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Radical History: Thinking, Writing and Engagement (Part 2)

by Rowan Cahill on April 22, 2016
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radnewWe have been discussing radical history, prompted by a new book, Radical Newcastle (NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2015), discovering that its editors, James Bennett, Nancy Cushing, and Erik Eklund, neglected/ignored the tradition of radical history, including the series of recent books on Australian radical cities. This neglect is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Their approach to writing history is called, in the trade, academic empiricism. A classic case in fact: they begin with a definition of radicalism based on the Oxford English Dictionary and a British handbook on radicalism, then proceed to look for examples of it in the past. But is this how historians should work, using a timeless definition to corral the past into a predefined pen? Relying on ahistorical thinking? Surely what historians should do is historicise, that is, to work with an understanding of society as process, as a series of situations in which people act, institutions react, and structures change. Historians need to be able to think abstractly as well as concretely, otherwise they are trapped by empiricism, and make the mistake of starting with definitions instead of an historical understanding of their subject. Meaning, not definition; that’s what has to be grasped, as has their own position in relation to the subject.

Radicalism has a symbiotic relationship with capitalism, a word that the editors fail to mention in their Introduction, and capitalism also structured Newcastle as a city. In Radical Newcastle, places seem to be incidental. About a dozen appear on the maps at the start of the book, but none of them has a main entry in the index. Of the thirty chapters just a few refer to a place in their titles. This neglect does a great disservice to Newcastle’s dense geography of struggle, which can be detected in Places, Protests and Memorabilia – The Labour Heritage Register of New South Wales (Industrial Relations Research Centre, University of New South Wales, 2002), where Terry Irving and Lucy Taksa have listed about 60 of Newcastle and the Hunter’s sites of radical activity: the speakers’ corners, meeting rooms, union offices, halls, factory gates, parks and so on. And these are just the sites associated with the labour movement. What about the places associated with the new social movements? Although one of the chapters (by Peta Belic and Erik Eklund) identifies Newcastle’s radicalism as a defining city characteristic, this is not enough. We have to ask how Newcastle as a city worked for and against its radicals. Were there labour or bohemian precincts in the city? Are there patterns in the distribution of radical sites? How did agitators move around their radical city? Again: what route or routes were taken by radical processions, and was the route chosen as a symbolic gesture against ruling institutions? Did the routes change over time? Did women and children march? Unless there is a systematic exploration of questions like these that arise out of an awareness of Newcastle’s geography, of the city’s spatial organisation as an aspect of radical struggles, a whole dimension of the radical experience in Newcastle is lost.

There are thirty chapters in this book; less than half of them qualify as radical history. The others would have been at home in a book on Liberal Newcastle, their tone bland and even-handed, the product of an academic culture that values description over commitment. Readers, it seems, must not be allowed to assume that the authors are identifying with embarrassing ideas like class and domination or contentious action that ignores the ‘right’ channels for protest. Taking the book as a whole this is hodge-podge history, without any sense of radical Newcastle’s patterns in time or space. The deficiencies of the book – as spatial history and radical history – are down to the editors; luckily, some of the contributors show us what the book could have been.

The radical chapters: thinking, writing and engagement

What makes their chapters examples of radical history is that in them we can detect a radical point of view. It is not just that their chapters are about people in movement, challenging, resisting, and so on. Rather the authors are keen to tell us about it in a way that stirs the heart and the head to consider our own situation. Sometimes our attention is caught by the drama of the struggle, as in Rod Noble’s account of the mass civil disobedience of mining communities in the late nineteenth century, and in Ross Edmonds’ chapter on the Silksworth dispute in which militant unionists showed that ‘the radical spirit of anti-imperialism and internationalism’ could overcome ‘unthinking racism’. In Ann Curthoys’ chapter on Barbara Curthoys’ involvement in the Aboriginal rent strike at Purfleet Reserve, however, it is the attention to organisation that compels. We learn not just about the tasks and the planning, the meetings and publicity, but also about the history of Aboriginal politics and Communist Party strategy. We also learn, of course, about a remarkable woman, an intellectual as well as an activist, who, as Ann writes, had a deep effect on her own involvement in Aboriginal issues. There is another mother-daughter connection in Jude Conway’s chapter on the Right to Choose Abortion Coalition that Josephine Conway helped to form. When Josephine turned 80 a friend said that she was a living reminder that radicalism was a way of life, a description that comes across also in the first-hand accounts of their environmental campaigning by Bernadette Smith, and Paula Morrow. The personal dimension of these chapters helps us understand radicalism as a living force rather than a dead definition.

