Dumping down Australian history
Dumbing down Australian history and its teaching
The eminent person in current academic Australian history,
Stuart Macintyre, is the keynote speaker at this Labor History Conference (held
in June 2000), about Labor and Federation.
Stuart Macintyre is emerging as the major figure in the
current counter-revolution in Australian history, which seems to be directed at
restoring a kind of Anglophile official history, modified by a few gestures
towards the currently fashionable high theory, as the dominant discourse in
teaching the subject.
As this happens to coincide in time with the dramatic
collapse in student numbers taking Australian history in schools and
universities, it seems to me necessary to make a comprehensive critique of this
Macintyre is the Ernest Scott Professor of History at
Melbourne University. Ernest Scott was the practitioner of a Whig,
British-oriented, official Australian history, which was the first major
academic school of Australian history writing, and commenced late in the 19th
century during the imperial heyday of ruling-class British Australia. This
general approach was dominant in history teaching in high schools and
universities until well into the 1960s.
There were some early dissenters from this bourgeois
British-Australian history. These dissenters existed in two streams. Amongst
secular socialist groups, J. N. Rawling, Lloyd Ross and Brian Fitzpatrick
challenged this ruling-class orthodoxy with a more populist, Marxian and
nationalist version of Australian history.
People like James M. Murtagh and Archbishop Eris O'Brien
wrote texts that embodied a critical anti-British-imperialist narrative, which
were the basis of an alternative version taught widely in the Catholic school
system as an antidote to the official British history, necessarily studied in
the same schools for the external exams.
The clandestine tradition in Australian historiography
In the 1940s and the 1950s these two streams converged to
some extent in the mature work of Eris O'Brien, Ian Turner, D.A. Baker, Russel
Ward, Vance Palmer, Brian Fitzpatrick and ultimately, Manning Clark.
From the 1950s on, this alternative, previously clandestine
version of Australian history got a bit of a toehold in universities and high
school history teaching. Texts such as Russel Ward's the Australian Legend,
Eris O'Brien's 1937 book The Foundation Of Australia, 1786-1800, Vance
Palmer's Legend of the Nineties, a number of the works of Brian
Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark's major six-volume history, and his Short History
of Australia, became a major school of Australian historiography with an
emphasis on social, class and religious conflicts in the 19th century, popular
opposition to British imperial hegemony and a recognition of the emergence in
the 19th century of insurgent democratic trends and a labor movement in
opposition to the British Australian ruling class.
In the 1970s this left democratic, populist narrative was
disputed by Humphrey McQueen and Stuart Macintyre in what came to be called
"the debate on class". McQueen and Macintyre accused the
practitioners of the populist Australian historical school of exaggerating the
democratic and popular trends in 19th century history and failing to
sufficiently describe the sexism and racism present in the labour movement at
In particular, Russel Ward, who remained a very active
Australian historian into the 1990s, incorporated part of this critique into a
broadened and improved populist narrative. The more developed radical version
of Australian history practiced by Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Manning
Clark and others had a real battle to become established in schools and
The Sydney University History Department remained, until very
recently, a stronghold of British-Australia ruling-class history. Fitzpatrick
never got a university appointment.russel Ward was blacklisted for a history
teaching job at the University of NSW because of his long-past membership of
the Communist Party, but managed eventually to become a university teacher at
the University of New England at Armidale, northern NSW.
Manning Clark, who was similarly banished from Melbourne to
the ANU when the ANU was still a backwater, only began to have a major
influence on mainstream history teaching in the course of the widespread
cultural revolution in Australia in the 1960s.
Russel Ward's Concise History of Australia
At the popular teaching level one of the best examples, and
the highest point of the radical populist stream in Australian history and
history teaching, is Russel Ward's A Concise History of Australia, which
was reprinted in a large gift edition as Australia Since the Coming of Man.
This book is important because it incorporates that part of
the criticism raised by Macintyre and McQueen that was valid. In particular,
Ward's narrative in this book entrenched a comprehensive and detailed treatment
of Australian origins and Aboriginal history, along with an emphasis on
oppositional forces in Australian history including the mid-19th-century
struggles against transportation, and for respresentative democracy, continuing
with the campaign for free selection of land, and culminating in the 19th
century in the formation of the labour movement.
Ward's Concise History also paid attention to the
rather instrumental role of Irish Catholics in this democratic struggle. The
last version of this many-times-reprinted and set-course book, the 1992
University of Queensland Press reprint, takes the narrative up to the end of
Bob Hawke's time as Prime Minister, and is notable for its sceptical, critical
and unfawning attitude to the Hawke government and to Paul Keating.russel Ward
died soon after publication of the 1992 edition of this useful book.
The emergence of the Russel Ward, Manning Clark, Brian
Fitzpatrick, Eris O'Brien, populist school of Australian history was a
development of considerable cultural importance.
When I was a kid at a Catholic school, the Christian Brothers
at Strathfield in the 1950s, we history students were subject to the
interesting exercise of being thoroughly persuaded by the Brothers to learn by
rote the Stephen Roberts, British establishment version of world and Australian
history for the external examiners.
However, we were taught by the same Brothers in religion
lessons that this Protestant establishment version was essentially false, and
as an appropriate alternative the version we should really believe was the
clandestine Catholic, Eris O'Brien, James G. Murtagh, Hilaire Belloc version of
Australian and world history.
It heartened me greatly in the 1960s and the 1970s when the
modernised, Russel Ward, Manning Clark critical Australian nationalist,
somewhat Marxist, populist version of Australian history, which incorporated
the useful part of McQueen's critique, replaced the Roberts version in most
Australian schools and some universities.
I thought that our side had definitively triumphed in the
field of Australian history and its teaching. More fool me! Here comes Stuart
Abolishing the Catholics
I hope I'm not beginning to sound a bit obsessional about
Macintyre. I have written several other critical articles about his historical
work, but I'm afraid I can't really escape presenting this critique.
I was first alerted to Macintyre's new book, The Concise
History of Australia, by Jim Griffin's review in The Australian.
Griffin pointed out that Macintyre's new history just about
abolished the Irish Catholics from the narrative. As Australian Catholic
history is one of my interests, my curiosity was immediately aroused. I hurried
over and bought the book at Gleebooks, and became immediately fascinated by it
in the same way that I am fascinated by Paul Sheehan's chauvinist Amongst
the Barbarians, and Miriam Dixson's The Imaginary Australian.
At approximately the same time I heard on the grapevine that
Stuart and his conservative mate, John Hirst had recently been appointed by
David Kemp, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs in the Howard
Government, as historical advisers to a body known as the Civics Education
Group, which then employed Kemp's other educational body, the institution with
the amazing economic rationalist name, The Curriculum Corporation, to prepare
curriculum materials for history teaching in Australian schools.
In the context of the high politics described above it seems
reasonable to look very closely at Stuart Macintyre's new Concise History,
because it is obviously written for a high school and introductory university
market, and Macintyre and his publishers may well desire to see it emerge as
the major university entry-level Australian history textbook for the next
Let us, therefore, carefully investigate Stuart Macintyre's
version of textbook Australian history, and how it is organised and presented.
The first thing is how strikingly similar it is in format, and some aspects of
presentation, to Russel Ward's book of the same name.
It is the same physical size, although a bit shorter, and it
even has a similar presentation, with both covers being a work of Australian
art. Even the periodisation in the book is, in large part, roughly similar.
The two tables of contents are:
RUSSEL WARD 1. Black and white discoverers
c.60,000 BC-AD 1770 2. Empire, convicts and currency c.1771-1820 3. New
settlements and new pastures c.1821-50 4. Diggers, democracy and urbanisation
c.1851-85 5. Radicals and nationalists c.1886-1913 6. War and depression c.
1914-38 7. War and affluence c. 1939-66 8. Going it alone c. 1967-92
STUART MACINTYRE 1. Beginnings 2. Newcomers
c.1600-1792 3. Coercion, 1793-1821 4. Emancipation, 1822-1850 5. In thrall to
progress, 1851-1888 6. National reconstruction, 1889-1913 7. Sacrifice,
1914-1945 8. Golden age, 1946-1974 9. Reinventing Australia, 1975-1999 10. What
As is clearly indicated by the names of the chapters, the
historical approach of the authors is quite different. Ward's approach is left
democratic, Marxian and populist. Macintyre's book is a major move in the
direction of restoring the official British-Australia history that used to
dominate the teaching of Australian history before the 1960s.
Macintyre's is a thoroughgoing counter-revolution compared
with Russel Ward's book. Ward celebrates the struggle for democracy and the
campaign for free selection. Macintyre adopts a more critical and sceptical
view of the significance of these developments in a style reminiscent of the
attitude pioneered by his conservative mate Hirst.
Ward notes and describes the important oppositional
role of the Irish Catholics and records the sectarian conflicts of the 19th century.
Macintyre's only mention of sectarian religious conflict is in relation to the
Ward celebrates the emergence of the labour movement
as an assertion of working class independence. Macintyre treats the emergence
of the labour movement in a more sceptical way.
Ward celebrates and discusses the defeat of
conscription during the First World War and the radicalisation in the labour
movement that this produced. Macintyre plays down the conscription struggle,
omits the 1917 general strike and ignores the radicalisation of the labour
movement in the 1920s.
Ward celebrates the popular labour movement
mobilisation of Langism against the Depression and its consequences. In his
only mention of Lang, Macintyre succeeds in sounding like the Governor of India
deploring "unrest". Macintyre even ascribes the fall of the Lang
government to a split in the Labor Party, which is untrue, and thereby
airbrushes out of history Lang's removal by Governor Game, the precedent for
the later removal of Whitlam by Kerr.
Ward celebrates the popular upheaval against the
Vietnam War, and mentions the initially instrumental role of Arthur Calwell,
the Labor opposition leader, in this mobilisation. Macintyre treats the
agitation against the Vietnam War in a much more low-key and sceptical way,
Ward adopts a sharply critical stance towards the
Hawke and Keating governments. Macintyre has a more reverent tone towards these
governments and treats their deregulation of the economy and turn to economic
rationalism as a more or less inevitable response to the global circumstances.
