An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism

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The Australian historian Ann Curthoys has often spoken of her time in the Eureka Youth League, Sydney University Labor Club, Vietnam Action Campaign, Student Action for Aborigines and Women’s Liberation.

This impeccably Stalinist upbringing acquainted her with fellow CPA scions like Brian Aarons and Patricia Healy, left-wing activists like Bob Gould and the Percy brothers, as well as future establishment figures like Jim Spigelman and Charles Perkins.

Curthoys later described these years as ‘a middle-class baby-boom generation experience, not uncommon, but not typical either.’ She drifted into the New Left around the time the CPA, under the leadership of Laurie Aarons, turned Eurocommunist.

Meanwhile her parents were among those hardcore Moscow loyalists who split to form the Socialist Party of Australia.

In 1990 Barbara Curthoys was granted access to the Comintern archive in Moscow; she later published an article describing how the parents of historian Lyndall Ryan were expelled as right deviationists from the CPA in 1929.

Strangely enough, during the early 1970s Ann Curthoys shared a Sydney residence with Lyndall Ryan while each undertook postgraduate studies at Macquarie University.

They helped to co-found the Women’s Liberation periodicals MeJane and Refractory Girl. Joyce Stevens, a prominent member of the CPA until its 1991 dissolution, also sat on the editorial collective of MeJane.

By 1988, having re-examined the ‘shibboleths of the left’ in an academic discussion group, Curthoys declared herself persuaded by Alec Nove’s vision of market socialism. The future, she now believed, lay with ‘competition and markets.’

Curthoys is one of many Stalinist and ex-socialist academics who played a part, now largely forgotten, in the Hawke and Keating ALP governments’ institutional and ideological renovation of Australian society.

She wasn’t a fulsome and direct participant, as were others like Stuart Macintyre. But, as I’ll explain, her scholarly contributions to the field of labour history – most importantly her work with Andrew Markus on working-class racism and anti-immigrant movements during the nineteenth century – did provide useful ideological tools for that elite policy program.

The latter was presented to the population as ‘a root-and-branch re-examination of many long-standing features of our national life’, ‘dismantling some of our most cherished orthodoxies… deeply embedded in the very psyche of the nation.’ The state leadership openly sought to conscript historians to its project, which it described as a ‘process of deepening our sense of national identity, national responsibility and national maturity. We have altered the focus on our past. With that new focus on the past, has come a reassessment of the past’ (Hawke).

This modification to official nationalism had mundane objectives.

First there was the ‘competitiveness agenda’, which, on the pretext of repairing the current-account balance, took an axe to real wages, working conditions and the social position of employees (while a ‘war on inflation’ subordinated asset-poor borrowers to wealthy creditors).

Then there was the ‘process of national reinvigoration and reinvention’ (Keating) demanded by Canberra’s regional policy. The latter, pursued through ‘multilateral’ forums, in fact aimed to prevent the economic and political integration of East and Southeast Asia independently of Washington’s hub-and-spokes framework of military and diplomatic alliances. The growth of external investment by Japanese firms, alongside the re-entry of China to the world market and the industrial development of various SE Asian countries, raised the possibility that a regional bloc could be formed which could conceivably produce a military-political competitor to Washington – thus threatening the position of Canberra and of Australian-owned firms in the region. Hawke linked so-called ‘regional engagement’ to ‘changes which have occurred in our attitudes to our history, our culture, and our relations with the rest of the world, especially with the peoples of our own region… [which] may be said to have begun with the fall of Singapore in 1942.’

Finally there was the attempt to channel the frustration and disappointment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into a political response based on ethnic identity, by granting administrative powers, limited property rights and other privileges to an Indigenous elite. This project involved bringing Indigenous people into ‘the Australian legend’ (Keating).

The old labour radical nationalism (associated with one-time CPA members and historians Russel Ward, Robin Gollan, Ian Turner and Eric Fry) was inadequate to this new age.

In the hands of Curthoys and others, this old labour history, and the nationalism it supported, received a postmodern makeover.

