Global Radicals: The Transnational Imagination of Australian Sixties Activists

Third World Bookshop. ©Russ Grayson, pacific-edge.info
Third World Bookshop. ©Russ Grayson, pacific-edge.info

Jon Piccini
University of Queensland
Follow on Twitter @JonPiccini

Ever since 2009, when the so called ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran mobilised disenchantment over rigged electoral processes via social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, pundits have marveled at the ‘hashtag revolutionaries’ of the 21st century. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall have come to define movements for African American dignity and the decolonisation of higher education, while the media have awarded popular ‘tweeters’ such as Deray Mckesson spokesperson positions in these otherwise leaderless movements.

However, some dispute the level to which these websites and social media celebrities were central to protest organisation, and broader questions of temporality are equally posed. The marvelling in Twitter’s spontaneous and instantaneous communication leaves little allowance for previous forms of transnational communication that, while perhaps not as quick or easily mediatised, created global movements long before the internet.

My book, Transnational Protest, Australia and the 1960s, published by Palgrave MacMillan shines a light on the processes of global political engagement that made the 1960s a transnational decade. It explores how Australian activists sought out, engaged with, experienced, and translated global ideas – from anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam to the Black Power movement in America and student-worker politics in France.

Encountering

While contemporary activists can encounter global movements via Facebook statuses or reading manifestos on WordPress or Tumblr, Australian activists of the 1960s relied on a slower road. Television provided an entry point. Introduced to Australia in 1956, during the 1960s some 90% of Australian households owned one. This allowed for footage of events like the 10 million strong student-worker strike in May ‘68 in Paris, black power protests in the USA and – of course – shocks like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, to be beamed into the lounge rooms of young radicals. Wire services, in turn, allowed for Australian newspapers to quickly report on global events; one activist I spoke with remembered running to the corner store every morning to find out the latest on the strike wave in Paris.

Reading material was not limited to widely denigrated ‘bourgeois’ newspapers. Radical books – despite Australia’s antiquated censorship regime – were widely available and consumed by activists. Old networks associated with various Communist Parties provided literature published by the Vietnamese and other national liberation struggles, while the newest works of New Left thought – from Marcuse to Fanon, Mao and Hoffman – alongside radical newspapers like the American SDS’s National Guardian and the UK’s Red Mole were quickly imported. French activist Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution, a 1967 work celebrating Che Guevara’s notion of ‘Foco’ struggles in Latin America, reached the Australian city of Brisbane in early 1968. It inspired local activists to set up a radical nightspot called ‘Foco Club’, which its founder described as “our… guerrilla encampment against bourgeois culture”. An amalgam of radical politics with popular music, independent film, poetry and dramatic performance, one visitor remarked that “there is nowhere else quite like it in Australia”.

A party at Third World Bookshop. ©Russ Grayson, pacific-edge.info
A party at Third World Bookshop. ©Russ Grayson, pacific-edge.info

Scholars Kristin Ross, Belinda Davis and Joshua Clark Davis describe the importance of these spaces – bookshops, discos, illicit bars and ‘head’ shops – to the flowering of dissent during the ‘long 1960s’. Bookshops in particular provided an important destination, with spaces like the Red and Black in Brisbane, Third World in Sydney and Alice’s Restaurant/Bookshop (where you could get ‘anything you wanted’) in Melbourne stocked the latest radical publications, accessories like Viet Cong badges and countercultural items such as incense, as well as providing meeting places for activists to discuss the matters of the day or hold wild parties.

Experiencing

Yet, for many, encounters on the bookshelf or via the media were not enough. They needed to experience the overseas revolution first hand. And they were assisted by what Agnieszka Sobocinska describes as ‘the combination of a stable domestic economy and increasingly affordable transport’, that meant “even young people could afford an overseas trip”, often via air. (Rates of overseas travel by Australians increased 4 fold during the 1960s.) The ‘Hippie Trail’, an overland circuit between Australia and London, taking in Afghanistan, India and Turkey amongst other destinations, proved popular with the counterculture crowd.

