Alan Roberts 1925-2017: A revolutionary ecologist

A version of this obituary for Alan Roberts who died aged 92 in December is scheduled to appear later this month in the Age. A commemoration of his life will be held on Saturday February 3rd at a venue to be determined. A speech for his 90th birthday is found here.

Theoretical physicist, Marxist, and dog lover, Alan Roberts also has as good as claim as anyone to being remembered as Australia’s first ecologist.

While teaching physics at Monash University in the 1970s, Alan produced a whole series of provocative ecological essays, most within a social framework. They were collected and published in London in 1979. In the following decades, utilising his scientific training and love of mathematics, he became an international authority on the mathematical modelling of ecological dilemmas and their possible solutions.

Alan, who died December 12, was born into a single-parent family in Brisbane in1925. His father had died of his war wounds two months before he was born and Alan, his mother and his older sister survived the Great Depression on a meagre war widow’s pension. Despite his brilliance at school, Alan left at 15 to work in factories.

At 19, in the final year of the Second World War, he joined the air force. It was a turning point, although not in the usual way. In the library on the troopship bound for Borneo he found and read George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, and disembarked a convert to socialism.

Back in Australia after the war, he joined the Communist Party and was a ‘good comrade’ until the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising turned him into a dissident. The party expelled him in 1958, charging him with being a ‘Trotskyite factionalist’ (his faction numbered three, he later admitted, one of whom was a spy for the local politburo).

Alan speaking at a Hiroshima commemoration at Monash university in 1974

After the war he took advantage of the Commonwealth government’s offer of free university places for returned servicemen. Alan had always been interested in science, although it initially took the form of writing science fiction. In the 1940s he had dozens of sci-fi short stories printed in newspapers and pulp magazines.

He flourished at university, earning a masters in physics in 1955 at Sydney. The flamboyant American-born head of the science faculty there, Professor Harry Messel, promptly offered him a job. However, it was the height of the Cold War and Messel soon received a visit from ASIO, who advised him to cancel the job offer. As Alan told it, Messel refused and showed the agents the door. No one was going to tell this academic boss whom he could and could not employ. Jealous protection of professorial privileges trumped so-called national security.

Alan, like many of his scientific colleagues, was soon campaigning against the Bomb. He was one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Australia and, an articulate and well-informed speaker, spoke frequently from a ban-the-bomb platform in Sydney’s Domain.

In the 1950s and ’60s most of his scientific colleagues combined their opposition to nuclear weapons with support for nuclear power – the so-called ‘peaceful atom’. Nuclear power advocates promised electricity so cheap it would not be worth metering.

For Alan this was dangerous techno-utopian boosterism. For the next 50 years he wrote scores of articles and made dozens of speeches exposing the dangerous pretensions of nuclear power. He was still writing about Fukushima, for instance, until a few years ago.

Alan, second from the right, marches in Sydney against uranium mining in 1979. Tom Uren and Cliff Dolan (ACTU president) are to his left.

In 1966 he left the University of Sydney for Monash, where he taught until retirement in 1992. Monash in the 1960s was a centre of militant Maoism but Alan was having none of it. He had in fact visited Peking in 1966 in the first year of the Cultural Revolution and returned to write a report in the socialist magazine Outlook characterising the turbulence as basically a violent factional power play by Mao and his allies.

By now Alan was beginning to develop an interest in the new environmental writing coming out of the United States from authors such as Murray Bookchin, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Theodore Roszak and Paul Erhlich.

In a decade roughly spanning the 1970s, Alan wrote a series of articles developing an original view of the sources of the unfolding ecological crisis. These essays were collected in The Self-managing Environment, published in London in 1979.

While his approach was basically Marxist, there was nothing orthodox about it. He cited Hegel and Marcuse as often as Marx. The essays ranged from refuting the idea that technological fixes can solve our ecological problems, to discussing the anti-ecological nature of the nuclear family. The collection also included an outstanding analysis of the meaning of the ‘green bans’ imposed by the legendary NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation.

But what strikes the reader from the very opening page is that Alan was not just a deep thinker but also an entertaining writer. Here, his opening salvo against those who blamed over-population for ecological crises: “The breathtaking arrogance of this analysis deserves some admiration; it is no petty task its disciples undertook, trying to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of the readers themselves.

“It was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced their alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’, he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”

His own central argument was that to concentrate on production as the source of our ecological ills, as many Marxists do, was too one-sided. Yes, capitalist production was concerned with profit regardless of environmental costs, but the other end of the equation was the consumer mindset. The system could only survive if people were prepared to go on buying more stuff, and it seemed they were, even if that meant they had to keep working long hours, instead of getting by with fewer commodities in exchange for more free time.

Alan saw that addiction to consumerism as a response to the alienation and powerlessness people felt, in the workplace and beyond. It acted as a powerful compensation. The remedy, he argued, lay in genuine democracy at work and in all social activity or, if you like, in ‘self-managed ecosocialism’.

It wasn’t just talk for Alan. He himself was a living, breathing anti-consumerist. His kitchen furniture consisted of rescued office chairs on castors and a pre-retro laminex table. His wardrobe was a few well-worn items from a previous decade and in utilitarian shades of navy and brown. If we all hanker after the style of another decade, Alan’s was the 1940s, even if his final car was a 1970s Corolla. Part of his anti-materialism was the abstemiousness of a Depression kid, and part was the absent-minded professor, who was given to eccentric habits like drinking whole pints of cream straight.

While he lived the life of the mind, he was not at all boringly high-minded. Far from it. He was witty and a good mimic. He could recite, line by line, scenes from classic 1930s movies and sing all the best songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or Tom Lehrer. He would work these into his lectures and was immensely popular with students.

Alan and Sophie in Paris in 1971

He never had children but he took pleasure in the company of intelligent women over his long life, and in later years, in the companionship of his various dogs, whose genius and wisdom he would discourse on unbidden and at length. He was also a committed tennis player, proud of his competition trophies, well into his 80s.

Alan’s reliable good humour was challenged in the last year of his life by failing eyesight and losing the ability to read, his increasing deafness and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He had smoked from age 12 till he was 85. Even when his last days were wracked by severe coughing fits, he could joke about its relationship to cigarette smoking. ‘Who knew?’ he would ask straight-faced.

He is survived by a niece, Tina McKenna, his best friend and companion for 50 years Sophie Bibrowska, and – he would insist on this – his dog Billy. A memorial meeting marking his life will be held on Saturday February 3rd.



First thoughts on a preselection

What to make of the Greens NSW preselection result which delivered a 60-40 win for Mehreen Faruqi against Lee Rhiannon?

To close observers it was not a surprise. In the two preselections last year in the Greens NSW, what we might call the Brown Greens pipped the left or red Greens on both occasions. Mehreen Faruqi, as well as being favoured by this more moderate bloc, brought with her (as a ‘progressive’) a section of those who voted for the red Greens in last year’s ballots. It was always going to be a winning combination.

It was a true test of members’ views. Some 64 per cent of eligible members (or 2,152 of 3,310) voted in the online ballot, both the biggest percentage and largest number ever.

Lee Rhiannon did not expect to win. After all, the past and present leaders of the Australian Greens – crucially Bob Brown – had made it clear they wanted her gone. She had little or no support from current Greens MPs. And she had been characterised in the media as troublesome and divisive. In addition, she had been an MP for the past 18 years. These added up to a terrific handicap she wasn’t able to overcome, despite strong support from predominantly younger members.

Their support rested on the fact that she was clearly the candidate most committed to a member-driven party, to support for extra-parliamentarism and left policy positions. This had been exhibited in her controversial support for members, unions and policy when other federal MPs were inclined to do a deal with the Turnbull government over Gonski and the privileging of non-government schools.

It appears, however, that the result did not boil down to political positions. All the candidates supported leftish policies. Telling was the distribution of the votes for Abigail Boyd who most observers would put closest to Lee on policy: of her 281 votes when preferences were distributed, 201 went to Mehreen and just 80 to Lee. There was clearly something else operating here.