It has always been a radical approach to history writing to insist on rescuing the common people and subversive ideas that mainstream history neglects. There are several chapters that meet that criterion. Tony Laffan’s chapter on the Hall of Science discovers a local free thought movement nurturing and nurtured by industrial militancy, while the chapter by Peta Belic and Erik Eklund on the One Big Union shows the persistence of syndicalist ideas.  Among the courageous anti-conscriptionists of 1916, there was a range of forces and views, and Tod Moore and Harry Williams argue that the most radical were not reported in the press and have consequently disappeared from history. In his chapter, John Maynard successfully restores the significant activism of two white activists, John Maloney and his daughter Dorothy. They campaigned for Aboriginal rights, making contact with the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, the first all-Aboriginal political organisation in Australia. And here’s another sign of radicalism as a living tradition: one of the founders of this association was Fred Maynard, the grandfather of the author, John Maynard.

In the best radical history, the actors are never ciphers but real flesh-and-blood people. Two chapters stand out in this regard: Troy Duncan’s on Father Alf Clint, and Shane Hopkinson’s and Tom Griffiths’ on Neville Cunningham. We cherish the image of the reverend inviting the militant Jim Comerford, a teetotaller and temperance advocate, to drink a pint with him in the local miners’ pub. And we are filled with uncomfortable admiration for the idiomatic flair of an ASIO informant who described Neville Cunningham – Communist, activist and working class intellectual – as ‘a fighter … a crude one, rough but direct … Nev has no time for nice trimmings, nor for calling a spade by any other name … He is a likeable chap, all proletarian, dead set against authority.’

Finally, we want to cheer for two chapters of forensic social analysis. Bernadette Smith situates the 1979 Star Hotel riot in the context of Newcastle’s history of class struggle, before placing the state in the frame and looking at local policing and power politics. She also explains the culture of the pub in a sociological way, challenging/undermining a whole lot of safe/traditional academic wisdom.  Griff Foley, internationally respected in adult education and social learning circles, has brought together five cases of ‘community conservation’ – a neglected aspect of environmental history – in order to address the most important question in social movement as well as revolutionary politics: how do activists learn? The answer: informally and incidentally, and making this explicit helps their practice. It’s a lesson that radical historians should take on board: we should be thinking about our intellectual practice as we engage with our next project.

Overall, Radical Newcastle is a mixed bag of hits, almosts, and misses. Considered in the context of Australian radical historical writing, it provides opportunity to reflect upon the nature of radical history, how it is written, and how the historian can render struggles of the past in ways that instruct and inspire the present.

A version of this post was originally published on the ‘Labour History Melbourne’ site 14 March 2016.

Rowan Cahill

Rowan Cahill has worked as a teacher, freelance writer, agricultural labourer, and for the trade union movement as a journalist, historian, and rank and file activist. He is currently an Honorary Fellow with the Faculty of Law, Humanities & the Arts, at Wollongong University (NSW). Rowan has published extensively in labour movement, radical, and academic publications; his books include as co-author A History of the Seamen’s Union of Australia, 1872-1972 (1981), Twentieth Century Australia: Conflict and Consensus (1987); and as co-editor, A Turbulent Decade: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975, (2005). His most recent book is Radical Sydney (co-authored with Terry Irving). Cahill and Irving blog at ‘Radical Sydney/Radical History’.

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  • Rowan Cahill
    April 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Readers of this piece should understand that the sole authorial attribution to myself here is due to a technical issue, and that this piece is an authorial product of the long-standing historical/political partnership of Terry Irving and myself, as was/is Part 1. Enjoy.

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