Interrogating Miriam Dixson
A letter to an old colleague
(With apologies to E.P. Thompson and Leszek Kolokowski)
By Bob Gould
I was a bit startled a few months back when your name and your
then forthcoming book, The Imaginary Australian,
were invoked by Paul Sheehan and several other right-wing journalists
to validate their hostility to migration, multiculturalism and
so-called "black armband history". This populist Janissary tabloid pack
is riding high at the moment in the print media.
A number of them should know better, considering the cultural
background suggested by their Irish names. They are my current pet
hate. I was troubled and my curiosity was aroused by their enthusiasm
for your work and the obvious fact that it had been made available to
them before publication. Could this be the same Miriam with whom I
rubbed shoulders in the small Sydney Trotskyist group presided over by
After some delays the book was released last week. Reading it
led me to again read The Real Matilda and, to my mind, your
most important book, your first, Greater than Lenin, the
ground-breaking text about the Sydney Trades Hall Reds of the 1920s, to
locate this new work The Imaginary Australian in the context of
your past intellectual activity.
I have fond and still vivid memories of that small but
Sydney socialist group in the early 1960s, and your and my presence in
it. I remember clearly an earlier conference of the dissident Communist
magazine Outlook, where I first met you, and you had recently
completed the traumas of leaving the Communist Party and departure from
a marriage to a Jewish left winger, Bernie, and your romantic entry
into a new relationship with another comrade, Allan, taking two of the
three kids along.
I remember those kids well: intelligent, confident and bright
tacks, and responding to family changes very resiliently. When you
moved to Sydney and set up house with Allan, as you will remember, our
small Trotskyist embryo party of 30 people or so, met at your house at
Ashfield for quite a while. We were, as I remember it, a pretty
colourful, talented and diverse group, and we went on to do all sorts
of different things. We met there because yours was the biggest
loungeroom. A traumatic split in the group began to develop right
there, in that loungeroom.
Some of the features of those meetings will remain etched on
forever. Nick ponderously and stubbornly chairing the meetings, and
occasionally boring us almost beyond endurance, with myself and others
arguing intensely with him about emerging political disagreements. I
remember you impartially criticising us all in the framework of your
personal struggle to carve out a space for yourself as a youngish
mother, moving against all odds back into academic life, completing a
degree, a project and a thesis.
Some of my colleagues in the faction on my side of the group,
to afterwards caricature the meetings a bit, and your role in them,
where you would demolish Nick for his almost magnificent sexism, and
tick off the younger ones like myself for what you called our
irresponsibility. (You seemed, in those days, to particularly
disapprove of me.)
Almost by clockwork, you would get a migraine around 9pm,
criticising the lot of us, and go to bed in another room as the meeting
carried on in the loungeroom.
In retrospect, considering the circumstances, you were pretty
in proceeding in this way, although possibly a bit irritating to the
rest of us. I remember it vividly now, in the context of the very real
and important personal project in which you were then engaged, that of
defining a territory for a female academic with a young family, and a
right to political activity, balancing all those things together, and
in that respect, you were a magnificent pioneer of your kind, who were
to become a much larger cohort later in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Incidentally, have you read Hall Greenland's useful biography
of Nick Origlass, Red Hot, and Susanna Short's excellent
biography of her father, Laurie Short, A Political Life, in
which Nick figures so largely.
I imagine, in retrospect, that you share my view that, despite
many and obvious human flaws, Nick taught us all much more than anyone
else could at the time and that we were all rather privileged and lucky
to have come under his influence for significant periods in our lives.
The reason I introduce this little memoir of our common life
times is partly to establish a bit of context, but also partly to raise
a very important methodological point about your latest book. In this
book you embrace totally the currently fashionable "new class" theory,
without either detailed description or careful explanation.
The context, however, and the favourable reference to
Betts, suggests that you accept her version. I have just recently
completed a thorough and, I believe unanswerable demolition of this
"new class" theory, The
real story about the "new class", to which I refer you.
I find your espousal of this theory astounding. (The same
applies to Betts, herself a female academic, but I don't know Betts,
and I do know you, and I saw you close up, righteously clawing your way
into academe, and the best of Irish luck to you!)
The following point is the central defect of the
class" theory, as applied to Australia by Betts, P.P. McGuiness,
Michael Thompson, Bill Hayden and now, Miriam Dixson. (I find Hayden
and the "new class" a bit rich. I wonder, does that born-again
monarchist locate Her Majesty, the Queen, or himself, in the "new
The number of people with a recognisable university degree is
more than 17 per cent of the adult population and approaching 20 per
cent. To describe this group as a homogenous "new class" is ludicrous.
It is, in fact, a nasty, conservative, political construct
to attack these people's perceived "progressive" views supporting
migration and multiculturalism and their lack of "traditional family
values". The usual aim of conservatives who wave around "new class"
rhetoric is to divert attention and animosity from the tiny minority
who are the real ruling class in capitalist society, to the relatively
less powerful social layer who work in education, health, the arts,
You wax eloquent about the "new class" theory in your last
chapter, Conclusion: Understanding the Apostles. So does Bill
Hayden, in his review of Katharine Betts' book, The Great Divide,
in a recent Weekend Australian. Both your last chapter and
Hayden's curious review sharpen the basic points about this theory.
Responding, it seems to me, to the analysis that I have been
distributing widely, Hayden now qualifies the notion of the "new class"
to only those who work in such areas as the media, and disagree with
him. You also play around with the notion considerably in your last
chapter, and both these versions highlight the obvious humbug
associated with the theory.
Is this theory real political sociology or reactionary
are the "new class"? Do they include all those with university degrees?
For instance, are the several hundred thousand women teachers with
degrees, members of the "new class"? Are the 54.8 per cent of women
with degrees, of the 357,800 in the Australian Bureau of Statistics
(ABS) category Society and Culture members of the "new class"?
In practice, all the "new class" theorists like yourself,
Sheehan, McGuiness, Betts and Thompson create a real moveable feast, in
which you switch, as convenient, backwards and forwards from
descriptive sociology to reactionary ideology in a totally eclectic way
whenever it suits your argument.
In passing you make liberal use of the tendentious
category called "intellectual capital". In practice, in the writings of
the right-wing populist school on these matters, people with degrees
become members of the "new class" if they hold, and campaign for, a
range of ideological views in support of high migration, celebratory
multiculturalism etc, of which you disapprove.
They often snap back into being normal human beings, "ordinary
Australians", if they agree with you on something. As serious political
sociology, the "new class" theory, whether in your conservative
populist form, or the Bourdieuan postmodernist form, is in practice,
serious political humbug, usually used for totally reactionary purposes.
From the point of view of the status of women — the issue
around which The Real Matilda
is constructed — the "new class" theory is absolutely poisonous. When
you were one of the wonderful first swallows of the approaching
Feminist Spring, in the early 1960s, you were part of a tiny and brave
minority of 15 per cent women, of the still comparatively small number
of Australians with university degrees (then only about 3 per cent of
the adult population).
Now that the number of Australians with degrees is nudging 20
cent, women are about half, although they are still concentrated in
education and health, etc, at the lower end of the income scale. To
create an artificial construct of people with degrees as forming a "new
class", which Betts does, is to include the massive new cohort of women
with degrees, including Betts and yourself, in this "new class".
This is obviously absurd, and politically very dangerous to
interests of women, particularly when it is associated, by people like
Michael Thompson, Michael Duffy and McGuiness, with a ferocious attack
on the free university education of the Whitlam period, with the
implied support for up-front university fees that goes with this
attack. Have you really thought through the global political
implications of so easily adopting this essentially conservative, but
currently widely touted "new class" theory?
I assert that it is much more accurate and also, as it
politically useful, to look upon the explosion of educational access
for working class and lower middle class people, particularly women,
during the last 30 years, as a righteous revolution, rather than the
emergence of some artificially defined "new class".
Does Australia have what can be properly described as an
"Anglo-Celtic core culture"?
The assertion of the vital nature of what you call the
core culture", and its "holding" quality for Australian life, is your
central preoccupation in the new book. I also am preoccupied with the
question of national identity, and have written a number of essays on
this question. I agree with you that Australia has a national culture,
and a distinct national identity.
Like you, I reject the fancy postmodernist rhetoric ditching
notions of national identity and I launched a polemic asserting the
existance of a distinct Australian national identity, particularly in
opposition to the postmodernist Ghassan Hage.
I disagree sharply, however, with your intellectually quite
celebration of what you call "Anglo-Celtic Australia" as the basis of a
"core culture", and your consignment of the Irish component of the
Australian culture to a kind of tolerated side culture of a "clannish,
pre-modern" Papist sort, to be absorbed by this British Australian
"core culture". I also reject the proposition that all the other
elements in the Australian mosaic can be usefully conflated into this
notion of an Anglo-Celtic "core culture" effectively dominated by the
My reading of Australian history, particularly of the 19th
in which I have soaked myself for the last couple of years, is
radically different to yours. I can see why, with your tendency to
celebrate the "civilising influence" of bourgeois British Australia,
you are a bit crooked on the historians Manning Clark and Russell Ward.
The striking thing about both their narratives is this
of the dramatically oppositional Irish Catholic other, the "hard"
other, to British Imperial Australia. Any objective reading of the 19th
century demonstrates wave after wave of conflict of this sort.
In relation to the development of Australian nationalism in
opposition to British Imperialism, I would rely on and refer you to the
relatively recent, excellent and compact overview of this question, the
book British imperialism and Australian nationalism, by Luke
Trainor, Cambridge University Press, 1994. I would also rely heavily on
Michael Roe's important and ground-breaking work, published in 1965 by
Melbourne University Press, Quest for authority in eastern
Roe's book, which arose out of his thesis, supervised by Manning Clark,
included the first major inquiry into the contrasting roles of the two
major religious groups in Australian society, the Catholic group mainly
on the leftist and democratic side, and the Protestant group mainly
reinforcing the deep-rooted conservative aims of the squatting
Conflicts of the oppressed with the rulers of British
These conflicts started with the Aboriginal military
by Pemulwuy of the Eora people, around Sydney from 1790-1802. They
continued with the Castle Hill Irish rebellion. They were embodied in
the many outbreaks of bushranging. They continued further with the
Aboriginal war of resistance in Tasmania.
The Australian colonies then experienced the struggle against
transportation, for self-government, and against proposals for a
"Bunyip Aristocracy". Then came Eureka, followed by the struggle for
"free selection" of land in most of the colonies, the Kelly outbreak in
Victoria, and the Aboriginal war of resistance of the Kalkadoon in
Queensland, then the great strikes of the 1890s.
We also had the "blackbirding" slave trade of the Kanaka of
Hebrides (Vanuatu) to these shores, followed 30 years later by their
ruthless expulsion from Australia, etc. All through the 19th century,
from convict times on, my Irish ancestors and the secular working class
of non-Irish background and indigenous Australians were in constant
conflict with British Imperial Australia. Why am I telling you this?
You know it already from your early work in labour history.
In my reading of these matters, the distinct Australian
identity, which we both agree exists in some form, was hammered out at
every stage in opposition to imperial British Australia. How can that
constitute an "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
For all the right-wing populists, like Paul Sheehan, Katharine
Betts, Michael Thompson, etc, that kind of formulation is code for all
the old reactionary rubbish that was used against the emerging labour
movement and my Irish ancestors and also against indigenous
Australians, non-British Australians, Chinese Australians and other
Australians of colour. There is, indeed, a real Australian national
identity, but it is a product of all those struggles and many later,
against the brutal power and the pretensions of the British ruling
class in colonial Australia.
I and many thousands of others are deeply hostile to your
condescending British Australian notion of an "Anglo-Celtic core
culture"! These days a comfortable majority of Australians have a
distinct idea of a national Australian identity to which they lay claim
and contribute, but we of the current majority would not describe that
identity in terms of your "Anglo-Celtic core culture". That formulation
is unpleasant nostalgia for an Australia that is now, happily, in rapid
What constitutes this "Anglo Celtic core culture"?
One of the difficult aspects of your new book is that you
really spell out what are for you the key aspects of the "Anglo-Celtic
core culture". You make a series of throwaway references to various
features of Australian life and leave us to draw the inferences for
ourselves. This is just a little unfair, really.
On page six you make what is, in fact, one of your key
At least over a period of consolidation, the core culture needs
to keep on imparting its steadying sameness and cohesion to
institutional patterns and broad values. It needs to continue providing
enough of that sameness to give Australians as a whole not the desire —
for that we clearly have — but the ability to live with enriching
diversity over the long term.
Further down on page six, you say: "social cohesion is badly
in current identity debate", and on page seven you raise the awful
spectre: "In today's world, the dangers of social unravelling — in
Russia, in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Indonesia — are there
for all to see." On page 44, you approvingly resurrect Henry James in
this memorable paragraph:
In 1907 the American novelist Henry James aired related
concerns about his own country. Between 1881 and 1910, 15 million
migrants entered America, and according to the 1910 census, over 22 per
cent of the population said they could not speak English. During
decades overseas, James had developed his own kind of "obsession" about
the impact of what he called "the great 'ethnic' question" on "the
'American' identity". So in 1907 he went back to find out what changes
the ethnic "ghost had made in his supposedly safe old house". He
discovered the "lapse" of some spontaneous "element of communication"
that enabled the "play of mutual recognition" which then operated in
European countries. "Founded on old familiarities", this spontaneity
had involved a kind of "impalpable exchange". In the United States such
exchange was now not only "absent" but unthinkable. The result was a
"sterility" of communication, indeed a "staring silence". With a great
artist's insight, James perceived that for the United States, "nothing
is more characteristic ... than the development of ... machinery ...
[through which] the idea of intimacy of relation may be ... freely
cherished". He partly suspected and partly hoped that in the end the
old identity would assert itself. After "the business of slow
co-minglings and makings-over" had finally worked itself through,
old-identity "qualities ingrained in generations", might "rise again to
Again on page 157, you promiscuously invoke the Francophile
the postmodernist, Julia Kristeva, to reinforce your position:
On immigration and on the nation, Kristeva's criticism of
the French Left, with which she identifies, repays careful attention.
In France, she writes, "ridicule kills, nationalism is in bad taste and
patriotism [is] downright trashy". Kristeva declares herself "grieved
to have heard on many occasions, left-wing intellectuals, for the sake
of a misunderstood cosmopolitanism, sell off French national values".
The Left, she contends "demagogically flatters the immigrants and runs
down the national reality into which they hope to become integrated".
The resultant underestimation of the "national imaginary" could bring
the most dire results.
In this context, it doesn't matter at all whether Kristeva is
Bulgarian or a Brazilian, in the same way that it didn't matter whether
the Anglophile, the late Frank Knopfelmacher was a Czech or a Chechen.
Their reactionary views are examples of the phenomenon of some migrants
becoming more super-assimilationist and ultra-"patriotic" (in the
interests of the host imperialist power) than anybody else. The great
example of this in the 20th century is the brutal great Russian
chauvinist, the vicious Comrade Stalin, who actually came from Georgia,
a Russian colony not unlike Ireland as a colony of England.
Many of these extracts from your book are examples where you
right-wing populist views on contentious current questions from the
mouths of prestigeous authorities without quite sticking your neck out
to the extent of saying that you totally agree with them. It seems
quite clear to me that you do largely agree with them on the matters
referred to in the extracts that you choose to quote.
Your lament at the breakup of "social cohesion" in "Russia,
Yugoslavia and Indonesia" is extraordinarily revealing. In each of
those cases the break-up was in large part caused by the spectacular
revolt of the subject nationalities in those three empires against the
Russians who oppressed the other nationalities in the Soviet Union, the
Serbs who oppressed the other nationalities in Yugoslavia, and the
Javanese elite and military who oppressed and oppress the other
nationalities in Indonesia.
The "social cohesion" in these states was the social cohesion
produced by a brutal imperial oppressor nationality suppressing the
national rights of other nationalities. Your use of this analogy is
unintentionally very illuminating about your attitude to the national
question in Australia. You obviously regard the domination of
Australian society by the Anglo elite of the last century as necessary
to "social cohesion". That "social cohesion" is just as unpalatable to
most Australians now as the former "social cohesion" was to the other
nationalities in the three states mentioned above.
Paragraphs like the ones I have quoted recur throughout your
and they are usually associated with the proposition that you are not
really opposed to ethnic diversity, but that you desire that this
ethnic diversity should go through the sieve of the "Anglo-Celtic core
culture", which seems to me to be a mealymouthed and fancy way of
reasserting the old, unpleasant and discredited policy of total
assimilation of all minorities into the "British Australian" way of
In addition to this, the whole build-up of these paragraphs is
obviously designed to create a fear that the extent of ethnic and
cultural diversity in some way threatens the "holding quality" of the
"Anglo-Celtic core culture".
Well, it is quite clear that the ethnic diversity is one of
factors that has thrown Tory British imperial Australia into full
retreat. Personally, I celebrate this dramatically increasing ethnic
diversity and the irreversible retreat of Tory British imperial
Australia to which this increasingly complex and vibrant Australian
multiculture is a major contributor.
Anzac Day and wars in Australian history
You join, in a very deliberate way, the current attempt to
militarism by the orgy of sentimentality about Anzac Day, the Vietnam
veterans etc, that has become one of the key motifs in recent times of
the tabloid press. You are not quite as crude as your fan, the
best-selling journalist, Paul Sheehan, who proclaims that Anzac united
Australia, but you get quite close to this notion, as you often do in
the book, through the voices of others.
On page 150 you say:
Within the allegedly secular Australian national identity,
Anzac embodies a reflection of Kantorowicz's universal "sacrificial
moment". The historian Ken Inglis tells us that after 1918 Anzac Day
became our "national day", and its "ceremonies, monuments and rhetoric"
constituted something like a "civic religion". Others, such as Alistair
Thomson, have underlined the idea that the Australian nation was born
in blood above the cliffs of Anzac Cove. Anzac thereby furnishes an
Australian example of Anderson's idea of an integral link between
religion and the national imaginary. Anzac provides just such a bridge
between the nation and identity concerns like death, suffering, and
immortality — concerns managed by pre-modern dynastic imagined
communities and bequeathed to the imaginary of the modern nation.
There is no doubt at all that the construction of Anzac Day is
central part of the celebration of imperial bourgeois British
Australian identity. The fact that it incorporates and commemorates the
very real pain, anguish, tragedy and heroism of a number of generations
of Australians, mainly men but some women, who fought and died in a
series of wars, is what gives Anzac Day its real potency as a national
symbol, which is unfortunately used by the ruling class in capitalist
Australia for the most reactionary purposes.
I have a rather different attitude to Anzac Day and the wars
which Australia has been involved. No one in my family has ever been a
pacifist. My adult relatives and ancestors have fought in several of
those wars as volunteers and, indeed, I campaigned in a civilian way in
relation to the Vietnam War, against it. I would commence a narrative
about Australians and wars with the first Australian war, the one
between indigenous Australians and British imperialism, which went on
in quite a sharp way on the frontier, from the time of Pemulway, the
great Aboriginal guerilla leader, for the next 150 years, and in which
thousands of unfortunate people were killed. (Obviously there were many
more Aboriginals killed than whites.) In that war I mainly celebrate
the indigenous Australian resistance, although I feel sadness for the
whites killed as well.
I celebrate also military acts of resistance by the underclass
colonial Australia against British Imperialism, such as the Castle Hill
rebellion of the Irish in 1804, the Eureka Stockade and the Kelly
outbreak. I celebrate the vigorous Australian opposition to the sending
of an Australian contingent to the war of British imperialism in the
Sudan. I also celebrate the widespread Australian opposition to
Australian participation in the war of British imperialism against the
Boers in South Africa. My own Irish grandfather was arrested and did
three months in Grafton Jail over a small local incident of opposition
to the Boer War. None of those wars were at all popular with the
Australian labour movement at the time, particularly with Irish
Nevertheless, when the First World War broke out, my father,
Irish grandfather's son, joined up, mainly as he put it later, to see
the world. He survived Gallipoli, but was blown up in 1918 by a shell
and survived less his left arm, with one leg shorter than the other,
and with five pieces of shrapnel still in his body. He went on to live
to 80, and became a school teacher and an activist in the labour
My father was quite emotional about his First World War
The main things he celebrated about this war were the mutinies of the
Australian soldiers on the Western Front, in which he participated, the
famous fraternisation with the Germans at Christmas in the early years
of the war, and the vote of the frontline soldiers against conscription
in the two referendums.
