The life and work of the self-employed socialist intellectual, Humphrey McQueen

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The life and work of the self-employed socialist intellectual, Humphrey


There is a tradition in academia of dedicating to veteran or retiring
scholars a “feschrift”, which is usually a collection of essays by other
scholars about the scholar’s chosen field and their contribution to it.
Humphrey McQueen has done his prolific and wide-ranging intellectual
work mainly outside academe, and is a self-employed freelance historian
and journalist, so he has no institution to give him a feschrift, but
some of his writing is available on the web, so Ozleft has put together
a list of this material as a kind of virtual feschrift. This is not to
suggest that Humphrey may be about to retire, as he shows no sign of
running out of intellectual steam and he has no great pot of
superannuation to live on in any case. In fact, circumstances have made
him into John Howard and Peter Costello’s ideal citizen: he is forced
both by economic necessity and by the passionate nature of his
intellectual activity to work on past the standard retiring age —
although the serious products of his work are not likely to please
Howard and Costello at all.

I have a lot of sympathy for Humphrey in this respect. He is a little
younger than me, about 60, and at the age of 66, I am in pretty much the
same boat myself. The cynical thing about the insulting rhetoric of
Howard and Costello on these matters is that their appeal to people in
the age group of Humphrey and myself to work on is clearly linked to
their intention to cut the pension and associated social benefits. We
should fight that intention of the Tories with every piece of
resourcefulness we can muster. The right to the pension and associated
social benefits was won in struggle, and we should defend it.

Humphrey McQueen’s life

Humphrey McQueen was born in Brisbane, into a Catholic working-class
family that was active in the Labor Party. I first met him in the very
early 1960s. He sent a copy of the Queensland Young Labor newsletter,
which he edited, in which he reprinted several articles from Trotskyist
journals, to a Sydney Trotskyist magazine with which I was associated. I
was deputed by my colleagues to go to Brisbane and attend a Queensland
Young Labor conference on the Sunshine Coast, and meet this young
prodigy. This was quite a conference. Humphrey had invited a spectrum of
socialist academics and personalities such as Bruce McFarlane, myself
and others, to speak at this event, which mildly displeased the rather
uncomprehending bureaucrats of the Old Guard, who at that time ran the
Queensland ALP.

McQueen, even at the age of 18, was confident and articulate, and he was
possibly the tallest youth I had ever encountered. We never did succeed
in roping him into the political orbit of our Sydney Trotskyist group.
He went, a year or so later, to Canberra and Melbourne to study, where
he made the intellectual shift to Maoism and was caught up in the
intense agitational activity and enthusiasm of the Maoist movement.

The mid-1960s: the moment of the radical student movement led by Maoists
and Trotskyists

From 1965 to about 1975 was the moment of the youth radicalisation in
Australia, which had such dramatic social and cultural consequences,
many of which are still present in Australian society. There were three
kinds of socialist ideology and practice, of an oppositional sort,
present in this heady upheaval. A tactically flexible,
labour-movement-oriented Trotskyist current, of which I was part, was
the political leadership and catalyst in the youth movement that
mushroomed in Sydney. A rather more utopian Maoism, of which Humphrey
McQueen became a part, rapidly emerged in Melbourne and, to a lesser
extent, Adelaide. Canberra was contested territory between the two
currents. Anarchistic New Left groups also developed, particularly in
Brisbane and Adelaide, and a representative figure in this milieu was
Brian Laver.

Despite the fierce ideological disputes that unfolded between the
different ideological currents, there was also a sense of them all
together constituting a common movement, in critical opposition to both
bourgeois society and the bureaucracies dominant in the labour movement.
Very quickly, in the latter part of the sixties, political headquarters
at which some of the activists lived became fairly notorious political
centres of this movement. The Resistance complex in Goulburn Street,
Sydney, the SDA Foco premises in the Trades Hall in Brisbane, the SDS
premises in Carlton, Melbourne, the SDS premises in the West End of
Adelaide, and the Maoist Bakery at Prahran in inner-suburban Melbourne.

Despite ideological differences, activists from other cities would sleep
on the floor of these radical headquarters when travelling interstate,
or be put up in people’s houses. In this heady period, Humphrey stayed a
number of times in the house of my then wife and myself. None of this
mutual hospitality eliminated differences about tactics and ideology,
but the complex personal connections mediated conflicts a bit. Some of
us knew and understood each other pretty well. The moment of the radical
youth movement only lasted a few years. These commune-type headquarters
were eventually all vacated and most of the youth who were caught up in
these activities moved on to other things. Nevertheless, it was a quite
extraordinary time.

