Stuart Macintyre and the History Wars

In 2003 I caused somewhat of a furore when I published a piece in the Australian on Stuart Macintyre and his book The History Wars. Browsing in the university shop, I had come across a copy of the book, bought it and began to read it. I was puzzled that a man like Macintyre, who enjoyed quite a bit of government patronage, was attacking the Howard government for its hostility to history and the history profession.

I noticed that Macintyre had spelled the name of my friend Imre Saluszinsky incorrectly and contacted him to tell him. Imre emailed the then opinion page editor of the Australian, Tom Switzer, and the result was an article by me on the day the book was launched. The article contained many things but was focused on what seemed to me to be the excessive influence that Macintyre exercised in the Australian historical profession. Macintyre did not respond to my criticisms but left that to others.

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For example: on September 5, 2003, I received an email from Sue Rowley, who was the Executive Director of the Humanities section of the Australian Research Council. She also sent it to all the academics who comprised the Humanities panel and to my vice-chancellor. Coming from a government employee, this email was completely improper, and the fact that it was circulated to so many other people, including my vice-chancellor, is an indication that it was intended to bully and intimidate me.

In the email she stated a number of things, including:

I was disappointed that you would make the unfair and untrue implication that Professor Macintyre’s chairing of the Humanities and Creative Expert Advisory Committee (HCA EAC) had resulted improperly in a disproportionate number of grants being awarded to historians at the University of Melbourne …

I regret your intemperate and ungenerous comments about your colleagues and the ARC.

I received an email which was designed to threaten me by a government employee who exceeded her authority in so doing. That says everything about how the Left conducted the History Wars. Below are the articles that I wrote at the time about Macintyre.


Original opinion piece, Australian, September 3, 2003

Stuart Macintyre, dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Melbourne, is the man who would be, and has largely succeeded in becoming, the godfather of the history profession in Australia. His new book The History Wars (Melbourne University Press), to be launched by former Prime Minister Paul Keating today, is an attempt to consolidate his godfather status. He wants to make his account of the conflicts about history in Australia during the past thirty years into the received version.

Macintyre claims that history is under threat because the Howard government has made dubious appointments to the various boards and cultural agencies under its control. Never mind that Macintyre has enjoyed considerable patronage under the incumbent government. He is a member of the Civics Education Group of the Department of Education, Science and Training that oversees the Discovering Democracy program, and hence civics education in Australia. He is the chairman of the board of management of the National Centre for History Education and a member of the governing committee of the History Educators Network of Australia. The Commonwealth government funds both bodies.

He is chairman of the humanities and creative arts panel of the Australian Research Council and the only historian on the panel. He became chairman of the panel in 2002. In that year, more than one-quarter of the grants awarded in the area of historical studies went to members of Macintyre’s faculty.

Clearly, Macintyre is the most powerful man in the history profession in Australia. He has the capacity to influence history education at every level, from primary school to university. The government that he so dislikes has largely given him this power. This dislike is not enough for him to contemplate resigning from some of these positions.

See also: Keith Windschuttle, ‘Stuart Macintyre and the Blainey Affair

Now, as he extends his ambitions to control the past of the historical profession in this country, one must ask: Just how reliable and accurate is his history?

For starters, he gets the origin of the word history wrong. He says that it comes from the Greek word meaning to know. Actually, to know in Greek is gignosco, hence cognisant (via Latin) and gnostic in English. Historie in Greek means research or inquiry. Perhaps while the rest of us engage in inquiry, Macintyre, like a true gnostic, just knows.

Then there’s his account of the Blainey affair at the University of Melbourne in 1984. Historian Geoffrey Blainey told the Warrnambool Rotary Club that the rate of Asian immigration into the country was higher than public opinion found acceptable and perhaps should be slowed. Following this speech, twenty-three of Blainey’s colleagues in the history department published a letter denouncing his views on Asian immigration.

