Jack Taylor 2000
Source: Heraclitus # 84 December 2000;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.
In reproducing his paper of 1963 on the Sydney Libertarian Society (Heraclitus no. 74), Jim Baker wrote that the Society was at its best “whenever there has been a contribution of enthusiasm and activity from both downtown and the University – i.e. whenever there has been a combination of what I shall call anti-authoritarian bohemianism with a critical or intellectual outlook and atmosphere.” The accuracy or otherwise of Jim’s assessment as to when the Libertarian Society was “at its best” depends upon the function and purposes of the Society, and how well it fulfilled those purposes. One purpose might have been to bring Andersonian realism – and its derivative, Sydney libertarianism – into the market place. Another might have been to provide a meeting place for like-minded people, in which case it was no different from thousands of other groups. However, the “bohemian” as such is not necessarily critical or intellectual in outlook, and is not necessarily more anti-authoritarian (however defined) or less influenced by authority, and the authoritarian attitude, than many other people. Perhaps any compatibility (mutual satisfaction) lay in each side of the “combination” providing what the other lacked. Either way, the Libertarian Society could never really shake off its “incestuous” characteristics and connect with any other “downtown,” let alone the real world outside except, as Marx might have said, “in the realm of abstract thought.”
The above reflections are prompted by the experiences of a third element that can easily be identified. This comprised a number of politicized post-war migrants from different European traditions, and the Australian born radicals or earlier pre-war refugees, with whom they quickly tried to make contact. Many of the former group were opposed to the overt capitalist system of the western countries and equally to its supposed alternative, the Soviet regimes of the east As they had advanced beyond the communist or Trotskyist positions (like Anderson himself) they were – in ideological terms – de facto anarchists, regardless of the other political descriptions under which they may have paraded their arguments. Moreover, they were migrants partly because they had become disillusioned about the prospects for the traditional type of political struggle, and had largely abandoned the more Utopian (and ritual) aspects of anarchism. If ever a group of “downtown” people were to be receptive to the Sydney libertarians’ message, then this was it. However, although mere was contact through the New Left Forum (mainly because of the efforts of George Molnar) and subsequently in libertarian meetings, no-one that I can recall – with one possible exception – ever felt persuaded or encouraged to identify with the Sydney libertarians. This was due partly to the continued exposure of many of us to Andersonian influences through the quite different medium of the W.E.A.. Moreover, unlike the majority of Anderson’s students in the university, the third element comprised people who were already battle-hardened in working out their intellectual (ideological) positions in political struggles. And here one is reminded of Anderson’s view (following the Greeks) that participation in public i.e. political affairs is a source of strength for the philosophical thinker. But this is to anticipate.
It all seemed to come together at the end of 1955. In April of that year, Owen Harries was passing through Singapore on his way to taking up a position as staff tutor in Sydney’s extra-mural dept. Owen had studied at Oxford under the anti-Marxist, Plamenatz. In June and September, after a few years in New Zealand, several of us sailed across the Tasman bound for Sydney. The latter group had belonged to the Socialist Party in Britain and this was opposed to all other political parties except for a small number of companion parties scattered around the globe. These were Marxist organizations that pre-dated the Soviet Revolution and proclaimed that the Bolshevik revolution was not socialist; rather a “bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie.” Socialism, they argued, could only be established internationally when all the “material” conditions were ripe, and when a majority of people both understood it and wanted it. A tall order, indeed! However, after testing applicants for membership for their understanding and acceptance of the party’s object and declaration of principles, and expecting some continuing adherence to them, the internal organization was fairly tolerant and democratic, and could afford to be so. Study and argumentation both internally (even around the various principles of the organization) and externally was one of the leading characteristics of the organization and its members, both formally and informally.
