The life and work of the self-employed socialist intellectual, Humphrey McQueen

All the radical, broadly based and rather multi-tendency and heterogenous student and youth movements eventually disintegrated in ways that were

The life and work of the self-employed socialist intellectual, Humphrey McQueen

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The life and work of the self-employed socialist intellectual, Humphrey McQueen

(essay)

 

There is a tradition in academia of dedicating to veteran or retiring scholars a "feschrift", which is usually a collection of essays by other scholars about the scholar's chosen field and their contribution to it. Humphrey McQueen has done his prolific and wide-ranging intellectual work mainly outside academe, and is a self-employed freelance historian and journalist, so he has no institution to give him a feschrift, but some of his writing is available on the web, so Ozleft has put together a list of this material as a kind of virtual feschrift. This is not to suggest that Humphrey may be about to retire, as he shows no sign of running out of intellectual steam and he has no great pot of superannuation to live on in any case. In fact, circumstances have made him into John Howard and Peter Costello's ideal citizen: he is forced both by economic necessity and by the passionate nature of his intellectual activity to work on past the standard retiring age - although the serious products of his work are not likely to please Howard and Costello at all.

I have a lot of sympathy for Humphrey in this respect. He is a little younger than me, about 60, and at the age of 66, I am in pretty much the same boat myself. The cynical thing about the insulting rhetoric of Howard and Costello on these matters is that their appeal to people in the age group of Humphrey and myself to work on is clearly linked to their intention to cut the pension and associated social benefits. We should fight that intention of the Tories with every piece of resourcefulness we can muster. The right to the pension and associated social benefits was won in struggle, and we should defend it.

 

Humphrey McQueen's life

 

Humphrey McQueen was born in Brisbane, into a Catholic working-class family that was active in the Labor Party. I first met him in the very early 1960s. He sent a copy of the Queensland Young Labor newsletter, which he edited, in which he reprinted several articles from Trotskyist journals, to a Sydney Trotskyist magazine with which I was associated. I was deputed by my colleagues to go to Brisbane and attend a Queensland Young Labor conference on the Sunshine Coast, and meet this young prodigy. This was quite a conference. Humphrey had invited a spectrum of socialist academics and personalities such as Bruce McFarlane, myself and others, to speak at this event, which mildly displeased the rather uncomprehending bureaucrats of the Old Guard, who at that time ran the Queensland ALP.

McQueen, even at the age of 18, was confident and articulate, and he was possibly the tallest youth I had ever encountered. We never did succeed in roping him into the political orbit of our Sydney Trotskyist group. He went, a year or so later, to Canberra and Melbourne to study, where he made the intellectual shift to Maoism and was caught up in the intense agitational activity and enthusiasm of the Maoist movement.

 

The mid-1960s: the moment of the radical student movement led by Maoists and Trotskyists

 

From 1965 to about 1975 was the moment of the youth radicalisation in Australia, which had such dramatic social and cultural consequences, many of which are still present in Australian society. There were three kinds of socialist ideology and practice, of an oppositional sort, present in this heady upheaval. A tactically flexible, labour-movement-oriented Trotskyist current, of which I was part, was the political leadership and catalyst in the youth movement that mushroomed in Sydney. A rather more utopian Maoism, of which Humphrey McQueen became a part, rapidly emerged in Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, Adelaide. Canberra was contested territory between the two currents. Anarchistic New Left groups also developed, particularly in Brisbane and Adelaide, and a representative figure in this milieu was Brian Laver.

Despite the fierce ideological disputes that unfolded between the different ideological currents, there was also a sense of them all together constituting a common movement, in critical opposition to both bourgeois society and the bureaucracies dominant in the labour movement. Very quickly, in the latter part of the sixties, political headquarters at which some of the activists lived became fairly notorious political centres of this movement. The Resistance complex in Goulburn Street, Sydney, the SDA Foco premises in the Trades Hall in Brisbane, the SDS premises in Carlton, Melbourne, the SDS premises in the West End of Adelaide, and the Maoist Bakery at Prahran in inner-suburban Melbourne.

