Anarchism, Australia, Bob James

Anarchism, Australia
Bob James
International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest
Edited by Immanuel Ness, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Publishing in print and online April 2009

At least as early as the 1840s (“Australia” having only been settled by white Europeans in 1788), the term “anarchist” was used as a slander by conservatives against their political opponents; for example, by W. C. Wentworth against Henry Parkes and J. D. Lang for speaking in favor of Australian independence from Britain. This opportunistic blackening of reputations has continued to the present day. What has also continued is that Australian attempts to express the philosophy positively have reflected other countries’ concerns or global rather than local issues.

For example, the first positive public expression of the philosophy was the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC) which, established in 1886, consciously reflected the Boston Anarchist Club’s approach to strategy and philosophy, having a secretary, a chairperson, speakers’ rules, and prepared papers which the public were invited to hear. The club was also a response to the 1884 call by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the US and Canada for a celebration of May 1, 1886 as an expression of working-class solidarity. The first MAC meeting was held on that day at the instigation of Fred Upham from Rhode Island, the two Australian-born Andrade brothers, David and William, and three other discontented members of the Australasian Secular Association (ASA) based in Melbourne.

Australian labor activists had been involved in Eight Hour Day agitations since 1871 and in deliberately associating themselves with the overseas movement for May Day the MAC organizers exposed their lack of involvement in local labor politics and their vulnerability to the rise or fall of distant agendas. Their first meeting, of course, almost coincided with the Haymarket explosion in Chicago, and the longer and more colorfully that tragedy and its aftermath held world attention, the more difficult it was for less sensational views to be put.

In the absence of more detailed and considered research, it also seems reasonable to argue that the infamous arrests, mistrial, and execution of self-proclaimed anarchists for the explosion set the scene for the next century. Not only did short-term conflict between supporters of local Eight Hour Days and those in favor of the more international May Day approach bedevil labor politics for some years, but, in the long term, libertarianism of all forms has been greatly handicapped and on the defensive ever since. This comment can probably be made about much anarchist endeavor around the world, but the close identification of the MAC with “the Haymarket” has possibly had a longer-lasting and deeper negative impact. This is despite the fact that it was, during our own “Reign of Terror,” a focal point for local agitators: “With one possible exception, the trial of the eight Chicago anarchists is the most dramatic in all labour history” (Lane 1939: 16).

In what was a period of great social upheaval, many well-known union leaders and labor spokespeople actually declared their support in the decade, 1886–96. But they had to do so from behind pseudonyms or in private. Years later they could publically acknowledge having being influenced by propagandists from the MAC, in particular by Jack Andrews, a major figure, who, among other things, believed he was the first anywhere to articulate a theory of communist-anarchism.

One of the earliest members of the MAC, Andrews had to overcome a severe stutter and depression brought on by a tormented childhood, an above-average intelligence, and a fragmented cultural background. He developed skills as an inventor, a poet, and a linguist, and was prepared to push his beliefs to the extremes of sleeping rough, refusing payment for work, and living off the land. Renouncing respectability, such as the yoke of collar and tie, and devoting himself entirely to “the cause,” he impressed his comrades with his learning and sincerity, but was easily picked off by the authorities on trumped up charges when the police failed to involve him in sham dynamite plots. He gave up mass agitational work in 1895, but continued writing, including for overseas journals such as Freedom and Revolt, and moving in labor circles, becoming editor of Tocsin in 1901. He died of consumption in 1903.

Under internal and external pressures, the MAC had by 1890 already fractured into “voluntary-communist,” communist-anarchist, and individualist anarchist factions, the last specifically following Benjamin Tucker and other US writers.

Writer and publicist David Andrade, who wrote the club’s constitution, developed what would be later called lifestyle anarchism. In the 1890s this meant vegetarianism and hydrotherapy and agitation against organized religion and medical interventions such as vaccination and fluoride. He left Melbourne for Gippsland, where he attempted self-sufficiency along the lines of a scheme he’d set out in his book The Melbourne Riots (1892). In 1895 his family lost everything in a bushfire. Andrade succumbed to the loss and was institutionalized, where he died in 1929.

