assaults on admin. The new Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Alliance campaigned for discipline to be decided by mass student meetings, and students formed faculty action committees, broadly modelled on the French example. In June 1969 an "Erotica" display including "obscene" plays, a public smoking of marijuana, and the selling of alcohol to all students except those over 21 (the legal age in those days) caused a furore. 1969 was the high water mark for the movement for "student power" at UQ. The following year the focus returned to Vietnam with a series of militant protests. In September 1970, students invaded the University Regiment building, smashing furniture and throwing files out of windows. Two days later a riot greeted a visiting South Vietnamese diplomat. After an hour-long battle, police were virtually thrown off campus. Within weeks another militant protest greeted the visit of the Governor-General. The admin responded with court action and the suspensions of prominent radicals Mark Georgiou and Dick Shearman. In July 1971, the admin took out an injunction over an occupation of the Registry as part of the anti-Springbok strike. At the end of the month a further injunction prevented Mitch Thompson, whose activities were deemed "detrimental to the University’s welfare", from "entering the lands and buildings under the University’s control".

Sydney Uni: the next to move

Anti-war protest was slower to develop at Sydney University. Other than some small demos at the University Regiment building in 1966, the years prior to 1967 had seen militant action confined to the streets of the city. But there was growing discontent over course content and the paternalistic approach of the authorities. The first occupation, in April 1967, was over increased library fines. A postgraduate student, Max Humphreys, organised a sit-in by a small group of students in the library. In the recurring pattern on campus after campus, Humphreys was expelled. This unleashed a wave of anger and the first sizeable occupation, which forced admin to back down. The agitation soon broadened from the specific issue of library fines to demands for "student power". Moderates such as Michael Kirby and Jim Spigelman, who dominated the SRC, largely set the tone until late 1968. By then the influence of radical leaders was growing rapidly, and there were vigorous clashes with police. A humorous and (for the cops) highly embarrassing protest occurred in July 1968. Special branch Sergeant Longbottom was recording a Front Lawn meeting from a police Mini Minor parked in the university driveway. Students surrounded the Mini, let down the tyres, and carried police car and occupant out onto Parramatta Rd and dumped them.

The sharp shift to the left at Sydney was reflected in polls conducted by the SRC that showed support for the Vietnam War falling from 68 per cent in 1966 to 48 per cent in 1968, 41 per cent in 1969, 35 per cent in 1970. Support for the Liberals fell from 47 per cent in 1968 to 20 per cent in 1970. The Sydney left was significantly different from Monash or UQ. There was a long-standing, if small, Trotskyist presence in the Labor Club, and as early as 1966 (a year before Monash) the Labor Club began to collect medical aid for the NLF. After the ALP defeat in the 1966 elections, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) emerged from the Sydney University "Students for a Labor Victory" – which had been left without direction. Sydney SDS, which became by far the largest SDS group in the country, was an activist group, with diverse politics. It threw its energy into demos against the visit of Marshall Ky and into the formation of anti-conscription groups. The Labor Club, however, scorned SDS as reformist as it was much less critical of the ALP. Initially SDS distanced itself from the revolutionary wing of the student movement. Its more conservative stance was reflected in its emphasis on "peaceful protest" and its Secretary Mike Jones dissociated SDS from the July 1968 riot outside the US Consulate in Melbourne. However over the next couple of years many SDS activists were to move further to the left.

The high point of student protest at Sydney occurred in 1969-70, with major anti-war actions and the beginning of agitation for reform of the Economics faculty. In March 1970, several hundred students occupied the admin building over admin’s refusal to enrol a Macquarie student. In April 1970 there were over 100 arrests at a Vietnam demo in the city. A few days later vicious brawling broke out among 2,000 students when the State Governor, Sir Roden Cutler, an arch right winger, inspected a University Regiment honour guard. Protesters were kicked unconscious by right wing engineering students and DLPers. Speakers were pelted with rubbish and the Governor hit by well-aimed tomatoes thrown by a woman student. However "a sense of malaise and demoralisation…set in when students failed to answer the call for a boycott following the expulsions" of two students over the March occupation. But it was not all over yet. In 1971 there was an occupation demanding a more open admissions policy and major campaigns for a Marxism course in Philosophy and radical courses in Economics. Then in 1973, the dispute in Philosophy really erupted over the refusal to provide a subject on feminist theory. A three and a half-week strike by staff and students, which spread from Philosophy to other departments, was victorious. Radical students and staff won a separate Department of General Philosophy, which included courses in Marxism and was run on the basis of participatory democracy, with all students and staff having a vote at regular meetings.

