Tales from the Vietnam Moratorium in Victoria

Issue 

By Gerry Harant

Nowadays, when people borrow one of my PA systems for yet another demonstration, I sometimes point out that some of its component bits first saw service in the second Moratorium. I was neither an organiser nor yet one of the organised — simply a worker doing a job, in my case dealing with communications and sound, although the main PAs were professionally supplied at that time.

Since those days, I have participated, largely in my technical capacity, in running demonstrations including Palm Sunday rallies, the Gulf War protests and countless smaller meetings. I am the stereotypical "professional" demonstrator, and my battered station wagon, with loudspeakers mounted on the roof, must be about the most photographed vehicle in Victoria. As my use-by date approaches, I now concentrate on instructing others on the use of equipment rather than turning up myself every time.

While attending some VMC (Victorian Moratorium Committee) organising and committee meetings, I was, like many other workers, a member of a local peace group. We painted banners, duplicated publicity leaflets and did other "lowly" organising tasks.

In my mid-40s at the time, and a long term anti-Stalinist member of the CPA, I was nevertheless able to watch the antics of the leaderships with almost amused detachment; after all, I had already had 30 years' training as a technician in industry where precisely the same sort of ignorant posturing by those who fancy themselves as "leaders" (or managers, same thing) was — and still is — the order of the day. However, let's start from the beginning.

Revolutionary mood

Why did people flock to the Moratorium marches? This was a hotly contested question, with each tiny political tail insisting that they were the ones wagging the dog. (The sum total of adherents of the political groups and movements represented on the committee could not possibly have exceeded 1% of the Moratorium marchers).

There were the arguments as to whether it was a single issue, or a general and amorphous protest. The possibility that both of these might be factors depending on the individual was given short shrift by high-powered leaders. It would have robbed them of a bone of contention. Anyway, few wanted to know what motivated people. Had they been interested, it wouldn't have been hard to find out. All one had to do was talk to a cross-section of the crowd.

The Vietnam Moratoriums were not isolated instances in history. The very name came from the US, as did the names of some of the participating movements. However, I suspect the protests were not, deep down, mainly about the Vietnam War. As in 1848, there was a revolutionary mood stretching across the globe. From Paris to Prague, from the UK to Australia, people were on the move.

What creates widespread revolutionary consciousness and sends people to the barricades? It is well known that uprisings do not happen when conditions are most depressed, but rather when people see a ray of light. Revolutionary consciousness springs from the contrast between people's lives and what they perceive as possible alternatives.

Living conditions in advanced capitalist countries and even in Czechoslovakia in the '60s were relatively benign. It was at this time that people, told ad nauseam that "this is as good as it gets", looked for ways to revolt.

Twenty-odd years before, the rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter had proclaimed that "there will be no more forgotten people". People had been told that World War II was a war against fascism and want, and a fight for human dignity. UN agencies like WHO and FAO promised new wars — against disease and hunger. Yet, apart from relative — and inexplicable — prosperity in a handful of exploiting countries, nothing had really changed. Few people went physically hungry; many were hungry for social change and human dignity.

Antiwar organisations had grown. In Melbourne, the militant Movement against Uranium Mining was to grow to some 4000 members until subsumed by tame PND. CICD (Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament) operated two lower floors of a city building, and had numerous local suburban groups. And although organisationally some of these activities were captured by one or other left groups, rank-and-file members were concerned mainly with antiwar and anti-nuclear issues. The anti-conscription movement had divided Australian politics, and particularly the ALP.

The Moratoriums, in this atmosphere, acted like the release of a tightly wound spring. Politics, particularly party politics, had little to do with it. For example, a quarter of the workers and staff in the development laboratory where I worked went to the first one, travelling 35 km to get there, although I had little to do with it; as a known Communist, I was acutely aware that media campaigns to declare the rallies a "Communist plot" might have made my participation less than welcome.

Moral movement

It was a moral movement in the best sense of the word. An attempt by one group to depict the war as a "waste of taxpayers' money" found, as one would expect, no community response. The sort of people whose lives are built around chasing the dollar and opposing taxation don't come to public rallies of this sort.

Jim Cairns acted as a sort of charismatic figure. He presented a near-hippie image which was far closer to the public mood than the macho posturing of the various student leaders or the political convolutions of the apparatchiks of the older left groups.

The meetings ostensibly controlling the VMC took place in large venues like Richmond Town Hall, and were attended by upwards of 400 people. I found them appallingly alienating. They were all about "main slogans", "symbolic objectives" and similar crap which could not be conveyed to the crowd, and would not have mattered if it had.