Perhaps the best known of all labor organizers in the period when the Australian Labor Party was born, 1890–5, William Lane, brother of Ernie, came to Australia from England in the 1880s. He quickly established himself as a journalist, and as editor of the Brisbane Worker, “John Miller,” he espoused libertarian communism under the guise of “mateship” and “cooperation.” Disillusioned with labor politics and convinced useful gains could not be made, he left the paper in 1892. After producing a documentary novel Working Man’s Paradise, he helped galvanize a mass emigration of hundreds of labor stalwarts in 1893 to Paraguay. “New Australia” foundered on a lack of preparation and over his leadership, which was veering to the authoritarian. In the early twentieth century he edited a conservative newspaper in New Zealand in which he opposed all labor-based initiatives.

John “Chummy” Fleming was a local agitator attracted to the MAC but never seduced by it. He initiated the first May Day procession in Melbourne, in 1892, and in later years felt that it was his, even when the organizers, political laborites, told him he was not wanted. With a cow bell and his black flag he would start well ahead, slowing down gradually until it appeared he was leading the march. Among Emma Goldman’s correspondents, he continued to speak, rain, hail, or shine, in public parks until his death in the 1950s.

Its international focus and the conservative, even authoritarian nature of Australian society has meant that between that “revolutionary” period and the 1970s “youth movements” anarchism has been kept alive only by individuals or small scattered groups, a number of whom have been part of the continued emigration flow from Europe. Few have been researched in detail – a selection follows:

• A Spanish-language bulletin produced in Innisfail, Queensland by cane cutters and described as “the best anarchist newspaper produced at the time anywhere in the world” deserves mention here, with an Italian-language anti-fascist newspaper, Il Risveglio, produced in 1927 in Sydney. [See also : The Proletarian Migrants: Fascism and Italian Anarchists in Australia, Gianfranco Cresciani, The Australian Quarterly, March, 1979.]
• A school, “Koornong,” which flourished from 1939 to 1948 is just one of numerous examples of efforts for libertarian education.
The Kleber-Claux family, from France, who energized the nudist movement in Sydney and elsewhere in the 1930s and 1940s and established one of the first communes in north Queensland.
Harvey Buttonshaw, from Victoria, went to Spain to fight with the Syndicalists in 1936, and told George Orwell to pull his head in, or he’d get shot, just before exactly that happened. He is among the group shown on the front cover of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
K. J. Kenafick [1904–?] campaigned for world peace largely on his own in the 1940s and 1950s, but did not live long enough to meet John Zube who articulated a theory he called Panarchy, or anarchism for peace, in the 1960s through to the 1990s.
• English gay man and anti-fascist refugee from Nazi retribution, John Olday [1905–1977] developed a cabaret, “Immortal Clown,” for his Café La Boheme in 1959 Sydney. His LP record “Roses and Gallows” might have been picked up by the Sydney Libertarians who made a splash from the late 1950s into the 1960s, but they were more interested in free love, personal freedom, and betting systems.
• Australia also provided a haven for Bulgarian, Spanish, Italian, and other European anarchists after World War II, Bulgaria being one of the few places where an anarchist government held office for a period between the retreating Nazis and the Soviets. Some of these were instrumental in setting up the long-running Jura Bookshop [est.1977] in Sydney in the 1970s, from which Red Fern Black Rose [est. 1981/2] was a subsequent breakaway. Again, the split was largely between syndicalist and “lifestyle” anarchisms.

The Sydney Libertarians, or The Push as they were locally known, were survived by Germaine Greer, Clive James, Wendy Bacon, and Frank Moorhouse among others, who went on to establish themselves in the “alternative” 1970s and beyond.