The superseded account, Curthoys explained, ‘has suffered many theoretical blows, has met with other desires, multicultural, postcolonial, feminist. It has been seen as inappropriate to postwar, culturally diverse, urban Australia, expressing the aspirations of a British Australia that no longer exists.’ The retrofitted model would be attentive, in the words of Curthoys and John Docker, to ‘heterogeneity, difference, contradictoriness, and indeterminacy’.

Journals like Labour History therefore applied new methodological and interpretive strictures to contributions. Property relations should be denied any categorical primacy or priority in historical explanation. Social class would instead hold the same conceptual status as various ascriptive traits (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity, generational cohort and religion). Class, like these personal attributes, would be seen primarily as a badge of identity or a label of group membership.

This involved various lamentable concessions to intellectual fashion, as can be seen from the following embarrassing passage. It is by Curthoys, from a 1991 article in the journal Hecate, in which she described the treatment by historians of sex, ethnicity and class:

Many have noticed the similarity of chaos theory to poststructuralist theory in the humanities, in the questioning of older theories of order… [The] similarity between chaos theory in the sciences and recent theory in the humanities is intriguing… Having read my way through [a book by the journalist James Gleick] and learnt something about fractals and strange attractors and bifurcations and iteration and nonlinear equations and the like, I started to think about possible specific connections between feminism and chaos theory… Feminist theory has long had its own “three body problem.” Our three bodies are the concepts of sex (or gender), ethnicity (or race), and class.

In the midst of Australia’s so-called History Wars, Curthoys spoke of the need to ‘develop the kind of pluralist inclusive account of the past that might form the basis for a coherent national community.’

This might have been said by Hawke or Keating, or by Manning Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, Stuart Macintyre or Don Watson. Indeed, her stated objective was shared by all those ‘left’ historians who, during the 1980s and 1990s, combined their avowedly progressive politics with a taste for sitting on committees and advisory panels appointed by ALP governments, tasked with investigating civics education or a ‘re-founded’ national identity.

For Curthoys, the purpose of the historian’s craft was still to support nationalism, now re-cast in the language of identity politics:

At the forefront, then, of the construction of national identity in the Australian context – as, perhaps, everywhere else – is the question of history. As a cultural practice, history is tied to questions of belonging, kinship, betrayal, inheritance, attachment, fear, and danger. Representations of history are, we know, constructions of social identity… The insight that all social groups, whether defined by gender, ethnicity, nationality, or politics, construct an account of the past that works to authorise their identity as a group is as relevant and lively in Australia as elsewhere.

It seems likely that such views were prepared by Curthoys’s political upbringing. As part of her youthful education, she would have been exposed to Austro-Marxist theories on the ‘national question’, as well as those of her own party, and subsequently to those varieties of Third-Worldism prevalent in her later radical milieu.

It’s not generally appreciated by people unfamiliar with the Marxist tradition how many of the issues and topics that preoccupied late-twentieth century thinkers (e.g. national identity, unity and diversity within a mass movement, etc.) were originally debated, usually with far greater depth and seriousness, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, by adherents, interlocutors and opponents of classical Marxism. The idea of the nation as a ‘narrative’ that ‘works to authorise their identity as a group’ – favoured by post-structuralists, post-colonial theorists and ethno-symbolists, as well as by people like Benedict Anderson and the New Left Review crowd – emerged from this background and contained unmistakeable echoes of it.

The path from Stalinist nationalism to postmodernist nationalism is short, a fact which must be recalled when considering the intellectual origins and political implications of Curthoys’s ‘pluralist inclusive account of the past that might form the basis for a coherent national community.’

What then was Curthoys’s contribution to this new liberal-progressive Australian nationalism?

Much of her early scholarly research concerned labour history, and examined the place within it of racism, sexism and colonialism. In her doctoral thesis, Curthoys had discussed the 1861 anti-Chinese riots on the New South Wales goldfields at Lambing Flat.

Thirty years later she returned to the historical episode, linking it to contemporary issues under the Howard government:

Our treatment of these Chinese men shames many of us… As a nation, our fears and our hatreds, and our interest in the exotic and the Other, live with us still. In imagining those who observed, met, liked, hated, loved and traded with those Chinese gold seekers we see, ultimately, ourselves as we were and in some respects continue to be.