Ward adopts a generally favourable attitude towards
mass migration. Towards the end of his book Macintyre implicitly opposes
further mass migration in a rather curious section in which he first spends a
lot of time criticising the thrust of government-sponsored multiculturalism,
immediately followed by:
After two hundred years of overseas recruitment to build the
population of Australia, a new voice called for immigration control, that of
environmentalists. Throughout the European occupation of the country there had
been efforts to conserve its resources and protect fauna and flora, water and
forest, from wanton destruction, but the developmental impulse usually
prevailed. The end of the long boom coincided with an enhanced appreciation of
the costs of development. The great triumphs of the post-war period turned out
to be illusory. The Snowy Mountains Authority had turned back the rivers from
the south-east coast to water the Riverina plains, and poisoned the soil with
salt; the Ord River on the north-west coast had been dammed, but infestations
of insects killed most of the crops; the government's scientific organisation
waged biological warfare against the rabbit, but the survivors returned to
compete for pasture.
This paragraph is followed by a lengthy celebration of the
importance of the conservation movement in modern Australia, and read in
context, it is fairly clear that Macintyre now shares some environmentalists'
views in favour of reducing immigration, although in his usual magisterial
fashion he infers this position from the views of others, leaving himself a
possible let-out if challenged on the point.
There are many other differences between the two books.
Macintyre's is a good deal duller than Russel Ward's. His illustrations, other
than Aboriginal illustrations, are usually of conservative historical figures,
and there are fewer of them.
Russel Ward makes extensive use of line drawings and
historical cartoons of a radical character. Little of that for Macintyre. And
so it goes.
Macintyre's selection of sources
In his important book The First Ten Years of American
Communism, James P. Cannon, the pioneer US Communist and Trotskyist leader,
prints an exchange of letters between himself and the historian Theodore
Draper, who was at that time writing his definitive histories of the origins
and early development of the American Communist Party.
Part of one of the letters reads as follows:
Ira Kipnis's book, The American Socialist Movement:
1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the
evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with
it... From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis's
objectivity. There are some tell-tale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which
should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all
be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by selectivity of
sources as well as by outright falsification. In skimming through the book for
the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left
wing and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.
It is well to keep in mind Cannon's view on this matter when
examining Macintyre's Concise History. At the end of the book, Macintyre
has a bibliography for each chapter. What is striking is the books that he
leaves out of this list.
For instance, he abolishes the work and books of Rupert
Lockwood, Michael Cannon, Allan Grocott, Keith Amos, Colm Kiernan, Tom
Keneally, Patrick O'Farrell, Margaret Kiddle, Malcolm Campbell, Geoffrey Serle,
Ross Fitzgerald, Cyril Pearl, Bob Murray, Michael Cathcart, Robert Cooksey, Ray
Markey, Jack Hutson, Lloyd Ross, Sandy Yarwood, Frank Farrell, Eric Rolls,
Portia Robinson, Denis Murphy, and many, many others.
He just about abolishes the discipline of labour history,
both from his narrative and from his list of sources. Popular historians such
as Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, William Joy, Wendy Lowenstein, etc, are expunged.
Public historians and local historians get very little attention. Two local
histories are mentioned, Bill Gammage on Narrandera and Janet McCalman on
Richmond. Yet Shirley Fitzgerald, our foremost urban historian, and her (and
her associates') magnificent oeuvre on Sydney and suburbs, don't get a
As with Macintyre's Oxford Companion to Australian History,
it appears that the further you are from Melbourne or Adelaide, the harder it
is to get recognised. After all his previous discussion of it, Macintyre
completely abolishes the debate on class from his new narrative.
The debate on class in Australian labor history is discussed
at length by Macintyre himself in the collection, Pastiche 1 (Allen and
Unwin 1994), and in his Oxford Companion. It is described thoroughly in Australian
Labor History by Greg Patmore. It is discussed in the introduction to the
second edition of Ian Turner's Industrial Labor and Politics, in which
Turner replies comprehensively and persuasively to McQueen and Macintyre.
The documents of that argument include the wrongheaded, but
enormously influential book by McQueen, A New Britannia. This debate led
to the production of the important book by Terry Irving and Bob Connell, Class
Structure in Australian History, which was a synthesis of the predominant
view that emerged from the debate, that a working class of a particular kind
had emerged in Australia in the 19th century, and that the emergence of a Labor
Party and a labour movement was a progressive development for the working
Connell and Irving's book and Russel Ward's Concise
History were widely studied in universities and high schools from the 1970s
to the early 1990s. The seminal Australian Legend, by Russel Ward, and The
Legend of the Nineties, by Vance Palmer, were also widely influential at
high school and university levels.
Macintyre's treatment of this important intellectual exchange
and the influential literature from different strands in this debate is to
abolish it all from his new narrative. Connell and Irving are abolished. Greg
Patmore is abolished. Humphrey McQueen is abolished: all his three important
books, A New Britannia, the indispensable book about Australian art, The
Black Swan of Trespass, and his useful illustrated Social Sketches of
Australia 1888-1975, are ignored. Ian Turner is abolished: Industrial
Labor and Politics, Sydney's Burning and even his books about sport.
Macintyre is left, in his own narrative, as the only towering
figure surviving from the debate on class, dismissing contemptuously, as
"neglecting racism" The Legend of the Nineties and The
Australian Legend, without even deigning to name the authors, or list them
or the books in the bibliography. What a superior man this Macintyre is!
In the section on the Great Depression, J. T. Lang's own
books, and Bede Nairn's important Lang biography, are not mentioned. None of
the biographies of Mannix are mentioned. Patrick O'Farrell's important works on
the Irish in Australia are not mentioned, and neither are Tom Keneally or Keith
Amos or any other writers about Irish Australia.
In relation to the Vietnam War, Gregory Pemberton's important
book, Vietnam Remembered (Weldon Publishers 1990), and neither are
Sioban McHugh's Minefields and Miniskirts, on women during the Vietnam
War or Greg Langley's A Decade of Dissent or Ken Maddocks' books of oral
history on the Vietnam conflict.
Important books like Paul Barry's biography, The Rise and
Rise of Kerry Packer aren't mentioned, nor is Mates by Fia Cumming,
or The Fixer by Marianne Wilkinson about Richardson, or Graham
Richardson's own book.
Clyde Cameron's books of autobiography are ignored, as is
Bill Guy's recent biography of Cameron, A Life on the Left. In relation
to the Communist Party, only Macintyre himself survives as the recognised
author and expert. Alistair Davidson, Robin Gollan, Barbara Curthoys, Frank
Farrell, Miriam Dixson, Tom O'Lincoln and even Beverley Symons, the author of
the extremely useful bibliography associated with Macintyre's own book, are all
ignored in relation to their published work on the Communist Party.
Oppositional encounters with the Communist Party, of which
good examples would be Hall Greenland's biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot,
Susanna Short's biography of Laurie Short, Stephen Holt's biography of Lloyd
Ross, and B.A. Santamaria's useful autobiography, are totally ignored.
Given the Marxist
background that Macintyre asserts on occasion, it is rather strange that he
omits from any consideration, two major original and significant critical books
about Australian life from a Marxist point of view: Vere Gordon Childe's
important How Labor Governs from the
1920s, and Egon Kisch's Australian Landfall
from the 1930s.
Macintyre's historical method
Macintyre's book is organised in a way that is quite
consistent with his narrow British-Australia approach. For a start, the
predominance of so called theory is accentuated by the abolition of footnotes.
The reader is told that at the end of the book there is a
listing of where quotes used in the narrative come from, but they are not
presented as notes to the source, and only one person out of 100 will, in
practice, laboriously work out where the ideas came from.
The net effect of this device is to dramatically increase the
role of the narrator of the book, and de-emphasise the way in which he has been
influenced by the research and ideas of other people. Another effect is to make
it unclear what part of the material is quotes, and what part is Macintyre's
own view, leaving Macintyre with the perfect out, if challenged on some point,
that he was merely quoting the views of others.
This way of proceeding is a very elitist writing device,
presenting an enormous obstacle to the reader's understanding of the genesis of
the ideas in the book, but it is a device that is quite common in postmodernist
circles under the rubric of theory.
Another infuriating feature of Macintyre's dry writing style
is the deliberate way he avoids naming historical figures, or historians who he
obviously regards as minor, and the effect of this device is to make some
important, named historical personalities, towering presences over a landscape
otherwise inhabited by the nameless.
Sometimes this device becomes almost bizarre. Examples of
On page 48, where he names Samuel Marsden about five
times, on both sides of this sentence.
As early as 1803 King allowed an Irish convict to exercise
his clerical functions, though that privilege was withdrawn in the following
year when the Priest was suspected of using the Mass to plan the Castle Hill
Uprising. In 1820 two new priests came voluntarily from Ireland with official
permission to fulfill their compatriots' religious obligations.
Three Catholic priests, none of them named, but Samuel
Marsden named four times in the same paragraph.
When discussing the Second World War, he quotes a
John Manifold poem and describes Manifold as "another descendent of a
pastoral dynasty" without mentioning either his name or the fact that he
was a Communist when he wrote the poem.
Later in the same paragraph, when discussing Eric
Lambert's Twenty Thousand Thieves he doesn't mention either the name of
the book or the name of the author.
This loopy device recurs again and again in this strange
book, a triumph of a supposedly theoretical approach over any attempt at
utility. It makes the narrative a very lordly document indeed.
In addition to this problem, throughout his book Macintyre
mentions far fewer secondary historical figures and secondary sources than does
Russel Ward, particularly secondary figures who contribute radicalism or
conflict to the historical mosaic.
No ballads for Macintyre
Macintyre's mention of Manifold's war poem, without naming or
identifying the author clearly, is serendipitous in several ways.russel Ward
uses another Manifold war poem, from the same anthology, in his Concise
History (naming Manifold).
My favourite Manifold poem, from the same anthology, begins
with the line, "Crazy as hell, And typical of us, Just like that,
'Comrade', On a bus", but I don't think that poem would be of much use for
The other very important literary contribution for which John
Manifold is known is his useful pioneering work, Who Wrote the Ballads
(Australasian Book Society, 1961). This was the first major work on rebel
balladeers, mostly Irish, such as Frank McNamara (Frank the Poet), and their
important contribution to the Australian radical ethos and culture.
Other people who have done work in this area, and written
books, are Hugh Anderson, John Meredith and Rex Whalan.russel Ward made very
extensive, almost instrumental use of this kind of ballad material in The
Australian Legend, in sketching out the deep sources of the Australian
anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethos, which is possibly why Macintyre
regards Ward's book as overly elegaic and misleading.
It was, again, curiously serendipitious that Hugh Anderson's
book about Tocsin was relaunched in the afternoon at the Sydney Labor
History Conference where Macintyre spoke, and that Anderson was present for the
occasion. I find it very striking that the Celtic ballads, which figure so
deeply in the cultural mosaic of Australian rebellion, get no recognition at
all in Macintyre's narrative or bibliography.
