Dumping down Australian history
The clandestine tradition in Australian historiography. Russell Ward's Concise History of Australia. Abolishing the Catholics, Macintyre's selection of sources. Macintyre's historical method, abolishes Langism. Fundamental flaws in Macintyre's account.
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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 future.
Dixson carries on somewhat about an Australian "national imaginary", which she does not spell out very clearly. In an argument I have written directed at Miriam Dixson, I take up her idea of the "national imaginary" which isn't intrinsically a bad idea. I just point out that my "national imaginary" (based on the historian's I've listed above and my own experience of life) is totally different to hers.
Well, we get from Macintyre's Concise History something of the possible flavour of the Macintyre, Dixson "national imaginary". The emphasis here must be placed on the "imaginary". Macintyre produces a conservative, Anglophile history of Australia by abolishing from the narrative, or dramatically diminishing in significance, whole categories, classes, tribes, and major historical currents and events.
These classes of people and events are mostly my people and events, my tribes, my class, my big social upheavals, and once again I record my strong objection to their exclusion from the Australian historical record.
John Howard, and the right-wing ideologues in some of the media are currently engaged in a wide-ranging exercise in rewriting Australian history. Howard and like-minded conservatives are making extravagant use of British-Australia Anzac symbolism to refurbish a reactionary, patriotic militarism, and to write out of the record past conflicts over wars and militarism, such as the referendum defeat of conscription during the First World War, and the ultimate rejection of the Vietnam intervention by the Australian people.
In my view, the general thrust of Macintyre's Concise History (with the exception of the completely appropriate detailed attention to Aboriginal history) fits in very well with this reactionary John Howard historical project.
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 publisher.
The argument that the addition of the name of the person would confuse overseas readers is incomprehensible to me. Most, if not all, humans on the planet, have names, and human beings are quite used to names. Human beings like names. In bursts of creative cultural exhuberance, humans, particularly Australian humans, invent colourful nicknames for people, "Pig Iron Bob", "Cocky Calwell", "Black Jack McEwan", for example.
If anything, mentioning historical players without their name is likely to confuse both local and overseas readers, particularly if you assume that many overseas readers will be developing an interest in Australian history, and are very likely to read at least one more book about Australia 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, 1987).
After listing the out-of-print books above and more than 100 others similar, it seems striking to me that you don't list any of the books of Shirley Fitzgerald, any of the books of Patrick O'Farrell, any of the books of Russel Ward, any of the books of Michael Cannon, any of the books of Robert Murray, any of the books of Vance Palmer, any of the books of Kylie Tennant, any of the books of Humphrey McQueen, Greg Patmore's book on labour history, Connell and Irving on class structure in Australia, Jack Hutson's important source books on the arbitration system.
Despite his infuriating, excessive use of current academic literary-theoretical devices in his narrative, in the matter of sources, Macintyre is absurdly conservative and narrow.
The only trade union histories mentioned, out of the 50 or 60 that now exist, are a couple of books about the AWU. No books such as those by Mark Hearn on the Australian Railways Union, Braden Ellem on the Clothing Trades Union, Mary Dickinson on the NSW Nurses Union, Brad Bowden on the Transport Workers Union or Margo Beasley on the Waterside Workers Federation, etc. 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 Stuart.
Macintyre mentions little sporting history, almost no music history, almost no art history, little religious history, no history of Australian films or television, very little history of Australian literature after the 19th century, and no books pertaining to the history of the Communist movement in Australia except the one written by Stuart Macintyre.
I would have thought that Robin Gollan's book on the Communist Party might rate a mention, or Ed Campion's book, Australian Catholics, or Michael Hogan's Sectarianism, or Bede Nairn's book on Lang, or Lang's own ghostwritten autobiographies, or even slight little books like Elwyn Spratt on Eddie Ward or Colm Kiernan on Mannix, or, for that matter, major biographies by Bob Santamaria or Niall Brennan on Archbishop Mannix.
Despite the Concise History's emphasis on Aboriginal affairs, Macintyre neglects to even note the important, ground-breaking three-volume epic about Aboriginal anthropology, by Charles Rowley, which did so much to bring the question to the attention of the Australian public in the 1970s. I could go on and on in this vein, but it would get boring.
Stuart Macintyre's narrow, academic range of source 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 does list.
Macintyre's geographical bias towards Melbourne and towards current fashions in theory and cultural history
An examination of Macintyre's bibliography shows several pronounced biases. A striking feature of the bibliography is a strong representation of what is now called "theory" and "cultural history", and a sharp bias against popular history, public history, etc.