Here was the ideological raw material of nationalism: a supra-individual personality (‘the nation’), a grammatical person that possessed beliefs and attitudes (‘our fears and our hatreds’), stable traits giving rise to repeated behaviours, a ‘national character’ to which events more than a century apart could be attributed.

This was not an idiosyncratic treatment. The nation as collective actor was similarly invoked at this time by Sir William Deane and by Paul Keating.

More specifically, throughout her scholarly career Curthoys returned, again and again, to an idea: the notion that, for two centuries, the male, non-Indigenous Australian working class had benefited from racism, colonialism and sexism, at the expense of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and immigrants.

Through her work, readers and students of Australian history were taught a curious lesson: they were encouraged, correctly, to consider instances of racism (both in episodes of anti-immigrant chauvinism, and in the exterminist logic of settler colonialism) as obviously wicked and repugnant (at least from a contemporary standpoint). Yet with this negative evaluation was packaged the factual claim that racism had had beneficial consequences for the majority, or at least a large minority, of Australians.

In a 1978 article in Labour History (later published in a very influential book on the history of Australian working-class racism, which she co-edited with Andrew Markus) Curthoys wrote that the ‘super-exploitation’ of Aborigines, Melanesians and women in late nineteenth-century pastoral, sugar, clothing and food-processing industries ‘may have enhanced the wage rates of the greater part of the workforce, the male European workers’:

The relative roles of capital and labour in the emergence of a movement against Chinese immigration are [therefore] somewhat clearer. Organised labour’s position as the defender of jobs and wages meant that it was the logical leader of opposition to the Chinese as economic competitors with European workers. In so far as the anti-Chinese movement went beyond the specific cheap labour issue into the realm of social, political, moral, race-purity, and general economic complaints against the Chinese themselves, labour’s leadership was augmented by small employer, self employed, and general middle class concern. For their part, the larger representatives of capital were at this stage anti-Chinese in the sense of supporting their super-exploitation, but not in the sense of wishing to exclude them from the colony.

Markus added that ‘for the labour movement the campaign against non-European immigration was part of a broader battle to maintain established standards by restricting access to the labour market.’

On this account, popular racism and exclusivism were not tragic errors that divided Australian workers from their class allies, thus playing into the hands of the propertied elite. Instead (according to Curthoys and Markus) they had followed rationally from the material interests of Australian employees.

Curthoys and Markus’s interpretation of events rested upon the assumption that Labor parliamentarians and union officials reliably represented the views and well-being of their constituents, rather than having encouraged parochialism and nurtured atavism out of their own self-interest. As one historian has recently pointed out, ‘no evidence is provided to justify this assertion.’

In its absence, readers were left with Curthoys’s claim that employees were the ‘logical leader of opposition to the Chinese’ since racism ‘enhanced the wage rates of the greater part of the workforce.’

But she likewise offered no empirical or theoretical support for this claim, merely pointing readers to the work on segmented labour markets by Berkeley economist Michael Reich. (In reality, she was relying upon the influential theory of discrimination offered by the Chicago economist Gary Becker, for whom employees find it in their interests to support racist prejudice, while profit-maximizing firms cannot do so, since otherwise they will be driven out of business by low-cost competitors. Reich, on the other hand, had just published a paper called ‘Who Benefits from Racism?’ which reached the opposite conclusion: ‘Capitalists gain and white workers lose.’ He had written as much several years earlier: ‘the economic consequences of racism are not only lower incomes for blacks but also higher incomes for the capitalist class and lower incomes for white workers… where racism is greater, income inequality among whites is also greater… [Racism] is in the economic interests of capitalists and other rich whites and against the economic interests of poor whites and white workers’.)

Many decades later, Curthoys’s ideas about who benefits from imperialism and racism continue to inform her historical work and her recently expressed political attitudes.

They account for her repeated claim (which I mentioned in a post some time ago)  that all ‘non-Indigenous Australians’ are ‘the beneficiaries of the colonisation process’ which devastated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.

[All] migrants and their descendants, including those of non-Anglo-Celtic background, [have come] to be recognised as colonisers, as part of and benefiting from colonisation with its history of indigenous dispossession.