Our background was, therefore, more clearly from within an educational organization rather than a political party seeking electoral advantage to “represent” others or to promote any special interest other than the “ideology.” The motivation, however, was certainly of a political character i.e. reaching out to others in new relationships. Indeed, the parties and their members exemplified the attitude struck by Marx to engage in an “uncompromising critical evaluation of all that exists.” The longer quotation, rather than one from Anderson, was printed inside the front cover of the Libertarian in 1957. However, it seemed to summarize Anderson’s own approach to education. As some-one who has spent most of a life-time in education; in the NSW Education Dept and voluntarily or full-time in various W.E.A.’s this approach helped me to define the leading characteristics of liberal education, as distinct from both vocational and social education, from which it needed to be separated. For those who stood ostensibly for nothing other than the complete overthrow of capitalist society, the critical evaluation didn’t stop at economic structures, class divisions, or social mores. On the contrary, it was applied to: matters of health and diet, the role of the family, the development of the child (A.S. Neill & Summerhill), a more “objective” or critical education to replace capitalist values, sexology as we called it in the late forties (Havelock Ellis through to Wilhelm Reich), philosophy (including Marxist philosophy) and so on. In this context, probably one of the more significant and widely quoted texts outside the corpus of Marxism was J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, even though (in typically anarchist fashion) there was no real conception of political structure, as such. As a footnote to this account, it is interesting to reflect that A.S. Neill after a long friendship with Reich, dropped psychoanalysis and all Reichian pretensions in favor of “freedom” within the democratic structures that the kids in Summerhill practiced.
By the time I arrived in Sydney, Jim Thorbum had already arrived from New Zealand and had established a platform in the Domain – the quickest and cheapest way of making contact with other like-minded individuals for more intensive discussions. These outdoor meetings were regularly held and were quickly supplemented from 1956 by indoor meetings on Sunday evenings in North Sydney. By such means, we were able to meet a number of post-war migrants from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Macedonia (including “Jack the anarchist” and his mate, Chris), a few young Australians (including Peter Bryant) and, in due course, Australian ex-communists and pre-war refugees representing Austro-German Marxism. Last but not least, our activities attracted the attention of the survivors from the old Socialist Party in Australia. This gave us a lead to a former socialist pamphleteer who turned out to be the late Henry Mayer, of Sydney’s Politics Dept.
Soon after our arrival, however, a woman advised us that if we were interested in a good discussion on Marxism then some one who was reputed to be the leading anti-Marxist in Australia was just starting a W.E.A. course on the subject. This class then attracted a few unexpected recruits and we encountered Harry Eddy for the first time. I’m not sure who was the more surprised. Perhaps it was Harry at the untypical Marxists he had in his class who didn’t match the usual stereotype and who argued that many of his critical comments were directed at the wrong targets. On the other hand, we were puzzled at the very different type of criticism from that normally leveled even at the “orthodox” view of Marxism. After a time, we found that our approaches to a range of issues were tending to converge although, at this stage, we really knew nothing about Anderson, and very little about Harry’s philosophy. Suffice to say that this first course made quite an impact Thereafter, I attended many W.E.A. courses, including further courses by Harry on History, Realism etc. In later years, Harry remarked several times that he had come to the conclusion that Lenin was not a Marxist. So, the influences were not all one way. On a visit to the W.E.A. library in 1995, I found that a copy of an old W.E.A. discussion course on Marxism, written by Harry in the fifties, had been placed in the library some five years after his death. Unfortunately, the course still detailed a discussion between an Andersonian....and a Leninist!
At the end of 1955 Jim Thorburn and I attended the W.E.A.’s Christmas school. We had already heard Anderson’s name mentioned after W.E.A. classes by Harry and, among others, by Owen Harries, the latter being confronted with the phenomenon before us. At Christmas, during a drinking session, I happened to remark that “Hegel and Marx were the last of the systematic philosophers.” Another student at the school, apparently wanting to challenge the statement, turned to Stuart Watts (whom I hadn’t met before that school) to check his opinion of the statement. Stuart paused before saying “Yes...with the possible exception of Professor Anderson.” From then onwards, my own personal journey began in an attempt to understand what all the fuss was about.
