Dumbing down Australian history and its teaching
The eminent person in current academic Australian history, Stuart
Macintyre, is the keynote speaker at this Labor History Conference (held
in June 2000), about Labor and Federation.
Stuart Macintyre is emerging as the major figure in the current
counter-revolution in Australian history, which seems to be directed at
restoring a kind of Anglophile official history, modified by a few
gestures towards the currently fashionable high theory, as the dominant
discourse in teaching the subject.
As this happens to coincide in time with the dramatic collapse in
student numbers taking Australian history in schools and universities,
it seems to me necessary to make a comprehensive critique of this
Macintyre is the Ernest Scott Professor of History at Melbourne
University. Ernest Scott was the practitioner of a Whig,
British-oriented, official Australian history, which was the first major
academic school of Australian history writing, and commenced late in the
19th century during the imperial heyday of ruling-class British
Australia. This general approach was dominant in history teaching in
high schools and universities until well into the 1960s.
There were some early dissenters from this bourgeois British-Australian
history. These dissenters existed in two streams. Amongst secular
socialist groups, J. N. Rawling, Lloyd Ross and Brian Fitzpatrick
challenged this ruling-class orthodoxy with a more populist, Marxian and
nationalist version of Australian history.
People like James M. Murtagh and Archbishop Eris O’Brien wrote texts
that embodied a critical anti-British-imperialist narrative, which were
the basis of an alternative version taught widely in the Catholic school
system as an antidote to the official British history, necessarily
studied in the same schools for the external exams.
The clandestine tradition in Australian historiography
In the 1940s and the 1950s these two streams converged to some extent in
the mature work of Eris O’Brien, Ian Turner, D.A. Baker, Russel Ward,
Vance Palmer, Brian Fitzpatrick and ultimately, Manning Clark.
From the 1950s on, this alternative, previously clandestine version of
Australian history got a bit of a toehold in universities and high
school history teaching. Texts such as Russel Ward’s the Australian
Legend, Eris O’Brien’s 1937 book The Foundation Of Australia, 1786-1800,
Vance Palmer’s Legend of the Nineties, a number of the works of Brian
Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark’s major six-volume history, and his Short
History of Australia, became a major school of Australian historiography
with an emphasis on social, class and religious conflicts in the 19th
century, popular opposition to British imperial hegemony and a
recognition of the emergence in the 19th century of insurgent democratic
trends and a labor movement in opposition to the British Australian
In the 1970s this left democratic, populist narrative was disputed by
Humphrey McQueen and Stuart Macintyre in what came to be called “the
debate on class”. McQueen and Macintyre accused the practitioners of the
populist Australian historical school of exaggerating the democratic and
popular trends in 19th century history and failing to sufficiently
describe the sexism and racism present in the labour movement at that
In particular, Russel Ward, who remained a very active Australian
historian into the 1990s, incorporated part of this critique into a
broadened and improved populist narrative. The more developed radical
version of Australian history practiced by Russel Ward, Brian
Fitzpatrick, Manning Clark and others had a real battle to become
established in schools and universities.
The Sydney University History Department remained, until very recently,
a stronghold of British-Australia ruling-class history. Fitzpatrick
never got a university appointment.russel Ward was blacklisted for a
history teaching job at the University of NSW because of his long-past
membership of the Communist Party, but managed eventually to become a
university teacher at the University of New England at Armidale,
Manning Clark, who was similarly banished from Melbourne to the ANU when
the ANU was still a backwater, only began to have a major influence on
mainstream history teaching in the course of the widespread cultural
revolution in Australia in the 1960s.
Russel Ward’s Concise History of Australia
At the popular teaching level one of the best examples, and the highest
point of the radical populist stream in Australian history and history
teaching, is Russel Ward’s A Concise History of Australia, which was
reprinted in a large gift edition as Australia Since the Coming of Man.
This book is important because it incorporates that part of the
criticism raised by Macintyre and McQueen that was valid. In particular,
Ward’s narrative in this book entrenched a comprehensive and detailed
treatment of Australian origins and Aboriginal history, along with an
emphasis on oppositional forces in Australian history including the
mid-19th-century struggles against transportation, and for
respresentative democracy, continuing with the campaign for free
selection of land, and culminating in the 19th century in the formation
of the labour movement.
Ward’s Concise History also paid attention to the rather instrumental
role of Irish Catholics in this democratic struggle. The last version of
this many-times-reprinted and set-course book, the 1992 University of
Queensland Press reprint, takes the narrative up to the end of Bob
Hawke’s time as Prime Minister, and is notable for its sceptical,
critical and unfawning attitude to the Hawke government and to Paul
Keating.russel Ward died soon after publication of the 1992 edition of
this useful book.
The emergence of the Russel Ward, Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Eris
O’Brien, populist school of Australian history was a development of
considerable cultural importance.
When I was a kid at a Catholic school, the Christian Brothers at
Strathfield in the 1950s, we history students were subject to the
interesting exercise of being thoroughly persuaded by the Brothers to
learn by rote the Stephen Roberts, British establishment version of
world and Australian history for the external examiners.
However, we were taught by the same Brothers in religion lessons that
this Protestant establishment version was essentially false, and as an
appropriate alternative the version we should really believe was the
clandestine Catholic, Eris O’Brien, James G. Murtagh, Hilaire Belloc
version of Australian and world history.
It heartened me greatly in the 1960s and the 1970s when the modernised,
Russel Ward, Manning Clark critical Australian nationalist, somewhat
Marxist, populist version of Australian history, which incorporated the
useful part of McQueen’s critique, replaced the Roberts version in most
Australian schools and some universities.
I thought that our side had definitively triumphed in the field of
Australian history and its teaching. More fool me! Here comes Stuart
Abolishing the Catholics
I hope I’m not beginning to sound a bit obsessional about Macintyre. I
have written several other critical articles about his historical work,
but I’m afraid I can’t really escape presenting this critique.
I was first alerted to Macintyre’s new book, The Concise History of
Australia, by Jim Griffin’s review in The Australian.
Griffin pointed out that Macintyre’s new history just about abolished
the Irish Catholics from the narrative. As Australian Catholic history
is one of my interests, my curiosity was immediately aroused. I hurried
over and bought the book at Gleebooks, and became immediately fascinated
by it in the same way that I am fascinated by Paul Sheehan’s chauvinist
Amongst the Barbarians, and Miriam Dixson’s The Imaginary Australian.
At approximately the same time I heard on the grapevine that Stuart and
his conservative mate, John Hirst had recently been appointed by David
Kemp, Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs in the Howard
Government, as historical advisers to a body known as the Civics
Education Group, which then employed Kemp’s other educational body, the
institution with the amazing economic rationalist name, The Curriculum
Corporation, to prepare curriculum materials for history teaching in
In the context of the high politics described above it seems reasonable
to look very closely at Stuart Macintyre’s new Concise History, because
it is obviously written for a high school and introductory university
market, and Macintyre and his publishers may well desire to see it
emerge as the major university entry-level Australian history textbook
for the next period.
Let us, therefore, carefully investigate Stuart Macintyre’s version of
textbook Australian history, and how it is organised and presented. The
first thing is how strikingly similar it is in format, and some aspects
of presentation, to Russel Ward’s book of the same name.
It is the same physical size, although a bit shorter, and it even has a
similar presentation, with both covers being a work of Australian art.