The University of NSW (UNSW) was notably less radical than Sydney, partly because of a higher proportion of engineering and science students. However during 1971 and 72 the Chancellery was occupied in protest at the control over Warrane College by the ultra right wing Catholic Opus Dei organisation which banned women from college rooms and which was closely linked with the Franco regime in Spain. Perhaps the most bizarre feature of politics at UNSW was the employment by the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Phillip Baxter, of a wizard to help head-off discontent. The wizard, Ian Channell, with his band of bizarrely dressed helpers, initiated "the fun revolution" to trivialise protest and mock radicals for being "too serious". Subsequently Melbourne University also employed the wizard’s disruptive antics, but the Maoists ended "the fun revolution" with an old-fashioned bashing.

Adelaide: an early centre of the New Left

In 1968, the New Left took over the Adelaide ALP Club. Rob Durbridge was elected President with the backing of Peter O’Brien, who had previously headed the Young Liberals. O’Brien became the most flamboyant Adelaide radical and along with Durbridge and John Tapp formed the leadership of Students for Democratic Action (SDA), which with about 50 members was soon to be the dominant radical group on campus. SDA was formed to co-ordinate protests against the electoral gerrymander prevailing in South Australia, but it soon broadened its activism to include Vietnam. Initially SDA included Young Liberals and saw itself as promoting "a more liberal democratic society" and "participatory democracy in student affairs". By July 1970 a minority had broken away to form SDA (Marxist-Leninist) – soon to become the Adelaide Worker-Student Alliance (Maoist). Its broadsheet Clenched Fist argued:

The main difference between the New Left and ourselves is in our analysis of contemporary society. The New Left generally disregard the working class as a revolutionary force ... The Marxist-Leninists do not disregard the effects of capitalism (in breeding ideology etc) but see of supreme importance the economic base of society.

The remainder of SDA regrouped as the Adelaide Revolutionary Marxists, who, late in 1972, joined the Left Tendency of the CPA. The other centre of radical activity at Adelaide was the Abschol/Social Action office, which mobilised around Aboriginal rights. It set out to achieve "immediate amelioration, while at the same time challenging the assumption inherent in contemporary liberal (capitalist) democracy". By 1970 it too was taking an anti-imperialist line on Vietnam and evolving towards Marxism.

Melbourne Uni: initially bypassed

After being the centre of activism in the early sixties, Melbourne, which remained the establishment university, was largely bypassed when a more radical activism came on the scene. Indeed, Melbourne was one of the least tumultuous campuses in the late sixties, and it was not until the early seventies that it began to see serious militancy. It was not that there was no left at Melbourne. In October 1966, 500 students marched to oppose conscription. In 1967 the Labour Club, headed by Doug Kirsner and Bernie Grinberg, led opposition to the war and became the most important political club – its membership leaping to over 300. The Labour Club’s decision to send medical aid to the NLF provoked a furore and was condemned by the SRC, but students at a Union debate voted 576 to 121 to support the Labour Club’s democratic right to send aid. However the Labour Club became increasingly divided between those who emphasised direct action and those who preferred a Marxist discussion forum. The 4 July 1968 demo at the US Consulate crystallised the divisions, and in September a 150-strong Labor Club AGM debated whether to be a "predominantly activist or educative group". The subsequent split saw SDS emerge as a direct action-orientated group. Divisions along these lines plagued the student left in all states over the next few years. Very few groups were able to strike the right balance between theory and activism. While an emphasis on activism is eminently preferable to academic navel gazing, activism becomes purposeless and easily co-opted by the system if it is not guided by a clear anti-capitalist world view. Activists need to have a theoretical understanding of the role of the state, the family and the education system and of the nature of the Labor Party and the trade union bureaucracy and so on if they are to have any hope of developing a successful strategy for confronting the system.