The dearth of publications certainly made the task very difficult, particularly for an occasional part-time sleuth, as my domestic circumstances now dictated. Apart from W.E.A. courses (in which there were few explicit references) I had to rely on the occasional article, review or letter, with an Andersonian tinge, in the W.E.A.’s Highway, edited by Owen Harries. This was becoming very frustrating. Rather less frustrating were the occasional one-off lectures. More satisfying were the weekend schools where a sprinkling of tutors might have some kind of Andersonian background Unfortunately, the process was not helped by the regular appearance of Vol Molesworth as one of the tutors at these events. His ready dismissal of any queries raised by students, particularly those designed to initiate a discussion around the issues – as though any contrary point of view was not worth considering – was simply counter productive. However, with his cavalier dismissal of some of the greatest thinkers in the history of philosophy, I realised that we were being placed in very good company. Initially, I missed his “Logic – Notes for Beginners,” printed in 1957, perhaps in the belief that this would throw no light on my personal quest – particularly as I had studied (the traditional) Logic in 1st year while in New Zealand, and followed that with Symbolic Logic in 2nd year. At a later date, I was encouraged by Harry Eddy’s Foreword to read Molesworth’s Landmarks in Logic, published in 1958. I was then discouraged by the usual Molesworth treatment of the subject matter, and particularly by the review by Ray Walters concluding that it would have been better if the book had never been printed. And yet, apart from the occasional Libertarian publication, this was the only literature available for the wider public!
Meanwhile, I had won an Exhibition from the W.E.A./Extra-Mural classes to enter the university in 1958 as a “mature-aged” student. Here, once again, I happened to join with Jim Thorbum whose entry had been deferred for a year following an accident on his motor-bike the previous year. I went into Ruth Walker’s class on Logic, but Jim and I were together in the class of another Andersonian. In the latter class, we endured many weeks of listening to a tutor who was almost impossible to follow because her lectures were delivered at dictation speed. In these circumstances, “note-taking” for every student was reduced to scribbling down every word she uttered, and hoping that writer’s cramp didn’t take over before the end of the period. Eventually, Jim and I made a formal complaint: the method was most unsatisfactory and why couldn’t the lectures be delivered in the normal way so that students were in a position to make their own notes? It was explained that the subject matter was highly complex (but isn’t that supposed to be a characteristic of all existence?) and that it would be more difficult for students to understand (or more difficult for the tutor to communicate?). We therefore changed our tack: we were obliged to take three courses (or units) on a part-time basis, after a hard day’s work, with precious little time to spare. If, then, we were expected to absorb the tutor’s lecture verbatim, perhaps she could duplicate her lectures and distribute copies to us (and even to other students) to save us the necessity of turning up! This suggestion was never seriously entertained. By contrast, Dick Carmichael, of the Extra-Mural Dept, had gone to Oxford via Ruskin College and was later exempted from attending most of the lectures. An eminently sensible arrangement! A third alternative that might have been tried would have meant the distribution of copies of the lecture notes at the outset, allowing the discussion of the “lecture” during the following hour. This was the method followed by the then Director of the Housing Commission when teaching Keynesian economics to his students from the Public Service – and judged by several criteria this was highly successful. However, we gained no concession of any kind and concluded that it was simply not worthwhile continuing to attend “lectures” conducted in such a manner, particularly as the time and opportunities available made it almost impossible to secure copies of relevant books from the library.
The few months at Sydney University were very disappointing for both of us. We were under no pressure to complete a degree course and we were not necessarily seeking vocational qualifications; on the contrary, we had enrolled in order to continue our studies in matters of interest to us, with a particular interest in Anderson’s philosophy. In my own case, the problems were compounded by dissatisfaction with Geoff Evans “Ancient History” class. Arriving in time for the lecture, I would invariably find myself at the back of a large auditorium from which position it was difficult both to hear the lecturer and to clearly discern what was being scribbled on the blackboard. Such conditions, particularly in the absence of any small tutorial groups, resembled a mass rally rather than an educational process. Moreover, no credits were allowed for my achievements in New Zealand even though the conditions in the first two years provided far better learning opportunities than in Sydney. This meant that in Anderson’s second year, it would have been necessary to cover the ground ie Greek philosophy that I had studied in first year in New Zealand. We both concluded that Anderson’s Dept., in particular, could not accommodate the part-time or mature-aged student, even though a considerable body of evidence has accumulated that they make better students, and we were often in the midst of teachers who were allowed to proceed at the rate of a single course or unit a year.
