From Sex and Anarchy — the life and death of the Sydney Push (1996)

In 19th Century Sydney, gangs called ‘pushes’ dominated Sydney’s streets – most notorious of all was the Rocks Push. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Libertarian intellectuals of the Sydney Push, disciples of Sydney University’s Professor of Philosophy John Anderson, held court at the Royal George Hotel (now the Slip Inn) and cafes like the Lincoln Coffee Lounge, Rowe Street:

There is a phrase ‘Sydney scepticism’ that people talk of sometimes. It suggests there is something in the air Sydneysiders breathe that makes them look side-on at life, wary of idealism. Melbourne is supposed to have a headier, more metaphysical brew that makes Melburnians hatch plans for improving the world or the lot of the poor. If there is a difference between Sydney and Melbourne it goes way back. It has something to do with Sydney’s mix of crims and ratbags and radicals (especially radicals) who were convicts or those who followed them. Sydney was not a civilised place. In Victoria they built Marvellous Melbourne, but Sydney was a rough and tumble world, a place that all manner of people passed through in the first hundred years or so; where high ideals for a new society, dreams of a better life, and the harsh reality of imperial England rubbed shoulders constantly. Not homogenous, not proper, and not even trying to be.

Folk singing, Royal George Hotel, Feb 1964, Robin Smith.  State Library of NSW

Folk singing, Royal George Hotel, Feb 1964, Robin Smith.
(State Library of NSW)

When John Anderson arrived in 1927, Sydney was moving away from that; it was entering its most highly Anglicised phase. The internment of foreign nationals during World War I, the hue and cry over the great strike of 1917, had set up a reaction that made the great bulk of Sydneysiders aspire to be more British than the British. By mid-century it was easy to forget how rich and varied Sydney had once been.

Reading the works of European radicals seemed a bizarre and iconoclastic thing to do in 1950, as if it had never been done before. But it had. Not only was the Push an extension of a long bohemian tradition, but the Libertarians were also continuing an intellectual tradition of sorts; one harder to spot, impossible really to trace, carried along in the battered suitcases of migrant German intellectuals and Irish radicals, seen only occasionally, but there nonetheless. Anarchism was nothing new in Sydney.

 

John Barry, proprietor (standing at rear) from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951. State Library of NSW

John Barry, proprietor (standing at rear) from Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney / photographed by Brian Bird c. 1948-1951.
(State Library of NSW)

The role of the bumptious larrikin, the insurgent, the radical, and the underdog, the victories that can never be won, was legitimised by the Bulletin magazine, whose editor, J. F. Archibald, furthered the mythology of rebellion.

Then Nietzsche was taken up by Sydney intellectuals. Norman Lindsay and his circle latched on to him, partly because he allowed them to see themselves, as artists, as something beyond ordinary men, a mistake the Libertarians would never allow themselves to make. The notion of the artist as a godlike creature would not have found favour among them. Nietzsche had something to offer everyone. But his main impact on Sydney intellectualism was to confirm what the convicts and disaffected Irish rebels already knew: God is dead.

Out of all these elements grew the notion of ‘Sydney scepticism’. In the second quarter of the twentieth century came the Great Depression, another World War and the dropping of the atom bomb. It is no wonder that in the third quarter Sydney scepticism, run through the sieve of Andersonianism, should have expressed itself as the pessimistic anarchism of the Push.

The debate of cause and effect was one that frequently occupied Libertarian theoreticians like Molnar and Baker. Some might see it as an old chicken-and-egg argument, nature versus nurture. Philosophers call it the ‘direction of causality’. And like much that occupied the Libertarians, it went back to Anderson.

Anderson

If one accepted, as Marx had said, that society was shaped by historical forces, what did it mean for human beings? Was their nature shaped by historical forces or were they the driving impetus behind historical forces? Put another way, could social movements change human nature or were changes in human nature necessary to further social movements?

Anderson did not believe in either. He thought human nature unchangeable. But he did accept that from time to time the social barometer shifted. This he attributed to social movements. Human nature had nothing to do with it. To Anderson, social movements were the fundamental units of society. This led his followers into rocky waters, such as the time when one Andersonian, Harry Eddy, backed into a corner at a conference, was pressured into saying: ‘If there were no people, there would still be social movements.’

‘It was a nonsense,’ George Molnar says, a grossly anti-common-sense view that denied the obvious. The Libertarians were not prepared to leave people out of the picture to that extent. Their idea was that if you changed social structures then people would change. Roelof [Smilde], in particular, believed passionately in this. His old girlfriend Marion Hollwood says: ‘He was a crank about it.’

–Ann Coombs, Australian

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