Beverly Symons and Rowan Cahill (eds), A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement 1965-1975

Jeff Shaw

Beverly Symons and Rowan Cahill (eds), A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement 1965-1975, Sydney Branch, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Sydney, 2005. pp. x + 94.

This collection of reflective yarns from a decade of political radicalism and turmoil emerged from a conference organised by the publishing Society which is dedicated to studying and debating labour history issues. The Society often produces material that is more colourful and polemic than that found in conventional books and journals. This volume of conference papers falls into that category.

The starting and finishing years are necessarily arbitrary, beginning with the 1965 commitment by the Menzies government of a battalion of Australian troops to the controversial war in Vietnam (the genesis of so much social conflict) and 1975, the year of the demise of the Whitlam government‘s bold experiment in social democratic reformism. But whatever precise dates are selected, readers will readily recognise what Greg Patmore calls the ‘spirit’ reflected in these pages: refutation by the course of events that ideology was dead, that class conflict and opposition to discrimination were outmoded, that the notion that students and workers would or could rebel against the powerful State apparatus and the prevailing conservative ethos, that a New Left could evolve rejecting Stalinist tyranny (whilst, it must be said, being led astray by the cult of personality surrounding other Third World leaders).

The apotheosis of the era was 1968: anti war sentiment explodes and becomes a mass movement, students cause a near revolution in the streets of Paris with repercussive impact throughout the world, Eugene McCarthy defeats L.B. Johnson in the New Hampshire Democrat primaries, and, to complicate matters, Soviet tanks roll into Prague to crush socialism ‘with a human face’.

Neither the authors nor the editors are constrained by the dead hand of ‘anonymous referees’. The result is an unabashedly diverse, robust, anecdotal and subjective collection of reflections.

It is impossible in this review to do justice to the many contributors. A few examples must suffice.

Jack Cambourn succinctly describes trade union involvement in the anti war movement. Anthony Ashbolt, in a scholarly piece, remembers history as ‘an act of passion, not of nostalgia’, drawing together the values of the student and New Left movements. The personal journey to leftist politics is well described by, amongst others, Rowan Cahill, John Percy, Wendy Bacon and Hall Greenland. (This review is struggling to contain a bias towards events on the Sydney University campus). Women‘s liberation and agitation focussed on aboriginal land and civil rights are well covered, as is the anti apartheid movement, especially by Meredith Burgmann. Jack Mundey demonstrates the breadth of support for the ‘green ban’ movement, with its continued legacy of a preserved Kelly‘s Bush and the Rocks, while Tom McDonald deals with more traditional industrial conflict including a description of the deft use of both strike and arbitral techniques in securing accident pay in the building industry. Graham Freudenberg explodes the myth that Vietnam was central to the Whitlam-Cairns conflict and as one who worked assiduously for decades to make the Labor Party ‘electable’ and in the mainstream, salutes the protestors and dissenters.

In summary, this readable volume should be studied by those who lived through these times, those who have forgotten them, and those who have only the benefit of parental memories.

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