Bob Gould 1937-2011
By Ed Lewis
The public intellectual
Bob Gould considered himself, justifiably, a public intellectual. He was proud of his writing, which was an extension of his lifelong left-wing political agitation.
Like most things he did, Bob’s writing didn’t fit any con- ventional mold. He was an autodidact, who didn’t give a fig for academic form or the established order. Aside from being proudly sub- versive, his writing was long, discursive, sometimes rambling, but rarely boring. He was an essayist when many people were rarely reading more than a few paragraphs at a time.
Bob Gould carved out his intellectual niche against the powers that be. There was no place in Australia’s duopolised media for his views or his style, although he often submitted articles to the daily media that were better than most things that got a run.
An associate of Bob’s youth, Paddy McGuinness, got himself acres of newspaper space by writing what the wealthy and powerful wanted to read, but it would be interesting to know, today, whose writings are more widely read: those of Bob Gould or Paddy McGuinness. Every day, Bob’s articles are accessed on the web by a few people seeking knowledge, while much of McGuinness’s worthless propaganda for things as they are is already forgotten.
What Bob had to say couldn’t be fitted into a few paragraphs. He wanted to discuss ideas, delve into half-forgotten history, and tell stories. He was a good storyteller, and there was always a point to his stories.
He wouldn’t be silenced by denial of access to the mass media, but got out his words the hard way: firstly dictated to a typist, then painstakingly edited, revised and proofread (by himself and hard-working collaborators), then printed and handed out at meetings and protests, or distributed hand-to-hand from one of his bookshops. Later, the internet enabled wider and less labour-intensive distribution.
His activity was reminiscent of an Australian style of samizdat, without of course the threat of police retribution (most of the time).
Equipped with a website, Bob no longer had to turn up to meetings with a box or two of his essays that, spread out, would cover a large table.
The website was a result of contact between Bob and some former members of various Trotskyist groups who hoped to promote a more open atmosphere for discussion on the left. Relations between groups on the left were tense and often hostile, even though real political differences were minimal.
The site took advantage of the democratic potential of the internet to make it more difficult to maintain the long-standing secrecy and division between left groups, an absurdity in view of the challenges facing the left, and to promote public discussion.
The internet meant discussion involving more than a handful of people could be carried out daily, rather than at meetings weeks apart, which made nonsense of some groups’ bans on discussing important political issues except for a few weeks every year or two.
Bob seized this opportunity with his usual passion, and for about six years from 2002 to 2008 launched into a vigorous attempt to promote discussion across the whole of the left: organised, unorganised and in the Labor Party and Greens. He agitated strongly for public meetings and debates involving the whole of the left, but even he couldn’t achieve that.
Like most things Bob did, the effort was intense and Ozleft made a difference. He once commented that it was a pretty good effort for a couple of lunatics sitting up at midnight, or later, talking on the phone and typing on the web.
The political opponent
For 20 years or so I regarded Bob Gould as a political opponent, although we were both leftists who had broadly similar views on most important questions. I was a member of a Trotskyist group of which Bob was often critical, and therefore he was a distraction, irritant, and perhaps threat.
After I left that group I sold Bob some books that I couldn’t take when moving house, and loaned him some documents of the Trotskyist group, as I was interested to see what he made of them. He was interested briefly, but disappointed on reading them, asking whether there was any deeper political discussion than that. The documents mainly concerned an organisational dispute that wasn’t very interesting in the long run.
Contrary to the image I had of him up to that time, he wasn’t a mischief-maker trying to interfere in organisational matters, but someone who recognised that deeper political understanding and more deft political skills were critical to the advance of the left. Moreover, he always had great hopes for young leftists, and tried to pass on knowledge to them.
I had heard about Bob Gould long before I met him, from people who were his political opponents: Communist Party supporters who told of a group of youth following an older leader, marching into meetings as a group and voting on command in the early day of the Vietnam antiwar movement and the accompanying left revival.
Later there were stories of the bitter Resistance split, involving some of those same youth, told from the point of view of those who, according to their story, chose to focus on political organisation rather than bookshops, wanted a democratic leadership rather than a star system and the dictatorship of the loudest voices.
