Ned Kelly reined up on the edge of the cliff,
He turned and looked at me.
‘The crooked world throws a gallows-shadow
On him with a mind to be free.’

-Jack Lindsay, ‘A Word from Ned Kelly the Bushranger’


During his teenage and early adult years in Brisbane Jack Lindsay experienced the social disruption caused by the First World War and the divisive debates about conscription, the hysteria generated by the rise of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution of 1917, the continuing rise of unionism, the fight for workers’ rights, and the start of the Aboriginal Rights Movement.  Brisbane may have been a large country town, but it was far from sleepy.  For Jack it was the breeding ground for his own activism, which started with a disillusioning attempt to engage with institutional politics.

Old Government House Brisbane 1879
Original site of the University of Queensland, adjacent to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens

University Politics

At the University of Queensland Jack was invited by one of the former editors of Queensland University Magazine, Thomas Thatcher to be part of a ‘social action committee’ to advocate for full educational and social rights for Aboriginal people. While supporting these aims, Lindsay was concerned that Thatcher supported the placement of Aboriginal people in reserves.  In his autobiography, Life Rarely Tells(LRT) Lindsay recalls that P.R. Stephensen described Thatcher as a ‘callow idealist’.

Lindsay and the other students visited stations on which Aboriginal people were working and also found out what they could about the missions as background research for a plan proposed by Thatcher for improving Aboriginal living conditions.  A meeting was arranged with Labor premier, T.J. Ryan who listened to their arguments and promised to act on them: ‘We thought we had saved the Aboriginals.’ (LRT, p. 132) Ryan then almost immediately resigned to enter Federal politics; his successor refused to be bound by agreements he had made and the whole enterprise failed dismally.  Stephensen’s cynicism was vindicated; he had warned Jack that only a socialist revolution could change the way that society operates.

For Jack this was yet another institutional betrayal; like education and commerce, institutional politics was apparently conducted in the interests of those in charge, not the people whose lives were affected by it. He would not return to this path.

World War One

This early political education was conducted in an environment poisoned by the trauma and disillusionment of soldiers returning from the conflict in Europe.  Some were maimed physically, others emotionally.  Broken in body and mind they returned to find their jobs had been taken by others, cost of living expenses had increased enormously, and the only apparent benefit from the war was to those selling military supplies – the war profiteers.  In ‘The Fullness of Life’ Lindsay would later write of this experience:

I saw the war as the betrayal of human brotherhood, as the touchstone for the truth and the lie in my world; and the war itself, which had been a dull boom beyond the horizon, became suddenly an integral part of everything I touched, smelt, saw, heard. I met Murder on the way. The murder was everywhere, the gutters ran with blood. (Chapter 1)

Opinions about the war were fiercely divided but it is worth noting that the first ANZAC Day celebration on 25 April 1916 was celebrated in London, on the Western Front, and in Australia in Albany, Western Australia and in Rockhampton and Brisbane in Queensland.

ANZAC Commemoration 1916
Depending on viewpoint it is either thrilling or chilling to note the banner ‘ENLIST NOW’ as the most prominent feature in the Brisbane gathering and march.

The Blood Vote

During the war also Australian society was divided by two referendums that had taken place in 1916 and 1917 when, under pressure from Britain to supply more troops, the Australian people had been asked to approve the conscription of men into the Australian military services.  On both occasions the proposal was rejected but the campaign was vicious, with families torn apart by conflicting beliefs and views.  Some maintained loyalty to Britain and saw themselves still primarily as British subjects (the Empire loyalists); others regarded the war as primarily fought by working men for the profit of capitalism and capitalists.

The negative side of the campaign was expressed in a poem by W.R. Winspear, a socialist and member of the radical labour movement.

Why is your face so white, mother?
Why do you choke for breath?
O I have dreamt in the night, my son
That I doomed a man to death


They gave me the ballot paper.
The grim death-warrant of doom,
And I smugly sentenced the man to death
In that dreadful little room.

The Blood Vote by Jack Lindsay CoverSome years later Lindsay wrote a novel called The Blood Vote (1985) that explored these debates through the life of one family.  He was appalled at the pro-war attitudes expressed during the conscription debates, finding himself in conflict with his mother’s sister, Mary Elkington, who had sponsored him after his move to Brisbane with his mother and brothers. This family division provided the emotional force to a narrative of social and political conflict realized in people’s everyday lives.