Even the periodisation in the book is, in large part, roughly similar.
The two tables of contents are:
RUSSEL WARD 1. Black and white discoverers c.60,000 BC-AD 1770 2.
Empire, convicts and currency c.1771-1820 3. New settlements and new
pastures c.1821-50 4. Diggers, democracy and urbanisation c.1851-85 5.
Radicals and nationalists c.1886-1913 6. War and depression c. 1914-38
7. War and affluence c. 1939-66 8. Going it alone c. 1967-92
STUART MACINTYRE 1. Beginnings 2. Newcomers c.1600-1792 3. Coercion,
1793-1821 4. Emancipation, 1822-1850 5. In thrall to progress, 1851-1888
6. National reconstruction, 1889-1913 7. Sacrifice, 1914-1945 8. Golden
age, 1946-1974 9. Reinventing Australia, 1975-1999 10. What next?
As is clearly indicated by the names of the chapters, the historical
approach of the authors is quite different. Ward’s approach is left
democratic, Marxian and populist. Macintyre’s book is a major move in
the direction of restoring the official British-Australia history that
used to dominate the teaching of Australian history before the 1960s.
Macintyre’s is a thoroughgoing counter-revolution compared with Russel
Ward’s book. Ward celebrates the struggle for democracy and the campaign
for free selection. Macintyre adopts a more critical and sceptical view
of the significance of these developments in a style reminiscent of the
attitude pioneered by his conservative mate Hirst.
? Ward notes and describes the important oppositional role of the Irish
Catholics and records the sectarian conflicts of the 19th century.
Macintyre’s only mention of sectarian religious conflict is in relation
to the 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 the
First World War and the radicalisation in the labour movement that this
produced. Macintyre plays down the conscription struggle, omits the 1917
general strike and ignores the radicalisation of the labour movement in
? Ward celebrates the popular labour movement mobilisation of Langism
against the Depression and its consequences. In his only mention of
Lang, Macintyre succeeds in sounding like the Governor of India
deploring “unrest”. Macintyre even ascribes the fall of the Lang
government to a split in the Labor Party, which is untrue, and thereby
airbrushes out of history Lang’s removal by Governor Game, the precedent
for the later removal of Whitlam by Kerr.
? Ward celebrates the popular upheaval against the Vietnam War, and
mentions the initially instrumental role of Arthur Calwell, the Labor
opposition leader, in this mobilisation. Macintyre treats the agitation
against the Vietnam War in a much more low-key and sceptical way,
? Ward adopts a sharply critical stance towards the Hawke and Keating
governments. Macintyre has a more reverent tone towards these
governments and treats their deregulation of the economy and turn to
economic rationalism as a more or less inevitable response to the global
? Ward adopts a generally favourable attitude towards mass migration.
Towards the end of his book Macintyre implicitly opposes further mass
migration in a rather curious section in which he first spends a lot of
time criticising the thrust of government-sponsored multiculturalism,
immediately followed by:
After two hundred years of overseas recruitment to build the population
of Australia, a new voice called for immigration control, that of
environmentalists. Throughout the European occupation of the country
there had been efforts to conserve its resources and protect fauna and
flora, water and forest, from wanton destruction, but the developmental
impulse usually prevailed. The end of the long boom coincided with an
enhanced appreciation of the costs of development. The great triumphs of
the post-war period turned out to be illusory. The Snowy Mountains
Authority had turned back the rivers from the south-east coast to water
the Riverina plains, and poisoned the soil with salt; the Ord River on
the north-west coast had been dammed, but infestations of insects killed
most of the crops; the government’s scientific organisation waged
biological warfare against the rabbit, but the survivors returned to
compete for pasture.
This paragraph is followed by a lengthy celebration of the importance of
the conservation movement in modern Australia, and read in context, it
is fairly clear that Macintyre now shares some environmentalists’ views
in favour of reducing immigration, although in his usual magisterial
fashion he infers this position from the views of others, leaving
himself a possible let-out if challenged on the point.
There are many other differences between the two books. Macintyre’s is a
good deal duller than Russel Ward’s. His illustrations, other than
Aboriginal illustrations, are usually of conservative historical
figures, and there are fewer of them.
Russel Ward makes extensive use of line drawings and historical cartoons
of a radical character. Little of that for Macintyre. And so it goes.
Macintyre’s selection of sources
In his important book The First Ten Years of American Communism, James
P. Cannon, the pioneer US Communist and Trotskyist leader, prints an
exchange of letters between himself and the historian Theodore Draper,
who was at that time writing his definitive histories of the origins and
early development of the American Communist Party.
Part of one of the letters reads as follows:
Ira Kipnis’s book, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912, published
in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the
Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it… From
what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis’s
objectivity. There are some tell-tale expressions in the Stalinist lingo
which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references.
They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by
selectivity of sources as well as by outright falsification. In skimming
through the book for the first time I was torn between my own
unconcealed partisanship for the left wing and my concern for the whole
truth in historical writing.
It is well to keep in mind Cannon’s view on this matter when examining
Macintyre’s Concise History. At the end of the book, Macintyre has a
bibliography for each chapter. What is striking is the books that he
leaves out of this list.
For instance, he abolishes the work and books of Rupert Lockwood,
Michael Cannon, Allan Grocott, Keith Amos, Colm Kiernan, Tom Keneally,
Patrick O’Farrell, Margaret Kiddle, Malcolm Campbell, Geoffrey Serle,
Ross Fitzgerald, Cyril Pearl, Bob Murray, Michael Cathcart, Robert
Cooksey, Ray Markey, Jack Hutson, Lloyd Ross, Sandy Yarwood, Frank
Farrell, Eric Rolls, Portia Robinson, Denis Murphy, and many, many
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 labor history is discussed at length
by Macintyre himself in the collection, Pastiche 1 (Allen and Unwin
1994), and in his Oxford Companion. It is described thoroughly in
Australian Labor History by Greg Patmore. It is discussed in the
introduction to the second edition of Ian Turner’s Industrial Labor and
Politics, in which Turner replies comprehensively and persuasively to
McQueen and Macintyre.
The documents of that argument include the wrongheaded, but enormously
influential book by McQueen, A New Britannia. This debate led to the
production of the important book by Terry Irving and Bob Connell, Class
Structure in Australian History, which was a synthesis of the
predominant view that emerged from the debate, that a working class of a
particular kind had emerged in Australia in the 19th century, and that
the emergence of a Labor Party and a labour movement was a progressive
development for the working 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.
In relation to the Vietnam War, Gregory Pemberton’s important book,
Vietnam Remembered (Weldon Publishers 1990), and neither are Sioban
McHugh’s Minefields and Miniskirts, on women during the Vietnam War or
Greg Langley’s A Decade of Dissent or Ken Maddocks’ books of oral
history on the Vietnam conflict.
Important books like Paul Barry’s biography, The Rise and Rise of Kerry
Packer aren’t mentioned, nor is Mates by Fia Cumming, or The Fixer by
Marianne Wilkinson about Richardson, or Graham Richardson’s own book.
Clyde Cameron’s books of autobiography are ignored, as is Bill Guy’s
recent biography of Cameron, A Life on the Left. In relation to the
Communist Party, only Macintyre himself survives as the recognised
author and expert. Alistair Davidson, Robin Gollan, Barbara Curthoys,
Frank Farrell, Miriam Dixson, Tom O’Lincoln and even Beverley Symons,
the author of the extremely useful bibliography associated with
Macintyre’s own book, are all ignored in relation to their published
work on the Communist Party.
