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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tial very large sales.

Good examples of that phenomenon are Russel Ward's Australian Legend and Vance Palmer's Legend of the 90s, which Macintyre dislikes so much that he doesn't list them in the bibliography.

They are actually more accessible in bookshops than many of the books he does list.

 

Macintyre's geographical bias towards Melbourne and towards current fashions in theory and cultural history

 

An examination of Macintyre's bibliography shows several pronounced biases. A striking feature of the bibliography is a strong representation of what is now called "theory" and "cultural history", and a sharp bias against popular history, public history, etc.

There is also a bias in favour of what I might call tenured university academic history.

There is a very strong geographical bias towards Melbourne and Adelaide. The further history producers get from these Agoras of the South, the less significance is ascribed to them by Stuart Macintyre.

There is a strong bibliographical bias against labour history, ethnic history (other than Aboriginal), and religious history. The Catholics are eliminated from the narrative, most populism and rebellion also.

What you get is a combination of the aforesaid "cultural history" as the "left", and academic official history, as both the "left", and the "right", of Macintyre's discourse.

All the populist and Marxist participants in the, apparently now past, debate on class (other than Macintyre himself) are airbrushed out of history, almost as systematically as Stalin's captive historians used to airbrush Trotsky out of Soviet history. What we are left with is a very dull, Anglophile, official history of Australia from which most of the Sturm and Drang, and other excitements and turmoils, have been eliminated.

 

Stuart Macintyre's intellectual odyssey

 

This argument with Stuart Macintyre has, in fact, become a bit personal for me, based to some extent on my intellectual disappointment in him. For many years I did not know Macintyre from the proverbial bar of soap. I remembered him vaguely from a distance, at a couple of radical conferences or assemblies in the 1970s.

I remember reading self-confidently ultraleft interventions under his byline in internal Communist Party discussion bulletins and leftist journals that came my way back then. I had very little sympathy with the Left Tendency in the Communist Party, of which Macintyre was a part, and its Althusserian rhetorical leftist ultimatism. Their standpoint seemed to me quite remote from any realistic Marxism that could be applied to the problems of the Australian labour movement.

Later on, I became rather more aware of Macintyre's historical work and I was excited by one of his two early books, A Proletarian Science (Cambridge University Press 1980), which was an intellectual history of the influence of Marxism on the working-class founders of the British Communist Party. In this book, Macintyre uniquely developed a study of the phenomenon of autodidact proletarian intellectuals and their encounter with Marxism, and the extraordinary way that this encounter dominated the life of the early British Communist Party.

It struck me at the time how applicable this was to the Australian Communist Party, the early Trotskyist movement in Australia, and indeed the Australian labour movement as a whole, because similar working class autodidacts were the overwhelmingly dominant ideological force in the Australian labour movement until very recently.

His other early book, Little Moscows (Croom Helm 1980), a study of some isolated working class communities in Britain, where the Communist Party had been uniquely influential, I found also quite interesting, although Macintyre's tendency to view those places and events as a kind of Marxist antiquarian was already apparent in this book, and in retrospect foreshadowed his later shift to the right politically.

His earliest Australian book, written when he was getting his academic start in Australia, in Perth, his very fine The Life and Times of Paddy Troy (1984), is about the quintessential Australian Communist autodidact trade union official.

Some of Macintyre's later Australian books, such as A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Visionaries (1991, and The Labour Experiment (1988), Macintyre's own book on the early development of the arbitration system, are extremely useful.

One thing that flows from my knowledge of his early work is that it does not seem reasonable to pass over the thrust and orientation of his recent and more reactionary books, The Reds, the Oxford Companion, and the Concise History, with the ideological let-out that he may not know any better. Several historians with whom I have discussed the book have agreed that some of my major criticisms of the Concise History have merit, but they have contended that the more obvious explanation for many of the omissions I have raised is that Stuart Macintyre may have written this book in something of a hurry, largely with the assistance of research staff, after possibly being approached by the publishers with the idea that, as Ernest Scott Professor, it would be appropriate to produce his own Short History, as a kind of seal of academic eminence.

Even if this were so, I contend that the finished product represents Macintyre's view of what a Concise History of Australia ought to be, and therefore it must be criticised in detail by those who have different ideas about what an accurate narrative would be in a useful Concise History.

 

Macintyre's political encounter with Stalinism

 

Stuart Macintyre's early work showed considerable evidence of the dramatic impact on him of the 1960s-70s radicalisation, which picked up this product of the important establishment school, Scotch College, with his conservative background, and initial patrician introspection and diffidence, and thrust him into an encounter with the left wing of the labour movement.

Unfortunately, that encounter was with the degenerate Stalinist and Althusserian wing of the movement. In retrospect, in trying to explain why this bloke, whose early books were so useful, has become such an intellectual obstacle to the practice of a popular Australian history, I advance the following possible explanation.

The Althusserianism that interacted with the more traditional Stalinism in the decaying Communist Party, where Macintyre got his initial miseducation in Marxism, had some particular idiosyncracies.

The old Australian Stalinist Party had developed a certain sectarian animosity to Catholics by reason of its long conflict with them in the labour movement. It also had a rather Stalinist, jealous hostility to all past labourite populism, particularly Langism, because of its fierce competition with such currents, particularly when aggressive High Stalinism was young, and populist Langism was at its peak in the 1930s.

Macintyre seems to have taken over all of these Stalinist prejudices wholesale, and they appear to have intertwined with his ancestral, conservative, Melbourne establishment, British-Scottish prejudices, probably repressed but possibly still active in his subconscious.

In recent times, all these accumulated prejudices appear to me to have come into play as his political, social and cultural views have shifted steadily back to the right in this period of episodic cultural and political reaction (which won't be permanent, in my view, and will inevitably be followed by new radicalisations).

It seems to me that in Macintyre's current historical efforts, both his early Melbourne establishment cultural formation and his middle period of Stalinist training, are involved. He tends to adapt the historical story to the concerns of the Anglophile section of the ruling class and intelligentsia, to smooth out all the past episodes of populism, and gloss over the past rebellions.

He gets rid of the past sectarian conflicts, presents a rather assimilationist perspective towards recent migrants, introduces a few fashionable "leftist" cultural postures, and drags in a bit of Stalinist nostalgia to represent the radical past.

All of this fits in pretty well with his current situation as Dean of Arts, powerful figure in the Melbourne University History Department, intellectual mover and shaker among the more conservative sections of the Labor Party leadership, and ministerial appointee to the committee overseeing David Kemp's Curriculum Corporation in its revision of the history syllabus of many Australian schools.

All his background and experiences, both from his establishment origins and his middle period of encounter with Stalinism, equip him rather well for these current roles. I wasn't particularly surprised, from this point of view, when he inferred in his lecture at the Sydney Labor History Conference, that he had voted no in the recent Republic Referendum.

I'm angry with Macintyre, because, as he has shifted to the right, he seems to have forgotten the useful things he discovered writing the Paddy Troy biography and A Proletarian Science, and it seems that the prejudice and cultural mystification built into the establishment tradition from which he came, and the Stalinist movement where he received his initial political miseducation in Stalinist Marxism, have come together to profoundly influence his historical activity.

 

Stu

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