Alex Mitchell’s memoir Come the revolution (New South, ISBN 9781742233079) is an interesting reminder of a past I had hoped I had forgotten. Mitchell, a renowned Australian journalist possibly best known these days for his long-running political column in Sydney’s The Sun-Herald, travelled to the UK in the late 1960s. First, he worked on Fleet Street papers, then on television. However, a commitment to Marxist philosophy led him to join a Trotskyist group, the Socialist Labour league, later the Workers Revolutionary Party. This organisation imploded dramatically in 1986 when its leader, the demagogic Gerry Healy, was accused of sexual indiscretions.
Mitchell’s experience resonated with me. In late 1973 and 1974, I was involved in the Socialist Youth Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers League. This was a small group of people whose Marxist philosophy purported to follow the directions set by Leon Trotsky. The group met in their headquarters at 167 St Johns Road, Glebe. In 1974, influenced by my then partner, who vacillated between charismatic Catholicism and Trotskyism, I had a brief dalliance with the Socialist Labour League in Australia, which was vehemently opposed to the Socialist Workers League, despite both groups claiming to be Trotskyist. I’m afraid, but not ashamed, that I exhibited a middle-class reaction to the Socialist Labour League’s zealous practices and methodologies. I didn’t want to be roused out of bed early on Saturdays to sell the Workers News to disinterested train travellers. I loathed the endless political discussions, eventually being expelled from one that was being held in some suburb miles from where I lived. The long walk home was welcome: it was, if you like, my long walk to freedom. I happily renounced any form of Trotskyism.
It was a small world then. A few years later, I was living with my new partner at 184 St Johns Road. One day, walking with friends back home along Jarocin Avenue we were engaged in bawdy repartee with a group of young men on a first storey balcony. One of these was Stephen Kirby, who invited me up to meet him. Despite the fact we were both in relationships, we commenced a highly passionate affair that lasted a number of years, even after Stephen moved back to Melbourne. When I was down there on business in the early 1980s he would come to my hotel and we’d enjoy each other’s company. Stephen edited Outrage and came to Sydney when the company behind that journal took over the Sydney Star Observer, then evolved that into the community organisation which currently runs it and of which I was an inaugural board member. Stephen died of AIDs in 1994. He wasn’t a Trotskyist. I mention him only because I think of him every time I am in Glebe and I also remember my brief flirtation with Trotskyism. I miss him.
Alex Mitchell did not have a flirtation with Trotskyism. He married into the creed. I use that word because it exemplifies the almost blind devotion to their beliefs that so many Trotskyists have. Only they have the truth. Only they can lead. They are not very different from evangelical Christians in their devotion to their core beliefs. And yet, their numbers have ever been pitifully small, their influence by and large negligible. Though Mitchell writes an exciting and often moving account of his involvement in the activities in Britain of what became known as the Worker’s Revolutionary Party, the truth is that party was always marginal in the British political context, despite it recruiting high-profile members such as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave.
I met the latter when he came out to Australia in the late 1970s to support the activities of the Socialist Labour League here. Though I was no longer a Trotskyist, there were elements in the Australian Labor Party, of which I was then a member, which were in contact with the SLL. Bob Gould, the bookshop owner, and George Petersen, the maverick member for Wollongong in the NSW Parliament, were the leaders of a far-left ALP faction and Corin Redgrave addressed members of that group, me being one, in a room above Gould’s bookshop in George Street. The site is now a tower for some capitalist enterprise on the corner of George and Bathurst Streets. All I recall of the evening is boredom, but of course I wasn’t very dedicated to the cause.
My recollection of the SLL in Australia is dominated by bullying. Leadership consisted of badgering and intimidating members. In this, the party leaders claimed to be following the model set by Gerry Healy, the man Mitchell writes most about. I found the Healy leadership model repugnant. Mitchell obviously had an admiration for the man, but Healy still emerges from this book as an abrasive and unpleasant character.
This book is a fascinating account of how an otherwise sensible man could fall under the spell of a thug like Healy. I encountered Healy’s avatars in Australia and rejected them and their politics. I decided that they were crazy. Mitchell spent the best part of two decades closely involved with the work of these crazies, and he still embraces the tenets of Trotskyism, even though he is no longer a card-carrying WRP member. I admire his ability to tell the story of the WRP and his role within it, but I also wonder what he might have done as a journalist if he was not caught up in Healyism.