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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rrency c.1771-1820 3. New settlements and new pastures c.1821-50 4. Diggers, democracy and urbanisation c.1851-85 5. Radicals and nationalists c.1886-1913 6. War and depression c. 1914-38 7. War and affluence c. 1939-66 8. Going it alone c. 1967-92

STUART MACINTYRE 1. Beginnings 2. Newcomers c.1600-1792 3. Coercion, 1793-1821 4. Emancipation, 1822-1850 5. In thrall to progress, 1851-1888 6. National reconstruction, 1889-1913 7. Sacrifice, 1914-1945 8. Golden age, 1946-1974 9. Reinventing Australia, 1975-1999 10. What next?

As is clearly indicated by the names of the chapters, the historical approach of the authors is quite different. Ward's approach is left democratic, Marxian and populist. Macintyre's book is a major move in the direction of restoring the official British-Australia history that used to dominate the teaching of Australian history before the 1960s.

Macintyre's is a thoroughgoing counter-revolution compared with Russel Ward's book. Ward celebrates the struggle for democracy and the campaign for free selection. Macintyre adopts a more critical and sceptical view of the significance of these developments in a style reminiscent of the attitude pioneered by his conservative mate Hirst.

 Ward notes and describes the important oppositional role of the Irish Catholics and records the sectarian conflicts of the 19th century. Macintyre's only mention of sectarian religious conflict is in relation to the schools debate.

 Ward celebrates the emergence of the labour movement as an assertion of working class independence. Macintyre treats the emergence of the labour movement in a more sceptical way.

 Ward celebrates and discusses the defeat of conscription during the First World War and the radicalisation in the labour movement that this produced. Macintyre plays down the conscription struggle, omits the 1917 general strike and ignores the radicalisation of the labour movement in the 1920s.

 Ward celebrates the popular labour movement mobilisation of Langism against the Depression and its consequences. In his only mention of Lang, Macintyre succeeds in sounding like the Governor of India deploring "unrest". Macintyre even ascribes the fall of the Lang government to a split in the Labor Party, which is untrue, and thereby airbrushes out of history Lang's removal by Governor Game, the precedent for the later removal of Whitlam by Kerr.

 Ward celebrates the popular upheaval against the Vietnam War, and mentions the initially instrumental role of Arthur Calwell, the Labor opposition leader, in this mobilisation. Macintyre treats the agitation against the Vietnam War in a much more low-key and sceptical way, ignoring Calwell.

 Ward adopts a sharply critical stance towards the Hawke and Keating governments. Macintyre has a more reverent tone towards these governments and treats their deregulation of the economy and turn to economic rationalism as a more or less inevitable response to the global circumstances.

 Ward adopts a generally favourable attitude towards mass migration. Towards the end of his book Macintyre implicitly opposes further mass migration in a rather curious section in which he first spends a lot of time criticising the thrust of government-sponsored multiculturalism, immediately followed by:

After two hundred years of overseas recruitment to build the population of Australia, a new voice called for immigration control, that of environmentalists. Throughout the European occupation of the country there had been efforts to conserve its resources and protect fauna and flora, water and forest, from wanton destruction, but the developmental impulse usually prevailed. The end of the long boom coincided with an enhanced appreciation of the costs of development. The great triumphs of the post-war period turned out to be illusory. The Snowy Mountains Authority had turned back the rivers from the south-east coast to water the Riverina plains, and poisoned the soil with salt; the Ord River on the north-west coast had been dammed, but infestations of insects killed most of the crops; the government's scientific organisation waged biological warfare against the rabbit, but the survivors returned to compete for pasture.

This paragraph is followed by a lengthy celebration of the importance of the conservation movement in modern Australia, and read in context, it is fairly clear that Macintyre now shares some environmentalists' views in favour of reducing immigration, although in his usual magisterial fashion he infers this position from the views of others, leaving himself a possible let-out if challenged on the point.

There are many other differences between the two books. Macintyre's is a good deal duller than Russel Ward's. His illustrations, other than Aboriginal illustrations, are usually of conservative historical figures, and there are fewer of them.