Fundamental flaws in Macintyre's account
Macintyre doesn't only abolish the Catholics, he just about
abolishes religious history from the 19th century story. As Jim Griffin pointed
out, Macintyre very nearly abolishes the Irish Catholics.
On examination, the means by which he does this are in
themselves rather startling. Not only does he abolish the Irish Catholics, but
to do this he has to just about abolish religion as a whole from the story of
the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is no significant mention of sectarian religious
conflict. There is no mention of important institutions such as the freemasons
and the Loyal Orange Lodge, despite the fact that nearly all Tory Australian
prime ministers and governors were freemasons.
To avoid the conflicts that had a religious form, in the
interests of a bland narrative, Macintyre makes the whole religious sphere just
about disappear, which to me, as a Marxian materialist, seems to be a
completely unscientific and novel way to write about Australia in the 19th
Incidentally, Macintyre finds no place in his story for the
interesting conflict in the 1930s between the Labor Prime Minister James
Scullin (in which Scullin ultimately succeeded) and the British authorities in
London, over the appointment of the Jew, Sir Isaac Isaacs, as the first
Australian-born Governor General, in which the endemic, vicious anti-Semitism
of the British ruling class was such a major issue.
Stuart Macintyre, Henry Mayer and the Sydney University
Department of Government
In relation to the sectarian Protestant mobilisation against
the labour movement in the early 20th century, which Macintyre systematically
ignores, the most useful piece of evidence is the several-times-reprinted
monograph on NSW politics from 1901 to 1917, first produced by the Sydney
University Government Department in 1962, and last reprinted in an expanded
form in 1996.
This very important source book chronicles NSW politics for
each of the 17 years and each yearly entry has a major section titled Sectarianism,
so important a feature of NSW politics was that subject in that decisive
period, when the Labor Party first became established as a party of government.
This development took place despite a constant Protestant
mobilisation against the Labor Party, focussing on Catholics, socialists,
liquor, gambling and sport. Macintyre's failure to use the evidence presented
in this monograph seemed to me amazing and then it struck me rather forcibly
that he nowhere refers to any of the historical work of the empirical political
historical school that developed around Henry Mayer, Dick Spann, Joan Rydon,
Ken Turner, Michael Hogan and others in the Sydney University Government
Department from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Macintyre doesn't recognise any of the publications or books
of this major school anywhere in the Concise History. It seems a pretty
tall order to ignore the seven editions of the Henry Mayer Readers on
government, which influenced tens of thousands of students, but Macintyre
succeeds in doing this.
Given his, selectively asserted, past attachment to Marxism
in the historical sciences, Macintyre's book has a very curious approach to the
history of capitalist development and the conflict between the classes.
His approach is heavily influenced by the current
"globalising" fashion, particularly popular in cultural studies, but
also advanced by capitalist ideologues who positively applaud the decline of
manufacturing industry in countries like Australia.
The effect of this is that Macintyre concentrates on
political history, of the generalised national sort, and cultural criticism of
popular social practices. The actual history of Australian capitalist economic
development is de-emphasised, and the spectacularly piratical origins of
Australian capitalism, particularly British imperial finance capital, is
The sharply contradictory and brutal, but very effective
development of manufacturing capitalism in Australia tends to be written of by
Macintyre with the enthusiastic hindsight stemming from its current decline,
which he seems to favour. (Macintyre manages to write a Concise History of
Australia without mentioning Crick, Willis, W. L. Baillieu, W. S. Robinson,
Essington Lewis or Bully Hayes, for instance)
In writing about the 19th century, sources such as Brian
Fitzpatrick, Eris O'Brien, Michael Cannon and Cyril Pearl, all of whom have a
critical or muckraking approach to the development of Australian society,
particularly the economic origins of the ruling class, are ignored completely.
How is it possible to write about the origins of Australia
without reference to the work of Eris O'Brien? How is it possible to write
about capital formation and the slump of the 1890s without reference to
historians such as Michael Cannon, Brian Fitzpatrick and Andrew Wells. But
Macintyre does so and, as a result, his narrative is a dry as dust, bland,
official history, neglecting conflict and particularly de-emphasising the
piratical origins of the Australian bourgeoisie.
When you get into the early 20th century, this curious style
of history writing is even more pronounced. When discussing the First World
War, the whole emphasis is on "heroic sacrifice". He manages to avoid
explicit reference to the General Strike of 1917, to the release of the IWW
leaders framed in 1917, or to the assassination of Percy Brookfield, the
leftist Labor politician who procured their release by his use of his balance
of power in the NSW parliament.
The sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the Labor Party
led by the Tory murderer T. J. Ley in the 1920s is not mentioned. No mention is
made of the adoption of the socialisation objective by the Labor Party in 1921.
The Seamen's strike, and Bruce's attempt to deport the Seamen's leaders Tom
Walsh and Jacob Johnson doesn't make it, and neither does the Victorian Police
Popular historians and popular historical works about the
period, such as Turner's Sydney's Burning, Brown and Haldane's Days
of Violence about the police strike, and Lang's I Remember, are
ignored. Important radical figures such as the Labor Federal politician Frank
Anstey and the then Communist secretary of the Sydney Labor Council, Jock
Garden, don't rate a mention.
Macintyre abolishes Langism
When you get into the 1930s, the narrative gets even wierder.
The only mention of Jack Lang is in relation to incident during the opening of
the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when a member of the fascist-minded New Guard
galloped up on a horse and cut the ribbon before Lang could do so. All that
Macintyre says about the popular mobilisation behind Lang at the time of the
Premier's Plan, is the following:
The incident was theatrical, but it came as the demagogic
Premier, Jack Lang was defying the national agreement to reduce public
expenditure and street violence was building an atmosphere of public hysteria.
Only when the Governor dismissed Lang in May 1932 did the unrest subside.
That's the only mention of Lang. No mention of the Lang Plan.
No mention of the mass meetings and the popular mobilisations around Lang on a
national scale. This airbrushing of Langism slides over into falsification in
the untrue statement in Macintyre's book that the Lang government fell because
of a Labor split.
This is dry as dust official history, with one variation.
Dopey nostalgia for Stalinism is introduced into the narrative as a kind of
alternative to describing the popular mass movement of the time led by J. T.
Lang. There is a lengthy account of the activities of the Unemployed Workers
Movement and the Communist Party, presented as if they were the major actors,
and almost the only actors, in the upheaval against the effects of the
What an objectionable way of using Stalinism as a left face
for an essentially conservative official history of the Depression. Even when
discussing the Communist Party and the Unemployed Workers Movement, which are
mentioned many times, they remain disembodied, shadowy entities, suspended in
mid-air, so to speak.
None of the significant leaders or colourful characters in
the communist movement of the 1930s are actually named: no Stalinist leaders
such as Lance Sharkey, Richard Dixon or J. B. Miles. No important Communist
union leaders such as Ernie Thornton, Lloyd Ross, Orr and Nelson, Jim Henderson
or Jim Healy. No communist writers such as Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Jean
Devanney or, in a later period, Frank Hardy. Just the disembodied entity of a
totally idealised Communist Party.
My detailed critique of Macintyre's book on the Communist
Party, The Reds, made the point fairly sharply that this book was
a narrowly institutional history of the Communist Party, and tended to treat
the CP as a majestic entity standing alone, outside the context of its
interaction with the labour movement as a whole.
This is, in my
view, a dangerous defect in a history of the Communist Party. This curious
methodology verges on the absurd when it is carried over from an institutional
history of the CP into a Concise History of Australia and the CP of the
1930s is idealised during the Third Period and the later Popular Front periods,
without reference to its intersection and conflict with the rest of the labour
movement, particularly Langism.
Macintyre and Vietnam
The 1960s and the 1970s are discussed in a curious way. There
is a heavy emphasis on something Macintyre calls the "New Left", but
the enormous popular mobilisations against the Vietnam War, spearheaded by
Vietnam Action Committees, Vietnam Day Committees and Vietnam Moratorium
Committees, is presented in a very summary way.
The day after Macintyre spoke at the Labor History
Conference, there was a moving and interesting article in the Sydney Morning
Herald by political commentator Allan Ramsey. This article commemorated
events exactly 35 years before, when Ramsey had been a very junior member of
the Canberra Press Gallery.
On the day when the Liberal Government announced the sending
of troops to Vietnam, Labor leader Arthur Calwell went into the parliamentary
chamber and made a powerful speech opposing the intervention, pledging a future
Labor government would withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam, a commitment
from which Calwell never flinched.
Ramsey's article points out, with some emotion, how
far-sighted Calwell was on that eventful day 35 years ago. No sentimentality of
that sort for our Stuart, however. His last reference to Calwell describes
Calwell's removal from the Labor Party leadership by Gough Whitlam in the
following terms: "The Labor leader was Gough Whitlam, elected to that
position in 1967 after a long struggle with the old guard led by its gnarled
centurion, Arthur Calwell."
You get no hint from Macintyre that one of the main issues in
Whitlam's successful leadership challenge to the "gnarled centurion",
Arthur Calwell, was the proposition that Calwell had been too radical in
committing the ALP to immediate withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam,
and that Whitlam's new policy in 1967 was a much more ambiguous statement about
Vietnam policy, involving reducing the number of troops, and negotiating with
the NLF, rather than immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.
Oh that we might have a few "gnarled centurions"
like Arthur Augustus Calwell, in the labour movement today!
The industrial explosion in 1969 led by Tramways Union
Secretary, Clarrie O'Shea, which destroyed the penal clauses of the Arbitration
Act, is not mentioned. The urban affairs activities of the Whitlam Government
are mentioned, but without naming Tom Uren.
The Whitlam Government is effectively dismissed as futile and
too radical, and leftists who supported it are attacked for acquiescing in its
alleged statism. But when you get to the Hawke and Keating governments, they
are treated with fulsome and fawning respect.
Hawke, the Hawke Government, Keating and the Keating
Government between them, are mentioned 26 times in about 20 pages, and this is
in a narrative in which Jim Cairns isn't mentioned once, either in relation to
the Vietnam Moratorium, or the Whitlam Government.
The Whitlam ministers Rex Connor, Clyde Cameron and Stuart
West aren't mentioned once. That's the kind of elitist official history
Macintyre has produced.
