Six years after our first disagreement Paul Pickering returned to it, but without telling his readers that I had already answered his criticisms, and without engaging with my account of how our methods and philosophy of history differed. So I was forced to respond (briefly) again, this time more explicitly about my materialist history. Our second exchange was published in the British journal, Labour History Review, vol. 79 (2), July 2014, pp 227-237.


In his article, ‘From Rifle Club to Reading Room: Sydney’s Democratic Vistas, 1848-56’ (Labour History Review, Volume 78, Number 1, April 2013), Paul Pickering writes that my book, The Southern Tree of Liberty – The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856 (Sydney 2006), ‘evinces a lingering attachment to a radical-nationalist idea that Australian history, and the history of labour in particular, was impervious to the rest of the world, and he [Irving] stubbornly refuses to view colonial radicalism through the lens of the British world’ (pp 88-9).

I write now to the editors and readers of LHR not because I disagree (as I do) with that assessment of my book, but because they may not be aware that Pickering’s use of those words has a previous history. In the absence of an account of that history readers may be left with an incomplete, perhaps tendentious, understanding of the methodological issues that divide Pickering and me.

This is not the first time Pickering has criticized my book and this is not the first time that I have responded. He even uses the same words. They first appeared in his ‘Was the Southern Tree of Liberty an Oak?’ (Labour History, 92, May 2007, pp 139-42) which he cites in footnote 7 on p. 89. What he neglects to mention is that his review of my book was part of a ‘Contested Histories Forum’ in the journal, and that it was followed by my ‘ “A Song for the Future”: A Response to Paul Pickering’ on pages 143 to 147. As my position in this debate has once again been incorrectly labeled ‘radical nationalist’, and my scholarly credentials impugned by being called ‘stubborn’, I would like the opportunity to briefly repeat my argument.

First, as to the supposed account by earlier historians of a colonial radicalism that was impervious to outside influences: in ‘A Song for the Future’, I wrote that the historians now called ‘radical nationalists’ (B. Fitzpatrick, R.A. Gollan, L. Churchward et al) ‘were very much aware of Australia’s place in a world capitalist system’ and the role of British (and American) radical traditions in Australia. This is such an obvious point, revealed over and over again in their publications, that I wonder how Pickering could come to a contrary opinion. In the matter of my own connection with these historians, I drew his attention to the fact (well known in Australia) that as early as 1967 I was publishing critiques of their work, and that in the historiography of this country I am regarded as one of the ‘New Left historians’ whose use of theory in history the radical nationalists, especially Gollan, found most discomforting. The point of using that theory – neo-marxism – was that it undermined nationalist illusions. Secondly, I also rejected his assertion that my book ignored the wider world, listing the points in Southern Tree where I discussed the influence of overseas ideas and movements, especially Chartism, but also utopian socialism and Jacksonian radicalism, in the colony.

But what I find curious is why my book irritated Pickering so much (as it still appears to do) that he needs to dismiss it by mis-labelling it as ‘radical nationalist’. I think the answer is that I follow a materialist method for the study of ideas, a method he feels uncomfortable with. In trying to understand his reaction I am reminded of the debate among labour historians in the 1990s about ‘populist’ and class-based identities in Chartism. The ‘British world’, which Pickering uses to explain ‘Chartism and something more’ in the Australian colonies, works in the way ‘populism’ did in that earlier debate. It is a kind of juggernaut of cultural idealism, blurring the effects of other processes, particularly capitalist economic exploitation, and so squashing other ways of getting at the meanings of radical ideas. In relation to my work, ‘the British world’ model leaves no room for my method of asking how these ideas worked in a different class and political setting; it is uninterested in how these ideas mobilized a democratic movement based in the experiences of the colonial working class; and it fails to ask if these ideas meant something different as a result.

In the conclusion of his article Pickering makes a passing remark that implicitly recognizes that my method has validity. He writes that although the Sydney Chartists did not see themselves as different, ‘their interaction with a new and vastly different environmental and governmental structure … fundamentally changed the repertoire of politics at their disposal’ (p.112). This interaction, of course, is what my work focuses on. Notice, however, his vague and abstract terms. It is as if to be more specific, to undertake the more interesting investigation of how ideas take on different meanings as they are deployed in different settings, might disprove his sweeping assertion (p.112) that colonial radicals were no different from British radicals. And as to the lack of difference: Really? How does he know? Well, I suppose that has to be the conclusion if all one has done is find traces of British culture in the colonies.

In my ‘Song for the Future’, which Pickering ignores, I briefly set out to demonstrate the elements of my method by showing how it was applied in Southern Tree. There were two connected logics: of action, and of situation. Because I was interested in popular sovereignty I asked how it was practiced among the colony’s radicals. By studying the history of colonial radical agitation by intellectuals and workingmen from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s I connected the familiar British radical practices of public deliberation, delegation, accountability, limited tenure of office etc to the issues and opportunities of colonial struggles for self-government. This history of ideas in action had to be linked to the particular situation in which it took place – a situation of imperial power relationships, political as well as economic, between Britain and the colonies. The emergent subject of this linkage was not ‘a culture’ but ‘a movement’ – a democratic movement drawing on ideas from Britain and elsewhere but expressing them in ways rooted in the experiences of colonial workingmen and radical intellectuals (some of whom were women). The process involved was not a simple transfer of a culture from metropole to colony but a struggle within a transplanted British culture over the meaning of democracy and democratic ideas.

So, as the book showed and my response to Pickering reiterated, ideas such as dignity, justice, freedom, and equal rights had particular meanings to the colonial workingmen. ‘Whatever dignity might have meant for a worker in Dublin or Birmingham, or anywhere else in the British world, in New South Wales it meant not being treated like a convict.’ Whatever justice and equal rights might have meant elsewhere, those terms in Sydney’s radical press referred to the rights of industry threatened by the importation of cheap labour by government and capital, and of land ownership for the poor blocked by government support for large-scale pastoralism.

For colonial radicals, the ‘something more’ of Chartism meant resistance to imperial policies and empowerment through self-governing practices and redress of grievances – not just a recreational rifle club but a revolution (as Hawksley wanted); not just a reading room but campaigns for accountability of politicians to the movement, land reform and the eight hour day. I have no difficulty accepting that the culture of the colonies was British. My point is that if the ideas were British (when they weren’t Fourierist or Jacksonian, for example), their meanings were colonial.