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"Rediscovering Radical History": Essay by Terry Irving

During the writing of Radical Sydney (UNSW Press, 2010), co-authors Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill gave thought to the concept of 'radical history' in the context of the writing and 'telling' of Australian history. 'Never Neutral' and 'Rediscovering Radical History' are their individual preliminary responses to their deliberations during this writing process. The essays are the copyright of Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving respectively. They may be downloaded and copied for the purposes of study, review, criticism, with due acknowledgement. For a related discussion see Terry Irving, 'A Radical History Book: How We Came To Write It', Illawarra Unity, Journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 10(1), 2010, 58-65. Available at:

Rediscovering Radical History
by Terry Irving

This essay continues my reflections on the early days of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History Society (ASSLH) published in Hummer (vol. 4, no. 1, Summer 2003/4) as ‘ASIO and the Labour History Society: An Incident in 1964’. That article was about an attempt organized by ASIO to disrupt the Society - one of the consequences of labour history’s political role at that time.

Today there are still politically active labour historians for whom history is a cause as well as a profession. The ASSLH’s leaders still make connections with the labour movement at an official level, and the Society’s campaigns to preserve labour heritage and archives, and its efforts to encourage a love of history among movement activists, have benefitted from the support of progressive parliamentarians and union officers. Yet, over the fifty years of the ASSLH’s history, the importance of politics to how labour history is practiced, if it has not disappeared, has certainly declined. The political and the professional tend to exist in separate spheres of the ASSLH, the former in the branches, and the latter in the Society’s internationally recognized scholarly journal, Labour History. Of course, much has changed in the environment in which labour historians work, especially in class relations and in politics, as Rowan Cahill’s essay on this blog makes clear. In my essay I want to point to another change. Eric Fry and his comrades were part of a movement tradition of history work that was political by definition. There is an intellectual dimension to what we have largely lost: they wrote radical history, not just labour history.

In 1991, Peter Love interviewed Eric Fry about the ASSLH that Eric had helped to form thirty years earlier. Both Peter and Eric were up-beat about the story: a small group of enthusiasts had built a federal society with branches around the country; a roughly produced small-circulation Bulletin became Labour History, an international scholarly journal; the Society’s scholars widened the scope of historical enquiry to embrace the common people in this country; and, together with other historians, they made Australian history ‘a popular pursuit, a study, and a part of ordinary people’s lives’.(1)

To highlight these achievements I had to read the interview in a particular way, to emphasize the professional and historiographical elements of the story. Had I given due weight to the autobiographical elements a rather different picture would have emerged. When he returned to Sydney University after the Second World War Fry said he felt part of a radical generation that believed in history and philosophy as guides to action, as tools of change as well as understanding. Then, as a doctoral student in history at the Australian National University during the Cold War he identified with a group of dissident intellectuals. He described himself a few years later forming the Society with them, characterizing their work as an effort to build ‘a bridge between ordinary people and academics’. Finally, at the end of the interview, looking back at the progress of the Society, he emphasized that the whole point of it was to find ‘new ways and new people’ to ‘change the world’: ‘we didn’t want this to be an ivory tower organization’.

In this essay I will focus on the generational moment that was so important for Eric’s understanding of his role in the formation of the Society. In the foundational myth of the Society the professionalization of labour history is in the foreground. It is also not uncommon to notice that Robin Gollan, Fry and others at this time were in the process of distancing themselves from the Communist Party and creating a more liberal role for themselves as left intellectuals.(2)  There are three other aspects of this moment that deserve attention. First, the 1950s and early 1960s were marked by fierce ideological differences among historians, the culmination of the development of imperial and radical traditions of history writing since the early 1900s. Second as labour historians entered the universities it was possible to make links between academic and radical historians in the labour movement. Third, Robin Gollan’s most important book demonstrated that radical historians could be in thrall to liberal parliamentarist illusions about democracy, illusions that obscured in their work the persistence of struggles for popular democracy in Australia.