Macintyre eliminates the states in the modern period
A curious feature of Macintyre's book is that, attempting to
be a concise history of Australia, it goes a long way towards eliminating state
history from the modern narrative.
For instance, Neville Wran is not mentioned. Hawke 13 times.
No Neville Wran, no Graham Richardson. Keating 13 times, no Laurie Brereton, no
Wayne Goss, no Nick Greiner, no Peter Beattie, no Bob Carr, no John Cain, no
Carmen Lawrence, no John Ducker, no Barry Unsworth, no Steve Bracks.
Important books about state politics, such as Robert Travers'
wonderful deconstruction of Henry Parkes, Cyril Pearl's important Wild Men
of Sydney, and David Dale's book on the Wran period, are totally ignored.
A very strange book
What I find really eccentric, is for Macintyre to have
virtually abolished the states in a literary-historical way, when they have not
been abolished in the material world. Macintyre's book has almost no discussion
of the ebb and flow of political, social and cultural circumstances in the
separate states in the 20th century.
To leave the state dimension out of a history of modern
Australia is an absurdity because many of the important historical developments
in Australia still proceed largely in a state framework. Macintyre can't bear
to mention Country Party leader Black Jack McEwan. There are many areas in
which, in my view, Macintyre's historical revisionism is inaccurate in establishing
any useful context for Australian history, and is likely to mislead readers,
particularly young readers and overseas readers, about the real thrust of
The writing out of the narrative of most conflict, most
rebellion, and discordant and radical forces such as the Irish Catholics,
produces a picture of Australia that I find very difficult to recognise. If
Macintyre still regards himself as any kind of Marxist or popular historian, a
history of Australia in the 20th century in which Black Jack McEwan is not
mentioned by name, and the post-World-War-Two implicit social arrangement is
dismissed, but the Hawke-Keating globalisation of the economy is implicitly
endorsed as inevitable, is quite bizarre.
Politically, what Macintyre has produced is a thoroughly
conservative history, but that's only one aspect. The other aspect, from a
history teaching point of view, is that this kind of deracinated official
history is rather boring.
If textbooks like this are allowed to predominate in contrast
with a lively and interesting and, incidentally, quite radical, book such as
Russel Ward's Concise History, in my view the audience for Australian
history will probably decline, and the number of students studying it will
Macintyre is exceedingly dry. There is very little social
history. There is not much sporting history. There is no overview of modern
Australian art. The speedy sweep through modern Australian society in the last
couple of chapters is rather moralising in tone and written as from a great
height or distance.
Macintyre seems to me to be a bit of a wowser and puritan,
which are big disadvantages to anyone trying to write intelligently about
Australian history. He doesn't really seem to like us much.
Why bother about Macintyre's historical revisionism?
In an irritated aside in the new foreword to the paperback
edition of Macintyre's book on the Communist Party, The Reds, Macintyre
dismisses, in a contemptuous way, a detailed critique I made of that book,
ascribing it to "1960s factionalism", without making any attempt to
address the major questions of historical fact and emphasis I raised.
I obviously run the risk of similar curt dismissal from the
great man on this occasion, and I also run the risk of being accused by some of
having an obsession about Macintyre.
Why should Bob Gould bother? Well, I must admit that for me
these questions are rather personal. I object to my assorted tribes, ethnic,
cultural and political, being abolished from the historical record. When I was
a kid, I acquired an initial knowledge of the clandestine Australian historical
stream, Irish Catholic, socialist and working class, from my father, and also
from the Catholic historical counterculture taught by the Christian Brothers.
As a young man those streams came together for me, and I was
greatly stimulated by the way they flowered into the mature historical work of
Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward, Eris O'Brien, Manning Clark, Robin Gollan, Ian
Turner, and popular historians such as Rupert Lockwood, Cyril Pearl, Michael
Cannon, Robert Travers and William Joy.
I was also stimulated by novels with a historical basis, such
as Kylie Tenant's Ride on Stranger and Foveaux and Frank Hardy's Power
Without Glory and The Dead are Many. I was considerably enthused
when this rich historical literature began to be used to some extent in some
university history departments and in some high schools.
Texts such as Russel Ward's Concise History, Terry
Irving's and Bob Connell's Class Structure in Australian History,
Manning Clark's Short History, and even Robert Hughes' relatively recent
The Fatal Shore, began to be used widely in history education.
These texts are interesting and particularly accessible to
students, and they go a considerable distance towards introducing those social
groups previously excluded, the labour movement, the working class and the
Irish Catholics, to the historical narrative.
Stuart Macintyre, Miriam Dixson, and the Australian
Macintyre applauds Miriam Dixson's new book The Imaginary
Australian, in which she tries to stake out a territory for a false
historical construct she calls the "Anglo-Celtic core culture", as
against the discordant historical discourse produced by Celtic malcontents such
as myself. It's absolutely clear from Macintyre's recent historical efforts, of
which the Concise History, intended as a text book, is clearly the
culmination, that Macintyre is devoted to Dixon's "Anglo Celtic core
culture" project. He even mentions, reverently, in his last chapter
Dixson's book, along with Paul Sheehan's chauvinistic Amongst the Barbarians,
as important books to be read about the Australian future.
Dixson carries on
somewhat about an Australian "national imaginary", which she does not
spell out very clearly. In an argument I have written
directed at Miriam Dixson
<http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Dixson.html>, I take up
her idea of the "national imaginary" which isn't intrinsically a bad
idea. I just point out that my "national imaginary" (based on the
historian's I've listed above and my own experience of life) is totally
different to hers.
Well, we get from
Macintyre's Concise History something of the possible flavour of the
Macintyre, Dixson "national imaginary". The emphasis here must be
placed on the "imaginary". Macintyre produces a conservative,
Anglophile history of Australia by abolishing from the narrative, or
dramatically diminishing in significance, whole categories, classes, tribes,
and major historical currents and events.
These classes of
people and events are mostly my people and events, my tribes, my class, my big
social upheavals, and once again I record my strong objection to their
exclusion from the Australian historical record.
John Howard, and
the right-wing ideologues in some of the media are currently engaged in a
wide-ranging exercise in rewriting Australian history. Howard and like-minded
conservatives are making extravagant use of British-Australia Anzac symbolism
to refurbish a reactionary, patriotic militarism, and to write out of the
record past conflicts over wars and militarism, such as the referendum defeat
of conscription during the First World War, and the ultimate rejection of the
Vietnam intervention by the Australian people.
In my view, the
general thrust of Macintyre's Concise History (with the exception of the
completely appropriate detailed attention to Aboriginal history) fits in very
well with this reactionary John Howard historical project.
historical narrative such as Macintyre's Concise History, which
abolishes from the story such diverse and interesting people as John Norton,
Paddy Crick, George Reid, the Tory free trader, Bruce Smith who opposed White
Australia, Peter Bowling, Jock Garden, Eddie Ward, Lance Sharkey, Black Jack
McEwan, Laurie Short, Clarrie O'Shea, Edna Ryan, John Anderson, Murial Heagney,
Jack Mundey, E. G. Theodore, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Johnny O'Keefe and a
host of others, is in my view, rather farcical.
A history that
reduces the many facets of Caroline Chisholm and her activity to the spiteful
cliche that she was primarily a moral policewoman, is sectarian and
bigotted. A history that avoids the work of all the important traditional and
popular historians mentioned in this article, possibly because they introduce
too much conflict and excitement to the narrative, is both much too right-wing,
and a definite obstacle to keeping the students in history classes awake.
For the time
being, until someone writes a new and improved entry-level textbook, people
setting texts would be well advised to continue using Russel Ward, Connell and
Irving, and other such books, rather than this extraordinary new book.
A note to Stuart Macintyre based on a discussion with
him during afternoon tea at the Labor History Conference
I am writing this after distributing my response to your book
following your address at the Labor History Conference in Sydney in April 2000,
participating in the discussion there, and having an exchange of views with you
in the afternoon tea break.
Your first argument was that your concise history was not
intended as a textbook. Your publishers must have other ideas, because the
second page of the book has this statement:
This is a new series of illustrated 'concise histories' of
selected individual countries, intended both as university and college
textbooks and as general historical introductions for general readers,
travellers and members of the business community."
Human beings have names. Australians like names
Your second argument related to the curious method of
mentioning secondary historical players but not naming them. You re-emphasised
the strange point made in your introduction that proper names would only
confuse overseas readers, and that their use would unreasonably pad out the
book. I think both of these arguments are ludicrous.
If you gave the proper name of every minor character in front
of the description of them, it would probably increase the size of the book
about half a page, which is hardly significant, even for the most frugal
The argument that the addition of the name of the person
would confuse overseas readers is incomprehensible to me. Most, if not all,
humans on the planet, have names, and human beings are quite used to names.
Human beings like names. In bursts of creative cultural exhuberance, humans,
particularly Australian humans, invent colourful nicknames for people,
"Pig Iron Bob", "Cocky Calwell", "Black Jack
McEwan", for example.
If anything, mentioning historical players without their name
is likely to confuse both local and overseas readers, particularly if you
assume that many overseas readers will be developing an interest in Australian
history, and are very likely to read at least one more book about Australia
than your book.
The absence of names in association with historical figures
is likely to reduce the utility of your narrative, and incidentally contribute
to making the story more difficult, dry and boring for the reader, whether
local or overseas.
Which Australian history books are really out of
In relation to the fact that you eliminated from your
references and bibliography a number of important Australian historians,
particularly populist and labour historians, you argued, in the conversation at
afternoon tea, that your bibliography consisted mainly of books that are in
print and accessible.
Well, I have a fair amount of experience as a bookseller,
both new and secondhand. I don't particularly like being the bearer of bad
tidings, but going through your bibliography carefully, more than half of the
books you mention are currently out of print, many of them obviously so.
If you had included the significant works from the major
Australian historians that you ignore, the in-print, out-of-print ratio would,
in my view, not be affected at all, as quite a few of the books you ignore are
The following books are just a random selection from your
bibliography, from the majority of the 300 books listed there, which are out of
print: Gavin Souter, Lion and Kangaroo. Australia: 1901-1919, The Rise of a
Nation (Sydney, William Collins, 1976); Bill Gammage, The Broken Years:
Australian Soldiers in the Great War (Ringwood, Vic, Penguin, 1975); Lesley
Johnson, The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio
(London, Routledge, 1988); Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian
Interpretation (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989); Robin Gerster and Jan
Bassett, Seizures of Youth: The Sixties and Australia (Melbourne, Hyland
House, 1991); Jill Julius Matthews, Good and Mad Women: The Historical
Construction of Femininity in Twentieth-Century Australia (North Sydney,
Allen and Unwin, 1984); Greg Whitwell, Making the Market: The Rise of Consumer
Society (Fitzroy, Vic, McPhee Gribble, 1989); Philip Ayres, Malcolm
Fraser (Richmond, Vic, William Heinemann, 1987).