Oppositional encounters with the Communist Party, of which good examples
would be Hall Greenland’s biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, Susanna
Short’s biography of Laurie Short, Stephen Holt’s biography of Lloyd
Ross, and B.A. Santamaria’s useful autobiography, are totally ignored.
Given the Marxist background that Macintyre asserts on occasion, it is
rather strange that he omits from any consideration, two major original
and significant critical books about Australian life from a Marxist
point of view: Vere Gordon Childe’s important How Labor Governs from the
1920s, and Egon Kisch’s Australian Landfall from the 1930s.
Macintyre’s historical method
Macintyre’s book is organised in a way that is quite consistent with his
narrow British-Australia approach. For a start, the predominance of so
called theory is accentuated by the abolition of footnotes.
The reader is told that at the end of the book there is a listing of
where quotes used in the narrative come from, but they are not presented
as notes to the source, and only one person out of 100 will, in
practice, laboriously work out where the ideas came from.
The net effect of this device is to dramatically increase the role of
the narrator of the book, and de-emphasise the way in which he has been
influenced by the research and ideas of other people. Another effect is
to make it unclear what part of the material is quotes, and what part is
Macintyre’s own view, leaving Macintyre with the perfect out, if
challenged on some point, that he was merely quoting the views of
This way of proceeding is a very elitist writing device, presenting an
enormous obstacle to the reader’s understanding of the genesis of the
ideas in the book, but it is a device that is quite common in
postmodernist circles under the rubric of theory.
Another infuriating feature of Macintyre’s dry writing style is the
deliberate way he avoids naming historical figures, or historians who he
obviously regards as minor, and the effect of this device is to make
some important, named historical personalities, towering presences over
a landscape otherwise inhabited by the nameless.
Sometimes this device becomes almost bizarre. Examples of this are:
? On page 48, where he names Samuel Marsden about five times, on both
sides of this sentence.
As early as 1803 King allowed an Irish convict to exercise his clerical
functions, though that privilege was withdrawn in the following year
when the Priest was suspected of using the Mass to plan the Castle Hill
Uprising. In 1820 two new priests came voluntarily from Ireland with
official permission to fulfill their compatriots’ religious obligations.
Three Catholic priests, none of them named, but Samuel Marsden named
four times in the same paragraph.
? Again, when discussing The Bulletin at some length, Macintyre manages
to do it without mentioning the important founding editor, J. F.
? When discussing the Second World War, he quotes a John Manifold poem
and describes Manifold as “another descendent of a pastoral dynasty”
without mentioning either his name or the fact that he was a Communist
when he wrote the poem.
? Later in the same paragraph, when discussing Eric Lambert’s Twenty
Thousand Thieves he doesn’t mention either the name of the book or the
name of the author.
This loopy device recurs again and again in this strange book, a triumph
of a supposedly theoretical approach over any attempt at utility. It
makes the narrative a very lordly document indeed.
In addition to this problem, throughout his book Macintyre mentions far
fewer secondary historical figures and secondary sources than does
Russel Ward, particularly secondary figures who contribute radicalism or
conflict to the historical mosaic.
No ballads for Macintyre
Macintyre’s mention of Manifold’s war poem, without naming or
identifying the author clearly, is serendipitous in several ways.russel
Ward uses another Manifold war poem, from the same anthology, in his
Concise History (naming Manifold).
My favourite Manifold poem, from the same anthology, begins with the
line, “Crazy as hell, And typical of us, Just like that, ‘Comrade’, On a
bus”, but I don’t think that poem would be of much use for Macintyre’s
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
Other people who have done work in this area, and written books, are
Hugh Anderson, John Meredith and Rex Whalan.russel Ward made very
extensive, almost instrumental use of this kind of ballad material in
The Australian Legend, in sketching out the deep sources of the
Australian anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethos, which is possibly
why Macintyre regards Ward’s book as overly elegaic and misleading.
It was, again, curiously serendipitious that Hugh Anderson’s book about
Tocsin was relaunched in the afternoon at the Sydney Labor History
Conference where Macintyre spoke, and that Anderson was present for the
occasion. I find it very striking that the Celtic ballads, which figure
so deeply in the cultural mosaic of Australian rebellion, get no
recognition at all in Macintyre’s narrative or bibliography.
Fundamental flaws in Macintyre’s account
Macintyre doesn’t only abolish the Catholics, he just about abolishes
religious history from the 19th century story. As Jim Griffin pointed
out, Macintyre very nearly abolishes the Irish Catholics.
On examination, the means by which he does this are in themselves rather
startling. Not only does he abolish the Irish Catholics, but to do this
he has to just about abolish religion as a whole from the story of the
19th and early 20th centuries.
There is no significant mention of sectarian religious conflict. There
is no mention of important institutions such as the freemasons and the
Loyal Orange Lodge, despite the fact that nearly all Tory Australian
prime ministers and governors were freemasons.
To avoid the conflicts that had a religious form, in the interests of a
bland narrative, Macintyre makes the whole religious sphere just about
disappear, which to me, as a Marxian materialist, seems to be a
completely unscientific and novel way to write about Australia in the
Incidentally, Macintyre finds no place in his story for the interesting
conflict in the 1930s between the Labor Prime Minister James Scullin (in
which Scullin ultimately succeeded) and the British authorities in
London, over the appointment of the Jew, Sir Isaac Isaacs, as the first
Australian-born Governor General, in which the endemic, vicious
anti-Semitism of the British ruling class was such a major issue.
Stuart Macintyre, Henry Mayer and the Sydney University Department of
In relation to the sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the labour
movement in the early 20th century, which Macintyre systematically
ignores, the most useful piece of evidence is the
several-times-reprinted monograph on NSW politics from 1901 to 1917,
first produced by the Sydney University Government Department in 1962,
and last reprinted in an expanded form in 1996.
This very important source book chronicles NSW politics for each of the
17 years and each yearly entry has a major section titled Sectarianism,
so important a feature of NSW politics was that subject in that decisive
period, when the Labor Party first became established as a party of
This development took place despite a constant Protestant mobilisation
against the Labor Party, focussing on Catholics, socialists, liquor,
gambling and sport. Macintyre’s failure to use the evidence presented in
this monograph seemed to me amazing and then it struck me rather
forcibly that he nowhere refers to any of the historical work of the
empirical political historical school that developed around Henry Mayer,
Dick Spann, Joan Rydon, Ken Turner, Michael Hogan and others in the
Sydney University Government Department from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Macintyre doesn’t recognise any of the publications or books of this
major school anywhere in the Concise History. It seems a pretty tall
order to ignore the seven editions of the Henry Mayer Readers on
government, which influenced tens of thousands of students, but
Macintyre succeeds in doing this.
Given his, selectively asserted, past attachment to Marxism in the
historical sciences, Macintyre’s book has a very curious approach to the
history of capitalist development and the conflict between the classes.
His approach is heavily influenced by the current “globalising” fashion,
particularly popular in cultural studies, but also advanced by
capitalist ideologues who positively applaud the decline of
manufacturing industry in countries like Australia.