History work in the labour movement

Eric Fry’s choice to create historical knowledge was not unusual in the labour movement.(3)  From the 1880s to the 1950s labour intellectuals had been writing and editing labour’s journals, speaking on street corners, writing manifestos, drafting legislation, painting banners, and so on – giving voice to its values of co-operation, solidarity, popular democracy, and militancy.(4)  Through their work they created an alternative world for working people, a radical labour public, in which workers and their families could learn to understand their situation and how to change it. Then as unionists, community activists and Labor (or less effectively, Communist) voters they could take the necessary action, becoming agents of history. So it came about that those who now imagined themselves as makers of the present and the future wanted to know more about the past. They expected labour intellectuals to provide them with the kind of historical knowledge that would show a pattern in human history to justify their struggles.

This was the tradition that Fry became part of in the 1950s. His predecessors were embedded in labour movement institutions; they wrote or lectured about the materialist conception of history, the history of trade unions, and the Labor, socialist and communist political traditions. They condemned the history taught in public schools because of its imperial and ruling class biases. We know the names of some of them – Childe, Evatt, Fitzpatrick, Lloyd Ross etc – because their contributions conformed to the publishing conventions of the ruling culture: they wrote books. We are less familiar with Bob and May Brodney who lectured at the Victorian Labor College; or Frank Hyett, the railway union official who republished Craik’s Outline History of the Modern British Working Class Movement; or Gordon Crane, a railway union education officer; or Adela Walsh and Esther Wait who attacked imperialist propaganda in school history texts; or George Black, Bill Gollan, Bill McNamara and Clarrie Martin who promoted the history of the Labor Party; or Ernie Campbell who did the same for the Communist Party; or Dave McNeil whose sketch of natural and social history from a materialist position, ‘Back in the Beginning of Things’ was serialized in the miners’ paper, Common Cause and the Newcastle Morning Herald. There are dozens – perhaps hundreds - of

This is a tradition of labour history scarcely recognized by labour historians, despite the fact that several important aspects of academic labour history (the study of labour institutions; the use of class analysis; the radical nationalist tradition) have their roots in this vulgar soil.(6)  It is also neglected by the wider historical profession which is consequently unaware of the extent to which the dominant imperial account of our history was challenged by labour’s radical historical work.

The survey by Professor Brian Fletcher of Australian history produced in New South Wales is an example of this neglect. Although he trawled the country press for the least piece of antiquarian history trivia, he totally ignored the labour press – including three dailies, the weekly Worker, dozens of socialist, communist and anarchist papers, and several substantial journals published by trade unions. Consequently, he makes no mention of Sam Rosa’s remarkable A Political History of Australia, whose 213 chapters were serialized in the Labour Daily for almost three years (1926-29). At a time when academic Australian history was firmly fixed in its imperial framework, Rosa, a labour journalist, agitator and organizer, wrote a history that was anti-imperial. A decade before Brian Fitzpatrick set out to interpret Australian history in economic terms, Rosa proudly announced that his materialist account of politics would be anchored in ‘the economic development of society’, and organized into three economic periods – pastoral, gold mining, and industrial.(7)  And two decades before Bob Gollan set out to write a doctoral thesis about how ‘an advanced democracy was established’ in Australia, Rosa compiled vivid stories of the popular struggles that would later appear in Gollan’s Radical and Working Class Politics as the radicalizing force in the history of representative government. But neither Rosa’s work nor that of any of the dozens of labour intellectuals writing partisan, radical history for the movement is apparent to Fletcher. Having ignored the labour press, he concludes predictably that the history he discovered was written ‘from above, as seen through the ideas of the ruling group’ and that it ‘reflected the values … of the white community in general’.(8)

Surviving in the papers of James Normington Rawling is a scrapbook in which he had pasted every chapter of Rosa’s massive work.(9)  Rawling was a history graduate from the University of Sydney so he knew the difference between the document-based ‘scientific’ style of history taught in universities and the labour movement’s radical history. Clearly, Rawling believed that Rosa’s history would be valuable for his own research and writing. We need to know what Rawling found in the radical historical culture of the labour movement; we need to know more about the interaction of radical history and the foot-noted scholarly history written by Rawling – and by Gordon Childe, Brian Fitzpatrick, Bert Evatt, Lloyd Ross, Esmonde Higgins, Bob Walshe, Lloyd Churchward, Bob Gollan, Ian Turner, Eric Fry, and Jim Hagan – not to speak of the second generation of labour historians. In what ways did history work in the labour movement point these scholars to questions and topics for investigation, theories for testing, and a moral stance that sided with the people against their rulers, and with the nation against the empire?

