This short essay about some of the forgotten history of the University of Sydney links the university’s ethical socialists and student militants with atypical strikers outside the campus. It formed part of a paper presented to the History of University Life seminar at the University in 2013; that paper was published on

The triumph of green hearts over sere’: Socialists and Militant Students at Sydney University in the 1910s

For some time I’ve been writing about left intellectuals in the early twentieth century, one of whom is Gordon Childe, and in the course of researching his undergraduate years at Sydney University between 1911 and 1913 I made a couple of interesting discoveries about student radicalism. I discovered the existence of a University Socialist Society in 1910 and 1911, a fact that nullified Alan Barcan’s claim in his book, Radical Students, that political clubs did not appear in Australian universities until after the First World War. Incidentally, this society also fails to get a mention in the University’s official histories. I discovered also that in 1911 the undergraduates threatened to strike, and that a group of students, while acting as ‘volunteers’ to break a gas strike in 1913, were beaten up by a gang of working class youths. Neither of these facts appears in Cliff Turney’s chapter in volume one of Australia’s First – A History of the University of Sydney.

The University Socialist Society rises above partisan politics

In April 1910, thirty graduates and undergraduates met on the eve of the federal elections with the intention of establishing the University Socialist Society. The conservatives downtown were shocked. The next day, while the voters shifted to the left, and Andrew Fisher looked forward to leading his second Labor government, the Sydney Morning Herald called the formation of a socialist club at the University, ‘The Last Straw’.

The University Socialists preferred a different metaphor. In 1910, one of their speakers published a book called The Rising Tide – An Exposition of Australian Socialism. The author was the geologist, Harald Jensen, whose doctorate in science with University Medal was awarded in 1908. By 1911 he was a popular member of the State Executive of the Labor Party, and a natural choice to deliver an address on ‘Work and Wages’ to the University Socialist Society, of which he was probably a member. Jensen’s book argued that Darwinian evolutionary theory justified the Labor Party’s strategy for achieving socialism through a policy of gradual reforms. According to Jensen, in The Descent of Man Darwin ‘distinctly maintained that in the human species the fittest consist of the bravest, the most intelligent, and the most self-sacrificing, for these are of the greatest value to the race.’ This version of social darwinism was not unusual on the left, but Jensen’s scientific credentials gave it a rare authority.

The members also heard a speaker from a Marxist organisation, the International Socialists, attack the Labor Party as ‘a mere collection of wolves in sheep’s clothing, who sigh for the flesh-pots of capitalism, and exploit the workers for the purpose of keeping the ministerial benches warm.’ According to an unsigned report in Hermes, the University magazine, this statement elicited less adverse reaction from the audience than did his criticism of compulsory military training. Labor’s politicians might be fallible, but its program – nationalist and progressive – had to be defended. So, as the world’s first majority socialist government set to work – with Jensen as a Commonwealth employee, surveying for minerals in the Northern Territory and advising Prime Minister Fisher to take the mines into public ownership – these middle class University Socialists thought they were catching the tide of the future.

But what part would the Labor party play in this future? The University Socialists had adopted a set of principles, and what is remarkable about ‘the creed’ (as they called it) is that it omitted to mention the Labor party. That must have been deliberate, given the party’s recent electoral advances. However, the creed also omitted to mention Labor’s rival, the Liberal Party. The impalpable was more attractive than partisan politics and specific policies, it seems.

The creed opened by affirming, in religious fashion, some fundamental truths: the organic nature of society and its historical continuity. Similarly, in the second article reformers were warned that they wasted their time if they meddled with the nature of man. With these two beliefs the members signalled that they were not going to contemplate ideas about structural contradictions in society, the necessity of revolutionary ruptures, or the historical relativism of morals and human nature. Then, in a gesture towards ‘new liberalism’, the third belief was enunciated: that the good society should balance the fullest expression of individual needs with the best interests of the organic whole. The fourth showed the radical edge of new liberalism: that some class distinctions were good (those based on ‘social and moral worth’) while others needed to be eliminated (those based on birth, wealth and occupation). Then the creed enters completely new territory: the good society would be governed by the principle, which we would call communist and masculinist: from each according to his capacity and to each according to his needs. Finally the sixth article puts some economic flesh on these principles: the members rejected private monopolies but welcomed public monopolies that contributed to the welfare of all.

Such was the ‘creed’ of the University Socialists, a group of young intellectuals moving from conventional Christianity to ethical socialism, via new liberalism’s political philosophy of government action for social amelioration. State socialism, the revolutionary vanguard, workers’ control, proletarian culture: these and other shibboleths of the Left never got a mention.

