First published in Quadrant, October 2008
At the last federal election, Kevin Rudd promised an “education revolution”. However, the appointment last month of Stuart Macintyre to draft the national history syllabus for Australian high schools is anything but revolutionary. It is a return to the past with a vengeance. It is guaranteed to entrench within the teaching of history all the intellectually reactionary trends that emerged from 1960s radicalism and which have dominated the profession for more than three decades: history from below, relativism of interpretation, the politics of ethnicity and gender, and an outlook and practice inspired by Macintyre’s commitment to communism.
Critics concerned about this last allegiance have already been dismissed in the press by Macintyre’s friends. They have tried to pass off his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Australia as a youthful indiscretion, long ago and far away. They have accused those who raise it of vilification and McCarthyism. However, this connection formed the basis of Macintyre’s academic career and remains his most common topic. Six of his books are directly about Marxism, communism and communists. Three of them were produced within the last decade and a half.
They are: A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917–1933 (1980): Little Moscows: Communism and Working Class Militancy in Inter-War Britain (1980); Militant: The Life and Times of Paddy Troy (1984); Communism in Australia: A Resource Bibliography (co-editor, 1994); The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia, from Origins to Illegality (1998); Communism in Australia: A Supplementary Resource Bibliography 1994–2001 (co-editor, 2002). Moreover, there is still another volume of his history of the Communist Party of Australia yet to be published.
Macintyre’s writings about the party do not reveal any of the contrition or revaluation one might have expected following the collapse of the USSR in 1989–91 and the wide acceptance that communism was a more terrible regime, with tens of millions more corpses, than even Nazism. What stands out in the first volume of The Reds is Macintyre’s portrayal of his leading characters, most of them secretly in the pay and doing the bidding of Moscow, as well-meaning and do-gooding. The book was described by one of his old Marxist factional rivals, Bob Gould, as an “essentially Stalinist company history of Australian Communism”.
In Macintyre’s more general histories, the Marxism is less overt but still forms the framework of his narrative and interpretations. In his volume on the period 1901 to 1940 for the Oxford History of Australia (1986), the first chapter compares the lives of five Australians:
- a fat, greedy and ruthless pastoral and mining entrepreneur who makes a fortune creating paper companies and manipulating stocks and shares;
- a poor, starving farmer who watches his wife and two children die while his surviving son becomes an embittered rural labourer and poet;
- a skilled tradesman ruined by unemployment who becomes a workers’ representative on the Arbitration Court;
- the wife of a farmer and coal miner who plays “a subordinate and domestic role” as she endures her husband’s disability and penury in Western Australia and New Zealand;
- a part-Aboriginal man who becomes a drover after pastoralists destroy his people’s way of life, and their ceremonies and customs fall into disuse.
Writ large, this political caricature of the Australian experience is the curriculum we can expect Macintyre to deliver to the Rudd government. It is no wonder that schoolchildren who have tasted earlier offerings from the same left-wing menu regard Australian history as dreary and uninspiring.
Macintyre also harbours a deep distaste for this country’s British heritage. In the concluding chapter of A Concise History of Australia (1999), he is comforted by the prediction that, just as the Romans were displaced in Britain, Aborigines and Asians will eventually supplant the colonisers of British descent in Australia. Just as the only remnant of the Roman empire in Britain is “a thin slice of the island’s multi-layered past”, so too will the British colonisation be overlaid by the culture and practices of other peoples.
One of Macintyre’s specialities is revising the reputations of his predecessors. He has written a book-length study of the pioneer Australian historian of the early twentieth century, Ernest Scott. He accuses Scott of racism towards Aborigines and of endorsing imperialism by taking as his framework the transplantation of British institutions to this country. In his book The History Wars (2003) Macintyre treats this approach with derision:
Nothing appears as ridiculous as an obsolete orthodoxy. The imperial interpretation of Australian history has passed so completely that we find it almost incomprehensible, except as an object of mockery—hence the jibes of Paul Keating about local Tories tugging their forelocks and dreaming of the Land of Hope and Glory.
Yet the belief of Scott and his generation that Australia was largely a transplanted British society is neither ridiculous nor obsolete, given that Britain was the originator of almost every major Australian institution: parliamentary democracy and liberalism, the courts and rule of law, the capitalist economy, the education system, the police and defence forces, the professions, the press, the trade unions and labour parties, all the major sporting codes, not to mention the small matter of the language in which Macintyre composed his allegation.
