Rousing send-off for an old agitator

by

Bob Gould, 1937-2011

By Ed Lewis

Bruce Petty's 70th birthday message to Bob Gould (detail)Bob Gould’s funeral, like his life, promised to be interesting, and it didn’t disappoint. About 500 people crowded into the Palm Chapel at Macquarie Park, North Ryde, to hear nine speakers, with Mairi Petersen, Bob’s former wife, making some introductory remarks and running the ceremony.

Mairi Petersen opened proceedings by saying this was farewell the man of the long sentence, a point appreciated by all who had conversed with Bob or read his writing.

Among the crowd were former NSW Labor premier Barrie Unsworth, former deputy premier and current MP for Marrickville Carmel Tebbutt, Greens Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon, former Builders Labourers Federation and Green Bans organiser Jack Mundey and many others from socialist groups, the Labor Party, the Greens and other cultural and political spheres that Bob moved in.

The speakers were Janet Bonser, Bob’s wife and political collaborator; Hall Greenland, associated with Bob in political activity for about 50 years; Jenny Haines former NSW Nurses Association secretary and longtime political collaborator with Bob; Nick Martin, assistant national secretary of the Labor Party; Meredith Burgmann, former Labor member of the NSW upper house; Ian Rintoul, a central organiser of the Refugee Action Coalition; John Percy of the Revolutionary Socialist Party; Phil Sandford longtime associate of Bob in socialist and other political activity; and Natalie Gould, daughter of Bob and Mairi and longtime political activist.

Carmel Tebbut had survived a Greens challenge by only 700-odd votes at the NSW election in March, but a ceasefire for the duration of the gathering was carefully observed except for a couple of stray shots, notably when Hall Greenland observed that Bob had been in the Labor Party for 50-plus years, remained a loyal member to the end, and “even worked for Carmel Tebbutt, for chrissake”.

Later, Meredith Burgmann appeared to think Bob was not the worst sort of “Trot” and had mellowed over time, but Natalie Gould responded that her father had remained a revolutionary socialist and Trotskyist to the end.

Meredith Burgmann recounted that Bob had visited her house many years ago and declared that he was not leaving until she and her housemates signed up to the Labor Party. The four of them did so and are still members. This was part of a successful recruitment drive to clean out the then right-wing inner city branches of the party.

Jenny Haines observed that Bob had been a supporter of immigrant and refugee rights for all of his political life, and had helped to start up Labor for Refugees. His determined opposition to the Vietnam war notwithstanding, his advocacy of refugee rights had not faltered when Australia received a wave of right-wing Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnamese revolution. He had supported the admission of the Vietnamese refugees.

The Labor History Society sent a message attesting to Bob’s contribution as a historian: “He was more than a bookseller, he was a great source of information on figures in the NSW ALP from the 1940s to the present – his knowledge was encyclopaedic. His father, a teacher at Marist Brothers Darlinghurst, was a staunch ALP supporter and he inspired in Bob a lifelong passion for the party. His involvement in the ALP and the anti-Vietnam-war movement were colourful and legendary.”

The program for the day was decorated with a pictorial message that newspaper cartoonist Bruce Petty had sent for Bob’s 70th birthday celebration, four years ago.

Several of the speakers recounted events from Bob’s long political career. Nick Martin told of his first meeting Bob, as a high-school student, and the encounters of the Gould and Martin families in the Labor Party over several generations, including the role of Bob’s father as a central adviser to NSW premier Jack Lang in the 1930s in defeating the insurgent Socialisation Units, in which members of Nick’s family were active.

The gathering, ran over time, as was obligatory for any meeting with which Bob was associated, and as a Sydney Morning Herald reporter observed, ended with “a lusty rendition of The Internationale, before adjourning for his wake at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown”.