He was particularly proud of the fact that the British were
to shoot any of the Australian mutineers, although many were shot in
the British and French armies. He identified deeply and profoundly with
the decisive event of the First World War at home in Australia, the
defeat by the combination of the secular working class, the Irish
Catholics and the farmers, of Billy Hughes' conscription proposals in
The sum of his First World War experiences left him with a
aversion to imperialist wars. He had a complex attitude to Anzac Day.
He wore the returned soldiers badge all his life, because he said he
had a right to it. He had been maimed and his mates had died for that
right. Nevertheless, he rarely went to the Anzac Day march because, as
he put it, he was repelled by the sight of the base officers who sent
his mates out to get killed, up at the front.
He was expelled from the Labor Party during the Second World
along with his leader J.T. Lang and the Victorian parliamentarian
Maurice Blackburn, for opposing conscription for overseas service.
These proposals by the Curtin government were also opposed more
cautiously from within the Labor cabinet by Eddie Ward and Arthur
Calwell. My dad lived long enough to lend vigorous support to our
campaigns against the Australian participation in the imperialist war
in Vietnam in the 1960s and the 1970s.
In the lead-up to the Second World War a contingent of
including nurses, went to fight on the side of the Republicans in
Spain, against Fascism, in the International Brigades, and a number
were killed in this utterly righteous cause. One young Sydney Catholic,
Nugent Bull, went off on a lone misguided sortie to fight on the Franco
side. Paradoxically, after fighting on the fascist side, he went to
England at the end of the Spanish Civil War and joined the British Air
Force to fight Hitler. He was killed in action in 1941. Such were the
contradictions of the times.
The Second World War
Despite all the above, eligible male relatives of mine
to fight in the Second World War. From the point of view of most
Australians, including the labour movement and the working class, the
Second World War against German Fascism and Japanese aggression,
involving a military threat to Australia, was the "good" war, as Studs
Terkel, the American writer, calls it. It was particularly good
locally, in one sense, that the number of Australians killed and
injured was much less than in the First World War.
Even the Australian Trotskyists, Nick Origlass, Laurie Short
others, who led significant industrial struggles for basic workers'
rights during the war, supported military defence against the
possibility of Japanese invasion, while at the same time demanding the
democratisation of the Army and the organisation of workers militias.
(The only letter Trotsky ever wrote to the Australian Trotskyists
revolved around that point. Trotsky said the fact that the Australian
working class would resist any invasion by Japanese Fascism militarily,
was justifiable and should be supported. This letter of Trotsky's is
the famous letter that was baked when hidden in an oven during a raid
on Nick Origlass's house by police in 1940. It mostly survived, rather
crisp and brown.)
A major feature of Australia's involvement in the Second World
was its complexity and the ambiguities that emerged during this
conflict. The battle between the Curtin government and Churchill over
the conflict of interest between the defence of Australia and Britain's
military interests, has been widely discussed in all the literature.
The conflict over the reckless sacrifice of Australian
the Malay Peninsula by the British, was particularly sharp. There is a
whole school of British military "history" that attempts to ascribe the
collapse of Singapore to the alleged insurrectionary indiscipline of
the Australian troops, who did not take at all kindly to being
sacrificed to the Japanese Army.
There are several very tendentious recent British books on
subject. The most extreme example of this unpleasant
"blame-the-Aussies" genre of British "military history" is Singapore,
The Pregnable Fortress
by Peter Elphick (Hodder and Stoughton, 1995). For me, the great hero
of the Second World War is Mick Gibbins, the inventive and lively
Aussie sergeant who, after his British commanding officers surrendered,
managed to lead his platoon of young volunteers from Gippsland out of
up-country Malaya, through the jungle, partly with the aid of Chinese
communist guerillas. They crossed over to Sumatra in a small boat and
then walked across Sumatra.
They finally got on to another ship, one of the last away,
Fremantle. These resourceful Aussies, the "Malayan harriers" only just
escaped court martial. The military brass were embarrassed by their
initiative. Only generals were supposed to escape.
My mother's brother volunteered when Darwin was bombed, ending
the Air Force in Britain as part of the Australian air crew who were
sacrificed by the mad Bomber Harris, many of whom were killed in
Harris's crazy and barbarous daylight bombing raids on Germany. My
uncle was lucky, and survived.
By far the most popular piece of literature that came out of
Second World War, among men who actually fought in that war, was the
wonderful novel about the Aussies at Tobruk, The Twenty Thousand
by the communist novelist, Eric Lambert, who himself fought at Tobruk.
This was a constant best seller for several years in the late 1940s.
The main feature of this novel was that, while in a general way it
supported the righteousness of the war, it also celebrated the
rebelliousness, indiscipline and plebian self identity of the soldiers,
as the title of the book suggests.
Frank Thompson and Australians
I got the idea for writing this letter to you from the quite
open letter written by the redoubtable E.P. Thompson, whom I am sure we
both revere as the real founder of modern labour history, to Leszek
Kolokowski, disagreeing with him about his renunciation of Marxism.
Well, there are only "six degrees of separation" in intellectual life,
as in other aspects of life.
You will be aware of the sadness associated with the recent
the novelist Iris Murdoch, after a period of Alzheimers Disease, and
the moving coverage of her husband, John Bailey's battle with this
human problem. Well, when young before the Second World War, and an
enthusiastic communist, Iris Murdoch recruited E.P. Thompson's elder
brother, Frank, to the Communist Party. After this, they split up as
lovers, although he still tried to woo her back from afar at the war.
Frank Thompson became involved in British Special Operations
Executive military and intelligence operations in the Balkans, in which
he ultimately lost his life heroically in a botched guerilla march from
Yugoslavia into Bulgaria. He had opposed this military adventure as
madness but, nevertheless, loyally carried it out in a disciplined way,
after pressure both from British military headquarters in London and
Russian and Bulgarian communist leaders in Moscow. He was shot by the
Nazis, along with other guerillas, after capture.
The story of this military screw-up became caught up in the
and Frank Thompson's ghost was variously denounced by Eastern European
Stalinists as a British agent and by MI5 military historians as a
dangerous agent of the Comintern. In 1981, E.P. Thompson gave a
wonderful lecture unravelling this strange historical story in a
tribute to his heroic brother's memory, and wrote a little book, one of
his last, about these events, celebrating his brother's life.
A part of this book consists of Frank Thompson's moving and
interesting love letters to Iris Murdoch. This whole small anecdote of
people's lives is a wonderful vignette of modernity. What pops out from
this story is a view expressed by Frank Thompson about Australians. On
page 65 of Beyond the Frontier we read the following letter
from Cairo in August 1942, from Thompson to Iris Murdoch.
There is something epic about this "Middle East", if only
one could get a frame for it. We have an assortment of nationalities
that would make Caesar's legions look like a team from the Home
Counties. The Russians, driving north through Hamadan, close-cropped,
berry-brown, in dark blue breeches with knee-boots, grinning fit to
bust and giving the V-sign to every one they pass; the diminutive
Iraquis in khaki breeches and puttees mounting guard among the white
hollyhocks on the Persian frontier; the Arab legion and the French
meharistes, slender and almost girlish in their red-and-white kefiyehs
and long brown cassocks, camps like old Tamurlane on the green
steppe-land, swaying round the fire in dances that might have come from
Sanders of the River; Indians everywhere, the neatest,
and most dignified soldiers in our army — fat bearded Sikhs, MPs with
their pointed puggarees, and Gurkhas (are those Gurkhas with their
almost Malayan features?) travelling impassively on the backs of
trucks; coons everywhere, squatting round brush-fires, driving down
main roads like a wind out of hell, grinning in road-gangs, but never,
that I could see, working (on the Phoenician sea coast a camp with a
large crocodile mosaicked out in white pebbles with the word
BASUTOLAND); elegant Greek and Yugoslav officers preening themselves on
the streets of Alex; Fighting French, Poles, Canucks, Yanks in jeeps,
huge South Africans almost childlike in their docility, New Zealanders,
rough-hewn and intelligent, Aussies, rough-hewn and undoubtedly
villainous. And Englishmen? Yes, there are quite a few Englishmen —
nearly always to be recognised by their utter civilianity, the complete
lack of martial fire or any other eccentricity with which they stroll
down streets and stare wistfully into shop windows. And glimpses, not
always without humour, of the Wops and Dutchies. This war is
demonstrating, beyond any hope of refutation, the Unity of Man. No one,
at least, who's been in the Middle East will want to deny it.
This Frank Thompson story, although intrinsically very
may seem like going a long way round in a discussion of Australia and
wars. But the point is, if an intelligent and courageous young middle
class English communist could have such a view of Australians in 1942,
it was obviously based on the immediate conflicts of interests between
Britain and Australia and an already developed hostility towards
Australians of the English middle classes, going back to the First
World War and much further. How much fiercer must have been the
hostility of the British ruling class to Australians and Australia? So
much for the British-Australia patriotism celebrated and memorialised
through Anzac Day.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was my war in the sense that, as a mature
adult, my life was dominated for seven or eight years by the utterly
righteous and justified campaign against this rotten war. (Earlier on,
I had escaped national service (nasho) in the 1950s because of enormous
bunions.) The overwhelming majority of those who campaigned against the
Vietnam War had no personal animosity towards the national service
conscripts and peacetime regular soldiers who were sent by our vicious
political masters to wage war against the people of Vietnam.
Certainly, the militant and effective group of which I was the
initiator and secretary, the Vietnam Action Committee, had, as its
central slogan, "Bring Australian troops home now" and we placed a lot
of our agitational emphasis on this being in the interests of the
Australian soldiers as well as the Vietnamese.
There were some Vietnam antiwar protesters who vilified the
soldiers, but they were a tiny minority of the opponents of the war.
With the complex and diverse nature of my family background in relation
to wars, I was personally very conscious of the fact that young men are
drawn into wars by a multitude of circumstances and, in the case of
those sent to Vietnam, often against their will.
In the case of others who went off to the Vietnam War
their views were sometimes changed by their experiences of the war.
When the war ended, the Australian troops had come home, and many
Vietnamese who had fought on the losing side ended up in Australia, I
felt no personal animosity towards any of them. One of the paradoxes of
the Vietnam experience is that I now have friends amongst Vietnam
veterans, particularly among those veterans who have been campaigning
for their natural right to compensation for their exposure to agent
I also have a number of friends among Vietnamese migrants to
Australia. I was greatly heartened in the vigorous marches against
Pauline Hanson's racism a couple of years ago, by the wonderful
diversity of those marches, which included the largely Anglo or Celtic
young members of slightly exotic socialist groups, and also large
contingents of Vietnamese migrants marshalled in a rather military way
by old officers from the South Vietnamese Army.
I am utterly repelled by the modern right-wing populists, like
fan Paul Sheehan, who make a meal of alleged Vietnamese ghettoes in
Cabramatta. After all, the 300,000 Aussies from Indochina wouldn't be
here if it wasn't for the Vietnam War.
The bourgeois historical revisionism in relation to the 1960s
the 1970s and the struggle against the Vietnam War does not intimidate
me one bit. We were right in our opposition to the war and many of
those who fought in it, or even initiated it, such as former US Defence
Secretary Robert McNamara, now realise this.
I am in favour of reconciliation between all the participants
that conflict, but that is a different question, and those of us who
opposed the war from day one have nothing at all to apologise for.
There is a further question in relation to the upheavals of
1960s and the 1970s, which were crystallised in the campaign against
the vicious war in Vietnam. They brought to a head a number of
developing contradictions in Western society and they unleashed social
forces that are quite socially and culturally irreversible.
The reactionary populist attack on this whole period is
rubbish. You say, on page 96:
Yet when we examine aspects of our history that are both unique
and formative — for Europeans, a location far from Europe and long seen
as intractably alien; a core culture ethnically split from the start,
partly over issues born of colonialism going back to the 12th century;
the brutal extended displacement of the indigenous people; and a
stigmatised convict beginning — the fact is that Australia's imagined
community actually "held" us with surprising firmness until the 1970s.
You are here inferring the general right-wing populist
about how the disintegration of so-called "civilisation" started in the
1960s and 1970s. This kind of rhetoric is self-interested, conservative
nonsense designed to try to roll back the very considerable leaps in
human consciousness and understanding, and the resulting changes in
social practices, that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s.
On the more immediate question of the significance of Anzac
war nostalgia as a "holding force", I summarise my viewpoint in the
following way. My ancestors and relatives, including way back one
possible Aboriginal ancestor, have fought or otherwise been involved in
a number of the wars that have taken place in Australia or affected
I celebrate the lives and heroism of all those who have fought
all those wars on whatever side. I am quite incapable, however, of
abdicating my realistic political understanding of those military
events. I am very proud, for instance, of the defeat of conscription in
the referendums in 1916 and 1917, and the opposition of many
Australians to the First World War, and I am proud of the effective and
ultimately successful campaign against the Vietnam War.
I celebrate and mourn the pain and death of those who fought
were killed in those wars, even if, as in the case of the Australian
soldiers in Vietnam, they were on the wrong side. I believe the war
memorials should be respected properly. I am greatly taken with acts of
reconciliation such as Terry Burstall's books, particularly the one in
which he goes back to Vietnam and meets up with the Vietnamese soldiers
who fought on the other side to him at Long Tan.
I note the great respect with which the people of Vietnam,
the Vietnamese Army, treat the graves and memorials to the soldiers
that fought against them during the war. That war was my war, in a
sense, and I am greatly interested in reconciliation between all those
who were affected by and involved in that war, both Australians and
Vietnamese, on both sides.
One thing I have no intention at all of ever doing (even if I
to be 100), is join the utterly reactionary general celebration of the
Anzac events by imperial British Australia, in the current tabloid way
that is so obviously just a crude political device to create a
counter-revolution in Australian historiography.
I fully understand, support and celebrate the aspect of Anzac
which men and women who fought in all those wars go along to
commemorate their own younger lives and the lives of those who have
already passed on and their common experiences in those events, and to
see old friends. I often watch the march on television as a cultural
event and a passing commentary on the lives of other Australians.
In no way do I oppose or begrudge the ordinary Australians who
fought in those wars those movingly human celebrations. Nevertheless, I
do not regard the First World War and Australia's participation in it
or the utterly unrighteous war of imperialist intervention in Vietnam,
and our participation in that war, as being a culturally useful primary
focus for Australian national identity.
Celebrating these wars is a rather obvious device for
reactionary "British Australia" cultural hegemony, which I have been
fighting all my life. What I primarily celebrate about those two wars
is the great wisdom displayed by the Australian people in defeating
conscription in the First World War, and eventually opposing the
Vietnam War and withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam.
Celebrating Anzac and the memories of Charlie Mance (born
December 3, 1900)
In relation to Anzac Day and wars, I would draw your attention
the fact that most of the last few surviving contemporaries of my
father who actually fought in the First World War, when interviewed on
television, say very firmly that war is hell, and that war, in
particular, was very bad indeed. I have a number of times in recent
years been greatly impressed by the stubborn way that a couple of these
old diggers have got that basic point over on television in the few
seconds of air time that you get in a televisoin grab. They are great
men indeed, those still surviving First World War diggers.
It is worth reprinting in this context part of an interview
of them, Charlie Mance, by Gina Leros and Deborah McIntosh in Sunday
Life, in the Sun Herald (August 15, 1999):
"I've lived through quite a few wars," says Charlie Mance,
shaking his head. "I was born in a war — the Boer War of 1900. I was
six during the Zulu Rebellion, 14 when the Great War happened, 39
during the Second World War and then, of course, there were Korea and
Vietnam. But the First World War was definitely the worst, considering
the conditions under which we served."
In 1917, Charlie abandoned his job as a blacksmith's striker
metal foundry in Brunswick, Victoria, and joined the war by lying about
his age — he was only 16 — and scraped in at a mere 160 centimetres.
But he was bolstered by a combination of ambition — "I wanted to do
something for my country because the Anzacs were losing" — and teenage
invincibility. "We were all young and silly as rabbits, I suppose, but
I was thrilled to pieces to do it. I was tough and strong and wanted to
serve to the best of my ability."
Charlie enlisted at a time when reinforcements were urgently
on the Western Front. "When I joined up, things were pretty tough for
the Anzacs. They'd already evacuated Gallipoli and volunteers were
getting scarce. The pick of the Australian nation had already gone. So,
they created what they called a Sportsman's Thousand — the 22nd
battalion — where they reduced the required weight and height from 172
centimetres and I put up my age to make it through. I knew I was doing
the wrong thing because I was underage; I even lied to my mum to get
her to sign the papers."
The new recruits spent a few months training in Victoria:
poorly equipped. The guns got so scarce that we had to train with a log
of wood to represent a rifle."
They disembarked in England in December 1917 and arrived in
in April 1918, where Private Mance, No. 763A, fought with the 22nd in
Amiens, Ville-sur-Ancre, Villers-Bretonneux and Mont St Quentin. A
determined youth, Charlie recovered from a gas attack that left him
blinded and voiceless for six weeks, then resumed his frontline attack
on Herleville on 18 August 1918.
Charlie recalls one gruesome battle: "In France, they had a
life-size crucifix, they had machine guns behind it and blew us out.
They got 14 of us, I got wounded and there were three dead. The
stretcher-bearers yelled out, 'Can you walk?' and being a young kid, I
said, 'yes', because there was still lots of hard work to do, see?
"A 60-pounder would fire and frighten the hell out of you;
be flying shrapnel and artillery everywhere. Lots of our fellows got
killed so I'm lucky to still be here."
By the end of 1918, only 130 of the 1000 men were left.
wounded in the chest by a shell. "And the conditions were shocking," he
adds. We were lousy as a bandicoot as I say, and we wouldn't have a
bath for four months. We'd be living in trenches of mud and slush and
we were half-starved."
His last battle was the capture of Montbrehain near
Beaurevoir on the Hindenburg Line on October 5, 1918.
Charlie was discharged in 1920. In that year, he also
Luckwell in Warminster, England. "Bessie was 18 and I was 18 and five
months," says Charlie, eyes glistening. "I literally met her walking
down the street! We were only young blokes, kicking around in mobs, as
you do. And the English girls wanted adventure, wanted to fall in love
or go to Australia with an Australian soldier — which she did."
Charlie tried to prevent his own son, Lionel, from being
in WWII "because I didn't want him to be gun fodder". Military service
isn't the only answer, he says, for teaching young people discipline,
obedience or patriotism.
One of the 60 pounders mentioned by Charlie Mance was the
maimed my father in 1918. It is interesting that my father, all his
life, used almost exactly the same form of words as Charlie Mance does
here about joining up: "We were all young and silly as rabbits." The
powerful testimony of those like my father and Charlie Mance who, if
his luck continues as it has so far, will live to see the new century,
should be very forcefully taken into account.
In view of the war experiences of First World War diggers, it
at all appropriate that mindless militaristic celebration of Winston
Churchill's costly Anzac Cove military disaster, in which so many young
Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Turks died needlessly, should
be taken as the defining centre of Australian national identity.
Lenin and national identity
I am rather amazed that you can write a whole book about the
national question in Australia without some reference to Lenin's very
well-known work on the subject, which I regard as the basic
introduction to the question in the modern world. As you well know,
Lenin had a fairly well-developed notion of nationality and what the
fundamental characteristics of a real nation are, which he associated
with factors such as language, religion and ethnicity but with which he
also associated such questions as nationalities being tied in with the
economic framework in which they exist. His view was quite complex.
He regarded such nationalities as the Irish, the Poles, and
Russians and the Ukrainians and the English, as very real entities. In
relation to nationalism, however, he made a sharp distinction about the
nationalism of oppressed colonial peoples, in which he included the
Irish and the Poles, and which he regarded as a progressive force, in
the limited sense that they tended to break up the imperialist hegemony
in the world.
