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The following essay has been written and published in response to increasing requests from researchers for information on the background and development of historian Terry Irving and his approach to history. As Rob Pascoe commented in 1979, Irving was prominent amongst the New Left historians who emerged in Australia during the 1960s, and forecast that his radical view of the past might be "rather too unsettling" for Australia/ns........the 'jury' is no doubt considering this, and related matters......[see Rob Pascoe, The Manufacture of Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1979, pp. 4, 159-160]. Irving has also written about his intellectual development on this blog in 'Shaping Histories', and in "'The triumph of green hearts over sere': reflections on student radicalism at Sydney University in the 1910s and 1960s"

Terry Irving addressing a radical forum at Sydney
University, March 2014 (Photo: Sydney University Education
Action Group)
I am an Australian academic – have been since 1964 – and I come from a working-class family, but I don’t have a working-class voice. I mean this in two senses: my voice as it sounds, and my voice as evidence of a definitive identity.

I don’t sound – I never sounded – working class because my parents were from the ‘respectable’ working class, an elite that was proud of its skilled work and demanded recognition for it by adopting the ‘educated Australian accent’ of the mid-twentieth century and the rules of middle-class grammar. Today my classless voice conceals a particular history of phonetic and grammatical class relations.

As to whether I have a working-class voice, my answer is that I have several. Sometimes I remember my life as the elder son of a working-class family and want to talk about belonging and solidarity and trust in a present mostly lacking in them; sometimes I recall my upward path through the status hierarchy and the anxieties it brought on; and often I want to emphasize the class meaning of my intellectual identity. At least these are the voices that I feel I can write about; were I more confident in the use of gender theory I might also reflect on class and masculinity in my relations with women and men.


Memories of the working class life of my childhood in Sydney (NSW) between the end of the Second World War and the middle of the 1950s are, in many ways, communal and political. From noon on Saturday we had a day and a half when almost no one worked for a boss; it was called the weekend, and it was when workers could help each other. As wartime service ended families formed or re-formed, ‘returned-men’ invested their small savings in suburban building blocks, and friends, family and work-mates shared the labour needed to make the working class dream of home-ownership a post-war reality. As a carpenter and joiner my father was in great demand. On Sundays the family would pile into the old car and drive to wherever he had promised to help, or sometimes to our own block in Ryde where his friends were waiting to help us. I watched our block cleared and the foundations for a never-to-be-lived-in home dug; at other sites I saw timber frames erected, fibro-asbestos sheeting nailed to the studs, doors and windows installed, as houses closed the gaps in the streetscape, erected on blocks that had been vacant for over twenty years and had served as playgrounds for us war-time kids.

Despite these co-operative efforts the demand for housing was not being met, so another way of coping was for families to share an existing home. My parents created a spare bedroom by moving my younger brother and me to the large back verandah, and a second kitchen (without a sink) by closing off the small front verandah. For the next five years or so a string of couples, sometimes with children, lived with us in our rented, 1920s brick cottage. I’m sure the landlord was never informed, just as I’m sure the exploding beer bottles below our unlined, uncarpeted, unenclosed verandah-bedroom were not legally brewed.

From the families who shared our home I had my first lessons in working class history. I learnt about the ‘eviction wars of 1931’, when members of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement barricaded themselves inside the homes of unemployed families unable to pay the rent, meeting force with force when the police came to evict the families. In our spare bedroom in 1949 lived a young woman who had grown up  
Fred Paterson (1897-1977): Rhodes Scholar, lawyer,
Communist M.P.; victim of a devastating police
bashing in 1948.
in a ‘happy valley’, as the shanty-towns of tents and humpies for evicted families were ironically called. Another family from Broken Hill had tales of militant strikes and the power of the Barrier Industrial Council. After school one day I was introduced to a man – he looked very old and sick – whose name was Fred Paterson. Later my mother told me he was the former Communist member of the Queensland Parliament who had been bashed by police while observing a protest march in Brisbane

In the evenings our lounge room seemed always full of visitors. There were parties (‘socials’) when singers gathered around the piano; ‘cottage lectures’ by ‘speakers’ on the need to preserve world peace and ban atomic weapons; and rehearsals of the trade union choir my mother belonged to. On one memorable occasion, with blankets nailed to the walls, the lounge room became a makeshift studio to record the choir.

The events I describe occurred because both my parents had separately joined the Communist Party during the war. My father, a firm trade unionist, having been brought up in the coal-mining town of Cessnock (where his brother was a miner and both his sisters were married to miners), a town which at one stage had a communist-led local council until the Labor government changed the electoral rules, was recruited while serving as an aircraftsman in the Northern Territory. Meanwhile, my mother, alone with two young children, was recruited over the back fence by Gilbert Stead, the brother of novelist Christina Stead. My mother, a trained psychiatric nurse, was from a family of South Australian settlers who had owned shops, preached Swedenborgian religion, surveyed the telegraph line to Darwin, or, in the case of her father, photographed the state’s notable citizens. But by the time she came along, a slide down the social scale had begun. She left school at 14. None of my father’s or my mother’s brothers and sisters had any education beyond the minimum required for school leavers.