The effect of this is that Macintyre concentrates on political history,
of the generalised national sort, and cultural criticism of popular
social practices. The actual history of Australian capitalist economic
development is de-emphasised, and the spectacularly piratical origins of
Australian capitalism, particularly British imperial finance capital, is
The sharply contradictory and brutal, but very effective development of
manufacturing capitalism in Australia tends to be written of by
Macintyre with the enthusiastic hindsight stemming from its current
decline, which he seems to favour. (Macintyre manages to write a Concise
History of Australia without mentioning Crick, Willis, W. L. Baillieu,
W. S. Robinson, Essington Lewis or Bully Hayes, for instance)
In writing about the 19th century, sources such as Brian Fitzpatrick,
Eris O’Brien, Michael Cannon and Cyril Pearl, all of whom have a
critical or muckraking approach to the development of Australian
society, particularly the economic origins of the ruling class, are
How is it possible to write about the origins of Australia without
reference to the work of Eris O’Brien? How is it possible to write about
capital formation and the slump of the 1890s without reference to
historians such as Michael Cannon, Brian Fitzpatrick and Andrew Wells.
But Macintyre does so and, as a result, his narrative is a dry as dust,
bland, official history, neglecting conflict and particularly
de-emphasising the piratical origins of the Australian bourgeoisie.
When you get into the early 20th century, this curious style of history
writing is even more pronounced. When discussing the First World War,
the whole emphasis is on “heroic sacrifice”. He manages to avoid
explicit reference to the General Strike of 1917, to the release of the
IWW leaders framed in 1917, or to the assassination of Percy Brookfield,
the leftist Labor politician who procured their release by his use of
his balance of power in the NSW parliament.
The sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the Labor Party led by the
Tory murderer T. J. Ley in the 1920s is not mentioned. No mention is
made of the adoption of the socialisation objective by the Labor Party
in 1921. The Seamen’s strike, and Bruce’s attempt to deport the Seamen’s
leaders Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson doesn’t make it, and neither does
the Victorian Police 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
Macintyre abolishes Langism
When you get into the 1930s, the narrative gets even wierder. The only
mention of Jack Lang is in relation to incident during the opening of
the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when a member of the fascist-minded New Guard
galloped up on a horse and cut the ribbon before Lang could do so. All
that Macintyre says about the popular mobilisation behind Lang at the
time of the Premier’s Plan, is the following:
The incident was theatrical, but it came as the demagogic Premier, Jack
Lang was defying the national agreement to reduce public expenditure and
street violence was building an atmosphere of public hysteria. Only when
the Governor dismissed Lang in May 1932 did the unrest subside.
That’s the only mention of Lang. No mention of the Lang Plan. No mention
of the mass meetings and the popular mobilisations around Lang on a
national scale. This airbrushing of Langism slides over into
falsification in the untrue statement in Macintyre’s book that the Lang
government fell because of a Labor split.
This is dry as dust official history, with one variation. Dopey
nostalgia for Stalinism is introduced into the narrative as a kind of
alternative to describing the popular mass movement of the time led by
J. T. Lang. There is a lengthy account of the activities of the
Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communist Party, presented as if
they were the major actors, and almost the only actors, in the upheaval
against the effects of the 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,
Macintyre and Vietnam
The 1960s and the 1970s are discussed in a curious way. There is a heavy
emphasis on something Macintyre calls the “New Left”, but the enormous
popular mobilisations against the Vietnam War, spearheaded by Vietnam
Action Committees, Vietnam Day Committees and Vietnam Moratorium
Committees, is presented in a very summary way.
The day after Macintyre spoke at the Labor History Conference, there was
a moving and interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald by
political commentator Allan Ramsey. This article commemorated events
exactly 35 years before, when Ramsey had been a very junior member of
the Canberra Press Gallery.
On the day when the Liberal Government announced the sending of troops
to Vietnam, Labor leader Arthur Calwell went into the parliamentary
chamber and made a powerful speech opposing the intervention, pledging a
future Labor government would withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam, a
commitment from which Calwell never flinched.
Ramsey’s article points out, with some emotion, how far-sighted Calwell
was on that eventful day 35 years ago. No sentimentality of that sort
for our Stuart, however. His last reference to Calwell describes
Calwell’s removal from the Labor Party leadership by Gough Whitlam in
the following terms: “The Labor leader was Gough Whitlam, elected to
that position in 1967 after a long struggle with the old guard led by
its gnarled centurion, Arthur Calwell.”
You get no hint from Macintyre that one of the main issues in Whitlam’s
successful leadership challenge to the “gnarled centurion”, Arthur
Calwell, was the proposition that Calwell had been too radical in
committing the ALP to immediate withdrawal of Australian troops from
Vietnam, and that Whitlam’s new policy in 1967 was a much more ambiguous
statement about Vietnam policy, involving reducing the number of troops,
and negotiating with the NLF, rather than immediate withdrawal from
Oh that we might have a few “gnarled centurions” like Arthur Augustus
Calwell, in the labour movement today!
The industrial explosion in 1969 led by Tramways Union Secretary,
Clarrie O’Shea, which destroyed the penal clauses of the Arbitration
Act, is not mentioned. The urban affairs activities of the Whitlam
Government are mentioned, but without naming Tom Uren.
The Whitlam Government is effectively dismissed as futile and too
radical, and leftists who supported it are attacked for acquiescing in
its alleged statism. But when you get to the Hawke and Keating
governments, they are treated with fulsome and fawning respect.
Hawke, the Hawke Government, Keating and the Keating Government between
them, are mentioned 26 times in about 20 pages, and this is in a
narrative in which Jim Cairns isn’t mentioned once, either in relation
to the Vietnam Moratorium, or the Whitlam Government.
The Whitlam ministers Rex Connor, Clyde Cameron and Stuart West aren’t
mentioned once. That’s the kind of elitist official history Macintyre
Macintyre eliminates the states in the modern period
A curious feature of Macintyre’s book is that, attempting to be a
concise history of Australia, it goes a long way towards eliminating
state history from the modern narrative.
For instance, Neville Wran is not mentioned. Hawke 13 times. No Neville
Wran, no Graham Richardson. Keating 13 times, no Laurie Brereton, no
Wayne Goss, no Nick Greiner, no Peter Beattie, no Bob Carr, no John
Cain, no Carmen Lawrence, no John Ducker, no Barry Unsworth, no Steve
Important books about state politics, such as Robert Travers’ wonderful
deconstruction of Henry Parkes, Cyril Pearl’s important Wild Men of
Sydney, and David Dale’s book on the Wran period, are totally ignored.
A very strange book
What I find really eccentric, is for Macintyre to have virtually
abolished the states in a literary-historical way, when they have not
been abolished in the material world. Macintyre’s book has almost no
discussion of the ebb and flow of political, social and cultural
circumstances in the separate states in the 20th century.
To leave the state dimension out of a history of modern Australia is an
absurdity because many of the important historical developments in
Australia still proceed largely in a state framework. Macintyre can’t
bear to mention Country Party leader Black Jack McEwan. There are many
areas in which, in my view, Macintyre’s historical revisionism is
inaccurate in establishing any useful context for Australian history,
and is likely to mislead readers, particularly young readers and
overseas readers, about the real thrust of 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-Two
implicit social arrangement is dismissed, but the Hawke-Keating
globalisation of the economy is implicitly endorsed as inevitable, is
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 is exceedingly dry. There is very little social history. There
is not much sporting history. There is no overview of modern Australian
art. The speedy sweep through modern Australian society in the last
couple of chapters is rather moralising in tone and written as from a
great height or distance.
