Dumping down Australian history

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions.

Dumping down Australian history



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evelopments from a generally left liberal point of view, often including a fair bit of muck-raking, still ascribe, even to people that they criticise, a certain integrity and autonomy, and even when they are discussing such chaotic events as the pell mell development of Sydney, or the 1890s crash in Victoria, capture something of the human enthusiasms of all the players involved, without too much moralism.

Susanna Short, in her incomparable biography of her father, Laurie Short, gives a careful and interesting account of both her old man's outlook at each stage in his contradictory development, and something of the outlook of all the different conflicting groups, the Stalinists, the Trotskyists, the Catholic Groupers, the ordinary Laborites and Langites, etc. These people really come to life in Susanna's book.

In my view, Bob Gollan's book on the Communist Party, Revolutionaries and reformists: Communism and the Australian Labour Movement (Melbourne University Press, 1975) is infinitely superior to Macintyre's longer Communist Party history. A Communist himself, Gollan, as a vantage point for understanding the history of the Communist Party, counterposes to the CPA's own view of itself the standpoint of the Trotskyists and the Catholics who were in conflict with it, which illuminates his narrative immensely.

Bob Murray, who is a right-winger in his basic political outlook, has written three very important books of Australian history, The Split, about the ALP split in the 1950s, The Ironworkers about the history of that union, and his delightful book The Confident Years, Australia in the 1920s.

Murray carefully distances his own views from his account of the events he describes and goes to considerable pains to describe the interaction between the interests and point of view of all the players, large and small, in the historical dramas he is recounting. It's worth just giving the chapter headings of The Confident Years: Fit for Heroes, The Political World of Billy Hughes, Post-war Labor, The Big Fella, Packer, Murdoch, Fairfax and Co, Bruce-Page Australia, The Golden Years, After the Bulletin, Workers and Bosses, Countdown to Catastrophe.


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

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