This is how I remember getting to university. We sat in the headmaster’s office, my mother and I, waiting to hear his answer to her question: what should my son do now that his schooling was coming to an end. I saw an old man whom I had never met during the five years I had spent in his selective North Shore high school. He saw a middle-aged working-class woman and a boy who had made no noticeable impact on the sporting, academic or military life of the school. I hid my excitement, expecting to hear that my exam marks entitled me to go to university. Instead, he put us in our place: I should go straight to Teachers’ College for a career in primary school teaching.

I detected that my mother felt that we had been slighted, but perhaps she was also relieved. She knew of my hopes, and she had always been proud of my achievements in schoolwork, but since her divorce from my father in the early 1950s the family’s financial position was precarious. Could we afford to send me to university? Perhaps I should think about earning some money. Wouldn’t an office job suit me better? She was always telling my brother and me to ‘keep your head down’; ‘don’t get above your station’; ‘you’re not the only pebble on the beach’ (oh, we were very English on the lower North Shore). Schooling was a good thing as long as it led to greater material security. This vaguely irritated me. I can’t say that I rejected her utilitarian approach to schooling, but I did feel that it was wrong. For one thing it cheapened learning, which I liked. In Primary school at Roseville I had been dux and captain. For another, it was short sighted. It seemed possible that through schoolwork I could aim even higher than office work, disturbing though this might be to the relationship with my mother.

In my mother’s thought-universe the revolutionary party leader ranked higher than a state school principal, so she approached her comrades for advice about my future. It was OK, she told me. Sam Lewis had said that one of the functions of Teachers’ Colleges was to be the university of the working class. Lewis (1901-1976) was the leading Communist in the NSW Teachers' Federation (President: 1945-52, 1964-68).

When I discovered that the Education Department’s scholarship for intending high school teachers paid a small stipend and a book allowance for the duration of a three-year undergraduate course, and when I promised to continue to work at holiday jobs, as I had since I was 15, my mother conceded that my going to university might be possible. Now it was up to me. I surprised myself, and no doubt some other people too, by winning the school prize for history and two scholarships. So, as it turned out neither party nor state authority would determine my future. At the beginning of 1956 I became a student in the Arts faculty of the University of Sydney.


As I contemplated my first day as a university student I realized I had no idea of what to wear. Without the security of a school uniform I was about to discover for the first time ‘the hidden injuries of class’.

When I turned fifteen my mother had bought me a ‘business suit’, so I could serve behind a department-store counter or run errands in a city office in the school holidays, but would a heavy, dark blue double-breaster be right? No, those uni boys in the DJs adverts were never dressed like clerks or salesmen; something more casual was needed. So I bought from Gowings a cheap ‘sports coat’ – brown, rough and heavy – more tweedy than sporty. After a few days as a fresher, among the blazers and cravats, the twin sets and faux pearls, and dripping with sweat as a Sydney summer came to a stifling end, I knew the coat was a dead give-away: I had no style, no money, and no savoir-faire.

But I was young - seventeen and a quarter when I fronted up to sign the matriculation register during Orientation Week – and exhilarated by the challenge of new subjects to study and new folkways to follow. Here I was at the University of Sydney – the oldest in the country - whose degrees admitted you to the state’s elite – a vague entity, as was the university itself. I wasn’t sure how I felt about entering an elite. Politically, as I was a socialist, it would be an issue, but if it meant not being condescended to like my mother was, it might be all right. I wasn’t ambitious - just tired of pretending and scrimping.

Was I the only working-class student at Sydney University in the late 1950s? It certainly felt like it. There would have been a few of us in the Labour Club but we never talked about our families, perhaps because we were too insecure socially.

Strangely enough, in my second year I was part of an academic study that did seek answers to questions about where students came from (in terms of their father’s occupation) and how they experienced university life. I had enrolled in Education I, and as part of the course each student was required to administer a set of questions to a householder who was part of a ‘community’ sample chosen by four academics in the Department. I duly caught the bus to Manly to meet my assigned interviewee, but I recall being only mildly interested in what the study might reveal, or in the social survey as a way of acquiring knowledge; I was a literary not a ‘sciency’ type, and anyway the book based on the study was not published until 1964 (Hugh Philp, R. L. Debus, Vija Veidemanis and W. F. Connell, The University and its Community, Ian Novak, Sydney, 1964).

