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 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 schools debate.
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 World War I 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, ignoring Calwell.
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.
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 guernsey.
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 labour 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 class.
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.
On the Vietnam War, Gregory Pemberton’s important book, Vietnam Remembered (Weldon Publishers 1990), is not mentioned, 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, Whatever it Takes.
Clyde Cameron’s books of autobiography are ignored, as is Bill Guy’s recent biography of Cameron, A Life on the Left. On the Communist Party, only Macintyre himself survives as the recognised author and expert. All ignored are the published works on the Communist Party of 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.
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 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 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 there is a listing at the end of the book of the sources of quotes used in the narrative, 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 and de-emphasise the influence on him of 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 very elitist, 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 a small number of important, named historical personalities towering presences over a landscape otherwise inhabited.
Sometimes this device becomes almost bizarre. Examples of this are:
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.
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 Macintyre’s purposes.
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.
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, is a completely unscientific and novel way to write about Australia in the 19th century.
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 antisemitism of the British ruling class was such a major issue.
Of the sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the labour movement in the early 20th century, which Macintyre systematically ignores, the most useful 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 considerably understated.
The sharply contradictory and brutal, but very effective, development of manufacturing capitalism in Australia tends to be written off 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. Discussing World War I, 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 strike.
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.
When you get into the 1930s, the narrative gets even wierder. The only mention of Jack Lang is the 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 Depression.
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.
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 concerning 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.
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 Barrie 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.
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 Australian developments.
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-II 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 probably drop.
Macintyre's approach 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.
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 But 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.
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 textbook, 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, 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 historians 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 World War, I 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.
The arena of history and history teaching is inevitably fiercely ideological. One is entitled to have whatever view one likes of events, social classes, religious groups, and other things. What one is not, in my view, entitled to do, is abolish them entirely from the narrative, whatever one may think of them.
An ostensible 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.
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.”
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 publisher.
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 as well as 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.
On 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 in print.
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, etc.
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.
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 on 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.
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 Nineties, 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.
An examination of Macintyre’s bibliography shows several pronounced biases. A striking feature of it 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.
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 History.
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 Australian schools.
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 disappointed 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.
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 historical powers.
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 index.
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 governments.
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 phenomenon.
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, trivial and contemptuous of popular social practices, and that unfortunately this mode is coming to dominate these two fields.
From the political right (John Howard, Michael Duffy and others) there is another kind of attack on Australian history, which deliberately makes an amalgam between cultural studies and important critical historians such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes and others, and condemns all critical history wholesale: the very useful with the totally useless, accusing them all of producing “black armband history”.
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, it is 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.
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, disdainful, 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 governments.
This posture is adopted particularly sharply in considering 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.
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 academic territories.
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 unbalanced approach.
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 movements.
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 feminists but largely accepted and even supported by civilised forces among 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 the Arbitration Court's ruling.
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.
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, 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 village.
None of this kind of thing for Macintyre, either the naming of most of the explorers, or the opportunity for the exposure of British imperialism.
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 academic orthodoxy.
The problem with this Macintyre academic orthodoxy is that it is almost unrecognisable as useful Australian history.
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 to Catastrophe.
Political conservative though he may be, 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 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 are often 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 World War I, 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 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 that 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 other occasions.
He claimed that, in his history teaching, he finds that undergraduates don’t seem initially to know very much about 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 bookshops.
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 Australians.
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 bibliography.
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 get 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 on 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 story, in an interesting, quirky and sympathetic way, of course they will be bored by our 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 it 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 Roberts.
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 an opportunity.
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 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.
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 questions.
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 became Communists 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 Nationals.
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 District.
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 impoverished 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 narratives.
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 insignificant sideshows.
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 a comfortable majority of Australian society, and multiculturalism, for all its defects at the official level, is now the thoroughly healthy prevailing ethos in Australian society.