Macintyre seems to me to be a bit of a wowser and puritan, which are big
disadvantages to anyone trying to write intelligently about Australian
history. He doesn’t really seem to like us much.
Why bother about Macintyre’s historical revisionism?
In an irritated aside in the new foreword to the paperback edition of
Macintyre’s book on the Communist Party, The Reds, Macintyre dismisses,
in a contemptuous way, a detailed critique I made of that book,
ascribing it to “1960s factionalism”, without making any attempt to
address the major questions of historical fact and emphasis I raised.
I obviously run the risk of similar curt dismissal from the great man on
this occasion, and I also run the risk of being accused by some of
having an obsession about Macintyre.
Why should Bob Gould bother? Well, I must admit that for me these
questions are rather personal. I object to my assorted tribes, ethnic,
cultural and political, being abolished from the historical record. When
I was a kid, I acquired an initial knowledge of the clandestine
Australian historical stream, Irish Catholic, socialist and working
class, from my father, and also from the Catholic historical
counterculture taught by the Christian Brothers.
As a young man those streams came together for me, and I was greatly
stimulated by the way they flowered into the mature historical work of
Brian Fitzpatrick, Russel Ward, Eris O’Brien, Manning Clark, Robin
Gollan, Ian Turner, and popular historians such as Rupert Lockwood,
Cyril Pearl, Michael Cannon, Robert Travers and William Joy.
I was also stimulated by novels with a historical basis, such as Kylie
Tenant’s Ride on Stranger and Foveaux and Frank Hardy’s Power Without
Glory and The Dead are Many. I was considerably enthused when this rich
historical literature began to be used to some extent in some university
history departments and in some high schools.
Texts such as Russel Ward’s Concise History, Terry Irving’s and Bob
Connell’s Class Structure in Australian History, Manning Clark’s Short
History, and even Robert Hughes’ relatively recent The Fatal Shore,
began to be used widely in history education.
These texts are interesting and particularly accessible to students, and
they go a considerable distance towards introducing those social groups
previously excluded, the labour movement, the working class and the
Irish Catholics, to the historical narrative.
Stuart Macintyre, Miriam Dixson, and the Australian “national imaginary”
Macintyre applauds Miriam Dixson’s new book The Imaginary Australian, in
which she tries to stake out a territory for a false historical
construct she calls the “Anglo-Celtic core culture”, as against the
discordant historical discourse produced by Celtic malcontents such as
myself. It’s absolutely clear from Macintyre’s recent historical
efforts, of which the Concise History, intended as a text book, is
clearly the culmination, that Macintyre is devoted to Dixon’s “Anglo
Celtic core culture” project. He even mentions, reverently, in his last
chapter Dixson’s book, along with Paul Sheehan’s chauvinistic Amongst
the Barbarians, as important books to be read about the Australian
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 historian’s I’ve listed above and
my own experience of life) is totally different to hers.
Well, we get from Macintyre’s Concise History something of the possible
flavour of the Macintyre, Dixson “national imaginary”. The emphasis here
must be placed on the “imaginary”. Macintyre produces a conservative,
Anglophile history of Australia by abolishing from the narrative, or
dramatically diminishing in significance, whole categories, classes,
tribes, and major historical currents and events.
These classes of people and events are mostly my people and events, my
tribes, my class, my big social upheavals, and once again I record my
strong objection to their exclusion from the Australian historical
John Howard, and the right-wing ideologues in some of the media are
currently engaged in a wide-ranging exercise in rewriting Australian
history. Howard and like-minded conservatives are making extravagant use
of British-Australia Anzac symbolism to refurbish a reactionary,
patriotic militarism, and to write out of the record past conflicts over
wars and militarism, such as the referendum defeat of conscription
during the First World War, and the ultimate rejection of the Vietnam
intervention by the Australian people.
In my view, the general thrust of Macintyre’s Concise History (with the
exception of the completely appropriate detailed attention to Aboriginal
history) fits in very well with this reactionary John Howard historical
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.
A note to Stuart Macintyre based on a discussion with him during
afternoon tea at the Labor History Conference
I am writing this after distributing my response to your book following
your address at the Labor History Conference in Sydney in April 2000,
participating in the discussion there, and having an exchange of views
with you in the afternoon tea break.
Your first argument was that your concise history was not intended as a
textbook. Your publishers must have other ideas, because the second page
of the book has this statement:
This is a new series of illustrated ‘concise histories’ of selected
individual countries, intended both as university and college textbooks
and as general historical introductions for general readers, travellers
and members of the business community.”
Human beings have names. Australians like names
Your second argument related to the curious method of mentioning
secondary historical players but not naming them. You re-emphasised the
strange point made in your introduction that proper names would only
confuse overseas readers, and that their use would unreasonably pad out
the book. I think both of these arguments are ludicrous.
If you gave the proper name of every minor character in front of the
description of them, it would probably increase the size of the book
about half a page, which is hardly significant, even for the most frugal
The argument that the addition of the name of the person would confuse
overseas readers is incomprehensible to me. Most, if not all, humans on
the planet, have names, and human beings are quite used to names. Human
beings like names. In bursts of creative cultural exhuberance, humans,
particularly Australian humans, invent colourful nicknames for people,
“Pig Iron Bob”, “Cocky Calwell”, “Black Jack McEwan”, for example.
If anything, mentioning historical players without their name is likely
to confuse both local and overseas readers, particularly if you assume
that many overseas readers will be developing an interest in Australian
history, and are very likely to read at least one more book about
Australia than your book.
The absence of names in association with historical figures is likely to
reduce the utility of your narrative, and incidentally contribute to
making the story more difficult, dry and boring for the reader, whether
local or overseas.
Which Australian history books are really out of print?
In relation to the fact that you eliminated from your references and
bibliography a number of important Australian historians, particularly
populist and labour historians, you argued, in the conversation at
afternoon tea, that your bibliography consisted mainly of books that are
in print and accessible.
Well, I have a fair amount of experience as a bookseller, both new and
secondhand. I don’t particularly like being the bearer of bad tidings,
but going through your bibliography carefully, more than half of the
books you mention are currently out of print, many of them obviously so.
If you had included the significant works from the major Australian
historians that you ignore, the in-print, out-of-print ratio would, in
my view, not be affected at all, as quite a few of the books you ignore
are 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,
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
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. 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 in Australia. But nothing like this for our
Macintyre mentions little sporting history, almost no music history,
almost no art history, little religious history, no history of
Australian films or television, very little history of Australian
literature after the 19th century, and no books pertaining to the
history of the Communist movement in Australia except the one written by
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
Despite the Concise History’s emphasis on Aboriginal affairs, Macintyre
neglects to even note the important, ground-breaking three-volume epic
about Aboriginal anthropology, by Charles Rowley, which did so much to
bring the question to the attention of the Australian public in the
1970s. I could go on and on in this vein, but it would get boring.
Stuart Macintyre’s narrow, academic range of source books
Many of the books that Macintyre lists are far less accessible than the
Australian ones he ignores. Closer examination of the bibliography tends
to sharpen the above conclusions.
Drawing on my experience as a bookseller, a thing that strikes me
forcibly is that many of the books listed in Macintyre’s bibliography
are drawn from a narrow range of academic publishers, such as Oxford and
Cambridge, which publish short runs at highish prices, and Allen and
Unwin, which publishes slightly longer runs at somewhat lower prices.