These ideas are favoured and expressed most relentlessly by members of a particular milieu: those, like Curthoys, with a tribal affiliation to the ALP, the children of union officials and public servants, Stalinists and social democrats.

Their eagerness to implicate others as the beneficiaries of imperialism perhaps stems from a guilty awareness (recalled dimly from childhood catechisms) that the privileges have accrued, in fact, to people like themselves.

In the political education of her youth, Curthoys would have encountered the idea of the ‘labour aristocracy’, a Marxist term applied to the privileged layer of union bureaucrats and labour party officials. In Lenin’s canonical account, the income, social influence and living standards of this stratum were supported by ‘morsels of the loot’ extracted from the direct producers, particularly the super-exploited toilers in colonies and other low-wage countries. Material self-interest then gave rise to this group’s reformist and conservative political outlook, which (thanks to their degree of social influence) contributed to maintaining the prevailing order. Above all this meant their encouragement of racism, xenophobia and allegiance to the flag. The social-democratic leaders of the Second International stood as object lesson and exemplar of this type. The nationalism of the Stalinist parties provided a sad historical echo.

This ideology (i.e. the one expressed in the above image, that all Australians without Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry are ‘beneficiaries of the colonisation process’) has been promoted by the state elite (most emblematically in Keating’s Redfern speech and in Sorry Day, and in literature and film).

It has become a core proposition of one contending strand in Australian historical thinking: the ‘progressive’ left-liberal version.

The latter is one of the acceptable interpretive options, presented to tyro students and readers on big historical questions, and from which set of alternatives they are invited to choose (the options are exhaustive) based on ideological inclination. It’s the version favoured in bien-pensant organs of opinion, spanning from the ABC and ALP-aligned thinktanks to the ‘radical’ left, and adhered to by all avowedly ‘progressive’ people.

Historian Marilyn Lake, with whom Curthoys recently edited a book on ‘transnational history‘, expressed something like the above notion when describing the formation of Australian ‘national identity’:

Aboriginal people were active in identifying all settlers – whether hut-keepers, clergymen, convicts or military officers – as one people, as ‘white men’, whom they held jointly responsible for taking their land… [The indiscriminate nature of] Aboriginal retaliation and revenge… is explained by the Aboriginal perception that a group of people defined by their ‘whiteness’ had taken their country.

Curthoys’s claim that ‘all migrants and their descendants’ have ‘benefited from colonisation’ serves an obvious social function. It implies that Australian history has been, and contemporary society remains, a zero-sum conflict between various ethnic groups. The fortunes of every member of one group (Indigenous Australians) have varied inversely with the welfare of every member of all other ethnic groups (non-Indigenous Australians): the two parties have contended over relative shares of some fixed pie, with the fruits shared out according to ethnic distinctions rather than any other relevant social category.

The political implication of this argument is dire and reactionary: if A benefits by inflicting some loss on B, then B can only gain or recover the loss at A’s expense, in which case A isn’t a credible ally for any project by B to advance its material interests, for in doing so A would be harming itself. B can only satisfy its wants by breaking with A. In other words, there is no basis for common cause between Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people and any other Australian people.

The spread of such beliefs upholds the political exclusivity of groups defined along ethnic (or linguistic, religious etc.) lines, and partitions members of populations who otherwise might act in political concert. Such nationalist thinking channels the frustrations of oppressed groups into political solutions based on ethnic distinctions, a pursuit which benefits only a rent-seeking elite of ‘minority representatives.‘ It justified the CPA’s advice to the Gurindji cattle workers and members of other Aboriginal groups to seek ‘land rights’, a political decision which served the designs of the Australian state elite.

Curthoys has declared she developed this idea (i.e. that all migrants had benefited from colonialism) from reading feminist writers, as well as from the ‘wages of whiteness’ theory of the US historian David Roediger.

I suspect that during the 1970s she would also have encountered the idea of ‘unequal exchange’ from Arghiri Emmanuel and the Latin American dependency theorists. The latter were popular in the Third-Worldist circles of the New Left, and they purported to describe the relations between imperialist countries and underdeveloped economies.

