Burchell on 1968 and all that

    David Burchell is (was?) a Senior Lecturer in Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of Western Horizon: Sydney’s Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics (Scribe, 2003). He was the co-editor, with Andrew Leigh, of The Prince’s New Clothes: Why do Australians Dislike their Politicians? (UNSW Press, 2002).

    For some years the editor of Australian Left Review [1966–1993] he currently chairs the board of Australian Universities Review, and is an associate editor at Australian Policy Online. He researches and pubishes in areas of public policy, ethics and citizenship, and has a specific research interest in current debates around multiculturalism, religion and ethnicity.

David Burchell flogs “the generation of May 1968” with a wet lettuce:

Barristers beat the bureaucrats
David Burchell
The Australian
May 26, 2008

RECENTLY I’ve found my leisure moments dominated by two troubling sets of thoughts, which seem to churn over in my head like unmatched socks in a washing machine.

The first is the seemingly endless outpouring of sentiment in the international media for the generation of May 1968. The sickly-sweet, self-justifying character of these memoirs, I confess, only reduces me to weary distaste.

I’m talking about people, now in their greying years, who seem perpetually suspended in the spirit of childlike exultation and Oedipal frenzy that characterised the student revolts of that year. Reading this stuff is like being a spectator at a Reichian psychoanalysis session.

The second is the phenomenon I’ve come to think of as the great shrinking of our public life. We live in an era in which we seem fated to be governed – with a few honourable exceptions – by an increasingly bloodless and enervated cast of public individuals. Our public life seems to have become a limited-budget B-movie, with all the real stars occupied elsewhere.

George Megalogenis may have been unkind when he described Kevin Rudd as our “first national premier”. But there’s little doubt that, with a few notable exceptions, the federal cabinet eerily resembles a state cabinet of an older generation, right down to the fact that almost everybody seems to be a former party official. And as for the federal Opposition…

Then the disquieting thought occurred to me, like a light bulb popping above Wile E. Coyote’s head in an old Warner Bros cartoon, that my two worries were perhaps related.

The 68ers have claimed all sorts of things for themselves over the years: the invention of free love, personal self-expression, even politics itself. Most of these claims are pure jeu d’esprit, as the French would say. Mere whimsy.

And yet, if we are indeed so glaringly light-on for talent in our public leadership and administration, might not the 1960s kids for once truly be the cause of it? What if, after 40 years of monotonous incantations, the nation’s best and brightest have truly imbibed the old ’60s mantra that public service is purely for the short-back-and-sides set, the button-down shirt brigade? And, contrariwise, that all the really interesting experiences in life – all the things that get you genuinely in touch with yourself, man – are to be found elsewhere?

When in younger days I moonlighted as a doctoral candidate, one of my brightest colleagues declared (in something like a coming-out moment) that he felt called to pursue his social ideals among the ranks of the federal public service. (Today he’s a division head in an important federal department.) Among the friends in attendance, there was a moment of dazed silence, as if somebody had died. How could an outbreak of social idealism cause you to want to join the bureaucracy? How could you shape the world closer to your dreams in a collar and tie, in a partitioned office, bundying on and off? And even if you could, where was the poetry in it?

In order to understand how politics and public service have come to seem so ineffably uncool, it helps to recall the fears and horrors that seized the children of the old professional middle class in the epoch-changing decades after World WarII. These were societies in which mass democratic politics had finally come to maturity.

The old working classes, once pitied objects of solicitation, had got their hands on property and security, and had succeeded in imprinting their cultural tastes on national life. And the children of the old cultural elites, whose ancestors had basked among servants, aspidistras and string quartets, were increasingly corralled into a world of salaried office jobs with airconditioning and too-bright fluorescent lights.

Behind all the bombast and wild imaginings of the 68ers lay the simple primal fear (which kept them awake at night) of taking their place as mere salarymen, cogs in the machine. This was not what their schooling, or their gene pool, had trained them for.

All the shouting, chaos and confusion amounted merely to this declaration: no, we won’t be battened down. Instead, like the romantic free spirits before us, we’ll go our own way. We’ll create our own new professions and para-professions, with suitably informal work regimes and dress rules. And we’ll craft our own loftier global morality (which we’ll choose to call our politics, on the ground that everything is political, except what they call politics).

Indeed, if you look at the political romantics of today – the heirs of 1968 – you’ll see that in surprising measure they still occupy independent niches in the professions, and they still spend a good part of their time protecting the masses from themselves. Successful barristers present themselves as guardians of the nation’s human rights, against the supposed predations of lying politicians and craven public servants (mere salarymen, all). And medical specialists become the special protectors of what they present as indigenous interests, resisting on principle any intervention by politicians and the state on their sacred turf.