Whether in print or out of print, these books are often fairly
inaccessible to people other than academics, particularly now that, in
these times of extreme economic rationalism, libraries ruthlessly weed
their collections very fast.
The older books, the more leftist and popular books, and other books
that were published by general publishers as popular history, even if
they are out of print, are almost always reasonably widely available
secondhand, because of their initial very large sales.
Good examples of that phenomenon are Russel Ward’s Australian Legend and
Vance Palmer’s Legend of the 90s, which Macintyre dislikes so much that
he doesn’t list them in the bibliography.
They are actually more accessible in bookshops than many of the books he
Macintyre’s geographical bias towards Melbourne and towards current
fashions in theory and cultural history
An examination of Macintyre’s bibliography shows several pronounced
biases. A striking feature of the bibliography is a strong
representation of what is now called “theory” and “cultural history”,
and a sharp bias against popular history, public history, etc.
There is also a bias in favour of what I might call tenured university
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
Stuart Macintyre’s intellectual odyssey
This argument with Stuart Macintyre has, in fact, become a bit personal
for me, based to some extent on my intellectual disappointment in him.
For many years I did not know Macintyre from the proverbial bar of soap.
I remembered him vaguely from a distance, at a couple of radical
conferences or assemblies in the 1970s.
I remember reading self-confidently ultraleft interventions under his
byline in internal Communist Party discussion bulletins and leftist
journals that came my way back then. I had very little sympathy with the
Left Tendency in the Communist Party, of which Macintyre was a part, and
its Althusserian rhetorical leftist ultimatism. Their standpoint seemed
to me quite remote from any realistic Marxism that could be applied to
the problems of the Australian labour movement.
Later on, I became rather more aware of Macintyre’s historical work and
I was excited by one of his two early books, A Proletarian Science
(Cambridge University Press 1980), which was an intellectual history of
the influence of Marxism on the working-class founders of the British
Communist Party. In this book, Macintyre uniquely developed a study of
the phenomenon of autodidact proletarian intellectuals and their
encounter with Marxism, and the extraordinary way that this encounter
dominated the life of the early British Communist Party.
It struck me at the time how applicable this was to the Australian
Communist Party, the early Trotskyist movement in Australia, and indeed
the Australian labour movement as a whole, because similar working class
autodidacts were the overwhelmingly dominant ideological force in the
Australian labour movement until very recently.
His other early book, Little Moscows (Croom Helm 1980), a study of some
isolated working class communities in Britain, where the Communist Party
had been uniquely influential, I found also quite interesting, although
Macintyre’s tendency to view those places and events as a kind of
Marxist antiquarian was already apparent in this book, and in retrospect
foreshadowed his later shift to the right politically.
His earliest Australian book, written when he was getting his academic
start in Australia, in Perth, his very fine The Life and Times of Paddy
Troy (1984), is about the quintessential Australian Communist autodidact
trade union official.
Some of Macintyre’s later Australian books, such as A Colonial
Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries (1991, and The
Labour Experiment (1988), Macintyre’s own book on the early development
of the arbitration system, are extremely useful.
One thing that flows from my knowledge of his early work is that it does
not seem reasonable to pass over the thrust and orientation of his
recent and more reactionary books, The Reds, the Oxford Companion, and
the Concise History, with the ideological let-out that he may not know
any better. Several historians with whom I have discussed the book have
agreed that some of my major criticisms of the Concise History have
merit, but they have contended that the more obvious explanation for
many of the omissions I have raised is that Stuart Macintyre may have
written this book in something of a hurry, largely with the assistance
of research staff, after possibly being approached by the publishers
with the idea that, as Ernest Scott Professor, it would be appropriate
to produce his own Short History, as a kind of seal of academic
Even if this were so, I contend that the finished product represents
Macintyre’s view of what a Concise History of Australia ought to be, and
therefore it must be criticised in detail by those who have different
ideas about what an accurate narrative would be in a useful Concise
Macintyre’s political encounter with Stalinism
Stuart Macintyre’s early work showed considerable evidence of the
dramatic impact on him of the 1960s-70s radicalisation, which picked up
this product of the important establishment school, Scotch College, with
his conservative background, and initial patrician introspection and
diffidence, and thrust him into an encounter with the left wing of the
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
I’m angry with Macintyre, because, as he has shifted to the right, he
seems to have forgotten the useful things he discovered writing the
Paddy Troy biography and A Proletarian Science, and it seems that the
prejudice and cultural mystification built into the establishment
tradition from which he came, and the Stalinist movement where he
received his initial political miseducation in Stalinist Marxism, have
come together to profoundly influence his historical activity.
Stuart Macintyre’s grey armband history: “cultural history”, very little
human sympathy, and a general absence of dialectics
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
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.
“Cultural studies” meets and mates with conservative academic history,
to produce a kind of mule: grey armband history
Like many other literate Australians I have gradually become enraged at
the disdainful, dismissive, half-smart, supercilious tone of much of
what is called, these days “cultural studies”.
Keith Windschuttle’s useful book, The Killing of History, (which
Macintyre wisely ignores both in the Concise History and the
bibliography), expresses in its title one of the main aspects of this
The abstruse nature of a lot of “cultural studies”, combined with the
contemptuous tone often adopted towards popular culture and many other
human activities, is a contributing factor to a decline in the number of
students studying disciplines such as history, in which “cultural
studies” is now so influential.
I don’t want to go overboard in this criticism of “cultural studies” and
“gender studies”, as a number of books and articles written in this
idiom are both civilised and useful, for example, Raelene Francis’s
book, The Politics of Work in Victoria, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University
Press, Sydney, 1993), Peter Spearritt and David Walker’s Australian
Popular Culture, Bruce Scates’s A New Australia, about the 1890s, and
many others. Nevertheless, it seems to me that many books and articles
in this area are abstract and trivial and contemptuous of popular social
practices, and that unfortunately this mode is coming to dominate these
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, I think it important to make a new
distinction between the important “black armband” historians, such as
Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes, Manning Clark and Russel Ward, who make
an enormous positive contribution to Australian culture, and another,
more negative genre, to which I now officially give the title “grey
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
How grey armband history works
Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History is a very instructive example of this
new discipline, and how it is organised and constructed. Its
intellectual antecedents include books like Ronald Conway’s The Great
Australian Stupor and Jonathan King’s Waltzing Materialism, which were
best-sellers a few years ago.
These books’ unifying feature was a wholesale assault on the cultural
and social practices of Australians, both working class and middle
class, with an implicit standpoint derived from high culture, eternal
verities and a uniformly unpleasant carping tone in their attacks on the
allegedly fatally materialistic stream of Australian life.
Much of the cultural studies idiom in Australian history has taken over
the standpoint and style of those two books in spades. The tone
throughout Macintyre’s Short History is, most of the time, distainful,
grand and supercilious, particularly when discussing ordinary people’s
social practices and social life.
The exceptions to this emphasis are when Macintyre is discussing, rather
reverently, the unifying nature of Anzac during the First World War, and
the “modernising” activities of the Hawke and Keating governments.
This posture is adopted particularly sharply in relation to fields such
as agriculture, the Snowy Scheme, current mass migration, manufacturing
industry, the postwar social and economic settlement, “elegaic”
attachment to working class solidarity in the style of Russel Ward, and
almost anything else that interferes with this Macintyre-Dixson version
of modernising bourgeois British-Australia, with its naturally hegemonic
“Anglo-Celtic core culture”.