Historians who share Macintyre’s political predilections are spared his disdain. The first chapter of The History Wars begins with the story of Russel Ward, a member of the Communist Party and several communist-front organisations in the 1940s and 1950s, who was denied an academic post in history in 1955 at the New South Wales University of Technology (later the University of New South Wales). Macintyre claims Ward was denied the job because of his political background. He does not mention other reasons he knew had been advanced by the university’s Vice-Chancellor (see the article by Frank Crowley, Quadrant, May 2004). Macintyre presents Ward as a victim of Cold War politics and declares the incident an appalling infringement of academic principle.
Poor Russel Ward! Within two years he had gained an alternative academic post at the University of New England in Armidale. He occupied the chair of history there for the next three decades. At Armidale, it certainly gets cold in the winter but it is not Siberia, where Macintyre’s fellow communists sent history professors to their deaths.
Moreover, Macintyre himself played a prominent role in a notorious case of academic persecution that dwarfed the temporary inconvenience to Russel Ward’s employment. This was the successful campaign that put an end to the academic career of one of Australia’s greatest historians.
On May 19, 1984, the Age newspaper published a letter signed by twenty-four staff members of the Department of History at the University of Melbourne. The letter dissociated its authors from public views recently expressed by Geoffrey Blainey, the Ernest Scott Professor of History and head of that department. Blainey, the signatories claimed, had framed a debate over government immigration policy in such terms that would invite others to “incite feelings of racial hatred”:
As historians at the University of Melbourne we wish to dissociate ourselves entirely from the widely-publicised attacks which Professor Geoffrey Blainey, an eminent member of our profession, and a professor in our department, has recently made on the Government’s immigration policy with regard to Asians. Professor Blainey speaks and writes on this issue as an individual and not as a representative of historians at this university.
We are particularly aware of the dangers of trying to channel debate on immigration policy into consideration of the suitability of certain ethnic and national groups as immigrants. We are also aware, from many historical precedents, that raising such an issue in racial terms (however much it is couched in the language of reason) becomes an invitation to less responsible groups to incite feelings of racial hatred. Framing debate in such racial terms can become a potent weapon to rouse public fears and prejudices and to direct hostility at certain groups in our society.
We do not wish to limit debate and discussion by Professor Blainey or anyone else on such issues of public concern. But to raise discussion of immigration in terms of race will inevitably draw in and encourage racist groups to come forward and claim legitimacy from what has been said.
Signed by Ian Robertson [Renaissance historian, chairman of the department] and 23 others.
Two weeks later, at the start of the next teaching term, a group of students at the University of Melbourne picketed Blainey’s lectures and demonstrated against him. Although university security personnel locked the doors to the building concerned, they were unable to prevent the demonstrators gaining entry. Blainey was forced to cancel the lecture and others he planned to give. After that, university security concerns made it impossible for Blainey to speak at any public function on campus. All his scheduled talks at the university for the rest of the year were cancelled. Even towards the end of 1984, when the Students’ Representative Council invited him to give a lecture, the Vice-Chancellor prohibited it on grounds of security.
After members of his family were subject to threats of violence, Blainey removed his name and address from the public telephone book and a friend organised private security to guard his home. The university installed a special machine to inspect all incoming mail. The most disturbing incident, not publicised at the time by police for fear of provoking copycats, occurred when someone planted a real bomb on the lawn of another person named Blainey who lived close to Monash University.
The immediate consequence of all this was that Blainey, easily Australia’s best and most prolific living historian, was effectively silenced from speaking at his own university. He reverted to an administrative role as Dean of Arts and did not lecture again in the history department until 1987. This violation of academic freedom, clearly the worst in Australian history, provoked no protest at all from the university’s academic staff association, nor from the university council, let along his own departmental colleagues. In 1988, Blainey resigned from the university. Once he was gone, Stuart Macintyre, one of the signatories of the original letter, succeeded to the now vacant Ernest Scott Chair of History.