ASIO and state police Special Branches as our record-keepers

The oddest feature of these times was that much would be forgotten if it
wasn’t for the activities of our enemies, the coppers, who spent many
millions of dollars spying on us. I have exercised my legal rights to
get my ASIO file under the 30 year rule, up to the end of 1973, and I
have also acquired my NSW Special Branch file as a result of the
decision of the NSW Labor government to release the files a couple of
years ago. I have about 6000 pages of police records of my activities,
or about 8000 discrete items.

One feature of this meticulous secret police bureaucracy, which relied
very largely on phone taps, was that if you were mentioned in someone’s
phone conversation, the whole of the transcript of that phone
conversation was painstakingly added to your own personal file. As I was
at the centre of many agitations, my file is full of the phone
conversations of members of rival factions, which makes for a
fascinating kind of social history of that moment of youth

There are a number of conversations in my file between Humphrey and his
Maoist associates, in which I’m mentioned, and these transcripts give a
sense of the real problems of organisation and agitation that were
common to all groups. One of the things that emerges in Humphrey’s
conversations is the tension that rapidly developed in his own life,
between political agitation, and serious intellectual activity, and in
his case, the serious intellectual activity more or less won out over
the agitational work very early on. In my view that was a good thing,
because his intellectual activity and output became prolific and

All the radical, broadly based and rather multi-tendency and
heterogenous student and youth movements eventually disintegrated in
ways that were often unique to the particular ideological current. The
Maoist movement evolved in a particular way. The powerhouse of the
Maoist youth movement was the Bakery premises in Prahran. The form of
organisation became the Worker Student Alliance, and the WSA became
quite a powerful force in the youth movement in both Melbourne and
Adelaide. The connections between the Worker Student Alliance and the
Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), which had been set up
by Ted Hill and the Maoist union officials who had broken away from the
old Communist Party of Australia in 1963, were rather tenuous. The
Maoist theory of the party concentrated mainly on the conspiratorial and
underground side of political activity, and in practice this made the
CPA(ML) a very shadowy kind of organisation. Several of the Maoist
student leaders commented later that they had been on the CPA-ML Central
Committee without even being informed of it! In the late 1980s, Barry
York and John Herouvim wrote a fairly detailed account of the political
atmosphere and political style of the Maoist youth movement published in
Arena and other places, and this material is of considerable interest.

In practice, the political party aspects of the WSA weren’t terribly
important to the functioning of the organisation. The WSA was a movement
that revolved around charismatic individuals, the first rank of whom
were Albert Langer, Darce Cassidy and Michael Hyde. The second rank were
people like Dave Nadel (who later broke away to become a founder of the
International Socialists) Kerry Russell (Langer’s then wife), Barry
York, Fergus Robinson, Brian Boyd (now industrial officer with the
Victorian Trades Hall Council) and Jim Bacon, later Labor premier of
Tasmania (recently retired because of lung cancer). Initially Humphrey
McQueen was kind of in the first rank, but his agitational role was soon
modified because he rapidly moved mainly into his own theoretical and
historical work. The Maoist student movement flourished for a period,
based primarily on constant mobilisation against the Vietnam War, mainly
at Monash, Latrobe and Flinders universities.

The decline of the Maoist youth movement

As the Vietnam War came to an end, the Maoist student movement declined
rapidly, as did the Trotskyist and Anarchist youth movements in other
states. The lack of very clear and recognisable party connections
between the Maoist youth movement and the broader society contributed to
the decline of the Maoist student movement.

During this decline the Maoist movement became even more sectarian and
there were a number of incidents of physical assaults by some Maoists
against political rivals on the general grounds that they were
“counter-revolutionary”. Happily, after a while these assaults ceased.

A number of former Maoist student leaders moved on to become organisers
of the Builder’s Labourers Federation, under the Maoist union leader
Norm Gallagher — particularly Jim Bacon and Brian Boyd. In 1977, after
the overthrow of the Gang of Four in China, the Maoist student movement
split, with leading personalities such as Langer and Russell supporting
the Gang of Four, and they formed a group called the Red Eureka
Movement, which didn’t last long.

The most charismatic figure in the Maoist movement, Albert Langer,
gained a certain notoriety in the 1990s through a belligerent campaign
for the right to vote informal in elections, and came out in support of
the first Gulf War, as did some of his old associates, such as Darce
Cassidy. Darce, generally a pleasant and affable bloke, became first a
producer at the ABC, and the secretary of the ABC Staff Association (the
union), then moved over to become head of industrial relations of the
ABC (the employer).

