The Spooks and the First Sydney Branch: Labour History in the 1960s

Terry Irving

 The existing Sydney branch of our Society began in the 1980s, but there was an earlier branch in the 1960s. I know about it because I attended its meetings fairly regularly, I became its secretary in 1967, and I have researched ASIO’s 1964 attempt to disrupt it. I wrote about this spoiling operation in Hummer in 2003, and I have reprinted it in my latest book with Rowan Cahill, The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History.1 ASIO’s intrusion failed, but five years later the branch disappeared. Why? That’s the question that needs to be answered, but first some basic facts about the activities of the branch, drawing on information in the ASIO file on the Society, my own ASIO file, and the reports in the journal, Labour History, on branch activities. 

Bede Nairn was the driving force behind the formation of the Sydney branch. According to a report in the federal Society’s ASIO file, as a result of Nairn’s promotion of the Society at meetings of the Labor Party and trade unions, ‘it would be no exaggeration to say that the size of the membership of the Society in NSW [is] attributed to his enthusiasm.’2 There were also well-known Communists attending the early meetings in 1963. We know this because an ASIO agent, Jack Clowes, attended four meetings that year and wrote a 3-page report of who attended, noting their political affiliations: six from the ALP, and three from the Communist Party, namely Jack Blake, Roger Coates and Len Fox. ASIO agent Clowes noted that I was present, but not that I was also a member of the CPA.3

A word here about Jack Clowes. I described his role working for the anti-Communist, Catholic Right forces in the NSW Labor Council in my 2003 article in Hummer. At that time, I was relying on accounts of his activities by Labor luminaries – Bob Carr, John Ducker and Barry Unsworth. I had to infer that he was an ASIO agent, because the copy I had of the report on the Sydney branch had the author’s name blacked out. But when his report reached ASIO headquarters one of its officers discovered I had an ASIO file as a Communist and put a copy of the Clowes report in my file. Since then, I have retrieved my ASIO file and discovered that the signature on this copy has not been blacked out. Hey presto, there it was: ‘J.W. Clowes, S.S.O., B1.’

ASIO had been paranoid about Communist dominance of the ASSLH since its inception the year before. It read the early issues of the Society’s Bulletin (the precursor to Labour History) and decided that the Society was ‘subject to significant CPA influence’ and that its publications could ‘provide a forum for CPA apologists and propagandists in the historical sphere.’ It obtained a list of the 180 or so members, probably from the national Secretary, Bruce Shields, checked the list against its own files, then retyped the list adding information about ALP or CPA membership against each person’s name. 

Clowes reported that he had a source – a leading member of the Society – who was ‘alert to the dangers of CPA infiltration’ of the Society. This is a reference to either Bede Nairn, or the ex-Communist journalist, Fred Wells, who was by that time an ASIO informant, but of the two, only Bede Nairn could be described as a leading member of the Society. He became a Vice-President in 1964, and President in 1970. Bede was a Catholic. Did he know that he was being milked by ASIO? Given the intensity of left versus right fighting in the labour movement at that time, and the not too subtle activities of ASIO in support of the Catholic Right, it is very likely that he did. 

But ASIO’s most valuable infiltration of the Society occurred in Canberra. As I described in my 2003 article, early in 1964 Bruce Shields became convinced that the Communists were taking over the Society. His grounds for this belief are too ridiculous to repeat here, but for Shields the critical event was the election of Jim Hagan – a member of the ALP – to the position of second Vice President, thus positioning him as the likely editor of Labour History. Well, I did say the Communist plot idea was ridiculous. In ASIO’s eyes, however, this change was momentous. Until that moment, Shields had been able to make editorial decisions. ASIO was alarmed. According to ASIO’s Deputy Director in NSW, ‘Shields had successfully managed to keep Communist propaganda articles out of the Society’s publication. There is now no such safeguard …’. 