Reflecting its ultra-activist bent, SDS was decentralised and politically diffuse. "The SDS style of action relied on moral conscience rather than book theory, and owed more to Gandhi, Thoreau and Bertrand Russell than to Marx". One of SDS’s first actions was to demonstrate outside the Russian Embassy in Canberra against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. A small Monash SDS also emerged in 1968, as well as a high school group. In 1969 a La Trobe group, headed by draft resister Ian MacDonald, quickly became a significant force. Its newssheet Wall described itself as "anarchist, revolutionary socialist, humanist, and pacifist". "It was indeed a confused mish-mash of individuals who basically wanted a separate organization to wage the anti-conscription campaign". SDS established groups on a series of campuses, but its key bases were Sydney, Melbourne, Flinders and Tasmania. SDS was central to winning support for turning Melbourne and La Trobe into sanctuaries for draft resisters. In December 1969 a combined SDS-Draft Resistance Conference initiated a "Don’t Register" campaign. One of their more inventive tactics was "Fill in a Falsie" where groups of students would falsely fill in hundreds of National Service registration forms. The idea was to make a mockery of the system and clog up the bureaucracy. Everyone from ageing rock stars, hated Liberal politicians, pet dogs, bishops, and elderly aunts duly received their call up notices.

In 1970, Melbourne University denied graduation to a student who had refused to make the usual undertaking to obey the University rules. A small group of students responded with the first attempt to break into admin. The subsequent refusal to enrol Monash’s Albert Langer proved more explosive. In June 1970, SDS leaders Harry Van Moorst and Ian McIvor led an occupation of a Professorial Board meeting at Monash. More protests followed at a disciplinary hearing arising from that action. In October, University Councillors had to force their way through a picket line to attend a meeting. The battle developed into a bitterly fought campaign to reform admission regulations. In May 1971 a 1000-strong SGM voted for a "lock-in" and marched to admin where barricades and slabs of concrete were used to blockade the building. Senior staff who tried to escape via the fire exit were driven back by fire hoses. The unrest led to the admin setting up a University Assembly supposedly to give students and staff more say. Despite a lot of hot air about a new era of student involvement, the Assembly predictably proved to be just another attempt to co-opt student radicalism and had little influence over the direction of the university. Nineteen seventy-two saw a marked decline in activism at Melbourne.

The next phase: the La Trobe Revolution

The La Trobe SRC handbook proclaimed 1970 "Year One of the La Trobe Revolution". La Trobe University in Melbourne's northern suburbs only opened in 1967 but by 1970 it had taken over Monash’s mantle as the radical Melbourne campus. It was to have one of the most sustained student movements with militant activism being maintained well after the movement had declined in the rest of Australia. The admin responded with repression. In 1971, more than a score of students were excluded and/or fined and in 1972 three leading activists were jailed indefinitely. La Trobe, like Monash, was an isolated suburban campus. Rawness and isolation seem to have fuelled radicalism – Flinders in Adelaide was another new, outer suburban campus to become a radical centre. The isolation helped make the left, which offered an active, committed alternative to campus dullness, more attractive. The SRC had no great authority and left wing clubs took the lead.

La Trobe was set up on the Oxbridge-model -- there was no central Union building, and all students, residential and non-residential, were assigned a college. In the first year Glenn College members had to dine once a week in full academic dress. The college system was designed to fragment students. The Bulletin declared: "Right from the start attempts were made to avoid the kind of things that went wrong at Monash; it is designed on a college system, to split it up". Far from undermining radicalism, the college system itself became a source of unrest. A left culture tentatively emerged in the first year, with radicals having their own table in Glenn Caf.

If you wanted to make an announcement to the largest numbers ... then you did so in the Caf at lunchtime. Leaflets were also distributed, with the advantage that authors ... would be available for abuse or discussions ... It was not surprising, then, that the first militant protest activity occurred, in June 1969, in the Caf.

A mass boycott organised by the Labor Club over the quality of food helped force the multinational Nationwide Food off campus. Students had their first taste of collective power. But it had been the move in May 1968 to amend the National Service Act to force admins to spy on students that provided the impetus to transform the moderate Democratic Socialist Club into a Labor Club on Monash lines. At the ASLF conference in Canberra that May, La Trobe activists formed close ties with the Monash Labor Club, particularly during an anti-conscription protest outside the Prime Minister’s Lodge. SDS sought to avoid confrontation by sitting in the PM’s driveway, whereas the Monash militants led their supporters onto the highway, resulting in 69 arrests. Many radicals began to regard non-violent civil disobedience as futile. The 4 July demo in 1968 -- the first really violent anti-war demonstration -- brought Monash and La Trobe radicals even closer, the Labor Club’s Red Moat declaring: "There now exists a state of war between students and the State". The emergence of this militant tendency accelerated the radicalisation of La Trobe.

