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The Push

Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney.

Brian Bird, Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe, Rowe Street, Sydney, 1948-1951. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: PXA 684/1.

There were many contradictions inside the Push: it was a movement born from forces within Sydney University during the 1950s, but it took an anti-intellectual stance. Members held strong views on social issues but were anti-activist. Many were involved in creative endeavours as writers, filmmakers, actors, artists, designers and musicians but dismissed cultural elitism.

The source for the term 'The Push' dates back to the late 19th century, where it referred to gangs of small-time street criminals in Sydney's The Rocks district. Many years later, it was adopted by a loose but distinctive group, based in Sydney, who had a rebellious approach to life that was in opposition to the conservative values of the 1950s and 1960s.

Anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist, anti-careerist and anti-censorship, these men and women chose an eccentric lifestyle that united social and political criticism with drinking, gambling, sex and anarchy.

The Push members were more likely to be found drinking at a public hotel bar (commonly known as a 'pub') or gambling at the horse races than in a church or at a formal dinner party. The group moved away from the grounds of Sydney University and instead met in cafes and pubs located in the centre of Sydney, known as 'downtown'.

Sydney was a smaller city in the 1950s, and the urban heart was vibrant and attracted artists, journalists, actors and students. The Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Cafe in Rowe Street was seen as one of the birthplaces. As the Push moved 'from gown to town', particular hotels became associated with flowing drink, laughter, jokes and dynamic, controversial discussion. The back room of the Royal George Hotel was one famous venue, and the art critic, Robert Hughes, memorably painted a Push mural on the wall of this establishment.

Key members of the Push

Reflecting a general aversion to ambition and career success, many of the figures in The Push are names that are not well recognised in Australia or internationally. In his book on the history of Australian philosophy, academic James Franklin quotes Barry Humphries who summed up the Push as 'a fraternity of middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poets manque [failed poets], and their doxies [mistresses]'.

Oz magazine

Cover of Oz magazine.

Oz magazine. Image courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Oz magazine was launched in 1963 and concentrated on social satire and regularly depicted politicians, royalty, and other public figures in an irreverent fashion. Articles of more serious sociopolitical content were accompanied by humorous cartoons and other artistic material.

Richard Neville and Richard Walsh were its editors and renowned Australian designer Martin Sharp did many of the graphics. Many of the contributors to Oz were part of the Sydney Push, as well as members of the Australian artistic community that headed to London. John Olsen, Frank Moorhouse, Brett Whitely, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries, along with the editorial staff of Oz, all eventually became part of the extraordinary film, rock music, and theatre 'scenes' as well as part of the street culture. Other identities included film critic John Flaus, and columnist and lecturer Paddy McGuinness.

Richard Neville commented that while Australians went every year to celebrate ANZAC Day, as part of the recognition that soldiers had died for freedom, it felt, at the time, that Australia wasn't free because books were banned, movies were cut and newspapers were selective in their choice of articles. The legal action against Oz under obscenity laws in England ended up stimulating public debate about free speech.

Libertarianism and feminism

Germaine Greer in her Sydney flat.

Jack Hickson, Germaine Greer in her Sydney flat, 1972, photonegative. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: APA 21853.

Women were generally thought to have equal status with the men in the Push and this is perhaps what drew women such as Germaine Greer, Wendy Bacon, Lillian Roxon and Eva Cox to the free-wheeling parties and pub nights. However, author Anne Coombs and others have noted, feminism did more to encourage these women into careers and political activity than the sexual liberation of the Push.

Germaine Greer arrived in Sydney from Melbourne in 1959 and before departing for the United Kingdom, she gravitated towards the personalities of the Push. The legacy of Libertarianism is apparent in her famous book, The Female Eunuch, which generated hot debate within feminism at the time.

The Movement's beginnings - the Freethought Society

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney between 1927 and 1958 and Scottish by birth, John Anderson is widely recognised as an academic who had a significant impact on Australian philosophy and, more specifically, the beliefs of the Push. Participants at the weekly meetings of his Freethought Society in the 1940s included Darcy Waters, Jim Baker and Harry Hooton, men who would later become key members of the Push.