When the second Gulf War erupted, Langer and Kerry Russell, energetic
activists still, became converts to the “progressive nature” of US
imperialism, their former primary foe, viz a viz the allegedly barbarous
“Islamic Threat”. They assembled a number of their old Maoist
associates, such as Bill Kerr and Barry York around a website devoted to
preaching the virtues and progressive features of the second Gulf War. A
recent article in the Good Weekend (the Sydney Morning Herald and Age
Saturday magazine) was revealing about the political evolution of the
old Maoist activists. Albert Langer, Kerry Russell, Bill Kerr and Barry
York supported the second Gulf War, while Mike Hyde and Fergus Robinson,
in addition to Humphrey McQueen, Brian Boyd and Jim Bacon, all opposed
the war. So the second Gulf War divided the old WSA Maoist student
cadres down the middle.

Humphrey McQueen’s complex intellectual development and his prodigious
literary activity

For about the last 35 years, McQueen has been a self-employed writer,
historian and Marxist intellectual, almost entirely outside both the
advantages, fashions and restraints of the academic environment. In this
he somewhat resembles Isaac Deutscher in a previous generation and
another country, who produced his major work outside universities. In
Australian intellectual life, McQueen occupies a niche a bit like that
currently occupied in the UK by the impressive Marxist intellectual
Terry Eagleton. In the sense that, like Eagleton, McQueen has remained
grandly and effectively independent of the lunatic and transitory
intellectual fashion of postmodernism and, again, like Eagleton, he has
not tried at all (unlike many retreating Marxist intellectuals) to make
concessions to the idiom, style or method of these bourgeois academic
fashions. He and Eagleton have done something completely different. They
have both developed and deepened classical Marxism in particular ways.
In Humphrey’s case, as part of his own intellectual evolution, he has
explored and developed the Marxist method of Antonio Gramsci, without
putting Gramsci to the crude opportunist uses that many Eurocommunist
intellectuals do as part of their generalised shift to the political

In his first major intellectual transmogrification, his early Maoist
phase, McQueen established his intellectual presence as a major labour
and social historian with a sharp critique, from a rather ultraleft
standpoint, of the previous generation of labour historians, Russell
Ward, Ian Turner, Bob Gollan and others. His initial standpoint,
expressed mainly in the long article from The New Left in Australia, was
to make a sweeping distinction between a “petty bourgeois group of
unions” and a “socialist proletarian group of unions”, and this critique
was given some verisimilitude by his already quite extraordinary reading
and erudition.

Shortly afterwards, he published A New Britannia, in which he questioned
the notion that a proletariat, in a broadly Marxist sense, had emerged
at all in 19th century Australia. Methodologically, he advanced this
view by mechanically associating the development of a proletariat with
the necessity of such a proletariat having a proletarian consciousness.
He was, of course, wrong about that. Nevertheless, despite this organic
methodological error, which he quite frankly acknowledged later, in the
Afterword to the 1986 revised edition of A New Britannia, the book had
an extraordinary impact ideologically.

This was because of the robust and iconoclastic social history used by
McQueen to demystify the evolution of class relations in Australia, in
which he demonstrated a discursive, knowledgeable and witty eye. Typical
of this new eye was his chapter about pianos, and the social function of
pianos in Australian colonial society became a recurring motif in
McQueen’s social history. This importance of the piano in Australian
social history has been taken up since by many others, but it was
McQueen who first, in recent times, discovered and popularised the piano
as a major artifact in Australian social history.

A New Britannia as bestseller

A New Britannia was the first Australian-written book that caught the
wave of the cultural sea change in the 1960s and the 1970s, and for a
serious book of history, it was a very major publishing success, and has
since sold about 40,000 copies. The only two other books of Australian
leftist history or sociology that ever approached it numerically, were
Miriam Dixson’s book, The Real Matilda: Woman and Identity in Australia,
1788-1975 (Pelican, Melbourne, 1976), and Keith Windschuttle’s book,
Unemployment, a Social and Political Analysis of the Economic Crisis in
Australia, (Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1980) . But they came later.