In the aftermath of 4 July, there was a referendum, which resulted in a tied vote, on whether the SRC should financially support the 14 La Trobe students arrested. The debate politicised the campus and solidified the Labor Club’s ranks. The club evolved into two factions -- a small Maoist group and a larger New Left group. In 1969, the Labor Club recruited a large number of new students --up to one hundred crammed its weekly meetings --and developed a core of reasonably experienced leaders. There was still a considerable overlap between the New Left group, the Maoists and SDS and the Labor Club remained the centre of activism. By 1970, the left was well-cohered and Labor Club membership increased to 150 -- eight per cent of the student body. June 1970 saw the first occupation after seven students were suspended after a demo forced Defence recruiters off campus. The left bypassed the SRC and called a general meeting that marched to admin. A follow-up meeting was attended by more than half the student population -- 1,400 students. The scale of the mobilisation forced the VC to lift the suspensions. But it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle: "a student movement had been unleashed which challenged not only the discipline statute but the very role of the University". The flowering of activism was reflected in a plethora of left wing broadsheets including Red Moat -- Maoists, Enrages -- Labor Club, Black Barb -- SDS, Red Ned -- SDS (Anarcho-Marxist), Libertarian Revolution -Anarchists, Red Atom -- Science Study Group.

Until September 1970, the Maoist faction in the Labor Club was "small and uninfluential as a separate group". The New Left group was dominant. The "battle of Waterdale Road" changed all that. In the lead-up to the second Moratorium, the Maoists pushed for an "Anti-Imperialist Week", which included a march to nearby factories to take the anti-war message to workers. The New Left attempted to undermine the march by showing an anti-war film at the same time. This kept the numbers down to only seventy. The marchers had only gone a block or two when police with batons drove them back onto campus. There was outrage and 400 students and staff joined a follow-up march. The response was even more brutal. Armed police pursued students onto campus and drew their guns, threatening to shoot those who ran away. At least one student was arrested at gunpoint. The cop in charge, Inspector Platfuss, declared: "They got some baton today and they’ll get a lot more in the future". But the students’ militant and determined stance paid off. As was becoming increasingly common, it drew in working class support. A third march of 800, with builders’ laborers, wharfies and plumbers joining students, defiantly headed down Waterdale Rd. The police held back from the level of violence used previously and failed in an attempt to push the march off the road. The "battle of Waterdale Road" became a cause celebre and gave the Maoists considerable prestige. They rapidly took over from the New Left as the dominant left current. By the end of 1970, according to one of their leaders, Barry York, the Maoists had 200 reliable followers. This is probably an overestimate of the number of hard-core Maoist activists. Nevertheless it is almost certainly the case that the far left proportionately had its largest following at La Trobe.

The impact of the revolutionaries

The success of revolutionary socialists at La Trobe poses a very important question: how was it possible for such a relatively small number of activists (on most campuses at best two or three per cent of students) to have such a decisive impact – to set the political tone on campus after campus? Admins and the right wing press and politicians trotted out banal Communist conspiracy theories to "explain" how a handful of agitators disrupted the campuses despite the hostility or apathy of the overwhelming majority of "good" students. This conveniently ignored the fact that when "the silent majority" did come to student general meetings they were much more likely to be sympathetic to the radicals than to the right. Moreover it totally fails to explain why the radicals were so much more successful in their "disruptive" activities in the late sixties than a decade earlier. For a complex series of reasons, which I have elaborated previously, the political climate in society had changed massively over that decade, most markedly on the campuses with their social and political hothouse atmospheres. Without that broader change -- that mass radicalisation -- the revolutionaries would have had little impact.

