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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Bob Murray, who is a right-winger in his basic political outlook, has written three very important books of Australian history, The Split, about the ALP split in the 1950s, The Ironworkers about the history of that union, and his delightful book The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s.
Murray carefully distances his own views from his account of the events he describes and goes to considerable pains to describe the interaction between the interests and point of view of all the players, large and small, in the historical dramas he is recounting. It's worth just giving the chapter headings of The Confident Years: Fit for Heroes, The Political World of Billy Hughes, Post-war Labor, The Big Fella, Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co, Bruce-Page Australia, The Golden Years, After the Bulletin, Workers and Bosses, Countdown to Catastrophe.
Robert Murray as a dialectician
Political conservative though he may be, but Murray's way of proceeding seems, to this Marxist, to be impecably dialectical, and an extremely useful way to write Australian history.
Murray's narrative benefits from a certain enthusiasm for Australian economic development and a knack for writing entertaining social and economic history. He gives a very thorough account of economic and social developments: how many cars were registered, how many people went to the movies, the growth of manufacturing industry, that sort of thing, in a way that meshes in very well with the overall thrust of the book.
The Confident Years is a very counterpoint to Macintyre's cultural studies approach to writing Australian history, particularly when you compare Macintyre's handling of the 1920s with Murray's.
Another sphere that Macintyre ignores is popular history. Macintyre's historical scholarship might benefit from a bit of research into the 60 year-old, seven-day-a-week historical features in the reactionary Sydney tabloid, The Telegraph Mirror. These historical features have often been a good deal more radical than the implacably reactionary content of the rest of the newspaper and, particularly recently, they have been a rather good example of how to present history in a popular and discursive way for a broad audience.
The people and events covered in these useful historical features almost never make it into Macintyre's dry account. Monica Heary, who frequently writes these features, recently wrote a very useful article about the internal political conflicts in Australia during the First World War, which left Macintyre's account of these events for dead.
She used roughly the same number of words Macintyre devoted to this topic in his book. Monica Heary, the busy features journalist, writing to a deadline every day, nevertheless succeeded in working into her narrative the General Strike of 1917 and the release of the IWW frame-up victims thanks to Percy Brookfield's use of his balance of power in the Parliament. Obviously, this is partly because newspaper history writing involves looking for exciting and important events to move the narrative along.
Macintyre's history writing might benefit from studying this Telegraph-Mirror historiographical school and going back through the historical features morgue of the Telegraph Mirror.
In the 1970s we had the "debate on class". In the year 2000 we desperately need the "debate on Australian history".
In the introduction to his Concise History, Macintyre proudly proclaims that the Australian Research Council gave him a grant to write the book, and it's clear from the considerable power that he now holds as Dean of Arts, Ernest Scott Professor, member of the Vice-Chancellor's Committee of Melbourne University, and historical adviser to one of Federal Minister David Kemp's committees, that Stuart Macintyre is now an enormously influential intellectual figure in the organisation and teaching of Australian history.
It would be naive to think that, in the full plenitude of this power and influence, he did not write this book in the expectation and hope of it becoming a kind of new orthodoxy.
The careful way in which it is organised, drawing together conservative historiography and "cultural studies" in a kind of grey Anglo middle ground, indicates the kind of historical orthodoxy which Macintyre wishes to lay out for us and obviously desires to predominate.
In the conversation at afternoon tea at the Labor History Conference, Macintyre made a fourth point to me, a point he has made on several other occasions.
He claimed that, in his history teaching, he finds that undergraduates don't seem initially to know very much about past Australian history, and that because of this you end up with a better teaching result if you do not overburden them with relatively unimportant details, such as names, explorers and superseded conflicts.
Macintyre seems to indicate that, as we live in a globalising world, we should dispense with many of the past complications, and look boldly towards the homogenised future. He seems to think this is what the young expect of us. He summarises this outlook in the last, rather self-serving paragraph of the acknowledgements in the Concise History:
The book is aimed also at a younger generation of Australians who are poorly served by a school curriculum in which history has become a residual. I have dedicated it to my two daughters, born in England, raised in Australia, who have too often had their father play the pedagogue and all along have been instructing him in their interests and concerns.
In my view, Macintyre uses the historical interests of his daughters as a surrogate for his own deliberate and considered historical conservatism. In the course of running my up, middle and down-market bookshop, in Newtown in inner-urban Sydney, I come into constant contact with many of everybody's sons and daughters, at least the sons and daughters who come into bookshops.
I find the variety of their historical interests and concerns far wider than those Macintyre encounters, according to his description in the Concise History. Many of these people are the children of migrants from many countries, or migrants themselves.
I recently had for sale in my shop, as a cheap publisher's remainder, a rather good book on the history of Greeks in Australia. It sold extremely well and generated considerable interest among younger Greek Australians.
Barry York's book on the Maltese in Australia sold very well also, often to people of Maltese background. Eric Rolls's book on the Chinese in Australia sells extremely well to young Chinese. None of those books, or any other books about the history of non-British migrants in Australia, got any significant recognition in Macintyre's history or made it into his bibliography.
