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A Personal Journey Through Anarchism in Australia.

by Bob James

This is the text of a talk given by Bob James Anarres Books in Melbourne organised for Bob James to present this talk at a public meeting organised by the Anarchist Media Institute in Melbourne. A further talk, The Tragedy of Labour History in Australia, was organised by Anarres Books and was presented at the New International Co-Operative Bookshop in Melbourne.

When I was eight, I think, I decided I wanted to be a school-teacher. Although nearly failing the Intermediate Certificate I pressed on to Teachers' College. That was my first mistake.

Badly taught, emotionally and every other way very immature, I was a poor teacher. Emerging from cold water, poverty stricken dairy farms where I'd learnt to drive tractors and to milk cows, I wandered into the big smoke that was Canberra in the 1960's, joined the Commonwealth Public Service and started University. At the ANU, I eventually got the hang of this academic game and did pretty well, but the more I studied Asia, which is what I majored in, the more I realised I needed to understand Australia. I was actually looking to understand myself without knowing it, but it was about that time that I first realised that there were insiders and outsiders and that I was, happily, choosing to be an outsider. Not a criminal outlaw or an outrageous rebel, just someone who thought he could see a different way that was more comfortable. The price of this easy option came later.

I came across anarchism, the theory, during my time in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The Whitlam Government talked self-management, and what was that, I wondered. I read Kropotkin, Bakunin, etc, even gave some adult education groups and tried to break down the masses of literature into manageable bits, but which were the important bits? And how did they fit together?

Brian Martin, Pure Maths lecturer at the Uni called a meeting of all known 'anarchists' in the area to see if an anarchist group was feasible. I arrived knowing very little about what was meant by 'anarchist group', after having helped out at an after-hours child-care sesssion, and forgot I was wearing face paint. Brian and the others looked at me strangely, probably thought I was making some sort of anarchist statement. I can't remember any other names - Frank (something) didn't turn up. He was working for Tom Uren, said an anarchist group was unnecessary as there were anarchists everywhere, which I thought was true at the time, and that we should just get on with doing it. He was also the person who started me thinking about what it was that defined an anarchist. Was it something that you became because you said you were?

I was a peripheral figure in Canberra's radical community activism, around alternative schools (the School Without Walls/the Learning Exchange), cheap housing, resident say in local politics & co-ops, but I was there the day Radio ANU became 'Public Broadcaster Radio Station 2XX' - 'Power to the People' and all that. I started an alternative life styles group called 'Alternative Canberra', mainly to get someone to talk to, I think, and three other ex-school teachers eventually put down all their hard-earned and set up a 100 % anarchist commune, or so we thought, at Pialligo, right next to Canberra airport - Sue and Bill who at that time were married, and Wendy. There had been another bloke, an engineering type, Arthur, heavily into geodesic domes and water-fuelled car engines, etc, etc. He pulled out after we'd all been living at his house for some months to get the feel of collective living. I was pleased he did because I was terrified I might have to sleep with him. I think he was, too.

Somewhere in there I ran into Karen Rush, an aide to Jim Cairns who was looking for a local Canberra group to provide logistical support for an idea he had. After he and I had talked, 'Alternative Canberra' became the co-ordinating group in the run-up to the first Down to Earth Confest. I've often laughed about going to meetings in No 2 Caucus Room, in the old Parliament House, straight from 'the farm', and deciding we'd go just as we were. The security guards knew exactly who we were and said nothing as we walked up the steps, sometimes in just our 'Halleluja hats', underpants, t-shirts and big rubber boots.

After a number of false starts the Confest was set down for the Cotter River Picnic Grounds, but having helped to get it so far and just after Alternative Canberra took possession of 'the farm' at Pialligo we pulled out of the organising group. It was the day before the 'opening' and we quit on the grounds the whole thing was being over-organised and too little was being left to participants to work out for themselves.