The central impetus does appear to have been a preference for a fresh candidate promising unity with the federal Party Room and not burdened with the fatwa from Bob Brown.

Lee and RDN

This result will be seen as a victory for the current MPs and the party’s present establishment – and their political strategy. This has been enunciated by the federal parliamentary leader as ‘mainstream progressive’. On the horizon of this approach is coalition governments – even apparently with the Liberals.

It is a strategy that will win some inner-city seats and is a repetition of the approach of European Green parties. It is not one that promises any more success than the limited and uneven success of the European colleagues. In the recent German elections, the German Greens, the oldest of the Green parties, received about 8 per cent of the vote.

Nor is this strategy of the ambition that is required in our present dire planetary and social circumstances. No one has that requisite strategy at this moment. Clearly. But it will require not more MPs, but mass extra-parliamentary movements of active citizens challenging the socio-economic system that threatens the biosphere and generates the social inequality that stunts human possibilities and democratic life.

Lee Rhiannon and her supporters understood this. This defeat is a setback. However, the debate they have initiated inside the Greens is a huge victory. We haven’t heard the end of it.

(6pm, 25 November 2017)

We need to talk about Labor

Corbynism (in suitably diluted form) has arrived even in the NSW branch of the Labor Party – long the bastion of the pragmatic and neoliberal right wing of that party. Our Blairites, if you will. If you are in any doubt about their disreputable antecedents, note they conferred life membership on Graham ‘Whatever it takes’ Richardson at the weekend.

But at that same annual conference held over the weekend, the delegates applauded Bill Shorten’s promise to end tax loopholes for Trusts as part of his ‘war’ on inequality. They also unanimously voted to limit rent increases to the rise in the cost of living index and to abolish no-grounds evictions. When it came to climate change and renewable energy, they endorsed the creation of a super public enterprise – the Renewable Energy Futures Corporation – to build and operate renewable energy projects and upgrade the grid. Even on Palestine they shifted to the left.

Each of these policy initiatives can be critiqued on the grounds that they don’t go far enough (why not 100 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 rather than 50 per cent? Why not give the recognise-Palestine policy teeth?) and that these policies are examples of the rank opportunism of Labor in opposition.

The first charge is certainly true but it cannot cancel out the fact that there has been a shift towards the required policy stance. These Labor policies are far from perfect but they are less imperfect than what preceded them. They are a shift in the direction of some version of left Keynesianism or left social democracy.

It is worth noting that Labor’s renters rights policy is nearly identical to the Greens’. As far as renewables are concerned, Labor has actually stolen an advance on the Greens. Our policy is in general favorable to public enterprise in building towards 100 per cent renewable electricity – see the general commitments at points 31 and 34 in our energy policy – but lacks Labor’s specificity. It is true that our policy was framed in an earlier pre-Corbyn era but we have been caught rather flat-footed. I can recall raising with John Kaye the need to push public enterprise as an essential part of our response to the climate emergency and John readily agreed, but added that the problem would be getting the party, even in NSW, to agree to foreground such a policy.

That was 2014. Times have now changed and at least two Greens NSW MPs have recently talked of nationalisation in the energy field but these are thought bubbles at present rather than policy.

As for that second charge of opportunism, certainly true, however it is significant that the opportunism involves a shift to the left. This branch of the Labor party is notorious for its electoral opportunism. The fact that it sees its prospects best served by this shift to the left is what is important. Nor should we ignore the fact that many of the policies adopted are sincerely supported by the more left-wing members.

This shift to the left throws into relief the opposite shift of the leadership of the Australian Greens towards a pragmatic centrism. Talk about misreading the portents of our times – social democracy everywhere shifts to the left and the Australian Greens parliamentary leadership decides to go in the opposite direction.

Fortunately this shift has not been entirely unambiguous. Certainly the RDN and Bob Brown attacks on Senator Lee Rhiannon and the Greens NSW and the invitation to Left Renewal to leave the party are signs of entrenching the centrist shift. But earlier in the year, in his address to the National Press Club, the AG parliamentary leader Senator Richard Di Natale tried out what we might call some Corbyn-lite ideas – lifting restrictions on unions, tackling growing inequality, curbing tax loopholes particularly in housing, founding a people’s bank and reducing the working week to four days or 32 hours. However, rather than pursue and develop such ideas, the emphasis has been on curbing any radical elements in the Greens and endangering our alliance with public school teachers in a desperate search to be pragmatic and ‘relevant’  to the conservative federal government.

It now seems that the Australian Greens are being upstaged by a leftward swinging Labor. This is, of course, what has happened elsewhere in English-speaking countries. It appears to be happening in Germany too as the Social Democrats shuffle leftwards. Elsewhere – France and Spain, for instance – the Greens have been overtaken by the radical left.

There does not appear to be any easy solution to this phenomenon although shifting to the right can definitely be ruled out as a solution. And any leftward shift on the part of the Greens that does not keep the ecological crisis at the centre of our orientation would be extremely short-sighted not to mention unacceptable – although we do need to be saying that capitalism is a danger to the conditions of the good life for humanity on this planet.

For the medium to longer term, a principled orientation around an activist extraparliamentarianism and carrying popular causes into parliament, plus a commitment to cooperative, democratic, decentralised, ecological socialism, appears to me to be a more useful orientation. It could help in pulling the whole political conversation to the left and help confirm Labor in its comparatively ‘moderate’ leftwards change of course. As well, it would act as the catalyst to the political reawakening and shift to a critical, active citizenship that is so important to our future and which we can now see emerging.



The crisis inherent in capitalism – can it last forever and what could transitions look like?

Talk delivered to ‘Our Pillars and [anti]Capitalism’ – a conference organised by the NSW Young Greens and the Greens Political Education Trust, March 11, 2017

The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum
a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Antonio Gramsci

The future confronting humanity is either socialism or barbarism.
Rosa Luxemburg

The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.
William Gibson

In this talk I propose to do a number of things

First give you a round-up of the Marxist explanations of the crises that afflict capitalism

  • The over-production/under consumption one
  • The profit squeeze one
  • The automation one
  • And last but not least, the ecological

It appears to me that there are elements of all these crises in the global situation we face today.

Then outline Marx’s theory of revolution.

And conclude by talking about the axes of our program if we want to replace capitalism with a global federation of ecologically sustainable republics of the free and equal – which is where our four pillars are directing us.

I will be mixing some personal history with this stripped down account of crises and opportunities inherent in capitalism.HG speaking

Initially, so that a lot of what I say will make some sense, I need to emphasise the role of markets in capitalism. Three key features …

  1. Yes capitalism is a mode of production that is stupendously productive, far in advance of previous modes of production, but if there are not markets then capital cannot realise itself, cannot earn a profit, firms cannot survive.
  1. These markets involve price competition if capital/firms/businesses want to sell production. In order to win that competition [and maximise profits] it is imperative to drive down costs of production.
  1. Now those costs revolve not just around the cost of labour but the other inputs – raw materials, energy and food. This last point is important because these days Marxism is not just a theory of exploitation based on theft of labour time but theft of nature.

Hold that thought about markets and the imperative to drive down the cost of labour and nature …1

That most acute analyst of capitalism, Karl Marx, did not expound a unified theory of capitalism and its crises and his remarks on what leads to its periodic crises expressed as recessions or depressions or even revolution are scattered through his work.

The main one and the one that was popular among my parents generation – I came from a left-wing Labor family with catholic connections both to the Communist Party and the Trotskyists – was the over-accumulation/over supply on one hand and inadequate demand/under-consumption on the other. This was the widely received explanation of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the 1890s.

Simply put workers have a contradictory role under capitalism – they must simultaneously be producers paid as little as possible and consumers purchasing as many commodities as possible. This leads to consumer demand falling short of the value of what is produced and capitalism – in the absence of new markets –stalling and/or falling over a cliff because it cannot sell what has been produced and realise a profit.

