Youth in revolt: the '60s and today

Issue 

By John Percy

Resistance, the socialist youth organisation in political solidarity with the Democratic Socialist Party, was the organiser of the impressive secondary school walkouts and protests against racism and One Nation that were held around the country in July.

The demonstrations received massive media coverage, focusing on the issue of racism, but also on the "youth" of the protesters. Pauline Hanson and David Oldfield attacked the students as "manipulated" and "brainwashed".

All the right-wing columnists and talk-show hosts weighed in with the usual and abuse — Paddy McGuinness, Piers Akerman, Michael Duffy, Allan Jones, Stan Zemanek, Jeremy Cordeaux, John Laws.

But there were even greater praise and widespread compliments for Resistance and the students.

Sydney's deputy lord mayor, Henry Tsang, publicly supported them. Daily Telegraph education columnist Maralyn Parker called the marches "the most encouraging and inspirational educational event we have seen for a long time".

Resistance has received enthusiastic support from parents, teachers and the general public.

Resistance has a long history of organising and providing a framework for high school activists, campaigning for the rights of young people, against war, for the environment, for access to information on sex for young people, against school closures, against racism, against nuclear testing. The controversies and right-wing fulminations surrounding Resistance in 1998 were also there at its formation in the late 1960s.

Origins

Resistance was founded in 1967 in the midst of a tremendous youth radicalisation.

Young people emerged from the political apathy and conservatism imposed by the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s and early '60s: McCarthyism and Menzies, red scares and witch-hunts, the supposed end of ideology and end of Marxism.

It was a generation rebelling against all the accepted traditions. A popular slogan was coined: "We are the people our parents warned us against".

This political and cultural rebellion burst out of the old constrictions on sex, dress, music and politics. Many of the changes in social and cultural mores are taken for granted today. But it was a big turnabout at the time.

The political side of the radicalisation remains a gain for the general consciousness as well — attitudes on women, racism, the Third World, the environment, sexual politics.

The methods adopted for pushing these issues were radical too — protests, demonstrations, mass action, direct action, heroic acts by individuals and groups. There was a real flowering of protest and rebellion, a new feeling that "We can change the world."

The rebellion was deepest on campus, amongst students. In the first half of the '60s students in the US were radicalising and mobilising in support of the civil rights movement. One of the campuses in the forefront was Berkeley, San Francisco, which exploded in 1964 with a student strike and mass sit-in over the right to organise politically on campus — the Free Speech Movement.

In Australia also it was students who were the first to radicalise. They began to swell the ranks of existing campus organisations or formed new ones. They were looking at international developments — we even had our own "Freedom Ride" in early 1965, copying the civil rights movement in the US.

Vietnam War

Our current began at Sydney University. I was one of a number of radicalising students who had joined the Sydney University Labor Club in 1965 and began to play an increasingly active role in the campaign against the Vietnam War. The Vietnam Action Campaign was the main organiser of the protests.

Many political issues concerned us, but the central issue in world politics, and the issue that radicalising young people felt most strongly about, was Vietnam.

The US government massively escalated its intervention in Vietnam from 1965, and the Australian Liberal government tagged along, soon sending its own contingent of troops and introducing conscription — the death lottery.

Opposition to the war grew. When US President Lyndon Johnson visited Australia in October 1966, he was met by protests wherever he went. In Sydney 10,000 demonstrated at Hyde Park as his motorcade came into the city from the airport. We broke onto the road, some lying on the road to block the cars. This is when Liberal Premier Robert Askin uttered his infamous words, "Ride over the bastards".

The protesters had a running battle to try to drown out the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which had been allocated the same corner for the official welcome. They were belting out "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (Johnson was from Texas) and we were screaming out "Johnson murderer," "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?".

The choir had the advantage of a powerful amplification system; we had only thousands of unassisted lungs. Someone managed to dig up a pair of pliers. We cut their power. They repaired it. We cut it in another spot. They repaired it again. We cut it again, and fortunately we were on top at the crucial time when Johnson came into view.

After the motorcade passed our demonstration, most of us ran through the park to the art gallery, getting there before Johnson. (The press reported two lots of demonstrators; really it was the same crowd: we moved fast.)

Johnson's motorcade also moved fast, so fast that the school children who'd been dragooned out of school to line the streets didn't realise he'd gone past. The editorials the next day railed at the cold-hearted demonstrators who forced the president to speed through the city, spoiling the day for the school children who had come to see him.

Going off campus

Although our origins were at university, we soon recognised the need to go beyond campus politics — an article in 1966 in Left Forum, the Labor Club magazine, argued "The need for an off-campus youth organisation".

