In 2013, growing interest in our blog, Radical Sydney/Radical History, persuaded Rowan Cahill and me to provide its readers with a sketch, called ‘Shaping Histories’, of our intellectual and political development. The full version with Rowan’s contribution (and illustrations) can be found here:


In February 2013 I was interviewed by Sadia Schneider, from the University of Melbourne, who was writing a thesis on New Left historians in Australia. She sent me a list of six pertinent questions, and with her permission I have reproduced them below with my answers. Since the interview I have added some more information about my family background and intellectual interests.

  1. General biographical background (parents, school, uni etc) When did you become involved in the left. How? What about your decision to study history?

My parents were both working class. My father’s family came from Cessnock in the coalmining region of the Hunter Valley. His father, John Henry Irving, was a baker in the Co-Op store, and his brother and two brothers-in-law were all underground miners. My father, the youngest child was saved from the pit by his mother, Emily, and by his musical talent (he played the violin); he was apprenticed and in due course became a tradesman – in carpentry, joinery and cabinet making. My mother left school at 14 and by her late twenties she was a trained psychiatric nurse. Unlike her husband, my mother was a great reader, probably something she learnt from her mother and father – Elsie and Sam Spink. Grandmother Spink was a pillar of the local Church of England Mothers’ Union while my grandfather was a professional photographer (much of his work is in local, state and national collections), who was educated in a minor ‘public’ school in England. But by the 1920s theirs was a downwardly mobile family. None of the children of the Spinks (or the Irvings) in my parents’ generation had much education.

Sometime in the mid- to late-thirties James Hamilton Irving and Eva May Spink arrived in Sydney from the country and became radicals. They met, married, and in time I was born into a family that was moving from ‘progressive’ to ‘revolutionary’. I can illustrate what that meant by a story about Gordon Childe’s Progress and Archaeology, which I bought second hand in my first year at university. Published in 1944 under the auspices of the Rationalist Press Association, it was number 102 in The Thinker’s Library.

I felt good about the purchase. Although I bought it to study for an ancient history exam, I knew it was the kind of book someone like me ought to own. For one thing it looked familiar. Our bookshelves at home, scant as they were, held other books in this series – pocket-sized, hardback, cheaply presented - by Darwin, Huxley, Winwood Reade, H.G. Wells and so on – books by the scientists and secularists who gave voice to the movement of ‘unbelief’ – that great late nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual challenge to religion and conventional wisdom. Their books were meant for autodidacts and rationalists who wanted to be ‘broad’ – not ‘narrow’ - thinkers. Narrow: in our house there was no worse epithet for someone.

Broad thinkers were ‘progressive’, which as an accolade was not quite as high as ‘Communist’, but at least it was better than ‘reformist’. It was progressive to believe in birth control, kindergartens, ‘new’ education, public parks, free libraries, town planning and bringing art to the people. You were progressive if you understood that history was moving out of the period of economic crises and imperialist wars into a new world of planning, international co-operation and science. You were progressive most obviously if you understood history as progress.

Progressives were the allies of the labour movement, but they had to be organised, which was one of the special tasks of Communists. Progressives had to be shown that, really, they were socialists. This was one of our peculiar (and dangerous) illusions on the left at that time, that we had the running in revealing the meaning of history, and that it was our task to tell everybody else what to do and think.

Childe’s book affirmed my belief in history as progress. According to the dust jacket, its aim was ‘to describe the progressive tendencies of mankind during the last 50,000 years as revealed by archaeological discoveries.’ Wow – not just since 1917! This was certainly my kind of book.

When Japanese submarines attacked Sydney my parents, who were living across the river from the Mortlake gas works, moved to a place of greater safety on the lower North Shore, and a few months later I started school at the local primary. According to the Inspector who reported on the school for the Department of Education, Roseville Practice School had ‘a high spiritual and civic tone’. I discovered what he meant at age seven. During the National Anthem at one of the weekly assemblies I was mischievously leading one or two other creative spirits in singing alternative words – probably spontaneously composed. To our surprise a teacher traced the resultant cacophony, and at recess we were told to report to the Headmistress, who gave us each six of the best. Ouch! Thus we learnt that rulers intend to enforce their values, painfully if necessary. From this experience I must have drawn a pragmatic conclusion, because by sixth class I was happily standing in front of the national flag at every morning assembly, leading the rest of the boys in pledging that we honoured a god and served a king - neither of which I believed in. Although unable to articulate the idea of conditional allegiance, I discovered perplexity at least.

