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1886-1986 - 100 years of anarchism in Australia

Australian Anarchist Centenary
Celebrations Conference 1986 Melbourne

The Australian Anarchist Centenary celebrations were a result of two years organising work, and followed on from the success of the 1984 and Social Control Conference. Over three thousand people attended a four day program of activities that included workshops, Film Festival, banner, poster and historical displays and a march on May Day. People from all over Australia as well as Anarchist activists from New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain, France, West Germany and Spain celebrated the event.
reactions to the celebrations ranged from "one of the greatest moments of my life" from Miura Seiichi, an 85 year old Japanese Anarchist who came to Australia for the celebrations, to "I never expected to see anything like this during my life time" from Boris Franceschini, an Italian anarchist (now deceased) who had lived in Melbourne, Australia since 1924, to "I found the celebrations emotionally exhausting and very disappointing, little if any growth has occurred in the Australian Anarchist Community as a consequence of the celebrations" from Bob James, the Australian Anarchist Historian. "No women's space was provided and the A.A.C.C. group did not provide enough emphasis on women", reported an Anarch-feminist.
Joe Toscano, 1988
Introduction to the Celebrations Book:
Anarchy is Order, Government is Chaos

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A Lot to Celebrate

by Bob James
from Libertarian Workers Bulletin Vol 8 No 2 Dec1985 - April 1986

Gatherings of like-minded people occur for many different reasons. In the last 10 years or so, anarchists have come together only on an informal or one-city basis following some traumatic exchanges at 'Conferences' in 1975-76, which ended a period of quite intense organising. The Social Control conference in Sydney, however, in 1984, showed movement to a new, maturer level had at last occurred.

1886-1986 - 100 years of anarchism in Australia celebration The use of the label 'Celebration' for the forthcoming event is highly significant, for it shows a confidence that we can be positive, even handle a light hearted element in our discussions without repeating the 'chaoticist' mistakes of the past, and without losing sight of the need for serious analysis and disagreement.

It is important that anarchists, both 'official' and 'unofficial', on this continent become better informed about their heritage, for there are valuable resources to be found and made use of.

I can only emphasise what appears to me to be important, but I am trying to make available material about personalities, events and concepts from our past which others can take up and use in their own way to light their own path.

The study of history is not like the study of computers, say. The 'facts' of history are not bare and unadorned, and to be used just as tools. There are things to be learnt, relevant to our present and our future which only come to hand when we try to unravel the context in which certain facts are embedded. Take the 'facts' that in January, 1975, the Sydney (Official) Anarchist Conference was (again) asked to look at the practise of 'official' anarchists, especially males and heterosexuals, and that it failed to do so; that in October, 1975, a large body of feminist (official and unofficial) anarchists discussed sexuality/ gender/ organisation/etc., without splitting and without notable rancour, that in June, 1976, the much smaller Melbourne Conference of (official) Anarchists split with a great deal of bitterness into groups which settled eventually on books and news-sheets as their major organisational activity.

While the minimal padding I have so far put around the 'facts' in these few lines would be considered contentious by some, few would argue that the total context surrounding the events referred to is not worth talking about. This applies over and over again throughout what is 'our' history. Let us try to absorb this 'fact' to start with - for better or worse, we have a long history. There is a lot to regret but there is a lot to celebrate.

My personal choices for celebration would begin with:

These are just some of the pavingstones to the future. People ask me continuously, "But, have anarchists had any lasting effect on Australia?"

I'm reluctant to attempt an answer to that at this stage, only because there is still much to be rediscovered. At the moment there is a great imbalance in information towards Sydney and Melbourne, which is unfortunate but reflective of the present state of our knowledge. One of the reasons for my now being in Newcastle is to fill in the gaps for this area, especially those for the IWW/Syndicalist tradition which is considerable.

