Speech to launch Mike Hyde’s All along the Watchtower
(Vulgar Books) 
Melbourne Trades Hall
19 November, 2010.

I’m glad most of you are sitting down. Since Fidel stepped aside I have commissioned him to write my speeches.

This time last year I gave the after-dinner address to the annual conference of the judges of the Supreme Court of Victoria at one of the twelve golf courses on the Mornington Peninsula. I was seated beside the Chief Justice. ‘I’ve heard you speak before?’, she said by way of a conversation opener. She had been at a meeting of the Australian Independence Movement in the late 1970s. Was she on the long march through the institutions?, I mused. When Jim Bacon promised to make me governor of Tasmania. I agreed on the condition that, like Kim Il Sung, I was appointed governor for all eternity. Jim died before making the announcement.

Reading Mike’s Watchtower brought back how I remember him at Monash. His personal warmth in organising, always generous to others and curious why they held differing opinions. He never demeaned his opponents on the Left, but tried to learn from them and from his own mis-steps, as he has in penning his memoir.

Male student rebels were ridiculed for acting out oedipal impulses. That was certainly not so for Mike who had a close relationship with his father, a minister of religion. Nor was it true for many of the Sixties radicals I knew. Rather than rejecting their parents’ values, they took the middle-class precept of service for others and put it into practice in different contexts and for other aims.

I won’t say more about Mike’s book. He will soon speak for himself and his book speaks for itself.

However, we can compare its tone with that of the film, Made in Dagenham. Both show that struggle is essential. The women in the car plant were helped to lift their wage rates because their determination was part of the rebalancing of the relative strengths of the contending classes across the world. The flood tide then ran in favour of our class. Its ebbing is the big difference between the 1960s and the recent past.

Mike consulted the files that ASIO kept on him to jog his memory and to see what the enemy had been up to. I have never thought to consulting my files because I don’t want to deduce who betrayed me. How can it help us personally or politically to uncover that some we loved had dobbed us in?

When we look into the files kept about us, we get access to information about other people, details that had been gathered by illegal phone taps. They were a violation of our privacy. Those infringements are now being repeated by academics chasing advancement. We must never retreat from the demand of the Committee to Abolish Political Police: all security files must be destroyed.

ASIO no longer needs spies in gatherings such as this. Facebook and U-tube do their work for them. Mike tells how he would enter Ted Hill’s office via the backstairs.  We were taught never to talk on the phone. We were sent to watch the 1974 movie The Conversation. Any activist with a mobile is a fake revolutionary. Anyone carrying a geo-positioning device is a counter-revolutionary. Email is a quick way of getting information around. But we still need to meet and act together. The revolution will not be twitted.

Bob Gould is fixated on his glory days in the 1960s and paid to have thousands of pages of his files photocopied. One morning I found him sitting at an outside café on King Street going through a meter-high stack of them.

‘Listen to this!’, he chuckled. ‘Here’s one from an ASIO plant at an anti-war meeting who began his report: “I had no idea what they were talking about”.’ Bob found this confession hugely entertaining. I had to point out that the ASIO spy had not been alone in not knowing what we were talking about: ‘Neither did we!’ It is time for us to move beyond the Returned Students League and to make a class analysis of that turmoil.

The student movement had rolled forward from opposing White Australia and supporting Aborigines in 1961 before getting swept up in the anti-conscription and anti-war movement. Those issues opened to anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. From 1969, there was women’s liberation and then Camp Inc. At the same time, activists jumped from cleaning up pollution to conserving the natural and built environments. We absorbed all of the new demands under the slogan ‘It’s Right to rebel’. Some hoped to integrate practice and theory with dashes of Gramsci and splashes of Althusser.

Given the torrent of demands, it was inevitable that we misjudged the dynamics of ’68. Yes, there was generational change but the youth revolt provided shock troops for a move away from domination by our grandfathers. In the US, Kennedy replaced Eisenhower. The WWII ex-servicemen pushed aside the WWI diggers who clung to high office. Essington Lewis was in the saddle at BHP until he died aged 80 in 1961; Owen Dixon stood aside as Chief Justice in 1964, aged 78; Archibishop Mannix died in office in 1963 just before he turned 100; Menzies retired at 71 in 1966 and the 70-year-old Calwell had his Last Hurray as Labor leader later that year. The paleo-laborites were replaced by Whitlam and Cairns, born during the first world war, and by the technocratic laborism of Hawke and Dunstan, born around 1930.

This generational renovation of capitalism was epitomised in the shift from IBM mainframes to Apple laptops by the early 1980s. One of the few contemporaneous attempts to make sense of this transformation was the Arena thesis which hoped that the technologically trained would resist the old systems of command in the work-place and open paths to a self-managed socialism.

These considerations lead us to ask whose revolution was it anyway. ‘Revolution’ became a marketers’ slogan for Revlon red lipstick. But the Madmen had been there since the 1950s as Thomas Frank documents in The conquest of cool (1997) Madison Avenue’s promotion of men’s fashions was amazing because it got men to show an interest in what we wore. Mass marketing contributed to resistance to conscription because teenagers had been indoctrinated to look forward to Carnaby Street, not body bags.

As well as pondering what had been the needs of capital, we should attempt a class analysis of university intakes. Apart from the radical post-1945 ex-servicemen, undergraduates were notorious as scabs and strike breakers. During the 1960s, the achievements of the organised labour combined with the needs of capital for technically-trained employees saw entry by more of the off-spring of white-collar families and some children of the working class, often by scholarships to become teachers, what Paddy McGuinness later mocked as the BA Dip Ed class.

The changes in composition differed by campuses. Melbourne was and is more upper-middle class. Monash was lower-middle class and La Trobe was not only more working class but also more often the offspring of first-generation migrants, which was true also at Flinders. Hence, it is not surprising that those two campuses were the seed-beds for the Worker-Student Alliance.

Another aspect to ponder is the place in our thinking occupied by the economy, then and now. The 1960s were the peak of the post-war boom. We assumed – ‘thought’ would be too flattering – that we could put politics and the counter-culture in command. Economics were boring. We were wrong about that too. Indeed, 1967 saw the collapse of the dollar standard in an attempt by Washington to unload the cost of its war against the Indo-Chinese. The post-war boom was downhill from then on.

Since the first oil price shock of 1974, economic matters have never been out of our minds as workers coped with a tariff regime that was being freed up to benefit global capital. Nonetheless, the boom between 1993 and 2008 left many around the Left unable to believe that the 2008 collapse is more than another blip in the business cycle. The Left had again lost track of Marx’s critique of political economy. Anyway, what was the point in investigating capitalism given its restoration in China and the Soviet Bloc?

What is to be done? Capital reading groups have sprung up. Marx remains the essential starting place for understanding what is happening. Read Marx for the profit motive and the class struggle. Read Mike’s Watchtower for pleasure and for inspiration, as with Made in Dagenham. As we turn the pages, we can’t afford to forget that while the Left has all the best books, the Right retains state power. To redress that bias we must do things about which people will write and write things which people can do. Mike continues to do both.

To launch a book is a collective effort. Here we give three cheers for Ian Syson at Vulgar Books. My words are but bubbles across the Watchtower’’s bow. Now it is up to all of us to keep it afloat. It is a great gift for the summer solstice. Slip into your municipal libraries and get them to order copies.