This explanation is very much in vogue for the current stagnation in capitalist economies. Stagnant wages and austerity in the US, Japan and Europe are clearly a drag on those economies by depressing demand. We have joined the queue now – wages rose by next to nothing last year and now penalty rates have been cut. The first wage cuts in a generation at least.

That problem was hidden for the past two or three decades by the astronomical growth in government, private and household debt – that bolstered otherwise lagging demand. But as we know credit was extended to people and countries that couldn’t repay and all kinds of financial products were spun off that until the revelation that the debts could not be repaid led to a banking crisis and brought on the GFC.

We are now in the situation that the old credit/indebtedness solution is not working despite giving money away to the banks at record low interest rates – this easy money is being used by the 1% to pump up the share market and fuel a property boom. It is not reflating the economy as a whole.

This thesis that capitalism has entered a period of long, even endless stagnation is now approaching conventional wisdom. Wolfgang Streeck is perhaps the most persuasive of them. His picture of the current crisis is multi-dimensional revolving around stagnation, oligarchy, corruption, depletion of the public sector and international disorder. He argues that all the old remedies or escape routes are no longer available. But his analysis starts from the basis of underpayment of labour, leading to inadequate demand, leading to stagnation.2

I note too that Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist of Goldman Sachs was in town this week advocating wages growth as the key to ending stagnation.3 How that’s going to happen in the absence of a free and powerful union movement god only knows. He was also canvassing helicopter drops of wads of free money into people’s bank accounts. As we know from the Rudd government’s response to the GFC, that stimulus works for a while but soon fades.

It was this kind of periodic over-supply/under-demand crisis that Keynes was responding to when he argued that the role of government was to manage and bolster demand so that ups and downs, stops and starts of capitalism, not to mention poverty and deprivation, could be a thing of the past.

In the three decades that followed WWII, what the French call the trente glorieuse, the application of Keynesian economics – along with a powerful union movement – certainly bolstered wages, credit and demand and the economy went gangbusters in these decades.4 In Australia, for instance, real incomes trebled in the 25 years following WWII and by the 70s the wages share of National Income or GDP in Australia [and this was fairly typical] was over 60 per cent – it’s under 50 per cent today.

That reality led to what has been dubbed the full employment profit squeeze crisis of the 1970s when a powerful labour movement, in conjunction with the hikes in the price of oil, inflation and big sending/big taxing governments, squeezed profit margins (and the rule of capital) so much that it provoked a counter offensive by capital that drove labour’s power and share of GDP downwards in the 1980s.

Breaking the power of the unions was not the only thing that freed capital from this profit squeeze crisis – globalisation and the technological developments accompanying it freed capital from some of its previous constraints. As Streeck says the result was that markets were no longer within states but states within markets.

The third kind of crisis that Marx predicted for capitalism was the increasing mechanisation or automation of production – what he called the rising organic composition of capital – which would have pretty much the same results as the first variant of crisis.

This spectre of accelerated automation appears to be haunting the world right now with all kinds of respectable economists and research institutes predicting a coming wave of automation allied with artificial intelligence wiping out swathes of semi-professional and professional white collar jobs.5

If this is right it will destroy the main social support for capitalism which is the careerist and consumerist middle class. They are the people who have bought the capitalist dream of work hard and consume hard and for whom it works. For now. Perhaps we can come back to this in discussion.

While these crises would cause misery and waste they did not necessarily lead to revolution and the new society in Marx’s view. His view of revolution is very much a life cycle one or birthing one. The new society would grow within the body of the old and when a certain point arose when it could grow no longer in the host, it would burst forth and create its own new economy and society.

In the Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote ‘at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production … From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins the epoch of social revolution.’

In the 1960s this theory of revolution of Marx’s was rediscovered. Even before the events of 1968, some of us had come to the conclusion that it was capitalism’s own development that would be its downfall. A crisis in success, if you like.

The thinking went like this: By creating a workforce with a continuously rising educational and cultural level, prosperous and with rising expectations, a workforce interested in quality of life as well as levels of consumption, capitalism was engendering a working class of blue and white-collar workers capable of taking over the running of society and re-orienting it to a new way of life.

It was a return to Marx’s classic formulation of revolution as flowing from the clash between the growing forces of production – the new confident, well educated working class and all the productive possibilities of an increasingly automated and science and technology based economy – on one hand, and the relations of production – the old hierarchical system of private ownership and management on the other.

For the 60s would-be revolutionaries there were four key elements in this new society that a new brighter working class would bring about.

First, it would be based on grassroots democracy – at work, in schools and universities, in communities, in the professions, in every sphere and at every level of the economy and society. This was time when there was much talk of self-management, workers control and workers participation.

Second it would involve he expansion of free time. We would need that time to undertake all the projects and new ways of living that we were now contemplating. This was the age of alternative life styles.

Third it would be just and egalitarian. Women’s liberation, gay liberation and self-determination for the first peoples would be essential parts of the new dispensation.

And fourth, it would be critical of consumerism and protective of the environment. Recall that it was the late 60s and early 70s that saw the appearance of urban environmentalists, the Green bans and the campaign to save Lake Pedder in Tasmania.

Those familiar with Paul Mason’s work will recognise the same approach.6 Mason detects the emergence of a new economy – thanks to the information technology revolution – within capitalism today.

Information driven technology or automation makes an abundance of free or low-priced goods possible. And also free time which is essential for real human freedom. Likewise the new information driven technology encourages new forms of economic life – collaborative and sharing. And where Marx saw the organised working class – produced by capitalism – as the force, the midwife, that would abolish the old and inaugurate the new, so Mason sees networked humanity, the product of this new stage of capitalism, as the agent, the midwife to the postcapitalist future.

In classical Marxism – though not in Mason’s work – this liberation of the new within the old would be via revolution. Perhaps we can return to this but can I respond to earlier remarks about radical reforms versus revolution? It strikes me there is a lot of truth in the argument that radical, genuinely social democratic reforms will be as difficult to achieve as revolutionary transformation. 7

I come now to what is being called eco-marxism.8 Marx himself was periodically aware of the ecological dimension. But a new school of eco-marxists have been more systematic about the scattered insights of Marx and Engels.

What is central to this expanded understanding of capitalism is that labour is only one part of what capitalism sucks into in its mode of production – it is only part of Nature which capitalism latches onto.

Capitalism is then a way of organising nature. Just as capital pursues cheap labour so it does with the rest of nature with disastrous results. Its pursuit of cheap food has undermined the productivity of the soil. Ransacking the Earth for cheap raw materials has led to the serious depletion of our ecological treasury. The drive for cheap energy has resulted in dangerous universal carbon pollution.

In other words capitalism destroys the basis for its own ecological surplus or profitability as well as the liveability of the planet.

I hasten to add that the eco-marxists are in a way just catching up with insights various anarchist theorists have had for decades prior to them, For my generation it wasn’t just the odd eco-marxist like Alan Roberts in Melbourne9 who woke us up to the link between capitalism [and bureaucratic socialism for that matter] and ecological degradation, it was thinkers from the anarchist tradition like Murray Bookchin who argued that a society built on domination of human by human would inevitably carry those practices over into nature as a whole with disastrous results.

In summing up the first part – it is conceivable that a working and middle class losing faith in the performance of capitalism, combined with the spread of ecologically awareness, connected and networked, awake to new technological possibilities, could provide us with the agency for creating a new society – a globally ecologically sustainable society of the free and equal.

Group pic

How might we mobilise that force?

  1. An ethical problem

 I’ll start with the hard part.

 As internationalists and egalitarians we fight for a future in which all inhabitants on the planet have equal access to a good life. But we know that if our Western consumerist lifestyles were extended to the rest of humanity we would need the resources of three or four planets Earths. So that is not a possible future.