After the letter came demonstrations by students to prevent Blainey from holding classes, some acrimonious exchanges with his colleagues, then a reconciliation meeting between him and the history department. As a member of the department at that time, I can comment on Macintyre’s version of events. According to Macintyre, much of the fault lies with Blainey, who stubbornly refused to back down, leading him to adopt ever more extreme positions. Macintyre blames the victim.

My recollection is that many of Blainey’s colleagues were extremely jealous of his high profile. I observed them being sycophantic to his face, then saying quite horrible things about him behind his back. They were particularly contemptuous of his television show The Blainey View. My view is that they were just waiting for an opportunity to vent their spleen. Blainey’s remarks on Asian immigration gave them the opportunity. In particular, I recall the reconciliation meeting between the department and Blainey quite differently from Macintyre. For example, he implies that Geoffrey Bolton, who was not a member of the department, was present at that meeting. I didn’t see him there.

The members of the department employed a rather appalling approach towards Blainey that is not uncommon among left-wing academics. They single out a person who does not share their views and persecute them. To endure such treatment is awful. It has often led to its victims exhibiting erratic behaviour. No wonder Blainey retired early.

It all comes down to a matter of spin. Macintyre’s factual inaccuracies are less important than the way he spins his narrative together to create the overall picture. There can be no doubt as to the sympathies that inspire that picture. Every mention of Keating and Gough Whitlam and his big picture glows with warmth and empathy. The language turns frosty when his attention turns to John Howard. Keating’s “Big Picture employed the bright colours of suffering and endurance, emancipation and triumph”, while Howard is someone who “was prepared to use racial prejudice for political advantage”.

Macintyre’s spin distorts much of what he says. He portrays historians as innocents who wander into the nasty world of politics and the media. There they encounter “history warriors” who do not abide by the rules of the academic world. These warriors seem to be involved in some sort of conspiracy against historical truth.

Blainey was to blame for his own fate. Manning Clark, for Macintyre, was an innocent, victimised by Cold War cum history warriors. Nevertheless, as anyone who has read Clark’s autobiography The Quest for Grace knows, Clark was rather an unpleasant man and no innocent. Whatever the truth is about the Order of Lenin, he was clearly sympathetic to extreme left-wing politics. Clark wrote in his first historical work that the “minority who refuse to conform [to ‘progressive’ forces] … must be compelled to conform … This may mean imprisonment or exile, or at least a prohibition on their right to express their opinions in public in either speech or writing.” He appears never to have renounced that passage. (Macintyre’s co-author, incidentally, is Anna Clark. We are not told, but she is Manning’s grand-daughter.)

Macintyre’s version of the history of Australian history has a strong left-wing spin. He emphasises historians dealing with class, race and gender and the radical nationalists, a school of thought that argues that the story of Australia is to be understood in terms of the development of national independence and the growth of socialism. Historians working in other traditions are dismissed, as in the case of J.M. Ward, or ignored, as with Alan Atkinson. He provides a peculiar picture of the development of historical writing about Australia.

Macintyre identifies national identity with “the identity politics of sex, race and ethnicity”. It is not surprising that he defends the odd spin that the National Museum of Australia gives to Australian identity: full of stuff on race and gender but hardly recognising substantial elements of Australian life such as business and religion.

In his account of history wars in other countries, Macintyre focuses primarily on English-speaking countries. He misses the most interesting—the battle for the French Revolution during its bicentennial in 1989. In that case, liberal historian FranÇois Furet challenged the Left and largely emerged as the victor. If an Australian equivalent of Furet were to emerge in a history profession presided over by Godfather Macintyre, he would find it difficult to get a job, let alone a grant to pursue his research.


Review article, Policy, Summer 2003-4

It is odd for an author to entitle a book The History Wars when he believes that the “warriors” are to be found only on one side. In reality, when Stuart Macintyre talks about the History Wars what he really has in mind is something like the Barbarians against the Innocents. St Stuart the knight in shining armour seeks manfully, and in his eyes against the odds, to prevent the massacre of the History Innocents by the evil Barbarians from the Op Ed pages.