Mind you, as the former 68er Paul Berman has observed [A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968, WW Norton, 1997], that era also produced a more honourable species of survivor. These are the old activists who cast off their errors, rescued the useful experiences and then moved on. And so, first Joschka Fischer in Germany and now Bernard Kouchner in France evolved from the ultra politics of 1968 to the foreign ministries of their respective countries, where they’ve espoused idealistic versions of liberal internationalism in Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere. It goes without saying that they now find themselves denounced by the 68er wannabes of today as traitors and imperialist lapdogs. Why, they’re working for the Man.

When Fischer resigned from public office in Germany in 2005, he is said to have commented: “After 20 years of power, I want my freedom back.” Would that more of his kind could sublimate that restless quest for personal freedom to the rigours of power for 20 years. Our public life might be a healthier, brighter place.

See also : Mills on May ‘68 (May 14, 2008) | Salute: Peter Norman (May 10, 2008) | Ooh la la… (May 3, 2008) | REVEALED! Foreign provocateurs have long history of causing trouble (January 23, 2007) | ‘We need to push and shove and throw things’ (October 21, 2006)

Speaking of ‘1968’, Mick Armstrong of local Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative has apparently just completed a speaking tour on the subject with fellow Italian Marxist Yurii Colombo. Bob Gould attended the presentation in Sydney and, perhaps not unexpectedly, was not impressed. Which is unfortunate, as Mick and Bob were certainly able to reach agreement on the G20 protest in Melbourne in 2006. Bob wrote:

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment was a funny movie, but 100 Morgans running around is a political pain in the neck.

The old movie, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, starring a very young Vanessa Redgrave, is one of my personal all-time favourite movies. The penultimate scene, with the whole world chasing Morgan in his monkey suit all over London, is very funny indeed.

One Morgan is okay, but a hundred or so southern-hemisphere Black Bloc wannabes trashing police vehicles at an otherwise peaceful but relatively small Melbourne demonstration, in the current reactionary Australian political climate, is something essentially quite different to Morgan’s monkey suit.

The essential question [sic] is the fact that these irresponsible political adventurers disguise their faces. I agree strongly with Mick Armstrong’s post on this matter on Leftwrites, and I defer to his knowledge, based on his investigation as to who these people were [viz, crazy, ultra-violent, exploitative, hostile, contemptuous, abusive, ultra-sectarian, anarchist provocateurs and wreckers from New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, England and interstate]. The very act of people from outside a city invading a demonstration in another city with the clear intention of launching a semi-military attack on the cops, with their faces covered, irrespective of the consequences for the rest of the demonstrators, is a calculated political act directed against the bulk of the demonstrators.

People with covered faces who attack the cops, unless they are rather unlucky and their covering falls off, are very dangerous to everybody else at the demonstrations, and quite possibly include fascists and agents provocateur… real agents provocateur certainly do exist, and organised contingents with covered faces clearly facilitate the [activities] of real agents provocateur

But that was then and this is now, and despite their unanimous condemnation of the scum who spoilt G20, Bob and Mick certainly don’t agree on ‘1968’, nor on how a public meeting to discuss the subject should be conducted. After noting that the meeting “kicked off with a report for a minute or two by a rather gloomy looking bloke”, a teacher, on a teachers’ dispute, “the Italian speaker went on for about 40 minutes, which was a bit on the painful side, as he wasn’t very fluent in English and his political conclusions seemed pretty obscure. At the end of his speech he got dutiful explosive applause, led from the platform. Then Mick spoke, also for about 40 minutes.” Writes Bob (Mick Armstrong’s prayer meeting about May 1968, Ozleft, May 28, 2008):

His speech was reasonably rousing, although pretty general, and he didn’t really make any serious observations about the strategic and tactical issues for Australia posed by the events of May 1968 and 1969, other than very general ones.

Mick himself is a rather unlikely candidate for the role of cult leader, but in a way he has clearly become one, which has got me beat a bit. He got uproarious applause.

Then the chair of the meeting gave a little package of Socialist Alternative books to the Italian comrade as a memento and the meeting was closed.

To say the least, I was gobsmacked. That was partly personal irritation, being the only person present who had been a reasonably significant participant in the events of that time in Australia, but the personal insult was not the most important point. What got under my skin politically was the graphic way, demonstrated at that meeting, a propaganda group actually operates in the rounded way that Mick theorises in his recent pamphlet.