Emmanuel enlarged the category of ‘labour aristocracy’ to include all waged and salaried employees in the advanced economies, all of whom were now considered to share in the spoils of imperialism (via differences in wages relative to labour productivity). Emmanuel suggested that the ‘chief beneficiaries’ of imperialism ‘since the middle of the nineteenth century’ had been ‘labourers and ordinary skilled workers’.

In an exchange with Charles Bettelheim published in Monthly Review, he mocked the ‘delusions of internationalism’ and socialist hopes for worker solidarity: ‘a majority of mankind is suffering from hunger whereas in certain countries the workers are struggling to acquire washing machines.’

[The] antagonism between rich and poor nations is likely to prevail over that between classes… It is not the conservatism of the leaders that has held back the revolutionary élan of the masses, as has been believed in the Marxist-Leninist camp; it is the slow but steady growth in awareness by the masses that they belong to privileged exploiting nations that has obliged the leaders of their parties to revise their ideologies so as not to lose their clientele… Today everything suggests that there is more socialism and internationalism in the brains of the intellectuals of the Labour Party, and perhaps more still in those of some bourgeois liberals, than in the feelings and reactions of the British working class.

Emmanuel thus claimed that the ‘imperialism of trade’ gave rise to a ‘de facto united front of the workers and capitalists of the well-to-do countries, directed against the poor nations’.

This wouldn’t have been too alien to someone, like Curthoys, who received a Stalinist education in the early 1960s. At this time the Soviet leadership claimed that ‘national bourgeoisies’ of newly independent countries (represented by Nasser, Nehru, Nkrumah, etc.) were allies of the propertyless classes in the struggle against imperialism.

Support for such thinking (i.e. the Curthoys-Markus theory of Australian racism, and the Curthoys-Lake theory of colonization) is broad. It attracts adherents despite the unwillingness of people like Curthoys to lend empirical backing or persuasive advocacy to what, as a result, becomes a mere ideological edict. Even allowing for the functional purpose it serves for the ruling elite, part of its success derives from a genuine appeal it holds for a fraction of middle-class opinion. Why?

I’ve said elsewhere that guilt is a positional good. Like private consumption choices and leisure activities, expressed political attitudes sometimes involve the signalling of good taste and discernment. What today passes for ‘progressive’ political activity increasingly involves a person’s public declaration of alignment with a cause, or loud expression of opposition to an entity or person (e.g. Andrew Bolt or Pauline Hanson). This has little to do with political principle. Instead it’s about the signalling of correct thoughts, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person. Being ‘right-thinking’ requires a costly investment (i.e. of time and effort to learn the group-appropriate ideas and perform the necessary ablutions). It thus works as a kind of screening device that reveals one’s underlying ‘type’, since only certain kinds of people can afford the investment.

Following the death of social democracy, evident in the decline of trade unions and the ALP as mass-membership organizations, the electoral politics of parties like the ALP and Australian Greens (which both now pursue a kind of social liberalism) are increasingly based around appealing to a narcissistic, educated social stratum (skilled professionals, often self-employed or earning partnership income, with control over productive assets and their own labour process). The members of this layer habitually see the broader population (mere employees) as racist, less sophisticated, vulnerable to demagogy, etc. In contrast to those whose work involves contracting to provide specific labour services (e.g. lawyers, consultants, tradespeople) employees hired by firms surrender decision-making authority and independent direction over their own work process. Within firms, low-level workers are accustomed to submitting diligently to the orders of managers and supervisors, and responding to external rewards and sanctions rather than (as higher-level functionaries must) internalizing the values of the organization and acting out of personal initiative.

These workplace experiences do have an ongoing effect on individual personality development and attitudes.

Many supporters of left-liberal parties accordingly flaunt what they see as their heightened sensitivity (especially their taking on of collective guilt), compared to the boorish masses. It is an article of faith for these people that inter-ethnic hostility arises mostly from competition within the low-skilled, low-wage labour market. (The work of economist David Card suggests otherwise.)

The racist bogan is a fantasized character against which the chattering classes define their own social existence and understand their own political role.