On the other hand he regarded such things as Imperial British,
Russian and German nationalism as thoroughly reactionary, although he
quite clearly recognised the existence of Russia, Germany and England
as real nationalities with real national identities. After the Russian
Revolution he celebrated a number of aspects of Russian culture and
He was after all, a Russian himself, and longed for the wide
of Russia while in exile. Nevertheless, in the latter part of his life,
he fought bitterly against Stalin over the developing tendency of the
new Soviet state to reproduce reactionary Russian nationalism in
relation to the previously subject peoples. He described the
reassertion of Russian nationalism in this way as "the old reactionary
In approaching the question of national identity in Australia,
regard Lenin's views on the question as very useful indeed. I believe
Australia started as a colonial settler state of British imperialism.
The British ruling class of colonial Australia, which was imposed on
the indigenous Aboriginal Australians, on the already colonised Irish,
Scots and Welsh, and also on the proletarian and plebian underclass
brought from Britain itself, was thoroughly reactionary.
The struggle of the diverse underclass of Australia against
British imperial Australia triumphalism imposed on them, is at the core
of the whole history of Australia in the 19th century and the early
20th century. Along with many Australians now, my origins are in this
underclass of Australia.
I have no inclination at all to celebrate the "core holding
of British imperial Australia. Most Australians like me have been
fighting that reactionary ideology for 210 years!
On page 12, you wax eloquent:
Cut from English diffidence and spliced with Irish
ambivalence, Australian patriotism has never been as explicitly
self-affirming as that of, say, the USA or France. But there is a real
sense in which, warts and all, Australian patriotism is a work of
popular art, a piece of high creativity by the common imagination.
On page 95, you say:
[O'Farrell] writes, for example, that the Australian Irish
"had no philosophic notion of an open pluralistic society. It might
even be argued that their preferences were ideally the opposite". In
what other ways might such tension have expressed itself? I
suggest its acid bite and tenor significantly helped to fashion the
characteristic old-identity ambiguity about attachment to country. The
ambiguity has certainly been intensified in recent decades by currents
within the intellectual culture and by multicultural policies. But it
was not created by them. An historical, often profound, contrast
between the two major original European ethnic actors contributed
foundationally to the forces that are discouraging expression of
attachment to country today — right down to the unique shy-violet
profile of the national flag.
In a word, that historical contrast contributes to an
ultimate Australian mystery: why
are we so lukewarm in articulating patriotisms? Recognition that
through all this the Irish play a role, perhaps a key role, will not
stop us appreciating Irish Australia's central part in fashioning our
rich national tapestry. Rather, aired as fundamental to an integrating
identity debate, such recognition will encourage fuller awareness of
what is now so astonishingly muted: the truly remarkable strengths
Your clear inference is that the past patriotism of British
class Australia is a wonderful thing to be celebrated, and that it is a
pity that the hostility of Irish Australians like myself has muted that
celebration, and has even interfered with the proper reverence required
for the national flag.
In addition to this the Irish were not keen on an "open
society" presumably, in this context, the one imposed on them by the
English with superior, more industrialised and modern military
organisation and weaponry. From where I sit, your British patriotism is
the "last refuge of scoundrels". From the point of view of working
class Anglo-Australians, Irish Australians, indigenous and non-British
Australians, including Australians of colour, there is, indeed, a
popular plebian multicultural Australian national identity to be
celebrated, but that is quite different and in total opposition to the
rabidly racist "patriotism" of upper-class "British" Australia.
When I was a kid at a Christian Brothers school in the 1950s
we used to sing Advance Australia Fair in "clannish Celtic"
defiance of British Australia, which of course, sang God Save the
Queen. Now, when I see on television John Howard and Pauline
Hanson, whose immediate ideological predecessors sang God Save the
Queen with such fervour, wrapping themselves in Advance
Australia Fair, I am forcibly struck by the way symbols can be
transformed, and this fact tends to make me even a little bit uneasy
about Advance Australia Fair as a national symbol.
The real new Australia of the year 2000. Race, religion (or
it) and ethnicity. Why I celebrate, and don't lament, like you do, the
decline of Protestant religion and freemasonry
I was a bit amazed at your pain and nostalgia at the decline
freemasonry and the drop in religious adherence as part of the decline
of what is now described by many as "civil society". Well, from where I
sit the collapse of freemasonry is a totally healthy development.
Freemasonry started out as a revolutionary force in the early modern
world. It degenerated rapidly throughout the 19th century and became,
in the latter part of the period when it had significance in the
English speaking world, a brutal cultural device for preserving
Anglo-British ruling classes and their interests against outsiders such
as the Irish Catholics.
The sooner the now archaic institution of freemasonry
forever, the better, from my point of view. The Catholic Church may now
allow Catholics to become Freemasons in a fit of misguided ecumenism,
but that doesn't impress me one little bit.
I vividly remember in the 1950s when my anti-communist
Catholic father left forever the Industrial Group in the Teachers
Federation. The breaking point for him was when the Industrial Group
admitted Mrs Preston Stanley Vaughan, who was a member of the Liberal
Party and a lady Mason. That was altogether too much for my old man,
and he broke decisively with the Santamaria group over that question
and never went back to them.
The same applies to "the decline of religion". This is a
question. In Australia it is not really a decline of religion in
general, but a decline in formal Protestant religious adherence. I
have, from where I sit, a bit like Charles Price, from his different
angle, an inordinate interest in things like ethnicity, religion and
non-religion, as revealed in the very detailed and useful material that
progressively emerges after each census from that wonderful secular
Australian institution, the Bureau of Census and Statistics.
I am still, at the age of 63, a fairly stubborn agnostic in
personal religious belief, although I have acquired in later life more
respect for the variety and complexity of the religious beliefs of
others, and I no longer have any sort of atheist triumphalism in these
matters. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, I regard the decline of
Protestant religious allegiance in the census as a very healthy thing.
The actual situation is that the number of Catholics is now
30 per cent, the highest ever, the number of non-believers is nudging
25 per cent, the highest ever, the number of non-Protestant religions
is nudging 10 per cent, the highest ever, and the number of notional
Protestants has nosedived to about 35 per cent from the 70 per cent of
50 years ago. What has actually happened is that the 10 per cent of the
25 per cent of non-believers who are ex-Catholics like me, have been
replaced in the Catholic column by newer migrants from a wide spectrum
of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
In my shorthand version of Australian society, I have two
the one side are the majority of the 35 per cent who still identify
themselves as Protestants, the majority of whom, incidentally, usually
vote Liberal. On the other side of my scales are the Catholics, the
non-believers, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the
Orthodox, who, incidentally, mostly vote Labor. On my progressive side
of that division are also located the more progressive elements of
Anglo-Australian background, many of whom no longer identify with the
Protestant religion because of its profound identification in
Australian history with reaction and the ruling class.
Protestant religion in Australia has been mainly identified
historically and culturally with the most reactionary aspects of
Australian experience, from convict times until very recently. The
convicts were totally alienated by such people as Marsden, the flogging
clergyman-magistrate, and the imposition of official Protestantism on
them as a form of "correction".
Marsden's major conflict with Governor Macquarie stemmed from
Macquarie appointing an emancipast, ie, an ex convict, as a magistrate.
The evangelical "Christian" Marsden point-blank refused to serve as a
magistrate on the same bench as an ex-convict. So much for Christian
Subsequently the native born "currency" working class
their convict parents' estrangement from the Anglican religion of their
rulers. Later on, Protestantism was associated with such things as the
imposition of "British Australia" on the Irish and the destruction of
"pagan" Aboriginal cultural practices.
In a very important article in Labour History (No. 7,
the late Rupert Lockwood, in his well-known thorough and inventive way,
published a summary of a major 20,000-word research project, titled, British
imperial influences in the foundation of the White Australia Policy.
In this article he has a most illuminating collection of material
drawing on British government documents from the Colonial Office
relating to the first 70 years of white settlement.
He satisfactorily establishes that the whole ideology of
colonisation included an evangelical Protestant, racist arrogance about
stamping out paganism in Australasia and the Pacific, and preserving
Australia and New Zealand for "British race" white settlement. He
particularly draws on the Colonial Office private papers of the major
figure, Sir James Stephen, the permanent head who ran the Colonial
Office in the decisive empire-shaping years for Australia of 1813 to
Stephen was an extremely influential, sophisticated,
member of the powerful Clapham Sect of Evangelicals, which had such
enormous influence on the development of the British Empire and
Australia. Sir James Stephen was also a leading figure in the
foundation of the Church Missionary Society, which was the religious
arm of British imperialism in the South Pacific.
Stephen's personal papers reveal that he was obsessed with the
interests of Protestant evangelical religion, which he identified
messianically with the "divine global mission of the British race".
Stephen is quoted in Charles Price's important book, The Great
White Walls are Built (Australian National University Press 1974),
In 1841 he stated that Australia would be a land "where the
English race shall be spread from sea to sea unmixed with any lower
caste. As we now regret the folly of our ancestors in colonising North
America from Africa, so should our posterity have to censure us if we
should colonise Australia from India"; likewise in 1843 he opposed the
proposal to use public funds to assist Indian coolies to NSW on the
grounds that they would "debase by their intermixture the noble
European race ... introduce caste with all its evils ... bring with
them the idolatry and debasing habits of their country . . . [and] cut
off the resource for many of our own distressed people". Stephen used
his powerful position in the Colonial Office, and his enormous
bureaucratic skills, to vigorously and in large part successfully,
oppose Chinese and southern European migration to the Australian
colonies, to preserve these colonies for the "divine British mission".
The first Anglican Primate of Australia, Bishop Broughton
The first Anglican Primate of Australia, Bishop Broughton, was
Anglican Church affairs, a high churchman. He was, however, a rabid
anti-Papist, and he agitated throughout his religious career against
Irish Catholics coming to the Colony of NSW. He was the initiator of
the first committee of the Sydney establishment campaigning against
Chinese and Asian immigration to the colony, and he was the chairman
and dominant personality in this racist committee for nearly 15 years.
He also played a role in the attempted extermination of the
Tasmanian Aborigines. I quote here from the book by American
anthropologist, Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third
Chimpanzee (Vintage, 1992) page 252:
Government-sponsored groups called roving parties, and
consisting of convicts led by police, hunted down and killed
Tasmanians. With the declaration of matrial law in November 1828,
soldiers were authorised to kill on sight any Tasmanian in the settled
areas. Next, a bounty was declared on the natives: five British pounds
for each adult, two pounds for each child, caught alive. "Black
catching", as it was called because of the Tasmanians' dark skins,
became big business pursued by private as well as official roving
parties. At the same time a commission headed by William Broughton, the
Anglican archdeacon of Australia, was set up to recommend an overall
policy towards the natives. After considering proposals to capture them
for sale as slaves, poison or trap them, or hunt them with dogs, the
commission settled on continued bounties and the use of mounted police.
Later in the 19th century, by and large, the various
sects and the predominantly Protestant upper-class vigorously opposed
the development of the labour movement. In the early 20th century, up
to the end of the 1930s, under the rubric of opposition to "rum,
Romanism, socialism and gambling" there continued to be a constant
Protestant upper class and middle class mobilisation against the labour
The most exotic representative of this reactionary Protestant
mobilisation was the crazy, Bible-bashing Liberal politician and NSW
cabinet minister, T.J.Ley, in the 1920s, later a convicted murderer.
The generally anti-popular role of Protestant religion in Australian
history makes an enthusiastic celebration of past Protestant religion
as part of our "national imaginary" a very problematic thing indeed.
Alongside the demographic changes in formal religious
there have also been significant changes in the ideological, cultural
and political character of different Australian religious groups. It
should be noted that Australia is a kind of intermediate example in
The decline of organised religion has not gone as far in
as it has in Britain or most of Europe. On the other hand, it has gone
substantially farther in Australia than it has in the United States. If
you look at the US, a rather moralising, anti-modern Protestant
"religious" revival, with such aspects as banning the teaching of
teaching evolution in schools, has become a very feature of American
life in recent years.
This has gone on at precisely the same time as the US prison
population has increased to proportionately three or four times the
size of prison populations anywhere else in OECD countries. This
"religious" revival in the US is an extremely barbarous cultural
phenomenon and is one of the reasons why I am opposed to any
retrospective celebration of the role of Protestant religion in past
Past middle class and upper class Protestant religion in
had a great resemblance to the grossly mutated current American form of
Protestant "religious" revival. Viewed through the prism of the history
of Protestant religion in Australia, or the prism of the current
American "religious" revival, that particular past religious culture is
hardly a thing to be celebrated by civilised modern human beings.
Moore Theological College
Happily, numerically reduced Australian Protestant religion
generally take the bizarre forms often characteristic of North America.
We have had far fewer vicious witchhunts here, looking for non-existent
"Satanic ritual child murderers". The "Toronto blessing" (speaking in
tongues and writhing on the ground) and other charismatic religion,
while it has acquired a certain popularity in Australia, hasn't spread
in anything like the way that it has mushroomed in the midwest and the
south of the United States.
The two largest mainstream Protestant sects, the broad church
high church current, dominant in the Anglican Church in Australasia,
and the Uniting Church drawn from the old Presbyterians and Methodists,
have both shifted somewhat to the left culturally and politically, and
quite a few of their adherents these days are on the left of politics,
and many of them even vote Labor rather than being entrenched Tories
like their ancestors.
For this reason, the fact that I heard recently that you have
active in the Anglican Church in Armidale does not seem to me to be
necessarily a decisive element in your evolution to the right. With
your ethnic and cultural background, it's quite natural that if you
develop religious concerns, which is not unusual in human beings later
in life, you should explore the religious framework dominant in your
own cultural background.
In the politics of the Anglican communion, there have been
of a significant sort culturally, even in the evangelical wing, which I
gather is the dominant force in the Armidale diocese — one of the few
Evangelical Anglican dioceses outside Sydney. For the last 12 years,
due to a pure accident of geography, my bookshop has been opposite
Moore Theological College, the intellectual powerhouse of the rather
dynamic evangelical faction dominant in the Sydney Anglican Church,
which continues to conduct its rigorous and determined agitation in
stubborn opposition to the broad church and high church mood
predominant in Anglicanism elsewhere in Australia.
In the past, if asked to locate myself anywhere in the
universe, I'd usually have located myself as far opposite as you can
get from Moore College evangelicalism. After all, their Cromwellian
ancestors drove my Irish Catholic ancestors to "Hell or Connaught", and
those kinds of battles persisted in Australia in the 19th century, when
Protestant evangelicals were at the cutting edge of British-Australian
political reaction of the sort that you now tend to retrospectively
Moore College and the Sydney evangelical faction were actually
founded by a wave of unemployed Calvinist-oriented Irish Anglican
ministers, displaced suddenly due to the disestablishment of the
Anglican Church of Ireland in the 19th century, who carried with them
to Australia a strong brew of anti-Papism, given bitter material force
by their loss of status and employment due to the act of the British
Parliament disestablishing the Church of Ireland (to placate the
Catholic majority who were sick of paying tithes to the church of the
The other influences present at the foundation of Moore
Welsh pietism and enthusiasm, and the English evangelical revivalism
that culminated early in the 20th century in the Keswick movement.
In Australia in the 19th century Presbyterians, Methodists,
Anglicans and other Protestants were ferocious wowsers. They fought
vigorously against alcohol, gambling, the theatre, public dancing,
divorce, mixed bathing, many public sports and against anything at all
being open on Sundays, with, unfortunately, a good deal of success.
On these matters there was a massive cultural divide between
Protestant middle class and upper class, on the one hand, and the
secular working class and the Irish Catholics on the other. This
conflict is described comprehensively in Keith Dunstan's book, Wowsers
and Bill Lawton's book A Better Time to Be.
They were also rabid "British-Australia" racists. This kind of thing
culminated culturally in Sydney, at the time of the First World War,
when many of the staff and students of Moore College volunteered early
in the war, in a euphoria of British Australia patriotism with a
Unfortunately, many of these zealous young men were
killed in the awful universal carnage of that horrible war. (The book Sydney
Anglicans by Stephen Judd and Ken Cable has a useful account of the
origins of Moore College.)
Manning Clark, Anglicanism and Moore College
An interesting part of Australian intellectual history is the
preoccupation of our greatest Australian historian, Manning Clark, with
such matters as the Enlightenment, the Anglican Church, and the
Catholic Church in Australian life, and the tension and conflict
between these three important influences.
Part of the explanation for this important historical
of Clark's lies in his own personal and family background and
connections. Clark was a direct lineal descendant of the flogging
parson/magistrate, the evangelical Samuel Marsden and of several other
significant establishment figures.
His mother, a member of the Hope family, was the sister of the
known Father Hope, the longtime rector of the oppositional High Church
stronghold in the strongly evangelical Sydney diocese, Christ Church St
Lawrence, near Central Railway. Paradoxically, Clark's mother herself
was a determined and well-formed Calvinist Anglican, entrenched in the
low church Sydney tradition.
Her husband, Clark's father, was an Anglican clergyman who
at Moore College in the early years of the century, but moved away from
evangelical beliefs to a more latitudinarian Anglican viewpoint, and
ended up as an Anglican minister in the Melbourne diocese. Clark's
father also was involved in an unfortunate personal scandal, fathering
an illegitimate child while the Anglican minister at Kempsey.
This interesting and complex personal family history obviously
great stimulus to Clark's considerable interest in the religious and
philosophical matters encapsulated in the great dramatic interplay
between Catholics, Protestants and the Enlightenment in Australian
Moore College today
Given the complex history that I've just outlined and the
reactionary Tory influences in the past of the evangelical current in
Australian life, I've been fascinated by the obvious cultural changes
in the Moore College community that I have observed in the 12 years
they have been my neighbours. I've got to know them quite well through
a process of intellectual dialogue with many of the students and staff,
often sitting behind my till in the shop, or in the Green Iguana Cafe
just up the road, which many of us who spend a lot of time in the area,
share for breakfast.
The "new" Moore College still draws many of its students
for the Anglican ministry from the traditional lower middle class Bible
belt around Epping and Ryde, or in the outer suburbs like Sutherland
and Baulkham Hills (they don't seem to get many from the real upper
classes). The other striking feature of the student body these days is
that a quarter or a fifth of the students seem to be Asians: Chinese or
Koreans. This phenomenon is partly a product of the fact that one of
their ideological leaders, Phillip Jensen, was the Anglican Chaplain of
the University of NSW, and his outreach work with his rather intense
Bible-based Calvinist Anglicanism seems to have struck a chord with
A curious feature about the Asian faces that seem to worry you
Charles Price as you walk through the streets of downtown Sydney is
that some of them probably belong to evangelical Anglicans. Maybe you
should glance under their arms and look for the New Testament before
you allow yourself the "prickle of uneasiness" at their Asian faces.
Associated with this is a certain amount of exogamy, some Moore College
students are married to people of other ethnic groups. I find the total
disappearance of anti-Asian racism in the Moore College community very
striking and rather moving, conscious as I am of the fiercely British
racist outlook of their immediate religious ancestors.
As part of their teaching system, Moore College places
emphasis on the students and staff being a small, discrete community.
Most of the staff live in staff quarters in the college and by the
second or third year, most of both the single and married students live
in quarters in the college or college houses nearby. The effect of this
is to create a compact intellectual and social community. Some other
theological colleges question or reject this model, but my external
impression is that it works very well for Moore College and contributes
to the development of their internal esprit de corps and distinctive
Anglicans I know tell me that the Sydney evangelicals are the
group of Anglicans who are actually growing, and that they are engaged
in an energetic program of colonisation of other dioceses. I find this
success a bit puzzling ideologically, given their spare, rigorous,
Calvinist theology. My impression from the students and the staff of
the college is that these days quite a few of them quietly vote Labor.