At the same time, many within the union movement saw the war as an example of class-based exploitation of working men, whom they saw as the modern version of cannon fodder.  For them the referendum results were a victory for reason and compassion.  To some returned soldiers, however, the results of the referendums were an insult to their own war service and they regarded dissenters, even if returned soldiers, as traitors. Social division remained, which often boiled over into violence.

The rise of Bolshevism in Russia added fuel to this fire.  The links between Bolshevism, the union movement and the I.W.W. caused great concern in political circles in Australia, including fears that working class movements would be led to the same revolutionary action as took place in Russia in 1917.  The anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Bolsheviks fitted easily with the class-based anti-capitalism of unionists and socialist groups.

The Red Flag Riots

One result of these social tensions was a series of violent confrontations in Brisbane in 1919 that came to be known as the Red Flag Riots, ostensibly prompted by the carrying of red flags which had been banned by the government.

Red Flag Riots Cartoon

This cartoon, titled ‘Law and order Upheld, “Red Monday” South Brisbane, 24th March 1919’, captioned beneath as “The Battle of Merivale Street”, was published in the Queensland Police Union Journal June 11, 1919.  It appeared above a photograph titled ‘The Queensland Police doing their duty. How fifty men fought five thousand in defence of life and property.’ It presents the police view of the situation, of course; loyal officers holding the line against militant Bolshevists, who don’t actually seem to be holding the red flags that were the cause of the unrest.

Historian, Raymond Evans in his book, The Red Flag Riots: A Study of Intolerance (1988) maps the socio-political milieu of Brisbane during the second decade of the 20th century.  So far we have noted the presence of returned soldiers, both supporters and dissidents, Empire loyalists, unionists, IWW members, Bolsheviks.  Evans adds to this the stories of members of the Russian community, the actions of the Catholic Church (anti-conscription and also anti-Bolshevik), the identification of Catholics as anti-English and therefore anti-Imperial (and often as members of Sinn Fein), the peace organizations, and the involvement of four major government security and surveillance organizations (the Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB), Commonwealth Police, Military Intelligence and Censorship), not to mention the police who were implicated in both allowing attacks on Russians, unionists and IWW members and in physically assaulting those arrested in anti-war activism.

This combination of political movements based on class, national and religious allegiances was the political ferment that Lindsay encountered during his years at high school and university.  In Life Rarely Tells he recounts:

At the university I now called myself a Bolshevik. I wore a red tie and rose in the debating society and defended the revolution.  I had not yet even heard the term Marxism and had no idea that it was the philosophy of Lenin.  I interpreted the Soviet revolution in formulations drawn from Shelley, William Morris, and Blake. (p. 133)

Lindsay’s revolutionary fervor was based in the social justice advocacy of English Romanticism, and this was to be reinforced by his experience as a tutor at the Workers’ Educational Association in Brisbane.

Witherby and the W.E.A.

The University supplied tutors for W.E.A. classes in a range of areas including Literature, Economics, History and Politics, managed by the Director of Tutorial Classes, T.C. Witherby. In his book on P.R. Stephensen (1984) Craig Munro described Witherby as ‘an Oxford-educated Anglican priest’ (p.14), adding: ‘A tall and gauntly dignified man, Witherby spoke with an aristocratic English drawl which he punctuated with Australian oaths to disconcert the pious. His eccentricities were legion.’ (pp. 14-15)

Lindsay described some of Witherby’s idiosyncrasies in Life Rarely Tells, noting: ‘He just did what occurred to him as the most sensible and pleasant thing to do, and with a courteous smile ignored all conventions.’ (p. 125) This lack of convention clearly appealed to Lindsay but more importantly Witherby’s Christian socialism informed his rejection of conservative society: ‘What had been an intense personal rebellion was suddenly widened, taking on the whole scope of the earth.’ (p. 125)