There is also a bias in favour of what I might call tenured university academic history.
There is a very strong geographical bias towards Melbourne and Adelaide. The further history producers get from these Agoras of the South, the less significance is ascribed to them by Stuart Macintyre.
There is a strong bibliographical bias against labour history, ethnic history (other than Aboriginal), and religious history. The Catholics are eliminated from the narrative, most populism and rebellion also.
What you get is a combination of the aforesaid "cultural history" as the "left", and academic official history, as both the "left", and the "right", of Macintyre's discourse.
All the populist and Marxist participants in the, apparently now past, debate on class (other than Macintyre himself) are airbrushed out of history, almost as systematically as Stalin's captive historians used to airbrush Trotsky out of Soviet history. What we are left with is a very dull, Anglophile, official history of Australia from which most of the Sturm and Drang, and other excitements and turmoils, have been eliminated.
Stuart Macintyre's intellectual odyssey
This argument with Stuart Macintyre has, in fact, become a bit personal for me, based to some extent on my intellectual disappointment in him. For many years I did not know Macintyre from the proverbial bar of soap. I remembered him vaguely from a distance, at a couple of radical conferences or assemblies in the 1970s.
I remember reading self-confidently ultraleft interventions under his byline in internal Communist Party discussion bulletins and leftist journals that came my way back then. I had very little sympathy with the Left Tendency in the Communist Party, of which Macintyre was a part, and its Althusserian rhetorical leftist ultimatism. Their standpoint seemed to me quite remote from any realistic Marxism that could be applied to the problems of the Australian labour movement.
Later on, I became rather more aware of Macintyre's historical work and I was excited by one of his two early books, A Proletarian Science (Cambridge University Press 1980), which was an intellectual history of the influence of Marxism on the working-class founders of the British Communist Party. In this book, Macintyre uniquely developed a study of the phenomenon of autodidact proletarian intellectuals and their encounter with Marxism, and the extraordinary way that this encounter dominated the life of the early British Communist Party.
It struck me at the time how applicable this was to the Australian Communist Party, the early Trotskyist movement in Australia, and indeed the Australian labour movement as a whole, because similar working class autodidacts were the overwhelmingly dominant ideological force in the Australian labour movement until very recently.
His other early book, Little Moscows (Croom Helm 1980), a study of some isolated working class communities in Britain, where the Communist Party had been uniquely influential, I found also quite interesting, although Macintyre's tendency to view those places and events as a kind of Marxist antiquarian was already apparent in this book, and in retrospect foreshadowed his later shift to the right politically.
His earliest Australian book, written when he was getting his academic start in Australia, in Perth, his very fine The Life and Times of Paddy Troy (1984), is about the quintessential Australian Communist autodidact trade union official.
Some of Macintyre's later Australian books, such as A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries (1991, and The Labour Experiment (1988), Macintyre's own book on the early development of the arbitration system, are extremely useful.
One thing that flows from my knowledge of his early work is that it does not seem reasonable to pass over the thrust and orientation of his recent and more reactionary books, The Reds, the Oxford Companion, and the Concise History, with the ideological let-out that he may not know any better. Several historians with whom I have discussed the book have agreed that some of my major criticisms of the Concise History have merit, but they have contended that the more obvious explanation for many of the omissions I have raised is that Stuart Macintyre may have written this book in something of a hurry, largely with the assistance of research staff, after possibly being approached by the publishers with the idea that, as Ernest Scott Professor, it would be appropriate to produce his own Short History, as a kind of seal of academic eminence.
Even if this were so, I contend that the finished product represents Macintyre's view of what a Concise History of Australia ought to be, and therefore it must be criticised in detail by those who have different ideas about what an accurate narrative would be in a useful Concise History.
Macintyre's political encounter with Stalinism
Stuart Macintyre's early work showed considerable evidence of the dramatic impact on him of the 1960s-70s radicalisation, which picked up this product of the important establishment school, Scotch College, with his conservative background, and initial patrician introspection and diffidence, and thrust him into an encounter with the left wing of the labour movement.
Unfortunately, that encounter was with the degenerate Stalinist and Althusserian wing of the movement. In retrospect, in trying to explain why this bloke, whose early books were so useful, has become such an intellectual obstacle to the practice of a popular Australian history, I advance the following possible explanation.
The Althusserianism that interacted with the more traditional Stalinism in the decaying Communist Party, where Macintyre got his initial miseducation in Marxism, had some particular idiosyncracies.