The undergraduates threaten to strike – and win

This was before the 1912 Act that reformed the University. In 1911 it was ruled by a gerontocracy: the Chancellor was 75 and the average age of Fellows of Senate was 60. The Fellows were not representative either of staff and students or of the regional and economic interests of the State. Its impact on the educational culture of the State was minimal because of its cautious approach to ‘extension’ classes for full-time, un-matriculated workers in Sydney and country towns. It drew on a restricted constituency for its students (my estimate is less than one percent of young men and women between the ages of 20 and 24 were enrolled), and provided just a few bursaries for school leavers who could not afford its fees.

Radical intellectuals deplored the University’s failure to join the democratising tendencies of the age; its disgruntled students felt unable, as Hermes put it in July 1911, foreshadowing the student power rhetoric of the 1960s, to ‘share in the management of themselves’.

The root cause of student disaffection was this desire for self-government. Hermes is full of examples. It reported in December 1910 that evening students faced peculiar difficulties (for example, anomalies relating to course equivalences), which the Evening Students Association was ‘strenuously’ trying to remove through discussions with the Government, having decided unanimously that it would be futile to approach the Senate. In 1911 the lead article in Hermes complained of a ‘want of sympathy, if not actual hostility, which the governing body … has consistently showed towards the undergraduates’. The students were especially aggrieved by ‘the iniquitous anomalies of the curriculum’ that Senate had been ‘cajoled into passing and retaining’. The leaders of the Undergraduates Association as a result were ‘most emphatically asserting their right to representation on the Senate’. Now, with University reform ‘in the air’, Hermes was hoping for change, ‘the triumph of green hearts over sere’.

Meanwhile, outside the University, in all manner of workplaces, young workers were also challenging authority. We know there was a strike wave in Australia in the years leading up to the First World War, part of what the Sydney Morning Herald called in 1911 ‘The World’s Unrest’. There were major set-piece confrontations between organized labour and employers in Broken Hill, Lithgow, Brisbane, the coal mining districts in New South Wales, as well as in Sydney. In 1913, when a group of about 30 student ‘scabs’ were beaten up outside the Herald building by a mob of youths from the slums around the Kent Street gas works, this was during an eight week industrial war.

What we don’t appreciate is how much of this industrial activity was undertaken in defiance of labour leaders, or was the spontaneous rebellion of workers who were not unionized. I estimate that in 1913 as many non-unionists as unionists were disputing with employers. This atmosphere of insubordination was not confined to masculine blue-collar proletarians; soon other parts of the community were becoming stroppy. These atypical strikers included medical doctors, matrons, nurses, caddies at golf clubs, telephone exchange ‘girls’, the ‘boys’ who worked for local governments, musicians, and school teachers.

Moreover, in this defiant atmosphere, the meaning of the term, ‘strike’, was very elastic. Any form of protest involving a challenge to social custom or economic power was called a strike. When Methodist local preachers in rural Victoria were in dispute with their Church they were said to be on strike. In working class Wollongong bus customers who protested a fare rise by walking were called strikers. Bookmakers in Bathurst, negotiating with the Racing Club, were said to be on strike. In Auckland, players in a touring Sydney rugby league team threatened ‘to strike’ over the suspension of a team-mate, and in Wollongong the volunteer gunners in the local Artillery Corps, who resigned rather than attend repeated training sessions, were called strikers.

So, when students at the University in 1911 decided to threaten the Senate and the Professorial Board with a boycott of classes, this was of course ‘a strike’, one that we won’t properly understand unless we contextualize it as part of a moment of radical democracy in the wider community. This was how it happened.

Since the 1890s (an earlier turbulent decade) the undergraduates had celebrated the annual Commemoration of Benefactors by a procession of satirical and jokey floats from the University to the Town Hall, where the official ceremony was held. It was an expression of saturnalia, when the world turned upside down for a moment as students laughed at their professors and the public saw politicians exposed to ridicule. Unruliness however was infectious. As we have seen, the newspapers were full of reports of ‘outrages’ against authority overseas, and Australia was in the midst of a strike wave.

In 1910 student rowdiness prevented the Chancellor finishing his speech at the official ceremony. Early in 1911 the city establishment was shocked that striking workers had made inflammatory speeches in Martin Place, the banking and commercial centre of the city. Something had to be done, to stop the spread of this infection and to avoid another humiliation of the Chancellor, and it was: in April 1911 the Senate not only banned the Commem procession but cancelled the official Town Hall ceremony. The Martin Place outrage was probably in the minds of the Fellows of Senate, because we know that Charles Wade, the former Liberal-Reform Premier of New South Wales reminded the students of it a few weeks later.