As explained in my Hummer article, Eric Fry prevented the collapse of the Society. He re-assured Sam Merrifield in Melbourne and Bede Nairn in Sydney that there was no Communist plot. At a Sydney meeting his arguments neutralised Clowes and Fred Wells. The outcome of that meeting was enshrined in a subsequent federal Executive declaration of political neutrality: ‘No group or individual of whatever political persuasion should attempt to use the society in any way or to dominate it; no personal or political differences from outside should be brought into the work of the Society. It is a meeting place in which persons of many different views come together for a particular purpose.’4 Having digested this outcome, ASIO decided they were wasting resources on the Society, and Shields resigned from the Executive. The Society entered a period of spectacular growth. A decade later there were over a thousand members. 

Through all this the Sydney branch hardly missed a beat. There were five meetings in each of the years 1963 and 1964; four meetings in each of 1965 and 1966. Then the decline began: 2 meetings in 1967 and only one in 1968. In the background changes in the leadership of the branch were occurring. Bede Nairn departed for Canberra in late 1964, and Fred Wells resigned as secretary when he became industrial roundsman for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1965. He continued his role as an ASIO informant and in return ASIO helped him become an authority, at least in the capitalist press, on Communist organisation and strategy. For the next two years the leading office bearers were Bill Ford, Jack Meredith, and until he too went to Canberra, Bruce Mitchell. Attendance at our meetings was disappointing. In 1967, Ken Macnab was President, and I was secretary, a division of duties that continued in 1968. 

While Bob Gollan in the first issue of Labour History might have defined labour history, quoting Asa Briggs, as “a study of the working-class situation … and class relations’, in the Sydney branch at least political history still dominated our thinking. As the table of branch meetings shows, only Edgar Waters strayed into culture, and only Rupert Lockwood brought the imperial relationship into the working-class situation.5 This was the Old Stone Age moment in the branch’s history.6 

Sydney Branch, 1963-68: Table of Meetings

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Sources: ‘Society News’ in issues of Labour History; ASIO files referred to in endnotes 2 and 3.

After 1968 there were no further meetings in Sydney for the next 14 years. At the Society’s 1972 Annual Meeting, the lack of a Sydney branch was discussed, but although the meeting appointed convenors to revive the branch, nothing happened.7

So why did the Sydney branch disappear in 1968? Firstly, there’s my role – or lack of it. My recollection is that in mid-1968 I informed the President that I was resigning as secretary because of my other responsibilities. As one of the founders of the Free University in Sydney I was heavily involved in the unpredictable affairs of a collectively run organisation. And there were personal reasons. In 1968 I took up my first tenured academic position in a subject that I had never formally studied. After my resignation none of the other officers made any effort to continue the branch.

Secondly, broader political and intellectual changes were happening, changes that in retrospect help to explain the demise of the first Sydney branch. One very revealing fact suggests why we must look for these changes. Under the heading, ‘Society News’, almost every issue of the journal Labour History in the 1960s mentioned the branches (at that time there were three: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.) But after issue 15 in November 1968, news of the branches disappears from the journal. In fact, from reading the 20 issues appearing from 1969 to 1979, one might imagine that the Society no longer functioned as a membership organisation. There was no heading ‘Society News’ in issues 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35. That takes us up to 1979. Let me just sum that up: during the 1960s, in the first 15 issues of the journal, the activities of the Society and its branches were a matter of concern to the leading labour historians editing the journal in Canberra, but in the 1970s, they were not. 

The absence of Society news in the journal during the 1970s was a sign of the professionalisation of the labour history community. The journal had to expand its number of pages to accommodate both a wider horizon in relation to scholarly book reviewing and a flood of writings produced by younger academics. On four occasions their articles were collected thematically as ‘special issues’ of the journal (on the 1930s economic depression; on strikes; on women; and on racism). The editors of the special issues were representative of this new generation of academic historians. They had weak attachments to the ‘old left’ or the institutions of the labour movement. They were, however, energetic, careerist, and intellectually impressive. They were excited by certain newly-resurrected radical perspectives in the humanities and social sciences – conflict, oppression, deprivation, ideology – rather than the need to nurture and develop the tradition of historical awareness found in the labour movement. They found that the branches did not easily fit into their historical practice. 