When James Rawling’s articles in the Communist Review in the 1930s and his unfinished six-volume The Story of the Australian People, published by the Communist Party in 1938-9, came to Fletcher’s attention he commented predictably on their ‘ideological overtones’.(10)  But he let pass without a similar comment the information that the secondary school syllabus in New South Wales prepared under the guidance of K.R. Cramp in the 1920s mandated the teaching of history via ‘the medium of biographical sketches of the careers of men who were leaders in our race development’.(11)  Apparently, racist and patriarchal history is not ideological.

If Fletcher had read the Labor Daily in 1928 he would have discovered that history teachers with labour movement affiliations vigorously attacked Cramp’s A Story of the Australian People, first published in 1927 but still used when I went to primary school in the 1940s. According to Clutha Robertson, of the Labour Educational League, Cramp had revealed ‘how not to write history’. His ‘most objectionable text book’ slurred over economic changes, thus disguising ‘the whole contour of history’. Instead of showing how the peoples of the world were divided into classes, he promoted ‘the vanity of race’. On page 394 of Cramp’s book, Robertson wrote, ‘the question is asked: “what brought about the Great War? We cannot answer this question here.” The reader might venture the opinion that wars are partly caused by just such textbooks as these by keeping the rising generation in a state of international jealousy and ignorance of economic factors’.(12)

By the 1950s, when the ASSLH’s founders were beginning their academic careers, history work in the labour movement was producing both scholarly studies and popular pamphlets of considerable power. A second edition of Brian Fitzpatrick’s The Australian People, 1788-1945 appeared in 1951. For this popularization of his pioneering, anti-imperialist economic interpretation of our history, Fitzpatrick took as his models, We, The People by the U.S. socialist, Leo Huberman, and Poverty and Progress in New Zealand by W.B. Sutch, which had started life as a government-sponsored centennial history before it was rejected as too left wing. The Communist Party’s interest in promoting history bore fruit with the publication of R.D. Walshe’s  The Eureka Stockade, 1854-1954. Two years later the party published Walshe’s Australia’s Fight for Independence and Parliamentary Democracy, which was actually the product of collaboration with Bob Gollan. In 1957, the WEA in Sydney published Esmonde Higgins’s biography of carpenter and educationist, David Stewart, and the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation published Tom Nelson’s iconic pamphlet-history of The Hungry Mile. Meanwhile, a group of radical historians, including Gollan and Ian Turner had been building on the nucleus of Australian labour documents collected by Noel Ebbels. This resulted in a book published in 1960 by the Australasian Book Society, a co-operative aimed at developing a radical working-class readership. Lloyd Churchward edited and introduced the collection, while Manning Clark provided a memoir of Ebbels.(13)

By this time, the contested character of history was becoming increasingly apparent to Eric Fry’s generation. Academic historians, assisted by right-wing commentators, had decided the growing influence of the labour movement’s alternative radical-nationalist history had to be stopped. ‘The counter-revolution in Australian historiography’ (as it was dubbed by Peter Coleman, conservative intellectual and parliamentarian) took its cue from Manning Clark, who in 1955 gently ridiculed the ‘popular romantic’ interpretation of the nineteenth century that inflated the role of Eureka rebels, land reformers, radical democrats and Barcaldine shearers. Next to weigh in was Hartley Grattan, employee of the Ford Foundation, who used the second issue of the CIA-funded Quadrant in 1957 to attack the supposed dominance of economic determinism in the writing of Australian history, as in the work of Brian Fitzpatrick. By a remarkable co-incidence, in the same year, Australian historians ambushed the unfortunate Fitzpatrick at a conference at the ANU that was organized to demolish his work. In 1958 the attacks on radical history continued in books published by Sydney Morning Herald editor, J.D. Pringle, and conservative economist Colin Clark. Then the doyen of Australian academic historians, Max Crawford, made known his criticism of radical history in a slim volume published in 1960. Meanwhile, Coleman was rounding up contributors to a new conservative academic manifesto, published in 1962 as Australian Civilization – A Symposium, that welcomed the ‘counter-revolution’ and warned that the evil radical historians were gaining traction in the universities through the work of Gollan and
Russell Ward.(14)  The Howard years were not the first time that a ‘history war’ erupted.

