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Phil Sandford obituary

Phil Sandford and Bill Hunter 1989 Sao Paulo
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Derek Mortimer, Australia

We post this obituary by a comrade and friend of Phil Sandford (on the right in the photo), Derek Mortimer, as we worked together with Bill Hunter (on the left in the photo) in the struggle to join the International Workers League from 1987. Phil had been in the Trotskyist movement for nearly twenties years. We found common agreement on the need to build an International Marxist party based on workers, poor and oppressed people’s struggle and where international strategy and tactics can be discussed, debated and worked out in relation to the international class struggle.

Phil, Bill Hunter and Martin Ralph met in Brazil in 1989, at the IWL world congress. Bill was in his 70s and had immense experience in the revolutionary movement from the late 1930s. Phil came to Liverpool twice between 1988 and 1990, and again in 1994 after we had been delegates to the IWL fifth world congress. 

Phil continued to build a revolutionary group of the IWL in Australia. He joined the tendency the ISL formed in 1994 inside the IWL called the Trotskyist Tendency and we met again at the fifth world congress. 

A few years later Phil moved away from the IWL. But after 2010 he started assisting the ISL and in particular the Socialist Voice. He was very highly skilled editor and we always appreciated his forthrightness. He never lost the idea of the need for a revolutionary party and programme and for revolutionary socialism to end capitalism in order to save humanity.

Phil was going to make a surprise visit in order to be at Bill Hunter’s 90th birthday celebration at the CASA in Liverpool. He had travelled to Germany to attend a jazz festival, however  Eyjafjallajökull  erupted  in Iceland causing enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe and he was not able to attend.


Comrade Phil Sandford, who died in Westmead Hospital, Sydney, from Motor Neurone Disease, had had two consuming passions throughout his adult life, jazz and revolutionary socialism.

He was educated at Australian National University, Melbourne University and Florida State University in Tallahassee, (FSU) where he studied for his doctoral thesis in the Department of Philosophy from 1967 to 1969.

At ANU Phil met 16 year old student, Marie Hotschilt through their mutual love of piano — but he played jazz, she played classical. 

According to Phil he went to the US to study sociology and to play and listen to jazz. He had hoped to live in New York, a world centre of jazz, but was only able to secure an assistantship to FSU.

The sixties were a time of huge social and political upheaval in the US, particularly among students and African Americans. Students for a Democratic Society, (SDS) which was launched in 1960, grew rapidly, attracting tens of thousands of members and was active on FSU campus. SDS supported the African American Civil Rights movement and led opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Turning point

Along with SDS members, Phil co-founded the bookshop, Praxis in the black area of the Tallahassee, although he said much later, ‘I was not left-wing at all – I had largely supported the Vietnam War and Australia’s involvement for several years and had only come to oppose the bombing of North Vietnam around the middle of 1967.’

His experiences in Florida were a turning point in his life, music was still important — on one occasion he hitched a ride to New York to hear jazz — but it was increasingly sidelined by revolutionary politics. Years later in Sydney he left behind his piano when he moved to a new flat, either because as he was working full time for the Socialist Labour League (SLL) he could not afford to take it with him, or because he had succumbed to political pressure that discouraged such ‘middle class’ diversions.

In January 1968 the Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the devastating Tet Offensive against the invading US army and the puppet Saigon regime.

In May and June, 1968 France erupted in demonstrations and strikes. At the height of the revolutionary struggles 10 million workers were on strike and 600,000 students occupied the nations’s schools and universities, supported by 2 million farmers.


in London, a massive anti-Vietnam war demonstration was attacked violently by police as it marched on the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

By the time he returned to Australia Phil was politically transformed. His great love and knowledge of jazz remained throughout life, but it began to take second place to politics.

Shortly after he had arrived at FSU Phil went to a campus meeting calling on the university to recognise union rights for black workers. That single act made him a marked man in an America simmering with unrest. A few days later he was summoned to the admin office and was amazed to discover that the FBI and Immigration Department had opened files on him. That, and his shock when he saw the living conditions of black Americans in Frenchtown, led him to radically question his former political views.

Night of the bayonets.

SDS invited several anti-war and civil rights speakers. These events passed without incident, until on March 4 1969 a meeting was declared illegal — what followed became known as the Night of the Bayonets.

Phil recalled how shocked he was on leaving the meeting to find a row of riot police with bayonets outside. As he was walking away he was grabbed from behind by two policemen and arrested for disorderly conduct and interfering with police.