As a student at a university in Melbourne, on a visit to Sydney in late 1970 I saw posters in the Goulburn Street area that suggested Bob Gould had no right to the Third World Bookshop (actually, that’s being polite, the posters were libelous, and the authors were probably fortunate that Bob had no time for the bosses’ courts). It was obvious that Bob Gould got people’s attention, one way or another.
The first time I saw this legendary figure, he was trying to get into a closed meeting that founded the Socialist Workers League in the Buffalo Hall, Regent Street, Sydney, in early 1972. He was blocked at the door by several people, but wouldn’t leave without his customary loud argument.
Then, as later, Bob Gould was raising uncomfortable questions for the left. Why couldn’t he attend the SWL conference? Why did the discussion have to be held in secret? Didn’t such separation from the rest of the left suggest the project was flawed from the start? His left credentials couldn’t be questioned as he fought the right ferociously, and he commanded attention, had to be answered.
The difference that led to the spilt in Resistance, the youth organisation that merged from the rising youth movement around the Vietnam antiwar movement, was organisational, not political. Bob favoured a looser type of organisation, those who eventually formed the SWL (later SWP and DSP) wanted tighter discipline.
Over the years after that, Bob Gould appeared repeatedly in a similar role, raising uncomfortable questions at public meetings, defying efforts by despairing chairpersons to shut him down. Dorothy McRae-McMahon describes his method in a 2007 article in the South Sydney Herald:
“Take one look when he rises to ask a question of a speaker in any forum and you would assume he is unlikely to outwit the speaker (or tell her to go back to her Sunday School class, as he once did to me!). Several minutes later when the chairperson finally decides to ask him for his question, you will realise that Bob has given his own lecture from the floor and that he has probably read 20 books on the subject!”
I kept my distance from Bob Gould for 20 years or so. Being part of a small Trotskyist group required commitment to a set of ideas, and political opponents who raised uncomfortable questions were not welcome.
Yet, in truth, the political differences were minimal. On international policy and social issues the left largely agreed, most of the argument was about organisation.
In parts of the left Bob Gould was regarded as a socialist without an organisation. “Bob the builder, he’s not,” gibed one opponent.
In fact, though, he was always thinking about organisation and working to organise people. It wasn’t enough to be a socialist, it was necessary to be active and to organise others to make a difference.
Events since the Resistance split of the late 1960s have shown that Bob Gould’s organisational formula was at least as successful as that of his opponents.
He and a loose, occasional and sometimes changing group of supporters sustained an influence, and an ability to fight on issues, in the Labor Party and other spheres of activity over decades. Their fight has been based on political ideas, and the ability of those ideas to win support, not on a constitution, selling papers, paying dues and rigid discipline.
The numerous small groups that adopted models similar to the SWL have some influence, but not demonstrably more than Bob Gould and those who worked with him politically.
It didn’t take Bob long to realise there was something wrong with the small-group model. He gave it a chance with a few years in the Socialist Labour League, but soon realised it was too narrow, and didn’t allow the networking necessary to the type of mass organisation he had experienced in the Vietnam antiwar movement.
He persisted for many years in the view that it was possible to build a different type of independent socialist organisation, but in the end concluded that organising socialists in small independent groups outside mass organisations was a bankrupt approach.
Bob Gould has been described as many things: brilliant, combative, an excellent polemicist, a larrikin, irascible, stubborn, irritating and a gossip among them.
Those are matters of perception. Stubborn to one person is determined to another, and gossip to one is an interest in people to another. Bob was interested in people, wanted to talk, to find out what motivated them, what they thought about issues, how to persuade them to take political action in their own interests, and how to help them organise. He particularly wanted to understand how to interest and involve young people in left politics.
He irritated some people because he challenged them, particularly those who persisted with political approaches that had been found wanting, but he studied politics closely and never stopped thinking about how to take the fight up to the right. His writing was often the result of days or weeks of thinking about, and discussing, political issues.
He always thought a fight was worth having if the issue was important, even if victory was unlikely. Nobody wins an argument, he once said to me when I suggested he was wasting his time pursuing an issue, just putting forward your point of view will convince some people, but above all it will encourage people to think.
Tags: Bob Gould