Russel Ward makes extensive use of line drawings and historical cartoons of a radical character. Little of that for Macintyre. And so it goes.


Macintyre's selection of sources


In his important book The First Ten Years of American Communism, James P. Cannon, the pioneer US Communist and Trotskyist leader, prints an exchange of letters between himself and the historian Theodore Draper, who was at that time writing his definitive histories of the origins and early development of the American Communist Party.

Part of one of the letters reads as follows:

Ira Kipnis's book, The American Socialist Movement: 1897-1912, published in 1952, gives some interesting information about the evolution of the Socialist Party up to 1912. I assume you are familiar with it... From what I have read I am inclined to be a bit suspicious of Kipnis's objectivity. There are some tell-tale expressions in the Stalinist lingo which should put one on guard. His book is overstuffed with references. They may all be accurate, but as you know, a history can be slanted by selectivity of sources as well as by outright falsification. In skimming through the book for the first time I was torn between my own unconcealed partisanship for the left wing and my concern for the whole truth in historical writing.

It is well to keep in mind Cannon's view on this matter when examining Macintyre's Concise History. At the end of the book, Macintyre has a bibliography for each chapter. What is striking is the books that he leaves out of this list.

For instance, he abolishes the work and books of Rupert Lockwood, Michael Cannon, Allan Grocott, Keith Amos, Colm Kiernan, Tom Keneally, Patrick O'Farrell, Margaret Kiddle, Malcolm Campbell, Geoffrey Serle, Ross Fitzgerald, Cyril Pearl, Bob Murray, Michael Cathcart, Robert Cooksey, Ray Markey, Jack Hutson, Lloyd Ross, Sandy Yarwood, Frank Farrell, Eric Rolls, Portia Robinson, Denis Murphy, and many, many others.

He just about abolishes the discipline of labour history, both from his narrative and from his list of sources. Popular historians such as Ion Idriess, Frank Clune, William Joy, Wendy Lowenstein, etc, are expunged. Public historians and local historians get very little attention. Two local histories are mentioned, Bill Gammage on Narrandera and Janet McCalman on Richmond. Yet Shirley Fitzgerald, our foremost urban historian, and her (and her associates') magnificent oeuvre on Sydney and suburbs, don't get a guernsey.

As with Macintyre's Oxford Companion to Australian History, it appears that the further you are from Melbourne or Adelaide, the harder it is to get recognised. After all his previous discussion of it, Macintyre completely abolishes the debate on class from his new narrative.

The debate on class in Australian labor history is discussed at length by Macintyre himself in the collection, Pastiche 1 (Allen and Unwin 1994), and in his Oxford Companion. It is described thoroughly in Australian Labor History by Greg Patmore. It is discussed in the introduction to the second edition of Ian Turner's Industrial Labor and Politics, in which Turner replies comprehensively and persuasively to McQueen and Macintyre.

The documents of that argument include the wrongheaded, but enormously influential book by McQueen, A New Britannia. This debate led to the production of the important book by Terry Irving and Bob Connell, Class Structure in Australian History, which was a synthesis of the predominant view that emerged from the debate, that a working class of a particular kind had emerged in Australia in the 19th century, and that the emergence of a Labor Party and a labour movement was a progressive development for the working class.

Connell and Irving's book and Russel Ward's Concise History were widely studied in universities and high schools from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The seminal Australian Legend, by Russel Ward, and The Legend of the Nineties, by Vance Palmer, were also widely influential at high school and university levels.

Macintyre's treatment of this important intellectual exchange and the influential literature from different strands in this debate is to abolish it all from his new narrative. Connell and Irving are abolished. Greg Patmore is abolished. Humphrey McQueen is abolished: all his three important books, A New Britannia, the indispensable book about Australian art, The Black Swan of Trespass, and his useful illustrated Social Sketches of Australia 1888-1975, are ignored. Ian Turner is abolished: Industrial Labor and Politics, Sydney's Burning and even his books about sport.

Macintyre is left, in his own narrative, as the only towering figur

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