Back in the 1970s we were much taken with the claim attributed to J K Galbraith that with equal sharing everyone on Earth could have a standard of living equivalent to an American household of 1941. That struck us as an acceptable level of frugal comfort. More recent calculations are that everyone could – on the basis of solar power providing the same amount of energy as fossil fuels do today – enjoy the standard of living of a French or Japanese household of the 1960s living in say Lyon or Kyoto. As Benjamin Kunkel observes, ‘that’s a rather stylish utopia’.

It would of course demand a global sharing movement that would involve material or consumerist sacrifices in countries like our own. This is a cultural revolution we should not be afraid to name or own. It was certainly part of the original Greens’ thinking summed up in the slogan popularised by Ted Trainer, ‘Live more simply so that others may simply live.’

The importance of this acceptance of a less materialist (and better I hasten to add) lifestyle cannot be emphasised too much. The weakness in Greece in the current ongoing crisis is cultural as much as anything else. The majority cannot contemplate leaving the euro, despite all the pain inflicted on them in its name, because they fear that it would mean leaving the modern, consumerist, cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Incidentally, the availability of a universal basic income may lead to a less consumerist style of life for many and help us towards that globally egalitarian life. Large and generous increases in genuine foreign aid, opposition to wars and the reversal of the despoliation of the global environment can only help too.

  1. Expansion of democracy

An enlarged democracy will be central to any transition. By enlarged I mean the numbers of participants and the scope of democracy.

I say this for a number of reasons. The first is that all revolutions are marked by a veritable explosion of democratic participation and mass confidence. That’s what revolutions are.

The second reason is that it is only mobilised public opinion that can shift government and limit the power of capital and regulate markets. The Bentley blockade on the north coast of NSW that stopped fracking in 2014 is my favourite example of this in our recent history. A referendum established the will of the people. Then the crowd at Bentley enforced it, over-ruling the rights of private property, the drive of the corporation, and the call of the markets – in a phrase democracy over-rode capitalism.

So it is not just the enlargement of participation that we need to be aiming for but the subjects that democracy can decide. It is one of the aims of neoliberalism as it was of classic liberalism to take economic decisions out of the realm of government and democracy. That’s the rationale behind deregulation, de-unionisation, privatisations, the independence of the central bank and global economic institutions. We need to champion the extension of democracy into these forbidden fields. The most heartening thing about the penalty rates decision is the acceptance by Labor, under Greens pressure, that parliament and government have the right to intervene in the labour market.

As well as a right to general democratic control of the economy we need also to be championing democracy in the firm or institution or locality as against the boss, the bureaucrat or developer.

What also needs to be cultivated are those manifestations of a new and different economy, democratic cooperatives, collaborative work as suggested by Paul Mason. This can be done most immediately in the field of renewable energy and housing. There are some of these but they are small in number and limited in ambition.

This cooperative and enlarge participatory democracy is the spine of the emergence of the new within the shell of the old capitalism.

I know that this enlarged democracy will worry some people as it did Oscar Wilde who once said ‘the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings’. There are of course ways of lessening and spreading the democratic burden such as drawing lots, rotation and term limits. The Athenians solved these problems 2,500 years ago.

  1. Enlarged public sector – this involves not just an end to privatisation but nationalisations or re-nationalisations.

 If the market and its inescapable imperatives – ceaseless expansion, price competition, increasing profitability and reducing costs – are at the heart of capitalism and its ills – ecological damage, increased inequality, instability and insecurity – about which there can be little doubt, then a reduction or elimination of the dominance of the market is an essential element in a non-capitalist or socialist alternative.

We live in a time of accelerated marketization or expansion of markets. This is taking place via privatisation of public assets and services. Hospitals. Care for the disabled. Forests. Public transport. Education. Public housing. Are all being privatised as I speak. Goods and services which were formerly rights based on need, freely or affordably available and under some degree of democratic control, are now increasingly conditional on income, provided by private businesses, subject to the market and the bottom line.

If we believe in the equal worth of every human being, this has to be stopped and reversed. That will involve nationalisations – and Lee Rhiannon tells me she will argue the case for this in a forthcoming pamphlet. These nationalisations or re-nationalisations can start with education, public transport, electricity and housing with the aim of making them free or at the very least abundant and affordable.

As Paul Mason said about British Labour’s promise to re-nationlise the railways: ‘The point of privatisation is to make things dearer, the point about renationalising the railways is to make them free.’

The huge gap in what I have been listing here is, of course, the vital banking sector. Given the constitutional blockages involved this is worth some discussion.

  1. Shorter working week. Expansion of free time

The time we spend at work is under even the best of circumstances something we are constrained to do. I think Marx was right to say ‘freedom begins where socially necessary labour ends’ and that ‘wealth is disposable time and nothing more’. To freely do what we want with our lives as individuals and freely associated collectives requires free time. Throughout the 19th and 20th century workers grasped this and the shortening of the working week was at the centre of the capital-labour conflict. Whether that aspiration is still buried in the hearts of the modern worker has to be tested but I suspect it is. One of the reasons that modern employees accept ‘flexible’ employment, even casual or part-time or precarious employment, is that it holds the promise of more free time.

  1. A degree of planning

We are fortunate to be living in a time when we have at our disposal tools to ascertain what impact production or investment decisions will have on the economy and our ecological world. Modelling and computer power, and feedback mechanisms already in operation in social media and logisitics can quickly inform us about trends and impacts. A leap to quantum computing would only make this truer. So comprehensive and rapid human awareness about our interaction with the natural world – and rational guidance or planning – are now within our reach.10

So in a nutshell. The economic and ecological crises will continue. But new material possibilities will continue to ripen within the shell of the old. People will continue to probe for a way out of a capitalism that only offers increasing social polarisation, insecurity, hollowing out of democracy and ecological ruin. Success is not assured. Many of you will be aware of Antonio Gramsci’s summation of his own time which appears apposite to our own: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ Trump, the rise of the nativist reactionary Right is one of those symptoms. A blasé, consumerist fatalism is another. But we can be a little hopeful. I leave you with this quote from Benjamin Kunkel from 2013:

 More important than intellectual debates is a generational shift underway. Global capitalism or neoliberalism under US hegemony, or just the way things are going: call it whatever you like, it has inflicted economic insecurity and ecological anxiety on the young in particular. They emerge today from their schooling into job markets reluctant to accommodate them at all, let alone on stable or generous terms, and they will bear the consequences of planetary ecological disorder in proportion to the years lying ahead of them. In any genuine renaissance of Marxist thought and culture, it will probably be decisive that capitalism has forfeited the allegiance of so many people under thirty.11

  1. David McNally, Against the Market (Verso, London 19930, particularly chapter 6.
  2. W Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? (Verso, London 2016). A shorter version of his thesis can be found in ‘How Will Capitalism End?’, new left review, 87, May-June 2014, pp 35-64

  1. Sydney Morning Herald, March 9, 2017
  1. Jessica Irvine, ‘Seven reasons to smileabout the economy’, SMH, December 19, 2016
  1. Peter Frase, Four Futures, (London 2014) has an excellent discussion of these possibilities.
  1. Paul Mason. ‘The end of capitalism has begun’. The Guardian online, 17 July 2015

A more extended version in Postcapitalism (Penguin, 2016)

  1. See W Streeck, op cit, pp 234-235 in particular. For a contra view see ‘Revolution after Revolution’, chapter 15, 366-396 in In the Long Run We Are All Dead (London 2016).
  1. See Benjamin Kunkel, ‘Capitalocene’, London Review of Books, March 2, 2017 for a survey of what he dubs ‘ecomarxism’.

  1. Alan Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment (Allison & Busby, London 1979)
  1. D McNally, op cit, pp 211-213. Paul Mason has an interesting discussion of modern planning in Postcapitalism, pp 271-292
  1. B Kunkel, Utopia or Bust, (Verso, London, 2014) p1p. Recommended for its lucid explanation of the various crises afflicting contemporary capitalism. Kunkel is a successful novelist and the quality of the writing is a cut above the usual.