The old Australian Stalinist Party had developed a certain sectarian animosity to Catholics by reason of its long conflict with them in the labour movement. It also had a rather Stalinist, jealous hostility to all past labourite populism, particularly Langism, because of its fierce competition with such currents, particularly when aggressive High Stalinism was young, and populist Langism was at its peak in the 1930s.
Macintyre seems to have taken over all of these Stalinist prejudices wholesale, and they appear to have intertwined with his ancestral, conservative, Melbourne establishment, British-Scottish prejudices, probably repressed but possibly still active in his subconscious.
In recent times, all these accumulated prejudices appear to me to have come into play as his political, social and cultural views have shifted steadily back to the right in this period of episodic cultural and political reaction (which won't be permanent, in my view, and will inevitably be followed by new radicalisations).
It seems to me that in Macintyre's current historical efforts, both his early Melbourne establishment cultural formation and his middle period of Stalinist training, are involved. He tends to adapt the historical story to the concerns of the Anglophile section of the ruling class and intelligentsia, to smooth out all the past episodes of populism, and gloss over the past rebellions.
He gets rid of the past sectarian conflicts, presents a rather assimilationist perspective towards recent migrants, introduces a few fashionable "leftist" cultural postures, and drags in a bit of Stalinist nostalgia to represent the radical past.
All of this fits in pretty well with his current situation as Dean of Arts, powerful figure in the Melbourne University History Department, intellectual mover and shaker among the more conservative sections of the Labor Party leadership, and ministerial appointee to the committee overseeing David Kemp's Curriculum Corporation in its revision of the history syllabus of many Australian schools.
All his background and experiences, both from his establishment origins and his middle period of encounter with Stalinism, equip him rather well for these current roles. I wasn't particularly surprised, from this point of view, when he inferred in his lecture at the Sydney Labor History Conference, that he had voted no in the recent Republic Referendum.
I'm 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 prospered.
The pompous tone of the above speaks for itself. The authors of these influential books, Russel Ward, Vance Palmer and A.A. Phillips, are neither named, nor are their books mentioned, in Macintyre's bibliography or index.
They are treated by the overweening Macintyre as disembodied examples of a cultural trend, rather than, as they then were, living breathing historians, with a point of view of some importance. In retrospect, the working class solidarity that they "elegaicly" celebrated wasn't nearly as extinct as Macintyre claims.
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were in fact a period of constant improvement in working class wages and conditions, achieved, in the framework of the so called postwar settlement, by the well tried, and long practiced means of working class and trade union agitation. This involved sporadic use of industrial action combined with judicious exploitation of the arbitration mechanisms by unions.
These improvements of working class living standards, which were quite spectacular, were also advanced by the conflict and competition between left and right in the labour movement for support, which resulted in both general factions, in their own particular ways, pushing for and achieving steady incremental improvements for the working class.
The high point of this process was a result of the elimination of the penal clauses after the O'Shea upheaval in 1969, which led directly to the dramatic explosion of improvements in wages and conditions between 1972 and 1982 (which infuriated the Australian bourgeoisie).
Macintyre largely ignores this development, or even suggests it was not a good thing, in his implicit proposition that the postwar settlement was unsustainable. The few times when Macintyre's own, rather dry, prose becomes anything like elegaic, are when he is implicitly celebrating the end of the postwar settlement with the advent of globalisation, accords and deregulation of the financial system during the period of the Hawke and Keating governments.
"Cultural studies" meets and mates with conservative academic history, to produce a kind of mule: grey armband history
Like many other literate Australians I have gradually become enraged at the disdainful, dismissive, half-smart, supercilious tone of much of what is called, these days "cultural studies".
Keith Windschuttle's useful book, The Killing of History, (which Macintyre wisely ignores both in the Concise History and the bibliography), expresses in its title one of the main aspects of this cultural phenomenon.
The abstruse nature of a lot of "cultural studies", combined with the contemptuous tone often adopted towards popular culture and many other human activities, is a contributing factor to a decline in the number of students studying disciplines such as history, in which "cultural studies" is now so influential.
I don't want to go overboard in this criticism of "cultural studies" and "gender studies", as a number of books and articles written in this idiom are both civilised and useful, for example, Raelene Francis's book, The Politics of Work in Victoria, 1880-1940 (Cambridge University Press, Sydney, 1993), Peter Spearritt and David Walker's Australian Popular Culture, Bruce Scates's A New Australia, about the 1890s, and many others. Nevertheless, it seems to me that many books and articles in this area are abstract and trivial and contemptuous of popular social practices, and that unfortunately this mode is coming to dominate these two fields.