I recall afterwards being thanked, quite sincerely, by Tony Staley, who had been Minister for the ACT at the time, for a wonderful Confest. It had been a great success in all sorts of ways, but he meant there'd been no raping and pillaging, I suspect. Anyway, I found myself becoming alienated within the Pialligo group, the farm and things in general. I was constantly being asked to be 'the leader' and yet anarchism said to me something quite different. What did I really know apart that there seemed a gap between theory and practice? Where was the process that was going to take us home? What was 'the problem' that 'ANARCHISTS' thought they were trying to solve? At 'the farm' we were knee deep in possible answers, and besieged by searchers who never quite seemed convincing - sufi dancers, reichian survivors, solar heating experts, mud brick builders, and of course chefs dishing up lots of vegetables to clear our bowels. There wasn't an illicit drug on the place, not even one mary jane. We did finish up with a yard full of dead washing machines and refrigerators, though.

My feelings of guilt, curiosity, panic ??? eventually manifested as a need to search out Australia's anarchist past. I was certainly unhappy constantly referring to oversas figures, and things that had happened somewhere else. I wanted to feel part of something that belonged to me, I guess, something that brought my theory and my practice together and so I thought to put some flesh on a very tiny bone - a reference to the Melbourne Anarchist Club I'd seen in a footnote somewhere. I thought the research might take me about six months.

It intrigued me that the MAC had apparently held its first public meeting on 1st of May, 1886. This was interesting in itself, but the date was also just four days before the explosion known as the Haymarket Tragedy blew up in Chicago. This 'club' and its leading figures, Jack Andrews, 'Chummy' Fleming, David and William Andrade had all been ignored by official Labour History though they were clearly significant in the 1880's and 1890's, and I began to see how 'History' is packaged and presented just like any other consumable. Find your audience and tell them what they thought they wanted to know.

But it seemed that Australian anarchist's weren't interested in connecting their past with their present, let alone their future, either. They seemed just as anxious and just as unwilling to face themselves and take responsibility for what they were doing as those despised 'straights'. I was beginning to see how 'our' history could be more than useful, could be therapeutic.

Andrew Giles-Peters, teaching 'revolutionary history' at LaTrobe Uni, Mike Matheson in Sydney and various others wanted to talk anarchist history but that apparently meant the Spanish Civil War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, and Emma Goldman - talk about cultural cringe! Calling oneself an 'anarchist' didn't seem an adequate door-opener, since there seemed to be lots of different kinds - anarcho-feminists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-trotskyists !!! - who all seemed quite dismissive of one another's answers and barely able to remain civil - which made me wonder which came first? Did the frustration cause the constant moving about, the lack of stability, or was the conditioning that 'anarchists' brought with them from the 'straight' world producing the lack of cohesion, solidarity, dare I say it, the lack of camaraderie?

I published 500 copies of The Reader of Australian Anarchism, 1886-1896, the first book ever about the subject and they disappeared so fast I nearly didn't finish up with a copy myself. To this day, however, it's never been seriously reviewed despite all the self-appointed critics. Michael Wilding did make it one of his books of the year I remember.

I learnt that Anarchist bookshops contained many books that rarely got read, and were even less likely to get discussed. And I learnt that the Lib Workers were a 'closed group' with many of the characteristics, to the outside world of a cult. And that there were 'comrades' who would quite happily wreck someone else's agenda if they couldn't achieve their own. I learnt that the strongest, most influential person in a group meeting was often the weakest-looking one, who stayed totally silent. I learnt how to read meetings and to produce the result I wanted, no matter who was silent. I learnt to admire, from a distance, strong women, and I learnt that what someone did was a far more useful guide to who they were than what they said.

Some of this was learnt watching the Jura - Black Rose split develop. Bull frogs, spontaneists and people like me, sitting on the fence and having too much to say of too little consequence. Some of it was learnt watching the advocates of the Federation of Australian Anarchists attempt to square the circle by setting up an oversighting group before the constituent cells had appeared on the ground.