‘Progressive’ left-liberal opinion-makers and figures of cultural authority – in schools, in the mainstream media, etc. – thus insistently tell the population, just as their openly chauvinist and right-wing counterparts do, that internationalism is a ‘delusion’: that anti-immigrant parochialism and race hatred are explained by their rational pursuit of their own interests.

Both versions of ‘legitimate’ opinion promote, delight in and license the spread of racial discord.

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9 Responses to “An inherited burden: ex-Stalinists, ‘progressive’ historians and Australian nationalism”

  1. Fiona Says:

    Really enjoyed reading this one Nick! Very thought-provoking and, for me personally, inspiring. I am ashamed of the gaping hole in my knowledge of the history of Australian history, if you know what I mean. You must set me some reading!

  2. Lucy Says:

    Fiona why were you reading at 1.11am? Nick I am halfway through, but agree with Fi – you know heaps more about the history of Australian history than we do! I might need to have a more basic reading list though, some of this was a bit beyond me.

  3. Nick Says:

    Haha, thanks Fiona and Lucy.

    One of the great things about the Internet is that it allows you (i.e. one) to realize just how personally ignorant you are about almost every domain of human knowledge, and therefore how reliant each of us is on everyone else to lend a helping hand.

    I hope you’re not truly ashamed of this. One of the minor and briefly stated points of this post was that history is, quite deliberately, not taught right. Students are presented with a narrow range of viewpoints and asked to evaluate them (and generally given little option but to affiliate with one of them). But they receive little preparation or background in the ‘history of ideas’, so they don’t understand the intellectual origins or political purpose behind those contending positions, and thus cannot evaluate them properly.

    History is not the only discipline to do this: economics has notoriously stopped teaching the history of its own development.

    Conservatives are not wrong to say that something crippling has happened to the humanities and social sciences: a spreading rot that has evacuated the academy as a site for genuinely critical thought and for the passing down of knowledge between generations. But they generally are unable to say what this impoverishment consists of or why it has occurred.

    For students are not taught the extent to which human thought for the past 150 years has been a series of arguments within, around, for and against socialism, or has involved (as in the last 40 years or so) a vain attempt to change the subject. In the absence of this knowledge it becomes impossible to understand many things.

    History students given some reading by Henry Reynolds are forced to absorb his ideas about property rights and John Locke: Is any of them equipped to deal with this material critically? Are the practitioners (i.e. the historians) themselves so equipped? The disciplines of social history and cultural history have, over the past 40 years, deployed loads of concepts and rhetoric from literary theory and philosophy. In my reading experience, few historians show any sign of knowing these fields very well; so they are easy victims to intellectual fashion and to the intimidation of the glamorous.

    Unsurprisingly, given her background, Curthoys is in fact one of the better ones: she stands head-and-shoulders above most other historians in sophistication and breadth of knowledge, but sadly that doesn’t say much. Only the pallor of its competitors allows Is History Fiction? to appear less rubbishy than it is.

    This is one of the deplorable things about the destruction of the university. It’s a process that has effaced its own origins.

  4. Fiona Says:

    Hm I feel like I can’t really comment on how Australian history is taught because I’ve hardly studied any! I do feel that I was taught to be highly critical, although as an undergrad I found anything theoretical very dull – I hated the historical theory subject that we had to do as a prerequisite for honours. I was always much more interested at that stage in learning about history, not thinking about it as a discipline. I remember sitting in some boring lecture about Marxism thinking, ‘How silly that people would analyse history through a specific lens of Marxist ideas, or gender or race! I just want to know how things happened and how people lived and what they thought about and what the world was like and why did prostitutes in Renaissance Venice wear such ridiculous shoes?’ Haha… so maybe it wasn’t so much poor teaching as my immaturity!

    Now as a practicing historian, I’ve developed a much greater awareness of how history can be used for particular purposes, and an appreciation of the power that historical narrative has. Not even just an awareness, more like a wariness. It’s something that worries me. Despite not having a political agenda myself, I suppose it could be argued that in writing histories of organisations I have a marketing agenda because organisations obviously use their history to promote themselves. Fortunately, I’ve never been in a position where I feel my professional integrity as a historian has been compromised by an organisation intent on getting a certain product. But it certainly has happened to others… I suppose I should just be glad not to be in academia!

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