They also are located in a reasonably compatible way in
cheek by jowel with one of the largest gay communities in the southern
hemisphere, and in a typical Sydney way all of these discrete Newtown
communities seem to get on fine at a day-to-day level, despite all the
overt differences between them. Three cheers for Sydney!
Moore College Bible literalism
I have several times acquired copies of the Moore College
in the bottom of boxes of books sold to me by departing students. I
find it fascinating. The ideological bent of Moore College is still a
very recognisable Calvinist, election and personal conversion based
Bible Christianity. The syllabus is rather narrowly focused around the
Bible, Biblical interpretation and ancient Greek and Hebrew.
There is only a limited emphasis on philosophy, general
natural theology. Within its narrow framework, however, the college
syllabus is impressively thorough and the student workload is obviously
considerable. College students are required to state on oath that they
have read a certain number of pages of Calvin's Institutes over
the holidays, a commitment that impresses me mightily.
The two major ideological leaders of the faction, Peter
principal of Moore College, and his brother, Phillip Jensen, both
underwent conversion experiences at Billy Graham rallies in their young
manhood, and their theology places a great emphasis on conversion
Moore College is said to have the largest, most diverse and
comprehensive theological and biblical library in the southern
hemisphere. The staff I have met are serious-minded, careful,
well-educated men, extremely committed to the ideological framework of
their beliefs, and the students as a whole impress me as taking these
beliefs very seriously.
They have occasional theological disputes. In recent times,
the staff, Bill Lawton, changed his views on some religious matters, in
a non-evangelical direction and he ultimately left the college. They
are particularly hostile to evangelical renegades or heretics like
Barbara Thiering, for obvious reasons.
Their opposition to Barbara Thiering is clearly heightened by
obviously enormous erudition in matters Biblical, stemming from her
early religious grounding as an evangelical, which she now uses in a
complex and imaginative historical construction, locating the New and
Old Testaments in the context of all the other Near Eastern religious
influences within which they evolved.
This kind of scholarship, to which Thiering brings her immense
knowledge of the Bible, tends to operate against the evangelical notion
of the Bible as totally inspired, and the unique and sole revelation of
an all powerful god, from Genesis to Revelation. Thiering's exercise of
locating the Bible, reasonably reverently, in its comparative context,
tends to undermine the fixated Evangelical preoccupation with the Good
Book as the sole source of God's revelation.
Evangelicals often try to justify their animosity to Thiering
ridiculing her scholarship. (They assert that no other Bible scholars,
by which they mainly mean other evangelicals, agree with her.) Their
anger against her clearly has its deepest origins in the threat that
her analytic approach presents to their whole world view.
What I find absolutely striking about Moore College and its
community, which is a very distinctive sub-section of the general
Newtown community of which I, too, am a part, is not so much the
obvious continuity they have with past evangelical Christianity in
Australia, but the subtle changes that have equally obviously taken
For instance, as a matter of policy, the college decided to
Newtown rather than move to a possibly more congenial suburban area
somewhere in the Bible belt. By staying in Newtown, they obviously aim
to have their students engaging with the complexities of the modern
world, and this seems to me to work very well for them.
They are still believing Bible Christians, but the rabid
vanished and their large Asian component are full citizens of their
small community. Despite the fact that they would disapprove of quite a
few of the things in my shop, they have never expressed the view that
anything in my shop should be censored, and a number of them are quite
They seem to have quietly changed their attitudes to things
extremes of Sunday observance, dancing, the theatre and alcohol,
although they are still strongly opposed to gambling and considering
the rather anti-social modern orgy of gambling in Australia, they may
have a certain point there. They took vigorous and successful action to
prevent a legal brothel being located opposite the college, and despite
the fact that I believe that the current legalisation of prostitution
is sensible I supported the college fully in its opposition to this
completely inappropriate location of a brothel immediately opposite
I get on with my Moore College neighbours extremely well and I
a lot of the individuals I know personally, despite our religious and
cultural differences. The interesting point about Moore College and the
Sydney Evangelicals is that they are still a significant and potent
ideological and religious force.
Their modernised evangelical religious set-up is a distinctive
Sydney phenomenon. To some extent they have quietly come to terms with
modernity, and this has equipped them quite well to operate in the
current world. They seem to me to be one of the religious groups likely
to survive and grow. Personally, I reject their sophisticated Calvinist
theology, which, in fact, brings into sharp focus my own fundamental
philosophical problem with theism, and reason for religious disbelief,
which focuses on the problem of evil.
Calvinist predestination. No salvation through good works.
Damnation for the overwhelming majority of the human race who don't
explicitly accept Jesus Christ as their saviour
While Moore College has changed dramatically in many matters,
underlying Calvinist theology and Biblical literalism is still a
substantial part of the ideological ethos of the institution. Pleasant
people although many of them are, they have three or four underlying
religious preoccupations that are in the sharpest conflict with
They believe profoundly in Augustinian predestination, which
involves the notion that God knows from the moment of creation whether
each individual soul he creates will be saved or damned, and that it is
possible for a saved soul to know, by an experience of Christ, whether
they are saved or not. (I've never actually struck a Calvinist who
thought that they were one of the damned. All those I've ever met seem
to me to be convinced of their own salvation, by way of a conversion
experience at some time in their lives.)
From this point of view, they make a big point of condemning
Arminian theology, which involves humans achieving salvation by good
works, and that kind of theology is subject to their worst anathemas.
They are extreme Bible literalists, and they seem to me to take the
Bible, as translated in the 16th century, by Martin Luther and William
Tyndale and the other great reformers, as the document to which, in
practice, they ascribe God's direct inspiration, and therefore the
source of all real religious knowledge.
For me, Richard Marius's very important and magisterial life
Martin Luther establishes quite effectively the eclectic way in which
Luther selectively developed Bible literalism to bolster his already
existing views on many questions, and Moore College theology seems to
me to proceed in much the same way as Martin Luther did in relation to
the Bible. In discussion with some of the staff and students recently,
I was startled when it dawned on me that many of them, possibly the
majority, reject notions of Darwinian physical evolution in favour of
Christians who accept Darwinian physical evolution, while
it to god's direct intervention, are regarded by many Moore College
evangelicals as being on the extreme radical outer wing of their
The recent Anglican Church ideological explosion, spearheaded
Moore College, over the quite moderate religious views of the new
Anglican Primate of Australia, Peter Carnley, throws their basic
Calvinist evangelical theology into bold relief.
Two aspects of Carnley's views figure most sharply in their
expressions of outrage. First of all, his very careful and limited
qualification of the notion of a physical ressurection by Christ.
Secondly, his statement that conscientiously believing adherents of
other religions could possibly be saved. The angry Sydney evangelical
response to this proposition is based on the fundamental Calvinist
notion that no one can be saved except people who recognise Christ as
their saviour, as the Moore College people do.
This is obviously pretty tough on the three or four billion
in the world who have never heard of the Christian revelation, but the
muscular Calvinist theology isn't deterred by this problem, and asserts
tough cheddar for those not selected for salvation by God, as salvation
is a free gift from the deity, as we all deserve damnation anyway
because Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, etc. Their theology is
pretty brutally constructed, and is obviously only psychologically
acceptable to those who are convinced of their own salvation.
This theology inevitably tends to confine "salvation" to a
small and select proportion of the human population, consigning the
vast majority of us to the flames down below. It's fairly
understandable that evangelical Calvinist theology had great appeal to
the Dutch and English entrepreneurial capitalists when they were
embarked in the 17th and 18th centuries on the great adventure of
carving up the world into empires.
This kind of Calvinism was also very strong among the Boer
in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, as they conveniently
associated their privileged position in relation to the conquered
blacks, with God's municifent favour to his chosen people and to the
saved, which was, of course, them.
The fierce cultural arrogance of this deeply held underlying
evangelical view has given rise to angry and amusing journalism, like
Mike Carlton's Sydney Morning Herald article in which he
compares the evangelicals to the repellant evangelical Canon Slope in Barchester
Towers and says that he would not like to be in the same heaven
with Sydney evangelicals.
An imaginative satirist describes St Peter taking a group of
tourists around heaven. He shows them the locations for all the
different groups like the Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims etc. When
he gets to a little corner, St Peter shows them a cordoned off area,
where he says: "we keep the Sydney evangelicals here, and try to
maintain the illusion in their minds that they are the only ones here,
for the sake of their mental stability".
Their fundamental Calvinist theology and network of beliefs
sharply with the modern world in a number of ways. Nevertheless, their
agressive prosetelysing, and their appearance of religious certainty
gives the Moore College Evangelicals a certain appeal to people out of
the Protestant tradition who are cut adrift by the dramatic and fairly
constant decline of the official Protestant religious ethos.
For this reason, the modern Sydney Evangelicals are a
part of the complex skein of Sydney cultural life, quite capable of
looking after themselves within the stimulating, complex and
contradictory mosaic of Sydney cultural and religious life.
As the graduates of the "new" Moore College come more and more
staff the Anglican Church in the Sydney Diocese, and in the other
dioceses where they are engaged in their energetic colonisation, it
will be fascinating to see what changes take place in the Anglican
It seems very clear to me that, while the current staff and
of Moore College have deep and enduring roots in the Calvinist
Protestant Evangelical tradition from which they come, that,
nevertheless, they are different in a number of important ways to the
totally politically and socially reactionary old Tory conservatism that
used to be associated with the evangelical current in the Anglican
church. The exact form that the changes within Anglicanism will take
are not yet entirely clear, but it is quite clear that Moore College
will be a force in these changes.
In modern Australia the interface between religion and
changed significantly. For instance, the Moore College evangelicals
are, these days, carefully removed a bit from the public political
sphere, although obviously many of their North Shore upper crust allies
in the broad evangelical faction dominant in the Anglican Diocese of
Sydney are still a major influential force in Liberal Party politics.
Nowadays there is quite a significant Catholic presence in the
Liberal Party, which was absolutely unthinkable even 30 years ago. One
curiosity of this is that the Opus Dei ultra-clerical Catholic secret
society is well represented in the leadership of the right wing
faction, which is currently challenging the left liberals for control
of the Liberal Party in NSW. Another significant presence in this
Liberal right wing faction is members of the Mormon Church, the fastest
growing religion on earth, whose origins in the "special angelic
revelation" of Joseph Smith in the 19th century, are such an
instructive caricature of the far more historically remote and obscure
origins of Christianity and Islam.
Despite these shifts in the model of developing progressive
Australian national identity that will emerge for the 21st century, the
main components will come, I believe, from my right-hand column, the
column with the Jews, Catholics, Anglo non-believers, Orthodox and
Muslims etc, in my scales, though an increasing number will also come,
as well, from continuing Protestant religious believers who have shed
the past reactionary triumphalism of British Australia.
All ABS statistics and emerging demographics suggests that my
progressive side of the scales are now comfortably in front and will
continue to draw ahead, which bodes badly for your sad notion of the
"core holding quality" of Anglo-British Australia.
It seems to me wrong historically to attempt to rehabilitate
reactionary past of Australian Protestant religion, as part of your
"core holding quality" of "Anglo-Celtic Australia". In the 19th
century, despite the reactionary Medieval ideology of the Catholic
Church, the oppressed class position of the Irish Catholics propelled
them into the progressive, democratic, reform-minded, rebellious side
of Australian society.
On the other hand, the class position of Protestantism, as the
religion particularly of the oppressing upper class and their middle
class clients, located Protestant religion firmly on the side of
reaction. The more civilszed position of many modern Australian
Protestants, produced by changed social circumstances, is a very good
thing, but it can't be used to rewrite the historical record.
David Marr's book, The High Cost of Heaven
The eloquent and elegant opponent of censorship, David Marr,
just had published a book dissecting the influence of the Christian
sects on Australian life, particularly in relation to censorship. Marr
is a beautiful and powerful writer, and this book is both brilliant
polemic, and emotional testimony, informed by the experience of a gay
man who grew up in an Anglican religious environment, and for a
considerable period in his life tried to balance his Anglican religious
beliefs and his emerging homosexual sexuality.
His angry book is a realistic corrective to being too soft on
of the negative features of the influence of all the Christian
religions, both the Protestants and the Catholics, on Australian life.
His acid but reasonably fair and amusing pen sketches of such people as
Brian Harradine and Phillip Jensen raise a number of serious questions
about the pressures exerted by organised Christianity, to impose, for
instance, censorship standards that they favour, on the rest of us who
have different values.
David Marr is absolutely right to warn against the wide
official government censorship. That is a much bigger danger than the
difficulties involved in a more relaxed attitude to censorship. The
recent extraordinary banning of a French film including non-violent
explicit heterosexual sex scenes underlines the danger of broadly
expanded official censorship.
In general I am strongly opposed to censorship. Some alleged
artistic productions, such as the Virgin in the Condom, the Piss
Christ, and the recent elephant dung Virgin, ought not to be displayed,
because of the obvious attack involved on the deeply held religious
symbols of many people, but it's better to achieve the withdrawal of
such offensive artifacts by public pressure than by outright censorship.
The problem with official censorship, once it gathers
that the would-be censors, who are often driven by an underlying
fundamentalist religious impulse, really have the intention of
outlawing all public artistic representation of explicit sexuality.
Happily, most of the population doesn't agree with them. Why should the
minority views of some Christians on such matters be imposed on the
rest of us?
A similar problem arises in relation to the rights of
All Christian sects regard homosexual activity as what the Catholics
would call a "mortal sin", despite the fact that, to a certain
percentage of the population, their homosexual desire is as primal as
the sexual drive of heterosexual people.
This is one of the features of the natural universe that
personal rejection of Christianity. Most religious believers have
created a cosmology in their minds that contains an all-powerful God,
who is good in all respects, and has created and sustains the universe
at every moment in time. On the face of it, according to this set of
beliefs, he has created a certain proportion of the population whose
sex drives (the most primal of drives) will, if practiced, condemn them
The Calvinist or Jansenist resolution of this problem, that if
homosexuals are part of the elect, they will resist these primal sexual
urges, seems totally ridiculous to me on the basis of all my
observations of the world. This is another aspect of the "problem of
evil", which is my ultimate philosophical reason for rejecting
Marr writes in the most moving way about homosexuality and
and his very real pain and anguish highlights the great problems
involved in reconciling, in society at large, the interests of all,
including homosexuals and Christians, when many fundamentalist
Christians regard homosexual activity as such a grievous sin that it
ought to be stamped out, by almost any means available.
Hints, inferences and inuendos
I must say I found your new book a bit on the difficult side.
you have well and truly made the leap from history into almost pure
cultural theory despite your ostensible disagreement with other
cultural theorists and post modernists.
I have a problem with an apparent historical discourse that
almost entirely on a very abstract theoretical plane, except when you
use the odd well-chosen illustration to buttress your theoretical
With a considerable degree of effort, I believe I get the
drift of your argument. I am infuriated by constant asides in which you
infer an often thoroughly reactionary stance on current contested
political questions, but do it in such a way as to leave yourself the
out that you may have been misunderstood. As an example of what I mean,
on page 42, you write:
Mourning and moving on
We end this first chapter where we began. Charles Price, a
pioneering opponent of White Australia, observed in 1990 that people
object to novelty if they fear "the whole character of the nation [is]
changing too fast". For "ordinary people", it's a question of how many
Asian-looking people there will be as you walk down the street. Living
in rural Australia for over 30 years, on visits to the city I can
detect in myself prickles of shock, even traces of fear alongside real
pleasure at the diversity brought by newer ethnic groups. So I
understand what Price was getting at. The problem is that an
intermediate process has been discouraged, not by those newer groups
themselves of course, but by the Australian intellectual culture and by
officialdom. Part of the Australian "obsession" with identity turns on
the relation between the "core culture" and the ethnic groups
represented in post-1970s mass immigration. For some of that
obsessiveness is a displaced grief that is forbidden to mourn and has
nowhere to go.
And again, on page 33:
But should we sit back and conclude it is an inevitable and
sufficiently strong process? Anglo-Celtic Australians are to a degree
handing on an existing social imaginary to non-Anglo-Celts. That
"mixture" itself forms the bridge by which, with all their drawbacks,
old-identity values and attitudes may both cement and maintain the
emerging whole. While ethnic characteristics must always flourish as
desired, the absorption of sufficient old-identity values — especially
political values — into this "mixed" section will do much to ensure
Australia's prospects for workable coherence in the long term. And
therefore the more diversity will feel safe to flourish. Yet in today's
world we can hardly sit back complacently. If Price's
"fastest-growing", "mixed" section of Anglo-Celts and non-Anglo-Celts
are adopting aspects of the pre-existing Australian imaginary, his
statistics make it clear that this take-up is broad enough. But to what
extent does it strike deeply enough to ensure sufficiently powerful
continuity of civic and other values?
And again, on page 46:
Yet in Australia, as throughout the West, the nation's
reputation — never high in many circles — deteriorated during the late
1970s and 1980s. In the intellectual culture, attachment to the nation
is widely seen "as a ... folkloric harbinger of an abiding series of
dark possibilities — from racial vilification ... to ethnic cleansing".
Indeed so dense is "the thicket of negatives now associated with the
phenomenon of nationalism", according to the Monash University
sociologist Robert Birrell, that anti-nationalism has become "a marker
of intelligentsia standing".
There are many other similar passages throughout the book,
in much the same way, with a very dense theoretical construction, and
an implicit political conclusion, but expressed through the voices of
others, particularly in this case, Charles Price, who is a very good
demographer but gets blamed for many strange things nowadays.
I particularly dislike the totally demagogic mantra with which
already familiar, from Katharine Betts, Paul Sheehan, Robert Birrell
and others, in which the "cosmomulticultural" views of the alleged "new
class" are counterposed to the allegedely chauvinistic views of
"ordinary Australians". This construction has become, in the migration,
ethnicity and multiculturalism debate, a bit like the clouds of ink
released by squids when threatened.
It seems to me, Miriam, old colleague, that you are quite
all the current controversies on levels of migration, the racial
composition of migration, multiculturalism and other questions, and it
seems obvious that your views have moved fairly sharply in a
right-wing, Anglophile, "British" direction. If that is indeed the
case, why not come out and say so more explicitly? Participate in the
debate. Let's have an argument on these matters.
Keeping it all on this lofty ultra-theoretical plane seems to
be an attempt to join the debate while not joining the debate, and
intellectually dishonest. As an example of what I mean, the business
about seeing too many oriental faces in the streets of Sydney. You
don't know the half of it. You should walk from Central Railway down
Broadway to the old Grace Brothers. If Asian faces make you a little
uneasy, you'll be scared stiff after you get to Grace Brothers.
Sydney is like that these days, and it's a more interesting
exciting and prosperous place because of it. Most of us who live here
are almost oblivious to the faces of the people we see (We see them
every day.) Sydneysiders are mostly invigorated and even excited by the
cultural diversity obvious in the streets. Most of us realistically
associate that cultural diversity with Sydney's relative prosperity
compared to some other parts of Australia.
The Irish in Australia
In my re-reading of The Real Matilda I was, on this
rather electrified by your treatment of the Irish question and of women
convicts. I remember being troubled by this analysis when I first read
it back in the 1970s but pushing it aside in mild embarrassment, giving
you the benefit of the doubt, thinking that maybe you might have known
more than I did on the subject due to some special individual research.