After listing the out-of-print books above and more than 100
others similar, it seems striking to me that you don't list any of the books of
Shirley Fitzgerald, any of the books of Patrick O'Farrell, any of the books of
Russel Ward, any of the books of Michael Cannon, any of the books of Robert
Murray, any of the books of Vance Palmer, any of the books of Kylie Tennant,
any of the books of Humphrey McQueen, Greg Patmore's book on labour history,
Connell and Irving on class structure in Australia, Jack Hutson's important
source books on the arbitration system.
Despite his infuriating, excessive use of current academic
literary-theoretical devices in his narrative, in the matter of sources,
Macintyre is absurdly conservative and narrow.
The only trade union histories mentioned, out of the 50 or 60
that now exist, are a couple of books about the AWU. No books such as those by
Mark Hearn on the Australian Railways Union, Braden Ellem on the Clothing
Trades Union, Mary Dickinson on the NSW Nurses Union, Brad Bowden on the
Transport Workers Union or Margo Beasley on the Waterside Workers Federation,
In the past 30 years there has been an explosion of major
works about the history of various ethnic groups in Australia. While I don't go
quite so far as to suggest that Macintyre should mention such culturally
significant, but possibly exotic books as Sea, Gold and Sugarcane. Finns in
Australia 1851-1947 by Olavi Koivukangas, or Edward Duyker's book on
Mauritians in Australia, one would have thought that Macintyre might have used
as sources, say, some major books on Greeks, Italians, Germans, Maltese and
Asians in Australia. But nothing like this for our Stuart.
Macintyre mentions little sporting history, almost no music
history, almost no art history, little religious history, no history of
Australian films or television, very little history of Australian literature
after the 19th century, and no books pertaining to the history of the Communist
movement in Australia except the one written by Stuart Macintyre.
I would have thought that Robin Gollan's book on the
Communist Party might rate a mention, or Ed Campion's book, Australian
Catholics, or Michael Hogan's Sectarianism, or Bede Nairn's book on
Lang, or Lang's own ghostwritten autobiographies, or even slight little books
like Elwyn Spratt on Eddie Ward or Colm Kiernan on Mannix, or, for that matter,
major biographies by Bob Santamaria or Niall Brennan on Archbishop Mannix.
Despite the Concise History's emphasis on Aboriginal
affairs, Macintyre neglects to even note the important, ground-breaking
three-volume epic about Aboriginal anthropology, by Charles Rowley, which did
so much to bring the question to the attention of the Australian public in the
1970s. I could go on and on in this vein, but it would get boring.
Stuart Macintyre's narrow, academic range of source
Many of the books that Macintyre lists are far less
accessible than the Australian ones he ignores. Closer examination of the
bibliography tends to sharpen the above conclusions.
Drawing on my experience as a bookseller, a thing that
strikes me forcibly is that many of the books listed in Macintyre's
bibliography are drawn from a narrow range of academic publishers, such as
Oxford and Cambridge, which publish short runs at highish prices, and Allen and
Unwin, which publishes slightly longer runs at somewhat lower prices.
Whether in print or out of print, these books are often
fairly inaccessible to people other than academics, particularly now that, in
these times of extreme economic rationalism, libraries ruthlessly weed their
collections very fast.
The older books, the more leftist and popular books, and
other books that were published by general publishers as popular history, even
if they are out of print, are almost always reasonably widely available
secondhand, because of their initial very large sales.
Good examples of that phenomenon are Russel Ward's Australian
Legend and Vance Palmer's Legend of the 90s, which Macintyre
dislikes so much that he doesn't list them in the bibliography.
They are actually more accessible in bookshops than many of
the books he does list.
Macintyre's geographical bias towards Melbourne and
towards current fashions in theory and cultural history
An examination of Macintyre's bibliography shows several
pronounced biases. A striking feature of the bibliography is a strong representation
of what is now called "theory" and "cultural history", and
a sharp bias against popular history, public history, etc.
There is also a bias in favour of what I might call tenured
university academic history.
There is a very strong geographical bias towards Melbourne
and Adelaide. The further history producers get from these Agoras of the South,
the less significance is ascribed to them by Stuart Macintyre.
There is a strong bibliographical bias against labour
history, ethnic history (other than Aboriginal), and religious history. The
Catholics are eliminated from the narrative, most populism and rebellion also.
What you get is a combination of the aforesaid "cultural
history" as the "left", and academic official history, as both
the "left", and the "right", of Macintyre's discourse.
All the populist and Marxist participants in the, apparently
now past, debate on class (other than Macintyre himself) are airbrushed out of
history, almost as systematically as Stalin's captive historians used to
airbrush Trotsky out of Soviet history. What we are left with is a very dull,
Anglophile, official history of Australia from which most of the Sturm and
Drang, and other excitements and turmoils, have been eliminated.
Stuart Macintyre's intellectual odyssey
This argument with Stuart Macintyre has, in fact, become a
bit personal for me, based to some extent on my intellectual disappointment in
him. For many years I did not know Macintyre from the proverbial bar of soap. I
remembered him vaguely from a distance, at a couple of radical conferences or
assemblies in the 1970s.
I remember reading self-confidently ultraleft interventions
under his byline in internal Communist Party discussion bulletins and leftist
journals that came my way back then. I had very little sympathy with the Left
Tendency in the Communist Party, of which Macintyre was a part, and its
Althusserian rhetorical leftist ultimatism. Their standpoint seemed to me quite
remote from any realistic Marxism that could be applied to the problems of the
Australian labour movement.
Later on, I became rather more aware of Macintyre's
historical work and I was excited by one of his two early books, A
Proletarian Science (Cambridge University Press 1980), which was an
intellectual history of the influence of Marxism on the working-class founders
of the British Communist Party. In this book, Macintyre uniquely developed a
study of the phenomenon of autodidact proletarian intellectuals and their
encounter with Marxism, and the extraordinary way that this encounter dominated
the life of the early British Communist Party.
It struck me at the time how applicable this was to the
Australian Communist Party, the early Trotskyist movement in Australia, and
indeed the Australian labour movement as a whole, because similar working class
autodidacts were the overwhelmingly dominant ideological force in the
Australian labour movement until very recently.
His other early book, Little Moscows (Croom Helm
1980), a study of some isolated working class communities in Britain, where the
Communist Party had been uniquely influential, I found also quite interesting,
although Macintyre's tendency to view those places and events as a kind of
Marxist antiquarian was already apparent in this book, and in retrospect
foreshadowed his later shift to the right politically.
His earliest Australian book, written when he was getting his
academic start in Australia, in Perth, his very fine The Life and Times of
Paddy Troy (1984), is about the quintessential Australian Communist
autodidact trade union official.
Some of Macintyre's later Australian books, such as A
Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries (1991,
and The Labour Experiment (1988), Macintyre's own book on the early
development of the arbitration system, are extremely useful.
One thing that flows from my knowledge of his early work is
that it does not seem reasonable to pass over the thrust and orientation of his
recent and more reactionary books, The Reds, the Oxford Companion,
and the Concise History, with the ideological let-out that he may not
know any better. Several historians with whom I have discussed the book have
agreed that some of my major criticisms of the Concise History have
merit, but they have contended that the more obvious explanation for many of
the omissions I have raised is that Stuart Macintyre may have written this book
in something of a hurry, largely with the assistance of research staff, after
possibly being approached by the publishers with the idea that, as Ernest Scott
Professor, it would be appropriate to produce his own Short History, as
a kind of seal of academic eminence.
Even if this were so, I contend that the finished product
represents Macintyre's view of what a Concise History of Australia ought
to be, and therefore it must be criticised in detail by those who have
different ideas about what an accurate narrative would be in a useful Concise
Macintyre's political encounter with Stalinism
Stuart Macintyre's early work showed considerable evidence of
the dramatic impact on him of the 1960s-70s radicalisation, which picked up
this product of the important establishment school, Scotch College, with his
conservative background, and initial patrician introspection and diffidence,
and thrust him into an encounter with the left wing of the labour movement.
Unfortunately, that encounter was with the degenerate
Stalinist and Althusserian wing of the movement. In retrospect, in trying to
explain why this bloke, whose early books were so useful, has become such an
intellectual obstacle to the practice of a popular Australian history, I
advance the following possible explanation.
The Althusserianism that interacted with the more traditional
Stalinism in the decaying Communist Party, where Macintyre got his initial
miseducation in Marxism, had some particular idiosyncracies.
The old Australian Stalinist Party had developed a certain
sectarian animosity to Catholics by reason of its long conflict with them in
the labour movement. It also had a rather Stalinist, jealous hostility to all
past labourite populism, particularly Langism, because of its fierce
competition with such currents, particularly when aggressive High Stalinism was
young, and populist Langism was at its peak in the 1930s.
Macintyre seems to have taken over all of these Stalinist
prejudices wholesale, and they appear to have intertwined with his ancestral,
conservative, Melbourne establishment, British-Scottish prejudices, probably
repressed but possibly still active in his subconscious.
In recent times, all these accumulated prejudices appear to
me to have come into play as his political, social and cultural views have
shifted steadily back to the right in this period of episodic cultural and
political reaction (which won't be permanent, in my view, and will inevitably
be followed by new radicalisations).
It seems to me that in Macintyre's current historical
efforts, both his early Melbourne establishment cultural formation and his middle
period of Stalinist training, are involved. He tends to adapt the historical
story to the concerns of the Anglophile section of the ruling class and
intelligentsia, to smooth out all the past episodes of populism, and gloss over
the past rebellions.
He gets rid of the past sectarian conflicts, presents a
rather assimilationist perspective towards recent migrants, introduces a few
fashionable "leftist" cultural postures, and drags in a bit of
Stalinist nostalgia to represent the radical past.
All of this fits in pretty well with his current situation as
Dean of Arts, powerful figure in the Melbourne University History Department,
intellectual mover and shaker among the more conservative sections of the Labor
Party leadership, and ministerial appointee to the committee overseeing David
Kemp's Curriculum Corporation in its revision of the history syllabus of many
All his background and experiences, both from his
establishment origins and his middle period of encounter with Stalinism, equip
him rather well for these current roles. I wasn't particularly surprised, from
this point of view, when he inferred in his lecture at the Sydney Labor History
Conference, that he had voted no in the recent Republic Referendum.