But then, these debates were a mere blind, a means of providing a chance of "winning" by stacking the meetings with supporters for one side or the other. The Westminster rules of debate, perhaps the most divisive way of arriving at wrong decisions, were constantly invoked, turning the assembly into an exposition of hierarchical power-play.

For some of us, this madness was frustrating, if sometimes amusing. In reality, it was peripheral. After a meeting which had laboriously — and furiously — debated the "main slogan", we would meet in the bowels of the CICD basement and paint the leading banners with whatever slogans we felt were appropriate. It was a situation of workers' control. There was never any danger of the Langers and others who had dominated the debates turning up to watch, let alone to do the real work.

As a technician, I found some of the decisions ludicrous; it was just like being at work. I remember the second (or was it the third?) rally when the organising meeting decided that if the march was held up the decision of what to do should be left to a mass meeting of marchers. Of course, when I asked what sort of equipment they thought would make it possible to establish two-way communication with a crowd of 200,000 covering 10 city blocks, the proposition was quietly dropped.

Silly? Maybe. But how often, before or since, have bosses come up to demand that I should implement similar hare-brained decisions instead of discussing them first? But then, pushing the mass meeting was the in thing, even if it couldn't happen; it could easily be stacked or manipulated, and avoided the need for real communication with "the masses" which figured so largely in the rhetoric of leaders.

As usual, these masses were woefully and irritatingly ignorant. When WSA (Worker-Student Alliance) called yet another City Square Rally against Imperialism, I took a tape-recorder around to people sitting there and asked them what they felt was meant by imperialism. Most of them had no answer, except for an old lady who said, hopefully: "Isn't it something to do with royalty?".

No wonder brilliant and politically literate — at least in their own estimation — student leaders couldn't talk to such people. Instead — this was a Saturday lunchtime — the WSA leaders took their student followers up Collins Street, which was deserted except for cops who subjected them to a radicalising experience by lamming into them. It was the first time I had seen the arm of the law using a protester's head to dent a car body. As befits generals, the leaders were not in the front row. But I digress.

Stand-off

In the only real emergency which ever occurred, the leadership of the VMC behaved like the proverbial headless chooks. It happened during the second rally, when the police (who knows on whose initiative?) decided to stop the march from taking its arranged course.

The possibility had been foreseen. There were great plans to deal with the situation: scouts on rooftops would reconnoitre the route and let the leaders know of any sign of police activity.

For those who know Melbourne, the route we were to follow — and which had been conveyed to the police — went west along Bourke Street, north along William Street, east along Lonsdale Street, then south along Swanston Street, where there was to be a rally on the Flinders Street-Swanston Street intersection.

Being part of the communications group, I had a pretty ineffective walkie-talkie and a loud-hailer, equally ineffective in this massive crowd. There were marshals similarly equipped. To really communicate would have needed loudspeakers strung along the entire route; it could have been done but was quite unnecessary.

As we went west along Bourke Street, I heard police sirens screaming and saw, a block away, police cars tearing up Lonsdale Street, going west. I took no notice, secure in the knowledge of all those rooftop scouts and the military precision with which the operation had been organised.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with the military and their look-alikes, the scouts were not there. Consequently, when the leaders reached the William Street-Lonsdale Street intersection, they found their way down Lonsdale Street blocked by a barrier and police horses.

Apparently, this possibility had not been discussed. However, there was one obvious solution: to tell the cops that the marchers would continue to occupy the city streets until the barriers were removed. This situation could have been conveyed to the marchers; with the march stopped, there would have been plenty of time to do it. It is my belief the barriers would have been removed there and then if this position had been put to the police.

Instead, the leaders collapsed in a heap, and agreed to abandon the program and take the marchers to Melbourne University — a vastly unpopular course of action which, in any case, could not be transmitted to the crowd. I don't know whether anyone ever got there. A dangerous situation now developed. Student leaders took a large crowd — about 10,000 to 12,000 people — down William Street for one block, then doubled back along Queen Street to Lonsdale Street, intending to by-pass police barriers and resume the arranged route. Meanwhile, police re-formed their cavalry at the Elizabeth Street-Lonsdale Street intersection to bar the marchers' progress east.

An ugly stand-off ensued. The front row of marchers, consisting mainly of burly male Monash students, were gung ho about rushing the police. Behind them were mainly teenage high school kids.