In other words this book is not a work of scholarship. It is a highly ideological and polemical book and must be treated as such. Its primary arguments are derived from the pro-Communist polemics of the Cold War. Macintyre is a former Communist and this book demonstrates that you can take the boy out of the Party but you cannot take the Party out of the boy.

“History Warrior” hearkens back to the term “Cold Warrior”, just as the overall structure of the book is based on the idea that the History Warriors are engaged in a new bout of McCarthyism. Australian historians are the contemporary equivalent of the Hollywood producers and actors of the 1950s. They are decent blokes and blokettes just going about their business of historical inquiry who have been unfairly persecuted by fanatics from outside the profession.

Macintyre’s response to my criticism of the book in the Australian on September 3 illustrates this point. He refuses to name me or to acknowledge that I am a professionally trained historian with a substantial publication record. To do so would be to admit that there is a genuine History War going on amongst historians, which is in fact the case. Instead he prefers to imply the totally false idea that I was somehow put up to write the article by the editor of the Australian.

Of course anyone who has existed within academia knows that to portray it as a world of innocents is a sick joke. Historians, like other academics, often go in hard. Their preference is to do their dirty work in secret by ensuring that research with which they disagree does not receive funding or that the fruits of that research never appear in print. In fact the “History Warriors” have done the Australian community a big favour by ensuring that controversial ideas are not snuffed out behind the walls of the Politburo but receive proper debate and discussion. To bring such debates into the open is not, as one historian recently put it to me, “to foul the nest” but to introduce liberal values to a group that needs to become more open to a diversity of views.

But apparently this is too much for Stuart Macintyre who would prefer that only historians certified by people like him (and he does certify a lot as an examiner of PhD theses) should be allowed to speak on historical matters. Fortunately history does not belong to academic historians, despite the scorn that they sometimes pour on those operating outside the university. Historical debates are by their nature public debates. It is wrong to try to exclude some from participating in them.

In a sense this is what Macintyre as the self-appointed shop steward of the History profession is trying to do in this book: argue the case for a closed shop in historical debate. The real problem with such a view, as with any idea of intellectual protection, is that its consequence is a closed shop of ideas. The History profession in Australia does possess a degree of diversity, but that is not necessarily the case with those engaged in Australian history.

Too often the agendas of the study of Australian history are driven by contemporary political concerns. Macintyre demonstrates this by his praise of Paul Keating and the Keating agenda in this book, and by his use of Keating to launch the book. In this he is following in the footsteps of Manning Clark who engaged in obsequious praise of Gough Whitlam. Keith Windschuttle has pointed out that contemporary political concerns have driven the study of Aboriginal history along roads designed to bolster those concerns. The New Zealand political scientist Mark Francis has demonstrated that the history of Australian republicanism has been distorted by the need to prop up the case for an Australian republic.

The willingness of people like Macintyre to subordinate the quest for historical truth to contemporary politics is illustrated by Macintyre’s view on oral history as evidence for Aboriginal history. Now we all know that memory can be a treacherous ally. There are people in Tasmania who “remember” Merle Oberon growing up there even though the documents prove conclusively that she spent her youth in India. Such cases are not uncommon. Nevertheless Macintyre, like many of his compatriots, want to make Aboriginal memory equivalent to the documentary records made by the officials of European Australia. He is happy that the National Museum has an exhibit on a massacre of Aborigines that is reputed to have taken place in 1826 despite the lack of any documentary evidence regarding it. After all, an oral tradition 180 years old should be good enough.

His defence of oral history leads him into making one particularly silly statement. Claiming that historians have always relied on memory, he cites the speeches of Thucydides as an early example. Would we, he indignantly claims, reject Pericles’s Funeral Oration on the grounds that it is “uncorroborated by original documents”? It is a pity that Macintyre had not read Thucydides before making this claim. Thucydides makes it clear that he is not reporting his speeches verbatim but is recording what the speakers would and should have said. In fact some parts of his History, such as the Melian Dialogue, are probably made up. Thucydides is to be taken seriously not because he was taking shorthand notes at the speech but because as a member of the Athenian elite he understood the mindset that animated it. One only hopes that the intellectual arguments that Macintyre uses in training the next generation of Australian historians are higher in quality than this one.