Now that I have read the book I know the answer to my question. I was not the only student with working-class parents on campus. The authors took a second sample of undergraduates at the same time, and in this sample there were 69 students or 12.3% whose fathers (like mine) were in occupations that could be grouped as ‘skilled trades’. In the ‘community sample’ the number was double, 26%. There were even some students whose fathers worked in ‘semi-skilled’ or ‘unskilled’ jobs. Altogether, undergraduates from the blue-collar working class were 18% of the student body, but our share of the ‘community’ sample was 44.6%.

This skewing of the undergraduate sample did not surprise the authors, because, as they reported, it was similar to that ‘revealed in other studies of university populations’. This was confirmed in 1980, when the Education, Research and Development Committee published a study of the social composition of students
in higher education. As the aim of the study was to measure the impact of the abolition of fees by the Whitlam Labor government in 1974, the authors began with a chapter surveying earlier studies of the origins of Australian students. Here is their conclusion on the class background of students before the 1970s:

“There is almost a surfeit of evidence that the great majority of students at Australian universities tend to come from the upper socio-economic levels of society. … High ranking professional and administrative families, which make up only a small percentage of the population, contribute approximately half of all university students, whereas manual and skilled workers, who make up almost half of the workforce, contribute a disproportionately small number of students.”

The Whitlam Government’s reform of higher education was meant to alter this situation. Why? Because the workforce was changing: competition from cheap labour economies overseas persuaded the government to give up on manufacturing and shift the working class into service and administrative jobs. For that objective a more highly educated workforce was needed. Secondly, unemployment among young people was rising, and getting working class kids out of the dole queues by keeping them longer at school and university would avoid social disorder. Thirdly, there was already too much disorder, as the new social movements became combative, attracting young people into the campaigns of women, Blacks, greenies and peaceniks. Solution: accept that universities, albeit infested with lefties, were in essence disciplining institutions, and, compared to hanging around on the streets, privileged out-stations for working class kids. At least the young malcontents could be bottled up in their own reserves, where in time they might learn to comply, especially when they realized that their future employment depended upon it.

That at least was how the left understood the reasons behind Whitlam’s expansion of the higher education sector and abolition of university tuition fees. Of course, we were not too hopeful: social engineering on this scale takes time, not to speak of a real commitment to social equality. And we were right. Before long HECS was introduced as social democracy began to morph into neo-liberalism. So, forty years later, in the matter of democratizing the student population the situation may even be worse. According to the Bradley Report (Review of Australian Higher Education, 2008) participation in higher education ‘by indigenous people, people with low socio-economic status and those from regional and remote areas … has been static or falling over the last decade’. In 2007, participation in Australian universities by those with ‘low SES’ was 15%, when the proportion of this group in the general population was 25%. Professor Bradley was concerned. She asked the government to ensure that 20% of ‘undergraduate enrolments in higher education should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds’ by 2020.8 Given that neo-liberalism dominates public policy, I’m not holding my breath.


Too young to drink; too poor to have a girl friend; too different in social background and political beliefs to mix easily with fellow students: my first year was a bit of a disaster. I found a few congenial types in the tiny Labour Club – a refuge for Commo and working-class kids – but the atmosphere at club events was defensive and suspicious - not surprisingly as this was the height of the first Cold War. My courses disappointed me. The survey of English literature was too broad to be intellectually engaging; in Philosophy the Scottish accents of the lecturers were impenetrable; Psychology was ruined by a compulsory statistics module; and in History I made the mistake of taking the ‘Ancient’ course whose main lecturer was boring in the extreme. At the end of year, although I passed in everything, I only just managed to qualify for the Honours program in History that began in Second Year.

Cold War portrait of WWF leader 'Big Jim' Healy (1898-1961)
at work in his office.
But then things looked up. My substitute home became the campus where I arrived early each day and left late at night. There I could eat cheaply, relax for free in the comfy lounges in the Holme Building, meet for coffee and intrigue in the Refectory, write my essays in the Library, and pretend to be a film buff at screenings by the Film Group. I could also indulge my love of theatre at performances by The Players and SUDS. Every Wednesday there was a Labour Club meeting to organize and every Thursday a table to set up inScience Road with books and pamphlets. As an office bearer of the Labour Club I was becoming a minor campus identity; now it was easy to find a group of friends to go to the pub with on Friday night where we would bask in our radical notoriety and exaggerate our political successes. One of those was the meeting I chaired where Big Jim Healy was the speaker. Healy was the long-time General Secretary of the Wharfies Union, a leading Communist, much in the news then because of a long-running industrial campaign that was causing apoplexy among the commentators in the anti-communist newspapers. We knew this would be a big meeting so we booked the old Union Hall. At five past one on the day of the meeting I met Healy at the top of the Union Steps and led him onto the stage. The crowd hissed and yelled. I tried in vain to introduce him. Finally the uproar subsided sufficiently for Healy, an imposing figure with a north of England accent, to begin. ‘In society’, he boomed, ‘there are two classes.’ I feared the speaker’s Marxist lecture would not be received well. Then he went on, with a smile, ‘Men and women’. The crowd roared their appreciation, and Healy proceeded to put his case.

