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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e surviving from the debate on class, dismissing contemptuously, as "neglecting racism" The Legend of the Nineties and The Australian Legend, without even deigning to name the authors, or list them or the books in the bibliography. What a superior man this Macintyre is!

In the section on the Great Depression, J. T. Lang's own books, and Bede Nairn's important Lang biography, are not mentioned. None of the biographies of Mannix are mentioned. Patrick O'Farrell's important works on the Irish in Australia are not mentioned, and neither are Tom Keneally or Keith Amos or any other writers about Irish Australia.

In relation to the Vietnam War, Gregory Pemberton's important book, Vietnam Remembered (Weldon Publishers 1990), and neither are Sioban McHugh's Minefields and Miniskirts, on women during the Vietnam War or Greg Langley's A Decade of Dissent or Ken Maddocks' books of oral history on the Vietnam conflict.

Important books like Paul Barry's biography, The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer aren't mentioned, nor is Mates by Fia Cumming, or The Fixer by Marianne Wilkinson about Richardson, or Graham Richardson's own book.

Clyde Cameron's books of autobiography are ignored, as is Bill Guy's recent biography of Cameron, A Life on the Left. In relation to the Communist Party, only Macintyre himself survives as the recognised author and expert. Alistair Davidson, Robin Gollan, Barbara Curthoys, Frank Farrell, Miriam Dixson, Tom O'Lincoln and even Beverley Symons, the author of the extremely useful bibliography associated with Macintyre's own book, are all ignored in relation to their published work on the Communist Party.

Oppositional encounters with the Communist Party, of which good examples would be Hall Greenland's biography of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, Susanna Short's biography of Laurie Short, Stephen Holt's biography of Lloyd Ross, and B.A. Santamaria's useful autobiography, are totally ignored.

Given the Marxist background that Macintyre asserts on occasion, it is rather strange that he omits from any consideration, two major original and significant critical books about Australian life from a Marxist point of view: Vere Gordon Childe's important How Labor Governs from the 1920s, and Egon Kisch's Australian Landfall from the 1930s.


Macintyre's historical method


Macintyre's book is organised in a way that is quite consistent with his narrow British-Australia approach. For a start, the predominance of so called theory is accentuated by the abolition of footnotes.

The reader is told that at the end of the book there is a listing of where quotes used in the narrative come from, but they are not presented as notes to the source, and only one person out of 100 will, in practice, laboriously work out where the ideas came from.

The net effect of this device is to dramatically increase the role of the narrator of the book, and de-emphasise the way in which he has been influenced by the research and ideas of other people. Another effect is to make it unclear what part of the material is quotes, and what part is Macintyre's own view, leaving Macintyre with the perfect out, if challenged on some point, that he was merely quoting the views of others.

This way of proceeding is a very elitist writing device, presenting an enormous obstacle to the reader's understanding of the genesis of the ideas in the book, but it is a device that is quite common in postmodernist circles under the rubric of theory.

Another infuriating feature of Macintyre's dry writing style is the deliberate way he avoids naming historical figures, or historians who he obviously regards as minor, and the effect of this device is to make some important, named historical personalities, towering presences over a landscape otherwise inhabited by the nameless.

Sometimes this device becomes almost bizarre. Examples of this are:

 On page 48, where he names Samuel Marsden about five times, on both sides of this sentence.

As early as 1803 King allowed an Irish convict to exercise his clerical functions, though that privilege was withdrawn in the following year when the Priest was suspected of using the Mass to plan the Castle Hill Uprising. In 1820 two new priests came voluntarily from Ireland with official permission to fulfill their compatriots' religious obligations.

Three Catholic priests, none of them named, but Samuel Marsden named four times in the same paragraph.

 Again, when discussing The Bulletin at some length, Macintyre manages to do it without mentioning the important founding editor, J. F. Archibald.

 When discussing the Second World War, he quotes a John Manifold poem and describes Manifold as "another descendent of a pastoral dynasty" without mentioning either his name or the fact that he was a Communist when he wrote the poem.

 Later in the same paragraph, when discussing Eric Lambert's Twenty Thousand Thieves he doesn't mention either the name of the book or the name of the author.

This loopy device recurs again and again in this strange book, a triumph of a supposedly theoretical approach over any attempt at utility. It makes the narrative a very lordly document indeed.

In addition to this problem, throughout his book Macintyre mentions far fewer secondary historical figures and secondary sources than does Russel Ward, particularly secondary figures who contribute radicalism or conflict to the historical mosaic.


No ballads for Macintyre


Macintyre's mention of Manifold's war poem, without naming or identifying the author clearly, is serendipitous in several ways.russel Ward uses another Manifold war poem, from the same anthology, in his Concise History (naming Manifold).

My favourite Manifold poem, from the same anthology, begins with the line, "Crazy as hell, And typical of us, Just like that, 'Comrade', On a bus", but I don't think that poem would be of much use for Macintyre's purposes.

The other very important literary contribution for which John Manifold is known is his useful pioneering work, Who Wrote the Ballads (Australasian Book Society, 1961). This was the first major work on rebel balladeers, mostly Irish, such as Frank McNamara (Frank the Poet), and their important contribution to the Australian radical ethos and culture.

Other people who have done work in this area, and written books, are Hugh Anderson, John Meredith and Rex Whalan.russel Ward made very extensive, almost instrumental use of this kind of ballad material in The Australian Legend, in sketching out the deep sources of the Australian anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethos, which is possibly why Macintyre regards Ward's book as overly elegaic and misleading.

It was, again, curiously serendipitious that Hugh Anderson's book about Tocsin was relaunched in the afternoon at the Sydney Labor History Conference where Macintyre spoke, and that Anderson was present for the occasion. I find it very striking that the Celtic ballads, which figure so deeply in the cultural mosaic of Australian rebellion, get no recognition at all in Macintyre's narrative or bibliography.


Fundamental flaws in Macintyre's account


Macintyre doesn't only abolish the Catholics, he just about abolishes religious history from the 19th century story. As Jim Griffin pointed out, Macintyre very nearly abolishes the Irish Catholics.

On examination, the means by which he does this are in themselves rather startling. Not only does he abolish the Irish Catholics, but to do this he has to just about abolish religion as a whole from the story of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There is no significant mention of sectarian religious conflict. There is no mention of important institutions such as the freemasons and the Loyal Orange Lodge, despite the fact that nearly all Tory Australian prime ministers and governors were freemasons.

To avoid the conflicts that had a religious form, in the interests of a bland narrative, Macintyre makes the whole religious sphere just about disappear, which to me, as a Marxian materialist, seems to be a completely unscientific and novel way to write about Australia in the 19th century.

Incidentally, Macintyre finds no place in his story for the interesting conflict in the 1930s between the Labor Prime Minister James Scullin (in which Scullin ultimately succeeded) and the British authorities in London, over the appointment of the Jew, Sir Isaac Isaacs, as the first Australian-born Governor General, in which the endemic, vicious anti-Semitism of the British ruling class was such a major issue.

Stuart Macintyre, Henry Mayer and the Sydney University Department of Government

In relation to the sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the labour movement in the early 20th century, which Macintyre systematically ignores, the most useful piece of evidence is the several-times-reprinted monograph on NSW politics from 1901 to 1917, first produced by the Sydney University Government Department in 1962, and last reprinted in an expanded form in 1996.

This very important source book chronicles NSW politics for each of the 17 years and each yearly entry has a major section titled Sectarianism, so important a feature of NSW politics was that subject in that decisive period, when the Labor Party first became established as a party of government.


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