After primary school I went to the ‘selective’ North Sydney Boys High in 1951. I did well at primary school (dux and captain) but not so well at High School, probably because of the rancour and violence in my parents’ marriage, which broke down completely as I was starting at North Sydney. We then became very poor. My younger brother and I were often farmed out to live with relatives while my mother took live-in jobs at hospitals and hotels. Nonetheless by my final year at North Sydney I was taking Honours in English and History, and at the end of the year I was awarded the Treloar Prize in History, and I won two scholarships to Sydney University.

A further reason affecting my high school performance was the impact of the Cold War on our family. My mother was still in the Communist Party and she became somewhat notorious locally when she was arrested for selling the party paper, Tribune, at Chatswood railway station and when her picture appeared on the front page of an evening newspaper showing her being evicted from a Sydney Town Hall meeting where Menzies was speaking. Being a ‘red’ was not easy; being a ‘commo kid’ was harder, especially for one without adequate family support.

Perhaps this is the place to refer to how my parents became Communists. My father was called up and joined the airforce as a tradesman, and he was recruited to the CPA while serving in the Northern Territory. My mother, left behind in a rented suburban house, was recruited over the back fence by Christina Stead’s half-brother, Gilbert, in 1944. We were living on the lower North Shore, so the party’s members and supporters were a mixture of tradesmen, white collar workers, middle class professionals, and even a few businessmen – very typical of the area’s population generally. They were all earnest talkers and avid readers, at least of ‘approved’ publications, and they were continually busy on party campaigns. The Communist household was an alternative public space, with cupboards full of party ‘literature’, and lounge rooms occupied every week by branch meetings, educational classes, cottage lectures and socials. As I became socialised into this way of life I naturally equated politics with ideas, with intellectual activity. (It was a rude shock when I got to Uni and met ALP student politicians.) Under conditions of Cold War surveillance and repression most of this activity had to be done carefully, tactfully and behind the cover of ‘front’ bodies, and I think I learnt then that persuasion was not the same as pushing one’s ideas down people’s throats.

I belonged to the Junior Eureka League (the Communist children’s organization), and I rose to a leadership position as a ‘Pioneer’. I was taught how to address meetings, the importance of organisation and improvisation, the ethical value of collective living and decision-making, and the rudiments of a working class perspective on current affairs and social structure. It was an invaluable training, delivered in what for me was a welcome alternative family.

Commo kids were more likely than others of their age to be budding intellectuals I recall several of my JEL cohort who like me became academics – and we spent a lot of time informally discussing left-wing writers and the history of the international left. At this time (the late-forties through to the early-sixties) the CPA’s campaign to defend Australian culture and promote the radical view of Australian history and culture was underway. We read The Realist Writer and the books published by the Australasian Book Society. My mother was in Reedy River and sang in a trade union choir called The Unity Singers. On one occasion blankets were nailed to the walls of the lounge room to convert it into a sound studio for recording radical songs. My mother’s friends included folk song collectors and members of the Bushwackers’ Band, and in time I was drawn into this counter-hegemonic, rough and ready acting and singing world, running the JEL drama club and appearing in a New Theatre play by Mona Brand. Since then I have often been drawn to radical projects that present as spontaneous, improvised and anti-professional (and been attacked for it by lefty careerists!).