In 1960, a more sinister aspect of the attack on radical history was revealed. In 1955 Professor R.M. Hartwell had recommended Russel Ward for a lectureship in history at the University of New South Wales, but the Vice-Chancellor Baxter and Chancellor Wurth vetoed his appointment because Ward ‘had been active in seditious circles in Canberra’. After trying vainly to fight this blatant political decision, Hartwell resigned in disgust from the university and went to Oxford. A student at the time, I recall the consternation that these events created in left-wing university circles, but it was not until 1960 that an ASIO connection was aired publicly. It was prompted when Hartwell broke his silence about the matter, prompting questions from the Labor opposition in the Commonwealth Parliament. Although Prime Minister Menzies denied that ASIO influenced the decision nobody on the left believed it. We now know that Wurth unofficially but routinely consulted ASIO about appointments.

This was the intellectual climate for radical historians at the beginning of the 1960s. They were under attack both for their ideas and their politics in the universities and in the print sphere of the bourgeois public. The extent of the threat to their careers was further revealed when in 1964 an item appeared in The Bulletin about the Labour History Society with information that could only have come from ASIO.(16)  Their response was to do what radicals do best: organize. Radical academic historians needed the protection that a professional association could provide. The formation of the Labour History Society may be understood in several intellectually forward-looking ways – as making the labour movement’s history work more rigorous; as bringing history ‘from below’ into historical scholarship – but we can also acknowledge what the founders might have been unwilling in public to do: that it provided the defence of professional standing for a group of embattled radical historians.

Building bridges

Speaking in 1991, Eric Fry told Peter Love that the founders of the Labour History Society wanted to build a bridge between ordinary people and academics. How quaintly unrealistic that must sound twenty years later to an academic setting out to make labour history their career. It is hard to imagine such a bridge today, when the labour movement barely exists and young humanities academics are stripped of thinking time by the increasing pressures of the academic labour process, and depoliticized by trendy research agendas that confuse reality with its representation, and reduce actions to texts.

The corporatization of universities and the decline of the labour movement were well under way in 1991, and the post-modern disdain for studying the state, political movements and popular struggles was gathering force – which may be why Fry added, ‘we didn’t entirely succeed in that’ project of linking academics with radical historians in the labour movement. Fry however was being too modest. In the early days of the Labour History Society there were strong links between academic and movement-based labour history.

In the first nine issues of Labour History the editors published 36 authors, fourteen of whom were not academic historians. Another four non-academics wrote reviews. Apart from three authors who drew on their experiences (May Brodney on labour propaganda during World War I; Fred Wells on a riot in Sydney during the 1949 coal miners’ strike and R.D. Williams on the formation of a peak organization of white collar workers), there was little to distinguish the articles of the non-academics from those of the academics. The topics chosen by the non-academics were standard labour history fare: indentured labour, the IWW, early celebrations of May Day, the formation of the White Australia policy, nineteenth century radical democrats, the anti-war movement, and Jack Lang. If there was a whiff of the antiquarian in the articles by Sam Merrifield, M.L.C. on George Vogt so there was in the article by G.L. Buxton (Australian National University) on ‘an incident at Barcaldine’. As scholarship there is not much to choose between the two groups of authors. The non-academics were as much concerned with documenting the evidence, presenting it fairly, and arguing for its significance, as were the academic historians.

The argument in Rupert Lockwood’s article on the foundations of the White Australia policy in issue 7 (November 1964) is a good example of the strengths of the materialist method in the hands of a radical historian. At a time when historians were conducting sterile debates about whether the nineteenth-century working class was racist or protecting its economic interest by opposing Asian immigration, Lockwood focused on the economic conditions of early nineteenth-century Britain following the industrial revolution. He showed that the British imperial state, in order to make Australia a junior imperial partner that would offer a safe ‘white’ home for surplus British population and a secure market for British goods and investments, imposed a ‘white Australia’ immigration policy on the colonies before 1856, justified by a belief in British racial superiority. Unlike idealists who paddle around in the representational shallows, materialists look deeper for the origins of racism. They say that people become racist by living in a society based on racist practices. Lockwood showed that immigration to Australia was, from the first, a racist practice. (He might have also said that when the immigrants purchased land they were engaging in another racist practice, as this was land stolen from Aborigines. He did say in the article, that as soon as the first colonizers arrived these ‘new masters’ knew they were dispossessing the ‘old masters’ of their ancestral lands. He wrote this a generation before post-colonialism supposedly made us use the term ‘invasion’ for the first British settlements.) Of course Australians are racist; what needs explaining is why some are anti-racist. This is another part of the terrain opened up by radical history. What an intellectual waste that Lockwood’s argument is not better known among historians.