Then there was generational change at the top. Although, in Canberra, Eric Fry, Bob Gollan, Bede Nairn, Daphne Gollan, and Bruce McFarlane – each of whom had a history in the old left – were still active in the Society, they were sharing their involvement with scholars from different political traditions: John Molony, John Ritchie, Bob Cooksey, Brian Kennedy, and Bruce Mitchell. Somehow, in this generational change, the role of the branches was neglected.

Meanwhile, the left lost the capacity to offer a compelling alternative narrative for history work. From the early 1900s to the 1950s intellectuals in labour institutions had created an historical tradition that was class-focussed, radical-democratic, and anti-imperialist.8 Underlying it was a working-class with authoritarian politics, whether reformist or revolutionary; a working class with concentrated strength in a few industries protected by tariffs and labour law; and a class trapped and mired in a culture that was nationalist and masculinist. Then, in the 1970s slowly developing changes came to a head – in the composition of the working class, in the structure of the economy, and in political culture – and Australia entered a new period in which it was exposed to the crises of world capitalism and world communism. There were new social actors – young people, women, first nations peoples, and gays and lesbians – with a politics stressing difference and recognition.  The old left was unable to assimilate their movements to the culture of social justice and solidarity in the old labour movement. In the Sydney branch, the doyens of Sydney’s Communist intellectual life – people such as Rupert Lockwood, Len Fox, Jack Blake, Edgar Ross and Roger Coates – stopped attending. These changes had affected me, too; I severed my connection with the CPA in 1964.

I guess, in conclusion, what I am suggesting is that the first Sydney branch was lost through no fault of its own. It was a victim of ASIO interference at the national Executive level. It suffered because of the more general neglect of the branches as the labour history community was professionalised and a new generation of career-focussed labour historians rose to dominate the field. And lastly, radical historians were unable to prevent the branch’s demise because they were demoralised intellectually as well as politically. They watched, bewildered and astonished, as idealism roared back into historical studies, rudely challenging the principles of left-wing materialist historical practice. But the cultural turn of post-modernity was a bendy weed. In time, radical historians learnt how to give the mental world of discourse and signs the backbone it needed, by prioritising the material practices of the identity groups that culturalism thoughtfully differentiated for us. It is how people live and act that counts in history.9


 Terry Irving, ‘ASIO and the Labour History Society: An Incident in 1964’, in Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving, The Barber Who Read History: Essays in Radical History, St Peters (Sydney), Bull Ant Press, 2021, chapter 5, pp. 49-58.

2 National Archives of Australia: ASIO A6122 Subject files -1979- Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Vol 1 (1962-1968).

3 NAA: ASIO A6119 Personal files, 509: Irving, Terence Hamilton.

4 This is an extract from the Executive Report of the ASSLH for June 1964, which appears in ASIO’s file (see note 2 above) on the federal society.

5 Another activity of the Sydney branch was a recorded interview with Guido Baracci at his home in Castlecrag. Roger Coates organised it in 1966 or 7, and I was one of a small group that attended. I wonder what has happened to that tape.

6 R. A. Gollan, ‘Labour History’, Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, no. 1, January 1962, pp. 3-5. This important statement is also online at

7 ‘General Meeting of the ASSLH’ (August 1972), Labour History, no. 23, November 1972, p. 82.

8 Terry Irving, ‘Rediscovering Radical History’, in Cahill and Irving, The Barber Who Read History, chapter 6, pp. 59-72.

9 I have criticised the cultural turn in ‘History and the Working Class Now: The Collective Impulse, Tumult, and Democracy’, Journal of Working-Class Studies, Vol. 2 (1), 2017, pp 105-115.