Unable to find a lawyer to take his case Phil defended himself, later recalling Abraham Lincoln’s comment that, ‘He who defends himself has a fool for a client.’

In court he was amazed to hear allegations that he had been despatched from Australia to subvert the university.

He asked the judge, ‘Why would anyone be sent all the way from Australia to subvert Tallahassee University?’

As Phil told it, the judge looked over his bifocals and said gravely, ‘Well son, Tallahassee is the capital of Florida.’ Parochialism indeed.

In ’the land of the free,’ the judge found Phil guilty and sentenced him to 18 months jail. With three later charges added, he faced five years in prison, then deportation. Phil had married while in the US and his Australian wife, Coonie, was arrested for raising bail money. They reluctantly accepted deportation and arrived home in July 1969 to headlines in the Australian media.

Phil lamented the fact that while in the US he had heard very little jazz, but he cherished the memory of hearing an elderly black woman singing over the top of the congregation in a church, and hearing a young black preacher pray for the rights of campus workers in a union meeting while they hummed a hymn. He said that these two vivid memories found their way into his musical compositions much later in life.

In the year he was deported, 1969, the My Lai Massacre was exposed, in which over 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were killed and scores gang raped by US soldiers, led by Lieutenant William Calley. Calley served three years of house arrest for the mass murders.

Australia and the class struggle

In Australia a Moratorium against conscription and the war in Vietnam, was mobilising huge numbers of people from unions, students, ALP branches, community groups and professionals in the largest peaceful demonstrations in the country’s history.

In one of numerous clashes erupting on the industrial front, the Australian trade union movement won a decisive victory in May 1969 after a six day general strike by one million workers. The largest postwar national strike secured the release from jail of transport union secretary Clarrie O’Shea who had refused to pay a $8100 fine.

Becoming a Trotskyist

Phil was one of the prominent leaders of the Moratorium Movement who was looking for a way beyond the reformism of the Australian Labor Party and trade union leaders. Soon after his return to Australia he formed a Marxist study group, known as Workers Action, which started reading widely in revolutionary and radical literature while intervening in the Moratorium Movement.

Workers Action began attracting Communist Party members, and activists from other radical groups because of its orientation to building a base in the trade union movement and the working class. Phil’s critical and open approach to Trotskyism is evident in a paper entitled The Fourth International and our Attitude to it in which he argued that ‘the revolutionary international as conceived and founded during the life of Leon Trotsky no longer exists and that all that we have at the present is a collection of disparate Trotskyist tendencies completely divergent in both national and international orientation varying to a considerable degree in ideological presuppositions, a sad wreckage of a movement’.

However this critical approach to Trotskyism and open discussion of Marxism did not survive. A faction formed around Gerry Healy’s International Committee, based in the UK, which claimed it was the only legitimate form of Trotskyism and engaged in an internecine ideological struggle against a so-called ‘petty bourgeois tendency’ led by Phil Sandford.

Founding the SLL

The Australian Socialist Labour League was formed in 1972 and aligned with Gerry Healy. It published the newspaper, Labour Press, and later the weekly Workers News. Jim Mulgrew, one of the early adherents of the study group, became the national secretary after undermining Phil. Mulgrew evolved into the Australian clone of the bullying Healy.

In the years that followed Phil dedicated his life to building the SLL, the Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Unstintingly he performed the demanding work of a branch member, served on various bodies of the SLL and wrote for Labour Press, and Workers News. At the urging of Healy the SLL raised enough funds from members and supporters to purchase a web offset printing press. Members were justifiably proud of the achievement, but Workers News eventually turned into its opposite, the tail wagged the dog as members were driven in an endless round of fund raising, paper selling and deliveries. An incessant war was waged against other far left groups and by remaining in a deeply sectarian political rut, the achievements of the SLL were limited.

 Life in the WRP

In the early 1980s Phil was sent to the UK for a few months work with the WRP. In an organisation that demanded total commitment from its members Phil gave everything. He sacrificed all personal commitments, to his detriment and those closest to him. He virtually martyred himself for what he believed was the revolutionary Trotskyist movement.

The few months became two years, during which time Phil worked on the party’s daily paper Newsline. Even more so than in Australia the paper became a huge burden on members. Both publications had been launched under Healy’s political fantasy predictions that the working class was on the verge of revolution. The class support necessary to maintain either papers was never there and members were driven in an endless and unsustainable round of activism leaving little time for anything else.

