From the Archive: T.M. Artingsoll, ‘Australia and Asia: Dr. Burton’s Challenge’ (June 1956)
The Afro-Asian Conference of 1955, held in the city of Bandung, Indonesia, may not seem to cast too deep a shadow over contemporary Australia, but in 1956, when the first issue of Westerly went to print, that shadow was hard to ignore. As the first meeting of African and Asian states, many of whom had recently liberated themselves from colonial rule, the conference was of world-historical importance for newly independent nations, as well as to leaders in the west such as Malcolm X, for its promotion of a post-colonial world united against imperialism.
Judging by the editorial of Westerly’s first issue, the conference caused something of a stir in Australia. In the course of a trenchant critique of Perth’s lacklustre cultural life (which the launching of Westerly hoped to remedy), and particularly of an ubiquitous impulse to ‘refrain from airing unpopular opinions or beliefs; to think with the comfortable majority’ and ‘to avoid questioning the established and traditional ideologies’ (6), the author gives as an example a recent occasion in which ‘an Australian Government leader vilified as a “meddling professor”’ (6) an Australian academic who attended the Bandung Conference as an observer.
Last year, writing on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the conference, Andrew Phillips and Tim Dunne of the University of Queensland called this attitude the ‘Bandung Divide’. But its roots go much deeper and farther back than 1955. Indeed, it’s an attitude that highlights what remains a fundamental contradiction in Australia’s identity, that is, between its geographic location and its so-called ‘civilisational’ inheritance. Signalling its unwillingness to attend the conference, Australia reinforced to the world that though it may be a part of the region, it was not to be a partner with it.
As if to remedy such prejudices with a stiff antidote, the first issue of Westerly features a favourable review of Dr. John Burton’s book The Alternative, by T.M. Artingsoll, ‘an honours student in Philosophy’, and incidentally, the ‘founder in 1955 of the University Political Club’ (22). That book, which bucked the anti-communist trend taking devastating hold in the United States at the time, looks at the reasons why socialism was gaining prestige in anti-colonial movements. Indeed, with Burton’s argument that socialism ‘is better suited to the immediate and urgent needs of under-developed countries than is Capitalism’ (24), and, as The Canberra Times reported in 2014, the fact that he ‘questioned Australia’s focus on links with Britain and the United States, advocating instead a foreign policy based on Australia developing a better understanding of and engagement with our Asian neighbours’, it’s possible to see that there were those trends in Australia, and in Perth, that sought to overcome the artificial ‘Bandung Divide’ that persists today. Fittingly, as Artingsoll reveals, it was in fact Dr. Burton himself who joined that ‘meddling professor’ as the only Australian observers in Bandung in 1955.
With austerity, war, offshore concentration camps, and xenophobia the agenda of the day, Artingsoll’s review (and indeed much of the Westerly archive to be featured in coming posts) appears, to borrow from Artingsoll himself, ‘like a breath of fresh air amid the noisome turgid odours of present-day politics in this country’ (22).
Henry Ward is a writer and researcher from Perth. In 2016, he will be undertaking a study of Westerly’s archive, focusing on its engagement with the Indian Ocean region.