Vale Phil Sandford 1941–2022

May 1, 2022
Phil Sandford. Photo: Supplied

Phil Sandford had two consuming passions: jazz and revolutionary socialism.

Phil was educated at Australian National University (ANU), Melbourne University and Florida State University in Tallahassee (FSU) where he studied in the Department of Philosophy from 1967–1969.

He met Marie Hotschilt at ANU through their mutual love of piano, but he played jazz and she classical.

Phil went to the US to study sociology and to play and listen to jazz. The 1960s were a time of huge social and political upheaval in the US. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was launched in 1960, grew rapidly on FSU. SDS supported the African American Civil Rights movement and organised opposition to the war in Vietnam. Along with SDS members, Phil co-founded the bookshop, Praxis, in the black area of the Tallahassee. His experiences in Florida were a turning point.

Much later, he said, “I was not left-wing at all — I had largely supported the Vietnam War and Australia’s involvement for several years and had only come to oppose the bombing of North Vietnam around the middle of 1967.”

In January 1968, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the devastating Tet Offensive against the invading US army and the puppet Saigon regime. In May and June, 1968, France erupted in demonstrations and strikes. In London, a massive anti-Vietnam war demonstration was attacked violently by police. By the time he returned to Australia, Phil was politically transformed.

Shortly after he arrived at FSU, Phil attended campus meetings calling on the university to recognise union rights for Black workers. That made him a marked man in an America, simmering with unrest. He was summoned to the admin office and was amazed to discover that the FBI and Immigration Department had opened up files on him. That, and his shock when he saw the living conditions of black Americans in Frenchtown, led him to radically question his political views.

Phil married while in the US and his Australian wife, Coonie, was arrested for raising bail money. They were deported and arrived in July 1969 to headlines in the Australian media.


Phil and his partner Corrie arriving back in Australia after being deported

After the My Lai massacre in 1969, the Moratorium against conscription and the war in Vietnam was mobilising huge numbers of people — from unions, students, Labor branches and community groups.

After a six-day general strike by 1 million workers, the union movement secured the release from jail of transport union secretary Clarrie O’Shea, who had refused to pay a $8100 fine.

Soon after his return, Phil he formed a Marxist study group, Workers Action, while supporting the Moratorium Movement. Workers Action began attracting Communist Party of Australia members, and activists from other radical groups.

He joined the Socialist Labour League (SLL), which had formed in 1972, and was aligned to Gerry Healy, a co-founder of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Phil had dedicated his life to building the SLL and writing for Labour Press and Workers News.

In the early 1980s, he went to Britain to work with the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) on the party’s daily paper Newsline.

But after the WRP banned its members from working with miners’ support groups during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, a bitter and divisive struggle erupted which led to Healy being expelled.

The SLL was also divided in Australia. Phil wanted to break with Healy, but he was opposed by a group, led by Nick Beams, who controlled the group’s considerable assets. The Beams group renamed itself as the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) in 2010.

In 1988, Phil joined the International Workers League (Fourth International) founded by Argentinian, Nahuel Moreno. Phil made two trips to Brazil in unsuccessful attempts to establish lasting international connections.

He collaborated with two former members of the WRP from Liverpool in Britain, the late Bill Hunter and Martin Ralph.

Ralph later recalled: “We found common agreement on the need to build an International based on workers, poor and oppressed people’s struggle and where international strategy and tactics can be discussed, debated and worked out in relation to the international class struggle”.

Phil joined the Socialist Alliance when it formed in 2001, was elected to its executive, but left it several years later.

He was a public servant, including working in multicultural mental health, and was a delegate for the Community and Public Sector Union. For many years he worked with group of militant unionists from left-wing political tendencies. He stood against the leadership several times and fought hard to improve wages and conditions.

Decades after first meeting, Phil and Marie Hotschilt began sharing their lives. Phil turned his attention to playing and composing and in 2004 the Phil Sandford Quintet released a CD, Jerilderie Tree. He self-published a classic on jazz history, The Lion Roars: The Musical Life of Willie ‘The Lion’ McIntyre, in 2018.

Music was never just music for Phil; it was about class, race, and history. Up to a few months before his death, Phil regularly drove 100 kilometers to Bowral, south of Sydney, to practice with a group of fellow jazz musicians.

Comrade Phil never resiled from his commitment to revolutionary socialism and Marxism. During his best years, he was a critical thinker, a talented writer and always a dedicated and courageous militant. He recently died in Westmead Hospital, Sydney, from motor neurone disease.

[Phil is survived by his partner Marie Hotschilt.]

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