Looking back, communists and people near them have a wonderful record, and it was good to work among people and to feel the upsurge of movement, not only among -the people in the Party, but among the people outside, that you had in the 1930s in the Movement Against War and Fascism, in the movement to help Abyssinia, even more in the movement to help Spain. It was tremendously inspiring to listen to nurses and International Brigaders who had served in Spain, and to catch something of the self-sacrificing spirit of the movement to save Spain from Fascism. It was good to take part in the movement to help China against Japan, and, in the course of doing this, to help overcome the anti-Chinese tendencies in the Australian tradition.
On the evening of 29th November last, some 25 members and friends of the Sydney Branch had the pleasure of hearing an address on the above theme by the highly respected author and Left activist, Mr Len Fox.
Len’s wife, the playwrite Mona Brand, also attended, and following Len’s address both joined in amiable conversation with the audience on a wide range of issues of contemporary and historical interest to all involved in the Australian labour movement.
Mona delighted many of those present with her reminiscences of the early days of the New Theatre (still going strong in Newtown, of course) and with her thoughts on the various campaigns begun in the 1950s for the assertion of an Australian cultural tradition.
Len’s address ranged widely over his experiences in the Left since the days of the Movement Against War and Fascism in the 1930s. Taking up many of the themes raised in his latest published work, Broad Left, Narrow Left, Len proceeded to develop a detailed argument about the historical (and often personal) contradiction between institutional narrowness and breadth of democratic socialist vision within Australian socialism over the past 50 years.
With great understanding and insight, Len worked his way through what he feels to have been the primary sources of narrowness within the Australian Left since the ’30s. He spoke of the C.P.A.’s refusal to associate with progressive forces within the A.L.P. and with the broad platform of the labour movement prior to the United Front era. The United Front strategy was ushered in 1935 following Dimitrov’s famous address to the Communist International. It was at this time that Len joined the C.P.A. Pinpointing a further form of narrowness, Len noted the Left’s questionable attempts to apply in one country lessons learnt under quite different circumstances in other countries without making due allowance for local conditions and traditions. Perhaps youth and inexperience may have had something to do with this, le said. Moreover, arrogance had encouraged narrowness, particularly in the late ’40s. At the time of the ’49 coal strike, for example many in the Party seemed to believe that power came from the Party itself, rather than from the people. Bureaucracy and dogmatism, Len argued, had also taken their toll. In the ’50s, many with humanist and democratic socialist views had been ostracised and isolated. Len recalled the absurd narrow-mindedness associated with the Stalinist ostracism of so-called “Right-wing deviationists” after the 1956 Hungarian invasion. He remembered one particular occasion on which the writers Stephen Murray-Smith and David Martin had been in the firing line.
As a counterpoint to this, Len spoke at length about the broader socialist tradition in Australia: “If the narrow side of socialism was able to get on top in the last 50 years, then it didn’t have it all its own way. There were tremendous broad human victories, and there were tremendous people.” In the ’30s, he said, the Movement Against War and Fascism was a source of great strength and inspiration. In the ’40s, there was the sense of solidarity and purpose generated by the struggle against fascism and by the hope for a new post-war era of social justice. But it was in the ’50s, when Cold War One and the American cultural invasion were at their height, that the broad democratic socialist tradition really blossomed, with the arousal of a new Australian cultural sentiment. Len painted a stirring image of the enormous vitality and optimism associated with the various Left cultural movements of the time. There was the Left literary journal Overland and the Australasian Book Society. There was the New Theatre and its spectacularly successful production Reedy River. There were the film unit and theatre group set up by the waterside Workers’ Federation under Jim Healy. These broad humanist endeavours, said Len, were taken up by the New Left in the late ’60s and ’70s and focussed on the peace, anti-nuclear and environmental movements, and on the movement for Australian independence. The major well spring of this vigorous and broadly-based progressive tradition, Len proposed, has been the courage and energy of ordinary Australians; women such as Mary Gilmore, and men like George Ramsay, the South Coast coal miner whose remarkable story is told in Len’s latest book
Len prefaced his address by comparing his own oratorical skills unfavourably with those of the renowned Domain orators Moran and Lockwood. He also recalled several meetings (including one poorly attended Party meeting which dissolved into a particularly costly game of cards) after which he had vowed never again to grace any gathering with either his presence or his point of view. Len may still be a pushover at “500”, but he is without doubt a most stimulating and entertaining speaker. Happily, numerous sales of Broad Left, Narrow Left meant that the evening proved profitable not only for the audience, but for Len as well.
A cassette recording of the talk is available for the use of Branch members and friends. Copies of Broad Left, Narrow Left ($10.00, postage incl.) can be obtained by writing to Len Fox at 10 Little Surrey St., Potts Point, N.S.W., 2011.