A discussion of May 1968, which was a rolling, global revolutionary event, marked by popular assemblies, and an enormous clash of ideas, strategic conceptions and a whole ferment of argument and debate, can’t be reduced to a totally ritualised formulaic meeting.

Socialist Alternative is turning into a political replica of the Hillsong Church. It is propagandism gone totally loopy – a hermetically sealed world from which serious argument appears to be excluded…

Despite the fact that I’m writing this in a mood of exasperation and irritation, I’m also rather glad that I attended the meeting because I have the very distinct feeling that I got an very good view of the kind of protracted moment that Socialist Alternative is going through as it transforms from a socialist group into a kind of cult with a most unlikely cult leader…

Cruel perhaps, but fair? Fair and cruel: Still at it: Labor’s $100,000 lunches (Andrew West, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 26, 2008): “THE Iemma Government is still selling access to its most senior ministers for more than $100,000, despite a pledge by the Premier to clean up the state’s controversial election funding system”.

    Note that the English, German and Swedish “football hooligans who travel the world looking for violence” (according to Eagle-Eye Armstrong) appear to have slipped through the police net, and only one Kiwi, not 10 or 20 or 30 or 40, has been arrested so far in connection to the G20 protests. Further, that of the 28 so far charged, Akin Sari — a (former) Monash student and political refugee from Turkey — has been banged up, while ten others — university students, plus a barman, child-care worker and a couple of unemployed (average age 24) — pleaded guilty to charges of riot, affray and assault, and were given non-custodial sentences. Four minors and fourteen adults are yet to go to trial.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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8 Responses to Burchell on 1968 and all that

  1. juancastro says:

    Politics andy, politics. Everyone has an agenda, and this guy wants to make sure that SAlt does NOT recruit any more people.

    Now, I know in Melbourne we had a similar event after a day school on Marxist economics (which I think is the set up they would have had in Sydney). So the whole day started at 11 and finished at about 10. That’s one longgg day! We were just too tired to have a formal discussion, though I know for a fact that many informal ones took place. Just the day before was a discussion group where about 50 of the more experienced members (plus myself and a few other interested newbies) discussed many of the details of the issue in real depth.

    RE the idolisation of Mick, I don’t feel that this takes place at all. Rather, we see him for what he is: a very experienced and knowledgeable comrade, who has a lot of insight on certain issues, and is wrong on others. The reason the applause might have been so uproarious is that the 60’s talk he gave was genuinely pretty damn uplifting! This explains the backhand compliment from Gould. Another explanation was the fact that the Sydney branch rarely sees him, and perhaps were showing genuine appreciation for a visit from an important comrade? Lastly, the event was a fun and inspiring cap to a long and stimulating day, so we were all buzzing a bit.

    But no, we’re all brainwashed cult followers. Patronising arse.

    I fucking hate all this inter-left personal sniping. By all means have debates about policy and analysis…

  2. @ndy says:

    Hey ju@n,

    Yeah. Bob has an agenda. But I really don’t think it’s as straightforward as you claim. He frames his criticism of SAlt in terms of their supposed adherence to propagandism, but is otherwise highly critical of socialist parties which operate outside of the political mainstream, and locates his own activity squarely within it. Thus he himself is a member of the ALP, and has been for many years. There’s obviously problems with this approach, but I don’t believe his primary concern is SAlt’s recruiting a few more members.

    Inre the meeting itself, I’m a little confused by what you’ve written. Mick’s address formed part of a national tour specifically on this subject, and consisting of meetings in Canberra (Wednesday May 21), Brisbane (Thursday May 22), Melbourne (Saturday May 24) and Sydney (Tuesday May 27). What this has to do with a day-long session on Marxist economics I’m not sure.

    Inre Mick’s status as guru, I guess that’s a matter of perspective. Leaving aside any observations regarding personal style or crowd reaction, however, I think Bob’s main point is the absence of political discussion following the presentation. He speculates that it was his presence which may have prompted this, but I kinda doubt it. Instead, this appears to have been the intention all along. To what extent is this typical of SAlt meetings? I dunno. I think I’ve attended maybe two or three in the last 13 years, and ISO meetings a similar number (and over a similar period — I attended my first ISO meeting as a high school student in the late 1980s). In any case, I think this aspect of the meeting, the wildly enthusiastic response, and apparent gulf between priest (Mick) and flock (student), is what prompted the comparison, in addition to whatever political rivalry SAlt and the ALP may have.