Macintyre's self-fulfilling prophecy about young people and Australian history
In my experience as a bookseller, our robust Australian multiculture, and continuing mass migration, about both of which Macintyre's Concise History is so elegantly sceptical, are generating considerable interest in the history of past diversity and conflict in Australia.
Unfortunately, these are just the elements that Macintyre tends to filter out of his historical narrative, as they are, he seems to suggest, of little interest to the young.
In my view, the opposite holds. If we don't have a proper historical grounding in our past conflicts and turmoils, how can we possibly understand the future? There is nothing quite like conflict and argument to gain the attention of people reading history.
Macintyre leans heavily on the unconvincing proposition that the young are not too interested in history. Well, it is true that the numbers studying history at a secondary and tertiary level have dropped. That is far more a product of unwise past decisions and present practices in relation to curriculum in schools and universities, and the way history is taught, than to any intrinsic lack of interest in Australian history.
Macintyre's approach to the teaching of history to the young is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless we teach students about all the complexities of the Australian saga, in an interesting, quirky and sympathetic way, of course they will be bored by Australian history and won't tackle it.
If you present it to them in the bland and boring way that Macintyre tends to do, you will actually accelerate the process of decline in scholastic interest in Australian history. I believe strongly that the way to revive Australian history as a discipline is to include a colourful and entertaining description and celebration of past conflicts and diversity, and an intelligent observation of the contradictory and complex present, to allow a colourful and interesting future history the possibility to unfold.
What strikes me about Macintyre's approach, both in the book, and summarised in the paragraph at the end of the acknowledgements, is how old-fashioned his approach is. It is the kind of historical approach that prevailed in Australian history teaching until about the middle 1960s, and his Concise History could easily have been written by a modern day version of Stephen 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 community.
He also says:
I do find it difficult to enter a discussion in which Manning Clark, Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Ian Turner and Eris O'Brien are put in the same basket. For example, one of the most intemperate critics of Brian Fitzpatrick was Manning Clark.
My juxtaposition of the above historians, as in retrospect clearly representing a populist, democratic school of Australian historiography, is quite deliberate. Whatever the differences that existed between them, they all eventually came to a relative commonality of interests and preoccupations on many questions.
Among the key questions that confronted them all eventually were the development of class and the emergence of a labour movement, the discordant and oppositional role of the Irish Catholics in relation to the British establishment in Australia, the enormous question of race and genocide involved in the dispossession of the original Aboriginal nation inhabiting the continent, and the question of racism, the White Australia Policy, and migration in general.
Most of these historians began their inquiry by confronting the bitter sectarian division that existed in Australian society from the time of white settlement between the Irish Catholics and the British ruling class (from whose ranks most of these historians themselves originated).
Manning Clark, given his establishment Anglican background, being a direct descendent of Samuel Marsden, is obviously fascinated by these questions.
Russel Ward, in his autobiography (he had a similar Protestant establishment background to Clark) points out that these cultural conflicts dominated his early social and personal evolution. (Ward's autobiography includes a moving vignette describing a visit to Australia by R. H. Tawney, the notable English Christian socialist who wrote the ground-breaking Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and the interesting and useful cross-fertilisation that took place between himself, Manning Clark, Eris O'Brien, R. H. Tawney and other historians during that visit. That vignette seems to me to symbolise the drawing together of the left democratic school in Australian historiography in that generation)
Rodney Hall's biography of John Manifold describes Manifold's inquiry into the Irish origins of the ballads and a painful and confronting element stemming from his Victorian Western District establishment background.
The story is similar with Rupert Lockwood, also of Victorian Western District establishment background. Lockwood's encounter with the oppositional role of Irish Catholics was clearly a significant part of his development, along with his involvement with the Communist Party. It's not accidental that both these Communists, who came from the Anglo ruling class of the Western District, and were converted to Communism in the upheavals of the 1930s, were fascinated by the interface between Irish Catholic Australians, the labour movement and socialism.
The Western District of Victoria had a much higher concentration of Irish Catholic settlers than most other parts of Victoria. In the early years of the labour movement, culminating in the conscription upheavals, these Irish Catholics were in an extremely radical frame of mind. They elected the Labor candidate, the Scottish socialist and poet John McDougall, as the first federal member for Wannon, later Malcolm Fraser's stronghold, in the first election after Federation.
Largely because of Irish Catholics, and sharpened by the conscription struggle, the Western District remained a Labor stronghold until the disastrous Labor Split of 1955, when many Labor supporters of Irish Catholics descent shifted over electorally to the DLP, and eventually to the Nationals.
During the White Guard paramilitary mobilisation during the Depression, the White Guard in the Western District was preparing to occupy all the Catholic churches and schools as well as trade union headquarters to prevent revolution. This is all described at length in a useful article in Labor History 10 years ago, and it's also studied from another direction, in Paul Adams' recent study of the Communist novelist, Frank Hardy, who was of working-class Catholic background and came from Bacchus Marsh, in the Western District.
Nothing in life and society is ever lost, and the seat of Mildura, in north-western Victoria has recently come back into play, being lost by the Nationals to one of the three independents who just put the Bracks Labor government into power in Victoria.
Macintyre's historiography, which neglects the complex and varied impact of the Irish Catholics on Australian history and the labour movement, is 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 insignificant side-shows.
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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