Yet, for all this, anyone who now looks up the views Blainey was expressing at the time will be puzzled at the furore they created. Far from inciting racial hatred, he went out of his way to say he welcomed Asian immigrants and that he supported multiculturalism. Instead, he was criticising the volume of Asian immigration at a time when, thanks to the recession of 1981–83, unemployment was at record levels. Blainey’s concerns were egalitarian. He sympathised with those working-class Australians who, at a time of high unemployment, were seeing record numbers of Asian immigrants competing with them on the job market, and who, without having any say in the matter, were finding the visual and cultural environment of their suburbs rapidly transformed. He also accused the politicians and bureaucrats behind these policies of hypocrisy. They were engineering problems in suburbs they never had to live in themselves. Here is an extract from the speech Blainey gave to a meeting of Rotary at Warrnambool in March 1984. (The full text is in Blainey: Eye on Australia, 2001.)
The unemployment in many Australian cities, more than any other factor, causes the present unease about the increasing rate of Asian immigration. These are the suburbs where the Asians are most likely to settle. These are the suburbs where they are most likely to work. But these are the suburbs where the rates of unemployment tend to be the highest.
It is easy for me in my secure job to say that I welcome Asian immigrants. I do welcome them, but they don’t compete with me for work, and they don’t alter the way of life where I live. I am not sure, however, that I would be so welcoming if I was out of work …
I support the idea, disseminated from Canberra, of a multicultural Australia. But many of the Ministers, backbenchers and civil servants who preach the merits of that society will, in their private life and much of their public life, prefer a one-culture Australia. Multiculturalism is often what is good for other people.
In the same speech, Blainey disputed the recently-declared opinion of Stewart West, then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the Hawke Labor government, that the “Asianisation of Australia” was inevitable. At the time, Blainey said, West was expressing a view widely held in federal cabinet that Australia’s economy and population would inevitably turn from our historical roots as a British society and accept the consequences of our geographical proximity to Asia. Blainey rejected that kind of determinism: “I do not believe that we are powerless. I do believe that we can, with good will and good sense, control our destiny.” These are all perfectly reasonable arguments to put, and Blainey expressed them in a sober and reasonable manner.
Indeed, Blainey was ahead of most other commentators in detecting problems for older Australians that are now widely acknowledged by academic sociologists when large numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants are suddenly injected into an established community. (See, for instance, Amanda Wise, Contact Zones, Macquarie University Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, 2004.)
Such analysis is not racist. After he succeeded to Blainey’s university post, Stuart Macintyre could afford to admit as much. In The History Wars, Macintyre wrote:
Blainey is not a racist and he was understandably indignant when accused of racial prejudice. Racism takes race as an innate characteristic that defines capacity, character and worth, and Blainey made it clear that ‘all peoples, all races, are worthy of respect.’ Nor was he prejudiced against Asians. He had a long-standing interest in East Asia and a particular respect for its peoples. He had welcomed the abandonment of the White Australia Policy and he supported immigration from Asia, only in reduced numbers and altered expectations. He did not propose exclusion on grounds of race but, rather, was concerned with the incorporation of immigrants into the host society.
Of course, neither Macintyre nor his departmental colleagues publicly admitted any of this in 1984.
Nor did they defend the author of Triumph of the Nomads when other historians attacked him for his alleged shortcomings about Aboriginal history. Blainey first published that book in 1975. It has long been one of the most popular books ever written about the Aborigines. It was reprinted in 1976 and 1978. A revised edition was published in 1983 and reprinted seven times after that. A third edition appeared in 1997 and is still in print. The book was a summary of the then state of knowledge accumulated by Australian archaeologists, anthropologists, prehistorians, anatomists, marine scientists, geologists, botanists, zoologists, linguists and others who had studied Aboriginal history in the time from first human landfall on this continent up to the arrival of the British. It boldly asserted the Aboriginal achievement, announcing in its preface’s first paragraph:
Long before the rise of Babylon and Athens, the early Australians had impressive achievements. They were the only people in the world’s history to sail across the seas and discover an inhabitable continent. They bred a brave procession of coastal and inland explorers; they were brown Columbuses, Major Mitchells and even Dr Livingstones, I presume. The aboriginals who occupied Australia also found, over a long stretch of time, many edible plants, valuable mines which they worked, new medicines and drugs, manufacturing techniques, and a miscellany of resources ranging from the raw materials of their cosmetics to the hidden pools of water in deserts. They succeeded in adapting their ways of life to harsh as well as kind environments; and several large regions of Australia supported more people in ancient times than they have supported in recent times.