Yet, already, I have no doubt that anarchism has had a profound effect on Australian society, more on its culture and lifestyles than on its institutions, it is true, and less directly than we would like. But consider the changes over just the 100 years being especially commemorated. Germaine Greer, Frank Moorehouse, Wendy Bacon, James McCaulay, Clive James (no relation) , Brett Whitely, Max Harris, John Percival and James Gleeson are just some of the well-known Australians whose creativity has been significantly shaped by anarchism.

There are many more less well-known anarchist pioneers who have changed the face of this society forever. There is also a negative effect which is part of our history. I believe that one of the main reasons, perhaps the main reason, for the mildly reformist nature and centralised structure of such groupings as the A.L.P. is the successful stigmatising of radicals in general and anarchists in particular at certain crucial times. This is of course sometimes acknowledged by non-anarchists, but I don't believe it's really felt or understood. One implication of the belief is for example that a decentralised socialism was once widespread in labor circles and that without State repression and media caricatures that socialism would have had a very good chance of being adopted. Discussions of such a possibility are not permitted in histories published even by 'lefty' publishing houses and the parameters of such a debate are not present in 'learned' journals. The nature of this ignorance among historians and the so-called cultural elite needs to be understood and overcome.

To rise above the small-men who rule us/fund us/decide for us the world we will see, in short, shape the cultural debate, and argue as they did in the 1950s and 1960s that ideology was no longer of any importance because the blue collar worker had disappeared for ever in suburban affluence, we need to celebrate the totality of what we have. These cretins dominate us, reject us and marginalise us. But we have an ideology that explains them as well as the problems they cannot solve.

Attempts at large-scale institutional social change failed in the past because of the greater power of the status-quo, e.g. guns, money and media, and because of the greater gutlessness of-so-called reformers, so easily bought off or intimidated. But that gutlessness and the greater power are both explainable and therefore able to be overcome.

The struggle for self-management has many facets, many locations and can be labelled various things as being about freedom, a fight for one's own voice, for a place in the sun, for a chance to be oneself, etc. Where it involves a person learning to value themselves, and therefore to feel confident in their power to decide for themselves, it is the same struggle as has been described in , many places as the struggle for adulthood, for responsible citizenship. And where this process of becoming adult does not involve becoming powerful over others, e.g. children, employees, or over those not yet so strong, it is anarchist in drive.

When I look back over the 100 years of our organised history I note enormous changes in mainstream society and especially how there is now large scale acceptance of the notion that empowerment of the individual, through self-help and self-initiated programs, is the way to community health. The gap between the hierarchical stance of the institutions and the openness of the decentralisers is widening and becoming apparent to more and more people. I believe that anarchism is winning. And that's why the authorities are more brutal and more agitated and why we're seeing such things as Hawke's Summits.

We can best celebrate the efforts of the Anarchist pioneers by getting involved in the thousands of projects aimed at conso1idating and strengthening the movement towards empowerment, decentralisation and creation. But, I would like to see the celebration aspect of the May gathering emphasized with performances, such as street theatre, mime and playlets, songs and poetry readings. These could draw on our history, but relate elements of that (the first May Day Procession in Melbourne, for example) to the present and the future. Graeme Dunstan's ideas about the politics of festivals are very relevant here. Talking about a flexible performance involving people on stilts and used in streetwalks and street theatre he concluded:

The sense of space that is so intrinsic to Australian landscape filled us and when we performed to crowds we realised that huge space was our performance domain the tools that make for effective celebrations of community are the same that make for effective protests in defence of community. ... if the protest is conceived as celebratory theatre rather than an amplified committee meeting.

Expressions of our ideals can be so powerful in their quality of imagination and design that the media cannot ignore them and so positive that they cannot be trivialised or turned against us.

Bob James, 1985

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Puppets and May Day 1986

Puppets will be an important feature of the Asia Pacific leg of the World Economic Forum demonstrations in Melbourne next week. Puppets also played an important role in the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations in Melbourne in 1986. The puppets were the brain child of Dwayne and the Australian anarchist historian Bob James. Three months prior to the celebrations, Gabby O'Connor, a puppet making expert from Sydney came down to Melbourne to initiate the project. A warehouse in Footscray become the main production venue for the puppets.

