When The Southern Tree of Liberty was published the editor of Labour History arranged a symposium on it. Paul Pickering’s contribution was the only one received. I was invited to respond. The symposium appeared in Labour History 92, May 2007, 143-8. My response points to the philosophical differences - Pickering’s idealist history and my materialist history – underlying our disagreement.

A Song for the Future’: a Response to Paul Pickering

I am grateful to the Editor of Labour History for arranging this symposium on my book, and to Paul A. Pickering for considering it so provocatively. Back in 1996 this journal published Paul’s timely recovery of the egalitarian, socialist principles inspiring the poetry of the young H.R. Nicholls, who was then a hero of the businessmen of the New Right in Australia. Nicholls was an English Chartist who migrated in 1853 to Victoria, taking his principles with him; in Pickering’s words ‘his locality changed, but not his mentality’, a statement that neatly sums up the idea that has inspired much of his own research since 1996.1 As well as publishing many important studies of British radical politics in the Chartist era, Pickering has been the major force behind the study in Australia of the Chartist movement as part of a ‘British world’ of values and ideas in the nineteenth century.

The title of his response to my book recalls his influential article on ‘popular constitutionalism’ in New South Wales, ‘The oak of English liberty’.2 He criticises me for ‘stubbornly’ refusing to ‘view colonial politics through the lens of the British world’. Instead, I linger unhelpfully with the old-fashioned radical nationalists. However, I think any disagreement we might have arises because we write different kinds of history. I intend to point out that ‘the British world’ version of intellectual and cultural history has limitations, just as I am certain he would point out the weaknesses in my approach, once he had correctly identified it. But before coming to the kind of history my book represents, I have to deal with the canard about neglecting ‘the British world’ because of my attachment to radical nationalism.

Did the radical nationalists write about Australia as if the history of the rest of the world did not matter? I don’t think so. Fitzpatrick certainly cannot be accused of that, and Childe, Evatt, and Rawling as well as some of the labour historians who succeeded them, such as Gollan and Churchward, were all very much aware of Australia’s place in a world capitalist system and the role of a British (and American) radical tradition in Australia. Admittedly they did not take up the questions that Paul and the British Worlders now consider, because they had a different, and quite legitimate, kind of history in mind, as I do. My book does engage with the wider world where appropriate.3 Further, I am rather bemused to find myself lumped in with these illustrious predecessors, as I had always imagined that others saw me as hurling spears of theory at them from the New Left’s ramparts, even as early as 1967.4 However, I am pleased to partially acknowledge them (Gollan specifically): not for their nationalism, but for writing history with a social purpose.

Paul Pickering tries to explain my regressive radical-nationalism by claiming that the book rests on research carried out for my PhD thesis of 1967.5 In this he is mistaken. I warned readers of the book on page seven not to assume that it re-works the thesis. Let me now be more explicit about the differences. Leaving aside the trivial point that whereas the thesis begins in 1843 the book begins a decade earlier, the important differences lie in two areas: the subject matter and the evaluation of radicalism. The shortest way to describe the difference in subject matter is to say that thesis and book focus on different regions of public life. To illustrate: Henry Parkes (whom Pickering refers to several times as if he was a key player in the democratic movement) had a major role in the thesis but he is certainly not a hero in the book. Broadly speaking, in the thesis the focus was the Legislative Council and the Colonial Office, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Empire, the anti-pastoral ideology of the urban bourgeoisie, and the liberalism promoted by businessmen during the anti-transportation campaign. In the book it is the trades societies and the radical organisations, the Weekly Register and the People’s Advocate, the turbulence and violence of street politics, and the creation of a democratic movement. It is true there is some cross-over, but it is very small: out of eleven chapters in the thesis just two dealt with the working-class radicals.

Turning to the evaluation of radicalism, we see a major break with the argument of the thesis. Instead of following the accepted line that radicalism was sidelined by the liberals, the book shows that the democratic movement (led by the radicals and the delegates of the trades) was not only largely responsible for the electoral success of the liberals but also pioneered the practice of issuing a program for elections and of requiring candidates to submit themselves for questioning by a radical organisation before they were endorsed. These were major innovations in the relationship between political organisation and representative government. They prefigured a time when citizens could expect that parliament would respect popular sovereignty.

Mention of the democratic movement brings us to my explanation for Pickering’s assertion that the book ignores matters that it should have considered. He wants to assimilate the book to a kind of history he identifies with, and, reading it in that light, he misses the kind of history it tries to be. In his response he refers to the history of ‘the British world’, which has been the organising idea of four international conferences since 1998. In these conferences the British world is not just a geographical region – what in my teaching days we called an ‘area study’ – it is a particular kind of history. It unites a process – migration (of peoples, ideas, institutions etc) in Britain’s sphere of influence - with a way of understanding history (as investigation of ideas and texts). As such it privileges certain kinds of historical projects – intellectual and cultural – and these are turning up interesting information about the variations and contradictions in Britishness. However, its limits – ignoring material forces and practices - are not hard to imagine. For me, its pathos repels; it has a kind of anodyne feeling, perhaps because its popularity is not unrelated to the attraction of its metaphors (‘open, outward-looking citizens of the world’) in an age when we too face the pains of globalisation.