At the end of the book Macintyre, following one assumes the good old traditions of academic life, accuses the History Warriors of obeying Rafferty’s rules, caricaturing their opponents and impugning their motives and of being bullies. Of course Macintyre has not engaged in any such activity in writing this book.

The fact is that Macintyre is a long-time participant in the History Wars; he is as much a “Warrior” as those whose motives he impugns. In 1989 I responded to an earlier round of the History Wars that involved the Institute of Public Affairs and Macintyre by writing that it was wrong to see Australian history as either “bad” or “good”. History is made by complex people, people like ourselves, whose motives are often mixed and who can sometimes create tragedies without realising what they are doing. It is time that academic historians like Macintyre stopped using history as a means of demonstrating their moral superiority over us mere mortals and began to explore the complex humanity of those who came before us.


Stuart Macintyre and the origins of the word history (previously unpublished)

In The History Wars Professor Stuart Macintyre makes the following statement: “The word ‘history’ comes from the classical Greek word ‘to know’, with connotations of learning wisdom and judgement.” In my article of September 3, 2003, in the Australian I pointed out that the Greek word to know was gignosco and that the Greek word historeo means to “inquire in or about a thing” (Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, page 842).

Despite this Professor Macintyre will not accept this standard meaning and origin of the word history. In the afterword to the second edition of The History Wars Macintyre has another go at the origins of history. He claims that “several classicists” wrote to the Australian and that they observed that “Greek texts use the word to refer to the process of coming to know something by inquiry”. He also states that “the Greek adjective Histor, meaning knowledgeable or expert, is as old as Homer”.

Of Macintyre’s two “classicists” who wrote to the Australian, one cited first-century AD Greek usage to demonstrate that historeo in the fifth century BC meant “coming to know something”, which is a bit like quoting a work of Macintyre to prove Shakespearean usage. The other “classicist” used the Oxford English Dictionary, hardly the appropriate scholarly tool for such an inquiry.

The point about histor is interesting. In his Herodotus James Romm notes that histor meant judge or arbitrator in Homeric Greek (it was certainly not an adjective) but that the abstract noun historie was unknown to Homer. Romm says that Homer and the Epic Bards “received their stories from an all-knowing Bard” and therefore “had no need to make an ‘enquiry’ about anything contained therein”. Herodotus needed to make inquiries because he did not have a Muse “as a guarantor of authenticity”.

Hence, as Romm notes, the first sentence of Herodotus is, “This is the display of the historie of Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” By this is not meant history in the sense of narrative, but inquiry. Herodotus was not only the first “historian” but also the first ethnographer. Herodotus inquired into things and he made empirical observations. In some cases what he discovered led to “knowledge” but as is well known Herodotus was notoriously credulous and consequently not all of his inquiries can be said to constitute knowledge.

To inquire is clearly not the same thing as to know. After all there are a variety of ways of knowing. The Greeks themselves wanted knowledge that was certain; the sort of knowledge that mathematics can supply but historical inquiry cannot. The only knowledge that inquiry or research can establish is provisional in nature; historians rely on empirical data that may turn out to be wrong.

That is why it is crucial to insist that the origins of History lie in inquiring, not in knowing. The one is a process; the other a finished product. One is open-ended; the other is closed. One inquires into things; that is not the same as knowing something and the outcome of an inquiry is not necessarily knowledge.


Opinion piece, Australian, on new edition of The History Wars, July 6, 2004

At the end of his afterword to the new updated edition of The History Wars (Melbourne University Press), Stuart Macintyre writes that the “history wars are an ugly side of the Australian present and they debase public life”.