I'm angry with Macintyre, because, as he has shifted to the
right, he seems to have forgotten the useful things he discovered writing the
Paddy Troy biography and A Proletarian Science, and it seems that the
prejudice and cultural mystification built into the establishment tradition
from which he came, and the Stalinist movement where he received his initial
political miseducation in Stalinist Marxism, have come together to profoundly
influence his historical activity.
Stuart Macintyre's grey armband history:
"cultural history", very little human sympathy, and a general absence
In the magazine, Overland, of May 1989, there is a
full-page review by Stuart Macintyre of Russel Ward's important autobiography A
Radical Life. The tone of this review is respectful and includes the
following: "Finally, there is the story of how Russel Ward came to write The
Australian Legend, that seminal codification of the national past... The
Australian Legend distilled these experiences and explored their historical
genesis, establishing Russel Ward as a leading member of what is called the Old
Left. His leftism was real and passionate, and the scars left by victimisation
are apparent as he rehearses his experiences at the hands of the cold warriors
of the University of NSW. The book concludes with his appointment to the
University of New England; the radical life continues."
It is useful to consider the context of this courteous and
intelligent review. Macintyre's views had obviously not evolved so far to the
right on historical matters as they have now. Macintyre then was more junior on
the academic historical ladder, and Russel Ward was regarded quite rightly as a
major Australian left democratic historian, at the height of his literary and
In other articles around that time Macintyre repeated this
kind of positive appraisal of The Australian Legend, which he had so
harshly criticised in the 1970s. In the intervening decade between 1989 and
1999, the intellectual climate in Australian historiography has shifted to the
right, Macintyre himself being one of the significant influences in that shift.
All the radical democratic leftist historians whom Macintyre so condescendingly
dismisses as the Old Left, except Robin Gollan, are now deceased, and obviously
can't argue back without the use of a oiuja board, and Macintyre no longer
proclaims himself as the representative of the New Left, as he once did.
Sniffing this colder, more reactionary atmosphere in
Australian history, which he helped create, Macintyre now returns to pretty
much what he said in the 1970s, expressed in a more radically conservative way.
In his Concise History, on page 219, Macintyre writes:
As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial
expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national
traditions. Its writers, artists and historians turned from the stultifying
conformity of the suburban wilderness to the memories of an older Australia
that was less affluent and more generous, less gullible and more vigilant of
its liberties, less timorous and more independent. In works such as The
Australian Tradition (1958), The Australian Legend (1958) and The
Legend of the Nineties (1954), the radical nationalists reworked the past
(they passed quickly over the militarism and xenophobia in the national
experience) to assist them in their present struggles. Try as they might to
revive these traditions, the elegaic note was clear. The radical nationalists
codified the legend of laconic, egalitarian, stoical mateship just as
modernising forces of change were erasing the circumstances that had given rise
to that legend. While the radical romance faded, the conservative courtship of
national sentiment prospered.
The pompous tone of the above speaks for itself. The authors
of these influential books, Russel Ward, Vance Palmer and A.A. Phillips, are
neither named, nor are their books mentioned, in Macintyre's bibliography or
They are treated by the overweening Macintyre as disembodied
examples of a cultural trend, rather than, as they then were, living breathing
historians, with a point of view of some importance. In retrospect, the working
class solidarity that they "elegaicly" celebrated wasn't nearly as
extinct as Macintyre claims.
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were in fact a period of constant
improvement in working class wages and conditions, achieved, in the framework
of the so called postwar settlement, by the well tried, and long practiced
means of working class and trade union agitation. This involved sporadic use of
industrial action combined with judicious exploitation of the arbitration
mechanisms by unions.
These improvements of working class living standards, which
were quite spectacular, were also advanced by the conflict and competition
between left and right in the labour movement for support, which resulted in
both general factions, in their own particular ways, pushing for and achieving
steady incremental improvements for the working class.
The high point of this process was a result of the
elimination of the penal clauses after the O'Shea upheaval in 1969, which led
directly to the dramatic explosion of improvements in wages and conditions
between 1972 and 1982 (which infuriated the Australian bourgeoisie).
Macintyre largely ignores this development, or even suggests
it was not a good thing, in his implicit proposition that the postwar
settlement was unsustainable. The few times when Macintyre's own, rather dry,
prose becomes anything like elegaic, are when he is implicitly celebrating the
end of the postwar settlement with the advent of globalisation, accords and
deregulation of the financial system during the period of the Hawke and Keating
"Cultural studies" meets and mates with
conservative academic history, to produce a kind of mule: grey armband history
Like many other literate Australians I have gradually become
enraged at the disdainful, dismissive, half-smart, supercilious tone of much of
what is called, these days "cultural studies".
Keith Windschuttle's useful book, The Killing of History,
(which Macintyre wisely ignores both in the Concise History and the
bibliography), expresses in its title one of the main aspects of this cultural
The abstruse nature of a lot of "cultural studies",
combined with the contemptuous tone often adopted towards popular culture and
many other human activities, is a contributing factor to a decline in the
number of students studying disciplines such as history, in which
"cultural studies" is now so influential.
I don't want to go
overboard in this criticism of "cultural studies" and "gender
studies", as a number of books and articles written in this idiom are both
civilised and useful, for example, Raelene Francis's
book, The Politics of Work in Victoria, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University
Press, Sydney, 1993), Peter Spearritt and David Walker's Australian Popular
Culture, Bruce Scates's A New Australia, about the 1890s, and many
others. Nevertheless, it seems to me that many books and articles in this area
are abstract and trivial and contemptuous of popular social practices, and that
unfortunately this mode is coming to dominate these two fields.
This attack by
reactionaries such as Howard is assisted by the absurdist quality of much
cultural studies in the field of history. In the interests of intellectual
clarity and re-establishing Australian popular history in its proper critical
role, I think it important to make a new distinction between the important
"black armband" historians, such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes,
Manning Clark and Russel Ward, who make an enormous positive contribution to
Australian culture, and another, more negative genre, to which I now officially
give the title "grey armband historians".
The bloodline of
grey armband history is conservative British-Australian official history as the
stallion, with the most dismissive sort of cultural studies as the mare.
Macintyre is the obvious candidate for major eminent person and head of the
field in this significant new genre.
How grey armband history works
Stuart Macintyre's Concise History is a very
instructive example of this new discipline, and how it is organised and
constructed. Its intellectual antecedents include books like Ronald Conway's The
Great Australian Stupor and Jonathan King's Waltzing Materialism,
which were best-sellers a few years ago.
These books' unifying feature was a wholesale assault on the
cultural and social practices of Australians, both working class and middle
class, with an implicit standpoint derived from high culture, eternal verities
and a uniformly unpleasant carping tone in their attacks on the allegedly
fatally materialistic stream of Australian life.
Much of the cultural studies idiom in Australian history has
taken over the standpoint and style of those two books in spades. The tone
throughout Macintyre's Short History is, most of the time, distainful,
grand and supercilious, particularly when discussing ordinary people's social
practices and social life.
The exceptions to this emphasis are when Macintyre is
discussing, rather reverently, the unifying nature of Anzac during the First
World War, and the "modernising" activities of the Hawke and Keating
This posture is adopted particularly sharply in relation to
fields such as agriculture, the Snowy Scheme, current mass migration,
manufacturing industry, the postwar social and economic settlement,
"elegaic" attachment to working class solidarity in the style of
Russel Ward, and almost anything else that interferes with this
Macintyre-Dixson version of modernising bourgeois British-Australia, with its
naturally hegemonic "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
It is hardly necessary to point out how well this historical
style and construction fits in, generally, with the perceived interests and
strategic orientations of major fractions of the ruling class in rapidly
"globalising" modern Australia.
Macintyre's mating of conservative British-Australia academic
history with cultural studies produces an offspring in which the bad genes of
both parents predominate.
Macintyre and racism
The "left" face of Macintyre's construction is a
constant stress on past racist and sexist practices, particularly of the
working class. In this way he makes ritual obeisance to the mood prevailing in
the currently fashionable and powerful cultural studies and gender studies
In discussing past racism and sexism, however, Macintyre
rarely notes the activities of many minorities that have fought, often
ultimately successfully, against racism and sexism. An exception to this
neglect is when he ascribes the only important past activity against
anti-Aboriginal racism to the Communist Party, which is really a quite
Australian history is peppered with all sorts of radical and
religious groups and individuals who fought against racism. For the 19th
century this is documented thoroughly in Henry Reynolds' most recent book, This
Whispering in Our Hearts.
Macintyre's undialectical airbrushing out of almost all of
the minorities that fought against racism tends to make the eventual overthrow
of the White Australia Policy, and the legal removal of the bars to many
Aboriginal rights, mysterious and inexplicable in his narrative, but it is
entirely consistent with his dismissiveness towards most Australian popular
Macintyre and the struggle for women's rights
Stuart Macintyre's treatment of sexism and the struggle for
women's emancipation is worthy of note. He adopts the currently fashionable
standpoint of some conservative feminists by giving extended recognition and praise
to the 19th century temperance movement.
He notes the fact that Australian women got the vote in all
states and the Commonwealth well before the rest of the world, but he hardly
notices the fact that this was a direct product of the broad struggle in the
Australian colonies for basic democratic rights, spearheaded in this instance
by Australian feminists but largely accepted and even supported by civilised
forces among Australian men.
This demonstrable and important political fact about women's
rights in Australia does not prevent Macintyre from asserting a generally
gloomy, rather inaccurate, but currently fashionable, proposition that
Australia was more or less universally sexist in the past.
Needless to say, he pays no recognition to Portia Robinson's The
Women of Botany Bay, an important work on convict women, and Grace
Karskens' useful book, The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney (Melbourne
University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-522-84722-6), both of which illustrate the way
many convict women managed to improve their situation and assert their
independence, and were by no means the totally hopeless, hapless victims that
many historical narratives present them as.
Later, Macintyre blandly ascribes the achievement of equal
pay for equal work for women to a ruling by the Arbitration Commission,
ignoring the long popular movement, led mainly by women in the trade unions,
that produced that Arbitration Court determination.
The lifelong agitation and effective organisation of trade
unionists such as Muriel Heagney and Edna Ryan for equal pay and equal rights
for women is abolished from Macintyre's narrative. This long struggle of women
in Australia for equality and full social and economic rights, therefore tends
to disappear against a backdrop of more or less universal sexism.