McQueen was subsequently joined in his critique of the traditional
Australian Marxist historians by the young Stuart Macintyre. But
Macintyre, as it developed, was evolving in a somewhat different
direction, into an almost stereotypically moderate social democratic
disagreement with the Old Left historians. The debate about Australian
labour history that developed around A New Britannia; was robust on all
sides. From where I sit, it had an altogether healthy outcome. A kind of
dialectical reconciliation eventually evolved. McQueen quietly, but
quite clearly, relinquished the methodological standpoint of A New
Britannia, and began to incorporate in his subsequent historical work
the methodologically obvious: that, in objective terms, a proletariat
did emerge in Australia in the 19th century, although it had a limited
reformist consciousness.

For their part, the Old Left historians, with whom he had been arguing,
accepted the limitations of their earlier work, in relation to sexism
and racism in particular, to which McQueen had drawn attention so
vigorously. The late Russell Ward, in particular, went on to write
rounded socialist and populist histories of Australia, which remedied
the defects to which McQueen had pointed, and took up something of
McQueen’s robust social history.

Having established his forte and major piece of intellectual territory
as Australian social history, McQueen went on to produce several more
wonderful, funny and interesting books of Australian social history,
published by Penguin, which took advantage of the new technology of book
production, with lots of illustrations, photos and pen drawings (partly
designed for a high-school market) and these books became set texts in
school history courses in many states, and sold extremely well. Again,
the piano motif recurs in these books. For all this period, Humphrey did
a bit of teaching, but the modest returns from his rather successful
books enabled him to have a reasonable existence as an independent
author and intellectual.

Humphrey McQueen and the visual arts

After this, McQueen’s interest in the visual arts developed rapidly, and
his next major sphere of intellectual activity turned him into one of
Australia’s important art historians — in my view, up there even with
Bernard Smith. McQueen’s most significant work of art history is a
breathtaking and comprehensive overview, with an implicit Marxist eye,
of the evolution of Australian art, The Black Swan of Trespass. He had
difficulty finding a publisher for this book, and it was eventually
published by Apcol, a small socialist co-operative publisher. Apcol,
however, didn’t have much of a distribution network, and its resources
didn’t run to colour printing of the rich works of Australian art that
pepper this important book. Black Swan of Trespass is an extremely
important piece of Australian intellectual history, and it never got
either the distribution or the presentation it deserves. It is an
excellent candidate for some publisher with half a brain giving a decent
advance to McQueen to produce a new, more elegant, edition with improved
production and colour plates.

In this intellectual territory McQueen published a major work on the
19th century painter, Tom Roberts, and with others, a major piece of
work on the painter Margaret Preston. McQueen also produced a major work
on the Sydney religious artist Keith Looby in this period. This rather
elegant book was published by Penguin. Looby is a friend of McQueen (and
a friend of the reactionary op-ed journalist, P.P. McGuiness, so his
network of acquaintances crosses many boundaries in a rather typical
Sydney way).

Over the past 15 years, McQueen has produced a number of books about
Australia that cross the boundaries between social history, history and
current affairs. They’re witty, useful and erudite, but they have a
slightly more ephemeral quality than some of his earlier work. He has
also written a spirited defence of his old teacher, the historian
Manning Clark, against the right-wing literary and historical vultures
who have attacked Clark’s reputation. This is a very effective little
book. In 1991 McQueen spent a year in Japan, and wrote a book about
that, which is a useful insight into Japanese life, and perhaps had a
little of the flavour of a kind of intellectual corrective to the crude
anti-Japanese sentiment that used to prevail in the Maoist circles in
which McQueen mainly began his intellectual activity.

McQueen’s latest book is that most unlikely leftist artifact, a Marxist
history of Coca-Cola. This is a very useful work indeed, and
demonstrates in a low-key but effective way the great utility of
classical Marxism in the social sciences. He also recently made a very
serious contribution to the workers’ control conference, organised by
Jura Books on the last major upsurge of industrial militancy in
Australia between 1965 and 1975. An insightful and useful contribution
to that gathering, of considerable importance in trying to comprehend
how a new industrial upsurge might begin.

Humphrey McQueen at age about 60 in the year 2004

Humphrey is still what he has been all his life, both an activist, and a
serious Marxist intellectual. A year or so ago he joined the DSP-led
Socialist Alliance, which, ideologically speaking, was more of a case of
the DSP leadership joining him, in the sense that the DSP now holds an
even more extreme version of the ultraleft, sectarian attitude toward
the mainstream labour movement that Humphrey once did in his youth. It’s
not entirely clear to what extent he still holds those views. McQueen
has certainly abandoned the incorrect, ultraleft methodological
substructure of the first edition of A New Britannia. It’s also
interesting and moving to hear McQueen speak, as I’ve heard him several
times in recent years, talking about the attachment, particularly of his
father, to the ALP, and the aspirations to radical social change
embodied in that attachment. It’ll be interesting to see how McQueen
expresses himself on the tactical questions that are emerging in the
run-up to the next federal election.