We wanted an organisation that would unite all radical youth — high school students, young workers, unemployed.

In May 1967, 30-40 young people around the Vietnam Action Campaign and the Sydney University Socialist Club (formerly Labor Club) had some initial meetings to discuss setting up such an organisation

In August we found premises at 35 Goulburn Street for our new organisation, initially called SCREW. "Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion Every Where" was one version of what the initials stood for. A second version was "Sydney Committee for Revolution and Emancipation of the Working Class".

From its inception, it was an activist organisation. Our heroes were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, revolutionaries actively engaged in making revolutions. We carried their portraits on demonstrations and chanted their names, their slogans.

We were involved in a multitude of activities — campaigns, demonstrations, meetings, producing leaflets, silk-screening posters and sticking them up, organising weekly folk nights, weekly film nights, weekly forums.

The new centre had been a disused, dilapidated bootmaker's shop, but the rent was cheap. We cleaned it up, cleaned up the yard, set up the Third World Bookshop in the front, had a modest-sized meeting room at the back, a little room for printing leaflets and bedrooms and a kitchen upstairs for three or four of us who moved in there to help defray the rent.

It became a hive of activity and the organising centre for anti-war actions and other political campaigns, and soon became a mecca for radicalising young people in Sydney.

In November that year, we changed our name to Resistance.

1968

The year that epitomises the '60s is 1968 — so much happened, all around the world.

The Tet Offensive in Vietnam at the start of 1968 dealt a huge blow to Washington's confidence that its military juggernaut could win. Half a million US troops finally repulsed the Vietnamese freedom fighters from the cities, but at huge costs.

The offensive demonstrated the lack of support for the puppet regime; it broke the will of sections of the US ruling class; it gave heart and inspiration to opponents of the war around the world. In 1968 we had the biggest anti-Vietnam War demonstrations up to that time.

In France, the events of May-June brought the country to a revolutionary crisis. It began with an upsurge on one campus, spread to all students, tertiary and secondary, and then drew in the working class, with a 10 million-strong general strike that brought the government to its knees.

It was the closest thing to a revolution in an advanced capitalist country that we'd seen, and might have succeeded but for the treacherous role of the Communist Party and the trade union leadership.

Students in Mexico City, the venue for the 1968 Olympics, poured into the streets in their hundreds of thousands. Many were massacred by the government. The eyes of the world were focused on these events, which prompted students, workers and peasants in other countries into action.

In Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring, the reform movement within the government and Communist Party for "socialism with a human face" in place of the Stalinist distortion, was crushed by the intervention of Russian tanks. Around the world, people rose up in opposition. In Sydney we helped organise a march to the Czech consulate in protest.

In Sydney, 1968 began with a bang and continued at a hectic pace. Orientation Week at Sydney University wasn't just a matter of setting up our stall and joining people up — we had a comprehensive week-long campaign of attack, a counter-O-week.

About half a dozen different silk screen posters were produced, some advertising events, others promoting our general theme, which was "Don't get caught up in the system".

We had guerilla theatre on the front lawn, depicting the atrocities being inflicted on the people of Vietnam by US and Australian imperialism, and the people's fight back.

We countered the regiment's pro-war displays.

We interrupted the vice-chancellor's address to new students in the Great Hall. We got a volunteer, a rather fit comrade, to strip, don a gorilla mask and run down the aisle, up past the stage, and out the side door.

On his back we'd painted, "Don't get caught up in the system." On the front was, "The more I make love, the more I make the revolution". It had the desired effect of deflating the pomposity and bullshit.

Some of the VC's flunkeys tried to catch him, but we'd taken the precaution of greasing him thoroughly, so he slipped through their grasp, and we had a getaway car at the side door that raced him away off campus.

How not to join the army

A huge furore and national publicity resulted from a little pamphlet we printed, "How Not to Join the Army," consisting of advice and practical hints on how to avoid conscription, and how to stuff up the system if you got in there. (Sugar in petrol tanks, make a pass at the recruiting officer.)

It wasn't a great pamphlet — an anarchist seaman had brought us a copy of it produced in the US and gave us 20 pounds to print it. It sat on our shelves mostly unsold for months until a rabid Liberal MP cottoned on to it and raised it as an issue in federal parliament, demanding that the government and police act.

The police raided our headquarters and grabbed the offending pamphlets, our battered typewriter and the duplicator on which it was printed. But the weird thing was, we received a tip-off half an hour before the raid. So we had phoned the TV stations, tidied up the headquarters, made sure posters advertising an upcoming teach-in on Vietnam were very prominently displayed and stashed away the bulk of the pamphlets.