In the mid-1970s, Alternative Canberra, instigated by Bob James, helped organize “Confests” (a combination of conference and festival) after Graeme Dunstan and others ‘liberated’ Nimbin on the north coast of New South Wales. The Anarcho-Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminists (ASIF) was a South Australian group which developed political street theater to insist that theoretical gender equivalence among anarchists was not good enough; Pio [П O; 1951–] and his sister Thalia were Greek-born performance poets; Vince Ruiz [1912–1998] was involved with Melbourne’s Free Legal Service and the Free Store movement; Digger, Living Daylights, and Nation Review were important magazines to emerge from the ferment.

With the major events of the 1960s and 1970s so heavily influenced by overseas anarchists, local libertarians, in addition to those mentioned, were able to generate sufficient strength “down under” to again attempt broad-scale, formal organization. In particular, Andrew Giles-Peters [?–2009], an academic at La Trobe University (Melbourne) fought to have local anarchists come to serious grips with Bakunin and Marxist politics within a Federation of Australian Anarchists format which produced a series of documents. Annual conferences that he, Brian Laver, Drew Hutton, and others organized in the early 1970s were sometimes disrupted by Spontaneists, including Peter McGregor [1947–2008], who went on to become a one-man team stirring many national and international issues.

Community Radio was an important libertarian channel for numerous grouplets and individuals as feminism and green thinking in all their forms took hold. The not-so-green Libertarian Workers group in Melbourne, led by medico Joe Toscano, has since been a major force. He was instrumental in attempting exorcism of the “Haymarket effect” in May 1986 with the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations. Held over four days and nights, it brought locals and international visitors together but failed in its long-term purposes, perhaps for the same reasons that William Lane failed.

“The past is another country.” ~ L. P. Hartley

An interesting account by Bob.

A few comments:

Local &/Or General

Bob notes that, right from the start, anarchism in Australia has been subjected to the same slander as anarchist movements everywhere, and further notes that this “opportunistic blackening of reputations has continued to the present day” (See : ‘Hard Cash: John Dwyer and his Contemporaries, 1890-1914’, M. G. Hearn, August 2000. Chapter 5: Before the Law: The Sydney Anarchy Trials, 1894-95, PDF). A useful recent examination of the impact of the former in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century America is available in William M. Phillips, Nightmares of Anarchy: Language and Cultural Changes 1870–1914, Bucknell University Press, 2004; contemporary examples of the latter continue to abound.

Bob also laments the pernicious influence of what he terms the “Haymarket effect”, which has hounded anarchism in Australia for over a century. Combined with “the conservative, even authoritarian nature of Australian society”, an “international” — rather than local, Australian — outlook has doomed anarchism in Australia to the political margins.

There is some substance to this argument, but I believe it to be exaggerated, and the reasons anarchism in Australia has never emerged as a mass movement has a good deal more to do with, on the one hand, its fate in other islands, and, on the other hand, the peculiar nature of Australia as a white colonial outpost in the Asia-Pacific region.

In regards to the first, the historian George Woodcock (1912–1995) (in)famously remarked in the first edition of his Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962) that anarchism was dead, and its bullet-ridden corpse could be found among the hundreds of thousands of casualties of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Like other such pronouncements (cf. former RAND corporation analyst Francis Fukuyama’s ridiculous essay on ‘The End of History?’ 1989/1992), this too proved to be something of an exaggeration.

The other key historical event which placed anarchism on the back foot was the Bolshevik Revolution: Bob makes no reference to this disaster, but if the murder of a handful of anarchists in Chicago in 1886 had a major international impact on Western workers’ movements, then the triumph of Communism in first Russia, and then throughout Eastern Europe, and later China, had an (almost) incalculable one. As such, in order to in some way understand the political marginalisation of anarchism, I think it makes more sense to speak of the combined effects on anarchism as a global movement of the triumph, first, of Bolshevism, and then of fascism, than it does Haymarket. (On a related note, see: ‘Left communism in Australia: J.A. Dawson and the ‘Southern Advocate For Worker’s Councils’, Steve Wright, Thesis Eleven, No.1, 1980; also Reason in Revolt archived issues of the Southern Advocate for Workers’ Councils.)

