Debating Che's legacy

January 19, 2005

Dave Riley

The youth radicalisation that swept Australia in the late 1960s fostered a massive wave of hope and idealism. Many young people, keen to change a society that they found so wanting, identified with figures who gave their all to such a cause. Many of these consciously signed on as the heirs of Che Guevera.

But in a January 10 diatribe in the Sydney Morning Herald against such idealism, Sydney writer Louis Nowra fulminated against the persistence of Che's legacy.

While Nowra's embarrassing piece of red baiting doesn't stand up to historical scrutiny, his rant against revolutionary chic fails to explain why, after almost 40 years, new generations of young people still keenly identify with Guevera. If he was a would-be mass murderer — as Nowra would have it — then there are culpable fools aplenty behind every one of those Che T-shirts and badges.

But dismissing this rant as "Nowra versus Che" would be only half the story. Nowra doesn't just lament Che's persistent iconography — he also celebrates his murder.

If Nowra wasn't such a recognised writer — with many plays, novels, and film scripts to his credit — it would be easy to dismiss his article as the inept ravings of classical McCarthyism templated from some Cold War archive.

Despite his own background within the same generation of student radicals that first identified with Che Guevera, Nowra's hindsight doesn't stretch to those alternative views of Stalinism he himself once explored during a youthful fit of leftism. Essentially, the libertarianism he dabbled with in his youth has suddenly found a voice in the context of the "war on terror". Blind to the irony, this writer who has never been noted for his political engagement or protest, has apparently embraced a new calling — one so half cocked that he fails to explain why people aren't walking the streets of our towns, proudly displaying on their chests images of the heroes of the "war on terror" or the destruction of Fallujah in Iraq.

After railing against dead reds, Nowra embraces the same militant code as the "war on terror" and pleads with his readers to remain vigilant. The "red menace" may no longer be under our beds but we are urged to remain alert to the insidious possibilities hiding in the country's many wardrobes.

Paradoxically, much of Nowra's bluster is spent on currents that have not survived. The student Maoists of his youth have all disowned their past allegiances and made peace with the "war on terror". The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), of which Frank Hardy and Dorothy Hewitt were members, quietly wound itself up in the late 1980s. Nowra knows this. He also knows that the same political thread that parallels the example of Che Guevera persists in Australia, sustaining itself on a lot more than radical chic. But he has chosen not to let facts get in the way of a good rant.

Nowra's disinclination to tackle the present-day combatant left seems somewhat cowardly. While I know that he is a keen student of religious iconography, this failure to address the real-time activity of contemporary socialists doesn't serve his argument one bit. With our politics already distorted by our choice of icons, Nowra would have us stigmatised as he would any heir of Stalin, Mao or Hitler.

This preoccupation with archetypal communism is reprised by David McKnight in his response to Nowra — published in the Sydney Morning Herald a few days later. McKnight, who oversees the Search Foundation — the trust that comprises all the physical remains of the defunct CPA — was keen to plead for mercy and dismiss communism and Marxism as historical relics. Excusing his own membership of the party as a fit of "unashamed idealism", McKnight wasn't about to defend anyone but himself.

Unfortunately, now that Nowra has cast his lot in with the fulminating scribes who pose as experts on the evils of the political left, among his many literary attainments he can now add that of Cold War warrior.

[Dave Riley has been an active socialist on and off for 35 years and is currently a member of the Socialist Alliance. A sometime political and artistic collaborator with Louis Nowra — whom he has known since 1968 — Riley is the model for the lead character in Nowra's play and film, Cosi.]

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
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