It was great drama. There we were on TV, there was our printing machine getting carted out of the Third World Bookshop, there were the posters advertising the teach-in. Bookshop sales went right up (especially of a "Jesus Christ — Wanted for Sedition" poster that the TV cameras focused on). It was front-page news in papers around Australia.

We had to print tens of thousands more copies of the pamphlet. Pirate editions appeared in other states. Speaking engagements for myself, as the authoriser of the pamphlet, came thick and fast. The police eventually returned all our equipment, even the pamphlets, without any charges being laid.

High schools

Even back in the '60s, Resistance's biggest success stories were in high schools. Resistance members in high schools established High School Students Against the War in Vietnam.

The high schools Vietnam teach-in that received publicity during the raid was attended by about 500 people, and received extensive coverage in the media. The Sunday Telegraph red-baited us, but didn't understand that its lurid descriptions of our activities only made us sound even more attractive to radicalising young people.

"Viet group woos school children" was the headline. "A well-organised youth movement" (we could have been better organised) "is recruiting schoolchildren in New South Wales with slogans like "US imperialists and 'Support the NLF'.

"The organisation, Resistance, openly supports the opposing forces in Vietnam, the National Liberation Front, and holds leaders like Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro as its heroes.

"... Resistance is very active in promoting student demonstrations and riots ..."

After the teach-in, we started publishing a news-sheet, Student Underground. The number of schools where it was distributed steadily rose as word spread.

Soon we were red-baited again. Our subversive undermining of the official brainwashing that takes place in schools was denounced in parliament, and our circulation skyrocketed. Demand outstripped supply.

Eventually it was getting distributed in 100 Sydney high schools. Students would ring up and complain: they'd heard about it on TV, or read the papers, and they hadn't seen it yet! We rectified the matter as soon as we could.

Principals and politicians called for the banning of Student Underground, but of course that only increased demand.

As well, students began producing news-sheets for individual high schools, with names like The Spark, Super Rat, The Yellow Submarine, Out of Apathy, Bleah, The Sydney Line. Student Underground graduated to a four-page printed tabloid format for its last two editions in 1969.

We used to hold occasional educational and recreational camps in the bush over a long weekend, in the Blue Mountains or on the coast in the national park. Amongst the many T-shirts with political slogans on them or the portraits of our political heroes that we silk-screened, we thought: why not a memento, "Resistance Guerrilla Training Camp, 1968"?

The Daily Telegraph got onto it again, and phoned us up — could they have an interview and a photograph? We scratched our heads: the camp was over, we weren't planning to go back to the Blue Mountains for a while, but we had better oblige them, we thought.

So we gathered together all the comrades in the headquarters at the time into the back yard under the banana tree, stuck up a portrait of Che Guevara and a map of Latin America and — hey presto — instant uproar, shock horror, scandal.

"Viet Cong are their heroes." "Sydney children at guerrilla classes." The story advertised the Third World Bookshop, advertised Resistance starting "a drive in Sydney high schools, signing up more than 500 students", gave a big plug to High School Students Against the War in Vietnam, mentioned our film nights, interviewed members. Ignoring the sensationalism, all in all a very useful article.

Going national

Resistance had expanded to Canberra and Adelaide in the course of 1970, and in August that year held its first national conference, at the University of NSW, attended by 45 young people. The conference adopted a range of documents and reports on aims, on the need for a socialist youth organisation, on a socialist strategy for the anti-war movement.

It also launched the newspaper Direct Action, borrowing the old IWW name from the time of World War I. The first issue appeared in September 1970, as a monthly 12-page newspaper, published by Resistance. Direct Action ceased publication in 1990, making way for Green Left Weekly.

In those early years, we were learning as we went. There was no experienced party, like the Democratic Socialist Party today, which was founded in January 1972.

These highlights give a flavour of the times, but also illustrate how much is still the same. There's the same idealism and enthusiasm among young people. There's the same right-wing hysteria at the very thought of young people having political ideas.

Some of the Resistance activists of the '60s are still active, now members of the DSP. And many of the sons and daughters of other '60s activists are now taking up the struggle.

Is a new round of youth radicalisation taking place? Yes, these high school demonstrations are the largest seen in Australia. The next round of demonstrations on August 28 could be even bigger. Youth are in the forefront of rebellion in countries like Indonesia also. Today's radicals are building on the gains of those struggles in the '60s.

[John Percy was a founder of Resistance, and is now national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party and the Democratic Socialist candidate for the seat of Sydney in the coming federal election.]