This is the kind of history Pickering wants me to address, as he reveals not only in specific remarks about my neglect of it but also in his references to an idealist ‘democratic culture’, and an undifferentiated ‘democratic society, and the ‘ideas, strategies, lessons, hopes and aspirations’ of almost everybody – well, at least of the half a million British immigrants who arrived between 1840 and 1855.

However, my book is not about the ‘culture’ or ‘society’ of British immigrants, whether democratic or otherwise. What it is about I explained quite clearly on page four:

this book tells the story of the mobilisation of the working classes, the turbulent street crowds that they were so ambivalent about, the fear of democracy among the elites, the leadership role of the radical intellectuals, the different kinds of popular rule that the radicals envisaged, and the organisational innovations that the democratic movement contributed to representative government. Not all these are new to the historical literature. Their combination in one argument, and the way they are organised by the idea of democracy as a political movement, make the novelty of this book.

The point I need to emphasise in relation to Pickering’s criticism is that I am not claiming that my having a different focus is simply a matter of my choice. To such a claim there is always the retort that a richer history would have been possible had I made the choice that Paul prefers – as if all that is involved in historical writing is deciding on one’s field. Rather, my point is that in order to answer the questions I posed (or at least the most important of them) I had no choice; that is, both the questions and the putative answers were driven by particular logics.

The main question I wanted to answer was: how was support for the idea of democracy as popular sovereignty generated in New South Wales? Clearly one possible answer was that some colonists actually practiced popular sovereignty in at least a part of their everyday lives. This meant I needed to go back to the origins of public life in the colony to see if I could find this kind of practice. Thus I discovered the debate about the rights of members in the Australian Patriotic Association, and became interested in the pre-1843 discussion of how public meetings could be made into sites of deliberation and accountability. Naturally, I investigated the earliest forms of working-class organisation, the trades societies, and the meetings held by the ‘delegates of the trades’ to defend working-class interests and claim political rights. And so on; I won’t rehearse the specific contents of the book. Suffice to say that I followed this story of mobilisation and agitation in the cause of popular democracy up to the introduction of responsible government, organising my thinking with terms drawn from the social science literature on social movements and from democratic theory. By the time I had finished my study I was convinced that I had the evidence to support an argument that in these years a democratic social movement had arisen in the colony, generated by the specific class and political forces that constituted public life in the colony.

This argument is important because it runs counter to accepted views that the radicals were organisationally unimportant, that they lacked mass support, that they appeared for the first time in 1848, and that their political ideas and activities were merely an extension of British reform movements. The historians whose work supports the accepted views are mentioned in the book’s footnotes.

Thus was one kind of logic deployed. The other had to do with my (stubborn) structuralist predilections. I think about society as a series of historical situations. The key objects of social thought are to understand how these situations are structured by patterns in relationships and to discover their contradictions, their constraints on action, and how they are formed through action. Colonisation, for example, from the moment of its inception, is a process both of separation from the mother-country and of reproducing the mother-country’s interests and values overseas. Because colonists are bearers of this structure, some of them will decide that, in the relationship between mother country and colony, difference is more pertinent to their situation than similarity, and that changes required by the unique circumstances of the colony should prevail over attempts to reproduce imperial ways and institutions. In New South Wales, in the period covered by the book, popular democracy was caught up in this logic, for it was the emerging working class that chafed most under the imperial yoke (as the book shows). Dignity, justice, freedom, equal rights: these principles had very particular meanings to the colonial working men, and it was these meanings that infused the debate about self-government, and it was the movement framed by that debate that gave a popular democratic thrust to the introduction of representative government.

To particularise: whatever dignity might have meant for a worker in Dublin, or Birmingham, or anywhere else in the British world, in the colony it meant not being treated like an ex-convict. Whatever justice and equal rights might have meant elsewhere, those terms in Sydney’s radical press were used in discussions about the rights of industry and land reform that drew on grievances arising out of the history of the colony.6 The key matter is not the existence of a common British culture but why Sydney’s workers chose to understand self-government in a way that propelled them into action. This process of ‘framing’ action I discussed in the conclusion to the book, along with the four other reasons for identifying the politics of the radicals and working men as a social movement for popular democracy.

