Radical Students. The Old Left at Sydney University
Alan Barcan . Melbourne University Press

Take me, for instance.  Am I really that raw youth of 17 who in 1946 coedited with a communist friend a magazine called Left Forum for the communist-dominated Labour Club at Sydney University (and tried to liven it up with jokes)?  I have absolutely zero memory of the episode, but it must be true because it is thoroughly documented in Alan Barcan's massively researched story of student politics in Sydney and Melbourne between the 1920s and the 1960s.

And am I also that 21-year-old who in 1950, according to Barcan, debated the Menzies government's plan to ban the communist party with my friend, the late David Stove?  By this time I was loudly denouncing both the communist party and those Liberals who wanted to ban it. I have a better memory of this great affair because I can distantly hear my own voice, however confused.

I am not alone in youthful confusions.  Barcan also tells us of Neville Wran (later Labor premier) joining the Liberal Club, and of Eric Willis (Liberal premier), Bob Ellicott (Liberal Attorney-General) and Michael Baume (Liberal Senator) joining the Labour Club.

The point is it takes you a while to sort yourself out. The great value of Barcan's book is that it is an encyclopaedia of the adventures young men and women feeling their way into or out of politics and religion as they try to make sense of the world and themselves.

Barcan's subject is radical students. (He has little to say about conservatives.) He begins with the emergence of political clubs in the 1920's, especially the Labour Club.  He then traces the contests within the Left in the 1930's and 1940's between the communists and the anti-communist freethinkers gingered up by Professor John Anderson.

By 1956 Mr Khrushchev's "secret speech" about the crimes of Stalin, followed by the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, led to a general disenchantment with the Soviet Union and the emergence of a more democratic New Left. This in turn gave way in the 1960s to a still newer New Left, to the Cultural Revolution of drugs, rock'n roll and various New Age liberationisms.  By the 1980s this New Left had become at once more defensive and self-satisfied, more subsidised, more bureaucratised.

Barcan humanises his chronicle with a chapter of autobiography. The story is not just a bit of history to him.  It is the meaning of his life.  His family of Russian Jews settled in Sydney before the first world war. There was a picture of Lenin on the wall when he was growing up.  He joined the Communist Party when it was (nominally) illegal in 1941 and left it in 1946, largely under the influence of John Anderson. Still on the Left, but in a sort of no man's land without a positive creed, he was always sympathetic to other lost ex-communists pursuing strange gods.  His mother and sister turned to Jehovah's Witnesses. A friend took up scientology.  He himself found some sustenance in Titoism.

Underlying all this commitment was a faith in the western heritage, in liberal culture, in books and music and science. This is for Barcan the ultimate creed of the Old Left before it was undermined by communism and then destroyed by the New Left. In a crisis Barcan will find solace and direction not in, say, reading the Bible, but in reading history -- Pirenne on Mohammed and Charlemagne, or Huizinga on the middle ages, or Tarn on hellenistic civilisation.

The creed lingers still in his dedication to traditional education. It was, he says, the triviality of the Whitlam Government's policy on education and its capitulation to the Cultural Revolution of 1967-1974 that finally led him to resign from the Labor Party.

It is a moving story. To this day you still occasionally meet impressive representatives of the Old Left who share Barcan's creed and live according to it. There are also a goodly number of phonies among them for whom culture is a pious slogan and not a living creed. They help explain the militantly philistine book-burners of the New Left who prefer authenticity to humbug. But Barcan's book is evidence of the other tradition.

There is a cast of thousands in his drama.  Among law students there is Jim Staples the communist, roneoing and distributing Khrushchev's "secret speech"; Ken Gee the Trotskyist, denouncing banks and monopolies; and Frank McGrath declaring : "The true revolutionary is one who not only bangs out a revolutionary theory but who also lives a revolutionary life."

Catholic activists include Edmund Campion, sacked from the student newspaper Honi Soit after being accused of being an agent of B.A. Santamaria -- and then appointed editor; Greg Bartels also accused of wire-pulling for "the Movement"; and Jeremy Nelson on the right to practise birth control.

Women activists include Ann Barnard (always searching and joining -- the Yugoslav society, the China society, or the communist party, and then resigning from them all one by one); Madeleine Haydon (the communists, she said, should scrap their slogan If it's in the Tribune, it's true and change it to If it's in the Tribune, it's correct! ); and Germaine Greer (laying down the law on the 18th century novel of protest).

Among those who later made their names as journalists are Murray Sayle, Bill Harcourt,  Ted Morrisby,  Donald Horne,  Lillian Roxon, George Munster, P.P.McGuinness and Myfanwy Gollan.

One of the best known of those who later made Labor Parliamentary careers is Dick Klugman, pictured here among those arrested (and acquitted) in the celebrated, anti-Dutch, pro-Indonesia Margaret Street demo. of 1947.

For light relief there is honky-tonk Jim McAuley, with dangling cigarette and bottle of plonk, belting out rag-time for the university revue, while Gough Whitlam impersonates Noel Coward .

I first met Barcan at Sydney University in 1946. I was 17 and he was a grand old man of 24. He was the communist editor of Honi Soit.  I look back in amazement at his encouragement of my juvenile essays in journalism - interviews, reviews, reports. His manner was generous, tolerant, good-humoured.  That is the tone of this nostalgic if sometimes melancholy history which is also memoir.

Peter Coleman
the rathouse