From then onwards, we sought our own compensations and alternative activities. First, however, it was necessary to explain the decision to the Director of the Extra Mural Dept. and 1 sent a detailed report on my experiences to him. After a long delay, he replied to the effect that although it would be “no consolation” to me, my report had led to a decision to reduce the requirements for Exhibitioners from three to two courses a year. While welcome, the decision could not address the real problem i.e. the policies and attitudes within the Philosophy Dept. And so I returned with considerable relief to the greater freedom and sense of social purpose in the W.E.A. activities of the period. During this time, from a completely different perspective, Owen Harries produced an issue of the W.E.A. Highway on Anderson & Andersonianism as a more systematic introduction. This proved helpful to many W.E.A. students as well as to the editor! I also discovered a complete set of the A.J.P.P. in the Sydney City Library and gradually made my way through every one of Anderson’s published writings there, including those by other authors that bore on his work. I took away copious notes on the issues that were of greatest interest to me. Among the W.E.A. classes I was able to attend were those by Jim Baker in 1960/61. These were an elaboration of some of the meetings in the Libertarian Society on “realist” social and political thinkers. While I have been able to accept certain positive views expressed by Machiavelli, Mosca, and Michels, and found the introduction to Pareto quite interesting and useful, I have found it difficult to accept the validity or relevance of Jim’s more recent elaboration of Pareto’s views, let alone the “mythical” approach of Sorel. On the other hand, the omission of Aristotle has always surprised me. It was Aristotle who proclaimed that “Politics is the queen of all the sciences” and for very good reason, and it would be difficult to identify major problems in contemporary political processes that he would be unable to recognize. An awareness of his comparative study of the constitutions of the Greek city states, and particularly his descriptions of the “cyclical” movement of constitutions, would have been a corrective to much of the shoddy and Utopian political analysis of the immediate past.
Given the publication of the Studies in 1962,1 never regretted all those trips to the library. The editors of the Studies selected new papers on certain unresolved questions, and omitted other writings of interest in the A.J.P.P. Moreover, in the 3 or 4 years I gained, I was able to engage in activities that became increasingly difficult through the sixties with the pressures of my employment. I was able to venture certain critical articles and reviews in Highway, the Observer, and Outlook (following the ecumenical spirit engendered by the New Left Forums) including critical comments on Anderson’s one-off lectures on aspects of Marxism, and other Andersonian views. Whatever the reason (although I suspect that it was the work of Harry Eddy), I was invited to read a paper on Marxist Philosophy to the Sydney Philosophy Club. This was delivered in August 1962 and, although it was prepared with an Andersonian-type criticism in mind, I was disappointed with the initial reaction. The paper was duly criticized by some of the Marxists present, but the expected Andersonian critique was missing. Frank Moorhouse (then working temporarily in the W.E.A. office) offered to make a large number of copies available for distribution to those present and to others. His own comment on the paper was that, in effect, I had portrayed Marx as an anarchist. Quite! But with the difference that, after Hegel, he injected a new sense of history, and a theory of social change – disciplines often absent from anarchist thinking. After distribution of the copies, the major criticism came in a very lengthy letter from a Marxist in England – a former tutor of mine in the Socialist Party – to the effect that I still hadn’t overcome (in his terms) the dualism of “being and consciousness"! Having already plunged into the work of the NSW Humanist Society (and later in the sixties) into Gordon Barton’s Liberal Reform Group to become a founding member of the Australian Reform Movement, I was well aware that my views and activities were incompatible with Marxism, considered as a “system.” I did not accept then – nor do I now – that such activities are necessarily incompatible (as Sydney libertarians might assume) with Anderson’s realism, social pluralism, or with the notion of objective goods – but that is another story!