This leaves one contemplating a paradox. If Macintyre so disapproves of the history wars, why did he launch this polemical book that he must have known would inflame passions and, having inflamed those passions, why did he compound the matter by writing an equally provocative afterword to the new edition? Make no mistake: The History Wars is not a work of scholarship but of polemic and can only be treated as such. Would not the best course have been to remain silent?

I think there are good reasons why Macintyre deprecates the history wars while opening up a new front in them. The first is that Macintyre wants to fight the Cold War over again. It is McCarthyism that provides his model. He places historians in the role of the Hollywood directors and actors of the 1950s. He portrays them as being persecuted by some sort of evil alliance that seems to be composed of John Howard and the print media, with this newspaper being cast in a leading role.

Having set up this fictional scenario, Macintyre can then portray himself as the champion of these poor downtrodden and persecuted historians. Hence he has an obsession, especially when dealing with the origins of the word history, with trying to establish that historians are “wise” and knowledgeable people. Flattery will get you everywhere.

This portrayal appeals to members of a history profession in Australia that believes it is under attack. A recent report of the Australian Historical Association refers to relentless downsizing of history departments in Australian universities and “anxieties about a ‘crisis’ in the discipline”.

Macintyre’s exposition of the history wars panders to this mood of anxiety and its accompanying “culture of complaint”. He provides a simplistic explanation: the government and the media are out to get you. He confirms their victim mentality.

The history wars have a negative influence not because they encourage public debate about historical matters, thereby removing control of them from the “wise” folk of the history profession. After all, that has been one of the positive benefits of the history wars. No, the problem is that their continuance locks too many historians into a negative mindset. These historians can blame everyone but themselves for the present state of history in Australia.

The history wars look backwards. They encourage historians to produce yesterday’s history, history appropriate to the 1960s and 1970s when many of them underwent their significant experiences. Theirs is the history of old Australia. There is, however, a new Australia that is in need of a history that makes sense of its world. This is the internationalised Australia of the twenty-first century.

Our students are telling us what that history should look like. During the past ten years there has been a significant growth in students studying world history at Australian universities, in particular twentieth-century world history. This matches the extraordinary growth in student interest in international relations in political science departments.

For example, at my university, the University of Wollongong, we have had an 80 per cent increase in first-year student numbers in those subjects dealing with twentieth-century history and world history. During the same period there has been a decline of about 25 per cent in first-year Australian history numbers.

At the same time, in New South Wales at least, ancient history is booming in schools and universities. Students want to study history that fires their imaginations and enables them to look outside the narrow world of the here and now.

This may help explain why, for many of them—in fact, far too many—Australian history is a giant turn-off. In conversation with many of these students the word boring often crops up. In many cases the experience of the compulsory Civics-Australian History subject in Year 10 in New South Wales is the cause of their disenchantment. The problem, I suspect, is that Australian history has become just another excuse for preaching politically correct ideology at students.

A significant issue is that too many members of the history profession in Australia have an attitude problem. Instead of whingeing about how awful everything is, they should view the present situation as an opportunity and a challenge. Their particular challenge is to teach the type of history appropriate for the internationalised world of their students.

Teachers of Australian history have a particular challenge. This is to escape from the “culture of complaint” and seize the opportunity to get themselves in tune with their times or else face irrelevance. So long as they remain trapped within that culture they will continue to transmit a sour and mean-spirited picture of Australia’s past to students. Who wouldn’t prefer to study the excitement of the Persian wars or the machinations of the late Roman republic to the hellfire sermons that all too often pass for Australian history?

Or even worse, there is the story of the lecturer in Australian history who simply placed a copy of Who Weekly in front of her students and stated that this would form the basis of that week’s lecture.

Australian history needs to be renovated so that it captures the imagination and inspires the intellect of those who study it. It is not an easy task. One thing is certain. Historians constantly harping on how badly done by they are, so well exemplified by Macintyre and his History Wars, is not the solution.