In an attempt to maintain the charade of revolutionary mass leadership, Healy formed unprincipled relationships with bourgeoise nationalist leaders in the Middle East where he obtained financial support.

The miners

The UK miners strike of 1984/85 exposed the chasm between the WRP and the working class, and the political degeneration that had taken place under Healy. He banned comrades from working with the miners’ support groups that had sprung up all over the UK. The ban was frequently ignored. Martin Ralph, a Liverpool member of the WRP said later, that support groups were the centre of work there. ‘In fact many comrades after the split explained that they just did work in miners support groups, but they never told the WRP leadership – I guess that was the first real (hidden) split with Healy.’

That rebellion, and the shattering revelation that Healy was a serial predator who had sexually abused many female comrades over a prolonged period, brought the facade of the WRP crashing to the ground. In a bitter and divisive struggle Healy was expelled.

In Australia, the SLL was divided. Phil led those who wanted to break with Healyism and sectarianism. He was opposed by a faction led by Nick Beams which retained control of the groups considerable assets, its premises and the printing presses, while maintaining the old sectarisn organisation. In 2010, the Beams group, following the North group in the US, renamed itself as the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

In almost three quarters of a century of existence the ICFI has never successfully led a major political, trade union or social campaign anywhere in the world. Its delusional leaders maintain that only the ICFI can lead a world socialist revolution – if the masses would head their call.

Joining and working with the International Workers League

The Australian opposition to the SEP that emerged from the collapse eventually dissolved into seperate organisations and in 1988 Phil joined the International Workers League (Fourth International) founded by Argentinian, Nahuel Moreno. Phil made two trips to Brazil in unsuccessful attempts to establish lasting international connections.

He collaborated with two former members of the WRP from Liverpool, UK, the late Bill Hunter and Martin Ralph, now of the International Socialist League, and editor of Socialist Voice.

Martin Ralph recalled, ‘We found common agreement on the need to build an International based on workers, poor and oppressed people’s struggle and where international strategy and tactics can be discussed, debated and worked out in relation to the international class struggle.

‘The three of us met in Brazil in 1989. Bill was in his 70s. Phil and Bill had a great deal of experience in the revolutionary movement and respected each other. Phil came to Liverpool twice between 1988 and 1990, and we continued discussing the questions of revolutionary programme and his experiences in Argentina. He was asked by the party there to help with their newspaper and for a short while he was an editor and learnt Spanish.

‘A few years later Phil moved away from the IWL. But in the 2000s he started assisting the ISL and in particular the Socialist Voice. He had very high skills as an editor and [we] always appreciated his forthrightness. He never lost the idea of the need for a revolutionary party and the need to end capitalism.’

For varying periods in Australia Phil worked in the public service, including multicultural mental health. He was a delegate in the Community and Public Sector Union and for many years led an opposition group made up of militant trade unionists from left-wing political tendencies. He stood at several elections against the leadership and fought hard to improve conditions and wages for public servant. Fellow union member Joe Casella, said Phil considered his most important work was the need to elevate trade union consciousness to the principles of socialism.

Jazz was class, race, history

In 2001 decades after their first friendship, Phil and Marie Hotschilt, began sharing their lives, perhaps even their music! Phil played Jazz, Marie sang in a choir.

Phil again turned his attention to playing and composing. In 2004 the Phil Sandford Quintet released a CD, Jerilderie Tree.

In 2018 he self-published The Lion Roars: The Musical Life of Willie The LionMcIntyre, it was immediately recognised as a classic on jazz history.

Pianist Graeme Bull, described it as, ‘A magnificent effort! The meticulous research, the easy flow of the text, plus the PhD quality of the referencing make this one of the best jazz histories that I’ve read.’

But music was never just music for Phil, it was about class, race, and history.

Reviewer Kathryn Wells wrote: ‘Sandford shows how World War II had a profound impact on the development of Australian jazz.’

McIntyre was recalled as playing often with the American bands. ‘This was an unusual experience for Australian jazz musicians in the context of the union ban on African American bands visiting Australia from 1928 until 1954,’ she wrote.

Up to a few months before his death Phil regularly drove 100km to Bowral, south of Sydney, to practise with a group of fellow jazz musicians.

Comrade Phil never resiled from his commitment to revolutionary socialism and Marxism. During his best years, he was a critical thinker, a talented writer, and always a dedicated and courageous militant.

Phil is survived by his much loved partner Marie Hotschilt.

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