The non-academic contributors to the early issues of the journal were typical of the first generation of labour historians. There was a parliamentarian (Merrifield), a trade union official (Williams), a union activist who was now an industrial reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald (Wells), two journalists on the Miners’ Federation paper (Edgar Ross and Len Fox), a journalist from the waterside workers’ paper (Rupert Lockwood) and one from the Communist paper (Bill Wood). There were several whose occupation was given as school teacher (Norm Saffin; J. Normington Rawling; Irwin Young; Roger Coates) but all of them were active in labour movement organizations. Alan Ashbolt was the President of the Senior Staff Officers’ Association at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Joe Harris was a member of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, while John McDonald was described as ‘a labour veteran who was active in early Socialist movements. He has done research and written articles on labour history for the trade union press over many years.’

What was distinctive about their contributions was a sense that they were engaged in radical intellectual work that made history part of the present. Joe Harris asked in 1962, ‘is history the product of the work of great men, great individuals, great leaders, or is it the mass of the ordinary people who make history? He answered: ‘the masses shape the course of history’ (issue 1, p. 23) – Ian Turner gave a similar answer in his 1965 book. Sam Merrifield thought that ‘the problems which divide the world today were those that divided the Anarchist Club’ (issue 3, p. 4). Bill Wood wrote: ‘We look back with admiration and gratitude to our forbears of 1885 who lit a torch that was passed on to … the peace movement today’. (issue 3, p. 69). Rees Williams hoped that ‘a new school of poets like those that sang of unionism “On the Wallaby” more than sixty years ago’ would emerge ‘to capture what is really felt by unionists with white collars.’ (issue 6, p. 36). They wanted history to be relevant to the strategies, moral values and feelings needed to move people. Their question was: how to write history that makes people want to act?

A history of popular democracy

In a recent article on the intellectual legacy of Eric Fry and Robin Gollan, Verity Burgmann has reminded us of the anti-labour Cold War atmosphere of the time, and the courage required by left intellectuals to set up a labour history society, especially one that was committed (as she points out) to maintaining links with the labour movement.(17)  What I have done in the previous sections of the essay is meant to strengthen this point, particularly by suggesting that the links were not just organization to organization, not just between academics as members of the Society and labour activists as members of parties and unions, but between labour intellectuals working in different spheres, and that the character of the linkage was intellectual, a shared interest in promoting a radical view of history.

In fact, it is interesting to remember that the two books that heralded the arrival of radical history in the quiet corridors of the universities, Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) and Gollan’s Radical and Working Class Politics (1960) were not typical works of labour history at all.(18)  Ward’s was about the contribution to Australian mythology of the popular culture of the nineteenth-century working classes; Gollan’s was about how ‘an advanced democracy was established’ in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century. They were prequels to labour history, if you like; but they were also histories that concerned themselves with broader processes than those within the world of labour.

Burgmann in her article quotes an important passage from a later book by Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists (1975), in which he distanced himself from the post-war nationalism of the Communist Party, a policy that, he said, idealized the ‘militant and democratic stance’ of ‘the convicts, bushrangers, gold-diggers and unionists who fought the bitter battles of the 1890s’, while censoring out or muting their ‘xenophobia and racism’.(19)  Such a statement had an obvious appeal to Burgmann, herself one of the pioneers of the study of racism in the working class.(20)  When I read it, however, I think of how it relates to Gollan’s treatment of these militant democrats in Radical and Working Class Politics. I would argue that in this book Gollan demonstrates not an idealization of the nineteenth-century working class but an idealization of the liberal parliamentary state – and that this was the real disfigurement of his analysis, and that it too was attributable to Communist ideology at the time.