I did not ‘discover’ the study of history; it was just a normal part of this milieu, at least as far as I understood it. I read the pamphlets on Australia’s radical past by party intellectuals RD Walshe, and WA Wood; I sang songs about Eureka and the Great Strikes of the 1890s; from comrades who boarded with us I learnt about the anti-eviction wars of the 1930s, the socialist movement in Broken Hill and the bashing of Communist MP Fred Patterson in Brisbane. But exciting as all this was it could not match the intellectual seriousness of the British Communist Party’s historical work. I read the books and articles in Our History and Marxism Today by the British Marxist historians, AL Morton, Dona Torr, Eric Hobsbawm, and other members of the CPGB’s Historians Group. I saw that history was argument and scholarship as well as a support for political positions. Taking History Honours at school and university was an almost inevitable result, especially as I found that the historical nature of my left-wing thinking gave me an edge over other students, particularly by its materialist focus on economic and social forces, which to those brought up on the empiricist and idealist works of mainstream history are often mysterious. In time I became an academic, but ‘professing history’ has always been less vital for me than the (sporadically realized) practice of living history through radical politics.

  1. What was your relationship with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) (did you ever join/leave, were you involved in joint activities etc.)?

I started University in 1956, turned 18 at the end of that year and promptly joined the CPA. I was primed to do this by my background but it was also a kind of gift to my mother for her struggles on behalf of my brother and me, and a tribute to her for her steadfast faith. These were years of turmoil in the CP. I was assigned to the (very small) University Branch, which was suspected rightly of ‘revisionism’, but I retained my membership even as others drifted away. My party responsibility was to lead the University Labour Club, which I did until about 1961. The late fifties were quiet years on campus; my political tasks were to arrange lunch-time meetings for party speakers, to organize united fronts with religious groups to support the peace movement, and to hold the occasional demo downtown against nuclear weapons. It was all very safe and very controlled by party headquarters in the city. It was boring, sectarian (especially in combating ‘the Trots’) and ultimately futile. Well perhaps not; it might have prepared the way for the dramatic popular events of the New Left. I am certainly embarrassed now by the puppet-like aspect of that activity, but until the explosion of student (and worker) radicalism in the late sixties, the only alternative was the ALP Club, which was even worse: mindless, factional, and electoral. I was given leave by the CP in 1965 to finish my thesis. Within a few years the political climate had changed, the student radicals did not want or need outside ‘leadership’, and my marriage had broken down. I never renewed my CP membership.

  1. What about the 'Old Left'? Were there particular Old Left historians you met/read etc. How did you see the Old Left historians (eg. Brian Fitzpatrick, Ian Turner, Robin Gollan, Stephen Murray-Smith, Geoffrey Serle, Russel Ward)?

I met all of them except Geoffrey Serle, but I need to explain the ambivalent relationship I had with the Old Left historians. When I took up my PhD scholarship Robin Gollan’s Radical and Working Class Politics had just appeared and I conceived my work on the 1840s and early 50s as a prequel to his. But I was also influenced by the imperial history of John Manning Ward, my supervisor. The power relationships between colony and metropolis – administrative and economic – I thought provided a ‘realist’ framing for my thesis; Gollan on the other hand was rather opaque about material interests and particularly how class forces worked at the political level. The development of liberal politics (ideas, organisation, policy), the focus of my thesis, could definitely be explained in that framework of tension between imperial and colonial forces, so I dropped the emphasis that Gollan would have placed on my topic – the transfer of British liberalism to the colony. My thesis explained politics in terms of ‘interests’ (I had a mentor in the Department of Governmen who was taken with the current fad in political science, ‘group theory’, which I understood as prioritizing economic and social ‘interests); so not class analysis in the conventional sense, but it was materialist history. (This materialism was its attraction to Raewyn Connell; hence our working together on the class structure book a few years later, but I had a lot to learn from her about class analysis as a form of structuralist thinking.)

Looking back at that thesis I realize, and regret, that my adoption of the imperial ‘realist’ framework meant that I sidelined the emergence of working men’s politics and the discursive and material contexts in which it was formed. My The Southern Tree of Liberty (2006) was an attempt to repair those absences.

