Colourful memoir of non-conformist intellectual


Left Hand Drive
Craig McGregor
Affirm Press, 2013
334 pages $24.95 (pb)

Two experiences of institutional conformity — as a boarder at an elite private school and as an Australian army conscript — bequeathed a lifelong “fear and hatred of authoritarian systems” to Craig “Rob-Roy” McGregor, a blues-playing guitarist, would-be rebel, fringe Bohemian, journalist, novelist, cultural studies professor and fierce believer in equality.

His memoir, Left Hand Drive, charts the colourful journey of the shy, rural New South Wales boy, born in 1933, to radical public intellectual.

His highlights include a three day nuclear disarmament march in England (scuppered by his National Service army boots), getting tear-gassed at a Vietnam War protest in Washington, facing the guns of three squad cars’ worth of police in the US (for doing 35 miles per hour in a 25 zone), his professional and personal encounters with Bob Dylan, his feud with Barry Humphries over the Australian satirist’s reactionary politics and “ugly nihilism”, and his controversial profiles of Australian Labor leaders (Whitlam, Keating, Hawke, Latham).

Though he warmed to these men personally, McGregor was underwhelmed by Labor’s “caution, gradualism and managerialism”. Their leading lights had “given power to the corporations and the wealthy”, thus corrupting parliamentary democracy as an arena for addressing the “destructive inequalities” of the class system.

Class may be the dark side of the moon to Labor politicians but, says McGregor, it “formalises brute privilege and brute underprivilege”.

McGregor gained from Karl Marx the centrality of class to understanding society. He also took, from the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci the belief that the always-pregnant dynamic of social, economic and political forces can blow apart the ideological hegemony of a small, capitalist ruling class whose self-serving ideas become the ruling ideas of broader society.

However, as a self-described pluralist who rejects all dogma (including the “authoritarianism of Marxist-Leninist dogma”), McGregor, by going much wider than Marx (semiotics and post-modernism, for example), can blunt his analytical sharpness and fudge the political focus for social change.

For example, by defining class by cultural/lifestyle trappings and employees’ collar-colour, the resulting conceptual looseness allows McGregor to erroneously characterise the working class as now largely middle class.

There is, unfortunately, little investigation of the political significance of such sociological issues in McGregor’s book. It is a self-confessed “melange” of social musings and personal anecdotes.

Only towards the book’s end do we see that its patchy quality, ranging from narrative dazzle to bad blog day, may be due less to intellectual laziness than to the stroke that left the eighty-year-old author with irreparable brain and speech damage.

McGregor estimates he has written about eight million words in his lifetime, driven by rage at social unfairness and desire for its radical correction. He hopes that some of these words have had some positive impact.

On that, many social activists can answer in the affirmative. It’s been a life well lived, mate.