Dwayne and Bob James were assisted by a small number of anarchists. They created an amazing array of puppets for the Melbourne May Day demonstration in 1986. The puppets consisted of:

The puppets were well received by the public during the May Day March and formed part of the display over the four day celebrations.

Anarchist Age Weekly Review
Number 416
4th \AD 10th September, 2000

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Report on Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations 1986

The Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations are over, the bills have been paid, the overseas and interstate guests have left. There is still the task of documenting this grand event and while this remains the Australian Anarchist Centenary Celebrations Collective exists.

I write this article as someone who participated in the A.A.C.C.C. meetings for a year and as such had the advantage of seeing a lot of talk become reality. While to most participants the celebrations were 'the event' that had brought them together, I'd like to explain a little of the A.A.C.C.C. historv. In August, 1984, the Libertarian Workers for Self-managed Society (L.W.S.S.) called a meeting of anarchists to discuss the idea of some activity to celebrate the centenary of the Melbourne Anarchist Club. Those who attended agreed to meet monthly and to begin work on the various ideas they had put forward. There was the idea of a film festival, a conference, exhibitions and later on, a march on May 1.

The organisation of these activities was mainly evolutionary. As the time passed individuals undertook specific tasks or areas of responsibility. Where no one was responsible, nothing got done. The collective 'processess' were not defined and we were fortunate as to the degree of goodwill and honesty among the various companeros. While there were opportunities missed to confront past differences and to clarify persistant problems and conflicts, the result was a general supercedence of these and an. attitude of cooperation and enthusiasm. There was too a feeling of 'overload' on the part of some collective members, something that could only have been avoided with more involvement and commitment from intending 'participants'. It is important to note here that no member of the A.A.C.C.C. received any wages for their time.


May Day 100 years of anarchism in Australia I knew that the countdown was nearly over when the first guests from overseas arrived. On April 25, we advertised a banner making day in an old warehouse. Lots of space with people dotted around large pieces of coloured material and pots of paint. And 'Anarchy' was being talked about, defined, argued over. Like the crescendo of a thunderstorm ANARCHY became a live throbbing pulse.

Suddenly there were more hands to move boxes and boards and do whatever needed to be done.

The days overlapped as the collective had its last pre-celebration meetings, the puppets and Australian Anarchist historical display and banners were put on display, and late nights and early mornings and lots of anarchy became continuously featured in our lives.

On Wednesday, April 31, the Melbourne daily, 'The Age', carried two articles about Australian anarchist history, the film festival and Mujeres Libres. A reasonable and atypical piece of journalism.

On that same day the world was talking about the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. While for many who read the news that day, feelings of powerlessness were overwhelming, we, the anarchists, were organising with a view to a 'new' world. Will we bave to build it from the ashes of the old? Will that be possible? At 5 p.m., April 31, the doors to Storey Hall at the Royal Melbourne Institute of. Technology opened and many people began to scurry in and out carrying boxes of books, display boards and materials, all of which was used to set up the various exhibitions and displays.

There was an Australian Anarchism Historical display, part of the Venice International Anarchism Display, photos of Anarchist graffitti, a display on Anarchism in Germany and a display of cartoons and drawings done for the Libertarian Workers over the last decade.

A space was set aside for childrens activities and there were kids there moving boxes around and enjoying the general activity. Banners were draped from the balcony and anarchist posters from around the world decorated the walls. Tables were set up for food and coffee. The catering at the celebrations had been organised by a small but dedicated group of Melbourne anarchists, with a little help (not enough) from celebration participants. And so on Thursday May 1, when the celebrations formally began. there was alreadv an atmosphere of organisation and only the finishing touches remained.

The problem then was the weather. We had planned a picnic on the banks of the Yarra River and a march through the city streets. But all morning the sky was grey and alight rain fell. But sure enough, when the time came to head down to the Yarra, the sky began to clear and we emerged from the Starey Hall anarchist cocoon into the streets of Melbourne.