John Anderson, 1926.

John Anderson, 1926. Image courtesy of the University of Sydney.

Anderson encouraged his followers to be practical, realistic and dedicated to the truth and to examine the facts and recognise that all groups have particular interests and agendas. He believed in a 'life of inquiry' and this was a principle that would later unify the many different elements that made up the Push.

The heart of the Movement - the Libertarian Society

Anne Coombs, in her introduction of an in-depth, historical study of the Push, Sex and Anarchy: the Life and Death of the Sydney Push, describes The Libertarian Society as 'the heart of the Push, its beating centre that gave it its distinctive character'.

Taking their name from a term used by the Spanish anarchists of the early 20th century, the Libertarian Society was founded in 1950. Many of the opinions and manifestos of this group were published in the Libertarians Broadsheet. Although the group eventually moved away from Anderson's influence, they took to heart two principles generated from statements by Anderson:

  • Freedom in love is the condition of other freedoms.
  • The desire for security and sufficiency is the very mark of the servile mentality.

The group shared an anti-authoritarian stance with anarchists. However, they were critical of utopian ideals (ideals founded on a belief in an imaginary perfection) within anarchy that looked toward a future 'free' society. Libertarians were more interested in the here and now. They rejected the values of family, sobriety, authority and work put forward by the Menzies government of the time. However, they did not align themselves with either the Labor or the Communist parties.

The social backdrop to the Movement - post-war Australia

The Push grew from a set of conditions specific to post-war Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. Women had gained greater freedom working outside the domestic sphere during wartime. The war years also forced artists and writers who may have previously left Australia for Europe or America to remain at home. Strongly associated with the 'Sydney Scene' of artists, writers, actors and intellectuals, the Push also reacted to an international context where the future was both open and uncertain. However, like most baby boomers, the Push members were young and optimistic, jobs were plentiful, intellectual curiosity was encouraged in universities and more people were seeking a 'bohemian' lifestyle.

After the suffering and destruction of World War II, many people were re-examining issues of democracy and social value. Central to this way of thinking was the belief that you should never believe something someone tells you just because they are convinced that it is true. Following Anderson, the Push took this further and had a position against 'moralism' - they believed that a 'moral' was just another way of expressing a preference or set of interests.

The Movement's gradual decline

By 1970, friction had escalated inside the Movement and their free-thinking approaches were less controversial in an Australian society that was progressively more liberal and tolerant. During this period, some members of the Push moved into more active roles and involved themselves in political battles over censorship, the Green movement and women's liberation. Older members disapproved of this engagement and gradually the presence and prominence of the Push declined and its members dispersed.

Useful links

References used in the preparation of this Story

  • Baker, A J, Anderson's social philosophy, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1979.
  • Barcan, Alan, Radical students: the old left at Sydney University, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 2002.
  • Coombs, Anne, Sex and anarchy: the life and death of the Sydney Push, Viking, Ringwood, Victoria, 1996.
  • Coleman, Peter, Obscenity, blasphemy, sedition: 100 years of censorship in Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1974.
  • Franklin, James, Corrupting the youth: a history of philosophy in Australia, Macleay Press, Paddington, New South Wales, 2003.
  • Harcourt, Bill, 'The Push', The National Times, 3 February 1975.
  • Harrison, G B, Night train to Granada. from Sydney's Bohemia to Franco's Spain - an offbeat memoir, Pluto Press, Australia, 2002.
  • Kaighin, Andrew 'The discipline of indiscipline: libertarianism and the 'new class' ', UTS review , v.2 no.1 May 1996, pp. 88-118.
  • Poole, Ross, Morality and modernity, Routledge, London, 1991.
  • Wark, McKenzie, The virtual republic: Australia's culture wars of the 1990s, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1997.

Last updated: 21st August 2007

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