Back on 19 March, Alan Barcan, the Sydney Old Left and threads in New England’s history set out some initial thoughts triggered by reading Alan’s book Radical Students: the Old Left at Sydney University (Melbourne University Press, Carlton South 2002). I was interested in the book partly because I had read some of Alan’s work on the history of education in Australia, partly because I was trying to flesh out certain aspects of the development of Australian thought from the perspective of the history of New England that I am trying to write.
I followed this book by reading Judith Armstrong’s The Christensen Romance (Melbourne University Press, Carlton South 1996). This is the story of Clem and Nina Christensen. Clem was the founder of Meanjin, one of Australia’s literary magazines, while Nina founded Slavic Studies at the University of Melbourne. The book is partly the story of their respective life and careers, more the story of their relationship. Here you will get a feel from the title.
To a substantial degree, both books are dominated by life in two universities, Melbourne and Sydney. Alan focuses on Sydney, but refers often to Melbourne. Judith’s book focuses on Melbourne and the institutional battles that Clem and Nina faced; there is little about the broader impact of Meanjin. Both books are set against a backdrop of the political and ideological changes that took place in Australia and beyond during the twentieth century. Not unexpectedly, the names and events overlap.
As I indicated in my post, I grew up in a different academic world. However, I know the names referred to in both books. in some cases and especially in the case of the Barcan book, I knew the people; a number ended up at the University of New England or were connected through academic interests. They were part of the life I knew.
Obviously all this is of interest to me in a personal and professional sense. Unexpectedly, what caught my attention were the resonances between student politics at Sydney and current political events in Australia. The role of current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in student politics at Sydney have been well documented, as has the influence of those battles on the PM’s thinking. This is an example from 2013: Shadow boxing: Abbott's battle against 'Marxists' at the University of Sydney. The story is introduced this way:
In the '70s and '80s, the University of Sydney was split in a fierce battle over attempts to teach students a new kind of neo-classical economic theory. At the heart of the battle were Tony Abbott, Anthony Albanese and Malcolm Turnbull—and their actions explain much about our current politics.
All this is true enough.However, what is less well recognised is that the conflict at Sydney University did not just emerge, but had its roots in past battles. Mr Abbott’s views were not formed by the ideological battles of the 70s, but by fights that began thirty years earlier and where then institutionalised in student thought.
That’s actually a bit frightening. Just as I coming from a different cultural and political background to Mr Abbott seek to pursue older agendas, to conserve things that I consider to be important, so Mr Abbott is working from old agendas. Neither he nor I are new men, but people inextricably involved in the past.
Mr Abbott would argue, as I do so often, that our views are tempered, reformed, by current experiences. We are both new men, changing to meet needs. Mmmm!
The original intellectual frame at Sydney was set by the left. The right responded during the ideological battles of the 1940s. For a long time, the Andersonian libertarians were the main opposition to the left, although both sides had many common views. It seems to me that the right response that finally emerged was a funny mixture of social conservatism, Catholic Action, anti-communism and libertarianism. Each contributed its own if sometimes conflicting thread to the political and social response.
Now, in 2014, those past battles within the Sydney University student body are playing out on the national stage. Who would have thought it?!