Bob Gould, 2004

Hall Greenland turns 60

Source: Ozleft, November 5, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

My old friend and sometime political ally, and on other occasions sharp sparring partner, Hall Greenland, has just turned 60, which is a bit alarming to me because I still remember him as the confident youth he was in the 1960s.

From my point of view, Hall is a figure of some importance. He has been active in the socialist movement, one way and another, since the 1960s and he’s the redoubtable author of the very important book of Australian socialist history, Red Hot, the definitive biography of our common mentor, Nick Origlass, the pioneer Australian Trotskyist.

My friend Jenny and I arrived in the yard of Hall and Fenella’s house in Leichhardt at about 7.30 on the Saturday evening after the federal elections, and the crowd rapidly built up to about 80 people, which is coincidentally the kind of number that usually attends the biggest public Socialist Alliance events at the Gaelic Club in Sydney.

The people at Hall’s 60th, however, were a rather more diverse group than those who attend Socialist Alliance events. They included Hall’s associates over many years in the leftist political agitations he has been involved with in the Leichhardt municipality, as well as a number of members of Hall’s family.

A lot of trade unionists were present, from the public service, teachers and health unions, among others. A fair proportion of those present would once have been in the Labor Party and/or revolutionary socialist groups, but are now in or around the Greens. There were also quite a few stubborn continuing Labor Party members such as myself, Anatole Kagan, and others.

There were also associates of Hall’s in the journalistic world. Hall works at The Bulletin magazine and has just been named as one of the nominees for the prestigious Walkley journalists’ award for an article he wrote about the crisis in mental health.

A number of old hands such as Issy Wyner, Sylvia Hale (the Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council — the Upper House) and veterans of the 1960s, such as Richard Neville, were there, as were several inner-city Greens councillors, and assorted other rebels and whistleblowers.

About 10.30pm it emerged that there would be some speechmaking, and Hall asked me if I’d like to be the last speaker, and I agreed. The chair of the proceedings was Mike Zerman, once a kind of Maoist, and later an associate of Hall on The Digger, an important leftist newspaper of the early 1970s.

Mike Zerman said in his introduction that holding this get-together for Hall was a kind of political statement after the election defeat for Labor. The first speaker was veteran Trotskyist Issy Wyner, long-time secretary of the Sydney branch of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, and close associate of Nick Origlass and Hall Greenland in many battles, at first in the union movement and the Labor Party and later in Leichhardt council and community struggles.

The second speaker was Hall’s close friend and local resident activist in the inner-city for many years, Jack Carnegie, who brought the house down with a very funny letter that might have been written, but probably wasn’t, by Kerry Packer, Hall’s billionaire employer at The Bulletin, where he works as a sub-editor and journalist.

Jack Carnegie’s letter was so funny that it crossed my mind this would be a hard act to follow.

The next speaker was a friend of Hall who I don’t know and whose name I didn’t register, and next came Hall’s partner Fenella Souter, who paid cautious tribute to Hall’s earlier partners, who were all present, and talked about Hall’s extraordinary optimism in life and politics and that he was a constantly interesting and complex man to live with, and she made the point that she’d won $50 from Hall in a bet on the election result, she being of a more cautious temperament than him. Fenella’s speech was also very funny.

As the final speaker, I first talked about Hall’s wonderful agitator mother, Mary Greenland, who had been my close associate in the Vietnam Action Campaign in the 1960s. Mary, who had brought up her kids after being left by her husband, was an extraordinary, raucous, energetic agitator, a Jemima Higgins kind of person, who had lent her older and slightly greater labour movement respectability to our mainly young insurgency in the Vietnam movement.

I recalled having been the one chosen to present Mary Greenland’s valedictory at her funeral 35 years ago. I pointed out that when the brash, young Hall Greenland appeared on the political scene at Sydney University in the 1960s, it had something to do with the political genes, training and traditions he had absorbed from his working-class activist mother. (This was the cause of some emotion to a number of Hall’s relatives who were present, particularly his sister, Winmaree, an activist in a revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain, back in Australia for a visit.)

I went on to remember Hall as he was as a young activist who stormed into left politics at Sydney University about 1965-66, and I made a few jokes about different splits and factional disputes we had been in, sometimes on the same side and sometimes not.

I mentioned the powerful influence of Nick Origlass on both of us. I recalled that Hall raced off to Paris in May 1968. I also recalled that our fallen by the wayside then-comrade Keith Windschuttle had taken over at Honi Soit after Hall’s editorship.

I recalled the political furore caused by several of Hall’s front pages and headlines in Honi Soit, the student newspaper at Sydney University, particularly one accusing the US of war crimes in Vietnam.

I joked about the irritation of many of Hall’s friends and old associates, like me, about how long it took to produce the biography of Nick Origlass — about 20 years, but I noted that in a sense Hall had to wait for Nick to die to get the necessary distance and objectivity, and complete the book without the very strong-willed Nick looking over his shoulder, so to speak, constantly monitoring the contents.

I noted that Hall had finally completed the job and that the book was an extraordinarily profound piece of Marxist political biography of great use to this and future generations wanting to understand what it was like to be oppositional Marxists in the midnight of the 20th century.

I noted that Hall had been an independent leftist alderman on Leichhardt council twice, and the second time he had completed the term, at which everyone laughed a bit.

I said that Hall and most of us present were of the older generation that had — to borrow a thought from the English poet, Wordsworth, talking about the French Revolution — been lucky enough to be alive and politically active in the 1960s.

I said it was important that we should celebrate and defend the 1960s in the face of the counter-revolution taking place throughout the world to obliterate and/or roll back the political and social legacy of the 1960s. I said the 1960s, which had moulded so many of those present, was the greatest time in the 20th century to be alive, for all of us. That assertion got very considerable applause.

I ended with a balance sheet on the recent election defeat. I observed that most present probably worked for the Greens on election day, and that some of us worked for the Labor Party. I made the general point that the creaking mass reformist party was still the major factor in the political life of most of the organised working class and most of the progressive parts of the new social layers. A striking new feature of the political situation is the emergence of the small Greens electoral mass party to the left of labour, located mainly in the new social layers.

I asserted that, even taking account of the electoral defeat, the best feature of the elections was the practical united front between the Greens and Labor despite the very bad behaviour and double-cross on preferences by some Labor election managers in some states in preferencing the fanatical religious right. I pointed out that when the smoke had cleared the conservatives had won an electoral victory, and that was a defeat that shouldn’t be underestimated, but nevertheless the two-party preferred vote for the Labor-Green side of mass politics was 47.5 per cent.

I noted that a careful study of the electoral maps showed that the election results, even in this downswing situation, were a clear map of class. The seats that Labor held in all the big cities were the seats where recent migrants, the children of migrants, unionised industrial workers, Catholics, non-believers, non-Christians and Eastern Orthodox were concentrated, and it was the outer-suburban areas where fundamentalist Protestantism is having a modest resurgence, that produced electoral majorities for the Liberals.

I observed that after such an electoral defeat a certain amount of time for recovery, and even for grieving, was necessary and that the labour movement and the Greens were now in a relatively defensive situation. The key to a successful fightback is the preservation of an active united front in which progressive and leftist forces take the lead and try to avoid sectarianism towards the mass labour movement. In this situation energy and initiative is also needed from the left.

With energy and initiative, and avoiding sectarianism, the possibilities for revival of the leftist movement are considerable.

I ended my speech enthusiastically on that cautiously optimistic note. I got extremely warm applause from the 80 or so people present. Hall approached me and said it was one of the best speeches he’d every heard me make, and a number of others said something similar in the course of the evening, and that it was just the sort of speech that was needed in the circumstances.