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3 Responses to “Rousing send-off for an old agitator”

  1. Jenny Haines Says:

    I actually tend to agree with Meredith that Bob left some of his “Trotiness” as she called it behind after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the Stalinist States in Europe. As being a Trotskyist came more and more to be associated with the practices and behaviour of the World Socialist Web Site and small sect-like warring groups, Bob dissociated himself from that sort of dogmatism. Bob was committed to the Australian Labor Party as the party of the organised working class in Australia and he defended its place in Australian society, even until his last days. He had plenty of opportunity to leave the Labor Party and join the Greens or some other socialist group, but he rejected all offers and possibilities. He was distressed in his last days that the party that he loved and had worked so hard to build had descended to such a mess at State level and was so right wing and conservative at Federal level. I think Bob showed those on the Left that being a Trotskyist does not confine you to a corner of left wing politics and that you have to engage with the society that you are in, study it, understand it, write about it, engage in debate (and don’t be afraid of debate — develop a thick skin) and try to change it. I was always amazed by his thick skin. Those he debated would abuse him, denounce him, threaten him and say awful things online and to him, and he would be up the next day ready for the next round. There was a period where neo-Nazis harassed his Pitt Street Shop, writing racist slogans on the windows and I think I remember a fire in the doorway. But he took all that in his stride and moved on to the next challenge.

    • Ed Lewis Says:

      Yes, there were different aspects to the Trotskyist intellectual heritage, and as Isaac Deutscher feared on the founding of the Fourth International, the organisational side has usually been a chaos of small groups and factions battling it out over relatively minor differences, sometimes not even political.

      I think Meredith Burgmann was referring to that side of Trotskyism: the inability to focus on commonalities and work out differences over time and through experience.

      The Labor Party at its best is focused on practical politics, and the spectacle of endless semi-theoretical disputation among Trotskyists did nothing to persuade Labor activists of the need for deeper theory, in fact it probably tended to turn Labor people away from theory.

      To put it in the simplest (and therefore inevitably too simple) terms, Labor and the Greens (of which I am a member) represent practice without theory, and the Trotskyist groups represent theory without practice.

      As shown most recently by the spectacular implosion of Labor in the March state election, Labor activists with little theoretical grasp, and not even Labor’s tenuous historic commitment to some sort of socialism, are helpless before the self-seekers who infest the apparatus, drawn only to power with little or no understanding of using power to improve society.

      Working-class revolutionaries have always criticised Labor as a party of reform that stopped short of challenging capitalism, but now it appears to have ceased even to be a party of reform. It couldn’t even stick to its guns on the elementary matter of demanding a greater share of minerals boom wealth for the common good.

      There are worrying signs of similar developments in the Greens, most clearly reflected in the extraordinary outburst of Cate Faehrmann in the Sydney Morning Herald after the state election. Faehrmann sat on the Greens’ campaign committee, which discussed and supported the boycott policy, and raised none of her objections to that policy during the campaign. Moreover, as transport spokesperson, she was largely silent during the campaign, squandering opportunities to advance the case for more and better public transport.

      The commitment to neoliberal market mechanisms to tackle climate change is another reflection of the Greens’ lack of theory, and therefore poor grasp of society as it is and how to change it.

      Bob Gould recognised the organisational dead-end of the Trotskyist groups, and in many ways their theoretical paucity because of their increasingly obsessive focus on organisation. Theory without experience becomes dogma, leading to incessant semi-theological quibbling over sacred texts.

      He turned his back on that, although devoting considerable energy to trying to convince the various Trotskyist groups to get serious about politics and involve themselves in mass political activity so they could gather some experience to leaven their elementary theoretical grasp.

      Bob recognised the need for theory as a tool for understanding politics and society and taking action on the basis of that understanding. That’s my understanding of what Natalie was referring to when she said Bob remained a Trotskyist.

      To that extent, Meredith and Natalie were both correct.

  2. ebiok@bigpond.net.au Says:

    Great farewell to Comrade Bob, fearless critical thinker and activist. We were lucky to meet you. I was fortunate in the mid sixties as an idealistic student to help clean, prepare 35 Goulburn St premises, becoming one of the first tenants upstairs with the Percy’s and Peter Levy.
    Bob’s love of books, his Irish-Catholic background, his knowledge and his attitude helped shape the “sixties revolution”. The fabulous “Third World Bookshop” changed Sydney.
    Regards to Natalie and all the family.
    Love From Gordon Biok

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