It is hardly necessary to point out how well this historical style and
construction fits in, generally, with the perceived interests and
strategic orientations of major fractions of the ruling class in rapidly
“globalising” modern Australia.
Macintyre’s mating of conservative British-Australia academic history
with cultural studies produces an offspring in which the bad genes of
both parents predominate.
Macintyre and racism
The “left” face of Macintyre’s construction is a constant stress on past
racist and sexist practices, particularly of the working class. In this
way he makes ritual obeisance to the mood prevailing in the currently
fashionable and powerful cultural studies and gender studies academic
In discussing past racism and sexism, however, Macintyre rarely notes
the activities of many minorities that have fought, often ultimately
successfully, against racism and sexism. An exception to this neglect is
when he ascribes the only important past activity against
anti-Aboriginal racism to the Communist Party, which is really a quite
Australian history is peppered with all sorts of radical and religious
groups and individuals who fought against racism. For the 19th century
this is documented thoroughly in Henry Reynolds’ most recent book, This
Whispering in Our Hearts.
Macintyre’s undialectical airbrushing out of almost all of the
minorities that fought against racism tends to make the eventual
overthrow of the White Australia Policy, and the legal removal of the
bars to many Aboriginal rights, mysterious and inexplicable in his
narrative, but it is entirely consistent with his dismissiveness towards
most Australian popular movements.
Macintyre and the struggle for women’s rights
Stuart Macintyre’s treatment of sexism and the struggle for women’s
emancipation is worthy of note. He adopts the currently fashionable
standpoint of some conservative feminists by giving extended recognition
and praise to the 19th century temperance movement.
He notes the fact that Australian women got the vote in all states and
the Commonwealth well before the rest of the world, but he hardly
notices the fact that this was a direct product of the broad struggle in
the Australian colonies for basic democratic rights, spearheaded in this
instance by Australian feminists but largely accepted and even supported
by civilised forces among Australian men.
This demonstrable and important political fact about women’s rights in
Australia does not prevent Macintyre from asserting a generally gloomy,
rather inaccurate, but currently fashionable, proposition that Australia
was more or less universally sexist in the past.
Needless to say, he pays no recognition to Portia Robinson’s The Women
of Botany Bay, an important work on convict women, and Grace Karskens’
useful book, The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney (Melbourne University
Press, 1997, ISBN 0-522-84722-6), both of which illustrate the way many
convict women managed to improve their situation and assert their
independence, and were by no means the totally hopeless, hapless victims
that many historical narratives present them as.
Later, Macintyre blandly ascribes the achievement of equal pay for equal
work for women to a ruling by the Arbitration Commission, ignoring the
long popular movement, led mainly by women in the trade unions, that
produced that Arbitration Court determination.
The lifelong agitation and effective organisation of trade unionists
such as Muriel Heagney and Edna Ryan for equal pay and equal rights for
women is abolished from Macintyre’s narrative. This long struggle of
women in Australia for equality and full social and economic rights,
therefore tends to disappear against a backdrop of more or less
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
Despite the culturally prevailing sexism, material achievements such as
this shifted the social norms dramatically and laid the basis for
further improvements in women’s rights and expectations, which ought to
produce a more favourable assessment of past gains for women in
Australia. Not so for our Stuart.
In the Concise History, official history out of cultural studies
produces a very gloomy version of past women’s struggles, which
precludes much optimism in his concluding chapter about future
improvements for women.
Macintyre isn’t too keen on explorers
In Quadrant last year, there appeared an important and very detailed
article on current educational problems by the disenchanted leftist, and
now rather conservative educational historian, Alan Barcan. This article
was an overview of the crisis in curriculum that has emerged in
Australian education, particularly the teaching of history.
Some parts of Barcan’s critique are useful and correct. One of his
points with which I agree is that omitting from the history curriculum
many of the basic historical facts that used to be taught is a big
practical mistake. For instance, the exploration of Australia was part
of the British imperial conquest of these colonies, but it was also an
intrinsically important part of the historical record.
In his careful, ritual obeisance to cultural studies, Macintyre,
however, follows the current fashion. Many of the explorers are
eliminated from his narrative. No Hume and Hovell, no Edward John Eyre,
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
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.
No Proletarian Science. Macintyre ditches dialectics. Rather
conservative politics, little religion, and almost no sex
A close friend of mine who was brought up in a middle-class,
conservative Protestant family environment often jokes, that in that
social environment the basic rule of etiquette was that politics,
religion and sex were not discussed in polite society, and this social
code was quite frequently expressed explicitly in just those words.
In my view, Macintyre has managed to observe a fair part of this
convention in his Concise History. Some politics are mentioned, but they
are pretty, high politics with very little radical dissent recognised.
There is almost no religion in the narrative, and I couldn’t find much
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
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
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
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.
Robert Murray as a dialectician
Political conservative though he may be, but Murray’s way of proceeding
seems, to this Marxist, to be impecably dialectical, and an extremely
useful way to write Australian history.
Murray’s narrative benefits from a certain enthusiasm for Australian
economic development and a knack for writing entertaining social and
economic history. He gives a very thorough account of economic and
social developments: how many cars were registered, how many people went
to the movies, the growth of manufacturing industry, that sort of thing,
in a way that meshes in very well with the overall thrust of the book.
The Confident Years is a very counterpoint to Macintyre’s cultural
studies approach to writing Australian history, particularly when you
compare Macintyre’s handling of the 1920s with Murray’s.
Another sphere that Macintyre ignores is popular history. Macintyre’s
historical scholarship might benefit from a bit of research into the 60
year-old, seven-day-a-week historical features in the reactionary Sydney
tabloid, The Telegraph Mirror. These historical features have often been
a good deal more radical than the implacably reactionary content of the
rest of the newspaper and, particularly recently, they have been a
rather good example of how to present history in a popular and
discursive way for a broad audience.
The people and events covered in these useful historical features almost
never make it into Macintyre’s dry account. Monica Heary, who frequently
writes these features, recently wrote a very useful article about the
internal political conflicts in Australia during the First World War,
which left Macintyre’s account of these events for dead.
She used roughly the same number of words Macintyre devoted to this
topic in his book. Monica Heary, the busy features journalist, writing
to a deadline every day, nevertheless succeeded in working into her
narrative the General Strike of 1917 and the release of the IWW frame-up
victims thanks to Percy Brookfield’s use of his balance of power in the
Parliament. Obviously, this is partly because newspaper history writing
involves looking for exciting and important events to move the narrative
Macintyre’s history writing might benefit from studying this
Telegraph-Mirror historiographical school and going back through the
historical features morgue of the Telegraph Mirror.
In the 1970s we had the “debate on class”. In the year 2000 we
desperately need the “debate on Australian history”.
In the introduction to his Concise History, Macintyre proudly proclaims
that the Australian Research Council gave him a grant to write the book,
and it’s clear from the considerable power that he now holds as Dean of
Arts, Ernest Scott Professor, member of the Vice-Chancellor’s Committee
of Melbourne University, and historical adviser to one of Federal
Minister David Kemp’s committees, that Stuart Macintyre is now an
enormously influential intellectual figure in the organisation and
teaching of Australian history.
It would be naive to think that, in the full plenitude of this power and
influence, he did not write this book in the expectation and hope of it
becoming a kind of new orthodoxy.