Contemporary &/Or Historical

Approximately 2/3 of Bob’s account is dedicated to events, personalities and projects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; another 1/3 references other items from this period through to the 1980s. Of these, The Push is more-or-less dismissed, and the remainder summarises the impact of the generation of the ’60s and ’70s on the broader cultural environment. (See, for example, ‘ON ANARCHISM’, John Kinsella interviewed by Tracy Ryan, overland, November 24, 2008.)

    and suddenly we were interrupted

    crash, bang, ring, ring, ring,
    ring, ring, ring,
    ring, ring, ring,
    Jesus Christ!
    Go away! but it was pi, so he came in
    and it was
    Hey turn up the stereo and
    Hey turn down the stereo
    I can’t hear myself read
    And wait till you hear this
    and look at this
    and wait till you hear that
    and this is the most Reichian poem
    i ever wrote

    all the time using his smile
    like a battering ram.

    what’s all this?
    – my friends said.

    it’s ok – it’s pi, i told them
    He’s an anarchist poet.
    ~ Andrew Stein

The history of The wining/dining/loving/gambling/losing Push is examined in Anne Coombs’ Sex and Anarchy, Viking, 1996; the fates of the other figures Bob mentions varies: Brian Laver is inactive (although I did have the privilege of witnessing the reception of a critical paper of his on sado-masochism at the 1995 Visions of Freedom conference in Sydney) while Drew Hutton is a Green (the Greens seemingly being a natural home for many disillusioned anarchists of that and later eras). To describe the indefatigable Dr Joe Toscano as having been a “major force” in Australian anarchism since 1986 is a matter for debate.

In terms of documenting the period since 1986, of note is the series of pamphlets on political pranks produced by some-body-or-other: How to Make Trouble and Influence People, How To Stop Whining And Start Living and Revenge Of The Troublemaker. In this context, see also : Culture Jamming: How To Make Trouble And Influence People, Background Briefing, ABC, October 18, 1998; It’s the Left, Jim, But Not as We Know It, Background Briefing, ABC, August 13, 2000. Also of relevance are the following blog posts: Some thoughts on the proposal for a regional anarchist federation in Oceania (March 10, 2008); Let’s Play (Quasi-)Celebrity Anarchy! (May 14, 2008); Attack of the Anarchoids from Neptune! (June 1, 2008); Always Look On The Bright Side of Life : The AIDEX ‘91 Story (November 10, 2008); Squatters, fuckwits, bums, lowlifes (January 20, 2009); Anarchist press in Australia? (January 25, 2009).

In the academy, ‘anarchism’ is largely regarded as the poorer, slightly retarded, and generally obstreporous cousin of Marxism — although this is slowly changing, as change it must, given the pivotal role anarchists have played in social movements of the post-Communist era. A few recent works which take anarchism seriously are 21st Century Dissent: Anarchism, Anti-Globalization and Environmentalism by Giorel Curran (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power by Saul Newman (Lexington Books, 2001). (On post-anarchism, see: Saul’s editorial by the seashore in Anarchist Studies, Vol.16, No.2, 2008; postanarchism clearinghouse; ‘Anarchism and Poststructuralism’ by Paul Nursey-Bray, 2003 [PDF].) In March 2000, Michael Vaux produced a bibliography of texts on Anarchism & Syndicalism in Australia & Aotearoa / New Zealand.

In any case, to the best of my knowledge, Bob has had little to do with anarchism in Australia since the centenary conference in 1986, and is now The Australian Centre For Fraternalism, Secret Societies and Mateship. It therefore makes sense that his account should terminate at this point. It’s worth noting that just a few years later an industrial dispute in which anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists played a significant role took place in the public transport industry in Melbourne: see Melbourne Tram Dispute and Lockout, January–February 1990: Anarcho-Syndicalism in Practice, Dick Curlewis (1917–2002) (Jura Media Publications, 1997).