Witherby’s views on education are reported in an article in the Daily Standard, 14 December 1920 titled ‘Mr. Witherby on “Fear”’ (p.2). Witherby is reported as saying that the free discussion of ideas, the W.E.A. understanding of education, had been halted in Brisbane because of a double fear: ‘the fear that men had of criticism lest their cherished convictions should prove illusions, and the fear they had of the opinion of others.’ The account continues:

‘A fear of certain members of the Labor movement of University criticism; a fear on the part of certain members of the University staff and Senate of the discussion of certain ideas; and fear on the part of certain journals and members of Parliament of the discussion of things they did not understand …’

The article also reproduces Witherby’s quote from Bertrand Russell:

“Men fear thought,” Bertrand Russell had said, “as they fear nothing else. Thought is mer[c]iless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, the chief glory of man.”

Lindsay’s experience of teaching at the W.E.A. and his conversations with Witherby’s friends and with fellow tutors, including I.W.W. member, Jim Quinton and archeologist and philologist V. Gordon Childe, who went on to write the first Marxist archeology, led him to challenge the university’s claims to dispassionate authority, instead locating its role as an institution within a capitalist society.

At the W.E.A. Council Meeting of February 20th 1919, Norman Freeberg (later known as Freehill) circulated a paper, ‘Basis of Discussion on The University and Working Class Education’ arguing that the education of the working-class should be controlled by the working-class and rejecting the involvement of the university:

The University of Queensland, like almost all academic institutions throughout the world, is controlled by the class which is nourished on the proceeds of exploitation, by men whom even when equipped with much knowledge apparently progressive in their outlook, are nevertheless saturated with bourgeois ideas. … The universities of to-day are entirely the product of the capitalist, or bourgeois, social order.  The culture they dispense is bourgeois culture, the kind of intellectual equipment which blurs the truths of social science and prepares its disciples to be the expert misleaders of the people.  … the real purpose of the modern university is to produce trained spokesmen and defenders of the existing order.1

Freeberg then moved formally to sever ties with the University: the motion was lost, its opponents including Witherby.  Though we do not know Witherby’s exact motivation for voting in the negative, he is reported as saying that he did not believe the University inhibited free speech by staff, nor that the Library contained only bourgeois texts (as had been claimed).  Despite this, Witherby was regarded with suspicion by conservative members of the community and denounced by the (conservative) Daily Mail on September 22nd 1919 as ‘the apostle of revolution’ – an inflammatory charge in the aftermath of the Red Flag Riots described by Evans.

Witherby had a strong set of principles from which he did not diverge, even if he differed in strategy from some of his colleagues.  For example, the Worker (Thursday 17 April 1919) reports at length his denunciation of the suppression of the Red Flag, including his description of the value of the Red Flag to many as a symbol of freedom; his query as to whether the crucifix of Christianity might be outlawed if enough opponents might come to power, and his question: ‘What has become of the boast of a free Australia?’  And he concludes: ‘I speak [these words] as a representative of an educational association which loathes, above all things, as hostile to the development of the human mind, the suppression of thought and speech.’  Witherby did not back down in the face of the most trenchant criticism.


Prof Michie at University of Queensland
Prof. Michie at University of Queensland

Lindsay’s early life in Brisbane exposed him to a range of viewpoints – from the most conservative form of Empire loyalism to revolutionary socialism. He saw people stricken by war service; businessmen profiting from the war; Bolsheviks and unionists attempting to bring a worker’s republic to being; and wild riots prompted by rabble-rousing propaganda of the right and trenchant opposition to government repression by the left.  He also saw the university cited not as a place of disinterested learning but as the intellectual home of the bourgeoisie.  He found a strong disputant at home in his aunt Mary Elkington, who represented the bourgeois values with which he struggled, and mentors like Witherby and Quinton, whose views he shared and who, like his aunt, did not resile from a fight.

At the same time, he encountered scholars like Professor John Lundie Michie, the inaugural Chair of Classics who took a major role in shaping the new university and taught Jack how to translate classical texts, and Vere Gordon Childe, the brilliant archeologist and political theorist whose breadth of learning, precision of argument and rejection of intellectual and political orthodoxy (Childe was an outspoken pacifist during the Great War, which was a major contributing factor to his forced ‘resignation’ from a position at the University of Sydney) inspired the young Lindsay.