Gollan reacted ambivalently to the class structure book; he saw its contribution to radical history but disliked it because it was grounded in theory. A decade earlier he had been attacked by McQueen as an exponent of labour history, a form of humanitarian writing lacking a revolutionary theory. Correct, but unlike McQueen I think that the Old Left historians, were onto something powerful for radical politics – hence my ambivalence about them. I always honoured their struggles, and joined in their efforts to establish the Labour History Society.

What I saw in their efforts was this – and it is often ignored today: while they supposedly ‘romanticized’ the struggles of the working class past they were continuing a now forgotten tradition of historical writing developed by labour intellectuals as part of the working class’s political struggle against ruling class ideas. These earlier movement intellectuals - RS and L Ross, Evatt, Fitzpatrick, Childe, Walshe, Rawling, Higgins, et al - expected that their history would make its readers want to act. Their arguments were read within labour movement institutions. This is what Gollan, Fry, Turner etc were doing when they set up the Labour History Society – extending the institutional scope of movement intellectual work into the universities. As their careers developed, alas, the cozy assumptions that McQueen criticized overwhelmed the political impulse in their work. They became mainly academic intellectuals. Actually, this process of incorporation was already apparent in Gollan’s book: the liberal understanding of democracy, the constitutionalism, and the neglect of anti-parliamentary politics. As I have said elsewhere Gollan’s book is not a good example of radical history because it idealizes the capitalist state as liberal and parliamentary.

  1. What were you reading and most influenced by? In particular, did you read Lukács, Gramsci or Althusser? Were there figures in the UK you were inspired by (E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, Gareth Stedman Jones, Hobsbawm)?

I read, with different degrees of seriousness and understanding, all of the above and also C Wright Mills, William Appleman Williams, Paul Goodman, Ralph Miliband, George Lichtheim, Herbert Marcuse, Stuart Hall, et al. I subscribed to movement journals, Studies on the Left, Socialist Revolution, Radical America, New Left Review, Marxism Today. I was always more concerned with the progress of the movement rather than the purity of ideas. I subscribed as well to Nation, New Statesman and Times Literary Supplement, and found support for an engaged, materialist history from three non-Marxist sources. In my fourth year I was introduced to the ideas of R.G. Collingwood. A distinguished contributor to philosophical idealism, Collingwood nonetheless attracted me because of his insistence that historians had to work critically (he was famous for his rejection of ‘scissors and paste’ empiricism in historical studies) and that the object of

their study was the creative response of humans to their situation. (Later I would discover that this view of Collingwood’s helped Gordon Childe formulate his rejection of the mechanical materialist proposition that there were laws of history.) In the early sixties I discovered Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, which gave me the basis for a critical approach to ideology, and John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism, with its stress on inquiry as a process aiming at knowledge that is useful for, and validated by, human action. I was also inspired by his commitment to democratic practices in education.

  1. What do you remember as being the defining event of the late 1960s and early 1970s in terms of shaping your worldview? What were your thoughts on the student movement, the anti-war movement, the Clarrie O'Shea strike, developments in China like the cultural revolution and Maoism? What about the defeat of the Labor Party led by Calwell in 1966 or the election of Whitlam.

This question for me is a bit beside the point, as I was never ‘defined’ by a particular event in the way that the younger New Left might have been, particularly if they were coming across radical ideas and movements for the first time. But of course I hoped for a Labor victory in 1966 and 1972, I was inspired by the O’Shea general strike, and I protested in the streets when Whitlam was removed by Kerr’s coup. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 confirmed my growing belief that Russian Communism was an abomination, and ultimately pointed me to bottom-up ideas of socialism and democracy, as distant as possible from the state apparatus, such as it might be after the revolution.

  1. Did you think of yourself as 'New Left'? What did that mean to you? What would you say you and others of your generation were trying to do? How successful do you think it was? In what ways did it constitute a group or network? Who were you in touch with?

I certainly thought of myself as New Left – that is, First New Left, for I was half a generation in front of the Second New Left. The first New Left was attempting to recover that moment of revolutionary exhilaration following the Russian Revolution when intellectuals and workers could have melded themselves into a single public of Communist idealism, before the barbarities of Stalinism and the indignities of Social-Democratic welfare-statism sucked hope and morality out of the Left.