Opinion piece, Australian, September 16, 2008

The discovery that Stuart Macintyre has been engaged to write the national Australian history curriculum for the Rudd government has attracted an amount of comment. Some of this has focused on Macintyre’s involvement in the notorious letter from members of the University of Melbourne History Department condemning Geoffrey Blainey in 1984. Macintyre’s one-time Communist affiliation has also attracted unfavourable comment.

What has not been discussed is the type of history that Macintyre is likely to recommend for Australian students. His mate, the so-called “conservative” historian John Hirst, has said, trust me, Macintyre is OK by me. This might prompt many to ask: how reliable is Hirst?

There are three areas one should examine very closely when Macintyre’s proposal eventually comes out. These are the role of religion in Australian history; liberalism and business; and understanding Australia’s place in the world.

The most devastating critique of Macintyre’s historical work was written a number of years ago by the Sydney left-winger Bob Gould. Gould pointed out that Macintyre had no place for religion in his account of Australian history. In particular, Macintyre attempted to write the Catholic contribution out of Australian history altogether. It is worth noting that Hirst is also not all that keen on religion and is a noted opponent of private schools.

The role of religion in Australian history was debated forcefully at the History Summit in 2006 with Bob Carr, amongst others, not at all keen on including religion in the study of Australian history.

The second issue is an important one. The current prosperity of Australia has resulted from both the implementation of liberal principles and the role of private enterprise, including farmers, in developing the country. Unlike Blainey, Macintyre has demonstrated no great enthusiasm for coming to terms with the role that Australian companies have played in Australia’s rise to prosperity.

When it comes to the liberalism Macintyre has demonstrated in his writings that he is only really interested in that variety of liberalism that came out of Melbourne in the nineteenth century and favours state intervention. Like Judith Brett, he has no time for the other tradition of Australian liberalism based on free trade and individual initiative. Again, while Hirst calls himself a “conservative”, his “conservatism” has everything to do with nationalism and almost nothing to do with liberalism and individualism.

There is nothing in Macintyre’s corpus to suggest that he has much of an appreciation of the wider international environment in which Australia has existed during its history since 1788. He has written almost exclusively on Australia, with an early book on the British Communist Party. Blainey, in comparison, has written a world history.

But it is even worse than that. Gould pointed out that not only has Macintyre a British-Australian view of the world, as one would expect from the product of a Melbourne “public” school, his view of Australia is centred on Melbourne and Adelaide. It was interesting that when I wrote a paper for the 2006 Australian History Summit one of the criticisms that was made of me was that I was a “New South Wales” historian.

Given Macintyre’s record, there are good reasons to be worried about the type of curriculum in Australian history that he is likely to produce. If Macintyre is true to form it will be a history that excludes religion and that has very little to say about the important role of both business and economic liberalism in the making of Australia. Moreover, it will be a history that largely ignores the rest of the world and which has Melbourne as the key to understanding how Australia developed.

If my predictions are correct then we must ask if such a history is really appropriate for students living in the twenty-first century at a time when we cannot understand the national without the international, when religion has not only refused to die but has made a comeback, and when liberalism and business are more important than ever.

We do not want young Australians getting a history that is outdated.

Gregory Melleuish is a member of the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wollongong. Among his books are Despotic State or Free Individual?: Two Traditions of Democracy in Australia and Australian Intellectuals: Their Strange History and Pathological Tendencies


3 thoughts on “Stuart Macintyre and the History Wars

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Despite his contribution to the Marxist “march through the institutions”, Macintyre will soon be forgotten, while Blainey’s contribution to Australian’s understanding of themselves will endure.
    Given what we know about the results of Marxism, why are we letting Marxists influence what is taught to our children?

  • wdr says:

    Stuart Macintyre’s emphasis on working-class history would now be considered reactionary by today’s radicals, with Class War having been replaced by Race War and Gender War. Too many dead white males. (Bill Rubinstein)

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks for this article Gregory. I’ve read some of your essays over the years and always found that they struck a cord with my thinking, so thank you again and may I say it’s good to know that there are still some senior academics, particularly in the humanities and even more particularly historians, who are not left wing.

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