Terry Irving is one of Australia’s leading radical scholars.
For over fifty years he has written about Australia’s radical and dissident past, continuing a tradition begun by Gordon Childe, Brian Fitzpatrick and H.V. Evatt.
Radical educationist and democrat, Terry was one of the founders of the Free University (Sydney, 1967-1972), an activist in the movement to democratize universities in the 1970s, a prominent New Left contributor to Australian history in the 1980s, and editor of Labour History – A Journal of Labour and Social History in the 1980s and 90s.
His most recent books on the history of radical democracy are: The Southern Tree of Liberty – The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856  and Radical Sydney – Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes (with Rowan Cahill) . Among his earlier books are: Class Structure in Australian History – Documents, Narrative and Argument (with Raewyn Connell) [1980; second edition, 1992]; Challenges to Labour History (as editor) ; Childe and Australia – Archaeology, Politics and Ideas (as editor and contributor with Peter Gathercole and Gregory Melleuish) .
Terry taught history and politics at the University of Sydney, and as a visitor in other universities in Australia, North America and England. He is now an independent scholar with an unpaid attachment at the University of Wollongong.
WHAT IS SAVAGE DEMOCRACY?
Terry Irving uses the term ‘savage democracy’ as both a description of the democracy he writes about and an indication of his theoretical position. He writes about the struggles of working people and radical intellectuals to democratise society from below, to hold their representatives accountable by the menace of mass action, and to resist the ruling ideology of ‘tamed democracy’ that equates democracy with electoral politics and representative government.
He believes that democracy is a utopian project, with a history of fleeting moments when people organise to empower themselves against the power of the capitalist state. This is ‘savage democracy’, as envisaged in horror by de Tocqueville in the 19th century and a legion of conservative ‘democratic theorists’ ever since. It is discussed in the essay, ‘How I came to write about radical democracy’.
It is an excluded idea. Interest in the history of savage democracy is found only in the outstations of the left. As Rob Pascoe forecast in 1979, Irving’s radical view of the past might be "rather too unsettling" for Australians to adopt. Except in the next fleeting moment.
HOW THE SITE IS ORGANISED
Terry identifies two kinds of democracy in Australian history: savage democracy and tamed democracy.
There were two bites at savage democracy, the first in the period before the introduction of representative or ‘responsible’ government in 1856, and the second when workers, socialists, pacifists and feminists rebelled against parliamentary democracy in the early twentieth century. For comparison, Manning Clark’s account of the two bites at political, or tamed, democracy focuses on the decade after the gold discoveries, and the two decades before 1900. Clark neglected the moments of savage democracy preceding his first bite and succeeding his second. (See his Select Documents in Australian History, 1851-1900, Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1955, pp 316-317.)
Terry’s writings on savage democracy are arranged under three headings. The first, Southern Tree of Liberty, collects his writings on the working class activists and radical intellectuals who created a movement for radical democracy based on the idea of popular control of ‘representatives’ before 1856.
Then follow articles under the heading, Gordon Childe: Political Thinker, dealing with Childe’s contributions to the second bite: his political activities and his radical ideas about socialism and democracy.
The third heading, Fatal Lure of Politics, presents his work-in-progress on this early twentieth century moment of social rebellion triggered by the top-down character of tamed democracy, especially the revolt against ‘politicalism’ (the strategy of state-centred socialism and electoral victory) in the labour movement.
His tamed democracy writings are in three sections: Labour Thought, on labourism, socialism and democracy; Labour Intellectuals, on the changing modes of intellectual work as the labour public was transformed by its embrace of the liberal state; and Labour History, on its strengths as a form of radical history in its heyday, and the spectre of irrelevance that haunts it today.
This site selects for republication only his most important articles and chapters, plus unpublished addresses and work-in-progress, on each kind of democracy.
In response to requests, Terry has reflected recently on his political and intellectual formation, his role in Sydney’s Free University, and his contribution to New Left history. These responses are collected under the heading, Autobiographical.