This does not mean that the activities of the revolutionaries were irrelevant. Far from it. By relating creatively to the shifting political mood, even a small minority of socialists could play a decisive role in deepening the process of radicalisation and initiating major actions. American Marxist and Berkeley veteran, Hal Draper, has helped to explain the complex relationship between activists and the mass student population. Around the small percentage of students who joined a revolutionary group there were concentric rings of influence, embracing different portions of the student body as different forms of commitment were demanded. For every student who joined a revolutionary group there were perhaps two who agreed in the main with what the revolutionaries were trying to do, but who did not join, for lack of time or whatever reason. There was another circle of students who were ready to support most of the campaigns the radicals organised, such as the defence of students victimised by admin. Even outside the widest of these concentric circles, if we consider the students who never participated in any radical activity at all, it would be wrong to suppose that most of them were hostile to the radicals and just waiting to be mobilised by the right wing. The general social disillusionment with "the system" in the late sixties and early seventies influenced many of them, if only because it put them on the defensive before the self-confident revolutionaries. It deprived them of that capacity to feel that "all radicals must be crazy" which is characteristic of a social system sure of itself. The large majority of students devoted themselves to studying and pursuing their personal lives just as if there were no student movement, but even while doing so they could but absorb some of the climate of ideas which pervaded the political life of campus. This climate was set by the small vanguard of revolutionaries, through all of the concentric circles Draper described. This helps explain why large numbers of people who went through university in this period and never participated in any radical activity could still feel part of the "sixties generation". It was hard to escape the impact. The picture, then, is far more complex than a small minority of revolutionaries versus the overwhelming majority of "apathetic" students, and it was through this complexity that the organised revolutionaries made themselves felt as a relatively small vanguard which, on a number of occasions, could move much larger masses into motion.

But back to La Trobe. In 1971 the Maoists launched a campaign to force the resignation of the Chancellor Sir Archibald Glenn, managing director of the giant multinational ICI, which manufactured munitions for the Vietnam War and had arms factories in apartheid South Africa. Glenn symbolised the university’s subservience to capitalism, imperialism and war. In April more than 1,000 students voted unanimously for Glenn’s resignation and condemned the exclusions policy that kept out students victimised on other campuses. In July the Maoists led 200 students in a blockade of a University Council meeting. There were clashes when right wing councillors tried to force their way out. For the first time police were called onto a Victorian campus to deal with student protest. Many on the left saw the blockade as an adventurist act by the Maoists, and it was only the expulsion of eight students that galvanised support. So the relationship between the lead given by a small group of radicals and what larger numbers would do could be complex and required a keen sense of what was possible if the radicals weren’t to be isolated.

More students were disciplined after a string of follow-up occupations and demos, including one that tore down the heavy-gauge wire gratings fitted to admin to prevent occupations. In the middle of it all Glenn resigned, giving the students a partial victory. Early in 1972 general meetings called on the SRC to pay the fines of the disciplined students and to continue to recognise expelled student Brian Pola as SRC President. Admin hit back with a court injunction to block the payment. This fired up the defence campaign and a Term One Committee was formed that attracted 100-300 students to its almost daily meetings. In March 1972, in "proportionately, the largest expression of support for militant action on an Australian campus" more than 700 students voted for an indefinite occupation. The VC responded with injunctions banning leading activists from campus. This led to the indefinite jailing of three students – Fergus Robinson, Barry York (both Maoists) and SRC President Pola. More occupations and protests followed. Eventually an amnesty was granted and after months in jail the three activists were released in August 1972. It was a victory. But the gruelling struggle had worn down many activists, and the amnesty marked the end of the "La Trobe revolution". Nevertheless the far left remained strong at La Trobe well into the mid-70s.

1970: Maoism II at Flinders

As activism receded on some of the more established universities, the struggle flared on some newer, smaller campuses such as Flinders, which had opened in 1966 with just 400 students. Isolated in Adelaide’s outer suburbs, Flinders was a 9-5 commuter university with a young student population. However students and staff soon began to play a leading role in the anti-war movement. The Labor Club became the most active political group. "At Flinders open day in 1969 the most common question asked by school children was about ‘demos’". That year there was an important struggle for democratic control of the Union after the admin-appointed head opposed setting up a sanctuary for draft resisters. To try to co-opt demands for democratisation, the admin set up consultative committees in a number of courses. But students were denied a vote and radicals dismissed them as "a farce designed to ‘keep the students happy’ without conceding a thing".