By this time I was a member of the even tinier University branch of the Communist Party. For insisting on a full discussion of Stalin’s crimes and the ‘cult of personality’ in world Communism, exposed by Khruschev in his 1956 secret speech to the Russian party’s 20th congress, we were accused of factionalism and revisionism by party headquarters. Given the way I had been socialized as a ‘red diaper’ baby, this was unsettling, as was the party’s catechetical approach to the study of Marxism in party educational classes. I recall being sharply pulled into line by ‘the tutor’ (a minor trade union official) for interrogating The 18th Brumaire to discover the limits as well as the strengths of Marx’s historical materialism. Among students the party’s ‘leadership’ was hardly visible. Promoting the Russian line on world peace was the only activity that had any support, and even that was minimal. Perhaps the highlight in this regard was a joint Labour Club and Student Christian Movement demonstration against nuclear tests in 1958 outside the offices of the US Consulate in Barrack Street. There were maybe 20 of us. The Consul kindly met a deputation; the daily press ignored us; and we felt like real revolutionaries at the pub afterwards. I stayed in the party as long as I could, leaving after several years of inactivity in 1964.


As a student activist and a young intellectual my working class voice was political. When I spoke in that context it was not my ‘SES’ nor my experiences in a working class family that defined me, but rather my conscious decision to align myself with working-class politics, to be a labour intellectual. I am not relying on hindsight when I say this. Nor was it at the time a particularly ‘intellectual’ step to take. This last point may seem hard to understand for twenty-first century believers in the power of the working class, because due to its present demobilized state they need to compensate by having the pure light of theory flood their minds with the certainties of History. Back in the 1950s and 60s we student radicals were not very ‘theoretical’; we didn’t have to be because we had an ‘actually existing’ working-class public – of newspapers, journals, theatres, social clubs, film groups, radio programs, and educational bodies - to immerse ourselves in. We marched in the annual May Day processions; our Commem Day floats were constructed in the studio of the Wharfies union’s art group. We wrote for Tribune or Australian Left Review, partied with the Bushwackers, and camped at the Springwood site owned by the Seamen’s Union.

This class voice carried over into my academic career choices. When I wrote my BA honours and doctoral theses they focused on political ideas, political movements, and representative government. Moving from History to the Department of Government and Public Administration in 1968 was a logical move because it meant I could specialize in these areas, as well as discovering new ones, such as democratic political theory, the sociology of political movements, and the structural analysis of class, gender and generation. In the 1970s, I became an advocate of staff-student control of the Department, opposing professorial prerogatives and reorganising my courses around projects and class assemblies. In my research I preferred to work collaboratively, at a time when the usual pattern of publication was by sole authorship.

While a young academic I was caught up in the first New Left around Outlook and Arena because it was a development of the Old Left. But gradually, with rise of new middle class and the generational revolt of the 1960s, the class composition of the left changed. The second New Left, with which I was also associated through Sydney’s Free U and a series of left conferences for intellectuals, was middle class, bohemian and mostly located in educational institutions. It introduced me to participatory democracy and anarchist ideas (the latter only partly acknowledged by me at the time).


Finally, two reflections: academics were not working class in cultural or structural terms when I began, and very few had working class backgrounds (I can recall meeting only one). But now that most suffer from precarious employment the class position of academics has changed. They have lost almost all control of their labour power. There has also been a corresponding change in the understanding of intellectuals, away from the purely cognitive to a functional understanding, so that what they do can be called ‘work’. In this sense too academics are becoming part of a post-industrial working class.

Bearing this in mind, let us not be taken in by the apparently progressive idea of making the student population more representative. When radical intellectuals first turned their attention to the role of universities it was in the 1910s. By that time there were some bursaries and scholarships for university study. Did the radicals call for an increase in the number of ‘low SES’ students? Yes, but their demand was also much broader. They advocated a radical reform of universities from a working-class point of view, including what was taught, how it was taught, and how decisions were made. Of course, in making this demand they had the benefit of a surge of support for popular control of government, for democracy as a social movement. If that kind of ‘savage democracy’ were to rise again – as it might, in the light of the recent popular movements elsewhere – it would make it possible to envisage something new in Australia’s higher education policy: the democratization of universities.

~Terry Irving, April 2014