Get over it Bob, the debate on the Greens’ future is happening

So the Greens electoral support has stalled at around ten per cent of voters and the leadership of Richard di Natale is being questioned. This ‘dire’ situation, according to Bob Brown and others of like mind, is the result of the ‘wrecking’ presence in the Greens’ ranks of leftish Senator Lee Rhiannon and the founding of Left Renewal by radical Young Greens in NSW.

But as today’s Fairfax Media report makes clear, the stalling long pre-dated the formation of Left Renewal. As for Senator Rhiannon’s contribution, it is drawing a very long bow. Can Bob Brown seriously attribute, for instance, the halving of the Greens vote in Tasmania to a senator whose name would be unknown to most voters on the Apple Isle.

A perusal of how Green parties are faring globally would reveal how typical the Australian situation is. For example, in Germany, the birthplace and inspiration for Green parties around the world, the party is tracking at 10-12 per cent in opinion polls. The Social Democrats are at 21-23 per cent and the Left party at 8-10per cent. On those figures the German Greens will not even be a minor partner in the next German government

In fact anyone harbouring illusions that a de-radicalised (or de-Rhiannonised) Greens will form a government any time soon and change the world via parliament need look no further than Germany. In the 1990s the German party rid itself of its radical or ‘fundi’ wing and positioned itself as a ‘responsible’ party of government.

Certainly the German Greens have been in governing coalitions since then. However, their record in government has certainly not burnished their reforming credentials – invariably the senior partners in those coalitions, the Social Democrats, have called the shots and the Greens have tamely acquiesced (or worse).

Not that the German Greens have not had an impact on that country, but it has been by their campaigning outside parliament. Arguably, by their insistence that the environment is the key issue in modern politics, the German Greens have made that country more environmentally aware than any other on the planet.

The party arose out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and Germany’s decision to renounce nuclear power has as much to do with the Greens’ campaigning as any other factor. Likewise Germany’s admirable record on renewable power is something for which the Greens can take considerable credit.

Similarly, the greatest victories for the Greens movement in Australia have been achieved outside parliament. Saving the Franklin, the Bentley blockade which stopped fracking in much of NSW and the successful campaign against deregulating university fees are outstanding examples of this. (In the latter case, incidentally, Senator Lee Rhiannon played a central role.)

People in NSW have long been aware of the value of action outside of parliamentary processes thanks to the ‘green bans’ of Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation that preserved so much of heritage Sydney in the 1970s.

Acknowledging the effectiveness of public campaigning outside of parliament by the Greens is not an argument for giving up on parliament. In fact the presence and standing of Greens MPs, and the resources of their offices, can be very useful for community campaigners.

But the stasis in voter support naturally prompts discussion in the Greens about our future. Not surprisingly the popularity of self-declared socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the US and UK strikes Senator Rhiannon (and others) as a possible model for Australia. Admittedly, Bernie and Jeremy were well-known rebels in what are the major centre-left parties in their respective countries and not Greens politicians. Sadly there is no remotely similar figure in the Australian Labor Party, so the expectation that the Greens might be the beneficiary of a similar radical surge here is not illogical.

The recent dip in Greens NSW membership cited by the Fairfax report ignores the fact that nonetheless membership has increased by 40 per cent over the past four years and that a major component of that increase are Young Greens. NSW is still the largest state in terms of membership in the Australian Greens federation.

Most of the party membership probably don’t identify as either Red Greens or Brown Greens, but they do value the party’s healthy grassroots democracy and cooperative, consensus culture.

In my experience that means most Greens members are not supportive of calls by ‘party elders’ for this or that MP, who have after all been elected by the rank-and-file, to step down. Nor, in my experience, are they receptive to attempts to close down genuine attempts to update and clarify the party’s mission – even if it involves discussing the ‘c’ word (i.e. capitalism) and thereby horrifying Bob Brown.

The Greens – a house of many mansions


Sorry, no one is leaving the party (I hope)

So now former Greens parliamentary leader Christine Milne has come out of political retirement to invite – via the pages of Fairfax media – the young lefties in the Greens NSW who have formed ‘Left Renewal’ to leave the building and establish their own party. She’s even called on two Greens MPs identified as ‘left-wing’, Senator Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge MLC, to help them through the door.

This follows a similar response from the current federal parliamentary leader Richard Di Natale.

This intolerant response is something new in our ranks and deserves to be nipped in the bud. Christine and Richard are scandalised by Left Renewal’s talk of overthrowing capitalism, but no less so than many of us were by Christine and her co-thinkers sudden coup in securing the dropping of the Greens’ commitment to a mild inheritance tax at the 2012 national conference. It was part of a turn-to-business strategy.

Back then opponents did talk of ‘neoliberals on bikes’ but no one dreamt of suggesting they pedal right out of the party. Instead, supporters of an inheritance (or wealth) tax did our best to keep the discussion going – and the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book the following year certainly helped. At the 2016 national conference there was a move back towards adopting an inheritance tax.

It’s a pity that Christine and Richard have not adopted a similar approach. Many of us – and not just in the ranks of the Left Renewal supporters – would be interested in hearing from them about how ‘really existing capitalism’ can, for example, solve the climate emergency that we now face.

Besides contravening the Greens’ commitment to debate rather than organisational measures when sharp differences arise, the advice to the young leftist rebels to leave runs counter to the party’s history, nature – and, importantly, its future.

The implication in Christine’s and Richard’s advice is that the party belongs exclusively to people like them. It doesn’t and never has.

In fact, the original party registration of the Greens was taken out in 1985 by a collection of inner-city radicals of various types – left-wing expellees from the Labor Party, environmentalists, feminists, socialists, trotskyists, anarchists, pacifists and deep ecologists. There was even a German draft dodger among the founders.

What united us was the inspiration of the German Greens whose founders were very much in the same mold as us. The German comrades were leading the European movement for nuclear disarmament. They were pro militant unionism (the green bans of the Jack Mundey-led Builders Labourers Federation in Australia had deeply impressed them) and were sympathetic to new, experimental forms of cooperative living and working. They championed participatory democracy. They had adopted a twin approach of parliamentarism and extra-parliamentarism as the means to fundamental social change, in other words running for parliament as well as marching in the street,

But above all else, and this was the Germans’ central contribution to modern politics, was their insistence that all politics must be framed by the ecological imperative to protect the living environment.

In this the German Greens were theorising our own evolving views. We had, for instance, been involved in environmental struggles here, whether at Terania Creek, or saving the Franklin or against the plans for motorways to plough through the inner-city suburbs of Sydney. We were already reading Murray Bookchin, Alan Roberts,Rudolph Bahro and Petra Kelly

From the outset, the radical founders in Australia claimed no exclusive moral right to the ownership of the Greens’ party label. We were willing to share it with anyone who subscribed to the four founding principles of the German Greens – ecological sustainability, participatory democracy, peace and non-violence and social justice.

That ‘anyone’ eventually included the Tasmanian Independents and the victors in the epic battle to save the Franklin grouped around Bob Brown and Christine Milne. (Originally it also included some members of the then Socialist Workers Party but that possible conflict of interest was resolved by banning dual party membership.)

The point of this historical excursion is that the Greens have always been a broad church, a confederation of various traditions and political philosophies. Our history certainly highlights the fact that the Greens are not the exclusive property of Christine Milne, Richard Di Natale and those who agree with them.

From what I’ve seen of the Left Renewal thinking – a little too conservative from my point of view – it falls within the broad political parameters of our roots. Organisationally their explicit insistence on their supporters caucusing and then toeing their caucus line could run counter to the more free-wheeling and consensus decision-making rules of the Greens, but it is likely that this caucusing will prove impossible in practice. (In fact Left Renewal have since clarified their organisational approach to be in line with the grassroots/delegate conception of democracy within the Greens.)