Like Monash and La Trobe, Flinders became a centre of Maoist strength -- partly due to the influence of former Monash activists like Geoff Gold who moved to Flinders in 1970. That same year Philosophy Professor Brian Medlin, a leader of the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam, was won to Maoism. He was joined by three of his four Philosophy colleagues. Together they instituted courses in Marxism-Leninism I and Marxism-Leninism II and Applied Philosophy: Vietnam, Imperialism and the Nature of Man. Group assessment was introduced – essays were assessed by the tutorial group – "to encourage co-operative, self-managed education, without the exercise of ‘authoritarian’ power by academics". By 1973 Philosophy had become a participatory democracy of students and staff, as did Visual Arts the following year.

Assessment became a major issue. In 1974, the demand to abolish the three-hour exam in first year History sparked a month-long and extremely controversial occupation. A general meeting in July called for methods of assessment to be decided by "all people involved in that course". Students then occupied the Social Sciences staff common room. The next day they seized the Registry. The occupiers, under Maoist leadership, announced that they would open Vice-Chancellor Roger Russell’s filing cabinets, one every hour, until History agreed to discuss the question of compulsory exams. The issues widened to "the whole nature of the university", the funding of academic research and the role of US imperialism in Australian universities. The occupiers found damning evidence in the VC’s files. Russell, an American, had carried out research for the US military, worked as a consultant for the National Security Agency, was furthering links between the Pentagon and Australian universities, and was possibly engaged in biological and chemical warfare research. It was but an extreme example of the integration of the universities into the capitalist war machine -- an issue that was to spark unrest on campuses all around the world.

The occupation won considerable support interstate, and there was a wave of occupations at Macquarie, Monash and the ANU. Police broke these occupations, but at Flinders, although the admin took out an injunction to suppress the embarrassing material in the VC’s files, it held back from unleashing a police assault, fearing it would provoke further unrest. Unfortunately for the occupiers the struggle broke out at the end of term, and for most of the campaign students were on vacation. A minority of academics was sympathetic to the students, but most academic and admin staff were hostile. In the last week of the vacation, staff members broke into the Registry, dismantled the barricades and evicted the fifty remaining occupiers. The admin then used security guards and police to "defend" the building. On the first day of the new term, Flinders’ largest-ever general meeting (a third of all students) endorsed the occupation’s aims. A meeting the next day called on Russell "to immediately publish a detailed, documented reply to the issues raised". Russell refused to discuss the issues but instead launched a campaign to victimise the activists -- one student was expelled and four were suspended. This, together with the defeat of the occupation, led to considerable demoralisation at Flinders and a sharp decline in activism. The following generation of student leaders were little more than sucks for the admin.

Macquarie: late out of the blocks

Macquarie’s first major flare-up came late in the cycle of rebellion, when in July 1974 over 100 students occupied the VC’s office. Provisions were hoisted up to the occupiers by a rope through the VC’s window. A follow-up occupation used a service tunnel to gain access to the guarded Council building and a large group of students forced the doors and broke into the VC’s office. The VC called the cops and 51 occupiers were arrested. Three days later, after another mass meeting, there were scuffles with police guarding the Council building as students launched another well-organised occupation. "The front doors of the building were forced and the glass doors at Mitchell’s [the VC] level broken, Mitchell and his colleagues were imprisoned in his room, but on this occasion, after the reading of the Summary Offences Act, the occupiers withdrew". Staff and students then attempted to turn classes on 13/14 August into teach-ins on the issues -- the partitioning of the Union bar to segregate students from staff, the refusal of the VC to raise the activities fee to fund new student office bearers, and admin-imposed changes to the Union’s constitution. The issues were not "profound", but they were potent symbols of student assertiveness against a paternalistic admin. The final act came on 14 August. With term fast drawing to a close another lunch time meeting voted to occupy:

at 2 o’clock a bolt-cutter went through a glass panel in the Council building doors and the last desperate occupation began. At 4 o’clock a remnant of 28 blocking the stairs was arrested.

The students won a degree of support from staff. The Staff Association voted 78 to 57 to deplore the use of police on campus, though it also regretted "the action of some students in disrupting university activities". More substantial support came from the BLF, which banned construction of the partition in the bar.

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