  3. Dean T says:

    I love how SAlt get their knickers in a bunch so easily… so I won’t have a go at the poor misguided Trots in this forum today… what I really want to know is: Who are the two bands in the above post? The German punk band are shit-hot, just my cup of tea, and the brothers in the spoken word clip seem pretty damn switched on too!

  4. @ndy says:

    Dean: The first vid is by legendary US poet, writer and musician Gil Scott-Heron (1949–). The second by Spanish anarchist hardcore band Sin Dios. Gil toured here in 1995 — one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to.

  5. juancastro says:

    Like I said, the meetings with Yuri and Mick in both Melbourne and Sydney (and probably everywhere else) were held directly after day schools on Marxist economics. They were separate events, but obviously most people went to both, and hence were tired after a long day.

    Every SAlt event is focussed on discussion following an introduction speech presented by a comrade usually going for less than a third of the overall time allocated. Bob Gould is deluded if he thinks he has anything to do with the lack of one in Sydney. If people aren’t seeking to understand things in a realistic manner then really, whatever.

    @ Dean

    More boring, patronising and apolitical rubbish. I wonder what sensational model of revolutionary activity you promote and presumably live up to?

    I enjoy being in an organisation with a couple of hundred people who are (to differing degrees, as in any group) fiercely committed to setting aside time for regular and sustained political activity, to involving larger numbers of people in daily and revolutionary struggles and to continuous and ongoing education and self-criticism.

    No knickers being twisted here, just presenting a confident defence of a conscious choice.

  6. @ndy says:


    Briefly: OK. So the Melbourne event followed a day-long workshop on Marxist economics, and SAlt members who attended this workshop were too tired by the time Yurii and Mick spoke to want to engage in public discussion after they’d finished speaking. This does not, however, appear to have been the case in Sydney, where the same day-long event took place the previous Tuesday (May 20). Or at least, that’s what the SAlt website states. In any case, this attitude would seem to imply that only SAlt members are really welcome to comment following SAlt presentations.

    Beyond this, I would add two things.

    First, I don’t view it as being an unpardonable sin for a group to organise an event in which only the nominated speakers actually do so. Generally speaking, however, events of this sort usually allow for some sort of response from the audience. In fact, some measure the success of such presentations in terms of the extent to which they are thought-provoking, and thereby compel audience members to respond in some fashion — whether to agree or to disagree, to seek clarification on particular points made by the speaker/s, and even to offer their own analysis, opinion and perspective, however briefly.

    Secondly, that the Sydney event did not allow for public response was obviously disappointing to Uncle Bob in particular, but given the nature of the discussion — concerning events during a period widely considered crucial in the development of radical theory and practice in Western societies in the post-WWII period — the opportunity for others to speak may arguably have been very worthwhile. That such discussion did not take place, and the seemingly completely uncritical, indeed rapturous response received by Mick and Yurii, is what I think partly fuels Uncle Bob’s perception of the event as being more akin to a prayer meeting than a ‘political’ one.

  7. juancastro says:

    Well then, I have no idea why there was no discussion. I agree that it would’ve been bloody useful.

  8. @ndy says:

    Ideological intransigence, democratic centralism and cultism: a case study from the political left
    Dr. Dennis Tourish
    Cultic Studies Journal, 15, 1998


    There is a dearth of literature documenting the existence of cults in the political sphere. This paper suggests that some left wing organizations share a number of ideological underpinnings and organizational practices which inherently inclines them to the adoption of cultic practices. In particular, it is argued that doctrines of ‘catastrophism’ and democratic centralist modes of organization normally found among Trotskyist groupings are implicated in such phenomenon. A case history is offered of a comparatively influential Trotskyist grouping in Britain, which split in 1992, where it is suggested that an analysis of the organization in terms of cultic norms is particularly fruitful. This is not intended to imply that a radical critique of society is necessarily inappropriate. Rather, it is to argue that political movements frequently adopt organizational forms, coupled with ‘black and white’ political programmes, which facilitate the exercise of undue social influence. This stifles genuinely creative political thought. Issues which this analysis suggests are particularly pertinent for those involved in radical politics are considered.

    Tourish “was a member of the Committee for a Workers International (aka CWI, Militant Tendency or now the Socialist Party) in Ireland from 1974 to 1985. For six of those years I worked for it full time. After leaving, in circumstances that would be boringly familiar to those who have either studied or experienced the Trotskyist party building milieu, I became a full time student and then an academic. I am now a Professor of Communication at a Scottish university.”

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