This was the theme of a talk by Andrew Moore at the Blackheath History Forum yesterday. Blackheath is in the Blue Mountains out of Sydney and it has a lot of semi-retired academics and the like who support a thriving intellectual subculture of bookshops, galleries and action groups. Also the Blackheath Philosophy Forum and the History Forum. With a nice sense of economy the portable sign outside the venue has History Forum on one side and Philosophy Forum on the other. The chair of the group is Neal Blewett and they have an annual Gordon Childe lecture which will be delivered this year by Henry Reynolds.
It is nice to visit the mountains on a good day, but yesterday there was a gale blowing and the ambient temp was about 10 so you can imagine the wind chill factor.
Andrew Moore of the Western Sydney Uni has written a book on the lapsed North Sydney Bears rugby league club and he is in a group that sponsors scholarly research on sport and an annual lecture on rugby league.
He has spent some 40 years on and off in the archives of material relating to the extremists of the 1930s. There has been a certain amount of published work on the Old Guard and the New Guard of the thirties. One of the minor sources is the D H Lawrence novel Kangaroo which has a sketch of one of the leaders who Lawrence encountered while passing through. I should have asked him about this but left before question time (after a tea break) to get home before dark.
Andrew’s topic was the New Guard, led by Eric Campbell, which peaked in NSW with about 60,000 members in the Sydney district. It formed in 1931 and its driving force was concern about communism and the policies of Jack Lang. When Lang was dismissed as the Premier in 1932 and lost the election later in the year the ranks of the New Guard melted away rapidly, apart from a core around Campbell.
They did some street fighting with communists and the police (who were determined to crack down on them) but their forte was comic opera. The high point was de Groot slashing the ribbon at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The idea was to prevent Lang from opening the bridge and they had a hare-brained plan to kidnap him using a commandeered ambulance. One of their street fighters was a one-armed New Zealander called Roger Crystal and he lay on the road in Ocean Avenue Woolahra while his colleagues called an ambulance. When the paramedic started to fumble inside Roger’s coat to find what damage he had suffered it turned out that Roger was very ticklish and he started to laugh which dislodged his revolver from his pocket or the holster and the ambulance team took off. So they resorted to plan B.
Campbell went to Europe in 1933 and when he came back he instituted uniforms, salutes and heel-clicking, also a more inflammatory rhetoric. This had no appeal to the kind of people who were prepared to be concerned about communism and Jack Lang but were cynical about all politicians and had no instinct for any kind of political fundamentalism.
Andrew concluded that fascism did not get off the ground in Australia for several reasons. Economic conditions were worse in Europe. The European communist parties had hundreds of thousands of members and revolution was a visible (if not a realistic) threat. Germany suffered a loss of prestige and morale in WWI and hungered for national greatness that Hitler offered. Hitler was a charismatic figure and Eric Cambell was not.