From the political right (John Howard, Michael Duffy and others) there is another kind of attack on Australian history, which deliberately makes an amalgam between cultural studies and important critical historians such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes and others, and condemns all critical history wholesale: the very useful with the totally useless, accusing them all of producing "black armband history".
This attack by reactionaries such as Howard is assisted by the absurdist quality of much cultural studies in the field of history. In the interests of intellectual clarity and re-establishing Australian popular history in its proper critical role, I think it important to make a new distinction between the important "black armband" historians, such as Henry Reynolds, Robert Hughes, Manning Clark and Russel Ward, who make an enormous positive contribution to Australian culture, and another, more negative genre, to which I now officially give the title "grey armband historians".
The bloodline of grey armband history is conservative British-Australian official history as the stallion, with the most dismissive sort of cultural studies as the mare. Macintyre is the obvious candidate for major eminent person and head of the field in this significant new genre.
How grey armband history works
Stuart Macintyre's Concise History is a very instructive example of this new discipline, and how it is organised and constructed. Its intellectual antecedents include books like Ronald Conway's The Great Australian Stupor and Jonathan King's Waltzing Materialism, which were best-sellers a few years ago.
These books' unifying feature was a wholesale assault on the cultural and social practices of Australians, both working class and middle class, with an implicit standpoint derived from high culture, eternal verities and a uniformly unpleasant carping tone in their attacks on the allegedly fatally materialistic stream of Australian life.
Much of the cultural studies idiom in Australian history has taken over the standpoint and style of those two books in spades. The tone throughout Macintyre's Short History is, most of the time, distainful, grand and supercilious, particularly when discussing ordinary people's social practices and social life.
The exceptions to this emphasis are when Macintyre is discussing, rather reverently, the unifying nature of Anzac during the First World War, and the "modernising" activities of the Hawke and Keating 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 territories.
In discussing past racism and sexism, however, Macintyre rarely notes the activities of many minorities that have fought, often ultimately successfully, against racism and sexism. An exception to this neglect is when he ascribes the only important past activity against anti-Aboriginal racism to the Communist Party, which is really a quite unbalanced approach.
Australian history is peppered with all sorts of radical and religious groups and individuals who fought against racism. For the 19th century this is documented thoroughly in Henry Reynolds' most recent book, This Whispering in Our Hearts.
Macintyre's undialectical airbrushing out of almost all of the minorities that fought against racism tends to make the eventual overthrow of the White Australia Policy, and the legal removal of the bars to many Aboriginal rights, mysterious and inexplicable in his narrative, but it is entirely consistent with his dismissiveness towards most Australian popular movements.
Macintyre and the struggle for women's rights
Stuart Macintyre's treatment of sexism and the struggle for women's emancipation is worthy of note. He adopts the currently fashionable standpoint of some conservative feminists by giving extended recognition and praise to the 19th century temperance movement.
He notes the fact that Australian women got the vote in all states and the Commonwealth well before the rest of the world, but he hardly notices the fact that this was a direct product of the broad struggle in the Australian colonies for basic democratic rights, spearheaded in this instance by Australian feminists but largely accepted and even supported by civilised forces among Australian men.
This demonstrable and important political fact about women's rights in Australia does not prevent Macintyre from asserting a generally gloomy, rather inaccurate, but currently fashionable, proposition that Australia was more or less universally sexist in the past.
Needless to say, he pays no recognition to Portia Robinson's The Women of Botany Bay, an important work on convict women, and Grace Karskens' useful book, The Rocks: Life in Early Sydney (Melbourne University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-522-84722-6), both of which illustrate the way many convict women managed to improve their situation and assert their independence, and were by no means the totally hopeless, hapless victims that many historical narratives present them as.
Later, Macintyre blandly ascribes the achievement of equal pay for equal work for women to a ruling by the Arbitration Commission, ignoring the long popular movement, led mainly by women in the trade unions, that produced that Arbitration Court determination.
The lifelong agitation and effective organisation of trade unionists such as Muriel Heagney and Edna Ryan for equal pay and equal rights for women is abolished from Macintyre's narrative. This long struggle of women in Australia for equality and full social and economic rights, therefore tends to disappear against a backdrop of more or less universal sexism.
When reviewing the past, it is obvious that a lot of people were racist and sexist a lot of the time. What was significant and exceptional about the Australian experience, however, was the earliness of major achievements, such as the uniquely early achievement of votes for women, and the establishment of child endowment in the Lang period in New South Wales.
Despite the culturally prevailing sexism, material achievements such as this shifted the social norms dramatically and laid the basis for further improvements in women's rights and expectations, which ought to produce a more favourable assessment of past gains for women in Australia. Not so for our Stuart.