In the early sixties my wife was involved with Helen Palmer’s socialist magazine, Outlook, which was read by independent socialists and dissident Communists, while I was involved with Arena, a Melbourne-based journal with a similar readership but a stronger interest in theoretical issues, eg the changing composition of the working class, the study of elites, the impact of automation and higher education on young workers, etc. I organised an Arena Conference in Sydney in 1964.

Through the Free University (1967-1971) I came in contact with younger people (mainly students) who were part of what is usually thought of as the New Left.

Many of them were introduced to political militancy by the ‘student action’ movement, whose main manifestations in Sydney were the ‘Freedom Ride’ bus tour to racially integrate rural communities, the defence of student rights on campus, the anti-conscription campaigns, and the anti-Viet Nam war moratoria. But Free U was not activist in a militant sense; rather it sought to investigate and analyse, in order to assist action. Typical courses were: Class and Power in Australian Life; Aboriginal History; the Australian Radical Tradition; Drugs; the Brain; etc. In relation to this ‘second’ New Left, because of my age I was more an advisor than a participant (except of course for the moratoria). In another educative role, I was one of the organizers of the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1970.

Returning from study leave in early 1973 I was caught up in three campaigns at Sydney Uni linking staff-student power and radical knowledge: the Women’s Course in Philosophy, the Political Economy struggle in Economics, and the Democratisation of the Government Department (where I was a Senior Lecturer). These campaigns were central to my political activities until at least 1976 – and in 1977 I was elected to the Academic Board and became Acting Head of Department partly as a result of them. In relation to the democratization of the Government department, we succeeded in establishing a dual power situation, in which a Department Committee with equal representation of staff and students acted alongside the two professors, curtailing their powers in matters internal to the Department. The professors in our department wisely refrained from exercising their veto, and the Department Ctee elected the Head of Department and submitted their name to the Vice Chancellor, who always accepted the nomination. Gradually, student representation disappeared but until I retired in 1998 the Department continued as an example of staff power.

Meanwhile, I was one of the main organizers of two Class Analysis Conferences (neither of them on campus) in 1975 and 1976. This was at the time Connell and I were working on the class structure book, and several chapters were circulated in draft form. Although the Class Analysis conferences were meant as a bridge between younger radical academics and the staff and activists of left unions, left parties and independent socialists, the first in 1975 was dominated by the academics. The second in 1976 was better prepared and attended, and as well as scholarly papers there were two workshops with trade union activists. There was a third conference in 1977, but as I disagreed with the rigid, narrowly focused and Marxist theoreticism of the leading activists (who insisted on restricting the conference to certain themes about current class politics) I was sidelined. There were no more CACs, and I suspect the main organizers were then incorporated into the Political Economy movement.

How did my New Left experience affect my historical writing, bearing in mind that my political background had already convinced me of both the need to understand the history of capitalism, and ‘history work’ as a proper political task for revolutionaries? First, it encouraged it by indicating the existence of a new generation of radicals seeking historical awareness. Second, the feeling of political liberation from the CP’s bureaucratic control encouraged intellectual liberation, so I discarded economic determinism and its base-superstructure model, discovering a long line of Marxists dating back to the twenties who had done the same – ie the Western Marxist tradition beginning with Lukacs. Third, the New Left’s emphasis on democracy as self-government, as a politics apart from the state, reinforced my interest in popular challenges to liberal parliamentary government as a crucial theme in the history of resistance to capitalism. Fourth, as a corollary, I realized that the process of working class formation can be reformulated so as to include elements not centrally associated with the institutional growth of the labour movement (based on male proletarians) – eg women, youth, immigrants, indigenes, criminals, bohemians, rootless intellectuals, etc, because these elements were often the least habituated to the process of representation, and thus less starry-eyed about representative institutions such as unions and governments, or to put that another way, the most likely to employ direct action to improve their lives.

I would later realise that collective direct action is a form of ‘savage democracy’; savage democracy is thus socialism in action, a form of politics sans doctrine, sans l’état.