Yet when the academic Left attempted in 1985 to destroy Blainey’s academic reputation in a collection of essays examining his various works on Australian history, the harshest judgment was made of his writing about the Aborigines. Although the book, Surrender Australia? edited by Andrew Markus and Merle Ricklefs, had as a subtitle “Geoffrey Blainey and Asian Immigration”, the editors commissioned an essay about the Aborigines from Henry Reynolds. His critique was very thin on historical evidence and was largely ad hominem:
Literary panache and reputation as a gadfly have disguised just how conservative and conventional much of [Blainey’s] writing is. He tells the story of European pioneering—of settlers fighting forest and flood, drought and distance; of thrusting entrepreneurs; of material progress. It is primarily a struggle against nature. It is heroic and apolitical. Conflict of class, race and gender are largely ignored. Throughout there is a boyish enthusiasm for outdoor adventure. Rattling good yarns proliferate, and while the prose is modern, the enthusiasms are Edwardian.
In Reynolds’ mind, there was no doubt that Blainey’s transgressions deserved severe punishment. In an interview with Helen Trinca in the Australian (February 16–17, 1985) Reynolds said that Blainey “had lost the respect of practically the whole profession” through his intervention in the immigration debate. Hence, “a whole team got together with the jackhammers”.
What you’ve got to expect if you engage in that sort of public controversy is that you are going to be shot at … If you are going to get down there and engage in the crossfire you have got to expect to be clobbered and people will really jump on you, and you can’t have it both ways.
Reynolds admitted to Trinca that the history profession in Australia in 1985 was “obviously left of centre”. His big concern was that Blainey’s views had been taken up to consolidate a right-wing intellectual movement. In his essay in Surrender Australia? Reynolds accused Blainey of providing ammunition for a “right-wing counter attack on the land rights movement”. In 1984 mining executive Hugh Morgan had criticised recent Australian historical work that emphasised frontier massacres and genocide. Instead, Morgan argued that Aborigines had killed one another in internecine conflict at a much higher rate than they died at the hands of white men. He cited Blainey as his principal source. Hence, Reynolds concluded, Blainey had “laid an intellectual foundation for others to use racism as a means of swinging Australian intellectual and political life sharply back towards the right”.
This was much the same argument Macintyre and his colleagues had used in their 1984 letter to the Age. Blainey was raising issues, they maintained, that should have been left unsaid. Hence, even the potential use of a historian’s work by someone designated “right-wing” should be sufficient for the historian to engage in self-censorship. On this view, what matters is not what a writer actually says himself but what uses others, in quite different fields and for quite different purposes, might make of his words. Moreover, as Reynolds made clear, no offence would be committed if the work was exploited was for left-wing political purposes; only if it was done for the other side.
In other words, the intention of the academic Left was to prevent anyone but themselves expressing opinions about immigration or race. As the media show-trial of Blainey subsequently demonstrated, anyone who failed to abide by this rule was likely to be publicly excoriated and driven from office. It is hard to imagine a more authoritarian form of censorship or a more tyrannical denial of freedom of expression. Coming from people whose profession is supposedly based on the free exchange of ideas, the argument was a disgrace to academic life.
In his account of these events in The History Wars, Macintyre portrays Blainey’s decision to resign from the university in 1988 as an amicable one that was largely his own choice. Macintyre claims Blainey “decided to take early retirement. His colleagues farewelled him at a dinner and paid him tribute.” At the same time, Macintyre denied in the press (Australian, March 17, 2003) that campus intimidation prevented Blainey from lecturing. “Blainey’s academic colleagues and the university ensured that a small demonstration in 1984 did not disrupt his activity.” In The History Wars, Macintyre also reported that Prime Minister John Howard originally thought Blainey had been hounded from office but was persuaded that was not the case. “On the only occasion that I had a conversation with John Howard, he raised this charge, listened to me and acknowledged that he was mistaken.”
That is not, however, what Howard says himself. In 2006, in an address to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Quadrant (see edition of November 2006), the Prime Minister singled out the Blainey affair as one of the great scandals of Australian intellectual life and made clear his own attitude to it.
Nowhere, I suggest, have the fangs of the left so visibly been on display as they were in a campaign based on character assassination and intellectual dishonesty through their efforts to trash the name and reputation of that great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey.