I walked into this with no idea of how it had come about. Police were led by Chief Superintendent Hickey, well known for his propensity for breaking demonstrators' heads. Here I was, between the angry students and the horses' hooves. None of the high-powered leaders were visible, so, displaying foolhardiness rather than sense, and using a loud-hailer and a walkie-talkie as authority symbols, I asked Hickey to let people through, at the same time trying to persuade the line of students to disperse. It would have normally been the last thing I wanted, but I couldn't stand the thought of the young kids getting mixed up with the horses hooves.

Against the odds, I succeeded. Probably all it needed was for someone — anyone — to break the deadlock of the stand-off.

Although I didn't think of it at the time, it had been the best thing to do; the police and their masters were desperate for something to illustrate the "violent" nature of peace marches. At home they saw it all on TV; my daughter, only five at the time, still reminds me of it sometimes. Given this experience, can you blame me for not having exactly a high opinion of the "leaders" who were grandstanding at the head of the march?

Publicity hoax

There is, nevertheless, at least one story about the second Moratorium which still makes me chuckle. As I mentioned, the original concept was to end the march with a rally at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets, using the Princes Plaza, an elevated concrete area above Princes Bridge railway station, as a speakers' platform.

A week before the event, the Melbourne City Council barred the Moratorium access to the plaza, after having suddenly discovered structural weaknesses in the platform which would cause mayhem if Moratorium speakers used it, although at other times it could, and did, carry hundreds of people. This gave me an idea. We could run an elaborate hoax for publicity purposes.

At night, the intersection has police on every corner. Everything would have to be done so as to look official. We went there during working hours to measure up the distance between the handrails on the stairs leading to the plaza. I went off to get chains and cut them to length, and engraved a couple of padlocks with official looking MCC numbers.

A lefty sign-writer (we still had working-class contacts then) made a wonderful job of inscribing two official-looking boards with yellow and black writing, "signed" by the then town clerk, Rogan. These boards explained that the plaza had to be closed because of its structural deficiencies which would, however, disappear in time to allow other functions like royal visits to safely use the platform.

Wearing grey dustcoats, on the Wednesday before the march at about 9am we hung the chains, with the boards mounted on them facing Flinders Street, across the lower part of the stairway and locked them on. The first person to stop was a policeman; he read the board and walked off. Others, who normally used the plaza for a rest, took it all for real and walked off sadly.

The television cameras and press duly arrived — we had timed the stunt for the Herald's first edition. We had a bit of a bet; some said the chains would last an hour, others expected them to be there till 12. In the event, they lasted till 3pm; that's how long it takes to pursue through the hierarchy a question about the origin of a piece of wood ostensibly signed by a bureaucrat, and then to find a council worker with a pair of bolt-cutters.

The Herald duly printed the story of the hoax — on the front page, with a picture four columns wide. It was worth thousands of dollars in advertising space, and said it all a lot better than a letter of complaint about the misuse of civic power for political ends, which few would have read even if it had been printed. Later, we were to use similar send-up techniques consistently against ASIO and we found that nothing is hated more by bureaucrats than ridicule, against which they have no defence.

The real Moratoriums

The very fact that the pointless shadow-sparring of the various "leaders" was completely remote from the action and light-years away from the feeling of the people meant that despite these weaknesses, the rallies provided a profound experience for the participants, including me.

Dozens of small groups around Victoria (not just Melbourne) got together to prepare banners, organise transport and create local publicity. Whole high schools went in a body; unions, church bodies and groups of workers showed on placards and banners their pride in representing a collective spirit. Photographs of the rallies show a sea of such greatly diverse banners and placards.

Apart from the major Moratorium rallies themselves, there were "minor" actions which were inspiring. Women from Save our Sons went to jail for "besetting" a city office, after a special law had been created for the purpose. Draft resisters went to jail, too, or played Scarlet Pimpernel, turning up at antiwar meetings under the noses of Commonwealth police.

The Gippsland train was halted at Caulfield by demonstrators and railway staff as a protest against the jailing of a draft resister at Sale in Gippsland (an experience which proved to me that no cop ever stops you if you wear a pair of grubby overalls). Both universities had their administration buildings occupied for days. Literally hundreds of local meetings were held in halls and in the street, often harassed by police.

In retrospect, and speaking highly subjectively, there was a qualitative difference to these occasion as compared to the more recent ones, such as the Gulf War and anti-Kennett rallies which were of the same order as far as numbers go. Whereas today's large demos seem to be dominated by anger, the Moratoriums seemed to project hope to a far larger extent.

The only thing which, unfortunately, has remained constant is the posturing of the "leaders", who seem to have learnt nothing, and who manage to turn a relatively simple organising job (I know, having been there and done it) into a massive ego trip.