At the agreed time of 2pm about 400 anarchists had assembled on the Yarra Bank with flags, banners, large puppets and a bus load of excited kids. We moved out onto the road with many of us handing out leaflets to the curious onlookers. The puppets were a feature of the march. Who could miss a 4metre high female figure with $EX written in her spiked hair, carrying two huge breasts on a plate? Or a gold hoard surrounded by barbed wire, carried by figures in dog masks, which represented the State?

The police assisted with directing traffic and we marched down into the heart of the city. We stopped at the Bourke St. mall and many anarchists used the available microphone to talk about why they were there. It was obvious from the many wide grins that our sense of solidarity and pride was strong.

From there we headed up to the 8hr monument. Melbourne was the place where the first 8hr day was won by workers in 1856 and the monument was erected to remind all passers-by of that struggle. It stands near the Trades Hall -the site of many of the reformist union offices.

At the monument we celebrated further our reclamation of May 1 and May Day. For many years now the trade union movement has organised the May Day march on the first Sunday in May. In 1986 the black and red and black banners waved at the monument and the struggle of the Chicago anarchists and those working folk who have lost their lives and liberty was acknowledged. We sang 'Solidarity Forever' and then drifted back in small groups to the hall.

Later, a few of us returned to the monument for the 'official' trade union organised wreath laying ceremony. Our heckling and flags made it clear that May 1 is not a day for mourning but for ORGANISATION.

Thursday night was for me the most disappointing part of the celebrations. The lack of person-power prior to the celebrations had not made it possible for a performance to be organised and so instead a microphone was placed at the front of the hall and an invitation extended to anyone who wanted to use it. Perhaps the small huddles of people discussing anarchy and the world thought it unnecessary to use this opportunity or perhaps no one wanted to appear 'authoritative'. For whatever the reason - and I think it has to do with the cultural cringe-and insecurity about the significance of our actions - the only individuals to recognise the existance of the microphone were the kids, who began by screaming into it and ended by singing a song.

The general malaise continued until 9.30 p.m., when most of us tried to listen to the broadcast on community radio 3CR of a number of local and international comrades talking by telephone to 6 Chicago anarchists involved with organising the anarchist May Day activities in Chicago. After the broadcast there was a theatre performance from the Unemployed Peoples Umberella (UPU), and readings by poets, many of whom have contributed to anarchist culture in Australia over many years. Then there was the bands.

Its a sign of age perhaps but when music is so loud that my ears ring, I get annoyed. Mainly because such loud noise damages the eardrums. The music went on until 11p.m.. That was the arrangement we made when we hired the hall. And it was in this situation the conflict arose between 'organisers' and some participants. What is 'anarchy'? Does it mean doing what you want? Loud music all night? Or is that selfishness?

I say 'organisers', and I mean all those who took responsibility for the coordination of the celebrations and for their own participation as anarchists. We had no cleaners, only those who not only cleaned up their own mess but that of others as well.

We had no security officers, only those who took responsibility for their part in the collective decisions. A few people didn't cooperate and had to be asked to leave. Were they the opressors or the oppressed?

After Thursday night the only ones to throw themselves into Friday with great energy were the kids. They went around playing chasey in the hall until they went off swimming. The two activities they had most wanted were to go swimming and to watch a video.

At 9.30am Friday morning, about 20 strained faces watched each other while sitting in a circle discussing 'conference organisation': the problems of the night before, the empty spaces on the various roster sheets. What do you do at an anarchist gathering if many of the participants act like consumers? This question remained contentious throughout the celebrations, and was aired a number of times in the final plenary session as being a negative aspect of the celebrations.

That day saw many interested people pass through the hall and view the displays. As was typical throughout the celebrations, the gathering of individuals to discuss problems past and present was a permanent feature of the landscape.