When reviewing the past, it is obvious that a lot of people
were racist and sexist a lot of the time. What was significant and exceptional
about the Australian experience, however, was the earliness of major
achievements, such as the uniquely early achievement of votes for women, and
the establishment of child endowment in the Lang period in New South Wales.
Despite the culturally prevailing sexism, material
achievements such as this shifted the social norms dramatically and laid the
basis for further improvements in women's rights and expectations, which ought
to produce a more favourable assessment of past gains for women in Australia.
Not so for our Stuart.
In the Concise History, official history out of
cultural studies produces a very gloomy version of past women's struggles,
which precludes much optimism in his concluding chapter about future
improvements for women.
Macintyre isn't too keen on explorers
In Quadrant last year, there appeared an important and very
detailed article on current educational problems by the disenchanted leftist,
and now rather conservative educational historian, Alan Barcan. This article
was an overview of the crisis in curriculum that has emerged in Australian
education, particularly the teaching of history.
Some parts of Barcan's critique are useful and correct. One
of his points with which I agree is that omitting from the history curriculum
many of the basic historical facts that used to be taught is a big practical
mistake. For instance, the exploration of Australia was part of the British
imperial conquest of these colonies, but it was also an intrinsically important
part of the historical record.
In his careful, ritual obeisance to cultural studies,
Macintyre, however, follows the current fashion. Many of the explorers are
eliminated from his narrative. No Hume and Hovell, no Edward John Eyre, etc,
A populist or leftist Australian history could easily mention
Eyre's discoveries and then make a point about British imperialism by
mentioning in passing the barbarous aspects of his later career as governor of
Jamaica, where he judicially murdered part of the population of a rebellious
None of this kind of thing for Macintyre, either the naming
of most of the explorers, or the opportunity for the exposure of British
Another feature of Macintyre's book is its careful
middle-of-the-road character in its mating official history with cultural
studies. All the populist historians I have mentioned at length here are left
out, but so are the most extreme, but rather significant and influential
postmodernists writing in Australian history.
Debates about Australian history don't make it into
Macintyre's narrative either. Postmodernists such as Greg Dening, who wrote Mr
Bligh's Bad Language, and Paul Carter, who wrote The Road to Botany Bay,
irritate me with their extreme cultural studies style and analysis, but
nevertheless there is no question that they are extremely influential in
current Australian historiography. To leave them and their books out of the
narrative and the bibliography, as Macintyre does, is almost as intellectually
unbalanced as leaving out Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick or Black Jack McEwan.
Macintyre is clearly trying to stake out an extremely
conservative, centre ground, for his grey armband history, consolidating the major
recognised conservative academic historians in a narrative and alliance with
the more conservative practitioners of cultural studies, to produce a new
The problem with this Macintyre academic orthodoxy is that it
is almost unrecognisable as useful Australian history.
No Proletarian Science. Macintyre ditches dialectics.
Rather conservative politics, little religion, and almost no sex
A close friend of mine who was brought up in a middle-class,
conservative Protestant family environment often jokes, that in that social
environment the basic rule of etiquette was that politics, religion and sex
were not discussed in polite society, and this social code was quite frequently
expressed explicitly in just those words.
In my view, Macintyre has managed to observe a fair part of
this convention in his Concise History. Some politics are mentioned, but
they are pretty, high politics with very little radical dissent recognised.
There is almost no religion in the narrative, and I couldn't find much sex.
Macintyre's book suffers from a lack of robust dialectical
juxtaposition of people and events. What I mean by this statement can be
illuminated by comparing Macintyre to a range of other historians as diverse as
Robin Gollan, Susanna Short, Robert Murray, Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael
Cannon. With different standpoints, Marxist, left liberal, and conservative,
all these historians produce powerfully interesting social history by
proceeding in what Marxists generally describe as a dialectical way. They treat
conflicting social groups and historical actors as important in their own
right, try to describe how those people saw the world, and describe, in a
warm-hearted way, the conflicts between these individuals and social groups.
Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael Cannon, describing social
developments, urban history and economic developments from a generally left
liberal point of view, often including a fair bit of muck-raking, still
ascribe, even to people that they criticise, a certain integrity and autonomy,
and even when they are discussing such chaotic events as the pell mell
development of Sydney, or the 1890s crash in Victoria, capture something of the
human enthusiasms of all the players involved, without too much moralism.
Susanna Short, in her incomparable biography of her father,
Laurie Short, gives a careful and interesting account of both her old man's
outlook at each stage in his contradictory development, and something of the
outlook of all the different conflicting groups, the Stalinists, the
Trotskyists, the Catholic Groupers, the ordinary Laborites and Langites, etc.
These people really come to life in Susanna's book.
In my view, Bob Gollan's book on the Communist Party, Revolutionaries
and reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement (Melbourne
University Press, 1975) is infinitely superior to Macintyre's longer Communist
Party history. A Communist himself, Gollan, as a vantage point for understanding
the history of the Communist Party, counterposes to the CPA's own view of
itself the standpoint of the Trotskyists and the Catholics who were in conflict
with it, which illuminates his narrative immensely.
Bob Murray, who is a right-winger in his basic political
outlook, has written three very important books of Australian history, The
Split, about the ALP split in the 1950s, The Ironworkers about the
history of that union, and his delightful book The Confident Years,
Australia in the 1920s.
Murray carefully distances his own views from his account of
the events he describes and goes to considerable pains to describe the
interaction between the interests and point of view of all the players, large
and small, in the historical dramas he is recounting. It's worth just giving
the chapter headings of The Confident Years: Fit for Heroes, The
Political World of Billy Hughes, Post-war Labor, The Big Fella,
Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co, Bruce-Page Australia, The
Golden Years, After the Bulletin, Workers and Bosses, Countdown
Robert Murray as a dialectician
Political conservative though he may be, but Murray's way of
proceeding seems, to this Marxist, to be impecably dialectical, and an
extremely useful way to write Australian history.
Murray's narrative benefits from a certain enthusiasm for
Australian economic development and a knack for writing entertaining social and
economic history. He gives a very thorough account of economic and social
developments: how many cars were registered, how many people went to the
movies, the growth of manufacturing industry, that sort of thing, in a way that
meshes in very well with the overall thrust of the book.
The Confident Years is a very counterpoint to
Macintyre's cultural studies approach to writing Australian history,
particularly when you compare Macintyre's handling of the 1920s with Murray's.
Another sphere that Macintyre ignores is popular history.
Macintyre's historical scholarship might benefit from a bit of research into
the 60 year-old, seven-day-a-week historical features in the reactionary Sydney
tabloid, The Telegraph Mirror. These historical features have often been
a good deal more radical than the implacably reactionary content of the rest of
the newspaper and, particularly recently, they have been a rather good example
of how to present history in a popular and discursive way for a broad audience.
The people and events covered in these useful historical
features almost never make it into Macintyre's dry account. Monica Heary, who
frequently writes these features, recently wrote a very useful article about
the internal political conflicts in Australia during the First World War, which
left Macintyre's account of these events for dead.
She used roughly the same number of words Macintyre devoted to
this topic in his book. Monica Heary, the busy features journalist, writing to
a deadline every day, nevertheless succeeded in working into her narrative the
General Strike of 1917 and the release of the IWW frame-up victims thanks to
Percy Brookfield's use of his balance of power in the Parliament. Obviously,
this is partly because newspaper history writing involves looking for exciting
and important events to move the narrative along.
Macintyre's history writing might benefit from studying this Telegraph-Mirror
historiographical school and going back through the historical features morgue
of the Telegraph Mirror.
In the 1970s we had the "debate on class". In the
year 2000 we desperately need the "debate on Australian history".
In the introduction to his Concise History, Macintyre
proudly proclaims that the Australian Research Council gave him a grant to
write the book, and it's clear from the considerable power that he now holds as
Dean of Arts, Ernest Scott Professor, member of the Vice-Chancellor's Committee
of Melbourne University, and historical adviser to one of Federal Minister
David Kemp's committees, that Stuart Macintyre is now an enormously influential
intellectual figure in the organisation and teaching of Australian history.
It would be naive to think that, in the full plenitude of
this power and influence, he did not write this book in the expectation and
hope of it becoming a kind of new orthodoxy.
The careful way in which it is organised, drawing together
conservative historiography and "cultural studies" in a kind of grey
Anglo middle ground, indicates the kind of historical orthodoxy which Macintyre
wishes to lay out for us and obviously desires to predominate.
In the conversation at afternoon tea at the Labor History
Conference, Macintyre made a fourth point to me, a point he has made on several
He claimed that, in his history teaching, he finds that
undergraduates don't seem initially to know very much about past Australian
history, and that because of this you end up with a better teaching result if
you do not overburden them with relatively unimportant details, such as names,
explorers and superseded conflicts.
Macintyre seems to indicate that, as we live in a globalising
world, we should dispense with many of the past complications, and look boldly
towards the homogenised future. He seems to think this is what the young expect
of us. He summarises this outlook in the last, rather self-serving paragraph of
the acknowledgements in the Concise History:
The book is aimed also at a younger generation of Australians
who are poorly served by a school curriculum in which history has become a
residual. I have dedicated it to my two daughters, born in England, raised in
Australia, who have too often had their father play the pedagogue and all along
have been instructing him in their interests and concerns.
In my view, Macintyre uses the historical interests of his
daughters as a surrogate for his own deliberate and considered historical
conservatism. In the course of running my up, middle and down-market bookshop,
in Newtown in inner-urban Sydney, I come into constant contact with many of
everybody's sons and daughters, at least the sons and daughters who come into
I find the variety of their historical interests and concerns
far wider than those Macintyre encounters, according to his description in the Concise
History. Many of these people are the children of migrants from many
countries, or migrants themselves.
I recently had for sale in my shop, as a cheap publisher's
remainder, a rather good book on the history of Greeks in Australia. It sold
extremely well and generated considerable interest among younger Greek
Barry York's book on the Maltese in Australia sold very well
also, often to people of Maltese background. Eric Rolls's book on the Chinese
in Australia sells extremely well to young Chinese. None of those books, or any
other books about the history of non-British migrants in Australia, got any
significant recognition in Macintyre's history or made it into his
Macintyre's self-fulfilling prophecy about young
people and Australian history
In my experience as a bookseller, our robust Australian
multiculture, and continuing mass migration, about both of which Macintyre's Concise
History is so elegantly sceptical, are generating considerable interest in
the history of past diversity and conflict in Australia.