From time to time Brisbane 'comrades' turned up to give us 'the word' - Brian Laver, Drew Hutton, and some woman who insisted on dressing totally in red and black, but they called themselves 'Libertarian Socialists', insisting on discipline, structure and an incomprehensible, irrelevant manifesto involving a 'theory of needs'. One time I was invited to visit Brisbane and tell the 'comrades' up there about Henry Lawson and the other 'anarchists' of the 1890's labour movement. I should never have accepted, of course, but drive up there I did, with 'relationship' in tow, only to realise that I knew too little, and the 'comrades' had gathered only to hear what they thought they already knew anyway. They were so shocked that I failed to deliver they hardly knew what to say. But we adjourned to a cafe around the corner somewhere, and had a jolly good time.

There were two issues of the Journal of Libertarian Politics and Alternative Lifestyles and some pamphlets, Pialligo broke up more or less amicably, at least we got our money back, the farm was written up in someone's Sociology thesis, and the debris of more failed 'relationships' littered the landscape behind me.

I guess a mixture of anger, fear, curiosity and arrogance was keeping me going, by this time. I needed no-one and was not about to let anyone hook into me, slow me down, turn me aside. But where was I going? Although I was prepared to have my say, I didn't regard myself as very knowledgeable, nor as an 'ANARCHIST', but again I was not very clear about the significance of that reluctance to 'come out' as it were. I was not impressed by the rhetoric - 'A is freedom' - in fact as I observed the behaviours of people who called themselves 'ANARCHIST', I was reinforced in my need to understand why they, and me, were just like other people, them dire straights who hadn't heard the call, yet.

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'.

Despite the cockroach-ridden kitchens and the emaciated cats I remained most impressed for the longest time by the Black Rose group. Collectively, they seemed to be asking some of the same sorts of question and seemed prepared to put problem-solving on the agenda. And they seemed right to insist that one's personal definition of 'anarchism' had to be on the agenda at all times and that one's qualifications for entering into an anarchist group needed open and serious debate. But here, not far behind the very important interest in personal relations and in the need to take personal responsibility for your anarchist rhetoric, there lurked a naive Catholic lad's worst bogeyperson - an apparent belief in the liberatory possibilities of sex. I came to suspect this belief, then and now, of too easily turning into sexual exploitation of the weaker by the stronger. But was that just my excuse?

Just as elsewhere, there seemed to be more interest in riding one's own hobby horse, and so little curiosity about mine!!! - the use of history to better understand the only thing of consequence to the creation of an anarchic world - the process whereby conflict is experienced, lived, learnt from. There seemed no understanding that the trails left by Kropotkin, et al, were just as analysable in psycho-social terms as mine. And that 'ANARCHISM', the industry, was, among other things, a survival mechanism, intended to keep the fears away at night. Without curiosity about such things, I don't believe any of us can move on, no matter how much we would like to.

To others in the anarchist-world I must have seemed pretty alien - wordy, detached. I disengaged even more, and from alternative circles (and they were pretty rich and plentiful in those days), especially when it was pointed out I sounded as though I was lecturing people. Who was that Spanish fellah who accused me of being a CIA-plant, or the ones who said I couldn't possibly be an 'ANARCHIST' because I spoke proper or worried about logical reasoning, not platitudes and cliches? And of course I was authoritarian because I held opinions which were not theirs. I recall being told I should be giving my books away for free. I spent a lot of time sleeping on people's lounge-room floors, hitching up and down the Hume Highway, living on about $1 a day, talking seriously with Michael Vaux about anarchist history, enjoying being strong and keeping my own counsel.

I started interviewing on (audio) tape people who called themselves 'anarchists' - Margo Nash of the Anarcho-Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminists (ASIF), peacenik John Zube, John Flaus, Pio, Richard Fields, etc, etc - I still haven't transcribed them. I tended to warm to the ones who seemed to be actually doing something that wasn't built quite so much on ego. There were some libertarians who called themselves nothing, like Laurel, and Barry Griffiths who I admired enormously and Zelda D'Aprano, likewise. I waded through 'Workers' History' with Andrew Giles-Peters, as part of an MA that turned into 'Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne, 1886-1896'. Andrew, I think, finished up not very impressed with me nor I with him. In hindsight it seems more that we both lacked the skills necessary to find out what the other was actually talking about. There was a lot of that in those days - I suspect there still is. Thinking you might be an 'anarchist' seems so overwhelming it's difficult to get or stay, clearheaded.