But now that I see that analysis in the context of the further
development of your construction of Australia, and now that there is a
vast amount of new material and real research available on these
questions, I'm driven to challenge your analysis rather sharply. You
say, on page 155 in the old Penguin edition, at the start of the
chapter on the Irish:
"Purity, Purity, was the everlasting cry ..." (Herbert M. Moran)
In the 19th century between one-third and one-quarter of
population was Irish, the percentage of single female immigrants
sometimes running far higher. The Irish clustered most markedly on the
lowest rungs of the status hierarchy. Russel Ward has argued that the
Irish influence on early Australian working-class attitudes was
disproportionately strong and consequently "Irish working-class
attitudes formed another important ingredient in the distinctive
Australian ethos which was developing". Although I agree with his
appraisal of the strength of Irish influence, I suggest we substitute
"lower-class" for "working-class" and more important, adopt a view of
the Irish as not-quite-Western, and as primitive in the sense of
pre-modern. This was a view commonly held by the English at the time:
"The men of the establishment in Sydney thought the Irish Catholics so
benighted . . . that, in their eyes, there was nothing but the shade of
a Catholic's skin to distinguish him from an aborigine." In this was
the Irish male, like the black, became a "victim" of English colonial
arrogance and he passed on to his woman the humiliation and blighted
self-image which imperialism enforced on the colonized Irish male. The
humble, quasi-Western status of Irish women, Irish rigid sex-role
stereotyping and Irish fear of sexuality have done a good deal to shape
the curiously low standing and impoverished self-identity of Australian
Irish males were the victims of long centuries of English
cruelty, despoliation, contempt and arrogance. By coming to Australia,
the Irish did not shake off their past heritage, neither its treasures,
its dreams nor its nightmares. The Irish were classed as "victims", and
as masters are prone to do, the English defined their victims as
wretchedly unworthy beings. Even if, and as, a victim, passionately
rejects his master's definition, a deep and treacherous corner of the
heart accepts it and turns it inward in self-hate and self-denigration.
Survival demands he turns it back, outwards, as much as he can.
Usually, a victim achieves only limited success in this; changing early
versions of the self is hard going. But nothing stops him trying. Part
of their self-hate, thus, Irish males turned outwards on to the
Anglo-Saxon Protestant master; part, alas, on to Irish women.
You develop this position further on in The Real Matilda
and you return to it at length in The Imaginary Australian.
I believe that this construction is a totally flawed Anglophone British
imperialist view of Australian social development, and also of Irish
social development. The Manning Clark, Russell Ward, Allan Patience,
Michael Roe, Don Baker, James G. Murtagh, Rupert Lockwood and Eris
O'Brien treatment of this question is a far more accurate and truthful
representation of the general Irish influence on Australian life,
culture and politics.
The Whiggish, Protestant cant about the Irish being
a particularly offensive and distorted view of this question. I base
myself here on the above writers in relation to Australia, and on
particularly E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class,
T.A. Jackson's Ireland Her Own
and John Prebble's important work on Scottish history and particularly
on the Scottish clearances. I would also refer you to Theodore W.
Allan's recent book on the construction of British Race ideology on the
back of the colonisation of Ireland. As Thompson points out in The
Making of the English Working Class, a big slice of the whole of
the British Isles, including England, was pre-modern in the 19th
The persistence of the clan collectivism in Ireland and,
Scotland and Wales, was a powerful force of political and social
resistance that carried over almost immediately into the construction
of a working class in Britain and the development of a labour movement.
Witness the enormous Irish presence in Chartism, for instance. What
Trotsky, in particular, described as combined and uneven development
came into play very sharply here. The unfulfilled national aspirations
of the Irish and, indeed, the Scots and the Welsh, impacted directly
into the making of the English working class as described by Thompson,
and more so into the construction of the labour movement. This was even
more the case in Australia.
The Irish may well have been illiterate, as you say, but so
many of the English and the Scots. But in rapidly developing Australia
they all learned to read pretty fast. The "clannish Gaelic" oral
history that you appear to fear actually did exist and it poured into
the new literary culture of the Irish as they learned to read. It was a
very handy, lively and useful thing, the "clannish pre-modern" oral
culture, and it permeated the whole of Australian life, somewhat
threateningly, perhaps, to your newly emerging straightlaced, Whiggish
inclination, but a wonderful basis for rebellion, struggles for
democracy, battles against the arrogant ruling class of "British
The wonderful role of this "pre-modern" Irish oral culture in
Australia was beautifully described in John Manifold's important book, Who
Wrote the Ballads and also in the lifelong work on Australian
folklore by John Meredith, particularly his important work on Frank
As Allan Patience said, in his response a few years ago to
your fellow Anglophile, Frank Knopfelmacher:
The early history of Australian Catholicism robs Dr
Knopfelmacher's quaint doctrine of Anglomorphism of any substance. Many
Irish and other Celtic convicts and their families experienced the
quasi-racist cruelty of the English officials and soldiers in the early
part of this country's history. It was partly a response to this that
the Australian colonies in the latter half of the 19th century rapidly
formulated some of the most radically democratic political institutions
for their times. The democratic strains that grew so healthily then
later informed and helped shape similar developments in democratic
government in England. In short, it is ridiculous to assert that some
mythical anglomorphism radiates out from England to shine civilisation
upon us all. The English have been relatively slow, though promiscuous,
learners, borrowing from other cultural traditions, not the least being
the Celtic traditions upon which they imposed themselves over 400 years
ago. Knopfelmacher's position is dismissive of the integrity and
richness of non-Anglomorphic Celtic traditions and is seemingly
ignorant of the democratic history of Australia's political
I can't better Patience's statement of the position. That's my
position too, and in different ways it is the outlook of liberal
leftist historians like Manning Clark, Russel Ward, Keith Amos and
Michael Roe, Marxists like Don Baker, and Catholic historians like
James Murtagh, Tom Keneally, Eris O'Brien and Colm Kiernan. Patrick
O'Farrell, on whom you particularly rely for your jaundiced
interpretation of Irish Australian history, is a very industrious and
useful chronicler, but a rather conservative interpreter of the ethnic
and cultural politics of Irish Australia.
Women convicts, Irish women convicts, and Irish women
Your interpretation of women's history, and particularly
Irish women's history, seems to me to be, on mature reflection, just
plain wrong. It suffers badly from the Damned Whores and God's
syndrome made famous by Anne Summers in her groundbreaking book on
Australian women. In the last 20 years feminist historians and many
other historians have been researching both Irish women in Australia
and convict women in Australia.
Portia Robinson, in particular, has done an enormous amount of
on convict women. Her work shows that many convict women made "good" in
Australia in quite a spectacular way and improved their status
significantly, including many Irish convict women. While convict women
certainly were oppressed, even doubly oppressed, nevertheless, the
sheer shortage of women gave them a distinct social advantage and even
some power in the situation, which enabled many of them to advance and
improve their lives.
Incidentaly, about half the convict women were Irish
fairly recent discovery. The improvement of the status of women in
Australia did not only, or even mainly, come from the women of the
leisured upper classes, as you imply. It came in quite a dramatic way,
from below, from the sheer life affirmation of the women of the "lower
orders", particularly the Irish, with their rebellious outlook and
All the recent literature shows this. (An interesting small
in Australian intellectual history might be: did your views in The
about convict women spark off Portia Robinson's interest in the
question, which led her to produce the massive evidence that refutes
your thesis, and to produce the major and effective critical article
she wrote later about The Real Matilda.)
The Irish women in particular
There is now a considerable literature on this question, and
ought to change your position in the light of this work. I refer you
particularly to the books, Barefoot and Pregnant, by Trevor
McClaughlin, also Irish Women in Colonial Australia, edited by
T. McClaughlin, Allen and Unwin 1998, the chapters on women in The
Irish Emigrant Experience in Australia, edited by J. O'Brien and P.
Travers, 1991, the extremely important work by Shirley Fitzgerald on
Irish women in Sydney in Rising Damp,
Grace Karskens' recent books on Millers Point, which include a major
section on the Irish women there, an the rich literature about the
history of various nuns and communities of nuns in Australia.
The picture that emerges from this literature is quite
your gloomy picture of total oppression and total sexual oppression of
Irish women. The sexual repression in Ireland was a relatively recent
phenomenon of the 17th and 18th centuries, imposed on Ireland by a
curious combination of British Imperialism and the repressive Jansenist
influence within Irish Catholicism that started in the 17th century,
due to the training of Irish priests in French seminaries, where
Jansenism was dominant.
This was a rather insecure overlay on the wonderful robust
Rabelaisian Brehon Irish Celtic culture which was sexually anything but
repressed and in which women had a very high status. Brehon culture
kept breaking out among the "clannish Irish", particularly led by the
women, in opposition to all of the forces trying to stamp it out. This
is one of the explanations for the practical persistence of the "Irish
clan culture" to which you refer frequently, without too much real
understanding, and explains the quite powerful social influence that
Irish women continued to exercise despite their ostensible subjection.
No one who has any serious familiarity with Ireland, the Irish
Irish Australians, including Irish Australian women, really believes
that those women were any more repressed than other women, and in fact
they often appeared in a number of significant ways to be more
independent and liberated.
When the Irish national struggle erupted in its most decisive
in the early years of this century in Ireland, women were in the
forefront. Sixty women actually fought in the GPO in the Easter Rising.
Constance Markievicz was a Republican General in the Rising.
So potent and vigorous a political force were women in the
national revolution of 1916 to 1922 that the Cumman Na mBann, the
nationalist women's movement founded by Constance Markievicz was an
absolutely decisive political force. For instance, the fact that the
women's organisation rejected the Treaty by 419 to 63 votes at its
convention on 5th February 1922 was the decisive event that
precipitated Ireland towards the civil war over the Treaty.
It is worth quoting (from Conor Kostick's book Revolution
in Ireland) the following:
The Cumman Na mBann believed that by opposing the Treaty
they had ... "regained for the women of Ireland the rights that
belonged to them under the old Gaelic civilisation [the Brehon laws],
where sex was no bar to citizenship, and where women were free to
devote to the service of their country every talent and capacity with
which they were endowed; which rights were stolen from them under
English rule, but were guaranteed to them in the Republican
Proclamation of Easter week".
Even the sexual repressiveness in the Catholic education
Australia was an exaggerated version of the sexual repressiveness of
the whole of British Australian bourgeois society at that time, and in
fact, Catholics have thrown off that repressiveness in modern times,
both in Ireland and Australia, in some ways more dramatically than
other social groups. If you take the phenomenon of nuns amongst Irish
Catholics, taken as a whole, their social impact, including their
social impact on women, was useful in the context of the times and it
certainly helped improve the status of women, despite traditional
Whiggish Protestant legends about nuns.
Many Catholic women became nuns partly for reasons of
status and recognition, combined with the urge to serve and religious
impulses. History is whole cloth in these matters. Nuns were very
powerful role models, in particular, for working class Catholic girls,
and their educational activities were a major factor in facilitating
the movement of the Irish Catholic population from the very bottom of
society, steadily further upward in employment, education and status.
The notion that nuns contributed to the oppression of women in
Australia in a general way is unmitigated nonsense.
I have come to the firm view that, despite contradictions and
defects, the Irish Catholic contribution to Australian society,
particularly its major contribution to the undermining of imperial
British Protestant upper class Australia, has been generally
progressive. On these grounds alone, I believe the historical aspects
of your new narrative are fundamentally flawed.
I have considerable difficulty with your treatment of the
question in Australian history, the Aboriginal question. You only
seriously refer to Henry Reynolds, for instance, in relation to his
latest book, The whispering in their hearts, out of his whole
body of work, his seven or eight books.
That book discusses, in an appropriate and extremely useful
work of liberal whites, and some evangelical Christians, who attempted
to defend Aboriginal rights in the period of British colonial invasion
and attempted extermination. You use this last Reynolds book as an
implicit argument for softening the historical narrative about
Aboriginal oppression in Australia, and you clearly infer this is
necessary for reconciliation.
Like you, I am concerned about the Aboriginal question, both
Australian history and in immediate day-to-day Australian life. I am
particularly concerned that the conflicts between white Australians and
Aboriginal Australians that stem from this history of oppression be
negotiated in such a way that neither Aboriginal Australians nor
ordinary white Australians are scapegoated, and that we get a civilised
outcome satisfactory for all.
Nevertheless, in this area, I find your approach fatally
join the conservative populist attack on "black armband history". I
regard "black armband history", so-called, particularly in relation to
the Aboriginal question, as a necessary prerequisite to any proper
Australian historiography, and to the development of any viable
political practice in Aboriginal affairs.
Henry Reynolds is my number-one hero in this area. You
dwell on his latest book, the one about the minority of British white
Australians who defended the Aboriginals, but this does not stop you
making a sweeping general attack on the so-called "black armband
history", of which you must know Henry Reynolds has to be the most
senior, prolific and respected practitioner.
Can't you see the element of hypocrisy in your approach to
matter? Henry Reynolds started his work with a detailed and scholarly
celebration of the indigenous Australian resistance to white conquest
in his first couple of books. He continued with an equally scholarly
project of inquiry into the brutal nature of British imperialist
intrusion into Australia, and the attempted destruction of Aboriginal
life and culture, in his next books.
Only after this necessary work had been done did he quite
turn to the question of those civilised white people who had played a
role in the defence of Aboriginal interests. I absolutely support Henry
Reynolds' priorities in relation to these matters. The pious way that
you elevate Reynolds' recent book, inferentially rather than
explicitly, to create a picture that white Australia wasn't really so
bad in relation to the Aboriginal question, infuriates me beyond belief.
You should note that I do not say that ordinary white
now should apologise forever in a maudlin way about these matters, and
I do regard conflicts of interest between ordinary white Australians
and Aboriginal people as real conflicts that have to be negotiated and
resolved, taking into account the interests of all parties.
But, nevertheless, the starting point for this process has to
thorough knowledge of the enormity of the past assault by white British
Australia on Aboriginal culture and interests. To some extent all we
white Australians have to internalise the magniture of that enormity.
From this point of view, "black armband history" is entirely
commendable and the campaign against it, which you implicitly endorse,
is totally reactionary. I particularly refer you to the wonderful
little book of recent journalism in this area by Dick Hall, Black
Miriam Dixson's work on labour history.
As part of this exercise, I have reread Greater Than Lenin
and all of your early journal articles that I could find. This has
jogged my memory of how excited I was when I first read them in the
1960s and the 1970s. I was unsure about the psychoanalytic angle of Greater
Than Lenin but, despite this reservation your early work seemed
useful and important to me then, and it still does.
This was sharpened by a personal interest, obviously, in a lot
of the material because of my Langite father. (Every copy of Greater
that has ever passed through my hands as a bookseller, including my own
copy, has fallen to pieces. Those old university monographs were useful
in their time, but academic book production techniques in those days
was pretty primitive.)
I've just re-read, in particular, your chapter Stubborn
resistance, the Northern NSW miners' lockout of 1929-30" in the Labour
History collection, Strikes, your article Rothbury
in the Labour History collection The Great Depression
and your article on the 1929 timber strike in the May 1963 issue of Historical
Studies, Australia and New Zealand, and I was forcibly struck by
how relevant your analysis in that article is for today's problems in
the labour movement.
While history never repeats itself exactly, your early work in
labour history seems to me to be of considerable enduring importance.
Have you thought of getting NSW University Press to reprint Greater
and your major journal articles, as one volume? Despite the fact that
labour history is currently rather out of fashion, they would still
sell well, as they are of enormous intrinsic interest.
In this context I am reminded of the extract from the essay, Making
History by Manning Clark, which caught the atmosphere of that time
when you started out in labour history. Clark says:
We were all very young. There was Miriam Dixson, who told me
once in the Melbourne Public Library that she sometimes dreamed of how
wonderful it would be to be in Australia when there was a socialist
I think you did yourself a bit of a retrospective injustice at
Gleebooks event when, trying to reinforce your theory about the "new
class" you said that, as a zealous young middle class Stalinist in the
1940s, you would have avoided classifying yourself in class terms if
questioned about your class location, which made you even then an
embryonic member of the "new class". I think your memory is playing
tricks with you a bit and bending somewhat to your new construction.
Even most middle class Stalinists of that era, like any other
of Marxist, would have acknowledged their middle class or upper class
origins readily, and then proclaimed their ideological conversion to
the cause of the working class. I doubt if you were really particularly
different in that respect.
The great leap into high cultural theory
I am rather astounded by the implacably "high theory"
your book. While you attack poststructuralism and postmodernism, your
book is every bit as dense and forbidding as many other pieces of
academic cultural theory that I have encountered.
Your book is at least as dense as, say the magazines Telos
and Arena Journal and more dense than New Left Review,
which is saying an awful lot. I'm not convinced that pure cultural or
psychoanalytic theory tours de force are the most effective way of
addressing current immediate political questions.
They tend to suffer from the problem that I referred to
that they infer opinions on major questions, rather than spelling them
out. I'm conscious, however, that this new piece of work is of great
importance to you personally, and, from your point of view, is the
culmination of a lifetime of inquiry, and I find it very interesting in
After studying it, I'm certain that you and I disagree
these days on a wide range of major questions. I'm fascinated by the
speed with which conservative, populist, right wing journalists have
cottoned on, even, to the idea of your new work, although I doubt
whether some of them have attempted to read you very seriously. Rather,
they tend to seize on your occupation of the theoretical high ground,
so to speak, to give some intellectual reinforcement to their already
These populist, right wing journalists are my real enemies in
current culture wars, and as I write this I have been trying to curb a
tendency in myself to load on to your book my personal reactions to all
their current political diatribes. From my point of view, your
enthusiastic fan, Paul Sheehan, in particular, is the most potent
populist journalist because he is such an effective, although tabloid,
writer. His thoroughly reactionary book got great momentum from the way
he was taken up by the talkback journalists and the tabloid press.
His message, which he obviously believes is similar to yours,
great deal further than any book of serious political or social theory
can possibly get, because of the catchy journalistic way he presents
basically similar material.
One reason I am examining your book critically is because it
obvious to me that you will be used by all these populists as a
substantial authority for their raging right wing agitation. For
instance, I confidently predict that News Weekly, the modest
but fairly widely read magazine of the National Civil Council, will
favourably review your book, and may even promote it in their mail
order book service as part of their implacable and apocalyptic
agitation against all aspects of modernity.
They are quite a significant force still, because they clearly
the ear of the new boss of the Catholic Church in Melbourne, Archbishop
Pell. George Pell is a very intelligent man but, unfortunately, he is a
forceful social conservative, and also, it seems to me, a political
conservative, which is rather sad.
His Grace Archbishop Mannix, who is one of my Australian
heroes, was, in his time, a social conservative, but a political and
economic radical, and often exerted a little gentle ecclesiastical
pressure on Bob Santamaria from the left on political matters.
Unfortunately the leadership of the Catholic church in Melbourne, given
the current chemistry between News Weekly and Archbishop Pell,
is shifting steadily to the right on all fronts, and your book will be
taken up enthusiastically in those circles, even despite your obvious
animosity, historically, to the cultural role of the Irish in Australia.
They even use Bob Menzies as one of their cultural icons these
days, and constantly quote him in News Weekly and their
These days, the conservative News Weekly Catholics in
Melbourne are much less concerned about matters of Irish ethnicity in
Australian history than they are about pushing an ultra-conservative
social agenda. Incidentally, in relation to the current conservative
push for a right wing social agenda, have you been following the
unpleasant witch-hunt of the past week or so by Miranda Devine and
other journalists in the The Telegraph against the Teachers
Federation and the Parents and Citizens Association.
I'm not in favour of the postmodernist tone of some of the
the P&Cs, but all my most powerful instincts drive me to defend
them in general, against this bizarre tabloid witch-hunt.
I can't avoid considering your important book in the context
intellectual developments on the world stage. I am, like you, I
imagine, very glad that the monstrous 20th century phenomenon of
Stalinism has largely been demolished by popular revolt in many
countries, and finally collapsed because of its own internal
contradictions. My own preoccupation is with re-establishing an
authentic socialist practice and theory, taking into account the awful
chaos that those of us who still consider ourselves socialists have
inherited after the necessary overthrow of Stalinism.
I understand that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe (the other
Thomas Wolfe, the better writer) said in the title of his novel, You
Can't Go Home Again.
The new socialist politics and practice that we construct will
obviously not be the same as that of the past, but it must incorporate
all the lessons of past experiences.
In the midst of all this ideological movement and confusion, I
conscious of the dramatic shift to the far right, of some overseas
historians, who, in the past have made major contributions, from the
Marxist point of view, to history and theory. I am thinking, for
instance, of Paul Picone, the editor of the US magazine Telos,
who has become an extreme right-wing populist, and Eugene Genovese, the
important American Marxist historian of the South and slavery, who has
been converted to the most Tridentine conservative right wing version
of the Catholic Church.