Moreover, Blainey also says he was reluctantly forced from office. In an interview for Quadrant in October 2006, Frank Devine questioned him about his motives.
“Would you have stayed at Melbourne University if it hadn’t been for the hostility whipped up against you there?”
“Oh yes. Why should you leave an institution you’ve been in for a long time, where you are close to a very good library, are well paid and have a lot of time to write after doing your teaching and administration? Compared with writing as a freelancer, the university is infinitely preferable. It was a great disappointment having to leave but there was no future for me there. I wouldn’t have been able to teach what I wanted to teach.”
In The History Wars (page 88) Macintyre defended the historians in the department who signed the letter to the Age with the following rationale:
Its primary purpose was to declare that he [Blainey] spoke for himself and not for us—over the preceding two months he had been regularly identified as a Professor of History at Melbourne University and Dean of the Faculty of Arts. There is a loose convention that academics should reserve use of their university title to commentary on matters of professional expertise and our letter therefore said that he spoke as an individual.
This is dissembling. There is no such loose convention. From the anti-Vietnam War campaigns of the 1960s to the anti-Iraq War protests of the present time, people employed by universities have made public statements on these and other matters of political controversy using the imprimatur of their academic posts—which in the great majority of cases have nothing to do with international affairs or the conduct of warfare—in an attempt to influence public opinion. Moreover, when they act this way, no one else in their academic departments expects they will be thereby identified with the views expressed by the person named. Everybody knows that in these cases, people speak for themselves.
The truth is that it is most abnormal for academics to write group letters to newspapers opposing the views of other staff members. The letter in question had nothing to do with preserving the integrity of those who disagreed with Blainey. It was a calculated move to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible within his own department, to generate hostility towards him among the wider university community, and to sanction the actions the signatories expected students to take. In short, it was done to get rid of him.
It was a very effective tactic. In the little worlds of academic departments, where collegiality and cordial manners are essential to maintain personal relations, a public rebuke of this kind is a declaration that someone is persona non grata. Coupled with the student demonstrations, which were facilitated by someone in the department informing about the time and location of Blainey’s lectures, the members of his own staff sent a clear message that they found him unwelcome.
For all but the most insensitive character, that is quite sufficient to make anyone in an academic department seriously consider his position. Backed by the publication of the essays in the collection Surrender Australia?, which attacked Blainey in virtually every historical field in which he’d written, the whole campaign was designed to diminish his reputation and damage his career. It certainly ended his university career, but Blainey was a good enough historian and a popular enough figure to emerge with his reputation, at least among the reading public, intact.
In terms of academic politics, Macintyre’s victory in this affair was considerable. He succeeded to Blainey’s Ernest Scott chair in 1991 and became Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1999. Since then, he has enjoyed all the power and perks that academic authority allows. One of the few academics game enough to criticise him, Greg Melleuish, has labelled Macintyre the “godfather of Australian history” for his influence over the high school curriculum and for his ability, as former chair of the humanities panel of the Australian Research Council, to assist his colleagues gain public research funds (Australian, September 3, 2003).
Despite his communist background, Macintyre was appointed by the Keating Labor government in 1994 to chair the Civics Experts Group, a body designed to inject more Australian politics into the school curriculum. He remained a member of the Civics Education Group under John Howard’s conservative government, whose then Minister for Education, David Kemp, naively appointed him in 1999–2000 to chair an inquiry into school history. For the 2007–08 academic year, he got himself a stint at Harvard University in the Australian-government-funded position of Professor of Australian Studies.
As a bureaucratic operator, Macintyre’s talents are obviously impressive but in the practice of history they are much harder to find. As I noted earlier, at least six of his books are overtly about Marxists and communism and he suffers the fate of all those reared on this brand of formula thinking: his writing is prosaic, his loyalties predictable. In short, he is boring.
Beyond academic history and left-wing politics, Macintyre’s name is little known. Outside courses for captive student audiences, his work is largely unread. Informed Australian readers know Blainey well; very few have read anything by Macintyre. In the annals of his profession, the latter’s place is already fixed. He will be remembered as one of the main activists, the most public apologist and the chief beneficiary of the campaign to extinguish the academic career of one of Australia’s few great historians.