Farewell Bob, my old friend

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(This is the speech delivered by John Percy, national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and editor of its paper Direct Action, to the funeral of Bob Gould in Sydney, May 26, 2011. Other speakers were: Mairi Petersen; Janet Bonser; Hall Greenland; Jenny Haines; Nick Martin; Meredith Burgmann; Ian Rintoul; Phil Sandford; Natalie Gould. The service finished with the singing of the International, led by an Alistair Hulett recording.)

I first met Bob 46 years ago. Over those years he’s been my mentor, recruiting me to Marxism, my close political associate, fierce political opponent, disputant, source of left news, and friend.

Bob’s most important political contribution in a completely political life was his role in building the Sydney movement against the War in Vietnam, initiating the Vietnam Action Campaign in 1965. The struggle of the Vietnamese people against the invasion by US – and Australian – troops was one of the most important and heroic struggles of the 20th century. Bob made an important contribution to helping that struggle, and in the process participated in the social and political movement that helped radicalise thousands of young people.

My first memory of Bob is at the Canberra Australian Student Labor Federation conference in May 1965 where we were two of the 16 arrested in what was the first sit-down protest against the Vietnam War. The time spent overnight in a police cell contributed greatly to the education of a naïve student like myself (my cell-mate was a member of the Communist Party). The links I made with Bob Gould from then on contributed even more.

In court the next day, the police trotted out a long record of Bob’s supposed outstanding charges… indecent exposure, child molesting. The record was bogus of course; Bob suspected a former libertarian, who later gained notoriety as a reactionary right-wing columnist, had used his name. Bob was arrested many times in the course of the antiwar campaign.

Although a member of the Labor Party for all his political life, Bob was a Marxist, and a member of the old Trotskyist “International” group led by Nick Origlass in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

After the Canberra protest, Bob and Marie and some of the other younger members of the Trotskyist group, and some of the radicalising Sydney Uni students such as myself, and Rod Webb, set up the Vietnam Action Committee.

VAC functioned from Bob and Marie’s house at Holdsworth St Woollahra – meetings, working bees, stuffing envelopes, mailing out VAC newsletters to 10,000 people. The leaflets and newsletters were printed in a tiny back room upstairs, on a Gestetner duplicator. The shelves covering all the walls were stacked high with magazines and books and leaflets… a mini version of Bob’s bookshops later. It was a wonderful place for a new young activist to rummage around in while tending the Gestetner! I often walked away loaded high with books and magazines from such working bees. Many other young activists had similar experiences.

From 1965 through his activity in the campaign against the Vietnam War, he recruited me and a number of other young people to Trotskyism. Bob, my brother Jim Percy and I were political associates from 1965-70. (Our political opponents bundled us together as “Gould and the Percy brothers.”)

In August 1967 we established the socialist youth organisation Resistance – initially called SCREW – Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion Everywhere – and set up the Third World Bookshop at 35 Goulburn St. It was an amazing radical centre, with regular activities nearly every night. In 1969 we set up the International Marxist League.

We parted ways politically in 1970. Jim and I went on to found the Socialist Workers League (becoming the Democratic Socialist Party). Bob remained in the ALP, a tactic we disagreed on, (he probably even disagreed that it was a tactic, but a principle.) He retained a keen interest in left politics, lamenting the further degeneration of the ALP to the right, and especially recently over its stand on refugees.

Bob was a voracious reader, although I’m a bit sceptical about the figure quoted in one article of him knocking off 40 books a week! But I was envious of his ability to read and absorb huge numbers of books. He was always interesting to have a political gossip or debate with. And it made for fascinating bookshops.

We all have many regrets at his passing:

  •  Many of us, that arguments and discussions remained unfinished;
  •  All of us, that all his memories and experience are no longer there;
  •  That he didn’t write his memoirs;
  •  That he never sorted his archives – how many dozens of garbage bags of history he left behind.
  • My personal regrets: that I missed a last chance to speak. I had been planning to visit him this week, to catch up on left news and to invite him to a meeting to launch a new campaign, “Agent Orange Justice”, which is aiming to help redress the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War, which Bob would have approved of. (It’s meeting this Wed June 1, 6.30 at the Teachers Federation… )

Bob was a fighter, a character on the Sydney left for more than 50 years. He’ll be sadly missed. And the best way to respect his memory is to keep fighting, keep campaigning, as he would have liked, (and come to the Agent Orange meeting, for example).

Farewell Bob, my old friend.

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