Despite ideological differences, activists from other cities would sleep on the floor of these radical headquarters when travelling interstate, or be put up in people's houses. In this heady period, Humphrey stayed a number of times in the house of my then wife and myself. None of this mutual hospitality eliminated differences about tactics and ideology, but the complex personal connections mediated conflicts a bit. Some of us knew and understood each other pretty well. The moment of the radical youth movement only lasted a few years. These commune-type headquarters were eventually all vacated and most of the youth who were caught up in these activities moved on to other things. Nevertheless, it was a quite extraordinary time.

 

ASIO and state police Special Branches as our record-keepers

 

The oddest feature of these times was that much would be forgotten if it wasn't for the activities of our enemies, the coppers, who spent many millions of dollars spying on us. I have exercised my legal rights to get my ASIO file under the 30 year rule, up to the end of 1973, and I have also acquired my NSW Special Branch file as a result of the decision of the NSW Labor government to release the files a couple of years ago. I have about 6000 pages of police records of my activities, or about 8000 discrete items.

One feature of this meticulous secret police bureaucracy, which relied very largely on phone taps, was that if you were mentioned in someone's phone conversation, the whole of the transcript of that phone conversation was painstakingly added to your own personal file. As I was at the centre of many agitations, my file is full of the phone conversations of members of rival factions, which makes for a fascinating kind of social history of that moment of youth radicalisation.

There are a number of conversations in my file between Humphrey and his Maoist associates, in which I'm mentioned, and these transcripts give a sense of the real problems of organisation and agitation that were common to all groups. One of the things that emerges in Humphrey's conversations is the tension that rapidly developed in his own life, between political agitation, and serious intellectual activity, and in his case, the serious intellectual activity more or less won out over the agitational work very early on. In my view that was a good thing, because his intellectual activity and output became prolific and wide-ranging.

All the radical, broadly based and rather multi-tendency and heterogenous student and youth movements eventually disintegrated in ways that were often unique to the particular ideological current. The Maoist movement evolved in a particular way. The powerhouse of the Maoist youth movement was the Bakery premises in Prahran. The form of organisation became the Worker Student Alliance, and the WSA became quite a powerful force in the youth movement in both Melbourne and Adelaide. The connections between the Worker Student Alliance and the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), which had been set up by Ted Hill and the Maoist union officials who had broken away from the old Communist Party of Australia in 1963, were rather tenuous. The Maoist theory of the party concentrated mainly on the conspiratorial and underground side of political activity, and in practice this made the CPA(ML) a very shadowy kind of organisation. Several of the Maoist student leaders commented later that they had been on the CPA-ML Central Committee without even being informed of it! In the late 1980s, Barry York and John Herouvim wrote a fairly detailed account of the political atmosphere and political style of the Maoist youth movement published in Arena and other places, and this material is of considerable interest.

In practice, the political party aspects of the WSA weren't terribly important to the functioning of the organisation. The WSA was a movement that revolved around charismatic individuals, the first rank of whom were Albert Langer, Darce Cassidy and Michael Hyde. The second rank were people like Dave Nadel (who later broke away to become a founder of the International Socialists) Kerry Russell (Langer's then wife), Barry York, Fergus Robinson, Brian Boyd (now industrial officer with the Victorian Trades Hall Council) and Jim Bacon, later Labor premier of Tasmania (recently retired because of lung cancer). Initially Humphrey McQueen was kind of in the first rank, but his agitational role was soon modified because he rapidly moved mainly into his own theoretical and historical work. The Maoist student movement flourished for a period, based primarily on constant mobilisation against the Vietnam War, mainly at Monash, Latrobe and Flinders universities.

 

The decline of the Maoist youth movement

 

As the Vietnam War came to

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