Fortunately or unfortunately, from approx 1983 to 1986 I was given a lot of time to think. I broke a hip and spent time in hospitals, fell far down into depression, came to, knowing that I had pushed away the grief of losing Pialligo and the despair of failing at the one thing that I had up to that time totally committed myself to. Jill tried to help and Lyn, but I was locked up and unable to spark the sorts of responses I thought I needed from the people around me.

In 1984, on a temporary plateau, I went to Venice for an Anarchist Gathering and felt the first serenity I'd known for a long time, if ever. I lost it again the moment I returned. Then I was asked to open the 1986 Centennial Conference in Melbourne. Dwayne had wonderful ideas for street puppets, which she spent weeks on and which were never appreciated as 'the procession that hurried' went through Melbourne's peak hour traffic. Various speakers tried to harangue the crowds getting on and off trams in the rain and the police tried to look inconspicuous. Which is pretty amazing given that Russell Street staion had just been bombed and one of the first police persons interviewed started talking about The Anarchist Cookbook. The other conference organising committee members did not entirely agree with me that lines of communication with the police were the best means of staying out of trouble, and we argued over the level of help performers and others needed or should be given. I managed to get an historical display up, and to sell all 50 copies of An Anarchist Anthology, which also disappeared without trace, and to stay out of Hilary May's path. She wanted to know where the grant money from the Australia Council had gone to, and why she hadn't got some, and I wanted to know what I was going to say to the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist I'd paid for to attend. But I was burnt out, and the clear-headed Suzy Russell and Chris and others looked after our visitor, and I experienced very little of what went on. I still have somewhere the greetings from some European 'comrades' which were supposed to be announced at the Conference, like telegrams at a wedding, I suppose, but I wanted no truck with rhetorical futility and told no-one about them.

My involvement with Confest Villages and Down-to-Earth continued spasmodically. The full story would take some telling. Eventually, I saved myself from falling into the hole that was all of the above, by returning to the ocean and Newcastle and trying to reconnect with my family. Dwayne couldn't help with the dregs of depression and I checked myself into a clinic, but was already on the way out when a car load of angels from Melbourne, Laurel and Chris and ..., arrived to rescue me from the clutches of psychotherapy.

I was stronger because I felt I had resolved the 'suicide' (hostility projection) dilemma myself, but again, group sex was held out as a necessary part of the way forward, and I had to contend with some renewed guilt and some feelings of inadequacy. I guess I've always been a head-person, and rarely if ever thought with my cock but that didn't help much at the time.

Surviving financially became a priority and I rejoined the Public Service, but left again when I found myself staring at a screen for five hours a day or more. A PhD in Australian history allowed me to go on from the Melbourne Anarchist Club and 'Chummy' Fleming to May Day and Labour History.

Still pursuing the same core question, my thesis was on labour demonstrations, the symbolism and the processions not the claimed politics. Its treatment by custodians of 'the labour tradition' led me to see the need for comparisons of trade unions, friendly societies and freemasons, which may sound weird to 'radicals' brought up on a selective political diet. It is however where I've found the answer, sorry, my answer.

So, in one sense I'm further away from the official A-world than ever, but in another I'm sure that the research that has now taken over my life is the logical extension of the fine notions that people like Jack Grantcheroff, Chris Entsieff, Sid, Lyn, even Mark McGuire introduced me to in the 1970's. My major regret, I guess, is that I haven't been able to bring more 'comrades' with me, something to do with being 'difficult'.

The original version of this poem included an offer of my anarchist library to anyone who wanted to collect it. No-one has called, so the 'run out' offer is withdrawn. Joe asked me to send it to him, but that's a result of impaired hearing. Toby wrote from NZ asking me to help with PhD, but after I asked him a few questions about his understanding of the word 'anarchism' - silence. A prison inmate from the US of A wrote, thinking ANARCHISM an international language, but his was a local dialect, uninteresting to me. In desperation, I offered the idea of a debate to Joe using his media but his methods proved to me that I was right to fear the worst.

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.

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.

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Last modified: February 15, 1999

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