An autobiographical account of his adventures in the anarchist wasteland of Australia is available in ‘A Personal Journey Through Anarchism in Australia’ (1997). (See also : Verity Burgmann, ‘One Hundred Years of Anarchism’, Arena, No.74, 1986.)

…I finally determined (if you’ve got this far, THIS IS THE IMPORTANT BIT) that the question I needed to answer whatever anyone else thought about it – was what was it in the history of western civilisation that was so powerful that no matter what someone’s intention was or the ideal they said they were living by, they were invariably afraid of being an autonomous adult? I wasn’t thinking anymore about genes, or family conditioning, because it seemed to me that they had to be grappled with as part of a lived historical phenomenon – fear of conflict, of a lack of order and of a lack of rules and discipline, how was it that these attitudes had become part of your actual, real Australian society, and seemed to be everywhere, no matter what people labelled themselves, no matter how many thought they were ‘grown-up’…

It’s sometimes said the major distinction which divides ‘anarchists’ in Australia is that between the ‘class conscious’ ones and the ‘lifestylers’. Nah – the important distinction is between those people who think they already know enough and those who believe that they will never know enough and therefore must always hold themselves open to new experiences, new learning, which of course means that they are less likely to commit themselves to a hard and fast position such as going to the barricades to kill or be killed. Unfortunately, members of these two groups think they’re on the same side and, along with lots of posturing and defensiveness, argue incessantly with one another.

No agreement between these two approaches is possible and, in my view, should never be attempted. Believers in one can become believers in the other and the diffident should never be dismissed by those who like to see themselves as committed militants. Someone will have to drive the ambulances, after all, and feed the horses.

It seems to me that the class war approach is a particularly virulent attempt to keep the dark at bay, by claiming to be able to predict the future, and by believing that the necessary decisions have aleady been made. I prefer to keep my power-analysis dry. But at least the class-warriors have something to say, and at least they show signs of listening, and responding in a language that bears some resemblance to reality.

[See : Anarchism In Australia Today, A survey of current debates in the Australian anarchist movement. Revised and Edited by Leigh Kendall. First published by Melbourne anarcho-syndicalists April 1986. Second edition published by Scam Publications March 1997.]

At the bottom of all the argy-bargy are some mandatory questions – if you are going to use the word, what is to be the test of ‘anarchism’? who applies the test? If it’s to be the person providing the definition, how did that person or person get to be the judge? what happens, in real life, if they are questioned/opposed? in other words how does this definition of ‘anarchism’ deal with conflict? And what does anarchic ‘success’ actually look like?

It would seem to me that the most flattering comparison between anarchism and other ideologies is gained when anarchism is seen as a dynamic process, one to which each of us can contribute but one which no single person can control. And that anarchism is best described as a situation wherein power relationships most closely approach to equivalence. But because it is a dynamic situation, and because there are so many influential factors, there will never be any static position which is ‘ANARCHISM.’ It will always be ‘weakening’ or ‘strengthening.’ Which brings me back to History. But not just any history.

I’d argue today for a very strong attachment to one’s local place as a necessary ingredient for anarchist attitudes, and that involvement in one’s local history society was a significant thing for people aspiring to anarchism to do.

But anyone who wants to see where the racism, sexism, etc, actually came from, how it got to be inside our heads along with a pronounced regard for anyone higher-up than us, I suggest the convergent histories of trade unions / freemasons / friendly societies is where to look – and there’s no better view of the process in happening colour than from the inside.

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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2 Responses to Anarchism, Australia, Bob James

  1. Pingback: Dark is the room where we sleep « Poumista

  2. Elizabeth-Dea Shanta says:

    Left communist Hungary forty years ago, it was already dying. Capitalism was also dying but I did not [know] it then.

    Our crumbling society is calling me for joining the Australian anarchist movement.


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