Unfortunately, these are just the elements that Macintyre
tends to filter out of his historical narrative, as they are, he seems to
suggest, of little interest to the young.
In my view, the opposite holds. If we don't have a proper
historical grounding in our past conflicts and turmoils, how can we possibly
understand the future? There is nothing quite like conflict and argument to
gain the attention of people reading history.
Macintyre leans heavily on the unconvincing proposition that
the young are not too interested in history. Well, it is true that the numbers
studying history at a secondary and tertiary level have dropped. That is far
more a product of unwise past decisions and present practices in relation to
curriculum in schools and universities, and the way history is taught, than to
any intrinsic lack of interest in Australian history.
Macintyre's approach to the teaching of history to the young
is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless we teach students about all the
complexities of the Australian saga, in an interesting, quirky and sympathetic
way, of course they will be bored by Australian history and won't tackle it.
If you present it to them in the bland and boring way that
Macintyre tends to do, you will actually accelerate the process of decline in
scholastic interest in Australian history. I believe strongly that the way to
revive Australian history as a discipline is to include a colourful and
entertaining description and celebration of past conflicts and diversity, and
an intelligent observation of the contradictory and complex present, to allow a
colourful and interesting future history the possibility to unfold.
What strikes me about Macintyre's approach, both in the book,
and summarised in the paragraph at the end of the acknowledgements, is how
old-fashioned his approach is. It is the kind of historical approach that
prevailed in Australian history teaching until about the middle 1960s, and his Concise
History could easily have been written by a modern day version of Stephen
My interest in Australian history grew out of an encounter
with the clandestine Catholic and Marxist versions of Australian and world
history that challenged the bland, triumphalist Anglo-British, Stephen Roberts
version of Australia of the 1950s, and if we have to commence again teaching
history in that slightly clandestine way, that's the way the cookie crumbles,
and a new generation will have to learn how to effectively challenge the
powerful big guys like Stuart Macintyre.
The self-confident and agressive way Stuart Macintyre feels
he can present his conservative Concise History as the basis for a new
orthodoxy in Australian historiography actually presents both a challenge and
Those who wish for a more truthful, populist, Marxist,
Catholic and radical Australian history to expand and develop, and to be taught
to the young at all levels, ought to grasp this opportunity with both hands. We
should broaden out the uncompleted, debate on class of the 1970s into a fuller
and broader debate on Australian history, challenging the outlook of Macintyre,
John Howard, Michael Duffy, Miriam Dixson and their like.
In such a proper debate, conducted in a sensible way among
civilised writers and consumers of history, both old and young, my money is on
the clandestine and radical Australian historical tradition, which I celebrate
in this article, to prevail.
I have corrected, in this version, certain errors of
spelling, formulation and fact raised in letters kindly sent to me by the
above, commenting on my piece.
I have left unchanged several points to which they objected
because their objections seemed to me to not be soundly based. For instance,
Stuart Macintyre says:
I do not attribute the fall of the Lang government to a split
in the Labor Party. Nor do I treat the Hawke government with reverence. The
question of reverence for the Hawke government is a matter of opinion.
In my view, after rereading the last section of the book,
this reverence still seems clear to me. The point about Lang is quite explicit.
On page 177, Macintyre writes:
Similar splits brought down State Labor governments in New
South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.
It could hardly be clearer than that: the Lang government was
the only state Labor government in NSW in the period he is discussing. Bob
Gollan and Stuart Macintyre both criticise my piece for highlighting the
question of Macintyre's presence on the Government curriculum committee. (I
initially confused the Curriculum Committee with its subordinate body, the
Curriculum Corporation, and I have corrected this after Stuart Macintyre
brought this confusion to my attention)
I am not opposed, in principle, to Macintyre or anybody else
accepting an appointment on Kemp's committee. If I was offered a place on
Kemp's committee, which is unlikely, I would probably accept the appointment on
condition that I could fight vigorously on that committee for the views that I
hold, which is, of course, the reason that I'd be unlikely to be appointed,
although stranger things have happened.
I underline the fact that Stuart Macintyre holds these
various positions because it seems relevant in the context of the views that he
appears to now hold, and that having these views he may well be a further force
for conservatism in these areas of his extended influence, which is sad.
Bob Gollan responds on the question of sectarianism and the
significance of the Irish Catholics, which is to me one of the most important
issues in dispute between me and Macintyre. He says:
But I am reminded that my old colleague Jim Griffin, who
first rang the church bells about this book, has a fixation on the Catholic
Church and community.
He also says:
I do find it difficult to enter a discussion in which Manning
Clark, Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Ian Turner and Eris O'Brien are put in
the same basket. For example, one of the most intemperate critics of Brian
Fitzpatrick was Manning Clark.
My juxtaposition of the above historians, as in retrospect
clearly representing a populist, democratic school of Australian historiography,
is quite deliberate. Whatever the differences that existed between them, they
all eventually came to a relative commonality of interests and preoccupations
on many questions.
Among the key questions that confronted them all eventually
were the development of class and the emergence of a labour movement, the
discordant and oppositional role of the Irish Catholics in relation to the
British establishment in Australia, the enormous question of race and genocide
involved in the dispossession of the original Aboriginal nation inhabiting the
continent, and the question of racism, the White Australia Policy, and
migration in general.
Most of these historians began their inquiry by confronting
the bitter sectarian division that existed in Australian society from the time
of white settlement between the Irish Catholics and the British ruling class
(from whose ranks most of these historians themselves originated).
Manning Clark, given his establishment Anglican background,
being a direct descendent of Samuel Marsden, is obviously fascinated by these
Russel Ward, in his autobiography (he had a similar
Protestant establishment background to Clark) points out that these cultural
conflicts dominated his early social and personal evolution. (Ward's autobiography
includes a moving vignette describing a visit to Australia by R. H. Tawney, the
notable English Christian socialist who wrote the ground-breaking Religion
and the Rise of Capitalism, and the interesting and useful
cross-fertilisation that took place between himself, Manning Clark, Eris
O'Brien, R. H. Tawney and other historians during that visit. That vignette
seems to me to symbolise the drawing together of the left democratic school in
Australian historiography in that generation)
Rodney Hall's biography of John Manifold describes Manifold's
inquiry into the Irish origins of the ballads and a painful and confronting
element stemming from his Victorian Western District establishment background.
The story is similar with Rupert Lockwood, also of Victorian
Western District establishment background. Lockwood's encounter with the
oppositional role of Irish Catholics was clearly a significant part of his
development, along with his involvement with the Communist Party. It's not
accidental that both these Communists, who came from the Anglo ruling class of
the Western District, and were converted to Communism in the upheavals of the
1930s, were fascinated by the interface between Irish Catholic Australians, the
labour movement and socialism.
The Western District of Victoria had a much higher
concentration of Irish Catholic settlers than most other parts of Victoria. In
the early years of the labour movement, culminating in the conscription
upheavals, these Irish Catholics were in an extremely radical frame of mind.
They elected the Labor candidate, the Scottish socialist and poet John
McDougall, as the first federal member for Wannon, later Malcolm Fraser's
stronghold, in the first election after Federation.
Largely because of Irish Catholics, and sharpened by the
conscription struggle, the Western District remained a Labor stronghold until
the disastrous Labor Split of 1955, when many Labor supporters of Irish
Catholics descent shifted over electorally to the DLP, and eventually to the
During the White Guard paramilitary mobilisation during the
Depression, the White Guard in the Western District was preparing to occupy all
the Catholic churches and schools as well as trade union headquarters to
prevent revolution. This is all described at length in a useful article in Labor
History 10 years ago, and it's also studied from another direction, in Paul
Adams' recent study of the Communist novelist, Frank Hardy, who was of
working-class Catholic background and came from Bacchus Marsh, in the Western
Nothing in life and society is ever lost, and the seat of
Mildura, in north-western Victoria has recently come back into play, being lost
by the Nationals to one of the three independents who just put the Bracks Labor
government into power in Victoria.
Macintyre's historiography, which neglects the complex and
varied impact of the Irish Catholics on Australian history and the labour
movement, is very poverty-striken and narrow.
The significance of the Irish Catholics in Australian life is
also described in Bernard Smith's important autobiography, in which he
describes how he wavered between the Catholic Church and the Communist Party
before eventually joining the CP.
The striking thing about the British establishment's initial
school of Australian historiography, represented by Ernest Scott, Arnold Wood,
Arthur Jose and all the other Whig writers of school and university history
textbooks, before the cultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, was the
doggedly ruthless way they eliminated the Irish Catholics, the labour movement,
and matters such as the battles over conscription and Langism, from their
In retrospect, the painful, moving and interesting way in
which people like Russel Ward, Manning Clark, Rupert Lockwood and Bernard Smith
came to terms with these past cultural developments and introduced into the
story these major players was a big leap in Australian historiography.
Macintyre's historical revisionism, in which he reverts to
the 19th century Whig elimination of major historical actors and currents in
his historical story, must be contested in the interests of a comprehensive and
balanced historical narrative.
Macintyre's modernised adherence to the Whig school of
Australian historiography is demonstrated negatively by his elimination from
his narrative of all the issues and individuals and events that I have
enumerated above, and positively by his obvious animosity to the earlier school
of populist democratic, leftist, Catholic Australian historians.
It is also demonstrated by his deliberate repetition of the
bigotted, religiously based bias against Caroline Chisholm.
In my view, Macintyre's narrative represents the Whig school
of Australian-British establishment history, modernised, with a dash of
Stalinism, and one major progressive innovation, a lengthy and quite proper
attention to Aboriginal history.
In my view, Macintyre's glib elimination of the Irish
Catholic other in the 19th century, and his cursory treatment of the huge mass
migration since the 1940s that has totally changed the ethnic make-up of
Australia, are both unscientific. He treats these issues as if they were
This is an almost terminal defect in any Concise History
of Australia. Such a history can be any length you like (within reason), but
I would favour a concise history about 100 pages longer, with the additions
including a more lengthy and more balanced account of the development of the
labour movement and class conflict, and major attention to the oppositional
role of the Irish Catholics.
I would also include a celebratory and more detailed account
of the development of mass migration from all areas of the globe, which
commenced in the teeth of the British Australia racism of the 19th century and
continues now, when all the other tribes beneath the wind are now a comfortable
majority of Australian society, and multiculturalism, for all its defects at
the official level, is now the thoroughly healthy prevailing ethos in