From the evidence available, the establishment of Left Renewal is a unilateral initiative of some Young Greens. Rather than being result of behind-the-scenes encouragement from Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge as Christine Milne has suggested, Left Renewal is the result of discontent among younger members with what they see as political exhaustion or moderation among older radicals within the party. It is also a healthy response to the faltering of the more radical left in the Greens in the wake of the death of the redoubtable John Kaye.

Older Greens radicals – certainly the two or three that I’ve spoken to – are a little annoyed that their advice and counsel were not sought before the launch of the Left Renewal. The name Left Renewal says it all – the old left is tired and going nowhere, so we need to renew.

That conclusion is wrong as Senator Rhiannon’s leadership in the campaign to stop the deregulation of university fees, and David Shoebridge’s on issues as diverse as justice for the Bowraville families and opposition to the abolition of genuine local government, illustrate*.

Nevertheless, the young Greens leftists could be half right. Young people now face a world of climate threat, crisis-ridden capitalism and precarious work futures, obscene and growing domestic and global inequalities, hollowed out democracy, endless wars and recrudescent hatreds. It is a world in need of urgent and radical transformation.

In countries where this comprehensive crisis is more pressing, large numbers of young people are turning to radical left figures and movements such as Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Podemos. They are expressing an interest in critiques of capitalism and the possibilities of a post-capitalist future. The advent of Left Renewal, like the founding and growth in membership of the Young Greens in recent years, may be what futurists call ‘early signals’.

Certainly the hope must be that once the left radicalisation visible among the young overseas does arrive in Australia, it finds a home in the Greens. For that to happen, the doors to the Greens must stay open and the welcome mat stay out.

Hall Greenland was convenor of the Greens NSW from 2013 to 2016 and was among the founders of the Greens in Australia.

LBJ – our part in his downfall


50 years ago … A brief but memorable event in the history
of the anti-war movement recalled

Well before we could see the presidential motorcade, we could hear its progress. As it cruised down Oxford Street, a cascade of cheers from the multitudes packed onto the footpaths streamed down the lines. The papers later reported a million people had turned out in Sydney that October Saturday, 50 years ago on October 22, to welcome the American president.

Then we spotted it, the motorcade turning at a stately pace into Liverpool Street, a dozen black limos gleaming, the president and First Lady in a Lincoln Continental with twinned American and Australian flags fluttering on its bonnet, A squad of police motorcycle outriders and a press bus led the way. The anti-war protesters, a few hundred strong and most of them students and activists like me, were waiting further down, opposite Hyde Park, and as the cavalcade approached, the booing began and the stop-the-war placards shot up. A dozen or so of us readied ourselves for a more direct action.

The official slogan coined for this 1966 visit to Sydney of US President Lyndon Baines Johnson was, incredibly, ‘Make Sydney Gay for LBJ’. It was the first-ever visit by an American president to the devoted ally down under and officialdom was bending over backwards to accommodate the head of state gracing us with his presence, even if it was only a stopover on the way to a conference in Manila of America’s Asian allies in the war in Vietnam.

We were part of the anti-Vietnam war movement and we were angry. For more than a year LBJ had been escalating the war in Vietnam. US planes were bombing large swathes of Vietnam back to the Stone Age (to use a phrase attributed to US air force chief Curtis LeMay). Hundreds of thousands of American troops were battling peasant guerrillas in the paddy fields and jungles of Vietnam and villages were being napalmed.

Johnson, three years into his presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, was at the centre of this carnage. His sympathetic and Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Robert A. Caro has acknowledged the enormous casualties and the blood on Johnson’s hands … ‘It may be [that] more than two million men and women and children [were] killed and maimed and burned alive, some by bombs dropped on villages selected as targets by Johnson himself, dropped by B-52s which flew so high that they were not only invisible but unheard from the ground, so that the people in the villages did not know they were in danger until the bombs hit.’

So if the protesters who lay in wait for the president in Australia had a slogan, it was ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?’ But in 1966 those dissidents were still a small minority. It was only 25 years since Australia had turned to the United States to defeat the mortal threat from Japan. Understandably, most Australians were viscerally pro-American – and still fearful of Asia. Even after the defeat of Japan, other threats from the north – China and communist-led peasant revolutions – were conjured up by conservative politicians and mainstream media commentators.

No surprises, then, that when President Johnson landed in the national capital on Thursday October 20, 1966, tens of thousands of Canberrans welcomed him. Or that an estimated half and million Melburnians lined the streets of their city to hail the chief on Friday. There were protests in those cities but they were largely contained, footnotes in the media coverage.

Sydney was planned to be the climax of the visit. The state government decreed free travel for school kids from all over the state. A thousand children in ten-gallon hats (LBJ was a Texan) were organised to welcome the president at the airport. Anzac Parade was renamed ‘President Johnson Way’. Badges with the president’s face and crossed flags were given away en masse. Free flags and streamers printed with the slogan ‘Hip Hip Hooray for LBJ’ were issued to the crowds along the route from Mascot to the Art Gallery where the president was to lunch with 1200 of Sydney’s worthiest citizens. In the end, the trip from airport to the gallery would take much less time than officials had anticipated.


Film-maker Kit Guyatt was one of the dozen in on the plan. He was 19, an anarchist, and, an advantage in this circumstance, small. ‘It meant I could slip between the legs of one of the police holding back the crowd. No sooner had I slipped through than the line broke as the police turned to catch me.’

As the thin blue line opened up, the rest of us saw our opportunity. We ducked under the barriers and sat down in the middle of the road. (Press reports later described us as ‘girls and bearded men’, although at least one of us was not only clean-shaven but was dressed in a natty suit and tie.)

The crowd’s chanting of ‘Stop the War’ throttled up. The motorcade stopped dead. The NSW Premier Sir Robin Askin, riding with LBJ and the First Lady (Ladybird Johnson), put his head out the car window to find out what the trouble was. Seeing a tangle of protesters lying down in the presidential pathway he lost it, yelling ‘drive over the bastards’ to the cars in front.

sitdown-1966-cover-croppedMomentarily the coppers were stunned. Then, led by the police commissioner Norm Allan himself – he’d jumped out of the lead car in the motorcade when it stopped – the scattered police began to drag us off the road. Jean Curthoys, now a retired academic but then a rebellious 18- year-old from a well-known communist party family, recalls determinedly pitching herself onto the road three or four times. ‘Police picked me up and dumped by the side of the road, so I just jumped up and ran back.’

I took my place in the middle of the road next to my ALP comrade Aiden Foy but I wasn’t there for long. Seeing the stationary press bus 10 metres away, I made a dash for it. I’d like to say it was a reasoned move because I was editor of honi soit, the student newspaper at Sydney Uni, but in truth, it was just an impulse to jump on board. Fronting a bus full of what appeared to be startled American reporters – judging by their crew-cuts, sports jackets and the button-downed collars of their striped shirts – I announced the bleeding obvious, that this was an anti-war protest. The longer speech I would have liked to deliver to this captive audience was cut short as the bus began to move. I threw in a couple of chants and jumped off.

The road had been cleared and the motorcade sped away, now racing through the city in case of more unexpected incidents.

As the Sun Herald reported: ‘After a sharp clash in Oxford Street, secret service men ordered the motorcade to clap on speed and it rushed through the city at breakneck speed to the state reception at the Art Gallery. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people caught only a fleeting glimpse of the president … People stood bewildered as the motorcade flashed by and children burst into tears because they had missed their chance to wave to the president.’

In the panic, the two scheduled stops in the city were dispensed with – including Queen’s Square where a group of pigeon fanciers waited to release 200 racing pigeons, as stand-ins apparently for doves of peace.