The conference proper - the organised workshops, discussions and papers - began on Friday evening. Sessions included the media and its treatment of anarchism, with a large number of participants, some of whom later held practical workshops on radio and print productions. This was a far cry from the session on Anarchism and Marxism, which was presented in the form of an academic lecture and left a number of participants frustrated at their lack of opportunity to contribute. Other sessions covered anarchism in South London, the 'Third World', the Draft Resisters Movement, the libertarian aspects of Blake's work and Australian society and the State.

As well the Film Festival opened with screenings of 'Zero for Conduct', 'Free Voice of Labour', 'We aim to please' and 'La Cecila'. Judging by the number of people walking in and out at the beginnings and ends of the sessions, cinema is a good medium for spreading anarchist ideas.

Saturday and Sunday were both days of conference talk, films and the hubbub of voices as hundreds of people came and went and perused the material on display at the Jura and Black Rose bookstalls.

The session which attracted the largest audience was that on Anarchism and Gender Politics. Despite many complaints about this session, there is general agreement that it was the fore runner to two further discussions on Sunday and there is now a regular discussion occurring on the many issues raised under the theme Anarchism and Gender Politics.

Often the smaller discussions created a greater sense of satisfaction. This was so at the Esperanto workshop for the six participants, although some large discussions, like the one on daily life were also able to generate a lot of enthusiasm.

A number of workshops were designed as a basis for on-going activity, and this was successful in the case of the Anarchist Black Cross which now exists in Australia and is beginning to establish its priorities. It is also true for the national don't vote campaign. Some anarchists from the eastern capital cities discussed the processes for organising such a campaign. Seven meetings have been held in Melbourne to this end.

While most of the workshop/discussions had been listed on the conference program, there were a number spontaneously organised on the struggle of the Builders Labourers Federation; the two gender politics discussions mentioned earlier; one on the Anarcho- Syndicalist Federation and the International Workers Association. Perhaps there were others. I certainly couldn't keep track of the various activities.

One initiative which did arise spontaneously was the plenary session, where all conference participants could share their impressions - the positive, the negative and the interesting. The most interesting part of the plenary (for me) was its virtual paralization when one person objected to the session being taped, This despite the option for individuals to signal if they personally didn't want to be taped. The discussion around this objection lasted for 20 minutes and without resolution. I don't know if the session was taped or not, but the behaviour demonstrated the varied understanding about anarchist decision making. It was a characterisation of the joke about a group of anarchists lost together in the bush - they'd die of starvation before they could work out what to do.

There is an obvious need to talk about the issue of decision making and the strong aversion to anything other than total concensus that exists among many Australian individualist anarchists - but the plenary was not the chosen forum.

We went on to the positives and negatives. The most often mentioned negative came from those who'd been involve with different aspects of the celebrations organisation, and it was their opinion that many anarchists had passively consumed rather than dynamically participated. Many of the tasks, such as children's activities, registration/information, cleaning up and food preparation fell to those who were seen as organisers. Other negatives were perceived sexism: not enough workshops on feminism: no plenary sessions scheduled - many of which were expressed as things others didn't do. 1886-1986 - 100 years of anarchism in Australia

The positives: no violence; resonable dialogues; making contacts; renewing friendships; the May Day march; making anarchism clearly visible and not to be dismissed in the struggle for human solutions to the problems confronting humanity.

The celebrations included a dance/concert on Saturday night. A party well attended and enjoyed with bands, poetry, theatre, a classical ensemble and a live recording for posterity.

Even the attempt by a number of marxists to steal some of the banners from the hall was thwarted. What looked like an easy act of sabotage was complicated by a number of anarchists' practice of the flying tackle, a chase up the street and the last banner was surrended when one comrade threw himself on the car bonnet as the last act of pursuit. One of the attackers dropped their wallet with documents and was thus easily identified.

The kids, too, exhausted themselves at a special childrens disco with flashing lights and loud music.

Over the entrance to the hall hung a banner with the words attributed to Emma Goldman; "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

Report by Susi
Libertarian Workers Bulletin Vol 9 No 1 July-Dec 1987
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