Left intellectuals of Gollan’s generation, formed by the united front against fascism and the national mobilization during the Second World War, believed that socialism could be achieved through a strategy of radical parliamentarism, that is, a form of government recognizing the rights of working men and women not only to elect representatives but also to exert mass pressure on government. Such a government, if truly democratic, might become an effective weapon against the economic and social power of the capitalist class. And the Australian case was instructive, as Gollan showed in Radical and Working Class Politics. In the twenty years between 1890 and 1910, when the labour movement was rejecting many of the ruling class’s cultural and political conventions (eg freedom of contract and political deference), the economic and social interventions of Australian governments went much further than those of other countries ‘to modify the capitalist system’ (p. 153). Such a state might even, at a stretch, be called socialist, or at least social-democratic.

It would also continue as a state in which elected representatives produce undemocratic outcomes. Gollan did not understand that the very system of representative government was introduced to prevent the rise of democracy as popular rule.(21)  This will be clearer if we tease out the meaning of Gollan’s phrase ‘advanced democracy’.

Gollan wrote about democracy in two different ways in his book. In the first way he was thinking about the democratic aspects of liberal parliamentary institutions. The pages dealing with the early introduction of manhood suffrage, the struggle of the popularly-elected assembly in Victoria to assert its dominance over the Council, and Labor’s campaign to abolish plural voting, its (qualified) support for female suffrage, and its opposition to the unrepresentative character of the Senate in the federal Constitution Bills contained his most sustained discussions of democracy.

This story of struggles about representative democracy Gollan sets within a framework of movements ‘to make life more tolerable for the majority’ (viii). He devotes many pages to the radical and working class movements to unlock the lands, secure the eight-hour day, legitimize trade unions, and form Labor parties, emphasizing their contentious and sometimes disruptive politics. If one follows his narrative a second and quite different conception of democracy begins to take shape. The democracy of working people, it appears, is something more than just a matter of political rights, and of opportunities to influence their rulers through elections. Democracy is also a matter of popular empowerment, with two distinct features: it involves acting in concert (often on the streets) and it seeks tangible benefits, such as owning land or controlling one’s labour power. Thus, the public meetings, the marches, the organization-building and the strikes were on the same continuum as the mobilization of voters. They were expressions of an advanced form of democracy as well as a labour movement in formation. The discursive world and the political identities defined in this popular process were as much about democracy as they were about class struggle.

Gollan failed to clarify this distinction, never describing the empowerment of working people as democratic, implying that it was only because their struggles radicalized the system of representative government that working people contributed to democracy. He acknowledged their agency, but then transformed it into a supportive pillar of the liberal state. Without a concept of the popular will he fell back on the nebulous underpinnings of liberal social theory – the class-, gender- and race-blind concepts of ‘public opinion’ and ‘underlying values’ (7-8) – to explain how these movements contributed to the triumph and subsequent radicalizing of political democracy.

I think that what Gollan failed to write – a history of the tension between popular movements and parliamentary politics – still needs to be written. It would be a history of ‘popular’ democratic practice and of conceptions of democracy separate from representative government, drawing on the growing literature in recent decades about ‘radical democracy’ by political theorists.(22)  It would bring into the foreground such practices as control from below in trade unions and other popular organizations, delegation rather than representation, accountability of representatives between elections, picketing and intimidation of representative assemblies, direct action, defence of commonage rights, workers’ control movements, co-operatives, deliberative assemblies, the underground press, selection by lot rather than election by ballot, democracy in communal settlements, democratic education, Black Power movements, etc. My research (limited as it is at the moment) suggests three significant periods.