The careful way in which it is organised, drawing together conservative
historiography and “cultural studies” in a kind of grey Anglo middle
ground, indicates the kind of historical orthodoxy which Macintyre
wishes to lay out for us and obviously desires to predominate.
In the conversation at afternoon tea at the Labor History Conference,
Macintyre made a fourth point to me, a point he has made on several
He claimed that, in his history teaching, he finds that undergraduates
don’t seem initially to know very much about past Australian history,
and that because of this you end up with a better teaching result if you
do not overburden them with relatively unimportant details, such as
names, explorers and superseded conflicts.
Macintyre seems to indicate that, as we live in a globalising world, we
should dispense with many of the past complications, and look boldly
towards the homogenised future. He seems to think this is what the young
expect of us. He summarises this outlook in the last, rather
self-serving paragraph of the acknowledgements in the Concise History:
The book is aimed also at a younger generation of Australians who are
poorly served by a school curriculum in which history has become a
residual. I have dedicated it to my two daughters, born in England,
raised in Australia, who have too often had their father play the
pedagogue and all along have been instructing him in their interests and
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
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
Macintyre’s self-fulfilling prophecy about young people and Australian
In my experience as a bookseller, our robust Australian multiculture,
and continuing mass migration, about both of which Macintyre’s Concise
History is so elegantly sceptical, are generating considerable interest
in the history of past diversity and conflict in Australia.
Unfortunately, these are just the elements that Macintyre tends to
filter out of his historical narrative, as they are, he seems to
suggest, of little interest to the young.
In my view, the opposite holds. If we don’t have a proper historical
grounding in our past conflicts and turmoils, how can we possibly
understand the future? There is nothing quite like conflict and argument
to gain the attention of people reading history.
Macintyre leans heavily on the unconvincing proposition that the young
are not too interested in history. Well, it is true that the numbers
studying history at a secondary and tertiary level have dropped. That is
far more a product of unwise past decisions and present practices in
relation to curriculum in schools and universities, and the way history
is taught, than to any intrinsic lack of interest in Australian history.
Macintyre’s approach to the teaching of history to the young is a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless we teach students about all the
complexities of the Australian saga, in an interesting, quirky and
sympathetic way, of course they will be bored by Australian history and
won’t tackle it.
If you present it to them in the bland and boring way that Macintyre
tends to do, you will actually accelerate the process of decline in
scholastic interest in Australian history. I believe strongly that the
way to revive Australian history as a discipline is to include a
colourful and entertaining description and celebration of past conflicts
and diversity, and an intelligent observation of the contradictory and
complex present, to allow a colourful and interesting future history the
possibility to unfold.
What strikes me about Macintyre’s approach, both in the book, and
summarised in the paragraph at the end of the acknowledgements, is how
old-fashioned his approach is. It is the kind of historical approach
that prevailed in Australian history teaching until about the middle
1960s, and his Concise History could easily have been written by a
modern day version of Stephen 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 out the uncompleted, debate on class of the
1970s into a fuller and broader debate on Australian history,
challenging the outlook of Macintyre, John Howard, Michael Duffy, Miriam
Dixson and their like.
In such a proper debate, conducted in a sensible way among civilised
writers and consumers of history, both old and young, my money is on the
clandestine and radical Australian historical tradition, which I
celebrate in this article, to prevail.
A further comment, based on letters I solicited, criticising my
document, from Stuart Macintyre and Bob Gollan.
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
He also says:
I do find it difficult to enter a discussion in which Manning Clark,
Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Ian Turner and Eris O’Brien are put in
the same basket. For example, one of the most intemperate critics of
Brian Fitzpatrick was Manning Clark.
My juxtaposition of the above historians, as in retrospect clearly
representing a populist, democratic school of Australian historiography,
is quite deliberate. Whatever the differences that existed between them,
they all eventually came to a relative commonality of interests and
preoccupations on many questions.
Among the key questions that confronted them all eventually were the
development of class and the emergence of a labour movement, the
discordant and oppositional role of the Irish Catholics in relation to
the British establishment in Australia, the enormous question of race
and genocide involved in the dispossession of the original Aboriginal
nation inhabiting the continent, and the question of racism, the White
Australia Policy, and migration in general.
Most of these historians began their inquiry by confronting the bitter
sectarian division that existed in Australian society from the time of
white settlement between the Irish Catholics and the British ruling
class (from whose ranks most of these historians themselves originated).
Manning Clark, given his establishment Anglican background, being a
direct descendent of Samuel Marsden, is obviously fascinated by these
Russel Ward, in his autobiography (he had a similar Protestant
establishment background to Clark) points out that these cultural
conflicts dominated his early social and personal evolution. (Ward’s
autobiography includes a moving vignette describing a visit to Australia
by R. H. Tawney, the notable English Christian socialist who wrote the
ground-breaking Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and the interesting
and useful cross-fertilisation that took place between himself, Manning
Clark, Eris O’Brien, R. H. Tawney and other historians during that
visit. That vignette seems to me to symbolise the drawing together of
the left democratic school in Australian historiography in that
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
The story is similar with Rupert Lockwood, also of Victorian Western
District establishment background. Lockwood’s encounter with the
oppositional role of Irish Catholics was clearly a significant part of
his development, along with his involvement with the Communist Party.
It’s not accidental that both these Communists, who came from the Anglo
ruling class of the Western District, and were converted to Communism in
the upheavals of the 1930s, were fascinated by the interface between
Irish Catholic Australians, the labour movement and socialism.
The Western District of Victoria had a much higher concentration of
Irish Catholic settlers than most other parts of Victoria. In the early
years of the labour movement, culminating in the conscription upheavals,
these Irish Catholics were in an extremely radical frame of mind. They
elected the Labor candidate, the Scottish socialist and poet John
McDougall, as the first federal member for Wannon, later Malcolm
Fraser’s stronghold, in the first election after Federation.
Largely because of Irish Catholics, and sharpened by the conscription
struggle, the Western District remained a Labor stronghold until the
disastrous Labor Split of 1955, when many Labor supporters of Irish
Catholics descent shifted over electorally to the DLP, and eventually to
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
very poverty-striken and narrow.
The significance of the Irish Catholics in Australian life is also
described in Bernard Smith’s important autobiography, in which he
describes how he wavered between the Catholic Church and the Communist
Party before eventually joining the CP.
The striking thing about the British establishment’s initial school of
Australian historiography, represented by Ernest Scott, Arnold Wood,
Arthur Jose and all the other Whig writers of school and university
history textbooks, before the cultural revolution of the 1950s and
1960s, was the doggedly ruthless way they eliminated the Irish
Catholics, the labour movement, and matters such as the battles over
conscription and Langism, from their 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
This is an almost terminal defect in any Concise History of Australia.
Such a history can be any length you like (within reason), but I would
favour a concise history about 100 pages longer, with the additions
including a more lengthy and more balanced account of the development of
the labour movement and class conflict, and major attention to the
oppositional role of the Irish Catholics.
I would also include a celebratory and more detailed account of the
development of mass migration from all areas of the globe, which
commenced in the teeth of the British Australia racism of the 19th
century and continues now, when all the other tribes beneath the wind
are now a comfortable majority of Australian society, and
multiculturalism, for all its defects at the official level, is now the
thoroughly healthy prevailing ethos in Australian society.
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