Sex and Anarchy: The Life and Death of the Sydney Push
By Anne Coombs
Viking, 1996, 340 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
The Sydney Push is a conspicuous, if ill-defined, part of Australian social folklore. From the late 1940s to the early '70s, this large, loose grouping of libertarians and nonconformists talked, loved, drank and partied the pubs of inner Sydney. Germaine Greer, Wendy Bacon, Eva Cox, Robert Hughes, Liz Fell, Frank Moorhouse and Jim Staples were some of the Push notables.
They scorned respect for authority and rejected family values. They snubbed church and state, wowsers and censorship. They practised free love and hated Menzies. Splendid stuff, but the Push never amounted to a revolutionary threat to Australian capitalism because, as Anne Coombs puts it in her history, they were not out to change the world but merely to interpret it. Neither did their absolutist libertarian opposition to authority mean they could accept the democratic authority of a working-class revolution or of mass political movements. Not for nothing were they self-dubbed the Futilitarians.
The Push begins with John Anderson, professor of philosophy at Sydney University in the '40s, who challenged the university establishment's crush on king and country, God and family. Originally sympathetic to the Russian Revolution and then to Trotskyism in the '30s, Anderson switched to a progressive libertarianism with a large dose of Wilhelm Reich's belief that sexual repression underpinned political repression and that free love was the key to a free society. These ideas became a mainstay of the Push.
In response to Anderson's degeneration into an anticommunist, anti-union conservative libertarian, the Push formed in the university in 1951 and later expanded out into the drinking holes of Sydney. During the worst years of the politically frigid '50s, the Push helped to keep alive anti-establishment ideas.
Its problem was that it only ever dealt with ideas. The Push never became involved in political movements until the '70s. Jim Staples, a Push "membe'r' fresh out of the CPA in 1956, saw them as "characterised by a lack of commitment", frozen into sceptical impotence by the sociological theories of Pareto and Michels, which gloomily predicted the inevitability of elites and the futility of revolutions.
Their libertarian embrace of "complete freedom" easily slid into rank individualism. The conservatism inherent in their political philosophy can be seen by Push characters from the right such as Peter Coleman, for whom the jump from libertarian individualism to Liberal MP was a short one, P.P. McGuinness and millionaire trucking entrepreneur Gordon Barton, not to mention the odd Nazi bouncer.
The Push had no political program, other than what Push writer Frank Moorhouse once attacked as "talking, drinking and fornicating". But if they were politically passive, the Push was sexually hyperactive. Push men and women chose and changed sexual partners at will in a rebuff to monogamous marriage. Push women, too, found a greater freedom to speak and act, and reject gender stereotypes, than most women in the '50s.
There were limits, however, to the Push potential for personal liberation. Women's equality was illusory — men took the lead in intellectual matters and frequently relied on their female partner to bring in an income and do the domestic work.
Not only were women not treated equally, but they were "sexually hoodwinked" — "free sex was not always good sex" from the woman's perspective. The male orgasm was what mattered, and it was not until the women's liberation movement in the '70s that Push women began to explore their own sexuality. Many Push men refused to use condoms, believing that they denied sexual pleasure to men and were too "working class". The Push women were left with the trials of illegal abortion.
The Vietnam War was the beginning of the end for the Push. The libertarians remained aloof from the issue that was igniting radical politicisation amongst students and workers. Apart from occasional activity around opposition to conscription (and to censorship), the Push was paralysed by its political cynicism. Push people had to leave the Push to become politically effective. A cohort of younger Push people such as Wendy Bacon challenged the pessimism of the Push concerning social change, but this only served to highlight the irrelevance of the Push mainstream.
The Push made its last bow in the battle against property developers wanting to destroy the historic working-class housing in Victoria Street, Kings Cross. With the NSW branch of the BLF (under the CPA leadership of Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle) applying green bans, the Push threw themselves into the struggle, but it was their last hurrah.
Their political scepticism survived. When Push came to shove, most of the Push preferred to talk rather than act. Some, like Frank Moorhouse, sneered openly in their put-down of the libertarian-BLF cooperation as "a romantic alliance engineered by the Push women who were seeking fresh sexual fields to explore". These sexually predatory Push women were after "rough trade", said Frank.
Not everyone shared this Melrose Place theory of political activism, but the Push did share Moorhouse's worry that the Victoria Street struggle infringed the anarchist law that libertarianism should be about "open-ended protest and not specific goals". The path of revolutionary struggle through engagement in practical struggles of working-class people was still not the path for the Push, and Australia's prime example of libertarianism faded from the political scene.
Anne Coombs is sympathetic to the Push, but critical of its sexual politics and lack of activism. Her book is also light on analysis of libertarianism as a political philosophy and movement. This aside, it does offer a diverting trip through the history and personalities, and myths, of the Sydney Push.