In my view the main weakness of McQueen’s contribution to Australian
Marxist theory is that, despite the fact, that in expounding the general
ideas of Marxism, he has few peers in Australia, nevertheless these days
he tends to avoid making current tactical propositions. Up to a point,
this is understandable, considering his early political excesses, along
with those of others in the Maoist movement of that time. However, this
failure to express himself very clearly on current tactical questions
severely limits his contribution to current debates.

McQueen is an impressive, colourful and interesting public speaker.
Given any audience, he can talk to them underwater, so to speak. He
prepares his material carefully, and presents eloquently, with lots of
flourishes, and his impressive meeting magisterium is sharpened by his
great height (a bit like Gough Whitlam). In the cut-and-thrust of
debate, he takes no prisoners. He is a pretty useful bloke to have on
your side, and a difficult man to argue with if you disagree with him.
He plays a crowd elegantly and with great verve.

McQueen has all sorts of strings to his bow. He is, for instance, an
opera buff, and he manages to earn a few dollars, from time to time,
writing opera and cultural reviews for The Bulletin, where his and my
old mate and sparring partner, Hall Greenland, is one of the
sub-editors. All in all, Humphrey McQueen has made a major intellectual
contribution to the preservation of a Marxist intellectual current in
Australian life, and that is particularly important in the current
difficult, defensive framework in which socialists find themselves at
the moment.

At the moment Humphrey McQueen is engaged in a new venture, being one of
the major editors of a Marxist magazine for the Socialist Alliance, to
be called Seeing Red. McQueen and the other editors have assembled some
good articles, and one not-so-good article, for the first issue, but the
stumbling block seems to be, as it always is in socialist publishing,
scraping together the money to produce the kind of elegant socialist
magazine that McQueen favours. In this era of the net, producing,
financing and distributing hard-copy socialist magazines is even harder
than the past, because a lot of the potential audience and demand seems
to be satisfied by the internet.

I have been acquainted with Humphrey McQueen for a very large part of my
political life. To be frank, I took the initiative in putting up several
of his significant articles on Ozleft as part of the ongoing political
argument between myself, him, and others such as the DSP leadership, on
labour movement history and tactics. In the course of doing this,
however, it began to forcibly strike me that Humphrey McQueen is a
pretty unusual political survivor. Some of the political contemporaries
who we share, who have made past contributions to socialist agitation
and Marxist intellectual activity, have shifted over to the political
right. These include some of McQueen’s early associates in the Maoist
movement (Albert Langer, etc) and such people as Keith Windschuttle and
Bob Catley. Others, such as Stuart McIntyre, Humphrey’s associate in the
critique of the Old Left historians, have shifted over to the Social
Democratic centre. In this context, it is therefore pretty important
that McQueen has continued, in his own independent way, the project of
developing Marxist theory in Australia in new conditions, and his
continuing intellectual energy and activity is pretty impressive in a
man of 60 or thereabouts.

He has published more books non-fiction books on labour and social
history, sociology and art history than any other Australian Marxist
intellectual, and he’s still hard at it, and that’s an important
achievement in itself.


A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian
Nationalism and Socialism, Pelican Books, Melbourne, 1970

Aborigines, Race and Racism, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1974

Social Sketches of Australia, 1888-1975, Harmondsworth Penguin, 1978

The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in
Australia to 1944, Alternative Publishing Co-operative, Sydney, 1979

The Art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery Board of South Australia,
Adelaide, 1980 (with Ian North and Isobel Seivl)

Australia’s Media Monopolies, Visa, Melbourne, 1981

Gone Tomorrow: Australia in the 1980s, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1982

Gallipoli to Petrov: Arguing With Australian History, Allen and Unwin,
Sydney, 1984

Suburbs of the Sacred: Transforming Australian Beliefs and Values,
Penguin, Melbourne, 1988

Japan to the Rescue: Australian Security Around the Indonesian
Archipelago during the American Century, Heinemann, Port Melbourne, 1991

Tokyo World: An Australian Diary, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1991

Tom Roberts, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996

Suspect History: Manning Clark and the Future of Australia’s Past,
Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1997

Temper Democratic: How Exceptional is Australia? Wakefield Press,
Adelaide, 1998

The Essence of Capitalism: The Origins of Our Future, Sceptre/Hodder

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