chapter  14
The cultural front
Left cultural activism in the post-war era
ByLisa Milner
Pages 17

Australian cultural life in the decades following World War II is notable for a flourishing of activity amongst creative people on the far left of the political spectrum. The landscape of left cultural activism left a rich and generally unacknowledged legacy for contemporary Australian creatives and intellectuals, and provides an important case study in left cultural politics and networking. Political activism and artistic activism fed into each other most notably in Australia through the Communist Party of Australia. From its earliest times the organisation had attracted and encouraged the energies of creative people, and in various ways, the Party supported a wide range of cultural activities. The cultural groups discussed in this chapter were often established and administered by comrades, but their inspiration or membership was by no means restricted. From wherever they sprang, the groups were formed to interest, entertain and educate a very wide spectrum of society. Their functions included the constitution of social and political as well as cultural collectives, and in all these groups the solidarity and support of members were important. They relied for a great part on informal networks of communication and association. Many individuals were active in a number of areas, and cross-fertilisation of groups was common, as, Andrew Reeves points out, ‘activity in one area of cultural life led almost inevitably to initiatives in another’. As well as influences from parallel groups overseas, much of their output reflects a growing awareness of indigenous culture that echoed the radical nationalist idiom gaining currency over the period. Leading examples of these groups include the New Theatre, the Studio of Realist Art, and the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit. Whatever their genre – in literature, visual arts, drama, music, dance or cinema – their work was often imbued with a sense of the collective strength of working-class solidarity. This chapter explores the rich diversity of Australian left cultural activist groups and analyses their motivations and legacy.