In Australia quite a few intellectuals who have been on the
the past have in recent years swung over rather sharply to the right.
I'm thinking of Max Teichmann, who has extraordinary articles
denouncing all forms of "leftism" in about every second issue of News
Weekly; the onetime anarchist and distinguished anthropologist, Ken
Maddock, who now lends his considerable prestige to the Quadrant
project in relation to Aboriginal affairs, etc.
Even some people whose intellectual activity is still in some
respects useful, such as Allan Barcan in education, and Keith
Windschuttle in philosophy, have shifted dramatically to the right in
their general political beliefs. This is a period of sharp and
contradictory political movement in Australian intellectual circles,
which makes a struggle for clarity on big political questions extremely
I'm not implying that your shift is as dramatic as some of the
but, nevertheless, this is inevitably the context, along with the
current local right wing journalistic populism, in which I am looking
at your book.
I don't feel equipped yet, to fully consider all your complex
deeply personalised opinions on the psychoanalytic theory that you
discuss. That's not my strong point. I'm busily dusting off my
Winnicott and Melanie Klein, for a future serious inquiry into these
I've even dug out of my book collection a fairly major
biography of Klein that I bought at a book fair a while back, (Melanie
Klein, Her World and her Work, by Phyllis Grosskurth, 1986) and
it's sitting on my table to be re-read presently.
One of the things I am most concerned about in your book is to
and tease out what its implications are for many current important
political questions. I have not changed all that much in some respects.
I am still an old agitator, and in these culture wars I am concerned to
start a third camp in relation to questions of history, asserting a
populist class-based Australian historiography, which incorporates the
class analysis of Ian Turner, Bob Gollan, Russell Ward and Connell and
Irving, the populist narrative of Manning Clark and Brian Fitzpatrick,
and celebrates all the elements of opposition to the old imperialist
British-Australian ruling class.
I desire to reinforce that kind of historical construct with
everything that comes from the Aboriginal struggle, the Irish Catholic
tradition and each successive wave of migration. I view this kind of
historical narrative as an alternative to the fashionable right-wing
populist historical revisionism and also to the currently more or less
dominant, mind-rotting postmodernism in the historical and social
In these culture wars I'm preoccupied by questions of
multiculturalism and ethnicity as they relate to Australian history. I
have myself developed a view on a lot of these matters that sharply
conflicts with the recent right wing populism of which you are clearly
now a part. As an Australian autodidact, I am unashamedly in favour of
high migration, non-British migration, Asian migration and
Despite all the puffed-up, indignant demagogery of the right
populists about the "new class", I am quite enthusiastic about the
possibility of establishing a day-to-day tactical alliance on these
matters even with such generally politically right wing figures as
Gerard Henderson, Anne Henderson and even Malcolm Fraser. I'm rather
amused by the rage of Katharine Betts against her fellow patrician Tory
Malcolm Fraser, on migration matters.
The primary question in my interrogation of your book is the
implications of it for current political practice. I am alarmed, in
your book, particularly, by this paragraph on page 28:
Enzensberger's "molecular civil war" overlaps with the
unsettling term "slow riot", by which European liberals and
conservatives alike currently refer to signs of what some see as a new
Dark Ages. "Slow riot" betokens unorganised, sporadic but burgeoning
responses to social decay. It represents the exacerbation of the
latter's symptoms by vandalism, looting and virtual street war. We may
see terrorist activity as part of "slow riot". Foregrounding events
such as the resumption of IRA activity in Britain, the Lockerbie and
Atlanta incidents, scholarly studies detect a marked increase in
terrorist activities after about 1970.
Wow. I believe that the capitalist system is in a fairly deep
currently, but my view of it is not as apocalyptic or bleak as this.
What worries me about your view here, through the voice of your chosen
interlocutor, is the thoroughly reactionary implication of much of it.
The very complex question of the family
A very significant dividing point on many political questions
focuses on views and political practices in relation to the family. I
was rather forcibly struck by what seems to me to be a very curious
formulation, on page 133. In discussing Lacan's rather perverse
But for Winnicott, the experience of the mother's face does
not launch the child on a path of basic alienation. Rather, it offers
hope against a future when the child will no longer suffer the anguish
of infantile helplessness. Winnicott's version of the mirror stage
leaves Lacan's looking mechanistic and cold, constructed around the
kind of narrow masculinism which feminists and male-gender theorists
have amply charted: Lacan's chilly mirror stage concerns what is in
fact the warmest encounter humans ever experience.
On balance, I'm much more sympathetic to your view than to
slightly inhuman view, but nevertheless, maybe because I may have been
over-influenced by Wilhelm Reich when I was young in the 1960s, and his
notion of orgiastic potency, I'm a bit cautious about a total emphasis
on the mother-child relationship, which in some readings of human
affairs downgrades or even excludes sexuality.
I would have thought that adult romantic genital sexuality
possibly rate at least equally in the sphere of "warmest human
encounters" between human beings, and even have a certain primacy in
relation to encounters between adults. This apparently pedantic point
has a considerable bearing on the current debates about the family.
The most reactionary people, who wish to push all women back
the home, buttress their attempted counter-revolution by a desexualised
appeal to "family values", which is, in their version, a very
reactionary proposition indeed.
On the other hand, a happily declining group amongst some
and other theorists, talk absolute nonsense about "smashing the family"
as an immediate political objective. In many countries the question of
the family is, indeed, a very pressing and complex immediate political
question. I believe that negotiating in a civilised way the divergent
and sometimes contradictory interests of people in all kinds of family
situations, ranging from the most unusual, untraditional and complex
non-family circumstances, over to the most tightly organised
traditional family arrangements, is one of the primary practical
I don't believe that the family is going to wither away any
soon for the many significant cultural groups for whom it is a defence,
a shelter and a still protective social network. On the other hand, the
many modern humans who no longer live in a traditional family framework
are not going to be forced back into a nuclear family set-up by
reactionary rhetoric, and nor should they be.
The practical question in relation to this matter is the
recognition of the rights and interests of the many varieties of family
and non-family arrangements that now exist. In this kind of immediate
political negotiation, the question of sexuality is really quite
important. Those who have more conservative views on sexuality must not
be coerced by others, but, on the other hand, people who want to
practice a free and uninhibited sexuality, within civilised limits,
should not be coerced either.
The matter of the family is the cockpit of many current
and has to be discussed and treated and acted upon in the most
responsible, tolerant and understanding way. On the face of it, your
book seems to come down far more forcibly on the side of conservative
"family values" than I think is useful to this necessary, civilised
There is a raging, vicious and censorious agitation both in
Australia and the USA, in favour of conservative "family values" being
imposed on people who don't want them. This pogrom against modernity
makes most progressive humans very sensitive to the use of this
reactionary rhetoric, about "family values".
If you don't want to be treated intellectually as a member of
Festival of Light or the Moral Majority, you will have to spell out
exactly what you mean by your very extensive emphasis on the "holding
quality" of the family and overcome your reluctance to explaining what
your general theoretical statements actually mean for current public
The drug question
There is a fierce political debate going on over what action
in relation to addictive and non-addictive drugs, and to the plague of
drug addiction that is affecting many countries, including Australia.
This is another very important question of pressing public policy. For
my part, I support the immediate legalisation of non-addictive drugs
such as marijuana, and I am strongly in favour of treating the vicious
and intractable problem of heroin addiction as a medical rather than a
These are very immediate practical questions. Even the NSW
government has just timidly, but quite deliberately, decided to test
one method of reducing the harm of heroin, initially with the
assistance of the Catholic Sisters of Charity. The Sisters have just
been forced out of this entirely laudable experiment by an edict from
Rome, obviously solicited by the conservative Bishop of Melbourne,
George Pell, who is a member of the Congregation that issued the edict.
Predictably, right wing populists of the press and talkback
hosts have launched a witchhunt against this initiative. A Liberal
politician, Stephen O'Doherty, is, trying to whip up a backwoods revolt
against this initiative, particularly in the perceived Vendee of
country NSW. While all my personal experience, including quite a few
past urban social encounters with heroin and junkies, gives me a
considerable hatred of heroin addiction (although not of the
unfortunate addicts themselves) nevertheless, I support the
government's initiative for supervised injecting rooms very strongly.
I am interested in what you believe the implications of your
are for this kind of immediate political problem. I must press you on
this question to give some sort of fairly specific answer. Your book
remains throughout at the level of theory, and political and social
philosophy. For others to have any real way of judging what your
arguments really mean, it is necessary for you to express their
implications on some matters of immediate public policy, and this vexed
question of drugs and addiction seems to me like an excellent area to
use as some kind of yardstick as to where the thrust of your thinking
is taking you, and whether it's of any use for the rest of us.
I haven't quite exhausted all the questions that I want to
with you, but I will sign off now, more or less for reasons of
exhaustion. I've just heard that you are speaking in a symposium with
Ghassan Hage at the Melbourne Writers Festival. That information
tickles my fancy somewhat. Two or three months ago I wrote a detailed
and careful critique of his latest books, and I've recently seen him
for the first time and witnessed one of his performances.
He is a classic disciple of Pierre Bourdieu. His narrative,
ostensibly opposed to yours, actually agrees with you on your major
point. He, too, thinks there is an Anglo-Celtic core culture ("white
nation") but, in contrast to you, he is against it, as the
self-appointed talking head or literary representative of "non-white".
You and he may have a lot of fun engaging in erudite
"cultural capital", as he also has his own version of the "new class"
theory. He is a pretty hard act to follow, really. He is a short man,
with a pronounced accent, and he is slightly deaf, although he doesn't
wear a hearing aid.
He insists that all questioners hand up their questions in
form, and this gives him a wonderful debating advantage, as he can just
ignore those parts of interventions from the floor that don't suit him,
although he seems to me to hear what he wants to hear.
The combination of all these factors make him a very powerful
theatrical presence. I'd love to be a fly on the wall, or a voice from
the chorus at your Melbourne encounter. (Do you remember how Nick, who
was severely deaf after 20 years at the Morts Dock shipyard, used to
turn off his hearing aid when he was sick of listening to us.)
Hoping that this epistle isn't too personal or overwhelming.
Your one-time colleague, Bob Gould, Bookseller, Newtown.
August 9, 1999
Interrogating Miriam Dixson
I am writing this after distributing Section One at your book
reading at Gleebooks, and participating in the discussion there. I have
read your book once more since then, so this piece represents my
The favourable quotes on the back of your book indicate some
possible developing divisions in Australian intellectual life. It is
praised by Judith Brett, Barry Jones, Peter Carey, Alan Atkinson, David
Williamson and Stuart MacIntyre. None of these people are at all
stupid. They have obviously read your book, despite its forbidding
abstractness and density, and the flattering nature of their comments
suggests that they all approve of some part of your thesis.
Peter Carey's enthusiasm has quite significant literary
implications, as he's quite a talented, fashionable and prize-winning
novelist. It will be very interesting to see what kind of themes might
emerge in his future creative writing from the influence of your
David Williamson has clearly been moving in a similar
you for a while, sadly at the same time as a certain decline in his
previously unerring ability to catch and modulate almost exactly the
right chord in Australian life. Dogs Head Bay is a fairly
dramatic comedown from the optimistic and, in its time, decisive
critical eye for Australian character and circumstances, displayed in Don's
which so strikingly expressed some major changes in Australian national
identity and self-perception in the 1970s. As Williamson has moved over
towards your views, in my opinion his vision has become increasingly
bleak and trivial, and just a little bit inhuman.
The developing counter-revolution in historiography
Stuart MacIntyre's enthusiasm is quite significant in the
historiography. Both MacIntyre and yourself at an earlier, and in my
view more useful, stage in your intellectual development, showed a
considerable interest in such things as the proletarian autodidacts who
founded the British and Australian Communist Parties: MacIntyre in his
wonderful book Proletarian Science and you in Greater Than
Well, since then, you've both become established in academe
views have clearly evolved fairly dramatically away from those you once
held, and your core interests have changed somewhat. I note that in The
Imaginary Australians you refer, with careful reverence, to the
Anglophone, elitist and difficult to access Oxford Companion to
Australian History in which Stuart MacIntyre's editorial hand is
obviously the dominant one.
As Stuart MacIntyre is now the dominant figure in Australian
historiography, his enthusiasm for your construct seems to me to
underline the importance of subjecting it to careful critical scrutiny.
I wish to open a kind of second front against your attempted
reconstruction of Australian history, in favour of a modern critical
populist and Marxist Australian historiography more appropriate to the
Australia in which we now live.
While your book has moved from history into heavy-duty social
theory, I believe its impact in the field of history may be
considerable. I would here introduce a bookseller's digression.
Inquiring around, I hear that your book, Michael Thompson's book, and
Katharine Betts' book are only selling moderately well in those
bookshops that specialise in serious academic titles, and that they
have been outsold in Sydney by a factor of four or five to one, by
Ghassan Hage's oddball postmodernist tour de force, White Nation.
I'd be curious to know whether this is just a Sydney
Hage's book is just as dense as yours and, on the face of it, should
have a smaller audience, although this may be the only argument I know
that actually assists your "new class" rhetoric in a superficial kind
of way. Maybe the several hundred entrenched Sydney academic
postmodernists all buy books (from Gleebooks). The knowledge that
Ghassan Hage's book is a kind of modest bestseller is a bit hard to
absorb and interpret, even for me!
Despite the above piece of eccentric information, I believe
your book and the other two righ-wing populist books I've mentioned are
likely to have greater real influence than Ghassan Hage, as I point out
repeatedly elsewhere, your book and those books will be used by the
journalistic right-wing populists in their quite effective public
Your book splashes into an Australian historiographical pool
very muddy by some past and some recent controversies. For instance,
that old acquaintance of both of us, onetime Maoid and Marxoyant enfant
terrible, Humphrey McQueen, has, looking back on it, an awful lot to
His scattergun historical and literary journalism and his
attempt, with others, to imitate Althusser in the Australian historical
sciences, ultimately gave rise, further down the track, to the
incoherent academic upheaval described by MacIntyre in the Oxford
Companion, as "the debate on class". This dispute was kicked off by
Humphrey's young man's tour de force, A New Britania,
which dismissed the early Australian labour movement so totally and
cavalierly because of its ostensibly backward aspects, and combined
with Bede Nairn's equally one-sided total celebration of those backward
aspects to obscure the outlines of many solid, progressive and
important aspects of the development of the early Australian labour
McQueen's argument was that there was no proletariat in
the 19th century because the existing working class of that time had an
inherently "petty bourgeois" ideology. The more traditional Marxist
labour historians, like Turner, Gollan and Russell Ward, took the view
that, in objective class terms, there was a proletariat in development,
despite the petty bourgeois nature of its ideology.
Turner and company were, in my view, much more correct than
who did not take any cognisance of what Trotsky calls "uneven and
combined development". A very significant aspect of this "uneven and
combined development" in Australian class formation in the 19th century
was the specific role of the Irish Catholic population, with their deep
hatred of British imperialism based on their violated national
sentiments and interests, carried with them into the new country.
While the developing working class in Australia had many
middle-class aspirations, as described by McQueen, a constant
discordant factor sharpening conflict in Australia was the antagonism
of the Irish to British imperialism, which contributed to the
sharpening of the class antagonism between the emerging Australian
working class and the British Australian ruling class.
This process of sharp class and social conflict proceeded
the upward social mobility of many members of the working class,
including the Irish. The evolution of Australian society in the 19th
century, including "the debate on class" can't be understood, and the
"debate" can't be adequately resolved without incorporating an
understanding of the role of the Irish Catholics in Australia in the
framework of combined and uneven development.
I have just been rereading the late Ian Turner's dignified and
intelligent refutation of McQueen in the last edition of his important Industrial
Labor and Politics, and I am struck by how much more sensible he
was on most of the questions in dispute than McQueen.
And again, the recent widespread quite extraordinary, vicious
unintelligent assault on the intellectual achievement and reputation of
Manning Clark almost defies comprehension considering the amazing sweep
of Clark's achievement as a historian.
In terms of Australian intellectual life we badly need someone
the polemical calibre and historical erudition of E.P. Thompson to deal
with a lot of these questions in the sweeping and effective way that
Thompson dealt, in The Poverty of Theory, with the mechanical
materialism presented as Marxism by Althusser.
In my view, the reconstruction of a humanist, radical,
Marxist, populist and Catholic history of Australia is of the greatest
importance. In this sphere you are certainly on to something in your
fairly original notion of the "National Imaginary". There is certainly
scope for a real Australian "Imaginary" in the sphere of history, which
will be, of necessity, something rather more than just the crude
chronicling of the ostensibly simple facts.
Such a history must, of course, be scrupulously factual but,
making too big a concession to the postmodernist notion that all
narratives are equal, nevertheless, the narrative you construct does
depend, to a degree, on your emotional and philosophical, and even
cultural and tribal, starting point.
In that framework, I don't like the Anglophile construction,
for instance, of MacIntyre/s Oxford Companion
at all, and I generally reject the framework into which you try to push
the historical record of what you call the "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
The real task is to construct an Australian history in a somewhat
I started my own project three or four years ago by writing a
journalistic response and amendment to a turgid Anglophone list of the
100 greatest Australians published in the Sydney Morning Herald.
I believe a good start to an Australian radical history would be the
great initiators,who I would classify as Manning Clark, Brian
Fitzpatrick, Russell Ward, Ian Turner, Robin Gollan, Eris O'Brien and
I would then add to that such effective popularisers as
Cannon, Cyril Pearl, J.N. Rawling, James Murtagh, Rupert Lockwood and
Robert Hughes. In recent times humanist and radical and socialist
historians have been working in all kinds of areas of Australian
history quietly and without fuss. Shirley Fitzgerald, Stuart Svensen,
Ross Fitzgerald, Keith Amos, Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, Thomas
Keneally, Grace Karskens and many many others.
The task is to build on the work of the pioneers, and draw all
newer people into a plebian, populist, socialist, Irish Catholic,
indigenous Australian, migrant historiography. This kind of historical
construction will take something from the civilisd aspects that can be
extracted from your "Anglo-eltic core culture" but how can it possibly
be pushed into the framework of a dominant role for your "Anglo-Celtic
core culture"? Why should it be? The dominant parts of that culture
were the culture of our oppressors.
The question of Sydney. Sodom and Gomorrah on the Pacific Rim
Consistent with your developing conservative populism is a
antagonism to Sydney, which you share with Betts and Birrell, and many
other right-wing populists. In conversation after the end of the formal
discussion at Gleebooks, you remarked rather loudly to someone that you
don't like Sydney much and are not keen on coming here.
You note in your book the prickle of uneasiness you sometimes
walking the streets of Sydney, which you associate in that extract with
the Asian appearance of some of the people you see. In your usual
fashion, on page 110, you express your view of Sydney by quoting
someone else, in this case, Colin Friels.
The Australian actor Colin Friels associates his deep unease
about Sydney with its beginnings and with convicts. Sydney, he lamented
in 1996, is "a very greedy, very superficial" city, a city "in deep
shit. There are some startling revelations in Robert Hughes' The
Fatal Shore ... I often feel we inherited the worst things from the
Poor Colin Friels! What looks like a bit of a throwaway remark
been turned by you into a major political statement. You do with this
Friels quote what you do with many of your other quotes. You pick it up
and polish it, so to speak, and use it as a kind of club to drive home
what are clearly your own views, but leaving yourself the escape hatch
that it is only a quotation from someone else.
Apparently Friels has been so traumatised by some burglaries
rather affluent street he lives in, Louisa Road, Birchgrove, that,
along with some other Sydney high fliers who live there, he is
contributing $50 a week to help pay for a private security guard to
police the area.
Anyway, your considerable uneasiness about Sydney brings to
high point some of the issues between us. I am deeply attached to
Sydney. I'm soaked in it. I've lived here all my life. I love the
place, but I'm more aware than most people of the cruelties and
contradictions in Sydney life. A discussion of the nature of Sydney is
one way of exploring the real character of the differences between us.