First, the 1830s to the 1850s, when, against a background of violence on the streets, radical workingmen and intellectuals established a democratic public life of meetings, organizations and publishing, in counterpoint to the aristocratic routines of representation. They established a tradition that continued after the introduction of parliamentary government, a tradition that demanded accountability from politicians not only through elections but also through connection to a public mobilized by agitation and prepared to menace

This ‘proletarian democracy’, as Childe called it, entered a second moment between the 1880s and the 1910s, when in order to ensure that ‘the issues to be submitted to the people must also be determined by the people…’ (Childe again), workers formed a movement to control their political representatives. Historians call this the labour movement. The labour movement was not just a political movement of trade unionists (which is how it is defined by Gollan) but also and more importantly a movement of democrats most of whom were trade unionists. They were democrats in the sense that they attempted to impose popular rule on Labor politicians through the mechanisms of caucus, pledge and conference.(24)

The third moment arrives after the First World War, when due to the effects of the war and the failures of labourism the idea of the state as the sole focus of popular efforts for democracy lost its priority for many democrats. Although they had different political programs and methods, syndicalists, guild socialists, and communists (as militant industrialists, at least) contributed to a widening of the idea of democracy as popular rule by bringing the workplace and education within its scope. This tradition continues, as its role in the Green Bans and the attempted democratization of universities in the 1970s shows.(25)

Later moments? I hope that interested readers of this essay will want to contribute to discovering them. If we are right, we might conclude that the desire for popular democracy was as important as class or gender in the making of identity among working people, that indigenous and youthful resistance combined with the spread of higher education brought other cohorts of support for popular self–government, and that representative government was more contested, and liberal ideology less accepted, than we usually assume. At a time when disaffection from parliaments and politicians in Australia and other heartland states of liberal democracy has never been greater, our discoveries might produce a useful history indeed for democrats.

In this essay I discussed the formation of the ASSLH as a moment when radical history extended its influence into Australian universities. But that was a long time ago. What is the position of radical history today, and does it have a future? Twenty-five years after the founding in the United States of Radical History Review, its editors ran a forum to discuss these questions. This is how David Roediger, a leading historian of race and class, responded:

In real life, social movements and political economic ruptures create effective and creative radical intellectuals. It is therefore presumptuous to predict whether radical history, in and of itself, has a future. Its future lies precisely in its engagement with social movements, and it cannot call those movements into being, although the university is one important site of intellectual ferment and, increasingly, of labor protest.(26)

Eric Fry and Robin Gollan certainly exemplified that kind of engagement, as does the work today of many intellectuals who are creating counter publics for social movements and communities. The current crisis of capitalism increases the opportunities for these engagements. In many local communities, dedicated practitioners of radical history have always had a presence, but recently there have been exciting developments in Bristol ( and Manchester (, and in Koori Redfern the oral history program ( is a rich source of stories of Black radical history. For university-based radical historians two recent overseas developments are symptomatic of an intellectual resistance to the crisis. The Active History movement in Canada began in 2008 ‘to help connect historians with the public, policy makers, and the media’. It has the enthusiastic support of the Canadian journal, Left History ( Recently, the Active History activist, Tom Peace, reported on examples of ‘Street History’ in which ‘people working outside of traditional historical institutions have sought to promote alternative stories in non-traditional ways that challenge popular understandings of the past.’ ( In the United States, according to H-LABOR, labour historian, Nelson Lichtenstein, has initiated a project to mobilize radical historical scholarship against conservatives who respond to progressive policies by prophesying disaster. These are just some of the encouraging current examples of radical history, the latest contributions to a tradition of creating history that makes people want to act.

1. Peter Love, ‘An Interview with E.C. Fry’, Hummer, no. 31/2, March/August 1991.

2. Verity Burgmann, ‘ “A Greater Concentration of Purpose”: The Intellectual Legacy of Eric Fry and Robin Gollan’, Labour History, 94, May 2008, p. 34.

3. Terry Irving and Sean Scalmer, ‘Labour Historians as Labour Intellectuals: Generations and Crises’, in David Palmer, Ross Shanahan and Martin Shanahan (eds) Australian Labour History Reconsidered, Australian Humanities Press, Adelaide, 1999, 234-6.

4. Terry Irving and Sean Scalmer, ‘Labour Intellectuals in Australia: Modes, Traditions, Generations, Transformations’, International Review of Social History, vol. 50, Part 1, April 2005, pp 1-26.

5. I draw these names from research for the ARC-funded project, ‘Literary and Political Intellectuals of the Labour Movement’. I am grateful for the contributions made to the project by Ian Syson, Sean Scalmer, Nathan Hollier and Liz Macnamara. Tony Laffan republished Dave McNeill’s Back in the Beginning of Things, Toiler Editions, Singleton, 2002.

