Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University

Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University

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By Alan Barcan

From the 1920s to the 1960s the Australian Left struggled to make ideological sense of the Great Depression, the growth of fascism and militarism overseas, World War II, the atomic bomb, the Cold War and fear of communism. All these issues found expression on the campus of Australia's oldest university, where ardent youth pursued the ideal of social justice. Sydney's controversial philosophy professor John Anderson and his Freethought Society added volatility to the mix with their rejection of orthodox politics. Later, impassioned hostility between supporters of the Communist Party, the Labor Party and the Catholic 'Movement' led by B. A. Santamaria ruffled undergraduate life. Alan Barcan was himself a participant in the radical movement.

This account of the period, leavened with anecdotes and lively undergraduate wit, recreates the texture of student life and the shifting faultlines of political loyalties. The ruthless tactics, ponderous zeal and underlying idealism of student politics are set against discussions of the liberal humanist tradition and the nature and purpose of universities. Barcan presents a roll-call of famous names in Australian political, professional and cultural life. Poet James McAuley, with fag in mouth and a glass of cheap plonk, pounds the piano for rehearsals of the student revue. Similarly unfamiliar appearances are made by Gough Whitlam, John Kerr, H. V. Evatt, Brian Fitzpatrick, P. R. Stephensen, Donald Horne, Christopher Brennan, A. D. Hope, Germaine Greer, Amy Witting, Neville Wran, Peter Coleman, P. P. McGuinness, and many other significant figures of the past half- century. Radical Students will stir the blood of those who were there, and make stimulating reading for those Australians who care about education, politics and liberal thought.