Bob Gould turns 70


Hall Greenland

Bob Gould turned 70 last month and at the celebration in my backyard in Leichhardt I had a few words to say to mark the event. Bob asked me to write up my remarks “in a less hyperbolic form” than they were delivered – I had situated him (justifiably and accurately) in the political tradition of mass democratic politics that has its roots in the French revolution and the British labour movement of the 19th century – so here goes, soberly.

This is a remarkable assembly – almost every tendency in the left, including the Labor Party, the Socialist Alliance and the Greens, is here today. And why not? Bob has made a contribution to the fortunes and evolution of each and every one of them.

Politically, Bob was a child of the 1950s. He was blooded in the dramatic fight against the Catholic Action takeover of the Labor movement, which resulted in the split of 1955. He was in the thick of the shakeup of the Communist Party that followed Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin in 1956. Significantly, during these events he met Nick Origlass – the most important revolutionary Marxist in the history of the Australian labor movement – and that further advanced his political education.

I became friendly with Bob a decade after this rich and extraordinary political formation – when he was initiating the Vietnam antiwar movement in 1965. He launched it practically singlehandedly – and I’m proud to say that my mother Mary was one of his earliest and most hard-working helpers in this enterprise. There are a number of other people here too who were advanced in their political lives by Bob’s efforts then – John Percy, Sylvia Hale, Frans Timmerman. Not forgetting Marie Petersen, who was married to Bob then, and it was at their house that we organised the first demos and did the mass mailouts that preceded all those manifestations which began by drawing hundreds, then thousands and finally tens of thousands of people.

Bob not only got that movement going but insisted on a number of important political points: it was to be non-sectarian and to link up with the Labor Party and its central non-negotiable demand was to be withdrawal of all foreign troops. There was to be no shilly-shallying about stopping the bombing and compromises forced on the Vietnamese – imperialism had to be forced to withdraw from Vietnam unconditionally. This all seems so straightforward now but then it involved sharp political argument and hard campaigning. Thankfully Bob was successful.

At that time Bob was already aware that a cultural revolution was in the air and so we did our envelope stuffing to the music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Some of the workers were probably stoned too. Bob also was aware that the sexual mores was changing quite radically and he was a participant in that too. Yes, that’s a matter of some controversy still and I’m sure there are people here who can put that more critically than I have. But let’s not forget that Bob – as he segued into a bookseller later in the 60s – played an important role in breaking down the censorship and sexual repression that still marked Australian life then. It is incredible to recall that the NSW police’s vice squad raided his bookshop because he was selling posters of Aubrey Beadsley prints.

We now associate the 1960s with youth radicalisation but it was Bob that first alerted us to it. I can recall him at working bees telling us that he had encountered radical youth all over town. Many of us were sceptical, but he was right. In those years he was a presence on university campuses and he inspired organisations like the scandalously named but nobly aspirational SCREW (the Society for the Cultivation of Revolution Everywhere) and the more sober High School Students Against the Vietnam War. He was also a key supporter of the anti-conscription movement of this time.

The 1960s and 1970s in Sydney were a liberating time, a time that changed Australian soceity for the better forever. We became a more democratic, critical and tolerant place, and Bob was undoubtedly one of the key catalysts for this.

What we all learned from Bob at this time was the importance of agency. Most of us are familiar with Bob’s historical writing and its emphasis on the importance of the combined impact of the Irish Catholics and the left in Australian history. The most famous example of this is the defeat of the conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917 in the wake of the Easter uprising in Ireland.

But the antiwar movement embodied it too. We were able to to get a hearing among the most advanced sections of the working class because the Labor leader of the time, that old Irish-Australian Laborite Arthur Calwell (he started his political life campaigning against conscription in 1916) had come out against the war. It was Arthur who famously – and so accurately – described Vietnam as “that dirty and unwinnable war”. (Bob returned the favour by being one of those who captured the man who tried to assassinate Calwell in 1966.) But the point is that the antiwar movement was another example of that alliance that Bob argues so persuasively has had a progressive impact on Australia’s evolution.

Incidentally, this is not Bob’s only contribution to Australian historiography – his refutations of the denial revisionists in Aboriginal history and his insistence on the socio-political impact of non-Anglo immigrants are equally important.

Bob is still trying mightily to turn our attention to agency – to the need for a Labor-Green united front to remove the Howard government. Those of us who live in the radical suburbs of the inner-city are aware of the tribal warfare that exists between Labor and the Greens for political supremacy, but Bob continues to try to drum it into our heads (whatever political tendency we come from) that the united front is necessary and natural, given that electorally Labor represents the “older” and “ethnic” working class while the Greens represent the younger and more educated layers of the working class.

If you go to his website or visit him in his bookshop or attend any of the main political and literary events in Sydney, you will hear Bob on all these subjects – and more.

So, as he moves into his eighth decade and second half century of political thinking and activity, Bob Gould remains an essential presence in the movement towards the society of the free and equal and towards a society which protects and preserves the conditions of life on this planet from the devastation of capitalism.

I join you in saluting Comrade Bob Gould.


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One Response to “Bob Gould turns 70”

  1. Ian MacDougall Says:

    Very sad to learn of Bob’s death a couple of days ago. Though I never agreed with him 100% on everything, he had a very independent mind, a prodigious appetite for reading and a memory for individuals and their activities that was second only to God’s.

    The day after we were both expelled from the Youth Council of the NSW ALP (in early 1965 as I recall) he ventured the opinion that ‘getting something going on this Vietnam business’ was more important than battling on in the ALP Youth Council.

    The Vietnam Action Committee (VAC) was the result.

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