6. ‘Following Childe’s book, little Australian labour history was written until the rise of the “Old Left”’: Greg Patmore, ‘Australia’ in Joan Allen, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy (eds), Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives, Pontypool, Merlin Press, 2010, p. 235.

7. In the Labor Daily, 10/8/29, Rosa published a letter received from Dr Omero Schiassi (then lecturing at the University of Melbourne) congratulating him on his Political History as an example of materialist history relying on Engels and Antonio Labriola.

8. B.H. Fletcher, A Passion for the Past. Writers of Australian History in New South Wales, 1900-1938, Sydney, Royal Australian Historical Society, 1990; B.H. Fletcher, Australian History in New South Wales, 1888-1938, Sydney, NSW University Press, 1993.

9. James Normington Rawling Collection, ANU Archives, Archives of Business and Labour, N57/720.

10 Fletcher, Passion, p. 14

11. Fletcher, Australian History, p. 106.

12. Clutha Robertson in Labor Daily, 25/2/1928.

13. Brian Fitzpatrick, The Australian People, 1788-1945, second edition, Melbourne University Press, 1951; Leo Huberman, We, The People, London, Gollancz, 1940; W.B. Sutch, Poverty and Progress in New Zealand, Wellington, Modern Books, 1941; R.D. Walshe, The Eureka Stockade, 1854-1954, Sydney, Current Book Distributors, 1954; R.D. Walshe, Australia’s Fight for Independence and Parliamentary Democracy, Sydney, Current Book Distributors, 1956; E. M. Higgins, David Stewart and the WEA, Sydney, The Workers Educational Association of New South Wales [1957]; Tom Nelson, The Hungry Mile, Sydney, 1957 [no publisher listed]; R.N. Ebbels, The Australian Labor Movement 1850-1907 – Extracts from Contemporary Documents, Sydney, Australasian Book Society, 1960.

14. Peter Coleman, Australian Civilization – A Symposium, Melbourne, Cheshire, 1962; C. M. H. Clark, Select Documents in Australian History, 1851-1900, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1955, pp. xi-xii; C. Hartley Grattan, ‘Reflections on Australian History’, Quadrant, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 1957, pp-53-60; Don Watson, Brian Fitzpatrick – A Radical Life, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1979, pp. 268-9; J. M. D. Pringle, Australian Accent, London, Chatto and Windus, 1958; Colin Clark, Australian Hopes and Fears, London, Hollis and Carter, 1958; R.M. Crawford, An Australian Perspective, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

15. Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, 2003, pp. 6-8.

16. The Bulletin, 13/6/1964, p. 17; see my article in Hummer referred to in the first paragraph of this essay.

17. Burgmann, ‘A Greater Concentration of Purpose’, pp. 28-29.

18. Russell Ward, The Australian Legend, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1958; Robin Gollan, Radical and Working Class Politics – A Study of Eastern Australia, 1850-1910, Melbourne University Press, 1960.

19 Robin Gollan, Revolutionaries and Reformists – Communism and the Australian Labour Movement, 1920-1955, Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1975; the passage quoted is from page 196.

20 Verity Burgmann. ‘Capital and Labour’ in Ann Curthoys and Andrew Markus (eds), Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1978, pp 20-34.

21. Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge University Press, 1997, establishes this, and shows how election as a mechanism selects pre-existing elites to rule through parliamentary assemblies.

22. John Keane writes: ‘until quite recently, most details of the history of democracy have been recorded by its critics, or by its outright opponents’, His book, The Life and Death of Democracy, New York and London, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009, is a spirited defence. See pp. 880-1 for the quote.

23. Terry Irving, The Southern Tree of Liberty – The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856, Sydney, The Federation Press, 2006.

24. Terry Irving, ‘William Astley (Price Warung) and the Invention of the Labor Party’ in Bradley Bowden and John Kellett (eds), Transforming Labour – Work, Workers, Struggle and Change, Brisbane, Labour History Association, 2003, pp. 175-181.

25. Terry Irving, ‘How Labour Governs – Lessons for Today’, Hummer, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 6-12.

26. David Roediger, ‘Coming in Late’, Radical History Review, 79 (2001), p. 121.

Terry Irving