My bible in relation to cities and urban affairs is the work
Jacobs, the American sociologist. I would refer you, in particular, to
her indispensable book, The Economy of Cities. In Jane Jacobs'
terms, Sydney is in a modest way, one of the classic world cities. For
a start, it is useful to see Sydney in the context of its immediate
Sydney is, in fact, the focus of a broader urban
which, properly understood, includes the Illawarra area, the Southern
Highlands, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast. This
broader Sydney urban region including a significant immediate rural
hinterland, is the financial and governmental hub of Australasia, and
also a major centre of industry. It is Australasia's major world city.
It has a number of specific historical aspects that carry over
its current complex identity. It is the urban region in Australia that
contains the sharpest contradictions, the greatest extremes of wealth
and poverty, the richest capitalists such as Kerry Packer and Lachlan
Murdoch, and the poorest illegal migrants working somewhere in a
It has always had the highest proportion of Catholics in the
population and still does. For the past 40 years, it has had and still
does, a very high proportion of non-British migrants. In more recent
times it has an extremely high proportion of recent Asian migrants,
much much more so than any other part of Australia, and they are,
indeed, a decisive element in the population of inner Sydney.
It also has more Muslims than anywhere else in Australia. It
largest indigenous population of any city in Australia. Sydney has a
very high percentage also of non religious people. It also has the
highest proportion of university graduates (other than Canberra) who,
on one of your bad days, you will classify as all members of the "new
Paradoxically, taken as a whole, this broad urban
region is at the higher end for economic activity of all sorts for
Australasia, and has lower unemployment, despite a more rapid influx of
overseas migration, both legal and illegal, than most other regions in
A further paradox is that, despite greater racial and cultural
diversity than any other part of Australasia, urban or rural, this
region has less overt racism or tension betwen racial and cultural
groups than any other area in Australasia. Try to explain that in terms
of the threatened aspect of the "holding quality" of your "Anglo-Celtic
core culture". In those terms, Sydney is quite inexplicable. I can see
why you don't like the place much.
The class struggle between the ruling class and the rest of
population proceeds in Sydney as it does everywhere else, and in that
struggle I side with the working class and the poor and the oppressed.
But even in that sphere the fact that Sydney is an extremely
prosperous, cosmopolitan, lively, global city — the dominant city of
this sort in Australasia — provides a profound objective basis for the
possibility of working-class struggle and agitation. Anyone who
dislikes Sydney, in my view, displays a lack of any real creative
imagination and has, in a way, abdicated from the complex reality of
modern urban life.
Sydney's Gay Mardi Gras
One interesting feature of contemporary Sydney is the cultural
phenomenon, the Gay Mardi Gras. Sydney is a mainly heterosexual city,
with many communities of new migrants from cultures in which
homosexuality is rather frowned upon. Sydney's gay population is also
pretty large, partly because gay men, in particular, often move to
Sydney to escape from more hostile environments to a city in which they
find greater respect and acceptance, and there are a number of suburbs
with a visible gay element in the population.
Nevertheless, Sydney is still an overwhelmingly heterosexual
Twenty-two years ago some gay activists held a march as a statement of
gay pride and identity. This march has, over the years, grown into an
enormous festival, the Gay Mardi Gras. It has retained the major
aspects of gay cultural identity, but it has also become a gigantic
commercialised public festival, which attracts gay tourists and,
indeed, other tourists, from all over the region, in the warm autumn
months of February and March.
It has become a substantial economic boon to Sydney. The
aspect of it is that the concluding Mardi Gras street parade is now
usually attended by more than half a million people, the overwhelming
majority of whom are heterosexual and are drawn from all the diverse
cultural groups that inhabit Sydney. It has become one of the defining
annual cultural events, much larger, even, than the City to Surf
marathon race, which is pretty big itself.
The Mardi Gras parade can hardly get much bigger, for sheer
reasons. In this Mardi Gras cultural event, a large part of the adult
heterosexual population of Sydney participate in some way, such as
watching it in the streets, and many more watch it on television. This
does not appear to lead to any significant increase in homosexual
Human sexual practices are in fact, defined by much more
complex factors than any festival. Despite the rage of certain relics
of a past age like Fred Nile and others, the Mardi Gras has become a
totally entrenched part of Sydney life and, in a way, that very
cultural phenomenon defines the complex, contradictory place that
Sydney has become. Sydney people, in the same way that they hardly
notice Asian faces in the street, are very little concerned about the
specific sexual practices of their fellow citizens. What is generated
in Sydney, by its very nature, is a constantly emerging practical
day-to-day acceptance of and respect for an immense variety of races,
religions, cultural and sexual minorities.
The notion of the "imaginary". Miriam Dixson's "imaginary"
and Bob Gould's!
Book design, particularly cover design, is improving
these days. The cover of your book is a rather spectacular example of
the modern designer's art, and is richly evocative. You have one of
your Anglo-Celtic core culture representatives peeping out at us
through a kind of natural porthole in an exotic rock formation in some
arid part of Central Australia. A very powerful image indeed, and quite
in keeping with the construction of your book.
I find your notion of the "imaginary" in relation to national
identity and cultural development a useful, rather exciting, idea,
despite my sharp disagreements with you in other spheres. The only
problem is that I have a radically different notion to you, of what
this real "imaginary" in Australian national identity is, and what are
its future cultural possibilities.
I also have some sympathy with your celebration of the "local"
opposed to the difficult to comprehend "global". As your development of
this notion in the book is mainly theoretical, I try to imagine what
our alternative ideas might mean for further developments of the
"cultural imaginary". One very major concrete example you give in the
book is the celebration of Anzac as a major point of departure for this
I've already outlined my view of the cultural significance of
Day and wars, and my notion of the cultural expressions that might come
from that — stories, novels, pieces of historical writing, films, etc —
stem from this understanding. In my reading of the "imaginary", as
creative Australians work on all the wars of Australia's past, the
films made in the future are more likely to be like the wonderful old
antiwar film Paths of Glory than some heroic celebration of the
"glory" of wars. For instance, I would like to see a film of Eric
Wilmott's Pemulwuy, recounting the first Aboriginal war against
I would like to see a fiction film of the First World War
my father's and Charlie Mance's memories, rather than some unreal
pseudo-heroic "epic". I would like to see a film about the Malayan
Harriers escaping back to Australia. That would be quite a movie, with
plenty of excitement and wonderful locations. I'd like to see a stark
film about the Aussie pilots in Europe, without the phoney histrionics
of Twelve O'Clock High. I would like to see a film based on the
Battle of Long Tan, seen from the Australian and the Vietnamese sides
at the same time, with perhaps a postscript of a meeting between Terry
Burstall and a Viet Cong leader. I would like to see an ambitious, say,
four-part television series about the conscription battle in Australia
during the First World War, with his Eminence Archbishop Mannix as the
hero. I would like to see a warts-and-all movie of Lambert's novel, The
Twenty Thousand Thieves.
I would like to see a couple of reconstructed history docos on such
subjects as the battle between Curtin and Churchill over the withdrawel
of Australian troops from the Middle East for the defence of Australia,
and another one, say, on the public lying, and the behind-the-scenes
manoeuvering between the US and Australian governments to drag
Australian troops into the Vietnam conflict, and the consequences.
As you can see, in relation to Anzac Day and wars, my
"national imaginary" and yours are likely to be dramatically different.
I would like to know what kind of films you would suggest in this area
of Anzac and wars, which you believe is so central to our national
There have already been some artistic attempts at coming to
with the Vietnam War. I'm thinking particularly of the Kennedy Miller
television drama and of the rather elegant book Vietnam,produced
a few years ago by Weldon Syme, which listed the names of the 500
Australians killed in Vietnam, and of those who fought there.
In the case of both the television drama and the book, the
made a serious effort to give proper coverage and do justice to all
involved: the Australian soldiers, the Viet Cong guerillas, the
protesters at home and the Vietnamese who came to Australia as refugees.
Handled artistically and tastefully, in these cases, these
productions and works of television art proved extremely popular. The
point is, however, that they were widely accepted because they covered
all the issues and points of view involved, rather than adopting some
mad "British-Australia" ultra-"patriotic" standpoint. Any cultural
production about the Vietnam War from a celebratory, jingoistic
"British-Australia" angle would be accepted by very few people, and not
even understood or comprehended by most, so decisively has the real
course of events in Vietnam become part of the assumed historical
fabric of Australian life.
This cultural situation in regard to the Vietnam War is not
product of any "new class" domination of the creative arts, but of the
real history of the war and Australia and Vietnam's involvement in it.
Not much joy there for any "integration project".
I think my Australian "national imaginary" in relation to
and wars will, over time, prove to be the source of much more
creativity in the Australia of the 21st century, in part because those
people you misname the "new class" and sinister cosmo-multicultural
backward-looking Celtic types like myself are in fact rather well
entrenched in the production level of cultural activity.
More importantly, however, our views are likely to dominate
future "national imaginary" in relation to past wars, because we have
by far the better stories, the ones that are more securely grounded in
an honest narrative of real life and history about Australia's
involvement in those wars.
The Australian "national imaginary" and the visual arts
I'm no particular expert on the visual arts, but I have a
layman's working knowledge, and some interest. I've looked at some
pictures and exhibitions, and I've read a few of the basic books on
Australian and world art.
The visual arts interest me a bit and I have some opinions on
I imagine that a thing we possibly have in common is that neither of us
are overly excited by the post-post-postmodernism that is currently so
dominant in the world of high art. I tend to agree with the sceptical
and critical outlook on modern art expressed by people such as Robert
Hughes and Tom Wolfe, and also, from other angles, by Peter Fuller and
My greatest personal artistic interest and taste lies with the
traditional Australian modernism. It seems to me, from my knowledge of
Australian art and art history, that your notion of the "flat
imaginary" collapses completely in relation to the visual arts in
Australia. It would be more reasonable, in relation to Australian art
to talk of a "lumpy imaginary" or a "chunky imaginary" or even a
The Australian visual arts are really anything but flat. I
commend to you a series of major works. Robert Hughes' book on
Australian art, Humphrey McQueen's The Black Swan of Trespass
and the major works of Bernard Smith. Some Australian painters in the
19th century were a bit on the bland side, but these 19th century
painters had an enormous and influential interaction with the landscape.
The most striking feature of Australian art in the 20th
been a powerful and diverse collection of artists and cartoonists who
express various aspects of modernism in an extraordinary and
distinctive Australian way. I'd mention Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale,
Noel Counihan, Albert Tucker, Danila Vassilief, Ivor Hele, Kenneth
Macqueen, Colin Colohan, Elioth Gruner, Margaret Preston, Arthur Boyd,
William Dobell, Joy Hester, John Perceval, Ian Fairweather, John
Olssen, John Brack, Albert Namitjara, George Finey, Michael Leunig,
Bruce Petty, Stanislav Rapotec, Nancy Borlase, Fred Cress, Keith Looby
and many others.
These Australian visual artists of enormous interpretive power
relation to Australian landscape and Australian life violate any easy
incorporation into a self-satisfied "integration project" because they
have such a harsh and critical eye for the idiosyncrasies and cruelties
of Australian life and also for the pretensions and power of the ruling
There can be no doubt about their effective and significant
interpretation of Australian life and yet they don't fit at all into
any idea of celebrating in a bland way your "Anglo-Celtic core
culture". Australian modernism was and is lumpy, chunky and vertical —
anything but flat.
Even a politically conservative artist like Norman Lindsay
help your project at all. His wonderful sexy, baroque, witty females
and his rampant fantasised phallic males, which captured the
imagination of civilised Australians beginning to throw off
British-Australian puritanism at the start of the 20th century, hardly
fit any notion of "family values", and they scandalised bourgeois
Australia no end.
Even his expressions of mad-dog patriotism during the First
War aren't much use to you either, because his cartoons of the
"Monstrous Boche" are so bizarre that to any civilised modern eye they
appear like lunatic caricatures of the British-Australian chauvinism
that they expressed and for which they were so seriously intended.
It is worth noting that puritanical Calvinist Protestant
Australia spent an inordinate amount of time trying to censor the
visual arts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So much for the "core
To get a flavour of what I mean you should have a good look at
Charles Merewether's catalogue-book Art and Social Commitment. An
end to the City of Dreams 1931-1948.
This wonderful catalogue and interpretation of a major exhibition of
Australian modernism and social realism, gathered from around Australia
in the 1980s, is a powerful expression of what I mean.
Another, similar object is the catalogue-book of the recent
exhibition about the Vietnam War, ex-servicemen, protest and Vietnamese
in Australia, held a couple of years ago at the Casula Power House
Both these important catalogues give some idea of the complex
contradictory and exciting nature of traditional Australian modernism
in the visual arts. The real high points of Australian art as a serious
exercise in interpreting Australia, as expressed in all the artistic
developments I've discussed above, have contributed greatly to the
modern Australian national identity, but fit far more into my
Australian "national imaginary" of the underclasses arising to
influence cultural identity and in that process liberating and
incorporating those cultural elements that can be drawn from the more
civilised among the ruling classes.
The Australian visual arts, by any reasonable view or reading,
in any way assist your banal "integrating project" carried out to
celebrate the civilising mission of your artificially reconstructed
Obviously the visual arts in Australia are marking time right
as they are overseas, with the temporary dominance of all the rather
odd aspects of the post-post-postmodernism that currently swamps the
art universe. Personally, I believe this will prove to be a fairly
temporary phenomenon, mainly because of the problem of the vanishing
audience for much of the post-post-postmodern art that is temporarily
When the current miasma is dissipated, and the visual arts
re-emerge it seems very likely to me that, while in art as in every
other sphere of cultural life things never repeat themselves totally,
the past robust Australian modernism and realism will continue to
exercise a powerful influence on future painting and photography, as
expressions of the "national imaginary".
The Australian "national imaginary" in literature, film and
The "national imaginary" is something about which I know a
professionally as a bookseller for 30 years, as a consumer of books and
movies, and like quite a few other adult human beings, as a bit of a
frustrated writer with a number of long-cherished ideas in the back of
my head for novels, scripts and movies.
For my first book, I had the intention of putting in a little
sub-chapter on books I'd like to write and even mention a couple of
works in progress. I will introduce those ideas here, as part of a
discussion of the "national imaginary".
As a bookseller, I've been struck for many years by the
durability of the Vivian Stuart novels about pioneer Australia. They
are always in demand. They have a slightly romanticised version of the
struggle of people, from convict days on, to make a life for themselves
in Australia. They incorporate an element of opposition to injustice
and authority, which is part of their charm, and the main reason why
they are so popular.
I am a bit of a fan also of the James Michener, Leon Uris, Sarum
type of "layered novel" from overseas. These epics are not too highly
regarded in the high culture, but they sell and sell and sell because
they present the lives and struggle of many generations of people in
different countries, locations and environments, to make a life for
themselves. They also usually incorporate great chunks of humanism and
opposition to authority and eventual defeat of aristocratic elements
dominating different societies.
I have quite a number of notions for Michener/Uris type
novels that might be written about various aspects of the Australian
experience. All my layered novel ideas start with the original
inhabitants getting here in canoes or on rafts across the Wallace Line
60,000 years ago and the development of Australasian indigenous culture
up to white invasion. They then go on to describe convictism and all
the struggles of the oppressed in Australia at every stage of the
country's development, full of characters drawn from those experiences.
When they get to modern Australia, they incorporate all the upheavals
of the period, and they also include the experiences of all the new
waves of migration to these shores. I can construct easily the plots of
three or four novels like this, drawn from my reading of Australian
history, and from the personal histories of people in my family, and
the families of others I know, as well as from the lives of significant
The problem is that, in almost all my literary imaginary,
drawn from Imperial British Australia tend to be cast in the worst
roles, although a few can be cast in good roles. Within the framework
of my very reasonable national imaginary, such plots emerge without
artificially forcing the material at all.
It is worth noting in this context that in recent times, for
instance, almost all television epics or docos, or even Australian
films that have achieved popular success, have been very much within
the framework of my "national imaginary". In this framework, I'd refer
you to Ride on Stranger and Power Without Glory, a few
years ago The Dismissal, Scales of Justice, Brides
of Christ, various movies about Ned Kelly and the Eureka Stockade,
The all-time best-selling novel of Australian life is Power
Without Glory. What a wonderful Power Without Glory could
be written about Sydney life of the last 20 years or so.
I won't go too much further about the multitude of ideas for
creative projects that flow from my version of the national imaginary.
I don't want to give away too many of my plots before I experiment with
them a bit myself, but if you're a bit imaginative you can extrapolate
them from my reading of Australian history.
The books already written about Australian experience that
me, and in my view express best Australian history and experience,
don't fit too well with your "national imaginary". My favourite books
and writers about Australia include Power Without Glory and The
Dead Are Many by Frank Hardy; Ride on Stranger and Foveaux
by Kylie Tennant, as well as her wonderful autobiography, The
Missing Heir; Jonah by Louis Stone; Capricornia by
Xavier Herbert; Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Barnard Eldershaw; I'm
Dying Laughing by Christina Stead; Bobbin Up by Dorothy
Hewett and Wild Card, her autobiography.
Another major source of extraordinary anecdote about
history, political life and the labour movement, and the many crimes
and curious activities of the ruling class, are J.T. Lang's two books
of ostensible autobiography, I Remember and The Great Bust,
republished by McNamara Books in 1980. These two books, actually mostly
ghost-written by Harold McCauley, one of Lang's henchmen (who happened
to be a journalist by trade), are an extraordinary source of material
for anyone wishing to write novels or make films about Australia in the
early 20th century.
It's when I try to imagine what your version of the
national imaginary might mean for you in terms of possible creative
projects for cultural producers that I have some difficulty. Maybe it's
a failure of my imagination, but I can't really think of too many
stories that give a celebratory middle class Australian "Anglo-Celtic"
angle to cultural production that would capture anyone's imagination.
I can think of two or three, but they tend, in fact, to verge
caricature and I can't think of much beyond the two or three that
spring to mind. One could write a biopic about the compulsive and
neurotic inner life of Alfred Deakin, the founder of the Commonwealth,
one of the architects of White Australia, who was, in his internal
psychic existence, a red-hot table-rapping spiritualist, but any
serious attempt to treat his public and private life as a movie or
literature would verge so closely on the bizarre as to be almost
Obvious possibilities for films would be the life of Henry
rags to riches, buccaneering, humbug, hypocrisy and opportunism. A good
story, but again, hard to write in any way celebratory of the
"Anglo-Celtic core culture". One of my favourite books of Australian
history has always been Cyril Pearl's Wild Men of Sydney.
That book is crawling with stories of Anglo-Celtic Australia,
stories more easily told by opponents of British imperialism than
celebrators of the "Anglo-Celtic core culture". Another of my favourite
books has been The Land Boomers by Michael Cannon and his other
books about the opening up of Victoria.
Once again, these books teem with stories of Anglo cultural
hegemony, expansion and piracy, but stories more easily told by its
opponents. What major, moving and important novels and feature films
could be developed from the agonising Aboriginal experience of the
stolen children? What a bleak and black novel or feature film could be
built around the life of the extraordinary fantasist, Daisy Bates, who
invented the unpleasant urban myth about Aboriginal women eating
babies, and whose allegedly philanthropic preoccupation with the
so-called "passing of the Aborigines" dominated public attitudes to the
Aboriginal question for so long.
You could possibly have an "epic" about the massacre of the
Kalkadoons by the butcher Kennedy and the repellant Urquhart. You might
have a "celebration" of Urquhart's barbaric Native Police. You might
have a celebratory "epic" about the clearing of Tasmania of its
Aboriginal "vermin" by the "brave settlers", but I doubt whether such
epics would be at all popular with a civilized modern audience.
I can also think of movies based on the life of Samuel
W.C. Wentworth, or T.J. Ley, but as I reel them off they all end up
slotting far more easily into my national imaginary, rather than yours.
This is because the subjects were such self-righteous, self-serving,
hypocritical imperialist personalities, and films about them would
either be black comedy or bleak tragedy.