The reaction of the students was dramatic: for the first time in the University’s history they directly challenged the structure of authority on campus. It began at the next University Union debate where a motion was carried deploring the decision, the mover saying that the Senate ‘was a body of hide-bound conservatives, whose ideas were not in keeping with progress, civilisation, or common sense.’ Another speaker likened the Senate’s decision to a Russian ukase. But the Senate stood firm, as the Tsar did at the start of the 1905 revolution. The Students’ Association then defied the Senate by staging a replica of the official ceremony, in the Town Hall as usual, where Charles Wade addressed them, and they carried it off so successfully that the leader writer in the Sydney Morning Herald applauded them.

At about 10.00 a.m. on Saturday 13th of May 1911, an old man was seen making an undignified rush down Hunter Street to the police station, with the derisive cheers of his tormentors following him. It was the Chancellor, Sir Normand MacLaurin, whose house on the ridge at 155 Macquarie Street was under siege by students. They sang:

What’s the matter with our Commem today?

O, why has the mighty Sir Normand stayed away?

O, no one can speak for six hours or more,

Except our eloquent Chancellor.

For over an hour contingents of hooting students had arrived at number 155:

Then loads of wood and coal. Then the postman bought an extraordinary big mail. Then the telephone worked overtime. Streams of taxis passed and repassed, firing salutes as they got broadside on. At last Sir Normand MacLaurin felt that the joke had gone far enough. He determined to run the gauntlet, and bring reinforcements.

The police mobilized, cordoned off Macquarie Street and the demonstration was over.

But not the repercussions. Within a few days both the Professorial Board and the Senate met to consider how to punish the students responsible for the Chancellor’s ‘molestation’, as Professor Tom Anderson Stuart called it. At the Board meeting he proposed that those responsible should be ‘rusticated’ for two years, i.e., suspended from their degree candidature. The Profs wisely rejected this, resolving instead to summons the committee of the Students’ Association for an explanation on the following Friday. The Senate issued a similar summons. On Wednesday, at a meeting attended by one thousand students, called together by the Students’ Association, the response was clear and militant: if any students were rusticated, the entire student body would strike for as long as the rustication continued. They voted to meet again on Friday to hear the decisions arrived at by the Board and the Senate. The Sydney Morning Herald predicted an angry demonstration if the University authorities decided to punish any students.

The city elite, through the Herald, counselled the Senate and the Professorial Board to ‘take a mild and reasonable view’, saying that the Students’ Association ought not be held responsible for ‘the temporary overflow of youthful spirits’ outside the Chancellor’s residence. Besides, any drastic reaction by the authorities would leave a legacy of bitterness which might be dangerous in unsettled times. The advice was taken. On Saturday the Herald was able to report that the Commem affair had been ‘smoothed over’. The Chancellor asked the Professors not to take any action in so far as anything affecting him was concerned, and the Chair of the Students’ Association apologised to the Board for the songs lampooning the Chancellor. Next year the Senate allowed the Commem procession.

The students had won, and for much the same reasons as workers did when they prevailed in industrial disputes. The more adventurous among them had taken direct action; the greater part of them had supported the direct action by showing their determination at a subsequent mass meeting, and then they had escalated the dispute by threatening a mass strike if their grievance was not resolved.


The story of the University Socialist Society can be followed in the University magazine, Hermes, in May 1910, December 1910 and July 1911, and there is an account of the inaugural meeting in Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 13 April 1910. Jensen’s book, The Rising Tide was published in Sydney by The Worker Trustees, (1909).

Undergraduate disaffection with the University Senate can be followed in Hermes December 1910, May 1911, and SMH 18 May 1911. The date of SMH leader on world unrest is 9 September 1911. For the turbulence during the gas strike, and the attack on student scabs, see SMH 5, 6, 7, and 8 March 1913.

The Commem affair and threatened student strike can be followed in SMH 2 May 1910, 22 April 1911, 15 May 1911, 18 May 1911 and 20 May 1911.

Writings on radical democracy and the critique of the state that I draw on are: Sheldon S. Wolin, ‘Fugitive Democracy’, Constellations, Vol 1, no. 1, 1994, 11-25; C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 1996; Miguel Abensour, Democracy Against the State – Marx and the Machiavellian Moment, Polity Press, 2011, especially the appendix on Claude Lefort and ‘savage democracy’.

See also Alan Barcan, Radical Students – The Old Left at Sydney University, Melbourne University Press, 2002; and C. Turney, U. Bygott, and P. Chippendale, Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney 1859-1939, Vol. 1, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1991