For others more political destinations awaited. Melbourne activist Michael Hyde travelled to Cambodia and China in January 1968, where he experienced the thrill of the Cultural Revolution and was able to donate money to the Viet Cong, breaking Australian law in the process. This displayed not only Australian activists’ interest in Asia as a radical destination, but also some of the political utility of travel – in this case protesting injustice. Gwen Sullivan, another traveller to China, this time in 1970, expressed a different desire: to ‘gain genuine knowledge and experience of how the Chinese people live and work armed with Mao Tse Tung thought’.

Such ‘genuine’ or authentic experiences – not those mediated by the local media or sympathetic books and pamphlets – were viewed as one key outcome of travel. Australian Indigenous activists, travelling to Atlanta, USA in 1970 to attend a Black Power conference, extolled the benefits of forging international connections for the localised struggle. Patsy Kruger remembers how attending the conference transformed her into a ‘sister in the struggle for the liberation of black people wherever they are’.

The arrival of overseas radicals in Australia had its own benefits. Enforcing a series of internationally condemned restrictions known as the White Australia Policy, Australia had stringent border controls and an active secret police force, which attempted to deny visas to overseas radicals wanting to visit. However, many found their way to Australia in any case. Trotskyist activist Dennis Freney described such arrivals as ‘proven newsmakers’, garnering significant media attention to causes that otherwise would not have gained as much public traction.

Brown visit. Image courtesy of Gary Foley, www.kooriweb.org
Burmudan black power activist Roosevelt Brown in Melbourne, 1969. Image courtesy of Gary Foley, http://www.kooriweb.org

The arrival of Bermudan black power activist Roosevelt Brown to Melbourne in 1969 was one example. He held meetings with Indigenous activists on the benefits of all-indigenous organisation and created a media circus, with daily newspapers editorialising ‘Black Power not wanted’ and Victoria’s minister for Aborigines, Irish-Australian Ray Meagher, adding that ‘I think I speak for Victoria’s aboriginals when I say we are happy to forget Mr Brown.’ Meagher must then have been surprised by the upsurge of Black Power activism Brown’s visit engendered.

Image courtesy of Gary Foley, www.kooriweb.org
Image courtesy of Gary Foley, http://www.kooriweb.org

Translating

The joy and adventure of experiencing global revolution – in Paris, China, the USA – was one thing. But a returning radical ‘pilgrim’ had one last difficult task to perform – making what they had seen overseas relatable in a new context. In this way, not a lot has changed since the 1960s. Activists of today, no matter how quickly they can digitally connect with co-thinkers around the globe, need to carefully consider how a global repertoire of ideas will look on the streets of their local city.

Australian travellers to the Black Power conference in the USA, for one thing, returned with mixed emotions. Some recalled making valuable connections and being convinced of the power of international black activism. Others bemoaned this toolkit’s lack of relevance to Australia. Solomon Bellear concluded that ‘the thing is that blacks in Australia…can’t equate the problems of this country, the problems of class struggle, the problems of racism in this country with problems in any other part of the world’. Instead, the task was ‘getting blacks just to know about each other, in such a vast country as this’.

The barrier of translation was only one of the difficulties that were encountered. Arnold Zable, a student at the University of Melbourne, travelled to South Vietnam in 1970, returning to write a series of articles in widely read student newspapers. Reporting in ‘new journalism’ style of his encounters with US soldiers, South Vietnamese protestors and the ever present noise of B-52 strikes, Zable was trying to use his experiences to convince any remaining fence-sitters to join major anti-war mobilisations planned for May of that year. The authenticity of his experience was, however, critiqued by other recent travellers to Indo China of a conservative political bent, who claimed that Zable had neither stayed long enough, spoken to enough people, nor been dispassionate enough in his reasoning to be trustworthy. This debate on the authenticity of travel experience saw both sides trying to establish their own credibility by attacking the other’s experience as mere ‘tourism’ rather than politically engaged or enlightened travel.

Popular narratives of globalisation tend to suggest a connected and globally integrated present against a past mired in isolation. Global Radicals provides a more nuanced understanding of how historical actors thought and moved globally at a time when the mechanisms of contemporary globalisation were just grinding into motion.

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