The sitdown itself was over in a couple of minutes. But the newspaper photographers had caught it and it was the sitdown rather than the cheering Sydneysiders that made the headlines. WILD BRAWLS IN LBJ WELCOME was the Daily Mirror’s banner headline. The Sun trumpeted, wildly: BRAWLS, RIOT AND A BOMB SCARE. Overseas, it made the New York Times and other newspapers across the United States.


A handful of anti-Vietnam War activists had upstaged what they saw as a latter-day Billy Graham rally on wheels. Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald was not pleased, editorialising: ‘The point is not that the demonstrators won a victory – as they undoubtedly did … it is that they were allowed to win it. Those who deserve to have the vials of wrath emptied on them are those in charge of security arrangements.’

The police commissioner agreed, firing off a please-explain memo to Special Branch, whose duty it was to spy on communists and other trouble-makers and foil their plans. From now released files we know that our secret police – ASIO as well as Special Branch – were in fact aware that something like the sitdown was being plotted. (We also know from the same files it was the police commissioner’s bright idea to position the Mormon choir and PA next to the anti-war protesters.)

Trouble was, they were looking in all the wrong places for the conspirators. The three main protest organisers in Sydney at that time were Bob Gould’s Vietnam Action Campaign, the Communist Party, and the Youth Campaign Against Conscription (basically run by young ALP left-wingers Barry Robinson and Wayne Haylen). The three groups’s were locked in an uneasy alliance, two parts cooperation, one part mutual suspicion.

Prior to the visit, ASIO’s phone taps and informants established that the Communist Party was planning a strictly peaceful protest to greet LBJ, although the communists were worried about being upstaged by Bob Gould, a Trotskyist activist who had almost single-handedly launched the anti-war movement in Australia.

The records of the phone intercepts reveal that Robinson and Haylen were equally worried about Bob going over the top. They feared a backlash to Labor’s electoral prospects in the looming November federal election from any ultra-left incident involving anti-war protesters.

The telephonic chatter recorded in ASIO files establishes that Bob Gould was interested in some kind of sitdown in front of the motorcade but his idea was that it should be distant from the massed anti-war protesters in Liverpool Street,where the police presence would be heaviest. Meanwhile, those of us from the Sydney University Left were also planning a sitdown but hadn’t told Bob Gould about it, precisely because it was our best chance of remaining undetected, knowing that Gould’s phone was very likely tapped.

Unintentionally, Gould’s overheard plans for a sitdown elsewhere served as a decoy. On the day the police were looking elsewhere rather than in plain sight at the main demo itself.

The real plotters behind the sitdown were only revealed weeks later when the Commonwealth Police named me as the chief culprit. In their version, I had ‘apparently’ convened the meeting at the University of Sydney of radical students and the Sydney Libertarians which had planned the sitdown. The crucial meeting in fact had taken place in a downtown pub which was logial enough as the Sydney Libertarians were a group of anarchist punters who met regularly in pubs and were in the process of turning their attention from the races at Randwick to the war in Vietnam.

 In retrospect, it was amazing that we were able to carry out the plan. The presidential visit was three years almost to the day since the assassination of President Kennedy yet by modern day standards security was extraordinarily slack. In Melbourne, which had its motorcade the day before Sydney, two paint bombs or balloons filled with red and blue paint – the colours in the flag of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, the Vietcong – landed on the presidential limousine in Swanston Street.

The car was rushed off to Ford’s Geelong plant where it was given a quick respray in time for it to be shipped to Sydney. Incredibly, it was the very same car John F Kennedy was riding in when he was shot in in Dallas. It had since been enclosed with a clear bubble top.


The president, it was reported, brushed aside our sitdown as the ‘antics’ of a small minority. Meanwhile, the press lavishly reported his speeches in which he boasted that the North Vietnamese would never win the war and proclaimed the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ in the Americans’ quest for victory. Fifteen months later, all that optimism turned to mush with the NLF’s Tet Offensive, when the supposedly defeated peasant guerrillas stormed into every town and city in South Vietnam. Soon after Tet, faced with passionate campus and ghetto rebellions at home, and even defeat in his party’s primaries for the nomination, a broken LBJ announced he would not be standing in the presidential elections of 1968.

Compared to the firestorm of protests that overwhelmed LBJ at home, that early Sydney sitdown was only a pinprick. Yet it was the first sign that this American president, elected in a landslide just two years before and welcomed by many Australians as a demi-god, was far from impregnable. In retrospect I am astonished at our audacity in daring to sit down in front of the motorcade, in ‘disrespecting’ the great United States president. In a small way, however, we were part of an historical turning point. As the American journalist  Tom Wicker has written, “it is difficult to remember, much less to understand, the extent to which ‘the President’, any President, was revered, respected” before Lyndon Baines Johnson. The protesters had played their part in the shattering of that aura.

Homage to Richard Neville 1941-2016



It is a sad day when a good comrade like Richard Neville dies. If you had any doubt about Richard’s deep radicalism it is worth watching his video about climate change posted on the Guardian site with the Marsha Rowe and Geoffrey Robertson obits. In it he nails neoliberal economists, the corporations and the rich as the drivers of dangerous climate change – and implicitly anticipates the Sanders and Corbyn phenomenon.

If, nevertheless, you are thinking the use of ‘comrade’ goes too far, it is true that Richard had a deep aversion to violence and militarism (whether of the Left or Right) and this made him very wary of certain aspects the revolutionary surge of the 1960s and 1970s. And who can say he was wrong about that? A radical pacificism was something he shared with another old comrade Tony Harris and I for one am indebted to the wisdom of their warnings.

Because of his acute and angry opposition to American war-making in general and the invasion of Iraq in particular, as well as his environmental concerns, Richard did join the Greens at one stage. He was active in the 2004 federal campaign, supporting Andrew Wilkie when he ran as a Green against John Howard. And while his fatal illness was already creeping over him he came to the launch of my campaign as the Greens candidate for Grayndler in 2013.


Richard, circa 2011

I felt very honoured that he travelled down from Blackheath to attend. For a long time I was not specially close to Richard because for him the 60s were about love, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll whereas for me the revolution, feminism and May 68 were the dominant themes. There was in addition a flurry of journalistic rivalry in the 70s (The Digger v Living Daylights). And we had very different social or class backgrounds too. But with the rise of ecological consciousness and Richard’s growing anti-imperialism and the friendship of our partners (they are both great writers and went back a long way, going to the same Steiner school) there was a convergence and for the past 20 years a warm friendship and exchange of ideas. (Anyone interested in his political thinking over the past 15 years can find his contributions on CounterPunch.)

He did have second thoughts about the iconoclastic sixties libertarianism. He believed it paved the way for the unrestrained consumerism and narcissism that he considered dangerous to social life as well as the living environment. Back in the 1990s he laid out this view in his critical review of Peter Greenaway’s film The Thief, the Cook, His Wife & Her Lover. His distaste for the film and his argument for restraint and limits were misconstrued by his critics as a call for censorship by an old fogey regressing towards the attitudes of his father ‘the Colonel’. No way, and as with most things Richard Neville, time has confirmed the rightness of his views.

Having said that, in 2004 Richard was present when Bob Gould spoke at a party at my place … and let Bob take up the story: ‘I said that Hall and most of us present were of the older generation that had — to borrow a thought from the English poet, Wordsworth, talking about the French Revolution — been lucky enough to be alive and politically active in the 1960s. I said it was important that we should celebrate and defend the 1960s in the face of the counter-revolution taking place throughout the world to obliterate and/or roll back the political and social legacy of the 1960s. I said the 1960s, which had moulded so many of those present, was the greatest time in the 20th century to be alive, for all of us. That assertion got very considerable applause.’ Among those applauding most enthusiastically was Richard.

Like all his friends I miss him hugely. He had a warm and jokey manner that made you feel special and he loved to spar intellectually and politically. (Even in the last dark period of his dementia I can recall visiting him in his modern nursing home and saying to him as I surveyed the scene, “It’s pretty good here, I might move in myself”, and as quick as a shot he replied, “I was afraid you might be thinking that”.)