Pickering says that I do not explain or substantiate my remark on page 197 that radicals ‘were less devoted [to the British constitution] than many believe’. I hope what I have said above about the logic of separatism and opposition in the colonial situation will show that I do have an explanation. On the matter of substantiation, I insist that the book does provide evidence. The radical intellectual W.A. Duncan is quoted on the fetish of constitutionalism, and the discussion of what I call his civic radicalism contrasts it to constitutional radicalism. My discussion of the Mutual Protection Association reveals how it pioneered a relationship between ‘party’ (outside the legislature) and elected representatives that was unknown at the time to the British constitution. I discuss the uproar caused at a public meeting in 1851 when a working man called Gee said he preferred ‘the stripes and stars’ to the British ‘flag of slavery’. I quote James McEachern in 1852 asking why he should be crushed under the iron heel of British tyranny. I document references to the tricolour in the working men’s movement, the influence of French events in 1848, and the sympathy of working men for the Canadian rebels of 1837.

There are some other points in his response that I should comment on before closing. First, the book concentrates on Sydney (and the county of Cumberland) because that was where there was sufficient density of population for an alternative public of working men and radical intellectuals to develop. A public is not just a set of people with ideas; it is an organising of people’s political will, for which certain institutions are necessary: for instance, a press, regular meetings, salons, agitational and deliberative bodies, and state organisations to oppose. A democratic public of working men and radicals was therefore largely confined to Sydney until after the discovery of gold. I will allow that the book could have looked more closely at the Bathurst press at the height of the agitation on the gold fields. Second, the book ends in 1855 because it wanted to establish that there was, in the period before responsible government, a democratic movement for popular sovereignty. Because the introduction of representative government was designed expressly to prevent democracy in this sense, it seemed very important to establish its existence. It casts a very different light on what was introduced in 1856. Of course, the later history of movements for popular democracy needs to be studied.

Third, Pickering says the book is damaged because it failed to pay attention to women and Aborigines, whose stories need to be told. Indeed they do, and when someone writes the kind of book Pickering imagines this book to be, they will be told. It is misleading to use the phrases he prefers in order to address this matter. My book is not about ‘the public sphere’, any more than it is about ‘democratic society’, or even ‘the democratic movement’ if it is thought to include Parkes and the anti-transportationists. I think that his desire to see that other book, the one I did not write, has carried him so far away from reality that he has lost sight of the class and political differences in the colony at the time. My book was meant to reveal those differences and to recover the role of the working-class in a movement for a particular kind of democracy. One of my objections to the writings of earlier historians is that they obscure those differences, just as Paul does here. It enables him to point to women as political actors, but actually he is looking at middle-class politics, illustrated in a middle-class journal. In the working men’s movement which I wrote about, women were marginalised by definition. I referred to the one occasion when they made an impact, in the campaign against unemployment, and to the one woman whose radical verses survive. As for Aborigines, I found no evidence that they made any impact at all on the working-class democratic movement. If they were ‘paying attention’ on the edge of a crowd (but to what?) this is no more relevant to the question of how people are moved to action in politics than to say that the white colonists formed part of a British world of ideas. The actors in my book were not just paying attention, they were acting.

At one point in his response Paul Pickering writes that for ‘the vast majority’ of people in New South Wales (if not for Charles Harpur) a British tree of liberty was planted in 1788. I can imagine the scorn with which the delegates of the trades and the radical intellectuals of early colonial Australia would have greeted such a remark. I prefer to believe, as they did when they attacked the regime that began in 1788, that autocratic government is a danger to liberty, that unfree labour threatens the labour market power of free men, and that oligarchy (whether voted for or not) is the enemy of democracy. It seems to me that those issues do not go away. When Charles Harpur wrote his ‘Southern Tree of Liberty’ he called it ‘a song for the future’, no doubt to the incomprehension of the vast majority. But he was right, and still is.


1. Paul A. Pickering, ‘ “Glimpses of eternal youth”: Chartism, poetry and the young H.R. Nicholls’, Labour History, number 70, May 1996, p. 65

2. Paul A. Pickering, ‘ “The oak of English liberty”: popular constitutionalism in New South Wales, 1848-56’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol.3, no 1, April 2001.

3. There are discussions of the post-1815 European revolutionaries (p. 13), the era of British reform movements (p. 48) and Irish repealers (pp. 48-9), the experiences of radical immigrants in British movements (pp. 56-8), Chartism (pp. 64, 115-6, 146), British traditions of political organisation as a way of understanding the Mutual Protection Association (pp. 114-5), British radical societies of 1831 (p. 118), the Reform Act of 1832 (p.129), and Duncan’s Fourierism (pp.140-41).

4. T.H. Irving, ‘What is Labour History?’, Labour History, number 12, March 1967, pp. 77-81.

5. T.H. Irving, The Development of Liberal Politics in New South Wales, 1843-1855, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1967

6. For example, see the discussion on page 209.