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Issue #1464      21 July 2010

Book Review: Peter Mac

Radical Sydney

by Terry Irving & Rowan Cahill

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill’s recent book Radical Sydney deals with the political parties and individuals who have taken part in radical social movements since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

A striking aspect of the book’s study of early Sydney is the far-sightedness of those who formed the associations that predated today’s unions and political parties. These included the Mutual Protection Association, which in the 1830s demanded self-government for NSW, universal suffrage, secret ballot voting, equal electoral districts (in terms of population), and no property qualifications for MPs.

The book also describes the appalling difficulties under which working people lived in early Sydney. The authors note: “Most (workers) could not vote because they paid less than 20 pounds a year in rent, and they could not stand for election because a member (of the Legislative Council) had to own 2,000 pounds of freehold property. A lucky tradesman in the (1842) depression might earn 100 pound a year; a bush worker might earn 12 pounds a year plus rations, say 50 pounds a year – the rations ... were of the poorest quality and the pay was often in the form of an ‘order’ which had to be cashed at a city bank or merchant’s office, and even then might be dishonoured.

“… In Australia during the 1850s skilled workers in Sydney and Melbourne generally worked a 58-hour week: 10 hours per day Monday to Friday and 8 hours on Saturday. For other workers it was longer; shop assistants … worked 12 -14 hours per day … in 1876 the NSW Coal Mines Act was passed to limit the working week for boys aged 13-18 to 50.5 hours and to ban the employment of girls or boys under the age of 13 in mines”.

The book describes the end of convict transportation, the discovery of gold (which brought thousands of new workers to Australia), and the 1890s depression. It deals with the influence of the early radical bookshops, the growth of Australian nationalism in the arts and literature, the campaigns for women’s rights, the early radical and union newspapers and the growth of anti-war organisations such as the Quakers.

War and depression

The authors discuss the WWI internment of political prisoners, including members of the Industrial Workers of the World, press censorship, the interception of mail, restrictions on public speaking, the 1917 soldiers’ mutiny, and opposition to conscription.

The 1917 Russian Revolution and the formation of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920 are also examined. During the 1920s and 1930s hundreds of unemployed workers slept in Sydney’s Hyde Park, left-wingers struggled for influence in the unions and the State Labor Council, pitched battles were fought to prevent the eviction of destitute families, Egon Kisch jumped ship to warn Australians about fascism. and the fascist New Guard was formed.

The New Guard was organised and bankrolled by Major-General Sir Charles Rosenthal (the model for DH Lawrence’s character in “Kangaroo”), as well as stevedoring tycoon Captain James Patrick and retailer Mark Foy.

The book contradicts the New Guard’s widespread image as eccentric but essentially harmless, exposing it as a vicious paramilitary organisation with 40,000 members, including a force of 10,000 “shock troops”, and top-level political and judicial connections. It describes the organisation’s plans to kidnap union and political leaders during the 1929 seamens’ strike and later to establish martial law in Sydney, in the event of serious civil or industrial disturbances.

Prior to WW2 Sydney business leaders developed plans with the Japanese for a post war government of Australia. Irving and Cahill note that charges of treason against them were dropped in 1946, with the onset of the cold war and moves by the US to forge a political alliance with Japan. The names of the collaborators were included in The Petrov commission’s “Document J”, which was not released to the public until 1984.

The book also deals with the struggle of Aboriginal people for recognition of their rights and cultural identity, a struggle that has endured to the present day. In the 19th century it drew its inspiration in part from the struggles of black people in the US, and was assisted and encouraged by sections of the union movement and the Communist Party. As the authors note it also received wonderful support from the US boxer Jack Johnson, who visited Sydney in 1907 and from US singer Paul Robeson in the 1960s.

The book also contains a vivid description of the post-war cultural activities of the Waterside Workers Union, which supported the production of Joris Ivens’ anti-colonial film Indonesia Calling, and which organised art classes and the production of films, paintings and banners. It also describes the history of the New Theatre, the student anti-war movement, the 1950s red scare, the Vietnam War anti-conscription struggle, the quest for national Australian culture, and the green bans.

Important messages

Implicit in Radical Sydney are a number of very important messages. The first is that the political and civil rights that Australian working people currently enjoy were not granted as a matter of fine principle by the political establishment, but were only gained after years of bitter struggle by unions and progressive organisations, in the teeth of opposition from conservative politicians and business leaders. Many objectives, for example the right of women to equal pay, and land rights for Aboriginal people, are still being pursued.

Another message is that the sort of organisations the book discusses must spell out their own history. Historical studies are always controversial, and some CPA members, for example, will probably wish to take issue over the authors’ description and interpretation of events, and with the role of individuals associated with the Communist Party.

Irving and Cahill’s book is certainly deficient in its treatment of the CPA because it fails to deal with the break-up of the former CPA, and its 1971 ideological reincarnation as the Socialist Party of Australia (which retook the name of the CPA several years after the original party was finally wound up in the 1980s).

On the other hand it would be entirely unreasonable to expect the authors of Radical Sydney to depict the history of the CPA. The primary responsibility for that task lies with the Party itself.

To read, or not to read

Radical Sydney is certainly not without fault. It largely ignores the impact of events and movements elsewhere in Australia. Its facile comment about the post-war challenging of “ancient shibboleths about class politics” is a grating contradiction of the book’s description of working class struggle in previous periods. Radical Sydney is strongest in its treatment of Sydney’s pre-war history, but weakest regarding the recent past.

The book’s extensive scope precludes examination of historical events in great detail, which would require a work of encyclopaedic proportions. It succeeds as an overview of the struggle of various left-wing and progressive organisations and individuals in Sydney from the early colonial period – but only up to a point.

That point is the 1988 Australian bicentennial, the last major event dealt with in the book. But that was 22 years ago! The book fails to deal with the radicalising effect of subsequent events, including the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the climate change crisis.

It also acknowledges the Vietnam draft dodgers struggle, but overlooks the Vietnam Moratorium movement, which had a profound effect in raising public political consciousness in opposition to that war. The book also suffers from a lack of notes to the text. The inclusion of a bibliography for each chapter is welcome but inadequate as a source of reference.

Despite these shortcomings Radical Sydney is a very important work. It’s well worth reading and is recommended.

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney, University of NSW Press, 2010.  

Next article – There is no revolution without solidarity – Venezuela and the struggle for sovereignty

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