Fenella Richard & Sue cropped

Partying on: Richard with Fenella and Sue at election 2007 party

His chief fault was an incorrigible self-deprecation which mars his autobiographical Hippie, Hippie, Shake. Yes, he could be a show-off, but he was a loving and loyal friend, an ever-sparkling talker and deeply concerned about the fate of the world. He was a pretty good table tennis player too.

Nick Origlass – 20 years after


, ,

Red Hot cover20 years to this day – 17 May – since Nick Origlass (1908-1996) died. He was an inspiration to me – and others – despite his stubbornness. Trouble was he was usually right and besides he saw it as intransigence – a virtue he prized over amiability which he was also capable of. He was the alderman – as they were called then – who as Mayor of Leichhardt introduced free-wheeling public participation in Council meetings and town planning. He inspired Ted Mack among others. And he spearheaded the campaign that stopped the WestConnex of his day.

But his originality went further than this. He was from north Queensland, Italian and Irish parentage, both of which he valued, but insisted on his Australian working class status. Moved to Balmain in the late 30s and became the main union leader in the shipyards there (yes that was Balmain then – 29 shipyards around the peninsula). When the Stalinist union bureaucrats tried to remove him in 1945 the workers [some 3000 of them] struck for six weeks to reinstate him.

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Later he was expelled from the union, first by the Stalinists and then by the right-wing. He was also expelled from the Communist party and the ALP (twice). He was the most expelled man in Australian history – but always he had the backing of his constituency. It was no maverick thing. As well as union delegate in Balmain he was also its alderman and councillor for 35 years.

Integral to his originality was his Trotskyism. He was expelled from the Fourth International in 1965 after 30 years as a regular Trotskyist. He belonged to a heterodox tendency (the Pabloists) that championed a version of socialism that was based on self-management and multi-partyism and which was critical of Maoism which the more orthodox were then flirting with.

It’s all in my bio of Nick (Red Hot: the Life & times of Nick Origlass[1998]). He was such a complex character, redolent of history and ideas and experience, lovable and infuriating. One of the privileges of my life is to have known him and been his comrade. And before I stop, he had other historic comrades who I met through him too – Issy Wyner, Guido Barrachi (Jeff Sparrow wrote an excellent bio-novel about him), Anatol Kagan, Alan Roberts, Bob Gould, Jack Sponberg, Gerald Murphy et al. even those Nick called renegades like ‘Diamond Jim’ McClelland. And of course there was Joan, his wife, and Daphne Gollan, his other simultaneous longtime companion.

Amazing man. Amazing life. So much to inherit and inspire. If only we had him now when they are undermining authentic local democracy.

An ecological comrade turns 90

An edited version of remarks at Alan’s 90th birthday celebration

Alan Roberts (pictured below with his dog Billy) has just turned 90. It is hard to accept that he is now an old man. He seems to embody the incorrigible spirit of youth. He is in fact something of a medical miracle considering his decades of smoking and his daily habit of drinking half a pint of cream to slake his thirst.

A little hard of hearing these days he has nevertheless not lost his alertness nor his ability to discourse at some length on the evolution of the modern world. He keeps up. That is probably one of the reasons for his longevity. More certain is that it makes for long phone calls – never count on less than an hour when you ring Alan.

Billy (3 years old) with Alan (at 90). Not that the calls are ever boring or a waste of time. My recent calls have seen him following the unfolding negotiations between the Obama administration and Tehran and musing that an agreement and a lifting of the sanctions might be the most significant achievement of the Obama presidency if it comes off. It will open up a huge new market for capitalism and recalibrate the balance of power in the Middle East. He expects too that it will open up a period of social and political advance in Iran itself.

Another preoccupation has been the revelations about the growth of global surveillance by the American NSA and its helpers. Not only can Alan – formerly a reader in theoretical physics at Monash University – follow and explain the arcane technical issues but argues that this surveillance will have economic impacts on the United States as companies, concerned about the security of their information, seek cloud providers outside the United States.

These reflections will be characteristically interspersed with replaying – he’s a good mimic – scenes from 1930s movies. A good friend of his mother ran a cinema and Alan misspent a fair proportion of his teenage years in the ’30s watching films non-stop.

Alan has been, for those of you unfamiliar with him and his work, a pioneering social ecologist, not just in Australia but in the English-speaking world. His book The Self-Managing Environment was published in 1979 in both the UK and the US. One person it inspired was Derek Wall, international secretary of the English & Wales Green Party. It was foundation for those of us who initiated the Greens in Australia too and Alan came to Sydney to address our first conferences back in the ’80s.The Self-managing Environment small

He is our Murray Bookchin, except with a sense of humour and a lack of sectarianism. Take this demolition of the over-population theorists from the first page of The Self-Managing Environment (and note how he throws the switch from humour to dialectics):

 The breathtaking arrogance of this analysis deserves some admiration; it is no petty task its disciples undertook, trying to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of the readers themselves. But it was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced their alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’, he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population. Thus, as a concept seeking to win the minds of the masses, population panic can now bee seen as containing, from the very beginning, the seeds of its own decay.

He does not reserve his challenging approach to easy targets – he takes on the harder ones: his demolition in the early 1970s of Garrett Hardin’s celebrated ‘The Tragedy of the Commons” is conclusive and anticipates the work of Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel for her research into the viability of democratic, cooperative management of the commons.

He also turns it on his own beliefs. Alan has long been a champion of what we might call self-managing eco-socialism, but he continually questions how such a system might be created and just how practical it is. (Who wants to go to an endless series of meetings? Not Alan, and he suspects most people share his aversion.) In this vein he welcomed the challenge of those reviewers of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, who raised the unanswered question of how today’s citizens are going to embrace the less consumerist, materialist culture that an ecologically sustainable future demands.

Alan has recognised this problem for decades. I can recall publishing in 1974 his long essay on consumerism and its social and ecological impacts as a special issue of the Marxist magazine International. Normally the magazine had a minuscule circulation but this issue sold out and had to be reprinted.

Alan’s other long-term chief preoccupation has been nuclear energy. It may be too large a claim to say that Alan has single-handedly stopped the creation of a nuclear power industry in Australia but he’s certainly been its chief critic. Even better, the crux of his critique has explained why it has not taken off in Australia: the enormous cost of nuclear energy plants, the challenge of waste disposal and the scarcity of mineable uranium deposits.

(On this question he’s undoubtedly been proved right. Which reminds me that he once joked to Humphrey McQueen during a political argument: ‘It’s not me you hate but the truth that’s in me’. To which Humphrey replied: ‘No not all, it’s you , Alan’.) Alan can be infuriating. Many of you know of that famous quiz Marx’s daughters gave him and Marx’s answer to the question of what his favourite motto was: Doubt everything (except Marx gave the answer in Latin). That’s Alan too. He can be bloody discomforting or discombobulating but that’s essential for those of us seeking to challenge and transform the status quo.

I hope I’m not verballing and misrepresenting him too much but even at 90 – with all that pollution in his body – he’s still raising questions, asking us to keep thinking and acting on and in the world. He was like that when I first met him at Sydney University in the early 1960s. I still recall what he was wearing: collar and tie, fair-isle sleeveless pullover and a corduroy coat with leather elbow patches on the sleeves. Dapper then. Equally, and more importantly, I can recall the first essays of his I read back then: a persuasive justification of the role of the individual in history provoked by attacks on Isaac Deutscher’s endorsement of that proposition and a damning criticism of the Maoist Cultural Revolution. The latter article was published in 1966 after a visit to the People’s Republic.

Enough already. I have left out so much. His wartime in the air force, for instance. His long years on the Left. His scientific interests. His love of dogs. More of that another time. For now, let’s note: Alan is an inspiration. Long may he continue. Let’s raise our glasses. Here’s to the next decade.