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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development took place despite a constant Protestant mobilisation against the Labor Party, focussing on Catholics, socialists, liquor, gambling and sport. Macintyre's failure to use the evidence presented in this monograph seemed to me amazing and then it struck me rather forcibly that he nowhere refers to any of the historical work of the empirical political historical school that developed around Henry Mayer, Dick Spann, Joan Rydon, Ken Turner, Michael Hogan and others in the Sydney University Government Department from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Macintyre doesn't recognise any of the publications or books of this major school anywhere in the Concise History. It seems a pretty tall order to ignore the seven editions of the Henry Mayer Readers on government, which influenced tens of thousands of students, but Macintyre succeeds in doing this.

Given his, selectively asserted, past attachment to Marxism in the historical sciences, Macintyre's book has a very curious approach to the history of capitalist development and the conflict between the classes.

His approach is heavily influenced by the current "globalising" fashion, particularly popular in cultural studies, but also advanced by capitalist ideologues who positively applaud the decline of manufacturing industry in countries like Australia.

The effect of this is that Macintyre concentrates on political history, of the generalised national sort, and cultural criticism of popular social practices. The actual history of Australian capitalist economic development is de-emphasised, and the spectacularly piratical origins of Australian capitalism, particularly British imperial finance capital, is considerably understated.

The sharply contradictory and brutal, but very effective development of manufacturing capitalism in Australia tends to be written of by Macintyre with the enthusiastic hindsight stemming from its current decline, which he seems to favour. (Macintyre manages to write a Concise History of Australia without mentioning Crick, Willis, W. L. Baillieu, W. S. Robinson, Essington Lewis or Bully Hayes, for instance)

In writing about the 19th century, sources such as Brian Fitzpatrick, Eris O'Brien, Michael Cannon and Cyril Pearl, all of whom have a critical or muckraking approach to the development of Australian society, particularly the economic origins of the ruling class, are ignored completely.

How is it possible to write about the origins of Australia without reference to the work of Eris O'Brien? How is it possible to write about capital formation and the slump of the 1890s without reference to historians such as Michael Cannon, Brian Fitzpatrick and Andrew Wells. But Macintyre does so and, as a result, his narrative is a dry as dust, bland, official history, neglecting conflict and particularly de-emphasising the piratical origins of the Australian bourgeoisie.

When you get into the early 20th century, this curious style of history writing is even more pronounced. When discussing the First World War, the whole emphasis is on "heroic sacrifice". He manages to avoid explicit reference to the General Strike of 1917, to the release of the IWW leaders framed in 1917, or to the assassination of Percy Brookfield, the leftist Labor politician who procured their release by his use of his balance of power in the NSW parliament.

The sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the Labor Party led by the Tory murderer T. J. Ley in the 1920s is not mentioned. No mention is made of the adoption of the socialisation objective by the Labor Party in 1921. The Seamen's strike, and Bruce's attempt to deport the Seamen's leaders Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson doesn't make it, and neither does the Victorian Police strike.

Popular historians and popular historical works about the period, such as Turner's Sydney's Burning, Brown and Haldane's Days of Violence about the police strike, and Lang's I Remember, are ignored. Important radical figures such as the Labor Federal politician Frank Anstey and the then Communist secretary of the Sydney Labor Council, Jock Garden, don't rate a mention.


Macintyre abolishes Langism


When you get into the 1930s, the narrative gets even wierder. The only mention of Jack Lang is in relation to incident during the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when a member of the fascist-minded New Guard galloped up on a horse and cut the ribbon before Lang could do so. All that Macintyre says about the popular mobilisation behind Lang at the time of the Premier's Plan, is the following:

The incident was theatrical, but it came as the demagogic Premier, Jack Lang was defying the national agreement to reduce public expenditure and street violence was building an atmosphere of public hysteria. Only when the Governor dismissed Lang in May 1932 did the unrest subside.

That's the only mention of Lang. No mention of the Lang Plan. No mention of the mass meetings and the popular mobilisations around Lang on a national scale. This airbrushing of Langism slides over into falsification in the untrue statement in Macintyre's book that the Lang government fell because of a Labor split.

This is dry as dust official history, with one variation. Dopey nostalgia for Stalinism is introduced into the narrative as a kind of alternative to describing the popular mass movement of the time led by J. T. Lang. There is a lengthy account of the activities of the Unemployed Workers Movement and the Communist Party, presented as if they were the major actors, and almost the only actors, in the upheaval against the effects of the Depression.

What an objectionable way of using Stalinism as a left face for an essentially conservative official history of the Depression. Even when discussing the Communist Party and the Unemployed Workers Movement, which are mentioned many times, they remain disembodied, shadowy entities, suspended in mid-air, so to speak.

None of the significant leaders or colourful characters in the communist movement of the 1930s are actually named: no Stalinist leaders such as Lance Sharkey, Richard Dixon or J. B. Miles. No important Communist union leaders such as Ernie Thornton, Lloyd Ross, Orr and Nelson, Jim Henderson or Jim Healy. No communist writers such as Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Jean Devanney or, in a later period, Frank Hardy. Just the disembodied entity of a totally idealised Communist Party.

My detailed critique of Macintyre's book on the Communist Party, The Reds, made the point fairly sharply that this book was a narrowly institutional history of the Communist Party, and tended to treat the CP as a majestic entity standing alone, outside the context of its interaction with the labour movement as a whole.

This is, in my view, a dangerous defect in a history of the Communist Party. This curious methodology verges on the absurd when it is carried over from an institutional history of the CP into a Concise History of Australia and the CP of the 1930s is idealised during the Third Period and the later Popular Front periods, without reference to its intersection and conflict with the rest of the labour movement, particularly Langism.


Macintyre and Vietnam


The 1960s and the 1970s are discussed in a curious way. There is a heavy emphasis on something Macintyre calls the "New Left", but the enormous popular mobilisations against the Vietnam War, spearheaded by Vietnam Action Committees, Vietnam Day Committees and Vietnam Moratorium Committees, is presented in a very summary way.

The day after Macintyre spoke at the Labor History Conference, there was a moving and interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald by political commentator Allan Ramsey. This article commemorated events exactly 35 years before, when Ramsey had been a very junior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.

On the day when the Liberal Government announced the sending of troops to Vietnam, Labor leader Arthur Calwell went into the parliamentary chamber and made a powerful speech opposing the intervention, pledging a future Labor government would withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam, a commitment from which Calwell never flinched.

Ramsey's article points out, with some emotion, how far-sighted Calwell was on that eventful day 35 years ago. No sentimentality of that sort for our Stuart, however. His last reference to Calwell describes Calwell's removal from the Labor Party leadership by Gough Whitlam in the following terms: "The Labor leader was Gough Whitlam, elected to that position in 1967 after a long struggle with the old guard led by its gnarled centurion, Arthur Calwell."

You get no hint from Macintyre that one of the main issues in Whitlam's successful leadership challenge to the "gnarled centurion", Arthur Calwell, was the proposition that Calwell had been too radical in committing the ALP to immediate withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam, and that Whitlam's new policy in 1967 was a much more ambiguous statement about Vietnam policy, involving reducing the number of troops, and negotiating with the NLF, rather than immediate withdrawal from Vietnam.

Oh that we might have a few "gnarled centurions" like Arthur Augustus Calwell, in the labour movement today!

The industrial explosion in 1969 led by Tramways Union Secretary, Clarrie O'Shea, which destroyed the penal clauses of the Arbitration Act, is not mentioned. The urban affairs activities of the Whitlam Government are mentioned, but without naming Tom Uren.

The Whitlam Government is effectively dismiss

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