I would be genuinely interested if you would try to think of
literary, cinematic, television or cultural projects that might fit
your notion of celebrating the heroic role of the "Anglo-Celtic core
culture" in a way that you would consider appropriate. I feel that an
encounter between your notion of the possibilities of the Australian
national imaginary for creative endeavour, and mine, might be of some
As I've been getting into my stride on this topic, I've been
considering why I feel so strongly about it. I can't think of any
historians, either academic or popular, even conservative ones like
your friend Atkinson, who manage to tell the historical story, even if
they approve of the civilising role of "Anglo-British" Australia,
without this telling necessarily including factual events that can only
be described in an unflattering way to the ruling class.
As an example, there have been three or four very successful
popularisers of Australian history: Bill Beatty, Keith Dunstan, Ion
Idriess and William Joy. These men have produced many books of
historical anecdotes, all of which mix stories of survival and
achievement with stories of pain, tragedy and conflict. Taken as a
whole, however, when you read their books, you get a picture of a
brutal, class-divided, although optimistic and expanding society.
It's because of the very texture of Australian history that I
such an advantage over you in relation to the creative imaginary. For
any modern sensibility it's far more stimulating and exciting to
recount the stories of struggle and survival than to try to celebrate
the complacencies or "holding quality" of a very brutal colonial ruling
class, or what was in reality a very feeble colonial middle class.
The very fabric of Australian history works against your
particularly in the sphere of the "national imaginary". The negative
attitude of modern Australian intellectuals towards "Anglo-Celtic
British" Australia, as you describe it, is in fact based on a realistic
overview of Australian history, rather than on your eccentric
construction about their having some so-called "new class" prejudice.
When I think about Idriess, Joy, Dunstan and Beatty, I can
some stories that you and I might have in common, but I can imagine
many more stories that I would enjoy and celebrate and have fun with,
but they are not stories that would excite you as giving a positive
view of the "core holding quality" of "Anglo-Celtic British" Australia.
A basic summary of the arguments advanced by Miriam Dixson in
The Imaginary Australian
The first three chapters are: Australia and Identity, The
Nation: Elite Plot? Intellectual Invention? Demotic Insurance? and Civil
Society and the Nation.
Your essential argument here is that the Australian nation has what you
describe as an "Anglo-Celtic core culture" and that Australia developed
as an extension, a "fragmented" piece of British civilisation.
You make a point of "ethnic unity" being one of the main
your concept of the nation. In this context you explicitly give the
English the dominant role in this ethnic unity, which you claim has
developed in the "Anglo-Celtic core culture" over the Irish, which you
regard as backward-looking and troublesome. You attack the "negativity"
of a variety of historians and Australian intellectuals displayed at
various times towards this "Anglo-Celtic core culture". You develop the
idea of your "integration project", which involves exorcising all the
negativity and bitterness stemming from the Irish and the convicts, and
psychically reorganising the Australian historical record into a
version that satisfies you, in which, implicitly, the British ruling
class in colonial Australia was the primary civilising influence.
In the course of this "integration project" you explore and
celebrate English and British nationalism applied to Australia. You
further argue that ethnic diversity, unless subserving itself (in
reality assimilating, although you don't use that word) to this
English-dominated "Anglo-Celtic core culture" is negative for the
development of an appropriate Australian national identity.
You assert that "ordinary Australians" feel uneasy about
diversity, and that the "new class" of intellectuals, which you
introduce at this stage, are the main source of negativity towards the
"Anglo-Celtic core culture". You buttress this argument with a
psychoanalytic theoretical construct in which you place the main
emphasis on the "holding" aspect and civilising function of the family,
as understood through the works of Erik Erikson, David Winnicott and
The next three chapters are: Australian Identity
Interrogated, The Imaginary: Forgetting and Remembering, The
Nation and the Imaginary, and you have a conclusion: Understanding
In this section you launch an attack on intellectuals and
who engage in what right-wing populist journalists call "black armband
history", although you present this attack more elegantly as
"interrogation". You register your opposition to historians who you
allege overdo the bleakness and cruelty of the convict experience in
historical and cultural analysis.
You criticise what you imply is the overstatement of British
Australia's barbarism towards Aboriginal Australia. You say that, after
all, British Australia wasn't so bad compared with other countries, and
you take as your point of departure the need to celebrate, in relation
to the Aboriginal question, mainly the role of those civilised "British
Australians" who defended the Aboriginals.
You say this is necessary to reconciliation. You launch an
on the "negativity" of the Irish towards British-Australian patriotism,
taking off from the attack you made on the Irish in relation to women
in The Real Matilda. This point of view is particularly clearly
spelt out in the chapter, The Imaginary,
in which you make an extraordinary and tendentious connection between
the brutality of convict Australia and racism perpetrated on the
Aborigines. In your construction here, clearly the "brutal convicts"
are the bad guys, including the "brutal Irish convicts", and the clear
implication is that only the gentle restraining hand of the "civilised"
British upper and middle class prevented worse atrocities against the
Aborigines, which in any case you say weren't as bad as in other
In the conclusion, you wax eloquent about the alleged "new
intellectuals being the main modern source of all these negativities,
which are hurting and damaging what is to you the essential "holding"
role of the "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
You introduce the twin notions of the "weak identity" thesis
"flat imaginary". In both notions, you indict the "new class"
intelligentsia for allegedly claiming that Australia has a weak
identity, and for not having a rich enough creative imagination about
your Australian "national imaginary". You wax lyrical about the
"imaginary" in relation to national identity and cultural development,
by which you clearly mean national myths, beliefs, books and films,
religious beliefs and practices and other cultural expressions of
national identity. In this context you make a substantial point about
the importance of the "local" compared with the "global" in matters of
the Australian "national imaginary" and cultural identity.
In my view, three short extracts sum up the whole ethos of
your book. From page 3 (Introduction):
There is no evading either the role of the Anglo-Celtic core or of the
ethnic issues it raises.
Historically, the nation as a worldwide phenomenon (chapter 2 explores
this) was in part the result of an effort to accommodate the passions
of ethnicity. Fortunately, Australia is one of the clearer cases where,
though often dismissed as irrelevant, an old, complex ethnic model — in
our case, the Anglo-Celtic core culture — can still continue to sustain
social coherence over transitional years.
And again, on page 63:
While now richly diverse in ethnic terms, "fragment" societies
such as the USA, Canada or Australia took shape around a core culture
formed by Western European settlers and, in Australia, by British
settlers. In our case, among the latter, the role of the English was
paramount. Civil society is foundational to the Western nation as such
and achieved its earliest and strongest form in England, as
Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx and, most recently, Habermas have testified.
You conclude your book with this extraordinarily dense and
As that synthesis embraces the imaginary areas of identity,
currently polarised attitudes will become more flexible and
encompassing. The synthesis will link what is sound in the "weak
identity" and "flat" imaginary cases with issues of history (among
them, convicts, race, gender, class, frontier). It will thus offer
insight beyond the imperatives of new-class agendas, into why we are
unable to authentically valorise what must remain, and to mourn what
must pass, of the old core identity, the old Australia. We will thereby
become less reluctant to let the old identity do its essential work, to
go on playing the cohesive role it has discharged since 1788. And so
become more able to play its part in building a 21st-century Australia
that is as securely viable as it is richly diverse.
A summary of Bob Gould's objections to and criticism of
Miriam Dixson's reconstruction of Australian history
Firstly, your basic reconstruction of Australian history is
inaccurate and flawed. There was never an "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
Rather, from day one of British invasion there was a sharp conflict
between the ruling class of British colonial Australia on the one hand
and indigenous Australians, the convicts, the Irish Catholics and the
working class, on the other.
The arrogant and powerful racist British upper class of
Australia were the natural enemies of all the other groups, including
the developing secular working class of British origin. As an
Australian national identity developed, that conflict was at the core
of the development of this Australian identity.
This conflict between the diverse underclass of colonial
of whom the Irish Australians and indigenous Australians were at the
cutting edge, and the British ruling class, was far sharper and more
brutal than can possibly be encompassed in your notion of the "holding
quality" of the "Anglo-Celtic core culture".
The whole of Australian history in the 19th century is
the developing conflict between the two nations of Australasia. In
particular, your ingenious construction in which the barbarous convicts
are the main murderers of Aboriginal Australia, is a vicious caricature
of the actual reality.
The British ruling class influence, expressed through the
Office, the military machine, the British banks, the squattocracy and
the Protestant churches, was rabidly racist, and conquistadorial at its
very core, in relation to indigenous peoples, the Irish, the convicts,
the Chinese, the Kanaks and the emerging Australasian working class.
The negativity you discern among the current civilised
intelligentsia towards the "core holding quality" of British Australian
culture is based on the actual and rather obvious realities of 19th
century Australian history, not on the "badges of identity" of any "new
class". "Black armband history", as you conservative populists call it,
is actually an objective and accurate account of past Australian
Your use of complex psychological constructions is tendentious
the extreme. You attribute the rebellious and angry psychology of Irish
Australians to some inherent Celtic mental weakness, which can be
solved by appropriate family-centred Klienian psychoanalysis,
overcoming a split that you discern in the Celtic psyche. These
psychological constructions seem to me to be contrived, implicitly
It is much more reasonable to ascribe the cynicism, anger and
rebellion of displaced Irish peasants to their tangible and obvious
grievances than to some elaborate psychological reconstruction, in
which you attribute the central role to British culture, civilising
these "psychically warped Celtic barbarians".
Your fast and loose psychological assault on my Celtic
angers me quite a bit, and is no use at all to any version of the
"national imaginary" that would appeal to anyone except the small
minority who identify with the British-Australian ruling class of the
Your use of the "new class" theory is consistent with your
sententious use of retrospective psychiatry. The "new class" thesis is
a totally unscientific right-wing political construct that can't be
taken at all seriously as political sociology. When one examines the so
called "new class" in detail, it breaks down into a variety of
different groups, if you use any method of objective class analysis
based on the means of production or of income distribution.
Like other conservative users of the "new class" thesis, you
attempt to explain who the "new class" are in any comprehensive way.
You just move promiscuously between "objective" hints and psychological
descriptions as it suits your argument. Like others who use this
construct, its essential function in your narrative is to arbitrarily
stigmatise such intellectuals as dare to disagree with you, and to
indict them for disagreeing with "ordinary Australians", who you
appropriate to your argument equally arbitrarily (incidentally, without
their consent or even knowledge).
The three paragraphs that I quote at the end of my summary of
views encapsulate the whole ethos of your book. At its very heart, your
book is an elegant celebration of the brutal ethnocentric English
racism of the British ruling class in their conquest of Australia and
their conflict with all the lower orders in colonial Australia.
Your "integration project" is essentially the same kind of
"integration project" as the similar projects of John Howard and
Geoffrey Blainey, both of whom you only mention once, to throw in a
disclaimer that your project is not the same as theirs. But it is
obviously similar, with bells on.
A curious idiosyncracy is that the reference to John Howard,
not make it into the index, although Geoffrey Blainey does. Maybe you
were a bit shamefaced about Howard.
At every stage in the book you throw in softening disclaimers,
the whole thrust of your argument is towards your celebration of the
British Australian ruling class, and the disclaimers seem to me to be
meant to soften the impact of this basic thrust for more tender-minded
leftist or liberal readers. Your deliberate and considered emphasis on
English ethnicity and the importance of ethnic nationalism makes this
all quite clear.
The whole of this elaborate intellectual construction has a
and immediate political purpose. Although you rather insouciantly try
to insist that no immediate conclusions can be drawn from your book, it
seems to me that your intention is to construct an imposing
intellectual edifice from which journalistic conservative populists can
draw in their day-to-day agitation against high migration, for a more
restrictive range of migration, against multiculturalism, against
"black armband history" and against the cosmopolitan "new class" of
unbelievers and Irish Catholics who are perceived by them to be the
source of these "anti-national" trends.
I find particularly irritating this stance of majestic
construction, which you place at one remove from the day-to-day hurly
burly, but which you may well intend to be used for more pedestrian
purposes of a rather atavistic sort.
There is no question that your book is of considerable
significance. There are quite clearly some currents among Australian
intellectuals with whom your construction will strike a chord and give
them intellectual ammunition for a mood that they already feel.
There are quite a few people of Anglo background who in some
wish to celebrate their cultural heritage as they understand it and
feel that it has been neglected or slighted. The most extreme recent
example of this phenomenon is Stuart Macintyre's new putative history
text book, A Concise History of Australia, in which he
virtually abolishes the Irish Catholics and all religious conflict from
This fairly human response is a rather complex question,
is often associated with a celebration of things which, to other
Australians, for instance, Irish Australians like me, Chinese
Australians, indigenous Australians, etc, are deeply offensive, and as
I like to remind people like you, we are now the majority, and you
should pay proper respect to our sensibilities. Alongside this normal
human response by some Anglo-Australians, is a powerful politically
conservative backlash from right-wingers who wish to use the
celebration of "British Australia" as part of a major political
offensive to roll back many political changes to which they are opposed.
Associated with this conservative backlash is what I might
Janissary phenomenon. The Janissaries were the warrior and
administrative caste of the Ottoman Empire, forcibly recruited in
childhood from the children of the Christian underclasses, who became
fanatical Muslims as part of their rite of passage into the ruling
class of the Empire. Two rather exotic examples of the Janissary
phenomenon are Padraigh Pearce McGuinness and Bill Hayden.
McGuiness, Sydney's foremost journalistic conservative who now
such enormous concern for the proper upkeep of the War Memorial in
Balmain, acquired his piquantly exotic Christian names from fiercely
Irish nationalist and labourist parents. Hayden, who now favours zero
net immigration, with the consequent ruthless exclusion of illegal
migrants, and wants to keep Her Majesty the Queen, is the son of an
American member of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) who jumped
ship in Australia and settled here as an illegal immigrant.
Why the Miriam Dixson, Paul Sheehan, Geoffrey Blainey point
of view won't win in modern Australian society
Your point of view on all the above matters strikes a chord
many more conservative Australians of Anglo origins, particularly in
some rural areas and provincial cities, where recent migration has not
had as much impact as in the major cities. Nevertheless, the chance of
your point of view becoming predominant is not very great despite the
vocal support for it in some sections of the tabloid press and on
The demographics of modern Australia are working spectacularly
against your point of view. Despite optimistic Anglo ethnic prognoses
by Doug Cocks (a vehement opponent of large-scale further immigration)
in the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Weekend of January
1, 2000, raw demographics are changing Australia irreversibly, even as
we write. In The Good Weekend
Doug Cocks asserts that in the year 2025 Anglo Celts will still be more
than 60 per cent of the Australian ethnic gene pool. Well, he is
optimistic even there, and he merges the Irish Catholics with the
Anglos, which is a mystification, for these purposes.
This kind of eugenic analysis obviously ignores the
rapid rate of intermarriage between groups. Any serious investigations
of the demographics will show that even if the English and Scots are 40
per cent of the gene pool by about 2025, which is at the extreme top
end by my reading of the statistics, the present extraordinary rate of
intermarriage between groups in Australia will produce a situation
where at least half that group will be married to members of some other
In addition to this, more recent migrants, including the more
migrants who marry Anglo-Australians, tend to have a higher birth rate
than longer established Anglo-Australians. The indefatigable Charles
Price, and his redoubtable computer, have kept pace with this
development up to a point. An article published by Price today (January
7, 2000) in People and Place reported in many newspapers, gives
Price's latest breakdown of current and future ethnic statistics.
By Price's standard benchmark of ethnic origins, 30 per cent
Australian ethnicity is now non-"Anglo-Celtic" and, if you allow for
about 20 per cent of the 70 per cent being of Irish origin, by Price's
criteria, British and Scottish origin is now only about 50 per cent.
Price is a scrupulous and careful demographer, and his
estimates have to be taken seriously. He has a distinct mindset, which
is to overstate a bit the weight of the Anglo-Celtic element, and his
research technique of precise ethnic proportionalism, which he uses
constantly in his analysis, tends to reinforce an overstatement of the
weight of Anglo ethnicity in Australian society.
For instance, in discussing the Aboriginal population, he says
real ethnic Aboriginal contribution is only about half the numerical
number of people who identify themselves as Aboriginal in the census.
His estimates in these things are probably about the best available,
but the point of course about people identifying as Aboriginal is that
that is what they do. They, and society at large, both tend to identify
mixed-race Aboriginal Australians as Aboriginal.
Much the same thing applies in every case where physical
is obvious, such as Melanesian people, Asians, etc. Mixed-origin people
tend to be identified with immigrant communities. Pretty much the same
applied in the 19th century to the Irish Catholics, despite there being
no great obvious physical difference between them and the English. The
children of mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants often
identified with the rebellious underdog Irish Catholic side of
In his new study, Price very properly draws attention to the
demographic importance of ethnic mixing in Australia now and for the
future, but in my view he tends to underestimate the enormous speed
with which this ethnic mixing undermines the grip of what you call the
"Anglo-Celtic core culture".
On page 7 of the Daily Telegraph of January 3, 2000,
a photo of the first four happy "millenium mums" and their new babies.
The first mother is a Chinese Australian, the second is a Jewish
Australian, the third is a Polynesian Australian and the fourth is an
Anglo-Australian. Given the racist history of the dominance of the
"Anglo-Celtic core culture" and despite the desperate attempt of the
tabloid media to persuade us all to be "good Anglo-Australians",
nevertheless, the inevitable trend is that intermarriage produces
people who no longer mainly identify culturally with the so called
"Anglo-Celtic core culture", mainly because of the long history of
racism by that culture towards them and their relative exclusion from
it. The raw demographic realities of developing Australian society make
your polemic in defence of the "Anglo=Celtic core culture" a desperate
cry from the past.
The Gleebooks discussion
The discussion on your book at Gleebooks was of considerable
interest. For a start, the stubborn and obviously internalised way you
belted out the "new class" theory that is, in fact, so tendentious,
underlined your obvious and pronounced conversion to the new
I am saddened by the fact that someone who was once my
comrade, even despite the fact that we may not have liked each other
that much, has passed over in the firmest possible way into a very
conservative camp. That's life and politics, but nevertheless, the
The very animation with which you particularly attacked the
class" people who, you assert, present themselves as advocates of the
oppressed, underlined to me the degree to which you have become
entrenched in the conservative camp. That sort of rhetoric is the
hallmark of most Australian intellectual conservatives. You sounded
just like Paddy McGuiness and Quadrant on these matters.
Even more fascinating was your determined refusal to express a
of view on the republic debate when questioned from several angles how
you would vote on a republic. The republic is hardly the question of
all questions, but anyone who refuses to express a point of view on it
is usually against the republic.
Witness the extraordinary current spectacle of many
ultra-conservative monarchists trying to save the Queen by rhetoric
about "direct election". One of your questioners on the republic topic,
another historian, remarked to me later about the fascinating way you
answered that question. You said the republic issue had not been
addressed in the literature you were familiar with in recent times
about the "identity question", which is why you couldn't express an
This surprised the other historian I was talking to, who
all the recent Australian discussion of the republic but then went on
to comment that you gave the pronounced impression that you drew your
construction from a very carefully chosen and limited set of
conservative texts in relation to nationality and ethnicity, and refuse
to address any other texts outside that framework. When I glance back
through your book, this is a valid point. You've constructed an
extremely right-wing theory on the basis of very carefully selected
texts to buttress that theory, and you refuse to engage with any other
approach or line of argument.
It seems obvious to me that your refusal to draw specific
conclusions from your theoretical construction is a deliberate
political device. You have, in part, constructed this edifice for the
journalistic populists to quote you as their major authority and you
are playing this ideological role in an important defensive campaign by
Australian cultural conservatism.
To me, you seem to aspire to be the Geoffrey Blainey of the
1990s, without making his tactical mistake of going down too far into
the polemical ruck, which you possibly expect to leave to others.
To use your language, I mourn the transformation of an old
associate into an energetic and resourceful cultural and political
conservative, but that's life and politics, and you and I will no doubt
cross swords on these matters in the future. I hope that the vigorous
argument between us may provide illumination to others, along, perhaps
with a little bit of the heat that serious arguments inevitably produce.
January 9, 2000