The lessons

You might well ask me, in the light of my scathing attitude toward the leaders of the Moratorium and of subsequent large demonstrations, "If you're so bloody clever, as a member of a political group what would you do?".

The answer lies, I think, in honesty, hard work and ideology.

To get credibility, you must identify with the cause. The reason why CPA members were so incredibly successful in the '40 and '50s in organising activities ranging from the arts, sport, farmers to intellectuals, but particularly unionists lay in the fact that those doing the organising were artists, sportspeople, farmers and workers. Often this work was undone by the CPA leadership, who insisted on foisting outsider apparatchiks on the rank and file.

Without trying, you will get authority from being a better and harder worker. In industry this is obvious. Activists simply have to be good at their job if they want to keep their jobs — even then it's often hard enough. In community groups it isn't your big mouth that gets you respect, but your contributions, your willingness to cooperate and your qualities as a human being.

Of course, like the CPA of old, and other "leaderships" since, you can also "capture" organisations by manipulating them or by stacking meetings. This gives you power rather than natural authority. It is the mechanistic way of interpreting the old and often counterproductive notion of the "vanguard party". Does it work? Look at what happened to the groups that captured the VMC: where are they today?

But the most important factor is ideology. If your ideology is sound, the previous two paragraphs are unnecessary — they follow automatically. Ideology means injecting politics radical in both form and content into your work. This, in turn, means having an idea of where you want society to go. The Moratorium experience offers warnings in this respect.

A mass meeting is theatre. The organisers' job is to turn it into impressive theatre. You can kid yourself into believing all sorts of bullshit ideas, but a glance around you will prove that even though some people listen to the broadcast speeches, in the end what matters is the attendance of large numbers of like-minded people.

Yet, as I mentioned, the "leading" groups all vied with each other for being the most representative and therefore to "lead" the rally; had they had any ideology apart from the bourgeois notion of being the dominant dog in the pack, they would have wanted to be ahead of the crowd ideologically, not physically. They could have used the presence of the vast numbers to try to contact people and to attract them to radical ideas and to a projection of a new and better future.

As it was, to an outsider the differences between the warring factions had about as much meaning as the current differences between the economic rationalists of the Labor and Liberal wings of the Great Australian Business Party.

However, actually talking to people is no longer the strong point of much of political activism which now hinges on "networking" — i.e. communicating only with those you already know. The Democratic Socialist Party is an honourable exception. The Moratorium, being largely student led, already showed signs of the "networking" disorder; later, working on the 1987 Palm Sunday march, I found hundreds of names collected the previous year, whom no-one had bothered to contact. Sure enough, the following year the main speaker promised to set up a "peace network". It never happened.

The future

The profound experiences of the Moratoriums must have left their mark on every participant. In my case, this experience resulted in a further deep respect for people, a respect already developed over 30 years in industry.

It also gave me further insights into hierarchies, and the way they attract to the "top" the very people who are totally unfit to run them. This, too, had already been demonstrated to me by an equally long time on the fringes of the CPA, where similar leadership infighting and distance from the aspirations of the membership reflected, or perhaps were at the bottom of, the time-wasting and counterproductive hassles at VMC mass meetings.

I therefore found the insights of the anti-patriarchal and anti-hierarchical '70s feminists a breath of fresh air, while it dawned on me that the forms of — and preoccupation with — bourgeois debates, polemics and decision-making were as counterproductive to socialist thought and practice as their content, something which seems to have escaped old Karl Marx.

It is clear that the almost worldwide atmosphere of the '60s could and would have lent itself to massive changes towards democracy and socialism, had there only been an attractive model. Instead, reformers of both East and West had nothing to offer other than ill- or undisguised versions of the industrialised consumer society, with its classes, wars and environmental catastrophes.

Western Communist parties in particular, while desperately pretending to distance themselves from East bloc models, proved the shallowness of these pretences later when that bloc collapsed, which they took as a signal and an excuse for instantly going out of existence.

Perhaps it is impossible for us, after hundreds of years of capitalist conditioning, to generate and absorb the vast and fundamental differences which a truly radical model would imply. Perhaps our only hope is for some of the aware "developing" countries to maintain sufficient independence to be able to reject what many can now see is the dead-end road of industrial capitalism and to go on to develop some viable, varied and inspiring models.

This said, there is no excuse for us to remain tied up in endless and politically negative protests against what exists instead of projecting the vision of a future society based on mutual cooperation, unity with nature and the insistence on human values and human dignity which motivated so many during the heady days of the Moratoriums.

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