In the Concise History, official history out of cultural studies produces a very gloomy version of past women's struggles, which precludes much optimism in his concluding chapter about future improvements for women.
Macintyre isn't too keen on explorers
In Quadrant last year, there appeared an important and very detailed article on current educational problems by the disenchanted leftist, and now rather conservative educational historian, Alan Barcan. This article was an overview of the crisis in curriculum that has emerged in Australian education, particularly the teaching of history.
Some parts of Barcan's critique are useful and correct. One of his points with which I agree is that omitting from the history curriculum many of the basic historical facts that used to be taught is a big practical mistake. For instance, the exploration of Australia was part of the British imperial conquest of these colonies, but it was also an intrinsically important part of the historical record.
In his careful, ritual obeisance to cultural studies, Macintyre, however, follows the current fashion. Many of the explorers are eliminated from his narrative. No Hume and Hovell, no Edward John Eyre, etc, etc.
A populist or leftist Australian history could easily mention Eyre's discoveries and then make a point about British imperialism by mentioning in passing the barbarous aspects of his later career as governor of Jamaica, where he judicially murdered part of the population of a rebellious village.
None of this kind of thing for Macintyre, either the naming of most of the explorers, or the opportunity for the exposure of British imperialism.
Another feature of Macintyre's book is its careful middle-of-the-road character in its mating official history with cultural studies. All the populist historians I have mentioned at length here are left out, but so are the most extreme, but rather significant and influential postmodernists writing in Australian history.
Debates about Australian history don't make it into Macintyre's narrative either. Postmodernists such as Greg Dening, who wrote Mr Bligh's Bad Language, and Paul Carter, who wrote The Road to Botany Bay, irritate me with their extreme cultural studies style and analysis, but nevertheless there is no question that they are extremely influential in current Australian historiography. To leave them and their books out of the narrative and the bibliography, as Macintyre does, is almost as intellectually unbalanced as leaving out Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick or Black Jack McEwan.
Macintyre is clearly trying to stake out an extremely conservative, centre ground, for his grey armband history, consolidating the major recognised conservative academic historians in a narrative and alliance with the more conservative practitioners of cultural studies, to produce a new academic orthodoxy.
The problem with this Macintyre academic orthodoxy is that it is almost unrecognisable as useful Australian history.
No Proletarian Science. Macintyre ditches dialectics. Rather conservative politics, little religion, and almost no sex
A close friend of mine who was brought up in a middle-class, conservative Protestant family environment often jokes, that in that social environment the basic rule of etiquette was that politics, religion and sex were not discussed in polite society, and this social code was quite frequently expressed explicitly in just those words.
In my view, Macintyre has managed to observe a fair part of this convention in his Concise History. Some politics are mentioned, but they are pretty, high politics with very little radical dissent recognised. There is almost no religion in the narrative, and I couldn't find much sex.
Macintyre's book suffers from a lack of robust dialectical juxtaposition of people and events. What I mean by this statement can be illuminated by comparing Macintyre to a range of other historians as diverse as Robin Gollan, Susanna Short, Robert Murray, Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael Cannon. With different standpoints, Marxist, left liberal, and conservative, all these historians produce powerfully interesting social history by proceeding in what Marxists generally describe as a dialectical way. They treat conflicting social groups and historical actors as important in their own right, try to describe how those people saw the world, and describe, in a warm-hearted way, the conflicts between these individuals and social groups.
Shirley Fitzgerald and Michael Cannon, describing social developments, urban history and economic developments from a generally left liberal point of view, often including a fair bit of muck-raking, still ascribe, even to people that they criticise, a certain integrity and autonomy, and even when they are discussing such chaotic events as the pell mell development of Sydney, or the 1890s crash in Victoria, capture something of the human enthusiasms of all the players involved, without too much moralism.
Susanna Short, in her incomparable biography of her father, Laurie Short, gives a careful and interesting account of both her old man's outlook at each stage in his contradictory development, and something of the outlook of all the different conflicting groups, the Stalinists, the Trotskyists, the Catholic Groupers, the ordinary Laborites and Langites, etc. These people really come to life in Susanna's book.
In my view, Bob Gollan's book on the Communist Party, Revolutionaries and reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement (Melbourne University Press, 1975) is infinitely superior to Macintyre's longer Communist Party history. A Communist himself, Gollan, as a vantage point for understanding the history of the Communist Party, counterposes to the CPA's own view of itself the standpoint of the Trotskyists and the Catholics who were in conflict with it, which illuminates his narrative immensely.
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